These days, few places on earth seem terribly far away. But at least one remains magnificently remote the Zanskar valley in Ladakh, enclosed by high mountains, stark as the moon, bitterly cold, inaccessible for eight months of the year, threaded by a beautiful river. Rafting down this river is the trip of a lifetime.
First you have to spend two days in Leh, easing your body into the high altitude conditions of Ladakh, getting past headaches and breathlessness. Our group of 20 clients and the crew of Aquaterra Adventures continues to adjust to thin air during the three-day bus journey from Leh to Zanskar.
The scenery eclipses my headache. The Ladakhi landscape is like no other a gorgeous waste of mineral-splashed gold and ochre under a deep blue sky, a place of wind, rock and silence. We spend the night in Kargil, and the next day, enter the girlishly lovely Suru Valley, its meadows overhung by the ice-cream noses of the Nun and Kun massifs. At Rangdum we sleep in camping tents on a flatland of tender grass surrounded by mountains. On the third day we cross the Pensi-La pass and the Drung-Durung glacier that feeds the Stod river, a tributary of the Zanskar, on which we''''ll start rafting. Finally, we pull off the road at Remala. It''s been five days, and we've only just got to the beginning.
Remala is a pretty beach of sand, pebbles and pale brush. I sit on a rock and watch the fast-flowing Stod leap through gilt mountains, while the crew pumps up the rafts and loads gear. It has to be a self-contained expedition so we''re carrying everything with us on the rafts. From now on my tentmate and I will set up and break down our own tent at each campsite, and live off minimal luggage in our shared drybag the rest of our stuff will meet us at the pull-out point at Nimu in six days. We''re a group of many Indians, home-grown and expat, two Americans, two Brits, an English couple from Australia, a Mexican and a Kiwi, who, in the evening, does a fire dance under a sky thick with stars.
Even with gloves, hat and down jacket, the nights are freezing. The Zanskar Valley is like an iron fist in a velvet glove as wildly beautiful as it is unforgiving, not the sort of place you should underestimate. In rafting, you can make two kinds of mistake the kind that gives you a good dunking and a bit of a laugh and the kind that snuffs out your life. On this cold, high-altitude river, hypothermia is a real danger. You don''t want to fall in a lot, and definitely not for too long.
In the morning, after a big breakfast of porridge, scrambled eggs and fruit, we get into our neoprene wetsuits, splash jackets, helmets and gloves for the first time. Time for a pep talk on commands, safety, and rescue. Besides two paddle rafts carrying eight clients and a guide each, there are two oar-powered rafts, a cataraft loaded with gear, and several safety kayakers. And, with a big cheer, off we go.
The first two days on the river are short, easy stretches. The Stod is swift, but not rough there are some shallow pebbly bits and some mild Class II rapids. It''s the perfect introduction for the first-time rafters. Our guide, Rana, full of beans and jokes, puts us through the basic moves and team paddling that we''ll need in tougher water. We gape at the astonishing scenery, cobalt sky pierced by 19,000ft peaks, and there's much joking and bonhomie. Early on the second day, just below camp, a white froth marks the confluence of the Tsarap Chu now we're on the Zanskar proper. It's still a joyride, and I wonder why the Zanskar is graded as a difficult Class IV river.
The campsites are stunning. The first, at Karsha, is windy and dusty, a small strip of beach backed by a tableland hemmed in by enormous mountains. The other, at Honyo-Pidmo, is a generous, grassy flat inhabited by millions of grasshoppers that get into our tents, bags and clothes. Camp life slows to simple sensory pleasures sun, breeze, grass, a snooze, a little walk, maybe some yoga, a chat. Long, lazy afternoons are followed by sunsets of cloudy, molten gold that dissipate to reveal a star-encrusted sky. In the mornings, camp comes to life around 6am. The crew already has hot tea and breakfast waiting, and by the time we've packed our drybags and tent, they've packed the kitchen, prepped the rafts, and cleaned up any rubbish. By 9am we''re on the water.
Our third day is a vigorous 25km section. That''s more like it, I think, as the rock cliffs narrow and water smashes through in churning Class III rapids. We've entered the awesome gorge that drains the entire river system of the Zanskar mountains. Here, the river provides the only passage-on some kind of boat in the summer, or on foot over the ice when it freezes in the winter. I try to imagine the cold that can still this roaring flow. Sheer rock walls, black, beige, mustard, red, rise hundreds of feet on either side. There's no vegetation, no life, no shore, no road, nowhere for a helicopter to land. This sobering fact explains the river grade rescue is much harder, the margin for error much smaller.
Soon we're deep in the gorge, hitting rapid after exciting rapid, paddling harder. Rana's drilling comes in handy. The Zanskar is usually turquoise, but the season's unusual rain and flooding has it running high and muddy brown. The sun is as hot as the water is cold and my muscles feel a happy exhaustion.
Camp at Nyerak is high on a steep hill. After handing the gear up through a human chain, we all kick back. I pick my way to a little freshwater trickle over the ridge, to bathe and wash my hair for the first time since Kargil. In the evening there's a raucous party, since the next day is our designated rest day.
When the crew appears on day five, they're kitted out in warm polypropylene under their wetsuits and splash trousers, and their focus is up a notch. Today is an action-packed Class III and IV stretch in the heart of the gorge. ""Hold on tight," they tell us repeatedly. "Listen to your guide. Paddle hard." It's fantastic rafting. The river has become a thrashing, roaring beast, and the rapids are large and exciting.
