Kayaking Nepal’s Humla Karnali


“The love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth… the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had eyes to see.”               — Edward Abbey

Paul Zirkelbach in the first gorge.

The friendly but very primitive herdsmen were yelling and inviting me into their tent as I ran down the rough trail in search of my kayak. I had just taken a death-defying swim under a large boulder, and the sight of the two shepherds and their shared wife made me feel as if I had died and ended up in another world. But I was still alive, and I would need my boat to continue the journey.

It was day one of a 241-mile trip down one of the last undamned rivers in the world, and the reality of a real adventure had suddenly become very apparent.


John getting a good luck blessing in a Kathmandu temple.

The Humla Karnali is one of four major rivers that start their lives near the slopes of Mount Kailash in southwestern Tibet. This four-sided, 25,300-foot-high peak is the holiest mountain in Asia and was thought to be the top of the world for many years. It is also the source of the Sutlej and the Indus in northern India, and the mighty Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, which flows eastward through Tibet.

“This is one of the best multi-day Class IV-V runs in the world!” Dave Allardice exclaimed, as we shared a few beers at his house in Kathmandu. “It has only been paddled a handful of times, and the scenery and whitewater are outstanding.”

Simikot airport; The beginning of the journey

Packing for a 17 day trip.

Dave was a Kiwi who had been one of the first kayak explorers in Nepal. He had started a rafting company called Ultimate Descents and had co-authored the White Water Nepal guidebook. His suggestion sounded too good to miss, so Ken and I started to plan the expedition and recruit a team.

The section that we were attempting to run started near the Tibetan border and dropped about six thousand feet (an average of twenty-five feet per mile for 241 miles).

The journey would take us from a high mountain canyon to the jungles of southern Nepal. The first 60 miles were supposedly quite challenging, so we decided that March would give us the best combination of reasonable weather and low water.

Many of our friends were eager to go, so it was quite easy to organize the team of six men who ranged in age from 27 to 47.

Ethan Greene was the youngest, but he was already a seasoned veteran of many rivers. He was studying avalanche science at Colorado State University and would eventually earn a doctorate.

Randy Kennedy was 45 and a strong member of our local “Team Advil.” He was a civil engineer in Denver then, but he had spent a good portion of his life guiding paddle rafts and waiting tables so that he could pursue his dreams of adventure. He often told me that guiding rafts and hanging out in the rafters camp on the American River in California had been the best part of his life, and even after he had a career, he had given up a big promotion at his firm because it would have cut too deeply into his adventure schedule. We were close friends and had paddled many rivers together.

At 46, Paul Zirkelbach was the strongest member of “Team Advil.” He was a Denver contractor who had a passion for hard whitewater and had kayaked most of the classic hard runs in the western United States. He tried to make it to California every spring, and we had enjoyed many great rivers together.

Ken Ransford was a CPA and attorney from Carbondale, Colorado, who had spent quite a bit of time in Asia. A few years before this trip, Ken and his wife Emily had embarked on a one-year journey in the Himalayas and other parts of the vast continent. (They ended up having too much fun and decided to stay for another six months.) Ken knew the region very well and had made friends with many of the locals, who were very helpful with our logistics. His combination of skills made him the best barterer that I have ever met, and he saved us hundreds of rupees. Ken and I (along with our friend David Neff) had been to Nepal together three years before and had spent a fantastic month paddling many of the classic runs.

Andy Zimet was the only person on the trip I had not previously met. He was a substitute anesthesiologist who spent most of his free time pursuing adventures. An old climber, Andy had converted to kayaking at a late age, but he made up for the late start with his great energy. He was a very brave paddler and was eager to probe many of the rapids.

I have been a whitewater junkie since 1983, and my passion just seems to grow with age. I especially enjoyed multi-day, self-support trips and had been very eager to return to Nepal.

The road from Katmandu to Nepalganj was long and very rough. It is about a twenty-eight-hour bus ride, so we decided to stop along the way and paddle a Class III river called the Trisuli. This gave us a good chance to test our gear and hone our paddling skills, which hadn’t been used for a few months.

When our tired group finally reached the airport in Nepalganj, we were greeted by a friend of Dave’s who spoke a little bit of English. “One-half meter of ice in Simikot. One or two days more waiting for airplane.”

He took us to the only nice hotel in town, a classic, English-style resort. The grand old buildings were freshly painted and surrounded by a very large courtyard, which was filled with lush blooming gardens and some very exotic ponds. The price was an “exorbitant” ten dollars per night, but we were rich gringos and ready to go with the flow. The hotel had a quaint little bar that was built with the finest hardwoods, and the lobby was adorned with photos of tigers and elephants and the lifestyles that accompanied the early hunts.

Nepalganj is the gateway to Royal Bardia National Park, which is the home of one of the largest remaining populations of Bengal tigers. It is the largest city in western Nepal, and as it is only ten miles from India, it is a crossroad for merchants of many cultures. We spent a pleasant afternoon cruising a very interesting market, where a diverse mixture of colorfully dressed merchants sold an amazing variety of goods, including false teeth, colorful fabrics, and spices.

