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Rafting down the Brahmaputra

‘ Yay !! We did it !!”

We exulted in the sheer delight of having crossed the last big rapid. The water around us was still fairly turbulent but the worst seemed to be behind us. We loosened our feet from the tight grasp of the braces, seated ourselves more comfortably, exhilaration writ large on our faces.

Suddenly, the raft lurched.

The wave that was coming in loomed much larger than what it had initially looked like. And clearly carried far, far more power as it landed on the front of our raft. The front of the raft went down at an impossible angle and just as it came up, another monster wave from nowhere hit us from the left !!

 I got knocked off my seat, straight into the person sitting in the center and both of us torpedoed into the third person on the extreme right ! As all three of us found ourselves falling into the churning waters, through the corner of my eye, I could see more people falling like skittles into the roiling waters !

Had the raft capsized !!!??? As I came up, gasping for air, I could hear shouts, incoherent words before the water pushed me downstream. Slipping into the ‘whitewater floating position’ I peeped ahead of me and could not see any raft or kayak in front. Clearly, I was ahead of the rest. I floated on, craning my neck to see what was happening around us. I could see Glenn striving to control his raft to my right… don’t think he can pick me up right now.

“ Ashok!!” I could see Rana standing up in the raft and holding out his paddle for me. I grabbed it and got pulled into the raft. Minutes later, we were all back in our raft, shivering, wet to the bones, laughing deliriously.

We had fallen overboard ! What fun !!

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It was sometime in 2010 that I chanced upon a video. This one  – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bkd-bcgpaWo. ( It would be a good idea to see it before reading on J )

I was blown. I was hooked. And I was clear. I simply HAD to do this !!!

I don’t keep a bucket list but if I had, this would have been right there at the top. I quickly learnt that there was only one group that organized the run of the Brahmaputra ( that’s how crossing a rapid is called, no idea why ). Aquaterra.

Every now and then I would go back to the video and watch it. Read up about it. I met someone who had done the trip. Everything just increased my hunger to do this expedition.

And, finally three years later  things fell into place.

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Legend has it that Brahmaputra, was the illegitimate son of Brahma, from Amodha, the beautiful wife of a sage, Shantanu. Apparently,  Shantanu, a famous ancient sage began a long meditation in an ashram in this area along with his beautiful wife Amodha.

Lord Brahma was passing by and happened to catch a glimpse of Amodha and was simply, as they say, bewitched, by the beauty of Amodha. Brahma wanted her to make love with him but Amodha sort of rebuffed him. However, by that time Lord Brahma had become so excited that his semen discharged at that place. When Shantanu came to know about this, he inseminated the Brahma’s semen in the womb of Amodha. Subsequently, Amodha gave birth to a son and he was called Brahmaputra. However, I am not sure from this point how the son became a river !

Another legend has it that the fearsome Parasurama wanted to get rid of the axe with which he had killed his own mother, following his father’s ( the sage Jamadagni ) orders and with which he subsequently killed the entire race of the Kshatriyas. ( This is a fascinating story btw…brilliantly told by Ashok Banker in The Forest of Stories ) The sages advised him that the only way he would be able to get rid of his axe would be by immersing it in the waters of the Brahmaputra. Parasurama made the long and arduous pilgrimage and reached the place  (currently known as Parasurama Kunda in Arunachal ). Brahmaputra, then existed as a lake surrounded by hills on all sides and Parasurama with his axe hacked the hills freeing up the waters of the mighty river.

And Brahmaputra, the river was born.

Brahmaputra.

A name that is almost always used along with the prefix “ Mighty” – the Mighty Brahmaputra. A river that is feared for its strength, for the havoc it causes almost every year, a river that is respected and loved for the livelihood it provides. A river that traverses a weaving journey through such  wilderness that for years, neither the precise source of its birth nor its exact course were known. A river that is considered to be one of the strongest and widest  in the world.

And I had come to run the rapids of this mighty river.

For seven days of rafting down the waters of the Mighty Brahmaputra, covering more than 160 kms, through densely forested and intensely beautiful areas where in all probability for the entire seven days we would not be meeting another human being.

