(don't do the Zara Chu)
Welcome to Mars...the Zara Chu below the get-in.
I was feeling pretty nervous, and revealed this by asking stupid questions.
"So, erm, what happens if you miss the breakout?"
Tom's reply was instant and predictable.
Darryl went first, volunteering without fuss. Tom and I watched him run the entrance rapid into the sheer sided gorge. He found a micro-eddy about ten metres above the rock-fall that happened to be blocking the whole river, and grabbed a greasy rock to secure himself. It wasn't enough however, and his boat swung back out into the current. Darryl turned his head downstream and appeared to be considering running the evil looking maelstrom below. As distant spectators peering into the gorge, we couldn't help him but we could certainly panic on his behalf.
"Don't do it, Man..."
"Get the bloody eddy, Darryl..."
Then with a sudden spurt of energy he drove his boat up against the rock, gained a secure handhold and leapt ashore. Tom and I breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now it was our turn, but we had the advantage of Darryl grabbing our boats. Even so, we didn't know yet if the Grade 6 we could see could actually be portaged around....
Macho stuff or what? I'd just love to have you believing that the above scenario constitutes an average days' paddle for me. But the truth is elsewhere. A quick glance at my BCU logbook has just told me that on the same date a year before, I was busy kayaking the raging ferocity of Lulworth Cove. I'm still somewhat confused as to how exactly I wound up on the Zara Chu.
I had wanted to visit the Ladakh region of India ever since reading Paul Mackenzies' article on the 'Little Tibet Expedition' ('Canoeist', Dec '92). A high altitude desert tucked away to the north of the Himalayas, Ladakh was supposed to contain one of the worlds' best paddling trips; the combined Tsarap, Zanskar and Indus Rivers. The appeal of the 'Grand Canyon of Asia' rested partly with my desire to see the Himalayas again, and partly with the fact that this Grand Canyon didn't have an eleven year waiting list and would certainly be cheaper to visit than the Arizona version. My usual paddling buddies don't have the same amount of time on their hands as me, so it was clear I had to go alone or not at all. This summer I said goodbye to my classes at the end of Term and took advantage of a cheap last minute flight to Delhi. Before I left, I was put in touch with Tom and Darryl, two Brit paddlers who were possibly/ maybe/ perhaps going to be in North India at the same time.
Flying my Whiplash to Delhi (and back) was no problem or cost, the airline folk neither blinked at it nor weighed my unwieldy kit. I could have turned up with a stuffed Rhino for all they seemed to care. The journey up to Leh, capital of Ladakh was more diverting, involving an extended stay in Bus Hell. Select experiences included waking up in mid-air halfway down a bus aisle (don't ever pick the centre rear seat) and lying flat on the roofrack with strings of prayer flags and live power cables swishing past inches overhead. At least I had company for part of the journey. As the Manali - Leh bus was about to pull off (two hours late) to begin it's two day epic trundle across the Himalayas, a jeep pulled up with two battered kayaks on top and two battered kayakers inside. Somewhat improbably, I'd run into Tom and Darryl. They were disorientated and unaware that they had nearly missed the bus; this was due to the combined effects of running Monsoon Madness rivers and of a week spent in Manali, the most spaced out town on earth. The journey that followed was superlative, climbing to altitudes exceeding...well, something very high I guess. By the second day we sat up on the roof suffering from Catatonic Scenery Overload Syndrome;
"Oh no, not MORE awesome glaciers and mountains. What I'd give to be back on the Coventry Canal..."
Up in Leh, we recovered from the journey and conducted an extended comparison survey of the numerous Cake Shops. Spectacular Buddhist Monasteries overshadowed the town from a steep hill; we told ourselves we would climb up there once 'acclimatised'. The local raft guides made us feel pretty welcome. After a few days, excuses to stay dry began to wear pretty thin. In order to maintain some kind of credibility with our hosts, we were forced to get our long plastic suitcases wet. We took up an invitation to join a raft trip on a nearby section of the Indus River. This proved to be an opportunity to sun ourselves on bouncy easy rapids which the raft customers often chose to swim; it became clear that we weren't desperately needed in a safety capacity! This paddle gave us some ideas of what to expect on Ladakh rivers. The scenery was generally utterly barren and vertically inclined. As we reached the (fairly beautiful) point where the Indus was joined by the Zanskar, the warm water suddenly became liquid ice...no more swimming from the rafters!
In our suite in the 'Leh Hilton' (actually a cowshed full of raft kit), we planned our big trip. This was to be the classic Tsarap/ Zanskar 'Grand Canyon' trip with a surreal variation; we would begin on an obscure tributary of the Tsarap called the Zara Chu. This ran from a put-in at fourteen thousand feet-ish for forty miles-ish and dropped two thousand feet-ish (grade unknown-ish) before joining the Tsarap. The only clue we had to go on was a vague mention by Pete Knowles that it was unpaddled and seemed to include 'interesting' gorges. With seven days' kit and food concertinaed into the back of my low volume Whiplash, I was clearly going to provide hilarious entertainment.
The journey to the put-in was retrospectively code-named 'Operation Ordeal by Jeep'. We could have taken the bus up there, but for convenience, speed and comfort, hired our own jeep. Ha bloodyha. Operation OBJ began when the jeep driver inexplicably refused to set off for a couple of hours and pretended to speak no English. Having finally got going, he managed a few miles before trundling to a halt. He suddenly regained multilinguistic capabilities.
"Oh no. I have broken down."
"No you haven't, you're out of petrol."
"Ah, here is my best friend in another Jeep. He will take you and your boats."
"No he won't. Put some flipping petrol in the tank."
