A great day paddling on the Dart. In the evening, I watched a presentation by some teenagers (some of whom pictured here) who just took part in an expedition to kayak India’s Zanskar River, the incredible ‘Grand Canyon of Asia’. I was more than ten years older than these guys when I took that particular trip on.
I hate to admit it, but today’s youngsters more skilled, fitter and more confident than my generation were at the same point. Time to retire and buy a zimmer frame…
Our very good friends Si and Cheryl got married this weekend. I’ve shared some great kayaking adventures with Si around the world, ranging from last week’s Italy jaunt to a year taken out of work 2000-2001, in which we did a round-the-world Grand Tour lugging white water kayaks with us. I got married during the New Zealand leg of the RTW trip, although Si somehow failed to attend the ceremony. His lame excuse was that he was severely ill with Leptospirosis at the time, forcing H and I to drag bemused strangers off the street to legally witness the ceremony…
Si met Cheryl shortly after returning from that trip, and they’ve continued the worldwide paddling adventures over the past decade; we’ve been lucky enough to join them on a few. Congratulations to both of you from Heather and I, wishing you a long and happy life together! Thanks also for laying on such a great weekend for us all, it was a fantastic chance to catch up with old friends.
A few photos follow of the wedding, and also of earlier adventures on four or five different continents…
Another magazine article; this was a 2006 trip to the Indian Himalayas which was very much in ‘exploratory’ territory; many of the rivers we paddled had seen few or no descents, and there were certainly no guidebooks. I’ve paddled white water in India four or five times now since 1998, it’s a bit of ‘thing’ of mine. Incredible country.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Paddling in the Indian Himalayas, Easter 2006
India isn’t so much a country as a planet, and attempting to quantify its wildly diverse peoples, landscapes and culture would be the road to madness. Suffice to say that the world’s largest democracy is a land of mixed messages. One moment you’ll be entranced by astonishing ethereal beauty; a woman’s glittering sari, the detail of a Hindu devotional painting, or a distant ice field glimpsed floating above green terraces. The next moment, you’ll recoil at staggering squalor and poverty; a family living in a pavement shack, the lingering stench of untreated sewage, or the grime of a restaurant kitchen. Those of us – myself included – who had paddled in India previously, knew what to expect. What we mainly expected, was confusion. Nothing in India runs to plan or on time, and randomness is the only certainty. Despite – or possibly because of – the reasons outlined above, we absolutely love India. It was exciting to be back.
In past trips we had endured local bus travel, which involves countless hours of being shaken senseless on unsurfaced roads with random livestock perched on your lap, whilst poorly taped Bollywood tunes screech at ear-bleeding volume. This time, we had unanimously decided to cheat… at Delhi airport we were met by a luxury minibus and personal driver. To emphasise our softness, the word ‘TOURIST’ was emblazoned across the windscreen in humiliatingly large text. We didn’t care…we had speed, comfort, and – most importantly – the flexibility to go where we wanted, when we wanted. Our plan was to follow successive Himalayan valleys north from Delhi, having chosen to seek out areas we knew little about; what could go wrong? Well, for starters, there was almost no roofrack on the bus. Oops. We bodged a quick-fix which left seven creek boats perched unconvincingly across the bus, not actually connected to anything solid and overhanging both sides. We kept meaning to think up a better solution, but never did get around to it.
India veterans and virgins alike were glued to the bus windows in Shock and Awe, gaping at the wondrous cornucopia of transport which we squeezed past on our way to the hills. Honking Tata trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycles carrying whole families, elephants; all regularly braking sharply to give way to the mangy cows which grazed indifferently in the centre of the fast lane. In time, heat and jetlag overcame culture shock, and we dozed.
The next morning saw us awaking high above the plains in the hilltop station of Mussourie. The British built such places (in the image of the Home Counties) to administer their Empire from a cool climate. Mussourie’s Mall bore a disconcerting resemblance to Georgian Brighton, albeit with more monkeys and less seafront. We hunted down India’s only functioning cash machine (tip: whichever amount you withdraw, it will be too much), we joined Indian kayakers Shalabh and Neema, whose acquaintance we had made online. Email is never the most reliable means to judge a total stranger’s character and boating chutzpah, but we were delighted to find that both were solid paddlers and much more importantly, splendid company.
