by Tom Hughes.
We were in Kathmandu and we were drunk. That is to say, we were in Kathmandu and it necessarily follows that we were drunk for drunkenness and debauchery are our natural states in Kathmandu. Thing is, we werent supposed to be in Kathmandu any more than we were supposed to have attained this state of excessive inebriation. If you ask my parents they would tell you that I am supposed to be a lawyer, had you asked my wife (long suffering er indoors, Mrs. Hughes) she would have told you that I was supposed to be kayaking the Humla Karnali. But I am not a lawyer (thank goodness) and I was not on the Humla Karnali; I was in Kathmandu, more precisely Tom and Jerrys Bar. And I was drunk.
It, of course, wasnt our fault that we were drunk; that was the fault of Pushkar, the owner of Tom and Jerrys Bar who agrees with us that inebriation is a natural state for us, and a profitable state for him ( funny how these things work). It wasnt our fault that we werent on the Humla Karnali; that was the fault of the Communist Party of Nepal ( Maoist) whod put up the road blocks which stopped my partners in decadence Po and Darryl from arriving at the airport from where we were supposed to catch a plane ( flying tin can) to the river.
But boy, were we drunk. Drunk enough to agree with Po that we had to salvage this paddling trip and that the only way to salvage it was to hire another plane, fly up to Everest, and kayak back down. Drunk enough to phone our logistics man, Sunir, and tell him to book us on a cargo flight. Drunk enough to agree that maybe, five years after Id paddled the Dudh Khosi, it had changed and well what the hell; whats the worst that can happen?
Darryl, being of a more sober nature than Po and myself had seen sense and flown home. This left only three; Po and long time friend and something of a raconteur (look it up) and Sammy, a doped out hippy (as for myself I am utterly respectable with just a hint of rascal).
Once the beer monkey had finished his evil task and Id woken up the planning hit another gear. The plan, as they all are when poorly thought out, was simple; wed take Sunirs plane, fly to Lukla, walk upstream till it looked nasty, get in our boats, and start paddling ( oh, the innocence of youth, except none of us is that young, nor indeed that innocent). Po and Daryl had already bought the food, for the aborted Humla Karnali trip, the plane was booked for the next day, our kit was sorted into two categories useable and remind me to throw this away later. All we had to do was get a good nights sleep; but lets have a quick jar in Toms first.
As the taxi hurtled through the already out-of-control streets of Kathmandu I gradually sobered up and the cold dawn of realization hit me that we were heading for the Dudh Khosi; a river Id ran before, waxed lyrical about for five years, wined and dined off, but a river which in actual fact was nothing more than a loosely affiliated group of sharp rocks, a little moisture and a hell of a lot of portaging. I hadnt enjoyed it in the slightest five years ago (although good company goes a long way to dull that ache), what the hell was I doing heading back there?
That thought was still running through my mind as we began our descent down to Lukla airport. Now airport is not a very good description for what goes on at Lukla, airports to me are places designed by architects who got bottom of the class and were at the back of the queue when they were handing out imagination, which made them late for the queue when good taste was handed out. Airports are purely functional, they have security, immigration control and, most importantly, runways.
Lukla has none of these essential airport accessories. It has a cliff, then a steep tarmaced hill ending against another cliff. Its not a pleasant place to land; but you dont land in Lukla, you crash, and you do it fast. The plane banked, faced the cliff, pulled up (at this point Im sure I screamed) bounced a couple of times, missed the topmost cliff and taxi-ed to the parking lot. I gave Po a stupid grin and clambered out of the door.
Wow, Lukla had changed. Soldiers were everywhere, machine gun posts guarded the runway, barbed wire fences kept baying porters at bay and there was a bar! We ignored the bar for as long as we could stand but ended up inside while our hotel owner haggled for porters for us the next day. Theres something fundamentally distasteful about hiring porters in Nepal, for starters just by hiring them youre non-verbally confessing that youre too inept or weak to carry your own stuff ( dont get me wrong I am too inept and weak to do this, I just dont like to admit it.) and then theres the fact that whenever I hire porters, even though I cant be bothered to haggle and hence pay way over the odds, I always feel as though Im exploiting them, as though were back in the days of the British Raj ( not that there was anything wrong with that).
My guilt was compounded the next day when our porters arrived at the hotel ( the grand sounding North Face Resort, a wonderful establishment; you really should go!) and it became clear that they were fourteen years old, and taking a break from school to earn some easy money on the Everest Base Camp trekking trail. I swallowed my pride, humbly confessed to my porter that I am inept and weak, and watched him jog happily along as though my kayak weighed nothing, having filled it with equipment the night before and weighed it I can now confess that it weighed no less than 60lbs, and I could barely lift it, so I carried my camera, and a water bottle.
