A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 18



The extensive and uninhabited plain which stretches south of Newera Eilia to the very rim of the great central plateau of the island, and of which the isolated station at Hackgalla marks the northern limit, is called Horton's Plain, in honour of its discoverer Lord Horton. The larger part of it is still covered with primaeval forest, alternating with dry or marshy meadows known as Patenas. Leopards, bears, and wild elephants are the sovereigns of this domain. The undulating surface of the plateau is intersected by numerous streams between which the ground forms low hills, with here and there a loftier peak rising to seven or eight thousand feet above the sea. The southern edge ends almost everywhere in a steep cliff, and the wildest portion of the precipice is known by the characteristic name of The World's End. The rocky wall here falls abruptly-looking quite perpendicular - for about five thousand feet; and from the top the view is grand, over the rich forests of the southern lowlands, which spread for miles at its foot. This wonderful place is said to be the wildest part of the island, and is rarely visited by Europeans.

Not far from this romantic spot, in the heart of the wilderness, stands an uninhabited hut, built with thick stone walls, which was erected by the government as a refuge for officials who might be obliged to travel hither - Horton's Plain rest-house. Dr. Trimen and I proposed to spend a week here, making excursions into the neighbouring wilderness, which had never yet been visited. All our preparations were complete, the key of the rest-house and a government permit were in our hands, and we set out from Hackgalla full of expectation, and in the best of humours, early on the 10th of February.

As we were obliged to take with us not only provisions for a week, but bedding, blankets, tents, arms, etc., as well as a quantity of paraphernalia and tins for collecting plants and animals, we were forced to have a train of twenty coolies to carry all this baggage. Besides these we each had a body servant; and Dr. Trimen had brought several men from Peradenia to collect and preserve plants. These were Cinghalese, the others were mostly Malabars or Tamil coolies. With a cook and a guide, our party numbered in all no less than thirty souls.

As is always the case in India when so large a troop is to be put in motion, it took some hours to get everything into order. Although we were to have been ready and off before sunrise, first one thing was missing and then another. When at last thirty people were got together and ready to start, and we were on the point of marching, the "hen coolie," who carried a large basket with a dozen or two of fowls in it, stumbled and fell, and some of the birds escaped through a hole in the basket with a loud cackling. This was the signal for all the coolies at once to throw down their loads and rush with shouts and cries to join in chasing the fugitives. Hardly were these recaptured and safely imprisoned once more - hardly had we fairly set out, when a rice sack that had been too tightly filled burst, and shed its contents in a white stream on the ground. Once more the procession halted, and everyone set to work to shovel up the rice; some of the fowls took advantage of the pause to squeeze through a newly discovered hole in the basket and assist in picking up the rice, but for their own immediate benefit.

The noisy chase now began all over again, and another half hour was wasted before we could once more set out. Such scenes constantly recurred throughout the day, so it was no wonder that it took us twelve hours to get over twenty miles from Hackgalla to the rest-house. It was most fortunate that we had the loveliest spring weather all the day through, for if it had rained heavily we should have been in an evil plight.

The lonely path, rarely trodden, along which we marched, cut sometimes through the thick primaeval forest and sometimes across the wide open patenas. These are sharply distinct. The tall, dry reed-like grasses, which are the principal growth on the patenas, grow so close together, and their rhizomes form such a compact and impenetrable flooring of roots, that they fairly defy all the giants of the forest in the struggle for existence; and every germ which may attempt to grow from the myriad seeds which must fall among the grass is inevitably choked at once. One, and only one, tree occasionally triumphs in the fight, and solitary specimens are not unfrequently to be seen raising a tall trunk and a spreading dark-green crown of foliage above the patenas; this is the mountain myrtle (Careja arborea), with a poisonous pear-shaped fruit. Almost all the grasses afford but a wretched pasture for cattle; they are remarkable for their hard, dry, scabrous leaves, and angular stiff stems, some have, too, a distinctly aromatic smell. Some are true grassea (Gramineae), others Cyperacae and Restiacae.

