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'Must see' train journeys through Sri Lanka

Ranjit Thambyrajah describes his love of the menikes of Sri Lanka

Photo Credit: Genine Alyssa Pedreno-Andrada from Pexels Nine Arches Via Duct Bridge


My father being a Railway Guard and a railway employee we were entitled for 6 railway passes a year and this gave us opportunities to travel in the trains many times from our youth. Sri Lanka is proud of it’s spectacular railway lines, thanks to British Colonisation was built from 1864 to 1894 and due to the world war and difficulties posed by the terrain between Ella and Badulla the line from Bandarawela to Badulla was completed 30 years later. The railway line from Colombo to Badulla is one of the world’s scenic railway journeys. The rail network was initially built to transport tea and coffee. The Colombo to Badulla line is a scenic route passing (or crossing) waterfalls, mountains, tea estates with the brightly coloured saris of tea leaf pickers, pine forests, bridges and peak stations. The two daytime trains that serve the upcountry lines are named "Podi Menike" which ends in Nanu Oya via Kandy and the "Udartane Menike" ending in Badulla which by passes Kandy. I fell in love very long ago with both journeys travelling on the Podi Menike and the Udararata Menike. I have many memories on the Colombo to Badulla line which I wish to share with you all.

Colombo to Kadugannawa This tract is double tract until Polgahawela, with signal lights in this section.Beyond Polgahawela it is a single tract and the train slows down and the locomotive struggles a bit.The passing scenery gives an unobstructed view of the aesthetic beauty and the delightful landscape of Sri Lanka with men working in paddy fields, women bathing in rivers and fast flowing rivers and the train reaches Rambukana station. From Rambukanna,the train begins it’s ascent at Hingula. On this part of the tract between Rambukanna and Kadugannawa ("Gateway to Kanda Udarata") the gradient reaches 1 in 44 slope and curves of 201m.It is a remarkable engineering feat as the track, now covers just 21km while reaching a height of 1,385ft.There are nine tunnels from Mirigama to Kadugannawa and altogether there are 46 tunnels on the main line.Apart from the tunnels there is the Sensation rock between Balane and Kadugannawa which produces real sensation of an imminent fall of the engine in to the precipice below which is 1,100 ft in depth with the the train moving along by the very edge of the precipice by the Lions Mouth rock.Person standing at a distance away from the tract can see the engine taking the bend above the abyss.As the train ascends the Balane pass you can see the Alagalla mountain range on your right with it’s famous "Bible Rock".The train eventually arrives at Peradeniya Junction. Kandy to Talawakele From Kandy to Nawalapitiya it is the plateau again. Once you pass Peradeniya you cross the bridge over Nanu Oya, a stream originating from Pidurutalagala mountain range at an elevation of 6,526ft which drains into Kotmale Oya which is a tributary of Mahaweli river, the longest river in Sri Lanka,Then when you pass Nawalapitiya station the climb begins again in earnest and we cross the bridge over Mahaweli river, which has a combined distance of 350km and finally ends at Trincomalee. There is a misconception in Sri Lanka that the Mahaweli starts at Sri Pada mountain but it actually gets it’s source of water from Horton Plains of Kirigalapotha and Thotupola mountain range.The train continues to climb over I in 44 gradients through Watawela, Rozelle and Hatton travelling at 10mph. Watawela is the place of highest rainfall in Sri Lanka and Rozelle station gives a beautiful view of the tea plantations with the Rozelle tea estate nearby. Here you can see from the station the train coming up the hill winding round the mountain below and one can see the train taking two bends to come up to Rozelle station.Whist waiting for a railway crossing we get an opportunity to actually see the train coming up the hill, among the surrounding tea estates.During my first visit with my dad (him on duty) my brother and I were sent to the restaurant car to have our lunch and we were provided with cutlery and serviettes as well.The next stop is Hatton Station the 2nd busiest station after Kandy as 1 million people use the station during pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak.My very first trip on the Badulla line was in 1963 when I went on a school trip to climb Adam’s Peak.We stayed opposite to the Hatton Railway Station prior to climbing during the night to be on the top of the mountain to see the sunrise. It is 7,359 ft high and it is well known for Sri Pada i.e. sacred footprint of Budha, Talawakele To Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya) Talawakele is the largest tea growing area in Sri Lanka. After leaving Talawakelle station we pass the longest tunnel in the Badulla line, which is 562m long and is called the Singha Malai tunnel. Singha in Tamil is "Lion" and "Malai" is mountain. It is also called Poolbank Tunnel as it is below the Poolbank tea estate.The tunnel was bored from both ends to meet in the middle where the gradient begins to decline with next Kotagala railway station being 75 ft lower than the Hatton railway station. After the tunnel two spectacular waterfalls come into view. The high and narrow St Clairs falls and the short and wide Devon Falls.St Clairs Falls is also commonly known as the Little Niagra of Sri Lanka and has two falls. Devon Fall, known as the "Veil of the Valle" is one of the most beautiful water falls in Sri Lanka. After passing the spectacular falls you reach the Great Western Station (Living memory of British occupation) and the train then follows an almost complete spiral/zig zag struggling to ascend to Nanu Oya the hill station of Nuwara Eliya. It is at Nanu Oya the Podi Menike train terminates and the train crew stay overnight at the Railway Running Bungalow. There is a railway institute for the crew with a bar and billiards room. It was here at the Railway Institute at Nanu Oya, at the age of 13, I had my first alcoholic beverage (Lion brand “Stout” ) offered by my father to me and my brother. Even today whenever I go with friends to the Pub and order a drink I always ask for a pint of "Guiness" and when asked as to why I always prefer “ Stout” and my answer is that it takes me back to Nanu Oya and brings me memory of my Dad who was more of a friend than a father figure to me and it makes me feel like that I still have a connection to him. Nuwara Eliya to Ella We leave Nuwara Eliya and we now see the rugged green countryside and the train is at over 5,000 ft. There is a Picturesque view of Elgin Falls appearing on the right before you get to Ambewela station. Ambewela is called the "Little New Zealand" as the climatic conditions in Ambewela made it an ideal location for dairy farming, hence the country’s only milk powder factory is situated at Ambewela. The train next arrives at the highest railway station in the country, Pattipola ( 6,225 ft).Once you leave the station you pass the 3rd longest tunnel on the line the Pattipola tunnel also called the Summit Tunnel as it is over 6,000 ft and on highest point on the railway.Once you pass this tunnel the train has passed from the "wet zone" of the country into the "dry zone". You pass the Summit Tunnel and you come close to the Horton National Plains of Sri Lanka and you reach one of the scenic place in Sri Lanka, OHIYA Station.On a clear day the view from Ohiya Gap extends up to the south coast of Sri Lanka and from the vintage point you can occasionally see the Dondra Head Lighthouse.Then you reach Idalgashinna railway station where from the north side of the station you can see Boralanda and beyond to Welimada up to Uda Pusselawa and Hakgala. On the south side of the station you can see Beragela down to Hambantota. Thereafter the train starts to descend with a scenic view due to land falling steeply on both sides. The Uva basin now comes into view, and the train emerges from one tunnel and enters another. After seeing both spectacular passes of OHIYA and IDALGASHINNA you reach another spectacular pass at HAPUTHALE when you can see the peak of the Namunukula ("Nine Peaks") mountain range. Haputhale is the most popular tourist destination because of it’s outstanding scenery with the Diyaluma and Bambarakanda Water Falls, the highest falls in Sri Lanka.

