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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Saturday, 9 February 2019

I take back all those kind words I said about Sri Lanka's street dogs yesterday. After I had finished chilling out and getting my blog up-to-date at the bar down the street from my guest house, I said good-bye to Jumpy. Jumpy is a cute little thing who looks like a Jack Russell terrier but with the Sri Lankan curled-up short tail. She is a bit smaller than most street dogs, has a shy sensitive temperament, and was adopted as one of several pet dogs by the Western female bar owner who rescues dogs off the street, feeds them, vaccinates them and turns them into doggies that customers love as they roam the premises. For some reason, Jumpy chose me as her companion for the two nights I went to that pub. She would jump up onto the wicker couch and curl up next to me as I gently patted her. The bar owner told me that Jumpy has trust issues and is wary of humans and that I should be proud that Jumpy took a liking to me.

The street dogs are a bit jealous of the dogs in that pub. Throughout the night, several would come in and raid the pets' dishes. One nasty dog picked on Jumpy and the other bar dogs would gang up on the intruder and scare it away. Several times fights broke out between the dish raiders and the bar dogs.

I left the pub and walked up the hill back to my room. First, one dog jumped into my path and snarled at me. I told it to get lost, then some resident came out and said that it was her pet. "Don't worry, it is not biting," she faintly assured me.

I walked a few metres further then another two street dogs assailed me. They circled me while barking and snarling and drawing ever nearer. "Oh, just go away, you mangy mongrels! What did I ever do to you? Just f#$@ off!" I just so happened to be carrying a small plastic bag full of rambutan seeds and skins; I was looking for a suitable bin in which to dispose them. There was a resident's rubbish bin a few metres away full to overflowing. I threw the bag onto the mound of rubbish to distract the dogs and it worked. They were curious about what I had just thrown and were eagerly digging at it, probably expecting juicy bones. I walked away briskly before their disappointment turned to anger.

I finally reached the entrance to my guest house when the Big Bad One confronted me, the one who had been harassing Jumpy and the other bar dogs earlier. The Big Bad One was a solid, angry, muscular mass of snarling rage and spring-loaded muscles just waiting to lunge at my neck and bite into my carotid artery. For Christ's sake. It was like a bad video game where you fight one enemy, then you have to go and slay an even stronger enemy, and then finally you have to defeat The Ultimate Enemy, after which you are the winner.

A stand-off ensued. The dog was standing between me and the staircase down to my room. As I edged closer to the stairs, he became even more alert and aggressive.

"Rack off! Get away from me, you stupid mutt! I'm no threat to you or any other dog on this street. You hear me? Now there's a good bo-- No! Don't you dare come any closer!"

By pure chance another backpacker was walking down the street from the station. The Big Bad One was momentarily distracted by his passage. I took the opportunity to run around the dog in a wide circle, into the sunken forecourt of the tourist information centre next door, and across to the steep stairs leading to my room. The dog just stood at the top of the stairs barking impotently. He was too bloody chicken to go down the stairs! Hahahahahaha! Who's the Big Bad One now, bitch?

I guess that all those dogs targeted me because they were jealous of how I gained Jumpy's affection. Haters gonna hate! Jumpy is such a good little girl and I won't have a bad word said about that doggie.

After that adrenaline rush I had great difficulty winding down and getting to sleep, but I still got up at five o'clock for my next railway adventure. I woke up feeling very sore. I switched on the bathroom light and saw this hideous thing staring back at me in the mirror. I had turned into the Facebook "angry" reaction icon. Every imch of bare skin above the neckline of my T-shirt was glowing bright red. The sooner I find a hat that is fit for purpose, the better.

The portion of the Main Line between Ella and Badulla is renowned as one of the world's most beautiful railways. I had planned to catch the down Night Mail that had travelled overnight from Colombo; that train was timetabled to arrive at 06:05. It was scheduled to arrive at the Main Line's terminus at Badulla at 07:10. The next train back to Ella, the up Podi Manike, was advertised as leaving Badulla at 08:30 and arriving at Ella at 09:23, leaving over half an hour for me to pack my bags and check out by ten o'clock.

