Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Rafter’s Retreat

Kitugala, Sri Lanka

Channa Perrera’s innate calmness probably stems from his past career as a mariner. For two decades, he worked as an engineer on the hulking cargo ships that to and fro across the world's oceans. He speaks intimately of Panama and the Ukraine, Southampton and Taiwan. But eventually he grew bored with the interminable waters and returned home to take on the family estate in Sri Lanka. The estate was centred upon a large elegant white walled, red roofed two story walauwa (a Singhalese mansion) built by his grandfather, M.G. Perrera, in the early years of the 20th century. “MGP”, as he was known, was a Sinhalese Catholic with a Portuguese name who came east from Colombo and purchased a two thousand acre property on the banks of the River Kelani outside Kitugala. He then developed the property as a rubber and tea plantation, effectively providing employment for all the labourers in the area. In due course, MGP rose to become Mohandirum (Mayor) of the district. Channa never knew his grandfather, who died in 1932, but he remembered coming here often as a child to visit his grandmother. There is certainly a sense of history about the building, odd for something so relatively young. The past is shaped by stunning antique furniture, family portraits, leaf tables, the beautiful, dust covered porcelain and the Buddhist “svastika” engraved veranda from which MGP once addressed the masses below.

Channa confesses he always found the walauwa a little too forbidding. The cold portraits of his tribal elders, the strict walls and cane blinds, the sheer emptiness of the building. He preferred the river. Life in this area is utterly dictated by the pace of the Kelani, sometimes a parched stream, once so powerful it rose to cover the steps of the walawa. Less than a mile upriver, David Lean filmed the 1957 war epic “The Bridge On the River Kwai”. In 2001, Channa decided to build a cabin made of jungle branches, overlooking the river so that he might sleep to the sound of rushing waters. The “treehouse” was finished in three weeks. During his first night, Channa realized he'd forgotten to build a toilet. Next morning he cut a square in the floor, hammered a ladder together and, over the course of a week, created a bathroom on the lower floor. The room was walled with square stones taken from the estate’s long abandoned rubber smoke-house. At the time he ran white water rafting trips and accommodated people in three bedrooms in the walauwa. One day, two Australian surfers visited and decided to try a night in the treehouse. Next day they got on the phone and cancelled all further engagements, including a return flight to the Maldives. "It is just a box on a tree", shrugs Channa.

There are now ten of these “tree houses” scattered along the riverbank, shielded by stately jungle trees and connected by a rocky path to the main ambalama. This two-tiered wooden building of soft browns, greens and khakis, was converted from MGP’s original stables. The softwood planks on the ground were sanded down and brushed, columns of milla-wood were strategically placed, a roof of interlaced coconut branches was fixed on and then the furniture arrived. Three great circular tables made from the disused wooden rollers of telephone cables, a herd of wooden chairs beautifully crafted by Channa from the bark and sides of ginisapu trees, a string of lampshades brilliantly created from the stringbags used to import onions and garlic from Bombay. Fishnets hang above the roof of the building to capture falling Durian fruits before damage is done. The saplings of MGP’s original garden now tower overhead - a jambo tree with its bitter red fruits, a ramboutan with its sweet lychee-like offspring, the olive tree which Channa uses to make sweet wine, the beautiful Nar tree with its fragrant flowers used for herbal medicines.

Sleep is matchless, the noise of birds, crickets and grasshoppers drowned by the soothing sounds of fresh water rolling over rocks, the Kelani on the eve of the Siberian monsoons, gathering waters from Adam's Peak and all the highlands between, steering its ancient course for the Indian Ocean and the South Pole.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.