The final descent begins now through Diyatalawa, Bandarawela and on to Ella and on to Demodara. Bandarawela brings lots of memories of me attending all island YMCA camps during my secondary school days held during August holidays at the St Thomas’ College, It is a sister school of St Thomas’ Mount Lavinia where I started my Primary school education. Prior to terminating at Badulla we arrive at Ella Station which is my favourite stop where I have had many stop overs. The Ella rest house is a 5 minutes walk (500m) and the view from the rest house balcony is an absolute natural beauty that words cannot express. It is still fresh in my memory as my first stop over at Ella, was when I went to Badulla Hospital to sell "Block Nite" tickets, skipping a week from my very first clinical medical attachment. What you see here is the Ella Gap, a panoramic view which is a cleft in the hills where the land drops a dizzying 1,100 metres in the southern plains of Sri Lanka. You can see the Little Adam’s Peak on the left and Ella Rock on the right.The 2nd visit was with fellow Bloemites after the Mecca bound Garuda flight crashed on the “Saptha Kanya" (Virgin Hills) mountain range in December,1974, near Maskeliya. After the visit to the mountain range I went hanging on to the back of a van to Ella rest house and as usual enjoyed the scenery sitting on it’s balcony sipping Three Coins beer, before boarding the night mail train bound to Colombo. Beautiful Ella is the jewel in the Sri Lanka’s hills and has become a popular tourist attraction as it is nestled in the mountains with simple attractions of water falls, hills and scenic views,You also get a beautiful view from the other side of the station with "Down Train" coming down the hills toward Ella station.As we leave Ella station we come to one of the masterpiece of railway engineering, the "Nine Arches Viaduct Bridge at Demodera". The bridge of brick and masonry construction without any trace of iron. This bridge was featured in the 1st Day cover of 2014 stamps and it was planned and built by a local engineer within a year.

We now reach the penultimate station of our journey, Demodera station which is most notable for it’s spiral line at this location, popularly known as "Demodara Loop".The rail passes under itself going round the loop and emerging from a tunnel which runs directly beneath the Demodara railway station. The rail loop is 900m long and the tunnel is 320m in length. It is the ONLY LOOP in the world with a railway station exactly over a tunnel at spiral loop. Engineers found the elevation between the hills at Demodara was too much for the tract to negotiate with the maximum allowed by the Sri Lankan Railways which is one foot/44 feet. An innovative tract design has to be devised and it is believed that a local engineer, Wimalasunderea was inspired after observing a "Kankany" (Superviser) in a local tea estate undo his TALAPPAWA ( Turban) and retie it around his head and the railway line was constructed. Finally we reach Badulla which is a long journey but a very enjoyable trip. I have travelled on the Rocky Mountaineer in Canada and the 5 train journeys in Switzerland but nothing comparable to the "Udaratne Menike" experience, especially from Peradeniya onwards which is one of the greatest train rides in the world and one of the best things one can do in Sri Lanka.I have travelled both in the Luxury 1st class observation saloon with excellent views with the windows at the back and the ordinary 2nd and 3rd class carriages.I prefer the 2nd and 3rd class carriages as it also brings the hawkers shouting "Wade Wade" (crispy fried balls of dhal) whilst also mixing with the local travellers rather than sitting with the tourists. Both my children still talk about this journey which they went on in their teens. I am sure many of you have travelled to Kandy and Nanu Oya ( For Nuwara Eliya) but the journey from Nanu Oya to Ella is out of this world experience which I would fully recommend if you have not done it yet. Maybe we can go on this journey when we meet for the Golden Jubilee next year in Nuwara Eliya.


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