Rafting in a raging river

WATERWORLD Sailing with the current Photo courtesy: The Blue Yonder

WATERWORLD Sailing with the current Photo courtesy: The Blue Yonder  

If you are the kind who likes to get soaked in the rain, go river rafting on the Bharathapuzha river, writes ANAND SANKAR

The monsoon brings with it much more than water. The smell of water-soaked earth, the splatter of raindrops, the sight of freshly washed leaves and grass, are a treat to the senses. And what better place to enjoy the rain than a homemade raft right in the middle of a heaving river?

The Bharathapuzha (Nila) is the largest river in Kerala and its biggest tributary, Tootha, originates deep in the heart of one of India's most sacred biodiversity hotspots — the Silent Valley. And this was the river from which I got a breathtaking view of the monsoon.

River rafting is a big draw during the rainy season in the mountain torrents that emerge from the Western Ghats. It is often experienced in big, expensive, imported rafts in which you get through the course with just getting your feet wet. But Tootha is a refreshing difference. Your raft is made with just seven bamboo poles and three slightly used lorry tubes. (The organisers, The Blue Yonder, use these tubes because they hold the round shape better than new ones.) Each raft seats three and you are literally in the water. You can also get to build your own raft with the help of the local people before you set out.

Luco Francis, captain for the journey and an experienced rafter and forest guide, helped us prepare the rafts and our makeshift paddles — stripped, dry coconut palm fronds. Everything, except for the tubes and nylon straps used to secure the bamboo poles, is eco-friendly. Though plastic bags were used to carry food, we were strictly told not to throw them into the water. So, early in the afternoon, we set off on three rafts with the sun firmly behind ominous dark grey clouds.

For any landlubber, the first lesson in rafting is: paddling is tough work. During the initial few minutes it takes to find your stroke and rhythm, the exertion is tremendous. The arms start cramping and the abs are on fire, but you soon find your rhythm. There is no option but to paddle till you reach the current in the middle of the river. Once the current starts tugging you along, it's all about steering. This is where you learn lesson number two: when you paddle on the right hand side, you turn left and vice versa.

Just as we were setting a steady pace, the skies opened up and the full fury of the monsoon was upon us. We first had big fat rain, then rain that came horizontally, then rain that came up from the river and finally small thin rain. The effect was surreal as we lost sight of the other two rafts in the billowing rain, and we were soaked to the bone. So we decided to call port at one of the many banana plantations that line the riverbank. From here we watched the rain droplets hit the water and create inverted teardrops that stay up for a microsecond, and then disappear back into the river.

Paddling again for an hour we reached our lunch stop — a sandbar. Here we had mangoes for lunch and were greeted by a group of villagers who had come in their boat to check out the weirdos in yellow jackets and red hats. This was the scene we encountered at all the villages on the riverbank. Hordes of people turned up to cheer us. The river is life here. Almost every village has a boat and the river is the biggest public bathhouse available.

We soon encountered our first rapids. These were not the Himalayan kind but were powerful enough to make steering the raft impossible. Nevertheless we had our share of hair-raising moments when the raft got impaled on submerged rocks or weeds, and when we veered dangerously close to spiky bushes on the riverbank.

As dusk approached, the light started fading, and we had to stop. We spotted the chase van on a bridge and our support crew beckoned us to the pier below the bridge. Though the other two rafts made it, the strong current carried us away, and we found ourselves beached on a sandbar in the middle of the surging river. Unable to paddle in the strong current, it was finally up to our heroic captain Luco to swim across the raging river with a rope to pull us to safety.

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