Sunday, September 7, 2008

Isolated village called Iguruwatte, near Karagahathenna

Rattota Matale

Whata thrill !
A whitewater ride down the Kelani
By Udena .R.Attygalle

What a thril"Hard paddle everybody, hard paddle," shouted Joel Kilgarriff from the back of the raft and we started paddling like madmen. And then the whitewater hit us. It rocked the raft like a toy as we desperately tried to control it (and to hang on!). Huge walls of water kept hitting us and the raft was almost full of water. Then in a moment all was quiet, the water almost serene. We had just made it through the rapid called "the rib cage".

It all began with a rendezvous near the Cricket Club cafe in Colombo. A van belonging to "Adventure Sports Lanka," the only company operating white water rafting tours in the island, was going to take us to Kitulgala. Even the van had the feel of adventure, with helmets tucked in one corner, a huge map jutting out of its casing and even a monopoly board lying idly if things ever got too slow. Peter Black, part owner of the company along with Joel were going to be our raft guides.

The ride to Kitulgala usually takes about two hours. The road takes you through some of the most picturesque parts of the Sabaragamuwa region. Our base station was going to be the Bridge over the River Kwai restaurant, so named because of its close proximity to the place where the famous movie of the same name was filmed.

After a refreshing snack we were inside the garage getting our equipment ready. The deflated raft was rolled into the van, along with the paddles. Life jackets and sundry items were also tucked in and we were off towards higher ground so we could start our ride at a spot further upstream.

Clad only in a pair of shorts, with life jacket and helmet, we stepped out into the midday sun. Next we inflated the raft and Peter briefed us on some safety precautions. We were told how to hold the paddle properly, how to paddle and most importantly, what to do if someone were to fall into the water.

After a few trial manoeuvres, we were ready to start, ready to take on the mighty Kelani.

Slowly paddling along it didn't take us long to encounter our first rapid. The "start " as it is called is almost an angel, compared to some of its less than docile counterparts further downstream. The water was barely white as it was a grade 1 rapid (rapids are graded according to the level of difficulty, grade 1 being the easiest and grade 5 the hardest). Our ride through it served as a most needed trial run.

After this one rapid followed another, and we had made it through the "rib cage". By now the boat was full of water. Going ahead without emptying it was impossible. We beached the boat and began turning it upside-down. The seemingly lightweight raft turned out to be more than heavy. It took the effort of all of us to turn it over.

The raft emptied, we were back on our way. With Joel at the back and Peter in front guiding the raft along treacherous waters, we back paddled and forward paddled to keep the raft away from the boulders in our path. But all our efforts didn't prevent the raft from getting stuck once or twice.

As we approached the famed "slot and drop," Peter with a wry smile warned us that this was the one that had "taken the most lives." Looking at it from afar, we were reluctant to believe him. How could this calm looking sheet of water turn into a furious rapid, we wondered.

When Joel gave us the hard paddle command we knew that the rapid would be on us in a moment, and everything Peter had said crowded our minds. As the water gradually began to churn furiously, we tried desperately to steer the raft towards "the slot" the only place where you could safely get across the rapid. But the angry water, by now completely white had other ideas. It dragged us away. Only some deft manoeuvring and back-paddling got us back on track.

As we moved through the slot the raft dipped, so suddenly it took us by surprise. We hit the water hard, a huge wall of water breaking all around us, showering us. Robin who was in front of me was thrown into the water. I would have ended up the same way if it weren't for somebody pulling me in. Robin, a veteran when it came to whitewater rafting had no trouble getting back on.

Then in a moment it was calm again. The rapid had been passed. We lay gently rocking in our raft gasping for breath. It had been a moment of pure exhilaration. A moment in which we had battled the powerful rapid and won.

The last rapid on our route was as gentle as the first. So gentle in fact that I decided to follow the example of the guides and float through it. So with my life jacket and helmet securely on, I took the plunge. The idea was to float on your back with your feet in front , so that it would be the feet that would hit anything first. As the water gently pushed me to and fro, I didn't even have to swim because of the life jacket.

All along our way the river had been surrounded by the beautiful Kitulgala forest As we approached the waterfront of the restaurant we were filled with a feeling of triumph and team spirit and we raised our paddles in the air as the magnificent Yatiyantota mountain stared down at us.

The rate for this amazing experience is Rs 2,700. If you plan to come to Kitulgala on your own or provide your own lunch the cost would be Rs 1900 and Rs 1600 respectively. The address to contact is Adventure Sports Lanka, Simon Hewavitharana Rd, Colombo 3. So the next time you think adventure and fun, think whitewater rafting on the Kelani river.

Oddly Occupied
Light from darkness
In his concluding article of this series, Udena Atygalle sets sail to the magical Little Basses

A lighthouseIn the days of the Impe-rial Lighthouse Service lighthouses were manned by "lighthouse families". T.M.M Hamin, Stores Officer at the Sri Lanka Ports' Authority is part of the present generation of one such family. "It's part of the family history, a tradition. If you say Hamin nobody knows us but if you say lighthouse Hamin everybody knows us," he explained.

The Vasgunewardena, Jayawardena, Weerarathne and Hettiarachchi families are the other clans still in the service of the lighthouse. In the early days, the period at sea was six months. Communication with Kirinda was via a firebrand with the aid of Morse Code. This later changed to a five-cell torch and then to the VHF radio sets of today. The various flags used to warn ships of the imminent danger of shipwreck too have been made redundant by the radio equipment.

Mr. Hamin recalled how his father, when at home would talk mostly of the loneliness of the six-month stay. "Bad news was never conveyed to the lighthouses even if someone had died," he disclosed.

The staple diet of the lighthouse-keepers had been potatoes, dhal, butter, corned beef and the fish caught, out at the tower. Today the diet is more balanced and includes vegetables and wheat- based products.

Mr. Hamin maintains, "The dried fish from the lighthouses are the best I have ever tasted." Even today fishing is a major side income source for the keepers. Lobsters are caught and kept in cages, until a fishing boat would come near enough for a swimmer to go across and sell them.

