Reputedly one of the world’s top ten rivers, the Sun Kosi – the River of Gold – flows 272 km through the untouched countryside and small villages of the beautiful Mahabharat Lekh Mountains of the central Nepali Himalayas. The start-point lies three hours east of Kathmandu at Dolalghat and the end-point is at Chatra, near Dharan in the Eastern Terai.
The Sun Kosi’s volume increases considerably as it combines with seven big tributaries to become one of the major rivers of South Asia. The first few days offer fun class II-III rapids and allow time to learn the skills and team work needed for the much larger, far more challenging rapids to come. From the third day onwards, the whitewater builds into great, thundering class III-IV rapids. The Sun Kosi presents the chance to see a very special part of Nepal that is rarely seen by outsiders and, with it, billions of gallons worth of heart-pumping, world-class whitewater action.
We slowly gathered at 7am, ready for our intrepid adventure down the Sun Kosi. Not knowing if we’d have the opportunity to change, we’d all worn various stages of it’s-OK-if-this-gets-wet undress. I’d opted for a t-shirt and swimming shorts, with the emphasis on ‘short’; a style apparently adhered to by my European compatriots – Andrea the Swiss and Charles the Frenchman. The Canadian – Logan – and the Aussie and Kiwi couples – Brent & Tara and Steve & Holly – had, unsurprisingly, better wardrobes for adventure water sports.
After a decent amount of Nepali-time had passed from our hard deadline of 7am, we walked our kit a few minutes out of the narrow streets of Thamel to a nearby main road, where our bus was waiting, with all manner of serious-looking stuff strapped professionally to the roof. We piled on board and set off on a three hour trip to our put-in point.
I dropped in and out of the swapping-stories conversation during the journey, which Logan dominated as the most travelled of us all. His restless and youthful energy to travel and see the world has taken him to every continent except Antarctica. I had begun to understand his wanderlust, even after only a short time travelling myself, but felt that the ‘sell everything and just go’ attitude was a little beyond my reach.
Leaving Kathmandu on the road to Tibet, we quickly were up in to the foothills of the Himalayas and trundling along the now familiar precarious mountain roads. We were twice stopped and checked by Gurkhas, whose blue and black camouflage in a green and brown country serves quite the opposite purpose. Our guides told us that we were being searched for cedar-wood, which is illegal to export to China. I think ‘cedar-wood smuggler’ has to be one of the worst criminal titles – not something to show off about at parties.
We arrived at the put-in around midday, thanks to our Nepali-time departure, and watched the two rafts being inflated and set up. Then suddenly lunch appeared (cold pasta, coleslaw and tuna mayo), which we ate off steel plates with steel cutlery and drank juice out of steel mugs. We were already living rough. Three of the five boys already had full grizzly-bear beards. (To save confusion, we hadn’t just grown beards thanks to the utter manliness of eating off steel; we’d actually brought them ready-made, Blue Peter style.)
Our safety briefing consisted of one lesson – if you fall out of the raft, get back in the raft – broken into three sub-lessons: (i) if you’re next to the raft, then hold on to it and wait for someone to pull you back in; (ii) if you’re not next to the raft, then grab the oar that someone will extend to you, perhaps by hooking the oar you cleverly remembered not to let go of onto their oar, and then do step (i); (iii) if you’re really far from the raft, then catch the rope that someone will hopefully throw to you and then do step (i).
After this, we were taught how to be rescued by one of the safety kayaks, which essentially involves having sex with the kayak.
Our final lesson was the White Water Position, which is on your back, feet pointing downstream and oar held across your chest. Oh, and that if you get caught in a ‘hole’ (a big dip where the water churns back on itself like a washing machine), then roll into a ball and you’ll probably be spat out of it; otherwise you’ll just be rolled over and over and die.
And then we set off. With a very fast current and Suren, our guide, paddling from the stern, pretty much the only paddling we did for the first two days was practising following Suren’s Germanically straightforward commands about how to paddle. Which we were utterly incapable of following. “FORWARD TEAM!” was about the only one we could manage; but with the synchronisation of an experimental jazz band and the finesse of a drunken spider with a missing leg.
I’d chosen this river over the more aggressive Karnali because it begins easy and gets harder. Perhaps this was a wise decision; or perhaps the Karnali’s baptism of fire (or baptism of crashing torrents of death-water) would have smartened us all up into efficient rapid-conquering paddlers. I will only find out by returning to Nepal and running the Karnali. Which I fully intend to do. You should come too.
Aside: As I write this in the light of the setting sun, beside the Derwent river in Tasmania, the half-Moon hangs almost directly above me in a darkening blue sky. To my left, a bright pinpoint of light sits just above the horizon where the Sun just was. To my right, at almost the same height, sits another. They are the only lights in the sky. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen Mars, because one of them must be Venus.
If you have any idea how to check this, please let me know. I was at 42.781240 South, 147.054427 East at 20:30 EST on 04/11/2011.