The dense forest which breaks these patenas forming, as it were, large irregular islands in the vast sea of grass - as in the prairies of North America - have the gloomy and sinister aspect which characterises all these mountain forests, from Adam's Peak to Peduru (or Pedro Talla Galla). Although the trees are actually of many various genera and species, they have a singular monotony of physiognomy, and as they often fail to perfect their flowers and fruit, it is really very difficult to distinguish them. Their leaves are usually leathery, dark green or blackish above, and often lustrous; the undersides lighter, and greyish, silvery, or rusty red. Their trunks are large and gnarled, sometimes completely clothed in yellow mosses and lichens, and overgrown with masses of parasitic plants, among which orchids and leguminous plants are conspicuous for the gaudiness of their flowers.

Horton's Plain rest-house stands on the same level above the sea as the top of Adam's Peak - 72.O0 feet; about a thousand feet above the cirque of Newera Ellia. The ascent lies principally within the second half of the way; the first half is up and down the gentle slopes of an undulating plain. About half way we came upon an empty bamboo hut, which had been erected some time before by a hunting party, and here we rested for an hour at midday. Excepting a few tumbling mountain streams, which we passed on tree-trunks thrown across them, the road offered no particular difficulties.

When we had got to the top of the plateau, after climbing to the top of a deep ravine, down which a fine cataract fell, we came upon the characteristic Nilloo scrub, the favourite haunt of the wild elephants. The large heaps of dung, some quite fresh, which we saw in every direction, and the trodden undergrowth, were ample evidence of the frequent visits of herds to this spot. As we might, in fact, come upon one at any moment, the whole troop of coolies got into a state of extreme excitement. The foremost of them had gone on and divided into scattered parties of twos and threes; these now drew together again, and walked on in single file along the narrow path.

The Nilloo jungle, which I here saw more extensively distributed and developed than anywhere else, constitutes a very peculiar growth, and derives its name from various species of a genus of the Acanthacae (Strobilanthus), all known to the natives as Nilloo. They are the favourite food of the elephant, and grow in thick sheaves with slender weak stems to a height of fifteen to twenty feet, with handsome spikes of flowers at the top. The finest of all, Str. pulcherrimus, is conspicuous by the splendid crimson red of its stem and flower bracts, and as these plants grow in dense masses, forming the whole underwood of the mountain forests, the effect under the level rays of the setting sun is indescribably gorgeous. The elephants steadily eat their way through this Nilloo scrub; one marching close at the heels of another. Every bush that is not devoured is trodden flat; and where a herd of twenty or thirty of these colossal beasts have marched in single file through the wood, an open road of some yards wide is left ready beaten, as good as heart can desire - in a wilderness. In fact, these dephant tracks were the only paths we used during the expeditions of the next few days, and by following them alone we made several very interesting excursions. To be sure these convenient paths are not devoid of danger; for if the intruder should suddenly meet a herd of elephants, escape would be impossible, and it is necessary to keep a bright look out.

The sun was set, and it was very dark by the time we emerged from the last patch of forest on to the open patena, within a mile of the longedfor rest-house. Fresh courage sprang up in the weary party, some of whom were indeed quite exhausted; and we still had a deep hollow to go down and up again, before we could reach the rest-house on the further side. A torrent foamed down the centre, which, for lack of a bridge had to be crossed on a tree-trunk. We were heartily glad when the whole troop had succeeded in getting safely over this dangerous bit in the darkness and we had reached our destination. A fire was soon kindled, the empty rooms made as comfortable as possible, and our curry and rice consumed with an appetite worthy of the day's toil. The temperature, which at noon had risen to 37o had now fallen to 10o, and we were very comfortable indoors by a good fire and wrapped in woollen rugs. Our coolies outside in the open verandah crept as close to a large fire as was possible without being roasted.

The weather continued fine during our stay at Horton's Plain, and favoured the interesting excursions which we made in various directions through this remote solitude. The fresh mountain air was wonderfully invigorating; but our miserable skin, which the equable moist heat of the lowlands had made very tender, suffered severely. On our hands and faces it cracked as it does with us in a severe winter; partly in consequence of the extreme drought of the rarer air, partly from the severe changes of temperature. At noon the thermometer would rise to 30o or 33o centigrade in the shade, while at midnight it fell to 4o or 5o C. In the early morning the patenas were white with frost, and a thick mist lay over hill and dale; but it soon rolled off, giving way to a brilliant blue sky and glorious sunshine. In the afternoon, heavy clouds usually gathered, but it did not rain; they packed into fantastic masses, which the setting sun painted with glory.

