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White-Water Wonderland

White-Water Wonderland

Dec 2015

Words Sarah Kingdom

Monsoons mark the beginning of the off season for most sports in India. The heavy deluges of rain rule out most outdoor activities. For kayakers, however, it’s just the beginning of their season: The rivers swell, giving them an unlimited playground. Monsoon season also heralds the annual Malabar River Festival in the tiny town of Kodenchery.

Looking at a detailed map of India, you’d struggle to tell if the dot marking Kodenchery were a real town or just a fly speck or smudge of dirt. Found in the southern state of Kerala, it has two main streets and hardly a building above three stories (with the exception of the only hotel which, at four stories, and with occasional hot water, is the town’s pinnacle of luxury). Once a year, though, that all changes when a bunch of white-water kayakers from all around the world roll into town for the Malabar River Festival. They certainly liven things up. I’m not a professional kayaker—indeed, until a few years ago, I barely knew the front end of a kayak from the back. Yet, somehow I’ve become friends with this motley crew.  

In 2013 I was in India, at a loose end, after finishing a mountaineering expedition in the far north of the country. I had some friends in the south, taking part in a kayaking festival that was the first of its kind in India, so I decided to go take a look. It was an amazing few days, with a great crowd of people who were passionate and excited about their sport. The official aim of the festival was to promote kayaking in the south of India and to highlight Kerala as an adventure tourism destination. The not-so-official aim of the majority of the participants was to have a good time—and they certainly did. 

Kayakers are a great bunch of people who, despite my novice status in their sport, have welcomed me with open arms. At that first festival, I found myself up on stage with a microphone in hand, providing the crowds with running commentary on the races. I must’ve done a passable job, as when the following year’s festival came around, the organisers asked if I’d come back and do it all over again.

The festival is held on two rivers just outside Kodenchery: the Chalipuzha and the Iruvanjhipuzha. Both are monsoon-fed, and can swell to an impressive size. The Iruvanjupuzha is the bigger of the two, and the famous Aripara Falls are found here. The kayaking section starts just below the falls and is about 10 kilometres long. The first 3km below Aripara are a solid Class V section, and thereafter the river mellows down and leads into a 6-7km long technical Class III section. There’s also a hard Class V+ section upstream of the falls, though this is not included in the festival, as there has yet to be a successful descent of this stretch. The Chalipuzha—or Chali as the kayakers call it—is a sharp and steep river, and pretty much a continuous Grade IV. It’s for intermediate kayakers who are eager to step up their river-running skills.

A series of downriver extreme adventure races are held on two long rapids: The Game of Thorns (Class III+) and the Malabar Express (Class IV+). Being held in monsoon season, the rivers are at peak flow, creating challenges for the competitors and much entertainment for the spectators. For the latter, when not watching the action, the views of the river cutting through the lush green tropical rainforests, with the mountains looming in the background, are breathtaking. 

In 2013, the festival had been a huge success, with 50 international and local kayakers competing in front of crowds of more than 6 000 people. The following year, the competition was billed as “Bigger, Harder, Faster”. The prize money up for grabs was more than US$9 000 (about R111 500) and there were 70 hopefuls competing in the Giant Slalom, Down River Race, Boater Cross and Play-Boating Freestyle events. 

The festival drew a bunch of top international competitors and high-profile athletes including three-time Adidas Sickline Extreme Kayak World Champion, Sam Sutton from New Zealand; five-time Italian freestyle champion, Max “La Bomba” Benetton; Irish Olympic slalom paddler, Ciarán Heurteau; the United Kingdom’s Darren Clarkson-King, extreme kayaker and filmmaker; and adventure kayaking brothers, Joe and Dan Rea-Dickens, also from the UK.

Not only am I a novice kayaker, but I’m decidedly not a linguist, either. And while I’m not by nature a shy or retiring sort of person, I’m not renowned for my ability to pick up a new language at the drop of a hat. At the previous year's festival, I had a translator who clearly suffered from verbal diarrhoea, and no matter what I said, or how short it was, his translation to the largely local crowd always seemed endless! Last year I was relieved to see that my former ‘co-anchor’ was not around to ‘assist’ me—though that did mean I’d be largely on my own and at the mercy of the huge, predominantly non-English speaking crowd.

To boost my commentator credentials, I was determined to add a few words of 'local lingo' to my repertoire, in an attempt to win over the 7 000-strong crowd. Obviously, it’s quite difficult to commentate on kayaking races when you have limited technical knowledge of the sport. But this task is made nigh on impossible when the line of sight between you, the commentator, and the competitors on the river is blocked by a throng of umbrella-wielding spectators. There was a clearly marked—but largely ignored—spectator 'no-go zone' along the bank of the river to enable me to see what was happening and to ‘talk’ about it. 

The next time I decided to up my game. Enlisting the help of a local friend, I added two phrases to my commentator’s arsenal: maari nikkanum (“please clear the area”) and kai adikkanum (“clap your hands”). I liberally dotted my speech with both, and initially assumed the audience’s smiles were a sign they were impressed with my ‘mastery’ of their language. I later learnt, though, that apparently I was occasionally mixing up the phrases, and at times telling people to “clap and clear”, or “get your hands out of the area”!

The 2014 festival kicked off with a parade through town: from the local bus stop, walking the length of the town’s single main street, and then turning to retrace our steps. The kayakers were treated like exotic celebrities and escorted by hordes of school kids in colourful uniforms, along with various dignitaries, assorted press and a group of drummers in traditional dress beating out deafening rhythms—all in true Indian style!

The race location for Day 1 was an hour’s drive from town, on roads that proved a challenge to those of us who get car sick—made worse by our wannabe rally driver. I arrived at the river feeling various shades of green, and couldn’t take a toilet break while commentating for what turned out to be a record eight hours. Fortunately, the competitions on Day 2 and 3 were much closer to town. All in all, I spent several days watching and commentating on some spectacular kayaking on some exciting white water. 

The Malabar River Festival is a great event and I’ll definitely be back again this year from 23 to 26 July—hopefully with a few more useful phrases under my belt and perhaps even a few new kayaking skills to back me up. Since first getting mixed up with this bunch, I’ve been bitten by the bug. I’ve invested in a kayak of my own and perhaps, with a bit of expert tuition, I may be ready to switch from commentator to competitor in the not-too-distant future.

For more details on the festival, visit

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer