Complete credit for the article below goes to Mike Norman.
Cauvery River Paddling
I was stood in front of the Police Sub-Inspector's desk; to my right a number of prisoners looked out from the cells. Their hands grasped the vertical bars and their little faces were thrust into the gaps between the bars in the classical prisoner pose. This was obviously going to be the highlight of their day. I cast a brief smile in their direction. I reckoned I needed all the friends I could get, after all 'I could be joining you shortly', I thought.
I had been 'taken into custody' and Ian my partner in crime was now some miles away guarding our possessions. My camera was emptied of its contents, the Sub-Inspector had offered to develop the film. I thought that was most kind, (I never saw the film again). I was told by the officer that we couldn't continue our journey, we had to get permission. I was dumbstruck as my mind raced to counter the threat to our ambitions.
The journey that was now in the balance was one being undertaken by Ian and myself; canoeing the Cauvery River in southern India. My work from time to time in the southern Indian city of Bangalore had led me into contact with the Cauvery River. As a canoeist I was immediately impressed by the river and had decided on first acquaintance that I would at some time paddle the river from its source in the Western Ghats to the Bay of Bengal on the east coast of India, a distance of over 855 kilometres.
On investigation it soon became clear that there was little reliable information about the river and so over time I pieced together data gleaned from various sources and from my own exploratory visits to various sections of the river. In the end still with more questions than answers Ian and I decided that our ambitions couldn't be restrained any longer.
And so on one late afternoon in January Ian and I found ourselves at the head of the river, barely two kilometres from the source with my blue open canoe loaded up with all our possessions. The river was just 3m wide and 10cm deep at this point, barely enough water to float the canoe as a bemused group of locals waved as we set off into the sunset. It wasn't long before I was thrashing around in thorny trees and branches that were blocking the river and dripping blood everywhere from the scratches on my arms.
In the hour before sunset we managed 400m and camped sheepishly on the outskirts of the village.
Things couldn't get worse. But it did, that night we froze and shivered in our little tent each wrapped up in a single blanket. Down sleeping bags had been thrown out as unnecessary!
We cheered up next morning after a cup of tea and set off. The river was kinder to us now, there were none of those nasty scratchy bushes we had come across on first acquaintance with the river and which had taken their toll on my arms. The river was rarely more than 30cm deep but this was plenty for us. We paddled through lush vegetation between steep sided valleys cloaked with tropical vegetation and interspersed with coffee plantations. The coffee shade trees of teak, silver oak and rosewood covered with creeping peppers and cardamom towered over us at times. It was a magical experience and the tranquillity and beauty of our surroundings was overwhelming. The vegetation alongside the river was dense but from time to time human activity on the river was apparent. Local fishermen had constructed numerous elaborate fish traps that completely spanned the river. These comprised a low fence that stood about 20 to 30cm above the water made by driving stakes into the bed of the river and weaving split bamboo in and out of the posts down to the riverbed. In each fence there was a single gateway on the downstream side of which was inserted a conical wicker work basket which was about a metre long. On many of the traps a low archway of twigs and grasses had been constructed over the gate. This served no special purpose that we could see other than to add some architectural value to the whole construction. Many of the traps we saw, and there were many, had fallen into disuse and as a result it was easy to forge a way past by paddling over the fence at its lowest and weakest point. We were conscious not to leave them in any worse condition than we found them. Therefore when we found a working example we had to take care not to damage the fence or the gateway and its basket. On occasions we ended up standing in the water up to our waists and lifting the boat over the fence. Usually if there was no basket in place we could go through the gateway.
The bird life along the river was prolific, it made me glad that we had taken the trouble to pack a book on Indian birds. We were continually in the company of black capped kingfishers. There seemed to be relays of them, handing us on from one bird to the next as we passed down each section of the river. Other birds on the banks and above included bee eaters, racket tailed drongos, white wagtails and little cormorants. Wheeling around above were buzzards and the very beautiful brahminy kite. On one occasion we were surprised to see what we believed to be large black birds sitting in the branches of trees lining the banks. As we got nearer we realised that our birds were in fact a colony of fruit bats. They circled us in total silence like some primeval beasts. It was difficult for us to imagine but the wingspan of these creatures was up to one metre.
We were now in snake country and regularly saw them either in the water, in trees or on the bank. I was continually having to restrain Ian's enthusiasm for having a closer look. Apart from the obvious interest of local wildlife the paddling itself was excellent. There were numerous sections of easy white water, about grade 1 to 2 and rock garden sections where the stream would weave a complex pattern through a field of boulders. The water quality was excellent and we were absolutely entranced by our surroundings.
