No more a rafting rookie

The sun beats down on 13 blue and orange rafts as they float down the Kundalika, gently bobbing around a bend in the river. Yellow-tipped paddles rest idly off the edges, some dipping in the water, creating tiny eddies. White egrets sunbathe at the shallow edges, patiently waiting for a meal. Beyond, short trees colour the ochre landscape brown and green. The air is heavy with the weight of expectation.

Suddenly, shrill shouts cut through the air. The first raft hits the rapids and rafters shriek with excitement, some forgetting to paddle when the guide asks them to, others not hearing the frantic call to stop. The water swirls around the rocks in a white foam and the raft bounces along, suddenly rushing as the rafters get over the initial shock of cold water and plunge their paddles in with energy.

Heading for the water

The weight of anticipation

The day had started peacefully enough, with a early start from Mumbai and 2.5-hour drive down NH 17 that was full of conjectures about the adventure to come. At Kolad, while we waited for Jehan Driver, who runs Quest Adventures, to guide us to the starting point, we guzzled cups of hot chai to drive away the chill and the anxiety. Once he arrived, there was no time to think any more as, with boundless energy, he told us more about Kolad and the various adventure activities (kayaking and mountain biking) to be had there. The drive up the hill came with many stops as Jehan showed us the lay of the land, a good spot to take a photo of Kolad’s hills and the short-cut that would take us home. By the time we reached, anticipation had replaced anxiety and we were eager to grab a paddle and get into the water.

But a long wait was ahead of us. Rafting on the Kundalika river is dependent on the nearby hydro-electric dam. Every morning at about 9 am, the floodgates are released and water comes gushing down the river. The time varies a little everyday and till then you can stroll around, soaking in the wonderful silence. When it’s time to go, the safety drill begins. Rafters are split into groups, assigned a guide, and given life jackets, helmets and paddles. The excitement begins to build and everybody helps one another shrug on the life jackets and tighten straps. The guides come around, tightening some more and righting helmets worn the wrong way.

Once we were geared up, there was a dry run on the rafts, with our guide Ashish showing us where each one of us would sit (on the edge, not inside!), how to lean when we paddle forward and how to duck into the raft quickly when we hit a rough spot. We practiced the drill as he barked out orders until, suddenly, the siren rang and it was time to pick up the raft and wade into the river with it.

One by one the rafts hit the water and enthusiastic chants rang out in a bold unison that would have warmed the heart of any team building exercise conductor.

The calm before the white water

Rushing along

The first few minutes were beguilingly calm. We browned slowly in the sun, as the raft floated gently, Ashish running us through a couple of more drills and threatening to not let us begin until we got everything down pat. When things finally went to his satisfaction, he signalled approval by using his paddle to splash all of us with the cold water, raising a flurry of shrieks. And then suddenly, without so much as a by your leave, the first of the 13 rapids was upon us. Quite aptly named Welcome, it gently ushered us into what was to follow. While none of the remaining rapids are beyond Grade 2 (that changes during the monsoons when the river swells up mightily) for first-timers like us they were an exciting introduction to the world of rafting. We paddled furiously and then stopped to hold on just as tight. We splashed, rocked from side to side and plunged down the river over colourfully named rapids like Butterfly, Crow’s Nest and Morning Headache. Each name had a story behind it that Ashish shared with us in the quieter moments; like the Key Waves, where a rafter once lost his car keys.

Before we knew it, the thirteenth rapid was behind us, and all that remained was the long boat ride to the finish. It left us thirsting for a little more, a rapid that would suck the breath out of us, and we pledged to return when the monsoon makes the river a formidable ride. But the fun wasn’t over yet. Ashish suggested we jump off the side of the raft for a swim; an idea we implemented with alacrity. To lie back in the cold water, held up by a life jacket and let the river carry you along was an amazing way to end the trip, though a couple of more complicated manoeuvres awaited us before the adventure could be completely over. Like scrambling up over the side of the slippery raft and lugging it up the hillside when we reached the end. Luckily, by that time the ten in our raft could work well together and lifting and carrying the raft wasn’t so tough.

Carrying the raft out of the river and up the slope

It wasn’t as adrenaline packed as we’d expected, but it was certainly a great first taste of the white waters and the thrills they bring. The perfect way to lose your initial fears and come back refreshed and wanting more. And amazingly, it’s an experience that could be had just a 100 km from the city at a cost of just Rs 1,850.

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On a wine trail in Switzerland

It really is true. The Swiss are as particular about time as you were warned they were. But being sticklers for punctuality doesn’t stop them from having fun. It just makes sure they start on time. Trains leave when they’re supposed to, making a connection is a certainty, and you don’t have to budget three extra hours of travel time for unforeseen delays. The public transport system is so good that quite a few Swiss don’t even bother buying cars. It’s the sort of thing one could get used to.

