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Jill Worrall: Sri Lanka

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The Udarata Menike train. Photo / Jill Worrall
The Udarata Menike train. Photo / Jill Worrall

Wilbert Wattegedara has been a guard on Sri Lanka railways for 34 years, he tells me as I lurch around his guard's wagon as the Colombo to Badulla train as it winds its way fitfully through the hills.

After only an hour on the train I feel somewhat travel-stained and, after sending sometime hanging out an open doorway, I look like Kate Bush on a bad hair day. Wilbert, on the other hand, is immaculate in white trousers (I'd never even dare on a train, not even since the demise of steam) and shiny black shoes.

He is a man to whom standards are important. Over the years he's worked his way up from the position of guard, to head guard and he's now in the supraguide grade. As we draw into each hill country station Wilbert notes down our arrival time, and repeats the exercise as we leave, once he's furled his green flag, of course. "We're 21 minutes late," he comments as we jolt away from the tiny station of Rozella

The British brought the railways to Sri Lanka in the 19th century, slowly extending the network of track through some demanding terrain.

The line we're on, which terminates in Badulla, was finished in 1885, providing isolated English tea planters with not only transport for their tea but also a much less arduous route down to the bright lights of Colombo.

This current train, Udarata Menike (the Hill Country Maiden) has been in operation since 1956, with Wilbert aboard on many of its trips for more than half that time.

The 10-hour, 290km journey from Colombo on the coast to the end of the line at Badulla is his favourite of the SLR routes.

"It is beautiful scenery - the forests, the tea plantations, and especially after heavy rain, the waterfalls."

Today there are six carriages being hauled up the broad gauge line by a British-built diesel locomotive. There used to be eight carriages regularly on the run, recalls Wilbert, train travel is not quite so popular these days. People used to use the trains to go to work, he explains, that's not nearly so common today.

It is also considerably slower than taking the road, but then speed is not really the object of this trip, at least not for tourists.

The journey across the Hill Country from Kandy begins at the Peradeniya station on the outskirts of the city. Remnants of the British Raj era remain in the form of the First Class waiting room (now empty) complete with a wooden painted sign indicating the presence of the First Class Lavatory. Another station has a Locomotive Foremen's Office (with the correct apostrophe).

Station masters, and Wilbert knows them all well, take great pride in their stations. There's some friendly competition over the gardens which, because the Hill Country is a more temperate than tropical climate, are quaintly reminiscent of English gardens, with zinnias, hollyhocks sharing flowerbed space with more exotic neighbours such as banana palms and amaryllis. Hanging baskets of petunias and alyssum hang from the platform rafters.

The three-hour train ride to Nanu Oya, the station closest to Nanu Eliya, the town at the heart of the Hill Country tea plantation region, passes through a mixture of rainforest, eucalyptus plantations but most strikingly, the tea plantations themselves.

Tea bushes clothe the undulating hills, a close-cropped blanket of green velvet. Dotted among the bushes are tall shade trees, often flowering species with vivid orange or red blooms. Working among these are the tea pluckers, mostly Tamil women, who, when working close to the line, pause to wave at the train. Towards the end of the afternoon lines of workers could be seen walking back to the tea factories, lade with plastic sacks full of leaves.

This is a high rainfall area so streams gushed down gulleys and ravines between the hills, on the banks, in often tiny plots of land not planted with tea, the workers have created immaculate market gardens. Carrots, cabbage and leeks grew in perfectly straight mounded lines, even the sides of the ridges being utilized with vivid green lettuces sprouting at 90 degrees.

When squally showers sweep over the hills, the train slows to a crawl as the wheels struggle to grip the wet rails. Even when it gathers, it's easy to stand in the open doorways of Wilbert's guard's van and wave to the locals, and to a tightly packed bunch of young Sri Lanka men who are leaning out the door of a second-class carriage further down the train.

"Am I okay doing this?" I ask Wilbert, while hanging out the door beside him to photograph a waterfall. He assures me I am.

Wilbert tells me his guard's van was about 30 years old. It has a wall of pigeon holes once used for mail but now empty and he still waves a green flag out the doorway to signal to the driver that all is ready for departure. He pulls out a small suitcase from under his desk and stows the flag away beside his torch with its red and green flashing lights for signaling at night.

Wilbert still writes all passenger numbers, fares paid, station arrival and departure times, the causes of any delays and details of any incidents along the way into a large ledger headed Guard's Train Journal.

He says he's been lucky in his 34 years that the odd landslide has been about the most serious incident he's experienced.

"During the war there were blasts and bombs on some train lines, but never on any train I was on," he says. "But during that time I have had to deal with 39 deaths - suicides - and people falling out the doors," he adds.

- nzherald.co.nz

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