AMI- 17 helicopter took aerial footage, even as rafters tried to tame the Brahmaputra.
by Vaibhav Kala
Ningguing village in Arunachal Pradesh has probably never noticed such hectic activity. Nestled in dense tropical rainforest at the confluence of the Purang river with the mighty Siang (as the upper Brahmaputra is called), it offers the first formidable challenge in the form of a very sizeable big volume Class 5 rapid.
Twenty minutes earlier, our starting point at Tuting was witness to a memorable send- off to the beating of tribal drums, Adi dances and tying of prayer threads to each expedition member’s wrist. The crackle of radios goes off between the kayakers and raft guides, discussing lines of entry, which the bigger rafts would run. Some serious action is expected – the kayaks go first into 80,000 cubic feet of water per second, disappearing into deep troughs and emerging through pounding lateral waves and hydraulics, making shore eddies to set up safety for the following crafts.
The four rafts follow the cataraft. A huge crowd on the riverbank has gathered. Amongst them, four film cameras record the action, and a MI- 17 helicopter taking in the aerial footage. The cataraft and boats run through – river guides screaming commands, raft crew flailing paddles (hitting mostly air!), rushing adrenaline and the sights, sounds, and smells of world class white water.
The Class 4+ ‘Pulsating Palsi’awaited us a couple of bends above our first halt near Banggou village. It was a train of huge, exploding waves, more than 20 feet high.
The first two 16 foot rafts climbed out and flip over crest of one of them, the waves exploding at the instant the rafts were nearly through. This first day showed us, yet again, the magic of big volume whitewater. No wonder, so many adventurers came together: Safety boaters from across the world, including well known expedition doctor, Peter Weingarten, who having run rivers for more than 35 years, rated it “the best raft trip in the world”. Participants who had been on other big rivers like the Colorado, the Zambezi, the Upper Nile, the Bio Bio, the Futaleufu, rated this river as a class apart: No prior river experience can prepare one for the absolute Brahmaputra experience. It was the first time the Siang had been rafted at such high flows and the first descent after a catastrophic flood in June 2000. And the first time a successful attempt was made to capture an expedition of this nature, on camera for international distribution. Undoubtedly the toughest logistical challenge in adventure travel in India, participation came from all walks of life – doctors, pilots, whitewater professionals, journalists, garment exporters, travel people, geneticists, economists, all added to the salad bowl.
Next day, all camping gear and rations are lashed onto the rafts, and we enter the Ningguing gorge, down lots of Class 3 and 4 rapids. Common factor was the scale of the river, huge waves, boily eddies and eddy lines, some big enough to flip rafts. A big Class 4 + rapid at Rikor village warranted a long scout, and all boats ran through sunny side up. We floated into the Marmong gorge and reached Cherring by late afternoon, where an un- runnable Class 6 rapid awaited us. We camped upstream of the suicidal Class 6 ‘Tooth Fairy’ rapid (we get to name it as we found it). We’d tackle it the next day.
There were some close calls over the next two days as well, but the guiding team is upto the job. We had broken three oars, made from aircraft aluminum, in three days of river running. There had been plenty of big rapids in the last two days, and we were happy to be out of the gorge without anybody swimming.
Few activities require one to process so much data, so continuously and so quickly, with constant recalibration, once inside a rapid.
The next two days were spent in a leisurely float. We floated past Geku and under the bridge at Ditte Dime, and pass the confluences with the Simang River near Boleng.
Suddenly it’s the last night on the river, near Rotung village. A huge dinner is on – an evening of rejoicing and drinking the locally brewed, yet alarmingly potent apang. Pasighat is only 20 km away, and only the last ‘biggie’ on the trip at Pongging village.
Successfully tackled, we close in on the ferries at Pasighat. The joy of living and travelling on the river, the impenetrable hillsides, remote gorges, the long floats, the camaraderie developed between our team of guides and the crew combined in one magical moment as we beached our boats for the last time. And more so, the thrill at having descended one of the world’s great rivers in an area which would easily rank as one of the most inaccessible regions in the world.