Tuesday, 21 July 2015 00:12

Colombo to Nanu Oya by Train

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The moon was the only chink of light in the sky, casting a silvery glow on Colombo's deserted streets, when we boarded the 5.55am train to Nanu Oya. The trusty blue train would take us 206 kilometres into the misty mountains on a track that is over a century old.

We took our seats under a fan on the Podi Menike express train-even though the sun hadn't yet risen it was hot and humid-and looked out of the window as we pulled away from Colombo Fort. For the next six hours we would look out of that same window and watch the sun rise over an ever-changing landscape.

As the diesel locomotive picked up speed scenes flickered by to the rhythmic clack of our train like an old movie reel. A tumbledown brick shrine on an embankment, a woman in a saree picking fruit from a tree, a man in a sarong carrying a sack of rice on his back. Streets, canals, rice paddy fields, rivers and eventually, hills.

The history of this journey is steeped in pure Ceylon tea. The rail route was used by British colonists as an easy and inexpensive way to transport tea from the hills to Colombo Port for shipment, and the tracks were carved furtherinto the hillsides as the trade expanded. It reached Nanu Oya in 1855, making the nearby town of Nuwara Eliya-‘little England'-truly accessible for the first time. Today tea is usually transported by road, and the old tracks are instead used for passenger trains like our Podi Menike-‘little hill country lady' in English. The trains are divided into three classes with differing degrees of comfort, but wherever you sit there are ample opportunities to enjoy the view as it clatters through countless stations.

At Dematagoda train yard the tracks spread to accommodate retired and rested Podi Menikes and their older cousins. We watched people walking to work, briefcases under their arms, using the train tracks as their road, just as generations before them have done. We trundled onwards through Kelaniya, Hunupitiya and Enderamulla, and crow took flight from the tiled roofs of whitewashed bungalows and whirled into the slowly brightening sky.

We stopped at Ragama at 6.23am and families rushed down the wooden staircase to board the train, only stopping to help their children with the descent. This was the last big town we would see for a while, and we quickly rattled into misty paddy fields, the sun now an orb shining through translucent clouds.

More station names were spelt out in bold black on idiosyncratic white signs: Ganemulla, Gampaha, Daraluwa, Veyangoda, Pallawella, Mirigama and Ambebussa. At Rambukkana, close to Pinnawala -the elephant orphanage-the ascent really began.

The sun was higher by this time, but so was the plant life, and beams of light fell at different angles over the passing treetops. From Rambukkana we would make our way into Kandy on a single track. The train stopped for a few minutes while the stationmaster gave the driver a token confirming the track was clear; part of a safety system, which has been in place since the British were still governing Sri Lanka. A short-eat seller took the opportunity to make his way along the platform, stopping at each window with his basket of goods and his characteristic cry, ‘vade, vade, vade'.

From here on out we had a front-row view of the truly staggering feat of engineering that was involved in building this route-the train sped through tunnels and curved along sheer precipices. As the rumbling echoed against the walls of yet another tunnel, we took a moment to imagine the sight of the first steam trains heading into Kandy in 1867. Locals quickly adopted a colloquial name for the loud hissing machines ‘yakada yaka'-which means ‘iron devil', but also has a strange onomatopoeic quality, echoing the sounds of the train clattering as it picks up speed.

Thoughts of the past were quickly dispelled when we exited the tunnel and saw the edge of the hills fall away into the valley below. We were almost in Kadugannawa, 517 metres above sea level. The trunks of trees punctuated our view, as well as ferociously virulent and untamed plant life.

After passing Kadugannawa the landscape flattened out into Peradeniya Junction, near the botanical gardens, and through to Kandy. At the great ancient city of Kandy we reversed back into the hills and started climbing again, but the jungle fell away into sparser terrain.

The sun had completely risen by the time we reached Hatton, the closest station to the pilgrimage destination Adam's Peak, but the elevation of 1,271 metres meant it was already cooler than it had been in Colombo all those hours ago.

Beyond Hatton the train reaches tea country proper. Pine trees loomed above us-a decidedly strange sight in Sri Lanka-while we started to see signs of agriculture in the sun-scorched earth. Hills ebbed and fell around us; soft round crests of green patterned with the swirling, rippling lines of tea bushes. Waterfalls fell from rocky valleys. Every now and then, in between the hypnotic green, we would see tea pluckers stoop to collect their prize, dispensing it in a sack carried on their backs.
Hills Ebbed And Fell Around Us; Soft Round Crests Of Green Patterned With The Swirling, Rippling Lines Of Tea Bushes

We started to suspect nothing had changed since the British first exerted their influence on the region. The Upper Kotmale Dam, designed in the late '60s, proved this theory wrong-standing in stark contrast to the sublime St Clair's Falls.

We were now back in tunnel territory, and the excitable passengers we shared the carriage with, bellowed with delight as we passed through what is the longest rail tunnel in Sri Lanka-a masterfully built 560 metre structure hewn into the rock.

By the time we reached the tiny hill station of Great Western we had climbed to 1455 metres, and the elevation offered a panoramic view of over 100 kilometres of surrounding countryside. From here we climbed for just a little while longer, taking ourselves even further into the sky to reach 1,613 metres-our destination, Nanu Oya. The sun was high in the sky but a cool breeze reminded us how far we were from the humid lowlands we had left that morning. We stretched our legs and joined the crowds on the platform-all heading for a holiday in the cool climes of Nuwara Eliya-and ran to the bridge to watch our Podi Menike pull out of the station on its way further into the hills of Badulla.

See more at: http://serendib.btoptions.lk/
Words Joanna Eckersley Photographs Mahesh Bandara And Indika De Silva

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