Last year a team of eight young Czechs became the first to conquer the upper part of the Ganges River in India rapid white water, full of unexpected turns, and sheer, sudden drops. All eight took to the river in white water kayaks designed to take an absolute beating. Boats that allow for fast turns and magnificent tricks in waves of surging and unforgiving water, with nowhere else to go but down. Ready for whatever lies ahead.
The Water Rats is what this group of intrepid adventurers call themselves - a group so gung-ho they never thought twice about taking on part of the Ganges no one else had ever conquered before. Ondrej Krupka was part of the actual kayak team, while Jana Blahoutova, a certified nurse, was part of the support crew, who viewed the scene from the shore. She said the trip was one of the most exciting she'd ever been on, not least the experience of driving on India's roads.
"Even though all the guidebooks say that in India they drive on the left, it's not really true: they drive everywhere! Regardless of whether it's on the left or the right, or even through ditches: when you want to pass another vehicle all you do is honk. You don't wait, you drive, and wait for the other guy to move out of the way. Basically, you just drive."
Still, the decision to take on the Ganges by white water kayak was perhaps even more daring. Even if the boats' tough plastics were perfect for the most unforgiving conditions: fast water, fuelled by the monsoon season, it must still have taken a good measure of bravery. Here Ondrej Krupka describes the start of the expedition at the upper section of the river in the Himalayas, where the Water Rats chose to begin:
"We were about 4, 000 metres above sea level. Rocks. Ice. No trees. A deserted landscape, covered in mist and fog. In the distance I could hear the sound of rocks - rocks grinding against the bottom of the river. The river was so strong the current was driving small boulders forward. If that weren't enough, there were chunks of ice floating in the river from the nearby glacier. Not all that inviting, really."
Sound like something that would make you want to just jump into the river? Well, before you could your fellow members would still have to scout sections of the river for dangerous bends. Then you see the pictures or the film the support crew shot while they were there: a kayaker tumbling in the water, or flying off the precipice of a simply massive waterfall. There must have been more than a few moments when members on shore must have held their breath and, frankly, kept their fingers crossed.
"It's true that you don't really see everything from standing on the shore, and it was only after seeing the material we filmed that I realised what the kayakers had really faced in the middle of several metre high crashing waves. When I saw some of those shots it really made me feel acute panic. Even if it was all after the fact."
Still, nothing cuts down the feeling of adrenaline achieved in such an extreme sport. At least one thing displayed consistently in the Water Rats' short film about their trip is the sharpest of concentration on the part of all team members. In short, the 'rats are professionals - they do their utmost not to be caught with "their wet-suits down", figuratively speaking - and cut down on any risks. Those are simply too real to ever take lightly.
"I tried not to think about it. It is a risk - we try to minimalise it but a couple times I did catch myself thinking 'What if one of us fails to come back?' What would we tell his mum? But you try to push such thoughts aside, because in the end you could be paralysed by fear, becoming incapable of making the right decision when it counts."
Visiting a country like India, even to kayak, can never only be about kicking around and riding over the rocks in the white water: one aspect of the trip for the whole crew was discovering the country itself. Being blessed by a local holy man to visiting numerous historic sites, and just taking in the occasional quiet afternoon appreciating being in nature. And then there was the mysticism of the Ganges River itself. While not really a spiritual man Ondrej Krupka admits he was fascinated by seeing hundreds of pilgrims flocking to the Ganges' banks at the river's lower levels. It made him think twice about the power of the water which he and his team had explored.
"It is said that the water of the Ganges cleanses the soul. When I saw the crowds of thousands headed for the river I had to ask myself whether the peoples' belief itself did not lend the river extraordinary qualities. I don't know, but who can say? Perhaps it can have a positive effect on a kayaker passing through. At an especially difficult junction, maybe it can suddenly fill you with courage."
The group also travelled through a part of India that has since been completely covered by water. They can remember or watch the film they shot, but at least one village they visited no longer exists.
"The dam began to be filled at that time, but in this one village nearby there were still people selling their wares, CDs and stuff. The village must be under water by now."
"They stood there by their shops, almost all of them old. They stood there and you could tell they didn't have any idea how to help themselves. It was clear that anybody who had, had left long ago."
In the end, not a trip but a journey: combining a physical test and extreme conditions with a touch of the spiritual and the unknown. And a touch of sadness at the changes brought on by the building of a massive dam.
India. The Ganges. And a bunch of crazy guys and their friends who call themselves the "Water Rats". One has to envy them, just a bit and wish once you could try landing a kayak off a jump as if it took almost no effort at all.
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