Chapter 1: The place where river meets a jungle
I made a quick glance at my watch, it took me a while until my eyes got used to the darkness, using the radium dials I could barely see that it was just passed the midnight. We left the heart of Colombo, Capital city of Sri Lanka a good half an hour ago, in a small bus heading for Dehiattakandiya, a rural city in the eastern forestlands of Sri Lanka.
Our bus was boarded with a group of 20 or so strangers who would become my fellow adventurers for the coming three days, heading in to the wilderness together to explore the Mahaweli River on a pack of kayaks. At that point none of us, even in our wildest imaginations could ever dream of the incredible journey that awaited us. Moments including paddling through the rapids, coming across crocodiles and wild elephants, camping in the river bank in night are merely a few once in a life time moments we were fortunate to hold on to.
As I write this from the comfort of my home “I can simply take myself to a kayak peacefully floating down the Mahaweli with wind in my face, river gently sending ripples as we paddle on through the morning mist, fish jumping out of the water and the sound of wind rustling the leaves of riverside trees, it was nothing short of heaven on earth”.
I gazed out of the bus window and realized that bus is cruising along the road that leads to Kandy, my thought were disrupted by a my wife’s deep breathing who has already fallen asleep next to me.
‘Hey, did you see the new Top Gun; Maverick movie?’
Came a voice searing through the back seat, I was all ready to answer only to realize it wasn’t directed towards me, it was two girls who just met trying to settle in to a conversation.
“Gee..uh…lemme see, Isn’t it a motor car show hosted by some elderly British guys?”
Urggh..! I said to myself, can there be someone who doesn’t know about the movie ‘Top Gun’ in the planet earth.
“Well, that’s ‘Top Gear’ darling, Top Gun is Tom Cruises sequel to Top Gun movie he did somewhere in 90s”
Came a giggling response from the other girl.
I was itching to be a part of the conversation, since the sleep was nowhere near for me and i have had the pleasure to see the awesome movie the week before in theatre.
But it wasn’t to be, since my wife started sending out light snorting and I simply couldn’t get through the awkwardness of introducing myself in a dim lit bus around 1.00 am in the morning and didn’t dare enough tap in to a girls chat.
You should know a little something about me, I have a problem with sleeping in moving vehicles, which I cannot ever seem to do. May be it’s the motion sickness, if the vehicle starts to get too wobbly it only takes seconds for nausea to set in with a dizziness, so I knew that sleeping wasn’t an option.
No matter how hard I forced myself to sleep, I simply couldn’t. May be it was the excitement thinking about what lies ahead of us for the next few days. This was the first time that I was going to kayak for three long days that too in a river that is infamous for large crocodiles, wild elephants crossings and notorious rapids that could make this my last trip.
Thinking back now, it could have been the thought of getting eaten alive that kept me awake!
Chit chatter from the backseat eventually died out, may be both girls fell asleep. I was looking in to the moving shadows in the dark as the bus kept on going.
I could see the empty streets of the small towns as we passed by, only one or two midnight ‘kottu‘ stalls were open with their bright green neon lights.
It was cold in side the bus and the leg space wasn’t enough for me to extend my legs irritant that didn’t let my body to relax and fall asleep.
Just as I was about to close my eyes in a dreamy haze, I felt the bus coming to a Stop. I opened my eyes and looked to the back of the bus, Sam our expedition organizer slithered pass a valley of backpacks stacked in the middle of the bus waking people on the way to the door asking us if we fancy a early snack at 2.30 in the morning. Looked like the driver wanted a rest so Sam thought its a good idea to stop to grab something to eat for anyone who feels like it.
Looking out of the bus, it took me a second to recognize the place, it was a place called ‘kos-kale’, which literally translates in to jack tree forest.
This little stretch of the road runs through a forest reserve, covered by a giant tree canopy which makes you feel like it’s night in the dead of the day. This place sits just beyond the outskirts of Kurunegala city, with a chain of thatched huts that has for many years offered the weary traveler with an array traditional Sri Lankan dishes which every on goer happily obliges to.
Only a handful of people got down, while some were still asleep, some might not have liked to leave the coziness of the bus while others might have hated the idea of food at this hour.
My wife was in too deep of a sleep to wake up, so I got off the bus alone with the thought “I’m simply going out for a breather nd to stretch my body a bit strictly not fancying any food!”
Besides who would in their right mind can eat at 2 In the morning!
Trust me for us Sri Lankans a hot beverage this early has a serious risk of sending wrong signals to the tummy, so I wasn’t planning to take the risk with no wash room in the vicinity.
Despite my best efforts to keep away from food, I walked right in to it as one of the guys from the bus who was already munching some gave me a friendly nod and pointed me to a plate full of ‘Pol roti’.
I vowed to myself that I would not be tempted but few seconds later there I was devouring a pol roti like it’s the last meal left on the planet.
