The place I call home is hardly 20 Kms from Rishikesh and I waited till 2010 to go for my first rafting trip, that too with friends from office. The experience though stayed strong not be replaced even by the subsequent 5-6 trips I went on post the first one.
We travelled from Delhi and reached Haridwar early in the morning. Since it was a big group of more than 20 people, a bus was hired. Haridwar is the first major city you enter after crossing the state border of Uttar Pradesh. It is a holy city with some people calling it Haridwar (Hari meaning God Vishnu) while other would call it Hardwar (Har refers to God Shiva). The pronunciation would depend upon one’s devotion to either of these two gods.
The most famous ghat of Haridwar is Har ki Pairi and 50% of us decided to take a dip early in the morning. We reached there at 4:30 a.m, the weather was cool and the refreshing water of the holy Ganges invigorated our senses as the tiredness of the overnight journey just vanished by the time we came back after taking the holy dips. The serene and devotional environment was soothing to the heart. I stayed close to the steps leading to the river for a few minutes and enjoyed the tranquility of the river originating from the Himalayas. ‘Har Har Gange’ reverberated around as people chanted it while taking the holy dip .
As we still had some time at hand everyone thought of taking a walk around the place and decided to have aloo-poori (fried bread with potato curry – fried bread is a very loose translation though) after the tiresome circumambulation of the entire market. It turned out to be the most sumptuous of breakfasts I have had in a long time. It was not only filling but also amazingly delicious as our fingers got smeared with the watery curry as we dipped our pooris to enjoy the sweet and sour taste of the vegetable. It is supposed to be eaten with hands and the added taste was because of our sense of touch being also used to accentuate the flavor.
We spent more than 3 hours as everyone lazily ate and cleaned off their sins (a dip in Ganges is supposed to cleanse of all the immoralities committed). We boarded the bus again at around 7:30 and left for Rishikesh. Haridwar to Rishikesh is a tumultuous road journey of 1.5 hours partly because of the condition of the road.
Half an hour into the bus ride and everyone was fast asleep, the breakfast of fried pooris began working its magic beautifully on everyone. The bus reached the camp site on Neelkanth road about 15 kms from Rishikesh city at 10:00 A.M with everyone still trying to wake up from the greasy food induced slumber. The drive from Rishikesh City to the camp at Neelkanth is slightly bumpy because of the road which is generously filled with potholes, however what we lose in comfort is adequately compensated for by the calm environment of tree lined path with river flowing on one side and mound of soil on the other. I was one of the fortunate one to be able to witness the early morning chill of the beginning of the spring as the season was ready to turn into hot summers while our bus meandered through the road.
It just required me to open the glass pane of the window and experience the cool breeze hitting my face as the loud roar of the bus communicated its constant struggle with the oft broken tar road.
We were to stay in the camp overnight and get ready for rafting the early next morning. Few people stayed back and slept while some of the people decided to go swimming in the nearby river and I too was one of them. The place had some nice Swiss tents with inbuilt washrooms as well as recreational facility for people to enjoy their stay. After the swim we rested for a while before playing table tennis in the evening and enjoyed football later on a moonlit night. It was a surreal experience as we could only see the jungle in front of us and some of the creative souls even found living creatures out of a tree’s outline, one in particular being of someone referring to the tree as a bear trying to hug another beast.
Everyone slept late even though we were to leave at 8 the next day which though now appeared a little demanding to follow. However, there were few early risers and they made sure everyone is out of their bed by 7 and we were finally able to move out by 8:15. Considering people could only sleep for a few hours, it was sort of an achievement for us.
We were driven till Shivpuri, the starting place for rafting. From the main road, it was a walk down the hill on loose soil and sort of a desire path created by people who traveled before us. It was slightly slippery but was a precursor to the adrenaline rush to follow.
The size of our group warranted a break-up and we were asked to board two rafts. The handing over of the paddles though turned every adult into kids as they began playing with it while also getting their pictures clicked holding the paddle like a weapon.
The guide had to intervene so they could begin rafting as people were busy ‘fighting’ each other with their respective weaponry. We must have spent at least 30 minutes engaged in mock fights and clicking pictures. At last everyone was onboard the raft and the first one began sailing.
The place we started from had a huge rock on one side, an imposing and towering monolithic stone, also a favorite with everyone to get their pictures clicked with. On the other side was the lush green forest and Ganges was flowing in between. The Ganges acquires its name at Devprayag the meeting point for Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, although historically Saraswati also used to merge with these two over here, the river however does not exist anymore.
Everyone removed their footwear (almost everyone was wearing flip-flops) as it is generally not expected to touch the holy water with shoes, some people in other groups though continued wearing them. Everyone was excited to begin the journey and as one of the support staff clicked the last of the pictures, the first raft set out in the waters.
There was a small briefing though wherein our guide explained the do’s and don’ts of rafting focusing on safety of all the occupants. He even mentioned about some people who didn’t followed the instructions and met with accidents and even got drowned. His statement led to people tightening the life vest even more firmly around them. He however, reassured by telling everyone that he will ensure we have an amazing ride. Only thing he asked for in return was to follow his instructions. Everyone readily agreed and shouted a big ‘yes’ in unison as he prompted us to acknowledge if we will follow.
Although Ganges is one of the longest rivers of India, it is still in its infancy till Rishikesh, and realizes the humongous form that it is only after traversing through Allahabad and Benares before finally falling into the Bay of Bengal.
