Mr. VD SCREAMS, “Ganga Mata ki jai”
“Paddle for God’s sake” cries another one.
“Paddle fast, fast, fast” shouts the instructor from the back of the raft.
We are on a 24km rafting session – all first time rafters – in the mighty Ganges in the ultimate rafting destination in India, Rishikesh and we are about to hit the first big rapid on our way – the Rollercoaster.
Having been assigned the role of main paddler I’m placed at the front of the raft and what I see makes me shudder. A wall of water stares into my face from ten meters away.
Our raft bobs like a toy as we go over a train of small waves and inch towards the waiting big boy.
“Ganga Mata Ki Jai, Ganga Mata Ki Jai”, Mr. VD screams in a complex tone of extreme fear and nervous excitement.
I sit stone faced and mouth locked. I’m in fact frozen in fear and probably more frightened than anybody else in the raft.
The raft climbs over a raising wave and tumbles down a rolling rush of water on the other side. The instructor shouts, “now…fast, fast, fast..” The big boy spreads his mighty arms and waits for us to run into his deadly embrace.
I’m a good swimmer and learned my trade in a river but at some point in my life I had grown afraid of rivers and large water bodies in general but now is the time to face my fears.
JUST THE PREVIOUS DAY, until we arrive on the folding hills of Rishikesh, only three from the entire group of 10 people, had opted for the longest rafting stretch available which is 24km because the even longer 36 Km stretch is now banned after two deaths last year (we were told so by the guides), and the rest were dived into two groups – one that wanted to just coast through the 10km stretch which is considered the easiest and safest, and one that wanted to do a little more than just sail and inclined towards the 16km stretch. I belonged to the 16 Km group and our decision was based on only one factor – fear. We were scared – as simple as that.
We had gone through many YouTube videos of rafting accidents and read news about deaths in Rishikesh before we started our travel from Bangalore. Mr VD would say several times, “I don’t care what others think, but I’m only going to do 10 km rafting”
Mr. AP would respond, “I’m only interested in the longest route. I have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time and I don’t intent to miss out” and he would cajole the groups saying, “See, even Miss M.S (some girl in our company) did 36km rafting so why can’t you guys do it?” but none of us would fall far it.
But as we pass through the main town of Rishikesh, we begin to feel maybe rafting after all isn’t a big deal. Every other petty shop in vicinity offers rafting trips and advertising hoardings are on your face mocking you – hey everybody here does it, so why can’t you?
Soon the mighty Ganges starts to present herself in glimpses here and there on the way, in turquoise color snaking her way through the valley bed a few hundred feet below the road.
“See, the water level is less, maybe this the right time for rafting” says Mr. AP encouragingly. We are in the middle of December and the river looks to be in optimum condition for rafting.
The hell with it, we are going to do it, we decide. Once in a life time trip, perhaps. We want the full experience.
So, 24 hours later, we split up into two groups, push our rafts into the water and start our Life Mein Ek Bar trip from Marine Drive point down the holy Ganges towards Ram Jula, our finishing point.
“There are 14 rapids in this route” tells the instructor. “Some major. Some easier”
We see-saw through a few Grade 2 and 3 rapids without any serious obstacles and approach a rapid called Three Blind Mice. Here, the river turns to the right and the mountain facing us has three cone-shaped rocks resembling the head of a mouse – maybe that’s how the rapid got its name.
It is also a triple rapid – three rapids back to back. I can only imagine how it is going to feel in case the raft flips in the first of the three rapids. You are going to get dragged down the next two rapids before any rescue can be done and that experience, unless you are a brave heart, is going to spook you out of rafting in your life again.
This rapid is also the first serious or the ‘technical’ one in the route. The waterway is narrow and it needs a bit of technique to navigate the raft out of trouble, the guide tells.
Before we could think of any techniques, we are into the rapid and spinning. The raft takes its own course – veering to the left and then to the right. I row in one direction and the others in another, we spin, we spin and a huge wave throws us over another wave. We land like a plastic ball on the water and bounce our way to the second rapid.
By the time we complete the third rapid, one of us realizes the ultimate objective of his life. “I’m the only son to my parents. I need to be alive for them. I’m going to get down when we stop for snack break. I would rather walk to Ram Jhula” declares Mr. N in a feverish voice. He is visibly shaken.
Overhearing this, the guide shoots back, “If you are afraid, you should have gone for boating”. Apparently the ‘snack’ stop in the trip is only after all the major rapids.
Near Shivpuri, rapids come thick and fast. Even before the next rapid creeps into our view, it fills our ears with its thunderous roar.
“This is the first major rapid” announces the guide, “it is called the Rollercoaster. It is a dangerous one”. He pauses to heighten the drama and the feeling to sink into us. “I want you to follow my instructions very, very carefully” and goes on to repeat the instruction he gave us at the start of the trip.
I, almost mute all the way, sit with an emotionless stony face. I had left my life to fate a long while ago – precisely when I hit the first rapid.
WITH SERIOUS OBSTRUCTIONS like dangerous rocks and boiling eddies, it is really very difficult to explore the passages of the Roller Coaster rapid. The rapid has longer ways with high and irregular waves. One such high wave posing like a wall rolls towards us the moment we enter its swirls.
Mr. VD, holding the safety rope and sitting in the middle of the raft with the demeanor of a man riding a chariot, seeks divine intervention. “Ganga mata ki jai” he shouts as we inch towards the approaching big boy. Moments like this bring out the religious man in you.
We smash into the wall and begin to flip.
This is not my photo. Flicked from Google, just to give you an impression. This photo is from Rishikesh.
I hear the guide shouting, “fast, fast, fast” but the last ounce of courage draining out more quickly than I expected, I throw the paddle down and hold on to the rope that runs along the sides of the raft. The raft hangs in the air vertically for a moment and then regains its poise magically and slips back under us to hold us as we fall. Another wave goes over us, blasting our face, washing us all over and then we emerge out of it. Alive.
I cough. In a split second at least two liters of water has got down my mouth. People come from all over the country to drink the holy Ganga water but with me it is more like Ganga stuffing the water into my mouth and telling, “you drink this bastard and cleanse yourself from all the sins you ever did in your life”. Oh, yeah, I take it.
We look at each other and laugh in exhilaration.
When you face your fears, most of the time you will discover that it was not really a big threat after all.
“This is not the biggest on this route…there’s Golf Course approaching…the second biggest rapid in the whole of Rishikesh, after The Wall”, warns the guide.
But there’s very little to say now.
We lean forward, dig the paddle into the thundering white water and push the raft ahead. We say, “Bring it on, man!”