The Quest for Kerala’s Unrestricted Whitewater

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I came to India expecting a challenging trip—thick jungle, remote access, insanely steep whitewater and unpredictable monsoon rains promised no walk in the park. We no doubt faced all of that. But seeking government permissions and restricted access presented an entirely different challenge that proved most difficult to surmount.

Quinn Connell, whitewater in West Ghats.

The tourism board had invited our team of six to Kerala to explore new rivers and spark the whitewater tourism industry within the state. The board provided us a small, repurposed party bus branded “Green Beauty” and a driver named Nazeer to shuttle us around. Having most of the logistics taken care of spoiled us. We soon found out, though, governance over the rivers is split into many factions whose goals are often at odds with each other. This trip wasn’t going to be easy.

Our quest for permits tangled us into a web of bureaucracy, battling the Forest Department (DFO), police officers, and local municipalities for access to the rivers we had been officially invited to explore. On top of that, the largest monsoon in 26 years battered the country and dams across India threatened to breach. To heighten the drama, Nazeer turned out to be a mole, leaking details about our travel and plans to the government allowing them to stymie our attempts to eek past the blurred edges of regulation.

Despite the runaround, we still managed to paddle something most days. We began our trip near Kodenchery, home to the Malabar River Festival and a foothold for whitewater recreation, due in most part to Italian kayaker, Jacopo Nodera. The rest of the group had been paddling there for several weeks, and when I arrived we spent the afternoon on the Chalipporro to brush off 36 hours of travel. The quality of slides and boulder gardens impressed me. Off the water, India treated us to the finest naan, paratha and curries, which kept us fueled throughout the trip.

We then turned Green Beauty south, armed with a KMZ file from Jacopo littered with unexplored rivers that held high potential for quality whitewater. With our sights set on the Upper Chaliyar where it cuts precipitously through a wildlife preserve, we faced our first encounter with the DFO in Nilambur. We weren’t allowed in the Chaliyar or any national forest in the region for that matter. The debate quickly escalated. Their opening arguments hung on the high water and dangerous rapids. By the time we left, we were no longer welcome in the region due to “secretly plotted attacks by Maoist extremists,” supposedly hiding out in all of the wilderness areas we hoped to explore.

Perturbed but determined to not let the interaction dampen our optimism, we continued south. We marveled at the massive scale of whitewater in the Idukki region and decided to cut our teeth on a section of the lower Periyar, which we suspected to be Class III based on the gradient and Google Earth imagery. After a few miles of mellow paddling, we abruptly faced a technical big water descent—at flood stage—complete with extended bushwhacking through the jungle around rapids that might be sane to consider with a fraction of the flow. The majority of the team hiked out after the first few miles. In the second half, the remaining few routed through massive rapids to reach the take-out, where we were flagged down by 12 DFO and police officers. “We have your friends at the police station!” they shouted.

Chalakudi River, a trib of the Periyar.

All of the stress that had just melted away after safely navigating the canyon came flooding back along with mental images of an Indian prison cell and scenes from the movie Midnight Express. Dripping wet and still in our paddling gear, we faced an ever-growing throng of uniformed men. After a bit of good-natured banter, the officers’ serious faces cracked into smiles and phones slipped out of pockets to murmurs of “Selfie? Selfie?” Ultimately, even the police chief broke into a grin. They scanned our passports and sent us on our way.

With one arrest under the belt, Nazeer became much more vigilant about our plans. “No permit? Big problem!” became the refrain. In the coming days, we ran several sections on the Upper Periyar with large slides and drops but took off before a formidable set of developed tourist waterfalls to avoid any unwanted attention.

In Kerala, the western mountains rise precipitously from the valley floor where tectonic plates have been in a slow-motion head-on collision for millennia. A break in the incessant rain let us gaze over a rolling sea of jungle-capped mountains as we drove through the Munnar region, stopping to ogle massive unrunnable cascades and shoot B-roll of the endless tea plantations. Traveling in this region brought history to life; the spice and tea trade that put India on the map with Britain’s East India Trading Company centuries ago remains the economic engine of the country today.

We headed to Marayur and this time Nazeer took no chances. As soon as we arrived in town, he pulled up to the local DFO office and killed the engine. We spent the day in and out of offices, scouted a section of the Pumbar river we hoped to run, and ultimately received an audience with the local magistrate who was five hours late.

After a one-sided discussion, he gave a slight head waggle and spoke some words in Malayalam to his aid. Two hours and 14 drafts later, we had a document granting us permission to enter the river. We sprinted back to the van and piled in before they could change their mind, telling Nazeer to “Gun it!” which he precisely did not. On closer inspection, our letter granted permission to run a one-kilometer section of flatwater that concluded in an ugly portage. The document now lives on my wall as a monument to futility.

By now we were desperate to paddle. Nouria had received a special invitation from a tribe in Pampa to run a section of river they considered sacred. Only a single rapid appeared on the satellite images and the Pampa was a six-hour drive away, but we were willing to do anything for a sure bet on the water. An hour into the drive, she called to confirm with our local contact there.

