Towering more than 2,000m above Sri Lanka's lowlands, this strange misty landscape of open, windswept plains and cloud forests is a magical place. Horton is a hotspot of unique biodiversity on an island that already can claim its fair share of unique flora and fauna. In July 2010 the National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with strangely named Knuckles Conservation Forest and the Peak Wilderness Area. It is the first site to be recognised by UNESCO since 1988.
Apart from its incredible conservation value, Horton Plains has beauty spots that are difficult to top in Sri Lanka. The most famous of these is World's End, where its high altitude plateau suddenly drops away in a sheer 880m cliff, giving spectacular views over villages and former colonial tea plantations. Another well-known beauty spot is Baker's Falls, whose 20m high waterfall was named after the colonial hunter and explorer Sir Samuel Baker (at Aqua-Firma we like the explorer side of him, but really not the hunter!). Baker was also well-known for his efforts to begin a colonial agricultural settlement at Nuwara Eliya.
Just outside of the Horton Plains, Sri Lanka's 2nd and 3rd highest peaks are found within the UNESCO Peak Wilderness Area. These are Kirigalpoththa (2,389m) to the West and Thotupola Kanda (2,357m) to the North, adding to the region's magnificent geography.
Above all, it is the unique flora and fauna of the Horton Plains which makes them most special. During Ice Ages past when temperatures were lower in Sri Lanka, a different balance of species thrived across lower areas of the country. During our current inter-glacial stage, many of these species are confined to this cool high altitude 'island'.
Ecologically, the Horton Plains are a combination of sub-montane and montane cloud forest, often dark and wrapped in swirling dense mists rising from the lowlands; and damp, open plains and marshes. The area of cloud forest is the largest and most pristine on the island. As a demonstration of the special qualities of the area, 89% of all reptiles and 91% of amphibians found in the Horton Plains are endemic species to Sri Lanka. Half of Sri Lanka's endemic flowering plants are also found here. One of the more distinct Sri Lanka reptiles found here is the Sri Lankan dwarf lizard, a reptile that now gives birth to live young, in the process avoiding the problem of having to lay eggs in sometimes freezing conditions. The horn lizard and common rough-sided snake are other unique inhabitants.
Elephants used to wander up on to these high plains, although these were widely hunted to extinction by characters like Horton himself. The largest commonly seen mammal on the plains is the large sambar deer; perhaps around 2,000 exist on the plateau. Sri Lankan leopards, although rarely seen here, inhabit the plains, as do toque macaques, purple-faced langurs (a local subspecies, sometimes called the bear monkey), wild boars, rusty-spotted cats and giant squirrels. A new and unique sub-species, the Horton Plains slender loris, was photographed here for the first time in 2010 and it is now considered one of the world's rarest primates.
For birdwatching enthusiasts the Plains and forests offer rich viewing, especially with one of Aqua-Firma's local expert guides. 4 species only occur in the Horton Plains: the Sri Lankan white-eye, Sri Lanka blue magpie, dull-blue flycatcher and Sri Lanka wood pigeon. In total, 21 species you can find here are Sri Lankan endemics. Spectacular raptors found here include the crested serpent eagle, mountain hawk-eagle, peregrine falcon and black-winged kite.
The Horton Plains have a damp climate and the weather is usually clearest between January and March (although always be ready for cool and damp conditions). In addition early mornings tend to produce the best conditions for spectacular views from World's End; later in the day mist tends to role in. Horton Plains are a magnificent holiday site for exploring Sri Lanka's own silent, misty mountains, about 5 hours East of Colombo by car. Spend a little more time wildlife watching with knowledgeable Aqua-Firma wildlife guides, and you may start to spot some of the plains truly unique fauna in this truly pre-historic environment at the end of the world!
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