Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Ever wonder what it's like to paddle in Pakistan? Read on to find out...
OCT. 25 – NOV. 19 2018
From Fantasy to Reality
It was spring of 2018 when Evan Smith first suggested a kayaking expedition to Pakistan. I tried to convince myself that he was just fantasizing about the trip, but I knew him too well to deceive myself. Evan is a logistics junkie, and Pakistan was a mission worthy of his addiction.
It’s never easy getting an early commitment out of the boater crowd. Often kayakers are spontaneous and follow the water. I was reluctant to commit myself. The reputations of rivers in Pakistan were formed by centuries of lore. These mighty watersheds, some of which originate high up in the Tibetan plateau, drain water from the cloud piercing Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges. Imbued with raw and powerful ferocity, these rivers are decidedly intimidating. Choosing to worry about the whitewater later, I told Evan I was in.
With a few last minute changes our core group solidified. Evan Smith, Ali Chapman, Anna Wager, and myself would fly into Islamabad airport on October 25th, 2018 to meet the whitewater of the Karakoram head on. Quinn Connell, hit-and-run missions his specialty, would join Evan and I as we attempted the Rondu Gorge of the Indus during our last week. In total we would be in Pakistan for just shy of a month. In that time we would paddle the Kunhar, Swat, Astore, Hunza, and Indus rivers.
Travel to Pakistan wasn’t exactly recommended by the State Department. Taking a back seat to the threat of armed militants, strangely enough, was the threat of the rivers themselves. Trip reports from the kayaking expeditions of 2016 and 17’, however, were encouraging and gave us the assurances we needed to pull the trigger.
Jo Kemper, a friend who made the journey in 2017, wrote an inspiring blog you can find here. Talking to her and other members of those expeditions was critical for us. Mostly they reassured us that the political situation was stable(ish). None of them had experienced anything but genuine kindness and hospitality from the locals they met. A trend I am happy to report held true for us. Check out a stunning photo essay by Mike Dawson here (2016).
To successfully enter Pakistan as a tourist you first need to hire a certified tourism company. To this end, Evan doggedly communicated with Incredible Pakistan, a tourism operator that had guided a group of paddlers the previous fall. With broken english and cultural barriers it was no small feat to reach agreements about our itinerary and how much everything would cost. Of course, as often happens on the Asian continent, agreements can be fluid and we would have no shortage of negotiations with our guides during the trip.
It took a few weeks to organize all the documents for our visa application. These included a letter of invitation from Incredible Pakistan, their tourism license, and copies of our guides’ ID cards. After sending everything in with a lengthy and detailed application form, my predicted wait time was 6 to 8 weeks. As a Wyoming resident my application went to the consulate in NY so I figured it would take a while. Just one week later I had my passport in hand with a shiny visa for Pakistan! I suppose there wasn’t much of a line for tourism visas? Odd…
Despite reassurances from our comrades, the potential for rogue political conflict was hard to ignore. As I will describe later, we spent time paddling in the Kingdom of Swat. Swat is in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province which borders Afghanistan to the west. This border is remote and mountainous and has been a favored refuge for insurgent fighters during the wars in Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan. The Pakistani Army engaged militant groups, most notably the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the al-Qaeda, in this area for over a decade starting in 2004. In 2014 terrorism related deaths in Pakistan had dropped 40% compared to 2011-13 but militant activities in KPK remained dubious.
The TTP had a presence in Swat as recently as 2014, no doubt making our group one of the first to venture into the area for tourism since the fighting had subsided. To be honest, the only reminders we had of this bloody history were the military check points, as consistent as clockwork, that we encountered on the roads. The military always treated us kindly and with interest. Often an armed soldier would hop in our van for a few miles to act as an escort until we reached the next check point. Either that or maybe we just gave them a ride home? I’d like to think it was a little of both.
The only shocking news we had occurred in Islamabad when we were already high in the northern mountains. A christian woman had been accused of blasphemy, jailed, and sentenced to death. As her execution approached, new evidence proving that she had been set-up had surfaced. The proof was so compelling the courts decided to acquit the woman and set her free. All hell broke loose in Islamabad. Images of car fires and riots showed on every little TV in every truck stop for a week. The right wing muslims were appalled at her release and rioting for her death. This certainly would have been an inopportune moment for us to be in Islamabad, we were lucky to be sheltered by the flanks of the Karakoram.
