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Life Around the Samanala Tea Estate and Laxapana Waterfall in Sri Lanka.

My engagement with the beautiful island of Sri lanka goes back decades, and my ongoing connection has a lot to do with a special friend who I first met there in 1993 when I was conducting an investigation for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society into dolphin harpooning by fishermen in the south. I met Nigel Kerner through his uncle Ed Kerner who was the president of a local conservation organization founded by Dr Hiran Jayawardene who I contacted because he has been the driving force of conservation and cetacean research in Sri Lanka for many years. Nigel is a wealthy author and philanthropist who was born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and returned to Sri Lanka to facilitate charitable ventures including building a hospital for the local Tamils in a tea-growing district in Maskeliya. At that time he sponsored me to take conservation-oriented photos for Dr Hiran Jayewardene who is the nephew of former president J.R Jayewardene.

From a two week assignment for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society I ended up staying there for a whole year photographing the natural beauty of Sri Lanka as well as enjoying some other unique opportunities including starring in a Sri Lankan teledrama. It was truly a serendipitous year in every respect. The term was first coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole as suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip (an old Persian name for Sri Lanka), the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. My life has been all about serendipity and that year in Sri Lanka was a charmed epitome of that.

Nigel is a larger than life character with a daunting intellect and razor-sharp wit. I’m sure that he wouldn’t mind me saying that he is the most endearing of eccentrics but someone who doesn’t suffers fools gladly, which has been a most important asset in his dealings in Sri Lanka. He has been a very loyal supporter of my work and what I stand for as an individual, fully aware that like him I am very much my own man and don’t suffer fools gladly either. Apart from his own family he has supported and surrounded himself with beautiful people and their children. It is a very special extended family bonded by his strong principles that I am happy to feel part of whenever I am in Sri Lanka.

The hospital was constructed after he purchased the Samanala Tea Estate, which also encompasses his concern for the welfare of Tamils rather than just a business venture; apparently it makes very little profit but at least his workers get the best possible treatment. The hospital has evolved into a specialist eye clinic because there is a very high incidence of eye cataracts among the Tamil tea plantation workers. As well as performing cataract surgery the clinic also conducts eye tests and provides glasses for people who have suffered with poor vision for a long time. Volunteers including the regulars from Nigel’s extended family conduct all of the work in the clinic.


It’s an important occassion and day out for the Tamils from quite far and wide when they attend the eye clinic in their best clothes,



This man was able to see reasonably well for the first time in many years.

The Tamil tea pluckers always add a rainbow of colours and smiles to the pervading greenery.


Children walking in the rain to the school on the other side of Norton Bridge below the tea estate.

The location and setting of the hospital and tea estate is breathtaking with the well-known Seven Virgin Hills forming a monumental wall behind the estate and at its feet is the Laxapana Falls, the 8th highest in Sri Lanka at 126 metres (413 ft), which appears on the 100 Rupee banknote. The Seven Virgin Hills, Saptha Kanya in Sinhalese, is more of a mountain range than a row of hills, and is infamous for the worst domestic plane crash in Sri Lankan aviation history when an aircraft crashed into one of the virgin hills killing all 191 people onboard – 182 Indonesian pilgrims bound for Mecca and 9 crew members. It’s still an unsolved mystery as to why it crashed. The fiery explosion of the plane on one of the mountaintops of the range at night created instant terror among the villagers because in this area there are hydro electricity power plants at Laxapana and Polpitiya. The panic-stricken people first assumed that the thunderous roar was either a power plant exploding or a rapid gush of water from the damaged reservoirs of Castlereigh and Maussakele.

