A ride through the 'Gateway to Miracle'
A foundation stone calls it a "Gateway to Miracle". Quite often, the quality of roads and highways is seen as an indicator of a nation's development. If that yardstick is applied to Sri Lanka as well, then the Southern Expressway has given everyone a good reason to brag. And why not? The swanky highway makes it possible to zoom from Colombo to Galle in just one hour, perhaps even sooner, if you've got the right wheels. It siphons off at least two and a half hours off the regular journey via the old Galle Road, which is very much in use and remains toll-free.
Inaugurated on November 23, 2011 by the president Mahinda Rajapakse, the expressway begins at Kottawa, a Colombo suburb, and ends at Pinnaduwa, after bypassing Galle town centre. For a country that survives largely on road transport, this project would come as a blessing for the time-conscious traveler. Work is underway to stretch it to Matara and the upcoming international airport in Mattala, near Hambantota.
Having made several trips to Galle, the charming drive by the old road made the trip all the more worthwhile. The old Galle Road begins at Galle Face in Colombo, cuts through the bustling business district of the city, passes the sea-facing suburbs of Dehiwala and Mt Lavinia before hitting the outskirts. A good chunk of the journey runs parallel to the sea, with the waves kissing the tar. The railway line too adds to the allure. The journey is dotted with beachside resorts with varying degrees of luxury, beachhouses, souvenier shops on the roadside, fishing villages, commercial towns, railway intersections etc. The temptation to stop at every vantage point and take pictures could add another half an hour to your journey.
The expressway, though, doesn't run by the coast, as I had imagined. The sea surfaces only at the end of the journey. I decided to shell out the Rs 400 toll charge to see what the fuss was about. Having been used to the traditional, narrower inter-city highways, including a backbreaking pot-holed journey from Habarana to Trincomalee (in 2002), this expressway was unlike anything I'd experienced here. The six-month old highway still had the freshness of a brand new car. What was bizarre, though, was the lack of life on the surrounds. The road cuts through trees and rock faces on either side, there are no villages, no vehicles parked on the side with tired travelers having a stretch to get the blood pumping, no roadside motels or restaurants. The lack of traffic was also puzzling, even in the wee hours of the morning. No surprises though that I reached Galle in an hour. It was surreal.
Would I zip down this road again? Certainly, if I had a license to drive here. But for old time's sake, if I had time to kill, it's the old Galle Road for me.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo