A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 19



I took leave for ever of the hill country of Ceylon at the World's End, and, full of the delightful impressions of my mountain excursion, on the 25th of February I went down from Nonpareil to Billahooloya, the first village in the valley. It is the highest station on the great high road which leads from Badoola and the south-eastern coffee district westwards to Ratnapoora. The road is always crowded with strings of bullock-carts, carrying the coffee bags to the town, or returning with necessaries for tho resident planters. The great Black River, or Kalu Ganga, begins to be navigable at Ratnapoora, and here the coffee is shipped into large canoes, which convey it down the river to the mouth, at Caltura, whence it is carried by railway to Colombo. Dr. Trimen and I had decided to avail ourselves of the same route for our return journey to Colombo, for it was as new to him as to me: starting from Billahooloya in bullock-carts, taking a boat at Ratnapoora, and proceeding by train to Colombo. The whole journey well repaid us - the two interesting days in the bullockcart, no less than the delightful passage down the river, afforded a series of delightful pictures, and proved a worthy sequel to our successful mountain trip.

The little village of Billahooloya, literally the Sacrificial Torchbrook, derives its name from the mountain torrent which here falls in rushing cataracts through a fine gorge in the southern rampart of the plateau, and which is fed by a small rivulet which rises at the World's End, besides several tributary streams. The narrow channels of these tumbling brooks are shrouded in luxuriant verdure, and enclosed between steep rocky walls, all opening westwards, and these ravines give the scenery a very grand and imposing aspect. As we came down from Nonpareil, the beauty of the country charmed us so much that we decided on spending a few days at the village. The rest-house is delightfully situated, under the shade of a mighty tamarind tree, close to a stone bridge which spans the torrent; the background is formed by the vast amphitheatre of the cliffs of the World's End. The accommodation in the rest-house was under the circumstances, really very good, at any rate we found it so after our experience in the stone hut on Horton's Plain. We here dismissed our train of coolies, retaining only a couple of servants to accompany us to Caltura. The coolies returned direct to Kandy and Newera Ellia over Adam's Peak.

While Dr. Trimen investigated the rich flora of the neighbourhood, and was rewarded by the discovery of some remarkable new species, I made some interesting excursions into the valleys, and added several sketches to my book. But, again, my only regret was that I had not weeks instead of days at my disposal. The tropical vegetation, to whose wonders I had now been accustomed for more than three months, seemed to have reached its richest development here, at the southern part of the central plateau. The intense heat of the tropical sun here exercises its utmost influence, while at the same time the amount of atmospheric precipitation against the mighty wall of rock is excessively great; and the combination of a very high temperature and great moisture results in a lavish growth of tropical plants, which is unsurpassed, perhaps, in any other spot on earth. As I wandered for miles up the streams, and scrambled through the steep rocky gullies. I came upon marvels of the Ceylon flora, which transcended everything I had previously seen.

The parasites and climbers excited, my utmost astonishment. Stems more than a foot thick, twined like cork-screws round the cylindrical trunks of other giants of the forest, a hundred feet in height, just as with us the frail clematis or wild vine wind their thin clinging stems round some tall beech or fir tree. Green mantling hung from the tall heads of the Dillenia, or Terminalia, a closely woven tissue of interlacing lianas; and the gold coloured blossoms mingled with the leaves of the tree in such quantity that they might be supposed to be the flower of the host rather than of the parasite. Certainly the most splendid of these epiphytes is the famous "Maha-Rus-Wael," Entada pursaetha; its ripe seed-pods - it is a leguminous plant - are at least five feet long and six inches broad, and contain brown beans, or nuts, so large that the Cinghalese hollow them out and use them to drink out of.

Not less lovely than this jungle growth, with its numerous parasites, is the lowlier flora which clothes the rocks in and by the rushing waters. Here we find ferns with graceful plumes, from ten to twelve feet in length; balsams, aroids, and Marantas with their splendid flowers. A peculiar ornament of these streams is a low-growing species of Pandanus (P. humiiis?), which looks like a dwarf palm, and grows abundantly among the boulders in the torrent. The creepers which entangle the brushwood that fringes the bank form so dense a mass that it is impossible to walk anywhere but in the bed of the stream itself. The water was often up to my waist, but with a temperature of 25o to 30o C, this bath was only pleasant and refreshing.

