All aboard the river mild

White­wa­ter raft­ing in the wilds of Nepal doesn’t have to be ter­ri­fy­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - NICK BOU­LOS THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

‘‘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

ALAMY IM­AGES

A bam­boo bridge over the not-too-trou­bled waters of the Seti River in Nepal’s An­na­purna re­gion

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