New Delhi: At first sight, it might look like something Tom Hanks used in Cast Away. Except that this bamboo raft was bigger and stronger, able to hold three young men who journeyed nearly 400 km, from the world’s largest river island of Majuli to its smallest, Umananda, on the tempestuous Brahmaputra in Assam.
Beginning on 30 September, the eight-day-long expedition by Shekhar Bordoloi, 26, Rishan Doley, 30, and Nayan Bordoloi, 27, came to an end Wednesday night. Umananda, their final halting point, is in the middle of the Brahmaputra flowing through Guwahati.
“I met Doley in 2018, while doing a mountaineering course at the Indian Himalayan Centre for Adventure and Eco Tourism in Sikkim. Both of us had this urge to do something different, go on an adventure of our own. It was then that we first thought of a rafting expedition like this,” Shekhar tells ThePrint.
But they got caught up with work and the plan was put on the backburner. Until this summer, when the pandemic brought everything to a halt. “Talks again began around June-July and this time we knew it had to be done. We got Nayan on board to shoot the entire journey. We also began building the raft ourselves, using bamboo and elephant grass,” he explains.
Rafting for the environment
But this wasn’t just an expedition for the three friends. Their journey was an attempt to raise awareness about the need for environmental conservation and sustainable development.
A 2018 study, carried out by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, had predicted a loss of 9,007.14 sq km of forests in parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh by 2028.
It’s not surprising then, that their journey was flagged off from Majuli’s Kartik Chapori by none other than Jadav Payeng. Better known as the Forest Man of India, Payeng is credited with single-handedly transforming a 550-hectare barren sandbar into a sprawling forest, a feat for which he was awarded a Padma Shri in 2015.
“It was very encouraging to see these young men being so brave and caring deeply for nature. More people should take up such endeavours. This pandemic has taught many the importance of conservation,” Payeng tells ThePrint.
Carried basic cooking provisions and a ukulele
Preparations for the journey began around three weeks before the scheduled date of 30 September. The trio initially fixed on a budget of around Rs 1 lakh, but between their own funds and a bit from sponsors and well-wishers, they could manage only a little over Rs 45,000.
“We sent a letter to the Inland Water Transport (IWT) department on 8 September, informing it about our expedition,” said Shekhar. ThePrint has a copy of the letter sent by IWT in which it has acknowledged their application.
Sources in the IWT say no formal permission was needed for an expedition as this trip was conducted by a private group in their personal capacity. “Permission is required for ferries, bigger vessels and other commercial activities,” they tell ThePrint.
The 25-ft-long raft was named Sibuk, “a Mising word describing a particular sound made by the river and spoken by the state’s Mising community,” Shekhar explained.
For the journey, they carried a small cylinder, a stove, enough provisions, a mini generator to charge phones and other devices, an oil lamp and a ukulele to keep company. They started their days around 7.30 am and halted by 4.30-5 pm. “We also fished on our way…it was fun,” says Shekhar.
Not only was the raft self-made, the friends also decided to go without any local guide. “We tried to stick to the river’s main course and depended entirely on our instincts and prior knowledge about the river,” Shekhar explains.
Fortunately, this wasn’t his first river rodeo, so to speak. Shekhar was part of an 11-day rafting expedition from Sadiya to Guwahati in 2015, conducted by members of the Assam Mountaineering Association.
“But a lot of people especially took interest in our expedition this time and wanted to know more about it. This proved to be an opportunity for us to tell them about the need for conservation, to take an interest in water sports and how it can also be an employment opportunity,” says Shekhar enthusiastically.
The three friends want to undertake more such expeditions so they can spread the message of caring for nature.