Wednesday 13 November 2019

Sri Lanka... River deep, valley high

Sigiriya - the Lion Rock Fortress - in Sri Lanka
Sigiriya - the Lion Rock Fortress - in Sri Lanka
Let us now talk about elephants: Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
Udawalawe National Park
Rock fortress
Turning turtle: Joe in Sri Lanka

Joe Corcoran

The Kelani River is one of Sri Lanka's longest and most famous, flowing nearly 150kms from an obscure little source, high in the landlocked Sri Pada mountain range to the capital city of Colombo on the island's southwest coast.

There's a fairly steep drop that occurs early on in this life cycle, as the river descends to sea level. Navigating it can be tricky, but if you do so under the guidance of a trained local rafter, with an intricate knowledge of every bend, boulder and sharp current you're liable to come across, the journey can provide one of the most thrilling experiences any holidaymaker with a taste for adventure could hope for.

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If nothing else it's a way to wake yourself up, far better than any coffee I've come across, or even, dare I say it, the black tea for which Sri Lanka is internationally renowned. This is fortunate, because after five days of travelling the country from tip to toe, I am, perhaps inevitably, a little bit fatigued. As is the way with TD active Holidays, the itinerary for each day is constructed so that not an ounce of potential energy is wasted. You might be able to squeeze in the odd nap on bus journeys to and from activities, but once you've arrived you'll need to give your all to whatever is on the agenda.

In this case that means being alert to instructions. Out on the water, five to a raft under the direction of our steely-eyed navigator who's been doing this since he was a boy, we must work as a cohesive team if we want to stay the course and not end up capsizing. We cannot afford to have one slightly dozy person who keeps on paddling when the command comes to pull up oars.

Let us now talk about elephants: Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka
Let us now talk about elephants: Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

After a few minutes drifting we hit our first rapid - a minor one our navigator assures us, but I am not at all convinced. Suddenly, we're in mid-air, shooting head first into a spattering of jagged rocks. Our navigator tells us to duck inside the raft a moment before impact. I feel a monumental thud and water begins flooding up to my ankles.

This is it, I think to myself. We went in too carelessly, we're going over - maybe we've already gone over - this life jacket is going to be put to the test.

Then, like that, everything is calm again and our navigator is laughing, a teasing, good-natured laugh that sounds the same in any language.

Evidently, everyone else in the boat has had about the same reaction as me. We look around at each other with the faces of people who've just come out of a dream we can't believe we fell for.

Over the next 40 minutes or so we'll hit another eight rapids, some steeper than others, all steeper than that initial, seemingly cataclysmic drop. By the end, not only have we had an experience to last us long after this trip is over, but we all feel as though we have achieved something worthwhile. We have developed a new skill and taken part in a unique way of life. We are rafters now - amateur ones, yes, but rafters all the same.

If I had to zero in on precisely the reason TD active Holidays are so special, this would be my answer. You are not a passive tourist, gawking at foreign cultures as though they were behind a glass pane - but an agent, fully engaged with whatever is happening around you, and the experiences you come away with are irreducibly richer for it.

Take, for example, Lion Rock fortress, which I visit on my third day in Sri Lanka. I could tell you that it is a World Heritage Site. I could tell you that it was erected by the great King Kashyapa in the late fifth century, as an impenetrable home base from which to conduct his business in times of unprecedented civil war. I could tell you that 800 years later it was converted into one of the country's premier Buddhist monasteries, famed for the sense of spiritual vitality it imbued in all its visitors.

However, until you make the effort to actually climb its famous 1,200-step staircase, along with so many thousands of other pilgrims and tourists who flock there every single day, it is hard to understand the significance of any of this. Why was this spot considered so impenetrable from a military perspective? You'll begin to understand about 200 steps up - especially if, like me, you forget to bring water.

What did the monks find so spiritually invigorating about a former war base? Take one look out from the peak of its old temple grounds, across the dizzying tropical horizon, and your question will be answered instantaneously.

But the thrill of engagement needn't require grand kingly abodes or dangerous whitewater rapids, it can be found in everyday activities - such as a trip to the local produce market, provided your tour guide knows how to make it interesting. The way ours did this was to spring on us, right before we arrived, a list of ingredients written in Sinhalese without a hint of English instruction, and challenge us to go off and acquire everything on it before someone else did so first.

What followed was an hour and a half's worth of endearingly clumsy conversations with every grocer in town.

Comical misinterpretations were a dime a dozen and I spent a rather absurd amount of time insisting to one seaside fishmonger that he must surely have what later turned out to be whiskey for sale in his shop - but everyone I spoke to was unfailing friendly, always eager to help with translations and more than happy to point me in the direction of whatever items I was still missing.

It was only after the competition was finished, when we had gathered our ingredients and were being taught by our hotel's head chef how to turn them into a variety of traditional Sri Lankan dishes, that I was able to reflect on what a uniquely involved experience it had been. No other holiday, I am confident in saying, could have induced me to throw myself so fully into the surrounding culture.

And then I suppose I must say something about the elephants. They are everywhere in Sri Lanka, from the low-lying banks of village estuaries to mountain peaks so high that even railways cannot reach them.

On one occasion towards the beginning of the trip, my group and I experienced the shock of our lives when what we had taken to be a statue, standing cool as you like and totally unremarked upon by the locals, outside a packed city restaurant, suddenly came to life and began playing around with the terrace diners.

Thanks to a strict hunting ban, the wild population has grown to roughly 7,000 in recent years - an astonishing number for an island three quarters the size of Ireland.

If you want to see them in their most natural habitat however, you need to pay a visit to Udawalawe National Park in the south of the country, where, for more than 300 sq kms, they are free to move about the land at their leisure, grazing on the light vegetation that grows in the area, in little packs or enormous herds depending on the time of day, one species in a vast preserved ecosystem of wildlife, including buffalo, leopard, boar, and deer.

Again, with TD active, the point is to get you right into the thick of things, touring this vast expanse via open-topped SUV in order to draw as close as possible to the majestic creatures without running the risk of disturbing them.

And here, again, we find a different kind of active immersion. Now, it's not about conquering, climbing or communicating, but rather about forgetting oneself entirely and letting nature unfold at its own pace, touched by a simple spirit of freedom and survival.

For a news junkie like me, wrapped in my own human preoccupations, this particular antidote to daily life was especially welcome. Home again, in a country more concerned than ever about doing what we can to preserve our natural environment, my memory of that day in Udawalawe is one I find myself constantly returning to.

Take two: Top attractions

Udawalawe Park Udawalawe National Park

Udawalawe National Park

Udawalawe National Park is one of Sri Lanka's most popular destinations. The park's migrating elephant herd is its biggest attraction. Tropical bird watching offers rewards too.

Lion Rock Fortress

Rock fortress

This ancient rock fortress located in northern Sri Lanka is one of the country's eight world heritage sights. The main column of rock that distinguishes it stands nearly 200m high.

Getting there

Turning turtle: Joe in Sri Lanka

Explore Sri Lanka with TD active Holidays, specialists in small group adventure holidays, from €2,199pp for 13 nights. Departing March and September 2020, this fully-guided holiday includes return flights, all transfers, accommodation, daily breakfasts, three evening meals, and excursions with expert local guides

For TD Active Holidays' full range of Explore holidays, see or call 01 6371633

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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