ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take on the Rajdhani Express and other rapids on the Kundalika river at Kolad, Maharashtra’s only white-water rafting site
It was still dark in Mumbai when we bundled ourselves into a car bound to Kolad. The fresh smells of vegetables and flowers being unloaded in Dadar’s marketplace wafted through before we drifted into brief slumber in the back seat. An all night party and an agenda for adventure the next morning don’t usually go hand in hand. We woke up again at 6am to discover a sky engulfed by grey clouds that had consumed a sunrise. A continuous drizzle blurred the view of the landscape as the wipers danced on the windscreen like half-submerged synchronized swimmers in an Olympic routine. In the far suburbs of Mumbai, life had stirred into frenzy. Trucks chugged along to meet delivery deadlines while those in cars and bikes raced towards their offices. Bottlenecks at Vashi Creek and Navi Mumbai brought all tyres to a grinding halt before belligerent honks got them moving again.
The scenery had changed drastically. The silhouette of endless apartments had changed into fluorescent green mountains and fields. We drove past Pen, the village famous for its Ganapati idol-making industry and cruised along NH-17, swerving every now and then due to diversions and roadwork. We rolled a kilometer past Kolad and turned left on State Highway 60 towards Pune via Mulshi. The 22km drive along the undulating mountainous terrain of the Sahyadris surrounding the Kundalika River is peppered with farms, resorts and outdoor camps that organize outbound training and adventure activities. Signboards of Augustine’s Lake Farm, Nature Trails and Empower whizzed past.
We drove past a railway track till MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation) where we turned left to the village of Saje for the Starting Point. A few jeeps and cars were parked ahead of us. To the right, the River Kundalika flowed with graceful swiftness while further down, the water created a flutter of white rapids. In a calmer strip, a cluster of youngsters got busy around a bright blue raft, practicing oaring skills and shouting in excitement. Their instructor barked orders and they complied. We watched as they spent a few minutes rehearsing their moves and were off with the chants of “Ganpati bappa moriya”! Their rubber dinghy bobbed on the waves and disappeared around the curve. A few more rafts soon followed with another bunch of excited rafters.
Estin, a rafting guide from Manipur, informed us “This is the starting point for Mercury Himalayan Exploration. The one you are looking for is a little further up. You must move fast because you are late. We just sent our last raft.” With no phone signals, we drove at top speed to reach our base. Wild River Adventures, run by Mahesh Sanap, Ravikumar Nayak and Ravi Baadkar were pioneers of white water rafting in Maharashtra. “Go go go! The waters will recede otherwise,” yelled Ravi behind our back. With no time to lose, we threw on our life jackets, buckled them tight, yanked a helmet over our heads and were handed a paddle each.
Luckily, our team was still waiting for us at the riverbank. Pema, our Nepalese instructor had already debriefed them. “Have you done this before?” he asked. We rattled off our past adventures, “Sure… Dandeli, Coorg, Goa, Rishikesh, Nepal… But not in Kolad.” He sighed in relief, “Good. Then we won’t waste time. Get on board. Since you guys are experienced, you sit in the front!” We gladly obliged.
Our team was a Gujarati family from Mumbai. It was their first time at rafting and they were celebrating the father’s birthday on water. They clambered gingerly and joked about each other. And before we knew it we were singing “Happy Birthday” with much gusto. We were not sure whether it was the rush of adrenalin or a cover-up for their nervousness. Confessions about fear and lack of swimming skills were afloat amid thepla-dhokla jokes. The safety kayaker Vijay whacked the water with his paddle, drenching some of us. Our whoops of joy drowned out every other sound until Pema was forced to yell, “Ok, please. I need you to be quiet or you won’t hear my instructions.” Embarrassed, we waited for the first call. “All forward!” he said and we were off…
The 14 km stretch has 10 major rapids. The Kundalika River is dam-fed and when excess water is released every morning from the hydroelectric power station at Ravalje at 8.30am, the river swells, becoming suitable for white-water rafting. We rode over the first rapid called ‘Good Morning Buddha’, named so, because it’s always good to start with god’s name. The next one was called ‘Hilton’ and we wondered whether the connection was the hotel or the heiress. We steered past ‘Pumphouse’ and came to ‘Fisherman’, a favourite haunt for local villagers and tribals who catch fish there. At ‘Butterfly’, a beautiful set of waves that folded gently around us like butterfly wings, we were bathed in water and our raft rocked this way and that. And then we landed with a thud in ‘Crow’s Nest’, a small but nasty rapid, before emerging from the eddy.
“While most rapids are Grade II and III, the water goes up to Grade IV in peak monsoon,” Pema revealed, “That’s why this is the best season, right up till September.” As if on cue, the clouds answered with a shower drumming down on our helmets. “I need you to be careful now. Lock your feet. We’re going into some major rapids that come one after the other,” Pema said over the beating rain. “First is Key Wave – we have to tackle it to unlock the door to other rapids. I need you to paddle strong and hard. If the raft overturns, don’t panic. Just remember the safety instructions. If I say ‘All down’, you know what to do. Let’s practice it once.” We obeyed and waited for the real test.
