Thursday 06 October

Kayaking the Grand Canyon of India

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If you have ever thought about visiting Northern India, then read Geography teacher, Natalie Cordon’s beautifully descriptive account of her 14-day kayak expedition through the remote region of Ladakh, amongst landscapes carved out through the epochs of time.

On arriving in Leh, Ladakh, in Northern India, at 3,500mm above sea level, and the absence of my luggage which was on a holiday of its own somewhere in the Middle East, I found myself having to focus on not passing out from the thin air, but excited at the prospect of beginning my expedition.

The drive from Leh to the put-on of the Tsarap Chu river was far from your usual shuttle. The mountain passes reach over half the height of Everest with Himalayan views of cloud-shrouded mountains to take your breath away. I also enjoyed my highest ever 'loo with a view'!

As we descended the other side of the mountain pass, the nomad tents came into view. These remote Himalayan yurts would be our most spectacular home for the night.

First impressions of the Tsarap River did not disappoint. A series of beautiful box canyons with intimidating horizon lines which at first seemed like the gates to hell but funnelled down into wonderfully clean rapids and brought us to our first camp. 

From here, the Tsarap's character changed dramatically as the gradient flattened, the water slowed to a stand-still and the thick soup of sediment settled to the bottom of the lake to reveal azure blue waters and a hair wash opportunity.

After a hard day of paddling we camped on the beach below Phuktal monastery, a remote Himalayan community of monks accessible only by a 14-day hike or a multiday kayak expedition. A warm welcome from the little 'monkies' felt like the perfect end to a most incredible day of beauty and thrilling whitewater.

A short day of paddling followed. Gone were the tight box canyons with intervening sections of fast-flowing flat water and Reru Falls opened up before us. ​A perfectly flat expanse of river beach at the end of the rapid was a welcome relief and an idyllic camp spot.

The following day, we paddled in to Padum town. Our arrival felt somehow bitter sweet with the prospect of a shower, deliciously sticky walnut cake, a bed and excessive amounts of food very much welcome, yet meant missing the night sky, shooting stars and sunrise over the mountains.

Fully revived, we set off the following morning excited by the prospect of another night under the stars. The confluence of the Tsrarp and the Zanskar rivers felt truly special with the volume increasing and the walls of the world-renowned Zanskar gorge, the Grand Canyon of Asia, closing in - purple and green copper sheer vertical walls with a supremely complex system of faults and folds seemed perfectly preserved from the collision of the Indian subcontinent and the formation of the Himalayas millions of years beforehand.

​The human history of the Zanskar is just as astonishing as its physical landscape. Blackened caves high in the sides of the canyon showed evidence of the resilient communities living and working in such a seemingly barren landscape, people who use the Zanskar River as a kind of frozen highway in winter, making multiday expedition at -40 degrees Celsius as an accepted part of life and culture, a commute to work, school and market, not a sport.

The opening out of the Zaskar canyon yielded several big volume and playful rapids before its confluence with the mighty Indus. Whilst our time on the Indus was relatively short, it felt humbling to paddle on one of the world's great rivers that helped to shape the continent, gave life to the earliest of Indian civilisations, continues to support life in the high altitude desert today and indeed gave India its name.

It is with great regret that I had to leave Ladakh and return to life as usual in the UK but I am not sad for I know that I will return and I look forward to sharing this special place with friends and family.