The Little Basses as promised did have an inexplicable, rustic magic about it. The faded fortifications of the tower broke the billowing waves into a thousand pieces of white froth. Yet the gentler waves, they allowed to seep around the tower, unresisted.

The lights atop the 135-metre tower gave a double flash every 10 seconds: a warning to ships that were getting too close to the reef. Although we had travelled more than 30 kilometres from Kirinda, the desolate, almost virgin beaches of the Yala nature reserve were in clear sight. I was left wondering whether the sight of them so near, yet so inaccessible made matters better or worse for the weary keepers.

Chief Lighthouse Inspector B. Piyasena said, "Although it is so near to the semi–arid coastline of Yala, the lighthouse itself is in a wet zone area." It felt wet, the salty hot wind blew here too, but was mollified by a blanket of humidity. The lighthouse was the same format as the Great Basses with a few differences, like a freshwater tank with an increased capacity of 5000 gallons.

Yet here, beneath the romantic aura there seemed to be an underlying desperation among the keepers.

The Principal Lighthouse -keeper (PLK) A.P.L Vasgunewardena, a former navyman said, "We get annoyed, almost angry when the relief operation does not happen on the scheduled day. But the rough seas during the monsoon sometimes make it impossible for a relief operation to be completed in one day. On these days we go ashore at the Yala beach with the permission of the wildlife authorities."

Towards the end of an assignment at a Basses lighthouse, things sometimes do get unbearable. Recently there had been a confrontation where the PLK in charge had been on one side and the rest on the other - almost a mutiny.

Although things have improved with TVs and VCRs helping to while away the time, Vasgunewardena says, "It would help if we were given cell phones so that we can be in touch with our families." In fact, some cellular phone services did work on the lighthouse with a few keepers having their own private phones.

The keepers are given training in firefighting, survival at sea and first-aid. The rest is "on the job training".

"There were 800 applicants the last time we advertised for the post. The first test is a sea swim, which most fail and it makes our job of choosing much easier!" Mr. Piyasena said.

The chosen candidates should be "handymen". They have to handle every emergency, every situation themselves. Going ashore doesn't come into the picture. "Almost three out of 10 leave the service after a Basses assignment. There doesn't seem to be the same dedication as in the olden days," he adds.

Although the trend around the world is to 'unman' lighthouses, unmanning the Basses would require the building of helipads and solar panels, plus throw up the problem of security. In fact this coast area is known to have been the site of some LTTE activity during the past. The keepers too were worried about their security.

The seas were rough and the journey back was going to take longer than expected. By now, almost four days of continuous travelling both on land and sea were taking their toll on us. Limbs were getting heavy and eyes tired. Yet it would have been a shame not to soak in all there was to see as we navigated around the alluring Yala coast. And so up in the gallery area I was, when a lighthouse-keeper returning home, struck up a conversation.

His name remains an indiscernible scribble in my notebook. But I remember him mentioning that he used to work at the stock market. He inquired whether we would be heading for Colombo that day. By now it was well past 6 p.m. and with around 10 hours of sleep for the past three nights we were going nowhere but to bed that night. He would be going home to Colombo and unlike us he had precious little time to enjoy at home.

As we chatted he explained why the lighthouse-keepers were dressed so scrappily. The answer was simple. "It isn't practical anymore. At the Basses we have to do the work usually done by other workers as well." The smart merchant navy uniforms of yesteryear had been scrapped.

Usually it is to the Dondra or the Beruwala lighthouses that Senior PLKs get there final assignment before retirement: a tribute to a job well done.

By now we were back at Kirinda. A final round of goodbyes and we were ferried to the jetty. As we trekked towards our vehicle I could not but wonder what those eight men we had left behind at the two towers in the middle of the ocean were doing.

In the service of giving light and direction to the nautical world, could their own lives be directionless and in darkness?

Oddly Occupied
Ocean vigil
Udena Attygalle concludes this series with a two – part article on the lonely life of the keepers of the lighthouse

LighthouseFor us it was all what we had expected – an adventurous excursion to a place we would probably never see again. But for the four we left behind it would be a long wait till the next relief operation, with probably another curious visitor with loads of questions.

The Sri Lanka Ports' Authority (SLPA), which operates and manages the coast lights, agreed to accommodate us on its April relief operations to the two offshore lighthouses at the Great Basses and Little Basses. That was only after we signed indemnity forms assuring the SLPA that we would not hold it responsible for damage/loss to life and property.

A view of Pradeepa from the lighthouseWe set off from Kirinda to the Great Basses aboard the SLPA vessel 'Pradeepa II' guided by Master Joseph Selvanayagam. Pradeepa was loaded with barrels of fresh water, diesel, vegetables, fish, paint, dry rations, mechanics, helpers and most importantly the four men who would take over the job of lighthouse-keepers.

While most of the first-timers were bent over double being seasick on the morning of April 28, I managed to resist the urge by taking a deep breath of salty air. Then I caught up with S.M.M.Mirzan on his first assignment as Junior Assistant Lighthouse-keeper.

His interest in this odd line of work had been sparked by the conversations of his uncles, all seafaring men. "Forty-five days of work then 45 days of holiday, where else can you find such a job" was an enthusiastic way of looking at things. Newly married he would be stranded on a tower in the middle of the ocean for the next six weeks. "I am taking some books so that I can improve my spoken English," he says. As the junior assistant it would be his job to keep the kitchen fires burning during the stay at the Great Basses.

Time for teaYet, the 'pros' at this business, J.P Padmasiri, the Principal Lighthouse-keeper (PLK) and B.K. Rahuman, the Assistant Lighthouse-keeper were less than enthusiastic about being caged in.

"Once, I accidentally cut a finger badly. The PLK at that time signalled a fishing boat to come near the reef, swam to it, went ashore and returned with help," Rahuman says, explaining the inaccessibility. He is the champion swimmer among the lighthouse-keepers. A bit of spearfishing is his relief from the loneliness of the long vigil.

