Kayak and Curry Heaven - A First Visit to Nepal, 1997
I woke up with a jolt when the plane lurched sideways. I wiped my saliva off the porthole and peered out in a time zone induced stupor. The first thing I saw blew my jetlag away. It couldn't be, could it? Sticking out conspicuously from the awesome white surrounding peaks, I recognised the distinctive black pyramid of Mount Everest.
Wandering into a rafting company office in Kathmandu, I asked about the possibility of hiring a kayak.
'No worries which type?' asked the Kiwi behind the desk. To my disbelief, 'Ultimate Descents' had over eighty boats in town. Within two hours of touching the runway tarmac I had sorted out bus transport to the first river and the boat of my choice, a perfectly fitted out Overflow. I had expected to have to spend a few days in town getting sorted out.
'You thought this was going to be hard, didn't you? Those days are over, mate!''
Jetlag, a hardcore curry and a long sleepless night in one of Kathmandu's dodgier hotels hadn't interfered with my training schedule. As planned, I peaked mentally and physically precisely at the moment next morning when I pushed off the bank into the River Trisuli. All the same, I felt inexplicably rough. Thankfully, the river was there to kick some sense into me My first Himalayan river was a blast. The sun was shining; the rapids ranged from XL to XXL but were usually straightforward. That, allied to exotic scenery and beautiful women singing on the banks...I felt I'd had my money's worth alread. I had somehow gained the impression beforehand that the Trisuli was nothing special in terms of challenge or surroundings; not so! Why did I paddle this demanding and unfamiliar river alone? I'd love to say it was something to do with the heightened mental challenge or whatever but, basically, no one likes me enough to go to Nepal with me. Thankfully, I had arranged to meet another Brit paddler (with a throwline) in a few days. Two days of blundering down the Trisuli used up all of my luck reserves; enjoyable as a solo paddle was, a swim would have entailed unthinkable consequences.
A bus roof-rack surfing session brought me to Pokhara. Pokhara was originally 'discovered' in the sixties by spaced out hippies. Whilst it was an appealingly laid back place (with curries on tap), I didn't see the temptation in spending the next twenty years there, staring at the Himalayas with my brain shot away by narcotics. I signed up for a raft-supported trip on the Kali Gandaki river with 'Equator Expeditions' and with a day to kill, I embarked upon a frenetic day trip to the Seti River. The taxi driver who took me to the put-in wasn't old enough to ride a BMX without stabilisers in the UK, no one had explained the middle pedal to him and the atrocious 'road' made his roof-rack collapse. I spent 20 km hanging out of the window, hanging onto the Overflow. None of these things scared me, afflicted with the catatonic apathy that, presumably, only road travel in Asia can generate.
Dropped off in the village of Dule Gouda, I carried my Overflow down endless steps to where the impossibly blue Seti emerges from an improbably narrow gorge, spanned by an Indiana Jones-style suspension bridge and colourful Tibetan prayer flags. Over a hundred locals lined the bridge and banks to see me off; whilst kayaking in Nepal has certainly become commonplace, I saw no signs of the locals becoming bored with it as a spectator sport. Have you ever tried to explain a cowtail using sign language? Ignoring the microbiological implications of dunking in the village sewer, I did a roll for my audience before watching them drift out of sight.
