Sunday, June 07, 2009

Descent into the Valley of the Hornbills - A Kameng Odyssey

Outlook Traveller June 2009

“I’m an Indian and even I don’t want to visit this place. It’s a punishment posting for me, I’m sorry to say. But I have no choice, I’m building a dam here. Why did you people choose to come here?” asked a loud voice that cut through our dinnertime conversation rudely. The man was drunk and we were suddenly tongue-tied. No one tried to reply to his befuddled face and eventually the engineer’s embarrassed colleagues hustled him away. How was one to tell him that the idea of visiting this part of the world had made us salivate with anticipation? However, we didn’t blame him for his uncharitable thoughts. If we had been stuck in Seppa (christened “Septic Seppa” for its garbage and disarray), we would have also rudely barged into someone else’s party and asked the same question. But we were just transiting through this frontier town and had another 60 km to go.
At our destination, Marjangle, a Nishi village set on a one-vehicle dirt track on the Arunchal hillside, we set up camp on the gravelly beach and went to sleep to the soothing sounds of the River Kameng gurgling over pebbles. Kameng trickled out of a lake below the 6858 m Gori Chen glacier on the Indo-Tibetan border. It rushes down western Arunachal Pradesh increasing in volume until it meets the Brahmaputra near Tezpur, Assam. This expedition was to be the third descent of the Kameng.

The next morning, an audience watched us break camp. There was an audible gasp when the tents were collapsed and packed into bags. Pretty soon, the only things left standing were the crafts - two rafts, one catamaran for cargo and a safety kayak. A second “cat” would be put in much later in the trip. Long after sun-up, we were all kitted up, briefed on safety issues and had boarded our respective rafts. “Will you bring us a woman or two next time you come,” asked the village elder while we waited for the “cat” to get loaded up. We turned to each other, “Did he really say that?” The elder repeated his request and we pretended to ignore him. He upped the ante, “I’ll give you [an animal’s] head” and he spaced his hands out in front of his chest. I wondered what animal he was offering to trade but to seek clarification is to signal willingness to negotiate. Our presence was provocative enough that he unsheathed his sword and began an impromptu dance on the river’s edge. The cameras came out which goaded him to dance some more. Eventually the “cat” was ready and we set off. Considering how recently (right up to the 40s and 50s) head-hunting and slave-taking were part of the area’s history, we got away easily.

Two young hunters watching us portage the rafts over boulders

The river was low as the last monsoons had not been adequate. We decided to forge ahead nonetheless. The rafts snagged on boulders and often just the whole crew, comically bouncing up and down in unison was enough to free them. The “cat”, weighed down by cargo, needed more hands-on shifting and shaking to make it budge. Sometimes, we carried baggage around non-existent rapids delaying us by hours. On the first day, we barely made 8 km of the total of 116 km.

We were tired, yes, but the kitchen crew and the river guides slogged the most, making several trips transporting the heaviest bags, pushing and pulling rafts out of rocks, over boulders, setting up the kitchen, cooking, pumping water into the decanter for drinking, loading and unloading all the gear every day. At the end of a very rough first day, Anvesh (the safety kayaker) moaned in mock misery, “Why did I not listen to my father and study to be an engineer?” I remembered the homesick engineer at Seppa and thought Anvesh had it good.

Every afternoon, while we set up camp, Rom would stalk off with a fishing rod hoping to catch a chocolate mahseer or snow trout, but any fish would do. The local fish didn’t fancy his American spinners. The kitchen staff helpfully made a ball of wheat dough for bait. On the Cauvery in south India, Rom had successfully caught mahseer on ragi balls. The Himalayan fish didn’t even taste it. The local fishermen we met along the way advised using insect baits. The dynamite blasting we heard every day, however, didn’t bode well. Throwing a stick of the explosive into the river stuns all the fish in that area and they float belly up, easy pickings for the lazy fisherman. The larger fish go into the pot, while the smaller fish float down river, unnecessarily dead.

Once camp had been set up, vegetables chopped for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch, we sat by the fire roasting our wet suits, and polypropylene underwear (The “polypros” were essential especially if we fell into the freezing water.). The trick to speed drying is not to let them hang from a post but to stand in them by the fire. But by the time we pulled ashore, everyone eagerly anticipated getting out of the wet, clingy, heavy suits so this wisdom was wasted knowledge. We were shooting through rapids within a short time of donning our fire-dried and smoked suits and it was no wonder that none of the river guides ever bothered drying theirs. Nonetheless we hassled it every night for those first few minutes of comfort every morning. All our belongings went into a waterproof bag that had to be vacuum packed to withstand the tumbling through the rapids. Unfortunate souls who didn’t pack well had to dry their sleeping bags and clothes by the fire. In one case, even a passport!

