The following article was first published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine some months back. It describes a great expedition whitewater paddling trip we made in Easter 2010. Yes, I know that this is normally a blog about the sea and coast; please forgive me on this occasion, I keep getting enquiries about the Thuli Bheri river and this is the easiest place to make the information available.
Thuli Madly Deeply
I’m writing this in a hotel room in Delhi, India. The temperature is a searing 44 degrees Centigrade, and the tiny fan whirring overhead is failing to make the climate bearable. I was due back at work a week ago, but all flights home have been cancelled because of the ash cloud generated by the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull. I have no idea when and how I’ll get back. My stomach is suffering from the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ and frankly, right now I’ve had enough of Asia and just want to go home. The only thing keeping me sane is reminding myself why I am here in the first place; I have just kayaked the truly wonderful and unsurpassable Thuli Bheri river.
Ten years ago, I spent several months kayaking the rivers flowing from the Himalayan mountains in the kingdom of Nepal. It was a fantastic experience, but I left Nepal with one disappointment; I had heard of a river called the Thuli Bheri, hidden away in remote western Nepal. Rumour suggested that this was the Shangri-La of Himalayan rivers, with outstanding whitewater and stunning surroundings. A group of us arranged to fly to this river, the Maoist insurgency was just beginning to dominate Nepal’s politics; news came through of an appalling massacre of fifteen policemen at the small town of Dunai, precisely where we had planned to begin our paddle. Understandably, no one would take us there, and our Thuli Bheri dream was dashed.
For ten years, the Thuli Bheri has been flagged up as ‘unfinished business’ on my kayaking wish list. In recent years the political situation in Nepal has improved, and paddlers have begun to return to the Thuli Bheri. I assembled an eager group of friends, but the logistics were daunting; our plan was to fly to Delhi, bus across India to Nepal and then to charter a plane to the river. Before we could even leave the UK, mountains of forms were filled in and notable sums of money transferred to pay for it all. More daunting still was the notion of the actual paddling, for me at least. I turn 40 in a few weeks (making me officially ‘old’) and I’m not exactly ‘Match Fit’ these days. I hadn’t taken part in a serious whitewater expedition for years, and three months before departure, I fell off my mountain bike and bust my shoulder. When the Easter hols finally came and I checked my kayak in at Heathrow, I had barely paddled at all in 2010 and the grim freezing drought that had gripped the UK’s rivers meant that the same went for the other members of the group. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s possible that getting to the Thuli Bheri was the riskiest part of the whole venture. Reeling from the twenty hour Delhi to Nepal bus ride, not to mention five hours stuck at the most fly infested border crossing on earth, we squeezed seven kayaks into the hold of a small aeroplane. The remaining space was filled up by ourselves; yes, we had our very own plane! The excitement that this generated was soon eclipsed by utter gibbering terror. Although our plane climbed steeply into the dawn skies, all manner of things kept whizzing perilously close past the windows. Things that shouldn’t rightly have been anywhere near us; trees, villages, water buffalo and most disturbingly, mountainsides. Craning our necks, we caught a brief glimpse of immense snow-capped Himalayan summits. Our attention was then diverted to the view straight ahead through the pilot’s cockpit, completely blocked by a rapidly approaching cliff face. Our fear-addled brains barely had time to compute that we were all going to die RIGHT NOW, before the plane came to a shuddering, jarring halt. Shocked to find that we were still alive (I really did pinch myself), the realisation slowly dawned that the pilot had landed the plane by flying into the cliff and at the last possible moment, soaring over the cliff rim to collide with an uphill-sloping patch of uneven stony ground, no larger than a football field.
