India is popularly known for its culture, food, religion, architecture and bollywood. But now, itís slowly gaining popularity for an entirely different kind of adventure travelers ñ white water rafters.
Yes, unknown to many, India is home to numerous white water rafting possibilities from the easiest for beginners to really challenging runs suitable only for experienced paddlers.
Practically all of the millions of cubic meters of whitewater in India come from the Himalayas. The world’s highest mountain range in the northern boundaries of the subcontinent stores moisture to become a vast reservoir of precipitation.
When this is released as glacial melt to pour down myriad valleys, it brings together the three essentials needed to form rapids: gradient, obstacles and constrictions.
In the past, India’s border disputes kept many of the rivers off-limits, but more recent political developments have eased tensions, just as whitewater rival Nepal has fallen prey to its own troubles.
Foreign arrivals to India are said to be running at an all-time high and adventure travel is increasingly part of what people are looking for.
Here’s the best of what’s currently on offer regarding whitewater rafting.
Where: Ganges (Ganga), with tributaries Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, Garhwal, Uttaranchal
How big: III+ to IV, high volume (Ganges & Bhagirathi), medium-high (Alaknanda) Length of run: 36km (111km with Bhagirathi, 136km with Alaknanda)
Duration: two half-day runs on the water from base camp for the Ganges; add two days for the Bhagirathi, three days for the Alaknanda
Put-in: Kaudiyala, 400m; Tehri, 770m (Bhagirathi), Rudraprayag, 610m (Alaknanda)
Take-out: Rishikesh, 340m
Commercial river running in India began on the Ganges in the late 1980s. Today, it remains the nerve center of India’s whitewater community, with as many as 22 camps lining its beaches over a 36km stretch. To almost anybody who has rafted in India, the Ganges is synonymous with the sport. Just a six-hour dash from Delhi, it offers the attraction of a ritual dip in Hinduism’s most holy river or, if it comes to that, being flung unceremoniously into it.
The solemn way to do it is from the ghats of Rishikesh or Hardwar, while disciples of nature can enjoy the bankside sal forests, home to deer and other mammals, including the occasional leopard, and more than 300 species of birds.
Aside from the other attractions, the Ganges is well stacked with more than half a dozen Class Ills and IVs, some of them packing a mean punch.
The legendary Wall rapid, where the current slams against a rock face, has taken out more boats than any other in India. Daniel’s Dip and Golf Course – so-named for its sequence of nine holes – are not far behind, and Roller Coaster bucks a few into the drink too. Up on the two tributaries is additional firepower.
The Bhagirathi, despite its runnable length having been steadily eaten into over the last few years by dams, puts on a decent spread of IIIs and III+s. The semi-waterfall Chute, pouring forth between two boulders, is a robust IV, and at Deoprayag where the two big tributaries meet to form the Ganges, is a large confluence rapid.
The Alaknanda is best run during its September-November high-water season, when rapid formation is better. The ancient temple at the Alaknanda Maletha campsite is a great place for an afternoon nap.
The wide, sandy bank of Beasghat, at the top end of the Ganges (not part of the day trips) is the regular camping spot for expeditions. It is also a favored spot for fishing for mahseer (a famously hard-fighting freshwater giant). Try for yourself or else employ the services of a local fisherman to snag you a river-fresh breakfast.
Where: Zanskar River, Ladakh-Zanskar, Jammu & Kashmir
How big: Class IV-IV+, medium-high volume
Length of run: 180km
Duration: seven days on the water
Put-in: Remala, 3,636m
Take-out: Alchi, 3,250m
The Zanskar vies with the Siang for top honors as a complete whitewater journey in every aspect. The river flows in the creases of the cold mountain deserts in the extreme north of India which are striking for their ochre crags and fossilized wastes. The high point is the gorge, with its sheer enclosing walls, and the peaks, some soaring to 600m above the river. The panorama is staggering and keeps your sense of awe simmering throughout.
The journey to the put-in is worth doing in its own right. Ladakh and Zanskar are ancient strongholds of Tibetan Buddhism and Leh was once the tip of a Silk Route capillary. It is still the quintessential frontier town: at least a dozen monasteries of antiquity dot its precincts, and there are the colorful bazaars, festivals and people to take in.
Reaching Leh, you then have three days of exciting road time left as you leave the town along the valley of the Indus, climbing out of it via the Fotu La, and then up the exquisite valley of the Suru. The campsite at the foot of the Pensi La (4,420m) is the most magical – and windy – of all the camps on the trips described here.