It was not the weather only which here, at the end of February reminded me of a fine late autumn in Europe; the whole mountain landscape, at the end of the dry season, had a marked autumnal aspect. The thick, coarse herbage of the patenas was parched and generally tawny yellow rather than green; indeed, wide patches of it were brown and black, and burnt to ashes. The Cinghalese mountain herdsmen, who come up here every year for a few months with their beasts, make a practice of setting these savannahs on fire at the end of the dry season, to improve the next crop of grass. Every evening we had the amusement of watching these extensive conflagrations, which spread to grand dimensions on the undulating slopes, or when they caught the dense woods which fringe the patenas. The writhing flames would creep in zig-zags, like a fiery snake up the hill-side; then suddenly rush across a level of dry grass and make a lake of fire, whose sinister glow was reflected from the dim background of forest and the heavy masses of cloud overhead. Then hundreds of little white wreaths of steam rose up from the plain, as if geysers were bursting from the mountain-flank, and the shower of bright sparks they carried up with them, dancing and flashing, completed the illusion.

Though not an evening passed without our seeing this spectacle of prairie fires, we never caught sight of the Cinghalese herdsmen who originated them; the absolute solitude of the spot was unbroken by a single human creature.

Our German poets are fond of seizing the charms of "Waldeinsamkeit" - the solitude of nature - and we indemnify ourselves by its illusions for the numberless annoyances daily inflicted on us by the complications of civilized life. But what is our sophisticated "Waldeinsamkeit" - with a village a few miles away, at the best - to the real and immeasurable solitude which reigns in this primaeval wilderness of the Cinghalese highlands? Here, indeed, we are sure of being alone with inviolate nature. I never shall forget the delicious stillness of the days I spent in the sombre woods and sunny savannahs at the World's End. As my friend, Dr. Trimen, was busy with his own botanical work and went his own way, I generally wandered alone through this solitary wilderness, or accompanied only by a taciturn Tamil, who carried my gun and painting materials.

The sense of utter loneliness which pervades these wilds is greatly heightened by the fact, that the animals which inhabit them show scarcely any outward signs of life. The wild elephant is, no doubt, to this day the monarch of the forest, but once only did I ever see any; andd the great Russa-deer, or elk (Russa Aristotelis), which is said not to be uncommon, and of which I often heard reports, I never saw at all. These and most other natives of the forest are, in fact, chiefly or exclusively nocturnal in their habits, and during the day remain hidden in the deep cool coverts. Even the great grey ape (Presbytis ursinus), which is very common here, I but rarely saw, though I often heard its gruff tones early in the morning.

The melancholy cries of some birds, particularly the green wood pigeons and bee-eaters, are rarely heard excepting in the early dawn; at a later hour the gaudy jungle cock (Gallus Lafayetti) is the only bird that breaks the silence. This gorgeous species appears to be nearly allied to the first parent of our domestic fowl. The cock is conspicuous for his gay and brilliant plumage, fine orange brown ruff, and green sickle tail-feathers; while the hen is dressed in modest greyish brown. The sonorous call of this wild fowl, which is fuller and more tuneful than the crow of his farm-yard cousin, is often heard for hours in the wood, now near, now distant; for the rival cocks compete zealously in this vocal entertainment for the favour of the critical hens. I could, however, rarely get within shot for they are so shy and cautious that the slightelt rustle interrupts the performance, and when once I had fired a shot the forest was silent for a long time after.

I often sat painting for hours on some fallen tree-trunk without hearing a sound. Insects are as poorly represented as birds, and excepting ants, they are singularly scarce; butterflies and beetles occur in small variety and are for the most part inconspicuous. The murmuring hum of a cloud of small flies, with the accompanying murmur of a forest rivulet, or the soft rustle of the wind in the branches, is often the only sound that defies the deep silence of the Spirit of the mountain.

This adds to the weird impression produced by the fantastical forms of the trees of the primaeval forest, the gnarled and tangled growth of their trunks and the forked boughs, bearded with yard-long growths of orange mosses and lichens, and robed with rich green mantles of creepers. The lower part of the tree is often wreathed with the white or strangely coloured flowers of fragrant epiphytal orchids, while their dark green crowns are gay with the blossoms of parasitic plants of various species. A highly characteristic ornament of these woods is the elegant climbing bamboo (Arundinaria debilis). Its slender grassy stems creep up the tallest trees, and hang down from the branches in long straight chains, elegantly ornamented with coronas of light green leaves. But here, and everywhere else in the hill country, the most decorative plant is the magnificent Rhododendron arboreum, with its great branches of bright red blossoms. Next to this, the most remarkable trees of these forests are species of laurel and myrtle, especially Eugenia, and some kinds of Rubiaceae and Ternstraemiae. We miss all the forms common in our European woods, and especially firs; this important family is entirely absent from Ceylon.