We were now increasingly coming across group of individuals who are making their living from the river. These were the 'sand getters of the Cauvery' as we called them. These characters spent their days in or under the water digging the sand from the river bed and loading it into what can only be described as enormous sheet steel woks. One or two men dressed only in their underpants or a loin cloth would work with each wok. The lucky ones would be standing in water up to their waists and could load their wok by just bending down and digging from the river bed. The less lucky ones stood in water up to their necks and had to dive to the bottom of the river with shovels and heave their load to the surface and then over the side of their wok. The sand was loaded first into the centre of the wok and then around the rim to form a continuous wall of sand. The wok was declared full when the water lapped within a few millimetres of the top edge. The whole thing looked precarious but in effect the sand piled around the circumference prevented the whole lot going to the bottom of the river. The fully loaded wok was would then be punted with a long pole or pulled on lines laid across the surface of the river to the bank where the sand was offloaded into waiting trucks or ox carts. The operation seemed to be fairly low key and we assumed that the sand, which appeared to be of good quality was used for building purposes in the locality. The guys performing these tasks certainly had a hard life but they were always happy to pass the time of day or give us a wave as we paddled by. Usually, their bosses, fat Indians in suits would see us from the bank and wave us over.
The river was now taking on a more mature feel. As we moved from the hill country into the plains the river was characterised by long sweeping bends, wooded sections and open banks, rice fields and banana plantations were now common. The locals were at all times friendly and waved to us as we passed by.
On the fifth day of our journey we entered a major discontinuity on the river, if you can call it that, the Krishnarajarsagar Reservoir, or KRS for short. The barrage was built in 1924 and was the first storage reservoir of its kind in India and was built primarily to harness the waters of the Cauvery for irrigation. Local fishermen were out and about in their coracles, fishing with nets and tending hand lines and could be seen as little black dots on the glassy water in every direction we looked. We would get a cheery wave from each one we passed and an enquiry regarding our destination. We thought 'the Bay of Bengal' would sound pretentious so we settled for Srirangapatnam a town about 15km downstream of the barrage. The mudflats along the sides of the reservoir were home to numerous wading and river birds, glossy ibis, egrets, herons, open billed storks, yellow billed storks, spoon bills, plovers and lots more. Cormorants perched on rocks near the banks with their wings outstretched to dry in the sunshine and observed our progress. Both Ian and I looked like refugees from the film Lawrence of Arabia. In Bangalore we had each purchased brightly patterned squares of material. We had found a new use and had them wound around our heads and draped them down our backs to provide protection from the sun. Therefore in this respect we must have been a strange spectacle to the locals on the banks and in their coracles who rarely, if ever, saw anyone boating on their water.
At long last the barrage came into view. At first it was a thick black line on the horizon but slowly, slowly as we got nearer features became apparent on the wall itself. I knew that our problems were only just about to begin as the situation with regard to the dam itself has always been sensitive. There have been several threats both imaginary and real by various anti-social elements groups including the Tamil Tigers to blow it up. At the time of our journey Pakistan and India were sparring over Kashmir with each pushing the other further and further towards the brink of war. Also the 11 September business was making everyone jumpy and so didn't help to make our predicament any better. Anyway, we had decided for better or for worse, probably the latter, that a direct approach to the wall was to be our course of action.
No one appeared as we tied up to a stone pillar at the side of the steps. 'I'll go and see who's about' I said to Ian. I mounted the steps and looked around, still no one, so I walked over to the gatehouse that guarded the entrance to the barrage wall. It was still quite early and a policeman and one of the barrage workers were sat cross-legged on the floor behind the counter tucking into their breakfast. They looked up as a result of my intrusion. This I thought was going to be the difficult bit. 'Good morning' I said trying to be positive and smiled. 'A friend and I are boating down the Cauvery River and we would like to take our boat out at your steps.' Silence. I regained their attention and said 'Would you like to come with me and have a look', they nodded in agreement and I led the way back to the water.
The policeman and the workers stood and stared, the total lack of expression on their faces gave the game away. They didn't know what on earth to make of us or to do with us. Should they lock us up or shake our hands? It was patently obvious that they were not used to receiving waterborne visitors, no one else had dared to be so bold! We smiled and tried to appear harmless. We had to do something, we couldn't stand looking at each other much longer, ' Is it OK if we unload our boat please?' I said. They stared back. I looked at Ian and he looked at me and shrugged. 'Well they didn't say no', he said. 'That's true, maybe we'll just unload then', I replied. So we did.
We carried all our gear past the silent crowd and placed it by a flowerbed near the top of the steps. We hauled the boat out and struggled up the steps. They still stood there not offering to help, muttering amongst themselves and eyeing us suspiciously. Officialdom would have to decide our fate and at that moment in time the jury was still out.