3:45 AM is a strange time to land anywhere, let alone Islamabad. The airport was full of men wearing pastel colored Shalwar Kameez, the traditional dress for most Pakistanis. You can imagine we blended right in dragging 9 foot plastic boats and heavy duffels along the airport floor. We met our guide/interpreter Hashim and drivers Leakot and Ijlal in the predawn haze. After some awkward hellos we loaded our boats on the roof of the Toyota van and headed into the city. The sounds and smells of the developing world came flooding back. Trash fires, horns, and diesel create a powerful nostalgia.
Note the border with Kashmir (Muzaffarabad): Click to view in GaiaGPS
Only Anna’s boat and luggage hadn’t arrived with our flight, which was amazing considering we had traveled to the other side of the world. We spent a day in Islamabad staving off jet lag while we waited for the missing boat. Her gear miraculously arrived the following day and we headed north to the Kunhar river. That day we paddled a section flowing through the town of Balakot. The river was low and so was the water quality, open sewage pipes flowed into the river from Balakot, an unfortunate yet common sight in many developing nations.
Our plans to paddle the gorges downstream of Balakot were shut down by the authorities. The intended take-out, Muzaffarabad, is the capital of Azad Kashmir and thus located in an active conflict zone. The military was not going to risk letting a few Americans cross the border into Kashmir via the river, fair enough. We’d planned to explore the upper gorges near Naran as well but with low levels down in Balakot we decided instead to head to the Kingdom of Swat.
The kayaking lifestyle usually involves a lot of time on the road. Trust me, I’ve had no shortage of long road trips. But just as the mountains in Pakistan exist on a higher level, so do the roads. After a full day of switchbacks and dodging potholes we finally crested the mountain pass that marked the entrance to the Swat valley. We pulled in to yet another checkpoint to register with the local authorities and give our backsides a rest. This particular check point was notable because there was a machine gun nest, made from steel panels and sandbags, pointing down the pass. Nobody seemed on high alert but there was no doubt that the military was ready for war.
As I mentioned earlier we were probably the first American tourists in that area for almost a decade. A crowd gathered to watch us eat at the little restaurant attached to our hotel. A few young medical students were especially chatty but our guide, Hashim, warned us not to get too friendly, there could still be dangerous people in this area. Poor Hashim was under a lot of stress watching over his American clients!
Early the next morning we drove up the valley towards Kalam, a popular tourist destination for Pakistanis. Known for its pristine lakes, rivers, and high alpine scenery, Kalam was certainly a breathtaking area. However, morale was about as low as the river as we scouted on the drive up. Bumping along through hours of construction we feared our journey would be in vain.
A few kilometers south of Kalam we decided to put in and were pleasantly surprised! “The river is always bigger than it looks from the road” is a lesson I’ve learned a thousands times and is especially applicable in the Karakoram. Clean clear water flowed through technical boulder gardens and fun boofs were plentiful. Snow capped peaked shone in the sunlight and our first real paddle strokes in Pakistan felt oh so good!
While we were scouting one of the bigger rapids a few locals came running down from the road and insisted that we join their boss, a construction manager, for tea and biscuits. Deciding to oblige we hiked up to an air conditioned trailer complete with plush couches and a large, important looking desk. The construction boss took obvious pleasure in doting on us and stuffed us with sweets, bottled water, and ever present chai. Hashim, once again dismayed that we had walked off to meet the locals, arrived in a huff. We calmed him down with some tea and politely made our exit.
That day we paddled 8 quality miles of class III-IV whitewater. The section above, stating in Kalam, looked steeper and more difficult. We planned to start in Kalam the next day and paddle down to the same take out, about 17 miles in total.
Kalam is situated in a beautiful cirque of mountains and forest. Everything was a lush green and bursting with life. This was quite a contrast from the high wind swept desert I was used to seeing in pictures of Pakistan. Apricot, apple, and walnut trees covered the low hills near the town and the fall colors were beginning to pop. The Swat valley is stunning!
That night we feasted on chic pea curry with naan, rice, and stewed vegetables. I took an early walk the next morning and enjoyed some sweet paratha with egg, cooked in oil on a home made barrel skillet. Of all the foreign cuisine i’ve tried, the food in Pakistan was the most delicious.
