An article that I wrote for a travel magazine in 1986 after my first ever rafting trip, ammended later for another magazine some years later when I was part of the fledgling industry, it still pretty well describes what we did for many years.
WHITE WATER ON THE GANGA
White Water – the words themselves have a special cadence, fascination, power. The hydrologic cycle is all around us: water evaporates, clouds, falls, freezes, melts and flows, creating powerful shaping forces – Glaciers, Rivers and Seas. All that water also has many personalities and it is alive – sparkling, calm, playfully boisterous in a tumbling stream or forbiddingly awesome as it thunders on a gale-torn shore or through a high mountain gorge.
One of the great moments in history must have been when man discovered he could move in and on water, either swimming or riding a log. There must have been many who negotiated a river or ran a rapid for exploration or sheer joy. Jack London, the American writer whose entire life was an adventure, describes an incident during the Gold Rush of 1896.The area was that of the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory of north-west Canada. Creating a hazard on the miners’ trail north was a great juggernaut of white water created by a spring flood. Loading their equipment on logs lashed together, attempts to negotiate this monster were being made by only the intrepid, with no success. London spent a day watching their efforts and studying the flow of water. He then built his own raft, and with mathematical precision, gauged the way the water was flushing, his point of line up and maneuvered himself through the rapids in an upright raft with no mishap. He spent the rest of the spring, while the flood lasted, running the miners and their equipment through the rapids. What was his motivation? A driving need, a test of skill, a belief in himself, a desire to help, a challenge or his own gold rush?
Today only the equipment differs. The game is still the same: one of skill, excitement, fascination and discovery. A test of personal mettle and skill for the river runner. Pure fun and enjoyment, a wonderful ride for the uninitiated. But for nearly all who experience it, there’s something more, something ineffable yet deeply satisfying.
Though today I form one of that group of river people who live and work on the Ganga.
My first introduction to white water took place on a weekend charged with many wonders. The memory is still clear as a picture, but in trying to recount it, images start overlapping. The most idyllic surroundings. A wide expanse of silver sand lapped by the jewel-green Ganga. Forested Hills. Silence and bird-song backed by the muted roar of the frothing rapid in front of Camp. Our river guides gauged rising & dropping river levels by the sound of the roar.
We drove north out of Delhi and through Uttar Pradesh on a smoky dawn. Some hate the drive, but it’s an incredible experience. Green fields and villages, cow patties along the roadside. Trucks and bullock carts loaded to the gills with sugarcane. Overturned trucks and traffic jams, of course. Nerve-wracking, but never uninteresting. Hardwar and the ghats were passed on our left, on through some lovely forests. By passing Rishikesh, we met the glowing green Ganga. We followed the beautiful river up into the hills- forested and green, broken up where little villages nestle amongst terraced fields. Camp was some 28 kms beyond Rishikesh. This 40 km section between Kaudiyala & Rishikesh is the rafting capital of the country. There are quite a number of camps, a few of the professional one’s are listed below. Ours was beyond the general crowd around Shivpuri, closer to Byasi. A deserted bend of road, tall green trees to pull up under. Down below through the trees you see blinding white sand. We follow a zigzagging footpath down through the jungle to the beautiful silence and expanse of the beach and river. It seeped in as we walked towards the large white parachute tent which acted as the ‘mess and common room’. Here we met those incredible men whose lives are spent on their ‘sticks’ (oars, as recounted in their camp song) There were Yousuf, Ajay, Vikram and J.D. – hospitable, unflappable, highly skilled and totally professional. River guides are a different breed, they do what they love, and this lot does it very well. These were the original professional Indian river guides. All are still on the river, but are now called the venerable ones !
We were offered a drink while our luggage was carried down and then shown to our tents which were dotted further along the beach. Then they were little pup tents, now they are very comfortable, safari style tents with camp cots and regular bedding, quite luxurious. There were & are very adequate ‘loo’ tents set back near the forest and wonder of wonders, running hot and cold showers, true one hangs off a rock and they are in tents, but that is their charm and romance. The camps all follow a strict environmental code, and it’s easy to see how it’s maintained – those pristine surroundings demand it!