For the experience of a lifetime.

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It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon when we landed at Dibrugarh.

A typical dusty little Indian town with crowded roads, diesel spewing vehicles chugging along and small stores lined up on the sides. Later in the evening there was a slight winter chill in the air as we gathered on the hotel terrace  taking in the scenes of a town finishing its day time routines below us.

Polite introductions were made, conversations were struck, questions asked on the next days’ plan. There were eight of us doing the trip and for most of us it was the first experience of running real rapids.

The plan was to leave early next day, before sunrise, travel by road to the ferry and then back on the road after the river crossing.

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We stood, huddled together in the early morning chill, on an old but colourful ferry in the morning chill, watching the dawn break , mesmerised by the amazingly intricate patterns on the sky, watching the shores recede taking us to the first leg of a magical journey.

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Three days by road…six days on the river…a rest day…an unforgettable experience was about to begin.

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Rengging, Boling, Yingkiong…names unfamiliar and strange that we delighted in getting the pronunciation just right. Our road trip took us through towns the names of which we had never heard of before, sights we had never seen before. For three days, our convoy of four vehicles made its way through small towns and villages, with meal stops at places that competed with each other for the visual delight that it served.

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It was a road trip that was extraordinary in the sheer breadth of the sights and experiences it offered us. I had travelled once to the North East to do the Goecha La trek but to do a road trip is to get a far more intimate look at the place than what a trek offers. How I loved it ! We were blessed to have with us, the General (Chandan Nguyal, a long retired Army gent, a living legend, also part of the Aquaterra team ). The General was a walking encyclopaedia on almost every subject under the sun – and never shy of airing his frank views –  but nothing got him going more than stories about his beloved lands of the North East ( and, boy, did he have some truly fascinating stories ! )

We walked through markets where we learnt how to eat live beetles.  We met young mothers with their babies tied securely to their backs who happily agreed to have their photographs taken. We looked into stores in tiny villages that stocked as many beauty products as other items one would assume are far more essential. We learnt how to suck the ‘tenga’ and draw in the cool water. We walked through tribal houses to get a peek into lives far removed from the ones that we were familiar with. We gawked in wonder at the array of animal skulls that adorned the entrance of the houses. We gaped at how the mist took the shape of the river below, everything else being clear ! We walked across a rope bridge the statistics of which were infinitely more frightening ( 470 mts long ! ) than the way it swung when we stepped on it. Oh and some of the guys even went skinny dipping in the icy waters of the Brahmaputra simply because the General demanded that local culture required it !!

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It was a short but a magical and hugely educational road trip. Of course, we get but a fleeting glimpse of the local culture, its life mostly seen through the windows of a speeding vehicle but when its something so completely new and unknown, even that glimpse is immensely satisfying.

And all through the road trip one always had the strong feeling that this was just the appetizer.

That the best was still to come.

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They were bright blue in colour. Sturdy. Solid. Our rafts. With bright yellow paddles. Further weighing them down and providing stability were all the dry bags containing our provisions, tents, clothes etc.

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We learnt with childish enthusiasm just the right way to wear the helmets and life jackets –  how loose it should not be and how tight it should be. We wriggled into our wet suits, tucked our stomachs in and proudly posed for pictures. Yeah, I guess, we definitely were a bit like a bunch of over excited teenagers.

‘Forward paddle…niiice and easy’…’forward paddle, a bit harder’…’forward paddle, hard forwarddd’

Commands that we will hear shouted at us over and over again, were drilled into us. The critical need to strike a rhythm while paddling was repeatedly emphasized though I must say that we were rather comical in our well meaning attempts to hit that rhythm.

However, the unforgettable image of the evening had nothing to do with us. The kayakers – part of the safety team –  had trudged off to run the Ningguing  rapid that started just behind our camp, and soon we could see them zipping past us, a blur of motion through the waves and the spray . The light colourful crafts seemed to skim the surface of the water , pushed forward by the sheer force of the current, thrown up so regularly by the waves that they seemed to be perennially hovering above the surface.