My visit to the main stream of this valley, which is one of the principal feeders of the Black River, was beset with unusual difficulties. This rivulet has at Billahooloya already received the waters of several smaller ones, and was so swollen in consequence of the heavy rainfall of the previous days in the hill districts that it was one chain of foaming cataracts, which rolled and tumbled with a loud roar over the large blocks of granite that fill its bed. It was quite out of the question that I should attempt to ascend it by walking in the channel, and I was obliged to avail myself of the bridges, formed of a single bare trunk, which are laid at intervals from one bank to the other. I shudder now as I recall one of these bridges, spanning a noisy waterfall at about a mile below Billahooloya. It was late in the evening when, on my return from a long expedition, I was forced to cross it, high above the water, in order to reach the other shore before it should be quite dark. When I had got about half-way across over the whirling torrent, the trunk, on which I was slowly and cautiously balancing myself, and which was not very thick, began to sway so greatly that I thought it would be wise to forego my upright posture. I stooped slowly down and achieved the rest of my transit astride on the pole; and I may confess to to sigh of relief when, by an effort of gymnastics, I found myself safe on the further bank. Even then I had the pleasure of wading for half an hour in the dark across the inundated rice-fields.

When I at last reached the rest-house, half covered With mud, the long streaks of blood on my trousers showed where the horrible leeches had made me their prey. I picked several dozen off my legs. This intolerable plague - from which the hill country is happily free - began at once to torment us as soon as we came down into the damp low-lands; in few spots in Ceylon did I suffer so severely from the land-leeches as in the lovely woods and ravines of Billahooloya.

The drive in bullock-carts from Billahooloya to Ratnapoora takes two long days, and as the beasts must rest for some hours during the hot midday hours, we started at four o'clock in the morning. The pleasant freshness of the pure night air and the extraordinary brilliancy of the stars in the deep sky were something quite marvellous in these high valleys, and we walked by the side of the meditative beasts as they slowly paced along dragging our two-wheeled vehicle for some hours before the heat of the sun was so great as to force us to take shelter under the awning. This tilt or roof, made of palm-leaf matting, would have covered six or eight persons, and we could stretch ourselves out comfortably under it on mats, though the jolting of the springless cart was fatiguing after any length of time.

The scenery is beautiful all the way. The road for a long time follows the line of the southern slope of the highlands, the mighty rampart of cliff towering far above the lower outlying range of wooded hills. The fertile plain widens gradually as we descend, and is cultivated with fields of rice, maize, cassava, bananas, and other produce. Pretty clumps of forest, with here and there a village or a waterfall in the everwidening river, give variety to the pleasing panorama; parrots and monkeys in the groves, buffaloes and herons in the water-meadows, wag-tails and waders in the streams, lend it animation and interest. The road, too, is full and busy with natives and bullock-carts.

After a hot drive of eight hours we rested the first day at Madoola, a little village very picturesquely placed in a narrow wooded valley. I at once proceeded to refresh myself by a bath in the mountain stream, and my enjoyment of it was resented by no one but some swarms of little fishes (Cyprinodonta ?), which came round me in hundreds to attack their unusual visitor; I unfortunately could not succeed in catching one of my slippery little assailants, though they shot forth from their hiding-places among the rocks and boldly tried to nibble with their tiny mouths. After dinner, I made my way for Some distance up the stony bed of the river whose rocky banks were overgrown with beautiful trees and fantastically decorated with creepers. Thick runners of wild vine (Vitis indica) hung in festoons like natural ropes across from one bank to the other; and it was a most amusing scene when a party of monkeys, that I startled fled across this natural bridge with extraordinary rapidity and dexterity, screaming as they went. I made my way through the foaming waters and over the slippery rocks a little farther up, to where a few enormous trees (Terminalia ?) stood up like columns garlanded and wreathed with climbers. While I sat making a sketch of the wild scene, the clouds gathered and a heavy storm broke. The vivid lightning lighted up the darkened ravine, flash after flash, and the tremendous echo of the thunder rolled all round me so like a terrific cannonade that I could almost fancy I saw the cliffs tremble. The downpour that followed was so violent that the water came tumbling down every crevice in the rocks, and I expected to see all my painting materials soaked through. But the ancestral fig tree, under whose protecting roof I had sought shelter, was so densely covered with leaves that only a few drops trickled through now and then, and I was able to finish my sketch.

The rain lasted about an hour, and when it ceased and I was able to scramble down to the rest-house again, I was very near capturing a noble trophy in the form of a fine snake, about six feet long, which glided down from an overhanging bough; but it writhed away so quickly among the heaps of fallen leaves that I had not time to make an end of it with my hunting-knife. However, I made a prize of several gigantic thorny spiders (Acrosoma?), a span across with their thin, long hairy legs. I also shot a few pretty green parrots, as a flock of them flew above me screaming loudly.