"We get up around 6 a.m., switch off the lights, get breakfast ready, radio the Dondra lighthouse at 9 a.m., do the necessary maintenance work, lunch, rest, radio again at 5 p.m. and then switch on the lights again," Padmasiri ran through the daily routine at the lighthouse.

By this time the freshly painted 125-metre Great Basses lighthouse which was just a flash seen every 10 seconds during most of the voyage was in clear sight. Four 'dots' were vigorously getting things ready for the landing.

Unshaven men in rubber boots and fishing hooks, hurricane lanterns and jealously guarded potted plants floated into my mind; the images formed long ago through Secret Seven books.

Suddenly the daydream was over, it was action time. The tug could go no more towards the shallow waters near the reef. The rescue and whaler boats that we had been dragging behind us suddenly moved into the fore. The provisions were loaded onto the whaler. The whaler was then dragged by the powerful rescue boat towards the lighthouse. The whaler anchored a few metres away from the lighthouse and the unloading began, using the crane at the lighthouse. Meanwhile, we whizzed along in the rescue boat and boarded the Great Basses, thanks mostly to the skill of the two who handled the boat.

And we were there. This was the destination of our one-and-a half-hours at sea, the home of our oddly occupied men.

The base of the tower was a huge tank where all the rainwater collected in the gutters would end up. Clambering up this base we were in the gallery/storage area of the lighthouse. It was full of cupboards and barrels with a trapdoor to the water tank below. Climbing up a narrow staircase with the brass parts as shiny as they would have been when it was built in 1872, we reached the noisy generator room. Next was the panel room with all the controls of the generator and backup systems, an aromatic smell signalling that the kitchen was above. On the next floor was the PLK's room. The rest of the crew slept in the room above this. Farther up was the visiting room complete with TV, VCR and the controls of the lights that were in the dome above.

The gallery around the visiting room provides a spectacular sight: deep blue waters all around except for the lighter patch we were on with a splashing white boundary around it. We spotted a group of dolphins enjoying the abundance of fish around the reef. With binoculars in hand this is a favourite gazing spot for the lonely keepers.

On the floor below, settling down on a cosy bunk with an unending carpet of blue and its inherent hiss coming through an open window I struck up a conversation with Assintant Keeper Bandula Prathapasinghe. "We are like birds, well-fed but trapped in a cage. We can't even go out for a kottu rotti if we feel like it. Our freedom is very limited." His main grievance is that their turn at the offshore lighthouses brings them no added payments, even though it's a much harder life than that at a lighthouse on the mainland.

The long stay at the lighthouses cripples their mental capabilities. Boredom and loneliness form a vicious circle, with even those determined to make good use of their time, getting trapped in this feeling of uselessness, he adds.

"We even get socially isolated when we go back home. We have missed weddings and funerals and so on. We find it hard to pick up the threads again. And just when we are settling down we have to come back here." For Prathapasinghe who had marvelled at the lighthouses while working on merchant vessels, the magic had all but vanished.

The meal prepared for us was appetizing. It was fresh water to drink and sea water to wash your hands. The rationing of fresh water is one of the many hardships faced by the keepers. Bathing in the sticky salty water day in, day out provides little comfort.

By now it was time to go back. But this time round the sea was too rough for the rescue boat to come near the reef. So we hung on the crane, three at a time and made a perilous swing towards the whaler. A sudden rush of a wave and the ropes attached to the crane were dragged far across the reef. So there we were hanging on a rope right between the reef and the whaler with a heaving sea below us.

It was some time before the ropes were gathered and we were swivelled towards the whaler. Still swinging madly we had to let go of the rope at the correct time or we would land in the sea or atop barrels and cans! We landed safely, though not very gracefully.

Then it was back to the Pradeepa II and Kirinda. Early the next day we would head for the Little Basses. A 30-kilometre trip, crossing the shallow reefs, in to the deep sea and back. A trip that could sometimes take a gruelling five hours meant that 'outsiders'were rarely encouraged to visit. However, Chief Lighthouse Inspector B. Piyasena assures us that if the Great Basses looked masculine the Little Basses were the more beautiful and feminine.

(To be continued)
A bike ride through the suburbs
By Udena R. Attygalle

"Build up pace and maintain it over the mud," I thought to myself. I'm not one for "not getting dirty" but there was no way I was going to lay my feet on that ten-inch layer of thick mud.Yet we ended up doing more than wading through mud. We carried our bikes most of the way through thick forest cover, fell into a few mud holes and then almost suddenly were back on a familiar dusty, noisy, congested Colombo road.

With a plan to explore the suburban areas of Colombo, a friend from the "Midweek Mirror" Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and I set out on Monday last week from Dehiwala. Others were supposed to join us but could not due to other commitments. So if you too want to explore as we did, fix the date well in advance!

Colombo on a bike is quite a different experience altogether we found out. It's much more real than travelling in an air-conditioned car and if you are willing to give those old muscles a bit of a workout, definitely more fun than walking.

For us the adventure really started at the Attidiya Sanctuary where we had the muddy experience above. We cut off from the Dehiwala- Maharagama road onto the Pittawella road about 500 metres past the Bellanwila temple. The stretch upto here is mostly easy. When you are on a bike you really feel the difference between carpeted roads and the ones that are not (make sure you get a good reliable bike, if you are hoping to go off road: mountain bikes are recomended.

Turning onto the Pittuwana road toward the WildLife office of the sanctuary, we were met by a mini "causeway" where the marsh waters on both sides of the road had joined over the road. We had our first and probably cleanest taste of biking over water!

Talking of water, make sure you drink plenty of liquids on the way, if you ever plan to bike around in Colombo or the sun and the humidity combined will quickly sap you in no time. Wear a hat if you have one.

Although the WildLife officers suggested we move through the sanctuary on foot, we armed with the adventuring spirit decided to bike it. It was a mistake but one that we were glad to make!

