There are rivers that are accompanied by their own legends, fabled lands of giants where few have ventured. Rondu Gorge of the Indus is such a place. Paddlers have long been interested in the reputedly massive rapids lying between deep gorge walls in Pakistan’s northeastern corner, with expeditions to upper stretches and nearby tributaries taking place as early as the 1950s. Later trips only amplified the Gorge’s reputation, ultimately luring Mike Dawson, Aniol Serrasolses and Ciarán Heurteau into its depths. They emerged equally as exhausted, battered and chastened by the rivers raw power as they were uplifted by the warmth of the Pakistani people, with their own story to tell.
It begins as a mountain spring named Lion’s Mouth, deep in the Tibetan heart of the Himalayas, a nearby monastery signifying the holiness of the site. By the time the Indus River hits the Arabian Sea in the Pakistani port city of Karachi more than 3000km away, it is one of the biggest rivers in Asia. Carving an isolated path alongside the world’s highest peaks through gorges more than five kilometers (three miles) deep, the Indus has become a pinnacle of big water paddling.
Fresh from winning the extreme kayaking world title, Spaniard Aniol Serrasolses joined French/Irish filmmaker Ciarán Heurteau and myself to attempt a descent of the fabled Rondu Gorge deep in the northern heart of Pakistan. Eight years had passed since the last expedition, lead by American Ben Stookesberry, ventured into the gorge, emerging with stories of massive flow, heinous portages, impossibly high gorge walls and spectacular adventure. Since then, Pakistan’s precarious reputation off the water had stopped any planned trips into the North Pakistani state of Gilgit Baltistan in their tracks.
When considering a descent on the body of water that gave India its name, the severe isolation is a daunting factor. Located in the corner of Pakistan under territorial dispute since the partition of India in 1947,when you enter the river,you truly are on your own, all the comforts of civilization left on the dusty road to the put-in. Outside rescue is not an option as any form of satellite locator beacon is forbidden in the heavily militarized zone. Checkpoints and an endless paper trail ensure none enter the stunning Indus Valley undetected.
Nearly three years after beginning plans for this trip, Taju, our guide, greeted the team at the terminal, a rickety old shed set up to process the few tourists that arrive in the area by plane. After loading the three brightly colored kayaks on the roof, we set off on the final stage of a long, bumpy journey. Hours of transit later we rounded the corner where the mountains come together, constricting and channeling the Indus into the upper reaches of the gorge. Our minds buzzed with excitement as our eyes greeted the sight of the first rapid, water thunderingbelow.Mayhemensuedastheteamrushedtogetintoit,unloading boats and organizing gear for the 8 day journey through the 150 kilometers (94 miles) ahead.
We’d been warned, of course, that Pakistan is a land of terrorists, crippled by war and in a state of chaos. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. The people of the north, who migrated south out of Tibet hundreds of years before, are peaceful, friendly and generous. They maintain a welcoming way of life despite being wedged between Afghanistan and India in one of the most militarized zones on the planet. Aniol said it well: “Everybody was saying, ‘Don’t go to Pakistan, it’s dangerous, you’ll get kidnapped, you’ll get murdered’, and all sorts of stuff, that in reality, was nothing like what was happening to us.”
Content with living from the land and used to ensuring hungry neighbors are fed or the homeless housed, those we met were determined to help us rather than make a quick dollar.As we explored the town of Skardu to make final preparations before heading out into the gorge, the vibrant culture of this isolated city came alive. We were engulfed in the bedlam of the market. The curiosity of three westerners with bright kayaks searching for food was returned with warm generosity, and we were sent on our way with the best wishes of the community.Upon our return these same kind souls celebrated with us, hosting a banquet in our honor.
There’s no doubting the Indus is big – the question as we prepared to run it was how big. We quickly learned how difficult it was to put the size and power of the river into context, as the water engulfs everything in its path. Picture for a moment the volume of the Zambezi meandering through the boulder gardens and tight committing gorges of a Chilean creek. The neighboring Karakoram Mountains bordering the lower Indus plain rise to nearly 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), offering perspective on the raging torrents below. Everything is on a gigantic scale. Within moments of starting day one, the size was evident, unparalleled by anything the three of us had experienced before. Our first rapid set the tone; it was runnable, just. The entire volume of the river was constricted and sent off a single drop. The river foamed into a pandemonium of boils, deadly eddy lines and a gigantic pit of a hole. As we made our way downstream, we quickly discovered that when the 1000-year flood of 2010 ripped through the gorge it changed the river completely, making any beta from previous expeditions practically useless. We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy descent.
