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25th April 1999

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The making of a hilly holiday town

By D.B. Kappagoda

While the majority of our people celebrated the Sinhala and Tamil new year, holiday-makers set off to Nuwara Eliya to enjoy the "season".

The credit for making this hillside town a resort should go to Sir Samuel Baker and Governor Sir Edward Barnes who had a vision for English families residing in Sri Lanka at that time.

Writing in 1855 Sir Samul Baker in his book, "Eight Years in Ceylon", records that he had come to Sri Lanka straight from Central Africa. He said, "The spirit of wandering allowed me towards Ceylon. Little did I imagine at that time that I should eventually become a settler."

He wrote, "On the following day of my arrival in Ceylon, I was delighted to see several people seated at the table of the hotel when I entered the room, as I was most anxious to gain some positive information regarding the game of the island and the best localities."

After an year in Ceylon, he had an attack of jungle fever and decided to rest in the mountainous region of Nuwara Eliya.

He was fascinated with the hilly terrain. He wrote, "Bounded on all sides but the east by high mountains the plain of Nuwara Eliya lay like a level valley of about two miles in length by half a mile in width, bordered by undulating grassy knolls at the foot of the mountain."

Baker was quick to realise what the hilly country offered at that time. He saw the vast possibilities in exploiting the natural resources for the benefit of the inhabitants.

Baker wanted to clear the jungle cover and cultivate crops of corn. He foresaw a thriving peasantry living in cottages by draining the plains and starting cultivation. It was his answer to the demand for food. It is said that Baker wandered over the neighbouring plains and jungle and at length struck his walking stick into the ground where the gentle undulations of the country would allow the use of the plough.

The spot at the eastern extremity of the Nuwara Eliya plain on the sudden descent towards Badulla was adapted for the future European settlement. There he established a farm with colonists from England. He was the first Englishman to introduce a large variety of vegetables which are now popular in the country as up-country vegetables.

Baker bought an extensive tract of crown land at 20 shillings an acre. He sought the services of a bailiff, his wife, daughters and nine other immigrants in his project.

White cottages soon appeared in the forest and everything was in readiness for the emigrants. By this time the Earl of Hardwicke arrived in Colombo with a precious cargo - a cow, a bull, sheep, horses and hounds.

They were to start their journey to Nuwara Eliya on foot trekking all 115 miles in a tropical climate.

But sending animals and essentials proved to be difficult. Baker then obtained the services of four government elephant carts, while bullock carts carried the lighter goods including farming implements.

Baker tried his hand at brewing beer and this proved to be a success. To remember Baker's pioneering efforts, the panoramic waterfall which lies in close proximity to the present brewery was named after him.

The Moon Plains were also linked with Baker who came across this tract of land, 200 acres in extent. Some cynics thought that the settlement at Nuwara Eliya was going to be a day dream of a lunatic. Hence the Moon Plains seemed an appropriate name for this enterprise.

Apart from farming methods, Baker was well known as a hunter at Horton Plains and later inaugurated the sport of hunting elk with hounds.

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