Tsarap Chu, Ladakh, India
I am sat with Daz Clarkson-King and George Younger in a first floor restaurant in Padum, Ladakh, a village at the confluence of the Tsarap and the Stod rivers before they merge to become the Zanskar. We are waiting for our egg and chips, reflecting on the world class river we have just completed. The Tsarap has all the ingredients, altitude, remoteness, box canyons, pristine white water, all set in the spectacular Himalayan scenery, perfectly blended to give you a journey you won’t forget in a hurry.
Two days earlier we had left our tented encampment at Sarchu and put in the Tsarap at the bottom of the Gata Loops on the Leh Manali highway. The open vista as you seal yourself into your boat belies what is ahead. Day one, the box canyons. Six or eight of them depending how you count your boxes, but, truly, there is only one box canyon, number four on our calculator! The open nature of the river changes after two hours of floating. The rivers flow constricts between narrowing walls and you enter box one, a swirling mess of boil, whirpools and funky water.
Exiting to a rapid offering multiple lines we are now committed to the river and the problems it presents. George was here just last week; the levels have dropped to the high side of medium flows. I am losing track of the boxes, more open than I had anticipated, when we drop into what I later discover is our box four. No mistaking this, barely wider than the length of our boats, sheer sided polished rock walls compress flows, things start happening, fast!
I look ahead and to my eye the river pretty much stops a hundred meters ahead, George disappears round , through the “blockage” a wall of white water created by a kink in the route of the canyon. Seconds later I am through the same stopper, ooof, pull through and into a surging eddy above a very obvious horizon line, I am informed this drop is new this year. Left of centre, there is an obvious window.
I drift to the horizon line and as I am committed the line opens, there’s the tongue, angle right, left stroke and through to more messy water.
One thing I haven’t really mentioned is the altitude factor. We put on a shade over 4,000 meters, 13,500 feet, by any standards, that’s high. That would be why I am gasping for breath, nothing to do with the effort I am expending to stay on line and upright, or maybe it’s a combination of the two factors.
We exit the last box and I seek clarification, just to be sure, “that was the last box wasn’t it?” The boxes have been playing out in my sub concious since 2008 when I first paddled the Zanskar and the possibility of a run down the Tsarap first crossed my mind.
We approach the lake and our first overnight camp. The lake was created in 2014 by a huge landslide. the Indian army blew two channels to release the water in a controlled manner to prevent a tidal wave of water breaking through on its own. The next morning I have been gotten by bugs that get you in these parts, I am not at my best. By landslide rapid I am operating on autopilot. I can’t see the line; Daz carries my boat for the first section as I stumble over rocks to an eddy at the base of the side.
George drops down below me, with Daz above, I have to paddle the remaining two thirds of the rapid, portage is not an option. The line is simple enough but not in my current condition. I break out, make the line and arrive next to George in an eddy. The river disappears round a left bend, I follow George and am paddling frantically to avoid the cushion wave. In my jaded state, nothing is happening until I catch a surf and arrive in the eddy breathing heavily.
The last third of the rapid is dispatched and a long paddle follows to Phugtal monastery. A roll in sight of our beach completes a cold day and I land shivering uncontrollably. A down jacket and a small fire aid the warming process as we are swamped by mini monks all demanding to know our names and where we are from.
That tiny, tiny rock, there, in the sunlight, near the top of the river, that was the scene of my only roll in 250k’s of quality white water, dam cold. The move was simple, the window, small, I missed it by half the width of the boat and knew as I dropped down it was a roll.
Day three brings us to the top of the page, Reru falls and an afternoon of solid white water with little let up before the calmer waters just above Padum.
As the river turns left, it disappears out of sight, the river steepens and a whole world of white water is delivered on a huge plate with all the trimmings, Daz, not one to over egg a rapid tells me “its steep” in over ten years of boating with him I have never heard this description of a rapid, I would worry, but this is not the place or the time to worry.
Our eggs arrive and ten minutes later so do our chips, combining the two we devour our food, order another masala chai and continue our reflection.
Tomorrow the Zanskar, the copper canyon. The volume increases but the intensity of the rapids decreases, apart from another landslide rapid, this time man made rather than a natural disaster. The road being built requires ample use of high explosives to cut its path down the valley. Over use of such substances can create rapids, in this cases an intimidating maelstrom of turmoil with an almost river wide hole come stopper, avoided only by paddling onto a boil river left.
Rapid dispatched our attention is drawn to red flags flying above us, that would be the road workers about to blow more rocks to bits. The workers don’t want us to paddle any further but as we are mid rapid we pretty much don’t have a choice. We paddle, quickly, rounding the next bend as there is a huge explosion behind us. As we exchange words as to just how close we had come to being blown up our attention is diverted by movement on the river bank. We have disturbed a bear having an afternoon drink. In all the descents completed by both Daz and George they have never seen a bear, rare in these parts, the road can only endanger them further.
Our last camp deep in the heart of the Zanskar Gorge at Nyrak, leaves us with only the roller coaster rides of the lower river, the biggest at Chilling before the river spits us out into the Indus at Nimmu.
We didn’t take many pictures of the rapids in our 250 kilometre journey, if you want to see the treasures between Sarchu and Nimmu before the road is completed, book your ticket and get there before Jo Tourist in a jeep beats you to it.
Massive thanks to Darren Clarkson King and George Younger #purelandexpeditions