The river flows calm and deep, an incredibly crystalline green. The farther bank rises sharply out of the water – a steep and thickly forested hill bisected by a darker cut of denser vegetation which marked the path of a spring which emerges in a waterfall half way up the hill. We were surrounded by the hills. The forest behind us stirred with bird song and monkeys. The effect was soporific and rather unbelievable. Lunch was served, a little crunchy with sand. That setting and that camp was the backdrop against which all the action took place- the rafting and the camping, experiences blending together to make pure magic.
After lunch, we were issued life jackets and helmets & told to grab a paddle each. The rafts were ready and waiting for us. Our life jackets were fastened into flattening corsets, helmets jammed on our heads- the very picture of inelegance. But safety comes first, as explained exhaustively during the briefing given by Ajay in a manner which was meant to be reassuring, but as he went about saying, ‘if you fall overboard’ or ‘in the case of a raft flipping’ I don’t think many were reassured – he did say though that, ‘the most frightening part of the trip was the briefing’. To them, it is a way of life: many could not take it quite so casually.
Excitement mounts the moment one reaches the ‘white water’. The first day we ran what is called the Initiation section, the largest stretch of the rapids being ‘Three Blind Mice’ Grade III (gradings are listed at the end). The guides made us perfect our paddling strokes on the flat section, ‘forward’, ‘back’, and ‘hard forward go, go, Go!’ they shout. You really get into the swing of it. ‘Get Down’, he yells, and everybody lands in a heap at the bottom of the raft wielding their paddles like clubs. Of course, that isn’t the way to do it and it is very patiently explained again. Great team spirit, and you’re feeling pretty good, but still hanging on to his every command- ‘all overboard’, and it almost happens, we’re all so spellbound. ‘How deep is the river? pipes a voice. Ajay gets this look of deep concentration, bends and scoops up a handful of water, rolls it meditatively around his mouth like the ultimate wine-taster, then spits it out and says ‘right here I’d say about 8.02 meters, give or take the .02’. For seconds we all gaze at him in awestruck admiration, then the penny drops and the questioner wants to melt away and merge with the surroundings. The right answer, of course, is ‘it’s chest high on a duck!’
There’s no describing that flow of adrenaline, the sheer joy of pounding through those rapids. It starts something like this – “All paddling forward nice and easy”. The current catches the raft and the sound of the rushing water envelopes you. ‘Hard forward, hard forward – look out for the big hole on our left – lets go, go, go’. Paddling furiously, hitting air and water we careen through. ‘Great work guys – relax, take a break’. You look back at the frothing white, slightly shaken, thrilled to bits, wanting more.
We see a lone kayaker behind us. We now watch a master craftsman practicing his craft. He plays the water like a musician, and the water plays back. It’s uncanny, they’re friends, that river and the kayaker in his kayak. He ‘flips’, he ‘rolls’ he does ‘enders’. The water cushions him, pushes him, laps lovingly and smothers him. He comes along, skimming the waves, weaving in and out. He catches an eddy and spins around- paddles half-way up the rapid. Stops to surf a wave for a bit, like saying hullo to an old friend- allows the wave to catch his bow and stand him on end, like a salute, and then he’s flung straight up in the air and out, then skimming on down. An amazing equation between man, craft and the river.
White water, as we learnt, isn’t just a froth of water created by the drop in a river bed or the narrowing of a valley. It also has definite characteristics- ‘holes’ and ‘hydraulics’ which in turn can keep you or flush you out. ‘Riffles’ (small waves) and ‘haystacks’ (large waves) and ‘eddies’ and ‘boils’. All these features are ‘read’ by the river guide like road signs telling him how to negotiate that stretch of white water.This requirement of literacy by river guides I recognized much later. That day they were only magicians.
Another discovery comes with the ‘Body Surfing Rapid’ Grade II – a long series of big waves just before the end of the days run. ‘Tighten your life jackets, shoe-laces and spectacle bands, and jump overboard’. This time we do. The freezing water makes one gasp, there’s no time to retrieve your breath before the next wave washes over you. ‘Point your feet downstream, breathe in the troughs’, the instructions were so clear. Of course, the troughs are never deep enough for a breath, but once you get the hang of it, it’s joy, a long coasting, splashing ride bobbing like a cork, speeding down a trough, breathing water because you thought you’d crossed that wave and didn’t. Exhilarating and freezing, it was pure fun.
Back at the camp, the sun goes down and the witching hour is upon us.
Silver river, lengthening shadows and a walk towards the far rocks. The river here sings and gurgles. Colourful birds whirl around like dervishes, obviously an evening game they play. Flights of cormorants skim past, dark against the river. Down on the sand a family of Red Wattled Lapwings perform a loud parade, marching around in perfect formation like a troop coming to order for the last reveille. Back towards camp the fire is glowing and the strumming of a guitar sounds faintly. The chill creeps in from the water and that picture of warmth and fun invites one back to dinner and an evening of songs and mad games, moonlight and shadows and pure romance. Sleep seems a waste of time. I want to keep gazing at that star-spangled sky , the river and hills bathed in moonlight.
Morning mists lifting softly, like a gentle unveiling- a few more trees, half a hillside and suddenly the sun spilling over the hill lighting up the tendrils of mist to a golden haze. A walk towards the rocks and closer to the jungle other inhabitants of the area are stirring as well. The Lapwings repeated their parade, in precise order and much noise. There is a shy Sand-piper bobbing nervously by the edge of the water. Sitting quietly on a rock I watch a very interested Pied Kingfisher watching me with great curiosity. I obviously find favour, because he takes off suddenly, swoops out over the water, and with masterful showmanship, hangs hovering in the air getting set for his dive, which when it comes is perfect. He repeats his act a couple of times and it’s a great performance but for the fact that he never once catches a fish! The jungle is full of birds – the Indian Roller, White-eyes, Fantails. I could possibly have spent the day just wandering around, but the rafting stretch today requires an early start.
We drive some 12 kilometers upstream to Kaudiyala. En route we stop to scout the awesome ‘Wall’ Grade IV+. The guides inspect it through their binoculars and we hear incomprehensible comments like ‘it’s flushing from the right’, ‘the eddy’s forming’, ‘hit it straight and boom right through’. This is the ‘mother’ of all rapids on the Ganga and has a phenomenal build-up. Didn’t look like much to us from the road, but once we got there it put our hearts in our mouths.
We begin the trip by negotiating ‘Daniel’s Dip’ Grade III+. It’s named after Mark Daniels, a Canadian river guide who had been teacher and mentor to our own guides. In spite of his hallowed status he’d managed to hit the wave wrong (it can happen to the best, at times) and went for a swim – and the name stuck. We floated down the river, where the sights are ever-changing – high rock walls with amazing textures, hidden sandy nooks overhung with vegetation just begging to be explored, great expanses of white sand and moulded boulders. Around one bend we came upon a line of ducks along a grey beach. Another rocky outcrop had monkeys lying around sun-bathing! The forested hillside would open up in places to a vista of green and even red terraced fields and little houses.
We’d followed a few small rapids and then the river opened up, a sandy beach on the right bank and a rock wall on the left. The rafts were parked on the beach and now we could hear the sound – a muted roar. The guides went along the rocks above the rapid to scout once again. We could only see the water turning glassy and fast, slipping in an inverted V over the edge to the immense sound below – the cause of which was quite hidden. It came into view as the raft got caught by the current and we were in that V being accelerated forward – the whole foaming, frothing mass lay below, there was no time to think. ‘Whoosh’ we were in there paddling for all that we were worth, ‘hard forward, hard forward’ ripped the command, down the unending hole, how were we going to climb out of that mammoth? We stopped plunging, up she climbed that very game boat, she was standing on her tail – ‘everybody get down’ yelled our guide, pure skill. The momentum which we helped to build up brought that hugh volume of water cascading over us, flinging us every which way. Were we still in the raft? Would that wave ever end? Timeless seconds later we burst through, into the eddy we swung and turned around to wait and watch for the other rafts and the kayak coming through. Sheer exhilaration, gut-wrenching fear and euphoric relief.
Watching the other two rafts slipping into that cavernous hole was like reliving the experience. They were a thrilling sight as they burst through. The kayak actually made it look like a piece of cake – it swooped in with a graceful swish, then we lost it in that welter of water and my imagination saw it churning and turning cartwheels… but there she was, a flash of yellow, creaming right through that wave like a knife through butter, still upright and seemingly dancing for joy. After that incredible high followed a few smaller ones, and along with them came a smug complacency, didn’t we know it all now? (I was very properly brought back to Earth the next day.)
