White-water rafting on the Zanskar River: a near-death experience

 

Rafting on the Zanskar river © Craig FastBelieve it or not, the drive to the launch spot was scarier than the white-water rafting itself, and we even flipped the raft. That’s not to say rafting on the Zanskar doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping. I just have a mortal fear of overtaking on blind bends, particularly when there’s a sheer drop of about 100m on one side.

Despite my buttock clenching, there is no denying the drive to the start of the 26km white-water run was spectacular. Beginning in Leh, capital of the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, the mini-bus took us along the parched Indus Valley, which looks like the soul of a man who has lived life too hard and has nothing left to give, and then turned off into the Zanskar Valley. Gradually the Zanskar Valley narrowed, swallowing the mini-bus into insignificance as we journeyed deeper into a towering gorge of reds, purples, greys and browns, until we reached Chilling, our launch point.

Twelve rather shaken tourists disembarked and poured themselves into wet suits, life jackets and helmets. The introduction to white-water rafting was thorough, demonstrating the basic commands, technique and particularly safety instructions: try to keep hold of the lifeline (a rope going all the way around the raft) and your paddle at all times. If you fall out and let go of the raft, the person next to you must pull you in. If you are out of reach of a paddle, hook your own paddle to someone else’s still in the boat and they’ll pull you in. If you are farther away still, there’s a 25m rope. Beyond that, there’s an extremely strong man in a kayak who can rescue you and tow you back to the raft. On top of that, a team in a van keeps watch from the road. It was all very well thought out. Before our group was split into two rafts, someone had the presence of mind to ask what to do if the raft flipped. “Hold on to the lifeline and wait for further instructions,” our guide said. “And never let go of your paddle – it’s expensive!”

Lecture over, we clambered into two rafts, six tourists in each. Our boat held me, Craig, an English couple and two Polish men. After a bit of a practice, we let the seething, sediment-heavy Zanskar carry us along. The fish-eye views were even more awesome than the views from the road. The canyon soared above us, high into an impossibly blue sky. Mountains streaked with colour came and went out of view as we sped along at a surprisingly fast rate. The route is graded two and three – not too intense but certainly not boring – and the first few rapids had both boats whooping.

By the time we came to our first serious rapids our raft was getting a bit cocky, including our guide. The river narrowed as it surged under a bridge and we paddled our way over a gushing waterslide onto a patch of water that looked like boiling tar. Our guide told us to sit in the middle of the raft as he showed off, manoeuvring us on top of a standing wave, meaning we were floating on top of a small section of turbulent water that was going downwards instead of along, like a whirlpool but without the whirl. For a few seconds everything was exhilaratingly novel but then the front left corner of the raft, where the Englishman sat, was slowly sucked under and water poured in. Suddenly, we flipped.

I kept my grip on the lifeline but saw Craig, the man in the front left corner and his girlfriend go flying out of the raft. I can’t imagine what it was like for them, but I felt myself being sucked downwards and it was all I could do to keep a hold of the lifeline. Always a sad sucker for following instructions, I managed to hang on to my paddle too. A few seconds (they felt like minutes) later, I bobbed back up to the surface next to the raft, about 10m from where it flipped. I couldn’t see anyone. I began to maniacally (and with hindsight, embarrassingly) scream Craig’s name. I had visions of him stuck in a muddy Zanskar grave underneath a mass of downward-pressing water. A head popped up next to me. It belonged to the Englishman. I’m ashamed to admit it; I was devastated.

After what seemed like an eternity of mewling out for Craig, for anyone, and hearing only the hated drone of river rushing by my ears, I heard a voice that sounded vaguely Canadian. It turned out the river had sucked Craig down and, when he thought he wouldn’t make it out alive, vomited him up about 20m from the raft. Within seconds the guide appeared on top of the upturned raft. He motioned for us to make our way to the front of our sorry state of a vessel and wait for him to tip it back over. Bedraggled and shaken, all six of us were pulled back on board, with some help from the other raft, which, incidentally, also managed to jam me between it and our stricken craft as part of the rescue effort.

Emergency over, the old cockiness started to return and our boat held the most hardcore rafters in India, apart from the two Polish guys who decided to abort when we pulled ashore for a well-earned break about 10 minutes later. The rest of the journey was spent recounting (and exaggerating) our individual experiences of Our Flipping, taking in the surroundings and generally feeling lucky to be alive. The extremely strong man in a kayak somehow managed to fetch all of our sodden belongings from the Zanskar, including water bottles and a Marks & Spencer bag fresh from Britain, and spent the rest of the ride lithely skipping around the rafts like a playful dolphin.

The rest of the trip passed with no drama – no grade three rapid can count as drama following Our Flipping – and we drifted down to join the Indus River and toast our safe arrival with a bottle of Godfather, a Kashmiri beer “guaranteed between 5.25 and 8.0% ABV”.

I’m left with a far healthier respect for the might of a river and appreciation of the necessity for a life jacket, but I’d feel cheated if something dramatic hadn’t happened. I’m convinced the group in the other raft were secretly jealous that their ride was so tame. To their credit, they did make it there and back on the Ladakhi roads, which I still insist require far stronger nerves.

We booked our Zanskar River white-water rafting experience through Dreamland Trek & Tour, Fort Road, Leh but there are literally dozens of other tour companies offering similar trips, flipping not guaranteed.

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