Ian Lockwood


On the River

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Kelani River looking east at the bridge.

Kelani River looking east at the bridge near Karawanella. Taken in 2005 on one of the author’s first visits to the river. The basin due east of this point (center of image) is what surrounds Kitulgala.

“Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays. Dreams and a restlessness of the soul came to him.”

― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Every year at the beginning of the school year we take OSC’s new DP1 (Grade 11) students on a three-day experience to initiate them into the IB Diploma Program. The river-the Kelani Ganga-serves as our teacher and home as we work to build a team that will work together to meet the challenges of this rigorous academic challenge over the next 18 months. Much of the program involves physical and mind challenges set in the wet, densely forested Kelani River valley near Kitulgala.

The River

The Kelani Ganga is an important river in Sri Lanka. It is not the longest (that distinction goes to the Mahaweli Ganga) but it is important as the main river that flows through (northern) Colombo to the Indian Ocean. The Kelani begins its seaward journey in the cloud forests of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) and flows eastwards through Maskeliya, Laxapana, Kitulgala, Hanwela, Kaduwela, Kelani and out to the ocean just north of the port of Colombo. It drains one of the wettest areas of the Central Highlands and thus river discharge is very high. In its higher reaches several large hydroelectric schemes dam the river and provide power to the Ceylon Electricity Board. These schemes help contribute to Sri Lanka’s nearly 50% generation of all power through hydroelectricity. However, a new 35 MW dam has been planned and is under construction just upstream of Kitulgala. It will potentially adversely affect the white water rafting industry (see the article links below for further details) and destroy a key canyon that has become a prime destination for low impact tourist adventure tourism.

The Kelani became famous to much of the world in the 1950s when it was used as set for the Academy award-winning Bridge of the River Kwai. The movie set included a real steam engine being blown up over a life-size bridge straddling the Kelani river just east of Kitulgala town. To this day the romance of the movie is played up at the Kitulgala Rest House where pictures of the actors and actresses adorn the restaurant wall. Actual remnants of the movie set are non-existent though a sign points visitors down to the river at the former bridge set.

Scenes from the Kelani. (Above) Laxapana falls-beautiful but actually severely reduced in flow by upstream water diversions. (Below) Passengers crossing the Kelani near the Kitulgala Rest House.

Scenes from the Kelani. (Above) Laxapana falls-beautiful but actually severely reduced in flow by upstream water diversions. (Below) Passengers crossing the Kelani near the Kitulgala Rest House.

IB Orientation

We have designed the IB Orientation program to take students straight from the busses into the cold metaphorical waters of the Kelani. Water and the river play a key role as students and teachers raft and canyon their way into the camp on the first day. The team at Borderlands has an excellent safety record and time is taken to emphasize safety in the different spheres of the challenge. Some of the students have been here on past school trips or with their parents but a few came with limited swimming skills and were nervous about the challenge. We rafted through a series of rapids, took time to play in the river and then made our way through a gorge (“the Canyon”). The Class of 2017 was joined by secondary principle Eileen Niedermann, DP coordinator Tim Getter, TOK teacher Laurence Mueller, guidance counselor Rosanne Noble and myself (CAS Coordinator). By the end of the first day the team was exhausted, but exhilarated from the river and canyon. We took time to reflect on the day both as a group and individually. This is where CAS came in and the four step learning cycle (plan, act, observe, reflect) was emphasized (The new IBDP CAS Guide uses a modified five stage cycle based on Catheryn Berger Kaye’ s Five Stage of Service Learning).

The unique opportunities that students have in building leadership skills are an in important part of this program. This is a key feature of any Borderlands youth experience/camp and a goal in our own OSC orientation programs. Skills that students build in these programs serve them for life, something that I have seen in my many years here. Numerous OSC students have worked at Borderlands after graduating and it is gratifying to see them quickly transition into very capable, safety-minded guides. Olivia Molden, Jason Staeck, Margret Watts and several others have all had impressive life experiences working at Borderlands. This year John Fredericks (who graduated in the Class of 2015) was a supporting guide working with the Borderlands team. He proved to be a clear communicator, fine role model and first class river and canyon guide. John relished the reversal of roles on the abseil where he commanded and then supported teachers (and students) as they descended the falls and had to swim across a deep pool of moving water while still harnessed to the rope. For the Class of 2017 students a majority of them were given key tasks to help with guiding our group to a safe, successful conclusion. They thrived even though at times the perceived risks (scare factors) were considerable.

