When I told my editor that I was on my way to Himachal Pradesh for my second Himalayan trek and an accompanying trip, she asked me what adventure sport I had in mind this time. “Last time was paragliding. What’s now,” she asked. I told her very disappointedly that I did not have anything particular in mind. Little did I know then that someone somewhere was chalking out a fine plan to whet the adventure-loving appetites of my two companions and me.
Three very bleary-eyed women boarded the car for Manali from Kalka station at 4.30 in the morning. I had hardly spelt at night because all my nerves were, as usual, super-alert that we’d have to get off so early. Plus, I was supposed to call up the driver once we reached Chandigarh at 3.30am so that he’d set off for the station. Eti and Rita had also not got their full quota of sleep (and kept dozing in the car). All of us wanted to reach Manali early so that we’d get enough rest before the trek that’d begin the next day. But, as I said, destiny had other plans.
The driver, who initially had no idea we were trekkers, got a hint once he saw our luggage — three rucksacks, as many daypacks and trekking poles. He was a fine jolly man; just that he spoke too much. “Your luggage has made me very happy,” he declared. “People come with so much luggage that it doesn’t fit in my small car,” he went on. “You must be adventure-lovers. Would you like to raft in the Beas in Kullu on the way?”
My eyes lit up at the mention of rafting. I looked at Eti who looked back with gleaming eyes. Neither of us can swim. Rita, who can, kept silent. I asked the driver, Sandeep aka Kaku, how much they’d charge and how long it’d take. “It’s only a matter of half an hour,” he said, assuring us that we’d reach Manali comfortably in good time. “They’ll charge you around 1,000 for 6km,” he said.
“Ok,” I gave him the green signal. “Stop in Kullu for rafting. We two will do it for sure,” I told him gesturing at Eti and myself. “Do you expect me to sit and watch?” finally Rita spoke up. And so, it was settled.
We reached Kullu around 1pm and Kaku drove us straight into what looked like a resort. It was called ‘Nature Park, Jhiri’. “Are we seriously going rafting,” Eti asked. “Yes,” I said, surprised. “I thought we agreed on that.” From the look on Eti’s face, I knew she wanted to do it but was slightly apprehensive. “Let’s not let go of this opportunity,” I told her, “No one knows if we’ll ever get this chance again.” It did not take too much work to convince her.
There was an awning under which several men sat lazing. There didn’t seem to be any takers for rafting. One reason could be the accident in the Beas that had taken place only a few days back in which some 20-odd students had been swept away. It had happened when water was released suddenly from a dam, apparently without warning. We had crossed the accident spot on the way and the search for bodies was still on.
Kaku did not seem to have much sympathy for the students. “The driver had warned them,” he claimed, his loyalty towards his professional brethren apparent. “Because of their stupidity, the driver has got into trouble. He had told them not to get off. They did on the pretext of using the toilet,” Kaku claimed. I told him mildly that they were just kids and that whoever released the water from the dam should have been more careful.
Anyhow, one of the men under the awning sat behind a plastic table and was booking the tickets. Kaku later told me he was a murder accused and out on bail! He said the charge was 1,000 for 3km and 1,200 for 6km. We argued (we didn’t know his legal status then) that Kaku had given us much lower rates. The murder accused and his colleagues claimed that usually there are more people in a raft and since there was no other client right now, we’d have a raft solely to ourselves. They also argued that there would be another raft only for our safety, which had been made mandatory now.
However, after some haggling, they agreed on the rates stated by Kaku. I thought instead of paying Rs 800 for 3km, it was far more feasible to pay Rs 1,000 for 6. Eti and Rita agreed, too, after some initial hesitation from Eti. So we chose 6km.
Later, however, Polu bhai, who I met on the trek, told me we had been overcharged. “I’d have arranged for you to raft 6km for Rs 500/600,” he claimed.
Anyhow, we were told that we’d be taken to the starting point in the resort’s car and we’d raft our way to the resort, where our car would wait. Kaku made me take off my trekking shoes and seeing me do it, Rita took off her floaters, too. Eti had her floaters on, which none of us noticed.
