Rafting (and drinking) the Sun Kosi River-Nepal
Trip Start Sep 25, 2008
31Trip End Apr 01, 2009
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The Sun Kosi is the longest continuously raftable river in the country, we would get on it about 25 miles from Tibet in the North and finish roughly the same distance from the Indian Plains in the South-East, 170 miles and 9 days later.
We arrived at the offices of the rafting company at 6:30am and stuffed all our belongings into a dry bag that would hopefully keep everything, erm, dry. We walked down the road to meet the bus for the 3 hour journey out of Kathmandu up to Sukute Beach, a riverside resort that would be our home for the night and the start point the following morning
The journey gave us a chance to learn the names and faces that would be accompanying us down the river. There was Pete, a 22 year old from England, Ido who had recently completed his service in the Israeli army, and John, an experienced Kayaker from Australia who knew this river like the back of his hand - he was one of the first to paddle down it in the 70's!!!
Nepal's roads, especially the long distance ones, are some of the most dangerous in the world. A bus overtaking a slightly slower bus, uphill around a blind bend with a sheer drop just feet away is the very frightening norm. Towards the end of the journey, and just after John had climbed up to ride on the roof for a better view of the Himalayas, we came across the scene of an accident. A tiny Suzuki had been pummeled into the bank of the road by a bus, the locals were hurriedly trying to tear the doors off to release the trapped driver. Fortunately the bodywork of a Suzuki is made of exactly the same material as a Coke can, so this wasn't too much trouble.
John jumped down to see if he could help, the driver was injured but conscious, the driver of our bus decided we wouldn't be helping so sped off around the scene, John jumping through the door on our way past. This is just life on Nepal's roads.
We arrived at the beach resort, were given the keys for our tent (a tent with keys?) and ate lunch before heading further up the river for our first bit of rafting
There were to be 13 of us in total on the trip down the Sun Kosi, but on the first day we were joined by a group of about another 15 who were spending just 2 days on the river. We arrived at the start point and set about inflating the rafts, by hand-pump.
It was hot, and there were 3 large rafts to inflate, one for our group and 2 more for the day-trippers- the lazy day trippers. They conveniently shaded themselves under a tree while we inflated all 3 rafts, each of which took 4 people about 15 minutes of pumping, not one of them helped!
After a quick lesson of the commands, of which there are about 4, we pushed away from the riverbank and floated off down the river.
The first day had some good rapids, nothing too exciting but we all got wet, we bumped head-on into a rock but all except Sarah managed to stay in and it warmed us up for the following morning.
After a lovely night by the riverside we packed up our things, loaded the rafts and went on our way. We were joined in our raft by Pete, Ido and the combined belongings of everyone on the trip. This made for a slightly cramped raft but just added to the feeling that we were truly self-sufficient on this trip. Our guide in the raft was Madhu.
In addition to our raft there was a smaller catamaran-type raft, this carried the food for 13 people for the entire trip and was rowed by 1 man, Taz. In addition there were 6 Kayakers, Aussie John, Irish John, Erik and Karlston from the USA and 2 further Nepalis.
The first few days were calm, long periods of Paddling/Floating interspersed with the occasional rapid, but nothing too wild. We would stop for lunch at around midday and by about 4pm we stopped to build our camp on the white sandy beaches that lined the riverside.
By some luck we had use of the only tent - the others insisted Sarah should sleep there as she was the only girl - and they all made do with shelters formed from the Raft, and Paddles and a tarpaulin. Each evening we set up a kitchen, our sleeping areas, gathered wood for a fire and dug a toilet!
This time of year the sun sets by half 5, and it's fully dark within an hour of this. After a day on the river and with no light other than that of a torch and the flicker of the camp fire most people were in bed by 8pm
And so we continued like this until the Thursday, our 5th day on the river. This morning we would be tackling Harkapur, the most challenging rapid on the river. Aussie John had some friends who had Kayaked the river a week or so previously and said this was the only bit that needed serious attention. He also spoke to a local on the beach that morning; 'many stupid people disappear in Harkapur!'- great.
Actually Harkapur is made up of three rapids in quick succession. If you come out in the first then there's a good chance you'll be swimming through the next two, this is not a good thing.
