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|Year and Month||Dec, 2014|
|Number of Days||1|
|Crew||I, Me & Myself (of course the two engine drivers were there as well)|
|Transport||By S12 Train (Podi Menike)|
|Activities||Enjoying the Upcountry Railway Line from an inside of an engine, Photography, etc…|
|Route||Nanu Oya->Raddella->Great Western->Watagoda->Talawakele->Kotagala->Hatton->Rozella->Ihala Watawala->Watawala->Galboda->Inguruoya->Nawalapitiya.|
|Tips, Notes and Special remark|
|Comments||Discuss this trip report, provide feedback or make suggestions at Lakdasun Forum on the thread|
Dreams and hopes are two things (one might say they are one and the same) that keep humans sane and alive making them look forward to the future and better things. We all got dreams and hopes, haven’t we? Well I’m not going to preach you about dreams and hopes or even trying to show you why one should or shouldn’t have them. I’m just paving the way for my latest fairy tale. Well, knowing me by now, you must have guessed as much. Well, keeping aside my career and personal dreams and hopes, I’ve got so many things in my mind stored away that I’m yearning to do as a wandering Romeo. Places I’d love to visit, mountains I’m thinking of climbing, waterfalls I’m dying to see and so on. The list is endless and growing bigger every passing day. I’ve now come to the conclusion that I won’t get to see or do everything in one life time so trying to do as much as humanly possible before I call it quits. Let’s see where I’ll end up by then.
One of the millions of things I wanted to do was Hot Air Ballooning. Fortunately I managed to do it some time ago which was a gem of an experience. One of the many dreams come true. Another big one was to walk along the upcountry railway line and so far managed to do nearly everything except for a small stretch that I intend to achieve in 2015, just don’t tell anyone, will you? I guess I don’t have to tell you about Meemure and Lakegala, do I? They were not just ordinary dreams and feats. One of those crazy dreams was to go in a train engine, in the driving seat, seeing what the drivers get to see before the rest of the party.
Walking along the lush greenery and endless panoramic views in the upcountry tracks made my craving grow bigger and I was getting hungrier. Those good old blue and white Canadian (nearing their 60th birthday) and the green and red German (closing in on the 40th anniversary) engines have always fascinated me. The engineering and the technology used in them such a long time ago is simply fantastic. The way they have been carrying the ball all these years with no complaints is something that proves the quality of engineering and designs along with the materials used to build them. They are simply beast-looking beauties. After all the punishments they’ve received the way they’re continuing even today is something even Canadians and Germans can’t understand I suppose.
I was lucky just once to get on top a broken down M6 engine when I was traveling from Colombo Fort to Hatton on my way to Sri Pada couple of years ago. The engine simply stopped working, I heard it was the hydraulics, and we had to loiter around Watawala station for nearly two hours during which time I along with few other foreigners took the liberty to get on top of the engine taking a few pictures. I’ve had it in my my etched ever since. What would it be like to go in the driver’s seat watching what they see and understanding how these beasts respond got to me and been in my veins like a virus, never seems to be leaving.
I don’t if you have heard that saying “Try and try, one day you can fly”. It’s something I really believe in and as a result I eventually, after so much of waiting, managed to hop on a train engine and get a front row seat through the eyes of a Chinese lady but for us Sri Lankans, Podi Menike, one of the two ladies running between Badulla and Colombo. So finally the auspicious time arrived and I was invited on board the newly obtained S12 power sets that have finally eased the heavy workload of the German and Canadian ladies. Ironically the former German engines (M6) that were used to be called Podi Menike and Udarata Menike are no longer called that. Instead the Chinese girls have stolen those lovely and fitting names from them. Thinking about what the Chinese usually do, this is nothing new.
Nanu Oya to Thalawakele
The smartly dressed engine driver reminded me of a senior air force officer. Their uniforms were that good. Climbing up the steps into the engine at Nanu Oya was like a dream. Thinking back, I was as if sleep walking into it. Inside, the space was fully occupied by the two comfortable seats for the engine driver and his assistant, pilot and copilot in aviation terms. Behind them in the middle were two fire extinguishers. They could move about along the narrow path behind the seating. The engine compartment was the bulk of the sky blue enclosed wagon with no access whatsoever for others including them. If there was, I wasn’t gonna push my luck that far. The full length dashboard has various control panels including the touch LCD screen of the computer making it easy for the operators. The German and Canadian engines are more towards manual operations whereas this Chinese is largely computer-controlled.