The upper section of the Swat, from Kalam to our previous day’s put-in, was a classic section of whitewater. The river was steeper making the boulder gardens pushy and challenging. It was a nice adventure complete with a few class V’s, plenty of scouting, and some portages. As we rallied down the lower section to the town of Bahrain we came across a surprising scene.
Word of our presence had spread quickly and the entire town had congregated on the cable bridge to watch us float by. There must have been a hundred people hollering and waving as we rounded the corner. Dozens of cell phone videos of our strange sport now exist in the Kingdom of Swat. As we came closer to the bridge something popped from the weight. In an instant the entire village split in the middle and ran off the bridge, fearful it might collapse. Close one!
Note the confluence with the Indus river top left: Click to view in GaiaGPS
With the success of the Swat on our shoulders the suffering we endured during the twelve hour drive to the Raikot bridge seemed only slightly less painful. It was our first introduction to the fabled Karakoram highway, the initiation was not tame. Ijlal, our driver, kept the adrenaline hits coming with dicey maneuvers around lumbering trucks and tight corners high above the river. The highway is forever under construction due to the landslides and erosion in the steep gorges. Combined with a nationwide shortage of driver’s ed classes, driving is an extreme sport in itself.
From Raikot we crossed the mighty Indus and began the climb to the town of Astore. The canyon was tighter and road narrower, hard to believe driving on the Karakoram highway was a warm-up… From the road the lower sections of the Astore looked unrunnable. The river was choked with huge, loose boulders. At certain points the river would completely disappear beneath the jumble of rocks. The river flattened out as we approached Astore and, after settling in, we drove above town to put in. A few miles of read-and-run class III brought us back to Astore. Stunning mountain views we now took to be standard in this part of the world.
November at 8,000 feet is cold in the Karakoram and we woke to a fresh blanket of snow. Hashim brushed ice off the van and kayaks as we motivated to get on the river. Ijlal chased us in the van as we headed downstream. Heavy rains from the night before had potentially closed the road and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Astore. We planned to paddle down as far as we could before hopping in the van and heading back to the Indus.
Fatigued from the icy water and frozen layers we took out about 15 miles downstream. The section down from Astore had been pushy and demanding, with steep drops and a maze of doors. Getting pushed into the wrong channel could be dangerous and with our energy sapped we decided to hedge our bets. If the weather had been warm and dry we would have stayed to explore the class III-V sections of the Astore more thoroughly.
In retrospect we should have regained our energy and paddled the remaining two miles to the next bridge. From the safety of the van the rapids looked big, fun, and cleaner than the section above. Rains had indeed closed the road we spent the next five hours following a front end loader down the canyon, which was clearing one landslide at a time. We passed the time throwing rocks at targets in the river and enticed the passengers from neighboring vans to join in our game.
Our savior driving the heavy machinery got held up for an hour trying to push a car sized boulder into the river. Crews of men would slip in under the machine to excavate areas that were too hard to reach. Some of the men were a little too bold and almost got smashed themselves. Eventually the digger prevailed and we bumped down to the Indus around midnight.
Arriving in Karimabad, on the Hunza river, was a blessing. We had been traveling quickly since we left Swat and were excited to have an extended stay on the Hunza. The fall colors and fruit trees had reappeared in the Hunza valley and the mountains had a dramatic snow line from the previous storm. It was the most beautiful scenery of the whole trip, a high mountain paradise. One of my favorite discoveries were the dried apricots into which farmers had folded whole almonds. This delicious treat became a staple energy supply for the rest of the journey.
The lower part of the Hunza flows out of Attabad lake. The lake was created by a massive landslide in January of 2010, which displaced thousands of people and completely blocked the flow of the river for five months. We paddled a 10 mile section down to Karimabad which was packed with excellent class III-IV. Boulder gardens were once again the defining characteristic. Evan, Anna and I decided to paddle further down to find a rumored hot spring. We were poking around some steam vents when a few local kids came down and ushered us up the hillside. They showed us to a concrete pool in which a band of teenagers was splashing. The hot water was tempting but it looked like it had been used for the day’s laundry. We slid back to our boats and continued downstream.
The “Hot Spring Gorge” is something we had heard about but for whatever reason we didn’t anticipate any hard whitewater. With the steep sections above us we had been lured into a false sense of security. Before long we were gorged in and battling some serious whitewater. Gaining substantial volume from its confluence with the Nager river, the Hunza now had a big water feel. Confronted by house sized boulders and pounding water our pace slowed to a crawl. Constant scouting and a few portages quickly took up our remaining daylight. It was uncertain whether or not we would make it to the next bridge at Pissan.
