Rishikesh (India)

May 2011

Rafting: Check
Cliff-jumping: Check!

River rafting in Rishikesh is among the first things that come to mind when thinking of weekend getaways around Delhi. It is funny how long I had to wait to get my hands on it; this was my umpteenth visit to Rishikesh and even this time it seemed I’d have to return from Rishikesh a raft-virgin as our plans almost went horribly astray.

My travel group this time was a mix of friends and friends-of-friends. Three of us drove down from Gurgaon to Rishikesh on Saturday morning; four others were already in Rishikesh since the previous day. Although the distance is just around 270km, it takes a good 7-8 hours to cover due to traffic bottlenecks near Meerut bypass and Purkazi. The road condition is also not great; perhaps the only thing to look forward to is the famous “Jain Shikanji” restaurant along the highway in Modinagar (60km from Delhi), which serves fizzy lemonade and some yummy Indian snacks. There are a handful of such restaurants each claiming to be the “original” one; we stopped at one without bothering to investigate!

We reached Rishikesh at around 3pm and met up with our friends who had arrived there a day earlier. Rafting takes place from Shivpuri (16km upstream from Rishikesh) to Lakshman Jhoola, a suspension bridge on the river – the most popular landmark in Rishikesh. We had booked a “beach camp”, a tented accommodation on the river bank at Shivpuri. We parked our car at the Lakshman Jhoola parking and went to our camp on the rafting agent’s vehicle. The idea was to stay at the camp overnight, come down rafting from the camp to Lakshman Jhoola the next day, pick up our car from there and head back home.

Rishikesh usually has pleasant weather but the May heat was taking a toll on us. The campsite had 30-odd basic-style tents each with a double-bed, mattresses, pillows and quilts – that’s about it. We did not get the logic of quilts at that time of the day but thanked God for them only a few hours later. Of course there was no electricity, and mobile network was patchy (Vodafone worked, Airtel didn’t). The loo tents were pitched at one end of the campsite. There was a single kitchen-tent where they lay out food buffet-style. We had some late lunch and then decided to cool off in the river. The water was very cold and it was a great respite from the heat. Several rafts from upstream camps passed us by; we were to wait till next morning for our turn. The flow of the river is quite fast at this time of the year as the glacier melts rapidly in the summer heat.

In about an hour, things changed dramatically. Wind picked up speed and pretty soon a light shower started. The weather worsened exponentially from thereon. Wind became so strong that several tents collapsed. The seven of us gathered under one tent and held the bamboo poles tightly in place to keep them from collapsing. The campsite was located such that a sort of funnel was forming with hills sloping upwards from both sides of the river. Hence the intensity of the wind and the rain. Even as the torrential rain was showing no signs of letting up, it started hailing. Temperatures dropped drastically and we were feeling very cold in our wet clothes. We were all wondering at the same time, irrespective of what man achieves, how helpless he is in front of nature.

Rain and wind finally subsided in about half-an-hour. We looked at the quilts in the tent with new-found respect. We were also wondering what had become of the rafters who had set out in this weather; we met some later in the evening and they said it was great fun and adventure!

There was tea and biscuits after the rain, and a bonfire and drinks later in the evening. Dinner was served in the same kitchen-tent. The food was simple and tasty. We had a sound sleep tucked beneath our cosy quilts.

We woke up next day to a bright sunny morning and hung out our wet clothes to dry. The original plan was to set off in our raft at 10am, however the rafting agent informed us over phone from his office in Rishikesh that the road from Rishikesh to Shivpuri (the campsite) had been blocked and there’d be a delay of a couple hours. We were still fine with it and decided to while away time at the river. However there was no progress – it was also quite difficult to coordinate with the rafting agent due to the poor mobile network. We needed to head back to Delhi by afternoon considering the 8-hour drive, else we’d not be in a very comfortable position to attend office the next morning. There was also some miscommunication regarding whether we would board the raft at the campsite, or at a designated boarding point about a kilometer downstream from the camp. This latter boarding point is the hub of rafting activity and most rafts start off from there. I was beginning to give up all hope of rafting in this trip too as the clock struck 2pm. Thankfully we finally came to know that the raft was ready for us. We cheered up and rowed off along the lively, cold waters of the river, under the supervision of our raft’s “Captain” who gave us a boring treatise beforehand on the techniques of rowing and the meaning of commands he would use during the course.

We negotiated a couple of rapids with relative ease even as the raft tossed wildly. Then a big one came – it’s named the Golf Course. A huge wave crashed on the raft head-on, almost overturning it. Half the persons on board were thrown off the raft into the river. There was no danger of drowning since we all had life-jackets on; however, the danger of smashing on the rocks in the river bed was quite real. The current was so fast that it was impossible for even experienced swimmers to keep control of direction. Two persons were directly underneath the raft and had to hold their breath for a bit without panicking to be able to come up to the surface. Using a rope and our oars, we were able to pull up all the folks into the raft, except for one who we could not reach and another raft behind us picked him up. He was “transferred” back to our raft five minutes later in calmer waters.

Some nerves were indeed frayed but we all pulled ourselves together and negotiated a few more rapids. The highlight of the rafting was the cliff-jumping where we jumped from a 20-feet high rock into the river. It has got to be the most exhilarating thing I’ve done till date. The chill that runs down your spine on looking below from the edge of the “cliff”, the courage you summon to take the plunge, the three seconds of free-fall, the loud crash with which you hit the water, the first breath of air you inhale after emerging from underneath – it’s all priceless. These things remain with you for life.

This cliff-jumping point is towards the end of the rafting route and is also called the “Maggi Point” as a vendor perched on the rocks sells Maggi noodles and cold drinks to the rafters. He must make preposterous amount of money on good days (read most weekends) – you have to see how crowded it gets there and how hungrily the starving rafters gobble the food after two hours of heavy rowing exercise.

We de-boarded the raft at Lakshman Jhoola, had a quick bite at the popular German Bakery at one end of the suspension bridge, picked up our cars from the parking and rolled off towards Delhi by 6pm. We reached our place at 2am, caught a few hours of much-needed sleep and went to our offices the next day.

It was indeed a very happening weekend trip. It had way more adventure than I’d have imagined, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. God knows I needed this!!

Expenses:

Overnight accommodation in tent (twin-sharing) + 3 meals + morning & evening tea + rafting: Rs. 1850 per person

We drove down to Rishikesh and incurred the usual fuel expenses