We woke and had long steaming hot showers - in our dreams. After breakfast we settled the bill and loaded the jeeps. No international lines were available so I couldn’t call Claudette. Bob left his battery charger and batteries behind in his room after he vacated it and a nanosecond later they were nabbed. Search parties were dispatched for the miscreant room boy but he had disappeared, probably to sell or stash the goods. The charger and batteries were bought yesterday in a shop for a comparatively small price but Bob was indignant and wanted the stuff returned on principle. The hotel manager assured Bob that they would be returned but I think we all knew this wouldn’t happen and drove out of Ziro.
After 60KM of winding mountain roads and beautiful views across hills and valleys we descended steeply into a small village of Tamen where a suspension bridge spans the river Kamla. It was impressive, at least the size of the Mahakali in Uttaranchal Pradesh and had a gorgeous icy grey/blue colour as we stared into it from the bridge. Blankets and what seemed to be netting was draped all over the bridge sides, presumably to dry. We could see the raft crew below on a sandy beach with three rafts already inflated so we parked our jeeps and carried gear down to the beach. We introduced ourselves to the rafters and started get things packed into dry bags. Nino and Arun were the two main raft captains and had Amit and now Tazir to assist them. Ito and Tilak were in charge of the smaller, lighter and more maneuverable supply raft. A posse of villagers was on the beach and stared inquisitively at the goings on around them. This was the first raft trip down the Kamla and they seemed to think we were doomed judging by their incredulous faces and comments about the rapids downstream.
Chris and Dhiraj wanted to perform a pooja by the river to bring us fishing success as well as ensure we got safely down to the Subansiri confluence 40Km away. A tangle of skinny giggling boys followed us down the beach to a quiet spot by the water and looked on as Dhiraj took out a betlenut and a leaf, some incense and a rupee. Chris and Dhiraj took large gulps of rum from a plastic water bottle (presumably also part of the pooja) and Dhiraj lit the incense. He then placed the rupee on the betle leaf with the nut and they both placed their hands in prayer and solemnly mouthed their poojas. After all this was done, the leaf and its contents were floated out on the water to be carried away by the river. Dhiraj turned sternly to the waiting boys and instructed them not to touch the incense that still smoked in the sand nearby.
We returned to the rafts that were almost packed now and donned life vests and helmets. We were handed paddles and boarded the rafts. As we pushed off the villagers started shouting and waving goodbye. I don’t think they quite understood what we were doing or why we were doing it but they were very friendly and we had added some excitement to their otherwise mundane day.
The day was cooling and light was fading rapidly as we gently drifted the river. Millions and millions of bumblebee-sized bugs were flying downstream above our heads in the evening light. Nino explained that these bugs did this every night for weeks and weeks in season and the locals loved to eat them live. They would buy them by the kilo and simply tear the head off the bug, remove a small orange vein and then crunch them up, legs and all. That’s what all the nets on the bridge at Tamen were for, to catch bugs, bucket loads of them. They fetch 250 rupees per kilo at market so represent a decent supplement to ones income. Kids would search in the rocks early each morning for the bugs before they emerged and started migrating again. I was intrigued by this story and swatted a bug with my paddle. It landed in the water so Phil picked it up and handed it to Nino who took the head off and removed the vein before handing it back to Phil. Phil paused, looked at us all and then popped it in his mouth. His eyes widened and he gasped “Amoretto! They taste just like bloody Amoretto. Almonds, marzipan, it’s wonderf…” and then he stopped suddenly and his face changed completely. “Oh my god!” he winced, “hot, Jesus!, HOT, burning hot!”. Nino laughed and said the locals loved them but Phil was pulling very strange faces. His tongue was burning hot but the initial taste was sublime. I had swatted a couple more bugs so Rup decided he was going to try one. Nino did the honours and Rup ate it. Again, initial joy and pleasure but as the heat kicked in Rup panicked and spat the bug out. I also tried one and spat the bug out as I felt the chili-hot intensity hit my tongue. We were all having great fun and swatting bugs with our paddles but no more were eaten that evening.
