A three day journey down the holy Kali Gandakhi river.
(Written by Nick)
I had heard that Nepal was famous for white water rafting, but it wasn’t until we walked into the rafting shop in Pokhara that we realised the scale of it. The image in our heads of a couple of hours on the river was quickly washed away as we learnt of the possibilities of much more adventurous options. This was to be one of those rare instances where an organised trip in South Asia turns out to be better than you imagined.
We booked onto a 3 day, 2 night trip on the Kali Gandakhi river. Neither of us had been rafting before. The closest we’d got was paddling our tiny 2-man dinghie down the miniscule and very calm Itchen river in Winchester, England. The only possible dangers were from swans and angry land-owners, one of whom threatened us, quite unnecessarily, with a theoretical shot gun. The man was both an ex-soldier and an ex-policeman, which may go some way towards explaining why he had issues.
Anyway, the logistics of this trip were as follows:
Six of us would paddle the raft with a guide steering at the back. A separate raft would follow ours with the staff, food, tents and our luggage in waterproof cases. The only other guests were a surprisingly young family of four from Australia, who we fortunately got on well with. The parents Rick and Julie had a love of Nepal and had given their children the Nepalese names of Sunita (15) and Malik (10).
My camera is not waterproof, and although I could have stowed it on board in a waterproof box for retrieval in the evenings, I decided not to risk it. So, unfortunately the only photos I managed to get were on my phone…and of times when we weren’t on the boat!
The fun started immediately as we set off down the wide, roaring river at a decent speed. Even before we reached the first rapids, the power of the river was palpable, and it made you realise just how dangerous a place it could be to swim, or to fall overboard. That hadn’t prevented a few foolhardy children from challenging themselves in the strong currents, though.
By the first rapids we had all been completely soaked by waves that came crashing over both the bow and the sides, and we were all laughing hysterically. Our guide took great pleasure in ordering us to paddle straight into the largest and steepest waves and that anticipation of riding down one side, into an inevitable drenching, never got boring. It often felt like the whole boat would capsize. The only thing better than getting hit by a wave was when it was only Steph’s side of the boat that was hit.
Riding in the raft and paddling around rocky outcrops and through multiple rapids (grades 3 – 4+ apparently) would have satisfied me even without the view. But the scenery – oh my days! The raging river cut its way through steep, narrow mountain valleys, covered in jungle and dotted with houses made of bamboo. We’d round a bend to see the glowing bright greens of terraced rice fields following the gentle contours of the ridge and then spot a solitary house above a sandy beach. This was one of many dream homes we fantasized about owning.
For some of the journey we were lucky enough to have a clear view of a couple of snow-clad peaks looming over us. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, and covered in sun-cream, it was both stunning and surreal, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
Throughout the trip, we passed no towns, and when there was a road, it was free of traffic and the sound of horns. Far more common than roads were foot bridges, dangling precariously over the river. There were so many of them, and whenever anyone was walking across, they would stop and wave enthusiastically.
In the afternoon the sky turned an unrealistically deep shade of orange. “Damn. I wish I could take a photo,” I thought for the hundredth time that day.
In fact, the reality wasn’t as natural and serene as it looked. A new road was being cut into the mountain and pneumatic diggers were levelling the way.
They were simply bulldozing everything in their way off the side of the road to roll down the mountain and into the river. It was this that created the browny-orange haze in the valley. Our guide, Gotam, whistled loudly to let the workers know we were approaching and they did what any considerate fellow human would do – carried on regardless! The river was far too powerful to paddle upstream, so we had to attempt to steer away from the river’s edge and hope we weren’t hit by the boulders rolling down the mountain and crashing into the water.
The road building was interesting to see. The boulders took out the trees on their way down and all other vegetation was covered in a blanket of soil. Previously a lush green jungle, now everything below the road was a brown or grey scar.
Normally the staff take kerosene to cook with, but because of the problems with Nepal’s fuel and gas supply, following the signing of the new constitution, we had to improvise. Gotam had us try to moor the raft on a bank so that we could look for firewood, but we didn’t paddle hard enough and ended up landing on a different riverbank on the other side of the confluence of the Modi river. This seemed like as good a place to seek wood, but the Nepalese guys were acting strangely. As we set about the rocky beach poking around for timber, they warned us not to take any bamboo we found. Ok, fair enough – I guess it doesn’t burn so well. Anyway, I was one of the first to find a decent lump of wood, so I was keen to find more.
“Where did you find that wood?” I was asked.
“It’s ok – it’s dry,” was my reply.
“But where did you find it?” He repeated suspiciously.
“Just over there; it’s the remains of someone else’s fire.”
It was at that point the explanation for the change in atmosphere was revealed. It was not what I expected.
“This river, the Kali Gandakhi, is a holy river, and where two rivers meet is a sacred place for us. It is our custom to bury people in these places.”
I dropped the wood and immediately stepped back. The rock pile I was approaching had two lengths of bamboo emerging from it and some rags amongst it. I was looking at a grave on the river bank. The bamboo poles were the edges of a stretcher used to transport the body, and the “rags” were the materials that person was buried in. I lifted my head and looked around. With fresh eyes I now noticed there were 8 graves on our one small beach.
Then I noticed the smell. Certainly enough to ward you off if you’re downwind. If you’re curious like I was, it was fishy and putrid, exactly like a rotten animal or fish.
Before we got back in the raft I went for a wee and had to avoid, first a pelvis, and then a shin bone.