By Lisa on Feb 17, 2017 with Comments 2
Dodging trains, shuffling through dank, dark tunnels, getting dragged into the track manager’s office and being ambushed by snarling dogs…
These are only a few things that happened on our hike from Pattipola to Haputale in Sri Lanka’s hill country.
Even so, this was one of my absolute favourite days in Sri Lanka.
We hiked the 23 km along the train tracks from Pattipola to Haputale, including walking through 18 tunnels and enjoying some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country.
(Note: Lonely Planet says that this hike is 14 km. IT IS WRONG.)
On the hike from Pattipola to Haputale the going is easy, but at 23 km it is LONG! You need a full day. Plus, you can’t walk at your natural pace or gait as the sleepers determine your steps and this is tiring.
Here’s how we did it:
We had breakfast at our guesthouse at 7:30am and then walked into Haputale town (approx. 1km) for about 9:30am. The train to Pattipola wasn’t until 10:25am and the ticket desk didn’t open until about 10:00am. When it did open we bought third class tickets from Haputale to Pattipola costing 25rs (0.17€) each. And we were off.
Train from Haputale to Pattipola
If you are planning to do this walk, make sure you take the 10:25 train from Haputale to Pattipola (actually it didn’t arrive in Haputale Station until 10:40) otherwise you are not going to have enough daylight to complete the hike.
We bought third class tickets for the first time ever in Sri Lanka and we were very impressed. We didn’t bother trying to get a seat as the journey was only 50 minutes and we wanted to hang out of the window in true Sri Lankan style!
Those that did have seats looked very comfy. I would say there was just as much room as in second class. There was a large, spacious area at the end of the carriage with a bar (not open) and plenty of standing room. The third class carriage was perfectly clean.
We managed to get by the doorway and the views on the way to Pattipola were spectacular.
We passed through Idalgashinna and Ohiya stations before reaching Pattipola. When we alighted we waited until the Badulla train, which was waiting in Pattipola Station for our train to pass, set off.
Then we followed it. We walked to the end of the platform, jumped down beside the tracks and we were off. Back to Haputale.
Pattipola to Haputale: Hiking on the train tracks
The first thing we saw when we set off along the tracks was a huge sign saying that trespassers on the tracks would be prosecuted! Well we were there now so we ignored it and continued.
The views on the walk were absolutely stunning. And after we left Pattipola we had it all to ourselves. We didn’t see another soul, save a troop of monkeys causing havoc in the trees, until over an hour later when we passed a group of young Sri Lankans enjoying the same walk as us but in the opposite direction.
For the most part there is a pretty decent footpath alongside the tracks and during the walk we were about 50/50 walking on the footpath and walking on the tracks themselves, stepping from sleeper to sleeper.
The walk was either always on the flat or downhill, as we had started out at Sri Lanka’s highest train station. We had debated whether to do it this way or hike from Haputale until the station we felt like stopping at. This would have meant a gentle ascent from Haputale to Pattipola, so we decided to take the train first and walk back.
Braving the tunnels
As I have mentioned, there are 18 tunnels between Pattipola and Haputale. For me, walking through the tunnels was the worst part. They were dark and scary. We could hear the squeak of rats and the odd flap of bats. Inside the tunnels it was damp and dripping. Don’t even think about attempting this walk without a decent torch.
There was no way to go around the tunnels as they all went through large hills, often with sheer drops. So the only way forward was to go through them.
The tunnels were all pretty narrow and there was little room on either side of the tracks to walk so we had no alternative than to walk on the tracks inside the tunnels.
As luck would have it, the first tunnel you come to from Pattipola is the longest and scariest one on the whole walk. And the third one is almost as bad. In at the deep end! These two tunnels are curvy and are pitch black inside and it takes what feels like an eternity to get through them as you tread slowly and carefully, listening to the dripping of water and the odd squeak of I-don’t-want-to-know-what. But at least you get the worst over and done with at the beginning.
After that the tunnels are relatively shorter and you can generally see the light at the other end from the moment you enter.
Trains on the tracks
Don’t forget, this is a live railway and is used by trains!
As there is only a single track, the trains alternate between coming from behind you and coming from in front. It is very important that you have a rough idea of when to expect a train so that you can be out of the way well in advance. You can check the train timetables here. Don’t forget: trains get progressively later than the scheduled time as the day goes on in Sri Lanka. While the first train in the morning will generally be on time, by the middle of the day the trains will be running at least half an hour late.
Dodging the trains
The next train to pass us was coming from Colombo and was running very late. It would be coming from behind us. We knew it was due at any time and each time we had to go through a tunnel it was a tense gamble: should we go or wait? But in Sri Lanka you hear the trains coming long before they arrive. Normally.
When this train passed us we were actually inside the tunnel. Despite being cautious, we didn’t hear the train coming and when we realised that it was, we were too far from either end to go forwards or backwards to get out.
