Friday, April 30, 2010

Jungle Chill

Exploring the mellow side of kayaking in Nepal

The Plan
Back to one of my favourite places – Nepal. It was another Rainsley tour – this time with a large group of 15. The intention – to split into two teams. Team Thuli were the hardcore group intending to spend 5 days on the continuous 4+/5 Thuli Bheri. The Jungle Chill team principally comprised the SWAGS – Seniors, Wives & Girlfriends of Team Thuli. The Jungle Chill team was looking for something different - balking at the challenge of the Thuli and, owing to frailty, injury and/or inclination had elected for a more sedate 5 days on the Bheri. Both groups would then meet up at Surkhet to spend 5 days on the Kanarli river and a few days winding down in Bardia National Park.

Getting There
Driving direct from Delhi was, perhaps, a mistake. Delhi to Surkhet took close to 24 hours. The border crossing took 5 hours to clear  – with dollars and rupees exchanged to smooth the way and a considerable amount of form filling. Immigration (at just one of the half-dozen checks) involved a remarkably slow officer hand scribing all the details we had provided on Form FI1X3xd into a huge leather bound ledger. It took him 10 minutes per entry and with 15 of us we had to rely on samosas to keep us going. It was amusing to see the uniformed immigration staff receiving backhanded rupees from all rickshaws, carts and bikes carrying loads across the border. There seemed to be a recognised backhand tarrif that everyone knew. Approaching cyclists would watch the officers carefully and try to time their progress to best miss being collared for the charge.

We had all been travelling non-stop for 48 hours by the time we reached the dubious sanctuary of a hotel in Surkhet.

Downstream of the ‘hard core’ Thuli Bheri, you find, in Pete Knowles words “One of the most scenic rivers in Nepal with golden cliffs, green jungle, crystal clear green water; white beaches, excellent fishing, good bird watching; coupled with a  powerful current and sparkling rapids of moderate difficulty

We spent a relaxed 5 days enjoying the 140kms of this river, from Devistal to the confluence of the Kanarli and down to Chisapani. Pete’s description proved spot on – with a run through four beautiful gorges, punctuated by pristine beach camps, and some very mellow grade 3/3+ paddling.
 We had read of boaters in this region of Nepal finding signs of leopards and tigers at beaches, and seeing pythons, crocs etc. We only had close encounters with scorpions and huge hornets. The latter objected to sharing my cag and gave me a sharp reminder to shake out kit at every opportunity. The birdlife on the rivers was remarkable
 This was the ‘Wild West’ of Nepal – an area that sees far less tourism than the normal Nepal destinations. This was noticeable with the quality of the river beaches we found for camps each night and the reception we experienced from the local villagers and the constant and cheerful calls of “Namaste” and “Bye bye bye bye bye”

Tourism, particularly in this region, virtually ceased altogether during the Maoists ‘Peoples War’ from 1996 to 2006. While an uneasy Peace Accord and power sharing now exists, we had half expected to be collared by Maoists for a generous ‘gift to the cause’ to ease our passage. Indeed, on one occasion we were called over by a group waving the Maoists flag but carried on our journey with a wave from the sanctuary of the middle of the river!

We always chose camps away from villages and on the opposite side of the river to any habitation. This was not, so much, to avoid the locals altogether, but to give us some privacy and avoid village ‘latrines’. However, Dungas invariably enabled resourceful children to paddle across to us for a visit – to perch on rocks around our camps and watch our curious goings on. They were keen to try on our gear, sit in boats and watch our fire making and cooking skills.
 Self-sufficient multi day paddling in creek boats implies severe restrictions in the clobber that you can bring along. We slept in bivvy bags and ate freeze dried high calorie expedition food packs – amongst the group we had a huge range of these – although, with few exceptions, they  all taste the same. Chilli flakes, tobasco and supplement Coconut Crunchies help – as did the Kukri Rum
 We arrived at Chisapani on schedule to find chaos. Having carried our boats and gear up the steep stone steps, and through (literally) a pig sty to enjoy our first cold drinks (we had been living off filtered river water for 5 days) we learnt that the Maoists had called a two-day ‘Road Strike’. We had intended to bus to Nepalganj, pick up our ‘resupply’ gear and join Team Thuli at Surkhet. The police, however, warned us that Nepalganj was blocked off, “too dangerous, fighting in the streets until 5pm tomorrow” (how they could timetable the cessation of violence was beyond me). Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up piling our boats into a couple of ‘Press Jeeps’ and headed for a lodge in Bardia National park. As luck would have it, we ended up at “Forest Hideaway” – the very lodge that we had booked to visit a week later – and Mohan (the owner) proved a great ‘fixer’. After a morning trekking through the park looking for tigers, a bus was waiting for us, and we arrived at Surkhet, a day late, but within an hour of Team Thuli (who had their own story to tell)
The Kanarli is one of finest big volume rafting and kayaking trips in Nepal – and normally a 7 to 9 day excursion. We had allowed 5 days – which seemed optimistic, considering the fact that on the first day we didn’t put on until 5:30 pm and we had some 200kms to paddle.
 There were 14 of us now – the two teams joined - less one that we had lost in Bardia (not to Tigers, but wrist injury). A huge group – but it’s a huge river, with huge beaches. The first two full days on the river provided us some fine Grade 4/4+ white water. The low levels experienced at this time of year seemed to give the drops added gradient, and some fun technical ‘hole-dodging’ runs.