The next day, the speed of travel increased as the Pakke River joined the Kameng and we didn’t have to stop for every little pile of boulders. And we finally encountered some pretty hairy rapids, the Pakke Socksucker (Class 4 +). The rapids were spaced out in 4 stages and we managed to get through the first two easily while the third almost had us! Just as we were digging into our shoes (and socks) for the last stage, Arvind, the river guide, yelled “BACKPADDLE, BACKPADDLE”. Our adrenalin-fueled paddle-work took us ashore; we had been about to shoot straight into a logjam. There was no choice but to haul out and hoist baggage and raft over the boulders, paddle across a still pool to a beach. Exhausted, this is where we camped.

The Gruesome Geyser
The next morning we woke up to discover that the river level had gone up overnight. Our campfire was inundated and the still pool had turned into a cascading waterfall. It had rained upriver; and it could only get better. The day’s highlight was Gruesome Geyser (Class 5). We braced ourselves for the washing machine turbulence and I was mundanely hoping not to lose my contact lenses. But then, anticlimax: the river guides decided not to risk it; so we portaged the bags over the boulders. Once the rescue team signaled “ok”, by holding one closed fist on top of the head, to each other, the guides rafted down. Thus we chickened out of rafting two of the best-named rapids of the river!

After a few days of team paddling, we were finally just developing a rhythm. In the heart of the rapids, with the water deafening in our ears, Arvind yelled “HARD FORWARD, HARD FORWARD.” We obeyed him reflexively but sometimes we were paddling the air so hard that we almost lost balance and fell in. When the raft was in danger of being buffeted, we hunkered down and held on to the safety rope. If we weren’t where we were supposed to be on a rapid, we would have to instantaneously go “OVER RIGHT” or “OVER LEFT” without conking our counterpart’s teeth with the back of the paddle. It seems very easy to fall into the rapids, perched as we were on the side tubes. Seat belts would be life-threatening if the raft flipped. In fact, a slamming hard turn through a boiling rapid caused one rafter to fall in. He went under for a moment but the rapids quickly spat him out. Later the guides told us that some particularly ugly mothers can pound an overboard rafter underwater for a minute or more before releasing him. But Max came shooting out of the rapids, face and feet pointing skywards. We were downriver and paddled hard to get to the centre of the current to meet him. Several hands hoisted him aboard, a textbook rescue. The rapid was christened the Max Ejector.

We stopped under the bridge spanning the river at Pakke village; the rapids ahead needed scouting. School kids clutching fragments of textbooks and notebooks in their hands crowded around, a few also had catapults, and all had runny noses. One of the older ones shyly asked, “The last year when the kayakers came, they gave us American food. It was very tasty. Do you have any American food? We’d like to taste it once more.” Unfortunately every article was packed in the wet bags which were lashed to the rafts and the catamarans and there was no way we could unpack kit and caboodle there. Another poked the inflatable raft and asked what was it made of. Rom countered, “What do you think it is made of?” and the thoughtful youngster replied “elephant skin”. Last year, a man had tried to puncture the inflatable “cat” with his dagger, perhaps not maliciously but out of curiosity. Some of the kids wanted to get into the raft and we were afraid that it might capsize because once a few got on, there was no way we could hold back the others. Although we said it was dangerous, we did wish we could take them for a ride. Our trip wasn’t bringing any benefits to local people directly, but we could share the fun at least. As we prepared to leave, one of the kids hailed us. We had left a rescue bag behind.

Eamon, one of the river guides, studying the medical kit for a quick cold fix

That afternoon, the river was flat and we paddled extra time to get past Seppa. Filth, plastic bottles and other debris, the familiar symbols of modern civilization littered the banks. Perched inches above this sewage-stinking filth, sometimes being splashed with it, felt disgusting. A few hundred metres away was a sandy beach dominated by two large fig trees, which was to be our camp. Anvesh warned everyone against hanging anything on them as they were colonized by weaver ants. We could see the small parcels of nests on the crown silhouetted against the sky. These little Napoleans of the forest are disproportionately fierce in protecting “their” trees. Make the mistake of leaning on the tree or hanging anything on it, and their stinging bites are enough to sow terror in your memory forever.

The next day, we rafted through 23 rapids (Class 4) within a few hours. Arvind talked of hydraulics, spill-overs and whirlpools and when he described his strategy for riding them, we felt like teenage adrenalin junkies. But he seemed so confident that we suppressed any glimmer of sanity. This was white water nirvana. Anvesh, who had been complaining earlier, couldn’t stop beaming. He eskimo-rolled more times an hour than any sea otter.

Confluence camp

Somewhere along the way we entered Pakke Tiger Reserve. After seeing a lot of slashed and burnt hillsides, finally there was old growth forest of the kind we sought. At every pit stop we found leopard tracks. On a sandy promontory overlooking the confluence of Kameng and Bichom, we struck camp (Confluence Camp). Drawing inspiration from the spectacular setting, Rom headed for the rocky pools upriver. Fishermen must be exceptional optimists to go out repeatedly in the face of so much failure. Hours later, a dejected Rom returned to camp mystified by the seeming lack of life in the river. Earlier that day we had seen a dead fish bobbing amongst some rocks, a victim of dynamiting. It was the very same species of labeo, an algae-eating carp that we had seen with fishermen, and at the market in Seppa. Where had all the other fish gone? In particular where were the mahseer?