The car took us to a spot 6km upstream. The Beas looked calm and serene under the midday sun and I wondered what the ‘white-water rafting’ experience would be like in such placid waters.
It was not too difficult to walk barefoot on the mostly-sandy riverbank, but I noticed Eti’s floaters then. “Why didn’t you take them off,” I asked her. “Floaters shouldn’t matter in the water,” she pointed out. “But Kaku was insistent that we take off our shoes,” I said, and accosted him. “You had sneakers on,” he said. “You could have told us that we could wear floaters and I’d have taken it out of my bag,” I told him, very cross now. He looked very apologetic.
By then, the rafts were being brought down from the top of the Omni. After some deliberation, we were made to walk a little further upstream to a spot, which the men thought was more conducive for starting off. We were helped into our lifejackets, in which I felt I couldn’t breathe. With the helmet on, I felt like one of those wooden dolls that can only nod their heads. The only difference was that I couldn’t even move my head.
We were given a rubber bag in which we could put our valuables if any and seal it up. It could be fixed to a rod passing horizontally down the middle of the raft. I had given Kaku my camera to take pictures as we rafted down the Beas, but now, our rafting guide Tony invited him to join us too.
Kaku, a man from Shimla, had never done it before and he was extremely reluctant to do it now. He was most probably invited so as to maintain the balance in the raft as we were three and there would be two persons sitting on one side and one on the other. Finally, Tony convinced Kaku to join in. And so, my camera went into the sealed bag as well.
We sat on the edge of the raft in a half-circle — Kaku and I on one side and Eti and Rita on the other. Rita and I were in the front with Eti and Kaku behind us respectively. Tony stood with the oar in the middle with his assistant behind him.
Tony showed us how to lock our feet in the space between the floor of the raft and the base of a cylindrical seat running horizontally down the middle of the raft. It was a painful and uncomfortable exercise with the legs bent at an awkward angle to each other.
Tony now asked us if we wanted to row as well. Only Rita was game. I was asked to hold tightly the end of the thick rope that ran around the edge of the raft and hung loose right in front of me. Rita would also have to do it whenever told. The others were asked to hold on to the rope wherever they were sitting. Rita was given some instructions on rowing.
After around 30 minutes of preparation, we were finally ready to go. I was still adjusting myself to the suffocating lifejacket, helmet, my uncomfortable edge-of-the-seat position and strangely locked feet as we set off, the waters still seeming quite tranquil. Tony rowed to the middle of the river and then turned it downstream. Rita was rowing too and constantly blabbering in her overexcitement.
And then, I saw the rapids. A white mass of churning, foaming liquid approaching us straight out of nowhere with hollows in between, towards which our raft was happily dashing. I had been particularly apprehensive about wet clothes because there’d be no time to dry them before we’d start the trek the next morning. Kaku had told me they’d get a “little wet”. Though I knew that was an understatement, nothing had prepared me for the drencher that came when we hit the rapid.
In a split second, we were all soaked to the bone. Rita’s blabber amplified ten times, Eti joined her in mindless screaming and suddenly, I felt I needed to see a shrink. Two days back, I was in Kolkata; I had travelled on a train for 21 hours, in a car for 9 hours and now, I was in the middle of a river, in a raft, getting myself drenched to the bone with my second Himalayan trek about to start the next morning. None of us had a clue when we’d reach Manali.
“I will see a psychiatrist the moment I get back to Kolkata,” I announced, but no one was listening. Rita was in a world of her own, blabbering away constantly, “Chappu chalao, chappu chalao (row the boat, row the boat).” Eti seemed slightly saner, though she was also shouting away gleefully as we hit one rapid after another. Everything looked surreal.
I looked at Kaku. He looked mortally terrified and after a while, asked Tony to take the boat to the bank so that he could get off. Tony grinned from ear to ear and the three of us protested at the top of our voices that he could not get away by putting us in such a “life-threatening situation”. Kaku looked miserable.