Orientation Collage#2

The preparation , learning and adventure begin…

Collage of OSC students on IB orientation.

Collage of OSC’s Class of 2017 students on IB orientation.

Students negotiating the “canyon.” Several of them had an opportunity to take on leadership roles that helped the team safely navigate the slides, jumps and pools. This is a beautiful area now at risk from plans to run a large pipe down the gorge to a hydroelectric generating plant.

OSC’s Class of 2017 after passing through the upper and lower canyon.

OSC’s Class of 2017 after passing through the upper and lower canyon.

The Theory of Knowledge (TOK) component of the orientation program is set in the historical Belilena Cave located amongst rubber plantations above Kitulgala. This is a significant Sri Lankan archeological site and is thought to be one of the oldest locations showing evidence of early Homo sapiens in all of South Asia (estimates range from 12,000 to 30,000 years before present)! The setting is sublime and with a little imagination it is possible to imagine a very different scene so many years ago. The students were invited to think about knowledge and test their senses as they grappled with a series of cognitive challenges. In the second part of the afternoon the tasks were much more physical and the class hiked up to a 100-meter waterfall to be tested in a slippery abseil. The skies opened up on the second group but almost all of our team was able to do the abseil regardless of the weather. We wrapped up the day with reflection and then free time. On the final morning OSC’s service coordinator Amanda Lenk led the group in an activity to learn about the stories of the people of the river. Small groups fanned out with Borderland’s guides to listen and interact with a variety of individuals who are from different strata of Kitulgala’s community. The stories that we listened to and recorded are part of an effort to help our students better understand the broader human community outside of their normal spheres of interaction.

Series on a tea planter being interviewed by OSC students near Kitulgala.

Series on a tea planter being interviewed by OSC students near Kitulgala.

Landscape above the Kelani Valley highlighting rubber plantations (to the left) and land being readied for tea cultivation.

Landscape above Kitulgala looking west down the Kelani Valley. The image highlights rubber plantations (to the left) and land being prepared for tea cultivation. The original vegetation in this area would have been lowland tropical rainforest. This panorama was taken during the 2013 IB Orientation.

An Uncertain Future

People living in the Kitulgala area are dependent on a variety of livelihoods mainly connected with small-scale home gardens and plantation agriculture. Traditionally the area has been important for rubber and tea plantations and of course the kitul syrup that is tapped from the palm Caryota urens. In recent years tourism has become an important source of income for Kitulgala residents. The road between Nuwara, Eliya (via Hatton) and Colombo runs through Kitulgala and this is a major artery for tourist traffic. Kitulgala’s tourism is largely centered around the thriving white water rafting activities that first started in the 1990s. Other activities such as bird watching, abseiling, canyoning cycling and hiking have developed in the area. All of these are potentially sustainable, low-impact forms of tourism with no significant impact on the landscape. Most of the guides both on land and on the river are from the area and the activities have been a significant economic benefit to the Kitulgala community. The proposed Broadlands dam could potentially jeopardize this fine balance.

GIS generated Map of Kitulgala and Kelani River Basin.

GIS generated Map of Kitulgala and Kelani River Basin created with SL Survey Department and NASA SRTM data by the author.

Google Earth image looking at the Kelani rafting area from the south.

Google Earth image looking at the Kelani rafting area and “canyon” from the south.



Broadlands Hydropower Project Website.

Jayasinghe, Amal. “Broadlands power project will kill Kitulgala’s white water rafting.” The Island. 30 August 2014. Web.

Kannangara, Nirmala. “Power Project To Dam White Water Rafting.” The Sunday Leader. 29 September 2013. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Taking the Plunge in the IB Program.” Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2013. Web.

Radrigo, Malaka. “War for water in Kithulgala.” The Sunday Times. 16 March 2014. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2015-09-22 at 1:08 am

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