But if there is a Swiss people likely to be late, it is those of Valais, the sunny region in the south-west, where one half speaks French and the other German. They are a warm, friendly people who love to linger for a good conversation, and the common language they all speak is a passion for wine. Vineyards sprawl down steep hillsides that are terrace-farmed much like our own hills in the north. And much like our very own hills, holdings have been broken down and passed on to daughters and sons, until they are more like personal gardens than vineyards.

No wonder then, that wine is both language and religion here, especially the fresh and bubbly Fendant. During a afternoon wine tasting at Château de Chamosan, sommelier Mike Favre is exaggerating only a little when he says that without the Fendant, Valaisians “can’t buy a car, can’t get married” because they wouldn’t know how to celebrate.

The best way to understand this is to sign up for a hike through the vineyards. There are hikes and trails of all shapes and sizes, from lazy afternoon walks to week long trips. The narrow trails make for pleasant walking past 50 varieties of neatly labelled vines. There’s the sound of water running in the 19th century bisses (watering canals) running alongside, the water pleasantly chilly when you plunge your hands in. Little white butterflies criss cross your path, and each turn holds the promise of another grand vista – the right of green vineyards tumbling down the hillside as far as you can see.

 

Hiking through vineyards

On a hike through the vineyards of Valais

 

The walking serves another purpose. It makes you feel a little less guilty when you sit down to a steak for lunch and a raclette for dinner. The Valaisians love their meat, but they love their cheese more. Hence, the raclette — five courses of melted cheese, eaten with gherkins, pickled white onions and small boiled potatoes washed down by many glasses of cold Fendant – a leisurely meal meant for grand occasions, not just any ordinary celebration.

During the harvest season, entire families come home to work together on the vineyards for a month, even the ones who’re doctors in Zurich and bankers in Geneva. It’s a time for homecoming and reunions. During the day they toil in the steep, hilly fields, bending and cutting and collecting grapes. By night, they gather around old wooden tables and eat the raclette, sharing stories and songs, drinking wine as they nurse the aches and pains of the day.

Switzerland has generally been the destination for well-heeled Indian honeymooners, but this small country that has starred in many a Yash Raj blockbuster, has much to offer to the newer kind of Indian traveller, who is active, adventurous and more willing to engage. While in Valais, you can punctuate the hiking through wine country with trips to the Rhone Glacier, a spectacular expanse of white ice, explore picturesque little villages, visit the St Bernard dogs, and relive local legends like the story of Farinet, the Robin Hood of the Alps, who forged coins and gave them away to the poor.

Along the way, you’ll find that you can take yourself out of the vineyards, but you can’t take the wine out of Valais. So, in the heart of the long, icy grotto into the Rhone Glacier (2,300 metres above sea level), you’ll find yourself sipping a furiously sweet, cold wine. And if you take the plunge and walk barefeet up the path to Farinet’s vineyard (the smallest in the world at 1.6 sq m, and gifted to the Dalai Lama) you’ll earn the right to pull up a cask of wine from the well, made from the grapes of the three vines that grow on that small plot of land and have a little sip.

At the end of the day however, you’ll realise that the hiking and sightseeing is merely a pretext, so that you don’t feel too guilty as you enjoy a truly Valaisian time – living life fully, eating and drinking well as you have passionate conversations. So when you pack this time, take along a pair of hiking boots and your appetite, and leave guilt behind.

Things you’ll find useful

Valais is the third-largest canton. It’s main city is Sion. The Valais wine route has a 66-km long hiking version, a 85-km long cyclists’ route and a drive as well. Details on http://www.valais.ch

For a raclette, go to Chateau de Villa in Sierre. www.chateaudevilla.ch Don’t miss their cellar which stocks 640 local wines. Be warned, walking into this impressive castle-like structure smells like walking into a wall of melted cheese.

There are a huge variety of hiking trails available, from one day walks to a six-day trip. To plan, visit www.MySwitzerland.com/hiking or get the free iPhone app.

Entry fee for the Rhone Glacier grotto is SFR 7 for adults and SFR 3 for kids upto 12 years.

To visit Provins, the largest wine-making co-op in Valais, go to www.espace-provins.ch

Get the Swiss Travel Pass, it makes travel much, much cheaper. You have to buy it before you go from www.swisstravelsystem.com

To hike with the St Bernard dogs, go to http://www.fondation-barry.com

* A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on 10.10.10 The trip was organised by Swiss Tourism.

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