The Last Call of the Wild
Rafting in the Hunza Valley
Jonathan Rider & Edmund Le Brun
By travelling through this region slowly, and by throwing ourselves at the mercy of providence, we hope to gain a rare insight into the people and places that make up this unique area.
I am ecstatic when Edmund finally shows up. We’ve only been separated for a few hours, but I’m tired and thirsty – and the last time I saw him he was barrelling down the river, next to his upturned raft, towards another section of whitewater.
I had imagined him pinned to a rock somewhere downstream, or floating face-down in the water, so it’s no small relief when I see him waving frantically at me from the other side. He’s very much alive.
We’re in the Karakoram Mountains of northern Pakistan: probably as close to paradise as it’s possible to get, especially if you like mountains and thundering whitewater rivers. The Karakoram has the highest concentration of 8,000m-plus mountains to be found anywhere in the world, and some of the finest virgin whitewater too.
We’ve come here to see how a major road development is impacting the region. First built in the 1970s, the Karakoram Highway has recently received major investment from China as part of its ambitious One Belt One Road initiative to create a new global trade network extending from its western provinces. Passing along the same course as its ancient forebear – the Silk Road – the new Highway promises to bring economic development and growth to one of Pakistan’s poorest regions. Yet, in doing so, it threatens to damage the local environment and transform the region’s traditional cultures.
What better way to explore social and economic upheaval than by raft? This might seem glib, but there’s some logic behind the idea. By travelling through this region slowly, and by throwing ourselves at the mercy of providence, we hope to gain a rare insight into the people and places that make up this unique area.
As I stand waving back at Edmund across the bank, I can see he’s not alone. He is surrounded by 10 Pakistani police officers. Our guess was correct. Providence is about to give us an unusual glimpse into modern Pakistan after all.
It was an inauspicious start to the expedition. Permission letters are required to hike in this area, but it was unclear whether we would need to secure similar permissions for the rafting. Few if any people have attempted to raft the length of the valley, and although there are one or two commercial rafting outfits on the river, they stick to a flat 20km section. It took four days of negotiation to convince local authorities that we were competent enough to attempt the river’s entire length.
We planned to carry all our equipment for one month in our packrafts – small inflatable boats that fold down to the size of a packed one-man tent. Knowing that we would encounter plenty of villages as we passed through the valley, we didn’t carry much food or water. Even so, our small boats felt heavy and cumbersome as we finally pushed away from the banks in Sost, the last town in Pakistan before the Chinese border. A small delegation of local policemen had gathered to see us off, snapping selfies and group shots while we nervously lashed our bags and equipment to the rafts.
It had been two years since either of us had rafted (see ‘Inflated Ambitions’). As our rafts nudged out into the main channel, it was thrilling to feel the power of the river. We were quickly cast downstream, feeling about as much in control as two ping pong balls in a storm drain. Edmund grinned from ear to ear as the grey glacial water broke over the bow of his boat. I managed a strained grimace as I spun from one eddy to the next, trying not to think about all the expensive cameras and camping kit balanced precariously above my feet, and trying even harder to ignore the jeers and whistles from the growing ranks of spectators on the river banks.
We quickly cleared the town, and felt like kings in the moments of calm between sets of rapids. On our left was the Karakoram Highway, rarely more than 50m from the river, with cars, motorbikes, and the occasional lorry zipping up and down. On our right I saw the ghost of the old Silk Road, a single-track path etched into the high cliffs above. And in all directions towered 6,000m mountains– their jagged icy peaks catching the last of the late-afternoon sun. We spent that night in our tepee on a high gravel bar at a bend in the river, drifting off to sleep to the sound of the mighty Hunza rumbling past.
The next morning, eager to push on as far as we could, we set off while much of the valley was still in deep shadow. Locals warned us that at this time of the year the river would grow stronger with every passing hour. Approaching the height of summer, vast quantities of water were already descending from melting glaciers and snowfields in the mountains above. Within a couple of weeks the river would be an unnavigable torrent. While these warnings weren’t exactly music to our ears, our packrafts appeared to be coping fairly well with the choppy waters, despite the lack of spraydecks. The weight of the bags gave the boats considerable stability. Our confidence grew as we smashed through wave after wave.
We made swift progress that morning. The river had entered a narrow section and we were forced out of the rafts to scout ahead every 100m or so. We continued like this for a few hours – rafting, scouting, rafting – and it felt slow, but by midday we were still way ahead of where we expected to be. Stopping for water, we talked about how stupid we were to have overestimated the time it would take us to raft all the way down to Gilgit. Before we set off again we took a cursory look at the approaching corner. ‘Shall we scout it?’ Edmund said to me. ‘Nah, it looks pretty straightforward,’ I replied breezily.
As our rafts nudged out into the main channel, it was thrilling to feel the power of the river. We were quickly cast downstream, feeling about as much in control as two ping pong balls in a storm drain.
