When I first heard about Bentota Mangroves, my instant reaction was, “Wow, I’m about to take a water forest trip, in Sri Lanka’s capital of, water sports.” An adventure I couldn’t have resisted. Fortunately, Bentota River Safari covers the entire west coast trip in a boat that, gently cruises the emerald blue waters of Sri Lanka. Not a regular tourist trail, however, who wants to miss voyaging one of the vast Lankan rivers that streams into the Indian Ocean, right? I was driving from Galle, on this day, and River Safari was really close to Taj Bentota, my next hotel. To arrive at the River Safari venue before lunch, we left Galle, early morning. It was a delight of a coastal countryside drive. After an hour and a half, into and out of, palm-fringed, criss-cross roads, we arrived at the River Safari spot.
By this time, the sound of the crashing sea waves, of Galle, had begun to fade away. With breeze transmuting to a warmer note, our welcome at the Bentota River Safari Venue was marked, by its candid, rustic decor. Before you get to the boat pick-up point, you have to first, be seated at the checkpoint. This checkpoint is a small, hut-like lobby, furnished with life jackets on one side, and plastic chairs, on the other. However, since, it’s set up amidst nature, the surrounding scenery instantly relaxes you. After a short wait, you will be approached, by one of the workmen who will request you to wear life jackets. He will then guide you to the boat. It was a short wobbly walk on a wooden bridge, so I kept looking down, to avoid misbalancing.
The helmsman, was kind enough to lend a hand, so that, we could board the small motorboat with ease. As soon as, six of us, settled-in our favourite seats, the engine roared. Finally, we left the backwoods harbour to sail into a River, that gets wider and wider, as you move further and further. Both the riverside and the river views are truly impressive. You can spot a lot of beautiful birds. Occasionally, when you are absorbed, by the atmosphere, you will be interrupted by the helmsman, “bend your head, we are approaching the bridge.” Crossing these low-height non-operational bridges takes a few seconds, but they feel like a long tunnel. Then you slowly raise your head, to watch the unruffled beauty of a tranquil riverine unfold before your eyes.
We tinkered around in the river, passing the village market, the sunbathing cormorants, and the riverside homes. The banks, on the other hand, were occupied by the strange trees dwelling off the Bentota River. At one time, the helmsman turned off the motorboat engine. He, then, quietly floated us, closer to the bank, and pointed towards a tree branch. He, then, quietly moved the boat closer to the bank and pointed towards a tree branch. A water monitor lizard was lazing in the sun.
Although back in the colonial era, Bentota River was overrun by crocodiles. A lot of Monkeys still live around. In a matter of a few minutes, of our onward sail, we were stopped by a local who wanted to flaunt his young Purple-faced leaf monkey.
I petted the monkey as it was young and looked harmless. After that, the local began, to ask for money. The locals living by the river, catch young crocodiles and monkeys, to show them off to the tourists. After a few months, they release the animals into their natural habitat. That’s about the wildlife here!
The centre of the lake is just as fascinating. Here you will find several small islands dispersed all around. I crossed one River store, as well, it was selling golden Sri Lankan King Coconuts, pineapples and a few other regular items. Next time, I would paddle it to one of these stores to shop something. Anyhow, after manoeuvering in the Bentota River for an hour, our guide took us to a small riverside shop for a tea break. Here, we enjoyed a delicious cup of hot cinnamon tea.
During tea time, shop owner displayed his weaving skills, with leaves, and gave us a brief demo by creating decorative items. The elusive experience lasted for thirty minutes. After which, we made headway for the best part of this voyage; the ‘mystical’ mangroves on the southern side.
While sailing towards the Mangroves, we also crossed a small temple that they say, is perched, on the meditation island. Bentota River Safari is a wodge of surprises. From a water temple to a giant Buddha Statue, to a wide variety of birds, my lens went mad as a March hare. I wanted to photograph each one of those magical moments, however, the motorboat carried on, in its regular motion. Shortly, the boat approached a coastal swamp that houses one of the oldest salt-tolerant forests I have ever seen. These small kingdoms of tangled roots and entwined shrubs are so important for the ecosystem.
In, a beautiful way, our boat meandered towards a dangling mangrove whose twisted roots hang like an arch. The guide asked us to duck. In a tick, we were on the other side, as if, floating through a concealed aisle. As we sailed further, the shimmering sun rays scattered all over my face. I looked up at the branched out awning, which, at that moment, was casting a magical show of sunlight and shadows. Then I looked around at the stunning repositories of Mangroves that feed seagrass beds and coral reefs. These roots also, fortify coastal shorelines against unpredicted storms, and Tsunamis, and avert erosion by stabilising the ground. Before long, we were out of the arched Mangroves, back into the open river.
While we were cruising, I noticed a lot of tourists canoeing up the river. Paddling into the Mangroves is such an ‘amazing’ way, to explore its beauty in slow motion. Besides, not only, do you get to encourage ecotourism, but also, maintain peace, by choosing a quieter means to rover around. By far, Bentota Mangrove is the best water forest I have experienced so far. Before the River Safari came to an end, we ducked-in, the old railway bridge, as well as, the old and new road bridge. On the way back, I also noticed a few signboards selling fish therapy. Once we crossed, the bridges, a wide-angle view of the riverbank exhibited several boathouses and riverside restaurants. On the other side, a few adventure enthusiasts were preparing for Jet Ski and other water sports. All in all, setting out for a river escapade in Bentota was quite a Sri Lankan adventure worth embarking. The round trip takes about 3-hours, so, manage your schedule accordingly. This trip will cost you $50 per adult and $25 per child.
P.S. I took Bentota River Safari as a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Board, however, the views are my own.