We had rafted for a few hours and came upon a good beach to camp on just above a rapid. Darkness would fall in a few hours and we figured it too risky to venture any further. Camp was set, tents erected, fishing gear unpacked and 10 anglers eagerly explored the river which looked fantastic. The water was perfect clarity and had all the right pools, rapids and ingredients for mahseer.
Another problem with the edible bugs was that they had appalling navigational skills when airborne. We kept getting smacked in the face, neck and head as they swarmed downstream. Facing upstream whilst fishing during the hour or so that they were flying was to risk stinging facial strikes and potential eye injury. Sometimes just casting would swipe two or three of them into the river alone. Anyway, they eventually crawled under rocks and left us alone as the evening set in.
I wandered onto a pebble beach and saw what looked like a homemade conical net made from strips of bamboo attached to a long bamboo pole. I later discovered this was used for scooping out fish floating on the water after they’d been bombed by dynamite. This was an ominous sign and we learned that there was some dynamiting going on around us. Fish continues to fetch good market prices and locals get hold of dynamite from the various road projects in the area.
No fish were taken and we all returned to camp for the evening meal. Wine, beer and rum was consumed and we ate well. Nino took charge of the cooking and the crew produced an excellent first supper for us. Some live chickens were brought along in a bamboo cage to supplement the fish that we caught (hopefully) so it was chicken curry with rice, dal and fresh salad.
It was good to be fishing again with familiar faces as well as some new ones. I’d fished with Billy earlier in the year and found him great company and a very good angler too. He was a patient and thoughtful angler and took a laid back philosophical view to his fishing. He and Alka enjoyed being together by the river and seemed to be having great fun on this trip so far. Chris and Billy got on extremely well and were usually the last to sleep after polishing off any remaining booze or substances they found by the camp fire. I thought Alka was very brave to join a party of nine men of various shapes, sizes and backgrounds who would drink, smoke, belch, fart and curse their way down a remote river for two weeks with no means of escape.
Vikas, Dhiraj and Sanjay were new to me. My first impression of these gentlemen was that they seemed quite serious and clearly had much responsibility on their shoulders with the tea plantations that each one managed. After a few glasses of whisky or rum inside them however, I quickly discovered that I was very much mistaken.
Dhiraj appeared to me the patriarch of the group, striding serenely around the camp and ensuring that all was well for us. No-one ever went short of alcohol if Dhiraj was nearby. He fished very little as it happens but was content to be among us and enjoying the adventure. This raft trip was a new experience for him but he seemed to be adapting well. He’d only ever fished from small two-man rafts before on day trips.
Vikas was the thinker and pondered. I’d notice him staring intently at someone or at me trying to get inside our heads (or so I thought). He had a great bushy grey moustache that covered his mouth completely and would have to sweep it aside to allow him to eat food. Vikas also only occasionally fished and he was often around the camp talking rather than casting a line.
Sanjay was the serious fisherman in my view with a good insight on mahseer and their ways as well as the river. He was very observant and had excellent watercraft I thought. He fished patiently and carefully, taking far more time to explore a pool or rapid than I ever would.
Phil was another new face to me. He was a long time friend of Chris’ who had come on the trip for the experience rather than as a serious angler. Phil was a professional photographer but also taught rock climbing back in the U.K. when photography was slow (as it often is). Despite stating that the reason for his coming on this trip was to find some rocks to climb, the only thing I saw him climb into and out of was his sleeping bag. Phil and I shared a mildly sardonic sense of humour and would bitch at each other about tent etiquette, snoring and other things like an old married couple. His portrayal of various lovemaking techniques and positions had us rolling with laughter and despite his mellifluous clipped English accent; his fireside tales betrayed a mind like a sewer.
I sloped off to bed at 20:00 feeling slightly merry and wanted to get up at first light. I left everyone drinking and chatting around the blazing fire and crawled into my sleeping bag. Rup had been replaced by Phil as my tent companion so I was planning on sleeping well.