From the road, following the river above the high water mark, the lines looked wide and open: easy paths around the monstrous river features. From river- level, it was another story. Kilometers of read-and-run big-water boating filled with tight technical moves above terminal holes and must-make ferries linked the steep gorged-in sections, inspiring respect as the river smashed its way downstream.
“Being in that gorge made you realize how insignificant we are compared to the power of nature,” expounded Ciaran, attempting to make sense of it all following the trip.“We were tiny dots making their way down a gigantic river surrounded by mountains double the size of those in our home countries. We were nothing, but at the same time, being there made you feel more alive than anywhere else.”
Slowly, we started to fall into the flow of the river, though the sheer scale and force of the water made scouting tough. Even when a rapid appeared simple, it felt unbelievably humbling and difficult, the remoteness and power of the river turning what looked like a class 3 into a challenging class 5. Never had any of us experienced a river offering so much world-class whitewater
through such unreal landscapes day after day, kilometer after kilometer. You had to trust your gut in determining if a rapid was doable. Sometimes the river showed you a way through, other times it clearly told you to walk around.
It’s worth noting that the road above was as dangerous as the river itself; landslides occasionally blocked the highway where, high above us, Taju raced to keep up, whistling and yelping as we passed through countless rapids.
Deeper into the gorge, the signs of flooding became apparent. Lines were carved into the rock face showing the flood-peak high above us. Later that night,Taju explained how flooding in the headwaters of the Indus had ripped through Pakistan, destroying more than 1,400,000 acres of cropland and over a million homes, with 2000 people perishing.
Night after night we were invited into people’s homes. Word of our trip travelled quickly. On the fourth day, we rounded a corner to find people waiting for us at the bottom of a steep embankment with a sign saying, “Welcome to the Indus.” ...
... We scouted and ran rapid after rapid with no portages until day 5, when the incredible Malupa Rapid blocked our path. The force shook the bank as the water exploded. We watched in awe before shouldering our boats to begin a tricky portage through the maze of rocks. Launching back into the river and continuing downstream, we could see there was a line to run, but left it for someone else.
Our bodies were broken after multiple back-to-back physically committing and draining days as we entered the lower Rondu Gorge, where more lay in wait. On the first rapid of the day seven, I was surged into a gigantic ledge hole that encompassed most of the Indus’ flow. Instantly, I disappeared. Gone. A glimpse of green saw my boat wash downstream, Ciaran already in pursuit, but I remained caught in the grasp of the hole, eventually flushing and swimming frantically for the side. I made it to shore before being swept around the corner, exhausted, beat up, but alive. In an instant, the Indus had given us a glimpse of her merciless might, exposing the vulnerability of our trio.
It was a harsh reminder of the precision needed to find our way through the chaos, the tightrope line we walked to safety.“I had never seen Mike make a mistake before and it took a second to realize that he was going for that hole, and that he wasn’t coming out easily, said Ciaran. “I think the fatigue from long days made him lose the split second of awareness needed to make his line. He just disappeared. At no point could we reach him because we were so far away. The river was so wide making those lines was crucial.”
THE PUSH FOR THE TAKE-OUT.
The last day seemed to go on forever. As dusk set in, we had already paddled 40km and still more rapids waited downstream. Ahead of us, the gorge slowly opened into a wide riverbed where what would normally be easy run-out through braided flats was instead inundated by scary class 5 moves. Our arms were sapped of energy, our minds exhausted. A second swim pushed me to the edge, the thought of calling it quits crossing my mind until Taju ran down with his positive energy and a spare paddle, saying,“You have to continue Sir Mike, you are all so close.” Too tired to scout, we played a game of cat and mouse with the Indus. In the distance, Nanga Parbat – the ninth-highest mountain in the world, which the Indus skirts as it flows into the plains of Pakistan - was painted red from the setting sun. We rounded the final corner to see the confluence where the murky water of the Indus instantly consumed the Gilgit River’s crystal clear waters. Elation briefly overcame our exhaustion, if only for a moment; whoops and high-fives were shared before searching for a way to the road became the top priority. In darkness, we clambered hundreds of meters to the roadside, boats dropped in the dust as we collapsed by the van, mission complete.
After years of planning we had seen the Indus through our own eyes, merging reality with myth. Our truth? We put our heads into the Lion’s Mouth, and came out changed.“The Rondu Gorge stands out as the ultimate big water test I’ve gone through,” sums up Aniol. On the Indus, we were brought face to face with our limits. We had been humbled by the size of the river and how the locals opened their hearts to us, proud to show us this majestic part of the world.