The Seti was an incredible day trip. I set on with the Annapurnas rising five miles vertically behind me. The river squeezed through some bizarre gorges (I portaged the 14 inch wide rapid) and finished up in dense jungle, all within twenty miles. The rapids were mainly grade 2-3 but surprisingly continuous. Monkeys shrieked at me from trees and a giant bug (stick insect? praying mantis?) clung on stoically to the bow grab loop through several long wave trains. I finally performed a paddle blade rescue and left it on a rock in midstream. I hope those bits on its back were wings. After a few hours I was looking for the take-out. I knew that I needed the town of Damauli but the map I had didn't make it clear if the river passed close by or was even in the same valley. Printed on something akin to blue toilet paper, it disintegrated further each time I nervously consulted it. Another hour and I was totally convinced that I had missed the town. People that I asked on the riverbanks smiled and nodded whether I pointed upstream or downstream; they were clearly telling me whatever they thought I wanted to hear. Beautiful as the river was, 1 didn't relish paddling all night on one packet of Dextrosol tablets and then having to hitch back up to Pokhara in time for my dawn appointment with Equator. My day paddle appeared to have become something more committing. Rounding a sharp corner, the jungle suddenly vanished and the town was there in front of me. I felt like kissing the ground as I hopped ashore. Mobbed by children, I staggered up to the bus stop, overcome by relief (and exhaustion; one of these days I'll get fit), but the day wasn't over. I picked a bus with a driver who was mad even by Nepali standards. With total faith in reincarnation, he was clearly determined to vanquish all other traffic from his road...or to die trying. Clinging to the roof-rack, I had a panoramic view of umpteen terrifying near misses... so that when the actual head-on crash came it was almost an anticlimax. Sheltering behind the Overflow, I was showered with twisted metal and glass. It didn't end in tears; no one was hurt badly in either bus. All the same, give me a grade 6 any day.
Five days on the Kali Gandaki meant changing the pace down a gear or two. On my own, the lack of company or conversation led to a masochistic preoccupation with clocking up mileage and ticking off rivers at high speed. I appreciated getting into the relaxed pace of a raft supported trip. The great food and great company made the cost more than worth it, regardless of the river itself. Apart from getting kicked senseless in Big Brother rapid just ten minutes from the start, the Kali was more about enjoying paddling than surviving it. The Kali really made us lazy. Remember all of those times you've slogged back upstream in an eddy on some low freezing UK river to surf a three inch high wave or stopper? On the Kali it wasn't long-before we couldn't be bothered to paddle in any direction. Why should we waste the effort, when just drifting got us to good playspots? If we missed this one, just below there would be another one... and another...ad infinitum. The Nepali kayakers on Equator's staff were fearless boaters with a 'go for it' attitude which I found refreshing after numerous 'don't do this, don't do that' BCU courses. At the top of Seti Beni rapid I had a conversation along these lines...
'Watch out, very big stopper in the middle,' a Nepali paddler warned me.
'How do you avoid it?'
'Avoid it? Why?'
I met up with Dan H on this river. Veteran of a previous Nepal paddling trip (he appeared with a daft haircut in a Palm advert), he was back, using a stint of work in a leprosy hospital as an excuse. A few times along the Kali he mentioned the Marsyandi, a river with a reputation... Somehow or other (brainwashing? subliminal hypnotism?) by the time we reached the get out on the Kali he had persuaded me to paddle it with him.
'Merry Christmas', a trekker said to us over breakfast in Besishahar a few days later. We'd spent a day in Pokhara waiting for permits to come through. followed by a day being shaken silly in a four wheel drive truck on a 'road' which had gone (and lost) a few rounds with the monsoon earlier in the year. At Besishahar we hired porters or, rather, they seemed to choose us: it was that simple. Staggering up the valley in their wake, I couldn't believe their strength. We heard of a porter who had recently died when his load fell upon him: it turned out to weigh 150 kilos. Dan kept them supplied with cigarettes. I've never touched them myself but I'll be buying some next time I employ porters. Arriving at the hamlet of Ngadi. We checked into a clean and hygienic lodge. Dumping the boats around die back. we were rather surprised to find a kayak already there. hence we met Dusty, a US paddler who saved us from breaking the 'less than three, an epic you'll see" rule.
Everybody has his/ her paddling limits and mine can usually be found halfway down Holme Pierrepont.
