It was seven forty-five, and people still paced up and down, glancing at their watches and then at their phones. Others knotted into family groups, mothers, aunts, children and baggage, while more people hurried in from the ticket office.
As the time moved onto seven forty-six, the queue at the food kiosk dwindled and people craned their heads, looking down the platform to see if anything was coming. We too felt a little apprehensive, clutching our packed breakfast boxes under our arms and holding our tickets tightly in our hands, as we waited for the seven forty-seven to arrive at Haputale.
The railways in Sri Lanka were, of course, built mostly by the British. That is to say, the British supervised, and the local labourers constructed. This was Britain’s way of saying thank-you. Thank you for letting us stay here, grow tea, and export it back home. The railways were instrumental in transporting the tea, produced in the central highlands and sent to ports such as Colombo for shipping overseas.
These railways are used still. They have survived the British leaving, tea becoming a global commodity, and the demise of rail transport in other countries such as the UK. Modern diesel trains go in both directions. Down the line from Haputale through Kandy to Colombo, and up the line through Ella to Bandarawela.
Today we hoped to travel six stops from Haputale to Nanu Oya, the station nearest to Nuwara Eliya. Despite our train trip on the tour being cancelled due to bad weather, we still longed to experience the thrill of width gauge track and hear the clickety-click of many wheels. Enjoy the scenery too, the high arched bridges and green hills. Catching the train from Haputale would be our last chance.
Somewhere, a clock clicked onto seven forty-seven. No train appeared however. No humming of the rails or the sound of an engine approaching. Possibly, as well as building the railways, the British had also incorporated unpunctuality. British trains are famous for this now. No longer can you set your watches by them.
People began to stir and move towards the edge of the platform. Then from our left, a locomotive emerged, pulling blue carriage after blue carriage after it.
Sunil motioned us to the very last carriage, where he had reserved us seats. One tourist was already sitting in our window seat but Kate gave this interloper short shrift. He rejoined his girlfriend on the seat behind. And plonking ourselves down in the comfortable reclining seats – both facing in the direction of travel – we looked forward to our rail journey.
With a jolt, the train moved. Sunil waved at us through the window, then paced to the station exit. He would meet us at our destination, taking all our luggage in his car.
The train left the high town of Haputale and smoothly accelerated into forest. Kate had a first-class view of trees from her window, while I busied myself opening my breakfast box and eating the cheese sandwich inside. The hardboiled egg I’d leave until later – or probably never eat at all.
Across on the opposite side of the carriage, the hillside swept dramatically downwards. More trees and bush, and far below, white mist. Maybe the high peaks behind were the four thousand sheer cliffs of World’s End? Then we ascended into cloud as well, only the gaunt silhouettes of trees striding past like an army of stickmen. Hopefully it would clear or we wouldn’t see anything.
Without seeming to slow, the train halted. Being in the last carriage, we couldn’t see if we were at a station. If we were, it must be Ohiya yet no signage was evident. Maybe we’d glimpse something when we began moving again. This could be a problem when, five or six stations later, we reached Nanu Oya. We didn’t want to disembark too soon at the station before – or too late at the station after. If we missed Sunil, we’d be well and truly up the track without a valid ticket.
The train moved off again, and we saw we were at Ohiya as we’d thought. A man came down the aisle selling tea and samosa snacks. The cloud outside dissipated revealing rounded green slopes of tea plantations. More abrupt stops at stations, each without any signage at our end. Then as the track curved sharply, we spotted the front of the train crossing over a metal viaduct. This was the stuff rail adventures were made of, traversing Sri Lanka’s rugged interior like one of those hard-drinking tea planters in the nineteenth century. Perhaps later we’d have a pot of broken orange pekoe (BOP) together with cucumber sandwiches and chocolate cake. Or something stronger, a glass of whisky or the local arrack.
Unfortunately our journey was about to end. We came to the station we thought would be Nanu Oya, but after running down to the next carriage, discovered it was merely a wayside halt. At the next station however, many passengers stood up and grabbed their bags. Now we really were at Nanu Oya, and it was time to disembark.
After an hour and a half, our epic journey came to an end. Next time we’d travel further by train, all the way from Kandy maybe, and I’d get the window seat.