Note though that camp nights on this trip tend to be dark and cold ó no trees, means no wood, means no fire. A clutter of driftwood at Lamaguru camp just below the gorge may be the sole spark of warmth.
The first two days are easy floating on the Stod, with river-borne sightseeing the major occupation. On the right bank is the grey boundary of the greater Himalayas and on the left the browner slopes of the Zanskar range.
The river gathers volume after its confluence with the Tsarap Chu, where it technically becomes the Zanskar. However, the easy water continues, with just a few IIs and sub-IIIs. As the river veers north and the valley closes in, transforming into a copper-hued gorge bereft of road support, the real fun begins.
The water becomes bigger, first up to Class III, then, in the second half of the canyon past Pidmo, throwing up the odd IV and more continuous III, regularly whacking the paddlers up front. Here waits its most exciting trick, the Constriction, a narrow channel with vertical walls that forces the usually 30m or so wide stream into an 5m mouth.
The river’s response is to work itself into boils, swirls and heaving unstable water that can pin the boat against the wall and tip it. A hard paddle against the left wall and a ‘get down’ command is the usual ploy here. Out of the gorge, expect a Class IV chain at Chilling while still on the Zanskar and on the last day, boosted by the added volume of the Indus, another long Class IV coiled around an S-shaped bend.
The river is cold, not more than 10∞C above freezing, so wetsuits, booties, gloves and spray jackets are a must. There are a few sections, especially in the gorge, where a swim is a real possibility. If that happens, the fast flow and sheer walls can make it difficult to haul yourself out, and a raft rescue is not going to be quick. You’ll be glad to have extra insulation and buoyancy.
Where: Sutlej, Himachal Pradesh
How big: III+, medium-high volume
Length of run: 100km
Duration: five days on the water
Put-in: Luhri, 793m
Take-out: Slapper, 575m
Optional: Higher put in at Rampur
For those who want to ease themselves into the wet, wild world of river expeditioning, the Sutlej is ideal ñ unless the put-in is higher up at Rampur, in which case the grading goes up a full point. This trip offers a bit of everything, but without truly fearsome whitewater.
The journey in sets the trend, passing thorough the hill resort town of Shimla via a broad highway, or more interestingly, on the more than 1000-year-old narrow gauge railway. Though teeming with tourists, the old British summer capital retains a lot colonial flavor in its architecture and is worth at least a day visit, time permitting.
The best part of the trip begins as you enter the canyon, fielding some Class IIIs at its mouth. The gorge is a pleasant surprise after the nondescript landscape of the first two days. Its walls are sheer and tall in some places, forest cover healthier, human presence sparse, and there is a fair amount of dead water in which to relax and enjoy the passing scenery. There is also a trio of crisp III+s with climbing waves rising 2-3m, to remind you that this is a whitewater trip though.
Camp for the day is at Kadhai ka Pher ( circumference of the Frying Pan)a beach in a pretty, gorge-bound site at the top of the longest Class III wave train. Before the campfire is lit, you should make the steep half-hour walk to a secluded, forest-enclosed village looking on to the river.
The biggest action is crammed into the penultimate day. Amid continuing pretty scenery, the waves become bigger and rapids more frequent. A series of III+s hide some surprisingly deep holes in their lee, capable of jerking the unwary into the drink. Then the gorge starts opening out and the village near the last camp sports a waterfall and a cable-suspended trolley bridge for rides to the far bank. The float-end of the journey winds down on the last day at the Kol dam.
Where: Tons River, Garhwal, Uttaranchal
How big: Class IV+, low-medium volume
Length of run: 89km
Duration: six days on the water
Put-in: Gyunhatti, 1,134m
Take out: Icchhari, 640m
The full length of the Tons was first rafted in 1986 when an intrepid outfitter from California searching oust new adventures zeroed in on this boondock territory wedged between the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. The next time it was run was almost 20 years later, in April-May 2005.
When an Indian commercial expedition took on the river, making it out frog regular commercial trips. In between, some outfitters set up seasonal camps, running just a 12km day trip and finding the river ideal for filling in a dry period from April when the weather gets too hot Ganges, to June and the onset of monsoon, when the scene shifts to the trans-Himalayas.
The reason for the 20-year wait between full descents is that the Tons is unlikely any other Indian river: there are few long, slow Class I sections here. Instead it is rapid infested, bristling with around 75 Class II+s. Bony, webbed with strainers, and packed with pourovers, broken water drops, holes, stoppers, undercuts and, yes, some big waves.
