Whitewater rafting in Kithulgala, Sri Lanka

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Our latest guest blogger, Florence from Canada, writes about going whitewater rafting in Kithulgala with her brother:

Our adventurous detour to Kithulgala was quite spontaneous. We were in the middle of our Sri Lankan vacation in the Hill Country when my brother stumbled upon this English-language advertisement for whitewater rafting. We had planned trekking and some light cycling in the mountains, but, as neither of us are sticklers for timetables, we decided to take a detour to this small, western town.

Driving towards Kithulgala.

Driving towards Kithulgala.

Kithulgala is about 2 hours by car from Hatton, or about 3 hours if you are travelling from Colombo. Our drive was postcard scenic, filled with mist-covered mountains in the distance, rubber and tea plantations and lush, tropical greenery all around. We drove on a narrow highway alongside milk-tea colored Kelani River, where we were about to go whitewater rafting as it flowed through Kithulgala.

Kithulgala is hardly a tourist hub. It’s a laidback town with many mom-and-pop shops catering to locals. We drove past a small temple to our stunning riverside eco-lodge. The lodge was not pretentiously decorated; it just relied on the natural beauty of the area for appeal. Our rafting package included overnight, half board meals, equipment and a guide. Overall, the prices were surprisingly cheap compared to other countries like Thailand.

Our room at the ecolodge. For some reason they gave us three beds.

Our room at the ecolodge.
For some reason they gave us three beds.

When we arrived the cordial staff welcomed us with steaming cups of Pure Ceylon tea. We took some time to enjoy the impossibly picturesque views and the unbelievably fresh air. I could feel my city-abused lungs healing with each breath I took under a shady mango tree. After we checked into our room, we got into a pickup and were driven through winding roads to the Kelani River. We were accompanied by Supun, who doubled as our tour guide and safety instructor.

We walked through a rubber plantation to our starting point and were greeted by a furious river, much different from the smoothly flowing body of water we had driven past earlier. Kelani River was wider here, with foaming water fast moving over moss-covered rocks. Supun showed us how to properly put on lifejackets as we got onto our bright-yellow inflatable boat. He also gave us a crash course on the five basic rafting commands we were to follow: “forward,” “backward,” “release,” “hold the rope” and “fall back.” Then we embarked on our 5km whitewater rafting trip.

For the first 500m or so we paddled gently, getting used to the equipment and enjoying the riverside scenery. It was Supun who actually navigated the boat. The river became rougher as we neared the rocks. It was never too rough though, as the rapids on Kelani never exceeded Class 3 mildness. Still, it was quite fun. We encountered our first rapid at a place where the water squeezed through some rocks. The boat almost shook and we screamed throughout. When the flow was calmer, Supun told us it was okay to jump into the water if we wanted. Boy, did we! I jumped in straight from the raft and my brother did a backflip into the water. We swam a bit near some rocks. As the river was quite shallow at this point, Supun said we could try body rafting. So I stopped splashing about and let my lifejacket take me down the river.

Whitewater rafting on river Kelani. This isn’t us, but a group we saw from the banks.

Whitewater rafting on river Kelani.
This isn’t us, but a group we saw from the banks.

After rafting, we went on a trek through the surrounding tropical jungle. There were many rocks to climb over and tree branches to avoid. Supun expertly guided us through the trek, too. He was very apt at identifying the many exotic birds chirping all around us. (I don’t actually remember the names of the birds now.) Halfway through, we met Kelani River again, this time languidly flowing through the jungle into a rock pool. We took our shoes off, put on lifejackets again and slid down the rocks into the emerald pool below. Imagine an all-natural water park. Supun said we could try the “confidence jump” and pointed to the highest rock there. I chickened out at first, but after my brother tried it, I jumped too, twice.

We had a delicious picnic lunch on the banks of the river. All the food items the lodge packed for us were strictly Sri Lankan—rice with an assortment of colorful curries, local salads and crispy papadams. They offered us local pudding in little plastic containers for dessert.

Kitulgala Kelani river

The Kelani River seen from a bridge.

We returned to our lodge about two hours later, completely exhausted. The staff arranged some afternoon tea for us. We sipped Earl Gray strolling through the beautiful gardens of the lodge, which had small wooden bridges over rivulets. Really, Kithulgala is great not just for thrill-seeking, as we initially thought, but also for just relaxing immersed in unspoiled natural beauty. We left the following day, completely happy and utterly satisfied that we came on this wonderful detour.

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