Just when we were wondering what was going to happen next Goldie appeared. He was a friendly looking dog with a big wet nose and a tail that didn't stop wagging. 'Well at least someone likes us', I thought as he muzzled up to us. Then the penny dropped, we realised what Goldie was, as he began to give us both a good sniffing. Goldie was the bomb dog, probably trained to sniff out Semtex or some other explosives used to blow dams apart. Soon all our gear was strewn over the floor as Goldie gave it the once over. Not surprisingly we were given a clean bill of health. In fact the nearest thing we had to explosives were some green chillies left over after yesterday's curry.
I turned to Ian and suggested that we make a move to get the gear outside the compound. We started to do so and thank goodness no one insisted that we stop. The barrage workers were still standing around expressionless, waiting for someone to give them a lead as to how to react whilst the policeman was having an involved conversation on his two way radio. The outcome was not hard to predict. So there I was standing in front of the police sub inspector staring failure in the face. 'Permission?'. I said 'Yes, permission', he replied. 'Where from?' I enquired. 'Bangalore', he replied. I sighed and stared at the prisoners in their cage across the way. My mind was racing as I thought 'What now?'
In the first part of this story our hapless duo were staring failure in the face. I had been 'taken into custody' for questioning. It wasn't looking good. 'You are not allowed to paddle on the reservoir without permission', the officer stated. The fact that we no longer wished to paddle on his reservoir didn't seem to come into it. Any permission we could obtain would effectively be retrospective.
In order to lighten the mood and to find a way around his defences we talked about families, cricket (always a winner on the subcontinent), my job, you name it everything except the weather. I was running out of tacks and he was holding his ground. It was incredible how low anyone can sink in order to get what they want but I was virtually licking the guy's boots before he conceded that we could stay the night in the vicinity and then maybe we could proceed the next day along the river. I never really registered the 'maybe', and was out of his office as quickly as politeness would allow.
Relieved, I returned Ian and we made our plans to continue. The next major obstacle on the river was to be the Cauvery Falls. Here the river splits around an island and falls sheer for 80m onto the plains below. This spectacular feature was still about three to four paddling days away but we had arranged to be met there by contacts of Ashok, a friend of ours in Bangalore.
As we progressed further downstream the river grew in stature. It was up to 50m across, the surrounding countryside was flat but with numerous distant granite massifs that are typical of this area of the Deccan Plateau. The vegetation along the riverside was lush and frequently gave the impression that we were paddling through dense jungle. Straight open sections of river were interspersed with sections where the water swirled around numerous islands each containing a microcosm of the vegetation that inhabited the banks. We imaged crocodiles on every sandbank and behind every island, snakes dripping from trees and landing in the boat to consume us and elephant coming down to the water's edge, but there were none that we saw. There were long sections of grade 1/2 white water. Not difficult but requiring continuous concentration and co-ordination between Ian and myself to avoid being banged up against rocks.
At last we arrived upstream of the Cauvery Falls. The rendezvous with Ashok's contacts worked well and we were transported by jeep to a point about two kilometres downstream. The falls themselves are spectacular and a detour was made to a bluff which overlooks the main waterfall so that we could stare in awe. Our descent with the boat to the river bed was steep and rocky. We were now in the forest reserve, the remotest section of the river. The forest here forms part of the largest area of unbroken forest in the whole of the Indian subcontinent. The river was in its natural state here, not interfered with by man and flowing freely through silent countryside characterised by jagged peaks, deep valleys and dense mostly dry deciduous bush. The forests are populated by teak, sandal, mathi, honne, lantana and stands of bamboo and in order to preserve them the state government closely controls the cutting of timber. The forest is home to a rich mix of wildlife. Typical of the area are spotted deer, samhbar, elephant, wild boar, sloth bear and primates such as the langur and tiger. Bird life, as we had come to expect now, was prolific. In the river there can be found the mighty mahseer, which attracts fishermen from all over the world to this river and more excitingly for us, the crocodile.
Human settlements on the river are few and far between and sparsely populated. Shepherds inhabit the banks of the river and lead a nomadic lifestyle herding their meagre flocks of cattle, sheep and goats along the river in search of grazing.
Other persons not so benign also inhabit these parts. One such character was Koose Veerappan, the forest brigand. Veerappan as he is known to everyone throughout South India inhabits these forests along with his henchmen and has been a thorn in the side of the authorities for many years. Veerappan is a charismatic character and in the early years his following grew rapidly. Many of his fellow villagers joined his band during the 1970s encouraged by the inability of the authorities to control him. Many other villagers acted as messengers and provisioners for the gang. Veerappan was eventually, by virtue of his money, influence and ability to cock a snoop at the law, elevated to the status of a demi-god amongst the villagers. Here was a man who could lift them out of the work a day drudgery, who could fill their pockets with money and their families' mouths with food. He was a modern day Robin Hood, a champion of the common man and to this day he is viewed by many people as a likeable rogue, a rough diamond. However, this is only half the story, there is a darker side. It is a brave man who dares to cross Veerappan. He is reputed to be brutal and merciless with anyone he suspects of being an informant, rival or police officer unfortunate enough to fall into his clutches. Stories abound of the cold blooded nature of his revenge. In one particularly gory incident he invited five members of a rival smuggling gang to a party, ostensibly to make up their differences. After getting them drunk and off guard he proceeded to gun them down in cold blood. Not being content with that he is reported to have gone into a rage and cut their bodies up into little pieces, paraded their remains around the village in a bullock cart, as a warning in case anyone else might get any ideas and then fed them to the fishes. Nice guy!
