Riding the Zanskar
Leh's central square is buzzing.
The narrow, undulating streets that converge into the centre of town bring rafters and river guides, all heading for the al-fresco café that basks in the glittering Ladakh sun. Cries of 'Juley, Juley' (the one-stop Ladakhi word for hello, goodbye, how are you, I'm good) ring out of every corner.
I'm in high country, covering the National Rafting Championship, and today is rendezvous day. Bitten by the charm of Ladakh, and high on the oxygen-depleted air of over 11,000 feet, rafters from all over India are bouncing with joy and excitement.
'The rooftop of the world!'
'Mint tea for everyone? It's the specialty here - it'll get you warm to the bone!'
'There's Shankar - Juley!'
Laughter and warmth spill out onto the street; rafting teams, organisers, judges, safety personnel, drivers and porters discuss logistics over steaming glasses of mint-tea- The competition begins next morning. My cameraperson Suraj and I sit through this informal meeting to understand how events will unfold over the next few days, pitching in with our own concerns, and soaking in the fun-loving, high energy world of river-guides.
Our point person is Manishankar Ghosh - a large man with a Buddha face, narrow eyes, and a mouth that can go from military-commander-severe to wide, uninhibited, luminous smile in a fraction of a second. One look at him and you know you can, with comfort, put your life in the hands of this man, he's been running rivers for almost twenty years and he's seen it all. This is a good feeling to have, as you also know that you may have to depend on him for rescue, at any point.
Mani listens patiently as I explain to him the logistics of the shoot. He doesn't blink when I tell him that we shoot an average six hours of footage for a half-hour show. We explain that we will need to occasionally be very close to the rafts, and sometimes we'll need a wide view, and sometimes we'll have to be on the rafts. At no time should the camera be in danger or go overboard. We are, in a sense, less at risk than the camera. People can be rescued, but the camera will sink without a trace, leaving us with no television show, and our pockets depleted beyond redemption.
To begin with, Mani assigns us a car which will race ahead of the rafts and get us in positions from where we can get good shots of the approaching boats. Aesthetics taken care of, there are other questions - how to keep the camera dry? Will the army teams speak to the camera? Where would the sun be in relation to the rafts while the competition is on? How will we get into shooting positions by the river?
Large parts of the competition will take place in the spectacular gorge cut by the Zanskar river - steep cliff sides that rise straight out of the churning water, severely limiting the number of places we can access by water to shoot the rafts. The road is too high above the river to provide the visual access that we need in order to film. It's a logistical nightmare. Mani is happy it's such a challenge - he assures us that he will be with us throughout. But that's just him, Suraj and I are praying for a miracle.
The next morning, Mani arrives in a jeep and takes us on a recce of the competition area. We drive to the point from where the race will start - and there's a wide riverbank there to shoot from. But once that's done, we'll have to race ahead of the rafts in our car - so we do just that, and calculate the time it takes us to get to a wooden footbridge that spans the river. It's flimsy and beautiful, like a bridge to a lost civilisation. We can get a lovely overhead shot from here - a bird's eye view. But once the rafts pass under us, we'll have to rush back to the car and race ahead again - and this time Mani brings us to a part of the road where the slope going down to the river is gentler than the usual near-vertical drop. It's still hair-raising though, and Suraj and I scramble down with our equipment, while Mani times us with that military commander look. I can tell that he's enjoying our boot camp training, in the manner of an uncle seeking to improve the fitness of two loved but not particularly capable nephews -- which is fine with us, as we are feeling very acutely the weight of the equipment.
From here, we climb up again to the road, heavy cameras impeding us at every step - dragging us down, putting us off balance, while chunks of loose rock slip from under our feet and avalanche towards the river.
The next shooting point is another slope where the gradient is manageable, but even steeper than the first. We go down like we're on a snowboard, in a sideways slide with knees bent to keep balance and ankles stuck firmly in the slipping gravel - confidence augmented after our last foray, sliding helter-skelter with the falling rocks. Getting back up is not an option without rope safety here, so Mani suggests that the rescue raft pick us up from the riverside and we do the rest of the shoot from inside the raft.
