Published August 21, 2022
The Expedition Indus fighting for their lives in a class 5 rapid near Besham | Sanif Jamal
The Expedition Indus fighting for their lives in a class 5 rapid near Besham | Sanif Jamal

We could hear the deafening roar of the big water in the distance. As we neared the rapid, we noticed a young man standing on the far-left side of the river, frantically waving at us and pointing us to move towards the right side of the river.

Bewildered and frightened by the horrifying sight of the massive class 5 rapid that suddenly loomed ahead, we started paddling hard towards our right. But it was too late. The strong current pushed us straight towards the waterfall that was plummeting right into a huge hole.

Then, all of a sudden, everything went topsy-turvy as our raft fell headlong into an enormous hole. There was a big thud as I flew from the raft’s stern and crashed on top of Faisal, who had fallen on the bow of the boat. Before I could steady myself, our raft emerged from the first hole and fell backwards into another big one to its left. At that moment, I felt like I was being sucked into a deep watery abyss as tons of water came crashing down on us.

As we surfaced, I could see Sanif and Sultan in the water, clinging to the side of the raft, struggling to haul themselves back in. I looked around desperately but couldn’t see Farman anywhere. Then I saw him come up from under a big wave and disappear under another huge one. I could see waves crashing all around him as the strong current swept him further away from us. And just when we thought we had some control over our raft, we were swallowed by yet another hole.

A group of intrepid adventurers decide to raft down the length of the Mighty Indus to document how the ‘river of life’ is currently faring in face of environmental degradation and human intervention. This is the story of that journey...

We were Expedition Indus, a six-member team that had set out to raft the entire course of River Indus in Pakistan and we were fighting for our lives, grappling with a huge rapid in the Indus, somewhere downstream from the town of Besham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

We started our rafting expedition from Hamzigond in the Baltistan region and were heading south to Karachi, a challenge nobody had taken on before. Besides the three main members of Expedition Indus, including myself, ABM Faisal and Farman Ahmed, there were three other members who joined us in the northern leg of our journey. Sanif Jamal and Atif Amin, hailing from Karimabad in Hunza Valley, joined the expedition as river-rafting guides, while Sultan Karim from Ghulkin in Hunza was taken onboard as a white-water rescue expert because of his swimming prowess.

River Indus, the untamed lion, the legendary Sindhu, as mentioned in the ancient script of Rig Veda, rises in the mountains of Tibet, and travels for a few hundred kilometres before it enters the Ladakh region in India-occupied Kashmir. It then makes its wild foray into Pakistan after crossing the Line of Control (LoC) close to the village of Olding in Baltistan.

The Giglit-Batistan government had authorised us to start our expedition from the bridge on the River Indus close to Olding, about three kilometres from the LoC. But when we arrived at Hamzigond, about eight kilometres short of Olding, armed with a No-Objection Certificate (NOC), our spirits charged with excitement, we were stopped dead in our tracks at a military checkpost.

The usual reasons of border sensitivity were cited and we were not allowed to proceed further. Flustered and indignant at this sudden intrusion in our plan and helpless in the face of rigid military procedures, we commenced our expedition from Hamzigond on the first day of March 2022.


Rafting through Kharmang in Baltistan region | Eyebex Films
Rafting through Kharmang in Baltistan region | Eyebex Films

The villagers of Hamzigond, along with the local civil and military administration, gathered at the bridge on the Indus and sent us off with lots of cheers and prayers. As we started rolling down the river in our rubber raft, I deliberately threw myself into the river to check the efficacy of our wetsuits against the frigid waters. I climbed back into the raft shivering and disappointed. “Let’s make sure, we don’t capsize and fall into the river,” I cautioned my team but in a cheery voice. “These wetsuits offer very little protection. Guys, we have chinks in our armour.”

Expedition Indus was not only an adventure and a challenge for us, but also a project where we could document the whole river, showcase its presence and gauge its well-being from various perspectives, like the impact of climate change, effluents, dams and other human interventions.

We also wanted to look into the potential of the river from a tourism and transportation point of view. And, of course, to film and document the peoples, the history and biodiversity that thrives in and around the great river for posterity’s sake before the Lion River is devoured by the monsters of modernity and greed.