Six hours later my porter wasnt looking quite so sprightly, in fact he was looking positively knackered. This was fine with me since wed reached the village of Monzo and planned to sleep the night there, it seemed an agreeable place and the hotel owner did a nice line in yak steak. Being British we kept a constant supply of tea and whiled away the afternoon over indulging ourselves, being Nepali the porters slept in a nearby lodge and kept a similarly constant supply of tea going.
There is no problem in Britain or Nepal which cannot be solved by a good cup of tea. If only all the world leaders would get together for a nice cuppa the planet would be a far nicer place to live. Where the Americans have therapy the British have a nice brew, or at worst a quick pint. But I digress.
So it was, after a good cuppa the next morning our rag tag bunch headed further north into the shadow of Mount Everest. Now as you may have gathered, I am no hero, to me a river is a river, all wet and mostly flowing downhill. But I have to confess that it does feel good to say we kayaked down Everest, sort of implies that we climbed up it in the first place. Which of course we did not. In fact intimidated by an excessively large hill before the sherpa town ( Im sure theyre not all sherpas) of Namche Bazaar ( bizarre) we elected to put on the river.
There are too few times in a mans life when he feels like a rock star, and this was one of them. Trekking groups sauntered past, caught a glimpse of our strange attire and ponderously improbable craft and stopped to see the spectacle of us drowning in the river. Pretty soon we had quite a crowd, we should have charged, and I wasnt sad to disappoint them, no-one drowned (although later in the day Po made a heroic effort). As is common on rivers the water was flowing downhill and the hill it was flowing down was precipitously steep, I messed up the third rapid and spent a while talking to the fishes as I sorted my roll out and came up blustering on my shameful third attempt.
The rivers gradient continued for the whole day, great kayaking, and by the end of the day, reunited with the porters back in Monzo we felt somewhat heroic. The porters were less impressed, having witnessed Pos breaststroke on the last rapid of the day they merely commented very dangerous, and ordered tea.
The next day the porters appeared to have elected to take better care of us and sauntered along the trekking trail carrying our bags. At every bridge theyd meet us, give a reassuring wave and jog along to the next village. We took out at the village of Ghat, appropriately named since in Hindi a ghat is a cremation site on a river and had we continued downstream we would certainly have had need of its services, the river plunged into the horrific horror of horrors that is Lukla Gorge. On the International Scale of Difficulty which is argued about at length by kayakers the section we had been paddling is conservatively estimated to be around class four and five; its tough, itll spoil your day if you swim but youll probably survive. On this scale, which goes as high as six, Lukla gorge is an eight. You really dont want to kayak Lukla gorge, nor do you want to walk there. I defy anyone to do anything fun in Lukla Gorge, its just not possible. (my having written this I humbly predict that someone will go and paddle Lukla Gorge, and not get their hair wet).
We elected to walk around it and so that night found ourselves back in Lukla and, unsurprisingly (come on, you know me well enough by now!) back in the Waves Bar. In a show of remarkable restraint we only stayed for a couple and rushed back to our hotel for yak steak and to hire another porter to carry food south, and away from the trekking trail.
While we had been away the North Face Resort had become populated by Buddhist monks, hundreds of em. It seems that the hotel burned down last year and was rebuilt in a record time to catch the height of the trekking/ tourist season. Hopeful to avoid the same happening again the hotel owners had asked a reincarnate monk ( rinpoche) to come and bless the new hotel. We settled down to yak steak, the monks looked on aghast ( although I swear some of them wanted a bit, I did offer).
At 4a.m. the next morning we were woken by the monks crashing cymbals, blowing conch shells and chanting loudly.
What are they doing? I asked Po.
Scaring evil spirits away. He replied
Well theyve bloody succeeded.
We found the porters and started walking, and walking. We got so tired the scenery stopped being spectacular and started being a collection of inappropriately positioned hills, and we carried on walking. We stayed at a hotel run by a sherpa whod climbed Everest nine times, he was away climbing it again so his wife made tea. Occasionally wed meet trekkers walking in from Jiri, all wide eyed and terrified; they each mentioned Maoists ( thousands of em) asking for donations along the trail. We werent worried, Po is a Yorkshireman.