However, from what I gathered, they will still take those good old German and Canadian engines any day. When the green flag was waved, the train slid quietly forward dragging the full complement of two engines attached either end to eight other carriages. The usual M6 load was the engine and seven carriages. So comparatively this twin-engined new Chinese power sets have a larger capacity over the single-engined M6. The night mail is a different ball game altogether. Single German engine pulls thirteen carriages all by herself up to Nawalapitiya. She is so powerful climbing Kadugannawa with the full load is nothing dramatic. However getting up from Nawalapitiya is not so easy so they attach another M6 to this from Nawalapitiya. The second engine pushes the train while the front pulls. When they reach Pattipola, the highest elevation station, the engine in the back joins the one in the front helping with applying breaks as it’s a downhill journey right up to Badulla.
S12 is a lot quieter than the roaring M6. Most of the times those who walk along the railway line escape very narrowly due to this. We gathered speed steadily and crossed the first bridge just passing Nanu Oya. Then came the moment of truth, the train crossed the Nanu Oya Ella on the bridge over her. What a sight that was. Upper and lower parts of the Nanu Oya Ella were falling either side of the train. Lemme tell you, it took only a few seconds to cross the bridge but it’s etched in my mind. Just after this came the bridge at Glassaugh Falls. Similarly she too was falling beautifully, especially the center part that was closer than others to our right. S12 however is a lot smoother than the old and grumbling M6. Watching the railway line in front coming steadily to meet us and then disappear underneath is like a well-planned dream and I was living it. This is when another dream came true as we entered the Tunnel No. 17 just before the Radella Station. It was so sudden and unexpected I had no time to start shooting and in we went. The S12 switched on the two flashlights on the forehead and the engine room went dark save for the lit up LCD screen of the control panel. The journey was short but it ticked one of the million things I had planned to do in my life.
Just to think that I was on the driving seat of a train going along a stretch where I had walked countless hours is something. In no time we reached the Raddella station and I managed to get a glimpse of the Raddella Falls as we sped across the bridge just before the station. She had more water than the last time we saw her. There were only a few people to get on board and a few sacks of vegetables with them. The upcountry railway does a great service to the farmers helping them to transport their produce at a very nominal fee between the major cities. For them, the train is part of their life. Not only the farmers who depend on the train but there are many who make a living out of it by selling various food and drinks to the passengers such as Water Bottles, Wadei, Roti, Coffee, Soft Drinks, etc. The recent train strikes and the discontinuation due to the earth slips were a major blow for them.
We slowly left Radella behind us and headed towards Great Western. The sixth highest mountain in Sri Lanka loomed in the distance above the tea bushes and the sun was shining through. Soon we arrived at the Great Western station and being able to see the change of tablet from the engine driver’s position was something extraordinary. The assistant driver dropped the looped in which held the copper tablet in a leather pouch was dropped to the assistant at the station and picked another from the station master. You can read more about the tablets and railway telecommunications in my Talawakele to Rosella report. The train can’t go without receiving a tablet from the arriving station. Looking up the top of Great Western Mountain that was free of typical misty veil was extraordinary. When I told them that my hiking frenzy began in here, they wanted to know about the hike and I gave the whole recount of Hari and my adventure. Especially the bit about Hariya’s ruined jeans.
Well, after the usual exchange at the Great Western, we went further towards the Watagoda station. However this is when we really started to make useful conversation with the engine driver and his more experienced assistant. Just passing Great Western, the assistant informed us that there are five places where the pipe lines that carry water to the wretched Upper Kotmale Reservoir. They run underground and cross the railway line in five places. Further towards Watagoda, you get to a point that is something you won’t get to see anywhere else in Sri Lanka, probably not in the whole wide world.
This is where the Watagoda Great Loop, according to the assistant, Soda Bottle Bend starts. The railway line is laid in the shape of a letter ‘Pa’ in Sinhala. In a different way, the shape of a pot with a huge belly. This twist makes the railway line runs parallel and very close to each other (as close as about 100m). The assistant told us about a joke among the engine drivers about this place. As the train line goes so close to each other, when the train takes the bend, one person at the back end of the train is asking for a light from the engine driver to light his cigarette as the engines in the old days were coal-powered. The engine room had the fire to light a cigarette. Ok, back to that special place I told you about. As you enter the Watagoda great loop (only the experienced and knowledgeable people will know that), looking to your left, you will see the same railway line but in five places or points. It runs making all these patterns and it’s visible to you in five places including the one you already on. Apart from the one you are one, the same track can be seen in four other places. To get a better and proper look, it’s better to go for a walk along the railway between Great Western and Watagoda.
Going in the train it passed while I was searching for all five and managed to see all of them barely, at the last second I guess. A quick word on the speed of the train in the upcountry line, especially after Nawalapitiya, they always tend to stay below 40kmph. During my stay, between Nanu Oya and Nawalapitiya, not once we exceeded that limit. No wonder it takes around 10 hours to get to Badulla from Colombo at that kinda speed. They are very concerned about the safety of the train and more so of the passengers and stay within that speed limit. We then reached the Kudira (horse in Tamil) Bridge just before the Watagoda station. So far we had gone through only one tunnel and there was one coming up at the end of the Watagoda loop for I was looking forward to it. Meanwhile we arrived at the Watagoda station and waited for the departure signal.
There were only a short wait while we waited for the passengers to get on board and away we went towards the exit of the Watagoda Great Loop. Finally we reached the end of the Watagoda Loop while the engine driver and his assistant showed me the railway track to the left running almost parallel and closer to us. Tunnel 16 came up to greet us and we passed it in a jiffy. We then entered the Talawakele area where we could see the distant view of Devon Falls. There was the huge black bridge which we had enjoyed a lot in our walk. This time I was on the driving seat passing that underneath. Dismal looking stream that feeds St. Claire was a sight that pained my heart. We passed under the Talawakele-Nanu Oya Road which runs overhead.
Doomed Upper-Kotmale Reservoir was full thanks to the rains and we took the long bridge just before coming to settle at Talawakele Station.
Talawakele to Hatton
We resumed our journey slowly creeping up on the Tunnel 15 which is very short and crawled through it. Assistant engine driver pointed out the sad-looking St. Claire to my left. Her water levels were so low showing mostly the beasty black rock. The lush tea plantations swished past us and so did the Derry Claire substation. Only the goods trains stop at places like these just to facilitate the estate workers and their kids to and from their schools. Closer to Kotagala was the road construction where they build an alternative stretch to the low-roofed tunnel along Hatton-Nuwara Eliya road. The work was going on for some time now and they are at the last stages unless something catastrophic happens.
Kotagala station welcomed us with both hands and we stopped to say hi but only for a brief moment. A historic moment was about to take place. I was about to go through the longest tunnel in Sri Lanka, be it rail or road, inside an engine getting a front row seat. The two officers on the train weren’t even half as excited as I was because this is just another day’s work for them. Singamalai (Lion’s Rock) loomed ahead as we left Kotagala and took a few turns. Galkanda Watta substation was before the Singamalai Tunnel and I switched on the video mode for two reasons. First, I had to keep this on video to relive the experience again and again. Secondly, I wanted to check how long it actually takes to cross the tunnel in a train, one of the mostly puzzled questions in my life. I was about to become Einstein and solve it.
In our walk, Sheham and I were directed by few workers on the railway towards a tea patch just before the tunnel saying that had the largest tea plant in SL. We went and saw this tea plant with a relatively thicker trunk but if this was the largest in SL, I simply didn’t know. You can see a picture of it on the report given at notes. Nevertheless, everybody in the area seems to believe this as the biggest tea plant in SL. The tunnel was coming up fast to meet us and I was anxiously waiting to get in. Just to let you know the engine driver confided in me that the Singimalai is also called “Duke’s Nose”. He’d read that in an old English article and said the article revealed this looked like a big, fat nose of a man and apparently this had got the name “Duke’s Nose” as a result.
Singamalai Tunnel aka No. 14 is 559.59m in length. In other words, 27 chains and 81 links. Inside of it fully occupied by bats and gulls whose nests are sold in hundreds, tens and thousands of rupees even though it’s forbidden by the law. We entered the belly of this huge rock python and were completely swallowed in no time. Despite the powerful headlights mounted on the top, there was very little we could see. The S12’s headlights are compared to German and Canadian Engines, positioned in a way that the railway line below is not so visible and they’re not as powerful. Maybe I’m wrong but I felt it like that coz those head lamps simply couldn’t penetrate the thick darkness inside the tunnel. We felt as if we were sliding through a sea of crude oil.