Running out of time we made the decision to hike out. On a hunch I decided to run down to the next bend to see if the bridge was in sight. Luckily it was! With a final portage and another mile of paddling we made the bridge. Poor Hashim was once again worried sick for our safety and it took longer than normal to console him.
The following day we paddled from Pissan to Sikanderabad. With tons of class III-IV rapids over a 10 mile paddle this was a quality section. Most stunning, by far, were the views of Rakaposhi, a 25,500 foot peak. At one bend in the Hunza river the northern flank of Rakaposhi rises 19,000 feet, unobstructed, to the summit. Never have I seen a 19,000 foot wall of rock, ice, and glaciers and I won’t soon forget it! That evening we sat around a fire with local guides. They told us that in the winter avalanches from Rakaposhi can run all the way into town!
Our final section on the Hunza was from Sikanderabad to Nomal, an 18 mile big water section. Although the gradient had relaxed significantly from the upper sections, the added water from multiple tributaries spiced things up. Crashing through overhead waves and dodging meaty holes was a refreshing break from the relentless boulder gardens. That evening in our quaint guest house Evan and I watched hours of cricket trying to figure out the rules for ourselves. Overall the Hunza was a top destination with lots to offer. Magnificent scenery complemented by a diverse menu of whitewater makes this valley a boaters delight.
After leaving the Hunza valley we drove up the Rondu gorge of the Indus river from Gilgit. Being able to road-scout the entire section was both a blessing and a curse. Getting an idea of the scale and character of the river was valuable but I grew more nervous with every bend. I spent the drive marking access points with GaiaGPS, hoping we would never have to use them in an emergency. From the road the rapids looked enormous, monstrous, and definitively sinister. Nerves have always been a hurdle for me when facing challenging whitewater. I couldn’t tell if my nausea was caused by the cliff-bound road or my dread of the Indus.
Luckily we had a few days of rest in Skardu before the impending mission. Quinn’s flight miraculously arrived only a day late but due to inclement weather Ali and Anna would not be so lucky. The ladies were flying out of Islamabad a week earlier than us and had planned to catch a flight back from Skardu. Unfortunately the weather moved in and grounded all flights for a few days.
Down to the wire, we decided hire a car to take Ali and Anna back to Islamabad. Their international flight left in 30 hours and the journey by road would take them 24. Crammed in a small jeep with canvas siding they sped off down the gorge, making it to the airport with only an hour to spare. That was one drive I certainly didn’t envy!
My journal entries for the seven days we spent paddling the Rondu gorge are short and sloppy. They are really just a testament for how exhausted I was during that week. With over 200 class V rapids in an 85 mile section, the Rondu gorge is labeled as one of the hardest big water runs in the world. The relentless onslaught of whitewater made it impossible for me to keep accurate notes, so I can only describe the feeling.
Locals call the Indus Abasin, or “Father of Rivers”. Originating high up in the Tibetan plateau, on the flanks of the holy Mount Kailash, the Indus begins its 3000km journey to the Arabian Sea. Demanding respect as one of the longest rivers in Asia, it is highly revered in the cultures that populate its banks.
Through the Rondu gorge the Indus looses 3,000 feet of elevation. A drop of 35 feet per mile doesn’t seem like a lot until you factor in the 20,000 cfs coursing through the narrow canyon. In fact, the main reason we were in Pakistan in November was to paddle the Indus as low as possible. With a seasonal peak that can reach well into the hundreds of thousands of cfs, this river is only navigable at “low” winter flows. Defined once again by large boulder gardens, the Indus was similar to the other rivers we’d paddled in Pakistan only with 4-5 times the flow.
Despite it being roadside, the Rondu gorge is absolutely remote. Definitive care was countless hours away and a heli evacuation seemed impossible. Although Hashim and Leakot dutifully followed us on the road every step of the way, we couldn’t help but feel alone. The small margin of error set by our circumstances established the baseline for our team mentality, ever present in back of our minds.
The first thing I noticed was the cold. Both the air and water were near freezing which is a deadly combination. Combined with grey skies, grey rock, and grey silty water the whole scene took on a forbidding look. All of these factors made the rapids more intense than they already were.
