Welcome everyone to another post in my series about a 2014 trip to Sri Lanka and I know I say this at the top of every entry but I really do mean it. I am genuinely amazed at the response I have had to my efforts and the lovely comments I have received so thank you all.
I shall make my usual comment here for new readers which is that if they wish to read the entire piece from the beginning, it all starts here.
I had left you the last time with me “stranded” in Ella in the highlands of Uva Province and doing not very much of anything really except eating and drinking rather too much beer, so you’ll be glad to know that in this post I get to do something interesting. Admittedly, it is a stupid and potentially dangerous something but it is interesting. I can almost hear the collective voice of my readership saying, “What on Earth is he going to do now”?
4th March, 2014.
When I woke up early in my lovely little room in someone’s home above a grocery store (yes, really) I decided that I really should do something with the day and I had a good idea what it was going to be. I went as always to the Chill Café for a liquid breakfast but I got out before I got too comfortable and headed up the hill to the railway station.
I have said often in various writings here and elsewhere about how much I love railways and everything to do with them, something I ascribe in part to my maternal grandfather having been a railwayman all his life. I had read about a marvel of railway engineering called the Nine Arch Bridge not far from Ella which was said to rival the Forth Rail Bridge or Glenfinnan Viaduct ( both in Scotland ) so I just had to see it.
I told you in a previous post that I had been to the Station before to check on train times and I had found myself chatting for a while to the Station Master who looked far too young for the post I must say but he was obviously competent. We had got on well and he greeted me in a friendly manner when I came back this day. I think he enjoyed chatting in English, in which he was perfect.
There are only about half a dozen “blue” trains (the flashy express ones) through Ella per day when the station gets utterly chaotic and a few local services but other than that it is as you see in the image, pretty deserted.
The Station itself, which was opened in 1918, is a museum piece in itself albeit still operational and I found it more appealing than the slightly disappointing Railway Museum in Colombo that I described previously.
As the images above show, Sri Lankan Railways leave you in no doubt that you should not walk on railway lines, it is a dangerous thing to do and yet everyone in Asia seems to do it. In densely vegetated areas, which are common in the highlands, it is often the only clear route between two points. If you are not battling your way through vegetation you are tramping through someone’s tea plantation which is not recommended either.
I have read online that in the intervening years since I was there that there is a path which is well way-marked and the ever entrepreneurial Sri Lankans have even set up a few cafés and foodstalls at the bridge as it has become such a tourist draw. tuk-tuk from town will take you to within about ten minutes walk of the bridge.
At the time I neither knew of the existence of the path nor where to ask and I have read of travellers getting horribly lost before the signs went up.
I had decided on the direct route but I was not going to tell the Station Master that and risk the wrath of Sri Lankan Railway officialdom and so it was with some surprise I heard him ask me, “Have you seen the bridge, it is very beautiful”? “No, I haven’t seen it”, I truthfully replied and then he dropped the bombshell. “If you have time you really should, the next train is at 1200 so be careful, it will take about 30 minutes to get there”. What? He was not only telling me I could walk on the track but even what trains I needed to dodge. Unbelievable.
I thanked him and off I went on my officially sanctioned trespass along the rails. I enjoy walking rails almost as much as I do riding them, perilous as it is, and I seem to make a habit of it as you can read here.
I had not gone far when I came upon another quaint piece of what would qualify as railway history in the automated West. This is a set of points with a small hut to shelter the pointsman in inclement weather, of which there is plenty hereabouts.
Just beyond the points I spied my first “fellow traveller”, the lady obviously returning from the shop / market with the fresh produce for the day’s eating presumably. Although she was not hanging about, I have big long legs and soon overtook her whereupon we exchanged a friendly greeting in the Sri Lankan manner. She did not seem at all surprised to see a foreigner so perhaps this was the usual route in those days for railway buffs to reach the bridge.
I was checking my watch and I knew the train was due in a couple of minutes although I also knew it was more than likely to be late, trains usually are there. I thought I’d find a good spot with a bit of clearance at the side of the track, wait for it and try for a video clip, an operation I was getting more confident with. Amazingly, I soon heard the distant sound of a train horn and I was shortly rewarded with the piece of video you can see here. I was rather pleased with my effort when I replayed it.
Walking on I came upon the tunnel which caused me to stop and think for a moment. Tunnel, enclosed space, railway, dangerous. Then I knew that a train had just passed so another was unlikely soon in either direction on a single track line and a close examination of the tunnel showed sufficient room to hit the deck safely beside the track should the worst happen and so I ploughed on. I can tell you that I was not hanging about in there but everything was fine and I emerged unscathed.
I exited the relative gloom of the tunnel into bright sunshine and the most incredible sight as you can see in the image above, the stunning Nine Arch Bridge which was everything I had read about and a whole lot more. I know I tend to use superlatives rather too much in my writing but I could rhyme off about a dozen now and they would all be appropriate.
The bridge is even more remarkable than as a feat of engineering when you know the story behind it. A viaduct to span this gorge had been designed by Harold Cuthbert Marwood of the Railway Construction Department in the early part of the 20th century and was to be constructed of iron. With the onset of the First World War, all the iron was re-directed to building warships and tanks and other things to kill people with so the plan was changed and a builder called P. K. Appuhami carried out the work in stone.
The project was supervised by D. J. Wimalasurendra who is an interesting man. When he was not working on railways he is credited with having introduced hydro-electric power to Sri Lanka, a country supremely suited for such technology.
I am not at all good with heights but I wanted to get as many images as possible of the bridge and so I looked straight ahead and marched briskly up the middle of the track looking neither right nor left which explains why there are no images taken from the bridge.
Once I had gained the far side I looked down the hillside to see what is such an iconic sight in Sri Lanka, and indeed much of Southern Asia, ladies picking tea. It is amaing to think that in this highly technological age there is still no efficient way of picking tea by machine.
Now, of course, I had another problem. I could walk on to Demodara but I had no idea how far it was (it is about the same distance as back to Ella) or how I might get back from there so I took a deep breath and marched back over the bridge. Thankfully, it wasn’t quite so terrifying on the way back.
Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you view it, there were no more trains on my reciprocal journey to Ella where I arrived without incident and a very happy Fergy indeed. I have looked online and you can barely find an image where there are not a dozen tourists on the bridge so I am extremely glad I visited it when I did and had the whole magnificent structure all to myself.
Nine Arch Bridge is rightly regarded as one of the finest pieces of colonial railway engineering anywhere in the former British Empire and I really cannot recommend a trip to see it highly enough.
That was enough sightseeing for the day and so it was back to my room for a quick dozette, wash and brush up Via the bar obviously) and when I got back I was plunged straight back from the utterly fabulous to the completely mundane as the image shows. Yes, I had got my laundry back and my lovely landlady had done a brilliant job, even putting it in a nice cellophane bag for me. It is not all carousing and sightseeing on the road, you know!
That evening I returned to what is now the 360 Ella restaurant and I have now solved the mystery of what it was called previously, it was the Down Town Rotti Hut. I am so glad I worked that out, it was niggling me. I had an excellent meal in there as always, it is one of the better places in town, all washed down with several bottles of Lion and then off to my comfy bed for another night’s sleep.
In the next post I go walkabout once again, yes, two days in a row which is amazing, isn’t it? If you want to see what I get up to then and whether or not it is potentially suicidal like this day then stay tuned and spread the word.