From Colombo To St. Andrews, By Locomotive

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

July 8th, 2014

Colombo is of course the capital city of Sri Lanka, while St. Andrews is a very old and famous gold course. It is actually possible to travel from one to the other by locomotive – albeit if one settles for the St. Andrews Golf Course in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s central hill country. Sri Lanka has, a legacy of the British colonial times, a pretty good, and given the natural loveliness of the island, rather beautiful railway system that originally began way back in 1858. It is also one that for me, probably affords the best views to be had of the interior. Starting off though, one really needs to catch the early morning “Blue Train”, a gift from the Italians, and pulling the only air conditioned coaches in Sri Lanka. That means first class, but in the lowland sweltering heat that is rush hour Colombo, is well worth the additional few extra Rupees. I am somewhat amused by the name, as it echoes “Le Train Bleu” the overnight luxury Calais-French Riviera route that was operable prior to WWII. That was the inspiration behind the ballet of the same name, created by Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, with a story by Jean Cocteau, music by Darius Milhaud, choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, costumes by Coco Chanel and with the theatre curtain painted by Pablo Picasso. That’s quite an array of 1920’s premium artistic talent. I have seen the ballet, which basically involves exercises on the beach, some coy heterosexual and homosexual liaisons, and it is fun. In honour, I have the score on my ipod.

Waiting for the Blue Train

The Locomotive arrives with a screech, and there is a palpable sense of adventure as we board. The initial destination is to Kandy, and many passengers are going just that far. Chugging out of Colombo we pass by ancient wrecks of the old Ceylon steam engine era, vandalised for whatever parts and valuable components they once possessed, they litter disused track sidings, like giant rusted metal elephants. Other signs of days gone by are everywhere, each station we pass still has the old water tanks and movable water cranes where passing locomotives would take on water to keep that pressure up.

Kandy Station. Note the Water Crane.

It takes two hours to reach Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city and its historic cultural centre. On the way the train has begun to climb, and the vegetation has changed from lowland shrubs and ponds to larger trees, and more densely greened valleys and hills. The narrow track squeezes through tunnels and at times branches brush alongside the coaches as we rumble past. At Kandy, there is a change – the seats are reversible and what was once the front of the train is now the rear. We back out the way we came for a few miles before heading off onto the main Badulla line, heading deep into Hill Country. Still climbing, the topography noticeably changes; what had been a steaming morning in Colombo is now changing to a damp and chilly midday. Deciduous trees make way for Conifers and Pines, and it begins to drizzle.

Granite Stone Water Tower, build in Glasgow in 1892, and still standing at Hatton.

But then the vista starts to open up. High now, following the contours of the Hills, the train is rolling along the crests of embankments thousands of feet high, with the valleys below stretching out far away to Adam’s Peak and beyond. The views are spectacular.

Then the tea estates begin to appear. Some of the bushes even grow down to besides the railway tracks, and we spot Estate Managers Bungalows, and entire factories dotted across the hills. The land is often terraced here to maximise its usage. Sri Lanka however was an island originally cultivated almost exclusively for coffee, not tea, and by 1867, over 18 million tons was exported, with Ceylon being the world’s second largest producer. Reputed to be better quality than the finest Java, the coffee grown here was transported by these same railways that today are the lifeblood for the teas plantations. But by the mid 1870’s the coffee industry in Ceylon was finished. A coffee blight eradicated most of the plants, and plantation owner rapidly switched to tea. Coffee is still grown in Sri Lanka – and it is very good – but only in small quantities. Tea now dominates, and even today the finest leaves are still picked by hand, by women who have this job for life. As the train passes by, their songs resonate alongside the coaches.

Still the Blue Train rumbles on as tiny villages, temples and houses slowly pass by. This is not a high speed electric blurr, the locomotive is diesel and chugs along at a pace satisfying enough to enjoy the view and it slowly slips past. Occasionally we round a bend, and the entire train snakes around in a graceful arc, a Boa Constrictor of a pulsating engine arching around to face its destination.

Then we reach Nuwara Eliya, or to be precise, the station at Nanu Oya, the 63rd station on the main Sri Lankan rail line and the focal point for Nuwara Eilya, which is itself so rugged the engineers of the day decided to miss out digging a route through the narrow valley that opens up into the Nuwara Eliya Plateau. A 30 minute car journey amongst some equally winding roads and we arrive at St. Andrews.

Nuwara Eliya is known as “Little Scotland”, and with good reason; the Scots built it, and at an altitude of just shy of 2,000 metres, even here in the tropics the evening temperatures mean log fires are lit and woollen jerseys are needed. The St. Andrews course is run by the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club  and is the oldest in Asia. 18 holes, and with accommodation, it is certainly one for avid Golfers to tick off while on holiday. Nuwara Eliya retains much of its colonial charm, and has several institutions, including the Hill Club, where I notice the food has improved considerably since my previous visit a decade ago. I am happy, and warm, and have been well fed. I have also arrived via the most scenic route possible – the Blue Train. From Sri Lanka to a little part of Scotland, via train, in seven hours.

The Hill Club, Members Entrance

The Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya