Down the Raging River

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The first ever descent down the mighty Brahmaputra on a raft
I come from a family of mountaineers. My father, Colonel Narendra Kumar, led numerous expeditions to scale mountains like Everest, Kanchenjunga, Nanda Devi and the Siachen Glacier. He also served as the principal of High Altitude Warfare School in Kashmir, and unlike most kids who just about learn to kick a ball at the age of three, I was skiing down the slopes of Gulmarg with my instructor scurrying behind to ensure the Colonel’s son didn’t break a leg.

In 1985, the biggest tragedy to hit Indian mountaineering changed the course of my life. My uncle Major KI Kumar slipped off a ridge close to the south summit of Mount Everest and fell 2,000 feet to his death. His team members carried on in their attempt to scale the peak. Four of them died after they were snowed in for days at Camp IV. Suddenly, mountaineering didn’t fascinate me any longer, and I decided to stick to the safety of whitewater adventure.

Or so I thought. It didn’t take me long to realise that whitewater rafting was no less dangerous. It has its own excitement, however, and pursuing it was a decision I have never regretted.

At 15, I was part of an exchange programme that trained the first batch of Indian youngsters for rafting in the US and Canada. When I returned in 1985, there were just about five trained river guides in India. The turbulent Chenab in the Kishtwar area of Jammu was my first river in India—no one had ever attempted it before. We had to abandon the expedition on account of a couple of accidents, but I knew that adventure travel was my calling. While other 17-year-old school friends struggled with career options, mine was written in the sands of time.

In 1986, I set up India’s second rafting operation. In the late 80s, while rafting was still just catching on as a sport in India, there was this crazy race for first descents of virgin rivers. Nothing was impossible and everything was attempted, from the Brahmaputra and Teesta in the Northeast, the Chenab and Satluj in the north, and the Narmada in central India. Whitewater junkies—as we like to call ourselves—tried to map any moving waterbody available. I was in the right place at the right time.

The good old days saw numerous Army expeditions on the Alaknanda. At first, we were happy to just raft down from Srinagar (the one in Garhwal) to Rishikesh. When this got boring, we moved upstream to Rudraprayag and Karanprayag. The next few Army expeditions got quite interesting. We did superfast descents, non-stop descents, swimming descents and catamaran descents, anything to set a new record and beat the last expedition. There wasn’t a river that we didn’t attempt. Our rubber boats and paddles just couldn’t wait to crash headlong into the next virgin river in India.

It was the Brahmaputra that gave me my most memorable opportunity. In 1990, the Indo Tibetan Border Police asked me to train and lead the first ever white water descent of this mighty river. This is a river that travels more than 2,000 km before entering India. And it enters the country in the most dramatic way ever—by cutting itself a mighty gorge through the Himalayas and dropping into India near Bona in Arunachal Pradesh. A rare trans-border river, it flows through Tibet, India and Bangladesh. It is known as the Tsang Po in Tibet, the Siang after it enters Arunachal and finally the Brahmaputra in Assam before merging with the Gangetic delta and opening into the Bay of Bengal.

No one had ever attempted this river before. This was to be the first and the longest descent down the entire section of the Brahmaputra from the Indo-Tibet border at Bona all the way down to Dhubri at the Indo-Bangladesh border, covering a total distance of more than 1,000 km. It is a record that is yet to be equalled.

Apart from me, the team had members of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, of the Japanese Alpine Club, and my friend Ajay Maira, a fellow whitewater junkie. We knew what we were up against and prepared for the worst. We trained for a month on the Ganga, swimming down its entire whitewater section. Aware of the steep gorges we would encounter, we trained in rock climbing, rappelling and rescue techniques.

On 2 January 1990, the Indian Air Force airlifted us, with two rafts, all the way to Dibrugarh in Assam and then IAF choppers flew us to the starting point at Bona. As I looked down, my breath stopped for a few seconds—the silver white river, 10,000 feet below us, wound its way through forests and gorges that looked gloriously impenetrable.

When we landed in Bona, the entire village had turned up to meet us, dressed in their finery, singing and dancing for us. Arunachal Pradesh had, till then, been a restricted area for foreigners, and the local villagers had walked days just to see what the Japanese looked like. They were a little disappointed to find that they didn’t look all that different from them. They decided then that Ajay and I were the foreigners in their midst!

Ten days and 300 kilometres breezed past in a rush of adrenaline, fear, awe and excitement. We did lengthy scouts of all the rapids, prepared our line-ups, set up rescues, ran some of the most thrilling whitewater in the world, flipped our rafts and swam some of the rapids. We also realised at places that our rafts would need to be carried around the big Grade 5+ rapids. There was no shame in accepting that nature is supreme, and as a sign of respect, we were ready to portage a couple of rapids and walk out in one piece. The Brahmaputra taught me an important life lesson—fear was a good thing. It taught you to be careful, to be imaginative, to look at the future and weigh all possibilities.

It wasn’t just the river that enthralled us. The local tribal villages we stayed in along the way were an experience by themselves. We encountered not only witchcraft, poison-tipped arrows and forest hunts, but also a passion for singing and dancing and hearts of gold that welcomed us with open arms wherever we went. Usually, for an expedition like this, we set up camp by the riverside. But here, we were not allowed to do that; entire villages were evacuated to accommodate us. We were fascinated by the ingenuity of Tribals, whose simplicity of life touched us.

The expedition did not end once the water lost its whiteness. At Pasighat, we got into larger motorised boats and carried on for another two weeks down the calmer sections of the Brahmaputra. We floated though the ever-widening river, more than eight kilometres across at some points. As we made our way down to Dhubri on the Bangladesh border, we floated past Guwahati, Kaziranga and Tezpur. We camped on huge deserted islands and raced with fresh water dolphins, which had followed us for more than 100 kilometres.

This was an epic journey, and as we came towards the end, we realised that we had made history. No one could deny us the record we’d created, but in the larger scheme of things, that part mattered little. Running the Brahmputra rapids isn’t just about the river alone, it is also about the people you encounter and friendships you build. I have returned three times since then. The call of the river is irresistible and I hope to go back again.

The Brahmaputra and Zanskar are two of my favourite rivers, and I have led first descents down many more challenging rivers like the Teesta, Suru, Lidder and Narmada. Virgin descents are now getting harder to find, but I consider these rivers my tutors. They taught me what no school could: the true meaning of purpose, perseverance, power and defeat.

Akshay Kumar is president, Adventure Travel Association of India, and CEO, Mercury Himalayan Explorations