When you are standing before such a beautiful setting in that idyllic place, which has become a little piece of heaven to me, it’s difficult to comprehend that such a tragedy took place there. But it’s something that I rarely think of when my senses are besieged by so much beauty from the majestic mountains to the seductive serenading of so many birds in the garden of the estate bungalow and lush vegetation that borders the tea estate. Beyond the fortress wall of mountains lies the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, the third largest of 50 sanctuaries in Sri Lanka with the sacred mountain of Adam’s Peak within. It is included with Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2010 because of its importance as a super biodiversity hotspot. These montane forests, where the land rises to 2,500 metres above sea level are home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the endemic purple-faced monkey (Trachpithecus vetulus), which can sometimes be seen on the outskirts of the tea estate. The proximity of such a biodiverse montane forest is evident from the number of different species of amphibians and reptiles that I have photographed behind the estate as well as regular visits from sambar deer and the occasional visit by a leopard, even right around the estate bungalow.



An eagle soars overhead in front of the Seven Virgin Hills. Everything is clearly on view from inside the bungalow.

Isabel and crazy Clare relaxing in the rain.


The heavens open up and thunder transforms the tranquility of the tea estate.


Isabel enjoying a meditative moment in the morning above the bungalow.

A regular visitor to the bungalow garden – an oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor).

A male oriental garden lizard showing off its bright red head during the breeding season hence its other name of changeable lizard.


A surprise visitor: a tiny deer mouse under the bushes in the back garden of the bungalow. It was fascinating to get so close to one of these miniature deer with its tiny hooves. It may have escaped from a leopard and looked very nervous.




A simple Hindu shrine on the tea estate.


The birds singing add to the sense of it being such a heavenly place.


The estate bungalow has several bedrooms and a dormitory to accommodate visitors and volunteers working in the eye clinic. The lounge is more like a greenhouse, which provides a 360 degree view of the spectacular location at the foot of the Seven Virgin Hills overlooking the tea estate and the valley. With the big windows slid open and the birds singing in the garden you feel immersed in the surrounding beauty; you never know what creatures nature is going to pop in through an open window. Trees have been selectively left around the estate to provide some shelter for the tea pluckers, and perches for the many songbirds to sing from. I love the old stone paths, walls, drainage ditches and terracing in the tea estates in Sri Lanka. When the heavens open up the drainage ditches are quickly transformed into raging cascades. Unfortunately you are often distracted from the surrounding beauty by the nagging menace of leeches at your feet, especially during rainy days. In the past I have ventured up into the rainforest and returned from a mass assault with blood all over me. They are a constant nuisance to the tea pluckers who rub soap over their feet and legs to deter the blood-sucking pests.


All kitted out and ready to go out for another nightwalk to photograph macro life with my essential leech socks.

These cute little frogs are at home on the anthuriams in the back garden.








A large beautiful gecko on a wall of the bungalow.


A large longhorn beetle on a tree at the entrance to the bungalow.

This dainty little butterfly is the commonest species around the tea estate.

Whenever I am staying there, quite often on my own apart from the estate manager and his wife who have their own separate accommodation in the bungalow, I usually make nocturnal excursions up a stream into the forest just behind the estate to photograph reptiles and amphibians. In the back garden there are always some pretty little frogs ensconced in the red anthuriums making for some endearing photos. On my way to the stream I quite often disturb sambar deer that start barking to announce my arrival. On one occasion when I was returning back down some steps I startled a big buck right next to the path; actually I was just as startled as we stared at each other just a few metres apart before he bolted. There’s nothing I love doing more than exploring a stream at night with the river gurgling, the frogs chirping and the moon winking at me through the mosaic of leaves. It’s hazardous because of the slippery rocks and fragility of my macro photo equipment, and on one occasion it wasn’t the slippery rocks that were waiting to upend me. I foolishly stepped on a rotten log straddling the nearly dry streambed and it snapped sending me plummeting a metre down on to a sharp rock that struck me on the worst possible place apart from my head – my shin. The impact and pain took my breath away and as I struggled to get up I could see that I had broken my expensive Canon twin macro flash. I hobbled back to the bungalow and by the time I got back there my leg was badly swollen. The injury was on exactly the same place where I had struck a rock in the rainforest in Danum Valley, Borneo, and once again it became badly infected and took a long time to heal. I subsequently struck the same place on my shin in the rainforest here in Palawan and it not only became infected but it gave me a fever during the night; such are the hazards of forest trekking in a tropical environment! I have got so tired of striking the same cursed place that I started wearing a shin guard made from a plastic bottle when I was working in Kalimantan after injuring it again.


