Nepal’s Kar­nali River flows glo­ri­ously free for now, to the ben­e­fit of raft­ing tourism, and the peo­ple and an­i­mals that de­pend on its wa­ters. But for how much longer?

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story by Michael Buck­ley Photography by Neil Cox and Michael Buck­ley

Nepal’s Kar­nali River flows glo­ri­ously free for now, to the ben­e­fit of raft­ing tourism, and the peo­ple and an­i­mals that de­pend on its wa­ters. But for how much longer?

TONIGHT, IT FEELS LIKE THE RE­SET BUT­TON has been pushed. Back to the dawn of time per­haps. A mil­lion stars over­head make me feel like a mote of dust. We are camped un­der this in­fi­nite canopy on a spit of white sand, on the banks of the Kar­nali river in western Nepal. Sparks rise from the fire, logs crackle. Gath­ered around is our new ‘fam­ily’: five rafters, three kayak­ers, our cap­tain Bikram, and our ex­pe­di­tion leader Ma­hen­dra, who mans the gear-boat with an as­sis­tant. All swap­ping sto­ries. Tum­bling through canyons and jun­gles for 507 kilo­me­tres, the Kar­nali is Nepal’s long­est – and due to the grow­ing pres­ence of dams on Hi­malayan streams – one of its last ma­jor free-flow­ing rivers. It’s our sec­ond day and it’s been a wild ride with ex­hil­a­rat­ing runs on Class 3+ rapids. Many times, our fate has hung on Bikram’s split-sec­ond de­ci­sions, and oc­ca­sion­ally on the re­ac­tions of the two safety kayak­ers. The weather is hot, but that’s no prob­lem when chris­tened by the rapids – dump­ing icy wa­ter over our heads at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. We catch glimpses of wildlife. Lan­gurs are sighted in the tree­tops, eye­balling us right back, and our ar­rival at the camp­site in­ter­rupts a ca­vort­ing pair of mon­gooses. By now, I have set­tled into the rhythm of the river: pad­dle (stren­u­ously), eat (ravenously), set up camp, sleep (like a log). The menu is still fresh, with nov­el­ties like pasta with veg­eta­bles and yak-cheese still tempt­ing, though this can­not last. My new evening rit­ual is to lie down gaz­ing at stars be­fore re­tir­ing. Mirac­u­lously, there are no mos­qui­toes along the river. But Ma­hen­dra tells us scor­pi­ons have been spot­ted in th­ese parts. Pythons and leop­ards too. In fact, this camp­site is called Scor­pion Beach ap­par­ently. A day of be­ing tossed around in huge rapids, be­ing stared at by lan­gurs and check­ing the toi­let tent for scor­pi­ons – that’s the stuff of vivid dreams. Our pad­dles are the envy of the lo­cals, who drop by the camp and bor­row them to test out. They fish and cross the river us­ing dugout ca­noes, some­times pro­pelled with a wooden pole, or sim­ply the boat­man’s flip-flops. On day three, Ma­hen­dra leads us in­land on a vil­lage tour. This is a hike with a mis­sion: to in­form lo­cals about news that will have a huge bear­ing on their fu­ture: pro­pos­als for a dam.

