Roller-coaster River

This is my write-up of the trip down the Thuli Bheri river I did at Easter which appeared in the most recent edition of  the Trasher. I didn’t get many on water shots (I was a bit preoccupied) but all the photos from this trip can be found here.

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Roller-coaster River

The Thuli Bheri river lies in the west of Nepal draining the remote Doplo region. It lasts 120 km and to reach it requires days of trekking or an aircraft to fly you in. I’d signed on to paddle this river without really knowing a huge amount about it. I’d skimmed through Slimes’ guidebook description and listened to second hand stories of the river. I knew it was going to be one of the most challenging paddles I’ve ever attempted but was sure that it was within my abilities.

What I wasn’t expecting was such a roller coaster ride of emotions taking me from the lowest lows to the highest of highs.

Turbulence.

We’d only been paddling for an hour or so yet it wouldn’t be long until the afternoon drew to a close and we would have to pitch camp for the evening. It had been a long day just getting to the river and already the rapids had exceeded our expectations.

A long grade four, maybe five, rapid had surprised us slightly and certainly woken us up. Drop after drop, powering through stoppers and dodging the rocks I desperately tried to spot an eddy to rest in. Time and again water splashed my eyes and as I tried to clear them I hit another cushion wave and spun off in a direction different to the one I wanted.

Not for the first time I really wished I was in my kayak rather than swimming.

Rewind.

This was the third year that I had been involved in an Easter vacation trip. Last year California and before that India. This year it was Nepal and there was an even larger group of us going, fifteen in all; a sociable trip for sure.

The plan was for seven of us to spend the first week paddling the Thuli Bheri whilst the rest of the group tackled the tamer Bheri. Then for the second week we would rejoin and paddle the Karnali together before spending a few days relaxing in Bardia National Park.

Aware that both these rivers would be longer multi-day trips than I had ever done before, I used this as an excuse to go and buy the biggest expedition boat I could find; all the better to carry all that food and camping gear in.

In the months and weeks leading up to our departure planning what kit to take became a major pass time as did trying to put in a bit more effort in to improving my fitness levels; a lot of cycling, plenty of walking and a bit less beer, in retrospect I should probably of done more.

With a rain free post Christmas spell restricting the opportunities to practice paddling on white water I realised that I was looking forward to my white water vacation more and more.

Things on the ground seemed a little close during the flight into the river

Entry.

We flew in to Delhi thinking that travelling overland to Nepal from here would make things simpler than going to Kathmandu by avoiding having to change planes. In retrospect this was probably a mistake. The 32 hour bus journey to Surkhet was agonising and not helped by the 5 hours it took us to cross the the India/Nepal border, local bureaucracy at its worst.

After a nights rest in Surkhet the Thuli Bheri team headed to the local airstrip to await our ride. The plan we had chartered to fly us to Juphail was just big enough to fit the seven of us, our boats and bored looking air hostess inside.

The flight was a new experience for me having never flown in anything smaller that a Boeing 737 before. Nervously I peered out of the windows to see mountains looming above the plane. Just as I got used to this experience I peered through the cockpit door to see that we were heading straight towards a cliff face. At the last moment we rose then fell on to the rough short runway that the cliff marked the end of. I released the breathe I didn’t realise I’d been holding.

We could have walked up stream to Dunai to extend our trip but instead opted to head straight down to the river and hit the water sooner. This took about 90 minutes though I was delayed somewhat by the fact that I appeared to have hired the town drunk rather than a porter to carry my boat. Once he was replaced things became much easier and soon we had reached the river bank.

We had left the UK on Thursday night and by Sunday afternoon we were on the water.

Si Wiles runs the rapid

Water-Wings.

That was then.  Now however, I was exhausted. The swim had sapped my strength and will power. I only made it to the bank because Mark G chased me down the river and towed me to an eddy. Something I’m eternally grateful for. Fortunately my kit was all recovered and most of it was still dry.

The swim had taken its toll though, both physically and emotionally. I was broken and the next morning less than enthusiastic about getting back on the water, however being so remote I had no other option but to get on with it.

Rapids similar to those I’d swum the previous day quickly approached and it was all I could do to paddle them. I was terrified of swimming again to the degree that in the eddy above the rapid I started trying to vomit out of fear. Fortunately I survived, the elation when my roll worked was quickly tempered by the thought that there was still four days of this to go.

As the river continued it changed, gaining volume yet never really dropping below grade four. Still exhausted, not even the magnificence of the sun drenched Golden Canyon or the streams of mule trains navigating the riverside path could cheer me up.

Over the next few days I swam four more times. None were nearly as upsetting as the first and some should never of happened, tiredness was taking its toll.

Despite my overweight boat and struggling to cope with the portages that I elected to undertake, I slowly began to regain my confidence. By the last day on the river I was truly back in the swing of things, by this time the water was much larger in volume and I was feeling much happier tackling the rapids. Thoughts of terror had left me and the old thrills and jubilation of running rapids had returned.