I got to the station forecourt at half past five. The forecourt festures a statue of Buddha that is enclosed in a glass case; between sunset and sunrise the statue is illumimated with a discotheque of flashing coloured lights. It all seemed very tacky and unseemly, not at all in keeping with a country where tourists with Buddha tattoos are deported, and wouldn't have looked out of place in the poker machine room of a typical leagues club in Western Sydney.

Tickets for the Night Mail go on sale half an hour before arrival. I and a few other hardy souls stood in the morning mist waiting forever for the ticket office to open. The loudspeakers on the platform blared Buddhist prayer chants. Finally at six o'clock the ticket window opened. I bought my single ticket to Badulla - unfortunately it is not possible to buy returns in Sri Lanka, only singles - and also reserved a first-class seat on a train to my next destination in the afternoon. The ticket seller told me that the Night Mail was about an hour late.

I saw Jason and his wife and two young daughters on the platform waiting for the first westbound train of the day. We exchanged our farewells, he gave me his Instagram account name and I gave him this blog's web address. (Don't worry Jason, I do remember your name, I just change most people's names slightly on this blog to protect their privacy.)

The first westbound train of the day to Colombo left at about 06:39 leaving me nearly alone on an empty platform from which I enjoyed the misty sunrise. The down Night Mail, headed by a forty-year-old M6 locomotive and an ancient M2C locomotive named "Vancouver" donated to Ceylon by Canada in the 1950s under the Colombo Plan, finally arrived at 07:30. This made me nervous - would there be enough time for me to get the train back from Badulla?

The Night Mail was a long train of classic red carriages - sleepers, sitting cars, mail vans. The train headed off through the mist clinging to the sides of mountain ridges, terraced tea plantations fuzzily visible through the fog.

Soon we reached one of Ella's most popular attractions, the Nine Arch Bridge. This is a high, curved stone viaduct similar to those common on the New South Wales railway network - Bowenfels, Zig Zag, Stonequarry Creek, Stanwell Park - and was probably designed by the same engineering firm such was the resemblance. It was so photogenic that even at half past seven there was a crowd of tourists photographing our passage. Most of the tourists get to the bridge by walking along the tracks from Ella, a route that includes a tunnel. They're braver than I am.

The Night Mail progressed through stunning valleys. As the sun rose most of the mist burned off revealing a steep, twisting dale with a frothing rocky river far down below. We passed small little stations serving tiny mountain villages, the station master leaving his little hut to exchange section tokens with the driver. Small peasant cottages with lichen-covered roof tiles and lines of washing stretched beside the line crawled past my window at 25 km/h.

The train reached the provincial capital of Badulla at 08:20. That gave me ten minutes' leeway until my next train. I raced down the platform to the exit gate, handed my ticket to the collector at the gate, and raced up to the ticket counter. Thankfully there was no queue. The ticket back to Ella cost a hundred rupees. I opened my wallet - I had a couple of Rs. 5,000 notes, one Rs. 1,000 note, an Rs. 500 note and an Rs. 20 note.

I tendered the Rs. 500 note. "Do you have smaller change?" the ticket seller grumbled.

I showed him my open wallet. "Nope."

The railway employee sighed and dawdled off to a back room to obtain the correct change. It seemed like an eternity. Just what is it about Sri Lanka and everywhere having a shortage of change? Do cashiers in this country not understand the importance of maintaining an adequate float? Even a fifteen-year-old Australian working at McDonald's has a better understanding of the need to ensure there is enough change in the till. Because even though customers like me do our best to ensure we have enough smaller coins and notes in our wallets, there will always have to be someone who has to break a larger note after the smaller cash runs out. It's simple mathematics.

The ticket reseller finally returned with my Rs. 400 change. I presume he took so long because he had to fill out a Till Float Maintenance Authorisation Form signed in triplicate and approved by the station master, district inspector and chief railways commissioner.

I greedily grabbed my change and my ticket, showed it to the pedantic gate attendant who carefully examined it to make sure it was actually a valid railway ticket, then ran down the platform to the footbridge at the far end, over the bridge and down the stairs with three minutes to spare.

My train back to Ella was named the Mani Podike (Little Maiden). It was a modern Class S12 push-pull diesel multiple unit built in 2012. It was certainly far more comfortable than any Sri Lankan train I have been on so far but I was surprised that a train only seven years old would have so many torn vinyl seats and extremely worn floors.