The forest looked so ancient in the dead of the night, so calm and majestic. Giant trees stood from the darkness in both sides of the road like centuries old guard towers looking in to the horizon through the morning mist. Flames from the stove in the small boutique painted dancing shadows in the road side dirt floor.
I sat on a wooden bench, gazing at the shadows for a moment, sinking deep in to my mind, trying to grapple the meaning of life, with crickets chirping in the background.
Then I had a quick getting to know each other round amongst those handful of people who dared to have a roti in the morning.
While this was going on in the boutique side, there was this one girl who sat on the edge of the main road, when another said “hey, you better watch out the incoming traffic, don’t want you to get stomped by a truck on the first day!”
“Ah thanks for the concern missy” the one sitting replied trying to get herself up.
Then came a response from the other girl sent all of us in to a sea of laughter when she said “Don’t want to see the expedition getting cancelled without us seeing the river even, so you better get your butt out of the road little lady!”
At that moment I knew we’d be friends with this sharp tongued one and boy I was right.
We jumped in the bus as we still had some miles to cover before the day light hits, so I tried to force my eyes shut and got my self crawled with the hope of putting myself to sleep.
Finally I was blessed with some sleep, but not the long peaceful one you’d expect since I kept on waking myself up every time the bus went over a bump or a pot hole. The bus has now started climbing some steep hills and going through a jungle terrain, looking out of the window through the thicket gave me eerie set of feelings like some wild animal is out there to get us.
At about five o clock in the morning we arrived at a small inn, where we could rest for an hour or so until we begin the journey in to the Wasgamuwa National Park through Somwathiya National Park to Manampitiya bridge in Mahiyanganya where our kayaking expedition on River Mahaweli would end after three days.
We head several miles in a road that led us in to the jungle, bus dropped us in the road side. As i looked around all i could see was the trees as far as the eye can see, was an indication that we are about to enter the kingdom of wild.
I was thrilled and scared in the same time.
“Are we ready for this?” Since, once we enter the jungle now it will be after 3 days when we come out, we won’t come across any human settlements as we’d be travelling through the river Mahaweli that flows across several national parks.
“wait a little more guys, your Limousine is on it’s way!” shouted our crew leader.
We were trying to make our baggage’s waterproof when I heard this loud motorized thudding voice, I lift my head up and saw that our limo appearing through the jungle!
It was a tractor, yes I’m not kidding a tractor with a big trailer attached to it became our ride through the thatched jungle trail to the river.
After we loaded out belongings, kayaks together with ourselves the tractor started moving making rumbling noises taking us deep into the ‘Wasgamuwa National Park’. It didn’t take long for the forest to swallow us completely, as we headed towards the heart of jungle, I spotted elephant dung sprayed across in a small clearing, which only means one thing that we are cutting across an elephant pathway.
Then we came across an electric fence where had to lay ourselves ducking under a live electric wire meant to keep elephants away from coming towards the villages.
Sam, the tour curator spoke from the back of the tractor engine to which he clinging in to with a cunning smile.
“Guys, we have a little ritual that we do every time when we enter the jungle, everyone of you need gently tap the wire”
In my head I was going “don’t kid with the electricity mate”
We travelled at least three to four miles in to the jungle, crossing ragged terrain, getting branches catapult in to our faces and at times barely surviving getting knocked off the trailer.
And there it was, river Mahaweli majestically flowing through the jungle making little waves as she passed by. I was simply awestruck by the sheer beauty of the landscape, lush greeneries as far as the eye can see with river reflecting the isles of trees and it was breathtaking to be in that moment.
Then we had a quick instruction session on paddling, handling emergencies and wild animal encounters after which we loaded our backpacks in to our kayaks, refilled our water containers and off we went in to the water.
I remember the moment when we started heading in to the deep, a shiver went through my spine. As a sudden gush of thoughts about crocodiles lurking beneath the surface came crashing in a reel full of scenes from ‘lake placid’ to ‘primeval’ to ‘rogue’ to all other crocodile movies starting to play in my mind.
One thing that you need to know about Mahaweli is that it is home to both Mugger or Marsh Crocodile (Hela Kimbula) and the other is Saltwater Crocodile (Geta Kimbula), so my fears are justified beyond any doubt. Also it doesn’t help when as a child most of my nightmares were around crocodiles.
Surrounding forest and the serene landscapes were simply breathtaking, I started to feel blessed and grateful for my existence. Whispering sound the trees would make as a wind sweeps by, sound of the crickets in the backdrop and gentle sound of the river waves the whole atmosphere was surreal.
For the first couple of hours the coordination of peddling sucked big time for us, we were yelling, cursing and screaming at each other while other kayaks simply cruised ahead. We simply couldn’t get our paddling sorted out, at first I used to call for it.
I would shout ‘starting left’ when I start paddling from the left, followed by a command shouting ‘right’, and then the pattern continued. This actually gave me a sore throat in the evening, so you should get an idea of the amount of yelling I did.
