Kitulgala: Rocks, rapids and retreat | Sunday Observer

Kitulgala: Rocks, rapids and retreat

DIFFICULT TASK: The gushing water of Maskeliya Oya with rubber rafts rushing down the river evading rocks.
DIFFICULT TASK: The gushing water of Maskeliya Oya with rubber rafts rushing down the river evading rocks.

The air is heavy with humidity on a gloomy morning while Maskeliya Oya (Kelani Ganga) off Kalukohutenna in Kitulgala rumbles lazily. Far away in the forest canopy a crested serpent eagle seeks prey for breakfast. Meanwhile, yellow coloured heavy earthmoving machines load rock fragments into trucks at the site of the hydro power house construction on the bank of the river.

Soon, a group of surfers - armed with colourful life jackets and paddles - emerge from the far end of the rocky Maskeliya Oya to settle themselves in the colourful rubber rafts rushing down the river, evading rocks and flying down rapids. In a few moments these rafts vanish around the bend of the river. Still the rafters can only glance at the beauty of the river and its banks dressed in green. Indeed, this is a usual sight if you travel to the bank of Maskeliya Oya at Kalukohuthena in Kitulgala.

Adventure activities

Kitulgala, just 90 km from Colombo, has become synonymous with white water rafting in recent times, but there are other adventure activities as well – rappelling, bird watching, jungle treks, 15- to 25-ft high waterfall jumps, waterfall abseiling, sliding down the natural slides in the forest, and so on. The river, where it is shallow, can be crossed on foot holding on to a rope. The trip inside the ‘Bandara Kele’ forest must literally be taken with a pinch of salt to tackle the leeches. Though the town largely attracts rafters, both, foreigners and locals, photographers, birders and naturalists, it also offers a serene stay by the gushing river for the not-so- adventurous. In fact, it is a location worth visiting.

When you reach Kitulgala, a number of scenic bungalows, and the age old Kitulgala Rest House can be hired for a stay, but any of the resorts and guesthouses spread along the bank of the river will provide the most picturesque settings. Some guesthouses run whitewater rafting adventures, hiking and bird watching sessions and display a wide array of items such as, paddles, life-jackets, helmets and rubber rafts in front of the premises.

Kitulgala is one of the wettest places on the island and remains lush throughout the year, vibrant with life. Most bird species including the endemic ones, found in the Sinharaja rainforest are found in the forests of Kitulgala too. Many people just bathe, swim and play in the shallow parts of the Kelani Ganga, which is wider at Kitulgala. It rushes and foams over the rocks at places, and in the deeper areas, flows more or less silently. Whitewater rafting starts in the morning and goes on till evening.

Whitewater rafting is very thrilling and gives more than a few chills and gasps as the raft goes crashing through the seven rapids. For the really daring, the boat is suddenly tipped over and you will find yourself in swirling foamy waters - to swim back to the boat or just drift downstream. For this experience one has to don a life jacket and a helmet. As experienced guides are with you, there is no danger. Towards the end of the rafting, before the last killer rapid, the raft passes the iconic remnants of the bridge built for the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Once the final rapid is conquered, one can jump from the raft and do some body rafting at the milder rapid that follows. You just let your body drift and bobble with the currents, which are swift at first but become calmer. You finally come out of the river exuberant. I met a group of avid rafters who had finished rafting. Most of the Sri Lankan rafters in Kitulgala who set out into the wilds in search of a change of scene are professionals in various fields.

After a hectic workload in office, once in a blue moon, they come to spend a whole day with nature. “I too wanted a change from all the stress and tension of work life. In the wilderness, your mind becomes as open as the world around you. I love rafting because it is relief, relaxation and exhilaration all rolled into one. “With each rapid, you become a different person, having experienced and observed nature at its best,” says Amith Rukshan, an executive at a reputed bank in Colombo.

River without water

Expert team builders also take corporate groups to Kitulgala for team-building through adventure sports. The evening invariably ends with bonfires near the rushing waters, barbecue and music. Both, men and women who go to these camps filled with anxiety and reluctance return calling it the best trip of their lives.However, rafting groups fear that one day, the construction of a hydro power station in the bank of the Maskeliya Oya at Kalukohutenna in Kitulgala, will probably kill off the now thriving whitewater rafting sport. “The tunnels are now under construction to divert water from the Kelani Ganga and once the project is completed a section of the river will run dry,” lament the villagers. The Sri Lanka Whitewater Rafting Association is a grouping of over a dozen firms and hundreds of individuals directly involved­ in adventure tourism in Kitulgala.

The local whitewater rafting enthusiasts say the section that will be affected has the best rapids – 17 in all, classified as class 3, which is considered not too easy and not too dangerous and the best location. In fact, some 5,000 local families depend largely on tourism generated as a result of whitewater rafting in the Kelani Ganga.

Still, we can admire the beauty of the river. The surfers are a breed who are out for adventure. The unpolluted river and its environs need to be protected from the modern world’s activities. That is the only wish for preserving Kitulgala undiluted.  

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