So, the first couple of days were a bit of a non-event in terms of white water (or ‘swift-water’, opposed to ‘flat-water’). We weren’t always floating along on fast-moving calm water (Class I); sometimes the water would get a bit choppy, like a slightly windy day in a harbour, with regular waves sometimes a foot or two high (Class II) – the kind of thing hips trained by dancing, gymnastics, martial arts or riding would see you through with an upright torso as the raft pitches and rolls.
We’d do between three and five hours of rafting each day, stopping for lunch (cold pasta, coleslaw and tuna mayo) on one of the many fine white sandy beaches that gazillions of gallons of gushing mountain water, over hundreds of millions of years, have washed, rolled, bashed, eroded, ground and deposited for our blissful enjoyment.
There is something peculiar about sitting on a beach, sunning oneself after a delicious lunch, with waves lapping against the shore and then realising that you’re in a land-locked country and this is a river. That the waves are not rhythmic, but erratic, caused by an ongoing war between gravity and big rocks, where water draining from the tallest mountains in the world is beaten and bashed on its way to the Ganges.
It is particularly peculiar when the Sun’s gone down, but the Moon is not yet up, it’s only 6pm and you’re sat waiting for supper made on a gas stove that’s been carried over rapids on an inflatable raft manned by a lone rower with ten-foot oars. When you can see the Milky Way because the only other light comes from the seven single light bulbs you can see dotted around the valley; in houses to which there are no roads.
We’d pitched tents, supplied by the company, and after a delicious supper (these guys could cook!) we talked and drank some of the booze we’d brought (not included in the price). Then the Moon rose over the hill on the other side of the river and suddenly the beach lit up. We no longer needed our head-torches, as the Moon had been full only the night before and the clear sky afforded us a complete celestial illumination from the Earth-child’s reflected Sun-rays. I’m being a bit over the top for a reason: it was powerfully chest-filling; that way that a thought can be so big and natural and beyond oneself that it overwhelms and induces an almost-dizziness. The combination of the imagined scale of the solar system, the aeons and ages that humans have experienced moonlight and the vastness of the small fraction of the globe we were traversing, all mixed with the unusual experience of a naturally illuminated night, was cause for a gasp.
Every night except the first and last we made a fire out of driftwood. This quickly became a competition to see who could carry or drag the biggest tree back to camp. Which Logan won, being more like a bear than any person I’ve ever met. And not like a teddy bear either; like an actual Canadian bear. One evening we ended up with enough wood for three fires; which instead became one fire and several benches.
After three days of relatively easy going, we embarked on what was promised to be a more active day’s rafting. It wasn’t really, especially as the one rapid we had to ‘scout’ (stop to check if it’s runnable) was so horrifically violent that we instead sat back and watched as the guides pulled the rafts through with long ropes. One of the kayakers did run it, however, and as he hit the first wave, flew several feet into the air, before landing in another wave and then somehow managing to just avoid the gigantic hole that promised to swallow him up, then tiptoeing his way through the remaining raging vortices of angry foam. His absolutely expressionless face remaining absolutely expressionless. While the previous few days of sedentariness had me overly keen to run this rapid, in retrospect I’m glad we didn’t. We were really really dreadful at following Suren’s orders and we would have been lucky to come out of it with even one person in a probably upside-down raft. That was the only Class IV+/V rapid we saw during the whole trip; I’m also glad we didn’t run it because the extra on-the-spot insurance I’d bought had only extended my cover to Class IV. They don’t insure Class V.
The previous day’s lunchtime (cold pasta, coleslaw and tuna mayo) had seen a fantastic addition to the trip. Brent mentioned how great it would have been if we’d brought a Frisbee. I looked down at the steel plate in my hand and made a suggestion. The steel plate flew gracefully; and so was born Platesbee – which we played almost every day; always, somehow, managing to recover the plate when it inevitably found its way in to the river and quickly sank.
That day, we had also discovered what it’s like to have to get back in the raft. Not because we’d flipped or run a dangerous rapid, but because we’d all decided to go for a swim during a particularly calm stretch; which had a small rapid at the end of it that would have dispersed us almost irretrievably. I was about fifteen metres downstream of the raft and swimming as hard as I could until I couldn’t any more got me about a fifteenth of the way. I at once appreciated the power of the river and what, if I was so unfortunate, it would do to me given the chance. The dragon Sun Kosi was lying in wait.
The fifth day was a rest day; and we were glad of it. I think we’d all had the thought that questioned why we’d signed up to any more than four days of what had risked, at times, being monotonous. The rest of the group went for a short trek (which included a booze run in the middle of nowhere), while I opted to stay and write my journal. This also meant I had the chance to practice in the kayak while no one was looking. In trying to explain to the Nepali kayaker what experience I’d had, I’d felt I’d talked myself up a bit. Journal writing was brief, as Pradeep, the kayaker, asked about my tattoo.
