FROM TONS RIVER TO RUPIN PASS
On the frail suspension bridge to Mora village in Uttarakhand the mind easily surrendered to blissful disorientation.
The wind blew as it pleased while the Tons River flowed furiously in a direction set centuries ago. Right below was a swirling eddy. What you stood on was too narrow and minimalist to intrude into the frame – you felt afloat like a feather. Looking down into the river seemed great to unwind; as an element, water was soothing, the patterns of flowing water were as soothing. In the near two months spent rafting and hiking in that region, I did this quite a few times to forget Mumbai and occasionally my outdoor camp, not all students there committed to making life easy for an instructor. That day however, the last batch was in progress. Once the camp ended four of us planned to hike upstream and cross the mountains into Himachal Pradesh. Although meant to relax after extended work, in my journalist mind it was assuming the shape of an unexpected river story.
The Tons was a tributary of the Yamuna, joining the latter at Kals in the north western part of the Dehradun valley. It was born from the confluence of two rivers – the Supin, which arose from a glacier near the Har-ki-dun valley in Garhwal and the Rupin, traced to a glacier in the environs of the Rupin Pass on the border of Uttarakhand and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Between the two originating rivers, the Supin, draining waters from the Bunderpunch, Swargarohini and Black Peak massifs, was the greater volume generator accounting for a bulk of the flow in the Tons. The unassuming Tons, tucked deep into the folds of the Himalayan foothills was in the news during the days of the Vajpayee government, when much interest was shown in rediscovering the vanished river of the Vedic period – the Saraswati. Some researchers had argued that the present day Tons represented the upper reaches of that mythological river.
The Tons was a tributary of the Yamuna, joining the latter at Kals in the north western part of the Dehradun valley. It was born from the confluence of two rivers – the Supin, which arose from a glacier near the Har-ki-dun valley in Garhwal and the Rupin, traced to a glacier in the environs of the Rupin Pass on the border of Uttarakhand and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.
If I remember right, I first saw the Tons after I quit my regular job to be a freelance journalist. That would be post-2006. Our camp then was in a wooded spot on the river’s bank. It was a damp place with occasional rain and the river’s sound for constant company. Just before and after the camp were small beaches, ideal for a few moments of solitude. Across the river was a rocky cliff. Perfect. However, in the summer of 2008, much confusion had preceded the arrival of the annual rafting camps. The authorities wanted a shift in camp site; we found ourselves considerably upstream bang in the path of the daily storm. Every afternoon we hung to our tents to prevent them from flying off and when the wind became too powerful, we simply collapsed the tents ourselves and waited out the swirling dust. Strictly speaking, this area while mountainous qualified to be the approach to the real giants beyond. We were in the foothills. From camp, you could easily do treks that took you to 8000 feet or more. That was nothing in the Himalayan world. But then, the very scale used for measurement here was different.
I clearly remember realizing this on my first mountaineering expedition in Zanskar – how small the hills of the Western Ghats (a long north-south mountain chain in peninsular India, not far from the west coast) seemed when compared to the sprawl of a bump in the lower Himalaya. Mountain features are universal but scale made every inch of this terrain engaging And that, included the hills surrounding our river camp. The Tons River though had to be viewed differently. For those fascinated by size, the enormity of the Brahmaputra’s waves would probably make a passage down that river the big mama of Indian rafting experiences. I haven’t been on that river, famous for its high volume of water and in river rafting, the size of swells it sported as a result. One river guide who worked there annually on a near 200 kilometer-stretch told me, “ if you can handle those swells you should be able to endure the trip.’’ The Tons was a pigmy compared to that colossus barreling down from Tibet, but it was a tricky pigmy.
River runners considered the Tons to be a technical river, which indicated requirement for skill. The river was shallow in parts, the waters were fast flowing and rocks abounded, to the extent that a prominent danger if thrown overboard was foot entrapment. You could get pinned down. It was also a chameleon of a river. For long in May, it maintained uniform temperament and the daily ritual of rafting grew to being predictable. The student groups came and went but the instructor stayed. Slowly, you came to know by heart the next curve in the river, the next rapid, the angle to hit it and even how the raft would behave as it cleared the section. Something was lost. Looking at the safety kayakers skimming by – a lone person in a tiny boat – I longed to taste their freedom.
River runners considered the Tons to be a technical river, which indicated requirement for skill. The river was shallow in parts, the waters were fast flowing and rocks abounded, to the extent that a prominent danger if thrown overboard was foot entrapment.
Then one day, the regular valley weather with its occasional light shower and heavy wind, befriended a larger system blowing in from far. There was heavy rain. The region’s main village was Mori. Located at a turn in the river, it was a cluster of buildings on either side of the road; eateries, provision stores, couple of saloons, fuel shop and a flour mill. It was a village settled into its own pace those two months, except when the inter-village cricket tournament started at Khunigad, few miles down the road. The game was a serious affair and Mori had a team in it. The area was clothed in pine forests, the pine trees here being quite tall with one late specimen having ranked as the tallest in Asia. When the downpour came, villagers counted the number of vehicles coming in from Netwar and Shimla and concluded that the Shimla road downstream was in trouble. They could sense it from the volume of vehicular traffic. They were right. That road was blocked by intermittent landslides, something we discovered the hard way after our small pick-up truck got bogged down in landslip-mud.