The rapids didn’t disappoint. We rode headlong into ‘Bush on the Bend’ over a half submerged tree to the right before swirling and gliding in the flow. ‘Morning Headache’ came next…sweeping all around as we desperately negotiated its course. If anyone falls here, it’s a headache for the instructor as there’s no possible bailout over the 2km stretch of rapids. Then came Kundalika’s ferocious rapid ‘John Kerry’ that hits you with a force that whips the breath out of you. We lurched like drunkards at ‘Johnny Walker’ as waves crashed in from all sides, leaving us gasping and sputtering with water. Before we could react, a series of non-stop rapids aptly called ‘Rajdhani Express’ came as the next surprise. Like a rollercoaster ride, our cries of excitement were infectious. We marveled at the elderly parents who were on the boat and game for this kind of rush. After ‘Boom Shankar’, Pema suggested that we relax as we were done with the rapids.
The rest of the river was an easy ride. The rain had stopped. In the calm waters, we all jumped into the water and did some bodysurfing. As the sun winked from the grey skies, we floated around with sunbeams bouncing off our wet faces. We took in the serene beauty of the place – the quietly flowing river, the wooded hills, the mighty expanse of rock-faces that provided ideal rappelling opportunity, little children waving at us from the banks and the silent language of catfish swimming with us in the waters.
Near Broken Bridge, we were hauled back into the raft as a safety measure. We watched Vijay show-off his skills as he dived into the water in his kayak like a cormorant and emerged to skillfully steer past us. Sudden rain battered down and the wind blew against us. Vijay sought shelter under a tree while we paddled with greater desperation against the forces until we reached Kamat Village. We had covered 14 km in 1hour and 30 minutes. After hauling the raft up the riverbank, we descended on a little shack like a pack of hungry wolves and devoured hot onion bajjis, vada-pav and cups of tea. “It’s my treat”, said the birthday boy.
As a local auto transported our new Gujarati friends back to their vehicle at the starting point, we got into our waiting cab and drove around the tiny nondescript village of Kolad. Dotted with farms offering a glimpse into farm life and nature camps that organize activities like trekking, rock-climbing, valley and river crossing, it’s obvious why youngsters make a beeline for this hidden adventure haven. We halted at Sanskriti Farm at Muthavle village, about 3km ahead of Kolad opposite Namrata Dhaba and signboards indicating Sai Farm and Doctors Farm. Started about 7 years ago by Nitin Lamhane, the farm grows betelnut, coconut, rice, chikoo and guava, offering budget accommodation to adventure enthusiasts. After a wholesome home-cooked meal of chicken, rotis, rice, dal, fried vegetables and salad, guests are taken post-lunch on an excursion to Sukeli Waterfall, a 7km drive from the farm and a 1½ hour forest trek to the waterfall.
Though the first run on the Kundalika happened in 1996, white-water rafting as a sport took off 7 years ago prompting a sudden boom in adventure outfits and farm stays in the region. Besides the thrills of white water rafting all year round, Wild River Adventures offer kayaking, canyoning and rock climbing around the Kundalika River and mountain biking in partnership with Mr. Jehan Driver of Quest Adventures. Akshay Kumar, who led the first rafting descent of the Brahmaputra (Tsang Po) from Arunachal to Assam, started Mercury Himalayan Explorations while Snow Leopard Adventures is the latest entrant on the scene. At Empower Activity Camps visitors can enjoy ATV rides and Paintball or stay in luxury tents at Kundalika Rafting Camp by Nature Trails. With expert guides and trainers from Nepal, North East and Rishikesh running the rapids, Kolad has made a mark as Maharashtra’s only white-water rafting site and a quick getaway for adventure enthusiasts from Mumbai and Pune.
Getting there: Located 138 km (3-4 hrs) from Mumbai, drive down NH-17 (Mumbai-Goa highway), cross Pen, Nagothane and 1 km after Kolad, turn left on to SH-60 towards Pune via Mulshi. The start point is 22 km from the highway.
Rafting: The 14 km stretch starting from Saje village and ending at Kamat village has 10 Grade II-III rapids. The last 5km stretch is relatively flat and requires strong paddling, though it’s ideal for a swim.
Timings: Rafting coincides with the release of water from the dam anytime between 8:30am and 11am, making it a time-bound event. To be on time, start early from Mumbai or leave one day prior to reach Kolad by evening.
Costs: Rs.1500/person for rafting, lunch Rs.300 veg, Rs.350 non-veg (pre-ordered), Stay at eco camps Rs.2,500-4,000/day, Parking at Start Point Rs.50, Local autos for ferrying between end/start point Rs.700
Eligibility: Minimum 14 years, not suited for asthmatics and heart patients
Tip: Wear light clothing or swimwear and running shoes or floaters. Keep a change of clothes and towel handy.
When to Go: Open all year round, though best during monsoon till September
Wild River Adventure
Ph 9167182960, 9819297760 (Daylon)
Mercury Himalayan Explorations
Ph 020-25459845-7, 92728 82874, 82371 49155
Snow Leopard Adventures
Empower Activity Camps, Sutarwadi
Ph 02194-255105, 94238 91107, 94230 93607
Nature Trails Resorts, Kamat
Ph 022 66557777
Sanskriti Farm, Muthavle
Poojas Farm, Dhagadwadi
Sai Farm, Ainwahal
Ph 98691 18763
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.