The Dream of Kayaking Mahaweli River
About 3 to 4 years ago one of my good friends & a fellow adventurer told me that he is going to Kayak along Mahaweli River for 3 days. Until this point, I had never thought about spending a couple of days paddling along a river, and with the load of work upon my shoulders, I conveniently forgot all about this expedition.
Then in 2019, I met Sameera at the British Canoeing Kayaking Course and that’s when I started planning to take part in the Mahaweli Expedition which was finally executed in October 2020. I had done multiple days camping in many beautiful locations in Sri Lanka while trekking, but this was the first time in my life that I was going to reach my campsite by kayak. The thought of kayaking an entire day and sleeping over in a campsite on the bank of a river; that too in the middle of a National Park was more exciting for me than all the rapids I had to paddle over.
Training for Mahaweli River Kayaking
How much importance do we give to training for our hobbies? Kayaking is an activity that engages your entire body and when done correctly, it can be turned into a good workout that is not so painful but eventually burns a lot of calories throughout the day. Even though the Mahaweli expedition was only a 3 days expedition I felt the need to train myself on core strength & cardio, because we had to paddle for 5-6 hours a day exposed to the sun for 3 days.
The most important training was the training on paddling techniques, rescue & safety, and technical training on rapids given by EcoGrip well ahead of the expedition. Between this technical training and the Mahaweli Expedition, we had a good one month to prepare ourselves & go on additional training if we needed to. My advice to anyone who wants to take part in Mahaweli Expedition is to first do a couple of short & long kayaking sessions with a professional instructor like Sameera at EcoGrip to get the feel of kayaking. It was also a good opportunity to get to know everyone on the team beforehand.
We were a team of 11 grown-ups and two kids aged 5 & 13 years, along with the 3 EcoGrip river guides (including Sameera, the expedition leader & founder of EcoGrip) and the Navy Rescue Diver, Silva, who made it priority duty to keep an eye on 5-year-old Thaviru, throughout the 3 days of Mahaweli Expedition. Luckily there was another lady in the team – Elsie, a Philippines national, whom I became good friends with and she was a good lady companion for this adventure. On the day of the training, we knew we are going to have a good time and to date, we keep in touch. We gelled so well during the training & the Mahaweli expedition that we are already planning our next ‘Kayaking Adventure’ over the Christmas holidays.
The Start of the Expedition
The Mahaweli Expedition starts from a very remote village east of Sri Lanka near Mahiyanganaya, and we left Colombo at 10’o clock in the night on 01st October to reach the starting point by early morning on 02nd. The night drive was mostly spent getting some sleep before the long day waiting for us. But we didn’t forget to stop by the ‘night Pol Rotti’ shops in Ibbagamuwa, just past the Kurunegala town to taste some fresh hot ‘Coconut Rotties’ with devilishly spiced ‘Lunu Miris’ and ginger black tea, usually served to keep the drivers awake.
Nonetheless, we fell asleep right after getting into the van, but luckily, they worked on EcoGrip’s night driver and kept him awake throughout the night. The kayaks had reached close to the starting point before us in a truck, which couldn’t reach the river bank from our regular transport mode due to lack of a proper road.
Luckily the EcoGrip team has arranged a new transport mode for us! A tractor. After packing up our food & other essentials for the kayaks Sameera gave us another crash course for safety and basics of river ethics and do’s and don’ts when you see an elephant. we started paddling down the river Mahaweli just around 10 AM. The cool river breeze & the water splashed from our paddles, never made us feel the brightness & the heat of the sun. We didn’t have to paddle for too long before we spotted our first elephant, bathing in the middle of the river, and eventually swam to the bank after his mid-day bath.
Team Work is a Must for Kayaking, Even for Husband and Wife
It took me an hour or two to get the paddling techniques right and to start paddling in a way that doesn’t hurt my hands. I was seated in the front of the kayak as the navigator and my husband was seated in the back, doing most of the maneuvering of the kayak. The first bit of the river was smooth & mostly flat water and until about half an hour our kayak was zig-zagging until both of us got the rhythm of paddling to keep the kayak straight. In no time, we felt like the pros of kayaking and soon it became like walking. From that point onwards we were enjoying the surrounding nature, enjoying the fresh air & untouched parts of Sri Lankan wildlife this unique Mahaweli Expedition has to offer.
The Rapids and Adventure
The time came to test our techniques training soon enough on the first day itself. The first challenging rapid on that day was called ‘Kiri Amma Ella’ a class 3 rapid. Since I had the job of the action photographer of the Mahaweli Expedition, our kayak was no. 3 to cross this rapid after Sameera & the Navy Rescue Diver crossed.