We were able to jump into one of the recesses that workers use and get out of the train’s way, but it was very scary and we could hear the rats squeaking like mad. As the train rumbled past the noise was deafening.
The Principal’s Office
When we reached Ohiya Station we had to walk on the platform and jump off the end like in Pattipola. We were leaving the station and heading for the tracks when a young man came running after us:
“Railroad, no walking. Come with me,” he said.
We tried to resist but he insisted. He looked angry.
At this moment I thought our excursion was going to end prematurely.
We were led into an office where several workers, all men, stood gawping at us accusingly and another man, clearly the boss, sat behind a desk.
Toni went in all smiles and handshakes and how-do-you-do’s like it was an honour that someone so important had taken the time to meet us. The Sri Lankan-ness in the man took over and he smiled back delightedly, bursting with importance until he remembered to be stern.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Haputale,” said Toni casually. “We are taking some photos, enjoying the view.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” I added. The Sri Lankans are suckers for a compliment about the beauty of their country.
The man beamed again until he remembered to frown. “Yes, but walking on the tracks is very dangerous,” he sighed. “Don’t you know there are 14 more tunnels?”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We are coming from Pattipola so we’ve already been through the big tunnels.”
“Well it’s dangerous,” he repeated. “Do you have a good torch?”
“Yes, of course,” we both nodded. We didn’t. We had an iphone. The truth was, when we’d set off we didn’t even know there were tunnels.
The man shook his head, clearly at a loss at what to do with us, clearly not understanding why we would even want to walk all the way back to Haputale on the tracks. The Sri Lankans are extremely polite and they don’t like to be confrontational.
Toni took over the conversation. “What’s your name?” he asked the man, offering his hand again.
His name was Vikram and he told us proudly that he was the track manager.
We introduced ourselves and shook his hand yet again (it’s true that the handshake always works in Sri Lanka). We thanked our new friend Vikram, track manager at Ohiya Station, and we made to leave. Vikram gave us a resigned sigh and a smile and wished us well. Thankfully he was just too polite to really insist, and so we were on our way again.
The incident with the train coming when we were inside the tunnel happened after we’d met Vikram. Guess he kind of had a point!
Back on track
By the time we reached Idalgashinna, the next station, we were really tired and would have been quite happy with a sit down and some wadi wadi and a ginger beer. But the station, which wasn’t expecting a train for some time, was deserted.
This is something to note if you are considering doing this walk: we hadn’t taken any food with us, thinking that as we would be walking through stations we could always find a wadi wadi seller and grab a few short eats along the way. But this was impossible: there was nothing to be had at any station as there are only ever food sellers around when a train is expected. Luckily we were able to top up our water bottles at the many waterfalls we passed.
Passing through Idalgashinna
At Idalgashinna we saw groups of children that wanted their photos taken and wanted to say hello.
Toni got rid of a few of the blow-up footballs he’d brought along and the kids were delighted. On this stretch there were plenty more people, all locals, going about their business and all wanting to say hello and chat to the strange foreigners walking on the tracks to Haputale.
Ambushed on the tracks
When we were getting towards the end of our long slog and were close to Haputale, we were ambushed by four mean-looking dogs that came running onto the tracks barking and snarling at us. Shit! There was nowhere to run; we had sheer rock on either side of us at this point and the dogs were coming at us, baring their teeth.
When the dogs reached us they stopped! They didn’t know what to do next so we kept walking and trying not to show fear. Yeah right!
They were still barking at us after we’d passed but they didn’t attempt to follow so it seemed we were off the hook.
When we were getting to Haputale, Toni checked on Google Maps and found our hotel. It was way before the train station and we needed to find a way to get off the line to the right and up the hill to our hotel. That would save us a good half hour walking to the station and then doubling back to our hotel and we were exhausted. But there was nothing but sheer hillside covered in jungle. Damn! We could see our road above us too.
Suddenly a whole family appeared from nowhere onto the line. It looked like they’d just stepped through a door into Narnia. And as we grew closer we saw that it was a concrete staircase leading off the line and up the hill. We walked up a million steps and were right on our street. We walked through the door of our hotel at 5 o’clock on the dot. The shower felt amazing.
We’d eaten nothing since we’d finished breakfast at 8am so when it got to 7pm we were the first in the dining room, and the curry buffet had never tasted better!
What do you think?
Crazy? Stupid? Exciting? It was all of these things. And while inmyshoestravel takes no responsibility for loss of life, dog or rat attacks or anyone being arrested by Vikram and his motley crew, let me remind you that this was an extremely beautiful walk. It was an exhilarating day out and it was great fun. It was one of my best days in Sri Lanka and if I could do the walk again I would. So if you’re thinking about doing it, do it. You won’t regret it. Well… you might!
I would like to remind you that all the photos used on InMyShoesTravel.com are my own unless otherwise stated.
You can see my whole collection of Travel Photos here.
About the Author: Lisa, born and grew up in England, live in Mallorca, Spain... Have visited more than 20 countries, have twice as many to yet visit, love sharing experiences....