It is a crash course where you can pick up all your whitewater terminology, hone the entire range of your paddling stokes and learn how to read river features from scouts. Here, more than on any other stream, it is worth putting in a day or two on the upper section honing your techniques.
Getting to the Tons takes a day from Delhi. The valley itselfís alpine in its upper half, falling off gradually to tropical vegetation. Birding enthusiasts will easily spot at least 50 species on the way in, and there are interesting side-trips to villages of the surrounding Jaunsar region which has its own unique customs, including polyandry (each woman taking many husbands).
This is also a migratory route for the Bakarwals, a handsome sheep-herding Muslim community, who youíll meet on your descent, particularly at the take out where there is a big settlement.
Where: Siang (Upper Brahmaputra), Arunachal Pradesh
How big: IV+, very high volume
Length of run: 180km
Duration: eight days on the water
Put-in: Tuting, 579m
Take out: Pasihat, 155m
The Siangís furious descent through northeast India makes for some of the most massive whitewater anywhere in the world. About half a dozen class IV+ breakers, plus a generous assortment of Class III+s, mine this big volume river. An additional turbo-charge is possible if you launch at Kopu, a further 8km up from Tuting, in which case you add on another clutch of IV+s (probably a little too much for raft crews, though kayakers often like to pack in it)
Most rapids are long — some stretching up to 5000mówith some of the big frontals and diagonals rearing up to a whopping 10m, if you include the lethally exploding crests. Moreover the river doesnít allow you a chance to settle in gradually as the two behemoths of Ningguing and Palsi are the first obstacles on the opening day.
Needless to say, you take on the Siang with no illusions about violent ejectionís and consider yourself a conquer of sorts of just plain lucky if your foot braces hold firm under the assault. For all this, the son of Brahma is within the envelope of amateur paddling crews, even those with no river running experience.
Firstly, the Siang is a drop-pool river: torrents ebb out into long, calm spells, facilitating rescues. Secondly, the huge volume of water swallows rocky protrusion, minimizing a major factor in plotting lines. After the first few turbulent days, the river starts flattening and rapids become infrequent until the lull is broken on the last day with a roaring Class IV+ at Pongging.
What makes the Siang a genuine classic is the load of extras that go with the challenge on the river. Virtually impenetrable jungle contrast with the often denuded, highly cultivated or barren valleys of many of the other Indian rivers.
Above Pasighat, thereís a further two-day drive, which takes you trough tribal country. Arunachal was closed to foreigners until recently and the indigenous tribes have retained much of their culture: still carrying their signature daos (all-purpose machetes) and wearing hornbill or boar tusk embellished helmets.
Youíll meet them at roadside villages or simply when the curious among them drop into camp. When they do come visiting, you might ask to share in a local delicacy: a species of beetle freshly scooped from under the beach sand and eaten live on the spot.
Where: Kali-Sarda, Kumaon, Uttaranchal
When: October to April
How big: IV, medium-high volume
Length of run: 128km
Duration: six days on the water
Put-in: Jauljibee, 578m
Take out: Boom, 305m
The Kali forms the border between India and Nepal in its upper reaches and is approached by a road that winds through the touristy lake district of the foothills. The pine-clad precincts of Almora afford a wide panorama of some of the famous Himalayan giants: Trishuli (7,120m) the Nabda Devi massif with its talles peak soaring to 7,820 meters and the Panchchuli range.
This is also Jim Corbett country, the famous hunter-conservationist, who destroyed a man eating leopard and tiger at Panar and Chuka respectively.
Getting into the Kali put in is not difficult, but with no road support, the trip is self contained from day one. The first couple of days are relatively leisurely, with sporadic Class IIs and IIIs. At the Saryu-Kali confluence at Pancheshwar, to Nepal, on the left bank, to visit a temple complex. Through the Indian military presence is noticeable, local residents report no spillover from the Maoists trouble in Nepal.
The main event is at Chuka, at the confluence with the Ladhiya. Divided into three or four channels, this solid class IV rapid deserves a long scout; guides often offer the walk around option here for those not up to it. If the consensus is to go, binoculars are required to get the line right.
After Chuka, the pace changes. As the river enters the teras (jungle clad lower slopes of the foorhills), it erupts with quickfire Class IIIs and III+s. on the banks, the scenic valley is terraced forest. Elephant sightings from the boats are not uncommon. Take out is at a little forest rest house at boom.