The food at the hotel restaurant was excellent, and the quiet courtyard was a great place to work on our boats and repack our gear for the third or fourth time. Trying to fit camping gear and seventeen days worth of food into a kayak is a very challenging task.

The two days of warm weather had melted the fresh snow, and we were awakened early with the news that our pilot was ready to go. The plane was too small to carry six kayaks and six people, so we drew straws to see who would go first. The lucky winners had already boarded the plane when the pilot announced that there was room for everyone, but the boats would have to come later. We were in no position to argue, so we climbed aboard and headed off toward the Tibetan border.

The sky was clear, and as we climbed into the air and gazed onward toward Tibet, we had an incredible view of the many high peaks that were still white from the recent storm.

The co-pilot was a Sherpa woman who spoke fairly good English. “The Karnali River is down there!” she said with a bright smile, pointing to a cloud-filled valley.

The high mountains of northwestern Nepal and Tibet towered in the distance of a never-ending panorama of snowcapped peaks and deep valleys. The small plane barely skimmed over the top of a high pass and then slowly circled its way down to the short runway in Simikot. Our excitement grew as we stepped out of the plane and into the thin fresh air of the high mountain village. The view was truly spectacular, and all the days of anticipation were finally replaced by the reality of starting this great expedition.

Apparently, it had been a long time since a tourist had been there, so the customs agents looked very surprised to see us. They appeared somewhat nervous as they carefully examined our passports and the trip permits we had obtained in Katmandu. One of the agents spoke a little English, and I tried to converse with him. He said something about the Karnali river being very dangerous, but I didn’t understand the whole sentence.

“We like danger,” I replied with a chuckle.

He gave me a very strange look as I continued talking.

“Nepali people are very nice,” I said.

“Some of them are not always so nice,” he replied with a grim look.

I didn’t understand him completely, so I chose to ignore most of it. We hadn’t come halfway around the world to get scared off by a little danger.

They carried a desk outside into the warm sun and typed away on an old manual typewriter. The procedure took more than an hour, so we entertained ourselves by playing hacky sack while we waited.

Suddenly, we heard a faint roar, and our plane dropped out of the nearby mountains, screeching to a stop on the muddy runway. It was a great relief to see all of our gear intact, and our eager hosts helped us haul it up to the guesthouse. Our jubilant group enjoyed the warmth of the bright sunshine and spent the afternoon exploring the small village of Simikot and the nearby hills.

