After leaving Kandy, we passed fertile riverine valleys, and entered Sri Lanka’s hill country. Tea flourishes in these damp, wet highlands, so, “when tea became prominent, after the coffee rust epidemic – a fungi disease that hindered the coffee trade [in 1869] – the British wanted to extend the railways to transport tea from the mountains to Colombo,” Abeysinghe explained.
In the 1870s, the British began to expand the railway from Peradeniya, a railway junction near Kandy, extending the route to the terminal station Badulla in 1924. This 178km-long stretch involved navigating through rainy, forested mountains, steep ridges and a series of sharp twists and turns by building an impressive mix of bridges, viaducts, tunnels and embankments. It took 52 years to complete.
We pushed out of the mountains, and over the next three hours we passed small and well-kept British-era railway stations like Galboda and Watawala, which were built solely for the purpose of transporting tea from each estate. We sluggishly ascended past Hindu temples tucked in tea gardens, small housing settlements where the tea estate labourers live, and turpentine forests shrouded in swirling mist. Sometime after leaving Hatton – the gateway town to Adam’s Peak, a holy mountain for pilgrims of all faiths – we entered the Poolbank Tunnel, the longest of the 46 tunnels at more than half a kilometre in length.
“You cannot really see the light at the end of the tunnel here,” Abyesinghe said, chuckling.