It took us 72 seconds (1 min 12 seconds) to cross the tunnel riding around 35km per hour. A sensational and maybe one in a lifetime experience came to an end just like that. I was mad with joy and even the two officers saw the experience in a different way and said that even they felt the joy I was feeling. We reached Hatton and stopped for a relatively longer time before continuing our journey towards Rozella where Ana’s Nest is located.
Hatton to Nawalapitiya
We went keeping the A6 to our left since then and rode through 100-ft tall pine trees and abandoned carriages either side of the track. Ana lost his very valuable walking stick somewhere between Hatton and Rozella when we walked last time. The 7km stretch between Hatton and Rozella didn’t take long and we were aiming for the place where one of the M6s got buried itself closer to Watawala. Further, the assistant driver, who was the most experienced in upcountry line, informed me that there’s the place where the Mahaweli River flows uphill confirming Ana’s friends’ claims. Unfortunately it slipped all our minds as we had many things to talk about and realized it only when we had gone past the point.
We stopped at Ihala Watawala station that is not functioning anymore except to drop and pick up people from there. The issuing of tickets is not done here anymore and the railway department is waiting for someone to apply for a tender and get it off their hands. Good old Watawala Station was our next stop and after the usual tablet change, we headed towards the point where an M6 got buried. You can easily identify this and there’s a small Budu Medura built at the place. Apparently it had taken a long time to unearth the engine but they said the engine is still functioning perfectly. Such good our railway engineers really are. Unfortunately, we don’t use their expertise and skills to improve our railway system instead go crying for India to build our railway lines for exorbitant prices.
Between Rozella and Watawala, there’s a point where you can see the Seven Virgins Mountain to your left. It’s such a small gap between the hills on the foreground and according to the officers, on a clear day; you can clearly see the chipped rocky surface where the DC-8 crashed onto it head on. Unfortunately the mist only allowed us the silhouette of the mountain and nothing else. There was this thick forest area after Watawala and it’d’ve been so scary walking along this stretch all alone. The drivers told me that when the mist is so thick, they travel at a snail’s pace due to the poor visibility. It makes the journey very dangerous but little did the passengers know about these things and how careful they have to be to make sure no disasters take place. They said you can’t see more than a few feet ahead of you when it’s so thick and it gets worse going in the night with the mist. I could remember when Hari and I did the Great Western hike, we went in the night mail and between Nawalapitiya and Hatton; the train simply crawled going at maybe 5-10km an hour proving their claims.
Our next stop was Galboda where one of the most beautiful and popular waterfalls located about 2-3km away. Galboda boasts the water with the highest density in the whole of South Asia. When we visited the Galboda Falls in Feb, 2014 the water levels were so low and to make matters worse, there’s a water diversion as well. Just after Galboda is another engineering marvel of railway. The area is connected by two tunnels (No. 13 & 12) and two bridges followed next to each other. The No. 13 Tunnel was followed by a bridge connecting it to the No. 12 and then connecting via another bridge. They had linked two hills and two ravines using this technology. You can see the Tunnel No. 12 through the No. 13, a great picture.
Through them we passed Penrhos substation where Tony, Atha and I last had Bread and Polos Curry served by a kind lady at the shop during our hike. I mentioned this to the drivers and they were really pleased to hear that I had walked along this beautiful stretch. For them, it’s a good thing to admire the beauty of the scenic upcountry line. Passing that we reached the Hyndford substation. When I told them about the Sudugala Ella behind the station, none of them knew about it.
Next big moment came when we went through the bridge across Mahaweli River just before Nawalapitiya Station. The dusk was setting in and the poor lighting made it hard to take pictures and videos, not to mention the swaying of the train. After a long, thrilling and exciting journey we arrived at the Nawalapitiya Station and I bid my farewell to the Engine Driver and his assistant thanking them profusely for their courtesy extended to me.
Well folks, that’s one long fairy tale for you to have worked on but the exhilaration of doing something I’d been dreaming was far too great.
I do hope I could take you too on the driving seat virtually and to top it all there’s a collection of videos that I’m sure you’ll enjoy and love.
Enjoy the videos and hope to see you again soon with another fairy tale.
Till then, be safe and keep travelling. This is Sri signing off for now.