What was their speed ? 40 kmph ? 60 kmph ? Is that how fast it would be ?!!

Emotions that were a curious mix of heady excitement and slight anxiety came over us.

It looks great fun…but, man, look at those waters !

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Pretty soon we learnt that the gentle gurgling white speckled waves that we exclaimed over from the roads up above were anything but gentle. Up close, they looked  intimidating and completely antagonistic. As if their sole aim was to lurk up from an unexpected side and derive devilish delight in thrashing us with a force that will leave us gasping for breath. To throw us overboard. To ideally capsize the entire raft.

Hairy Hari. Kims Broken Oar. Tooth Fairy. Pulsating Palsi. Karkow Killer.

Names that were undoubtedly conjured up over campfires by people chuckling over experiences in the rapids that would have been terrifying to go through but seemed hilarious in retrospect.

The approach to taking on any rapid was the same. We would stop and be on terra firma while the Aquaterra team will walk further and scout the rapids. To see how the current is flowing, which is the ‘line’ they need to take, which current would take us across the waves and which ones to avoid.

And when we hit the rapids, it’s an adrenaline burst that is unmatchable.

The raft gets mercilessly tossed about, it hits some impossible angles before straightening itself. Waves that look as tall as buildings descend on us with brutal force. Often when we are paddling away, our paddles hit plain air since the waves would have thrown us in the air and the very next second, when the paddles hit the water it feels as if we are striking a patch of hard concrete. You get a close up view of the sheer power of water.

Its pure mayhem. Its pure thrill. Its FUN !

Intimidating at first, the unknown daunting us, the rapids very soon became something to look forward to. The sheer excitement of hitting the waves, the thrill of battling against the powerful currents, the effort to strike a rhythm between us, the exuberance of pulling through yet another rapid successfully…heady stuff.

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How do you describe such beauty ?

The beauty of the sound of the water. A sound that stays with us all the time. All. The. Time. Roaring at us when we are in the middle of the rapids. Playing in the background as we sit around our campfires at night or snuggle into our sleeping bags. That’s the sound that we first register when we wake up in the morning.

The beauty of the woods around us. Deep and dark. In brilliantly different shades of green that you find difficult to believe can even exist.

The beauty of the rocks around us. Tall, impressive, ancient, craggy, brown faces watching us impassively as we go past. Faces created by  waves ceaselessly working on them over thousands of years. Passing through the different gorges provided us with scenes of such pristine beauty that no picture will ever do justice to it.

The beauty of the clear blue skies. Bright blue with pristine white clouds drifting lazily across.

The beauty of the eerie sight when the mist silently rolls in from above blurring the sharp outlines of the trees in the mountains around us.

The beauty of simply lying on our backs on the soft sand and looking at the brilliantly clear night skies which appeared to have assembled all its stars to put up a show for us.

The beauty of the beaches. With its stark white soft sand.

Pretty soon, we had no idea which day of the week we were in. And we didn’t care.

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Wake up by 5 am

Tea by 6 am

Breakfast by 7 am

Pack and set off by 8.30 am

Reach our destination usually by around 2 and set up camp.

Every day by 4.30 pm the campfire was lit.

By 5 pm the bar was set.

Every evening we settled down on the soft fine sand, searched for a comfortable place, for a fallen tree trunk placed conveniently to lean back on and looked forward to spending another long evening under the skies.

Soon, unforgettable romantic lyrics from old Hindi films would be sung, mingled with energetic Harry Belafonte songs occasionally broken by guffaws over a bawdy joke or the narration of anecdotes from earlier river trips.

On one of the nights when the sky was exceptionally clear we lay down on our backs and looked up at the skies to get master class on the stars and the galaxy. How to identify the North Star, where does the Venus appear, what and where is the Andromeda. My attention wandered, the roar of the water, the vastness of the sky above, the flying embers from our campfire and the calm, measured voice of Glenn all combined created a magical atmosphere were it was easier to get lost in dreamy nothingness than understand science !!

Nights with a slight chill in them. Skies that looked as if all the stars in the universe had come out to twinkle. The constant sound of the waters of the mighty river rushing in the background. Smoke from the campfire that would rise lazily above. Songs being sung softly and soulfully.

