21 Jul 2014: This morning, I sleep in. Not up before the crack of dawn as has been the routine every day since we started. The last two nights haven’t been all that restful due to the intense cold and my flagging energy needed this booster dose of sleep to be vital again today. Well rested, I am all charged up to take the day on. We have joined forces with our Team B who have flown in from Goa yesterday. They will take this journey forward through Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Kargil, Srinagar, Jammu, Amritsar, Delhi and then back to Goa. This is the only time that both the teams are together… today and tomorrow giving Team B time to acclimatise before they take the rally forward.
Right after a leisurely breakfast and in our wetsuits and helmets, we assemble for the planned white water rafting. This is my first time and I look forward to it. In fact, most of us are going for the first time. We will be taken by bus to just short of Leh and will raft down the Indus for about 14 Kms. I am told that the rapids in this stretch are just 1 or 2 level and considered easy. Tomorrow we are to go for the tougher stretch through the Zanskar River where we expect 3 to 4 level of rapids. All of us are reminded to wear shades since the glare off the water is intense and can be very hurtful to the eyes. Since we are not carrying any glasses straps, we use a ‘jugaad’ of tying a string on the shades to avoid them slipping off when wet or when looking down even though they would be inside the helmet. I think it is a great idea! As we reach the starting point, our guide Vikram gives a detailed briefing about what to expect and what to do in case of a capsized raft. All safety procedures are explained in detail and then we are off.
Split into 4 rafts, we set off after a mandatory dip in the river for all the members on our raft. Our guide absolutely insists! It is fun actually after one conquers the worry of how cold the waters would be and just jumps in…
Getting the hang of rowing takes just a few minutes and then there is competition between the boats each vying for the top position including splashing the other teams with water as they are overtaken. Chotak, the guy who runs the camp is a champion rafter and No. 1 in India and he is in a kayak today. His antics in the water are to be seen! Has us in splits or gaping in awe in turns.
Unfortunately, our cameras are not on us today since the equipment is not safe in the rafts and thus, no pics today! What a shame really! We have so much fun and all of it is stored away in the upper storey…
A kilometre short of the confluence with the Zanskar, I jump in again and swim along quite lazily. I drift under the bridge which is just 100 metres short of the confluence and then I realise that I have drifted far faster than the raft! I have no intentions of going through into the icy waters of the Zanskar. Zanskar is a much colder river since it travels shorter and is completely sourced from melting ice. Our team has to row hard to get me before I hit the confluence since the current is strong and I am unable to swim upriver. All’s well that ends well!
Back at camp, we are all ravenous! Lunch is demolished and a while later we are off to Leh for sightseeing and a trip to Khardungla. Our rally vehicles have been given for a thorough servicing and we get a ride on the camp bus to Leh. Hiring bikes, we are off to Khardungla on bikes… a different kind of thrill I assure you! The route is good for a bit and then the road deteriorates into a wide but rough unpaved path criss-crossed by small streams some of which are big enough to soak our shoes as the bikes splash through them. The Zanskar range lies spread out before us and the tallest peak Stok Kangri is visible all snow covered. Reaching the top we are exhilarated! And cold! The altitude difference between Leh at just under 12000 ft to Khardungla top at 18340 ft is immense! So also the difference in temperature. A busy photo session later we head back. Rendezvous at the ‘Rendezvous Cafe/German bakery’ and we are back to camp for dinner and bed.
22 Jul 2014: A nervous excitement pervades the group as everyone is thinking of the turbulent rapids we need to conquer today and hopefully (fingers crossed) stay afloat through that! It is a 30 Kms route today. As is the norm, we pour into the bus which takes us across the Indus over the bridge and then along the right bank of the Zanskar. Today the manager of the camp is also accompanying us armed with a camera and will take pictures from some (strategic!) locations along the route.
It is a newly laid road so it is super smooth sailing till the road abruptly becomes the now familiar potholed and unpaved trail like the less trodden paths elsewhere in Ladakh. We reach the starting point and go down to our rafts. We are the lightest raft with 5 members plus the guide. The first hour is great. Our confidence surges and the thrill overtakes us to the point where we think we can conquer all… absolutely anything!
And then it happens. We are warned that it is a really rough patch ahead and to be rowing as hard and fast as we can as we hit it. Before I know it, the rapids are upon us and …. I can see it happening in slow motion… our raft just rises up from the right front end and keeps rising. The two members on the right side fall on us taking all of us under with the raft overturned right on top of us. I tell myself there is no need to panic. The guides are trained and our protective gear is on therefore all I have to do is come up to the surface even if under the raft and breathe from the air pockets under it. Easier said than done. I come up and try to breathe and I can’t. Just swallow some water from my mouth so resolutely, I close my mouth and try to breathe in through my nose. No luck. It is as though the air had suddenly turned solid.
The raft has drifted off of me and my partner grabs me in the turmoil. In the meantime I continue to struggle to breathe and nothing is helping. In rising panic I have dunked my partner also a couple of times ensuring we both taste and swallow the icy Zanskar waters. And then miraculously, I can breathe again! My partner has realised my predicament and pushed the shades up my nose. They must have slipped lower down as we fell in the water blocking my nostrils and I have not realised it in the ‘excitement’ of the last few minutes. Also, they have not fallen off completely because of the ‘jugaad’ we had employed!! Sometimes these things come back to bite us when we least expect it! Anyways, the river has become wider right here and the left side seems to have a slower current where my partner drags me to the edge and hangs on to a rock with one hand and me in the other while I get myself together.
Long story short, we all five of us get rescued and asked if we want to take a ride back in the vehicle or go back in the rafts. No incident like this is going to get the better of us! We choose to raft back. After this, we are slightly shaken but there is an inexplicable freedom I feel…. of ‘been there, done that’ and now bring on whatever else and we will triumph over it! Looking back I feel good that we did it!
Reaching the camp, we get mobbed. Most are horrified and almost everyone has seen it happen since we were the first to go into those rapids and overturned in front of them. While stories are told to a suitably reverent audience, lunch is polished off.
The second leg of the rally is flagged off from our camp by our senior-most member and Team B heads out to Nubra Valley hoping to cross over Khardungla well before sunset. In minutes, we are also off for a final round of shopping to Leh. It is a pleasure to stroll on the main street with hawkers selling fresh produce along the sidewalk and many curio shops lining the bustling city centre. I pick up some ‘khurmani’ and ‘walnuts’ and we are done… Some of us also shop around for some T-shirts and other souvenirs for family and friends back home. We get back late to a delicious dinner of noodles and momos (on request) prepared by the staff at camp. Final day here… we leave early tomorrow morning flying out to Delhi and onwards to Goa.
23 Jul 2014. Early morning we are at the airport, boarded and off. I have carefully chosen my right side window seat ensuring it is not over the wings so that I can have good views of the Himalayas inflight. I am not disappointed.
I end my travelogue here thanking everyone who has read through this long, but I hope not too tedious series leaving you with the last pictures I clicked from the plane…
Adios! Till we meet again…