Waiting for a bulldozer to nudge our stuck vehicle free, I noticed the change to hill streams pouring into the Tons. Their waters were dark brown, caused by erosion and landslips up in the hills. That was not a good sign. With the normally clear stream water rendered murky, it would soon become imperative for hikers in these hills to either boil water or at the very least add chlorine tablets for safety. Working and hiking despite the weather, I was soon a candidate for antibiotics. What else can I say; it just got you – the damn bug. I am no botanist but from what I have heard, those pretty pine forests had much to do with soil erosion and probably, all that mud in stream and river waters. Although pine was dominant vegetation, environmentalists reminded you that pine was not indigenous to forests in these parts. Identified for its merit to make sleepers for railway tracks, the British had planted it purposefully. Growing aggressively, the pine found a new home in the Himalaya. It also extracted a price. Unlike a tropical rain forest canopy that split heavy rain drops into gentler ones, the tall pines had no such leaves to do the job. The drops landed like bullets on soft soil, which, having only a carpet of pine needles for cover was quite unprotected. The needles had another property – they made the soil too acidic for other trees to grow; trees that could have held back soil with their extensive roots. The result was alpine beauty and monsoon misery.
Meanwhile in Mori, the Tons had become an angry, muddy flow, crashing into rocks and attacking its banks. It stayed swollen for three quarters of that day spent freeing our vehicle. By evening, its original grey color returned. A week or so later, it rained heavily again. The river went through the same transformation with an added twist – a dense fog hugged its surface. It was a fog confined to the river, tracing its shape and course. The water was terribly cold. At camp, friends housed in tents close to the river shivered through the night. At least one came down with high fever. Rafting the usual stretch next morning was a surreal experience. You couldn’t see beyond fifteen feet, it was smoky white all around. The ice cold river slapped against the sides of the raft while dense fog settled on the water to a certain height, before the craggy cliffs on either side broke through and towered above. What made the ambience unique was the silent passage of the rafts, river guides straining to see the next raft and the way this scene appeared – like a mysterious boat-load of people emerging from the mist to make contact.
Rafting the usual stretch next morning was a surreal experience. You couldn’t see beyond fifteen feet, it was smoky white all around.
That afternoon, it rained again.
Next day, the lead river guide stopped me on the way to the usual rafting spot. He had brought a raft with him to try the river from quite upstream where the rapids had always been of a higher grade. “ I have never seen the river so furious before,’’ he said. Looking back, I am unsure if he actually meant that or whether that was bait dangled. The fish in me fell for it hook, line and sinker. For me, it was an adrenalin moment, the sort outdoor enthusiasts found difficult to ignore. As in climbing, where routes on rock had specific names and grades; so did rapids in a white water river. From the Tons, I recall names like `Let’s Go,’ `Give Me More’ and `Sticky Sarla.’ And like climbing routes which changed grades depending on prevailing route condition, so did these rapids. That meant, the river’s new found fury changed everything.
We had two safety kayakers this time. Aboard we were a team of five in the lone raft. The moment we hit the current, the gravity of the challenge crashed home in full measure. The river was fast, water volume was sizably up and the rapids’ grades had risen correspondingly. I noticed that the safety kayakers were also playing it by the book, avoiding direct confrontation with the rapids and staying secure by the side to keep a vigil on the raft’s progress though the heavy stuff. Usually with clients and students, outdoor instructors were a well mannered lot, role-modeling to the best of their ability. Now for the first time in weeks, expletives laced the commands on the raft, as we struggled to face the angry river with some dignified rafting. Save an impression of people watching high up from the bank I have no clear memory of anything beyond what immediately mattered – the guide, my raft, the river and the safety kayakers. That was my world. At the end of the run we were a happy, exhausted bunch. “ Please excuse the outburst and expletives. But somehow in India we work well only when the whip is cracked,’’ the guide said. Everyone smiled.
Weeks later, an Internet post on kayaking down the Rupin would correct my euphoria and bring me firmly down to ground level. The post highlighted the essence of river running in these parts. Paddling much upstream from where we had been the Canadian author – he too had been working at a rafting camp near Mori – assessed gradient at approximately 200 feet for every mile of the river and cited falls ranging from three feet to ten feet in the “ boulder filled creek.’’ If you are trying to imagine the mentioned parameters, add gushing river water to complete the scene with a kayak in it.
River guides added character to the Tons valley around Mori. Rafting being the main sport here, they upheld the outdoor tradition. Every smile was valued. Give one and you got one back with a wave thrown in for bonus. Stay long and you saw them on their daily outings. Mornings were usually busy, spent rafting with clients. Mini-trucks carrying rafts and guides plied the narrow roads. By evening, the small river running community, split into several camps along the river, paid visits to each other or went for a stroll to Mori. Hard work and long weeks in the outdoors had made them athletic. Needless to say, it was a matter of pride for me to acquire after many days, a similar spring in step and confidence in self. In all my extended visits to wilderness this eventual transition to a life of few wants – a trimmed lifestyle – was the best return on investment.
(…..TO BE CONTINUED)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Suma Rao for permitting the use of photos from her collection. A slightly abridged version of this article – ie parts one and two of the river story, combined – was published in Man’s World magazine.)