“Want a mellow sociable trip to the Indian Himalayas? I am thinking of organising a ‘club’ style mini-expedition to India next Easter, touring around in a bus paddling non-heroic Grade 3 and 4 rivers.” – Mark
This was how Mark’s email began. A few weeks later twelve of us were booked on various flights to Delhi at the end of March. Then the realization hit me, India was not only a lot further away than the Alps but would involve a different set of logistics and expectations.
Fortunately Mark has had a fair bit of experience of paddling in India and other ‘developing world’ countries so was able to guide (read: organise) us in our preparations. The plan was to paddle the masses of roadside G3/4 rivers that India promises, taking things easy and mixing in a few multi-day trips as well as maybe even a bit of tourism! So we could get to these rivers easily without having to use local transport we arranged two minibuses and drivers to provide transport via local tour operator Aquaterra.
Catching a jet plane
The multi-day stuff in particular had me a little nervous. The thought of having to carry all my camping kit in the back of my boat as well as all my paddling kit sounded like hard work and what would a happen if (when) I swam? Additionally all this kit as well as our paddling gear plus spare kit would have to be flown out. Driving to the Alps suddenly seemed a lot simpler.
Fortunately Marks advice on minimalist packing wasn’t strictly necessary; well not for those who were flying with Virgin Atlantic anyway. With sleeping bags, bivi bags (top tip: get a goretex one if you don’t want to wake up in a pool of water), tarps etc… all purchased and our paddling kit checked and packed we headed for Heathrow full of nervous anticipation.
Our team was split into two due to is size, four of us flew out with Virgin a day before the rest of the team. None of us had been to Delhi before and nothing had really prepared us for the experience.
Whilst finding the taxi we’d arranged to pick us up and take us to our hotel, we were mobbed by locals trying to help carry our luggage, the word no didn’t seem to be in their vocabulary. Our introduction to driving on the local roads was equally a shock; out of the airport and straight up the motorway slip road the wrong way!
Whilst we waited for the rest of the team to fly in the next day we explored Delhi with the aid of our friend Seth, who coincidentally happened to be there at he start of his gap year tour. Whistle stop tours of both New and Old Delhi commenced travelling by small three wheeled ‘Tut Tut’s’ meant we had a speedy introduction to how different India is to life in the UK.
Over the next two weeks I think we experienced a cross section of India from the hustle and bustle of Delhi to the quietness and pristine forests of the Tons valley. From the heat and dirt of the city to freshness of the mountain passes, India is a full of contrast and contradictions. Nearly everyone seems to have a mobile phone yet only once did we find a town with a proper sewage system.
Taking it easy
After our day of acclimatisation the rest of our team arrived and we boarded our buses and drove north to Rishikesh. Despite the five hour drive and the jet lag everyone hopped on the Ganges for a quick blast of grade 3 water to wake ourselves up. Obviously the journey had tired us out as two of the group swam and it turns out that a short section of river in India is at least 14km. There is also some debate on whether the big bouncy wave trains and holes to avoid really constituted grade 3. As a compromise 3+ was settled on. Never the less it was a wonderful feeling to be on the water and out of the bus. What we didn’t quite realise was how much more time we were going to spend in that bus over the next two weeks.
The following day was spent travelling further up the Ganges valley to Karanprayag and on the Monday we paddled the Pindar, a tributary of the Alaknanda (one of the two rivers that join to form the Ganges).
The Pindar turned out to be a lovely river full of grade 3 and 4 rapids made up of clear blue water. Only two things spoilt it; I became the first of our group to succumb to the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ and some of the team where accosted by a group of park officials trying to extract money from us. This began a two day struggle, despite having prior permission (which technically we didn’t require) we were followed back to our hotel where Ranger Smith as he came to be known held us up for several hours the following morning. Several phone calls later we established that we were indeed allowed to paddle but despite this it took a small ‘consideration’ to allow us to get on our way in peace.
