Few close friends decided to escape the city for a weekend. It started with a brief to spend a weekend at a place which does not require a full day’s drive.
Given our affinity towards the hills and water, Rishikesh, at a distance of 230 odd kilometers from Delhi was an easy choice. It took a lot of planning, coordination, research and discussion to zero in on two properties in Rishikesh. One was a beach camp with tents and another was a jungle camp offering a morning trek and wild safari at Rajaji National park, Uttarakhand in addition to rafting at the mighty Ganges. The cost per person at the Jungle camp was almost half of the beach property and tree houses caught everyone’s attention. Three days prior to the final trip, the group leader – Mani sprained her back leading to speculation if the trip was on. Hats off to her will, a group of seven adventure enthusiasts finally left the city early on Saturday morning. I decided to ride through the trip on my beloved Royal Enfield, my gateway to any terrain in the country. The exit route from Delhi greeted us with a half hour jam at 4:30am. Withstanding the frustration caused by two trucks standing in the middle of NH24, we braved the fatal pot holes at NH58 for an hour. The mighty Scorpio cruised through the toll way as I managed to keep sight of it on my two wheels. When the sun grew bolder, the group got eager to reach the destination asap and decided to raft first before we checked into the jungle camp.
Of paddles, rapids and a cliff
I have a fear of heights and water rapids. A little bit of negotiation ensured that the raft meant for at least 10 people was given to us 7. As the raft commander began his briefing we had a minor argument about why one of us should sit in the middle and not paddle through the rafting session. His argument about balancing the raft fell into deaf ears and he had to go back and manage an additional paddle. The raft was set loose and we began paddling forward cheering Ganga Maiyya. I had to sit at the front, the fear could wait. While we were unsure if the raft commander was still upset with us for being rude to him, he turned out to be quite a sport as he commanded us to jump into the river after 5 minutes of paddling. Few among us were shocked and were staring at the commander if he was serious. I wasted no time in jumping into the water and hell yeah, I was swimming in the mighty Ganges. Religious people in India sprinkle drops of holy water on themselves for purification and here I was braving the fast flowing Ganga river itself. I soon heard shouts from the commander asking me to stay closer to the raft as we approached a rapid. I got on the raft and took back my steering position in the front as I was ready to brave the very first rapid which looked exciting yet scary. As the raft bumped into the first huge wave, I realised two members of the group had fallen off into the river, how I wish I could have fallen like that. As I got ready to scream ‘oh shit’ and jump into the river at the next rapid, the commander ordered that anyone who wishes to jump into the river is free to do so at will, but be careful. Braving a rapid has been the highlight of my affair with the water bodies so far in my life. Our cool commander ordered us to steer and swim past all jealous onlookers. It was amazing and continued for the next hour or so. There was a food stop in the middle of nowhere, maggi and tea, but what caught my attention were few crazy people jumping off a cliff which appeared over 20 feet high. I had conquered my fear of rapids, now it was time for a high jump.
As I trotted barefoot towards the cliff, I had to help guys and girls get down the cliff as they decided it was too high for a comfortable jump. As I patiently waited my turn on the cliff, I was pushed back by a dare devil yelling at his friends to capture him jump on camera. I think he was high, but it took him one look down to get sober. While others were contemplating to jump or not to jump, I requested if they could make way for me. My friends, Rajit and Gope had already jumped and swam through to the raft. As I looked down and figured the jump, I could feel my guts inching up. I could not waste time, others were looking at me and it was now a question of honour. As my friends waived at me, I took the leap of faith and splashed right into the river. After what appeared like eternity, I finally rose up the greenish red water and was gasping to breathe. I was still alive and it was a reason to be happy. During my swim back to the raft, I decided to do it again but the plan died a natural death as I realised my shorts were torn from one end due the splash impact. Shilpi offered me her bandana to tie around the torn patch and save my honour this time. The ordeal with the paddles and the rapids continued, just that this time I had to be really careful about my shorts.
Ride into the jungle
After hours of rafting, we were all tired and waiting to reach the jungle camp, the venue I chose to be the night stay for the group. As one local friend claimed to know the venue, we asked him to tag along. After around 15 odd kilometers on road, we were greeted with no road et all. The only way forward was to look for tyre marks in the direction of the jungle for the next 10 kilometers. As there was still time for the night to set in, it all looked beautiful and rusty; the little river that we had to cross on a motorcycle, a maruti alto and a scorpio was a sight at first. This all soon started turning into a nightmare as it kept getting darker and there was no sign of road, light, direction or human life.
The evening had passed and the night started growing darker, little rivers were now getting bigger and my group mates were getting restless shivering to the thought of staying the night in forest in those conditions. I was nervous too as we had been in the forest for 8 long kilometers. I had company this time, my young friend Rajit was interested in the motorcycle ride and was helping me navigate the little rivers by first walking through and checking the depth every time. At one point, both my tyres were stuck in wet mud and gravel and it was difficult to lift the 200 kg motorcycle. The vehicles following us had now caught up and other friends helped me lift the bike out of the point of no-return. I heard the restless discussions as few of my colleagues suggested we go back and find a place to stay in the city, ‘where there is life’.
As I struggled to find a response, I saw light in the dark and approached what looked like a small house in the middle of nowhere. Finding a village family at the spot, I asked them if they could help me with the directions to this jungle camp. As we were talking, two wild dogs rushed towards me and growled at me for trespassing their territory. I realised I had to add the fear of wild dogs to the fear of heights and rapids and I am not going to conquer this one at the moment. I told my group that it was only 2 more kilometers and the path ahead is not as difficult as what we had already passed. No phone connection in the area just added to the agony and my tired and restless group mates agreed half heartedly giving me a look that I might get beaten up if I didn’t find the camp soon.
What promised to be a better path started with a drive through the middle of a river, which was thankfully not deep. As I was riding and searching for a light bulb in the hills, a huge wild hog passed from right in front of my motorcycle making a grunting sound. I told my young friend that this was not the time to panic, wild hogs do not hunt humans, humans hunt them. The reflection of my headlight at a colored stone brought smile back as we realised that the destination is close. I spotted a bonfire in the otherwise dark jungle camp and was happy to meet the camp staff that had been waiting for the group. I told Rajit to ask them make arrangements as I rode back in the direction of the two cars, I had left behind in pursuit of the jungle camp. The fear that the restless group may have gone back to the city was soon put to rest as I saw headlights approaching.
As the group entered the jungle camp, all the tiredness, restlessness and agony was showered at the camp staff for having put up the camp at such a godforsaken site and why was there no electricity. The camp manager put on his jeep headlights for some visibility and the staff collected wood for bonfire, as I watched my group getting its calm back,.
The group that woke up at 4 in the morning had finally settled around bonfire at a dark jungle in Rishikesh holding glasses of preferred poisons in their hands. A few drinks and everyone started admiring the beauty of the jungle, the peacock spotting, the fireflies, the calm as well as the noises of animals heard from a distance. Nobody has any recollection of who slept in which wood house at what time, but all I remember is a Shilpi and Sumeet asking me if they could come back anytime soon.
Important tips while travelling to Rishikesh, rafting:
- It is important to leave Delhi early in the morning as the NH58 is full of potholes and slows your drive
- Rishikesh is a dry city, if you are carrying liquor, state police will object and fine you
- Though we did not encounter any mosquitoes, but it is advisable to carry mosquito repellent to a jungle camp
- Reach your destination before its dark, plan well
- Do not overeat but hydrate yourself before rafting
- Follow the instructions of raft commander carefully
- Jump into the water while rafting as many times as permissible but stay closer to the raft
- Try at least a 16km raft stretch, pros can go for longer stretches