Pre-trip research had involved staring at a pile of inadequate and contradictory map sources, trying to correlate the damned lies of one with the blatant misinformation of the other. We had been unable even to confirm whether river valleys were populated and had road access. Even the wonder that is Google Earth wasn’t sure. Now, driving up the Yamuna River, it was instantly obvious that there were roads and people everywhere you looked, and that this would apply equally for all valleys. With 1.2 billion locals, there is no such thing as ‘wilderness’ in India. The gleaming newness and scale of some of these roads was suspicious, and we were eventually to grasp the reason for this…
Every river paddled was a First Descent. That is a total lie, most weren’t…but they had might as well have been. We had no solid beta about any of them and half the fun (and stress) of our trip was peering out of the bus windows, trying to guesstimate the grade and gradient of the river far below. We were shockingly bad at this…we would confidently dismiss rivers as too flat, low or easy. Thirty minutes later, we would invariably be getting beatdown in a huge stopper which had looked like a ripple from the road, or clinging for dear life to micro-eddies on ridiculously steep gnarl. This happened time after time. We are not good learners.
The Yamuna River drainage is one of India’s holiest, washing away the sins of those who bathe in it. Andy Mc noted that he’d need to paddle it more than once to wash clear his backlog, so we devoted plenty of time to these valleys, paddling the Yamuna, Tons, Rupin and Pabbar. The Tons is a tributary of the Yamuna, but is actually a much larger ditch with hefty tribs of its own. The Yamuna wowed us with wonderful blue water steep creeking, as, rather boringly, did everything else. We were wary (read: scared) of the upper Tons. We couldn’t see it from the road, nobody appeared to have been daft enough to paddle up that high up the valley, and the gradient profile suggested nasty gnarl. Ignorance is bliss, so a few of us paid farmers to carry our boats down into the steep valley. Reaching river level, our faces blanched and our eyes were on stalks; the Tons was full-blown Grade 6! With our few rupees left, should we pay the locals to carry our boats back uphill, or downstream? Mindless optimism won the day, and to our nervous relief, we discovered that the river became paddleable just around the next corner. Even so, wibbly wobbly routes taken down the first rapids betrayed our edginess! Some fantastic read-run action, a short portage along a beach (bloody Nora, are those tiger footprints?) a night under the tarp and to our astonishment, we rejoined the road early the next morning. Could the day get any better? Oh yes! Reunited, the team jeeped up the Rupin valley’s brand new road. Despite the usual misjudgements (“Has it got enough water?”) the Rupin offered up five exceptional flat-out hours, yet was unusually forgiving for a tricky ditch. Once you wussed, the road was on hand. As the day wore on and the Rupin steepened, the group shrank and it began to feel like Custer’s Last Stand! The very final drop boofed direct into the Tons. Kevin was so fried out that he boofed, broke out into the takeout eddy, capsized, forgot how to roll and swam. Oh, the shame.
We were genuinely sad to leave behind the wonderful free-flowing rivers of the Yamuna system. Even so, we did not fully appreciate just how privileged we had been to paddle there until we reached the Sutlej River. Here, we were forcibly transported into the future, and it was not an appealing future. Over millennia, the Sutlej has driven a monstrous cleft right through the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau to the Indian plains. This is – obviously – something special. We had hoped to spend a full week paddling the Sutlej. Driving up the gorges, our faces progressively registered eagerness (it’s the Sutlej!), then fear (are the stoppers meant to be that big?), then incomprehension (what’s with all this concrete?) and finally despair (they’re devastating the entire valley!). What exactly had we seen? The Sutlej was brown and heaving, too high for mortal paddlers like us. Whatever, the real jolt was uncovering the state of the valley. India’s largest and deepest gorge has been tamed by concrete and dynamite into one vast engineering works and labour camp. The first completed dam has already left 40 kilometres of the river empty. Similarly scaled projects are well underway along the length of the river. Sadly, our abiding memory will be of thousands of construction trucks, churning dust as they endeavoured to complete the destruction of the Sutlej. Why was this a vision of the future? As India’s urban population and foreign exports rapidly expand, so too does the insatiable demand for electricity. In the Himalayan states of Utteranchal and Himachal Pradesh, this thirst is being quenched by largely unchecked and unregulated plans for hydroelectric power schemes. Multiple dams are being built or imminently slated for every single river. The future of India’s mountain rivers is dams, diversions and dry beds. Now we grasped why the roads were so good in the Yamuna watershed, and we felt physically sick.
