Thursday, 4 February 2010

12th November – Blankers and stark reality...

It was a race to be first up. The sleepy rafters watched as we bustled about getting rods together and organizing ourselves to get to the confluence. The Blankers party headed off accompanied by those in the know about the hot spot (me and Rup). Phil came along for the fun of it. Each Blanker would have five casts into the hot spot before the next Blanker took over.
As we walked towards the confluence we noted more tiger pug marks in the sand where we had not seen them yesterday. It was a sobering sight and reminded us that we were being watched.
Crossing the Sipla was an ordeal as people struggled to stay up in the knee deep water. Well it was knee deep where I crossed but other people chose to cross in crutch deep water instead and not only suffered the sharp intake of breath as cold water hits the gonads, but also nearly got swept away. They eventually made it by holding on to each other and using rods to stabilize themselves.
We reached the confluence and Bob was voted as the Blanker most worthy of casting first (I can’t quite remember why but it may have been down to his lack of clear vision having lost his glasses). A jelly lure was tied onto his line and I gave careful instructions about where he should fish. Once in position on the rocks, casting required nothing more than a gentle underarm flick to drop the lure 20ft out into the small eddy pool just below the confluence. Bob’s first cast was an over-arm lob and the lure disappeared into the mist upstream. By the time Bob had reset the reel and began retrieving his line the lure was already deeply lodged between two boulders on the riverbed. Bob tried in vain to get the lure back and broke the line eventually. We all agreed that Bob was unlucky and felt sorry for him so allowed him to still have another five casts before handing over to the next Blanker.
Bob’s second cast was better but he still didn’t manage to set his reel and retrieve line in time to prevent another lure wedging itself firmly between a different pair of boulders on the riverbed. He tried again in vain to get the lure back and broke the line. We all agreed that Bob was no longer unlucky but just an imbecile and didn’t feel sorry for him any more. Beside, at this rate, there would be so many lures in the pool that the mahseer would be forced downstream to find a new lie.
Chris was given the next shot at the hot spot and got himself into position whilst Bob skulked away into the rocks to tie on another lure. Chris cast perfectly into the pool but let his jelly lure sink too far and also got hooked up on a rock. I was beginning to understand why they had earned the title of Blankers.
Anyway, Chris lost a lure, Billy lost a lure and Bob ended up losing seven lures in total. We were all fishing by now having lost the will to sit and watch good water being filled up with jelly lures. Phil also started fishing and caught a small mahseer on a little jointed plug which brought a repeat of his master-class episode from a few days earlier.
The hot spot was decidedly cool and not surprising really considering the pressure it was put under yesterday by Rup and me. We spread out and searched for fish downstream for a few hours but no-one caught except Rup who managed to hook into something good in the large eddy pool below the rapids but his line broke again!
I felt brave and managed to cross the Sipla at the confluence where Tazir and Arun crossed yesterday. It was scary going though even with my felt wading boots on and I didn’t want to repeat the journey. Alka was fishing above the confluence with Sanjay. She managed to land a 2lb mahseer on a small toby spoon and Sanjay caught a 5lb mahseer on a rubber crayfish pattern. The Blankers party eventually struggled back over the Sipla and returned to camp for breakfast at 09:00.
Nino and his team used up all the eggs and other remaining rations to produce a real fry up for us. Eggs, omelettes, puris, curried beans and salad were wolfed down by us all.
We packed our bags and loaded the rafts for last time. As we drifted by the confluence I cast half-heartedly into the hot spot but was not surprised when nothing grabbed my lure. We rafted for a few hours and stopped at a couple of good looking spots to fish but no-one caught anything. At another confluence, smaller than the Sipla, I could see small fish moving about in the shallows. We fished hard and covered a lot of water but nothing was biting. There were lots of footprints in the sand so we figured that the place had been bombed recently as this location was easily accessible.
