River safari at Balapitiya

   Despite Ahungalla not turning out to be a great beach destination for us, mainly because of the time we chose to visit Sri Lanka, its location near so many interesting places worked out well for us.  Definitely the best activity there was the river safari we took on Madu Ganga with its many islands.  With a new driver, Mr. Perera, and a shiny new minibus, this time with airbags and ABS, we left the Heritance Ahungalla right after an impressive breakfast.

  Balapitiya river boat safari

  There are two places you can take a river safari in the general area of South West Sri Lanka.  We chose Balapitiya and the Madu Ganga (with Ganga meaning river in the local language) over Bentota and the river that ends up there.  Despite tours from Balapitya being more expensive and nature being about the same as only a few kilometers separate the two, apparently the Madu Ganga river boat safaris are better to Benota's as the islands you get to visit are more interesting and the trips longer.

  A bridge spans the mouth of the river and we noticed signs for a few operators offering boat rides.  Our driver choice for our safari was Gangabada Asiriya.  The place was a little cheesy with a fake "Pizza Hut" sign and a swimming pool.  A bearded captain in a khaki uniform and naval hat greeted us and as two large groups, one Sri Lankan and one French were already waiting their turn to board, we sat under the shade of trees until the dock cleared.  Ten minutes and 6000 Rupies later we boarded our boat and headed upstream on the placid waters of Madu Ganga.

  The start of our journey was rather uninspiring with noxious fumes from the many outboard engines filling the air and garbage flowing about us.  Our boatman, a likeable young man of about 20 years old, seemed confident in commanding the boat and we noticed with satisfaction that life jackets were on board.  Within a few minutes the beauty of the area is revealed before our eyes and the first., not so inspiring, impression is quickly forgotten.  on the river shores a million shades of green are only interrupted by the presence of birds.  Colorful king fishers pose patiently before our cameras and eagles soar high above us.  We take a detour through a patch of mangrove trees that form a cave, barely big enough to fit our boat.  We might not be able to see many wild animals but the water monitors we spot are the size of small alligators and you can easily make a mistake in identifying them, especially when they glide through the water.  What's more the unusual sight of sweet water jelly fish with their eerily transparent body makes us wonder what else might live in these waters.

  Cinnamon Island

  Our first shore destination seemed from a distance like an an overgrown bush rising out of the river water.  Despite the small size the island already held plenty of Sri Lankan tourists that seem to find the place as interesting as we do.  A few steps uphill from the pier, hidden in the lush vegetation a small mud building is the center of everybody's attention.  A small clearing with a canopy made out of palm leaves and wooden bunches is apparently the "performance center".  We feel a little embarrassed as a bunch of local tourists that are sitting on the bunches are summarily evicted to make room for us, the foreign tourists, to sit.

 

Cinnamon man
An elder gentleman is introduced to us from our boatman and he quickly starts to show us his many skills.  First he shows us how he makes roofing material from coco palm trees.  The green leaves are woven tightly in a crisscross manner so that water can not penetrate.  Our friend claims that three layers of his leaves can withstand the torrential rains that this part of Sri Lanka can get.  That is a claim that is certainly hard to dismiss seeing that this material roofs his house.  Next he shows us the process of making rope from coconut shells.  We learn that the shell need to be submerged in water for a period of three months and then fibers are removed and spun.  In swift motions the brown fibers are indeed made into a strong string that no matter how hard we pull will not break.  The final exhibition is by far the most interesting one.

  Cinnamon has been one of the oldest and most significant export commodities of Sri Lanka.  From what appeared to be a simple wooden stick, our host, through some nifty work with a simple set of blade tools, exhibits to us how the fragrant spice is produced.  The smell of the cinnamon oil is one of the characteristic smells that has stayed with us past our trip to Sri Lanka.  Apparently, and this has not scientifically been proved but comes from the authority of the man producing it, cinnamon oil is a cure for half of mankind's ailments!  A quick run to the mad building and the fruits of our host's labors appear in front of us packaged in cellophane wrap and ready for export.  We of course obliged our guest with purchases of a few sticks and a small bottle of his wonderful smelling oil.  It appears our purchases and our genuine amazement at the display of the skill involved in producing them has won favor for us on this little island and we are invited to enter its only house.  At first we are a bit hesitant to intrude on the family's privacy but curiosity got the better of us.  The house can't be more than 20 square meters with a living area, , what appears to be a sleeping area and a pantry/kitchen.  A young girl is busy packing cinnamon oil and we notice some old pictures on a dresser.  They reveal that our host has been posing with tourist from the time that photos were regularly printed in black and white!  We say our thanks and goodbyes and as we leave we get the feeling that the 800 rupees we spent here were too little for what we got.