We stayed at a fishing camp on the river before making our way downstream. The river was now a much more serious undertaking. The forest reserve section totalled about 120 kilometres. The grade of water encompasses the range from grade 1 to grade 5. We had to bear in mind the precariousness of our situation. Our canoe was not a specialist whitewater boat. We were loaded and hence vulnerable. A pinning could have spelt the end of the boat and us. We were cautious and portaged and lined many rapids. A gorge section in the region of Mekadatu (translates as Goat's Leap) necessitated a high level portage for a number of kilometres. Here the river was forced through a gap 15m wide and falls about 10m and then swirls and tumbles over falls in a narrow gorge. Yes, we were cautious but still managed one swamping, a minor pinning incident and a full blown capsize. In truth we were never in real danger of losing the boat but the river was making us work. In order to avoid the possibilities of a pinning in the numerous rock gardens we would line and swim the boat down rapids or portage. During one of the portages Ian slipped and sprained his ankle. Soon he was unable to stand and had to use a paddle as a crutch in order to move around. We camped that evening and two fishermen who we met at the water's edge helped to carry Ian to our tent. There was a tradition of massage in the area and so it wasn't long before these two guys set about Ian's ankle with cooking oil. Ian was in agony but stuck it out. Two hours after this treatment he could put weight on his foot. The next morning he could hobble around, within a day it was a case of sprain, what sprain.
Our progress through the reserve was steady and eventful. We were mindful of the riverine wildlife and kept a close eye out. Otters were around but they were elusive, the crocodile would show itself momentarily as it slipped effortlessly into the water on our approach. Long and green and ever so silent. Our fishermen/masseurs stayed with us on the banks of the river for one evening. On settling in for the night they declared suddenly 'the elephants are coming', 'we have to move'. We bowed to their judgement and paddled downstream in the dark under their guidance following their coracle to a shepherd's campsite where we spent the night behind their thorn boma safe and sound from the marauding elephants.
Our shepherding hosts had refused to sleep and had spent the night pacing around checking the defences, stoking their wood fires and listening to music on their transistor radio. After a sleepless night we were pleased to move on. We said our goodbyes to our masseurs and pressed on downstream.
Today we were to pass the town of Hoggenakal. Civilisation again and an opportunity to restock the larder. Here the river tumbles spectacularly for the last time onto the plains. After the solitude of the reserve, the noise and questioning of the tourists that flock to this spot was a stark contrast. We moved on without too much delay and into yet another phase of our river.
The track of the river swung from side to side within the channel. Failure to follow the flow resulted in a beaching on the numerous shoals and sandbanks. The confines of the reserve were now replaced slowly with open views to distant hills. Agriculture had returned again and we were greeted by farmers from the bank or families making their way across the river either by coracle or where possible by wading. We camped at Gopinath. Unknown to us at the time, the birth place of Veerappan. It seemed inconceivable to us that someone so in tune with the forest was not aware of our presence by now on the river. In addition, and unknown to us, the Special Task Force, charged with bringing him to book were also aware of our presence and had stormed fully armed into the fishing camp at Mekadatu just after we had left demanding to know who we were. Ignorance was bliss, for them and for us.
The next obstacle to our progress was the barrage at Mettur that impounds the Stanley Reservoir. After, our experience at the KRS we had no wish to repeat that performance and paddled into a bay just out of sight of the barrage. We struggled to pull the boat out of the water to a point where we could camp for the night. We had been on the river now for 16 days and had covered 430 kilometres, just halfway. We reckoned that the most difficult water was behind us but what troubled us now was whether we would have enough water to continue paddling. The Cauvery River is located in one of the most populous countries on earth yet it is as if it does not exist. No one person can tell you about the river, there is no guide book. Reports that I had read gave the impression that irrigation took a terrible toll on the waters and that downstream the river died a death from a thousand cuts. Even our maps showed the Cauvery as a dry river bed in the lower regions. We were now going to find out for ourselves and we could only hope for the best. During the planning we identified this potential problem and accepted the risk. If we were now to be prevented from completing our journey we would still have had the pleasure and satisfaction of completing hundreds of kilometres of first class river paddling.