The first day was full of excitement and apprehensions as we rafted the turbulent waters of the river, passing through the scenic Kharmang valley with towering mountains on either side, aflame with the blossoms of an early spring. The ever-smiling, hospitable Baltis with their great sense of humour gave us strength, hope and kept our spirits high every time we came ashore.

“Where are you going?” they shouted at us.

“Karachi,” we shouted back.

“Take the road. It is much easier and faster.”

Some of them advised us in earnest and others just laughed it off.

‘Yeah right, Karachi,’ they must have thought. Karachi did seem very far away at the time and we too wondered if we would be able to make it.

The main villages that we passed on our way were Skardu, Prapaldo, Tolti, Mehdiabad and Gol. Before Gol, close to the village of Keris, is where River Shyok — which in Balti language means the ‘river of death’ — joins the river of life that is Indus. Along this stretch of the river, we thoroughly enjoyed the Balti hospitality as we were fed, housed and greeted by the beautiful Balti folks.

In Skardu, we were greeted by a massive sandstorm and Ayaz Shigri. Ayaz is a local hotelier and a colourful character, who sports a mullet and a ribald sense of humour. We danced in his company under the ancient gaze of the Kharpocho Fort as a wind storm lashed at us with its full fury.

After resting for a couple of days in Skardu, we rafted to the mouth of Rondu gorge where a week earlier, an earthquake had rained rocks on our van as we had sped through its narrow defile. We skirted the whole section of Rondu gorge due to its difficult terrain and the massive rapids that were beyond our capacity and expertise.

Little did we know there would be other things beyond our capacity and expertise. I still get goosebumps when I recall that we almost drowned as it sucked us into its watery horrors. I can still feel the sadness of the moment when Sanif and Sultan finally managed to get into the raft and we all thought we had lost Farman. And then the joy when the raft finally drifted into the calm waters and we could see Farman floating on his back about 10 meters away from us.

We threw the safety bag at him and hauled him inside the boat. He was unconscious but still breathing. Thankfully, within minutes he came back to life and started relating his ordeal under the water. We all breathed a sigh of relief and continued down the river towards Thakot.

Gilgit-Baltistan into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Cruising on a Zulu 1 near Kalabagh
Cruising on a Zulu 1 near Kalabagh

Our journey down the Indus was fraught with incidents and stories, filled with sights, sounds and people that you can’t visualise or encounter from the elevation of the Karakoram Highway that accompanies the river from Jaglot all the way down to the town of Thakot.

At the confluence of River Gilgit and Indus, we witnessed the mountain ranges of the Karakoram, the Himalayas and the Hindukush coming together under the towering shadow of the Nanga Parbat massif. We were humbled in our raft at the awe-inspiring drama of the mighty mountains that unfolded right above us.

The Kabul river at Jahangira looked so filthy that I didn’t want to wet my feet in its polluted waters. In one go, we could see the sewage holes, floating junk, and small streams of foul-looking chemicals from the marble factories being dumped into the river.

Near the bridge of Astore, we were hailed by the Jalawaan, the gypsy gold panners of the Karakorams, who are among one of the least documented mountain tribes in the world. Living in tattered tents, in and along the gorges and banks of the Indus, these nomadic people thrive by panning gold from its shiny sands. The Jalawaan offered us goat milk and cautioned us about certain portions of the river that were too dangerous to negotiate.

Further downstream, we were horrified to see the amount of sewage and trash being released into the river from the town of Chilas. The landscape around the site of the Diamer-Basha dam is an environmental disaster; with the mountain sides blasted out of heavens on either side of the river, their debris is constantly being dumped into the river.

It is sad to note that, in this day and age, when the world has moved on to alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power, we are still stuck in the archaic notion of big dams that are known to adversely affect the environmental health of the rivers and their dependents.

At Thakot, the river takes a smooth south-easterly turn and disappears behind the Black Mountains, once notorious for being a lawless tribal belt that was recently tamed and made part of the mainstream Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and renamed as Torghar district.

The stretch of Indus from Thakot to Darband is perhaps one of the most beautiful and pristine, as the encroachment of modernity has not spoilt this area. After avoiding a few dangerous sections of the river between Thakot and Shagai, we resumed our trip from the town of Judhba and started paddling in relatively serene water that spreads out and loses its depth in fairytale valleys like Judhba and Palosa.

