For a country with such amazingly diverse topography and stunning flora and fauna, it is easy to miss all Sri Lanka has to offer if you are over on a surf trip. Once the ticket is bought, dreams of riding flawless tropical corduroy becomes all consuming. To think of anything else but quenching the thirst to surf just doesn’t enter the cerebral cortex…
We get it. In fact, I doubt any of the HABU crew would be thinking any differently. However, mother nature doesn’t always provide - Sri Lanka can be fickle. Living here has taught the HABU obsessives that subsistence on surfing alone just isn’t possible.
Earlier this year there was a prolonged spell of the doldrums. My dad was over staying with us too - A double whammy. To prevent our unspent energy levels coxing us into games of mischief, my wife strongly advised us to find a way to burn it off. Quick.
Before a ball had a chance to go through a window, my dad and I found ourselves booked on a 5-day river safari.
Being ushered out the door was a relief. There was no need to contemplate whether it might be worth scrabbling around with every other surfer on the island, trying to snag a one-foot wave at the only spot showing any swell.
As luck would have it, this flat spell coincided with what we were soon to discover as the best-organised adventure in Sri Lanka. We drove to Colombo and jumped in a van to take us to our orientation and safety lesson.
As Dad and I pull up in Stratford Avenue outside The Edge shop, a building which houses the Borderlands office, there’s only one other guy waiting for the van. His name is Malla, a doctor, and we couldn’t have been off to a better start. If you are going to be isolated from civilisation for a few days, packing a doctor would be top of my list.
Others soon turn up and the van departs before the shop opens- which is a shame as a 30-foot climbing wall has been spotted in the far corner. Well, probably best not to require Malla’s skills before the adventure had started.
It’s not long out of Colombo before the topography starts to morph. Paddy fields and jungle islands twist into rising rainforests. The roads meander more energetically and we slowly climb into the interior.
We are heading to the Borderlands main camp which is on the banks of the Kelani River in Kithulgala. It’s the part of the river where The Bridge On The River Kwai was filmed. It’s quite a journey, over 4 hours of weaving through jungle villages and valleys. Even for someone used to living in the tropics, the sheer variety of greens on display is intoxicating. The imagined benefits of mainstreaming rainforest oxygen had me slightly giddy.
By the time we reach Borderlands, we're so hyped we voted to delay lunch and get on the river immediately. We are here to learn the business of running open top canoes down rapids. Wade, our host, has quickly sized us up and had us fitted in suitable gear. The safety talk has to be endured before we are allowed on the water but I’m itching to get started. My ears pick up when Wade says we are doing the orientation in the Kelani river as there aren’t any crocodiles - I have a real fear of crocodiles. It’s only later I realise that the safari river, the Mahaweli, has crocodiles. Capsizing would be risky business.
Under Wade’s expert tutelage, we have grasped enough basics in a couple of hours. Even those of us who had never been in a canoe or in whitewater felt prepared. We have the essential paddling techniques, can right a waterlogged two-man canoe without putting a foot on land, read a little of eddies and rapids, and “ferry” across and run a low category rapid. Still amped and buzzing from achieving so much before lunch, we finally give into hunger and eat.
The afternoon is spent lazing by the river and getting to know the other adventurers. Dinner is served and the food provided by camp is amazing - we had lucked out again, one of the crew had brought some Cote de Boeuf over in his French suitcase. He BBQed- Result! First a doctor and now we have a Frenchman with a love for gastronomy on the trip. Having experienced the results, I’d definitely recommend packing a French gastronome if you can.
The next day is an early start, we’ve a 6-hour drive to the drop off point on the Mahaweli. The road, if anything, is more amazing than the previous day. Again, we meander along the edge of rain forested valleys, though now we are higher in the hills. There is a mist in the morning and as it swirls and burns off, more of the views become visible. It’s a slow strip, teasing and delighting as more becomes visible.