That evening in camp, our last, offered even more fascination – we sat down by the water, the sun had slipped away – it was that reflective time of stillness. Across the water by this sheer rock face we had the good fortune of seeing a shy Doe ‘Ghural’ being wooed by a burly Ram. It seems ‘ghurals’ come down that face almost every evening for a drink. Anybody keeping their eyes open can get lucky enough to see them. It’s just the place, these are natural every day things here. We were the ones finding them unusual, but infact we were the occurrence there. Later, by the campfire, the guides sung us their hilarious rafting ditties. Those evenings were very special, the guitar, singing along and the fire glowing – a spirit of relaxed camaraderie and warmth.
Our last day gave us the big white water on the Ganga – ‘Roller Coaster’, Grade III+ and ‘Golf Course” Grade IV. Once you tune into the river people’s zany sense of humour the names of the rapids make sense. We started the trip from Shivpuri. ‘Good Morning’ Grade II effectively woke us up with her playful splashes. ‘Return to Sender’ Grade III was a lovely ride. Roller Coaster comes up, she’s big and lovely and we’ve all been looking forward to her – the first wave looms up, we’re pointed straight down. We splash through, our rafts swivel to to meet the next challenge, it’s big. Everything winds down in slow motion, I can feel that wave come, it’s going to hit me square and I’m going out. I know I’m making all the wrong moves – ‘lean into the wave’ remembered the logical mind, but of course I’m retreating. Flush in the chest like a bludgeon and over I go, the senses are slowed to total clarity, frame by frame – ‘You’ll bob up right beside the raft nine times out of ten’ sound the words of the safety briefing. I’m not bobbing nowhere, I’m churning dizzily around learning what my clothes feel like in a washing machine.
Suddenly it’s a still, green world, glistening bubbles and I rising together, a shadow above me, I put up my hand and there’s the life-line, grab and hang on tight. Split second timing and I’m hauled back into the raft landing like a beached porpoise. I’ve lived an age but we’re still on the Roller Coaster, and I’ve been off the raft for about 30 seconds. Might have been a fun body surf, I think, all post action bravado! I was granted ‘veteran’ status.
The next rapid on the agenda is ‘Tee Off’, Grade II, followed only naturally by the ‘Golf Course’. It runs to nine holes, so the name. One of those holes is the ‘ball breaker’ and it’s ‘bopping’ according to Vikram as he returns from scouting the rapid. The ‘ball breaker’ has apparently had many a good guide upset with her tricks. As with many good rapids the ‘Golf Course’ is invisible, this time around a bend. She only hits you sound and volume all together as you swing around that bend and down on her. Whether our guides were smart or had mastered the ‘ball breakers’ tricks was an unasked question, but we powered our way through with great style and incredible high spirits. ‘Club House’ the rapid following ‘Golf Course’ (obviously) was a nice, big body surf.
A leisurely float later we stopped by a waterfall for a break. A stream ran down through pretty fields forming a series of little falls and pools – perfect to laze in and under. Our run ended just short of Rishikesh. Getting into dry clothes and driving back to Delhi was anti-climatic. Only the magic of the river, and the idyllic quality of the trip lingered and I fully agreed with the river catchwords – ‘Your first encounter is the beginning of an addiction’.
Class I : EASY moving water, small waves, no obstacles.
Class II : MODERATELY difficult, with clear passages.
Class III : DIFFICULT, high irregular waves, narrow clear passages requiring precise maneuvering.
Class IV : VERY DIFFICULT long rapids, powerful irregular waves and hydraulics, very precise maneuvering.
Class V : EXTREMELY DIFFICULT. long, violent, highly congested, for teams of experts only.
Class VI : UNRUNNABLE – suicide!
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They surely were Jon. I am so glad to have caught up with you again.
Ah, these were the days! So many fond memories, just not anywhere near as many as you have! For me, it’s a lot about the people: you, Ajay, Vikram, Yousuf, Partha, JD, Ajeet – special special special!