Military intervention on the Drass River, Kashmir

by Polly Miller

I was woken by the sound of a whistle, loud enough to reach me over the roar of the rapid racing by our tiny campsite. Opening one eye, dry from high altitude and desert conditions, I noticed Mike had left his sleeping bag. He came back to report that a man in pajamas wants us to cross the river. Reaching for my watch, I thought six am a bit rich for whistle blowing. Peeking under the tarp I saw an Indian Army truck and several heavily armed men on the other side of the river. An (obviously important) person in red and blue was getting quite excited. We got up, waved at our new visitors in a friendly way, made tea, and slowly began to pack up our campsite.

Paddling a class four rapid first thing in the morning is always something I find difficult, and when the river is racing by like a freight train and there are no easy warm up options, I get a little nervous. Mike led blithely down the right, missing the big features, and made his ferry like he wasnt paddling at 3000m. I bumbled down after him, missed my ferry and rolled. Quite awake now, I hurtled into an eddy, to see that the man in pajamas was actually a major and he was descending the river bank in front of us. One look at his face was enough to know that we were done paddling for the day. In impeccable English, we were politely told that we could not paddle any further as we were right on the border with Pakistan, It is very dangerous to paddle here! and that he was going to take us off the river and to the police.

Some background Mike and I were on the Drass River in Kashmir. We had flown in to Leh in Ladakh, northern India for two weeks independent boating before joining a team on the Zanskar. Once again, our friends had decided that leave and other commitments meant they couldnt join us, so we were self supporting as a two person team on some of the most challenging big water I had ever paddled.

The Drass is a fantastic run on the road between Kargil and Srinigar. The site of a major war between India and Pakistan in 1999, the road is now open to tourists, and the border had been quiet for months before we put on upstream of Drass village. Muslim roadbuilders watched Mike sort his gear, while tactfully ignoring me getting into my dry suit. Gentle class two led down to our first significant rapid, and we found ourselves paddling in slow motion the combination of loaded boats and high altitude.

Scouting the first rapid I felt that if I said anything negative, Mike would opt to portage. He had warmed up on skinny rivers in Canada, whereas Id spent some time paddling in Norway so felt a little more prepared. A series of drops led to a must make move to the right, which both of us made just. Sitting at the bottom in an eddy we both laughed as we caught our breath, and reflected that the rapid had been considerably harder than some of the class five drops we had run at home.

Each tributary joining the Drass seemed to almost double its flow, and it wasnt long before we felt we were no longer on a creek. Two more gorges before the village of Drass had us out of our boats and inspecting one, a box canyon with the whole river squeezing between a half metre gap we portaged. After the village the river eased off, and we floated on class two and three past impeccably irrigated fields green against the dry hills. Mountains towered at the end of the valley, and the necessity to take small rest breaks after almost any activity (like putting on your spray skirt) meant time for admiring the fantastic scenery.

After the road left the river, we started to look for a campsite. We found a grassy spot with clean(ish) water, and started our routine of rehydration and cooking. Tea with sweetened condensed milk, soup, veges and rice were all very good. It almost never rains in Ladakh, but we put up Mikes cute new tarp for the fun of it and had our first night on the river.

The next day we had an hour of class two and three warm up, before the river disappeared into a huge rapid on a sharp left hand bend. A spectacular tributary cascaded down the bank on the river right, and we decided that we would rather our boats did not end up in Pakistan, and opted to portage.

Below this the river was big volume fun. Boat scouting continuous class four rapids, Mike and I made our way down to truck rapid, where a full size Tata truck was stuck in the river on the easy left line. We paddled right, and took photos. Before we knew it, we were at gun emplacement rapid (we named it for the huge guns on the river right pointing ominously towards Pakistan). Cheekily, we scrambled up the bank and scouted from the bridge that only the military use. A bemused colonel in a red beret smiled at us, and we waved at the soldiers and continued down the river.

Mike ran out of energy and was keen to call it a day. Scrambling up one likely bank, I encountered a full army camp, complete with sandbag defenses and mounted guns. Smiling reassuringly (and backing away rapidly) I suggested to Mike that we try further down for a campsite. We scouted and saw a tiny beach protected on one side by a cliff and the other side by a rapid. Thinking wed get up in the morning and paddle the last 10km, we happily made camp. And thats where the story at the beginning of the article comes in.

The army major was not only polite, he gave us tea and space to change before loading us with our boats in a truck to Kargil. We scouted the rest of the river from the road it got bigger and bigger but looked much the same character as what wed already done. At the police station we were given another lecture about the dangers of boating on the border and were released to find a taxi back to Leh.