‘Left..right..left..right..two lefts’ (when the boat was heading to the bank) but Darshi(my lovely wife) missed it and went on left the second one.
Then we used numbers ‘one’ for the left and ‘two’ for the right, didn’t take us long to ditch that method as well.
There came a time when all the other kayaks went way ahead of us as we couldn’t get our paddling to sync. We were frustrated, tired and had enough of it and may be for the first time felt that we weren’t prepared for this type of an adventure.
“Look at them, look at all the other people. How are they doing it, why can’t we?”
I was blabbering the same mantra again and again with the frustration to see that others going ahead.
During the first session of the first day I was so pissed at times, I simply took my oar out and let my wife do her thing, since she seemed to have had figured everything out about paddling. Once she realize that I am not paddling she would start yelling at me for not helping her do her thing.
We thought we were awful at this, only to find out later that every single pair on every other kayak has had the same problem. When we managed to solve our syncing issue starting from second half of the day, we never looked back since and managed to keep our kayak in the first two at all times till the end of our journey. (minus this one time, when we nearly sank our selves but that’s a story for another day)
After paddling for couple hours, we came across our first rapid, a passage of river that runs white and wild through rocks sticking up from the water. Lead kayak went ahead to assess the condition whether or not we can go through or too dangerous making us go around it.
After couple of boats capsized and one of us had a narrow escape from bashing his head on a rock, it was decided that most of us will cross the pass on foot while few selected volunteers got the chance to go for it. So I instinctively put my hand up, something I usually tend to do and regret later on whenever someone calls for ‘any volunteers?’ despite my wife’s warnings. My self and another couple of guys got the chance to cross the rapid on the kayak with lead kayaker taking turns to take us across.
When we slowly started paddling towards the rapid from the bank my heart started pounding like a machine. Then the second I saw the torrential gush of water roaring through rock formations gave me a rush of adrenaline.
Then came the lead kayakers voice roaring through the air screaming ‘paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle on’. Then I started paddling like crazy and the boat sweltered in the gush of water and there was couple of moments where I had my heart in the mouth.
I felt triumphant when we made it across and was hungry for more.
We also had a funny experience when we came across some local boys bathing in the river, they waited for us to pass and started mimicking the sound of an elephant simply to startle us. To their amusement, we fell for it and started paddling for our dear lives only to learn about the truth after paddling for a mile or two.
We also came across several groups of local fisherman who were using a traditional fishing method called ‘visi-dela’ (literally translates to throw casting net). When the net gets casted in to the air, it makes a magical design in the air for a split second before splashing in to the water, it truly was a sight to see.
One big mistake we did was not having enough beverages on board, an hour or two in the river under the simmering sun dehydration had set in. We ran through our energy drinks and protein bars even before the mid day. Then came the other critical mistake in the form of sunscreen, although we had one it was not water proof. So we learn the lesson hard way when sunscreen started melting down the skin with the scorching heat. I did come up with a workaround that involved getting ourselves wet with river water every 10-20 minutes or so, it did kept the body temperature down.
After paddling through the midday we came to a sandy river bank by later afternoon which would be our campsite for the night. The second our kayak got ashore, I felt a huge relief in my arms and shoulders, which were working nonstop from the morning. My fingers were hurting badly and couldn’t straighten them from a gripping position, but joys of adventure helped me to wash my pains away.
To freshen up, we had a quick bath in the river followed by a change of clothes and laid down in the tent that we got for ourselves.
I still remember the sigh of relief both of us uttered as our bodies hit the tent bed.
Our shoulders and arms were aching and bodies were severely dehydrated so we had to get ourselves rested for the rest of the journey. To add to our misery our clothing has all gone wet, water has seeped through the water proof bags and we had to get them dried out as well.
Dinner by the campfire, lead kayaker Sam had a guitar with him, although it was missing a string he manage to play a series of songs for us, lucky for us he not only had a guitar but a damn good voice too.
Going to that night in my mind, brings me an inner peace that words cannot begin to describe.
Sitting in a river bank under a starry sky, crackling sounds from the camp fire, sweeping wind rustling through the branches, peaceful sound of the river flowing, chirping crickets from the thicket, pitch dark surrounding with no light other than the moon, it was something pure magical, a scene out of a movie a book that you always fancied living in, you simply had to be there to feel it. (I let out a sigh of remembrance when typing this part)
My mind would settle in to a trance like status when I reminisce that evening. The meal we had for dinner, is something out of this world that I would not forget for my entire life, barbequed chicken, a Sri Lankan style mutton curry all being put on to a plate of noodles was a heavenly treat for a group of beaten up kayakers.
My mouth still gets watery merely thinking about it, and to have something like that after a day wrestling with the river is something else entirely.
We fell asleep dreaming about what River Mahaweli has in store for us, trust me she had more for us than we ever imagined. Well, that’s for the chapter 2 of the story if you’ve come this far.