Birds, Chills, Nature, Thrills, Wildlife

Kithulgala

The Kelani river, Kithulgala
The Kelani river, Kithulgala

Although rapidly becoming a sensation among nature enthusiasts and adventure sport buffs of Sri Lanka and around the world alike, the potential that Kithulgala has in the lines of ecotourism is still untapped. The unique experiences I have had and the unparalleled beauty that I have witnessed in Kithulgala, throughout a mere one and a half years that I spent there, working with the tourist industry has left a lasting impression in my heart and ensured that it will forever be my favourite place in Sri Lanka.

My time in Kithulgala

The happiest little brook that I have ever seen, with crystal clear water flowing down from the mountains nearby ran its last few paces along the side of the resort

I came to Kithulgala in 2015 to work as a yoga instructor, and an outward bound training (OBT) facilitator, at one of the leading adventure sport resorts there by the name of Ceylon Adventure Sports.

The Ceylon Adventure Sports resort was a beautiful little place sitting snugly on the slope of a hill by the banks of the Kelani river itself.

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View from the yard across the river to the island
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The little brook next the resort

The happiest little brook that I have ever seen, with crystal clear water flowing down from the mountains nearby ran its last few paces along the side of the resort before joining the river right next to the front yard. The entrance to the yard was a narrow footpath which snaked along the brook passing a small tea garden and a rice paddy field along its way before leading to a short steep climb to the main road.

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View of Ceylon Adventure Sports from the island

In the middle of the river across the front yard was a small island of a few acres, which began a 100 m or so upstream from the resort and spanned the entire length of the resort. This island conveniently divided the river in two , of which the smaller branch flowing between the island and the resort, created an ideal bathing spot where it met with the brook. All the buildings of the resort were built about 15 feet above the water level of the river due to occasional floods. Starting from the downstream end of the yard along the river were a line of tents on wooden platforms and above that a line of cabins with massive openings without shutters for windows, their balconies and wooden decks overlooking the river. While constructing the resort the owner had tried to do a minimum amount of damage to the surrounding vegetation as to preserve the original quality of the land and as a result many of the cabins had massive trees growing right through them. As there were no proper staff quarters when I joined and as I was one of the few resident staff members, throughout my whole tenure there I slept in whichever tent or cabin was free, falling asleep to the rhythm of the river and waking up the sounds of the songbirds of the jungle.

Teaching yoga at Ceylon Adventure Sports
Teaching yoga at Ceylon Adventure Sports

Although I was the resident yoga instructor and one of the OBT trainers, my passion for the outdoors lead me to grab every opportunity to explore the surrounding land, and before long I was trained as a white water rafting instructor and a canyoning and waterfall abseiling instructor. With the help of the local staff I learned about the hills and the mountains of the area, and the streams that are born at their peaks; from the likes of the gentle brook by the side of our resort, to the powerful beasts that carved deep gorges and canyons in the mountains and hurled off cliffs to create magnificent waterfalls. I learned about the jungle, the known footpaths, the secret trails, and its hidden wonders. In my free time I studied and documented the wildlife of the area, and became an enthusiastic tracker and bird watching guide. It was a dream come true, and most of all, within that short period of time I got to meet thousands of people, to create new experiences with them, and to show them all I had seen in Kithulgala. I got the chance to facilitate people in different activities.. no, ADVENTURES that they had never taken part in before, to guide them safely to the end and see the thrill and the joy in their eyes.

Since I cannot hope to do justice Kithulgala in one short article, here, I will only describe shortly some of the main features about Kithulgala that makes it so unique. For those who are further interested, in my next articles I will try to jot down in more detail my experiences about the life and the environment of Kithulgala, which truly is part of the heart of the wet-zone of Sri Lanka.

Getting there

Kithulgala is a small town in the Sabaragamuwa Province, right next to the border of the Central Province, on the Colombo – Hatton road. It is situated 87km from Colombo, 63km from Kandy, 72km from Nuwara Eliya and 33 km from Hatton. Public transport is pretty regular from 5am to 5pm, during which time the Colombo – Hatton bus operates every 20 minutes roughly. After 5 pm although there are very few buses from Kithulgala to Colombo, (The last bus leaving Kithulgala at 6.30, not always punctual, or regular) there are buses from Colombo to Kithulgala every hour till 10 pm. There are 2 night buses that leave the Colombo government bus station which go to Nuwara Eliya, Via Kithulgala, to which tickets must be purchased beforehand at the station ticket counter. People travelling from Kandy or Nuwara Eliya must catch connecting buses to Ginigathhena from Kandy, and to Hatton from Nuwara Eliya. The nearest train station is Nawalapitiya.

