Arefa Tehsin goes to the spot where The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed
“One day the war will be over,” Col. Nicholson had famously said, “And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it.” Yes, we all do remember that; at least those who go to Kitulgala in Sri Lanka, to the Kelani River, for white water rafting. The Bridge On The River Kwai, the cult World War II British movie, was not shot in Burma but in Sri Lanka. And not on River Kwai but on River Kelani. Although nothing of the bridge remains except the base and perhaps some train cars rotting on the riverbed, the place has a resilient nostalgic value that has grown stronger over the years.
Colombo to Kitulgala, a small western town of Sri Lanka, takes around two-and-a-half hours to reach. Though the town largely attracts rafters, photographers, birders and naturalists, it also offers a serene stay by the gushing river for the not-so-adventurous. In the short drive from Colombo, you see the topography and the vegetation change from coastal to an evergreen, hilly, wet zone. With scenic rubber plantations on one side and the Kelani River on the other, the road winds up through forested hills. We pass several small restaurants that overlook the river and serve the local rice-and-curry. Hill folk sell red and yellow bananas and coconuts by the roadside.
Scenic bungalows can be hired for a stay, but even the resorts and guesthouses spread along the bank of the river provide the most picturesque settings. Some guesthouses, especially the Tourist Board’s, display snapshots of the shooting of the famous movie.
Kitulgala is one of the wettest places on the island and the forest on both sides of the river remains lush green throughout the year, vibrant with life. Most bird species, including the endemic ones, found in the Sinharaja rainforest are found in the forests of Kitulgala too — such as the green-billed coucal and spot-winged thrush. The crested serpent eagle, Ceylon spurfowl, hanging parrot and Layyard’s parakeet are among others that one can spot.
Many people just bathe, swim and play in the shallow parts of River Kelani, which is wide at Kitulgala. It rushes and foams over the rocks at places, and in the deeper areas, flows more or less silently. White water rafting starts in the morning and goes on till evening.
The river is tinged a deep jade due to the tall, vine-clad rainforest trees that loom large on both the banks. Your guide, the expert rafter, will command you to row back or forth or stop or slide inside the raft. If the movements are not synchronised by the group, the raft may overturn over a rapid, but that in itself is an experience. Safety is well taken care of with helmets and floats.
Towards the end of the rafting, before the last killer rapid, the raft passes the remnants of the bridge built for the movie. Once the final rapid is conquered, one can jump from the raft and do some body rafting at the milder rapid that follows. You just let your body drift and bobble with the currents, which are swift at first but become calmer. You finally come out of the river exuberant.
Your trip to Kitulgala need not start or end with rafting. There are other adventure activities as well — rappelling, bird watching, jungle treks, 15- to 25-ft high waterfall jumps in jungle ponds, waterfall abseiling, sliding down the natural slides in the forest and so on. The river, where it is shallow, can be crossed on foot holding a rope. The trip inside the forest has to be taken with a pinch of salt — literally, to tackle the leeches.
Expert team builders take corporate groups to Kitulgala for team-building through adventure sports. The evenings invariably end with bonfires near the rushing waters, barbeque and music. Many men and women who go to these camps filled with anxiety and reluctance return calling it the best trip of their lives. We witnessed one such camp and were intrigued to see corporates join hands with Nature to improve human resource management.
Kitulgala derives its name from Kitul, the solitary fishtail palm tree, which contains a delicious sap known as kitul. Like the coconut tree that has multiple uses, kitul tree too is valuable in more ways than one — its sap is crystallised to make jaggery and fermented to prepare palm wine; the fibres are used to make rope; the leaves to thatch huts; and the pith to make sago. Kitulgala, just like the kitul tree, is multifaceted — beautiful, adventure-filled, calming, thrilling, peaceful, endearing, intimidating.
If you climb out of your raft onto solid ground and hear Col. Nicholson’s dialogues floating out of the resort’s television playing the movie — “You have survived with honour, that and more, here in the wilderness. You have turned defeat into victory. I congratulate you. Well done” — you may just nod and agree with what he has to say.