Trip Report: Mahaweli Challenge

In our risk averse culture, I was attempting a hugely risky venture in kayaking Sri Lanka’s longest river, the Mahaweli Ganga. Using maps dating back to just a couple of years after I was born, I was to traverse a river of which I had gleaned little knowledge, in a country where I had no contacts, and with Kerim, a teammate I barely knew. Oh, and I’d never set foot in a canoe or kayak before. In fact, I had only ever inflated the kayak (in my living room) to check for leaks.

Failure is difficult to admit. You only have to ask Alex Salmond. But in its primary purpose Mahaweli Challenge was a failure. At the time I wrote in my diary that it was ‘difficult to describe the entire adventure as anything other than a complete and utter failure’. As designated challenge thinker-upper, team leader, planner, and organiser, the admission was all the harder to accept with Kerim relying on me for each decision. So to help others in future, I’ve included a list of rules to follow for a successful expedition.

Looking back from the safety of a sofa, I’ve reached the conclusion that in many respects Kerim and I were successful. We discovered Sri Lanka, an amazing country in so many ways. We had enjoyed our time together. We had pushed ourselves far beyond our comfort zones – to breaking point and back, and survived. We had more than survived. We had thrived.

Rule 1. Have fun.

I’ve never felt so alive, so ecstatically happy and at peace than during our first hours on the water, paddling past slightly bewildered villages heading to Sunday mass. At some points they lined the banks to watch. At others they helped us clear dams of fallen branches and village rubbish; waving us on amid the beauty, the serenity, and the tree spiders of the young Mahaweli around Dayagama in the hill country.

P1030580 Mahaweli, Dayagama East

Our start point near Dayagama

Rule 2. Don’t fall down a rapid. It’s not the best idea.

I never felt at risk, even when falling backwards down one of the first rapids we encountered – Kerim saying he turned from his position, wading ahead, to see me rising and spluttering from of the water.

Rule 3. Don’t fall down a waterfall (or perhaps, do take some toilet paper).

Narrowly avoiding a waterfall we didn’t even know existed was equally difficult, life affirming, and looking back, terrifying.

Rule 4. Never trust Wikipedia.

With so little information available on the river the journey was always going to be a bit of a punt. I had to visit the Map Room of the British Library just to find a map of Sri Lanka on which I could identify the Mahaweli. Wikipedia, and every other source of information I could find (each quoting one another without recourse to an original Q source) assured me the river flowed all year. I can assure you it doesn’t.

P1030686 Pathway along our path

Before this was bare rock, it was the Mahaweli

Rule 5. Check your equipment thoroughly before you go.

To even discover this meant hiking through the hill country, with 15 kg of kayak, and our own kit in tow. Too heavy for either Kerim or myself to carry for any length of time, I had bought a cheap folding trolley. It lasted no more than a couple of hours before starting to collapse in on itself, meaning on the difficult (and officially closed) road made up from masonry bricks and old bathroom tiles that led out of Horton Plains National Park to Dayagama, I had to bend double and push the wheels to the ground, my kit on my back, while Kerim hauled the trolley forward. I was at least glad I had decided this was a two man expedition.

Rule 6. Have a backup plan.

Our first disappointment – or failure – was in having to leapfrog a stretch of river from the waterfall to a region relatively clear of rocks. It meant hauling everything up a steep 70° gradient, and taking to a disintegrating track that followed the river. It also meant much more bending double on my part; for hours at a time. It took my legs a full two weeks to recover.

The Mahaweli’s waters disappeared, reappeared, and disappeared again along our path, leaving bare river bed, and making kayaking practically impossible. We continued on by foot, and then by bus, only to encounter the same problem for mile after mile downriver.

We made it back into the water at Nawalapitiya. The river there was low, but deep enough for the kayak, running quickly into white water. After the long process of inflating and preparing the kayak, and more nervous than my first entry into the water at Dayagama, we were racing through the rapids. Equally quickly, we were back out of the kayak, its bottom up in the air under a low-hung tree like the body of a beached whale. Our kit was wet, but for now, salvageable. Writing my notes was difficult for a couple of days. This made me think again.

Rule 7. Have another backup plan.

The decision was hard, but the correct one. It took me, as leader, two days to make it: kayaking was not an option. There just wasn’t enough water, and we couldn’t risk losing our kit. We would walk the rest of the way to the river’s mouth at Mutur, just south of Trincomalee.

We made better progress on foot, maintaining a decent pace. Despite the traffic fumes immediately north of Kandy, the hill country landscape remained staggering. The roads soon quietened, and we reached villages where women still pumped water from communal wells.

Rule 8. Assume nothing.

We walked from before 9am until sundown; by mid-morning we passed nothing but these villages as the roads slowly climbed the hills. As darkness fell, I couldn’t tell where we were on the map, I was desperately tired, and burning hot. I’d also come to the realisation that we weren’t going to have any roof over our heads other than a bus stand.

This was down to the police at Victoria Dam. Supposedly a tourist destination as well as a major road, we were barred from crossing it and joining the shorter road on the river’s north bank. Instead we were forced to stay on the southern road, snaking arduously through the macaque inhabited hills.

Rule 9. Ignorance might just be bliss.

By six the next morning we were back to walking, having eaten no food the night before, and having no liquid to wash in and drink but lemonade from a local store. As we passed a road sign stating Mahiyangana was still 50km away – it would have been 30km at most on the north road – I realised being unable to cross Victoria Dam had made the journey impossible in the time we had remaining.

Rule 10. Expect the unexpected.

I called to Kerim up ahead, dropped my bag on the roadside heavily, and declared the journey at an end as an elephant rolled by on the back of a truck.

In the next village, a five minute walk away, we waited for a bus, and it was by buses that we completed the journey, slowly, over the next eight days. Reaching Mutur was a mix of emotions. It was a town of no consequence, nor beauty, but it symbolised my failure as much as the bus we travelled on.

P1030746 Indian Ocean, Koneswarum Kovil, TrincomaleeJourney’s end at Trincomalee. At least the Indian Ocean was full.

I take full responsibility for how the journey turned out. Perhaps it was hubris on my part, thinking I could do anything after successfully circumnavigating Africa: another journey so many said was impossible. But without a recce of the entire river beforehand, I think this adventure would have been next to impossible for any team. We never saw a single other boat during all our time with the river.

Ranulph Fiennes once told me (and an auditorium full of people) he had an expedition success rate of 70%. That assumes he and his team got nothing at all out of the 30% that failed. But I now know this, like the Mahaweli flowing all year, to be a fallacy.

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