Once free of of the park officials clutches we headed to Chamoli, loaded up our boats and began a three day paddle of the Alaknanda. By this point it had become clear that we were a major attraction as an entire school appeared to watch us paddle off! It became obvious that the Alaknanda was going to be somewhat more exciting than we expected with several g4+ rapids that the group had to inspect before either running or portaging.
My first exposure to riverside camping was perhaps not the best as we were forced to camp on the edges of a town where we were again approached by local officials wanting payment, this time they were sent packing.
Days two and three on the Alaknada became a little gentler although there was still a good mixture of rapids to keep us on our toes. The second night of camping out was a much more pleasant experience. Sleeping on an isolated riverside beach we were entertained by a troupe of Monkeys using the opposite bank as their own personal adventure playground. This was the also point of the trip at which I learnt that checking kit before putting it on in the morning was a good idea; I found a two inch scorpion in my paddling shorts!
We finished the Alaknanda at Rundraprayag where it joins the Mandakini river after a dramatic rapid full of waves and holes forced the entire river into a tiny gorge complete with Indiana Jones style rope bridges and temples, excellent stuff. Apparently a dam is being constructed further downstream, this will likely flood the river. We maybe amongst the last to paddle this river.
The Mandakini which was our next port of call. Most of the group paddled this as far as the gorged section that leads into Rundraprayag. About half of us paddled the main river which consisted of good grade 3/4 water. Those of us who continued down the gorge section found much harder rapids but fortunately the blue water, clear blue skies and stunning scenery cliffs managed to distract us from the difficulty of the river. One of the on river highlights of the trip.
In possibly the scariest moment of the entire trip these cliffs became slightly more memorable when Mark fell off them checking that the boats were fully strapped on. Fortunately he managed to grab a small shrub on the way down and we hauled him back up with a throwline. The following day was spent travelling to the Yamuna valley after an overnight stop in Barkot.
With three gorges at grades 4-5 the Upper Yamuna was probably the hardest 10 km of river that we paddled during the entire trip. Eight of us started the river but only three finished the last gorge, the exhausting continuous nature of the river took its toll on the group with four swims being clocked up (including one by yours truly). Enclosed boulder strewn rapids characterised this river and it certainly kept us on our toes. With the Yamuna bagged, we once again took to the vans and headed to the Tons valley.
Tree lined hills and blue water greeted us as we reached the Tons, after breakfast in the town of Mori we tackled the Upper Tons. What we were told was going to be a fairly easy river turned out to be a chunky grade four, which in our travel weary state and combined with the thunder and lightning that appeared unexpectedly proved to be a little too much, as myself and several others decided to get off early. Irritatingly I think that if the weather had been better and we hadn’t been so tired this would have been a classic river.
As the weather cleared we set up camp slightly further down the river and relaxed with a fire and slept under tarps. Next morning the blues skies had returned and we hopped back on to the Tons.
The Tons from Mori to Tiuni was in my eyes the best river of the trip. It was also 30 km of grade 4 rather than the ‘flat’ and ‘easy’ that had been described to us and managed to claim eight swims from the group during the course of the day. The rapids were varied and frequent and absolutely excellent ranging from long boulder gardens to big technical rapids inter-spaced with slightly easier yet still fast moving sections. We even managed to take half and hour at lunch to walk up to a local temple to get a small fix of tourism. Unfortunately by the time we got off the thunder and lightning had returned. Thankfully our drivers had once again done a wonderful job of locating us allowing us to rest our weary bodies in the vans as we once again hit the road, this time to the Sutlej valley.
Paddling a mere 5 km of the Sutlej due to a late start, we camped on the river bank where the locals collected fire wood for us! The next day was our final day of paddling and we covered nearly 40 km of big water, masses of impressive wave trains and holes to avoid with plenty of sections in between to recover in. The rapids and the wave trains on this were probably some of the biggest water I’ve paddled and they tried their best to scare the group witless. Despite this or maybe because of it I’d put this along with the lower section of the Tons as the best we paddled during our trip.
