The heat wasn’t as bad as the fog. For 15 days during December we had two metres of visibility
Shilpika Gautam and her Ganges SUP team mates paddled from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal to raise awareness of water pollution
The Ganges seems light years away from the bustling city of London, but when banker Shilpika Gautam wanted to reconnect with her homeland it was the Ganges that seemed to be the perfect place to do it. For Gautam decided to turn her homecoming into her next big adventure. With her team mates – adventurer Spike Reid, environmentalist Pascal Dubois and geologist Kumaran Mahalingam, Gautam chose to paddle the length of the river, embrace the slow life and also raise awareness about water pollution.
For as much as Gautam loves her home country, after spending 10 years working in the UK, she was struck by the levels of pollution when she returned home. “The extent of the problem not only left me distraught, but also enraged,” says Gautam. “However, it also left me wanting to learn more about the issue.” So she chose to spend the next eight months working towards finding as many partners as possible to support their charity expedition that would take them from source to sea – 2,525 kilometres.
While Reid already had numerous expeditions under his belt, this was the first time that Gautam and Dubois would take on such a physical challenge (Mahalingram was to join the team later). And while a former UK SUP adventurer had travelled 700 kilometres along the Ganges, this would be the first time that anyone had travelled the complete length of the famed river by SUP. So while they all maintained a reasonable level of fitness, they decided to do a trial session on the Shannon River in Ireland four months before they set off for India. While the Ganges would be a lot wider, the Irish river helped them prepare for what was ahead. “It was a purposeful expedition to know what it would be like to travel as an unsupported expedition,” says Gautam. “It was the first time that we carried everything that we needed on the board and faced strong head winds and really bad weather.”
They chose to wait until just after the monsoon season so that the Ganges would be at its highest and they would have less chance of getting stuck on sandbanks and running aground. On 1 October 2016 they started with a trek that would take them from Gaumukh in the Himalayas to the Tehri Dam. As idyllic as this sounded, there was only one way down the mountain, which was a tarmac road filled with traffic. Two of the team had already been hit by a bug and suffering from altitude sickness so with 260 kilometres ahead of them and fed up with choking on exhaust fumes, they decided to look for another human-powered way of getting down the mountain. “We decided to buy some bicycles, but the only problem was there weren’t that many in a mountain area – they didn’t have the need for them,” says Gautam. “So we stalked people until we could buy enough bikes. One kid made a lot of money that day.”
They cycled to where the Ganges confluence forms, but as their bikes only had one gear, they were constantly pushing them uphill. “We didn’t have paniers so we were all carrying really heavy loads,” says Gautam. “However, it was awesome when there was a downhill.”
While the cycling – or pushing – seemed tough, when they arrived at Devprayag ready to tackle the white water this is where Gautam reached a moment of reckoning. “None of us had done white water SUP. I had to ask myself though so early in the expedition: ‘Do I really want to be taking these risks?’” says Gautam. “We really didn’t want to be injured at this point. But my friends who run a kayaking school nearby guided us through.”
For the next two weeks they rode – and body boarded – over rapids that would sometimes measure Grade Six. “As soon as you step into the river the current is super strong as you are still quite high in the mountains,” says Gautam. “I didn’t really count on the fact that I would be in the river more I was on the board. It was exhilarating, but scary.”
The next stage for the Ganges SUP team was a three-month journey along the river from Haridwar to Ganga Sagar. After leaving the cold of the mountains they were they treated to months of ridiculously hot days. “As we passed through a lot of longitudes and latitudes we got a lot of extreme weather. We would start at 7am and finish at 4pm so that it gave us plenty of time to find a secure camp,” says Gautam. “However, the heat wasn’t as bad as the fog. For 15 days during December we had two metres of visibility and this was extra tricky as we were getting closer to the cities where there was more and more river traffic.”
But when they had a tough day, the Ganges created a special moment that spurred them on. “We saw dolphins, an otter, turtles… and we also rescued a cow that had become split from her herd when it crossed the river,” says Gautam. With the help of Mahalingam, the two SUP riders guided the animal to safety. “The farmers asked us to help their cow as she was starting to get stressed, so we guided it across the river. As it swam across, it would rest its head on a board for respite. It was a bit challenging as the board could go down with the cow. It took 45 minutes. It was amazing leading her across the water and getting her back to her family.”
While they were having adventures on the water, they were also working hard to find out more about how polluted the Ganges was and find out more about what could be done to help. Environmentalist Dubois would take water samples with kits from WaterAid India and Gautam carried out a questionnaire with locals on behalf of the charity. For while they had seen such dolphins in the water, they had also seen the debris that the Ganges has unfortunately become famous for, including plastic, dead animals and human waste. “Talking to the villagers was a sensitive thing as they are trying to survive, the cleanliness of the Ganges is not a priority,” says Gautam.
The team would cover between 25 to 60 kilometres a day, depending on the water and safe places they could rest their heads. Their routine was based on paddling and then trying to visit as many of the charity’s water projects as possible.
However, it wasn’t long before their journey was over. Albeit, the last but one day on the water, proved to be one of the best for Gautam. “It was the hardest paddling we’d ever done. We were in a very high swell. Next to big ships – it was almost ocean like. It was the excitement and focus was ridiculous. I didn’t really paddle on that crazy water before. There was a lot of chop from other ships on the water.”
The final day was full of bitter sweet feelings for Gautam. “It was something that had been building up since the beginning of January,” she says. “Not wanting the expedition to end, yet also wanting to finish it on a strong positive note, while my body was still functional.”
But as they crossed the line, Gautam says how they were swept away by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to the river, the people they met and their family that had supported them throughout.
The team has now kickstarted a fundraising campaign for the water charities in India. “We now have rivers and oceans to clean, and toilets to build. I will keep working with WaterAid for fundraising and share my firsthand experience and challenges around access to clean water, says Gautam. And she also hopes to promote the sport of SUP in India, so who knows who might take on the next challenge?