The early evening, when the victorious sun decked the freshly washed valley with myriads of sparkling diamonds, was wonderfully lovely. Later, however, the rain began again, and forced us to ride in the covered cart. We met numbers of Cinghalese, marching on with stoical indifference, undaunted by the pouring rain, only holding a caladium leaf over their heads to protect their precious top-knot and comb from the wet. It was not till late in the evening that we reached Palamadula, a large village beautifully situated, where we passed the night.

After Palamadula the country was more open and level. The great rocky hills of the central range fell into the background, and the lower slopes gained in importance. Adam's Peak was still conspicuous among the remote mountains, though its southern aspect is far less imposing than the northern and eastern. The vegetation gradually assumed the character which marks it throughout the southern plains; and we were particularly charmed to find ourselves once more among the noble palms, which are entirely absent from the hill districts.

By starting from Palamadula very early in the morning of February 28th, we reached Ratnapoora by noon, in time to devote several hours to seeing the place and the immediate neighbourhood. This is very pretty; the valley, which here expands to a wide basin enclosed by high hills, is well cultivated and richly fertile. The town itself, on the contrarv, offers little interest, and if the traveller has anticipated any special splendour from its high-sounding name, "the city of rubie's," he is doomed to keen disappointment. The name was given to it by reason of the abundance of precious stones, for which the neighbourhood was famous some centuries ago; they are found in the detritus, in the rivers and brooks, and in the peaty soil of the valley. To this day there are some famous gem mines, but their productiveness is much less than it was formerly. In the town itself there are many stalls where precious stones are sold, and a great many Moormen made a business of cutting and polishing them. But of late the importation of imitation gems has increased largely, and it seems certain that here in Ratnapoora, as well as at Colombo and Galle, many more artificial stones - cut glass of European manufacture - are sold than genuine stones found on the spot. The art of imitation is now so well understood, that even mineralogists and jewellers by profession are often unable to discriminate the true from the false without a close chemical examination.

In the heart of Ratnapoora, and on the right and northern bank of the Kalu Ganga a charming tank stands under a fine old tamarind tree. On a hill to the eastward stands the old Dutch fort; its rambling buildings are now used as the head-quarters of the district law courts and government officials. At the foot of the hill is the bazaar, a long, double row of low huts and stalls, where the principal wares consist of food, spices, and household chattels, with gems as before mentioned. These, with sundry scattered groups of huts along the river sbore, and a number of pretty bungalows belonging to the English residents, surrounded by gardens and placed here and there in the park-like valley, constitute what is known as the "city of rubies."

On the 1st of March we left Ratnapoora to descend the Black River, which is navigable from this point. This, next to the Mahawelli Ganga, is the longest, widest, and finest river in Ceylon, though the Kalany Ganga at Colombo is little inferior to it. Close to the rest-house is the harbour, as it is called, the reach whence all vessels start, and where a crowd of barks lie at anchor. Most of these are coffee boats, to carry the produce of the eastern districts down to Caltura. They return empty, or very lightly loaded with imported goods, for the passage up the river is long and toilsome. They are either double canoes firmly bound together by an upper-deck of bcams and planks, or they are floored over with a broad flat boarding, with no keel. The fore and after ends are exactly alike. They are always sheltered by a strong watertight awning of palm or pandanus-leaf mats, stretched on bamboo hoops. The spacious saloon under this roof, which is open fore and aft, is so large that in the smaller boats eight or ten people can be comfortably at home, and in the larger ones twenty or thirty. In the large boats the space is frequently divided into cabins by hangings of matting. We hired a small double canoe and four rowers.

When the river is full and the weather favourable, the whole passage down the Black River, from Ratnapoora to Caltura, can be made in a day; but when the river is low or the weather bad, it takes from two to four days. The heavy rains of the last few days had filled all its affluents so rapidly that we had the advantage of a very full flood, and made the little voyage in eighteen hours without any stoppage, starting from Ratnapoora at six in the morning, and reaching Caltura at midnight.

I afterwards greatly regretted this hurry, for the scenery is, from first to last, so beautiful that I could gladly have spent twice or three times as long on the way.

Lovely weather favoured us throughout, and I can never forget the succession of enchanting views which passed before my eyes as if in a magic lantern. I and my friend lay very much at our ease in the fore part of the boat on a palm-mat, sheltered from the sun by the projecting roof, while our servants and boatmen occupied the middle and stern. There our simple meals were prepared, consisting of tea, rice, and curry, bananas and cocoa-nuts, and, as an extra treat, a few pots of jam and some tablets of chocolate, which we had reserved till the last.