The river narrowed and passed through “Gorgeous Gorge” with vegetation dripping down its steep stony walls and contorted trees perched precariously on the edge. The river was swift flowing but deep and there were no boulders to add fizz to our journey. We drifted along gazing up at the towering cliff sides, content in the knowledge that there were no roads or any infrastructure for a few miles around. It’s a miracle that in this country of a billion plus people, one could still lose oneself in the wilderness.

That evening we camped at the wildest spot on the entire trip. It had been named “Stampede” last year, after a lone, curious elephant had been startled enough to run right through the middle of camp, missing the guy ropes of a few tents by inches. True to Anvesh’s tale, an elephant had walked down the steep beach, swam across the river, climbed up onto our beach and disappeared into the jungle. When we thought back on our day’s journey through high gorges, this was the first place that was negotiable by elephants; we were going to camp in the middle of an elephant highway!

One of the crew caught a large grasshopper for Rom and he went off to try yet again, while some of us ventured to explore the forest behind the camp. We followed the stream silently, ears alert to sounds of elephants feeding. Despite it being far away from humanity, there were abandoned fishing traps on the river. High up in the nearest hill, we heard the bleating of goats. Yikes! We were close to humans, I muttered dismissively. It was while I was climbing over some large boulders that I realized that the elephants had also done the same. I would never have believed that possible had it not been for the tracks imprinted in the sand. Large ones and little baby ones. A leopard had also walked along the river as had others, such as civets or martens. Colonies of little towers, about three inches high, rose in the drier parts of the river bed; it was dirt that had passed through the gut of earthworms. Birds of unknown pedigree flitted amongst the red flowers of the bombax trees. Contentment and peace settled over me at the sight of all this life.

Back at camp, I mentioned the goats to Rom who refused to believe us. He said it was a bird making the bleating call. That was hard to believe just as it was hard to believe that there were goats in the middle of the forest. While we stood there debating, three pairs of Great Indian hornbills, their great wings beating “whoosh whoosh whoosh” flow homewards in the dusk. There was nothing more to be said.

We had two fires going that night, one at either end of the camp, to keep out the elephants. We also agreed that if an elephant did approach we would yell and make for the high ground on one side of camp. Another wondered if we should take turns staying awake and keeping watch. Eventually after dinner, everyone was so exhausted, we just crawled into our tents and went to sleep. A brief spell of rain put out the fires unbeknownst to us. Despite the failed precautions, all the tents were still standing the next morning!

We were about to position ourselves for the day’s first rapids, when one of the “cats” loaded heavy with bags hit a major hydraulic which swung it around and left it perched precariously. Bhim would have slipped back and continued on had a subsequent wave not hit him just then and he capsized. Meanwhile the other raft had already made it through and they rescued Bhim and towed the “cat” to quieter waters. We managed to raft through this white water without mishap and the men rushed over to help.

Trying to set right a flipped catamaran

One side pulled and the other side pushed, it was evenly matched. The fulcrum had to shift to set the “cat” back on its tubes. It was exhausting to even watch the struggle. The force of the rushing water didn’t help the efforts at all nor was there any way of accessing the bags to lighten the load. Finally one of the crew crawled through the gap under the “cat”, a risky maneuver, and pushed hard. The free tube flew through the air and landed with a splash on the other side sending the “pulling” team into the water. Anvesh declared this was the first “cat” flip he had had in the last 12 years.

Landslides caused by road construction
About 16 rapids later, when the sun was nearly overhead, we began seeing earth-diggers, trucks, roads, colonies of construction workers. These were precursory signs of the dam that was being constructed across the Kameng. Debris slid into the river, landslides marked the points where roads had unsettled the stability of the slope. The boulders rolled down, bounced off the slope, flew through the air to land in the water with a big splash. The river guides’ shrill whistles pierced our ears. They were trying to attract the attention of an earth mover way up on a hill slope that was dropping the boulders into the river. Eventually a passing car conveyed our message and the machine stopped.

We had long flat stretches to paddle against a strong headwind until we reached the outskirts of Bhalukpong by late afternoon. The vehicles stood ready to whisk us away to Nameri Eco Camp where we were greeted by the nonstop raucous chatter of hill mynas, and parakeets. After 7 days of paddling, it felt good to rest our weary bodies on soft mattresses, eat dinner at a table, have a hot shower and clean the sand from our ears. The fishing may have been disappointing, but the rafting certainly was way beyond our expectations. The trip had all the makings of a rite of passage; we felt totally renewed despite being completely wrung out.

The triumphant team