Back in Leh, Christie, Susan, Adam, and I are scheduled to fly to Dehradun, then taxi to Rishikesh to explore the Ganges River and its tributaries. Newscasts just three months prior reported heavy monsoons that caused massive flooding, landslides, and thousands of fatalities in this area. Our contacts report that no rafting groups are running trips. It is now August and the monsoon season is drawing to an end (hopefully), but before departing, our team discusses alternatives. We decide to gamble and continue as planned. Since we are nervous about traveling to Rishikesh with our kayaks, we sell our boats and some gear to a few appreciative kayakers in Leh.
Now mostly unburdened, we make the transition from Buddhist communities high in the mountains into a vibrant center of Hinduism between the southwest foothills of the Himalayas and the lower plains. We are mistakenly dropped off at a transcendental meditation ashram where a kaleidoscope of holy men and women wrapped in saffron are chanting among dancing blue statues of Krishna. Settled behind, in the lush foliage, are sculptures of giant apes violently tearing incarnations of gods out of their chests.
The proprietor reluctantly agrees to accommodate us with rooms on a trial basis for one or two nights since we are not students. However, he recommends more suitable lodging across the river. He offers to drive us there and, with his motor scooter, ferries us one by one with armfuls of gear across the Ganges River on a crowded footbridge and up a hill to a hotel overlooking the city.
After peeling off one sweat-drenched shirt for another, I try to settle into as much comfort as possible in this ultra-dense humidity. We again contact a local commercial rafting company for information. Through them, we are able to arrange a 3-day excursion accessing the West and East Nayar Rivers, both tributaries to the Ganges. We are, however, offered a cautionary statement that because of the current monsoon, no permits for this type of trip are being issued and if we have any accidents it could mean trouble and possible prosecution for us and our guides. With this serious warning, we are provided kayaks and a vehicle with a driver and a translator.
It is Rahki Purnima, a Hindu holiday celebrating the relationship between brothers and sisters. The sister ties a protective bracelet on the wrist of her brother. The brother, in return, showers his sister with gifts and promises his protection. Christie and I look at each other, and Christie laughs. As brother and sister, we have enjoyed sharing our life-long passion for whitewater kayaking, but not without a certain spirit of competition. This trip has reunited us, and there could be no better way to celebrate our shared experiences then through this holiday. We join the festivities and wander the market streets.
At the conclusion of the holiday, we depart for a 250km loop through the steeply terraced, winding jungle mountain roads, infrequently passing remote villages in search of navigable whitewater. When we reach the West Nayar, Adam, Christie and I gear up and briefly test our borrowed boats and gear before putting on and waving goodbye.
A group of excited young children rush out from their lessons in the school building above the river to investigate. From a distance, we share salutations before a couple of reprobates, in the absence of their teacher and in their excitement, begin to hurl large rocks from high up the bank at us. We realize the largely unknown class IV+ gorge downstream may provide a safer environment for us, so we thrust our paddles into the current. Approximately 1500cfs carries us, and the flow is constantly fed by drainages misting down onto us from the rapidly narrowing green walls. We are resolved to move efficiently, but we also must manage the constant horizon lines by stepping onto shore as necessary to scout.
During the entire 25km of this section of river, continuous class IV rapids stack one after another. A few class V drops staggered into the mix keep our senses attuned as the river winds far away from the dirt road vanishing high above us. We eat snacks on the fly to maintain energy. At a couple of points, we decide to portage around dangerous features. These diversions through dense leaves between vines require juggling our kayaks and paddles with often questionable handholds.
The wonderful warm water and constant wildlife, including the mayhem-causing monkeys and the stalking wildcats, make me want the journey to go on and on. My aching muscles, however, are relieved to see our shuttle driver waving us out from the road overhead. With his help, we clamor up out of the canopy. It is a long drive to the next small village and we arrive late to acquire simple beds and delicious, spicy food.
We wake up the next morning and drive a short ways to the top of a 40ft waterfall on the East Nayar River. A technical lead-in above the dangerous drop deters Christie and me, so the two of us rappel to the pool below to provide safety for Adam. He is ready to go and hurriedly launches just as local enforcement arrives on the scene above to prohibit any dangerous activity. It is too late for them to intervene; our ride dashes away incognito and Adam fires off his line wonderfully. From there, the three of us are committed to a fast and fun 15km of class III boogey water. The authoritative voices with commanding, raised fists fade away behind us.
We pass a funeral proceeding on the bank where an adorned body wrapped in white is resting atop piled wood in preparation for cremation. We quietly drift by the mourners and into a small village to reconvene with our ride. Here we spend the evening socializing with locals and watch a hilarious classic Bollywood Kung Fu movie while our hostess prepares a delicious mutton dinner from scratch.
The third and final day of this excursion starts with leftovers for breakfast. Our hostess is assertive and requires a lengthy mobile phone photo shoot before we are allowed back into the river for one last day of amazing class IV rapids. The mood is serendipitous as we successfully end our journey on these unfrequented waterways.
Christie and I take the train from Haridwar, a city not far out of Rishikesh by taxi, to Delhi. We relax in the spacious and comfortable transport and listen to the steady chant of a train worker pacing up and down the isle selling tea. We get off in the bustling city center of Delhi for a noisy, abbreviated tour of the city’s congested shopping and spicy dining before heading to the airport for our flights home.
I begin to write this story while I’m propped up on a drybag in the busy corner of an airport in Frankfurt. It already feels like I’m far removed from India. There are no cows, no monkeys, no holy men or decorated statues emanating incense. Instead, it’s inflated prices and fast food hamburgers. As I rummage through the last handful of rupees leftover in my wallet, my heart starts to long for the next great descent.