Rolling on the River

Meet the locals

Being an island, water naturally features large; in addition to the beaches and incredible waterfalls there are some notable rivers, and an excursion by small boat can provide a fascinating insight into rural Sri Lanka and its wildlife. Colourful birds, monkeys and water monitors will compete for your camera lens with hidden temples, shining Buddhas and foot-cleaning fish (yes, really!) as you are expertly manoeuvered under the cool, green canopy at the water’s edge.

On our ‘Ocean Breezes’ itinerary, we have the chance to take a boat along narrow river channels with time to sketch the mangroves, which is something you won’t experience very often in your lifetime, and probably not on many painting holidays! Our patient and knowledgeable boatman-guide, Nishan, has an uncanny knack for spotting submerged crocodiles and will lead us to quiet, sun-dappled creeks where we can paint from the boat, undisturbed.

Nishan embodies a rare combination of playful, fun-loving adventure with solid professionalism which belies his experience and training, and the friendly, welcoming nature for which most Sri Lankans are renowned.

Born in Aluthgama, the bustling town separated from smaller Bentota by the river and one stop on the scenic Colombo-Galle railway, Nishan grew up beside the water and watched wistfully as sports such as waterskiing began to gain in popularity. He says: ‘I wanted to try water skiing one day. It was my dream. I was standing watching ‘Mr. Santhi’ doing water ski and I told him I’d like to try it so he said “Yes, you can try it, come to work with us, I am the boss!” It was not easy, I started to work as a boat man, learning to take people on boat safaris. Hence I realised I had also started to love nature’. He says it was almost a year before he had the chance to actually try water skiing but in the meantime he learned to surf. It was, in his words, the ‘golden time of tourists arriving to Sri Lanka.’

After several years working in the Bentota Beach Hotel, Nishan followed in the footsteps of many enterprising young Sri Lankans looking for more lucrative career prospects and found himself in Dubai, where he taught at a watersports club. Returning in 2018 after 15 years overseas, he was now a qualified instructor in waterskiing, wakeboarding, ski jumping and barefoot skiing which he can teach at advanced level. Yet, he still loves the peace and beauty of nature and tells me: ‘If we have people going on a river cruise I am straight away jumping into the boat’.
In his free time he can often be found fishing if he’s not helping his father with his tea plants, and he seems to have passed his love of the water on to his daughter, who goes for an early morning beach walk every day even though she is studying hard.

Life around the water is rarely mundane, and after such a long career I wondered if there were any incidents which have stood out? Nishan says:
‘I have saved many lives like tourist people drowning. In my young age I had no fear! One time I rescued a boat with 6 people on board, they went fishing in front of the river mouth and their rudder fell into the sea; it was drifting to a huge rock, the sea was so rough and just before the boat crashed into the rock I put my life in danger reaching the boat with another boat, and pulled them out of trouble’.
Then on a slightly lighter note he tells a more mysterious tale:
‘Another incident was when me and my friend were going fishing. We were just cruising under the Bentota bridge at around 11pm. It was very dark and we heard what sounded like a lady, loudly calling “Help! Help!” so I drove towards the sound… omg someone was hanging from the bridge! With no time to think I ran to the bridge, asking my friend to stay in the boat. It was the most difficult run I ever had ran in the dark, climbing and running along the railway. So I reached the sound around the middle of the bridge but I could not see very well, it looked like the lady so I grabbed her. Once she was up I felt no weight on her; she stopped yelling and the next thing I checked my friend, I saw him waiting for me; I asked the lady to move forward but suddenly I could not see her, she had disappeared into the dark. I started to worry, I shouted to my friend that I couldn’t see her anymore, and we could not find her anywhere! It was so scary. I ran back to the boat. Until now me and my friend think it was a ghost which disappeared into the dark.’

In this moment, of course, the scariest thing for Nishan and the 70 % of the town’s residents who are involved with tourism, is the absence of visitors due to Covid 19 and the subsequent inability to make a living.
While he admits that lockdown was ‘so good, no pollution, so good for the wildlife’ he is missing the buzz of his usual work, meeting people from different nationalities and showing us his river, with the undisputed benefit of being able to provide for his family.
Along with all the destinations we travel to with Vistas, as well as everywhere in the world which relies on tourism, we hope for a return to business very soon, perhaps with a few environmental lessons learned along the way.

I, for one, can not wait to be painting mangroves again, with Nishan confidently steering us through Paradise.