Our next problem was how to circumnavigate the barrage without attracting attention from the authorities. Try to arrange anything in India beforehand and you are sure to fail, take the attitude that 'something will turn up' was sure to guarantee success. Therefore with this as our mantra we left our loaded boat on the shore and set off into town confident that something would indeed 'turn up'. And so it was that after a couple of false starts we came across Raj plus truck and friends. In discussions Raj soon spotted a flaw in our logic and revealed to us that there wasn't just one barrage but a further four. We were astonished and somewhat disbelieving initially. We looked at our map and scratched our heads. 'Where are they?' 'I can't see any barrages. Then the penny dropped as we looked at the last surveyed date, '1952.' The four barrages were in fact spaced down the river at five kilometre intervals. We accepted defeat on that score and arranged with Raj to pick us up at the lakeside in the morning and take us to a point after the last barrage.
Pleased with our early evening's work we stayed on in town to celebrate with a meal and a bottle of beer. Our faith in the honesty of the locals was later confirmed as we returned well after dark to find our canoe and possessions as we had left them.
The next day dawned and true to his word Raj appeared in his brightly coloured 15 tonner along with his entourage. The boat plus gear was loaded into the back of the truck and we set off with Ian and I sat in the cab along with Raj at the front. On passing each of the barrages Raj would reel off a load of facts and figures just like some tour guide. Each time he would stop at the gates of the compound grinning like a Cheshire cat and ask if we wanted to take a picture. 'Definitely not', we had had our fill of the authorities and had no inclination to get involved with the men in khaki again. At last the last barrage was passed and we found ourselves back on the river just upstream of the town of Bhavani.
The river was about 150/200m wide here and flowing at a good pace, we were on a conveyor belt called the Cauvery River. Rather than finding ourselves on a gentle stream we were storming along through continuous grade 1 rapids. Great swirling eddies would catch us out from time to time and throw us from our intended line. The banks were lined with numerous small irrigation pumping stations interspersed between tall pampas type grasses, coconut palms and banana plantations. We made good progress and soon covered the 15 or so kilometres to the town of Erode. Erode was a riot of colour. It was a textile centre and a substantial part of the workforce lined the banks either washing, dyeing or drying cloth of every colour and type you could imagine. Coracles loaded with these wares were being moved over to islands in the river to increase the water frontage and men and women stood on the banks or up to their waists in water staring at us incredulously. Goodness knows what chemicals were going into the water from the various processes they were undertaking. The current took us swiftly past with the greetings of the workers ringing in our ears.
We were now about three days' paddling from Tiruchchirappalli or Trichy for short. Trichy, apart from being the biggest town we were to come across, is famous for the temple complex in Trichy itself and in the adjacent Srirangam. In addition Trichy marks the start of the Cauvery River Delta and the start of the great unknown. Whether we would have any water beyond Trichy was the subject of much conjecture. But no one, not even the locals had a clue what happened downstream.
We reckoned now that we had had the last of the whitewater but the river was still motoring along. The river had widened out to over a kilometre now and there were numerous grassy islands and channels. The surrounding landscape was totally flat punctuated by the odd distant isolated hill. Our concerns about river quality on the lower river, that we had harboured from the initial planning stages, were unfounded with water quality appearing to be in the range good to excellent, with occasional black spots in some of the larger towns. However, sanitation in most of rural India was basic and there was a tendency for individuals to relieve themselves by the side of the river. I never did get used to the locals mooning at us from the banks whilst grinning and waving their greetings.
The sand getters are still in evidence on the lower river. This time they have taken a more mechanised approach. The poor soles out in the river still have a hard time up to their necks in water digging the sand from the bottom of the river and placing it onto the woks but on the banks bullock carts and manual labour has been replaced with diggers and trucks.
Our progress to Trichy proved more difficult than we had imagined. The stream meandered from one side of the river to the other. Failure to locate the change in direction inevitably led to a beaching and a burst of expletives aimed jointly at the river and the 'unfortunate' steering in the rear of the canoe. Invariably this was me, leading to the obvious riposte 'Well if you can do any better, etc, etc.' The state of the river didn't do our confidence any good at all as the conditions only made us more convinced that we were going eventually to run out of water. This wasn't helped when my paddle, which had been making ominous creaking noises for days, broke into two. Luckily we were near to a suitable campsite. We didn't carry a spare and so I effected a repair by stuffing the ends into a short length of bamboo and securing the lot with lashings of the canoeist's friend, duck tape.