This jubilation took me a little to close to the edge at times, on the last major rapid I should probably have taken heed of the fact that everyone apart from Mark had elected to take the chicken run/portage at the side of the river. Mark however had different ideas and had set himself up to take photos of the centre rapid between two large boulders and was signalling that I should run it. Feeling a lot more confident I straight lined it, hit the cushion wave at the top and proceeded to run most of it upside down! Fortunately there was a rather large pool a the bottom for me to roll up in.

At night we camped where ever we could, from riverside glades to donkey pens and chicken lofts in the local magistrate’s house! Carrying all our camping and cooking equipment with us the evening settled in to a routine of pitching bivi’s, making fires and comparing dehydrated meals. Usually followed by a conversation where we rated how well said dehydrated meals passed through our systems. By the time darkness fell we were usually tucked up in our sleeping bags trying to get some rest before we awoke and had to prepare the by now very familiar porridge for breakfast.

We spent five days on the water, and apart from the 3km portage this was nearly all continuous white water. I wish I could talk in more detail about the river but it’s all a bit of a blur, one day merging in to the next. All I know is that during my time on the water I’d started on a high of anticipation and excitement that had been quickly dashed by that first swim. The next few days had pushed me to my limits and it had only been towards the end that I managed to pull myself back together.

Despite this it’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed. Without a doubt the Thuli Bheri is the hardest piece of paddling I’ve ever attempted and despite the difficulties I had I’m still extremely pleased to have completed it.

Jim relaxes in a chicken loft

Exit

Of course the river wasn’t the end of the story. We weren’t 100% sure where we should be getting out. The consensus was that the road-head was at Ramnaghat and our intention was to get out near the road and catch a bus out.

As it was we couldn’t find the road here and eventually picked it up just down stream at Jajarkot, unfortunately we were too late to catch a bus and ended up spending the evening camping on the balcony of the friendly local magistrate’s house. Next day after being fed by the friendly locals we caught the bus – what ever terror I’d felt on the river paled in comparison to this journey.

The road was rough, the bus bounced around and tilted at disturbing angles often over the edge of cliffs that fell hundreds of feet to the river. To add to the fun we were sitting on the roof. Five hours of shear terror were endured.

The bus was supposed to take us to Devisthal from where we would catch another bus to  Surkhet. As it was we had to change once, the bus got stuck in sand and had to be pushed out and to top it all the road stopped 3km from Devisthal on the wrong side of the river; the road bridge had yet to be built. Porters were hired to carry our boats across the rope bridge and up to Devisthal where we chartered a private bus to complete our journey.

Comedown

We thought we would be late to Surkhet, as it was the group who paddled the Bheri had their own issues and we arrived within an hour of each other.

Now reunited our two groups headed off to paddle the Karnali. The guidebook puts this as grade 4, and the first half of the river certainly contains a large number of entertaining rapids that meet this description. The second half is pretty much flat.

Coming after the Thuli Bheri the Karnali was a much tamer experience. The rapids though big were in no way intimidating and our extended group seemed to enjoy every minute of them.

The river was almost 200km long and we intended to do it over five days, raft trips do it in seven or eight, as it was we completed it in three. It’s a story in itself, but one that will have to told another time.

hmmm, the bus is broken

Relaxation

The Thuli Bheri had taken me, chewed me up and spat me out. The Karnali had given me time to recover my sense of inner being but it was the next three days spent at Bardia National Park where we really got the chance to relax. Elephant watching, beer drinking, safari, beer drinking and elephant riding followed by a spot of beer drinking, this time gave us all a break.

On the final night the local villagers came along to demonstrate the local folk dancing. Unfortunately we were then supposed to demonstrate some traditional British dancing and singing. None of us being Morris Dancers we had to fall back on Auld Lang Syne and a dance that resembled the hockey cokey.

Eventually though we had to steel ourselves for the bus journey back to Dehli. Another 24 hours on the bus complete with farcical border crossings was further enhanced by the news that the Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajokull had shut down all flights into Europe. At first we thought it was a joke, seven days later still stuck in Delhi it had worn a bit thin.

Lessons

Looking back at the trip several weeks later there are several lessons I think I’ve learnt;

  1. No matter how light you think you’ve packed, you can still loose something (however this doesn’t include the coffee maker).
  2. Living rough without road support is tough. The basics of living day to day become tiring by themselves. A certain level of fitness is required to do this and run the river day after day. A level that I hadn’t obtained for this trip.
  3. Make sure your familiar with your kit. Not being 100% comfortable with my boat, whilst not being the cause of some of my problems, certainly didn’t help.
  4. No matter how tough things get and how low you feel, you can bounce back. And you’ll know better for next time.

Reading back through this it sounds like I hated every minute of the Thuli Bheri which isn’t the case at all. The Thuli Bheri and Nepal in general is a magnificent place. In addition to the river the landscape, the people, the wildlife all provided me with an experience I’m not going to forget in a hurry.

Despite finding the time paddling the Thuli extremely hard going at times I find myself looking back on the place with fondness. It was challenging, but that’s not a bad thing.

Finally

Thanks to Mark Rainsley, Simon Wiles, Mark Grawler, Matt Brook, Kevin Francis and Jim Green for not giving up and abandoning me to the donkeys.

The team

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