Day 1 was tense for me. Flipping twice in the first rapid of the day, I really needed to focus on calming my nerves. After a few hours of paddling I finally loosened up and got in the flow. Big water paddling requires a unique style that takes some getting used to. The lines are often wide open, and from shore they are easy to see. With a lot of space between moves it’s easy to visualize having enough time to nail the line. As soon as you drop in, however, it’s a war zone.
Features you didn’t even notice from shore come out of nowhere, swallowing you up or spinning you out. Boils, seams, and laterals do their best to push you off line and often succeed. The main features are usually massive, crashing overhead waves and if you manage to punch them cleanly you’re still temporarily blinded by the impact. As the river conspires against you, all your effort is focused on keeping your balance and driving forward. I’ve never been so consistently gassed. Paddling hard and fast, literally sprinting between moves, leaves you gasping for breath. Paddling winded is a dangerous game. Any extended time upside down, getting slapped by laterals or stuffed in holes, could result in a swim. Already short on breath, this could be a fatal mistake. In a simplified manner, paddling the Indus is all about avoiding the ledge holes. Pouring over enormous rocks, the water of the Indus creates deadly traps. Considering the size and power of the river, these bus sized holes can suck you in and never let go.
Aside from the ultra-demanding physical nature of big water is the mental game. Unlike other big water runs, the Indus is remarkably steep and continuous. With new horizon lines after every rapid, we scouted almost as much as we paddled. A recipe soon emerged.
Step 1: Scout the biggest rapid you have ever seen, study the line.
Step 2: Psych yourself up! (or portage)
Step 3: Paddle like your life depends on it, make it to the bottom.
But wait! What’s that? Another horizon?
Repeat steps 1-3, 8 hours a day, for 7 days.
The human body can only produce so much adrenaline. Repeating these steps becomes exhausting. Immediately after the elation of crashing through a mountain of whitewater, riding the high that comes with pushing your limits and succeeding, you have to get out of you boat and face another monster. How can this one possibly be bigger and scarier than the last? Over and over the pattern repeats itself, pushing your mental fortitude to its breaking point.
Each evening we would find a roadside truck stop with an empty room to crash in. Often the only source of heat emanated from a brick oven set into the ground. All the men would gather around the oven, made for baking naan, to tell stories and chew naswaar, a local tobacco. With shaky hands and numb fingers I did my best to record the day’s excitement in my journal. My penmanship from this week is laughable and comically tough to decipher.
On day 3 we reached a landmark rapid called Malupa. At this impressive constriction the entire river is funneled over a multi-tiered drop. It’s a no-brainer portage. Malupa is perhaps the biggest rapid I’ve ever witnessed and it marks the beginning of the hardest section of the gorge. Downstream is the heart of the Rondu, defined by 5km of the biggest rapids, some of which cannot be portaged. Beat down by the previous day’s whitewater, there was no way I was about to drop into a unportagable gorge. The risks were simply too high. Deciding to drive around those 5km lifted some of the pressure we’d been feeling. The next four days of whitewater, big as ever, were more enjoyable knowing the toughest rapids were behind us.
The river gods apparently appreciated the effort we had made to explore this particular behemoth. Seven long and incredibly epic days passed without any swims. Although we portaged dozens of rapids we’d run hundreds more. It was, by far, the pinnacle of my paddling career and an adventure I will remember vividly. The physical and emotional intensity of this kind of journey is one of a kind. It is a powerful thing to face and know yourself on this level, once you have been stripped of your armor. Lives can be defined by these moments and the gratitude I have for experiencing this on the Indus, and in Pakistan, is inexpressible.
The day after we exited the Rondu gorge we began the long car journey back to Islamabad. The month had flown by. We’d paddled amazing whitewater, been immersed in a wild culture, witnessed some of the biggest mountains on the planet, and been humbled by the kindness and generosity of the Pakistanis. Bidding farewell to our loyal and trustworthy guides, we boarded the plane and returned to the familiarity of the west.
Honestly I can’t wait to return to Pakistan. With the Rondu gorge checked off the list I think it would be worthwhile to plan a trip earlier in the season. With a little more water, the various sections that were too low for us would open up an even greater whitewater paradise. Hopefully the political situation continues to improve, encouraging a resurgence of tourism in the area. Inshallah.