I got the same view back up the hill, perhaps even better now that the fog had lifted. We ascended from Badulla up onto the plateau where Ella is situated. The train curved through the Demodara spiral. Spirals are fairly common on the world's railways, there are two in New South Wales, and they are a genius solution to the problem of railways ascending steep grades. However, the Demodara spiral is unique because there is a station at the point where the upper part of the spiral passes over the tunnel directly beneath the station. You can stand on the platform and see your train approach from beneath you.

I got back to Ella on time at 09:23, walked across the road to the Up Country guest house, quickly packed my things and checked out. I said goodbye to Sandu the owner and her sister who helped her run the hotel. I cannot praise my hosts highly enough. Friendly service, amazing food, and if you're going to Ella I order you to stay there. The fact that it is across the street from a delightfully cute railway station is just an added bonus.

I had four hours until my next train so I left my luggage and most of my valuables with Sandu and caught a bus down to Ravana Falls on the A23 road six kilometres to the south. I don't like swimming at surf beaches very much but I do love swimming at lakes and waterfalls. I put on some swimmers under my jeans, took a travel towel, a bottle of water, a small amount of cash for the bus or taxi fares and boarded the bus south.

Ravana Falls is a magnificent cascade coming down the side of the Ella plateau just south of Ella Rock. It is certainly one of the tallest waterfalls I have seen, though it isn't a single drop but a series of drops. I am a massive waterfall fan and I spent an hour just admiring the majesty of the place, listening to the loud but soothing white-noise roar of the rushing water. I didn't go for a swim though. I had seen plenty of photos of foreign travellers going for a refreshing dip in the large pool next to the highway bridge with towels draped over the smooth boulders on the banks. But there were plenty of signs at the waterfall warning people that this is not a good idea, thirty-six people had died, and consequently nobody was going for a swim. There was a small area off to the side where two pipes diverted some of the water onto a flat concrete area with the pipes issuing strong flowing water about two metres above the ground which locals were using as public showers. But that's not quite the same.

I caught the bus back into town, collected my luggage, said my final remorseful goodbye to Sandu and her sister, and waited for my next train to Nanu Oya, the Super Secret Weekend Express.

The Super Secret Weekend Express isn't the train's official name, it is just my name for it. As far as I know this train has no official name. It doesn't even appear in the timetable search function on the Sri Lanka Railways website or on Malinda Prasad's much more user-friendly timetable webpage. The Super Secret Weekend Express is a reserved first-class-only train with five air-conditoned passenger cars and a restaurant car that runs only on Saturdays and Sundays. It leaves Kandy in the morning and reaches Ella in the early afternoon, where it lays over for a little while before returning to Kandy arriving in the evening. I only found out about the Super Secret Weekend Express by looking at the timetable display next to the ticket window at Ella station.

The Super Secret Weekend Express is very expensive by Sri Lankan standards. The 64 kilometres from Ella to Nanu Oya cost me Rs. 1,200 (about A$9.60). A second class ticket would have cost me Rs. 150 (A$1.20). It is not surprising that every single passenger was a foreign visitor.

The Super Secret Weekend Express left Ella three minutes late at 14:18. Between Ella and Bandarawela the line goes mostly through deep cuttings and thick forests with few great scenes or photo opportunities. The train pulled into Bandarawela four minutes late at 14:45 and then the "fun" began.

A conductor walked down the aisles telling everyone that the section of single track ahead was blocked, a train coming from the other direction couldn't get through the blockage and clear the section, and that the Super Secret Weekend Express will be delayed by two hours. Oh well. Two hours isn't that bad. I've been through much worse delays on the New South Wales railways. The train was due to arrive at Nanu Oya at 16:56, Nuwara Eliya is a nine kilometre bus or taxi ride away, and this would mean that I would arrive at my guest hoise at half past seven. Not very late. I promised myself I would wait until 5pm before I would start looking for a bus.