After paddling laboriously for a few hours, we realised that, at this pace where the river was flowing at five km per hour, it would take a few days for us to reach the town of Darband. So, at Palosa, we opted for a quick remedy and hired one of the local ferry launches that run between Darband and Shagai to tow us all the way to Darband.

At six in the evening, we were in Tarbela Lake, exiting from the muddy launch adda of Khalabat, close to the town of Haripur.

As the river enters PUNJAB

The raft caught in a wild rapid | Eyebex Films
The raft caught in a wild rapid | Eyebex Films

We said goodbye to Sanif, Atif, Sultan and our sturdy raft that we had christened “Hamzigond” over the course of the journey. “Hamzigond” had been good to us. It didn’t capsize even once and never failed us during our perilous northern leg of the journey. As they headed back to Hunza, we went home to Islamabad to rest and recoup for a couple of days and prepare for the southern stretch of the river.

The cast of Expedition Indus changed when we left on April 21 from Islamabad. Now we were joined by Afia Salam, an eminent environment journalist who we eventually dubbed as our “Iron Lady” on account of her impeccable knowledge in her field and wonderful coordination skills that helped the expedition.

Besides Afia, a whole bevy of Pak Navy Seals became part of the expedition as the Pakistan Navy had graciously come on board as our partners and lent us two Zulu boats, fitted with outboard motor engines. Lt Commander Babar Nisar Khan was leading this nine-member team. We had six commandos in the boats and the rest comprised our ground support team.

We had planned to launch the rafts from the other side of the Tarbela spillways, from the town of Ghazi, but the water level was too low from Ghazi to Attock. So, with a sad heart, we drove to Jahangira in Nowshera District and put our boats in the water in River Kabul from Jahangira Bridge.

As an ardent supporter of the expedition, Malik Amin Aslam, the minister for climate change at the time, rode on the raft with us from Jahangira to Malai Tola, a small town on the riverbank of the Indus, about an hour’s boat ride away from Jahangira.

The Kabul river at Jahangira looked so filthy that I didn’t want to wet my feet in its polluted waters. In one go, we could see the sewage holes, floating junk, and small streams of foul-looking chemicals from the marble factories being dumped into the river.

During our 20-minute ride from Jahangira to the confluence of River Kabul and Indus, our boat engines conked off about a dozen times. The Navy Seals sheepishly explained that their engines were used to seawater and were slowly warming up to the fresh waters of the rivers that have silt and other pollutants that choke the engine. It made sense.

Sure enough, soon we were cruising through the Indus with Attock Fort looming into sight on the east bank of the river. After an hour, we crossed Malai Tola and reached a point where the Ghazi Barotha canal meets the river as it dramatically takes a sharp westwardly turn.

This place is called the Indus Bend and this is where we dropped Malik Amin on a grassy knoll along the Indus. It was late in the day, so we decided to set up camp for the night. We had hardly settled down when a massive rainstorm with its gusting winds blew our tents away and sent us scrambling towards the nearest Wapda guest house, which was a few minutes’ drive away.

From Ghazi Barotha, we travelled to Khushal Garh in Kohat, where we were joined by Aftab Rana, Dr Danish Mustafa and Dr Hassan Abbas. The former is a well-known ecologist, an Indus Blind Dolphin expert and the managing director of the government-run Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), while the latter are internationally renowned water experts who have worked in the fields of geography, hydrology and sociology.

Their insights about water issues, big dams, alternative energy and the general health of River Indus added huge value to our expedition as we rafted through a diverse and interesting terrain on the run between Khushal Garh and Kalabagh.

In Makhad, in Attock District, we stopped and wondered at the cool riverside caves the locals used as chilled air-conditioned rooms for sleeping on hot sweltering nights. We also visited the shrines of the Gillani pirs, walked through the bazaar, and sat by the ancient temple, gazing at the flowing waters of the river, while contemplating the religious and commercial history of this ancient town.

We stayed in Kalabagh for a couple of days exploring the town and its culture. Azam Tariq, our behind-the-scenes expedition member and coordinator, and a veteran himself of a few rafting expeditions, drove from Islamabad and spent time with us, advising us on further travels down the river.

