All aboard the river mild
Whitewater rafting in the wilds of Nepal doesn’t have to be terrifying
‘‘DOES this rapid have a name?’’ I ask, not entirely convinced I want to know the answer. A smile spreads across my rafting guide’s face as the foaming white water approaches. ‘‘This one,’’ he says, ‘‘is too insignificant.’’ The raft dips sharply and a wave crashes 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 is reassuring to know that none on the Seti River is a member of that exclusive club.
Nepal’s most gentle whitewater river is not only ideal for firsttimers such as myself but it 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 takes at least six hours.
Instead, I go 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 promises to be a whiteknuckle ride if our rafting leader Hari’s safety briefing is anything to go by. Standing on the gravelly banks of the Madi River, which flows into the Seti downstream, Hari delivers a flurry of instructions to the two teams of rafters, including what to do should we find ourselves submerged under the raft. I gulp silently.
‘‘And finally, always keep your mouth shut,’’ adds Hari. ‘‘There’s a lot of sand and mud floating around.’’
Within seconds of pushing off on our 35km journey, the current ( faster and fuller due to recent monsoonal rains) drags us away from the shore. Our raft’s skipper, Kancha, sets us to work immediately. ‘ ‘ Forward!’’ he booms, prompting us into action.
We paddle hard, if not in unison, as a whirlpool swells around the raft. My arms become heavier with every stroke but the river soon mellows and within a few minutes the Seti comes into view, its milky waters (due to limestone deposits) a noticeable contrast to the waters we’ve been ploughing through. ( Seti means white in Nepalese.)
Ahead the river meanders through narrow gorges of the silent Mahabharat range. Cliffs rise purposefully on both sides; thousands of silk cotton trees and low-hanging vines consume every inch. A group of egrets sits on the sandy banks as we anticipate our first real rapid.
It soon comes. A stretch of hissing water appears in the distance. The pace picks up as we near the turbulent spot. Following Kancha’s instructions, we paddle hard as the raft is rocked in conflicting directions by the forceful river. ‘‘Hold tight,’’ Kancha says helpfully. Our feet are lodged in the crooks of the raft as tepid water floods in from all sides, bringing a chorus of gasps and squeals.
What follows is the calm after the storm. Another huge plus for rafting the Seti is the long period of inactivity between rapids. These sections of slow meandering provide moments to appreciate the subtle details hidden in 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 sail past a group of men busy bathing in the shallows and travel under a long rope bridge from which women in billowing crimson saris wave down. Around us the looming hills plunge into the murky surface as the river widens. The air is still and the only sound to be heard is the gentle lapping of water under the raft.
Our spirits are high after lunch on the riverbank. We admire elec- tric blue kingfishers. With time on our hands we even master Row, Row, Row Your Boat in Nepalese ( Kyau, kyau, maji ho / Sano dunga kyau . . .). The sky becomes misty and the sun ducks behind the hills, leaving only patches of the river illuminated as we sing merrily. Then our maritime singalong is brought to an end by warm cries of ‘ ‘ Namaste!’’ from children who have appeared along the shore.
Thatched homes belonging to the indigenous Gurung tribe start to appear in the clearings of trees. Beside them stand the tall bamboo towers where farmers sleep to ward off hungry Himalayan sloth bears from their precious corn crops. By the shore, fishermen kneel on pebbles clutching bamboo rods, patiently waiting for the catfish to bite.
Then the river sweeps around a wide corner and a rapid — bigger and angrier than our earlier conquest — comes into view. We seize our paddles tightly. Soon we are in the thick of the violent basin. The raft heaves upwards and downwards, shaking like a bucking bronco. Everyone receives another invigorating dousing but the raft doesn’t flip and nobody falls in. We clearly have talent.
We spend the night at the luxurious Seti River Camp in Tanahu. Surrounded by verdant mandarin, mango and guava trees, the secluded property of 16 fixed ensuite tents overlooks the fierce rapid we have just tackled. Sitting around the campfire with fireflies lighting up the night sky, it dawns on me that we haven’t come across a single other raft or even a kayak all day. The Upper Seti has been our own private playground. And the next day, Hari promises, will bring the real rapids.
Helmets and lifejackets secured, we set off the next morning, searching for adrenalin. Layers of lush hills unravel in the distance, their diagonal slopes dissecting the horizon ahead. Above, the sky is clear.
High on these emerald mountains I see a blur of sky blue: schoolchildren in bright uniforms on a daily commute that follows the river’s snaking course. True to his word, Hari leads us through rapids that are indeed bigger and badder. But only marginally. Riding through them feels like being trapped in a ferocious washing machine, but in reality they remain tame by whitewater standards.
Then, approaching the final rapid at Gaighat, our raft twists and turns wildly. The water around us splutters like a boiling saucepan. Losing my balance, I tip backwards suddenly and swallow a good amount of Seti, but escape a proper dunking by seizing the ropes as the raft is relentlessly pounded.
The icy Trisuli River, fed by the Langtang Glacier and the revered Gosainkunda Lake, appears 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 whitewater to be found, so our introductory rafting adventure has come to a natural end.
Before even reaching for my towel I am already plotting a future whitewater voyage, but next time I’ll remember to keep my mouth shut. kerdowney.com raftingassociation.org.np
A bamboo bridge over the not-too-troubled waters of the Seti River in Nepal’s Annapurna region