Sixty-year-old electronics engineer Anil Borkar and his wife Gauri, 55, went whitewater rafting on the Brahmaputra river in November. Next on their extreme agenda: Zanskar in Ladakh, Colorado in the US and the Trans- Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow.
At 60, why decide to go on a river adventure?
Lull before the storm: Borkar and wife, Gauri.
Both my wife and I have a passion for travelling. It’s something that has grown more intense over the years and, of late, we find we like to challenge ourselves physically. We stay away from the metros— they’re all the same everywhere—and look to go into the interiors of every country we visit. So, in recent years, we have rafted on the Zambezi river (with its source in the Republic of Zambia in southern Africa), trekked to Manasarovar, Rongpo (in Sikkim) and the Everest Base Camp, visited Antarctica and scuba-dived off Lakshadweep, Phuket and Cairns. In 2007, we went to Galapagos and saw out the year by going rafting on the Brahmaputra.
How do you prepare for such a demanding expedition?
We’ve always considered physical fitness extremely important. Both of us swim or go for a brisk walk for half an hour or 45 minutes every day. For trips involving long treks and hikes, we incorporate some additional workouts two or three weeks before we set out. But we stuck to our regular regimen for this expedition.
I believe you did a pretty extensive tour of the North-East before starting on the river journey?
Lull before the storm: Enjoy the placid waters before the rapids.
That’s right. We hadn’t been to that part of the country earlier, so we were determined to make the most of the trip. From Mumbai, we flew to Guwahati and then hired a car to go to Shillong, Cherrapunji and Kaziranga, where we were thrilled to see plenty of rhinos. We met up with the rest of the members of Aquaterra’s Brahmaputra group at Dibrugarh.
I’m sure that excitement beat rhino-watching.
Oh, yes. The very first stage, the boat journey from Dibrugarh to Pasighat—a distance of 80km— was completely different from anything we had experienced so far. We used a small diesel-powered ferry, with a cabin in which three people, at most, could stretch out. There were no jetties, so we had to embark and disembark with luggage—ours mostly comprised very expensive camera equipment—over a wooden plank. Being able to balance oneself was quite crucial. The ferry took 9 hours, from 6am to 3pm. And the highlight—more entrancing than sightings of Brahmin Ducks, cormorants and fish-eating eagles—was buying the catch of the day from a fisherman on the river and having the two boatmen fry them for us. I’ll never forget the lovely taste of fish so fresh—that boat was quite our (RMS) Queen Elizabeth II!
And what was the river like?
Initially, the river didn’t seem all that daunting, but after the Lali and the Lohit joined in, it became so wide that it was difficult to see the shore on either side. In fact, it’s after the confluence that the river is known as the Brahmaputra: In Tibet, where it originates in Lake Manasarovar, it is called the Yarlung; further down, it’s the Tsangpo, and in Arunachal (Pradesh), it’s known as the Siang. Despite its size, though, it was absolutely calm. We reached Pasighat without incident and spent the night there at a lodge.
And went back on the river the next day?
Oh, no. We had a two-day drive ahead of us to Tuting, the last Indian village on the border with Tibet. Although we had to leave at four in the morning, the journey was very pleasant, through evergreen rainforests and orange orchards and along the Siang. Though the roads were rough, we were so taken with the experience no one felt tired. We stopped at Geku, Jedu, Ramsey and Palsi villages on the way—the locals are tribals and not very communicative—and finally reached Tuting. We could actually see Tibet from there.
How many of you were there, including the support staff?
There were 12 paid-up rafters—nine Indians and three Westerners—plus four people from Aquaterra, including its chief, Vaibhav Kala, three expert kayakers and five kitchen staff. The kayakers were from Canada, Ireland and the US. And, of course, we were the oldest in the group. Although we hadn’t travelled with Aquaterra earlier, we had good references for them and it showed—we wouldn’t have felt confident about undertaking such an expedition without really experienced hands. We weren’t familiar with the rafters prior to the trip, but that wasn’t a bother. And every one of us was excited about the adventure—that was important.
Tell me about the experience on the river. How many days did you actually spend on the Brahmaputra?
We were on the river for seven days. Four days of rafting was followed by a day’s break, then we were back on the river again for two days. For that entire week, we were completely cut off from the outside world— there was no television, no electricity, no newspaper, not even cellphones. In fact, for the first four days, we didn’t even have contact with the support truck.
After the first day, when we rafted our way from Tuting to Pango, the days took on a rhythm. We would be up by 6am—and you have to keep in mind that Arunachal Pradesh is one and a half hours ahead of the rest of the country—have breakfast by 7am, and be on the river by 8.30am. We would break around noon for lunch on the banks of the river, and then get back to the grind till 3 or 4pm. By 5pm, it would be pitch dark and we had to have the camp going by then. Evenings were given over to bonfires and the bar, followed by a good dinner. The next morning, we would pull down camp, clean up the site and gear up for the next section of the river.
Though we were all in wetsuits, the river itself was very cold. During the day, the sun was warm and the scenery amazing—blue sky, emerald mountains—and after sundown, it was clear and cold, the night sky studded with stars.
How was the rafting broken up?
That was the responsibility of the experts in the group. Wherever possible, they would be reading the river, gauging the possibilities and deciding strategies. Rafting is all about working as a team, so we had to follow our captain’s instructions meticulously. And it’s pretty hard work: Apart from our arms, which we used to paddle, we were working the quads and hamstrings quite strongly just to brace ourselves against the river. The rapids, of course, demanded very strong paddling.
How tough were the rapids?
We began encountering rapids from the first day itself. The first one, of course, was scary but as we negotiated successive ones, we began to grasp what we had to do. The undercurrents, whirlpools and waves were really challenging. On the fourth straight day of rafting, we came across a rapid christened the Moing Madness. That was frightening, but nothing like the Ponging rapid on the penultimate day. Our captain told us to hold on to the boat ropes, lean forward and brace ourselves. As the raft climbed over the rapids, it was hit from left and right by giant waves—we were 20ft high up in the air in a matter of seconds. Luckily, the vessel didn’t flip…and we felt like we had conquered Everest!
It is easiest to fly to Kolkata from New Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore and catch a connecting Indian Airlines flight to Dibrugarh. Return economy fares for the Kolkata-Dibrugarh leg start from Rs3,450, plus taxes.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at email@example.com