Monsoon had finished 3 weeks previously and with the massive volume of water created by this the rapids change from year to year, despite the fact that some of the guys had been down this river 20+ times before we had to get out to look at the first rapid. We were joined by a gaggle of local children as we clambered over the rocks to see the rapid, and spent a good 30 minutes while the kayakers and Madhu our guide decided on the best line through the rapid
It was a 4+ on the international scale. 5 is nearly impassable and 6 is a waterfall, so it was tough. There was a massive hole, a river feature created by 2 massive rocks one in front of the other, the water rushes over one and smacks into the other, creating an area that can literally suck you in and hold you in place. We needed to avoid this.
Irish John wisely got out of his Kayak and walked, this was for expert Kayakers only. We didn't have a choice, we were the engine of the raft and we couldn't carry it around. As per protocol, the Kayaks set off first, their job was to fish us out if we flipped over, with John out of the water there were 5 of them and 6 of us in our boat, it's not ideal outnumbering the safety Kayaks but we weren't going to flip, were we?
We followed down picking our line carefully and avoiding the worst of it, it was exhilarating and we made it across to the river bank to asses the next rapid. But we didn't stop, some of the Kayaks headed on down and we just followed, this was the first mistake.
In not assessing the rapid we had missed seeing another huge hole that hadn't been there before the monsoon, the rocks had moved. Aussie John followed the raft down the rapid, flipped, couldn't turn and had to get himself out of his boat. Madhu threw him the safety cord and he was pulled to the riverbank unhurt but slightly shaken, his boat had floated down through the 3rd, much longer rapid so he'd have to ride with us.
Irish John was already in the raft, as was his Kayak, so we now had 8 people, 1 Kayak and all our belongings in our little inflatable boat. This wasn't a mistake as such, but after spending half an hour scouting the first, smallest rapid, it WAS a mistake not to take the time to look at the third!!
The Kayaks attacked it, Erik flipped and had to get himself out of the boat, we watched as he carried on down through the rapid, a class 4, trying his best to avoid the rocks and holes and with only 3 other Kayakers to help him.
Then we went down, we paddled hard into the rapid but Madhu had picked the wrong line, he tried to steer us past a massive wave and the a huge hole that had been concealed by a drop in the river but it was no use
I still had hold of my paddle in my right hand, I looked around to see a helmet bobbing in the water just behind me which was fairly disconcerting. It was Madhu's, he wasn't attached to it which was good in one respect but bad in another, we really couldn't do much to avoid any rocks and the helmet was the only protection we really had.
I grabbed the helmet with the same hand as the paddle, and reached for the raft with my left. I couldn't see Sarah, but Pete told me she was around the front of the raft. I tried to make my way around the back of the raft but met Irish John coming the other way, he was trying to avoid the rock-face we were about to collide with.
The air gap under the raft was pulling our legs under, only my head and left arm were above water and my arm was trapped between two paddles, I had to let go.
With my arms now free, but without the protection of the boat I carried on down the river feet first, the most safe way
So that was it, I had to keep on floating, I waited for my legs to crash into a rock but thankfully that didn't happen, I swallowed a few dirty mouthfuls of the river but after perhaps a minute that felt like 10. I neared Karlston's kayak. He paddled upstream toward me, and with each stoke got slightly closer, eventually I grabbed hold of the back and we made our way to the riverbank, where I promptly vomited the water I'd just drunk.
I was shaken, it may seem like fun but it's really not what's meant to happen when you're rafting, and the people in the river outnumbered safety kayaks by nearly 3 to 1 at one point which is not a good situation had more people been detached from the upside-down raft. But we were OK, and we had a fairly quiet afternoon ahead of us.
That night we set up camp as usual, and as usual 30 or so locals appeared on the beach to watch us. This happened whenever we stopped, however remote the spot looked, within 1 minute there would be children, and adults and quite often cows or goats
But tonight there was also a farmer, he offered to sell us the pork of one of his pigs for 2000 rupees, about 15 pounds. We'd finished our supply of meat the day before, this would give us 2 more evenings before a vegetarian diet was forced on us, we jumped at the chance.
So off he went, and we built the fire. He returned an hour or so later with a bundle on his back. It was the pig, minus the head, feet and insides but otherwise in-tact. Fortunately Taz knew how to butcher it, he cut chops, and ribs, and saved lots of the flesh for Curry the following evening.
And he barbecued it, there on the beach with the fire we'd laid. They'd coated it in delicious spices, served it with pappadums, and rice, and it was probably the best barbecue I've ever had, in the most magical place. We forgot all about the drama of our little swim!
