Rafting the length of the Ganga River
By: Lisa te Heuheu
In 2015, Lisa spent 54 days rafting the length of the Ganga River in India, she shares her story with She Went Wild.
Rafting the Ganga River is an experienced which had a profound affect on me. Without doubt, I came home a different shade of the person I was before I left. I travelled with my expedition team to India, to undertake a Source to Sea trek and raft of the Ganges River (Ganges is Ganga in Hindi). In 2009 I was selected as the Oceania candidate for an all women team to begin a journey of developing environmental curriculum for children to participate more effectively in environmental issues, which uses adventure as an innovative way to inspire their connection to the earth. The goal is to undertake an expedition on each continent bi-annually to empower a global environmental movement. This has been the dream of our expedition team leaders Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft, both of whom have pioneered women’s participation in adventure. On a personal note this opportunity encapsulates my passion for the environment, adventure and people.
The Ganga was chosen as the first expedition as it epitomises the greatest of challenges in terms of environmental pressure, cultural significance, interface of industrial and urban use and discharge, and simply a source of food, sustenance and wellbeing for the people of India.
Experiencing the Ganga at source is truly spiritual. The physical presence of the volume, clarity and colour of the water, coupled with the shadows of Shivling and Bhagirathi peaks, and the Gaumukh Glacier is powerful. The connection of the Indian people to Ganga cannot be mistaken in these mountains and it reminds me of my own cultural connections to rivers and mountains at home.
The visuals are breathtaking in the northern territory of India. Winding down from the Himalayan peaks below you is the Ganga River, it’s beauty endlessly present as you travel through the mountains. Mountain peaks shadowing your every turn; like soaring giants, changing from snowy peaks, to a palette of browns and greys, with the crescendo a brightness of lush greens, the gateway to the Indo-Gangetic plain. There are villages marking the road trail, with people making a living through agriculture and side road markets. Life is simple in this part of the world and the people work hard. This is not the India I had expected to see.
From Gangotri to Kolkatta, the expedition was predominantly rafting and camping along the banks of the Ganga, only visiting hotels when we had events with schools in major cities. The tranquility of the river, and the physical work, contrasted to bustling cities of 4 – 17 million people, it makes you feel small. I am not from India, I look different, as a foreigner, you are noticed and curious faces of the locals make you feel strngely observed, yet the people are warm, engaging and humble in every way. Again, this was an India different to what I had imagined.
Along the river we visit traditional Hindi monastaries, Ashram. In Rishikesh we were invited guests of the Parmath Niketan Ashram and participated in a religious ceremony, Aarti, on the banks of the Ganga. I have never seen anything like it in my life. The yellow and orange fabrics adorned by young Hindu monks brighten the dusk evening sky. Orange flowers and candles brighten the banks of the river as the fire pit is blessed by Hindu priests. The sound of tambourines, accordions, drums and bells with bellowing voices of young men fill the air with an spiritual mist. In Varanasi, the Aarti was of stadium proportions.
As a country girl, I love open space and I affiliate more to isolation in daily life. I craved the river Ganga after spending time in the bustling cities amongst the people, despite being fascinated by the sights, the smells, the sounds and the city experience.
The Ganga is a majestic river, oftentimes feeling vast and endless like an ocean. There are parts of the river where it is cleaner than bottled water and others where you would prefer to stay in the boat. But in a third world country where the environmental problems are so great, the population is exponential and the infrastructure needs are beyond what we can comprehend; I went from hardened environmentalist, to a compassionate foreigner, having no idea where to start.
There is however, light in the darkness. When you have the chance to connect with children, there is aspiration and hope. They crave a clean Ganga, their mother, they believe she needs to be protected not only for her wellbeing but for the people of India. There is no doubt in my mind, that children will lead the change on this river.
As I prepare for our next expedition down the Mississippi River in September 2017, I wonder what’s in store? I look forward to many more of life’s lessons.