By Darin McQuoid
All are out of breath from the simple task of carrying their kayaks down a footpath to the headwaters of the River Teesta. Four thousand metres above sea level in the northern Indian state of Sikkim, an intrepid team of kayakers attempt to run what is possibly the steepest flowing river on the planet!
The world’s seventh largest country, India is too large to fully experience in one trip. Sikkim is a state with a rich and storied past, tucked away in the far North-east between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Sharing more cultural traits with Nepal than southern India, but lacking in rampant Western tourism, Sikkim is a great place to explore off the beaten path. The team came to Sikkim for one specific river; the Teesta. Flowing off the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (8,586m), the river loses elevation in a dramatic manner, averaging an incredible 112 metres per kilometre for 100 kilometres.
Heading to arguably the steepest sustained gradient in the world and minimal beta, the group doesn’t know what to expect. It takes four long days of driving, from near sea level to over 4,000 metres. Law dictates hiring a local guide in north Sikkim and Targain warns them that the river will be too steep to kayak. The culture has changed with the elevation gain as much as the flora and fauna. It looks like a slice of west Asian culture high up in north Sikkim, only 30 kilometres from Tibet and 1,500 kilometres from New Delhi. Ice melts on the side of the road as drysuits are put on. They had planned to put-in at Lake Tso Lhamo, but military restrictions halt the jeep in Thangu Valley. No one complains because all are out of breath from the simple task of carrying their kayaks down a footpath to the headwaters of the River Teesta. Through the valley the river is unremarkable for rapids yet exhausting thanks to the elevation. The scenery makes it worthwhile though, with towering snow-capped peaks above and Bhuddist prayer flags lining the sides of the river. The road crosses at the end of the valley and the team pulls off the river.
Below Thangu Valley
for six kilometres, the Teesta is simply too steep for the team to kayak. This is a rare occurrence in whitewater kayaking on a river of this volume. Day after day the team spends their time running each section of the river possible. It seems like every section of river the team as able to descend is sandwiched between impossibly steep sections often boxed into narrow gorges. After a week full of action one last section of the Teesta is attempted.
Kayaks are packed with overnight gear as the river enters another deep canyon of unknown length. Perhaps the wisest – the elder team member decides not to put on to this section of river. The rest of the team pushes downstream, only to find that the river is once again too steep and literally goes underground in a quarter mile boulder field. Like ants through a gravel pile, the team spends eight hours negotiating the portage, only to find that there is just too much water in the riverbed. Already spent, the only option is to bushwhack a thousand feet out of the canyon and find the road. Relief is palpable when they can hear their local guide calling for them at the edge of a small mountain village. Perhaps Targain really did know all along.
While the team didn’t attain the classic whitewater they’d dreamed of finding in the upper reaches of the Teesta, there is classic whitewater to be found in Sikkim. Lower stretches of the river see commercial rafting business blooming and there are many rarely done rivers and plenty of more feasible rivers to explore in Sikkim.
Spread below Mt. Kanchanjunga (8534 m), the third highest mountain in the world and revered by the Sikkimese as their protective Deity, Sikkim shares borders with Tibet in the north; Bhutan in the east, Nepal in the west and state of Bengal in the south. Kanchanjunga’s five snowy peaks soar high above the Himalayan landscape of Sikkim, sometimes wrapped in mists and wreathed in clouds, sometimes blazing while against a brilliant blue sky. Below Sikkim unfolds its magic and its charm : a garden state with rich green tropical forests; brilliant birds and butterflies; an amazing variety of orchids, rhododendrons and wild flowers; rushing tumbling streams and torrents; and endless vistas of snow-crowned peaks.
Sikkim white water rafting and kayaking have recently developed into an important tourist attraction in the state. The mighty Teesta and its tributary Rangit provide for great opportunities for white water rafting and kayaking in and the tourism department of Sikkim is devoted to develop the tourist profile of the state and promoting white water rafting and kayaking as one of their major projects to achieve this end.
White water rafting in Sikkim takes place on the Teesta and Rangit rivers. Teesta offers great white water rafting opportunities and has successfully placed itself on the international rafting map. Presently graded at four, many water sports enthusiasts arrive every year to experience rafting in Teesta. The trail is serpentine and the scenery is beautiful with great forests lining the river banks. Rangit also offers white water rafting opportunities, however, the stormy Rangit waters are more difficult to raft than Teesta and as such only the highly experienced rafters undertake the Rangit expedition. Between them, the rivers offer certain trails which are graded between two and four where many novices find their thrills. It can therefore be easily said, that Sikkim rafting has something for all white water sports enthusiasts at all levels of expertise. Makha, Sirwani, Rangpo and Bardang are the best places for rafting in Teesta, whereas Sikip, Jorethang, Majitar and Melli are the best spots to experience the Rangit.
Kayaking in Sikkim is also gaining in popularity with time. The Teesta is the ideal place for kayaking in Sikkim. However, kayaking in Sikkim can be potentially dangerous and some level of expertise is needed to undertake it.
Due to the extreme altitude, there is an immense variation in climate and vegetation. With a rainfall of about 140 inches in Gangtok, the climate is tropical up to 5,000ft, temperate between 5,000ft–13,000ft, alpine at 13,000ft, and snowbound at 16,000ft and above. The best time to visit Sikkim is between mid-March and June but especially, April and May, when the rhododendrons and orchids are in bloom. However, temperatures can be high, especially in the valleys. During the monsoons, from the end of June until end September, rivers and roads become impenetrable, though plants nurtured by the incessant rain erupt again into bloom towards the end of August. October, when orchids bloom once again and November tend to have the clearest weather of all. As December approaches, it gets bitterly cold at high altitudes, and remains that way until early March, despite long periods of clear weather.
Visitors require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) in addition to normal Indian visa to enter Sikkim and can visit Gangtok, Rumtek, Phodang and Pemayangtse.