After paddling the Baspa, a (dammed) Sutlej tributary, we moved on. We crossed the 10000 foot Jalora Pass and after melting the buses’ brakes on the descent, fetched up in the Kullu Valley. We worked our way around the region’s rather varied rivers and successively found ourselves faced by every possible eventuality – except boredom. Raging through the popular Honeymoon destination of Manali is the hefty Beas River. It is indeed rather thrilling, but keep your noseclip in place and your mouth tight shut. The Tirthan certainly had its moments, but is most memorable for the wretched stinking town which was visibly collapsing into the river as we paddled through. The Sainj had enough steepness to satisfy, but we had to time our descent in-between rock blasting sessions for the new dam. The Malana looked interesting, right up to the point where the Indian Army politely but firmly escorted us out of the valley, ‘for our own safety’. Because of, rather than despite these quirks, we relished all of these rivers.
Without question, Kullu’s trump card was the Parvati. Rapids of every hue and colour adequately entertained us for two full days. Treading gingerly among the turds at the Beas confluence, we agreed that the Parvati might just be the best medium volume Grade 4 river that we’ve ever paddled. Either way, it certainly has the hottest curry, delicious but unquenchable even by copious amounts of ‘Extra Strong’ Indian beer. This is to be located and enjoyed in Manikaran, a wonderfully glitzy Hindu and Sikh temple complex which straddles the evil gorge above the Parvati put-in. We usually allow ourselves one short controlled dose of ‘culture’ on each trip, and a stay in Manikaran filled that quota perfectly. Embarrassingly and possibly dangerously, our attempt at cultural immersion degenerated into cultural misunderstanding when Neil and I took a wrong turn and found ourselves inextricably participating in a Sikh ceremony. Neil’s lack of beard was a dead giveaway, not to mention that we were the only men not brandishing sharp jewelled knives…
With a single paddling day left, we woke beside a completely dry riverbed, 80 kilometres west of Kullu. We’d headed here on a whim to find the Uhl River, with no more info than a blue line on a sketched tourist map. Lucky Dip boating! Harsh words were muttered when the river proved to be empty, and we faced the prospect of a distinctly downbeat finish to our fortnight-long Grand Tour. Reverting to mindless optimism once more, we drove up the river on the off-chance. We quickly located the culprit, another dam. Above that was a free-flowing river, and a notably steep and chunky one at that…our gamble had paid off! At the road head, our arrival stopped the village dead in its tracks. All work and play was suspended as the entire population came to watch the ridiculously clothed Westerners do incomprehensible things with large plastic toys. One particular toddler almost keeled over in awe as Kevin strode past, attired in full creeking get-up. The footbridge and banks at the put-in were crowded with villagers trying to get the best view as we broke out and peeled off downstream, one by one. I can’t speak for the others, but personally, seeing my parting wave being returned enthusiastically by a hundred smiling strangers fulfilled the trip in an instant. And as for the river itself? Well, the Uhl is a story in itself…
More photos, river notes and info on paddling in India at www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk
Photo gallery from this trip –
This is the view right now from our Hotel window. Yes, we’re still stuck in Delhi; tomorrow (fingers crossed!) we will finally escape, after ten days of waiting. This has been a truly miserable experience, not helped by bomb scares, massive political meetings and the ongoing heatwave, all of which have made our stay in India’s capital even less agreeable than it was already going to be. I also still have the embarrassment of returning to work a week and a half late to look forward to. Splendid.
What you are looking at above and below is a fourteen lane highway, and Indira Gandhi International Airport behind; although most of it (in common with much of Delhi) is a vast dusty construction site at the moment. It so happens that – despite recent inconveniences – I am still entered to run my first marathon, this coming weekend. Busy times at work in March, the two week whitewater expedition in Nepal and the current situation have meant that any form of meaningful and consistent training has long since gone out of the window.
I’ve gone from an earlier attitude of insouciant confidence to now seriously doubting my ability to complete the marathon this weekend; but I’ll still give it a go, not least because of the phenomenal and much-appreciated support I’ve been given.
I’ve carried on doing what running can in the circumstances; in Nepal this meant a few early morning jungle jogs, in Delhi it’s a little more demanding; I get up at 5 am to miss the heat (by then it’s already above 30 degrees C) and the worst of the traffic (about 20% less than you see below and above), and run along the motorway hard shoulder for as long as I can endure before the dust, fumes, heat and smell turn me around. To be honest, we’re not talking about huge (or even worthwhile) distances, but I’ve been determined to give it a go, at least. Actually, the ‘hard shoulder’ is nothing of the sort; it’s a strip of mud, rubble and random holes, with the occasional interlude of an open sewer. If this sounds ridiculous, it actually appears to be the accepted way to go running hereabouts; I have met plenty of Delhiites along there, dodging the pre-dawn traffic with me.