The path through the sanctuary is definitely not for biking especially after the rain.

The exit from the sanctuary falls onto the Attidiya road just after the Bellantara Junction. But even here people have started encroaching on the marsh land.

Next we headed back toward the Bellanwilla Temple. We felt people stare at us, two mud-spattered adventurers speeding away on our bikes, littering the road with mud and grass.

The WildLife officer at the park had told us there were more birds on the marsh land next to the temple which is not even a protected area so we turned off at Vihare Mawatha, just after the temple. True to his words we saw more birds here than at the sanctuary, calmly oblivious to the people around.

A few turns and this road led to Boralesgamuwa. It was a very good biking road.

As we sped along to Nugegoda we were forced to move through a few main roads. Biking on the main roads is not fun though it's an adventure in itself, dusty, noisy and if you manage not to get knocked down by a speeding vehicle you are sure to get choked by the fumes that they leave behind. We kept on the broad pavements as much as we could, even though it meant that the ride was rougher than on the smooth main roads.

From Nugegoda we moved away onto the Thalawathugoda road,then on to the Baddegana junction where we stopped at a boutique for a bottle of water and were met by a very sympathetic shopkeeper. Amused at the sight of us two fagged-out travellers he helpfully suggested some easy bike routes. Infact we were a bit tired of the ascent-decent sequence so far on this road, although the descending part was fun. When the road is carpeted and there is no traffic around, you can achieve fabulous speeds coming down hill! But then there is no coming down without going up.

So taking the advice of the shopkeeper we went along Maliban Arama road, towards the Sri Jayawardenapura Sanctuary . Here we were met by beautiful marshy terrain and of course stinking garbage dumps. Other than that the area was ideal for biking, almost like some country road.

We turned off onto the Sri Sunethraramaya Rd along the Diyawanna Oya. As we pedalled along quietly, mostly undisturbed by traffic, we could see the busy streets of Kotte on the other side of the water, but it was like an action movie with the music turned down. We were so close to the city yet all was calm and peaceful. The humps on the road seemed to be made for bikers.We sped over them, and this may have contributed to the rear wheel on my bike coming off. Luckily it didn't come off completely or I wouldn't have finished this story!

After a half an hour or so of bike trouble and repair we decided to have a lunch break. And so it was back onto the main roads and the search for a good place for a bowl of rice began.

After the meal we started out again but this time we found sitting down on the small bike seats rather painful. After exploring the marsh land just behind "Sethsiripaya" we were left with couple of hours to spare before we had to return the bikes to the owner in Kotte. So we decided to do a quick circle of the area. Off to Rajagiriya we went and from there we moved along Buthgamuwa, Ambagaha junction, Koswatte road, (where a very sympathetic shop keeper offered us a free drink), Koswatte, and then on the new road towards the parliament.

This smooth straight broad road is a pleasure to bike along when there is no traffic. The scenery too is extremely soothing although marred by the garbage scattered along the way.

We had spent the whole day biking and now the sun was setting and the darkening skies and the distant lightning signalled the beginning of a thunder storm.

Looking back the route we took may not have been the perfect one. But then we were not looking for a perfect route. It had been a spontaneous idea and the experience had been well worth the sweat. According to Jayanthi, "it's a must for every adventurous soul!" Another thing to remember: all along the way three-wheeler drivers were our real guides and a great source of information.

Tomorrow it would be back to slaving away in our concrete towers, but anytime we feel we need a break, we know what to do.

Sports Plus

Riding the wave
By Udena R. Attygalle

Day 1

I was hanging on desperately to one end of a harness, while the other end was connected to a speed boat. Only a pair of unstable and absurdly long skis stopped me from speeding to the bottom of the lagoon.

Water was splashing everywhere and through the froth I saw the people on the boat waving, trying to signal to me. It was time, I gathered, to stop crouching and get to a standing posture. ImageSlowly I lifted myself onto my knees. And then came a jerk. I felt the harness fly away from my grasp. For a brilliant few seconds, I was no longer tethered to the speed boat, no longer water-skiing. I was flying, head first, free style! Then with a sickening splash, I felt myself deep in the brackish water. Yes, that was yours truly attempting to water-ski as The Sunday Times crew went down Aluthgama way for a two-day water sport try-out.

It all began with a chance meeting with Benny Fernando, a national water sports instructor and professional deep sea diver. A man who had spent most of his life on water (or below it!). Benny suggested we do a feature on water sports. A week later we were on our way to Aluthgama,where Benny has his boathouse.

As we motored along the Galle Road, the rains descended. But when we arrived at Benny's boathouse, the skies were clear.There are over 10 boathouses surrounding the Aluthgama lagoon; all with facilities for water sports. Other places where such facilities can be found are Kaluwanmodera, Negombo, Hikkaduwa and Trincomalee.

A word of warning though, the rates for accommodation around the Aluthgama lagoon are high. The water sports too will cost you a pretty penny, depending on the activity.

Water-skiing, which was our first try out, costs around Rs 450 for 4 1/2 rounds. For a beginner that would mean around three falls into the water (with a life jacket of course). The main problem after one of those falls is getting the skis back on.

The impact had thrown mine some 10 metres from where I landed. Because the water is buoyant (and because your legs are not!), it's a struggle to get the second ski on, while your other leg is floating away in the opposite direction. And then you have to stay balanced in a crouched position with your hand around your knees while the boat picks up speed.

Next Geeth Fernando, Benny's son took us canoeing. It was like going on a slow motion train after dropping out of a bullet train. The canoe we used was meant for two people. I took the rear seat. Paddling in a synchronized effort, we traversed the lagoon. "Paddle without straining," Benny shouted from the shore. Too late: I was already worn out. But then I was in the rear, while the guy in front did all the hard work (the paddler in the rear is the one that steers the canoe. Back paddling on one side turns the boat to that side. Another way to turn is to paddle forward together, only from the side opposite to which the boat should turn).