I took the opportunity to get out of the train, get some fresh Hill Country air, stretch my legs and explore Bandarawela yard with its antique rolling stock that wouldn't have looked out of place in Thirlmere railway museum. I checked out the station itself. It was a typical Sri Lankan railway station of medium importance with a long, rustic, peach-painted stucco building, well-kept gardens, a ticket hall full of heavy old timbers, and yet another fish tank. I do not know why so many Sri Lankan stations have fish tanks. I guess it gives people something to look at while they are stuck for hours due to delays.

What followed can only be described as breathtaking staggering incompetence. At 16:45, two hours after the Super Secret Weekend Express pulled into Ella, the conductor came through the train and told us that it would only definitely be another hour and that whatever was blocking the train would be cleared very, very soon.

All the passengers were faced with a dilemma. Do we stay and wait it out, or do we seek alternative transport arrangements? About half the train chose the latter, leaving the station to go search for buses or taxis. I heard one passenger say that he had found a taxi that would go to Kandy for thirty thousand rupees and would anyone like to split the bill? Another person went down to the bus station some distance away only to report that he couldn't find a bus that went through to Kandy.

The conductor said the train would definitely be moving within an hour and I was stupid enough to be reassured by this. Buses in Sri Lanka are very frequent during the day but after 7pm most routes either stop or turn into short workings. In the end I decided to stay put for a little while longer. Hope springs eternal.

Tempers were starting to fray. The station master's office was a heaving mass of irate tourists. Some people had given up and were claiming refunds of their fares through some arcane bureaucratic procedure involving lots of forms and the showing of passports.

The delay wouldn't have been so frustrating if the station staff were able to give accurate information or honestly say they didn't know when the line would re-open. Instead all we got was useless conflicting information from station staff. The train would start moving in five minutes! Tomorrow! One hour! The line was blocked by a fallen tree! A landslide! A track failure! A train defect! It was obvious that the useless station staff were talking out of their hats.

By this time the sun had set and heavy rain was falling. The last thing I and others felt like doing was hauling our backpacks in the rain all the way to a bus station only to find there were no buses to our destination or to end up paying through the nose for one of the few car taxis in this area. I looked at Google Maps; the forty-five kilometres from Bandarawela to Nuwara Eliya would have taken a car ninety minutes. A bus would have taken at least two, maybe three, hours on a twisty Hill Country highway. And there was also the risk that as soon as we left the station, the train would depart. The die was cast, we were all staying on that damn train.

Soon some people lost their patience. Some started looking for accomodation in Bandarawela but there wasn't much. It's not the kind of place travellers visit. A Finnish couple walked into town to grab dinner and said the selection was slim and it was the most awful food they had in Sri Lanka. As for the rest of us, the only food was the restaurant car that was selling small plastic bags of stale samosas for three hundred rupees, tiny cups of tea for two hundred rupees (the going rate everywhere else was fifty), and bags of potato chips and popcorn. The kiosk on the station platform was only selling much the same thing. So I had stale samosas and tea for dinner. Bon appetit.

Even more passengers crowded into the stuffy station master's office. A small number were still claiming refunds and everyone else was trying to get information, any information, about what the hell was going on so they could make an informed decision about what to do. But trying to get a straight answer out of Sri Lankans is like trying to pull hen's teeth. If you ask ten Sri Lankans the same question, you will get ten different answers.

At 7pm I knew that I would reach the guest house in Nuwara Eliya very, very late. I called their number. An employee promptly answered.

"Hello, my name's Urban Reverie and I have a Booking.com reservation for four nights. I'm just calling to let you know that my train is delayed and I will be very late tonight."

"Oh. So you want to cancel?"

"No, I don't want to cancel. I am just letting you know I will be very late."

"So when will you be coming?"

"I don't know, the railway staff won't tell us when the train will move, my train is stuck in Bandarawela. It hasn't moved in four hours."

"So you want to cancel?"

"No, I do not want to cancel. I am just giving you the courtesy of informing you that I will be very late."

"So you will be coming at ten-thirty?"

"I don't know, it depends when this train will start moving again!"

"So you want to cancel?"

"No! I. Do. Not. Want. To. Cancel! I. Am. Just. Telling. You. That. I. Will. Arrive. Very. Late. Tonight!"

"So you are coming at ten-thirty?"