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Map of Kithulgala with nearby cities

Things to do

Even though it is such a quaint little place, Kithulgala offers travelers a myriad of things to do. Listed below are some of the not to be missed attractions of Kithulgala.

Culture

The town of Kithulgala is surrounded by many small villages, many of them still retaining a very simple life style. For those who wish to experience a bit of village culture of the wet zone of Sri Lanka, Kithulgala is an ideal place, where a short stroll towards the surrounding mountains or on the opposite bank of the river will let you see people still engaging in many forms of agriculture, and other industries hereditary to the area such as small-scale sand mining and logging. Agriculture is an important industry in Kithulgala as the land is extremely fertile, and the vast elevation differences makes it suitable for a wide variety of crops ranging from, tea, rubber, coconut, rice and also lesser crops like cinnamon, pepper, many types of fruit and vegetables.

Although rich in agriculture, the most notable product that comes out of Kithulgala is a local alcoholic beverage known as “Kithul toddy”. It’s importance is highlighted by the fact that the town itself is named after the tree “the Kithul tree, or Fishtail palm tree” which is used to make the drink. These trees happen to flourish in Kithulgala, and the sap of the Kithul flower is collected and fermented on the tree itself to make this sweet and musky drink. Unfortunately the drink does not have a long shelf life and has to be consumed within a few hours, making it a not to be missed experience when visiting Kithulgala. The sap is also used to make treacle which is used to make many types of sweets and can be purchased from small shops along the main road.

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Tea growing in the mountains of Kithulgala

The town is also known for having the best bathing spots on the Kelani river. The pristine surroundings and the natural safety of the river in this area has made it a popular destination among local pilgrims travelling from Adam’s peak, and it has been customary for a very long time for them to stop at Kithulgala to enjoy a bath in the river. It is the same reason why even today Kithulgala happens to be so popular among tourists, and many of the resorts and hotels sit right next to the river with their own private bathing spots offering an ideal place to kick back and chill out – Kithulgala style! Probably with some Kithul toddy on the side 🙂

History

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Beli Lena

The historical significance of Kithulgala dates back to the prehistorical times of Sri Lanka itself. Beli Lena, situated roughly about 5 km from the town of Kithulgala and sitting over 500 m above sea level, is an open bedrock cave which is believed to have been a home to some of the earliest human beings of South Asia. Fossils of Homo sapiens balangodensis also known as the Balangoda man dating back to 16,000 years have been found at Beli Lena along with other fossilized evidence of their diet and life style. The cave has two massive openings on the side of cliff set high up in the mountain, with a small waterfall draping the front of one of the openings. The hike to the cave takes one through shady roads of a rubber estate opening up to tea plantations offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the canyons that wind between them. Don’t forget to check out the Little Swifts (Apus affinis) and a few species of micro bats that nest on the roof of the upper cave.

I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in

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Picture from the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai” showing Kithulgala in 1957

In the recent past, Kithulgala became famous again as it was chosen as a set location in David Lean’s 1957 movie, The bridge on the river Kwai starring Sir Alec Guiness. The movie went on to win 7 Oscars, putting Kithulgala, a small village back then on the world map, bringing in many tourists to see the spot on the Kelani river where the movie’s climax scene was shot. For those who haven’t watched the movie, a replica of the real bridge (on the Kwai river, Thailand/ Burma) was built on the Kelani river, and blown up with a real train on top of it for that famous scene. Unfortunately the scenic beauty for which the location was chosen was destroyed last year (while I was working in Kithulgala) by the construction of a mega hyrdo-power plant. The destruction of one of the most scenic places on the river, which I had grown to love, was truly heart wrenching and I do not wish to speak about it in length here, but will only quote Aldo Leopold: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in“.

Wildlife

The wildlife in Kithulgala is so diverse that it is simply a nature lover’s paradise. Not only does it support most of the flora and fauna unique to Sri Lanka’s wet zone but due to the scattered human inhabitation throughout the area, even the most wild and remote parts of the wilderness are easily accessible, making it a perfect place to observe wildlife. Also the different environments of the mountains, villages, rain forests like the protected Makandawa, the many streams and the river itself offer the chance for people to observe many different kinds of wildlife.

