Words & photography by Mike Dawson
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. Yet 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 5km deep, the Indus has become a pinnacle of big water paddling.
Fresh from winning the extreme kayaking world title, Spaniard Aniol Serrasolses joined New Zealander Mike Dawson and Irish filmmaker Ciarán Heurteau 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, into the gorge. Since then, Pakistan’s precarious reputation off the water had stopped any planned trips into the North Pakistan 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”
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 civilisation 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 this heavily militarised zone. Check points and an endless paper trail ensure none enter the stunning Indus Valley undetected.
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 coloured kayaks on the roof, we set off on the final stage of a long, bumpy journey.
After hours of transit, we rounded the corner where the mountains come together, constricting and channelling the Indus into the upper reaches of the gorge. Our minds buzzed with excitement as our eyes greeted the sight of the first rapid. Mayhem ensued as the team rushed to get into it, unloading boats and organising gear for the week ahead.
“Our minds buzzed with excitement as our eyes greeted the sight of the first rapid”
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 militarised zones on the planet.
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 and sounds of the market.
The curiosity of three westerners with bright kayaks searching for food was returned with warm generosity. 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 honour.
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 neighbouring Kirthar Mountains bordering the lower Indus plain rise to nearly 8,000 feet (2,400 metres), 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; the entire volume of the river was constricted and sent off a single drop.
“[Local] people… are peaceful, friendly and generous…despite being wedged between… one of the most militarised zones on the planet.”
The river raged 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.
Kilometres 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.
Slowly, we started to get in tune with the river, though the sheer scale and force of the water made scouting tough. While a rapid may have appeared simple, it felt unbelievably humbling and difficult, the remoteness and power of the river turning what looked like an easy class three into a challenging class five.
Then there were the rapids that are off the Richter scale. Never had any of us experienced a river offering so much world-class whitewater through such unreal landscapes day after day, kilometre after kilometre.
“Never had any of us experienced a river offering so much world-class whitewater through such unreal landscapes”
It’s worth noting that the road above was as dangerous as the river itself. High above us, Taju raced downstream whistling and yelping as we passed through countless rapids.
We scouted and ran rapid after rapid with no portages until day five, when the incredible Malupa 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 new morning, Mike was surged into a gigantic ledge hole that encompassed most of the Indus’s flow. Instantly, he disappeared. Gone.
A glimpse of green saw his boat wash downstream, but he remained caught in the grasp of the hole, eventually flushing and swimming frantically for the side before being swept around the corner. In an instant, the Indus had given us a glimpse of her merciless might, exposing the vulnerability of our trio.
“Mike was surged into a gigantic ledge hole that encompassed most of the Indus’s flow. Instantly, he disappeared”
The last day seemed to continue forever. Despite the 40 kilometres done, dusk was setting in 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 five moves. Our arms were sapped of energy, our minds exhausted. 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 around which the Indus skirts into the plains of Pakistan – was painted red from the setting sun.
We rounded the final corner to see the Gilgit River confluence where the Gilgit’s crystal clear waters were instantly consumed by the murky water of the Indus. Elation briefly subdued our exhaustion, if only for a moment, as whoops and high-fives were shared, before searching for a way to the road became a priority.
In darkness, we clambered hundreds of metres to the roadside, boats dropped in the dust as we collapsed by the van. This remotest of missions complete.