Most vil­lagers are il­lit­er­ate and have very lit­tle idea about such things so hope rests with the younger gen­er­a­tion, most now at least at­tend­ing school. Along this part of the river, vil­lagers are mostly sub­sis­tence farm­ers – grow­ing rice, wheat and pota­toes – with wa­ter buffalo, chick­ens and goats parked close to their adobe home­steads, if not in­side them. The Kar­nali hosts a pro­fu­sion of eth­nic groups – the Ma­gar, Bisokarma and Chetri among them. Rarer are the no­madic Raute, who for­age for for­est fruits and bush­meat. Day four on the river. Rodeo on the rapids. This is what we came for, to ex­pe­ri­ence the full force of the river. Stretched over some seven kilo­me­tres is a stair­case of drops, be­tween big canyons. Our cap­tain, Bikram, is wary. We stop to scout the big­ger rapids to de­ter­mine if they harbour any deadly holes that will flip the raft. He’s been here be­fore, but they con­stantly change. The first ma­jor chal­lenge, God’s House, goes over a gi­ant rock to the side, cre­at­ing a mas­sive hy­draulic hole and a nar­row pas­sage with a strong re­verse wave in the mid­dle. This one lets us off lightly, but the next rapid, The Juicer, is a nasty Class 4+. The raft bucks and weaves, spins 360˚, and barely makes it. A big high-five of the pad­dles, and we thunder on – straight into Flip & Strip, Touch­ing the Void and Freight Train. As the wa­ter crashes around, all our en­ergy goes into hanging on. Hands grip safety ropes and feet are thrust as far un­der the thwarts as they will go. An adren­a­line-fu­elled day. Rafters and kayak­ers face chal­leng­ing Class 3 to 4+ rapids on their de­scent of the Kar­nali but around the camp­fire that night, Ma­hen­dra de­scribes the ath­letic and ac­ro­batic feats of a mon­ster fish that goes up the rapids – the golden mah­seer. This huge fish – grow­ing up to 100kg – mi­grates up­stream on the Kar­nali and West Seti rivers to spawn and lay eggs. As win­ter ap­proaches, the up­per reaches turn colder – the sig­nal for the mah­seer to mi­grate down­stream again, chas­ing food.

I ex­am­ine a ju­ve­nile fish caught by a lo­cal and ad­mire the golden sheen of the scales that gives it its name. The Kar­nali and West Seti rank as the top rivers in Nepal for fish species, and lo­cal fish­er­men de­pend on them as a prime source of pro­tein. The mah­seer’s power and agility means it’s prized too by vis­it­ing an­glers as a good fighting fish. Be­sides the golden mah­seer, there are its choco­late and sil­ver cousins, the Hi­malayan snow trout, and a mon­ster-sized cat­fish called the goonch. All are mi­gra­tory fish. An In­dian pro­posal for a megadam on the Kar­nali men­tions build­ing a fish lad­der, but the suc­cess of fish lad­ders is spotty and any­way there’s a feel­ing that such talk is mere pro­pa­ganda put out by the plan­ners. On day five, af­ter pass­ing the con­flu­ence with the West Seti River, the Kar­nali be­comes some­what tamer. This af­fords us the lux­ury of tak­ing in the mag­nif­i­cent vis­tas of tow­er­ing canyon walls. I train my binoc­u­lars on the bird life tak­ing ad­van­tage of the Kar­nali’s bounty: cor­morants dry­ing their wings in clas­sic pose, a flock of ruddy shel­ducks, a pair of woolly-necked storks, a yellow-throated king­fisher, and a fish ea­gle flap­ping over­head with a large fish strug­gling in its talons. Day six on the river brings eel and chips for break­fast. We’re sup­ple­ment­ing our diet with fresh catch from lo­cal fish­er­men and so this large eel has gone from river to repast in­side 10 min­utes. Bikram tells me this is the most lu­cra­tive species on the river – even more pricey per kilo than golden mah­seer. Af­ter break­fast, I go for a swim. A big, down­river, up­side-down swim, hav­ing flipped a kayak. A few of us rafters have swapped with the kayak­ers to try this tamer stretch but we are found out by the still-pow­er­ful cur­rents. I can’t imag­ine how Neil, the English kayaker on our trip, man­aged to tackle the huge rapids we ex­pe­ri­enced up­stream. They must have been daunt­ing, if not com­pletely ter­ri­fy­ing. I probe him about this, and he ad­mits, with Bri­tish un­der­state­ment, to it be­ing ‘a bit tech­ni­cal’. Safely back in the raft, the now-sub­dued river gives time to re­flect on the nature of the Kar­nali. The name means ‘turquoise’, though the hue is more glacial green. The canyon walls keep chang­ing. Some sec­tions are bathed in green – cov­ered in ferns – while else­where, strange sand­stone cliffs are sculpted into odd shapes. It’s cer­tainly the most re­mote river I’ve seen in Nepal, and the clean­est – I’ve seen only one plas­tic bot­tle float­ing in the wa­ter to this point. As a wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence, the Kar­nali is hard to beat. The last day on the river is a hard pad­dle: barely any cur­rent, and into a head­wind. There are sud­denly more kids in the wa­ter, swim­ming up to the raft. More hu­man pres­ence, more build­ings – and garbage. Where there are roads, there is garbage. The take-out point is near the town of Chisopani, with Nepal’s long­est sus­pen­sion bridge and what seems a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of shops. The rafts are swiftly de­flated and stacked on the roof of a bus, but I am stay­ing with the Kar­nali. A ma­jor branch now runs through Bar­dia Na­tional Park, close to the In­dian bor­der, where I rest up for the next four days. There I am less lucky with the mos­qui­toes but the com­pen­sa­tions are many, start­ing with the 30 ele­phants we watch bathing at a stream, blast­ing them­selves with trunk­fuls of wa­ter. We see the odd rhino slather­ing it­self in mud as a sun­screen and even a Ben­gal tiger makes a brief ap­pear­ance, caus­ing a herd of spot­ted deer to scat­ter. I’m told that rare Gangetic dol­phins some­times come as far up the Kar­nali as Bar­dia. Dam­ming the Kar­nali risks los­ing all this, turn­ing Bar­dia into a waste­land. It’s a ter­ri­ble thought – and on my re­turn to Kath­mandu, I seek out Megh Ale, the owner of Ul­ti­mate Des­cents, the raft­ing op­er­a­tor who had hosted me on the river. He is founder of Nepal River Con­ser­va­tion Trust and is the Kar­nali’s of­fi­cial Water­keeper. That’s the name given to com­mu­nity lead­ers around the world who ad­vo­cate for lo­cals’ ac­cess to clean wa­ter from pro­tected wa­ter­sheds. He is spear­head­ing the cam­paign to save the Kar­nali.