We had arrived in style, but where exactly were we? The Thuli Bheri river drains the glaciers of Dhaulagiri (the world’s seventh highest mountain) and flows through Dolpo, a roadless and inaccessible region. Sat on a heap of kayaking gear on Juphail airstrip, we slowly absorbed our surroundings. Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the wind, whilst ethnically Tibetan porters prodded and sized up our kayaks. Emerald green terraces formed staircases ascending the hillsides surrounding us, stretching upwards into the arid flanks of unnamed 20 000 foot peaks. Deep below us, our river was a winding ribbon of silver along the valley floor, at this distance giving no clues as to what it held in store for us. For a bunch of weekend warriors who short days before had been living our mundane UK lives, this was pretty mind-blowing stuff.
There is no such thing as paradise, however. Our Shangri-La illusion was dented somewhat by the quasi-official fellow who appeared from nowhere to exhort a large pile of dollars from us for … well, we’re not sure what. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we were packing our kayaks at the river’s edge, ready to paddle away and wash off the irritation of corrupt bureaucracy. Simon K took a bit longer to reach the river, partly as he had the heaviest kayak (his gear included an espresso pot) but mainly because his porter turned out to be the village drunk!
For those who haven’t tried it, paddling a loaded kayak is exactly like paddling an unloaded kayak, except that the kayak doesn’t work any more. As we veered clumsily from one bank of the Thuli Bheri to another, we were reminded of our complete lack of practice in previous months. We prayed that the river would at least offer a gentle initiation to its whitewater. We obviously didn’t pray hard enough, because the very first rapid we came to, located beside a Buddhist monastery, was rather long, steep and scary; thanks for nothing, Buddha. So, how did it go? Paddling gingerly forward on the brink of an intimidating horizon line, the first challenge was to remember how you actually paddle whitewater; it had after all been a long time… Boof the top ledge, struggle desperately to line up the sluggish boat for the gnarly main chute, tuck in and try to stay upright, whilst everything goes white and rocks fly past disconcertingly close. My memory of it all is rather vague as I was mostly upside-down, but I did thankfully recall how to roll. Simon K was less lucky, and took a swim; we chased him for some considerable distance before fishing him out, and he wasn’t a happy bunny after this confidence-sapping experience.
The Thuli Bheri is actually less committing than you might imagine, as a major trail follows the river along its entire length. A seemingly unbroken chain of brightly adorned ponies, mules and donkeys continuously plods along this highway, lugging rice and salt up the valley. This meant that rudimentary food and shelter was available in villages and huts, had we wanted it. However, we’d made the decision to ‘wild camp’ away from the trail and to cook for ourselves; partly to avoid being over-run by hordes of nauseatingly cute inquisitive children (not that this worked), partly to avoid stomach complaints (this didn’t work either) but mainly because Kevin fancies himself as the love child of Ray Mears and Bear Grylls. The first night’s camp set the template for the trip. Firstly, our kayaks would be emptied, yielding enough expensive gizmos to stock a sizeable outdoor shop. Next, we would scrabble to stake out the sleeping spot least infested by donkey dung. Kevin would then conjure up an impressively complex hearth from rocks, twigs and (we suspected) donkey dung, and we’d commence cooking. Is it appropriate to categorise pouring boiling water into a sachet of colourless lumpy powder as ‘cooking’? The resulting ‘meals’ provided the main focus of conversation for the rest of the evening, as we hotly debated what precisely it might be that we were eating and whose meal tasted the worst. Incidentally, any leftover discussion time would be devoted to evaluating toilet visits, with ‘movements’ rated on an ascending scale of 1 (suffering from amoebic dysentery) to 10 (passing breeze blocks). When the first stars were lit above the valley, we would already be dozing off in our bivvy bags.
