All aboard the river mild: White-water rafting in the wilds of Nepal doesn't have to be terrifying
Saturday 08 January 2011
"Does this rapid have a name?" I asked, not entirely convinced I wanted to know the answer. A smile spread across my rafting guide's face as the foaming white water approached. "This one," he said, "is too insignificant."
The raft dipped sharply and a wave crashed in.
While some of Nepal's raging rapids have indeed been christened with wild-sounding names such as "Frog in a Blender" and "Gerbil in the Plumbing", it was reassuring to know that none on the Seti River were members of that exclusive club.
Nepal's most gentle white-water river is not only ideal for first-timers such as myself, it also links two of the country's most popular spots: the picturesque lakeside town of Pokhara, gateway to the Annapurna mountains, and Royal Chitwan National Park, home to Bengal tigers and one-horned rhinos. Both are within a short drive of the Seti, but travelling between the two on Nepal's windy mountain roads would take at least six hours.
Instead, I went for the more adventurous option. Flowing through the central regions, the Seti is one of Nepal's most popular rafting routes. Despite the rapids not exceeding Grade Three (others have fearsome Grade Five status) it still promised to be a white-knuckle ride if our rafting leader Hari's safety briefing was anything to go by.
Standing on the gravely banks of the Mardi River, which flows into the Seti downstream, Hari delivered a flurry of instructions to the two teams of rafters, including what to do should we find ourselves submerged under the raft. I gulped silently.
"And finally, always keep your mouth shut," added Hari. "There's a lot of sand and mud floating around."
Within seconds of pushing off on our 22-mile journey, the current – faster and fuller due to the recent monsoonal rains – dragged us away from the shore. Our raft's skipper, Kancha, set us to work immediately. "Forward!" he boomed, prompting us into action.
We paddled hard – if not in unison – as a whirlpool swelled around the raft. My arms became heavier with every stroke, but the river soon mellowed and within a few minutes the Seti came into view, its milky waters – due to limestone deposits – a noticeably contrast to the waters we'd been ploughing through. (The word seti means "white" in Nepalese.)
Ahead the river meandered through narrow gorges of the silent Mahabharat range. Cliffs rose purposefully on both sides; thousands of silk cotton trees and low-hanging vines consumed every inch. A group of egrets sat on the sandy banks as we anticipated our first real rapid.
It soon came. A stretch of hissing water appeared in the distance. The pace picked up as we neared the turbulent spot. Following Kancha's instructions we paddled hard as the raft was rocked in conflicting directions by the forceful river. "Hold tight," Kancha said helpfully. Feet lodged in the crooks of the raft, tepid water flooded in from all sides, bringing a chorus of gasps and squeals.
What followed was the calm after the storm. Another huge plus for rafting the Seti are the long periods of inactivity in between rapids. These sections of slow meandering provide real moments to appreciate the subtle details hidden within the grand scenery: the custard-yellow butterflies that flutter over the rocks; the sharp silhouettes of trees hundreds of metres above; the melodic call of the Himalayan barbet.
We sailed past a group of men busy bathing in the shallows and travelled under a long rope bridge from which women in billowing crimson saris waved down. Around us the looming hills plunged into the murky surface as the river widened. The air was still and the only sound to be heard was the gentle lapping of water under the raft.
Our spirits were high after lunch on the riverbank. We admired electric blue kingfishers. With time on our hands we even mastered Row, Row, Row Your Boat in Nepalese ("Kyau, Kyau, Maji Ho/Sano Dunga Kyau..."). The sky became misty and the sun ducked behind the hills, leaving only patches of the river illuminated as we sang merrily. Then our maritime sing-a-long was brought to an end by warm cries of "Namaste!" from children who had appeared along the shore.
Thatched homes belonging to the indigenous Gurung tribe started to appear in the clearings of trees. Beside them stood the tall bamboo towers where farmers sleep to ward off hungry Himalayan sloth bears from their precious corn crops. By the shore, fishermen kneeled on pebbles clutching bamboo rods, patiently waiting for the catfish to bite.
Then the river swept around a wide corner and a rapid – bigger and angrier than our earlier conquest – came into view. We seized our paddles tightly. Soon we were in the thick of the violent basin. The raft heaved upwards and downwards, shaking like a bucking bronco. Everyone received another invigorating dousing but the raft didn't flip and nobody fell in. We clearly had talent.
We spent the night at the luxurious Seti River Camp in Tanahu. Surrounded by verdant mandarin, mango and guava trees, the secluded property of 16 fixed en-suite tents overlooked the fierce rapid we had just tackled. Sitting around the campfire with fireflies lighting up the night sky, it dawned on me that we hadn't come across a single other raft or even a kayak all day. The Upper Seti had been our own private playground. And the next day, Hari promised, would bring the real rapids.
Helmets and lifejackets secured, we set off the next morning searching for adrenalin. Layers of lush hills unravelled in the distance, their diagonal slopes dissecting the horizon ahead. Above, the sky was clear.
High on these emerald mountains I saw a blur of sky blue: school children in bright uniforms on a daily commute that followed the river's snaking course.
True to his word, Hari led us through rapids that were indeed bigger and badder. But only marginally. Riding through them felt like being trapped in a ferocious washing machine, but in reality they remained tame by white-water standards.
Then, approaching the final rapid at Gaighat, our raft twisted and turned wildly. The water around us spluttered like a boiling saucepan. Losing my balance I tipped backwards suddenly and swallowed a good amount of Seti, but escaped a proper dunking by seizing the ropes as the raft was relentlessly pounded.
The icy Trisuli River, fed by the Langtang Glacier and the revered Gosainkunda Lake, appeared on our right. Merging here with the Seti, the waterway flows on to become the Narayani, which in turn feeds the Ganges. From Gaighat it's a steady descent into lowlands and plains with little white water to be found, so our introductory rafting adventure had come to a natural end. Before even reaching for my towel I was already plotting a future white-water voyage, but next time I'd remember to keep my mouth shut.
* The writer travelled to Nepal with Imaginative Traveller (08450 778803; imaginative-traveller.com) on the 12-day Annapurna & Chitwan tour, which costs £725 per person, based on two sharing, and includes two days rafting on the Seti River and an overnight stay at the Seti River Camp, excluding flights. Etihad Airways (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Kathmandu via Abu Dhabi, starting from £573.
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