A couple of hours' paddling the following day saw us on the outskirts of Trichy. We had had the impressive gopurams of the temple complexes of Srirangam, in our vision river left for over an hour but now the Rock Fort Temple in Trichy itself to our right dominated the landscape. Trichy is a busy cosmopolitan industrial and commercial centre with a population of just under a million. We had promised ourselves a rest day to look at the sights. However we had no clue where to stay or what we could do with the boat. We paddled on apprehensively and stopped at some public steps upstream of the main town bridge that linked Trichy to Srirangam. Leaving Ian to guard the boat I mounted the steps under the suspicious gaze of a few locals and disappeared into a complex of back streets. The old mantra 'something will turn up' was foremost in my mind as I wondered aimlessly along streets lined with simple brick and concrete houses looking for inspiration. Then bingo! I was approached by a couple of locals. They looked friendly and spoke passable English. Even though Trichy is on the tourist route they had never ever seen a foreigner in their little back street before. Well the next few minutes were unbelievable as we were welcomed like kings into his simple house on the waterfront. The boat and contents were hoisted up the steps and placed into safe storage and we were ensconced in front of a TV to watch England play India in Delhi on cable TV whilst a runner was despatched to the local restaurant for take-away breakfast. Magic! Our saviours were Selva, he ran a chai (tea) kiosk and his brother Ravi was the local milkman. We sat in Selva's only room as his honoured guests whilst all the locals came around to meet us and say hi. We were invited to stay the night, which we very glad to accept and it was arranged that Selva's mother would cook us all an evening meal. Things were going from good to better.
The rest of the day was spent getting the paddle repaired, shopping for supplies and sightseeing.
The next day was overcast with rain in the air. I went into town early to buy presents for Selva's family whilst Ian gave everyone rides in the canoe until it was time to go. We packed our gear back into the boat, took the obligatory photographs and set off in the rain that was now pouring down, with the whole neighbourhood waving goodbye to us. We were sad to leave our friends but we were anxious to get moving again. Today was going to be particularly significant. Fifteen kilometres downstream lay Kallanai. This was a major headworks. Here the river was split artificially into four streams, the Coleroon, the Cauvery, the Vennar river and the Grand Canal. The Coleroon was, we believed, a relief channel used to accommodate surplus flow during the monsoon. The Grand Canal was constructed over a hundred years ago and is a major river offtake and is purely for irrigation.
Progress over the next 15 kilometres to Kallanai was rapid. However, we were now soaked to the skin and shivering uncontrollably. We moored at some public steps and retired quickly to the nearest tearoom. Selva had got a lift to Kallanai on a friend's motorcycle and joined us as we planned our next move. When we had knocked a little bit of warmth back into our bodies we set off to walk across the control structure that spanned the river. We observed the flow in each of the channels we crossed and were pleased to note that a substantial flow was passing into the Cauvery. We wandered and decided to pay a visit to the irrigation engineer's office. This was primarily to try and find out more data on the flow in our river but more importantly to stave off the onset of hypothermia. Ian had already succumbed and had headed back off to the tearoom and so it was just Selva and I that stood dripping in front of the engineer's desk. He looked up from his tiffin and eyed us suspiciously. His English wasn't that good and so Selva interpreted. I explained what we were doing and enquired whether we could expect to find water in the Cauvery through to the sea. His head rolled from side to side after each question. The data was getting in I thought but there seemed to be a hitch in the output circuits. I asked if he had any maps of the delta region. His head rolled from side to side again. The maps we had showed the river for another 50 kilometres and we were at least 200 kilometres from the sea. The reason we were told at the time of purchase was, 'security'. Anyway the engineer didn't appear to be anymore helpful but then without warning summoned one of his minions who escorted us at a brisk pace back out into the rain and back across the regulator to another office. The reason for the change of venue wasn't immediately obvious until we arrived on the veranda. There in front of us was a painted wall map of the whole delta region. Our man had come up trumps after all. The wall painting showed the Grand Canal flowing east through the town of Thanjavur before turning abruptly south and disappearing into a thousand paddy fields. The Coleroon was shown as a thick blue line leading to the coast but we knew there was no water in it at present. The Vennar petered out about 50 kilometres from the coast and yes the thin blue line that was the Cauvery clearly went all the way to the coast entering the sea just south of Poomphar. We hurried back to tell Ian the good news, the minion infected by our enthusiasm was now one of the team and followed us faithfully to the tearooms. On the way back we spotted some khaki in a guardhouse half way across the regulator structure. Our hope was that the rain would deter any concerted efforts to restrict our progress. Therefore after sustaining ourselves with more tea and a second breakfast a sodden group of individuals comprising Ian, Selva, minion, plus assorted small boys and myself tippi-toed past khaki with all the gear and launched out into the Cauvery. A big cheer, a wave and we were on our way to the seaside.