The paddle board was my favourite. Ours was a converted surf board with a shallow hollow to fit into.It was much faster than the canoe and felt easier on the arms! After doing a few rounds in the lagoon, Geeth and I took the board out to sea.

Now this was fun. Before we began, Geeth gave me the advice "always face the waves head on or you will fall off", the truth of which I learned on my very first attempt. But the feeling when you climb over and above one of those nasty waves is fabulous.

The hiring cost for a paddle board is between Rs 100 to 150 an hour; for a canoe it's Rs 250 an hour.

Next we took up body surfing. We were riding the waves on our tummies on a board. As we waded around 20 metres into the sea, we were constantly pounded by the surf. After spotting a good wave we got on our boards and tried to paddle, while the wave would hit us from behind. But we would go only five metres or so, and then the wave would pass us. Geeth, on the other hand, was riding the wave right up to the shore line. We were doing something wrong.

But it was now time to leave as the sun was dipping to the horizon. We would have to try again tomorrow. ( Body surfing will cost you Rs 100 an hour).

Day 2

Day two began with a pair of very sore arms. Activity number 1 was jet scooters. Jet scooters are those motorbike like contraptions that you may have seen on Baywatch or the movie "Waterworld".

The scooter is jet powered and can go extremely fast. The turns are the best though. A U turn at full-speed is a possibility, unlike on a bike. And when you tilt you know you can topple, but then it's only into the water. The jets are made so that the engine stalls if you fall. The jet scooters cost around Rs 1000 for 15 minutes. Next we did a bit of Kayaking.We used a double Kayak, and I hopped on to the rear seat (you know why ) Parking the Kayak on the middle of the lagoon and dozing off would be a fine idea, I thought after a while. But the roar of a jet scooter passing by put paid to that. And then we were off again to the beach to ride the waves. This time we were going to do it right. I spotted a big one.

Waiting till it was almost on top of me I jumped on the board and started paddling like mad. I felt myself inching forward. And then it hit. It lifted me and I was screaming away towards the beach, riding the big blue ocean! And as the wave broke,the blue water turned to white and I was still going. And then the wave grew weaker and weaker till it no longer had the strength to carry me. It receded; leaving me almost at the beach. Lying there with the now gentle waves lapping at us ,we knew the time to leave had come. As we left and the waves washed over our footsteps, we promised ourselves we'd return some day to this place of surf, sand and sport.
scending Alagalla

On the adventure trail with Udena Attygalle and friends Shamindrini Sivanandan,Jayanthi Kuru- Utumpala and Nalin Balasuriya

A smashed-up torch, a cigarette lighter dead with the cold and a packet of biscuits was all that was left of our supplies. The idea of spending the night in this leech-infested jungle was rapidly turning into a possibility as the darkness quickly set in.The time read 7.30 p.m. And for the first time we were ready to admit out loud the obvious - we were lost, dead lost on the unforgiving jungle inclines of the Alagalla mountain.

6.00 a.m: Saturday morning at the Fort railway station and Jayanthi, Shamindrini and I were all set to hop on the Badulla train on our way to Alagalla. Nalin would join us at Polgahawela. Shafraz, one of our team missed that train by five minutes, five minutes that would rid him of a life time experience.

The plan was to get down at Kadugannawa and catch a bus to Poththapitiya. The time read 9.00 a.m. when we stepped down onto the Kadugannawa station. But luck would have it that the bus was not working that day. While waiting we were the only people to give a few coins to a beggar woman. The woman in no mean words cursed the rest and promised that no harm would ever come to us. This memory would ring in our ears almost 11 hours later.

On the suggestion of the villagers we were to go to Pilimatalawa and then board a bus to Poththapitiya. From Poththapitiya we could see Alagalla, the 1,143 metre tall mountain. An imposing sight.

A two-kilometre trek toward the foot of the mountain and we decided to cut across a small hill and make it towards the mountain, ignoring the usual path up against the advice of the locals- mistake number 1.

Cutting across grasslands we were eager to enter the jungle, not knowing that hundreds of bloodsucking leeches were waiting impatiently for us to come their way. But we were prepared or so we thought. The sun was up and so were our spirits as we headed up the mountain. Through thick jungle and even steep rocks we climbed. "Towards heaven man" one would say, "one fall and we are in hell," another would reply.

Climbing the rocks first and testing them out was assigned to me. It was a guinea-pig job but it's always fun to be the first to get to the top. One rock was at almost a 90 degree angle and about 100 feet steep. It was decided that it wasn't worth circumnavigating the rock. It was huge and we could see no easier way. So I climbed first. Over a very tricky spot where there was just one crevice to hold onto and I was through.Said Jayanthi "I crawled up the rock and I am glad I didn't look down." " I wouldn't have done it any other time!" Nalin put it.

Another time Nalin suddenly spotted a coiled-up serpent. We were just climbing over a rock and there was no other way except over the serpent. So Nalin watched it as we stepped past.

By now we had climbed for almost three hours and the rains set in and with it the mist.

Oddly enough we found ourselves a cave like structure and avoided the heaviest part of the rain. A break and we were off again.

The mountain seemed to play with us. Each time we thought that we had reached the top another peak would suddenly become visible. After a whole four hours of jungle terrain we had suddenly climbed onto a plain covered in tall grass. A rock was looming in the distance. The peak, the peak, we thought!

Yet Nalin who was in front pronounced, "Guys this isn't the peak but I can see the real peak from here."

Steps quickened and we were soon at the last obstacle on our way to the craggy rock at the top. Climbing it in wet, windy and misty conditions seemed unreal. And gloom set in with the possibility of having to go back down without reaching the peak looming large. But Jayanthi wasn't ready to go back without stepping onto the peak and spurred us on to climb through what is known as the "Singhakata" to the top at 4.28 p.m. Up on the top all huddled together, our spirits soaring, we would shout out loud "Today, we are kings" and like kings we felt.

So cold was it that I was "shaking like a leaf". We could hardly see 10 feet in front of us.

