RAFTING IN TEESTA
by Col. Narinder Kumar, PVSM, AVSM
In a beautiful setting foot bridge, 5 young men helped by hundreds young and old launched their tiny raft in the white rapids of Teesta. They wondered what lay ahead. Teesta has earned such a bad reputation especially after recent floods in which it rose 70 ft. above the danger level and deluged the entire Teesta Valley and the town of Jalpaiguri. This was the first raft after the deluge. It was being sent to see if it was safe to let the Advance Course boys of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute go down on rafts. Was it safe? Within fifteen minutes raft hit the rock- pivoted and got stuck in the drift wood. For a moment we could not count all five aboard but slowly they all appeared, some from below the raft. It took Johnson and his crew one hour to extricate the raft from the jaws of the tree with which it had got entangled. The moment the raft started downward journey there was a big applause from the hundreds which had got so involved in the adventure by watching.
The progress of the raft being watched carefully from the sevok Road (now only a track at some places). And then we saw the raft circling around in a whirl pool, it would not come out as the crew did not have any oars. (even if they had it would have made no difference) and left the raft to mercy of the current. It went round and round like a merry go round and then all of a sudden it was sucked in and thrown out of the whirlpool without any further incident the raft reached the destination. The decision was taken; rafting would be included in the Course.
It had all started the last winter the proposal to start rafting in Teesta met with a lot of opposition from Darjeeling people. They really thought that we had gone mad and were on a way to commit suicide. Our well wishers rang us up and said DON’T. Teesta is a river with reputation. Eight people including one Olympic swimmer had drowned in it. I was convinced and so were my instructors that it could be done. In fact, the idea come from Maj. Nugyal who had already done it. I had also some experience of rafting earlier in Yamuna and was almost certain that it could be done. But my fears were different. How sad it was to let the boys into this experience.
The question could only be answered after we had a trial. So I decided to go down along with my instructors on the first trail. Our raft of bamboos was made by engineers. It was tested and brought to the site confluence of Teesta and Rangit.
There was no coconut to do the proper launching ceremony. We got busy with the details, applied oil on our skin to save our bodies from snowy waters of Teesta. Kept some oranges on the board - few oars, two poles and a rope. All of us were wearing swimming costumes, windproof and life jackets for safety. The first touch of water was very demoralizing. It chilled our bones to the marrow. Free board was hardly few inches.
With the shouts of ‘Best of Luck’ we left on our 18 miles journey. A special correspondent of junior statesman who was sent to cover the event later wrote ‘The small 7x 7 bamboo raft pitched and yawed far below us in frantic flumes of white water. Five tiny red, blue and yellow figures scrambled, poled, paddled and hung on far dear wet life............. I reflected on this any 'River of no return' type of idea sailing down the swift boulder studded Teesta on a rough and ready interlacing of bamboo but one in mind at first of the old fad of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Green waters of Rangit headed for less green waters of Teesta. Our raft moved towards Teesta. We peddled hard to pierce the strong current of Teesta and to get in its main channel. We were rejected and thrown back into Rangit. We tried several times but all the time the back draft brought us back. For over half an hour we were circling as if in a whirl pool. Then one by one we tried all combinations of balancing the raft at different angles. Was it by luck or by some method, we would never know but we did get in the Teesta and immediately speed increased.
This experiment was successful and I decided to include it in the Adventure course training, on which there were 15 Australian boys the factors which made us to do this were. The raft was unsinkable- if it toppled it would do so in deep waters and will not hurt the boys- the boys had life jackets and all of them were good swimmers. We felt there was no undue risk in it and as long as the boys did not jump in to the rapids it was safe.
The day they had to go down, it was cold and the start was early. There were six rafts, one Instructor, two Australian Boys and two Indian boys made the crew of each raft. The rafts left at 9 am, the destination of our rafting was Sevok Bridge, 26 miles down the stream in the plains of Jalpaiguri.
The first raft went towards right bank and towards rocks. Before it could be pulled back to the stream it was pushed further right by another raft and got struck on the rocks in a vertical position, the crew climbed up the small conical rock. There was hardly a space for one where five were hanging. Twice they attempted to pull out the raft but it had sunk to a point of no return. The crew disappoint, abandoned the raft and swam towards the Sherpa.
Near the Teesta Bridge, Johnson’s raft hit a rock and disappeared though only for a few seconds. Hundreds of people cheered from the old Anderson Brigade. One could not think that it could be washed away as it did in October. The business, the Convoys and all other work stopped, and all were watching the rafts.
One of the rafts in a rock and overturned immediately after the bridge. A big gasp went in the air which even silenced the gushing waters of Teesta. One by one the crew came up and re started their journey (17 miles) on the inverted raft.
Till Riang all the rafts except the one which was struck near the start were doing fine. Tony Hill’s raft had lost lot of Buoyancy and was about 6 inches under water he called it ‘The Submarine’. Yet it reached the farthest.
After Riang the river makes a sharp loop and passes through a very narrow passage over the pointed rocks, where the water gushes out in a jet as if to freedom. Two rafts passed this, how, no one knows – when the third came incredible happened, it hit the rock and got disintegrated at certain places happened, it hit the rock and got disintegrated at certain places and got studded to the rock as if a part of it. The fourth one was luck; it pushed the 3rd further in to Deep waters and got away, when the last one came, people on the stuck shouted to the crew on coming raft to get the left. But the current was too strong and nothing could be done. It came right over and joined the other raft on the rock.
This rock was like an inhabited island with 10 persons hanging to each other for life and warmth. These people were rescued by the land party with the help of a long bamboo and a rope. When the boys came ashore they confessed that it was the most fantastic experience they have ever had.
The three rafts which crossed this channel could not go far as the buoyancy of the rafts had considerably reduced and they had to be abandoned. The farthest raft was 2 miles short of the destination. But the destination did not matter. The moments of TRUTH these boys had faced, perhaps, very few can claim to have had at their ages.
The post Mortem of the Exercise brought forth many useful suggestions to make exercise safe. The consensus of the opinion was however, that the rafting in the Himalayan Rivers is most fascinating sport and should be encouraged.
Now it has become a regular feature and some of the local people have joined the sport. Few days back there was even a race on rafts when five rafts took part. Trishuli raft came first.
Before I close I would like to emphasize the safe guards. Firstly non swimmers should not attempt it. Secondly, life jackets should always be worn. Thirdly, as far as possible, raft should be of Bamboo and not of planks. The last and most important precaution is that the raft should at all costs be held.