An extended stand-off began. Our driver refused to budge and driver #2 returned every half hour or so, waving bits of scribbled scrap paper which were variously claimed to be a driving licence and orders to us from Head Office in Leh. Each time he returned he brought more henchmen with him, presumably for 'moral' support. We did NOT want to travel with this guy. Matters finally came to a head when Tom (not a small fellow) put a grim expression on and faced down the whole crowd with a hard stare. Suddenly petrol was produced and we were on our way, our original jeep having apparently fixed itself.
Operation OBJ wasn't over. Running the engine dry had cream-crackered the engine and we kept on breaking down, this time for real. This got beyond being a novel experience when we shuddered to a halt, clearly permanently, near the top of a seventeen thousand foot pass. Hitching away and abandoning our driver seemed the obvious option; except that traffic was thinner than the air. After an indeterminate period of thirsty boredom, a military convoy of ten ton trucks wiggled it's way up the hill towards us. I waggled my thumb, wondering just how big the soldiers' guns would be. Tom wasn't convinced of my plan.
"I have a bad feeling about this..."
But the Indian Army were on a mercy mission; to rescue us from Operation OBJ. An Officer type with Ray-Bans and lots of gold braid on his chest barked orders and while a detachment remained behind to fix our jeep, we slung the boats in the back of a huge truck and headed off. It got better; their Base turned out to be just a mile from our supposedly remote put-in. You know, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.
Our put-in was a shabby cluster of roadside tents (sorry, a 'Motel') going by the name of Pang. We sampled their dahl and rice, before making an early start the next morning. The Zara Chu, our epic unrun raging river, was an embarrassingly pathetic stream.
Rounding the first corner, the valley floor opened out to provide a dozen or so miles of shallow braided slogging. At least the scenery was bizarre enough to take my mind off it all. According to one map, the Zara Chu proper only joined us at the end of this stretch (although we didn't see it, perhaps it was subterranean?) and the river suddenly had much more volume. Realising that it had to go downhill at some point, it suddenly narrowed and flowed into a gorge....which was blocked by a boulder choke. We portaged up 'n' over using a faint Yeti path, with fingers crossed that this would be the only portage...
The river then flowed into gorge number two, a more substantial affair! As we passed from blazing sunlight to it's gloomy interior, Darryl's sixth sense kicked in;
"I have a bad feeling about this..."
We paddled some steep grade 4 drops, then had a sneak peek ahead. The river did most of the things I least wanted it to do, including dropping off the edge of the world into 'Foxy' cartoon land!
Actually it percolated through more undercuts, chokes, sieves, siphons, sumps and other fairly scary things than I could wave a paddle at. With no route along the bank downstream (indeed, no bank at all), Darryl and I climbed the nasty loose scree to the left and gained a glimpse of the river returning to it's natural grade 1 state somewhere far downstream. Returning scratched and grazed from our recce, we agreed that portaging the boats up the scree would be lethal. We lugged our boats back out the gorge the way we entered. After scoffing dinner down we stretched out on a beach to doze, watched by something large, unidentified and four-legged (and presumably salivating) up on the cliffs...
The next morning we crossed to the left bank and tried to carry our boats right up and over the whole gorge. It was easy at first, but became progressively nastier as the 'path' degenerated into cliffs and horrendous loose earth slopes high above the river. As the portage dragged on into hours, the altitude and dehydration caught up with me. I felt like I'd suddenly put ten stone in weight on; constantly breathless and uncoordinated. Thankfully I had the other two on hand to motivate me (i.e. swear at me) or I'd still be there. Settling my boat on an imaginary rock, I watched in horror as it pinballed down a steep gully towards the river. Impossibly, it was halted by a small ledge; I can thank luck and the quality of Perception plastic for not ending our trip early. We finally staggered down to the riverbank and gulped the Zara Chu dry. Darryl reflected upon our experiences so far;
"It's not fair, Gerry Moffat gets the Thuli Bheri as a First Descent, a dream river. We get Rio Bastardo".
Nobody argued with him.
The plan for the afternoon was to carry on but to call it a day the moment we hit tricky rapids. The river improved massively and we forgot both the plan and our exhaustion. Long successive gorges of technical grade 4 paddling kept us busy and amused. However, we portaged the entrance rapid on two of these gorges; these looked enticingly paddleable but would spank you severely for making a mistake. It was at the end of this long day that we were presented with the 'do or die' breakout this article opens with. We camped above that giant colander rapid in a rocky cave which ate my Thermarest mat in seconds.
On the morning of day three, we portaged the boulder choke through a rather convenient 'tunnel' which lead straight into another technical grade 4 gorge. I don't know if I've done these stunning gorges full credit yet. They just went on forever....vertically sided and hued in indescribable cacophonies of technicolour (just try saying that quickly). Top paddling though this was, there were still plenty of opportunities to 'claim your refund' so we progressed carefully. We were silent and tense each time we entered the portals of yet another gorge. We knew that we'd been lucky so far. However dire the previous days' portaging had been, at least we'd always been able to portage the horror story rapids...
...and then suddenly it was over! The valley sides dropped away and the Zara Chu mingled with the larger Tsarap river. We whooped and paddle span, ready to forgive Rio Bastardo instantly. I'm sure I should have just felt relieved and chastened, but for some reason I felt bloody great. We headed off down the Tsarap towards Phuktal Monastery, twenty miles away. We were there in under two hours, the Tsarap was well high and flushing like a cistern! High above the river on the roof of the incredible monastery, surrounded by throngs of infant Buddhist monks, we reflected upon the general weirdness of our surroundings.
"I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto."
"At least we're off Rio Bastardo."
"I'd do it again. Maybe."
"Yeah, me too. Maybe."