The nightly frog chorus is a good indicator of the biodiversity around the tea estate.



One of the most memorable evenings at the bungalow was having a beautiful supermoon directly overhead.


The attractive red leaves of miconia have invaded many of my photos because it is inexorably taking over the forest.














Endemic hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus).


Juvenile oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor).





 A green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus).




This was the only Phasmid (stick insect) that I found in the forest around the estate.


This hairy caterpillar makes it quite clear not to touch it!





I stumbled across this large intimidating bee’s nest on the estate, took some quick photos and got out of there ASAP!



A rotting carcase of a big sambar buck was found in the undergrowth on the estate. It could have quite possibly been killed by a leopard.

But I cannot resist the call of the rainforest when there is so much amazing life to discover and photograph. In a stretch of stream of no more than 50 metres I have probably found ten different species of frogs that I have yet to identify apart from the largest one, the common wood frog (Hylarana temoralis). It is believed that until recently there were 119 species of amphibians in Sri Lanka with 103 of them being endemic, but unfortunately 20 of those (all endemic) are now thought to be extinct. There is so much pressure on their habitat in Sri Lanka that it is imperative to monitor and protect all endemic species. In addition to the abundance of frogs I also found an endemic hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) and a green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) no more than three metres apart! Other reptiles I found were several common garden lizards, an unidentified one and a large gecko outside the bungalow. A worrying change in the environment, around the estate and deep into the forest that was very apparent from when I first went there a few years ago is an invasive plant called Miconia. It has large attractive red and green leaves making it a popular house plant but it has become a widespread scourge in quite a few countries because of its ability to take over new habitat very quickly like a green plague.


One of my favourite companions whenever she is staying there is Yani who has boundless enthusiasm, loves adventures in nature and keeps everybody satisfied with special treats that she is always baking.

Yani did a great job of capturing me leaping into a cold pool below the Laxapana Falls.




During the day the waterfall is the main attraction, either at the top or the bottom. At the top there are rocks that jut out above the precipitous drop that you can test your nerves on and the view makes it more than worthwhile to risk life and limb. Leading up to that there are many pools that provide a refreshing swim and habitat for numerous species of dragonflies, damselflies and other insects and frogs. There are also many species of freshwater fish that I was able to photograph when I was equipped with my underwater housing. The Samanala Tea Estate and surroundings really is a heavenly place whether the sun is shining or dark clouds roll in to shroud the Seven Virgins Hills and thunder heralds a tumultuous deluge that you can be a comfortable spectator of from the security of the bungalow even if the power sockets sometimes create their own flashes of lightning. There is a harmonious ambience of the fusion of people and nature; birdsong and the chorus of frogs accompanying the chanting emanating from a small Hindu temple on the other side of the bridge before the waterfall, which Nigel also generously funded for his employees. I never want to leave and always dream of returning to that little patch of heaven on earth.





A fun day out around the pools above the waterfall with Jenn, Ale and Clare.



Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis is a common dicroglossid frog found in South Asia. It is known under numerous common names, including Indian skipper frog or skittering frog. They are often seen at the edge of bodies of water with their eyes above the water. They move away noisily when disturbed, giving them their common name. They are rarely seen outside water. I had to crawl stealthily on my belly to capture these close-up photo before it eventually skittered away.



I have always admired the speed and ability to glide across water so effortlessly of pondskaters.

One of the commonest damselflies at the waterfall is the oriental greenwing (Neurobasis chinensis).


When this species is in flight it flashes the beautiful blue iridescence of its underwings, which was very difficult to capture in a photo. I had to do a lot of patient stalking crouched in the river to be able to get close to them.



A shining gossamerwing (Euphaea splendens), which is endemic to Sri Lanka.








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