Kayaking Down the Majestic Mahaweli River

Wednesday April 11 – After four hours of sorting and sifting, and packing the truck and trailer with camping gear comprising kayak’s and paddles, blankets and tents, cool boxes and cans of food, fresh vegetables and frying pans, it took us another nine hours of tedious maneuvering through the frenzied last minute shoppers, until we reached our ‘push in’ point at the Nippon Bridge at Mahiyanganaya.

Thursday April 12 – After grabbing a quick nap in the vehicle, we were up at 6 am and ready for some adventure organized by Borderlands – kayaking from Mahiyangana to Manampitiya, down the majestic Mahaweli River. We spent the morning unloading and sorting out the camping gear for eight adventurous campers. By afternoon, all of us had gathered by the riverside to grab a quick bite, study the map and for a detailed trip briefing. We were given a lifejacket and a whistle each along with a dry bag and barrel to store our personal belongings. Then, one last tug and tuck on our kayaks to secure our belongings and off we were.

After the initial floundering and stalling, we seem to get the hang of paddling and steering the kayaks. We are off! About an hour later, we come to our first camp site on a sandy bank of the river. Kosala gave us a ‘short course’ in setting up camp – putting up tents, storing water, utilizing space etc. A makeshift tarpaulin is our kitchen which comprises a gas cooker, our pots and pans and cool box with dry rations and vegetables. Whilst the men collect firewood and pitch tents, Kosala and I prepare our first dinner, a BBQ on the sand banks.

Friday April 13 – It’s the New Year! After quick breakfast, we are ready to take off again. Kayaks secured with bags and barrels, faces covered against the searing sun, skin smeared in sunblock, we set off. Nothing prepares me for the beauty that we encountered along the way. Apart from the various birds that brighten the sky with their color and bird call, the landscape is surreal.  At every turn, the vista of the land ahead of us was breathtakingly beautiful.

After about seven hours of kayaking, with a quick stop for lunch, we find a suitable camp site – a beautiful patch of land up the river bank. Mooring our kayaks, we haul our essentials up the steep bank. After clearing the undergrowth and setting up camp, our meals cooked, we sit around a huge campfire which also doubles up to scare away errant wild elephants.

Bathing in the river is also scary as the waters are rife with crocodiles. But, no crocodile was going to impinge on our necessity to wash away the sweat and tiredness of the day!

Saturday April 14 – An early start to another fabulous morning. Whilst Kosala and I prepare a breakfast of eggs and sausages over the open fire, the others  break camp. Tents are packed away, boxes are shut tight and gear is stored carefully and we set off. By now, we are kayaking along the borders of the Wasgamuwa National Park. Along the way, we encounter our first rapids that make me shiver. This is the first time that I am faced with the roaring and churning waters. As our kayak enters the rolling water, it overturns and I fall headfirst into the gushing water. I come up spluttering and clawing at the nearest rocks. My fear soon gives way to the desperate attempt to stay afloat and keep my feet up to avoid banging them against the rocks. Soon I am wedged against a rock and cling onto dear life. Kosala throws a rope that I miss. But with clear instructions I manage to creep over the slippery rocks and gushing waters and climb safely back onto the kayak. But I was now prepared for the many more rapids that we encounter and take the falls gracefully!

That evening, we come across a beautiful, surreal glade with a ground cover of dried red leaves that reflect off the evening sun. Walking in further, the place is strewn with the bones of an elephant carcass. We stop in our tracks and gaze at this amazing sight that sends a shiver down my spine. This is sacred ground.

We set up our camp site and reminisce about the past three nights and enjoy a dinner of fresh fish and pasta. As we crawl into our tents, we gaze out at the clear night sky and listen to the sounds of nocturnal critters until it’s our turn to stoke the camp fires that are meant to keep away the wild elephants.

Sunday April 15 – We pass numerous sand mining places, both legal and illegal! At many places, the river is very low and we have to get off our kayaks and drag our boats to deeper waters. Then, as we kayak around the corner, we espy the famous Dimbulagala rock, and in the distance, the temple looks minute against the massive rock face. As we proceed towards the rock, Vikum shouts out a warning- elephants in the water! Two large elephants are swimming across the river just ahead of us. We race towards them to get a better look. The large pachyderms, startled by our intrusion, make a hasty retreat onto the bank, and trumpeting in protest climb over and take refuge in the thick jungle.

As we come to the end of our epic journey under the Manampitiya Bridge, I have mixed emotions. I am elated to have completed three nights, four days and almost 78kms along the majestic Mahaweli River. Unbelievably awesome!

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