By Vaibhav Kala
Arunachal Pradesh: this north-eastern frontier of India
reminds one of the early British explorations in areas inhabited by less-than-friendly tribals, the Indo-Chinese conflict, leech-infested rainforests and a region of inaccessibility and inhospitality. In fact, until the end of the 1930s, the region held little attraction, except to ethnologists and botanists.
The scenario has changed somewhat in the past half-century, and what is not evident to the uninitiated is the enormous number of river systems this state provides for the river-running enthusiast. It is to this incredible whitewater destination that we signed up with the 2 Mountain Division of the Indian army in 1994. Our expedition was to initiate their combatant units to river running and, by extension, rafting the main rivers of the state: the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries, the Lohit and the Subansari.
Our team of river guides and kayakers were Vikram Joshi, Jigme Dorje Sherpa (JD), and me. Yusuf Zaheer, another experienced rafter, joined us for the first descent of the Subansari. With two 16-foot-long Avon rafts, whitewater kayaks and a great amount of enthusiasm, we departed for Arunachal Pradesh, on a trip which is indelibly etched in our memory as our most memorable exploratory journey.
All of us were seasoned river runners, but a 45-day expedition on unknown rivers was a factor which contributed greatly to the adrenaline rush over the next six weeks. With anxiety bordering on apprehension, we were escorted by the Indian army for the first and second descents of the Subansari, the biggest tributary of the Brahmaputra. After a big tribal dance reception at Taliha, above a quaint little town of Daporijo, we put our boats in to an awesome send-off celebrating the first attempt to charter this river.
The Subansari flows through a densely forested valley with large sandy beaches indicating the high-water mark, and is completely remote. The joy of descending a valley that no one had visited before added tremendously to the trip, with the rapids rating among the best we had rafted before.
Having completed the first and second descents of the beautiful Subansari, we went on to the first major descent of the Lohit, starting at Kibithu, the eastern-most outpost of India, bordering China. From here, one can see the Chinese positions and a well-lit officer’s mess. The Lohit is an extremely difficult and scary river, quite easily among the toughest to run in Arunachal. It has continuous stretches of Grade V rapids, and the end of each day was marked by our team of guides sitting in our tents with completely listless expressions after the efforts of the day. The Lohit, we thought, was a river to challenge the wits of any river runner, something we learnt over five days and a 130 kilometers of steep, raging white water. It was only at Parashuram Kund, where the Lohit enters the plains, that one could begin to relax without having to gear up for the onslaught of the next Grade V.
The run-up to the Brahmaputra began with an airlift in a Russian AN-32 transport aircraft to a small village completely devoid of communication with the outside world. Tuting lies very close to the international boundary with China and is probably the only place in the world where the Air Force is used to transport civilian population on a regular basis. The river seemed big, even from the air – a speculation which was to be confirmed over and over again over the next 12 days.
The Brahmaputra commenced its journey perhaps a millenium ago as the Tsangpo in Tibet, much like a ribbon, creeping through the barren with a golden track. The Tsangpo, in its upper reaches flows gently eastwards, hundreds of miles across Tibet, prior to its entry into India. Before it enters the state of Arunachal Pradesh, it narrows at a gorge it has sliced over centuries between two giant Himalayan mountains; Gyala Peri (24,443 feet) and Namche Barwa (25,445 feet), the latter being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
Here, the river also takes a big loop to change its easterly course to southernly – this is called the "Big Bend". This gorge is practically untrekkable and unchartered. Its total length is contained in a 25-mile upper gorge, potentially a death zone with 30-foot waterfalls and continuous Grade V+ rapids. The 15-mile inner gorge has walls as high as 3,000 feet, while the 80-mile lower gorge has similar characteristics. In this gorge, the Tsangpo pushes volume up to 2,00,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and drops at a rate of 150 feet per mile. The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon drops at 7 feet per mile.
An air reconnaissance by enthusiastic American river runners a few years back termed this as "one section of white water which will never be run". Some Russian kayakers toyed with the idea of a first descent of this section – one hasn’t heard of the idea since. In September 1998, National Geographic sponsored an expedition to charter this gorge with a team of kayakers, attempting an alpine-style descent supported by a support crew on land. It failed when a very experienced U.S. kayaker, Douglas Gordan, lost his life on running an 8-foot drop in the gorge – his body was not found after four days of search and the expedition was called off. The "Big Bend" still awaits a complete descent.
The uncontrolled fury of the Tsangpo, however, lessens to a certain extent, but is in no way contained when it enters Arunachal Pradesh near its border with China at Gelling. The river is now called the Siang. Its journey to the plains at Pasighat, 200 kilometers away through tribal territory inhabited by the Adi tribe, makes this expedition one of the premier wilderness trips available today.
The Adi villages dot the remote hills in clearings surrounded by leech-ridden rainforests. These tribes worship the Donyi-Polo (Sun-Moon), and this river is held in great awe and reverence, mostly due to the frightening volume of water it discharges each year.
The Siang, like all rivers originating in the mountains, forms rapids due to loss of gradient, constrictions, and obstructions on its way to the plains. These rapids are graded on a scale of I to VI based on their size and the degree of difficulty encountered while negotiating them, Grade VI being unrunnable or suicidal. It is the size of these rapids, the surroundings and the sheer volume of water that make it a complete a whitewater running experience.
Our expedition completed a three-day training of expedition members at Tuting, a few miles inside the line-of-control with China. The reputation of the Siang was well known since its first descent by an Indo-Japanese expedition. We began the task of drilling our respective crews into shape and teaching them various paddling techniques, rescue and raft flip drills and, finally, familiarization with river hazards – features such as "holes," "breaking waves," "pourovers" and "haystacks," all of which can be major trouble in a rapid if not sighted or read in time.
