Sri Lanka has a new contender for the world’s most scenic rail journey. (The Telegraph)

(The Telegraph)

Running into the heart of ‘Up Country’, the Ella Odyssey offers a window onto the best of the country’s famously photogenic landscapes

I had only been on the Ella Odyssey for 10 minutes when the woman sitting next to me proffered a plate piled high with neatly cut white-bread sandwiches containing a mildly spicy paste. “Please,” she said. “We have a long journey. Take two!”

She was with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren, and, in common with everyone else on board, was relishing the prospect of travelling along one of the most scenic stretches of train track in the world. I had been looking forward to this journey for years, and although we had barely started, I felt a shared sense of excitement with my fellow travellers.

The Ella Odyssey was introduced by Sri Lanka Railways last year as a tourist-friendly “luxury” service along the island’s Main Line, which was built in the period of British rule to link the capital Colombo with Badulla to the east. 

The original aim of the line was to facilitate the highly lucrative trade in coffee and then tea, a crop that flourished in the wet, misty highlands of central Sri Lanka following the cultivation of the first leaves by the Scottish settler James Taylor in the mid-19th century. The line also served as an artery linking the people from the capital and the west coast with those from the mountainous interior and the sacred city of Kandy.

Building this line was an arduous task, with the track having to be laid through thick clusters of tropical palms, circumventing deep gorges and craggy cliffs and navigating increasingly steep ascents (there is a reason why Sri Lankans speak of this region as “Up Country”). The work spanned decades, but the result was a sensational stretch of railway line.

Like many fellow passengers, my travelling companions had long known about the railway, but the image of it had only sharpened in their minds thanks to the outpouring of photographs posted on social media. Travel bloggers and influencers have snapped themselves hanging out of the train’s open doors in a variety of perilous poses. Health and safety advisers would have a field day. 

One of the sweet spots for such dramatics is the Nine Arches Bridge, a magnificent viaduct between Ella and Demodara, flanked by jungle and tea plantations. Not surprisingly, given its awe-inspiring setting, growing numbers of Sri Lankans wanted to see this Instagram hit for themselves.

The Ella Odyssey was not conceived to become a social media star, however – it was set up to create a service with an upgraded level of comfort on a venerable railway, and to incorporate 10 slightly longer stops at key points along the way, allowing for more viewing time. 

The Nine Arches Bridge is an undoubted highlight, but it isn’t the only sight to behold: also on the agenda were the legendary Adam’s Peak, the summit-level station of Pattipola (at 1,890m/6,200ft) and the Demodara Loop, a marvel of railway engineering in which the track circles back on itself to pass through a tunnel beneath the station. Other highlights were the series of waterfalls – Elgin, Kithal Ella, Horsetail, St Clair’s – cascading dramatically down green hillsides, although the description of the latter as the “Niagara Falls of Sri Lanka” is perhaps a tad exaggerated.

The timing of the new service was unfortunate: just as it was launched last March, Sri Lanka was plunged into political and economic turmoil. Street protests in Colombo triggered the ousting of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and there was a period of fuel and goods shortages, along with soaring inflation and daily power cuts. 

By the time I travelled on the train late last year, the situation had stabilised – and though many deep-rooted problems remain, the country appeared to be getting back on track. Certainly that was how it felt on the Ella Odyssey which, while still popular with foreign travellers, had clearly become a hit with Sri Lankans, too. 

I had left it too late to secure myself a seat in first class and had a momentary panic when I was told all that was left was a seat in third, prompting flashbacks to some less-than-comfortable train journeys I had made in India as a backpacker in my late teens. 

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine in third class reserved,” Thushni de Silva, my guide and guru at the Experience Travel Group, reassured me. “Lots of our clients travel in third. Besides, there was only one seat left – and you’ve got it!”

Thushni was right. The seats in third class may not have been quite as expansive and well-padded as those in first, but they are smart and upholstered and, as I discovered from the off, the company was excellent. The absence of air conditioning (first class only) was hardly an issue. Thanks to the open windows, we could breathe in the refreshing, cool air of the mountains. 

We passed jaw-dropping scenes of lush vegetation, the odd flash of a temple stupa hidden within. Striking up conversation with the young couple sitting opposite me, I discovered they were newlyweds.

“I have travelled this line before,” said Kavisha, the still-blushing bride, “but I wanted my husband to see it too.” 

It felt like a moment to savour after such a difficult year for the country – which had come hot on the heels of the Covid era – and against a backdrop of the lingering sore of the country’s 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009.  

As we chatted, our voices were drowned out by shrieks of delight. In addition to the wonderful sounds of the train itself – the deep chugging of the engine, the hooting and hissing of brakes – the journey was characterised by excited screams each time we entered one of the 46 tunnels along the way. It really did feel as though people were letting off steam.

The full Ella Odyssey route – from Colombo Fort to Badulla – takes just over 10 hours, its most scenic part being the stretch between Nanu Oya and Ella, the station just before the Nine Arches Bridge. Many travellers do only this section – it is peak selfie territory, after all – though I highly recommend starting the journey, if not at 5.30am from Colombo, then at least from Kandy.

Views of the rippling green landscape aside, the joy of being on board longer gives you the chance to mix and mingle. When I needed to stretch my legs, I found a lovely little perch in the “canteen” buffet car and drank my way through several cups of sugary milk tea. It was full of fellow passengers doing the same, attended to by an unfailingly helpful cast of guards, buffet assistants and ticket inspectors – the staffing levels here would surely bring tears of joy to a union leader back home. 

I also wandered through the other compartments and got chatting to a Sinhalese family who had emigrated some years ago to Melbourne. They had returned to Sri Lanka to reconnect with family and remind themselves of the country they had left behind. “We heard about this journey on social media,” said the father, Jay, an IT specialist with two young daughters. “It’s famous!”

At the head of the train, in the carriage immediately behind the driver, sat the head guard, a neatly coiffed young man with the smartest uniform of all (black jacket, white trousers). He clearly loved his job, though he was apologetic about how slowly we were travelling. “I’m afraid the track is not so good,” he said. “There have not been many improvements since 1948.”

It often felt as though we were travelling through a landscape that is also largely unchanged. We stopped at stations bearing names such as Great Western and Hatton, and passed beautifully maintained platforms which, like the dainty white-bread sandwiches and cupcakes I was given later, were redolent of another age. I thought of those deep, old connections between my country, Britain, and this one. If there was resentment for what occurred during the occupation of Sri Lanka – and heaven knows there are grounds for some – I certainly wasn’t made to feel it. On the contrary, there was a strong sense of camaraderie as we saluted this most remarkable of journeys, travelling at a leisurely pace through a landscape of astonishing beauty. 

Of course, we all took photos. Some may even have involved leaning out of a train door. I have my very own shot that appears to show me clawing my way along the exterior of the train as it winds its way around a steep bend (even if, admittedly, the train was totally stationary when the picture was taken). It will serve as a reminder of one of the happiest trips of my life – one that, given the troubles of the past few years, felt all the more memorable. Sometimes there really is light at the end of the tunnel.