I have several different answers about my tattoo, depending on the level of interest I gauge after saying ‘it means infinity’. Pradeep seemed pretty interested and I ended up giving a maths lesson with a stick in the sand. Because the symbols are global and Pradeep knew a lot more maths than most, I was able to communicate much better about countable infinity, cardinal and ordinal numbers, and transfinite numbers than I was with most things in English. Although when we got to uncountable infinities, neither my knowledge of the maths nor my miming skills were up to the task of explaining the density of the continuum. So we went kayaking.
Having not done any advanced kayaking for at least ten years, if not fifteen or more, I was not expecting to pick up the Eskimo Roll immediately, but had hoped it would come back to me. The minute I dipped into the water, however, I had no confidence in my lungs and I panicked. Eventually I couldn’t continue, as my panic would no longer subside between attempts. While Pradeep was complimentary about almost every aspect of my roll, we both agreed that my panic and shortness of breath were the Achilles Heel to any further progress. Disappointed, I vowed to improve and spent a little time later in the day holding myself under the water, training my breath and discovering my limits. Once everyone had returned from the trek, I had another go in amongst others having their first go. I was much more calm and confident, and I improved; but still couldn’t roll. In my determination to do so, I ended up hogging the kayak and Pradeep as the Sun was setting. Sorry guys.
Aside: My list of Things to Do When I Get Home now includes a flat-water kayak instructor course and a white/swift-water kayak course. This is part of the rekindling of my plan to take some friends and some kayaks to the lakes and rivers of Canada; which will involve kayaking from Birmingham to London on the canal as part of the training. For this trip I will need kayaks and, of course, interested friends. It will take some time to plan, so if you’re interested (you don’t yet have to be a friend) please register your interest here and we’ll start planning in the new year. If you have expertise (or even basic knowledge) in any of the following, please let me know, so that I may pick your brains: kayaks, Canadian rivers and lakes, Canadian wilderness, survival and sports nutrition.
As we were enjoying our kayak lessons, our supper was approaching. From the other side of the river. On four legs; and extremely upset. As the little pig was led, dragged and carried by the rope tied to its hind leg, it squealed a cry of fear that one’s bones could understand; and feel. The valley amplified and augmented the sound till it ran through your ears, heart and soul. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for Tara, the only vegetarian, whose distress was silently as loud as the pig.
Ferried across the river in the hollowed-out tree trunk the locals use for transport, our supper settled down once it was tethered and left for a while. I was invited to watch the killing and, having missed the spectacle of sacrifice during Dasain due to a confusion of days, thought it was a thing I should probably witness. Suren explained that the process would not be quick or painless, as they didn’t have the right equipment, but that the technique they would use was the best they could do. Taking a sharpened sliver of bamboo, about six inches long, our chef for this evening (a local friend of Suren) would jab precisely in to the beast’s heart – something only an expert could do without piercing a lung. With the first swift and delicate jab, the bamboo snapped and missed the heart; the subsequent twenty-or-so violent and blind thrusts and attempt to recover a dreadfully botched job. The pig died very slowly and in great pain.
While the pig was gutted and prepared for the barbeque, the boys and I busied ourselves with the more important task of using our head-torches and the long exposure on my camera to draw willies with light; and write words.
The meat was delicious, prepared in a moreish marinade and barbecued to perfection. The skin was a little stubbly, but that only added to the experience of munching on a recently slaughtered pig, on a beach, next to the River of Gold, in the Nepali wilderness. Blissful.
Which is a word I can use to describe the whole trip. Every aspect, from gracefully floating along to crashing through erratic eight-foot waves; from lying under the stars in front of a blazing camp-fire to fending off a pack of wild dogs; from playing Platesbee in the sand to eating recently slaughtered BBQ Pork; all of it was truly and completely blissful. Perhaps it was the lack of concern or even thought for the outside world – we speculated that we were unlikely to even be aware of nuclear war; perhaps it was the great company and instant group cohesion – Pradeep told us that we were the best group they’d ever had, as we were straight away like old friends and made their job much easier and more enjoyable; perhaps it was the natural beauty and balance between the serenity of the hills and the ancient power of the river – almost unaltered by human influence. I think it was all of them and more, but you’ll have to try it yourself to find out.
Oh, OK. I won’t just pass by, nonchalantly dropping the phrase “crashing through erratic eight-foot waves” without exposition. I will tell you about Class III-IV rapids – if you didn’t see it earlier, here are the Definitions of Rapid Classes. By my reckoning, the main difference between Class III and IV rapids is fear. Class III rapids are four- to eight-foot waves that, paddling hard, you crash through or over, depending on your timing. They are fun, exciting and something like a roller coaster that, if you don’t hold on with your toes, you might fall out of. Class IV rapids are somewhat similar, except that your paddling seems to have no effect at all and you begin to remember how the dragon Sun Kosi lies in wait. Still fun and exciting, but fun and exciting because you’re probably going to get a lungful of ‘buffalo soup’ – what we called the river water due to the propensity of water buffalo to conveniently die and rot at the water’s edge – and not have a raft to sit on any more.
To illustrate this further, on our last day we were so blasé about Class III that we continued our game of I Spy DURING our combat with a sequence of large waves, which we deftly surmounted to the cries of