November-December 2004: a bunch of wild Russian kayakers paddle Sri Lanka.
Article by Oleg Golovkin
We were a group of 8 kayakers who lured into Sri Lanka - supposedly a lush tropical paradise full of creeks with road access. We had no information about the rivers except for a few recommendations of Andy Sommer who had driven around and pointed out a few potentially interesting locations, and an article in national geographic about SL with a brief reference to a kayaking trip of Brad Ludden a few years earlier.
The climate is quite warm and humid, however the nights around Nuwara Eliya can be chilly with temperatures going down to +10?C. The water is warm, so short sleeved drytops or just thermals are quite adequate.
The rivers look brown and not really potable, with lots of garbage in the trees left from the monsoon. The country is densely populated and cultivated, roads are narrow and crowded, it takes a lot of time to get around in a car. During our trip we did not encounter any dangerous wildlife.
We were all taking Lariam against malaria because there were some mosquitoes. Unlike the ones in our area, they are almost silent and the bites do not itch too much. The locals in the NE area said that there's no malaria there but you just never know.
The 1st bunch of our guys who arrived 3 days before the rest of us told us to leave the sleeping bags, tents, fleece, etc. at home, to avoid $40/kg overweight charge. Now I regret this advice a lot. A light sleeping bag or a silk insert could have been quite useful, as the small hotels offer pretty lived-in beds. We had to buy our own sets of sheets. A mosquito net would also have been a good idea... The hotels are OK and cost around 5-10 USD per night, with or without a 2-3 USD breakfast. The currency is SL Rupees, the rate at the time of our trip being a convenient ~100 rupees/USD.
It was quite difficult to arrange the vehicles. The car rented and prepaid through the Internet with a large local renting company, well in advance, turned out not only currently unavailable, but rather non-existent. The 1st group rented the 4WD that was checked-in by Andy Sommer, and the 2nd group had to take a Toyota Hi-Ace van with a driver but without roof racks. 2 kayaks traveled inside, 2 were tied on top through the windows.
There were maybe one or two heavy rains and the water levels generally were low everywhere. Probably it's better to go 1-2 months earlier.
The Kotmale Oya (the 'leach river') was I think the most interesting one. We ran it in 2 days, the shorter section from road bridge in Talaweke to the St .Clair falls (60-some meters feature) in about 3-4 hours. We started the portage on river right, figured that we would not finish the river before darkness anyway, and discovered that returning to the river would be much easier thru the tea plantation on the left bank. The lower section on the 2nd day was longer and more interesting, 5-7 hours of overall grade 4-5 with mostly wide ledge type drops and several rapids. This could be done faster if you don't have too many cameras. There were quite a lot of siphons, the rocks in this area are apparently quite soft and easily form caves and tunnels.
We found the local flora well equipped with spines, barbs and thorns of all sorts. Lots of leaches, especially on this river, found us fresh and attractive... These creatures live in the wet grass, sense blood and have suction cups on both ends to move around and hold on to the sponsor's body. They are difficult to take off, and the blood keeps on trickling for a long time. The locals use salt or soap to take them off and kill them. We had all sorts of ideas how we would spray and sprinkle salted water to turn ourselves less tasty. But none of that was realized the next day of course. I found that the long thermals pants and sleeves do quite well to reduce the damage. At least make sure you inspect the ankles and your more sensitive and valuable areas if wearing shorts :))
We teamed up with our driving crew on the road bridge a few km above the Kotmale lake. Ramboda falls inn is a nice & classy place to stay, good meals and very nice views.
After the Kotmale Oya we went North to Kandi area. We ran one short section on the river flowing north, from the mountains towards Kandi, with nothing on it. On the way to Matale we found a promising stretch but discovered that it's diverted and goes into a pipe.
Another interesting one was the Badulla Oya, downstream of the 2 waterfalls (Dunhinda falls 63 m and a ~25 m drop 1 km below).
Dunhinda Falls is a landmark with paid admission; a 1 km trail leads to the pool at its base. The lower 25 m falls at our water level is not really runnable; it's free to see and the locals can show the trail down to the river almost to the pool under the drop. The interesting section starts right there; it is not long with several fun drops and rapids, one 5-6 m fall and 1 portage. The portage at our water level was easiest through the rock island on the left side, and the last boulder-choked 3 m drop is runnable. We took out at the road bridge.
The Oma Oya could be a nice multi-day trip, but we were not prepared for this. We ran a short fun section visible from the road NuwaraEliya-Badulla with several nice low volume drops.
We also ran the rafting river (Kalu Ganga) flowing along the major road Colombo - Nuwara Eliya, you can't miss it. The upper part flowing out of a lake looked promising on the map but we discovered that it's been diverted into a pipe. We put in at the power station and paddled to the end of the rafting section and beyond - a 2 hrs trip class 3 and a dangerous 'bonus' rapid after a long flat section! This innocent-looking feature took its toll of one scary but happily-ended trashing in a sink-type hole with no exit, two swims and two graceless flips against the wall.
And our guys who'd arrived a few days earlier ran the 2 sections on the Sitawaka. There're 4 waterfalls, 2 of which were runnable. During our 2nd week we thought about going there again but the overall impression of those who'd been there was that it was not worth the drive.
Wade, an American who lives in Colombo ('Borderlands Sri Lanka' firstname.lastname@example.org), has some information about one river, the Belihul Oya. We were there, and there was no water at all, maybe 1 m3/s.
In the end of our trip we headed south from the main mountains to the Ratnapura area (found nothing there), drove farther south-east along the Delgoda Ganga and it was flat and possibly diverted into a pipe for power station, found a dry 'skeleton' of a class 4-5 creek on the highway going south to Ambalantota.
Surfing was OK at the Hikkaduwa area but I wasn't in shape to enjoy it :(( I was the only lucky one to get some unidentified mosquito fever with temperature up to 40?C, red rash and headaches. I got sick during the last 3 days in SL, and spent 8 days in an infection hospital at home. I recovered without taking any serious medication in about 1 week after I got sick. No clear diagnosis.
We escaped the Tsunami calamity by about 2 weeks. I hope the people we met survived it...
Good luck to all who go paddling in Sri Lanka!
December 2004, Moscow, Russia