We cross a high pass South of Kandy and start heading down the East side of Sri Lanka’s spine. We’ve lucked out again, Chunky, one of the group (a Sri Lankan who seems to have dedicated every minute of his spare time to explore this land and its coasts), is a mine of local knowledge. The conversation changes direction as many times as the road. Between historical titbits (the Japanese’s non invasion of Sri Lanka during WII) to being cast adrift off the Great Basses, we pick up information on the river we will be running.
The Mahaweli is Sri Lanka’s longest river at 335km. The stretch we will be journeying on is 50 kms, (it’s 3 nights and 4 days - easy paddling). We will be passing through the Wasgamuwa National Park, it is wild and it is remote. There are elephants, crocodiles and everything else you would expect in a tropical nature reserve. And there are a few grade 1 and 2 rapids to get the heart going.
The adventure starts for real just downstream of the town of Mahiyanganaya. The river here is heavily mined for sand, the extent of which has been ramped up in recent years to supply Sri Lanka’s building boom. We have no difficulty finding access down one of the many tractor tracks to the river and start to unload the equipment. Everything we need for the 4 days we are taking with us, it gets packed away in the canoes and the support raft. We are a bit behind schedule as we push off. We paddle past the devastation the mining has caused the river.
There is now a sense of urgency to get out of the mining area and into the park before the light fades. To add a bit of spice there are rapids at the park’s entrance. The sun sets fast in the tropics and we are relieved to make the rapids in time. The sun still a hand span above the horizon.
We have enough time to stretch our legs, survey the rapids and take in the early evening views. The scenery has changed once again. Upstream the river narrowed after passing the sand miners. The rocks intermittently breaking the water’s surface, majestic Kumbuk trees draping their branches over the low river banks.
Wade is assessing the situation. The rapids are a grade 2 (he could do them with his eyes closed) but the water isn’t that high, making the angles between the exposed rocks difficult for a bunch of kooks to manage. I’ve got crocodile in the back of my mind, and while I’d be eaten before letting on to my Dad, I’m a little nervous.
Wade has other things on this mind, there is an equation to be examined:
- He knows that if someone capsizes the equipment stored in their canoe will be dumped into the river, carried downstream before it can be recovered.
- Immediately below these rapids is the beach we are to camp on.
- There isn’t another beach to camp on until a much longer set of rapids is navigated, roughly an hour downstream.
- We have less than an hour of daylight remaining.
It’s clear that if there is a capsize, by the time the equipment is recovered, we would be too far down the river to use the intended beach. We would have to head for the one further down- which would mean running the longer rapids in the dark.
There is no choice, we can’t afford to capsize. Wade gives the instruction to rope the canoes. The process involves leaving the canoes in the water and walking them down on ropes. It’s a slow process. To speed it up Wade wants to run a few canoes through himself and asks for volunteers - a great opportunity to run rapids with a pro. I put aside thoughts of being gripped in a death roll and nab one of the spots.
I’ve got the first run. Wade talks the rapid through with me, he shows me the intended line through the rocks and white water. After a final check that I understand the commands for the paddle strokes, we push off into the flow of the river.
Once you are in the current you are committed to the line, you need to be calculating your strokes by looking at what the river is doing way ahead. If you are only focused on getting around the immediate obstacle, you will likely be out of position for the next.
My adrenaline is up, the roaring in my ears is not just the river, so it’s fortunate Wade is as skilled as he is as I’m missing half of his commands. A few strokes are going wild. We are nearly through when we hit a standing wave at speed, slightly side on, the impact throws me off balance and I’m toppling the canoe over. There is a loud whack behind me as Wade smacks his paddle down flat on the water, using the leverage to right the canoe and steady us. With that we are through into the deeper water and paddling for the beach.
I act as goalkeeper and remain in the canoe below the rapids while the other two are run through. No one capsizes and all the equipment is safely through. In the twilight we set up camp, a large fire is lit and as night descends cold beers from the support raft are cracked open.
Chatting with our new friends, fully content in the knowledge the adventure has just started, I thank mother nature for the flat spell and the opportunity for new experiences.
Interested in running a river? Whale watching? Sea kayaking? Look up Borderlands at: www.discoverborderlands.com. With decades of experience between Sri Lanka and Nepal, you won't find a better organised trip, or better flat spell entertainment.