Keep your feet firmly in the foot lock, lean forward and plant your paddle ahead of you” - our raft master Gurung’s voice seemed to come from another world as the roiling waves caught our raft and spun it around. We began to paddle faster and faster to meet the crashing waves of Roller Coaster (name of a Grade III rapid). The waves lifted our raft almost vertically and then sent it down in a spin. We bumped over the smaller waves and finally straightened out. Our paddles went helter skelter and if it was not for the expert rowing of Gurung, our raft would have surely overturned. Then suddenly it was all over, and we were skimming across placid water, laughing over our fears and faults.
Earlier in the day, we had set off from Haridwar, driving past Rishikesh, to take the uphill road that goes to Devprayag, where the Bhagirathi river (flowing downwards from Gaumukh-Gangotri) joins the combined streams of Alaknanda and Mandakini (flowing from Rudraprayag) to form the Ganga. Soon after Rishikesh, the scenery changed to a lightly forested hillside. We would often catch a glimpse of the turquoise waters of the Ganga flowing quietly past pebbled or sandy banks; sometimes, a hidden boulder would show up, at times, a sudden narrowing of the channel would throw the water into a fury - its surface flecked with foam and froth. Flowing through a range of terrains, the Himalayan rivers offer a mixed bag of variously graded whitewaters. The stretch between Devprayag and Rishikesh provides an interesting course for amateur paddlers.
Upon reaching Rishikesh, we drew up at the Ganga Nature Camp (four km ahead of Shivpuri village) run by Garhwal Himalayan Explorations. The tent colony was located in a hollow among the towering mountains. From here, we drove down to the riverfront. Since we were booked only for a day of rafting, our return to Rishikesh would also be via the river. Those who start higher up along the river stay at riverside camps for the night and then continue their river ride the next day.
While the colourful rafts were being readied by the staff, we were handed out the customary protective gear - life jackets (that would help us stay afloat in case we fell out of the raft) and helmets. This was followed by a 15-minute safety talk that introduced us to the basic do's and don'ts of river rafting, especially why not to panic if any one of us fell out of the raft or if it overturned. We were also given tips on how we could help a fellow rafter who had fallen overboard.
With a loud cheer from all of us, the raft slid across the placid water. Raft master Gurung allowed novice paddlers like us to get a feel of the oars first. I had just begun to admire the scenery around me when Gurung alerted us about the first rapid on our course. The words of encouragement from him did little to calm the butterflies in my stomach. The name, ‘Return to Sender’ just broke down whatever courage I had mustered. It was like hitting a huge wall of water - it pummelled us before crossing over with a loud whooshing sound.
Having made it through Roller Coaster, we were a little more confident as we dived into Golf Course. Usually, rapids are graded on a scale of one (easiest) to six (most difficult) but the severity may differ from river to river. We were going to handle a string of nine rapids. This time the waves tossed us around; it was like being in the middle of a maelstrom. The water enveloped us in its icy embrace before flowing over us in a gust. Once again we emerged intact on the other side of the rapid. The raft hadn’t overturned! A little later, we crossed the rapid, named Club House, but was there a shadow of doubt in our minds? Would our luck hold good? Of course! We were now veterans of the course.
Lunch was at Brahmapuri camp, where piping-hot vegetarian fare awaited us. Post lunch, we resumed our adventure, crossing a few more rapids - Money Flower, Hilton, Double Trouble, and the Terminator. As we were clearing Double Trouble, Gurung cheekily left us to our own manoeuvres; and we almost managed to topple the raft. But somewhere along the course, we had conquered our fear and were able to enjoy the challenges of the water. Some of us tried body surfing (floating face up along the water, allowing the current to take you along). At one jagged break in the rock wall along the right bank, we found a group of intrepid rafters trying ‘cliffjumping’ - jumping off the rocks for a free fall into the river. As the Lakshman Jhoola loomed large in the distance, we knew it was only a matter of time before we would be bidding the river goodbye.
After reaching Rishikesh, we spent some time exploring the town. Less crowded than Haridwar, it is still possible to enjoy moments in solitude on the banks. The twin bridges Lakshman Jhoola and Shivanand Jhoola, and a clutch of ashrams along the upper ledge of the town are the popular attractions. As the sun set, we joined the crowd on the river bank to see the evening articonducted by Parmartha Niketan Ashram. We too sent out our silent prayers to the river goddess for the safe ride, as the priests broke into chants and waved huge diyasin unison.
• The rafting season usually closes in end Aprilearly May although the camps are open till end June, depending on the arrival of the monsoon
• It is necessary to check the credentials of the rafting agency because safety and ability to handle emergency situations are important
• Haridwar is well connected by road and rail with Delhi (215 km). The nearest airport is Jolly Grant (25 km). Rishikesh is about 25 km from Haridwar. Essentially pilgrim towns, Haridwar and Rishikesh offer good mid-budget hotels and a few luxury hotels and resorts
• Depending on the season, the arati at Haridwar’s Har-ki-Pauri ghat usually takes place around 6 pm or 7 pm. Do visit early for a place
• Sample milk-based sweets like peda and rabri in Haridwar. Also, the frothy lassi is worth dying for. In Rishikesh, do visit the old Chotiwala restaurant for lunch of poori and chhole
• A trip to Haridwar can be combined with a visit to the Rajaji National Park
• The park remains open up to mid-June. Entry permits are available at the gate. Separate fees for individual entry, vehicles and cameras
• Age factor: The minimum age for rafting in India is 14 years. A 12-year-old child can be allowed on certain stretches, but this depends entirely on the discretion of the river guide and the water levels at the time of rafting
Popular rafting locations:
• Rishikesh: The 36-km stretch from Kaudilya to Rishikesh has 12 major rapids
• Ladakh: One of the best stretches is on the River Indus between Spituk and Saspol
• Himachal: Chandrabhaga in Lahaul, Sutlej near Shimla, Ravi near Chamba and Beas near Kullu offer immense white water rafting possibilities
• Sikkim: The Teesta river has a series of white water rapids