Jayanthi meanwhile lay on her back on the rock. "I looked straight up and all I saw was just pure whiteness," she said. I meanwhile hugged a rock on the side away from the chilly wind and tried to get as warm as I could. Nalin described the final climb as " scary" . And scary it was. On one side was a fall of around 1000 feet and we couldn't even see 10 feet of it.

Maybe it was the cold or maybe the ecstasy of having reached the top or the possibility of getting lost in the mist that we did not explore the top of the mountain: even though we knew there was a easier way down somewhere - mistake number 2 we found out later.

Part 2 next week

In the second part of his adventure on the Alagalla mountain, Udena R. Attygalle relates the hazardous journey down

After climbing off the craggy cliff, I looked up and said to myself 'never again' though I knew deep down, I didn't mean it. From the top, the mighty Bible Rock and Uthuwankande seemed tiny. Even Hantane far away seemed dwarfed.

On the ground we started thinking again. What route were we going to take down? We had to decide fast. Time was running out.

Somehow, we found ourselves heading down on a different and easier route, to the path we had taken up the mountain, or so we thought. We had to avoid the steep rocks for there was no way that we could actually make it down them, now that it was wet and slippery.

One hour down the mountain and we knew we had drifted far from our original course. In fact we were on another face of the mountain. Keep moving down- that seemed to be the wisest thing to do.

It was around this time that Shami had her first fall. "I was going down on my back because it was the most comfortable position to slide down difficult spots. But this time I slipped and crashed several feet," she recalled later. Jayanthi, above her was mummified. Shami had hurt her right knee. Yet in her own words "I got my act together and started out again."

The first thoughts of disaster dawned on us about this time. Yet nobody voiced their fears. Instead we hurried on through thorns that ripped our denims and slid, rolled, scrambled, anyway we could, down even the steep rocks that we had thought of avoiding at first.

I was the guinea pig again, virtually jumping off the rocks in an attempt to increase the pace, well aware that darkness was moving in fast. By now Shami had a shoe with no sole. "I could feel the twigs through my socks and knew the leeches couldn't be far away," she says.

The leeches were at this time, getting unbearable and blood was everywhere. Stopping to get rid of them, only gave the opportunity for a hundred other small devils to hop on.

7.30 in the night and we were still getting nowhere. "Getting lost on a mountain was exciting at first but then the darkness and the reality of having to spend the night in a leech infested jungle was scary," Jayanthi said later.

At last in desperation we decided to shout for help. The first time there was no response. Our hearts sank a mile. There was nothing to do but to keep on going. Then suddenly out of the blue or black as it was now, I suddenly spotted something shiny........... the leaves of a banana tree. Then there was a sudden noise behind me and I saw Shami down on all fours. She had slipped and was groaning. Checking on her we found out that she was limping badly. We shouted again and this time torchlight and a shout of "who's there?" echoed through the night. Saved! "Those words were the best in a long time," said a joyous Shami .

Nalin, who by now was a few paces ahead on a scout mission waved madly at the man who was approaching with the torch. J.L.A Seneviratne or Bandaiyya of upper Alagalla, Hatharaliyadde was our rescuer and soon safely ensconsced in his small hut we set down to the business of removing leeches, whole colonies of them. Even with two small children he insisted we remove the leeches at his place, and provided us with special soap and water.

The cup of tea that his wife made for us, Shami described as 'the best I have ever had in my whole life' echoing the thoughts of all of us. "It is with God's blessings that you made it out of the jungle, there are trapguns all over the place," Bandaiyya exclaimed.

And so with an oil lamp to show us the way we set out again with the directions Bandaiyya gave firmly etched in our minds. Bandaiyya couldn't come with us leaving his family all alone. Like a group of lost soldiers making their way back to camp,we trudged on- Nalin in front with the lamp, Shami and myself helping her next and Jayanthi at the rear.

Almost an hour later, the road was slowly been taken over by the jungle. This was not how it was supposed to be.

It became painfully obvious that we were lost; again. And then Jayanthi suddenly dashed towards the front, towards the light. Says she, "I kept looking back and seeing huge dark objects. It was like something was going to come and grab my neck!"

We had three options. Keep on going, try and head back to Bandaiyya's place or climb down a path we had passed. It was decided that we would go a little way on the path down and then head back to Bandaiyya's place. Nobody really believed that the path was going to take us anywhere.

But miracles do happen and suddenly I spotted something shiny again. The roof of a shed I was sure. "Civilization," I shouted. And then we heard dogs barking. A TV blaring. We were saved; again. The time read 10.30 p.m..

We had reached some estate line-rooms. Ever helpful, the inhabitants helped us get rid of the leeches. A cup of plain tea was greedily gulped up. Saththivale Krishan of the Alagalla Estate walked with us towards Poththapitiya. A call home and my parents would come and pick us up.

And so there we were having dinner at 2.30 a.m. on January 16, 2000. We had set out at 6.00 a.m. on the 15th. We were to later find out that many at the Wijeya Newspapers office had been woken up late at night and the police too informed about our disappearance.

Most of our clothes were soaked in blood and went into the dustbin.

My parents had been shocked but the lectures would come later. Right then all we could think of was sleep, blissful sleep.

Traditionally it is on the 4th of February each year that a few people make their way up Alagalla. This time is usually the dry season and a path is usually cut for the trekkers. Shamindrini Sivananthan (Shami) is a history teacher at the Asian International School. Although admitting she was on the verge of crying, she never did. Limping and badly bitten by leeches she was the bravest of our group. Her students have advised their teacher to watch the "Blair Witch Project!" Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala is an adventure-loving journalist at the "Midweek Mirror". She admitted that she would have broken down if Shami had. Yet it was her untiring enthusiasm that kept us going. A friend recalled her describing Alagalla as a "small hill" somewhere off Kandy; that was before the hike! Nalin Balasuriya is the computer graphics artist at the "Midweek Mirror". Never once did he lose his calm during the whole expedition. His confidence was very reassuring. His friends have advised him to take a few old tapes the next time round and use them as a guide rope! As for yours truly, I know where I'll be heading the next time I need some adventure. The beach. Nice and sunny with lots of people around and NO leeches. That is, at least for a while!