The rain was lashing down still and on the premise that you either stayed under shelter or got wet, totally wet I had stripped off to my shorts and sandals and was paddling like a mad thing to keep warm. The river was fairly straight and wide, about 150/200m but the channel as before snaked from one bank to the other. This generated some friction between Ian and myself as we ploughed into one sand bank after another. But, slowly we got the hang of how to read the water and were soon adept in spotting the telltale signs that indicated the edges of the channel.
Over the next few days the river split and split again, on each occasion we followed the Cauvery. Our commitment was paying dividends and instead of the river getting more and more difficult to navigate it was getting easier. The meandering channels were no more as the bank closed in to confine the river. It was as if the river was being reborn. The flow was strong and deep and at times we imagined ourselves back on the upper river as the banks closed in on us and vegetation brushed us as we passed by. There were now numerous flow regulating structures and weirs. Portaging came to take up much more of our time. Now as many of you out there will know there was nothing more enjoyable than a good portage! However, at each portage you could guarantee that there would be a little band of onlookers. So Ian and I developed a technique of ever so very slightly milking this interest. At each portage we would unload the gear and place it in a pile on the bank. We would then remove the boat and place it next to the gear. By now the audience would be up to a dozen - small boys, young bucks in city clothes, old men in dhotis, women in saris, etc, etc. The technique was to pick up what gear we could, then lift up the boat before moving off struggling ever so slightly. Almost on cue all hands would shoot into action and before we knew it the gear and boat were whisked out of our grasp and carried to the lower river. I suppose I am ever so slightly past my prime and therefore I was probably much better in carrying this off than Ian who is a big strong lad. In fact one of the locals asked Ian if I was his dad. 'Tut, I ask you'. That question was never put to me directly, thank goodness.
It was at one of these portages that we made our first positive identification of an otter. Far from being shy and retiring the creature put on a fishing performance for about 10 minutes right under our noses diving numerous times and emerging time after time with a fish hanging out of its mouth.
The rain continued for hours on end and the boat needed to be bailing out continually. Our gear which spent most of the time sat in this water was now in various states from damp to wet. We spent one incredibly wet night camped in a quagmire by the side of a banana plantation. The stove fails to work and Ian finds that we are trapped in an island of mud with no access to the nearby road that might give us access to the nearest village and a possible cup of tea or a meal. The next day was no better and we pull into the small town of Ayyampettai in search some warmth and sustenance. The town steps are covered in the usual piles of excrement and rubbish and makes us feel quite sick. It seemed incongruous to us that the locals would also come here to wash their clothes and themselves and clean their teeth.
The town was utterly depressing. Traffic vied with pedestrians for space in amongst monstrous potholes full of black rain water. Little old men in dhotis with their black umbrellas pulled down over their heads went stoically about their business. A policeman on duty eyed us suspiciously as we walked dripping past but we avoided eye contact and pressed on in search of a restaurant and some warmth. We found a likely place full of locals and stumbled in. The place fell silence as the clientele momentarily examined the new arrivals and then almost immediately resumed their contented murmur. The warmth from the cook's primus near to the entrance was most welcoming and we sat down to tea and purri.
As we progressed down the river over the next few days the rain gradually abated such that we pulled into the town of Kumbakonam now only 70 km from the coast we were about as dry as we had been for the last three days. It was time to camp and anyway we wanted to have a look at the town. It was well known for it temples, what else in India. Therefore using the 'something will turn up' approach adopted successfully on many occasions, we hovered. Almost on cue, some villages came down to the water's edge and beckoned us over. This was nothing new, usually, we ignored these entreaties in the interests of making progress, but, in this instance they were accompanied by a suited business man. We determined in conversation that these were his workers. They were sugar cane cutters and this was their village. They lived in the most primitive mud huts and it was clearly obvious that the opulent looking businessman lived somewhere else. We were invited to camp on the bank, in fact we were offered accommodation in one of the better huts but declined preferring the comparative hygiene surrounding of our tent. This was considered a little strange and after some persuading we compromised and erected our tent under a corrugated iron awning used for, we thought, drying rice but in our more macabre moments imagined it being used for the laying out of bodies prior to burning!
Just as we were pitching our tent or rather hanging it from the rafters we were aware of this chap giving our business man a hard time. It was all about us. We carried on setting up our camp half keeping an eye on the goings on. Eventually Partibhan, as the chap was called, approached us saying that these guys who had offered us hospitality were a load of rogues and we would have our throats cut and all our stuff stolen in the night. We didn't believe him for a moment, we reckoned that we were sufficiently river wise to recognise this type of danger. In fact our experience to date had led us to believe khaki bad news, dhoti good! Anyway he persisted to berate our hosts to the point where I thought the business man might put one on him. Therefore, in order to calm things down we decided to broker a compromise. We left our camp established and accompanied Partibhan across the river to his house to meet his family. Partibhan rolled up his dhoti and set off across the river with us in tow. Before long we were up to our waist in water and soaking wet again. We were past caring.