Well, how about that river? I’m loathe to give too much away, because I simply wouldn’t do it justice and because if by any chance it sounds like your sort of thing, then you really must go paddle it and then you don’t want me spoiling it for you, do you? Suffice to say that the second day saw us descending through the ‘Golden Canyon’, and the name says it all. Were you to design the ultimate dream day of scenic continuous ‘read and run’ boating, with the occasional inspection or portage to stretch your legs, this is precisely what it would look like. The third day quickly degenerated into a contest to find out who could crane their neck the furthest whilst clinging to tiny eddies, as the river steepened alarmingly. Late in the day, communication meltdown lead to Jim nearly falling off a cliff whilst portaging and the team camping split apart on opposite banks of the river. The fourth day began almost restfully, as we hired porters to shoulder our kayaks around a few kilometres of river that crossed the threshold into ‘hero boating’ territory. Our idyllic stroll was quickly forgotten however, as we launched back into a Thuli Bheri that had accumulated a respectable amount of volume and power. As the day wore on, an excess of strenuous inspecting and portaging saw Matt crumple and almost give up on the whole thing, surprising to the rest of us as he was Scottish (and therefore Nails). His moment of weakness was explained when it turned out that he’s not actually a Scot but just lives in Scotland…
The final day dawned with the burning question, had we now completed it all? The answer was a rapid and resounding “No!” The Thuli Bheri threw a final series of chunky complex rapids at us that challenged, inspired, entertained, scared and kicked in equal measure. One particular stopper saw three paddlers backloop in synchronised succession, and I experienced an intimate moment or two with a pourover that had “Game Over” scrawled all over it. Simon K hadn’t exactly been feeling the love since his uber-swim on the first day, but had now regained his confidence and completed the river back on form. Eventually, this fabulous whitewater had to ease off; it had after all been constant for 100 kilometres! As we passed the confluence with the Sani Bheri River, the Thuli Bheri’s ceaseless energy was finally tamed into the wide shimmering pools and braided channels of the Bheri River.
In hindsight, a day or two paddling the Bheri River’s jungle gorges down to the main highway would have offered an appealingly relaxing and contemplative end to our adventure. But everybody is an expert in hindsight. Instead, we impatiently decided to abandon the river and carry our kayaks up to the road in the hope of hitching a lift down the valley. Stupid is as stupid does; what we hadn’t realised (if we’d bothered to ask) was that the road down the valley hadn’t actually been completed. The next twenty-four hours saw us enduring a series of the worst bus journeys imaginable; suffering innumerable bruises and welts from bouncing up and down on the top of buses (too hot and crowded inside), withering in heat and dust on roadsides during breakdowns, blubbing with fear as the bus skittered along cliff edges, contracting yet more intestinal nasties from some dubious Dahl Bhat and bedding down to sleep in what someone less positive than myself might categorise as a chicken run. But, what did we care? We’d just paddled the wonderful and unsurpassable Thuli Bheri River, and nothing could dent our elation. The fact that two weeks later we still haven’t made it home and are still here in Delhi has still not detracted from our Thuli Bheri experience. Admittedly though, another week stuck here might begin to…
Mark Rainsley is trapped at Delhi Airport with Matt Brook, Kevin Francis, Mark Gawler, Jim Green, Simon Knox and Simon Wiles.
More images here.
Further Information: The Thuli Bheri offers 100 kilometres of world class whitewater. The rapids are mostly continuous Grade 4 and 4+, but you will have to paddle some stiff Grade 5 to complete the river without excessive portaging. The river can be accessed by chartering a plane within Nepal, best arranged through a reputable operator such as Equator Expeditions. Western Nepal is reached by long bus journeys from either Kathmandu or Delhi (quicker, but including an awful border crossing). For detailed information, seek out the second edition of Pete Knowles’ inspirational guidebook ‘White Water Nepal’ – http://www.riverspublishing.co.uk.
Postscript: Our group was seven, but should have been eight. As we planned our Thuli Bheri adventure, our good friend Chris Wheeler was the very first to commit and book his flights. Then last November, Chris tragically lost his life in an accident on the River Dart, whilst enjoying his favourite river at his favourite water level. All of us who went on to paddle the Thuli Bheri were close friends of Chris. We each cherish our own personal feelings about and memories of Chris, but whilst on the Thuli, one thing only needed to be said, and it was said repeatedly; “Chris would have loved this”. For reasons hard to elucidate, knowing this enhanced our enjoyment of the river no end.
Chris in Bolivia, 2005