The river widened as we exited from the Jinnah Barrage reservoir in Kalabagh and started rafting downstream. We brought along Mumtaz, a Sindhi fisherman resident of Kalabagh, to guide us all the way to Sukkur, as he was well familiar with the river on this stretch and had relatives all along who kept him updated about the depth of waters in the river.

Mumtaz, a well-built young fellow in his thirties, sat at the stern of Zulu 1 with a long bamboo pole in hand, dipping it in the river every now and then to ascertain the depth of the river and gesturing with his hand to the coxswains on what direction to take. During our journey downstream from Chashma Barrage, our rafts ran aground on sandbars countless times a day and we dragged them back out looking for deeper channels to float our boats.

In Chachran Sharif, in Rahim Yar Khan District, we paid our respect at the shrine of Khawaja Ghulam Farid, the 12th century Sufi scholar and patron saint of the Indus in southern Punjab. On the stretch from Dera Ismail Khan to Layyah, we got lost in the river and exited at about 11pm not knowing where we were, as we had been going around in circles.

Towards The Delta

We spent Eid day in Mirpur Mathelo, in Sindh, with temperatures soaring up to 48 degrees Celsius. Our lives were made more miserable by the lack of electricity. In Sukkur, we witnessed the Indus Blind Dolphins, visited Sadhu Balo, the shrine of Zinda Pir, and counted numerous drains that were unloading their filth and waste from the cities of Sukkur and Rohri. Styrofoam and plastic bottles won the prize for being the top floaters in the Indus.

Despite warnings about “darrials” (the Sindhi term for bandits) infesting the kacha areas, we completed the 108-kilometre run from Mohenjodaro to Dadu Moro without encountering any security issues. We spent two days in Sehwan visiting the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, and took a trip to Manchar Lake. There, we were shocked to see the dwindling tribe of the Mohanas who live on their boats.

Manchar is being polluted by the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD), its fish and other resident life forms are dying, affecting the livelihood of its fisherfolk, who are forced to live below the poverty line and are leaving their fishing profession to go find work in the neighbouring towns.

During our run between Sehwan and the town of Qazi Ahmad, darrials finally caught up with us and fired shots at our boats from the riverbanks a couple of times. We could see armed men training their guns on us and firing. But, fortunately, we dodged their bullets and sped along. Staggered and shaken by this near-death experience, we decided not to test our luck anymore and exited the river about six kilometres downstream from Amri Bridge, close to the town of Qazi Ahmed.

To our shock and horror, the river ended at Kotri Barrage. There was no Indus beyond the barrage — just shallow ponds created by seepage water and a desert of silt and sand that sang the dirge of the once mighty roaring Indus.

With heavy hearts, we drove to Kharochan, the delta point that used to welcome the river into its creeks and see it off into the waters of the Arabian Sea. But now the sea comes up the creeks of the delta looking for its long-lost friend, wondering what happened to that freshwater Dervish River that brought stories from the mythical plateaus of Tibet, the fabulous valleys of the Karakorams and the enchanting plains of Punjab.

As we rafted through the winding labyrinths of the Indus Delta to Keti Bandar, we were overwhelmed by the emotions that had seeped into our beings during the 45 days of our rafting expedition.

Journey of a lifetime

We were thrilled to have completed a lifelong dream but, at the same time, we were also sad that we had witnessed some heartbreaking scenes along our journey. The unfettered pollution of the once pristine waters of the Indus, the death of the delta itself, the dwindling livelihoods of the Mohanas, the unresolved security issues making certain stretches of the river no-go areas, the near extinction of the Indus Blind Dolphins and the glaring apathy of the upper riparians towards the lower ones.

We were happy that we were still alive. And that while we had negotiated the wild rapid and managed to struggle out unscathed from its terrifying fury, its astounding ferocity had not killed our resolve to raft the whole length of the river.

And what made our hearts leap with joy was the fact that, despite all the ills and woes we have unleashed on the Indus by building dams along the river, by siphoning off its waters, by polluting it, and by curtailing its flow, the spirit of the Indus, its peoples and the cultures that thrive around it, is still intact and perhaps will never disappear.

The writer is a television producer and an adventure travel filmmaker. He likes to read books and can be reached at wajahatpimff@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 21st, 2022



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