Tales of the tiller men

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
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Trip End Jun 01, 2010


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Flag of Nepal  ,
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Crossing most of South America by river is easy.

Get yourself to the mouth of the Amazon River, brush up on the obrigados, board a few open-air ferries, hoist the old hammock, keep up a steady chachaca sip rate and meditate on the passing 30m-high jungle wall, a green symphony, to the tub-thud of the big diesels down below. From Belem to the middle of Peru, the Amazon journey envelopes you in a unique insouciance.

Crossing Nepal by river is different in every conceivable way.

The white-water rafting ride begins 30km south of the Tibetan border, way up in the Himalayan range. Launching a seven-man inflatable any higher up the mountain is considered somewhere between non-recreational and suicidal, even before any Sino-frontier squabble. There is no horsepower here, only manpower – brawn and brain versus rock and rush.

The Amazon ride, upstream, can take weeks or months, depending only on your degree of languidity.

A ride down the Sun Kosi (River of Gold) takes nine days in June, seven in October. The current runs between 10 and 30km/h, depending on a seasonal conflux of rain, snow melt and funnel-effect.

You can ride it sportingly for nearly 300km before it spreads out from its high-pressure mountain-valley constrictions, loses its sense of urgency, and drifts into the top of India where a more flacid flow is then absorbed by meandering Mother Ganges herself.

The river is a narrow, twisting course with more S-bends than likely found in a latrine factory or large pot of well-boiled vermicelli. She's like a Monaco Grand Prix, a technical track without much space to pass, completely contrary to the largesse and bluster of the monster rapids that loiter downstream of the Victoria Falls – where one lines up the raft, and careens into a gaping 3m hole with eight torsos "all forward" over the prow to power-punch a hole through a standing wave that normally stops kayakers dead in their tracks.

Nepal's rafting rivers offer rapids up to class V+, generally regarded as the highest safely navigable challenges, and beyond. The rivers are racy water chutes. Mountain sides double up as river banks 10 to 50m apart. Solid, vertical rock. Boulders, drop-offs and holes make up the riverbeds, generating furious walls of white, churning foam and wave.

For hours on end, the helmsman (guide) belows instructions at his crew, a generally motley mélange of paying customers. "All forward; left forward right back; all back", weaving around obstacles, finding the appropriate lines of the current, selecting take-off points at least 100m before the impending downstream danger. This is an anticipatory activity. Make a survival plan before the danger arrives, when in most cases it is too late to take evasive action.

Surfers speak of the rail, the holy grail, a line of force in a wave along which a surfboard's fin finds most fluid purchase. Fast-running river currents have similar lines that must be ridden. Find them early and go with the flow; with careful nudging the river will guide you. It is not easy breaking 'into’ them when everything is going full-throttle, not least a snub-nosed, flat-bottomed inflatable tub.

Turn a fire-hose up to full power. If you were in that stream, you’d be seriously travelling. If you’re out of it, attempt to force your hand into the pressurised water: that’s how hard it is to enter a river’s rail when you should have long been in it already.

A sea wave mostly moves forward in a regular, predictable pattern. The Sun Kosi juices up this fast downhill romp with a haphazard series of boulders and reefs and rocky promontories that rebuff, bend or confuse the flow, or transform the water into a frothing wall. Left and right and left and right around the bends. The river generates a seething camber up the outside of each corner. This is its natural line of force. Here, sense and survival seek out a lesser line. Keep away from those walls, for they take heads off and rip the guts out of the duck. The boulders and mountain sides slam inattentive paddles back into the boat, clattering hard handles into helmets, jaws, wrenching tired wrists.

"Get down, get down", is the call as the boat slides and squeaks with the meniscus over a large, rounded boulder then drops down, down, 2 to 3m down.  At the bottom a standing wave looms, 2 to 3m of very hard water, and froth. The bouncy inflatable stabs in, seeking to shoot through, as paddlers white knuckle safety ropes willing the wave not to lift the prow up and past the vertical, where it is oft wiser to abandon ship rather than be 'rubber-banded' through the air. The power of the wave can momentarily suck the midsection of the boat down into the hole. The strength of the snap back straight can turn the raft into early flight mechanism.