Heaven.

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Soon, we had crossed the last rapid. We were paddling back to where the jeeps where waiting to take us on our return trip.

In almost all the treks that I have been, by the time its ending, the group is quite keen to get on the flight back home. To family. To the comfort of our homes.

This was the only time all of us felt a little deflated as the trip wound to a close. We knew that we had experienced something magical. There were some glum faces on the ferry back and most of all, there was silence.

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What do you need to carry ?

Stick to the list that is given to you though I felt it was a bit elaborate. Stick to it and you are more than safe. Nights can be a bit chilly so good to take something a little warm. You are given a dry bag in which you can keep all the stuff that you need while rafting ( the rest goes with back with the vehicles ). One dry bag person which needs to carry everything that you need for the rafting part so keep that in mind while packing your clothes. Essentially, don’t overpack. In other words, you carry all your bags while on the road and while rafting, carry only the essentials that can fit into a single dry bag that will be given to you.

On Cameras etc

I had done this trip when I was still shooting JPEGs, I pretty much used my camera as an aim and shoot. I just had the kit lens with me and nothing more. A wide angle is a must. And please please shoot RAW. I love the pics I took here but I always think on how much better they would have been if I had shot them in RAW and if I had a wide angle. Sigh.

Naturally, once you start the rafting, you are not going to be anywhere close to a power supply, so extra batteries and memory cards…a must.

The dry bags are good enough to keep the cameras safe and completely dry when the waves are a bit on the choppier side. Take them out on placid waters and just click away. And, yes, you will be given a separate dry bag for the camera.

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My BTDT ( Been There Done That ) tip :

Buy booze in Dibrugarh. Lots of it. Unlike treks where because of the altitude and all that, you can’t drink, here there are no such restrictions. We consumed some 40 litres of alcohol. We actually ran out of it. And the group had its share of polite drinkers. And still….40 litres. Phew.

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So, now to the more obvious and important questions.

How safe is it ?

Very. Very very safe.

Aquaterra is one fantastic outfit. Their focus on safety is outstanding. There are safety kayakers who always move ahead of the rafts while crossing the rapids and who are always keeping an eagle eye on the rafts. The expertise of their team in running the waters is exceptional. They just love being in the water !! The sheer delight that each one of them exhibits in the water goes a long way in reassuring us.

Some of us got into a bit of a discussion on whether do we paddlers make any difference. Since it was all a bit humbling we didn’t really discuss it much. But I do think that the master oarsman is eminently capable of steering us through the rapids all by himself. That he looks at us novices as making his job more challenging and that extra challenge is something he enjoys. No, really J

Will I fall overboard ?

Well, I would hope you do !! Its great fun !

You are taught exactly how to sit in the rafts especially when you are battling the rapids. Feet have to be placed in such a manner that you get a good solid grip. You might think its not much of a help when a ton of water hits you with the force of a sledgehammer but the only time I fell overboard was when my feet weren’t tightly wedged. And in case you do fall overboard, then these guys know exactly what needs to be done to get you back on the raft. All that is expected of you is that you keep a cool head. And, I have heard stories of people who didn’t keep a cool head and still got rescued. So. No big deal.

They maintain very high levels of hygiene in the camps – and I have gone with a few others so I can compare.

Do I need to be physically fit ?

Nope, not really. We would like to believe that sturdy arms help but am not sure. We had with us a lady – one doughty lady for sure – who had just had a hip replacement surgery done, another guy who had busted his knee badly, all of them did fine.

But I don’t know swimming !!!

Trust me. If you fall overboard, in those waters you won’t be able to swim much. But you have helmets, you are wearing life jackets. You float along till someone comes to pick you up. You don’t need to know no swimming.

Essentially, you have no excuses not to go. Just go for it.

Seriously. There is a dam that is being built. There was a road that was being built. “Development’ is creeping in. Local cultures change. Soon, the beauty of the place will change. Forever.

Better hurry up.

******

For more details, here is the website for the trip.

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