Finally, two days after setting off from Lukla, having nearly worn out the porters we arrived at Basa Bridge, a community notable for the fact that it has a bridge and is called Basa. We said goodbye to the porters, paid them most of our money, told them to go back to school and watched as they ran up the gorge walls. Alone for the first time since starting the trip it was time to sort out our food, establish campsite chores, and inventory our safety kit. We didnt bother, I made a nice cup of tea and started cooking the pasta.
Did I mention that the food had been bought by Darryl and Po? Did I also mention that we only ever take a cup and a spoon as personal eating equipment on river trips and that Darryl and Po know this? Well now its time to mention that the pasta Darryl and Po bought for us to live on for the next few days was actually spaghetti! Have you ever tried to eat spaghetti with a spoon? Its not easy, but it sure is fun. For a while Darryls name was cursed amongst the population of our campsite ( well Po was with us) and we lamented, forkless, our lack of foresight in not checking his purchases, but mostly we blamed him.
If youre a kayaker ( and if youve got this far you probably are) then there is something you should know about putting on the Dudh Khosi at Basa Bridge, the thing you should know is; DONT DO IT!
Sure, the first few kilometers you can see from the bridge are fine, flowing downhill as usual. Then you enter the depths of Basa gorge and the landslide tracks which course down the canyon walls reach the river clogging the riverbed with house sized ( depending on the size of your house) boulders. In places the river flows underground, squeezing through rocks and siphons. Here the international grading system narrows down to two grades; grade yes means it can be kayaked, grade no means that you face an arduous portage over crumbling rock, a portage that can take anything from five minutes to three hours. At times we found ourselves waist deep in water passing boats through eddies and back onto the bank. Its really horrible, dont do it.
One by one we lost our sense of humor. The paddling was committing ( youd have to be committed to do it) and the portaging soul sapping. We camped amongst the rocks after about five kilometers, it began to rain. We were universally miserable.
The following morning visitors appeared at our campsite, fishermen from a nearby village. Sammy figured that visitors meant that we were nearly out of the gorge. He was right, by that evening we were cruising down easy, read and run whitewater, eddy hopping open channels and blasting through drops. Earlier that day the Imja Khola river had entered as a gravelly tributary on the right. In 1999 a large piece of rock had fallen off a mountain into a lake on this river, the water was pushed out of the lake and created a huge tidal wave the rushed down the Dudh Khosi and into the Sun Khosi. A raft group running the Sun Khosi at the time was surprised to see, on passing the Dudh, a huge wave heading toward them. The carnage that followed luckily saw no deaths but a missing raft guide and kayaker from the group were picked up by helicopter a few days later 45 kilometers downstream. We camped, and looked out for towering waves at night.
The next few days were a blur. Po got into the rhythm of the river and would race ahead for hours at a time. Sammy and I paddled together and cursed his exuberance as we dropped over falls and dodged holes. Gradually the gradient eased and we arrived at the weary town of Rabuwa which we pillaged happily for rice and noodles. In Rabuwa the villagers warned us solemnly that there were Maoists downstream, we werent worried; wed almost run out of money.
From Rabuwa down the river mellowed. We paddled on, hoping to round every corner and see the confluence with the Sun Khosi, we dreamt of rafts running the Sun Khosi laden with beer and good food. No such luck, on reaching the Sun Khosi the only craft we saw was a large dugout ferrying schoolchildren over swirling eddies. We landed on a beach, congratulated each other and Sammy pulled out three cigars; the fat lady sang.
A day later we rattled in a local bus into Kathmandu. The bus conductor ( of which there appeared to be five) took up two thirds of the seat and roared with laughter each time the bus sped over a bump and a back seat customer was jettisoned skyward and batted back down to his seat by the bus roof. We alighted in the dark and within half an hour were in Tom and Jerrys;
Where have you been? reprimanded Pushkar seeing three oil soaked and road dulled kayakers claim their usual seats, I nearly went bust!
We ordered three beers.
Magic Tom Hughes paddled with Chris Po Brothwell and Sam(antha) Robinson
Tom would like to thank Nookie Kayaking Equipment and Liquid Logic ( for a good deal on a great boat).
Logistics were sorted by Sunir. www.faroutnepal.com, Sita Air and the North Face Resort, Lukla.
Beer supplied by Tom and Jerrys Bar Kathmandu and The Waves Pub, Lukla.
Beer paid for by KB Gurung, Drift Nepal.
We would like to thank the porters of Bung Village, Nepal and the bus crew of Kotari, Nepal. We would also like to thank Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Brothwell and Clare for putting up with each one of us.