I almost threw my phone down the aisle. "Yes. Yes. I am coming at ten-thirty if that answer makes you happy. OK? Thank you. Good bye!" I hung up the phone and stormed out of the train fuming with rage.

I went back into the station master's office which was a seething hive of angry passengers and duplicitous, obsequious, prevaricating railway lackeys. I saw some ancient safeworking signalling equipment off to one side of the office and I decided to check it out. It was a pair of antique Tyer's Electric Tablet System signalling machines. These red boxes with brass dials and levers and bells date from the late nineteenth century. You only see these sorts of instruments in railway museums in Australia where they haven't been used for decades.

I looked at the instrument controlling the down section Bandarawela-Heeloya back towards Ella. The indicator on the front of this box said "LINE CLOSED" (that is, there was no train currently occupying that section of line). The indicator on the second instrument controlling the up section Bandarawela-Diyathalawa towards Colombo displayed "TRAIN APPROACHING" - that is, there was a train heading in the opposite direction to ours currently occupying that section. There was nothing to say that the train was moving or that it would arrive soon, the train was probably still obstructed, it just proved that there was one train in that section somewhere headed towards us.

I relayed this information to another passenger and then I was instantly surrounded by a crowd of people anxious to know what I could tell them. All I could say was that there was a train in the section of single track ahead of us but I couldn't say whether it was moving or not or when it would arrive at Bandarawela, thus clearing the track ahead for us.

Everyone thanked me even though I couldn't tell them much. They were grateful just to get a straight answer from somebody who sort of knew what he was talking about.

Meanwhile a conductor or a station employee would sometimes roam up the train or down the platform constantly shouting "fifteen minutes! This train is definitely moving in fifteen minutes!"

"But that's what you said fifteen minutes ago, and an hour before that, and an hour before that," people would say.

"Oh no, this time the train is definitely moving in fifteen minutes!" the simpering moronic railway employee would respond.

At 20:20 the train started suddenly moving back towards Ella without any announcement or word of warning. We went a short distance then shunted onto the passing loop away from the platform. I was on the train but plenty of passengers were on the platform. They had to jump off the platform onto the tracks and cross one track and climb the rungs of the ladders below the doors to get on board.

All of us passengers were stranded on the train away from the platform. The air conditioning was turned off and the train became very stifling. At least we had the camaraderie of mutual suffering to see us through. We told jokes, talked about our travels, laughed at our misfortune. It wasn't quite the esprit de corps of troops in the trenches on the Western Front but it was close.

I did notice something - everyone who decided to stay was from Northern Europe, the United Kingdom, the former British Dominions and Japan. Everyone else had left. Here's my theory, it's only a theory. Those countries are known for their orderliness, their law-abiding citizenry, their reasonably trustworthy government officials and their regimented efficiency. In those cultures, and this includes Australia, fifteen minutes means fifteen minutes. One hour means one hour. When someone asks a question, a direct, honest answer is expected. If a person does not know the answer to a question, they honestly say that they do not know. People in those countries generally tell people what they believe to be the truth and not what they think the other person wants to hear. When an authority figure like a station master tells us that there will only be a two-hour delay, we believe them.

I have never, ever been so grateful to have been born in the West. A Westerner simply cannot appreciate what good fortune we have, how trustworthy and honest and efficient and relatively well-governed our societies are, until you visit an underdeveloped country. We have won the lottery of birth, quite unfairly. The opportunities in life we have, the fact that the average citizen in the West and especially the countries I mentioned has a fair shot at building a decent, dignified life for themselves, should be available to every human being. I look forward to the day when Sri Lanka and other poorer countries get on their feet and something as simple as an obstructed railway line isn't dealt with in such an incompetent, inefficient manner by government functionaries who lie through their teeth to affected passengers. But I feel that is quite some time away.

Australian railways are not perfect, they are well below world's best practice. But if this happened on the New South Wales railways I could look at the official railway accounts on Twitter or listen to the announcements on the train or on the platform, see what was causing the delay, get reasonably accurate information about when it will be resolved, see what alternative arrangements such as buses were being made, and make an informed decision about what I should do. Here at Bandarawela the passengers were just mushrooms - kept in the dark and fed bullshit.

