From the start, I’m fascinated by what it takes to pull this off. By 8am, our entire camp, non-biodegradable waste included, is packed and on the water. As we draw away from the bank, footprints are literally all we leave behind. Within an hour of landing on a new beach, the tents are up, a circle of chairs sit under a shelter, a trestle table heaves with lunch. We are 20 guests and 14 crew, and aside from us and our luggage, the boats carry–among other things–gas cylinders, food supplies, toilet seats, pots and pans, a defibrillator, a stretcher and even, for part of the journey, a brace of live chickens. “We can’t afford to travel ‘skinny’,” says Vaibhav, “We have to be prepared for every eventuality.” Our days are punctuated by elaborate meals, including culinary surprises like jalebis and pizza and chocolate cake, all magically conjured up in a kitchen tent. And everything needed to make all this happen travels with us on our tiny flotilla consisting of just four rafts, a cataraft and three safety kayaks.
Each day, the Siang shows us its different moods: stretches of calm float alternate with bumpy joyrides; and then there are the rapids. Pulsating Palsi, Rikor, Gorge III, Hairy Hari, Moing Madness, Karko Killer, Kim Broken Oar–legendary rapids are followed nightly with stories about how they were named for epic flips and Herculean rescues, over rum and laughter with the crew. Tooth Fairy, the one rapid we portage as it is deemed too dangerous for us amateurs, is our campsite on Day 3. On Day 4, before we reach our campsite, a support truck is able to get close enough to bring us fresh supplies. Other than this, we don’t see a soul on the river all week.
This is how it feels to be inside a Class IV rapid: There’s a knot of tension in my gut as we approach the white water. My heart skips a beat as our raft plunges into that first trough and a 20-foot wall of water rears overhead. There is the shock, which never lessens in intensity, of the slap of ice-cold waves breaking over the boat from seemingly random directions. Over the roar of the rapid, the guide yells his commands, and even as part of my brain reminds me to brace, paddle and follow instructions – Forward! Harder! Backpaddle! – I am mesmerised by the huge water swirling around me. I see flashes of bright colour; the other boats and kayaks look like plastic toys spinning in the torrent. I breathe and I paddle, even when my oar meets air because we are perched on the crest of a wave. And then finally, there is the sweet rush of giddy relief as the guide yells “Stop!”, and I know we are through.
Night falls abruptly and early, and by 5pm we are sitting around a fire, nursing drinks under a canopy of stars with the Milky Way swirling overhead. Our eclectic group hails from Meerut to Montana, ranged in age from 22 to 72. Our paths might never have crossed back in our ‘real’ lives, but here we are quickly bound in camaraderie and laughter.