It was only a few months before the Malabar River festival, 2017 that i was introduced to the sport of whitewater kayaking. Being a hydrophobic and a terrible swimmer, I was not very hopeful of ever getting a hold of the sport. Although the expertise of my instructors, the great vibes of the kayaking community and my ever growing fascination for kayaking saw me through.
Back in the learning days, I had only heard about river festivals from my friend cum instructor, Dinesh Pandey. He also happens to be, arguably India’s most solid paddlers and finest teachers. I owe a lot to him for whatever skill, motivation and passion I developed for whitewater kayaking. It was on an expedition once, when we were conversing next to the bonfire that I heard of this thing called “First Descents.” Honestly at that point of time, with the skill and knowledge I had, I was oblivious to the grandeur of the feat attached to a river descent.
With time my understanding of the river increased considerably and my admiration for the seasoned paddlers grew manifold. Its just like another sport, you have favorites, you tend to admire certain athletes and hail them for their achievements. So I started reading books, watching videos and documentaries. That was how I first came across the greats of the extreme sport.
Malabar River Festival – A Chance to Witness the Best
We all have our personal favorites and idols. And hell yes, we want to meet them or actually see them do what they do best. That was the case with me. To name a few Aniol Serrasolses, Gerd Serrasolses, Dane Jackson, Rush Sturges, Nouria Newman & Ben Marr are some mind blowing whitewater kayaking athletes that I personally admire the most. Not to take anything away from the other greats.
I don’t remember the dates but whenever the line-up of MRF (Malabar River Fest) was out, I knew in my mind that I was going to Kerala. And so I did. Almost one year into the sport and I was there at MRF, not merely as a fanboy spectator but also a participant in the intermediate category. I went there almost a month before the event as I wished to paddle on the breathtaking monsoon rivers amidst the most exotic landscapes. Gradually paddlers from many countries started pouring in. The place became a hub of kayakers. It was insane. More than a 100 paddlers, people from different parts of the globe, teenagers, men in their 60’s, pros and amateurs. All had gathered to be a part of and witness, Asia’s grandest kayaking carnival.
The very first day of the event exhibited the madness that was expected. It was the freestyle event. Despite constant rain, the event was a stand-out affair. I took the best seat, right at the river bank ready with my camera. Although once the event began and the likes of Dane, Nick, Kalob, Martina etc started doing their bit, I was blown. Until then I had witnessed quite a few live performances of other sports. Although I can vouch for the fact, that I have not and might not ever see a performance as majestic as that of Dane Jackson. I was sitting next to Manik Taneja, who is the co-founder of the MRF and he was equally blown if not more. He has been seeing all that since a few years now but the look on his face, seeing Dane perform spoke a lot about the greatness of the champion. I was fortunate enough to talk to Dane personally and hear about his craziest moments of jumping off waterfalls and whirling past ditches at unbelievable speeds.
The events sailed smoothly, each day. I won silver in both Intermediate events but I was not excited for my own events as much as I was to see world class paddlers. On days when I was not competing, I was helping out the organizers and got a chance to closely observe the greats. It was a treat to watch the champs go one after the other. Nick Troutman, Bren Orton, Kalob Grady, Adrian Mattern, Aaron Mann & Philip Baues were a treat to watch. They were completely relentless like the rains of Kerala. Mike Dawson who eventually won the overall prize and tag of Rapid Raja is an Olympian. What a champ that guy is, he just paddles his guts out. The names are endless. It was magical to have witnessed those international legends.
Indian & Nepali Champs
At the 2018 edition of Malabar River Festival, the Indian & Nepali paddling brigade was astonishing. It was overwhelming to see the turnaround of Indian paddlers. Amit Magar who was the best Asian paddler was a treat to watch. Even the best global athletes could not help but admire his strength and finesse. Dinesh Pandey rocked it with his experience and raw power, to win silver. The Nepali power house Suman Tamang, better known as Suman the Ninja was a gem of a kayaker. Ashu Rawat from Rishikesh, probably the most stylish and daring paddlers out there also managed to engrave his name on the winners board. Not to forget Manish Rawat, who is one of the finest young talents, this guy has a burning desire to win! There are a handful of more names, each potent enough to achieve make a mark at such events.
A special mention to the girls slalom national team who were ever so smooth and yet so ruthless. Although they were not experienced whitewater paddlers, they easily managed to win. It was surreal to watch them break waves. More power to them.
If we establish a better infrastructure for kayaking in India, conduct more competitions and take care of our athletes, we will go a long way. As there is no shortage of talent and flair among our Indian paddlers. Nonetheless, the Indian paddlers were awesome with whatever little resources and limited financial backing they had.
I would end by thanking everyone who contributed in whatever capacity to make the event, one of the most memorable experiences of my life. See you all next year, until then keep shredding!