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A kayaking Expedition Into the Far East
Plains, trains, and Automobiles to the most Remote corner of India

Written By Rafa Ortiz
Edited by Ben Stookesberry

By Monday the 27th of November, I had already resided myself to a month of
punching the proverbial piñata and drinking cerveza in Veracruz when I
finally received a last minute email from Ben Stookesberry. The much talked
about and hair brained expedition to the far reaches of India had come
together like a band of Mariachies over a bottle of Tequila, and he
desperately needed me to join the trip. By that afternoon, my mother had
finished no fewer than her 12th Hail Mary, and I was on my way to Mexico
City to secure a visa and last-minute plane ticket to India.

Most people choose to travel to big destinations, popular tourist sites, and
cities relatively close to their point of entry. In contrast to this, Ben
and I would be traveling as far from the transportation Mecca of Delhi as
possible, to the furthest Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Arunachal Pradesh (in Hindi means the State of the mountains first lit by
the sun) is the most spectacular and difficult destination in the whole of
the Indian sub-continent for good reasons. First, it contains some of the
biggest mountains on earth: the Southeastern front of the Himalaya. With
this kind of massive topography, driving short distances can take forever.
Second, Arunachal contains half a dozen big water rivers with a minimum flow
of at least 10,000 cfs that converge to form the mighty Brahmaputra. This
means that on top of the windy roads, you can add sketchy ferry crossings,
washed-out bridges, and crater laden thorough fairs to an already
excruciatingly long journey. Third, being the most restricted region in
India, the state has seen only a handful of paddling expeditions; and
therefore, contains many reincarnations of first descent yet to be made.
However, due to these restrictions, the only way of entering Arunachal is by
paying a local tour operator exorbitant amounts of money at least a month in
advance in order to enter the state for only 10 days.

How we were able to secure both the logistical arrangements and the
necessary permits to make our journey not only possible, but also
affordable, can be attributed entirely to Roland Stevenson of River India
( Ben had met Roland during a 4th of July party in
Ashland, Oregon the previous summer. By shouting over the explosions of
fireworks and the screams of fellow boozing party goers, Roland had
convinced him to branch away from his Latin American travels, with a trip of
epic proportions.

The question of how Roland gained confidence of Arunachal’s minister of
tourism, which led to our month long restricted area extension, is an
entirely different story and one that you will no doubt hear about in Ben’s
video Hotel Charley Vol. II. Let’s just say, as the Pakistani born son of a
US intelligence officer that speaks at least 6 languages, he can pull some

A long journey

Ben and I woke up for the first time in Asia, in a seedy hotel in downtown
Delhi. After having traveled for 2 days by plane, the short sleep that night
was merely a snack to our jet lagged bodies.

We left the hotel in a couple of bike-Rikshaws holding on to our boats and
luggage while the mighty drivers pedaled through the dense market traffic.
Indians, dogs, cars, cows, trucks, food stands, and Rickshaws all singing,
crying, barking, honking, mooing, or shouting to avoid getting hit by
others. The density of sight, smell, and sounds made Mexico City seem like a
sleepy little town. After a couple blocks, we finally made it to the train

Getting kayaks on a train in India is not an easy matter. Roland had to
bargain here and there, moving constantly from person to person in pursuit
of the right combination of paperwork and persons to get the job done.
Finally after 3 hours, we were able to load the kayaks and board as the
train started to roll. We leave Roland behind inorder to catch a flight the
following day that would cover our same multi-day journey in the matter of a
few hours. He leaves in good hands though with his good friend and safety
kayaker Kevin Thompson to add humor and knowledgeable insight to our trip.

Watching the scenic flat Indian territories through the window, an endless
expanse of rural humanity passed by rolled past our window. With a billion
inhabitants, it was nearly impossible to get still frame without at least
one person in it. Yet from the comfort of our second class accommodations,
meals and snacks every hour made the trip more the bearable, and long hours
of sleep and naps were inevitable.

Before moving on, I must however mention opening the door of the train just
after a foggy sunrise. The air was thick with morning moisture and another
smell not quite so pleasant. I watched as Indians emerged from every
direction to do their morning duty on the tracks contributing to the unique
aroma of that early morning encounter. We would find out later that the
tracks are public property and thus a fine place for sitting and sh-ting.

We arrived 30 hours later to Guwahati, Assam: the last true urban outpost on
India’s Northeastern frontier. Roland arrives with another addition to our
team in the form of a native Indian named Vipin Sharma who’s local knowledge
and good spirits would prove vital to the long journey ahead. It was dark
already, so we just proceeded to get a hotel, which supplied a nice curry
dinner and some great Indian rum.

We knew from Roland that we had at least 15 hours of driving to reach our
first river so we wanted to leave early to get a big chunk of it out of the
way. I know now that what you want to do in India and what you actually do
are to very different things. Our reserved jeep happened to back out on us
last minute because our particular mixture of Karma, Dharma, and strange
looking river craft were not right. Fortunately, only 3 hours later we were
on our way with a new Jeep and driver that eagerly blessed our expedition
with hot cups of chai tea. This is when the real adventure began.