The morning of the competition is crisp and clear. We drive out of Leh towards the competition stretch of the river, past breathtaking natural beauty. Suraj is shooting without pause, he can't get enough. Tall wild grass, glowing unreal green under a glacial blue sky, bent stiff by the wind, like a renaissance tableaux, white flowers breaking like surf over a green grass sea. Sometimes, on the steep sides of the relentless cliffs, an occasional monastery seems etched onto the rock - you might even miss it, pass it over as rocky outcrop, if it wasn't for the tell-tale rows of blackened windows, and sometimes the glimpse of bright prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
I have Riju Raj Singh in the car with me - a handsome man with a charming smile,he is a lawyer in his other life in Delhi, but in the mountains, he is river-guide and mountain-man to the bone. Riju is talking me through the nitty-gritty of river-rescue, telling me of the time a bus had fallen into the river near Manali, and how he and his friends loaded their vehicle with rafts and went straight into rescue mode. He told us the story, weaving in detail about how to handle being in a running river, as a seamless narrative.
"We saw the bus down in the river, half submerged on its side. It was stuck in a wide rapid, and groaning like a metal beast with the push and pull of the river. Hundreds of people and policemen watched helplessly from the road, and even as we scanned for a route to get our rafts down to the river, we saw a man sucked out from under the bus and swept away by the river. He looked like a rag doll, taken by the river with no resistance at all.
"We were stunned momentarily, you could hear the gasp from the crowd over the roar of the river. We had no time at all. We scrambled down with the rafts somehow, used a long rope to anchor our boat to a rock and caught an eddy. You know what an eddy is? Ok - eddies are basically upriver currents that occur for short stretches near riverbanks. The main current is obviously going downward. Now what you can do with an eddy is, you get the boat into the upstream flow - go till the end of the eddy, and steer out of it, to catch the main downriver flow.
"Go down with the main current till you reach the top of the eddy, and if you steer your boat back to the eddy, you will go upstream again, back to square one! So you can keep travelling these elliptical loops in the river on your boat. That's what we did. We caught the eddy, went up to the bus, pulled in as many people as we could before the main current pushed us away.
"We put the rescued guys on the bank, and went back again for another try in the fading light. We must have made five or six trips before it got completely dark. It was a strange feeling afterwards - we felt good, an adrenaline rush, because we managed to save so many people. But about half the people on that bus died in the river as well, it was still a tragedy, still a sad night. We had a shot of whiskey each at night, I remember, just to feel warm and go to sleep."
By the end of his story, we are at the starting point of the race. I am introduced to the rescue team - a quiet, efficient, and always-smiling group of young boys who love being photographed. They are kayakers, the men who turn into fish when they slip inside their brightly colored, perfectly aerodynamic kayaks. They perform their tricks for the camera - rolling into the river and resurfacing, scooting like water-insects in and out of rapids and between rocks at breathtaking speed. Watching them, my fear of the river starts fading away. Most of the kayakers I meet are young boys from Nepal. Itinerant, illiterate, and charming men who've made the mountain rivers of India and Nepal their playground.
There is a perception that adventure sports are a white man's game. That's only partly true. In places like New Zealand, Canada, UK, Germany, and France, adventure sports have an avid following; climbing or paddling pioneers are produced by the dozen, and adventure itself is well-funded and culturally important. In India, it's almost invisible. This not for want of talent or interest though. Scattered across India's vast mountain regions, there are thousands of brilliant kayakers, fearless climbers and fabulous skiers, but they are unfortunately all backroom boys. There's no funding or system to support competitive adventure sports or expeditions, and there is no culture of competition either. So all our skilled skiers and climbers and kayakers work for the tourism industry, teach, or get hired as guides and expedition support-staff.
There are a few individual exceptions, one such being Tenzing Norgay, who took part in one of humanity's most mythical quests, and was lucky to be partnered with a sensitive humanist like Sir Edmund Hillary. Guides and porters usually go unnoticed and unheralded - even though they sometimes summit first, and occasionally drag the rest of the team to the summit single-handed.