As we set out for our first rafting experience, our group leader who was maneuvering the raft gave us our war cry of ‘Har Har Gange’ as everyone shouted loudly with remarkable enthusiasm and energy. Soon, we heard almost every other raft doing the same. The water was still from where we started and now everyone was waiting for the rapids.
There are around 14 grade 2 and 3 rapids from Shivpuri till Laxman jhula, after which the water is more or less very still. The first rapid we encountered was a mild one, however we did got a taste of things to expect.
After experiencing a few more of them we were expecting a major one to hit us. Everyone would cling to the raft as we would approach a rapid and water from the river would splash around our faces before finally settling onto the surface of the raft. I was sitting on the front the pole position though was occupied by another colleague of mine and he was wearing specs. Although enjoying the experience, he was also getting troubled of cleaning the glasses repeatedly and finally decided to change his spot. I though was eyeing it still wanted to ask if he would change places out of courtesy, he agreed, and we swapped places.
I was now in the middle of action and the next rapid that hit us, it took one of the occupants along, back into the river. Although, he was holding onto the raft, the violent movement of quick waves took him inside the waters. Everyone was scared as the raft leader shouted for the rope to be thrown towards him. One of the support staff also jumped in. Our hearts were in our mouth for 30 seconds as we could not spot him anywhere. The fear that he might have been trapped under the raft was getting stronger. Although, we were drenched in water, the fear did made us sweat.
And then suddenly everyone was relived as we saw him holding onto the rope with the support staff swimming alongside him. Everyone pulled him onboard and laughed out loud as he was the one making loudest of noises earlier. The relief was palpable on everyone’s face as he smiled back thanking the heavens and the Ganges for his safety.
Our leader asked us to be careful and made him sit in the middle while other continued to paddle inside the rapid. His instructions though clear were difficult to follow when we were in the middle of the rapid as our paddles would just move with the force of water instead of our own strength. We weren’t as strong as we thought. The strength of water prevailed in its territory.
Everyone was back to their normal self after a while and our leader also allowed us to jump into one of the more malleable rapid. Two people jumped the moment he allowed, and I was the third one. The assurance of a safe life vest ensured we could take the risk. The feeling was of a wood being pushed around in water as we moved along with flow. Although, comparatively pliable, the experience of seeing someone rescued a while back ensured everyone remained attached with the rope while frolicking in water.
I felt a sense of calm and of extreme humbleness in the middle of the waters ruminating on the power, nature has over us. The life vest allowed us to even take a nap if as it ensures we keep floating on our back. I tried doing that as we were allowed to swim for 10 minutes before we approached a large swathe of still water. The good thing about it was no one could take pictures or use their mobile, so everyone was one their own enjoying the stillness of water and a calm tranquil sound of birds chirping around. The fact that I weas able to experience this while floating in the Ganges carved the experience forever in my memories.
Soon, we approached a sandy beach with powdery sand sparkling in the reflection of the morning sun. People got off to enjoy some time there. I, however, was keen to remain in water and did so as other played around on the beach of a river, something rarely seen.
Few more minutes of continuing to raft and we approached a cliff where everyone would stop, jump from it, eat Maggie before carrying on. The ritual was followed by every raft and we were no exception.
There were two cliffs, separated by not more than 5 or 6 feet. The taller one was around 30’. Watching people jump from the raft looked like one of the easiest things to accomplish. However, my perspective changed as I climbed on top of it, realizing how deep the water looks now. There were people there as well who would wait on the cliff for a while, would get even more scared to jump and return dejectedly. Some people suggested not to look down and just jump as estimating the distance will activate our reptilian brain which won’t allow us to take any kind of risk.
I along with another friend waited as there were 10 people ahead of us. 4 of them while very excited to make the jump returned soon after seeing how far the water level is. My colleague too stood there for a while, contemplated and decided to abandon the risk and went to the second slightly lower cliff.
My confidence took it toll as I saw him going down walking instead of jumping, however, I still decided to carry on. From the cliff, the water level looks like a kilometre away. Before my mind could concoct a horror tale, I took the plunge. The first few moments felt like an eternity before my feet touched water. A giant splash and I was safely cocooned in the lap of the Ganges. I survived the fall and was ecstatic about it. A voluntary cry of triumph echoed out of my mouth even as I consciously tried suppressing it. It was a mimicry of what others were doing and my subconscious could not stop itself from copying it.
After everyone was done jumping, we all ran towards the maggie’s shops which have mushroomed over the entire landscape on the banks of the river. Although, not a very pleasant sight, we ignored it and waited anxiously for our plate of the noodles. Even though, we all had our breakfast before leaving, few hours in the river had made all of us ravenous.
Some people went on to eat even two and three refills before our leader had to shout and give a friendly reprimand to some of the hungry souls still latching onto the last of the slippery edible threads.
We finally sailed again and by now everyone was quiet. The early morning excitement of a water ride had subsided giving way to food induced lethargy. We continued for 30 more minutes on patiently still water with just one final and very supple rapid on the way. As we passed by, we were told about the end of our journey.
The last thing to do was to help them in carrying the raft onto the ground which was a 40 meters walk. Although, they did it themselves while we only helped in taking the raft out of water.
I was still standing on the edge of the river, thanking Ganges for the beautiful experience we were able to relieve while itching to come back soon again, and luckily, I did return within a years’ time. This first experience of rafting in Ganges still remains etched in my heart as I long to experience it again and again.