Again I was overwhelmed by the shear humanity of the place. Our driver, well
versed in these types of conditions, weaves at high speeds between cows,
dogs, chickens, pigs, elephants, pedestrians, road crews; and of course,
oncoming traffic in order to make it 200 miles upstream to one of two
bridges that cross the Brahmaputra. Seven hours later we cross the massive
7km wide flood plane. Like North America, India lies in the Northern
hemisphere; therefore, it is almost winter and over month since the monsoon
rains have fallen. The River exists in only a fraction of its massive bed
and still has 2 channels that are over a mile wide. However, unlike the
majority of North America the latitude is similar to that of Florida so in
Valleys the climate is extremely hospitable.

In another 2 hours beyond we reached the border to Arunachal Pradesh.
Immediately past the armed guards at the border the road ascends into the

Around 30 kilometers short of our planned destination in the high mountain
town of Bomdila (8,500 feet), we encounter one of the many police check
points along the road. We kept driving past signs marked as “STOP” and “GO
SLOW”, until we had to stop before a barricade. A furious policeman came out
of his little hut, cursing loud and fast in an unintelligible mixture of
Hindi and Assamese while gesturing to us to back up. With no hesitation,
the driver put it in reverse and gave it some gas. They say in India that
everything bad or good happens by karma so I guess it was karma that made
the policeman’s foot lay for an instant under our rolling tire, which had
him limping and us laughing for the next minutes. Next thing we knew, our
Karma had us spending the night in the police station with our driver behind
bars and our jeep impounded.

We woke up the following morning in our sleeping bags and the driver in some
dirty sheets behind a gate. Not much to be done for him rather than call his
boss to bail him out and retrieve the jeep. As for us, it took only an hour
to find another vehicle, and a driver willing to continue the journey.

Bomdila was only a near vertical hours drive above our unplanned overnight
stay at the police station, so we had lunch there, and continued on to our
first put-in at Dirang. The long hours spent traveling, had Ben and I
itching to start our first river expedition. With the last light of the day
draining from the sky, we decided to put-in that same night packed for at
least 3 nights and a 100+ mile descent of the Dirang Fork into the Kameng

Amazing whitewater in India

The Dirang is a tributary for the Kameng, which itself is a tributary of the
Brahmaputra. Its head waters are emininate from the second largest Bhudist
monastery in the world on the border with Bhutan in the far west of
Arunachal. According to Roland’s information about previous descents of the
Kameng, the only section of this river that had been run was the main Kameng
itself which we would enter about half way into our planned journey. This
meant that we had maybe 60 miles of fist descent waters ahead of us, until
we would reach a somewhat known stretch of class 4 big water.

We begin the trip with 1,000 cfs of crystal clear water in near pitch black
darkness. The goal was just to get as far out from town as possible,
hopefully finding a nice beach for our first camp site. After one hour in
pitch black darkness and the sketchiest 2k of class 2-3 that I have ever
run, we find a nice deserted beach to camp on. However, we quickly realize
that sheep herders and their flock are camped on the slopes directly above
us. Throughout the night the herders manage their flock with bone chilling
screams and sharp whistling. We began to wonder if this is meant for us or
the flock. With a clear and peaceful sky, and some biscuits and rum for
dinner, falling asleep fortunately wasn’t a challenge.

We are greeted in the morning by two very Tibetan looking boys whom we later
find out were part of the Monpah tribe of herders. The warmth and
friendliness of these people was overwhelming as they started our fire, and
offered us steaming hot cups of tea.

Finally able to survey our surroundings a beautiful Tibetian valley took
center stage as dawn broke on the pine laden hill sides. In the subsequent
three days we descended a through a myriad of landscapes from our pine
forest Tibetan put-in, to the monkey infested bowels of the lower Kameng.
The whitewater was of similar diversity with everything from technical
boulder gardens and bedrock ledges to the big water waves and holes of the
main Kameng. All of this was incredible whitewater up to class V in

For three solid days we put in around 10 hours of non-stop paddling;
starting with the first hours of light and finishing just after sunset. In
all, we paddled around 110 miles of River from Dirang to Balukpong, making
this the longest stretch of whitewater that either Ben or I had ever run
that was until later in the trip.

Back on land, we were happy to meet again the land crew that had grown
significantly: Roland, Vipin, Kevin, Ben and I were now joined by the master
of whitewater photography Lucas Gillman, his girlfriend /assistant Sarah,
and a ontourage of Arunachal locals and guides from the Donya Hango Tourism
concern. At the end of the month these local guides would be participating
in Roland’s non-profit Sarsi guide school over the new year, and were
therefore interested in seeing some kayaking on their rivers

Having a nice meal and some super strong Indian beer under the sun had us
all ready for our next quest: exploring the waters of the lower Tsangpo in
India: the Siang River Expedition.

Stay tunned for Rafa’s next chapter of the Journey and Ben’s upcoming
whitewater epic Hotel Charley Vol. 2: River of Doubt.

Hotel Charley Section


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