Paribhan was a superb host and before long we were talked into having a meal with his delightful family followed by a tour of the town's temples. We insisted on returning to our tent at the end of the evening and so Partibhan accompanied us in a motor rickshaw down the other side of the river to our camp. We left him with a promise to join him and his family for breakfast the following day.
It was pitch black as we struggled along village tracks to where we had left the tent but the site was bare! 'Had Partibhan been right?', we thought. Even now we struggled to believe that the villagers could have done this to us. We carried on to the villagers' mud huts which were now in darkness. We knocked on the door of what we perceived to be the head worker's hut. Soon the door opened and the headman appeared beaming at us from the gloomy interior. He immediately led us to where they had moved all our gear for 'safe keeping'. Amazing! We once more hung our tent under the canopy and settled down for an undisturbed night.
After a protracted breakfast at Partibhan's house and lots of photographs and goodbyes we set off on what was to be our penultimate day on the river. The width of the river now varied between 30 and 40m wide. Much of the bank was brick lined but had long fallen into disrepair and was now falling apart and covered in vegetation. There were many stands of bamboo, lush trees but with a predominance of shrubs. We were now seeing the development of vehicular tracks on each side of the river. Fields were set back from the river and fenced off with bamboo and brushwood and provided with gates for access. We passed by a number of small towns, generally not the most savoury of places to linger, even so the water quality was maintained which was good as it was useful from time to time to get into the water in order to assist a passage past the many weirs and control structures that we were now encountering.
By 3 30pm we reckoned that we had paddled enough but an entourage of small boys following us along the bank were giving us a hard time, yelling and shouting and occasionally lobbing pieces of earth at us. So we paddled on hoping that they would get bored and go and annoy someone else. We passed under a number of low bamboo footbridges and in each case managed to get there before the mob so avoiding the little monsters dropping anything nasty onto us. After a while they did get bored and we felt that it was safe to pull over and camp.
This turned out to be our most populous campsite. At one point we counted fifty locals swarming around the campsite of all ages, shapes and sizes, poking their noses into the most mundane of chores. We and our possessions were still soaked and so soon everything was strewn around the camp drying. I guess it was a testimony to the locals' honesty that not a single item was lost. In fact before long they have taken over cooking duties from Ian and they even did the washing up!
The next day our first milestone was the town of Mayuram 15 km away. Again, on reaching there, we found the banks to be a disgusting mess and passed on rapidly wondering whether the unsanitary conditions were a result of lack of imagination or because there was no alternative. It always seemed incongruous that a country that can put rockets into space, build aircraft and nuclear bombs couldn't sort out elementary sanitation and so it is that India with a population now in excess of one billion struggles to cope with the most basic of human needs.
We bade Mayuram a not very fond farewell and pressed on along the river which to our surprise was getting narrower, even down to 3m wide in one stretch. The vegetation on either side was now dense and shielded any roads and habitation from our view. All the spectators on the banks either stand open mouthed as we passed by or cheer wildly beckoning us over to talk. We rarely obliged preferring to maintain steady progress. Each weir and control structure we passed has a sill height displayed. In the days when we were back in malvalli the levels were in the 300s now we were down to 2m, that was 2m above sea level! The river was narrow and spanned by numerous rickety bamboo bridges. The locals were waving from the bridges and the bank as if they sensed that something was about to happen, we told them we are going to Poomphar, our destination on the coast, at which they point excitedly downstream, dare we imagine now that we were going to make it. There were still lots of fenced fields on either side in between areas of bush. Kingfishers were cruising with us and kites wheeled overhead. We paddled on hoping that at each corner we would see the sea, but nothing, just more and more river. In the distance we could hear a roaring sound. This was usually the precursor to yet another weir but there was none in sight. The land opened up on either side of the river which now meandered between flat open banks tended by farmers using water buffalo to plough their fields. Fishermen were in the shallows casting their nets. The roar was getting louder and the river in front of us bent to our right. The roaring was getting louder still. Then we saw flecks of white appearing above the low river bank in front of us. We both yelled out in unison it's the surf. We shouted and bounced up and down in our seats in celebration and paddled out into the sea or as far we dared. Eventually we pulled up on to a beach and shook each other's hands warmly. We had made it but our obvious joy was wasted on two nearby fishermen who just look on blankly in incomprehension.
Fact file: Self supported descent of the Cauvery River, South India from its source to sea in a single open canoe over a period of 25 days by Ian Grant and Mike Norman of the Cambridge Canoe Club. Covering a total distance of 855 km. The river rises in malvalli in the Western Ghats and meets the Bay of Bengal at Poomphar in Tamil Nadu. It is believed to be the first complete descent of the river.