“What do you mean we can’t actually go kayaking?” she said into the phone. “Why would you even invite us down there? We are here to run whitewater, not hang out and visit the museum! You have to understand there is no reason for us to drive six hours and not get to kayak!”

So, we turned around and headed back north.

By this point in the trip, we were shockingly dependent on our smartphones and social media. But in India it was essential for finding rivers, lodging and navigating the endless maze of roads and towns. In lieu of gauges, we relied on “selfie-scouting,” chasing hashtags on social media to find time-stamped photos of local rivers. We found a waterfall “along the way” and ended up meandering for several hours on tiny back roads before reaching it.

The drop was a low-volume 25-footer. A woman washed laundry in the oversized mud puddle at the lip. Objectively not worth paddling, but given the series of failures and the time invested in reaching the spot, I took a quick look then hurried back to the van to gear up. The race was on! Nazeer started furiously punching numbers into his phone, and as I jogged away with my boat on my shoulder, he came running after me with someone on the other end of the line. “Calicut! Calicut!” He exclaimed. I answered the phone, curtly explained that we were neither in a protected area or national forest and that there was no reason to drive to more offices to ask for permission. I handed the phone back to Nazeer without waiting for a response and jogged off toward the drop.

Swapping our boats for boards and taking advantage of a heavy southeast swell was starting to sound like an enticing plan, but we licked our wounds and returned to Kodenchery for one last push. Kayaking has had much greater exposure in the Malabar area. Anyone who could catch our attention during a scout would warn us. “No, no. Big danger!” But the average passerby at least didn’t stop and demand to see our permits.

On our return north, we accepted an invitation to the local bullock race which proved to be an unexpected highlight. Perhaps the best description of bullock racing is a third-world rodeo meets wakeboarding. The scene: a flooded rice paddy surrounded by a mass of eager spectators. A throng of men wearing nothing but white saris waded in the turbid waters. Eager young men flexed while their older, wiser counterparts waited patiently for their chance at the madness. Teams yoked two oxen together, with a narrow wooden board lashed to their yoke.

The intrepid competitors balanced on the sled between the thundering hind legs of the oxen, hooting primal screams as they urged their steeds to make faster circuits around the paddy. Naturally, we had to give it a shot and a special intermission was called so the goras could make fools out of ourselves. We clambered back into green beauty soaked, muddy and reeking of manure.

We ran classic sections on the Lower Urumi and Malabar rivers. It felt good to take strokes again. We checked a few access points upstream on the Urumi and found a rowdy park-and-huck. The river dropped a whopping 800 vertical feet to the next dam two kilometers downstream, but given the quality bedrock we held out hope for a few solid big ones hidden in the jungle. We returned the next day armed with machetes and prepared to lay siege to the river, Royal Robbins style if necessary.

Driving up the Urumi was intimidating. The jungle folded into the canyon so tightly that the treetops on either side touched creating a canopy and occluding views from above. A waterfall erupted from the jungle-blanketed mountainside, dissipating into the mist of this King Kong landscape, vindicating Kerala’s moniker “God’s Own Country.” The road steepened drastically, to the point Green Beauty sputtered to a stop and threatened to roll back over a 1,000-foot cliff. Nazeer’s sense of urgency cut through any language barrier, and we dove out to chock the tires before the brakes gave out.

Traveling down the river was the only way to uncover what the canyon held. On the water, we had a goldilocks flow that let us move around at river level. We kept a close eye on the color of the water for any warning signs that the river might suddenly scream up around us. Luckily the skies were clear and after a quick portage into the gorge we fell into a rhythm of endless streams of horizon lines. Given the steep nature of the creek, every lip looked as though it dropped off the face of the earth. I would routinely paddle up, thinking we had finally found the gnarly portage, only to be surprised with polished granite bedrock. A sequence of fantastic drops and slides unfolded, rivaling the High Sierras classics. We reached the bottom elated, dumbfounded by the unexpected treat that India had dished out.

Just as a tricky lead-in can make a waterfall that much better, or a tough hike-in can make a multi-day that much sweeter, the adversity faced in all of the offices and endless hours on the bus ultimately paid off when we struck gold on the upper Urumi. I tried to retain perspective throughout the trip; we continually seek out challenges for the growth and joy that overcoming them brings, whether it’s a card game on the bus or a birthday eddy in your home river. Kerala certainly remains an untapped hotbed for exploratory kayaking. If you decide to give it a shot, make sure you bring socks for the leeches, a SIM card from the airport and all of the patience you can muster.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Quinn Connell is a whitewater kayaker, engineer and entrepreneur from Pleasant Hill, OR. A former teacher and head coach at World Class Academy, he’s also designed and built composite boats and whitewater parks. He currently leads development at MVP robotics and escapes to the wilderness whenever possible. All photos courtesy of Manual Arnu.