Let’s talk about scale. The guidebook to whitewater in Nepal states that the country is “about the size of Idaho.” Idaho, of course, is also chock-full of terrific rivers and mountains. It isn’t huge, by any means, but it isn’t easy to get around the state. Driving around and through the central mountains of Idaho takes about twelve hours and across the southern plains takes about four. As an Idahoan, I know it isn’t easy to get around, but it isn’t impossible; it should be the same in Nepal, right?
This, it turns out, is very wrong. The geographic area of Idaho becomes rather more impenetrable when you add in mountain ranges spiking up to 6000 meters, rather than 2000, rivers of 350,000 cfs at high water rather than 50,000, and 34 million MORE people. Nepal is, in short, slow going.
Kirra and I met with the rest of our group in Kuringhat (a mere three hours by bus from Kathmandu), where Adrenaline Rush Nepal is based. The owner, Nabin Gurung, guides rivers with Kirra and my sister Kathryn in Montana. After a night sleeping in swaying hammocks under prayer flags (quintessential, eh?) we rigged, packed a bus, and began the twenty-four hour bus ride to Dungeswar, the lower Karnali put-in.
In retrospect, it was pretty nice. Sure, everything rattled, some windows were just cardboard, horns blared, everyone drove far too fast, cars passed on blind corners on roads it would be optimistic to call one-lane, and our tires seemed to hit more holes than dirt or pavement, but we stopped for dal bhat, tea, and nothing else. You get used to it.
A group of curious children watched us rig; we shoved our boats off off, zombified after the bus ride, and paddled a quick mile downriver on autopilot. Only the next morning could we begin to internalize where we were: In the jungle, far from any dirt roads, monkeys chattering, rivers sparkling gold and turquoise: paradise.
The Karnali is a classic, one of those rivers you’ll be drawn to for life, comparable to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado or the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The first day was class 3, easy lines, and beautiful. The next two days were punctuated by truly massive rapids, none too complicated, but consequential. The last three days were mellow floating with a layover near the village of Bola.
We had by some fortune managed to book a flight for Dad, Mom, Kirra and I into Rara Lake, where we would hike into the Mugu Karnali (the major tributary my mom’s team ran on their first decent trip 35 years ago). But as the end of the Lower Karnali trip approached, this second part of the trip became less plausible. My mom’s flight back to DC, where she works, left us with only five days to cover 120 miles; doable with a strong team, but with two pack-rafts, the certainty of at least 15 miles of portages, and the continued lack of an exit strategy from the takeout, making it back to Kathmandu in time seemed optimistic at best. When my uncle emailed to tell us that my grandmother had had a stroke, the decision was made for us: Mom needed to make her flight.
Instead of the Mugu, we drove to another tributary of the Karnali: the Bheri. It begins where the Thuli Bheri and Sani Bheri confluence, above Devsthal and Rakam, and runs west to the Karnali, which it meets just above Chisipani. We spent four nights and five days on the Bheri, satisfied with bouncy rapids and terrific scenery.
We recouped from two straight weeks of kayaking with a day at Bardia National Park, where we encountered several rhinos, elephant tracks, and the distinct smell of something killed recently by a tiger. We also encountered ‘Cheesy Balls’, a species which resembles the North American Cheese Puff, but is a different species altogether, more recently descended from the packing peanut family, and having evolved a less robust cheese coat.
Then, by golly, we had to take a bus back to Kuringhat. We were told it would take seven hours. Then twelve hours. Then ten. The bus looked good: all the windows worked, the seats leaned back, there was a television, and even a WiFi password posted at the front. (Most buses in Nepal advertise wifi, but they also advertise such things as: “LCD,” “FIFA,” AIR CONDITIONING,” and “SPEED CONTROL.” They all say “DELUXE.” I haven’t seen a non-deluxe bus, but I don’t want to). The signs stating “Free Wifi” turned out to be true: the buses were indeed totally free of wifi. We headed out. Over the next four hours, fifteen stops, and ten miles, we gained enough passengers to fill the seats, the cab, and a few people in the aisle yelling because their seats had been double-booked. After everyone finally settled into place and the bus driver began tearing down the streets in earnest, the television (as advertised) switched on. It played, at extreme volume, an endless series of Bollywood action(?) films, starring the same bearded Indian man in each, with a host of various attractive women, two or three stock bad guys, and hordes of henchmen. Every fight scene – really, any movement at all – was a blurring mash of camera angles, slow motion, and sound effects. Bizarrely, every fifteen minutes or so there would be a song-and-dance interlude, featuring a main character backed by a veritable army of elaborately-choreographed dancers.
After twenty hours – six or so of which travelling at great speed, in the foggy dark, with no lights, and the rest ineffectually passing cars in road construction at 5 mph – we made it back to Kuringhat.
For now, Kirra and I are lazing in hammocks, girding ourselves for the next bus ride to Pokhara, where we will meet our friend Spencer for another week of kayaking on the frothy rivers of Nepal, flying past jungle and golden sandstone cliffs, and splashing around with the numerous children lining the banks of the rivers.