The sombre masses of overhanging dark green trees, and the black colour given by the fringing thicket to the water near the banks, have given its name to the Kalu Ganga, or Black River. The water itself, when the river is low, is a dark blackish green, but when it is full the colour is yellowish or orange-brown, in consequence of the quantities of yellow or reddish loam brought down by the rains. On the shore itself abrupt rocks and grotesque groups of stones, overhanging boughs, and trees torn up by the roots, supply a varied and delightful foreground to the landscape. The distance is filled up by the sublime outlines of the mountains, swathed in blue mist and appearing much higher than they really are.

The chief part of the river's edge looks as if it consisted entirely of vegetation. Aralia, and Terminalia, Dillenia and Bombax, Rubiaceae and Urticaeae predominate. The dark green of this thicket is pleasingly varied by the bright green of the bamboos; their orange-yellow canes stand in thick clumps from forty to fifty feet high, and the elegant feathery leaves hang over the water like tufts of ostrich plumes. Cocoa and areca palms, talipot and kittool, with here and there a plantation of banana and cassava, betray the existence of inhabitants, and prove that the shores of the river are not such a wilderness as might be supposed from the thicket that fringes its bank. Occasionally, though more rarely, solitary native huts stand on a rocky promontory of the shore, and more ralely still the white cupola of a dagoba reveals the existence of a village.

Animal life contributes largely to diversify the charms of the landscape. Near the huts the tame black swine wander about the shore, grubbing among the roots of the trees. Large black buffaloes roll in the sand banks or in the mud at the bottom, where the water is shallow, having only their heads above the surface. Where there is any considerable extent of wooded country large parties of black monkeys display their amusing gymnastics, and shriek as they spring from tree to tree. Here and there stands a gigantic and ancient fig-tree, thickly populated with flying-foxes, hanging to every branch. Brilliant blue and green kingfishers perch on the boughs that overhang the stream, and dart down on the unwary fish; curlews, herons, water-rails, and other waders fish in the shallows and stalk over the sand-banks, and the tree-tops are full of lively flocks of red and green parrots. Now and then we have a glimpse of the Ceylon bird of paradise, with its two long white tail-feathers. Crocodiles used to be common in the Black River, but the constantly increasing traffic has led to their being almost exterminated. In their place the great green iguana - the cabra-goya - suns itself on the rocks in mid-current. Large river tortoises, too, which lay their eggs in the sand banks, were frequently to be seen. The water is too turbid and dark for fishes to be easily detected, though fish of the shad and carp tribes (Siluridae and Cyprinidae) are said to be abundant, and here and there a solitary native sits on the bank fishing with a line or hand-net.

The most remarkable among the insects are handsome large butterflies and fine metallic demoiselles or dragon-flies. The gnats and mosquitos, which at some seasons are a perfect plague, were at the time of our excursion quite endurable.

The most exciting episode of our delightful voyage was the shooting of the rapids, which lie about half-way between Ratnapoora and Caltura, and are very much dreaded, being, in fact, a dangerous impediment in the navigation of the Kalu Ganga. The waters here force their way through a series of rocky barriers which lie across their channel; the banks are higher and closer together, and the river, thus hemmed in, tumbles and roars among the rocks; the fall is very considerable within a short distance. At the most dangerous spot our boat was completely unloaded, and everything carried for some distance by land; we ourselves scrambled down the large shelves of granite to the bottom of the falls. A number of natives are always here on the look-out for boats, which, when they are empty, are hauled and lifted up or down the foaming rapids. Half a dozen of these men - among them a Tamil, more than six feet in height, and a perfect Hercules in build - plunged into the water and contrived to twist and guide the canoe through tbe narrow straits, shouting loudly all the time, so cleverly that it shot down the rapids without being damaged against the sharp rocks.

A few miles below these falls the river widens considerably, and we gradually find ourselves carried down to the level plain of the western coast. The fall to the sea is there very inconsiderable, and the boat's crew hoisted a large square sail that the light evening breeze might help them in their toil. Soon after dark the rising moon, nearly full, threw its soft radiance across the wide level of water or cast dancing lights through the boughs overhead. The Black River near its debouchure appears to be about as wide as the Rhine at Cologne. No sound broke the silence but the bell-like croak of the tree-frogs and the even measure of the oars, or now and again the dismal hoot of an owl and the gruff voice of a monkey. All nature seemed to sleep when we disembarked at Caltura, soon after midnight.

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