We waited and waited. We were now denied even the small mercy of getting fresh air on the platform. Finally at 21:15 the down train bound for Badulla finally arrived at Bandarawela! Hallelujah! The section ahead was finally clear! Four minutes later our train finally departed into the night after waiting six hours and thirty-four minutes.

The Super Secret Weekend Not-So-Express squealed through an unending succession of sharp curves; there didn't seem to be a single metre of straight track. Dimly lit villages and rainy level crossings passed the windows. Most of the people on the train were asleep. I was too agitated and anxious to do likewise. I was worried about transport from the railway station at Nanu Oya to my guest house in Nuwara Eliya. I knew the buses would certainly not be running that late but would there even be a taxi?

Sitting across the aisle from me were a young French couple, Stephan and Adrienne. They were also going to Nuwara Eliya. Throughout the long, long wait the passengers had by instinct searched out others going to the same place to discuss options and to share our sorrows. I spent much of my time with them. The train finally drew into Nanu Oya at 23:15, only six hours and nineteen minutes late.

Five people got out at the surprisingly modern station at Nanu Oya. There was one tuk-tuk taxi in the station car park. The driver explained that he was the only taxi in the district still in service so late in the night. He said it would take too long to take Stephan and Adrienne to their lodgings and then come back to fetch me and the other two Japanese girls. So he offered to take the three of us. He quoted a thousand rupees for me and fifteen hundred rupees to the French couple because they were going a bit further. Deal.

The three of us got into the back of the taxi. The back seats of tuk-tuks are wide enough only for two people so Adrienne sat on Stephan's lap. Our three backpacks were stuffed onto the narrow rear shelf behind our heads. We took off from Nanu Oya in the rainy mountain fog and we started climbing the steep mountain pass on the A7 highway. Nanu Oya is 1600 metres above sea level and Nuwara Eliya is three hundred metres higher. The tuk-tuk struggled up the steep grades with three people and three backpacks in the back. The tuk-tuk engine kept spluttering, it was obviously struggling for sufficient aspiration in the thin high-altitude atmosphere. On one steep corner the backpacks shifted load and pressed against my head, the only thing keeping the backpacks in place was my head pressing back against them.

At a quarter to midnight I reached Sapu's Mountain Breeze in central Nuwara Eliya, I was dropped off first. I said goodbye to the French people and tried opening the gate. It was locked. I rattled the gate and knocked on it. No response. I tried calling their phone number again. After about twelve rings the guest house employee finally answered. I told him I was outside.

He came out wiping the sleep from his eyes and he had a shot at me because I said I was going to arrive at ten-thirty. Somehow, I don't know how, I refrained from smashing his face in. I must have superhuman self-control.

Scenery between Badulla and Ella

Scenery between Badulla and Ella

River rapids between Badulla and Ella

River rapids between Badulla and Ella

Ravana Falls

Ravana Falls

Between Ella and Badulla

Between Ella and Badulla

Bandarawela Station

Bandarawela Station

Night Mail crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Night Mail crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Second class on Class S12 train from Badulla to Ella

Second class on Class S12 train from Badulla to Ella

Technicolor discotheque Buddha

Technicolor discotheque Buddha

Podi Manike train from Badulla to Ella

Podi Manike train from Badulla to Ella

Ravana Falls

Ravana Falls

Second class car on the Night Mail from Ella to Badulla

Second class car on the Night Mail from Ella to Badulla

Ravana Falls

Ravana Falls

1st class car on Super Secret Weekend Special from Ella to Nanu Oya

1st class car on Super Secret Weekend Special from Ella to Nanu Oya

Podi Manike crossing the Nine Arch Bridge

Podi Manike crossing the Nine Arch Bridge

Scenery between Ella and Badulla

Scenery between Ella and Badulla

Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet equipment at Bandarawela station

Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet equipment at Bandarawela station

S12 class train at Ella

S12 class train at Ella

Podi Manike crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Podi Manike crossing the Demodara Iron Bridge

Restaurant car on Super Secret Weekend Express

Restaurant car on Super Secret Weekend Express

Posted by urbanreverie 21:40 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged waterfalls trains sri_lanka railways ella nuwara_eliya badulla bandarawela nanu_oya Comments (0)

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