We finished the trip with a day in Shimla which is the old British summer capital – proper coffee (and beer) at last! After a day of driving back Delhi came as a shock, but not as much as arriving back in the UK to find it snowing!
‘Club’ style mini-expedition.
I can’t decide whether the trip was closer to expedition or club style. In reality I’m pretty sure we were taking it easy compared to the more hardcore expeditions that take place. Never the less the trip certainly differentiated itself from a normal club trip to the Alps.
The first thing we quickly realised is that this trip differed from previous ones in that the only guidebook we had was in Mark’s memory and some suitable handwritten looking maps. Despite the excellent job he did in getting us to the rivers and guiding us on them it was obvious that shrink-a-vision occurs not just when looking down on a rapid from above but also when looking back at it through the mists of time! The gentle g2/3 and g3/4 rivers that Mark described often turned out to be either slightly harder and more often than not longer than we expected.
Secondly,where as normally we would base ourselves in a single location and make ourselves a nest to rest, between rivers we were continually on the move living out of the vans fending for ourselves as we travelled. The distances we travelled weren’t massive but India isn’t like the western world, roads aren’t necessarily complete, restaurants don’t always have food and there is more bureaucracy in a hotel lobby than the entire of Brussels! On the other hand everyone is friendly and do their best to be helpful and it’s such a spectacular country to view. This I think is what makes it such an interesting place despite spontaneously flooding hotel rooms and the dreaded form C.
This I think maybe contributed to the tiredness levels more than the actual paddling. In fact despite the fact that the some of the rivers may have been slightly harder than we were expecting everyone was capable of paddling them, there may have been a shocking twenty two swims during the two weeks, these were I think for the most part due to exhaustion rather than paddling ability.
You might think it sounds like we had a hard time but we took it easily, often we stayed in a hotel rather than set up camp and nobody complained when someone decided to sit a river out. I don’t think anyone in the group would disagree if I said we had a wonderful time. Different from the normal alps trip? Yes and all the better for it. Recommended.
Water Levels: We visited during the last week of March and the first week of April, water levels suited us perfectly.
Costs: Flights to Delhi cost approximately £500 with Virgin or £400 with Gulf Air. The extra cost for Virgin gets you guaranteed boat carriage (an extra 32KG allowance) and a direct 8 hr flight. Gulf Air meant a lay-over in Bahrain and minimalist packing. Two minibuses and drivers for two weeks cost £260 each. The drivers excelled in driving where ever we wanted and sorting restaurants and hotels as and when we needed help. Living expenses were minimal and we could have spent less if we’d timed our journeys a bit better so we could set up campsites rather than hosteling.
Living: You’d better like curry, our diet for the two weeks consisted almost exclusively of this and chocolate biscuits until we discovered noodles and even these were massala flavoured. Alcohol was hard to come by in a lot of areas and it was only when we reached Shimla that we managed to get beer in a restaurant. Only drink and clean your teeth with bottled water.
Vaccinations: Get all the jabs that are recommended by your GP or travel clinic. I’d also suggest the rabies vaccination unless your supremely confident about your ability with a monkey spanking stick!
Equipment: We took all our paddling kit though I didn’t touch my dry trousers once. Spare paddles and decks were carried but in the event not needed, best to be safe though. For over-night trips a decent sleeping bag, tarp and bivi bag were carried. We soon discovered that if the bivi wasn’t goretex you got wet through condensation and these got reduced to the role of ground sheets and the tarps were used for shelter. For cooking a number of multi-fuel stoves were taken and filled locally. Some of the group took water bottles with built in filters that allowed them to drink river water, I was quite jealous.
Simon Knox, Mark Rainsley, Claire Cheong-Leen, Liz Garnett, Dave Hodgkinson, Andrew Levick, Heather Rainsley, Chas Couchman, Andrew Newell, Dave Surman, Ol Rennison and Graham Bland all travelled club class to India over Easter 2008.