Just below this confluence we beached the rafts and had a lunch of biscuits and chocolate bars to use up the final supplies. In this pool, Sanjay had caught a 37lb mahseer the previous year when he and Billy had reached it by motor boat from downstream. This river had inspired Billy to hatch a plan to raft the Kamla and Subansiri. We took group photos, shook hands and hugged each other. Then we rafted the last few kilometres to our exit point, right by the Subansiri dam project. The river was slow and lifeless now and had lost much of its energy. We entered a steep gorge section of the river and it seemed as if the hills were trying to prevent the river from escaping onto the plains. The cliffs on the shadey side of the gorge were completely covered with a velvety green moss and looked like curtains. The sound of heavy machinery at work filled our ears from downstream. We rounded a corner and the dam construction came into view. It was immense and climbed hundreds of metres above us. The mountainside was being blasted and shaped smooth and rocks and debris fell onto the beach below. This rubble was then being scooped by giant diggers into giant trucks that drove a few hundred metres and then dumped their load into the river. The river was only a few days away from being completely dammed at which point, the water would be forced into a huge tunnel cut into the mountainside where it would power giant turbines to generate hydro electricity for India’s growing industrial and domestic demand.
We stared at the vast scale of the project as we drifted towards it, conscious that many of the dam workers were looking curiously down at us in our tiny rafts. The closer we got, the bigger it all became and the smaller we all felt. A jackhammer high on the mountainside dislodged some rocks that came crashing down into the river on the far side. The rocks hit the water with deep powerful thumps like artillery fire. When the project completes in a few years time, this river will rise 120m and drown the campsites and riverbanks that we have spent the last two weeks exploring. The flood will reach all the way back up the Kamla to Tamen where we first put in with our rafts and performed our pooja.
It was a pretty awful way to end our trip but unavoidable as the only road out from the river was at this point. We were surrounded by mud, concrete and an industry bent on destroying this beautiful river. The mahseer would hopefully survive and move further upstream to find higher waters where they could continue spawning. But we would have to find another river to fish as this one will soon become a silent and shapeless shadow of its former vibrant self.
Our jeeps were waiting on a track high above us as we offloaded our gear and changed into normal clothes again. The sight of Vikas’ fish being brought up to his jeep and dumped unceremoniously into the back (where I was going to have the misfortune to sit and travel with it) was terribly sad. We said our goodbyes to the rafters who still had much to dismantle and pack and drove off into the evening dust. As we headed away from the dam project, Vikas glanced at the destruction around us and made a comment about how man can thoughtlessly destroy beauty on a whim. The irony of his comment was not lost on me. A beautiful, but now dead, 35lb golden mahseer lay in the back of his jeep as a gift to his father. Killed on a whim? I was too polite and tired to say anything. Plus, I think, he would have made me walk home.
We drove out of the hills and back onto the Assamese plains as a glorious sunset bathed the land around us in soft red hues. A full moon rose shortly after and sat low and orange above the hills to complete the picturesque landscape. It was a very bumpy and dusty journey back to Sanjay’s tea estate and we stopped after a few hours at a restaurant to have a late drunken supper. The restaurant manager fussed over us like an overindulgent mother but the food was very good. He even made a grand speech at the end, thanking us for honouring his restaurant with our presence.
Rup and I were transferred from Vikas’ jeep to another jeep that had arrived. Vikas and Dhiraj were heading off to their respective tea estates and would be travelling for much of the night. They shook hands and hugged us all and then drove away. Billy and Alka also said their goodbyes to but arranged to come and see us at Sanjay’s in a day or two.
The rest of us continued our journey to Sanjay’s and dropped Tazir off at a village so he could take his heavy load of smoked fish home to his family. Here we also made quick phone calls to catch up with family and close ones. The bumpy roads made sleeping very difficult but I eventually crawled on top of our rucksacks in the back and slept for some time as it was the only comfortable place I could find. We were stopped by an army checkpoint en route and I sat sleepily on the roadside whilst the driver and Rup persuaded the army wallahs that we weren’t terrorists.
At around midnight we finally pulled into Sanjay’s tea plantation and were met by his charming wife Devicar. We sat weary-eyed in the living room of his very spacious bungalow whilst servants fussed around us with tea and coffee. Phil and I were given the deputy tea managers house to stay in which was a short walk from the bungalow. Chris, Bob and Rup shared a spare bedroom in the bungalow.
We slept instantly.

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