Rivers from the high Himalaya give life to the north Indian plains. Upstream, they liven up life. Strong, energetic and scenic in setting, these attractive streams generate some of the best whitewater in the world. Here is an experiential snapshot of four rivers with differing characters, spread over 2,000 km from the northeastern to northwestern edge of the world’s highest mountain range.
Himalayan water is brutally powerful. Never have I known this more than when Ningguing’s demonic diagonals came at us. Rearing up to a whopping 20 feet, they exploded higher into ‘haystack’ crests. We were smashed out. There was so much air and heave in the water that when my life-jacket shot me to the surface, it was only up to my lower lip. I understood then the true reason for the solemn Buddhist chants at put-in. Accept what comes and stay calm. Ha! The Upper Brahmaputra or Siang is legendary in the river running community for the sheer size of its whitewater, which is as massive as you’ll get anywhere in the world. The river’s huge volume drowns most rocky protrusions. As a result, plotting lines is relatively uncomplicated, and if ejected, you can expect to be flushed out cleanly. Plus the Siang is a pool-drop river. Torrents ebb quickly into lethargic calms, allowing for quick rescues. And so a sympathetic kayaker was waiting to collect my drained and drunk-on-river-water deadweight after the Ningguing pulverisation.
The Yarlung Tsangpo is born out of glacial melt near Mount Kailash in Tibet and it flows east before curving back south and dropping into Arunachal Pradesh, India, as the Siang. The rafting journey begins here and pits you against behemoth class IV+ rapids. There is no chance to settle in gradually as the river hits you with its heaviest artillery barely half hour after launch. Rapids are usually named for their disposition or associated events. A name like Ningguing hardly warned us of its incredible, violent bulk-unlike the ominous sounding Pulsating Palsi, Karko Killer and Tooth Fairy (referring to broken teeth under a pillow) rapids which were yet to come.
Something else lurked in the shadow of a cliff on the last day of the river ride: Pongging. Like Ningguing, yes. A beast with a deafening roar, a proud river’s final hurl. The kayakers went first: agile, rolling with the punches, disappearing in the white threshing, emerging at the other end, taking positions. The four rafts grouped 50 metres short of the rapid. One by one they lined up and drove in, gouging the churning, muscling out on the other side, crews whooping triumphantly. From a vantage seat on a boulder, a photographer friend snapped one of the best images of the trip: the fourth boat, perfectly perpendicular to the river, its crew immaculately in their positions, in the split second before turning turtle. The Son of Brahma had patted us goodbye.
On a grey-brown stream called the Zanskar, in the northwest corner of India, I was happy to wear a wetsuit, booties and gloves and live with the smell of damp rubber for 10 days. For, the hunks of sliding ice which drip to form this effluence are not far from the boat route, the depths of the gorge, where the sun struggles to penetrate, are shadow-clad and shivery, and at over 10,000 ft above sea level, it is cold in any case.
But before Nyerak lies the Zanskar’s most clever trap: the Constriction, a narrow channel with vertical walls that forces the stream into an 18 ft funnel, guarded by a Class IV+ fondly named Dislocator for its gentle ways. In the bottleneck, the river works itself into boils, swirls and heaving unstable water that can forcefully swing the boat against the cliff and tip it over. A hard paddle to move away from the left wall and a smart ‘get down’ command had us slithering out of the Constriction’s malevolent grip. The gorge opened to a wider valley, and on the last two days the action became bigger. Class IVs erupted near Chilling, a village of metalsmiths, in a vigorous wag of the trip’s tail end. And then we merged with the Indus, and it was over on the river. But the drama of terrain just went on.
The Tons river expedition is the only one for which I have had to hit the river running, so to speak. The Indian rafting menu, for the most part, offers a fare of lush, deep flows, wholesome, big, clean waves, interspersed by long, slow Class I sections. The Tons is different. It is rapid infested, bony, webbed with strainers, and riddled with pourovers, broken water, drops, holes, stoppers, undercuts and, yes, some big waves. You do this trip to pick up all your whitewater terminology, hone the entire range of your paddling strokes, learn how to read river features from long scouts and flex your back at some wrenching portages. You do this trip with a focus on relentlessly tricky whitewater.
A ducky is a narrow rubber boat, much like a raft, except that it has room for only two people, one ensconced behind the other. Sitting low on the water, a ducky presents a very different perspective than the higher, bigger raft. Waves, which look relatively small and easily negotiable from the latter, are predators to this diminutive craft. But though you may be a sitting duck for an unruly river, you are also captain of your own ship, master of your own, well, ‘duckstiny’.It was my first time on this waddling vessel. At the start we toppled over on flat water. Then we went down on the first rapid of the first day but we held on to the boat and clambered back on.
On the next one we bungled a correct straight-on approach, drifted sideways towards the wave for sure disaster, forced a full 360 degrees in the nick of time to burst into the white with sufficient power and stay on board. That’s the way it went over the next few days: off, on, of. It would have been different on the raft, for the Kali makes for a lovely, mellow river experience. The easternmost of north India’s raftable streams, it forms the international boundary with Nepal.
The setting is quite remote, the atmosphere tranquil, the hills forested, little human presence, the emerald flow fulsome, and the beaches absolutely pristine. Leopard pug marks were printed on the smoothly-caked layers of warm, sun-bleached sand. At night, spotted and barking deer alarm calls rode the breeze from the darkness of the hills. Abundant driftwood fuelled big bonfires, attracting fry-by-night operators-beetles, mantises and spiders drawn seemingly by the blaze in a hypnotic crawl to self-immolation. A copper snake guarded a white shivling at a quaint, deserted temple in a cosy clearing. Read More..