The journey through the dry-zone forest | Sunday Observer
A trip to Trincomalee by train - Part 3

The journey through the dry-zone forest

21 August, 2022

There isn’t much to write home about a long leg of this journey down the Batticaloa –Trincomalee line compared to a train ride on the more famed and picturesque mainline winding its way up and down through the central highlands where the sprawling forestland, gorges, cliffs, valleys, rivers, streams, waterfalls, passes, bridges, precipices, sprawling tea estates greet you every now and then from around Kadugannawa.

But the Eastern line is not without beauty which is endemic to it. Some distance past the Kalawewa railway station, the train track runs through the dense forest land – formed by the Kalawewa, Habarana and Galoya wildlife forest reserves. The woods on either side of the track are magnificent and shrouded in some indefinable semi-darkness without much sunlight filtering in through the dense canopy of leafy tree-tops. I craned my neck out like a giraffe straining to spot any elephants grazing or roaming around. But not a trace of an elephant was there to be seen.

Taking in the fleeting sights

I saw a few peacocks here and there making amorous advances on peahens nearby with their unique dancing movements. The train picks up such speed through this stretch of the track – maintaining the speed is important given the long distance it had to cover to reach the destination in time – that even if a prehistoric-age dinosaur stood on its path let alone an elephant, it would be torn into pieces. Forgive my exaggerating streak.

Not that I want to sensationalise the elephants getting killed on this particular stretch of the track for entertainment, but I want you to see in your mind’s eye how fast the train is moving. Even if no elephant has been killed on this track recently, we need to devise an effective solution to prevent such collisions especially on the night-mail trains that take this track. If the forest had eyes, it’d see the train streak past it.

Gal Oya railway station

The train ground to a halt at the Gal Oya junction railway station. The passengers bound for Trincomalee had to get down and catch another train. Shortly afterwards, Udaya Devi would head straight for Batticaloa. It appeared a desolate place to me. A row of tall Margosa trees stood overlooking the tracks.

The land beyond the Margosa trees gradually forms an elevation. A footpath winds up the gradient leading to two buildings painted to a faint rosy colour. Or more likely, the original coating had faded to this inexplicable nameless shade. I got down and trudged into the men’s washroom to relieve myself. I took off my mask briefly, washed my hands and face, put on the mask before I came out.

The journey from Gal Oya to Trincomalee

Then, I walked over to the platform on the other side where the stationary train bound for Trincomalee awaited the passengers. I stepped up the ladder into a second-class compartment and seated myself next to a window and opened the shutter. It felt dark and muggy inside. The compartment and the brownish seats looked older and less comfortable than those in the train that had taken me there. Soon more passengers came in and took their seats.

When the train left the Gal Oya junction railway station, there were one or two empty seats in our compartment. The track fell across a forest reserve. Tall shrubs with light green foliage whose name I didn’t know and hadn’t seen elsewhere lined it on either side. It was an arid landscape and the shrub land was ample proof for that. The train rode past the railway stations in Agbopura, Kanthale and Thambalagamuwa, and China Bay to reach the Trincomalee railway station. There must be one or two other railway stations, but only these few can I recall now. The tall embankment of the vast Kanthale Wewa could be seen from the train but a long way off the track.

China Bay Railway Station

The passengers in the seat next to mine rose to get down at the China Bay railway station having assumed it to be the Trincomalee railway station. Perplexed, I asked them if China Bay was the last station because I’d researched and consulted the Google maps where I’d learned that the last station would be Trincomalee itself, not the more famous China Bay. Still, I wasn’t that sure since I’d never been there. Only then did they realise their mistake and my misgivings were all cleared.

Before every trip, I’d check my destination on the Google Maps so that I’d have a rough idea about how long it’d take to reach where I’d stay from the railway station and how much it would cost me and also I’d know the prominent landmarks in case the tuk-tuk driver dropped me at a wrong location. Not on a single trip I have taken so far, did my tuk-tuk driver drop me ever at the wrong place. But it hasn’t assuaged my fear completely.


My fear must be rooted in this unforgettable incident I’d faced years ago. While I was studying at the Wayamba University of Sri Lanka, I came to Colombo once for the launch of the ‘Daily News’ poetry anthology, a brainchild of the late Bandula Jayasekara, the Editor of the ‘Daily News’ at the time. The anthology featured poems by many amateur poets including myself. Even after I’d told him, I wanted him to drop me at the Galle Face Hotel, he dropped me by the Galadari Hotel. This was while the war was raging - when this area had been declared a high-security zone with access restricted to the buses that used to ply that route.

He dropped me near the entrance to the Galadari Hotel, collected his fare and left me. The invitation in my hand, I walked over to the concierge and explained what I’d come for and showed him my invitation. He was kind enough to show me the road leading to the Galle Face Hotel. Since no buses were plying that route, in the sweltering heat I had to walk over to the Galle Face Hotel across the Galle Face Green.

Trincomalee Railway Station

By the time I reached the front desk at the Galle Face Hotel, my long-sleeved yellow shirt was soaked in perspiration, and I must have looked like the devil incarnate to the staff. This was all stamped on my memory.

When the train stopped at the Trincomalee railway station, I picked up my backpack and stood up. I slipped my arms through the straps and wore it on my back and got down the precarious steps cautiously. I handed the ticket to the ticket collector clad in their regular khaki uniform and stepped outside.

There were about 20 tuk-tuks whose drivers flocked near the passenger entrance /exit of the station eyeing the passengers coming out carrying heavy travel bags in anticipation of getting hired. They were all Muslim people.

One of the drivers must have read my inquisitive look and my wordless request for assistance and asked me ‘Where to, sir?’ When I told him I wanted to check into the Blue Wings Beach Hotel, he told me to hop in. He seemed and sounded genuine enough, so I didn’t bother to ask about the fare before I got into it. A classic introvert, I have a good nose for people.

I give very little space to the people I don’t trust in my life. He dropped me at the entrance to the hotel and requested Rs. 200, the regular fare for that distance. I pulled out two hundred-rupee notes, handed them to him, and got down.

Dropped at the final destination

No sooner had I got down than a tall, black-complexioned and suave man in his mid-forties dressed in a white shirt with a black floral design over a pair of black shorts sauntered up to me wearing a grin that reminded me of the famous grin of the Cheshire cat from the book Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll stretching his right hand and greeted me warmly ‘How are you?’ I returned the greeting, and shook hands with him.

He was Prebha, the owner of the small beach hotel in Uppuveli. Painted in white, the hotel took the shape of the letter ‘L ‘. There were seven rooms including the kitchen located at a sharp 90% degree angle with three rooms on one side and four on the other. Also, there was a bathroom outside opposite the kitchen. Construction work on the second floor had barely started. The courtyard was paved with garden tiles made of cement- five vertical strips separated by four shallow ditch-like strips and two horizontal strips cutting across them, from one end to the other.

Six columns supported the concrete slab that sheltered the L-shaped corridor. Six pots of banana boat, a flowerless decorative plant, overgrown and unkempt, stood at the base of the three columns on the ditch-like spaces, two pots at each. I followed Prebha across the courtyard. He unlocked the door and shepherded me into the deluxe room reserved for me. It was the last room to my left.