Somehow a bunch of strangers, hackers, reasonably able-bodied men and women, some older than others, take on the bends and curves. Get stuck in the shallows. Out the boat, shove. A slip of the foot and you'll squirt down the next 200m of tenderiser shallows on your back. With luck your life jacket will absorb all or most of the robbledy dobble, most of a right royal ribbing. A fine Japanese massage technique under more controlled circumstances.

Between the downhill sleigh-rides are stiller sections, where the stream broadens, where the weakening motion of the water has dropped thousands of stones, boulders and debris that collect at some sieve-point downstream, and in turn again generate more froth and fun.

Nine days on the river is not all about the rush. It is, overall, a meditation.

There is a timelessness in ravine after ravine only accessible by water. It is near inconceivable that man has ever set foot on those sheer cliff-sides. Rock walls of scrawny trees and hardy grass slowly carry greener and thicker, hanging jungle as the ride moves towards lower altitudes.

Occasional huts and small homesteads dot rare habitable patches, double and triple-storeyed wooden abodes. There are no straight building lines. Everything seems to be built in mild zigzag. Grandad built the ground floor off the vertical, dad overcompensated on the next floor. As if some magnetic monster within the Himalayas had played havoc with the plumblines. This is the same jiggledy architecture so entrancing of old Paris.

The occasional family sits on a wooden verandah, high up, and watches the paddlers and guide in one raft, a long-oared rower propelling the supply raft, and two 'safety' kayakers, twinkle past, into and out of sight, into and out of the timeless zone. A 30 second movie, an interlude, nought much more.

Occasionally a voice rings out. It is always "goodbye, goodbye". Perhaps “goodbye” means hello and goodbye, in this nation of good manners? Or does it simply mean ‘just keep going, don’t stop here’? The jungled walls have Apocalypse Now or Deliverance written all over them. A rain of arrows would not be a surprise.

Late each afternoon a small beach is found and camp is struck. The rafts act as tent sides, lean-tos, with a canvas awning lashed over them, anchored to large rocks. The wind whistles up the valleys. The high-pressure systems of the hot south feed the low pressures of the cooler climes up hill. Angle the shelters the right way. Now and again a maverick ball of fierce storm wind decides perversely to run downhill carrying a bucket of torrential rain. The shelters become spinnakers, and explode. Everything soaks. Sand and mud, frenzied gathering and recovering.

There are no roads. None. Communication with the outside world is nil. A broken leg will be very painful. A paddler dislocates a kneecap. She's tough. Winces, sits down, shoves it back in, binds it tight, asks for a mild painkiller, has a sleep, gets up and paddles on. She can't take her trousers off without a helping hand or handy shoulder. Then she grabs the oar, and paddles on again, curiously laughing incessantly, and driving the rest of us nuts singing I'm leaving on a jetplane ad nauseam.

In habitable areas, half a dozen children come out of the hills to watch proceedings. They’re straight out of 18th century exploration diaries. Half the children sit on a rock, or behind a tree, 100m away, shyly, watching, waiting for the bolder to venture forward slowly. Until all clamber around the boats, watching the kitchen at work, waving the paddles around, trying on the plastic safety helmets.

Clothes are threadbare. A small village or two we encounter, and enter to buy chickens, are poverty datum line. Stone age peasantry. Nepal is poor. Very poor. Very little of the modern world has infiltrated into these hills.
But there are signs of the future. Functional and ugly. A shop has the village’s single satellite dish, an antiquated telephone scrappily wired to a car battery, a dilapidated fridge and a few cold Coca Colas! Buffalo, goats, chickens live with their owners, sharing roofs and floors.

Effigies of Hindu gods proliferate. This is Shiva country, another Shiva river. A temple rears out of the jungle. The tillerman says it is time to pay thanks. Thanks to the gods for keeping us alive. Holy men in saffron robes drift around, three white lines of the trimurti (Hindu's holy trinity) across their brows. Bells toll, drums beat. Not for us. They simply toll and beat and drum. Jungle drums, temple drums, religious beats, ancient mountain rhythms. It is not surreal.

A small, white-painted, squarish, open-sided pagoda holds centre court. There is a well-trodden path around it. Inside is a flat, concrete floor, with a sand-filled hole in the middle. Lotus flowers and a stone lie on the sand. The stone is not much bigger than a rugby ball, almost black, elongated, rounded, smooth, imbedded with tiny golden flecks. Pick it up, and walk around the temple, clockwise. Carry it around and be blessed, the more circuits the greater the blessing. Bend, grasp, lift, and lock. That smallish stone is 85kg. Damned heavy for a relatively small stone. Only odd numbers of circuits are acceptable. No explanations.

The stone is heavily mixed with copper, dominant in the local rock. It was apparently found in the 1600's and presented to the local king, who was so impressed with its form and weight that he presented it to the local temple, where it has since resided, and is the terminus for a major pilgrimage from India once a year.

Three old women enter the shrine. All bend down to hoist the weight at once. They cannot. However they kneel, bow, pay respect, smile and wander off. I breathe deeply of the lotus blossoms, bend, lift, walk once around, and replace it. Luck is not something to be trifled with, or be greedy about.

The river continues, rush after calm after rush after dawn after eve and the days meld, until nobody has a clue what day it is. Always a good sign. Three rapids are portaged. They are deemed dangerous, or deadly for very experienced paddlers, earning a class VI ranking.

Our rambling mob is not super experienced, but do know how to handle the craft by now. One of the rapids has a 4m drop along a 20m rush, then over a 15m wide boulder wall that pulls the full strength of the river into its own hole, before spitting out into 40m of churning, side-walling, high-pressure, gurgling froth. Froth and foam are bad. There is no purchase, nothing floats, and breathing is more akin to water-boarding than oxygenation.

The kayakers give it a rip. The first holds a solid water, true left, conservative line and zaps through at about 40km/h. The second reckons on the full rock 'n roll show and takes the suicide ride. Down, over the rock, into the holy foam. Twenty seconds, and observers cast anxious looks and reach for safety throw-lines. A pointed blue piece of kayak appears, but it is rolling, arse over kettle, prow, hull, stern, human head, prow, hull, stern, human head. Then all is gone, until 40m further the kayaker surfaces again, arms wrapped around his canoe. He raises a fist, laughing, and disappears around a corner.

Twenty minutes he appears, walking across river bank rocks. "I lost the kayak and paddle in the next rapid around the corner." These guys ride this river half a dozen times a year. Not a place for novices.

We muse on a caterwauling, flexible raft in that hole. Paddles and humans flying and flailing. Welcome to the Sun Kosi.

Beyond the river and her pleasures, the beaches, jungles and langur monkeys, it is the clouds that fascinate, entrance. It is amazing to see clouds at eye level each day, below eye level, or up the rocky spines or playing with the peaks.

Thin white clouds, white grey, grey, whisps that elongate and thread and thicken to thin currents high up, that dance to rising and falling temperature changes, as the heat and cool of air and stone and water play out a symbiotic flux. Some clouds are near psychedaelic, splices of cottonwool buds drifting with varying degrees of opacity, suffused with dandelion fluff, feathery trawls, mist mixing with thin fields of snow that is not snow.

I’m told little men with long, thin flutes blow cloud-songs every morning, gossamer warps that weave a white, light, grey, dark tapestry of moisture and shade between the green inclines. The sun filters through colour and texture that has no texture.

Long, thin cable walking bridges, some bowed, some arched under tension, stitch the country together. This wild, wild, untameable country that is lined with hundreds of kilometres of goat paths, mule tracks, yak trails, hidden ruts and routes, a country of mountain sides and valleys all sewn together.

A 16-hour hell bus ride along a pebble, rock-strewn semblance of a road returns the crew to Kathmandu. A cage of chickens sits on my shoulder for most of the way after the rafting company reckons the price of petrol had risen too much, and decides not to send our own vehicle. Nepal had apparently not paid its gas bill to India for a number of months as the price had increased 5 fold over the past year.

Kathmandu is a crossroads of the millennia. A confluence of a billion Hindus to the south and a billion Buddhists to the north. Rarely for religious neighbours, there is a serene mingle, a quietude of tolerance born through the ages.

The city is a living monument, of ancient statues, shrines and temples, where holy relics and buildings are used as chairs, tables, wash line pickets, worshipped, lived in and under.

 It's raining, monsoon, the fifth season, has arrived. For a thousand and one reasons, Nepal has "I'll be back" written all over it. But if I ever want to return, I have got to leave first.
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