I was cold and wet, my heart beating a mile a minute, and seconds later I would be caught in the Crossfire. And boy, was I looking forward to it! Living up to its name, the rapid Crossfire pushed the raft to a side, almost slapping its four occupants against the rocks. But we survived—with huge smiles plastered on our faces.
I’d first seen the river when I arrived in Rishikesh the previous day. Sea-green waters had been by my side through the drive from Dehradun airport to my hotel, Atali Ganga by Aquaterra Adventures. That evening, I got my first proper look at the Ganga. Down a rocky path few kilometres from the hotel, a tea service by the river had been arranged. The rocks and the wild trees I’d expected, but not the clearing of untarnished white sand where a table was set up.
Shoes discarded, toes firmly dug into soft sand and birdsong in my ears, I watched the Ganga as a cool breeze made a playful mess of my hair. Beyond the gravelly fringe of the shore were mild waves—agile yet unhurried—but few metres to the left were swirls of foaming white, like the beginning notes to a symphony’s crescendo. It seemed like a recce for the next day, the river showing me a peek of what to expect. Equal parts excitement and nervousness bubbled in the pit of my tummy as I sipped my chai just as dusk set in.
I woke up the next morning to a pair of chirping bulbuls. Discarding my plush comforter, I padded along the wooden floors of my cottage to the ceiling-to-floor glass door that opened up to a patio. Away from the humdrum of pilgrims and tourists crowding Rishikesh’s town centre, the cottages of Atali Ganga look out at views painted in rich greens, ochres and browns, cyans, and various pastels. Tile roofs of cottages built along the slopes of a hill; tree-and-bush-lined gravel paths leading to stone steps; leafy boughs where the bulbul pair was picking at fruits; and outdoor seating areas with pista-coloured sofas, like the one a level down from my cottage (I’d spent the previous afternoon reading there). Imposing on the view, however, is the rocky mountain that rises in the distance, hemmed at its foot by the Ganga. For a property styled as an “activotel,” it was befitting that from everywhere, be it the rooms or the restaurant’s alfresco dining area, you could see the river—Rishikesh’s hub of activity. A quick breakfast later, I was walking down another rocky path to my first river rafting experience.
An hour later, listening to the rafting instructor, my nervousness returned, amplified tenfold. From simple technical knowledge—sit at the edge, keep knees together, to the safety rules—float feet first with the current, wrap yourself (like a sloth around a branch) around the rescue kayaks if you topple, it all seemed kind of sinister. But, with the first slice of paddle against water, the excitement was back.
The calm stretches of the Ganga along Atali’s 24-kilometre rafting route stripped away all nervousness. But there was no rush either. Until, we found ourselves in the midst of Three Blind Mice and Crossfire. The rapids of Rishikesh have interesting, if sometimes misleading, names: Sweet Sixteen, Golf Course, Roller Coaster, Double Trouble. I’d thought Roller Coaster would take me for a spin while Three Blind Mice seemed rather tame. But caught between the jagged currents of the latter taught me not to judge my rapids before crossing them.
I felt like a voyager battling the angry seas. The instructor’s shouts of “Row!” “Hold!” “Row!” The drowning roar of choppy currents crashing and breaking into each other.The cold slap of the water. And those few minutes where we were at the mercy of the pits and crests of a fierce river. Adrenaline had taken over, and every gentle stretch in between rapids seemed like an agonising wait—except the times when we were allowed to jump into the clear, cool water.
The Ganga seems to flow like the masterpiece of a moody musician in Rishikesh. Rapids from Grade I to Grade IV spring up on you like surprise high notes in an otherwise lively but soothing melody. About three hours and many rapids later, I was drenched, tired to the bone and already planning to return for a taste of adrenaline and rapids. At that moment though, I was ready to spend the day lounging in the nooks of Atali with tea and a book.
For those looking to spend time outside of staples like river rafting, Atali Ganga’s backyard High Ropes Course, with suspended tyre bridges and high monkey bars, is a good place to start. Apart from the 22 cottages, the property offers what they call the Jungle Camp, also run by Aquaterra. The camp’s tented accommodations border the Course, which is also where Atali’s short mountain biking path begins. A hiking trip takes guests past the camp and higher into the mountains. Small groups of chital and peacocks, along with many local bird species are a common sight on early morning hikes.
Forgoing the hike and a yoga session next morning—my body still felt like it was afloat on chilly waters—I decided to go back to the river one last time. I’d been promised the Garhwali lunch I’d requested on return. The description of the meal—chainsoo (gram dal curry), kaafuli (local green) and a mildly spicy curry made from dried colocasia stems or naalbadi, served with the local millet jhangora—almost had me asking the chef if I could be in the kitchen while he cooked. But the lure of the river was stronger and I was soon back to the spot of our first acquaintance. This time waiting on the sand was a bright blue inflatable kayak.
After the rafting, kayaking along the gentler waters seemed so much easier until I was pushing against the currents, and turning against the swirls to steer my kayak. My arms definitely felt the toil. Yet, the view of a winding river, bordered by a steep mountain and a sand-and-pebble shore, flowing to its own rhythm, was worth it. I jumped into the river the moment my kayak touched the shore. With the chilly water seeping into my clothes, letting myself be carried by the currents of the Ganga seemed like a fitting farewell.
Atali Ganga has independent, deluxe, and duplex deluxe cottages. All activities are arranged by Aquaterra Adventures (www.ataliganga.com; cottages from Rs18,112, inclusive of meals and two activities per night of stay).
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.