The country’s first houseboat offers an authentic experience away from tried-and-tested destinations
ByMike MacEacheran, TRAVEL WRITER1 March 2021 • 5:56pm
Off the port side on a half-submerged branch, the keelback snake clings for dear life in the dark, muddy shallows. The serpent is wrestling with a warty frog and, as dusk approaches, it needs dinner. Flattening its head to strike, it contorts to attack its prey.
It would be a spoiler to reveal what happens next at our anchorage, but also unnecessary. Because the memorable nature of a two-day journey along the Bentara River lies in the ever-variegated encounters with Sri Lanka as it reveals itself, inch by inch, along the riverbank.
It is close to bedtime near Bentota on the south-west coast, but our day is beginning. We are cruising in twilight on the lookout for fruit bats and owls, chugging at tugboat pace into Sri Lanka’s forgotten jungle lands.
The silent mangroves morph into rainforest proper, Tarzan vines and all, and the outline of traditional fishing huts on the embankment hints at some idealised evocation of life deep in the jungle. There are no lights and an absence of electric wires, other boats or visitors. It feels a long way from the crowds of Colombo 50 miles to the north. Which is exactly why we’ve come.
The Yathra Houseboat by Jetwing is the star attraction. It’s a two-suite Keralan-style barge, the first houseboat in the country, with a shaded sundeck. Thatched with a wig of branches, it looks like a countrified canal boat. But that impression is betrayed by the bamboo and burnished jackwood interiors and warmth of the service. Three types of hotly spiced fish and veg curry, served on deck, with chilli and mango chutney, coconut sambol and a roof of moodily downlit stars? Yes, please.
Sri Lanka has long been renowned for its hospitality, but there has been darkness to this lightness over the past few years. In April 2019, the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in Colombo saw nearly 270 people killed. Tourism dried up overnight. Covid-19 saw the entire Indian Ocean region rendered out of bounds for international travellers.
But as restrictions continue to lift, and the outlook looks more promising, it’s time to plan a return to the land of tea, temples and jungle trails – before everyone else does.
According to Leel Koralage, Yathra Houseboat’s captain, if I want to see the Sri Lanka that he grew up in, there’s only one place to begin: next to him at the helm as we embark upriver from glassy-calm Dedduwa Lake.
“Look! In the shallows!” he cries, the river basking in a dusky glow. “A marsh crocodile, an adult male. For most of the year, you’d be lucky to see him.” He passes a pair of binoculars for a closer look, just before the broad-snouted bull slides into deeper water. During the rains, says Koralage, the crocs stick to the swamps, disappearing like ghosts into the undergrowth.
If we are already at the brink of overstimulation – it’s hardly wildlife on demand, but still – we can turn to our cabin instead. The boat is a study in the worth of holding on to the old ways and nightly entertainment is a good book or a board game. Alcohol is a bring your own affair and the excursions are limited to crab fishing or morning and evening cruises through the river’s ecosystem, Mother Nature providing all the steamy air-con you need.
A little after 8pm, the boat moors, and the sound of the jungle takes over. There is the low hum of truck and tuk-tuk traffic from a faraway road, but also a chatter in the treetops. A crew of lost mynas gossiping? A family of whistling kingfishers? Whatever, after copious beers on board, it’s a mellow soundtrack for a good night’s rest on the river.
In the morning, anchored at an embankment on Dedduwa Lake, I’m on my balcony staring out, listening to the songbirds. The sailing today, a five-hour round-trip, takes us to Pahuru Kanda Temple and a replica of the Buddha’s footprint where, says captain Koralage, we can contemplate hope and fate.
Given the wealth of religious relics, palaces and temple highlights elsewhere in Sri Lanka – the terracotta pagodas at Anuradhapura, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Lion Rock at Sigiriya – it is a disappointment. More eye-catching by far are the lone fishermen who paddle past heroically in barely afloat outrigger canoes. Here, catfish and crabs outnumber the locals.
All too soon it is time to putter back towards the coast, and I join the captain beside the stern, neither of us saying a word. We don’t need to. A monitor lizard appears in a climactic rush, diving into the river with a plunging splash, as if to fill the silence between us. It’s startling, and for the briefest moment there is a sense that it’s times like this that keep him in the job.
Yathra, meaning “the journey”, offers plenty of such moments away from tried-and-tested Sri Lanka. Afterwards, lying on a palm-fringed beach in Bentota, or following the crowds south to Galle Fort, you might yearn to be back afloat exploring the serene river lands, lost amid tropical rainforest.
As for the frog? It was swallowed, lock, stock and barrel, before the keelback vanished as if it had never been there at all.
Mike MacEacheran travelled to Sri Lanka before the pandemic. Yathra Houseboat by Jetwing (00 941 146 27739; jetwingtravels.com) offers balcony cabins from £106 a night, B&B, including excursions. SriLankan Airlines (00 941 177 71979; srilankan.com) offers London Heathrow to Colombo from £457 return. For more information, see Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel).