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.
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 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.
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.