Paul Whittle warmed December’s monthly meeting with his tales of a memorable journey travelling the railways of Sri Lanka on the Viceroy Special, writes Pat Smith
Named after Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, the historic steam engine pulled air-conditioned carriages which were fitted with Pullman-style seats and tables, enabling travellers to journey in cool luxury through the steamy heat of a Singhalese summer. Heat-resistant souls, possibly attracted by the well-equipped bar, ventured into the lounge car, which was cooled by overhead fans and opening windows. They steamed through jungle, deep rhododendron-covered valleys and open plains, passing waterfalls, mountains and tea plantations.
The travellers visited memorable towns such as Kandy, Mountbatten’s headquarters before he became Viceroy of India. Complete with a wiggly tin (corrugated iron) roofed church, post office with traditional red post-box and some very familiar-looking buildings, it was a veritable Little Britain. An unforgettable visit was to the original golf club with its large veranda, panelled dining room and hunting trophies on the walls. In its heyday gentlemen were refused admission if they weren’t wearing jacket and tie. ‘The question of appropriate dress for ladies did not arise as they were not admitted,’ Paul told us.
Sri Lanka’s magnificent beaches and sea life are world-famous, with whales, dolphins and porpoises easy to spot. Paul told us of a sea-turtle hatchery near Galle in the south-west of the island. Locals collect turtle eggs from the beach and sell them to the centre – thus providing villagers with an income and giving protection to the endangered hatchlings.
Sri Lanka is a deeply religious country, mostly Buddhist. Huge white pagoda-like structures called dagobas dominate each town, and kings regularly built temples to show their devotion. The Golden Temple at Dambulla is a spectacular example, in a series of five caves set into an isolated mountain. A World Heritage Site, it has been sacred for over 2,000 years.
Paul also told us of Hindu temple towers – ornate carved wooden structures almost 30ft high which are dragged through the streets on religious festivals by teams of devotees.
But the serenity and friendliness of the Sinhalese people hides a dark history, which can perhaps be symbolised by their love for elephants. The Pinnawala elephant orphanage was set up in 1975 after unweaned baby elephants were found wandering alone and sometimes injured in forests and fields, victims of landmines. The elephants were taken in and now Pinnawala houses the largest tame herd in the world.
The landmines were planted by minority northern Tamils in a bloody civil war which lasted for 26 years and left over 80,000 people dead. And five years before it ended Sri Lanka was hit by an unstoppable force on Boxing Day 2004: the notorious 90ft tsunami wave which killed over 30,000 people. The wave destroyed complete villages and left others as rubble; it snapped palm trees as if they were sticks and destroyed communications. Even now, the occasional derelict building is a silent reminder of that day.
But people are resilient. Paul told us of the Galle fisherman who climb slender poles to fish with lines. Their livelihoods were destroyed by the tsunami and now they make most of their money by posing for tourist photographs.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island with a rich and complex history. How best to enjoy it? Paul had a piece of sound advice: ‘Although the Viceroy Special was a magnificent experience that I would not have missed, take some time to travel by ordinary train. Then you see Sri Lanka through different eyes.’
• All photos are copyright of Paul Whittle (email@example.com) and used with his permission.