A pair of antlers emerged from the mist, a large deer staring at us. For a moment, I thought of whisky and Walker’s shortbread. But no, we hadn’t been magically transported to Scotland. We were still in Sri Lanka, driving along a rutted, cloudy track to the two thousand metre high plateau of Horton’s Plains.
Hard to believe we were in the tropics with wet, cold weather like this. Harder still to estimate when we’d get there, after passing a sign that read “Horton’s Plains 5.5 km” ten kilometres back. Now after crossing two sets of rail tracks and traversing several hairpin bends, we still hadn’t arrived. Were it not for the fact we were constantly driving uphill, we might believe we were going around in circles again.
“I’m not sure I want to walk in this,” Kate said to me. She’d had doubts from the beginning. And perhaps she was right. Why walk in a huge loop – first to the viewpoint of Little World’s End, then to the colossal eight hundred and eight metre drop of World’s End proper – when we could stay in a nice warm bus? There might be good views, of the south plain and the coast, but then again, with all the mist, there might not.
“It will clear later.” Sujan came around the group trying to instil confidence. “Even the path is not so bad.”
We’d left the hotel at six thirty for this jaunt. The view from World’s End, an escarpment at the end of Horton’s Plains, was often cloudy yet usually cleared mid-morning. Our early departure had been timed to coincide. And too early for breakfast, we’d been provided with a packed brunch: cheese and tomato sandwich, orange, banana, juice and the piece de la resistance, a hard-boiled egg.
Another rail crossing and two more deer later, we parked outside a Victorian looking lodge. Not that we could see anything for the mist remained as thick as Mulligatawny soup. A little disheartened, we disembarked the bus and felt our way along a guide rope to the front door. Inside the building was like an old railway station: several musty rooms with a scattering of chairs, maps on the wall, and maybe the odd stuffed leopard. Strange really, seeing there could be no railway this high up.
Passing through a souvenir shop – a few sweat-shirts, raincoats, and woollen hats – we emerged out of another door back into the mist. Down some steps and through a security post where guards checked our bags for polythene that can harm wildlife. Then onto a long paved path that led to the start of the loop.
“This is really stupid.” Kate walked the first kilometre or so, but making her apologies, turned back. The bus was warmer than this, she told us again, drier too. Why would any sane human being want to continue?
Foolishly ignoring her advice, the rest of the group carried on, stumbling and slipping on a path that became progressively more difficult. The bright orange surface looked as slick as a shyster. In places, it tumbled in a jumble of rocks. There was a real danger of losing your balance and spraining an ankle. Nothing much to see either. On each side only moss covered bush. Even the birds chirped invisibly, and the leopards, wherever they were, watched us silently without revealing themselves.
For a while I walked with Nelson, a pleasant jovial man with a wry sense of humour. He recalled a few bands from the seventies: the progressive Dutch band Focus whose single Hocus Pocus earned them international fame. The four members of Focus, led by Thijs van Leer, may or may not have travelled to Sri Lanka to walk to World’s End. And if they had, they definitely wouldn’t have brought their guitars and drums.
As our conversation drifted onto other topics – the price of concert tickets, the resurgence of vinyl – we found ourselves at Little World’s End. This was not a place to play blindfold piñata. The drop at the edge of the observation deck was a sheer few thousand feet and other than a strand of straggly barbed-wire, there was no safety barrier.
Below us we could see clouds and distant hills. Not that I went too close to the edge. It was a long long way down.
And then a few kilometres later, a little bit like Focus reforming in 2002, we reached World’s End proper. Same style observation deck, same straggly wire barrier, and the drop equally terrifying. Only a year earlier, a German woman fell to her death after trying to take a selfie. And in 2015, a Dutch man – possibly a Focus fan – had similarly fallen after taking a selfie, but miraculously been saved by a tree fifty metres below.
A green and white sign read “World’s End” too, in case anyone was confused and thought they were somewhere else. Amsterdam, maybe, the hometown of Focus, or perhaps Beijing, where many of the other tourists up here might hail from. Some of them wore the most unsuitable footwear. I mean, how do you walk nine kilometres in flip-flops, not to mention a pair of fawn, knee-high suede boots?
The view, however, was amazing. The clouds cleared to reveal the plain far below, even a line that might possibly be the south coast, but wasn’t. Lots of people posed in front of the “World’s End” sign, some in special photo outfits, preserving the moment. If you wanted a photo though, you had to be forceful and jump in quickly otherwise you’d be waiting until nightfall.
Eventually it was time to go. Now walking with Simon, another talkative, knowledgeable member of our party, I learnt all about singles hotels in Crete and walking holidays in the Peloponnese. Funny the things you talk about when you’re on a hike. Maybe the astute members of the British parliament should try it more often. They might learn to cooperate.
We came to the last natural feature – the magnificent Baker’s Falls. These descend twenty metres over black rocks, and lie on the Belihul Oya river, which in turn is a tributary of the Walawe, the seventh longest in Sri Lanka.
Once again, there were lots of people here, talking not about Focus, or Chania, but taking photos instead. The dolce tones of Mandarin nearly drowned out the sound of falling water. This might be a beautiful sight, but it was not a place for quiet contemplation. Anyway, waterfalls had always been something Kate and I shared. And thinking of her, alone in the bus, I hared the last few kilometres back to the starting point. To discover that she’d probably had a better time than anyone. No discussions about 1970’s rock bands, no kali-meras or hairy encounters with a lethal drop. She’d chatted with the driver and learnt how Buddhists and Catholics get on so well with each other, they share everything. And she’d cracked open my hardboiled egg.