The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 25, 2003
Lead Article

Flowing with the rapids

River-rafting on the Ganga, an increasingly popular sport, has more than its share of adventure, discovers Sudha Mahalingam.

Rafting on the swirling Ganga is precarious but once you get a hang of it, the experience is thrilling
Rafting on the swirling Ganga is precarious but once you get a hang of it, the experience is thrilling.

NO artistís palette could have reproduced the colour scheme as strikingly. On the one side are the emerald mountains - majestic and rising almost vertically. On the other hand, the dazzling white beaches with their fine powdery sand interrupted by stretches of grey rocks of assorted shapes and sizes. Above is a sliver of the cobalt sky. In the middle is the jade ribbon of the Ganga - limp and content.

Donít let her fool you though. Beneath the apparent placidity she conceals a range of dizzying moods -mysterious, contemplative, at times effervescent, and occasionally diabolical. Vestiges of her previous avatars - as the tempestuous Mandakini, the playful Bhagirathi, and the impetuous Jahnavi are very much in evidence. But at the moment she seems to have donned her Ganga mai ka avatar - calm and reassuring.

The raft glides effortlessly with the current and as its inflated sides bounce off the waves playfully, Iím lulled into believing that itís invincible. Even as I begin to enjoy the smoothness of the ride, Riju, the river-guide, orders me to climb on the sides of the raft. In disbelief, I point out that I canít swim. But heís unimpressed as he urges me on. Heís the boss on the raft and itís best to obey his instructions. I had even signed a form indemnifying the rafting company against any claims in the event of a mishap. Reluctantly, I heave myself up on the slippery rounded sides, link hands with the others to form a chain trying to balance as best as I can. The raft bounces about clumsily. I lurch and sway dangerously. Riju seems indifferent to my plight as he rows furiously downstream.


And then I hear it before I see it óthe roar of the approaching rapids. By the time I figure out the source of the roar, itís too late. Terror immobilises me as Iím sloshed over by the frothy waters of Danielís Dip, the first of the series of imaginatively named rapids on the Rishikesh stretch of the Ganga. As I collapse inside the raft in a tangle of limbs, Iím grateful to be alive.

But Riju pushes me unceremoniously over the sides of the raft into the swirling waters below. The receding roar of the rapids I just crossed is drowned by shrieks of fright. My flailing arms miss their hold on the rings attached to the sides of the raft and I think this is the end.

But then, in a moment weíre afloat again. The water is incredibly chilly, making its way into the crevices in my helmet. Iím too stiff to let go. I cajole and finally persuade Riju to throw a rope to which I cling for dear life. After a while I realise that Iím not going to drown after all. The terror vanishes. By now even the bodyís thermostat has adjusted itself to the surrounding temperature and I no longer shiver and tremble.

Soon weíre again on another placid stretch. The banks are dotted with beaches every few yards with neat rows of colourful tents. A few kayaks pass by and I tell Riju that I want to try one too. He seems to be in an indulgent mood. He stops a passing kayak, tells the occupant - apparently another river guide - to jump into the water and holds it for me with a flourish. Very confidently I slide my sizeable bulk into the narrow space and grin triumphantly. But before I can even strap myself in place, the kayak overturns and I find myself in the nether regions of Ganga maiís belly. She rushes in to check my nose, ears, eyes, mouth. Gasping for breath, I flail my arms helplessly (the poor legs are packed so closely into the kayak). Rijuís demonic chuckle sounds ominously far away. I wiggle my legs out of the kayak somehow and bounce back to the surface.

Some distance away I have a brush with Ed, the villain of the river. As we float away from the raft, he stalks us from behind and drags me screaming. Iím vertical for a few seconds, and however much I try, Iím unable to extricate myself from his vice-like grip. Iím dizzy, as he swirls me round and round. This time Riju doesnít laugh, but transforms himself into a knight in shining armour. He, and Harish from the other raft swim furiously towards me and drag me by the lapels of the lifejacket. In a few seconds, Iím back in the safety of the raft, thoroughly chastened by the experience.

A series of rapids come one after another like rapid fire - Sweet Sixteen, Crossfire, Return to Sender, Three Blind Mice, Roller Coaster, Golf Course, Double Trouble and even one called Black Money because it happens to be near a cottage built by an industrialist! After the first few, I get the hang of the drill on how to negotiate them. There are five of them which are Grade IV (expedition level) and the others, Grade III. I am patted on the back and told that Iíve been very brave and can now go on to expedition level on the Bhagirathi or Alaknanda run and then on to the Kali-Sharda, Beas and even Brahmaputra!

ó Trans World Features