The Kayakers who travel with us and keep a sharp lookout for the safety of the rafters are mostly poor Nepali boys. They are highly skilled, and immensely playful, like water waifs or Brazilian footballers. They seem to be attached to the river with umbilical cords. The moment they get in the freezing water, they go into a frenzy of acrobatic stunts. They turn turtle; flipping the kayak on its belly until they are upside down under the water, and then rolling upright again (a most important kayaking skill - the Eskimo roll!)
Just imagine - it's like you are driving a car, and it flips onto its roof. And then you hit a switch, and the car turns upright! That's what James Bond does. These guys don't have a switch; they just use their core muscles. Still playing, one goes headlong and upstream towards a rapid, catching the upturned hood of a wave, to execute a summersault. Where have I seen this before? This muscular grace and beauty in the water? This complete mastery of the waves and currents? Oh yes, dolphins on National Geographic shows! These boys are tougher than teak. They are lean and small, and can carry abnormally heavy luggage. They run up and down steep mountain paths any number of times without fatigue. They eat little, because they eat last, and inevitably get half their share at the common lunches. Who could stop them if they were trained for competition?
We are on the river now. Suraj has his camera wrapped in layers of cling-film and bubble wrap - he has just enough space to operate the camera - a carabiner and line are attached to the camera and anchored to the raft. The rapids on the Zanskar are high and fast, and the water muddy and opaque. The rush is incredible - one moment I'm floating gently through stark golden cliffs, staring wonder-eyed at the brilliant designs etched on rocks by thousands of years of hostile wind and water; the next minute I'm bracing myself to hit a frothing rapid hard, fast, and head-on.
My heart is racing, but something slows down my brain and I see things in slow-motion as the raft crashes against a wave, rides over it, is pushed ten feet sideways by a current, lifted high by another wave and dropped again. All this while the water is incessantly lashing us with icy whips, and we are paddling furiously with our guide shouting 'forward, forward' to keep us going. Every time the water hits me, my whole body goes into shock, hands shivering, and my fingers going so numb that I can hardly hold on to the paddle. It's my guide's voice that keeps me together, keeps me going. And surprise, surprise, when we come out of the rapid, I'm raring to hit the next one. By now it's clear to me what makes the Zanskar so dangerous, and, by the warped logic of adventure, so thrilling- It's the temperature of the water.
On an average, the water is between three and five degrees Celsius, and since water conducts heat away from the body about 25 times faster than air, falling into this water is a sure flirt with death. It takes about 15 minutes before hypothermia sets in, and if you are not out of the water by then, death is a mere ten minutes away. That's why rescue here is a precision art, executed at lightning speed. 'Jump in and see for yourself what it feels like,' my guide tells me, 'It's the only way to understand the river, it's absolutely necessary if you want to raft or kayak here.' Some weird part of my brain is convinced - and I know I'm in no danger while the guides and kayakers are around. So, deep breath, steady nerves, and in I go with an awkward splash. The first minute is not bad - almost invigorating in a disconcerting way as I float downstream in the ice-bath.
But almost immediately afterwards, as I begin swimming against the flow towards the raft, the muscles in my feet begin cramping in a painful, helpless way, my arms feel useless and lethargic, and I'm gasping for breath. I keep calm, trying to breathe as evenly as I can, thrashing away at the current with slow, ineffectual movements. I watch our young kayaker scoot towards me in a swift, gliding motion. I feel myself grabbing onto the front of the kayak with both hands, painfully hoisting my legs up to hook them to the side of the kayak, like a sloth bear hanging onto a tree (that's the rescue position!) As soon as I'm secure, the kayak effortlessly turns around and quickly heads back to the boat, where I'm hoisted up like deadweight, cold and shivering.