The finest mountain panorama which we saw in the cruise of our expeditions about Horton's Plain, was from the summit of Totapella which we ascended on February the 22nd, in the most glorious weather. This peak is 7800 feet above the sea level, and near the eastern limit of the plateau. From the top, which is little wooded and overgrown with the fine red-flowered Osbeckia buxifolia, there is an extensive view on every side: northwards, to the heights of Newera Ellia, Peduru, and Hackgalla; eastwards, over the hill country of Badoola and the peak of Namoona; southwards, past the boundary cliffs of the World's End;

and westwards, to Adam's Peak. The way up to the summit would have been in many places impenetrable, but for the elephant-tracks that we followed; where these were wanting, the coolies had to cut a path through the thick and tangled brushwood.

On the 24th, we made our way to the spot itself, known as the World's End; a famous, but rarely visited ravine, where the southern edge of the great tableland is cut off in a perpendicular wall five thousand feet high. The stupendous effect of this sudden fall is all the more startling, because the wanderer comes upon it after walking for a couple of hours through the forest, emerging immediately at the top of the yawning gulf at his feet. The rivers far below wind like silver threads through the velvet verdure of the plain, and here and there, by the aid of a telescope, a bungalow can be discovered in its plantation. Waterfalls tumble from the top of the ravine, which is overgrown with fine tree-ferns, and, like the Staubbach at Lauterbrunnen, vanish in mist before they reach the bottom.

It was in this spot, the wildest and most unfrequented perhaps in all Ceylon, that, for the first and only time, I saw wild elephants in a state of nature, though I had already seen them as prisoners in the Corral, at the elephant hunt of Lambugana. My attention was first attracted by the crackle of breaking boughs in the heart of the underwood, at about fifty or sixty feet below the projecting rock on which I was standing. By watching carefully I could make out among the swaying greenery of the jungle a herd of ten or twelve elephants, taking their breakfast very much at their ease. There was little to be seen of them but the top of their heads and their trunks, with which they bent down and broke off the branches. After enjoying this unwonted sight for some time, and feeling secure in my elevated ambush, I fired off both the barrels of my rifle at the nearest of the elephants, but of course without wounding him, as my gun was only loaded with small shot. I was answered by the loud trumpeting, which is always the note of alarm when elephants are surprised; then there was a loud crash through the thicket, which the huge brutes trod down like reeds, and in a few minutes the herd had disappeared round an angle of the cliff.

From the World's End, which was also the end of our interesting expedition, we went down by a steep and winding path through the loveliest wooded gorges - a walk of five hours - to Nonpareil, the first coffee plantation that we met with on descending from the mountain wilderness. It belongs to Captain Bayley, the same enterprising man whose pretty marine villa I had previously admired at Galle. I was most kindly received by his son, who acts as his head-bailiff. It had been our intention to go on the same afternoon to Billahooloya, the highest village in the valley; but when we proposed to start at four o'clock, after an excellent dinner, such a tremendous storm came on that we were glad to accept our kind host's pressing invitation to remain for the night.

The rain ceased at about five, and the evening was lovely. We went over the fine plantation, a model of arrangement and care, and took a walk in the beautiful dells. Hundreds of tiny cataracts, caused by the brief but violent rainfall, danced down the cliffs on every side. The wonderful vegetation which fills these narrow rifts glittered and shone; the creepers, which hung in garlands from tree to tree, once more excited our astonishment and delight, and nimble monkeys performed gymnastics along them. Here, again, we admired the tree-ferns (Alsophila) the palms of the mountain ravines. Their circular crown of feathery fronds cast a beautiful green shade over the foaming brooks, and their tender black stems rose to twenty or thirty feet above the rocky channels;

indeed, a few exceptionally fine specimens had here attained the unusual height of forty-five or fifty feet. It was the last opportunity I had of seeing such splendid tree-ferns, for lower down the mountains they were much smaller and more insignificant, and as we got down to the plain they disappeared altogether.

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