Rafting Rishikesh? I’d rather just do some driving Rishikesh! Umm, I’m more interested in taking pictures of it from dry land, I mumbled, unsure of how I was going to squirm out of this one. I’m the kind of girl that constantly sat out of PE class in school because sports and I just don’t mix. Now I do love swimming, but the idea of being thrown into freezing cold water or bouncing in a raft through waves with no control over the movement whatsoever pretty much had me wetting my pants before we even got to Rishikesh.
Uttarakhand as a state, is incredibly rich in natural beauty and I believed it would be enough to enjoy the crisp mountain air, watching the birds flit through the pine trees to have my fill of what this state had to offer. Pretty soon, all of us in the group that was travelling together realised we had all been looking for ways to squirm out of the rafting bit on the itinerary. Self confessed wusses, all, we made a pact to go only if the rapids were well and truly baby ones.
Rapids on the Ganges vary greatly, measured on a scale of Grade I to Grade VI. Ours, said the instructor was going to be an easy peasy Grade II at the most. It didn’t assuage our fears one bit. There was a nervous cloud of anxiety in the car, one that made us very silent as we drove out from our hotel – Aloha on the Ganges some 20 minutes away to the riverbed. Getting off on the main road, we saw the instructors had arrived with the rafts, oars and lifejackets lying strewn on the side of the road. Things got real very quickly. Leaving our valuables with the driver, we took just our phones (for the selfies you’ll be seeing shortly). We slipped the lifejackets over our heads, tightened the clasps, praying that we wouldn’t actually need them. Grabbing an oar each, we set off navigating a meandering path down to the river. As we followed the instructors (who were carrying the raft overhead), our feet crunching in the gravel in unison, my palms started getting clammy. The oar nearly slipped out a couple of times. I shot a look over to the others, to see if they were getting just as paranoid. No face gave anything of the sort away. We reached the riverbed, and stood staring out at the water. The first thing we registered was how milky the bright blue was. It appeared calm and I breathed a little easier once I saw a couple of rafts drift by. Perhaps I can do this after all.
Our instructor proceeded to bark out some instructions rather quickly, and I struggled to follow and process every word. Was it just me, or was he speaking really fast? As he showed us the correct way to hold the oar, where and how to lodge our feet in the raft, when to lean ahead and when to lean back, I couldn’t help but notice how the raft kept drifting away and how he kept dragging it back. Did that mean the current was strong? Gulp.
We climbed into the raft, and I ended up with a spot right up front. I cursed myself for not being quicker. The instructor kicked off and away we went. After a few minutes of drifting he asked us to begin paddling, and as I do in situations that I find potentially dangerous, I obeyed rather fervently. Digging my oar and pulling it through the water, watching it swirl underfoot, I got into a rhythm rather easily. He joked around with us, and we began to relax. For the first time, we looked around and took in this gorgeous riverbed that ran between the hills. The air was crisp, clean and it was so quiet, we could hear birds that were quite far away. Until we began to hear another sound. The gushing of water. And it was getting closer. “This is it guys, now remember my instructions, and stop rowing on my command. Remember to hold on, and lean back.” My heartbeat shot through the roof, and I prayed my clammy hands wouldn’t slip, I clutched on for dear life. And as quickly as it snuck up on us, it was over. We weren’t drenched, just moderately damp, and the thrill was incredible. I slowly pried my hands off the rope. I’d pretty much cut off the blood supply in my vice-like grip, so it took a while for the colour to return to my palms. But I was grinning. I was actually rafting Rishikesh. I cannot believe that I’d been scared of that. For a moment, I’d felt like I was flying over the water, and that last bit just before landing back and hitting the surface, oh, I couldn’t describe it. I just couldn’t. My thoughts seemed to resonate across the group, because we suddenly decided we were brave enough to do the entire hour (not just the half hour version we had previously requested).
Drifting and rowing down the Ganges, we passed several groups of people rafting, swimming, kayaking and canoeing. How many of these were rafting Rishikesh for the first time? How many came every year? Our instructor decided to show off and did a very Free Willy style flip as he splashed into the water. Encouraged, one of the ladies in our group decided to jump into the river and wash away her sins. With trepidation I leaned over and touched the water, it was icy cold. No wonder she was freezing, her teeth chattering as she held on to the raft, treading the water. A couple of rapids later, we really got into the groove, and were almost heartbroken as we started seeing signs of the main town. Hotels, Temples and Ashrams began to line the banks. We watched several yogis practicing yoga on the rocks or in the sandy stretches along the water’s edge. Clad in bright orange robes, in that beautiful morning light, they were a surreal if not calming sight.
As we crossed under Laxman Jhula, spotting several sights that we’d already visited along the way, our hearts began to sink just a little. We could see the end in sight. The river bank where our driver dutiful waited. But we could also see the cliffs to the left where the Beatles Ashram should be located. We could also see the river continue down past the bed, into the horizon where we were to spot a fantastic pink sunset the next evening. We wanted, more than anything, to quite literally drift off into horizon. I was broken out of my reverie with a thud. We’d hit the rocks. And it was time to step back onto solid land.