The key to rafting a river successfully is "whitewater reading," which is essentially the spotting of the hazards in a rapid, plotting a course through or around them and finally executing it, making sure the crew and clients come out of it safely after having had the time of their lives.
The first day below Tuting, ten of us in two rafts accompanied by a safety kayaker get first taste of big volume whitewater as we negotiate a big, constricted Grade IV+ rapid near the village of Ninguing. Rapids keep coming as the Siang pushes strongly. Another Grade V for the day, and we beach for the night at Pango, awaited by a posse of the Indian army armed with hot tea and pakoras followed by an early dinner and campfire. What was disconcerting was a big rapid roaring away a short distance below our camp. A shot of rum and a good night’s sleep before we woke up to hear it and run it again turned out to be extremely therapeutic.
Day two is a demanding and exciting one with four big Grade IV+ rapids – it is a day of river guides screaming commands, our crew flailing paddles (hitting mostly air!), rushing adrenaline and the sights, sounds, and smells of world-class white water. At the village of Rikor, the villagers trooped down to the river to see our rafts run down the Grade IV+. One of them had seen a raft flip on the Indo-Japanese trip, and he offered us the advantage of his experience by pointing out the safer route.
The excitement continues as rafts disappear into rapids, to be seen on the crest of an 18-foot wave, only to go out of sight again – the crew and guide working together to plow head-on into the waves. Errors in judgment cannot be accommodated – hitting water at the wrong angle can cause a "flip" within seconds. In seconds, but what seems like a lifetime, the rapid is over, as we look back with gaping mouths at what we came through. In the calm, one gets to recapitulate on events as the rafts float downstream alongside with various exchanges about everybody’s views of the last rapid.
We reach Alubadi beach by late afternoon, where an Adi tribal sells us oranges at ten for a rupee. The locals are delighted by the sight of the boats, and one old lady has walked a couple of days to see our expedition. She has trouble relating to our lifejackets and helmets and thinks JD is an incarnation of the Donyi-Polo! One can only be amazed at the power of this river, the culture and the people it has sustained on its banks. This kind of power is only there to experience and to savour for the rest of our lives.
"Breakfast Rapid" is the first on day three, a big one with a history of raft flips. Increased heart beats, a rush of adrenaline, a desperate command for "Hard Forward," and it’s behind us in a matter of a few seconds. It turns out to be a relaxed day on the river as we get first sight of the bamboo suspension bridge at Yinkeong. We halt for the night here and look around the village, where a mithun (bosfrontalis) sacrifice is in progress. Wealth in these parts is gauged by the number of mithuns a family possesses. At marriages, a bride price (payable in mithuns) has to be paid by the groom depending on his status. A mithun sacrifice is not recommended for the weak-hearted and is not a very pleasant event for the sightseeing tourist. We chose to wander around the village and walk back to camp to sit and chat about the day gone by.
The next day begins with a long, technical Grade IV+, followed closely by a monster Grade V+ at Karko. We beached above the rapid and walked over huge rocks to scout this one. This rapid is uncommonly big, and it had an audience of 13 of us for nearly two hours. Finding a reasonable run through it seemed very difficult at this level, considering it was getting late in the afternoon and we did not have much reaction time in case things went wrong. It was a possible run if the river had been a foot higher – or lower, for that matter – but the "Karko Killer," as we call it, was left for another day.
River running has its own rules – one of them is, "When the level is up, the ego is down." The "Karko Killer" best personifies this rule. It has in fact, left us with a very good reason to come back to run this river again.
We float on below Karko to reach Geku, a few kilometers below. Camp is made at Geku, and another evening is spent talking about the trip, Karko, flips, waves, and Old Monk rum. Geku onwards, the river seems to pump a lot more volume. Float sections with the river covered in mist make it an interesting day. The Siang meets another tributary, the Siyom, coming in from the west soon after Boling. We stop for a packed lunch on a beach soon after, and a helicopter flies overhead to ensure that we are still in one piece.
It is evening by the time we reach Yembung. A government rest house near the banks is a welcome sight after the camping out for the last few days. Yembung has a small market, and hot samosas are one of the specialties here. Sleeping on a bed is a novelty on the penultimate night as the scale of our trip begins to sink in. Celebrations begin to happen on this last night of the trip, and for the first time there is no speculation about the next day’s rapids.
Day six starts with a float down the valley, followed by lots of smaller rapids. Soon after cane bridge, our rafts reach the village of Ponging (Pugging) to be greeted by the sound of the final "biggie" of the trip – an enormous Grade V running in two channels, the one towards the village being ruled out immediately. It serves well as a reminder of the fury of a great river, of hot flushes through one’s innards, the flats before the maelstrom and of the several thousand tons of water pushing the raft towards the chaos below.
As we close in on the ferries at Pasighat, it seems an early finale to us, being so completely overwhelmed by the Siang, now called the Brahmaputra, the only one in the country with a masculine gender. The joy of living and traveling on the river, the impenetrable hillsides, the remote gorges, the long floats, the camaraderie developed between our team of guides and the crew combined in one magical moment as we beached our boats for the last time. And more so, the thrill at having descended one of the world’s great rivers and its tributaries in an area which would easily rank as one of the most inaccessible regions in the world.
Vaibhav Kala is one of the most experienced outdoors people in India, having climbed and rafted extensively in his 12 years of experience. He has been part of major mountain attempts and some classic first descents of wild remote rivers in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. He now runs a successful outdoor outfit that provides safe, offbeat trips for the discerning traveler.