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White-water rafting on the Zanskar River: a near-death experience

Rafting on the Zanskar river © Craig FastBelieve it or not, the drive to the launch spot was scarier than the white-water rafting itself, and we even flipped the raft. That’s not to say rafting on the Zanskar doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping. I just have a mortal fear of overtaking on blind bends, particularly when there’s a sheer drop of about 100m on one side.

Despite my buttock clenching, there is no denying the drive to the start of the 26km white-water run was spectacular. Beginning in Leh, capital of the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, the mini-bus took us along the parched Indus Valley, which looks like the soul of a man who has lived life too hard and has nothing left to give, and then turned off into the Zanskar Valley. Gradually the Zanskar Valley narrowed, swallowing the mini-bus into insignificance as we journeyed deeper into a towering gorge of reds, purples, greys and browns, until we reached Chilling, our launch point.

Twelve rather shaken tourists disembarked and poured themselves into wet suits, life jackets and helmets. The introduction to white-water rafting was thorough, demonstrating the basic commands, technique and particularly safety instructions: try to keep hold of the lifeline (a rope going all the way around the raft) and your paddle at all times. If you fall out and let go of the raft, the person next to you must pull you in. If you are out of reach of a paddle, hook your own paddle to someone else’s still in the boat and they’ll pull you in. If you are farther away still, there’s a 25m rope. Beyond that, there’s an extremely strong man in a kayak who can rescue you and tow you back to the raft. On top of that, a team in a van keeps watch from the road. It was all very well thought out. Before our group was split into two rafts, someone had the presence of mind to ask what to do if the raft flipped. “Hold on to the lifeline and wait for further instructions,” our guide said. “And never let go of your paddle – it’s expensive!”

Lecture over, we clambered into two rafts, six tourists in each. Our boat held me, Craig, an English couple and two Polish men. After a bit of a practice, we let the seething, sediment-heavy Zanskar carry us along. The fish-eye views were even more awesome than the views from the road. The canyon soared above us, high into an impossibly blue sky. Mountains streaked with colour came and went out of view as we sped along at a surprisingly fast rate. The route is graded two and three – not too intense but certainly not boring – and the first few rapids had both boats whooping.

By the time we came to our first serious rapids our raft was getting a bit cocky, including our guide. The river narrowed as it surged under a bridge and we paddled our way over a gushing waterslide onto a patch of water that looked like boiling tar. Our guide told us to sit in the middle of the raft as he showed off, manoeuvring us on top of a standing wave, meaning we were floating on top of a small section of turbulent water that was going downwards instead of along, like a whirlpool but without the whirl. For a few seconds everything was exhilaratingly novel but then the front left corner of the raft, where the Englishman sat, was slowly sucked under and water poured in. Suddenly, we flipped.

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