Not the spiritual awakening you'd expect of a story from Rishikesh.
I went to Rishikesh in early April for a two-day rafting trip with a group of eight friends. My former flatmate from Delhi had taken care of all the planning, and the itinerary he shared with us looked very promising.
It was fairly unconventional for what you'd expect from a trip to Rishikesh. The last time I went rafting in the holy city, it only lasted a few hours and didn't consume more than half a day. This time however, we drove tens of kilometres outside the city and were set to cover over 50 Kilometres on the Ganga; split between two days.
I first took an evening flight from Mumbai to Delhi, met with my friends there and we boarded an overnight train to Haridwar the same night. The next morning our trip organiser collected us from the train station, and we headed straight to our starting point.
Drone shot of the Ganga
We changed into our rafting clothes on arrival and put down our luggage inside dry bags. Our group had a total of two passenger rafts, three kayaks and a third raft which carried all the luggage. The first day was undemanding and we only occasionally encountering strong rapids. The water was teal blue, and the landscapes were pristine and captivating. The other advantage of doing a longer rafting tour was that we didn't pass by any other rafts or kayaks on the first day. If you're reading this and you've been to Rishikesh, you know exactly how rare that is.
Campsite on Day 1
We found a beach like spot covered with silver sand where we stopped and set camp at the end of the first day. It was picturesque and isolated, right out of a postcard. Ramesh, who was our team lead and the organizer of this experience, was a perfectionist. The spot we found was surreal in many ways, and the service we got from Ramesh’s team was levels above anything else I was used to. He carried a camping table on the raft along with several chairs, and we had a beautiful community table on which we dined together that night. We had a 4 course meal which included everything from freshly grilled fish to dessert.
Fine dining on the beach. Image source: haridwarrishikeshtourism.com
After calling it an early night, we woke up at 06:30 the next morning, onwards on our rafts again.
The big prize of the day was a rapid called 'The Wall', a Grade IV rapid which gets a bad reputation for being the fiercest one in Rishikesh. The Uttarakhand government banned amateur rafters from rafting on this rapid in 2013, something I discovered much later. As we approached The Wall, a friend and I thought it would be a good idea to cover this rapid on a kayak.
The crew before we departed on our rafts
We stopped a little before the rapid started, and got down from our rafts to walk along 'The Wall' and gauge its difficulty. It looked violent, unforgiving and ferocious. We were thrilled, and abandoned our spots on the raft to jump on to the two-person kayak.
Grade IV – The Wall. Image source: secondliferesort.in
I remember ironically shouting 'YOLO' to my friends as we set forward towards 'The Wall'. The force of the rapid toppled over our kayak and sucked us into the water within the first few seconds of our encounter. I've never felt more out of control as I did in those fifteen or twenty seconds. I got thrown into the river bed and the current banged me against several rocks underwater. I hit my head against one of them with great impact, but the helmet I was wearing made sure I didn't crack my skull open. I was trapped under a strong current and was slowly starting to run out of breath.
My life didn't flash before my eyes like it's supposed to, but in those moments I remembered how I once read that drowning was the most painful to die, and I could finally start to see why. The current didn't allow me to have any control over my body, and even with a life-vest on, I was at the bottom of the river with little hope of making it back up. I'd started to breathe in little bits of water and was slowly starting to give up, when the water finally decided to push me back out.
I can't remember what I felt in the moments after I came back up. Maybe it was a little bit of relief, but it was mostly a lot of shock and trauma. I frantically searched for my friend who was also sucked in, as I couldn't see him anywhere when I got out. I subsequently saw him on a passenger raft, and found out later that he had great luck and was pushed out of the water within a few seconds of being sucked in.
My coping mechanism is humour. I down-played the whole thing when I narrated the incident to my friends, and laughed at how I felt like Jesus coming back to life as I got thrown out of the water. I didn't think any of them would understand the magnitude of what I'd gone through, and the last thing I wanted was to think actively about what had just happened. Denial is a great way to deal with trauma.
I had large bruises on my legs and couldn't walk properly for a week after. I also had occasional nightmares where I would relive those moments underwater, but those too stopped as time passed. Don't near-death experiences have the obligation to give you some great life changing epiphanies? I'm sure the rule-book of this dictates that I'm forced to take a relook at all my life's decisions with a microscope and start doing things differently.
Drone shot of our Campsite
I guess my only big realisation was that I'm pretty content with my life right now, and sure there are things I'd like to do differently, but I don't want to make any big changes. I know a lot of people who'd be absolutely afraid of going on these waters after an incident like this, but I think it's irrational to restrict yourself from living your life and doing things based on one bad experience. The only thing I can say with certainty is that life is uncertain, and your idea of how much control you have over your own lives is exaggerated.
Will I do this again? Absolutely yes.
Did I want to almost die to come to this conclusion? No.
101 Rafting in Rishikesh
1) Take an overnight bus or train from Delhi or fly into Dehradun.
2) A 2 day rafting trip is better than the popular 3 hour option (less tourists).
3) Don't use a kayak on a rapid, unless you have prior experience.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Kshitij Rihal
Photographs by Kshitij Rihal
Cover photo credit: haridwarrishkeshtourism.com