Natural Scenery

Kapu Ella, You defeated me – The Island

The Dutch made this waterway, and the locals called it Kapu Ella (the canal that was dug). That was centuries ago, during the sad years when the civilised ‘New World’ was playing musical chairs, in the poorer continents, to own the rest of the planet. We, too, had our share, from a powerful threesome, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English; they all had a go at us. That part is history, best left for the erudite to squabble about. My story is about Kapu Ella, the water link between the Kalu Ganga and the Bolgoda Lake, approximately nine miles of pastoral beauty, bucolic every foot of the way, which I tried to navigate in a canoe, just for the hell of it.

I have come down from Ratnapura to Kalutara rowing a boat, three days of toil but fascinating splendour that would stay in my mind for the rest of my life. Such was the thrill! Kapu Ella was nothing compared to that; just a day’s romp, maybe, three to four hours, adding a few more to laze and enjoy the ride; well, that was the plan.

My partner this time was Harin, 21 years of age, and from the canoe land of Canada, a uni student and nephew. Keen as mustard, off we went, the old, grizzled pelican, and the young and strong eager beaver, to conquer Kapu Ella.

The start was from Galapatha, where the Kalu Ganga linked to Kapu Ella, the route through which the Dutch brought their laden padda boats from Ratnapura to Colombo, via the Bolgoda Lake.

The morning was gray, distant thunderstorms were coughing and a steady drizzle fell, intermittently, at times intensifying to raging rain. We went by road, the canoe loaded into a van, driven by Buddy, my bosom pal, who was going to drive along the by-roads, riding shotgun for us from on the canal bank, just to give some insurance of sanity. We got down by the Kapu Ella and launched our Solitaire, the robin red canoe that had stood faithful in many a river journey of mine.

The plan was for us to keep moving and for Buddy to meet us at the bridges that spanned the Kapu Ella – a sane way of ensuring safety. We had a map; my young friend had ogled Google and printed out the path we were to follow. Sandwiches in a bag, two bottles of water and the camera and a notebook; that’s all we needed.

The first part of the journey was beautiful, the width of the Ella was no more than 30 feet and, on either side, were trees of all kinds, with emerald leaves from which multicoloured birds shot out to the sky in fear of the ‘red canoe’ trespassers. Cormorants swam among the water lilies and kingfishers perched and waited patiently for the fish to be foolish. The sky cleared into patches of blue and the cartoon clouds still hung around as if to say we will be back to drench you. The kid from Canada and yours truly rowed on, both fascinated by the serenity of it all, beauty at its best, a feast to the eyes and a balm to the soul as we made our way north along the Kapu Ella.

Then came the Ketela clumps, tall and green and thick and threatening, growing wild right across the Ella, completely blocking the path of the canoe. I never bargained for that; the most I thought would be some ‘japan jabara’ and salvinia that could be sorted out by two bamboos we brought with us, just in case the paddling became impossible among the water obstacles. But this Ketela wall was different, no way to proceed beyond that; the only choice was to take the canoe ashore and walk around it, along the Ella, till we came to the clear. That’s exactly what we did. As usual, the ever-present Sri Lankan advisor was there; Seeman, he’s come to collect his cow who was grazing on the marshy land and he became our instant guide, telling us to drag the canoe about 100 metres to clear the Ketela dense. That we did, and off we went, back among the Lotus and the Manel swaying in the wind as if to say, “Hello, hello, we haven’t seen your kind before.”

A mile down the lane, we ran into another Ketela wall. Nobody had come by boat this way, the thick green obstruction blocked the path and there was an ‘edanda’, right across the waterway as if to say ‘beyond this is damnation’. We pulled the canoe out again; this time it was no marsh, but a harsh creeper filled, and thorn infested the water’s edge, where we had to carry the 14-foot canoe. It was almost impossible, but that word had been omitted from my vocabulary long ago and I stubbornly trudged on and my young friend responded magnificently. He had come to do a canoe ride amongst the breathtaking riverside scenery and here he was dragging canoes along knee high marsh and carrying the canoe among the thorn bush with all kinds of insects having a feast on us. Yet, like the good Pancho he was, he simply hung on with the self-styled Don Quixote of Kapu Ella.

Back to the water and back to the beauty, my spirits were still at the zenith but my senses were giving warning bells. This was not the Kalu Ganga where people along the river waved at you and gave all the information needed. Here there was no one, not even a little hut to tell us help was near, the salvinia by this time was adding another dimension of distress and clogging the path so much that my weary “boat carrying – boat dragging” shoulders were making their own protests. As if to say all this is not enough, the rains, too, started pelting us; life certainly wasn’t fair and it appeared that the Gods themselves were ensuring punishment on those who were disturbing the tranquillity of nature.

My young friend, I knew, was busted, yet no complaints; he hung in there, paddle for paddle as we inched our way on the salvinia sea, hoping at least the rain would stop. We’ve been on the water for almost six hours, and it had been most demanding. There was always the fear of a crocodile, or a snake, or a viper. Well, there the Gods were kind; we saw none and none came to see us. That was a huge concession and a consolation in this desolation.

As we passed the sea of Salvinia, another Ketela wall was in sight. That one beat me. There was no way to go ashore, so thick was the scrub bush that it was impossible to take the canoe ashore and walk around. I sat there with my friend, and admitted defeat. We had to turn back, not to go back through all what we suffered, but to find a place we could go ashore and walk to find someone who would help us return to sanity.

We rowed back to a place where we saw some rubber trees and knew there would be people in the vicinity. We were too tired even to pull the canoe ashore, but managed, left the boat and went looking for help. A half a mile inland there was a house, and, of course, the instant warm hospitality of the proletariat.

A man and his wife came out and he told us to rest whilst he called a friend and went to bring our boat. In the meantime, my Canadian pulled his mobile and called Buddy and the van and gave the location. In no time we were on our way home.

Yes, Kapu Ella defeated me and won the round, but that was only the first battle. On our way home, we passed a bridge, under which the majestic Kapu Ella flowed. It was almost near Bolgoda. I stopped and got off the van and stood there looking at the ripples as they swirled around the Bridge roots. It looked as if Kapu Ella were laughing at us mockingly, seeing the Old Man and the Kid drenched, and weary, standing on the bridge and watching what vanquished them.

“Laugh, Kapu Ella, laugh all you want,” I whispered to the wind. “One day I will be back.”


It wasn’t long ago that motorboats from Bolgoda went along the Kapu Ella to Kalu Ganga and the Padda boats came in the reverse direction. Now, that cannot be done. Clumps of Ketela stand obstructing the way. One does not need the World Bank to fund the clearing of Ketela and make Kapu Ella a beautiful waterway for people to travel. But then, will the beauty and the serenity remain? That is the question. Maybe, I should cheer for the Ketela bushes that defeated me, maybe they are the last vestige of defence to protect nature and retain the solitude of Kapu Ella and reserve the place for the flora and the fauna, who, unlike us, know how to respect and hold such beauty sacred.

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