I have to remain positive about all of this; this Sunday, nothing can go wrong.*
*But first, I have to get home…
We’re still stuck here sweltering in Delhi, with no idea when we’ll be able to fly out … the only thing keeping us sane, is remembering how good the paddling was.
Photo galleries here and here.
Our whitewater kayaking expedition to western Nepal went really well, with outstanding whitewater and some incredible cultural experiences.
Trouble is, it should have all ended some time ago … but we seem to still be here in Asia. To be precise, fifteen of us are stuck at the airport in the fine city of Delhi unable to leave, on account of European airspace being closed. Among other problems, this has caused us all considerable embarrassment with our employers, and isn’t exactly a bonus holiday experience; Delhi has been experiencing exceptional temperatures of 44 degrees C. At current time, we have no idea at all when we will get home. Early this morning I attempted to complete some kind of marathon training along the hard shoulder of a motorway(!), but I can’t say it was an experience to be recommended.
On the bright side, we keep reminding ourselves just how good the Thuli Bheri River was. Oh yes, it was a good one …
This weekend sees the first ever Pyranha Dart Fest, a big get-together of white water paddlers at the River Dart Country Park near Ashburton, Dartmoor.
There is a busy schedule planned, with paddling, coaching sessions and entertainment in the evening. My good friend Kevin Francis and I are presenting one of the evening slots, with the pithy title ‘Kev and Mark’s Excellent Adventures’. I will whizz through my trips to India and California in recent times, whilst Kevin will tell stories about the epic wilderness whitewater of the Romaine River in Quebec, with at least one helicopter evacuation involved … hopefully see you there.
More info here, here and here.
… a rather large and consequential rapid on the Romaine River, pic from Kev Francis
A few pics of California …
India follows …
Heather, somewhere in Orkney. I think.
I did an evening of talks up the road at Poole Harbour Canoe Club last year. Surprisingly, I can’t have offended absolutely everybody in the room on that occasion, as they’ve invited me back for another go, later this month.
The talks will be on the evening of Monday 18th January, commencing at 7.30 pm. The venue is the cellar bar of The Blue Boar in Poole. I’ll say something about our recent whitewater trips to California, and something on our sea kayaking trip to Orkney. Other places like India and the Isles of Scilly may or may not feature, depending upon how much I ramble and how long before the audience starts walking out. Heather may also do some of the talking, or she may not. As you can see, we’ve planned this in depth.
Other local paddlers are very welcome to attend – indeed the more the merrier, PHCC welcome guests on this evening. It’s free, but if after arriving you feel a sudden compulsion to buy fifteen copies of my book, then I won’t stop you.
Drop me an email if you have any queries.
More Orkney …
… and a bit of California …
I’m having a bit of an ego trip today. This is the cover of the latest edition of Canoe Kayak UK magazine. I took the photo! It was snapped on the upper Yamuna River during our recent trip to India. The article inside is by my good chum Liz and entertainingly conveys the trials and tribulations of paddling in that wonderfully diverse and random country. So, I’m feeling very chuffed with myself right now, but I’m not half as unbearable as the guy in the photo, Dave H …
The magazine also carried a review of South West Sea Kayaking. Splendid.
I’m back from some splendid adventures in India, and am now working on getting everything ready for the coming weekend.
Looking forward to it!
… I’ll be in India.
Pesda have sent the book off for printing and it should come back next month. I’ve put expedition white-water paddling on hold in the past eighteen months, so now that the book work is all done, I’m really looking forward to this trip. I was last there in 2006, and this will be my fourth trip to India’s wonderful Himalayan rivers!
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, in time for the Launch Weekend – I do hope that you can join me for this celebration!
All of the UK sea kayaking that I’ve been doing during 2007 has been mightily pleasant. However, I’ve been sorely missing my usual white water paddling and overseas travelling fix. Hence, I have already have a few trips planned between now and next Easter* that will help make up the shortfall.
But … what I could really use is a short luxury holiday abroad with Mrs R, somewhere very hot and exotic, with the possibility of a days’ warm water sea paddling perhaps. So … I recently entered a photographic competition organised by the Independent newspaper entitled ‘Where Worlds Meet’. My photo entry is above (taken during a trip to India in 2006) and I am well chuffed to see that it has somehow made the final 10 photos.
Please take a look at the competition entries, and vote for the photos you like best! You can vote for as many pics as you like.
*In order; Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Germany, Poland, Belgium, France and Nepal. Really.