Trainspotting: Sri Lankan-Style

“The train officially leaves at 10.30 a.m., but it will be late.” Nimal, the manager of Wathsala River View Inn in Dalhousie, beams knowledgeably. “It is always late,” he adds.

In the background, Adam’s Peak, an important pilgrimage site, looms imposingly at 7,360 feet. The air is clear and tranquil this morning, punctuated only by the roar of the river and the thwack of a cricket bat on the main road.

At 9.05 a.m., the 9:15 a.m. bus service to Hatton station sails past. Then a passing tuk-tuk slows, offering to catch up with the bus for an inflated fee. Round the next bend — a distance of no more than 300 yards — the bus is taking a ten-minute break.

But it is not a direct service to Hatton, this bus is actually only going to Maskeliya. In the dusty square that passes for this town’s center, time is ticking towards my train’s departure time, and there is little evidence of an onward bus.

I nonchalantly approach another tuk-tuk driver, as though haste is the furthest thing from my mind. This keeps the price down, but the quoted sum is 20 times more expensive than the bus. Still, it is very reasonable for a 12-mile journey through stunning tea plantation scenery, stopping briefly for photographs whenever I like.

One notable idiosyncrasy of tropical transportation, however, is that tuk-tuks tend to contain little fuel until a customer needs a ride. As we fill up in the garage, a Hatton bus — with many open seats, no less — drives past, enveloping us in a cloud of black exhaust.

Struggling up the hairpins lined with tea bushes, I look forward to making some progress on the imminent downhill stretch. We crest the brow. Yet, rather than overtake the bus, my driver switches off the engine.

It seems we are to freewheel down hills to save the fuel that I’ve just paid for. This economical technique, while admirable, proves laborious: the fierce twists, and sections of level road, slow us down considerably. In fact, one stretch of tarmac sees us almost at a standstill; the engine is briefly fired up, powering us to the next slope.

We serenely descend through verdant Hill Country, passing a man washing his silver minivan in the shade. Next to him is a sign marked, “Vehicle Washing Prohibited.” He smiles and waves from beneath a tree.

Finally, we pass the bus and pull into the station. “Train station, not bus,” I point out, eyes fixed on the driver’s strapless Casio watch stuck to the dashboard. But the tuk-tuk engine won’t start, and we begin to roll back towards Dalhousie for the next four minutes. The bus drives by again.

Dropped at the train station by the third tuk-tuk of the morning, I note the time: the station clock reads 10:32 a.m. “The 10.30 train to Ella?” I ask apprehensively. “Maybe 11.30,” replies the railway policeman, and gives directions to the nearest café.

The station facility, marked “Restaurent — Quality Toffees and Sweets,” looks as if it has been closed since the British left.

Also looking as though it has been abandoned is the footbridge that leads over the tracks. Though in perfectly good order, it is now simply decoration, used by none of the passengers.

Even the peak-capped railway staff, in starched white uniforms, hop happily onto the tracks when crossing between the platform offices. Just after midday, passengers begin to mill nonchalantly across the track. Something must be happening, I think.

At 12:05 a.m., the 10.30 a.m. service to Ella pulls in. For this spectacular journey — less than 50 miles, yet due to take four hours — I have bought a ticket for the Observation Lounge, a carriage at the rear of the train. But what is slightly annoying is that there are only four good seats: the ones looking through the rear window.

To add insult to injury, two of these seats are occupied by sleeping children. I opt for hanging out of an exterior door instead, between the compartments. With health and safety wonderfully absent in Sri Lanka, this is a trend shared by plenty of fellow passengers.

Munching on a prawn patty bought from a platform hawker, we enter a tunnel. Screams of childish delight echo throughout the carriages, as does a ripple of coughing from the veil of trapped diesel fumes. The temperature cools considerably as we climb higher through Eucalyptus Forest, passing a marker indicating 4,803 ft above sea level. My co-passenger, a Sinhalese Guard, lights a cigarette in the Luggage Van.

The temperature continues to drop as we rise. Neat gardens of carrots and cabbages grow alongside the tracks now, and there are fewer palms. We pass Pattipola at 6,204 feet — almost the highest point on the track– and enter a long tunnel. The passengers’ enthusiasm for resounding whoops is still keen: even after 28 other tunnels, they still shriek when plunged into darkness.

Eventually arriving in Haputale, I try to find out about whale-watching trips — I’d read that they operated out of Mirissa on the south coast. Loga, an internet café owner, comes to my aid. “Whale? It is animal?” he asks. “Ah, I know, it’s bigger than elephant.”

His attention then returns to his beloved internet dating site. At 35, it is socially frowned upon to be unmarried here, a predicament I had discussed at length with Nimal back in Dalhousie.

One of the first questions a Sri Lankan will ask is, “are you marry?” The idea of willingly remaining single in your thirties grates harshly with their way of thinking. The problem for men is that, on reaching the grand old age of thirty-something, there are few available women of the same age. I notice the rather overweight Loga has listed himself as muscular in his profile. (He’s also listed himself as having “blue eyes,” an outright lie.)

Just before 7:00 a.m. I hear a hoot, announcing the departure of the 5:09 a.m. mail train to Badulla, the end of the easterly line. But I’ve decided to ride five miles west first, to Idalgashinna, for a leisurely walk back along the tracks. In fact, this is an advertised walk, embarked upon by numerous travelers clutching Lonely Planet Guides. I take care to “buy a ticket before entering the plateform,” while locals choose to hop up onto it from the rails. Needless to say, the train is late.

In Idalgashinna, barefoot children soon join me for the first mile of the walk, brandishing sticks and laughing. Sometimes there is a path, and sometimes my strides are dictated by the gaps between the rail sleepers. Smiling Tamil women bob above the tea bushes, picking leaves speedily, framed by a spectacular view.

A blue and black butterfly dances over the weed-strewn sleepers in front of me as I catch up with some railwaymen. One worker is lackadaisically adjusting nuts with an enormous spanner; the other is carelessly applying oil to one of the rails as he walks. Sauntering lazily along the tracks at Glenanore, I notice a sign: “TRESPASSERS ON THE RAILWAY WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

The barriers are down at Glenanore, presumably in preparation for a train coming through. “Trolley, not train,” clarifies a member of the staff, as a clattering noise pervades the quiet.

The trolley turns out to be a real Wild West affair, operators leaning and pulling on a lever to get it moving, and turning a long T-shaped bar to apply the brakes. The contraption promptly grinds to a halt and ten Sri Lankans beckon me to hop up and join them for the rollercoaster ride down into Haputale.

Thanking my newfound friends for the lift, I double-check that the 11.25 a.m. train to Badulla is running late. Yes, as I had suspected, it is now scheduled for 1:00 p.m., which also turns out to be an optimistic estimate. But I’ve grown to love these almost meaningless timetables.

The trains usually reach their destination each day; it’s just a question of when. Chatting once more on the “plateform,” a friendly railway worker says, “Big delay. Maybe 1:20 p.m.” To be honest, that’s fine. The sun is shining, I’m making new friends, and I have food and a book. I expect it to come at 2:00 p.m.

By Barnaby Davies
Published in the Expeditioner.