On the trail of a legend
By Udena R. Attygalle
I had long wanted to experience Saradiel country, the place that Sri Lanka’s most infamous bandit made his hideout. Venturing into Utuwankande was like going into Sherwood Forest, the sylvan home of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men.

Deekirikevage Saradiel was born on March 25, 1835. His gang of robbers included Hawadiya, Kirihonda, Bawa, Suwanda, Sirimale and Mammalay Marikkar. Together they were a lawless bunch who waylaid carriages and coaches and robbed people of their valuables. Today the way to Utuwankande is along the Edna Corporation road, about 3 km towards Colombo from the Mawanella town. The junction on the main road is aptly named Utuwankande Junction.

To get to the foot of the hill, you have to walk about a kilometre along the road up to the chocolate factory. A footpath behind the factory will take you along typical village scenery through a mixture of rubber, coconut and banana plantations.

A few buffaloes grazing lazily reminded me of a story about Saradiel. It is said that at one time when this area was being combed by the police, Saradiel had escaped by causing a buffalo stampede and made his getaway by hanging on to the neck of one of the beasts!

Back on the path, I was now making my way up a rubber plantation. The path is made for rubber tapping and trees bleeding rubber acted as guides. The exit from the rubber plantation was sudden and for the first time I could see Utuwankande close up.

It was a magnificent sight. A mass of rocky boulders, clumped together in an awkward fashion, it rose far above the surrounding coconut trees.

The path to the top will take about an hour, but as it was not well marked, the climb was steep and tiring. Full of rock crevices, passes and elevations, it certainly had many places that would have made ambush easy. It was no wonder the bandit king had chosen this rock as his hideout. I knew only a little history but it seemed that of the three well known rocky mountains in this region – Bible Rock, Allagalle and Utuwankande, this was the best for a bandit’s work.

Contrary to popular belief, Saradiel supposedly was not a fearsome-looking, strong man. He was rather small, but such a build would have been ideal for this terrain.

The top was all craggy rocks. At the peak was

A different route to Horton Plains

The Devil's Staircase is the route that falls through the NonPareil estate up towards the Horton Plains .

The narrow and bumpy road snakes up perilously towards the Nagrak division bungalow passing through tea and sometimes jungle areas. This probably explains why it is called "Devil's Staircase ".

Consisting of 32 reverse (Hair-pin ) bends the 24 km road is probably best traversed in a four wheel drive vehicle. (With an equally good driver!)
By Udena .R. Attygalle

" Like travellers trespassing in the realm of the gods, we stopped and stared. The green valley we had traversed was now just an old green carpet with patches of brown: the only sign of man.The mighty Imagemountains below felt almost close enough to touch . Oh how we wished we could fly!"

These were among the images that stuck in our minds as The Sunday Times "adventure" team came to Belihuloya last Tuesday, in search of an alternative route to Horton Plains .

Discussions with local residents soon made it clear that there were at least four routes to the top from this side in addition to the popular route via Nuwara Eliya .

A route through the Non Pareil estate, a trail past Bambarakande Falls or a trek up via "Kuburutheniwela " seemed to be the hardest options. The first two meant travelling along very bad roads, the third offered no road at all. So we chose the third!

With the Sabaragamuwa campus at Belihuloya as our base we went to meet the Grama Sevaka of the area late at night. Premarathne Gamage, the 52-year-old Grama Sevaka of Kuburutheniwela's eyes lit up at the prospect of climbing the mountain that he had trekked up, ever since he was a boy. He would be our guide.

Collecting a few supplies from the town we set off around six a.m.

The route led us up the road just past the Belihuloya rest house, on the "Ehelagalagame" road. Three km up the dilapidated road and we were at Kuburutheniwela, a valley of green paddy fields Imagesurrounded by mountains. Our van journey ended there. From here on, it was all on foot.

As we used short cut after short cut, we criss-crossed the stone- laid path from Belihuloya to Ohiya that JRJ is said to have crossed using a horse! Unimaginable at the present time.

Up the Pabahinna mountain we went, through a Pinus forest, planted by the wild life authorities in the 1970's . Gamage quickly warned us of the slippery fallen pine needles. One wrong step and we would go right through the symmetrically planted trees and land many feet below!

As we went further up through the natural forest cover, we were left wondering at the beauty of the natural over the planted. The multi-coloured canopy afforded us relief from the gusty wind.

As we hit an open space, on one side of us was the "Nas daduhinna", a natural formation like the edge of a nose . On the other side was a scene right out of a fairy tale, so unreal in its beauty that we could almost understand why all was silent except for the wind and the gentle drip of a stream.

The various lichens hanging everywhere made me recall my science teacher saying that this was a sure sign that the air is pure and unpolluted .

Opposite us was the ' Hagala' mountain: rocks jutting up here and there to break the otherwise unbroken green .

As we climbed to the top of the "nose" we met the road and a board which said we had travelled 11 kms from the Belihuloya rest house. And a further four km more to reach the "end of the world" (and here we were at the end of our tether).

Two km more and we were at the Nagrak division bungalow. (the bungalow can be booked for the night through Balangoda Plantations in Ratnapura). A welcome cup of hot tea at our local friend Premadasa's house who told us the bitter cold was quite usual and we were off again. This time through the Horton Plains nature reserve and jungle so thick that after one of us had passed through, the next had to clear the forest again to make it through. And in the middle of all this was the old tree that for decades had been the boundary between the two districts of Ratnapura and Nuwara Eliya.

As we moved along we were hit by an unbearable stench .Investigating (or creeping bent double! ) we stumbled upon the remains of an animal that the villagers had said had been attacked by a leopard the previous night. Pieces of meat were scattered everywhere beside the now bare skull. Were we glad that leopards usually shy away from human contact.

