The Seven Virgins mountain range is etched in Sri Lankans’ memories because of the tragic plane crash which occurred 40 years ago. A similar tragedy was averted thanks to a joint rescue mission carried out by the Sri Lanka Air Force, Army, STF, local Police and estate personnel.
A group of five people on an expedition, were stranded in this mountainous forest range.
The Laxapana and Cannyon hydropower stations, also the Laxapana reservoir are situated at the foothill of this mountain range. This mountain range is a forest reservation rich in biodiversity and home to many indigenous plants, fruit trees and waterfalls flowing into the Keselgamuwa stream originating from this mountain range.
It is believed that a herd of about 15 pygmy elephants roam in this area. Stags, deer, wild boar, porcupines and rare birds including a rare species of leopards are the denizens roaming across this forest.
The group entered this jungle reserve to observe the pygmy elephant herd. This group comprised the son of the superintendent of the Laxapana tea estate Kavinda Thissera, his aunty Samitha Wickremasinghe, Migara Wickremasinghe, Piyumi Kalyanawansa who are his relatives. Mariappan Kritnasamy was their guide.
On December 12th, they set out at noon with the hope of returning the same evening. They were stranded in the jungle due to their unexpectedly prolonged journey and early nightfall. The son of the superintendent informed their predicament to his mother over the mobile phone who in turn informed Police Inspector of Nallathanniya police station OIC Anil Jayasinghe through assistant superintendents of the estate.
The terrain was so difficult to reach that it took three days for the Sri Lanka Air Force, Army, STF, local Police and estate personnel to effect the rescue and evacuation.
Anil Jayasinghe, OIC of Nallathanniya police station was very graphic: “It was a very busy day for us because Sri Pada season was to start the following day carrying the statue of God Saman to the peak of the Sri Pada. On hearing this incident I sent a team of police officers and army personnel to rescue them. The next day I returned to the police station after the religious ceremonies at the Sri Pada peak to learn that the team could not spot them. So, I immediately informed the Air Force Headquarters and Nallathanniya STF camp. A helicopter in a reconnaissance mission had by evening spotted the missing group and informed us their coordinates. Then I briefed a team of STF officers and a few guides who are familiar of this area about the location described by the Air Force. One guide, Dharmashri Liyanage informed me that he knew the location. Then I directed the rescue team with this guide to set out on the 13th evening with necessary food supplies. On the 14th afternoon by about 2 o’clock the rescue team was able to bring back the stranded party. But it is strange that the son of the superintendent lost his way as he had previously-visited to observe this elephant herd on several occasions with his father and other family members.”
Kavinda Thissera described his ordeal thus: “We went on this expedition as my aunty was very keen to see the pygmy elephants. The guide misguided us on this occasion. I saw the chopper hovering over us and we lit a bonfire for them to spot us.We also wanted to look at a unknown stream. We saw a pipe line but we were not quite sure whether it was leading to Laxapana or Maussakele. But I sent picture of it to the police station.
We are grateful to the STF, Army, Air Force, Police and villagers who saved our lives. Though we couldn’t see elephants this was a memorable experience to me as a young person.”
Sixty-three year old Mrs. Samitha Wickremasinghe says that it was a great experience in her life.
The guide of the expedition, Mariappan Kritnasamy (55) who is a labourer in the estate says that he went with the group to show them the elephant herd. They wanted to go Hapugastenna area and by the time we reached there it was dusk and couldn’t find their way back. Our madam was exhausted, so we decided to spend the night in the jungle and we ran out of food supply. The next day morning we could not find our way back. On the 13th evening a chopper hovered over us seeing the smoke of the bonfire we lit. Next day morning a team arrived at our location and we returned to safety after seven hours.”
Tourist guide Dharmasri Liyanage, (35) described his experience thus: “I know the Seven Virgins forest range like back of my palm which is a very scenic place. On the request of the Nallathanniya OIC I joined the rescue team and set out at 7.30 p.m. from the Lakambe area. As night fell we had to stall the operation till daybreak. Then we proceeded towards to the location described by the Air Force while raising cries and giving signals and heard responses from the jungle. Going along that trail we could locate the stranded party. What should I emphasise here is that this is the abode of God Saman. People should not do unsuitable things here. These visitors had consumed bacon, salmon and some other unsuitable food which may be the consequences for this misfortune. This team had not obtained Forest Department permission to visit the reserve and if people start to visit this area unregulated, the fauna and flora will be endangered.”
The pilot of the rescue mission Wing Commander Uditha de Silva described the rescue operation thus: ‘I received a message from the Air Force Control Room that a group of people has stranded in the Seven Virgins mountains. So I started the mission with seven members and reached the location at 5.15 p m. after 45 minutes flight. Even though I spotted the smoke clouds rising from the forest, I could not descend due to poor visibility owing to thick mist compounded by strong winds and tall trees over 100 feet high. So, I had to abandon mission. We recorded the GPS position and caught the location on camera and relayed this information to the police station and the Army detachment. Though I received a message to restart the operation with food and medicine next day morning, I cancelled it as we were informed the stranded group has been rescued.”
This is a lesson for all who venture into risky adventures should be adequately equipped to face any emergency by having terrain maps and sufficient data.
(Translated by Ananda Elkaduwa)