Canoeing Ireland’s Vicki Guy gives first hand account of her wild, memorable adventures in Nepal
Nepal, Sure Why Not?
By Vicki Guy
Two years ago Susan Doyle went to Nepal to explore what it had to offer. When home, she recounted the stories of her adventures on and off the water. Then and there, I decided that I had to go and see this country for myself. Skip forward to May 2018. My college course – BA in Outdoor Learning at IT Tralee, Co. Kerry – had finished and my last assignment was handed in. Although I enjoyed the course and adored my college compatriots, I truly needed some outside time and a break. Now to start planning…Pick a date, pick a crew, and pick an airline.
A WhatsApp group was set up by Ronan O’Connor and from there we found our crew for Nepal. The group consisted of myself, Susan Doyle, Paul Norris, Emer Murphy, Ronan O’Connor and Sheelagh Hennessy. We were a diverse group with diverse needs: two men, four women; two business owners (Gopaddle.ie and Ardmore adventures), two staff from Shielbaggan Outdoor education centre and two staff from Canoeing Ireland; two level 4 canoeing instructors, three level 3 instructors and one level 3 instructor trainee.
To give you a bit of background to Nepal, Nepal is a landlocked nation located between India, Tibet and Bangladesh. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 26 million. Nepal is an ethnically diverse country drawing its influences from Hindu, Buddhism and Taoism which all cohabits well within society. You would find many a Tree temple for a Hindi god beside a Buddha statue. For a nation that started off in with a strong Monarchist structure which was nearly overturned by Communism in the 1990s, it now has headed down a more democratic route including a new constitution in 2015 which was the same year they voted in their 1st female president.
Nepal’s three major Himalayan Rivers are the Kosi, the Narayani, and the Karnali. The perennial nature of Nepali rivers and the steep gradient of the rivers provide supposed ‘ideal conditions’ for hydroelectric dams. After a brief search I discovered there are 9 major hydropower plants under construction and 27 additional sites considered for potential development. The damming of the rivers in Nepal was one of the motivational factors for our group of paddlers from Ireland to go in November 2018. One of the world’s greatest multi day trips by river is on the Karnali which can take between 3 days to 7 days depending on the standard of paddler and the equipment you bring. For a better description of the Karnali Multiday trip go to: https://www.kimkim.com/c/top-5-rafting-trips-in-nepal.
We arrived having an idea of the rivers we wanted to explore but no concrete plan. In our discussions, we decided we would try to paddle the Balephi River, the Trisuli, the Upper Seti, the Karnali and, if there was time, a competition on the Marshyangdi River run by the Nepal Association of Rafting Agencies and the Himalayan River guide Association.
Now to figure out how to get around to all the rivers we had chosen. It should be noted that while trying to get around Nepal each of us had a minimum of two bags, a paddle and a kayak. This multiplies the difficulty factor of navigating local transport by a factor of ten: ten minutes onto everything you want to do, ten ways to tie up a boat, ten more grey hairs, ten people arguing, ten people trying to help you and ten things you have misplaced as soon as you sit down on the bus. And yet I couldn’t wait.
We arrived in Kathmandu during the Festival of Brothers and Sisters. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the hustle, bustle and noise of Kathmandu without the added elements of this Hindu Festival. It was a stark contrast to the rest of our trip. The city is constantly noisy and there is so much going on. Silence isn’t something that exists between the cars honking, the dogs barking, the people shouting and chatting and the fact that everyone is up early and goes to bed late.
Our first river was the Balephi which is a technical 4- river. It felt very much like paddling on a higher volume Slovenian river. The river offered plenty of S moves, flares and boofs – a paddler’s delight! We stayed in a local Tea house where the people were incredibly welcoming and fascinated by our antics. They delivered a delicious Dal Bhat and some beers which we devoured after our epic day on the river. Tea houses are ran by local families and can range from 150 rupees to 400 rupees a night per person which is about €1.50 to €3.00 euro a night.
The second river we went to was the Trisuli River, which is a 3+ river with high volume wave trains. We booked a bus with GRG Adventures to drop us at Chauraudi and take our travel bags to the GRG campsite located at Kuring Ghat. Handily, the camp site was marked by a Kayak nailed to a tree on the right hand bank. This river was fun, bouncy and challenging. It was very different to the Balephi but worth the paddle. After camping at the GRG campsite for the night we paddled mostly class 2 water down to Muglin, Darechok. It was lovely weather and the GRG staff couldn’t have been more helpful getting our luggage to the Muglin bus station allowing us to get the local bus to Pokhara, the hub of outdoor activities in Nepal.
When we got to Pokhara, Paddle Nepal allowed us to hitch a lift to Upper Seti. This river was the only river in Nepal that I paddled that I could most compare to an Irish River. It was mostly boulder garden, rapids with multiple moves down it and had a short class 4 gorge challenging gorge. It was overall a class 3 and running at a medium low level.
