“When I say FORWARD, paddle forward!” Sujan grinned at us from the back of the raft. “And when I say RELAX, then relax!” He demonstrated by holding his paddle horizontally across the water. “And when I say HOLD ON, then lean inwards and HOLD ON!”
A few metres ahead, the smooth brown surface of the river Kelaniya Ganga changed into a frothing, plunging rapid. And slowly, our hearts beating on a knife edge, we drifted closer to the point of no return.
River suds on rocks! We’d only set foot on this inflated blue lifeboat a moment before. Half the crew had never been white-water rafting before and here we were, about to surge like a piece of flotsam down Sri Lanka’s second longest river.
“What happens if we fall in?” Kate, as usual, voiced what was at the front of everybody’s mind.
“Don’t try to swim!” Sujan crossed his arms tightly over his lifejacket. “Just hold yourself together and float feet first down the river.”
We drifted a little closer to the rapid like one of those nightmares in which space and time are stretched asymptotically and you never quite arrive.
“Forward!” shouted Sujan.
Leaning nervously over the gunwale, I paddled.
“Backward!” shouted Sujan if he’d changed his mind.
I adjusted my grip and paddled against the flow.
Yet how could we relax, as paddles raised, we swept into the maelstrom, hard water hitting the bow and soaking us. Expertly Sujan steered the raft between two rocks, then down a sudden chute, the vessel bucking and rearing like it wanted to shake us off.
I sat at the front with another guy. Together we could see every swirl, rock and torrent coming, yet we also absorbed the worst of the rapid’s force. Behind us Kate and another group member cheered, while behind them two more people screamed. And Sujan, steering at the very back, fortunately remained calm. Lucky seven of us altogether. Hopefully the raft would stay upright, and nobody would fall in.
Before we knew it, we swept out of the rapid and back into smooth brown. Everyone was exhilarated, shouting and whooping.
Slyly, Sujan scooped up water with his paddle and dowsed Kate. “Fish!” he said innocently, a wicked smile on his face. “That was only a small rapid, level two. The bigger ones, level three, come next.”
Sure enough, our relief was premature. Ahead we could see the next rapid – longer, furious, and with a nasty trough at its end. Sujan commanded forward, then relax, and once more we were tilting and twisting through a deluge of angry water. Close-up, the trough looked dangerous, and falling into it, a wall of water smashed us and the raft nearly folded over.
This time everyone was soaked, even Sujan. But we’d made it through! Exhilarating and fantastic! Awesome and wet! What a great way to spend a day. Smiles all around as if everyone wanted to do it again.
“The next rapid is the worst.” Sujan wasn’t going to let us off the hook. “There is a chance of tipping sideways.”
Plus this time there were people watching us, lined along the parapet of a bridge. Perhaps they wanted us to capsize? Or maybe they watched one of the rafts behind us, full of Sri Lankans on an adventure from Colombo.
Once more we hit the rapid hard, water spilling and slapping. Around a rock, over a chasm, underneath the bridge. Sujan expertly navigated every twist and turn. Then right at the end, on the final drop, he sprung a surprise. He rotated the raft a full one hundred and eighty degrees so we went down backwards. The first were last, and the last were first – and they were the ones to be soaked again.
Onward to Kitulgala, alternately drifting, paddling, and pitching over a few smaller rapids. Further along we saw the ruined stumps of an old railway bridge where the movie director David Lean had filmed Bridge Over The River Kwai. Rumour had it that railway carriages blown up for the final scene still lay underneath the water. Along one straight calm stretch most of us jumped out – voluntarily – and floated in our life jackets and red safety hats with the current. Now we could truly relax. All the rapids behind us and green forested hillsides rising up on either side.
Such a wonderful way of experiencing this place, the river Kelanyia Ganga, and feeling at one with our surroundings. Total immersion, literally. A day we’d remember for the rest of our time here.