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Canoeing the Kalu Ganga - "From the vantage point of a canoe, Emma Boyle embarks on an epic river journey from Ratnapura to Kalutara to explore the unique way of life surrounding the mighty Kalu Ganga"
Serendib ~ January/February 2009
by Emma Boyle


Before our departure, I imagined our trip to be easy; as we keenly watched wildlife, photographed scenery, and familiarized ourselves with rural village life, I envisaged the river steadily taking us on its meandering path downstream.

But I was more than a little mistaken! I hadn’t taken into account the 80km to be paddled over two days, or that the low river level meant we had to paddle hard. With the sun blazing down and a concerted effort necessary to row on nearly every stretch of the river, this trip was definitely an adventure and no easy ride!

But this made its completion all the more rewarding.

Our trip involved canoeing the Kalu Ganga ( ‘black river’) from the famous City of Gems,Ratnapura, to Kalutara on the west coast. Sourced in Adam’s Peak, the river flows for 129 km,which makes it the tenth longest river in Sri Lanka, and one of over 100 that keep the island verdant. We went with Eco Team, an adventure holiday company whose local knowledge and experience of everything off the beaten track in Sri Lanka is second to none. We were to spend two dayscanoeing and one night being pampered beside the river in one of the company’s well-organised moveable campsites.

Having woken up ridiculously early to drive from Galle to reach Ratnapura by eight in the morning, we met Eco Team beside the sacred Saman Devale temple a few kilometers west of the city. As our trip coincided with a full moon poya day, the temple was visually alive with white-clothed devotees carrying vibrantly coloured flowers to be offered to the Buddha, with their prayers.

Arriving at our start-point, we kitted ourselves out with bright orange lifejackets, and enthusiastically jumped into our green fiberglass craft – a type of sit-on-top kayak suitable for up to three people. Bottles of water, snacks, and our packed lunch were tightly wrapped and tied to the canoe. After a very brief demonstration from our guide Anil on the essentials of paddling, we headed off downstream.

Very little traffic moves along the river because the upper reaches are quite shallow, so the sight of our two kayaks and us in neontechnicolor as we passed local villagers certainly caused a stir. Children laughed, people stared, and photogenic sand miners –dressed in loincloths with makeshift turbans on their heads– called out to us from boats heavily laden with sand: “Hello! How are you?”; “Where are you going?”; and “Where are you from” would be answered in the simplest fashion – “Hondai” (good);“Kalutara”; and “England”. Each answer was greeted with a chuckle between colleagues happy for an interlude from the daily grind of dredging up sand from the bottom of the mineral-rich riverbed.

There are few bridges across the river. Instead, catamarans topped with wood and powered by men with punting sticks offer crossings to rural villagers who stand silently for the short distance across. The little jetties where these ferries moor are especially picturesque; wooden steps lead up through majestic stands of giant ochre bamboo whose feathery light green leaves rustle in the breeze. Little houses peeped out from behind the rich cloak of multi-green vegetation, vibrant hibiscus provided a touch of colour, while the laughs of children playing on the riverbank rang through the air.

We stopped for frequent rests to stretch our weary muscles. As we alighted from the kayaks our feet often slipped deeply into the velvety embrace of the soft silty mud, that was both disgusting and invigorating! On one occasion we stopped on a little stony beach where a farmer suddenly appeared directing his buffalo herd for a swim in the river. A gaggle of women followed behind and became fascinated by our method of travel. Laughing, they took out one of the canoes for a trial, chattering excitedly between themselves as they mimicked our paddle movements. While the women waved as we eventually departed, the wallowing buffalo were less trusting and gave us wildeyed looks as we innocently passed by.

Every part of our trip was unique, insightful, and fascinating; upriver was scenically different to ownriver with the slender, muddy brown flow eventually transforming into a greeny-black expanse that extended between paddy fields, rubber plantations, and palms.Birds – white-bellied sea eagles, blue-fronted bee eaters, electric blue kingfishers, turquoise parrots, and jet black cormorants – soared, darted and luttered majestically over the river and between the trees. Tea-green hillocks rose up above snakelike turns in the river and, like an oasis, seemed to take an eternity to reach.Huge tree boughs leaned over the river and brought welcoming shade from the sun.Despite the heat, the gentle breeze generated by our hearty rowing and inexpert splashing kept us sufficiently cool.

The river is generally calm and the flow barely noticeable in places; however, obstacles such as protruding sticks, rocks, and logs can still be enough to tip the kayaks over, which we discovered to our surprise on a couple of occasions! There are a few stretches in the middle section of the river where concentration is needed to navigate through some rapids as it flows quickly under a bridge in Kurugammodara and through a gorge but no previous experience is specifically required. If you are tired,Eco Team will come and pick you up at any time if you wish.

While we carefully meandered the frequent turns of the river on our first day, Eco Team was busy setting up our campsite at Anguruwatota: clearing the ground, pitching our tent, and arranging a makeshift bathroom with flushable toilet and fresh water shower. Raised beds are cosily dressed with khaki green sheets while towels, torches, slippers, soap, and umbrellas are thoughtfully provided for use.

On our arrival at sunset, it was a tremendous relief to be able to shower immediately and rest after such a strenuous day. Our tent was expertly sited for privacy and to maximize views over the river. The top sheet was strung up between two king coconut (thambili) palms and the tent was pitched on earthy ground flecked with manioc plants and young banana trees. As children played in the river across the way, the soulful chanting from a temple enlivened the air.

Dinner was a magical experience.With our way lit by kerosene lamps, we were ushered onto a boat arranged with a set table, which was moored in the middle of the river. Icy cold beer was served by candlelight as the darkness enveloped us. It was almost silent except for little splashes that gave away the fact that our three dinner courses were brought out individually from the shore by paddle boat.This organisation, high level of service, and romantic setting made us feel especially privileged.A satisfied full stomach certainly gave way for a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

The second day’s canoeing was very different to the first – instead of 64km (39 miles) we had only 16km (10 miles) to row. (The first part of the trip can be done over a much more leisurely two days if preferred). The river was wider and its flow weak, even becoming glass-like at times, but as the breeze chopped at the surface our progress was slowed. We passed the still-infantile construction of the new Colombo-Matara highway bridge and pressed on until suddenly the pinnacle of Kalutara’s famous bright white Gangatilaka Dagoba came into view. Elation at seeing our destination gave us an extra burst of energy to paddle so that when we finally reached Kalutara by midday our triumph and delight soon turned into exhaustion.

Every journey in Sri Lanka is rewarding, but a river trip even more so as it gives exclusive access into a rarely seen way of life where unexpected encounters with strangers –like the kind-hearted fishermen who pulled us out of the river when we capsized – are the norm. Although the paddling is undeniably tough, the scenery makes every stroke worthwhile.

A freelance travel writer and photographer, Emma Boyle splits her time between London & her adopted home of Sri Lanka.Further informationEco Team offers half-, one-, two- and three-day (two-night) canoeing trips on the Kalu Ganga for up to 12 people. Each is suitable for beginners, although the two-day trip is better suited to the more active as a good pace is needed to row the long distance on the first day. Trips can also be arranged on the Kelani River, Madu Ganga, and Bolgoda Lake.

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