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Adventures of Major Thomas Skinner:

In the shadow of the Peak

by K.G.H. Munidasa - SO Jan 4 2009


“The top of every ridge had its broad road along which one could drive a carriage. From range to range one was always sure to find a cross road, which invariably led to the easier crossing of the river in the valley.”

An on the spot sketch of Adam’s Peak from Yatiyantota in 1864 by Captain C.O.Brien

Major Thomas Skinner, adjudged the Master Road Builder during the British occupation of Sri Lanka, in his book “Fifty Years in Ceylon” says so recalling his adventures in the Peak Wilderness, where he was engaged in tracing a map of the district of Sabaragamuwa in the 1830s.

It is said that on the summit of Adam’s Peak Major Skinner was occupying a little Talipot-leaf hut, only equipped with a camp bed, a folding chair and desk, “living upon a daily ration of cooked rice and salt fish, which was served out most sparingly about a square inch to each meal.”

While in the wilderness thus engaged he had a few adventures with wild elephants and other animals. The elephants, in particular, were so numerous that their tracks greatly facilitated his work, being judiciously selected and well-trodden, Skinner remarks.

On one occasion, from the summit of the Peak, he spied a little open spot on the top of the ridge, which formed the southern segment, and decided to go there. He sent out two of his men in advance with a week’s provisions to prepare a station for making the observations, as he was to remain at the Peak longer than expected, awaiting clear weather, and quite long enough for the two men to return.

Skinner, however, got anxious about the men and at length, left on his own to search for them. He strolled up the bed of a stream for a mile or so and stopped.

The silence of the sombre forest oppressed him, and being at an altitude above 6,000 feet, the rarified state of the atmosphere contributed further to the stillness of the place. Fancying that he heard human voices in the far distance, he climbed into a tree and gave out a hoo -cry, at his loudest. It was promptly answered and in half an hour he succeeded in attracting the men to him.

They were his men, who had been wandering about, aimlessly. They could give no account of themselves, beyond the fact that they had marched the whole of each day, since leaving, and had no conception how far thy had been or where they were when Skinner finally found them.

It was probable that they had been walking around as people generally do when lost in the jungle, continually in a circle.

“They had consumed all the provisions taken with them. I could not help feeling that my thus finding the fellows was a merciful interposition of Providence, for they could very soon have perished from exhaustion, had I not, apparently by accident, fallen in with them,” Skinner writes.

The trio returned to the camp to much rejoicing of all present there, who were impressed with the efforts of their superior to find their two lost comrades, after all hopes of ever finding them in such a vast sea of forest having been dispelled.

After a hurried breakfast Skinner and his gang embarked on their march which, in two days and a half, brought them to the point on the southern segment of the zone, where they arrived just after a heavy thunderstorm.

The rain had driven all the game out of the dripping forest to graze on the open space. They counted thirteen pairs of elk on the plain, delicate figures of the does contrasting well with the robust forms of the bucks. It was tantalizing indeed to see such a profusion of fine game when there was not a morsel of animal food for them to eat.

The following morning, anxious to ascend a height in time to avail of the clear atmosphere for the necessary observations Maj. Skinner started off by himself through the jungle, leaving orders for the men with the surveying instruments to follow his track by the notches which he cut in the barks of the trees.

Leaving the plain he struck on to a game track, which lay in the direction he intended to go, and had progressed about half a mile, when he was startled by a slight rustling in a patch of Nilloo to his right, and the next instant by the spring of a magnificent leopard, bounding a full eight feet above the brushwood, and alighting within one-and-half feet of the spot whereon he stood.

There it lay in a crouching position with its staring eyes steadily fixed on him. The animal had apparently heard his foot-steps and taken him for an elk. “I cannot tell how long we remained in our relevant positions, but during the time we stood gazing at each other, I felt no fear!”, he states.

Hasn’t he heard that no animal could bear the steady gaze of a human eye? He fixed his on the leopard’s eyes with all the intensity he could command. Had he turned or retreated, one blow from its foreleg would have finished him; for leopards are known to kill buffalo or an elk with one blow, and he had no weapon of defence, after all.

He turned round however, and cantered down the straight, broad game track, feeling quite sick and faint on realising the danger from which he had just escaped.

Fortunately, his dog was in the rear or it would have furnished a good breakfast to the leopard. A gun or a pistol would have been very acceptable at such a moment.

He had often seen leopards in the wild state, but never before he had met with so fine a specimen. While in the wilderness he had some adventures with elephants and other animals, but his faithful companion “Grog” was a great protection. He confesses, “Without my dog I must always carry a gun for my defence, but with him I felt perfectly safe. Elephants have an extraordinary aversion to dogs and would always make a rapid retreat from Grog, who had a special note for each description of game.”