Initially I was so scared that the waves would throw me off the raft that I kept squatting inside every time we hit the rapids. After a while, Tony turned the raft so that I couldn’t see the rapids approaching. It helped. When we hit the first rapid this time, I realized the waves weren’t strong enough to throw me off-balance. From then on, I stayed put in my position and enjoyed the edge-of-the-seat (literally) ride more than I did in the initial few minutes.
The other raft — the one for our security, whatever that meant — had only one youth in it and was ahead of us. We wondered how he’d ensure our safety if all or any of us met with an accident. The guy even lost his oar when we hit a particularly nasty rapid later on. We felt the chap himself could so with some security.
Everything went fine until Tony brought us to the middle of some calm waters and asked us if we wanted to take the plunge. Eti and I said we couldn’t swim. “Everybody can swim here,” he claimed. “Even those who can’t swim.” My jaws dropped and Eti went cock-eyed on knowing about this strange quality of the Beas. However, neither of us was willing to be a guineapig to test the veracity of Tony’s claims.
Rita was more than willing to take the dip. Tony told her she’d have to jump in but hold on to the rope that went around the raft. She did accordingly and apparently had a grand time until Tony told her she’d have to come back on the raft. I could see some rapids approaching ahead.
Tony told her he would drag her at the count of three and she’d have to jump up at the same time. We watched as Tony counted till three and gave the pull. I thought Rita had made it into the raft before, horrified, I saw her slipping back into the water. Tony, who had also thought that Rita had made it, had returned to his rowing position in a split second. And now, I saw Mr Mouse turning into Mr Lion.
In a jiffy, Kaku had leapt up from his seat next to me and grabbed a strap on Rita’s lifejacket. At the same time, he kept shouting for Tony to help her up because he couldn’t do it alone. Tony joined him in a second and thankfully, before we hit the rapids, they had managed to drag Rita into the raft. Dripping wet, she looked like a freshly caught blobfish (she’ll kill me if she reads this) flailing about on the raft floor.
I was relieved when Kaku returned to his seat because I had kept fearing that the raft would overturn as four of them were on one side and I was the only one holding fort on the other. He was furious and told Rita she should have been more responsible. Rita was furious that her belt had snapped during all the dragging and pulling. She blamed Kaku for triggering a panic.
Tony blamed her for not jumping on time. “I can usually manage. I couldn’t this time because you are slightly…” he stopped just short of saying what we had guessed. “Slightly what? Say it,” Rita’s thunder challenged a sheepish-looking Tony. “Slightly heavy,” I completed Tony’s statement.
I was getting very irritated now. I felt Rita was being annoyingly ungrateful. Kaku had shown his mettle and kept his wits about him when Eti and I had failed to act in time. Even if we had, we wouldn’t have been able to pull Rita out of the water. True, she wouldn’t have drowned, but she could have been swept away by the current if she’d lost her grip on the rope. She could have hurt her legs badly in the rocks had the raft hit the rapids before she was back in it. That would have messed up our trekking plans big time.
After a while, everyone calmed down. And within a short time after that, we were back at the resort. It took us more or less half an hour to cover 6km, which we felt had been a good idea after all. Three kilometres would have been too short to enjoy anything at all.
We had to dig into our rucksacks already to find a change of clothes and by 2.15pm, we had set out again for Manali, one set of our clothes dripping wet and stuffed into plastic bags. Little did we know then that the day’s adventures were not yet over and more was waiting for us in Manali. But that will come later.
If you are in Kullu or Manali, don’t miss the rafting experience in the Beas. I haven’t had the opportunity to raft in Rishikesh, which is famous in India for the facility, but both Kaku and later Polu bhai claimed that the Beas in Kullu has more rapids than the Ganga in Rishikesh. True or not, the Beas experience is worth a try.
Contact for rafting in the Beas:
Kullu Beas River Rafting Association,
Charges for 6km: Rs 1000 per head