Myriad hues of a hidden Eden | Sunday Observer

Myriad hues of a hidden Eden

26 February, 2023

Last month, Sri Lanka Railways added a new train named ‘Seethawaka Odyssey’ to operate on the Kelani Valley route, to boost tourism in the Western Province. The ‘Seethawaka Odyssey’ operated from the Fort, Colombo to the Waga Railway Station and visitors could glimpse a number of scenic attractions along the route as well as a number of other tourist attractions including the less known Seethawaka Wet Zone Botanic Garden. We had an opportunity to visit the Seethawaka Wet Zone Botanic Garden a couple of weeks ago which was in limelight due to the ‘Seethawaka Odyssey’.

Getting up early on a cold, foggy February morning is tough. But not when you are in Illukowita in Thunmodara. The sheer anticipation of getting a glimpse of natures’ wonders can fill the air with excitement. So was it for us. Our interest in nature is fairly old and searching for a new destination is exciting. The Seethawaka Wet zone Botanical Garden, the newly added botanical garden in Sri Lanka, was our dream destination.

The park is a fair distance away from the main town of Avissawella in the village of Illukowita, between Puwakpitiya and Thunmodara. The earlier name of Avissawella, ‘Seethawaka’, which was a historic kingdom where heroic kings battled the Portuguese, happens to be the name of the park.

Fertile land

It was once a fertile land for colonial rulers who turned the vast Seethawaka mountainous region to grow agricultural crops such as tea and rubber. The land acquired to construct the botanical garden was once a tea and rubber plantation of British planters known as Pannagula. However, most of the agricultural lands of plantations were abandoned and neglected over time.

The construction of the Seethawaka Wet Zone Botanical Garden began in 2008 as a new botanical garden in the wet zone close to Avissawella. In fact, the primary purpose of the construction of the botanical garden was to establish a plant conservation centre to conserve the threatened and endemic plant species in wet lowland forests in Sri Lanka for posterity. The conservation centre was opened in 2015, according to the plaque at the entrance of the garden.

It is just a 90 minute drive from Colombo. There are a few routes that a visitor can take to the park. The easiest route to the park lies through the Avissawella - Thunmodara road. Take the Puwakpitiya - Thunmodara road, proceed around six kilometres and reach the park which is on the right side. The other route is to drive down on High Level (A4) road, turn right from the Kaluaggala junction, proceed to Thunmodara town and from there turn left and drive another 3.5 kilometres to reach the park. However, all the roads that lead to the park are narrow and it is difficult for two vehicles to pass. Travelling on the Puwakpitiya road you will also see a cool cascading stream flowing parallel to the road in the valley.

When my family and I reached the gates of the park, it was well past 7 am but still quite foggy. A group of visitors were keeping themselves warm around the entrance. The parking lot was almost empty and it seemed like we were among the first ones to brave the cold. We bought tickets and met a security assistant near the gate.

Placid lake

Entering from the main gate, we walked a few metres on a pebbled road flanked by manicured flower beds and reached a huge platform. The first scene was a placid lake with a reflection of the flower beds and tall trees surrounded by green misty mountains. Here and there, birds swirled on the water. Around the lake was a vast central lawn with neatly cut grass and in some places, there were small water holes with rounded small bridges.

From the right side of the garden, we made our trek passing grasslands with a cluster of berry trees ‘Dan gas’ dotted here and there and entered the forest of tall Kumbuk trees under a narrow path leading to the top of the mountain. The panorama of the green canopy contrasted with neatly cut flower beds.

Following the layout of the garden, after visiting the Kumbuk grove, our next stop was a viewpoint of the garden and a rose garden on the top of the mountain. Having trudged uphill about half a kilometre, we reached a magnificent ‘viewpoint’ which is a unique feature of the botanical garden.

The couple of bee-eaters in the lawn

The viewpoint commanded a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding mountain ranges in the morning and it is also the best spot to witness the sun rising from a sea of mist surrounding the hill with vibrant hues. The viewpoint, constructed about half a kilometre in the middle of the hill covered with lush greenery, is an enchanting spot with natures’ best kept secrets.

A few yards away from the ‘viewpoint’ on the top of the hill is a mesmerising rose garden of the garden and adjoining ‘summit garden’ where a number of herbal trees can be viewed. Adjoining the rose garden is a massive lawn with neatly cut grassland surrounded by various trees. In the garden, each tree carries a name board with its general name and the botanical name. Walking around the narrow pebbled path, we found many rare plants and trees such as ‘Val del’ (wild breadfruit).

The garden is also home to a number of animals, birds and reptiles. We saw a couple of bee-eaters and grey lounges and mammals such as ‘Hotambuwa’.

We learnt that a number of migrant birds also seeks shelter in the grove.

After visiting the summit of the hill, we climbed down viewing various sections of the garden such as ferns and the lake adjoining a pink blossom garden. This pink flower garden is an Eden for young couples. We saw a few young couples try to capture selfies standing in front of enchanting views of the gardens as well as a couple of wedding photographers trying to capture some enchanting moments blending love and nature.

Opportunity for differently-abled

Apart from this, most casual visitors and serious nature lovers enjoy the nature of the garden with their family members. Some groups hold parties under the trees with musical instruments. The elderly and differently-abled visitors also have a chance to visit the garden as there are electric cars available on request. The spacious restaurant close to main gate helps refresh the visitors after a trek in the garden. However, all the visitors seem to adhere strictly to the rules of keeping the garden in an environmental friendly atmosphere minimising the use of polythene wrappers and bottles.

According to information in the park office, the evergreen rain forests are spread in the South-Western wet lowland region of the country. These forests now make up less than two percent of the total land area of the country due to the increase in population and development.

Set up in an area of 43 ha (106 acres) on a lush green large mountain slop, the Seethawaka botanical garden strives to conserve a majority of the endemic flora which is highly sensitive and very difficult to grow elsewhere in the country successfully. The park is spread in the vast areas of the lower slop of the mountain which is maintained beautifully with flower patches, perfectly cut green, and a well maintained lake where the visitors can go for a boat ride. The park is also ideal for bird watching.

The garden also provides opportunities for eco-tourism and economic development of the area as a model wet zone landscape improvement.

In the long term, it will feature the less known and under-utilised plants in the wet zone, promote the herbal industry and provide education and training on botany and floriculture in the wet zone for the public.

The mid-day sun and breeze reminded us that it was time to leave. A lonely bee-eater swirled across the lake as we reached the gate to say goodbye.

When we returned, we realised that we had spotted over 20 endemic plants through the half a day, several of them highly threatened in the wet lowland forest area.

If you are a genuine nature lover, this is a must visit destination at least once in your lifetime.

The ‘Viewpoint’ of the garden on the top of the hill

A walking path

A young couple near an arched bridge by a stream