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Kitulgala: Adventure On The River Kelani

The thrill-seeking and leisure charms of the town of Kitulgala are a rather well-known secret, centering around the confident rush of the Kelani river flowing through the area. An exhilarating activity roster that includes white-water rafting, canyoning, kayaking, mountain-biking and ziplining await, and thanks to it being a mere three-hour drive (or a Hatton or Nawalapitiya bound bus/train ride) away, can be easily accessed even for a day trip.

Though their expertise and equipment capacities may vary, a number of adventure tour operators can be found along the way to facilitate your interests. This writer tested the waters with the help of the Borderlands team.

When To Go (Especially To Avoid Leeches!)

While these early months of the year continue to be prime season on the southern coastline, it is similarly the best time to visit Kitulgala. In February, there is reprieve here from the two seasonal monsoons and yet, whilst being the driest period, the Kelani still moves with enough vigour to give the un-oriented or starter rafter adequate excitement and challenge.

White water rafting, one of the most popular water sports in Sri Lanka.

The surrounding hills are still a lush and handsome green, and with the humidity bearing down, the cool river is welcoming to dip into or to be doused by. Best yet, without any showering from above, the ground is less hospitable to leeches (only two, including myself, in our 14 person group got leeched).

Rafting, ‘Surfing’, And The Famed ‘Kwai Bridge’ (And Its Possible Destruction)

From the options listed earlier, our group took a go at rafting and canyoning. Three rafts, and an accompanying safety canoe were piled and secured with gusto on to the top of the truck that would drive us to our starting point, about 15 minutes further up river. They were then carried down to the river by our six awesome guides, while we, rather uselessly, grabbed a paddle each and some water bottles. Down by the water, secured in helmets and life jackets provided to us, we got a very thorough, at times humorous, and at times slightly unnerving, safety training. The lead trainer had a penchant for physical comedy and was effective in demonstrating rowing instructions ‒ and explaining what to do should we fall out. Then we were randomly counted off into our boats to practice what we had learned, and once deemed ready, each team of 5-6 and its guide (some had two) pushed off into the flow of the river.

The first rapid was relatively small but not knowing what to expect, the group was tensed. Once this is overcome though, the fun of it all can really be embraced. There is enough action going through each rapid (which maxed out at level 4 out of 6) for the adrenaline to kick in. In our case, we would row, be told when to jump down, brace, and (most enjoyably) taught to ‘surf’ ‒ an act of purposefully turning our boat against the current and rowing into the rapids till the water would wave on and fill the boat.

There are intermittent lulls of ebbing along through calmer spots as well. This provides a chance to engage with the sounds and sights of the local community in the midst of washing, doing laundry, swimming, and inebriated bera (drum) beating with great relish.  

It would be amiss to not mention that the bridge you walk along when crossing over to canyoning is the famed ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (built for the multi-Oscar winner filmed here in 1958). Coincidentally, the day after this trip, the bridge was front page local news on the Daily Mirror as the sad possibility looms that it will be dismantled to make way for an upcoming hydro-project. As stated alternatively here, the project potentially threatens this river tourism as well.

Canyoning (Or The Practice Of Leaping And Letting Go)

Canyoning: the exciting (and perhaps slightly scary) practice of leaping and letting go.

After an hour or so, having passed through a majority of the rapids, the boats are instructed to be docked for a switch over to the canyoning part of the late afternoon. A 15 minute hike through a light rainforest path leads inland to a clearing on top of a rock. Canyoning, with which this writer was unfamiliar, requires jumping off or sliding down into pools or potholes of water created in canyon rock surfaces by the powerful river wearing away at it (watch here).

This activity was a larger personal challenge, with a fear of heights working counter to instructions to jump off. However, thanks to encouragement and literal hand holding, the writer can attest to having completed up to the 8 foot penultimate jump. The finale is a 20 foot leap of faith.

Post-canyoning, we returned to our boats for one last rapid. This rapid was followed by an opportunity to jump out and swim around, prior to concluding with a sunset row past the most majestic lone cotton tree ‒ rooted tall with stoic grace upon the embankment.

There is a need to wax poetic for a moment about the six guides who led the team that day. They carried the weight of ensuring that everyone was as secure as possible throughout the experience, and it only required a quick look at another team’s raft during ‘surfing’ to realise whose hands really were holding things steady.

Particularly when facing the self-challenging 8 foot canyon jump, the offer of a guide who jumps alongside can be a great support.

Final Need-to-Knows

Kayaking, another adventurous activity that the Kelani river offers

To cover all bases, it is important to mention appropriate dress for the occasion. Closed-toed shoes (sneakers or clear dive shoes), quick dry clothing, and sports bras are the way to go. You could also wear a swimsuit underneath. You can pack some Siddhalepa/Tiger Balm to ward off the leeches too. Also, take a change for later. Borderlands has a spacious and clean changing room, with the added bonus of hot water.

Food wise, you can grab something en route, or if your tour operator is equipped they may offer this as part of the package (at a cost). Borderlands’ general charges are Rs. 4,000 for rafting, approx. Rs. 2,000 for canyoning, and Rs. 1,000 for a Galle Face Hotel catered lunch (dollar rates are slightly higher). For those thinking of staying the night after an afternoon on the water, Borderlands has a cosy chill out space with an open mic stage and bar area that looked mighty appealing too.

For those who can speak to other great guiding from alternative operators, please do give them some due appreciation in the comments section.

Editor’s Note: Although we did try to obtain our own images for this article, due to water damage we had to turn to other alternatives. All images sourced from www.discoverborderlands.com You can also check out some interesting video of things to do in Kitulgala here.

Cover image credit: discoverborderlands.com

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