A hop, step and a jump (a very very long step) and we were at World's End. We come out of the thicket from the path opposite the normal road to this spot.

A look down the gap, a small incursion into the plains and we were getting cold and hungry . The mist was coming down fast and the clock read 3.30 pm.

The trip back towards Nagrak took 45 minutes, half an hour less than the upward trek. We all agreed the vision of Premadasa's promised plate of hot rice was the driving force behind our fleet-footedners!

A good dose of rice and curry inside us we were loath to move back down. Imagine our suprise when our driver came along. We had heard that the road named "Devil's Staircase" was impossible to cross with out a four-wheel drive vehicle. But Buddhika our driver said "he had battled the 32 reverse bends and narrow broken roads and had found it hard, but not impossible in a van". Were we glad.

Of the two-hour journey down, I remember little except for the wondrous images that kept coming back each time my eyes closed....................

Trinitians go to war
Udena R. Attygalle, a Trinity Ryde gold medallist of 1997 writes

Up in the hills of Kandy, in Trinity's Cadet Room stands a German machine-gun of the World War I make. Captured during the victory march of the British, it was a gift of gratitude from King George to Trinity College — the first school to be thus honoured outside England — on the other side of the Empire. And it stands as proud testimony to the contribution that Trinity made towards World War I.

Trinity had sent forth 65 men (including Principal A.G. Frazer). Thirteen sacrificed their lives, 18 were wounded, two were taken prisoner and three were awarded commissions.

H.E. GarvinWhen in 1914 the first shots were fired to mark the beginning of World War I, Trinity College far away from the theatre of war, was not yet 50. Yet in August that year three old boys, Aelian Pereira, H.E. Garvin and John Andrew who were in England, promptly volunteered for active service.

Back at school, legendary Principal Frazer was keen that Trinity should share in the war effort. Every day the Union Jack was spread over the table in the hall and war prayers held. Trinity's efforts to send a cadet contingent to the war climaxed with the famous 72-mile march to Colombo in 38 hours. Yet the authorities were unmoved. They would not alter the existing rules and the 65 Trinitians who did battle for the Empire did so individually.

All the while, the war was changing fast; from one of movement to that of a static battle in the trenches. Garvin, in a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Frazer in May 1915 writes that he together with Aelian, both of the Queen Victoria Rifles, had marched through France right into Belgium which Germany had overrun. "For 24 hours my lot was in the supporting trenches and I can assure you that it wasn't half as good as a bed in Trinity College. The dugouts in each of which two of us had to sleep measured 4 feet by 2 feet by 3."

"When the Germans attack, they come along in solid formation singing their patriotic songs and making a very brave show. We wait till they are checked by our entanglements and then hell seems to be let loose — thousands of rifles get going, some men shout and curse some sing, some seem to go mad," Garvin writes of his first taste of war.

Of the 1,000 who had left with the Queen Victoria Rifles only 200 were left when Aelian was awarded a commission with the Durham Light Infantry.

The next we hear from Aelian is, while he is a prisoner-of-war at an officers' camp in Karlsruhe. "The bravery of a soldier shows perhaps more in hospital than in the field. Can you imagine a man laughing at the idea of having his leg cut off? I find our college motto 'Respice Finem' very heartening," he says writing to the College Magazine.

Four boys, Senior Prefect Richard Aluwihare, A. Halangoda, A. Rudra and Frank Drieberg, who went to England for university education enlisted in the British army. They were part of the disastrous Battle of Somme on July 1, 1916. In his biography, Rudra, a member of the 18th Royal Fusiliers remembers going to the place where the Germans had attacked with chemical gas, soon afterwards. "At the trenches we found the dead and dying strewn all over the place. If one stood in an affected area too long the gas ate through the soles of our boots and got our feet."

The battle itself saw many a Trinitian fall. H. Vancuylenburg, in a letter to the Ceylon Independent of August 26, 1916 says, "I remember quite distinctly seeing Halangoda, Drieberg, Staples, Aluwihare and Rudra fall and not too long afterwards I got my first bang which blew off my leg as far as the knee."

Bosom buddies Aluwihare and Rudra were in the thick of battle. In Rudra's biography, he recalls, "I was outside the crater and felt an acute pain in the middle of my back, under my pack. 'I've bought it,' I said to myself. I gingerly felt my back under my pack. What had happened was that a piece of shrapnel had smashed in the tin containing my iron rations. The goodies were ruined, but they had certainly saved my life. Glancing around I saw Richard lying in the open about five feet away, his uniform covered in blood. He had been wounded a second time."

A few months later came the news that Drieberg had been killed in the Somme battle. He was only 19. Halangoda too was seriously wounded.

W.H. Pate of the Ceylon contingent had sent Trinity this description of an air attack so far unknown in war. "A German airplane followed us all the way and when we were in a wood they let go. Their shells fell like the rain in about three acres of wood. I was knocked out several times by the concussion of the shells, but managed to scrape through. I lay in one newly-made shell hole for about two minutes and then up again. I had scarcely gone 15 yards when another shell dropped just where I had been. The ground kept heaving like some huge chest of a giant.

"Afterwards nearly every man had a cigarette in his mouth. It was not done for swank or anything of that sort, but we wanted something to soothe our nerves. I have myself smoked them one after another or I think I should have gone mad."

A.J. Wells who would otherwise have been a planter in Batticaloa had been in active service for only a year when he was killed. An officer of his company had written to his father, "He was hit by a shell whilst gallantly doing his duty at his post with a machine-gun.

"He was one of the most reliable and efficient machine gunners in the section and carried out his duty to the last, showing great courage and coolness under fire. You have the satisfaction of knowing your son died a hero's death."

These are a few of the incidents of heroism of Trinitians who fought in the war. Space constraints do not permit us to document all the events.

The great war ended at 11 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

J.W.S. Bartholomeusz received the Croix de Guerre of the first class for his bravery.

Stories of the 1915 riots