I have been a river buff for over 20 years now. Water is the very elixir of life, and rivers are nothing but flowing water sustaining life and civilization for thousands of years.
I recently took a journey down the Ganga (Ganges) River with Expeditions India and what an experience it was! I had tried my hand at kayaking earlier and managed to get up to grade 2 rapids, but still did not have my roll in place (this along with good paddling basics is mandatory to negotiate more difficult whitewater). I had always wanted to have a 'feel' of the bigger Himalayan rivers up North and this is when I turned to Expeditions India and Goodwave Adventures. There are numerous ‘fly by night operators’ offering anything from a few hours on the river to half a day or more, but I did not want to compromise on equipment, skills, experience and safety. Also, as the name suggests, Expeditions India offers multi-day river trips with camping and an experience of the wilderness and nature that many others do not offer. This is priceless and allows you to get intimate with nature.
After having done some basic kayaking courses with Manik and Anvesh on the Cauvery and the Chalipuzha down South, I ventured onto the Saryu-Kali in Oct 2014. This rafting trip of six days involved covering over 130 kms on the Kali (a tributary of the Ghagra) and its affluent the Saryu Ganga. I came away with great memories. In early 2017 Manik asked me if I wanted to join a three day trip on the Ganga. I had always wanted to get on the Ganga and experience this great river first hand. Guiding us would be Anvesh and Vikram Joshi along with Manik and his kayaking buddies. Both Anvesh and Vikram had earlier worked with Aquaterra and these rivers had been their playground for over 20 years!
After landing in Dehradun we proceeded to Rishikesh and checked into a hotel. The rest of the day was free so I took a walk down to have a look at the ghats, ashrams and suspension bridges of Rishikesh. At dusk the Ganga aarti at Shatrughna Ghat (Ram Jhula) was a mesmerizing experience. I returned to the hotel with great anticipation for the trip starting the next day.
After a sumptuous breakfast and packing of the bags and kayaks we headed out towards the put-in at Baghwan. This was about 90 kms drive along the well-known pilgrim route towards Badrinath and Kedarnath. We stopped over for a brief while at Devaprayag. This is the last of the Panch Prayags where the Bhagirathi is joined by the boisterous Alaknanda to form the Ganga. All along the trip I marveled at the turquoise green hue of the Ganga. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a greener Bhagirathi at Devaprayag! After some time we reached the put-in at Baghwan before Kirtinagar. I was excited, but at the time a bit upset that we could not negotiate more of the Alaknanda. A hydroelectric dam higher up had blocked the river and tamed her waters.
After the safety briefing we were on the water by noon. I tried my hand using an Alpacka raft, a single man inflatable kayak which is easy to carry and more stable (and sluggish) than a hard shell kayak. I was pretty apprehensive and after clearing a couple of easier rapids took the wrong line on the next one. The Alpacka flipped and I took a thorough dunking. At least my sins were washed away in the Alaknanda!
After this I was back on the raft for the rest of the day enjoying the lovely views. The river here flows swiftly and mostly through a rocky and narrow gorge. Baghwan's Pillow was the name of one of the rapids we cleared. Since we started later in the day we had less time on the river before reaching camp that day.
Dams unfortunately hold back not only the waters but also a lot of the sediment. Over several years this net loss of river sediment results in river beaches gradually disappearing from along the river. We had several lovely beaches along the Saryu and the Kali (which are as of now still dam free), but along the Alaknanda these were scarce.
We did, however, find a small beach to camp for the day. The camps are equally exciting as the river. After a hard days paddle you look forward to relaxing around a campfire with lots of chatting to do. Here mention should be made of Pramod Magar, Stanzin Tanfan and Sanjay Saklani who not only managed all the camp chores but also paddled the Cataraft (a stable pontoon raft that carries all the supplies and luggage) and performed the role of safety kayaker. Safety kayakers are very important during river expeditions to rescue swimmers incase of a raft or kayak flip.
After the first day's dunking I was a bit apprehensive to use the Alpacka and instead opted for the raft. Soon we were at Devprayag again. Here we stopped off just before the confluence and Anvesh suggested I get on the Alpacka again as the river was not that rough from here. So I was back on the blue Alpacka paddling away on the holy Ganga! The river was flowing but nothing more than class 1 or 2 for some distance.
When mention is made of the Ganga one always imagines the huge crowds and numerous habitations and cities along the river. This is true, for the Ganga basin is home to more people than any other river basin on earth except for the Yangtze and an estimated 500 million people live here. After Devprayag and until Kaudiyala though, we had the river for ourselves. This was a delightful day's float and we passed under several foot bridges. Some of them had been damaged by the huge Kedarnath floods of 2013 when the river rose over 30 feet.
Our lunch stop over was at Vyas Ghat where the Nayar River (a monsoon fed stream) joins the Ganga. Manik's new drone was put to good use along the river catching great views of the expedition as it negotiated the river and its rapids.
Soon we were at camp. A trail (the old pilgrim’s path) runs along the river here and we had a short hike to a waterfall nearby. After a refreshing bath we were back at camp. This campsite was really large so folks immediately took to yoga, playing Frisbee and the like. After sunset Vikram was back to his usual storytelling form as we gazed up at the stars and constellations unimpeded by light pollution! There was Orion from which you can easily track the stars Sirius and Aldebaran as well as Procyon. Soon the discussion at the campfire turned to wildlife along the river. We were told of leopard tracks and pythons among others. That night I noticed folks spread their sleeping bags well away from the jungle edges!
Next day morning we were ready for some more action on the river. This last day would be big. Several of the major rapids on the Ganga would be negotiated today. Some more of the kayakers joined us on the raft and we also offloaded most of our luggage to be taken back by road.
From a place called Marine Drive the river starts to get crowded because the day rafting trips start from here onwards. The commercialization was apparent and the crowds kept getting bigger.
But the most famous set of rapids on the Ganga began! Below Kaudiyala we started off with Daniel’s Dip (grade 3+). The big humdinger was 'The Wall'. The waves at this rapid used to be a notorious raft-flipper, but since the dams had come up on the Ganga and her tributaries this rapid had mellowed down a bit. Originally a 4+ this was not so formidable now. Vikram eased us into the rapid sideways and we responded with equal urgency to the commands of ‘Hard forward!’, ‘Left back!’ etc. Soon we were relieved to be downstream and waiting for the kayakers to take their turn. Other rapids like the '3 Blind Mice' (3+) and Crossfire (3) were thrilling as well. We had lunch at another stopover and were soon negotiating rapids like 'Shivpuri Special' (2), ‘Return to Sender’ (2+) and ‘Roller Coaster’ (3). I particularly enjoyed the set of wave trains on the ‘Roller Coaster’ rapid.
The next big rapid was 'Golf Course' (3/4), so called due to the number of holes it had! River running is no simple matter. It takes a lot of expertise to master the river because each rapid can change based on the season and water level. Since rivers carry large amounts of sediments during floods, the entire configuration of a rapid can alter during a single monsoon season. The lines to run a rapid may change as well.
After some more rapids named ‘Tea Off’ (2), ‘Jail No Bail’ (2+) and ‘Double Trouble’ (2+) we reached our take out point just before the Lakshman Jhula bridge at a place called Nim Beach. Soon I was back on the return flight to Bangalore but not before carrying back memories that would last for a long time to come.
Venkatesh Hemmige is passionate about rivers and water resources. He collects information and books on the topic and occasionally writes articles as well. He resides in Bangalore with his family.