Stay on track in Sri Lanka

Reserve a first-class seat in the Podi Menike train's observation car and sit back to marvel at mountains, forests... and landslides, says Peter MacNeil
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but for independent travellers on the Indian sub-continent, foresight is even better. Start taking anti-malaria tablets weeks before you leave. Once on the move, phone ahead to confirm all flights and hotel rooms. Phone again to reconfirm. Don't keep all your currency in the same place. Book all rail journeys at least one week in advance. Even in this era of travel-for-all, it pays to get the fundamentals right.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but for independent travellers on the Indian sub-continent, foresight is even better. Start taking anti-malaria tablets weeks before you leave. Once on the move, phone ahead to confirm all flights and hotel rooms. Phone again to reconfirm. Don't keep all your currency in the same place. Book all rail journeys at least one week in advance. Even in this era of travel-for-all, it pays to get the fundamentals right.

In Sri Lanka, overlooking the seven-day booking principle can mean the difference between railway heaven and hell. Remembering to reserve a seat in the first-class observation car from Colombo through the hill country to Badulla guarantees you a ringside seat on one of the world's most scenic railway journeys. Failing to do so consigns you - no, condemns you - to interminable hours in a hot, fetid, overcrowded carriage with unsanitary toilets. You may not get a seat, or even a portion of a bench. The view outside the window will be scant compensation.

So hang the (minimal) cost and be on the platform at Colombo Fort station in time for the scheduled daily departure at 5.55am. There is no orderly queue for the ticket barrier here, but a desperate scramble to get on board as soon as the train appears on the platform. Some agile types dodge the scrum at the doors and manage to climb through the windows instead. But if you have had the foresight to make a reservation, there's no need to push and shove: your precious seat is waiting. The buffet car is just next door. The overhead fan is working. The picture window holds the promise of unforgettable sights. Your foresight has earned its reward.

Like all good railway journeys, the early stages are unremarkable, giving you time to settle in. The train rattles along at a good lick, heading north-east towards the hills. The climb begins about a third of the way into the 180-mile journey, and by mid-morning we're through the Balane Pass at an altitude of about 1,500 feet - high enough to take the sting out of the cloying heat. Back at the coast it would now be stifling, but the landscape outside, becoming greener with every mile, could belong to another country, another continent.

Fellow passengers in the observation car, who had been dozing, reading or chatting, now concentrate on the remarkable tableaux unfolding beyond the picture window. Cameras appear. The engine slows to 10 miles an hour, then to walking pace, as the gradients steepen. "Any faster and the wheels would slip," says the railway enthusiast across the table, who has been waiting all his life for this.

We stop at stations with long and unpronounceable names, each one higher than the last. At Nawalapitiya, 2,000 feet above sea level, a sudden shunt indicates that a second locomotive has been tacked on to share the burden. Together, past mid-day and into the afternoon, the engines pull their load deep into the Hill Country, through rain, mist and sunshine, past waterfalls and gullies, escarpments and ravines. Climbing past 5,000 feet, the hills are cloaked with the damp greenness of vast tea plantations, established by the British to make colonial Ceylon pay its way. Here, in a climate of perpetual spring aptly known as Little England, the occupiers built the weekend retreat of Nuwara Eliya, with its parks, lake, post office, country club and golf course apparently imported direct from the Home Counties. The town can no longer be reached by rail (although a narrow-gauge line, six miles long, used to branch off at Nanu Oya, where the staff on this tropical mid-afternoon are wearing coats against the drizzle and keen wind.)

Back on the mainline, the clanking restarts and we edge beyond 6,000 feet, to the high savannah of Horton's Plains, one of Sri Lanka's most attractive hiking areas, inhabited by monkeys, wild boar and deer. Unseen from the railway track, but known to all keen walkers, is a point where the plain comes to a sudden end at a cliff face that falls more than 2,000 feet. Quite properly, it's called World's End.

I feel a momentary shudder inside as we pass the evidence of a recent landslide - and make a mental note to ask the (now enraptured) railway expert whether the line has ever been swept away by an avalanche. But not quite yet.

The sudden darkness of a tunnel is reassuring. There are a total of 46 along the route - one every four miles or so - at places where the Victorian engineers found the topography impossible to bridge or circumnavigate. A few miles beyond Pattipola is the most notable construction of all: Summit Tunnel, the highest point of the railway at 6,226 feet. When the train emerges into daylight a mile further on, the drizzle has disappeared and there is a clear change in the colour and density of the vegetation. Incredibly, in that short distance, we have moved from one of Sri Lanka's major climate zones to another - from the Wet to the Dry.

It's all downhill from here on. As the sun slips lower in the sky, the locomotives alternately accelerate and brake their way out of the Hill Country, over solid stone viaducts and through another warren of tunnels. If anything, the views are even more striking here than on the upward climb, especially at the Haputale Pass, where it is possible, on a clear day, to see the famous Dondra lighthouse at the southern tip of the island. But we are sated with scenery now, tired of travelling, anxious to stretch our legs.

One final railway buff's highlight remains. At Demodara, there are two stations belonging to the same line - one about 90 feet above the other. This is the world-famous loop, where the engineers decided the natural contours of the hill were too steep for safety, so they would reach the village by bending the line into the tightest spiral they could manage. Their ingenuity is best appreciated by clambering down the path from the upper station to the lower, but that would mean leaving the train and breaking the journey with an overnight stop. So much of interest has passed tantalisingly close to my gently moving eyrie that I have already resolved to return here later in life. Or perhaps, since we are in Buddhist territory, in another life.

Those of us who stay on board are rewarded with some last views of the mountains before the sun slips out of sight, and the exhilaration of hearing the brakes screech for the final time and hearing someone on the platform shout "Badulla" - our terminus. We are still 2,000 feet above sea level, but positively low-country in terms of the road we have travelled.

With only one unscheduled delay, the journey has taken a few minutes short of 12 hours. As we stumble groggily into the cool night air, I ask my friend whether things ever go wrong on this most ambitious of railway constructions. "All the time," he replies. "Landslides, derailments, engine and brake failures - scores of them every year."

One last word of advice, then, for adventurous visitors to the Indian sub-continent: make sure your travel insurance is up to date.

TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

The 'Podi Menike' train is scheduled to leave Colombo Fort every day at 5.55am, arriving at Badulla at 5pm. The return service leaves Badulla at 8.50am, arriving Colombo Fort 8pm. The observation car/first-class single fare costs 500 rupees (£2.50). Second-class fare 250 rupees (£1.25).

Sri Lanka Tourist Board: main office, 76-78 Steuart Place, Colombo, 00 94 11 2437059, www.srilankatourism.org.

Railway Information Centre, Colombo Fort station: 00 94 11 2440048. Open Mon-Sat 9am-4.30pm. They can help with timetables and booking arrangements.

The most spectacular section of the line to Badulla can also be reached from Kandy.

There is a Railway Information Centre at Colombo Airport: 00 94 11 2315260).

Sri Lanka's railway timetable is at www.atsrilanka.com/trains.htm

The Sri Lankan Tourist Board in London: 020-7903 2627.

Comments