As the Kumbukkan Oya gathers moonlight, life and shadow

Text by Nayanaka Ranwella
Pix by Gihan Wijegunawardena
The final rays of the setting sun filter through giant Kumbuk trees and fall on the shallow waters of the river. The almost dry river bed is now bedecked by large extents of sand. The sand exudes a loveliness of its own. The tracks of wild animals stand out clearly in the fine sand, speaking of dangers yet unseen.

I relax in the shade of a Kumbuk tree allowing my eyes to absorb the scenery around me, the shadows, outlines, play of colour and the serenity that is the sum of all these things. A flock of hornbills come into view, fly across the sky and disappear beyond the tree line. About sixty feet above ground atop a huge kon tree, I can see an eagle’s nest. Elephant droppings dot the vast expanse of white sand. Gihan, Gayathra, Sajith and Dimuth, my companions, are immersed in the benevolent waters of the Kumbukkan Oya. Rohitha, a tuition master, is educating us about the latest in the tuition universe.

"Look at these leopard footprints. They have been made just a little while ago." Chandare, our "guide" on the journey has spoken with a certain degree of excitement. We quickly gravitate to his side. They certainly appeared to have been made by a leopard, and a large one at that. The creature had come very close to our camp.

This is a rarely visited spot on the Kumbukkan Oya, located between Madamethota and Galamuna. We were able to come here only, because the LTTE is not observing sil, as it is want to do from time to time. The sandy bed of the Kumbukkan Oya is our camping ground for the day. "It is dangerous to camp on the riverbed, because one can never tell when the water will arrive," someone observes.

The Kumbukkan Oya originates from a group of hills located a little below Badulla. By the time the water reaches this area, the Kumbukkan Oya is a fairly large river, not less than seventy feet wide. It is because the river is fed by a watershed that is 1,218 square kilometers in size, that one can never predict when the river will swell. A large number of animals, showing significant diversity, live around these waters. Zones 2, 4 and 5 of the Yala Reserve are bordered by the Kumbukkan Oya. The river, on the other side, borders Kumana, which is at the eastern end of Yala.

There are names surrounding the area. Names such as Kebilitta, Galamuna, Madamtota, Gamevehera, and Bowattagala, which referred to a different time. These were sites where history was actively made, they were places that spoke of heritage. How could it not be, when the Kumbukkan Oya is the great body of water that runs through the 352 square miles that make up the Panampattuwa.

According to folklore, when the river is in spate, even elephants get washed downstream. Today, this giant body of water has been reduced to a little more than a trickle. The drought is in full bloom. From far away we hear the sound of a bear.

We have now finished cooking dinner. The darkness launches its diurnal invasion and challenging it, the soft silver of moonlight begins to kiss the sand. We are waiting for the animal life to arrive. We don’t have to wait long. A herd of spotted deer, 20-30 of them, emerge from the trees. Some drink while others keep watch, alert to the slightest sign of danger. They know that death awaits only a split second’s carelessness away.

None of us move. The deer disappear into the jungle. It is the turn of the wild boar next. We must have made some noise, for they fled back into the safety of the trees almost immediately. However, a tusked boar held its ground some thirty feet away from us, digging the sand for about twenty minutes. The creature might have sensed that we meant no harm. Or else it must have been crazy, for if we were hunters, death would have come almost instantly. We were waiting for the great beasts of the jungle, the elephants. The first elephant made its entrance not too far away from where the wild boar stood.

It is almost nightfall. We move closer to the elephant. Someone whispers, "not one, but two!".

We watch from the opposite shore. The two elephants leisurely drink their fill, occasionally tossing some water on their backs. Our cameras don’t get any rest. "Both are females," says Chandare. They splash water on each other and converse in ways we couldn’t comprehend. One never tires of watching the friendly play of elephants. The elephants also move back into the jungle. The bears, apparently, want to be counted too. They make sure that they are heard. It is quite dark now. Now and then we hear elk.

Moonlight has captured the river bed. It glows in a silvery blue. Too magical to describe. Wrapped in moonlight, the cool waters of the Kumbukkan Oya leisurely meander on their way. It is time to light a fire. We light it close to the water’s edge, on the sand. We know how important it is to exercise the utmost care when lighting a fire in such places, especially in the dry season. Close by lies the half burnt trunk of a giant Kumbuk tree. What a crime it is to set ablaze such a majestic tree, a tree that would have for centuries participated in a natural process, thriving in it, and making it fertile at the same time!

I am gazing at the moon. It is hard to believe that it is this same moon that also shines above and upon the concrete jungle. My mind is haunted by the elephants I saw, the Buddha image at Kudumbigala defiled with tar, the Kumana Villu, and the skies and trees that wrap these images in a soft embrace. The night is sweet. It is soft. How else can it appear when contrasted with the unrelenting heat that comes entwined with the dry winds gathering dust for our feet? After a decade and a half, I have once again watched the dawn break by the Kumbukkan Oya. I feel blessed.
Translated by Malinda Seneviratne