Then my raft enters a big one on the wrong line, parallel to a monster wave. I know that leaning into that wave is our only chance of staying upright, and I keep waiting for Rana to shout the highside command. What I don't know is that Rana is already in the drink. My raftmates are plopping into the water like stones. As the raft goes over, I grab the safety line. All I have to do is hang on, stay with the raft until I''m rescued.
But a powerful undertow rips my hands from the line, and suddenly I'm under the raft, blind and choking. My hands, searching for an air pocket between the cross tubes, only find more raft. Then I'm completely out of air it occurs to me that I'm going to die. My lungs are about to burst when sunlight falls on my eyelids, and I break water just in time. Amazingly, I''m near the safety rope and lunge for it. My adrenaline is so high that I don''t even notice the cold.
There are frantic screams and calls everywhere. What I don''t know is that the raft behind us has also flipped. (Seeing us capsize, they reflexively stopped paddling, screwing up their own approach to the same wave.) I don't know that one kayaker is upside down in a whirlpool, that one panicking swimmer is almost drowning another, that the rescue rope is wrapped around someone''s hand. I don't know that there are 18 people in the frigid water, getting colder by the second.
The rescue has to be conducted mid-river because there's no shore. The guides clamber onto the flipped rafts and begin to snatch people out of the water while the kayakers tow others. They count and re-count heads. I'm hauled out, legs too numb to kick. We float alongside the oar raft and jump into it in a precarious pile. Expedition leader Vaibhav Kala, at the oars, pulls all our weight until the guides have righted our rafts and we can get back into them. Luckily there''s a tiny rocky beach just ahead where we can stop and catch our breath.
I have a big bruise on my foot and a scratch on my nose where my helmet mashed down my sunglasses. One person is in shock, everyone is shaken, we've swallowed lots of muddy water. But we're all safe. Our little disaster could easily have turned to tragedy but for the excellent rescue, which, over 10 minutes and a kilometre and a half, has kept everyone bunched between safety crafts instead of letting them scatter.
Up ahead is a huge Class IV rapid where the canyon squeezes the Zanskar through an 18ft gap. The guides scout it and pronounce a no-go. We scramble up and alongside the cliff to wait downstream of the rapid, drying off in the sun, while the crew guide the rafts through with ropes held from either side of the river. As the last raft comes down the rope snaps, leaving two people stranded on the far side. The best they can do is jump into the water midway through the rapid, and swim for it. It''s a heart-in-mouth moment until we see their helmets bob into view, and the kayaks dash out to get them.
With all the action it''s been an eight-hour day, and we reach our campsite at Lamaguru, at the confluence of the Markha river, cold and exhausted. A chill rain and wind start up but, as it happens, this is the only campsite with driftwood, so we can dissect the day's events-now pretty funny-over a roaring bonfire. As victims, we also get to christen our killer rapid. It''s named ''18 Down''.
The last day is a 45km, fast-moving stretch with long, rough rapids as the river blasts out of the canyon. Whitewater alternates with innocuous-looking eddylines and boils that can flip a raft in a second and suck a swimmer under for a long time. Hold on tight, the guides warn. Rescues here are much trickier. It''s hard paddling and we have a couple of near misses, the rafts spinning like tops. At Chilling there's a big drop and colossal water, through which we tear with bloody war cries.
And eventually, we cross the confluence of the Indus, and we're paddling for the shore at Nimu to change, for the last time, out of our wetsuits. It''s an hour''s drive back to Leh. The sun bursts out of the clouds, the weather's perfect. We've done it we've had our way with the unforgettable Zanskar. Even though it almost had its way with us.
Ladakh Travel Guide
Fly Delhi-Leh (11,370ft). Rest, hydrate and acclimatise for 48hrs. Local sightseeing in Leh is optional. This is the last chance to buy provisions. The chartered bus drive to Zanskar takes three days.
Day 1 - 9-10hrs from Leh to Kargil (10,500ft) over the Fotu La (14,000ft) via the Lamayuru monastery. Overnight hotel in Kargil.
Day 2 - 10hrs from Kargil to campsite at Rangdum (12,000ft), past Panikar and Parkachik, with great views of the Nun and Kun massifs (22,967ft). Overnight tented camp in Rangdum.
Day 3 - 6hrs from Rangdum to Remala (11,925ft) over the Pensi L(14,500ft), past the Drung-Durung glacier. Camp at Remala beside the Stod river, which is the starting point of the rafting expedition.
Starts on the Stod, traverses all of the Zanskar and ends on the Indus.
Day 1 Remala (11,925ft) to Karsha (11,446ft) 30km/3-4hrs. Small Class II rapids. River lunch optional hike to Karsha monastery. Day 2 Karsha to Honyo-Pidmo (11,025ft) 25km/3hrs the start of the Zanskar. Another easy day. Day 3 Honyo-Pidmo to Nyerak (10,780ft) 25km/ 3hrs Class III section. Day 4 Rest day at Nyerak optional hike to Nyerak village. Day 5 Nyerak to Lamaguru (10,465ft) 35km/6hrs. River lunch beside a waterfall Class III and IV. DAY SIX Lamayuru to Nimu (10,345ft) 40km/3-4hrs ends just beyond the confluence of the Indus Class III and IV.
Rs 78,889 per person. Includes return airfare Delhi-Leh, bus to Zanskar, all accommodation including hotel and camping tents, all meals on the self-contained expedition, and all rafting gear.
Aquaterra Adventures, S-507, Ground Floor, Greater Kailash-II, New Delhi (011-29212641/2760, 41636101, 9899135205, www.aquaterra.in).
Basic physical fitness is recommended for exertion at high altitude, but first-time rafters and even non-swimmers are welcome.