We had a sigh of relief when Sameera stopped all the kayaks well ahead of the rapid & positioned his rescuers below the rapid. The plan to cross rapids was discussed before the expedition and each kayak was given a number accordingly. With all the safety in place, we were signaled to cross the rapid and we took off with much excitement & a few butterflies in our stomachs. The low water levels made rocks protrude out making a rapid that went around rocks, which otherwise would’ve been over the rocks. So, while paddling as fast as we could to move faster than the rapid, we also had to manure the kayak along the rapid to prevent knocking on a rock and flipping.
At this first rapid there is no time even to get scared or to panic. Sameera’s voice loud enough to overpower the gushing noise of the rapid and shouting at the top of his voice ‘Paddle Faster!!! Paddle Faster!!!’ is like the engine that makes us paddle as fast as our hands could do. The trick to cross a rapid without getting your kayak turned is to paddle fast so that the kayak will move faster than the speed of the water and also entering the white water from the right place. It was only after we crossed the rapid, that we even looked back to see what we just conquered.
The Night, BBQ, and Rest
After tackling about 3 rapids, we were still paddling towards the first campsite. We are not allowed to camp anywhere we wish in the campsite but only at the designated camping site of Wasgamuwa National Park a place called ‘Hatharamang Handiya’, meaning ‘the four-way junction’, although it was just a big sand island in the river bank.
Despite all the tiredness, everyone got together to make a lovely BBQ, including vegetarian BBQ items as there were vegetarians in the team. There were 5 tents put up for the team, but only 2 tents were occupied as everyone else thought it’s a lovely place to sleep right under the stars and everyone including me slept on a huge fly sheet on the sand, dreaming of more adventures the next day of the Mahaweli Expedition.
Another Day of Paddling
The morning was busy with everyone booking the shovels to dig their cat holes, preparing breakfast & packing lunch. EcoGrip is one of the most environmentally concerned adventure companies where Sameera & his team are trained on ‘Leave No Trace – principles. They make sure each team member is trained on how to have a minimum impact on the outdoors.
The day went by conquering more rapids passing a part of Wasgamuwa National Park which is not accessible in any other way. It was a truly pristine environment & not even the safari jeeps were allowed to reach this area. The second day’s camping was on another sandy island along the riverbank & the 2nd day’s BBQ was fresh river fish was bought from the fisherman we met just before reaching the campsite. The place was so windy that we couldn’t even hoist as many tents & ended up everyone sleeping on the flysheet watching stars. But the highlight of the day was ‘dragging kayaks’ instead of paddling them towards the end of the day because the river was so shallow in those areas during the drought season.
The Serenity of Untouched Landscapes in Sri Lanka
The third day was a slow and calm paddling and was the total change of landscapes and shallow waters in contrast to previous days of the Mahaweli Expedition. But these shallow areas were nothing but blue waters untouched by any human beings & looked as pristine as the mountain springs we experience higher up in the hill country. On the third day, we were mostly passing the national park named ‘Flood Plains National Park’ where we got to see more elephants & birds. The sceneries & the water of the river itself were spectacular that we took regular breaks just to dip in the water when we were dragging the kayaks. A tip of advice, make sure to get a ‘Sand Proof’ water sports shoe.
The End of a Wonderful Adventure
Although we were so excited to complete our Mahaweli Expedition, in the end, none of us wanted to leave the water. It’s not the regular nostalgic feeling you get after a regular outdoor trip, but something unexplainable, something very calm. It is a deep-rooted feeling of belonging you get after spending 3 days in the complete wilderness where you are completely disconnected from the modern world & become a part of a wild surrounding. I can’t recommend this unique trip enough to not only those who love adventure but also to those who want to disconnect & spend some real quality time with nature. It is truly addictive, & for sure I will do this again not one more time, but many more times.
The Mahaweli Expedition with EcoGrip was a real example of well planned and executed experience where even a 5-year-old kid could complete under the careful supervision of Sameera and his able team. For once we never felt unsecured during the trip thanks to the expertise of this wonderful pack of nature-loving and caring team of EcoGrip as for them it was not their job. Their tagline “Trips Money Can’t buy” is a true statement of their commitment and their affordable and reasonable rates unlike some other providers will clearly put EcoGrip as the top choice for anyone who dreams of this epic adventure!
Written by Krishani Samaraweera