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Paddling in India

A simple Facebook message sparked a great adventure…

“I’m running a rafting course in Leh, Ladakh – are you coming?” – A message from a friend of mine, Mark, who makes a living from training raft guides.

Instantly, I replied “Yes” before firing up Google Maps to work out where Leh, or in fact, Ladakh were. In the far north of India, sharing a border with both Tibet and Pakistan, Ladakh is home to the famous Zanskar and Indus rivers.

 The idea was to sit the IRF class 4/5 raft guide and class 3 safety kayaker course, before heading off for a multi-day kayaking trip down the Tsarup-Chu/Zanskar. Tickets were bought and a plan was hatched…

 I flew from Birmingham to Delhi, before taking an internal flight north. Leh sits at an altitude of 3500m, with 25% less oxygen in the atmosphere than normal and so the potential for Acute Mountain Sickness was high. I took a course of Diamox and readied my book for two days of forced bed rest to help the acclimatisation process. On arrival, I soon realised that this was going to be a real problem for me. I carried my duffel bag up a flight of stairs to my hotel room, before the world started spinning and my chest felt ready to explode. What on earth was paddling going to be like?

 One effect of altitude that I hadn’t expected though – my buoyancy aid had swollen up in size! When I went to put it on, I could hardly fit in it – and I was sure I hadn’t eaten that much on the flight…

 Luckily, Mark arrived on my 3rd day in Leh to keep me sane whilst waiting to get on the water. In preparation for the guide course the following week, we practised setting up mechanical advantage systems around the hotel, much to the amusement of the locals…


 Finally, on day 4, it was time to get amongst it. Meeting up with our hosts “Wet n Wild Explorations,” we jumped on the Zanskar, to get a feel for being back on big volume rivers again. We were joined by UK paddlers Michael Hatton and Darren Clarkson-King, who kindly introduced us to their “local” run.


The following day, most of the raft guides we were staying with started their journey home, back to Nepal. A late booking came through and so we were asked if we’d like to help out with the trip, to go along as extra safety boaters on the Zanskar. On the way it became apparent that the previous night’s weather had caused a landslide on the road, so we turned back, deciding to run the trip on the Middle Indus instead.

A quick safety brief, followed by the inevitable question. “Who here can swim?” None, excellent. I stuck tight to the raft in the rapids…


I was mostly tent-bound for the first day of the IRF rafting course. Whether it was a reaction to my anti-malarial drugs, or a dose of altitude sickness, I don’t know. Wrapped up in all of my clothes, down jacket and two sleeping bags, I managed to sleep off the worst of it, before heading out to watch the lads training on the Zanskar in the afternoon.


As the week went on, the course covered everything from safety briefs to dealing with spooked customers. Things stepped up a notch when we spent a day on the lower Indus, working on guiding skills on the class 4/4+ section.



We finished off the day with a flip drill assessment, re-righting an upturned raft. Tough enough at sea level and utterly exhausting at altitude. I managed to pass, but really struggled to breathe throughout.


Towards the end of the week, we spent a day on rescue training. As well as looking at rope rescues, we all had to undertake the part that most were dreading – the “challenging swim.” A swim down a chunky wave train, in glacial melt water, whilst trying not to get out of breath at altitude.





The week rounded off with final rope work assessments – a 3:1 Z-Drag with equalised anchors in 4 minutes to pass.


With the course completed, news started to filter through from the local area. Srinagar had been devastated by mass flooding and full scale rescue efforts were under way to help save those in the region. Bad weather around Leh meant that flights were being cancelled and there were reports of the one road south being blocked by landslides. With onwards tickets already booked, we made the decision to hire a private jeep to Menali, enduring a 17 hour drive, before a further 19 hour bus drive back to Delhi.

But then again, isn’t that the appeal of paddling abroad? The adventure is much more than just the river…

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