One cannot help but noticing and falling in love with birds while living in Kithulgala.

Kithulgala is mostly known for its birds. For me personally, Kithulgala was the introduction to the birds of Sri Lanka. Before I moved there I was not well versed in the lore of birds although I was very passionate about other animals, still, one cannot help but noticing and falling in love with birds while living in Kithulgala. Where ever I went there, be it to the mountains, or to the middle of the jungle, or simply rafting down the river, they were everywhere. For over a year, they became my neighbors, and I got to know them not just as species, but so many of them as individuals. I witnessed their life as I strolled down a village footpath, or track in the jungle. I listened to their songs as I bathed in the river each morning. I watched them tediously build their nests and their young arduously learn to fly. Life in the jungle happens mostly on a micro level, and is for the most part invisible to the regular observer. I think the birds of Kithulgala helped me to hone my senses, and to start noticing life in every nook and cranny around me. 28 of Sri Lanka’s 34 endemic birds can be observed in the surrounding areas of Kithulgala as well as many other resident and migratory birds. I will not go into detail about all of them in this article but those who are keen to know more can follow me on my facebook page WILD KITHULGALA, or simply follow this blog for future articles in which I hope to write more about my encounters with the avian kind.

Other animals like butterflies, dragonflies and insects are numerous around Kithulgala as are many endemic species of reptiles and fish. Mammals of the wet-zone are generally small and mostly nocturnal, but for those who are patient and willing to put in the effort, there are some truly unique species to be observed like Pangolins and two species of flying squirrel.

Adventure Sports

White water rafting

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White water rafting at Kithulgala

Today, the name Kithulgala has almost become synonymous with white water rafting in Sri Lanka, and is possibly the biggest industry in the area. Hundreds of locals and foreigners flock to Kithulgala each week to engage in this thrilling sport. At the moment it is Kithulgala is the only place in Sri Lanka where white water rafting is commercially available. There are a few reasons why Kithulgala is such a popular rafting destination. First and most importantly is its ease of access: situated less than 100 km from Colombo and on a main road, it is even accessible by regular public transport  which makes it very convenient for people travelling torafters_retreat2 Kithulgala. Secondly the grade of the river happens to be beginner to intermediate which makes it a thrilling and safe experience for even first timers. The beginner track is approximately 3 km and has a total of 7 rapids ranging from class II – III. For more experienced rafters there is the option of an advanced track which has an additional 7 rapids of which some are class IV category. The course takes the rafter through the heavily vegetated banks which led to most passengers I took on my raft commenting about the beauty of the surroundings compared to other rivers they had rafted in around the world. I usually loved making it a point to show people the Black eagles and Serpent Eagles circling above as we drifted down the river, and the occasional Toque Macaque coming down to the river for a drink.

Canyoning

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Beginner level canyon

Canyoning is one of the other popular sports available in Kithulgala. Due to the terrain of the area, canyoning can be done in many of the waterfalls coming down from the surrounding mountains. Canyoning is the sport of navigating one’s self down waterfall or canyon. Usually it involves a bit of trekking or rock climbing to get to the

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Advanced Level canyoning

starting point of the activity, and uses water slides, jumping into rock pools and sometimes rappelling/ abseiling to get to the bottom of the canyon. Depending on one’s  level of experience Kithulgala has a many canyons ranging from beginner to advanced. Waterfall abseiling can also be done as a separate activity in the area, the most popular location for it being a 30 m waterfall called Sandun Ella.

Other activities

People spending two days or more in Kithulgala would definitely want to explore the surrounding area. You could easily go for a stroll in the villages or a hike in the mountains, but make sure  you remember your bearings as the weather in Kithulgala can be completely unpredictable and can interfere with your mobile reception leaving you without access to your maps. You could also hire a local guide to take you to some of the attractions in the area. Another fun thing to do is to hire a cycle and go for a ride in the mountains. The panoramic view of the Kelani Valley from the top of the mountains is indeed priceless.

For more information about Kithulgala follow my blog and stay tuned for future articles. If you are travelling to Kithulgala and require more specific details, please do not hesitate to leave a comment or to send me your  inquiry through the section below.

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