'I have a bad feeling about this.' I muttered to Mr Overflow as I sat (shaking) in the warm-up eddy on Boxing .Day. I wondered seriously if he or I would still be in one piece in an hour's time. I'm a bit vague about the first few miles. All I recall (honestly) is sitting in one stopper in which I didn't want to be, gazing in a detached and punch-drunk sort of way at a succession of identical stoppers stretching down the river as far as I could see. My paddling technique regressed to the crabbed-up drifting you see in terrified novices at Symonds Yat. Dan and Dusty debated whether it was grade 4+ or grade 5-. Al! 1 knew for sure was that there was an awful lot of it without any of those reassuring flat bits you get back home. Dusty assured me that blasting down everything blind was the accepted technique for running rivers such as this. He must have been right - as the only bit that we inspected totally screwed me up and led to Dan paying the ultimate price (swimming).
Over three paddling days the Marsyandi just kept delivering the goods. Every kind of rapid imaginable kept us from boredom; drops, wave trains, slides, gorges, forests of surreally shaped rocks. etc, etc. They could almost all be inspected from the boat without it ending in tears too often. The odd flat bit after the first day allowed us to relax and even try a bit of posing. A stray wave flung Dan's pathetically titchy Kendo vertically clear of the water minus his paddles: where are rodeo judges when we need them? I marvelled at how clear the water was; whilst setting up for a roll: I actually watched a rock come up and give me a black eye. With one good eye left, I ran some of the trickiest bits backwards, totally absorbed in gawping at the Himalayas. Marsyandi = kayak heaven.
Our first day on the Marsyandi had ended with a climb out of the valley back to Besishahar. As I collapsed under my Overload at the end of this slog, the porter who had the previous day carried Dan's boat for miles strolled past with an improbable load on his back. I envied his fitness. The bloke was about half my size and at least twice my age! Our hotel supplied superlative dahl baht curry but this had to be offset against the up and coming Nepali pop stars who practised sex, drugs and loud rock
'n' roll in the adjacent room all night. Besishahar is at the start of the Annapurna Circuit Trek and sees plenty of westerners and their pennies, hence the many hotels and porters vying for our business.
It was interesting to draw comparisons between Besishahar and the village at which we stayed the following night. What a difference it made being on the opposite bank from the road. This village was what I suppose guidebooks would call the 'real' Nepal, quiet, unspoilt and not used to tourists. The three of us had no doubt that we preferred this so-called real Nepal to more 'developed' towns like Besishahar. Unfortunately for the villagers, living in the real Nepal simply meant being poorer, having to carry their water up from the river and having no doors or windows in the school, for example.
Visiting Nepal raised questions amongst us about what effect we paddlers were having on the places we visited. I went to Nepal to paddle awesome rivers in an exotic environment; I got what I wanted in buckets full but I wonder what the locals made of us breezing down-river in our obscenely expensive plastic toys whilst trying to argue the price of a bed down to under 50p a night. I'd be interested to hear the opinions of expedition paddlers as to what constitutes good practice in visiting the developing world's rivers. Is kayaking tourism and commercial rafting a good or bad thing?
Reaching the road at the end of our Marsyandi trip, we all flagged down buses going in different directions. Suddenly alone again, I made a short trip to a near by town where I'd left a drybag. Having collected it. I delved into my wallet for the fare back to Kathmandu. The total contents were about six rupees (about 5 pence). No problem, I thought, going to the bank to change a few travellers' cheques. Oops, it was shut for the King's birthday. I sat dejectedly in the street and felt sorry for myself. So much for the long hot shower and chicken tikka masala I had promised myself on arrival in Kathmandu. As I resigned myself to a night bivvying on the river-bank with only half a packet of Coconut Crunches for company, a complete stranger approached me.
'Excuse me, I heard that you have a problem with the bank. Here is 500 rupees and my address. When you are sorted out, send me whatever you think you owe me...'
What can I say that would do this guy justice? The Nepalis I met couldn't have been more friendly or helpful; this is just one example. I had the time of my life in Nepal, on and off the water. Go and see for yourself. I'll only give you two tips:
One. make sure that you like children.
Two. don't, whatever you do, touch the goat curry.