Riding the RAPIDS | Sunday Observer

Riding the RAPIDS

Lynn Culbreath Noel was right when he said that “The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are”. My first and only experience of riding the rapids of the Kelani River is something I wish I could forget. Please bear in mind that there are dangers associated with this sort of activity. This element of danger is what makes white water rafting appeal to the thrill seeker in you. But, despite all safety measures and training, the possibility of something going horribly wrong does play at the back of the mind of novices and veterans alike.

Therefore, before we dive in, let me remind you that your safety is your own responsibility; don’t put your life in the hands of a stranger. Choose a reputed and licensed white water rafting company, listen to all the instructions, don’t be shy to ask questions and clarify doubts, double check your equipment, and last but not least, make sure that the conditions are appropriate for rafting.

Contrary to popular belief, white water rafting is not a physically demanding sport. If you are at an average level of fitness and willing to face your fears and take up the challenge, you’re good to go! Also, you don’t need to know how to swim! Life jackets or personal floatation devices, which are mandatory for this activity, will help you stay afloat. Apart from the handful of rafting fanatics who engage in the sport regularly, the general populous consider white water rafting to be a recreational activity. Especially popular amongst the youth, many associate this exhilarating water sport with team building activities. Hence, quite a number of corporates include White water rafting as part of their outbound training portfolio.

If you do a bit of research, you will find that white water rafting is categorized into grades based on the difficulty and danger of the rapids.


Grade 1: for those with very basic skill levels, consist of small rough areas that require slight manoeuvring.


Grade 2: for those with basic paddling skill, consist of rough water and rocky areas that require manoeuvring.


Grade 3: for those with paddling experience, consist of white water, small waves and drops that require significant manoeuvring skills.


Grade 4: for those with prior white water rafting experience, consist of white water, rocks and considerable drops that require sharp manoeuvring.


Grade 5: for those with advanced white water rafting experience, consists of white, large waves, rocks and drops that require precise manoeuvring.


The most common and popular white water rafting destination is Kithulgala. Kithulgala is about a 2 ½ hour drive from Colombo along the Hatton Road via Awissawella. If you plan on taking the bus, you can get onto a Hatton bus starting from the Pettah Bus station.

Did you know that the wooden bridge that is seen in the movie ‘Bridge on the river Kwai’ was shot in Kithulgala? The moment the bridge is blown up in the 1957 film about prisoners of war during World War II, is one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time!I found an article online that said the Sri Lankan authorities are planning to rebuild the bridge where it was originally built as a set for the Oscar winning movie. This location is a tourist hot spot, so don’t forget to head over there when in Kithulgala.

The rapids in Kithulgala are spread across a 6 km stretch of the Kelani River, and it would take you roughly 1 ½ hours to raft from start to finish. Similar to other sports that involve a circuit or track, the rapids have been given names based on their distinct characteristics. Head Chopper, Virgin’s Breast, Butter Crunch, Killer Fall and Rib Cage are some of the names assigned to the rapids.Though these names sound scary, the rapids that you find in Kithulgala are categorized as Grade 2 and 3.

For the more seasoned rafter, you can try ‘Black Rafting’ in Kithulgala. Black Rafting is possible on the night of a full moon, the night before and night after. It’s basically, white water rafting in the moon light! Romantic isn’t it? In addition to the standard safety gear you will be equipped with a headlight when Black Rafting.

Kithulgala is placed in the wet zone rain forest, making it an ideal place for adventure based training camps. You will find many establishments that offer an array of other activities apart from white water rafting. Trekking along rain forest trails, canoeing, camping, stream slides, confidence jumps and bird watching are some of the activities that are available for you to choose from.

My suggestion for anyone who is planning a trip to go to Kithulgala, is to do your research first. As I’ve said before, there are many establishments that offer expertise and equipment for you to partake in these adventure sports. Look at the packages that are on offer, the gear available, and most importantly read reviews and chat with people who have gone before you. Their feedback will help you to make a decision. Most packages include lunch, so you’re set for a day out. And I highly recommend going camping with a BBQ dinner if you plan on staying overnight!

If you are an experienced rafter with a few years of experience you can find rapids ranging from Grade 3 to 4 in some parts of the Mahaweli River near Ulapane close to Gampola and certain parts of the Kotmale River in Hatton contain rapids of Grade 4 to 5, which are extremely dangerous and can cause death or serious injury.

To wind up, I must reiterate, the dangers that are associated with these extreme water sports. Yes, it’s a heap of fun and you get this amazing sense of achievement when you complete the activity. But, all this is possible if everything goes according to plan. Please make sure that safety is your number one priority when engaging in extreme sports!