My travel companion was the fabulous Soph Mulder, and our mission was to sit back and observe the Karnali journey. We were in Nepal this past April to run whitewater instructor training and development for some of the Nepalese river crews and their trainees.
Between my jet lag and continual observations out the window into an entirely different world, the bus ride to the Karnali was a bit of a blur. Three days, just like that. Long, hot days in the bus moving along at a gentle speed, swerving pot holes and ditches and growing accustomed to the incessant honking that is driving in Nepal. I learned to eat with my right hand, to toilet with my left hand, how and when to say Namaste, how to drink water without touching a bottle to my mouth and the holy grail of Nepalese food, dahl baht.
Finally getting to the river was nothing short of exciting, both to see the river with my own eyes and to escape the bus doing five-point turns on hair pin corners. On our arrival at the Karnali, we were met by hoards of locals who were more than happy to offer a hand as we unpacked the bus.
Preparing enough rafts, kayaks and gear for twenty people on a seven-day trip is no small feat, and it took a solid three hours before we were able to push off into the clear blue waters of the mighty Karnali. I was surprised at how hot the air temperature was and how warm the water was.
The Karnali is Nepal’s longest and largest river and with its tributaries, it drains most of the far west of Nepal. Descending from the Tibetan side of the Himalaya’s, through Nepal and into the Indian Plains, the river valley is a historic trade route between the India and Tibet. Rugged, remote, jungle-clad and full of wildlife, she is one of the great rivers of the world. The upper reaches of the Karnali are well known as one of the best multi-day trips in the world, the mighty Humla Karnali. We put in below the gnar of the Humla, and settled in to the cruiser Class IV section of the Lower Karnali.
Our river days developed into the simple rhythm of a long river trip. Wake, feed, break camp, pack, float/paddle/bounce downstream until where, on arrival at the new campsite, the process is reversed… Unpack, set up camp, feed and sleep.
By day, Soph and I did a lot of floating, paddling, surfing and chatting, and at night we were tasked with moving massive rocks and smashing paddles into the sand for the overnight shelters. The camping on the Karnali is phenomenal, with huge sandy beaches easily accessed from the water. I wore shoes on the river and went barefoot on beaches.
As the Karnali descended to our takeout at Chisapani, we were treated to some pretty spectacular scenery, thwarted only by the layer of smoke from nearby forest fires. It was pretty intense for some of our trip. The first few days on the river had lovely big rapids in deep, forested canyons. Later on the river opened up into a wide valley with frequent small settlements, lots of kids and a much more meandering nature. The villages along the way provided opportunity for us to pick up fresh food, scout rapids with toddlers, kids and teenagers, to respond with Namaste at great pitch and to help many of the locals practice their basic English (“you be my friend!”)
The late April flow was very low for that time of the year, in fact the lowest that many of the guides had seen before. I can only imagine how big some of the rapids would get in high water. Although this slowed down our travel a little, it allowed a more intimate experience as there was lots of time to catch eddies, find amazing rock features, surf and explore. There are some big and notable rapids along the way, including one that the rafts needed to portage because there wasn’t a manageable line otherwise.
The guests divided their time between the rafts and their kayaks, depending on what the river had in store that day. The Karnali was the last phase of their month long kayaking trip in Nepal. One morning we woke to find that one of our guests, a nurse, had been paddled across the river in a dug out canoe to tend to a sick baby. Two men had come across early in a desperate state seeking medical help. Sue was able to help the family out and get the newborn baby feeding for the first time. The remoteness of their settlement had me wondering what the outcome would have been if we didn’t happen to have her with us.
I really enjoyed the crew we had - a mix of Westerners and Nepalese. There was a lot of laughter, generally over how weak we were in comparison to the Nepali boys and everybody learning to communicate in another language. Our food was delicious, prepared fresh every day by the boys. I learned lots of Nepali words and phrases, and enjoyed being able to share some of my own knowledge and information as we made our way downstream.
The Nepalese are some of the most hospitable and generous people I have ever met. The meeting of cultures is something I will always remember from the trip. It was quite spectacular to watch a mass of brightly colored kayaks and rafts filled with colorful people and gear, mixed with dug out canoes filled with locals as they made their way down, around and across the Karnali. The river is way of life for many of these people. It is a massive food source for them and every day we watched people tending to the fishing nets and rounding up their animal herds.
We met so many kids along the way who were as curious about us as we were about them. A lot of the time they would just sit up high on rocks above our camp just watching, and occasionally waving. They were very excited to talk to us in English.
Six nights and seven days later we floated into Chisapani, which was quite a shock to the senses after so much peace and quiet on the water. The honking was back, cows roaming the streets eating cardboard boxes, inquisitive kids investigating all our shiny gear and equipment, and the return of ole’ faithful - our trusty steed of a bus. Once fed and packed up, we began the last part of our trip back to Pokhara, which gave me lots of time to relax and digest my first Nepalese river trip. There were plenty more to come while we were in Nepal as we ran our training, but nothing quite likes the duration, remoteness and grandeur of the Karnali… She is an absolute gem.
A big thank you to Join Adventures and Paddle Nepal for allowing us to join the 2016 Karnali adventure.