Saturday was my birthday. I woke up and opened the card from my family that I'd been carrying since London and wondered if I'd ever be anywhere more remote on the 25th of October again?
My present was the best morning's rafting on the whole trip
My second present of the day was a shower, a shower beneath a glorious 20 metre waterfall that took the skin off your back and felt like stones falling on your head. But we all felt the cleanest we'd been in a week.
My third present was the afternoon off. We were all tired, we'd been doing 5+ hours a day on the river for a week now and we needed the rest, we found a beautiful spot on a bend in the river and set up camp. Not only was it the most remote birthday I'd ever had, it was also the most sober. I had the last of the rum around the campfire and was in bed not long after 8, but it was perfect!
Sunday was our last full day, we got ourselves down to within an hour of the finish line at the confluence of our river with the Tamur. We had heard there was a village just up the hill and most of us walked up there. We found a small shop and stocked up on beer and snacks, and played cards while the villagers watched, presumably trying to figure out quite what the rules of the game were
The game was Dirty Clubs, by all accounts a river favourite. It was loosely based on Whist, with the loser carrying out a pre-determined forfeit. This was usually washing dishes or sorting out the toilet tent. I'm happy to say I never lost, not once!
We sang the night away around the camp fire, each person singing a song from their country which gave us an eclectic taste of Irish, English, Australian, USA and of course Nepali folk music.
In rating terms the last day was short, just one hours float down the river and the hills suddenly dropped away leaving us in the Nepali Terai, the plains, just a short distance from India. In all other terms the day was going to be a very long one.
The Sapt Kosi (which runs off the Sun Kosi) flooded in August this year, displacing thousands of Indians further down the river. It also destroyed the road bridge that the rafting company would normally have used to get us back to Kathmandu. So we got out in a new spot, which was a small market on the very dirty riverbank with a few buses nearby
There was a lot of confusion about exactly where our bus was (Madhu thought it would be meeting us there but hadn't been able to contact the rafting company to check for sure) so eventually he chartered us a bus, and we loaded all our stuff onto it. But we had to wait an hour or so for some local passengers. During this time our own bus turned up at the river, so we all got off, transferred all the kit, and sat in that bus instead.
Nothing happens quickly in Nepal, and finally 4 hours after we came off the river we set off. We set off across fields, and up dusty hills, and across streams. It became clear that this was not really a road at all, it had just gradually become one since the flood.
In villages we were stopped to pay 'tolls', but eventually, after the most uncomfortable 2 and a half hours I've ever spent on a bus, we joined the main highway.
The main highway wasn't much better. It's the main route across Nepal, a bit like the M1, except it is more what you would expect a back road between 2 villages to be like in England
But after about 12 hours on the road and a couple of stops for food we arrived at our destination, sort of!
We had arranged with the rafting company to get dropped off at Sauraha, a town just outside Chitwan National Park about 2/3rds of the way back to Kathmandu. We'd rung ahead and booked a place to stay, and warned him we might be arriving a bit late. When the bus stopped it was bang on midnight. But we weren't in Sauraha, we were in a deserted town on the main road, the bus driver helpfully told us that Sauraha was 'about 6km down that road'. To their credit, they didn't drive off and leave us, but they wouldn't drive us to the village like they had promised because the driver needed to find a layby and have a sleep for an hour or so as it was a long way back to Kathmandu and he was scheduled to be driving another group of rafters on a 24hr journey across to the west of Nepal later the same day! So we phoned the man at the hotel, and he said he'd come with a car
As we waited in the dark by the horrible dusty road all we could hear was a faint semi tuneful noise.... 'We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we WISH you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year'. This was strange, Nepal doesn't celebrate Christmas, and even if it did this was 2 months early! We eventually realised it was coming from some flashing (Christmas) lights decorating the shut up shops by the side of the road. The explanation - it was Tihar, the Nepalese festival of light where all the buildings are decorated with lights, much like Christmas. Presumably the only lights they had managed to lay their hands on were these melodic fairy lights destined for somewhere else in the world.
Eventually a car came rumbling up the dirt track that the bus driver had pointed down, we said our farewells to everyone on the bus, got ourselves in the taxi and after a 15 minute drive (which would have taken well over an hour to walk) we settled in our nice, comfy beds-a vast improvement on sand!!!