“In Nepal, we have over 6,000 rivers and streams, so why can’t we save just one and keep it freeflow­ing?” he asks. “The Kar­nali is a very spe­cial river – flow­ing from the Ti­betan Plateau to the Gangetic Plains.” He points out that In­dia’s plans to build megadams on the Kar­nali are tan­ta­mount to shooting it­self in the foot since the river is a ma­jor trib­u­tary of the Ganges. In fact, over 70% of the Ganges flow comes from Nepal’s rivers. “In Nepal, we have huge po­ten­tial for gen­er­at­ing en­ergy from rivers but we need to look at what pros­per­ity means. To make the coun­try pros­per­ous, do we re­ally need to kill all th­ese rivers?” he says. He points to tourism as Nepal’s ma­jor in­come earner – most of which is based on the nat­u­ral beauty of the coun­try and its wildlife. He sug­gests cre­at­ing a Kar­nali River Na­tional Park, tak­ing in the river and a cor­ri­dor of land along its length, run­ning from the Nepal bor­der with China, all the way to Bar­dia and the In­dian bor­der, where the river emp­ties into the Ganges. That’s the only way, he be­lieves, that the Kar­nali can re­tain its wild majesty.

BIG COUN­TRY Pow­er­ful and wild – for now – the Kar­nali is a true ex­pe­di­tion river.

RAFT­ING CAMARADERIE High five – and high adren­a­line af­ter sur­viv­ing a string of Class 4 rapids.

TOOLED UP A lo­cal shows the han­d­line and lure he uses to catch Kar­nali gi­ants such as the golden mah­seer.

RAFTERS OF THE FU­TURE? Camp­sites nearer to vil­lages of­ten draw a crowd of cu­ri­ous lo­cals.

VALU­ABLE CATCH A ju­ve­nile golden mah­seer, a noted fighting fish and also widely eaten by lo­cals.

FERTILE WA­TERS FOR NOW A fish­er­man casts his net in Kar­nali shal­lows, down­stream from the site mooted for a megadam.

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