An unexpected thrust from below threw me clean of my raft. The shock of the icy water punched the air out of my lungs. I clung to my paddle with my left hand while my right clasped helplessly for the slippery sides of my upturned boat.
It all happened in seconds.
Up ahead I saw Jon suddenly thrown out of his raft. From my position 50m back, I couldn’t see what had caused the capsize. Probably ineptitude, I thought. There was no way for me to get to the bank, and in any case the water looked benign. I paddled hard and followed his line.
Seconds later the water pulled me into a hidden fold between two rocks. Before I knew it an unexpected thrust from below threw me clean of my raft. The shock of the icy water punched the air out of my lungs. I clung to my paddle with my left hand while my right clasped helplessly for the slippery sides of my upturned boat. Waves buffeted me from side to side. There was no chance of holding on. The bank of the river was only a few metres away, but the current carried me 80m before I was able to clamber back onto dry land.
Mercifully, Jon had managed to get back into his raft and navigate it back to the bank. Our guardian angels were screaming ‘Stop. Think. Assess’. But, thumping with adrenaline and the shock of the cold water, we weren’t listening. Hurriedly we decided that I should take Jon’s raft to chase down my own. Within minutes I had come across another perilous section of water and had been thrown in again. I swam to the bank in time to see our second raft disappearing around the corner.
Only then did I stop, think and assess. We were in a remote part of northern Pakistan. We had lost our rafts and all our possessions. And now I had lost Jon too. After four hours of searching I still hadn’t found him.
In desperation, I crossed the river and flagged down a passing motorcyclist. We came across a van full of Pakistani police scouting the river from the highway – they looked pleased to see me. After spotting two upturned rafts floating down the river, they had already launched a search party. Within the hour I watched with relief from the other side of the bank as they found Jon and accompanied him to the nearest village.
Pakistan’s police and secret services (the ISI) have a fearsome reputation. For more than 30 years the ISI’s covert operations have contributed to the country’s troubled national image – from enabling the Taliban to regain a foothold in Afghanistan, to accusations of torture on home soil. We had been warned before our trip that the police would follow us, that they would hassle us and prevent us from speaking to local people.
There was nothing covert about the ISI officers who showed me a mobile phone photo of myself and Jon, along with our names, ages and nationalities. Here we go, I thought to myself; we’re about to be (quite rightly) chastised for our embarrassing waste of their time. We had, after all, convinced the Pakistani authorities that we were ‘world expert rafters’.
Instead the shadiest-looking one of all enveloped me in a bear hug. Astonishingly polite and professional, and almost all speaking perfect English, they took us back to the police station where they gave us cake and tea, and drew up a battle plan for how we were going to track down our lost rafts and bags.
That evening the whole local police force was mobilised in the search. By sundown we had recovered one raft and five bags. One remaining raft and a bag with our camera and sound equipment remained out there, somewhere in the jaws of the thrashing river.
As we sat exhausted and dejected in a restaurant that evening, a group of young men from across the restaurant called out ‘Are you the rafters?’. They came over and introduced themselves as members of the local Scout club. News about our sorry episode had spread throughout Facebook. Without asking, they offered their car and their help in the search.
This act of extraordinary generosity was just one of a number we were to receive over the following days. Although we found our raft by midday the next day (it was waiting for us smugly on a distant bar of gravel 30km downriver), we would scour the riverbanks for the next four days in search of our lost camera bag. Joining the hunt, a local headmaster mobilised his school children, and a journalist spread the word far and wide for locals to keep their eyes out.
We never found our camera bag, but instead we discovered a side to Pakistan rarely seen in the news. Since 9/11 the numbers of foreign tourists visiting Pakistan has plummeted. The perception of Pakistan as a dangerous place to visit is not without good reason. Large parts of the country remain highly insecure, particularly along the border with Afghanistan and Iran. However, Pakistan has many faces. As we discovered, Gilgit-Baltistan is welcoming, tolerant, and easy to explore – a paradise for adventure tourists.
However, this enchanting region may not remain in its pristine state for long. With the newly improved Karakoram Highway, hordes of domestic tourists have flocked to the area. As we passed from one village to the next, signs of construction could be seen everywhere, from new hostels and motels to diners and roadside cafes. While this signals much-needed economic growth for the region, it is also means unprecedented levels of environmental degradation.
Whether or not the newly improved road signals the last call of the wild remains to be seen. For now, at least, the river remains as wild as ever before.
Jonathan currently runs a consulting firm, Aleph Strategies, specialising in overseas development and humanitarian aid. A Fellow of the RGS, Jonathan trained as an archaeologist before working in public affairs in Westminster. Later, in Afghanistan, he worked for the Aga Khan Foundation, before managing conservation activities for UNESCO at the Bamiyan World Heritage Site.
Edmund Le Brun worked in Afghanistan for three years having graduated from Oxford University. In 2016 he co-founded a social enterprise called Ishkar which brings contemporary craftsmanship from countries at war.