By early afternoon on the second full day things began to quieten down. “Red Canyon” didn’t provide much action and we soon hit the flats. Occasional grade 2 headwall rapids offered some respite until we pulled over at what we affectionately called Buffalo Shit beach.

We had made remarkable progress, paddling over 100kms of grade 4/4+ water in a little over two days – but we now had 80kms of flat paddling ahead of us.

We elected to start early the following morning and make the most of the cool and the downstream winds (winds turn up stream in the afternoon). The Kanarli licks along at a fair old pace. I am one of those that need to know where I am at all times and I could tell how quickly we were eating the flats. When I reported on progress for some unknown reason certain team members started to consider going for the finish. I could see no benefit in this (as I would sooner be on a river beach than anywhere else) but cold beers were too tempting for others and we ended up paddling the 80kms in one day. And so, we had paddled the Kanarli in, effectively, 3 days and we were at Forest Hydeaway for some √čverest beers a day early.

Bardia and Forest Hideaway

We enjoyed our 2 days at Bardia – a long jungle trek was rewarded by the sighting of one of the 25 one-horned Rhinos in the park, together with wild Elephant, Blue Bull antelopes, Swamp, spotted and Hog deer, wild boar, Langur and Macaque monkeys and a huge number of birds. We visited Elephant and crocodile breeding centres and danced with a local dance troop and Bardia staff – even demonstrating a poor rendition of Auld Langsyne. We never saw those Tigers though.

It was on the long 24 hour bus trip trip back to Delhi that we heard rumours of a volcano eruption in Iceland causing havoc. Sometime overnight I received a text from Virgin telling me that my flight was cancelled and to please contact them to re-schedule or get a refund. On our eventual arrival at good old Hotel Lohias in Delhi we congregated to sort out our Virgin flights. We managed to book on 27 April (9 days after our scheduled 18 flight) – and only then by agreeing to pay for Premium Economy (an additional £110)

The Hindustan Times reported that Delhi was experiencing its hottest April in 52 years at 44 degrees. A smog haze hung over the whole city and the air was stifling and sultry. We spent our ‘Volcation’ days variously in markets, forts, temples, tombs, the United Coffee house and western Malls.

But we also spent four or five hours each morning, in queues at the airport, trying to secure stand-by seats back to the UK – being fobbed off by harassed Virgin staff and moved on by machine-gun toting security. I now choose to forget the details of the extended Volcation in Delhi!

Initially I had been keen on the Thuli trip – drooling over videos and images of such fine whitewater. However, I was becoming increasingly aware that I could no longer pretend to be a hardcore paddler. Hard continuous  boating and portaging 3kms along dubious paths with fully laden creek boats was no longer a realistic proposition, allowing for advancing years and a dodgy back. Several months before the trip I had battled with the idea of ‘downgrading’

However, there is so much more to expedition paddling than the thrill of hard white water. I enjoy such trips for more than the action – for the journey, taking you to different places, different cultures, the wildlife, the camps, and the camaraderie of river mates. This 'Jungle Chill' trip ticked all the right boxes.

In terms of the all too important Paddle-to-travel ratio that I always use to weigh up adventures, it was supposed to be a 17 day trip with 10 days of paddling (well over my 50% rule) – but, with the enforced Volcation in Delhi and the rushed job we made of the Kanarli, the ratio of 24 days to 8 days was  a poor 1/3 - Just as well the paddle days proved so much fun then.

My thanks goes to Mark Rainsley for putting it all together, and to my river mates for such good craic

Many more images are given here
And mapping here