Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 25
Whether it was excitement, anticipation, the adrenaline rush, I could not sleep last night. I did get my forty winks, but not what can be construed as a great night’s sleep. By the time I hit the bed it was near midnight, and when I checked my watch, it was four in the morning. Time just flew and it was time to get up and set sail.
The road support team was still in blissful slumber and I had no intention of waking them up. The next few weeks will certainly be stressful and particularly for first timers like them, no point in rushing them into something that is alien territory and a initiation into the world of hard core adventure. I let them sleep for some time.
I had nothing to do really, but spent the next hour or so walking up and down, visiting the put-in point, getting apprehensive about how the expedition would start, and then pan out over then next many weeks. It was just butterflies and nothing else. The day was finally here when I would embark on an expedition of a lifetime something that I had been thinking of and wanting to do for three years now.
By the time I came back to the room, Sam and Tara were up, as was Coco (I think I was spelling her name “Koko” previously). My friend Dhruv Dudeja was driving in from Delhi just to see us off, and I will remain eternally grateful to him. It was so nice of him to make this trip and raise my morale. It becomes even more satisfying, since we have never met before. Thanks Dhruv for making the effort and taking the time out.
It was time to start the launch process. Something in me was delaying it, while another part of my brain was egging me on. The canoe was inflated, the christening was done ... Thornbird it is ... people signed their names on the canoe and offered best wishes, Good Living Organics spoke on camera, the canoe was brought to the put-in point and made its first contact with the Ganges ... there was nothing left for me to do but launch. Which I did a few minutes later, with Sam as the co-paddler. I have paddled this stretch of the river before, and it was not nice. By the time I had covered a hundred metres, I was grounded a million times.
But this time was different. The water level was high, thanks to a good monsoon season, and the current was decent. The river pushed us along, and we added to the propulsion. There was a bit of learning for Sam who was paddling for the first time, and he was a good and fast learner. With a fast current things can become a little tricky at times, and it did happen when we could not control the canoe as much as we desired and had to go through a clump of trees. Unlike the previous experience, we glided through the clumps without having to spend a lot of time trying to untangle my watercraft from the maze-like branches that were hanging over the water, waiting to grab anything that came in its path, with a vice-like grip. There was only one stretch where we had to paddle under a bridge, the bottom of which was not high enough for two adults to be comfortably sitting under without the fear of their heads being ripped off. Both of us quickly took up the prone position to ensure that our brain cages were safe and the canoe negotiated this hazard with ease. Soon enough we hit the main channel of the Ganges.
The plan was to have a short paddling day today, about 20 clicks. By the time afternoon happened, we were at Bhogpur, our intended destination for the day. We rested and we looked for a camp site away from the Sun, when we were visited by a team of people who turned out to be members of the Uttarakhand Police. The first things they wanted to know was who we were, whether we were foreigners, and whether we had a permit to go down the river. We seemed to have answered fairly satisfactorily, since all the tension went away and they became friends.
They were on a river clearing mission and were going up to the border of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. They suggested we join them and spend the night at the border village/toen of Balawali instead of where we were at Bhogpur. That sounded like a plan, and quickly we boarded our canoe and Tara joined me a co-paddler, while Sam took up driving duties.
The cops told us that our destination was about seven or eight kilometres away. It turned out to be more than twenty. Little did we realise that this was the first time the cops were going down this stretch and their guess was as good as mine as to how far our destination was. Anyway, it was a nice paddle through a pool section all the way, and we did not get stuck on any sand bars or rocky bottoms. When Sam and me were paddling we did get stuck two or three times. Which is very good considering that other people who have paddled this river, talk about being grounded every few metres. Thanks to the water volume, we managed to paddle through without much issues.
When we started paddling with the cops, it was already late afternoon. Soon enough, the Sun starting coursing its way towards the horizon and the cops kept telling us that the destination was still a few kilometres away. Tara was starting to get a little anxious, but nothing that she could not handle. Her concern was the ensuing darkness and no idea about when we would reach our intended destination. When the destination is unknown and still some distance away, the speed at which the Sun starts to set kind of speeds up. I have to admit, the approaching darkness was starting to worry me a little bit and I was second guessing the decision to carry on From Bhogpur on the cops’ advice.
Nevertheless, the decision had been taken and there was no going back now. It was time to watch the spectacular sunset, a truly wonderful sight. I have always liked sunsets and this one was awesome with the setting Sun peeping though the elephant grass on the banks and its last remnants of sunlight reflecting off the water the Ganges. The other part of my gaze was planted straight ahead, looking for any signs of the destination.
Finally we saw the bridge that marks the border between the two States and our destination for tonight. The only issue was that it was still some distance away, maybe at least another half hour or so. We paddled on, right alongside and sometimes behind the raft the Uttarakhand Police was on. Soon enough the Sun was nowhere to be seen and it became quite dark. The cops were in radio and phone contact with someone and we saw a flashlight blinking on and off, indicating that was where we should be headed. The ambient light became non existent by the time we came to the flashlight, and what compounded matters was the vague instructions being given out to us by the raft guide. He did not make any sense at all most times. What I did hear was “tree” and sure enough there was tree in the water that I had to go around. Which I did.
But I missed the beach that we were supposed to land on. There was another bridge under construction that I could barely make out in the darkness, and the water hitting the pillars was making a sound that I did not want to see up close.
By this time the canoe was facing upstream, the sound of the water hitting the pillars was becoming louder, the flashlight was receding, the sounds of people beckoning us from shore was getting distinctly fainter. To top it all Tara was panicking. She screamed, while I kept trying to control the canoe. I was addressing a situation and I needed my concentration on that, and not on controlling the panic that Tara was going through.
This was her first time on a canoe, and on an extreme expedition such as this. It is physically and mentally demanding, and I do not grudge the fact that when the landing was missed and the sound of the water got louder, even the best and more experienced would have gone through an oops moment. She managed to recover remarkably quickly, given the scary experience we had just been through.
I might have seemed all calm and composed, but I would be lying if I said that the passing beach, the receding light from the torches and the voices getting distinctly fainter, did not manage to surface a bit of dread in me.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I managed to hit an eddy and then paddled upstream to the river bank. Finally, solid ground. We found ourselves in the company of a sadhu who stayed there and was to be the caretaker of a brand new cremation ground that was under construction. The gear was unloaded, Sam, Tara and Coco found shelter in the tent they erected, something that we carried, while I took over the sadhu’s cot and made that my abode for the night. Maggi and some Happy Juice later, it was time to grab some shut-eye.
I was happy that we managed to paddle twenty kilometres more than planned, but reaching the destination in the darkness is certainly not something that is desired or advisable. But this was the first day of a long journey and it was a good day’s paddle. What was particularly gratifying is not having to lug the boat the million times because of the low water level. The water volume was high, the current was decent and we managed to do more than what was targeted on the first day of A SLOW BOAT DOWN THE GANGES. I was hoping that the current would continue be in our favour and that we would get some additional help from the river as we paddled our way down towards the delta, some two thousand and more kilometres away.
By the way, there were about eight hundred gazillion flying insects at the ashram, that insisted on finding their way into every available exposed orifice. The couple of solar powered flood lights right next to where we were did not help, and the insects gave a new meaning to the phrase “moths to a flame”. But we were tired and drained after a long day’s paddle, and everyone promptly went into deep slumber, probably even before the physical bodies were horizontal.