That night in Pokhara, Susan noticed that Paddle Nepal was doing a trip to the Karnali River starting the following day. This river can take between 3 and 7 days to complete. We liked the idea of having a raft to allow us to be lighter in our boats when paddling which would allow us more freedom with moves on the river. Also, at this point we had two members of the crew who had been side-lined by stomach issues and wanted a way to be able to continue paddling the river even if member of the team got sick. We approached a few of the paddle companies in Pokhara and the one that best suited our plan was Rapid Runner Expeditions. Amanda in the office, sorted everything out for us. We had organised a cataraft, two rafting operators and transport to and from the Karnali.
To get to the start of the Karnali River we had to suffer through the most scary bus ride I’ve ever been on. The road meanders alongside 1000 feet drops and stunning scenery. The roads there were just about two cars wide, made of dust or sand and were full of pot holes. Now imagine we were bus sized, meeting other buses and Lorries along the way who were trying to get passed us. This is a regular day on the road in Nepal but for us Irish, this was more hazardous than the river we were about to get on. Once at the river, it took some time to collect our thoughts, fight down the queasy feeling in our stomachs, wipe the dust from our clothes and move the cataraft and all our gear down to the river edge. The town we started from was buzzing as it was a Saturday and the kids were off school. Loads of people came down to watch us launch onto the river and paddle off into the sunset. Grandparents, parents, teens, kids, you name it, came down to watch. It was fantastic to see and a real experience. Language wasn’t an issue as they wanted to take pictures, hold our paddles, try their English and see what we were doing.
The Karnali took us 3.5 days to paddle with the cataraft. As Paul said, it could be done quicker but I am not sure I would want to. I really enjoyed the journey. It was really special to experience the river, the campsites and the evenings with the group I was with. Three Nepali rafters – Bibek, Sanu and Sanjay joined the original six of us which made the experience even more special and personal. We saw monkeys, built huge fires and tiny fires, cooked Dal Bhat (an amazing rice dish native to Nepal) on open fire and made prawn crackers on a beach in the middle of nowhere. The days were broken down into one full day of class 4 rapids, one day of class 3 /4 rapids and one and a half days of class 1 /2. Now some people would balk at the idea of nearly two days of low grade rapids but the water was full of fun moves, amazing play waves and bouncy wave trains. The scenery was some of the most amazing I have ever seen. You couldn’t get bored. High walls of sandstone mixed with banks of conglomerate rock towering over you. All the while the river was hustling and bustling below us in a hypnotic flow of fast moving water. I had to keep reminding myself to look up at where I was paddling. We all chatted, joked and enjoyed the end of our amazing journey together.
Once off the Karnali and back in Pokhara, we slept like kings in a fancy €7 a night hotel and planned how to get to the competition on the Marshyangdi. We were delighted to be able to go to the 17th Himalayan white water challenge being held on a rapid on the Marshyangdi River which joined one of the rivers we had paddled – the Trisuli River in Muglin Town (where we picked up the local bus to Pohkara).
The competition was over three days. Day one was the sprint race which was over 1.5km through a grade 4 rapid. Day two was the slalom event which was based at the rapid. Day three was the boaterX.
We entered on a whim and were delighted with the event and the location. There were 19 Nepali paddlers, 6 Irish paddlers 9 English paddlers, 2 Canadian paddlers 1 South African paddler, 1 German paddler, 1 Australian paddler and safety boaters and rafters floating around ready to help within a seconds notice. There were 6 female entrants and 35 male athletes entered into the race.
The 6 females were from Ireland, Australia and Germany and the age ranges were between 20 – 38 years of age. The 35 males were from Nepal, England, Ireland, Canada and South Africa and the age ranges were between 18 – 45 years of age. Ireland gave a brilliant show with Susan Doyle coming 2nd Overall and Sheelagh Hennessy coming 3rd Overall in the race. It was a fantastic result for a race we simply wanted to participate in.
I wish to mention one of the women racing – Cassy Emary. She was this hard-core Australian rafter who had taken up paddling kayaks only a year and a half ago. Although she was only 23, her motivation and energy for paddling was palpable. She was feisty, eager to learn and wanted to experience everything. She was well known and liked by everyone at the competition. When we got home to Ireland we heard the tragic news that Cass Emery had tragically lost her life on the Upper Seti, doing what she loved. I wanted to honour Cass and her memory with a paragraph in this article and to show how special Nepal was to all the foreigners who attended the race. All of the participants bonded over that weekend through paddling, chatting, eating and sleeping in the same space. For me, it was a slightly less personal version of the special moments we had experienced on the Karnali but no less powerful.
An excellent video dedicated to all those who lost their life paddling this year was created by Mission East to West (a group of Nepali paddlers paddling all the available rivers of Nepal before they are dammed).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGFR7AD4PiQ – Mission East to West – Lost Souls.
With that, the journey finished and we made a hurried dash back to Kathmandu, had a 13 hour layover in Doha which was spent in a swanky hotel eating probably the most expensive packet of Pringles on the planet. Then back to Dublin where my amazing sister picked me up in my car so I didn’t have to get on ANOTHER bus with my boat.
To everyone who influenced or had a hand on the trip, I thank you. It will stand out as a pivotal journey for me and one I will hold dear for many years to come.