Diyatalawa: a short break in the central hill country - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Diyatalawa: a short break in the central hill country

In February 1955, I went on leave with Don Taylor, another of the junior technician wireless fitters, to the United Services Rest Centre at Diyatalawa (always referred to by everyone, including the locals, as DLA) in the Central Highlands. We went by train using one of the three, free railway warrants the RAF provided each year for leave travel.

Above: My pic of a waterfall in the beautiful hill country around the Diyatalawa/Bandarawela area. Because of the poor weather, this is the only photograph I was able to get.
Our train left Colombo at 7.30am. For the first couple of hours we travelled more or less on the level but after that the train started to climb steeply until we reached a plateau around the 1,600 foot mark. It was an exciting ride and we got some wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Somewhere in the vicinity of Nawalapitiya, the train started to climb again and this time the climb went on and on and our forward speed reduced at times to walking pace. We went over the highest point of the railway, about 6,200 feet, and then started to go gently down the other side. We could see the camps at DLA about an hour before we reached the station, although we didn't know that was what they were at the time because the railway swept in a wide circle as it descended into the valleys. We reached DLA station at about 6pm. At a height of 4,387 feet above sea level, it was delightfully cool or, as I put it in my diary: “the unexpected coolth was delightful”. A small Royal Navy six-seater bus was waiting outside the station just for the two of us. The camp was run, very efficiently, by the Navy but the Army, RAF and NAAFI shared the running costs. The Rest Centre itself was called Ella Camp and was about half a mile from the main RN camp, HMS Uva. As soon as we arrived, we were issued with our bedding, which included two blankets each, items never required at Gangodawila.
On the first few days the weather was very disappointing. Most of the time it was dull with thick cloud shrouding the surrounding hills and it rained almost incessantly. Saturday morning, however, dawned dry and bright. We hired a bike each and went for a ride to Bandarawela, a small town about four miles from Ella Camp. It was a most enjoyable ride. There were some steep hills to go down, and up, and there were some wonderful views down and along the valleys, but the tops were still hidden by cloud; it was also surprisingly chilly.

Above: We just got out of the tunnel in time!
We returned, not by the main road, but on a narrow path alongside the railway track. Why? It just seemed like a good idea at the time. We assumed it would be a short cut and we knew that the train tracks would lead to DLA. We hadn't expected the long, unlit, railway tunnel. That provided some excitement because, about halfway through, we heard a train approaching but we couldn't make out whether the train was approaching us from behind or ahead. We reached the far end barely 30 seconds ahead of the train. I just had time to throw my bike down and get my camera ready before the train came roaring out of the tunnel with a loud blast of its whistle and the driver waving his arms furiously at us.

I see from my diary that on the day we foolishly cycled through that railway tunnel, I completed reading Nevil Shute's most recent novel In the Wet and thought it terrific. (Wikipedia in 2017 describes the book thus: “It contains many of the typical elements of a hearty and adventurous Shute yarn such as flying, the future, mystic states, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”)

Above: I took this pic of the main street of Diyatalawa village during our short stay at the Rest Centre.
On the Monday morning the weather was no better and so we decided to leave on the night train. After breakfast we walked to the main camp and arranged for transport to pick us up at 7.30pm to take us to the railway station. The train left on time at 8.10pm. We made ourselves comfortable in a first class compartment. Don, who had travelled the route several times, said he always did that because if a ticket collector came around he would just turn you out and no more said. Our first-class compartment was complete with its own lavatory and wash basins and the seats could be converted into two bunks. After about half an hour we did that and tried to get some sleep. Just before midnight we stopped at a station called Nanu-Oya, 5,201 ft (1,585m) above sea level. A ticket collector came round while the train was standing in the station. We gave him our tickets and he scrutinised them carefully.

"These are second class," he said.

"I know," I replied immediately, before Don could say anything. "We want to pay the extra and go first class." I thought I had better say that as the collector seemed the conscientious type.

"It will cost a lot," he said thoughtfully. "Perhaps 30 rupees each."

"Oh well, in that case we'd better move out," I said, "because that's far too much."

He then said we would have to pay the excess fare up to that point and went off to work it out, taking our tickets with him. He came back a few minutes later and said we would have to pay a total of 27 rupees which comprised a fine of 10 rupees plus 3½ rupees for the excess fare for each of us. All our arguments were in vain, so we had to pay up and move out of first class. He seemed very relieved when we did so and helpfully explained that he was only doing his duty and couldn't charge us anything less. He 'escorted' us into an empty second class compartment, gave us a receipt, then waved to the guard who blew his whistle and the train moved on. It cheered us slightly when we realised that we had kept the train waiting.

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