The whole operation lasts less than 5 minutes, but I'm already a wreck. I sit on the raft, numbed with cold, shivering violently in uncontrolled spurts. The bright sunlight, unhindered by clouds, never felt this good. Thankfully I dry up rapidly, my heart stops racing, and the blood flows back in my veins. My guide, Mani, the kayakers, are all proud of me - they grin widely, pat my back - and it feels great, this joy of crossing a threshold and coming out unharmed. In the next rapid, when the waves lash us again, my body is ready for it. I feel like I've taken a giant leap.
As we approach a rapid known to toss boats like confetti at a festival, our guide tells us of a rescue in which he was involved at that spot. A 15 year old Italian girl's raft had overturned, and she had been pulled in by a large whirlpool at the side of the rapid, right under a sheer cliff-face.. Biru was the rescue kayaker for the group -
"I kept my kayak as close to the whirlpool as I could. And that's very hard - I was paddling so hard to stay in one place I thought my hands would rip off my shoulders. While doing this, I somehow managed to throw the rescue line at the girl. She was damn brave - she just went round and round and did not panic. I was panicking hard inside my head. My heart was racing. But I still threw the line, she grabbed on to it, and next thing I know, the whirlpool had sucked me in as well. I was upside down in the water, going round and round - I could see the girl's legs a few feet away, also in orbit. There was nothing to do but to bail out of the kayak. So there we were then - the girl going round and round, me circling a few feet away, the kayak in its own orbit. All of us looking like helpless hens - it was comical, except that we could have died!"
Finally, he tells me, they had to bring a raft in close to the wall, hammer in iron hoops, pass a heavy-duty rope through the iron and then use that as a rescue line. It took the combined force of eight men on the raft to pull them out one by one, and even then it wasn't easy. The rescue took almost an hour. The only reason they survived was because the water wasn't very cold that day, and everyone was in wet-suits.
With this ominous-but-hopeful story, Biru swiftly pulls ahead to show us the way through the villain of his story - and then we see it. A small but muscular rapid, just about 20 feet long, thrashing, roaring, and shooting up to six feet in the air. We hit the rapid hard, trying to ride over the wave, but we don't hit it hard enough. In a moment that flashes past too quick for my brain to comprehend, the raft overturns, and I smash into the water. The cold water quickly steadies my brain, and in the underwater chaos, I can see my paddle getting sucked into what is very possibly the whirlpool of Biru's story. I lash out with my feet to get away from it, and after two or three desperate moves, I am suddenly flung out by the current - I resurface in a tumultuous wave, gulp a mouthful of water instead of air, and then I'm pulled back in, and swept through by the maelstrom. When I surface again a few seconds later, I'm numb, bewildered and shaken. Then I see Biru right beside me - 'Relax' he says, in a very very calm voice, 'Swim.' I begin swimming, like someone hit the 'on' switch in my machinery. It's very hard to swim. I keep feeling like I need to stop and let the current take me wherever it wills. But Biru's monotone cuts through every few seconds 'Swim', so I do. Every time he says it, it strengthens my resolve to swim, till I finally limp on to shore. I realise later, that in moments of great panic and stress, when your brain slows down and almost shuts off, these single, repetitive commands keep you alive. Your brain takes in that single piece of information - 'Swim' - and executes it like a machine meant for just one task.
Later in Leh, Biru and I have an uproarious evening talking about the flip, drinking poisonous beer.
Here in the mountains, the naturalness and purity of the place cuts through everything else. The competition is important, but it's not the end of the world. Everyone here is having fun, there is constant chatter, tall tales and short ones, and everyone is in love - with the mountains and the rivers. My presence is welcome, and they love the fact that there's a TV crew recording their exploits, but it's just another little thrill for them in these few fun-filled days.
Everyone co-operates, everyone lends a helping hand, no one thinks twice about picking up our equipment if we need to run from place to place. But I know that all this co-operation and help and camaraderie is not because I'm a reporter with a camera - it's because they have seen in me, and in my camera-person, the love of mountains and rivers, the awe of nature that is all-important to them. For the rafters and kayakers, we are not a TV crew anymore, we are one of them. And I know that I'll never look at a river the same way again - I'll be reading currents, and dreaming of a boat.