It is a hot sunny day. I am working on my laptop in my office, or trying to rather. My mind keeps wandering off toward the awesome time I had on the river last weekend, and that was just whitewater rafting. And I can’t help thinking that if rafting is so much fun, how much fun kayaking must be…
Fast forward a few months, and here I am in Rishikesh – the world capital of yoga. But yoga is not the only thing this vibrant town is famous for. It is also famous for its high-volume whitewater – a perfect setup for learning kayaking. Oh - and have I mentioned that the river is also considered one of the most holy rivers in India? So don’t worry, you’re being watched over! ;) (I have been told by a few folks from other countries, that this is probably the best place in the world to learn kayaking – and I guess you’ll probably not disagree by the end of this blog.)
The post-monsoon weather is pleasant. There is a cool breeze, the sun is shining bright, the sand under my feet is comfortably warm, and the river slightly intimidating. It is the first time ever that I will be sitting in a kayak. I am super excited and can’t wait to get on it.
My instructor, Anvesh, from Expeditions India calls me and says we are not getting on to the kayak – not yet (what a bummer!). Instead he says, “We are going to have some theory lessons”. And so begins my first lesson. I am taught about the river and its hydraulics, the eddies, my kayak, my paddle and my gear. And most important of all of the gear – the Personal Flotation Device (PFD), for that is what is going to keep me alive (especially since I have not swum for more than a decade). So, after putting on my gear (a task in itself!) and learning shadow paddling on the river bank, I finally sit in my kayak.
My first impression: “This thing is so uncomfortable!! How do you guys even manage sitting in it for hours and yet enjoy it?” Then Anvesh makes some adjustments to make it slightly more bearable for me and I fit in the kayak. Let me rephrase that: I snugly fit. The kayak now feels like an extension of my lower body and I am thoroughly amused.
There is still one important thing that we need to do before getting the kayak into the river – put the spray deck on the cockpit to seal the kayak watertight! Trust me, this is no mean task when you’re doing it the first time. But finally after struggling with it for a good few minutes and with some help from Anvesh, I am good to go. I put my fists on the wet sand, straighten my arms to lift my lower body up and push myself forward. Boom! My kayak is floating on the water. I reach out for my paddle on the right and it already feels like I might topple upside down any moment (phew!) but somehow manage to get it (scary stuff!).
It is my first time on the river and it is a real struggle for me to keep the boat straight and follow Anvesh. But after rowing for a while and following his constant advice, I am starting to get the hang of it.
All is fine until now – the moment when Anvesh starts teaching me how to roll my kayak. It’s the toughest thing I have learnt (and am still learning) in my life. Trust me, being upside down in the water is not the best feeling in the world, definitely not. I am so pathetic to start with that I panic every time I go upside down and can barely stay under the water for even 5 seconds. I even have more than a few swims where I bail out of my kayak when upside down.
But both of my instructors, Pramod and Anvesh, work really hard with me and get me to a level where I manage to stay upside down in the water for a good 15-20 seconds, even in the rapids. So you guys might be wondering - what is a roll after all? Here is a short clip to introduce you to the concept of a roll:
This is me seeking a token of appreciation from Anvesh after one of my first successful rolls, but he is clearly not impressed! I think this is what I like the most about Expeditions India – they mean business and their business is making you a good kayaker- everything else comes second for them.
Well, in my six lessons in Rishikesh, I do manage to learn the roll, though not perfect and not with a 100% success rate. Still, I am glad to have learned something. Also, by the end of it, I did go on a small rapid and was trying eddying in and out and really had fun hitting even the small waves.
Over the next few months, as part of my gap year, I would go on to try mountaineering, lots of treks, yoga, surfing, snorkeling / diving and backpacking across SE Asia. But honestly, I found nothing as exciting and thrilling as kayaking. So, when I fell sick in Bali in February, I decided to cut short my 4 months SE Asia trip into 1.5 months. I went home and stayed there for a month to recover my health and prepare for the upcoming kayaking lessons in Rishikesh. This time, I had decided, to be in Rishikesh, till the time I have reached at least intermediate kayaking level.
So, it is the beginning of March and here I am, back in Rishikesh. There is a chill in the air and I am slightly anxious. At the same time, I am equally excited to be in one of my favourite places and I am looking forward to being on the river.
I get on the river with Pramod and after rowing for a while I try to roll. And boom! It’s a success!! Never felt better. Watching all those rolling videos and doing some dry roll practice on my bed definitely seems to have helped.
Over the next few days, Pramod helps me get my roll technically correct (it is a tough job - trust me) and also teaches me to ferry across the river (so tiring) and how to eddie in and out (pure fun!). I am now hitting grade 2 rapids and working on my Combat Roll. It is still a hit-and-miss, but with each passing day I am able to get more hits than misses. I am glad to make consistent improvements, however small they may be.
One fine day, Pramod decides to take me down Golf Course rapid – my first grade 3 rapid. Looking back, I can say it is probably one of the most challenging grade 3 rapids I have paddled yet. So, having hinted in the last sentence, one can very well imagine what must have happened when I paddled that rapid – it was a SWIM!! (obviously!). My first grade 3 rapid swim. This is how it went:
My kayak flips and I have never felt anything like this before. It is like being inside a washing machine – I am attached to my kayak and I can feel my body swaying from left to right by the force of the waves. I am panicking and disoriented – for I don’t know what had hit me. It’s time to bail out and go for a swim! The waves are big and even with a PFD, I am able to gasp air only for a fraction of second before I go underwater again. However, since this is high-volume water, the rocks were way below the water and I was rescued by Pramod unscathed.
This swim has shaken me up. I now discuss with Pramod and we decide to practice rolling in strong whirlpools, not quite as strong as grade 3 rapids, but it still gives me a good taste of being upside down in a grade 3. So, with more practice and in between lots of swims, one fine day, I am now finally able to roll myself back up in grade 3 rapids!
And on even finer days, I am able to paddle through them successfully….
I still miss my roll in grade 3 rapids, but I am glad to have reached so far so as to be able to run grade 3 rapids with confidence. Having said that, I still get scared (if that is the right word) every single time I am about to run a rapid – but I guess that is what keeps bringing me back to the river – the thrill and the adrenaline rush every time I paddle down a rapid!! Pure fun!! Trust me…I’m a kayaker!
Anirudh Bansal is a finance professional (actuary) with a passion for nature and the outdoors. His Instagram handle is @backpacktuary, where he keeps sharing his travel (including kayaking) updates. He recently participated in the 1st edition of the Kali Kayak Festival, where (Expeditions India is proud to announce), he was one of the 4 finalists in the Intermediate Boater-cross Race!