The very pleasant sound of a distant flute filled the air with harmonious rhythms, and we stopped in silence to listen as a lone herdsman walked towards us. The magical tune, combined with the mountain views and the warm sunshine, created a mood that approached euphoria, and we thought for a moment that we had discovered Shangri-La. As he came closer, we could see his face — he looked like a teenage boy who was bringing his small herd of goats back to the village after a day of grazing. Then he saw us, and the music stopped. We greeted him with a friendly “Namaste,”1 but he looked very startled to see us and rushed to his village without playing the flute again. The trance was suddenly broken, and we wandered onward in near silence, admiring the spectacular scenery. “This might be our last meal,” Pablo joked, as he ordered a hearty dinner. The rations of freeze-dried food and PowerBars would start tomorrow, so we enjoyed double portions of dahl-bat2 and washed it down with beer. The porters arrived at dawn and carefully tested the weight of the various loads. After a few minutes of bartering, the gear was loaded, and we headed off through the streets of Simikot and into the deep canyon. The first part of the river was quite steep and involved at least one long portage, so we kept four of the porters to follow us down the river and carry most of our gear. The rest of the porters wished us luck as we carefully packed our boats and prepared for the great journey. It was early afternoon when we finally crawled into our kayaks and felt the refreshing water that would carry us to southern Nepal. Eddy scouting can be a great way to run rivers. The fearless leader paddles to the edge of a big drop and cranes his neck to look downstream. If he sees an eddy that he is confident he can catch, he continues onward and signals the results upstream to his companions. This technique is much faster than scouting all the drops from the shore, and it is a lot more fun. It is also a bit more dangerous, but aren’t most of the fun things in life dangerous? We were very happy to finally be paddling and enjoyed a great section of Class III-IV whitewater in a very remote canyon. Pablo was in the lead, and the rest of the group was close behind him. We were probably a little too close together and maybe a bit too relaxed. “Left doesn’t look very good, but I see a clean run on the right!” Pablo shouted, as he quickly paddled ahead. I scrambled to join him, but the current was very strong, and I missed his line by inches. It was too late to catch an eddy, but I spied another thin line and paddled hard to reach it. Just when I thought that I had made it, my boat hit a shallow rock, and it was enough to change my course. “Whomp.” My kayak suddenly pitoned3 a large rock, and I found myself headed backwards into a nasty sieve. The strong current was pushing the boat under a rock, and my instincts told me to bail. I tried to hang on to the rock, but the very strong current pushed me into an underwater tunnel. After a short but very rough ride, I emerged downstream and felt very happy to be alive and uninjured. It was an easy swim to shore, where I thanked the gods for letting me live, then ran down the trail in search of my boat. My friends had dragged the boat to shore, and the float bags were fairly dry, but my camera case had leaked. My SLR camera was wet, and a second camera that I had stuffed into my life jacket had been lost during the swim. A river can easily take its toll on someone who travels too heavy or is a bit careless, but I was so happy to be alive that I didn’t complain. The spot where my boat had been rescued looked like a good camp, and the day was waning, so we decided to stop for the night. The shepherds came to join us, so we broke out one of our bottles of Scotch and had a grand fiesta with them and the porters. The porters had brought a live chicken and cooked up a feast that included some of the stinging nettles that grew along the river. They needed to be cooked for a long time, but they were readily available, tasted a lot like spinach, and were probably very nutritious. The next day was warm and sunny, and the shepherds came to bid us farewell as we headed down the gorge. Dave had told us about a mile-long canyon that would probably need to be portaged, so we were very careful as we eddy hopped our way down the river. Ken and Andy found a friendly eddy next to the trail, but a quick scout showed three or four more beautiful Class IV rapids and a safe eddy below them, so some of us continued onward. The rapids were as good as they had looked from shore, but the trail was quite a ways above us when we finally stopped. Randy and I carefully shouldered our boats, but Paul had headed up the bank before us and was nowhere to be seen. “Where did Paul go?” Randy asked, as we struggled up the steep embankment. “I don’t know, but I think he went straight up. What’s that noise?” “Wump! #**##! Arg! **##*##!” The sound was coming from the base of a small tree, and when we went to investigate, we found Paul hanging onto a thin branch with his head stuck inside his kayak. The bank was very steep, and he was about to lose his grip, so we helped him with his kayak and decided to pull the boats up the steep hill with our throw bags. “Wow! That was steeper than I thought,” Paul said with a chuckle. Ken and Andy were very amused by the whole incident, but they had missed four great rapids. We portaged the rest of the canyon and found a pleasant camp with a small cave for the porters, who were traveling very light and needed as much protection as they could get. The head porter had a fair sleeping bag, but the other three spent their nights huddled around the fire with only a few thin blankets. A normal night for them would have been called a bivouac for us, but they were always smiling and full of energy. Most Nepali tribes share the same last name, and this one was Lama, so we called them the Lama brothers. We had a small Gurkhali dictionary, but it was only English to Gurkhali, so they were forced to search endlessly to find translations. We showed them our map and tried to communicate where we would meet the next evening. “Pul!” the lead porter said, pointing to the map. But there was no village of that name where he was pointing. He looked a bit frustrated, but he paged patiently through our dictionary. A few hours later, he came running to our tent with the dictionary and said, “Bridge… pul.” We laughed and smiled at each other and agreed that that would be a very good place to meet. That night, a storm moved into the canyon, and we awoke to a cold rain and fresh snow only a few hundred feet above us. Randy was suffering from a severe gastronomical disorder and did not want to leave his tent, so we decided to take a rest day and hope for better weather. Intestinal diseases are one of the biggest challenges of traveling in Nepal, but we had come prepared with a good supply of Ciproflaxen,4 and a few other miscellaneous potions. These can be easily obtained in local pharmacies without a prescription and for a small fraction of what they would cost in the States. We fed him a dose of Cipro and spent the rest of the day playing cards in the cave that the porters had found. The evening brought harder rain and colder air, and we awoke to almost a foot of fresh snow. Randy was feeling better, but he said that he wouldn’t mind another day of rest, and nobody was very excited to paddle Class V in that kind of weather. It was now day four of an approximately seventeen-day trip, but we had only traveled about fifteen miles. We had 226 miles left to go. “This is starting to look like a real adventure,” I said to Ethan with a wary chuckle. He agreed and started to build a snowman with Pablo. The air was very cold, but the worst of the storm seemed to have passed, so Andy and I decided to wander down the trail to the nearest village. We were becoming a bit concerned about our food supply and thought that we could possibly buy some rice in the village. The pul was only a couple of miles downstream, and our porters had found a dry loft, complete with a warm fire and some new companions. We pointed to the village we were hoping to find on the map, and one of them decided to follow us. Most of the villages were built above the canyon, where there was more sunshine and (usually) some flatter land for their fields. The housing structures in this part of Nepal were built of wood, adobe, and stone, and resembled apartment complexes. They were built like terraces on the sloping hills, with the roof of one structure acting as the courtyard of the next building up the hill. Most of the villagers were gathered in one of these courtyards when we arrived. Suddenly, all of the villagers’ activities came to a halt, and someone brought a rug for us to sit on to the middle of the courtyard. Most of the locals circled around us as our porter told them our story, and they gazed in amazement at these strange humans who had invaded their world. The conversation changed very quickly to business, and the porter struck a bargain with one of the villagers for two kilos of rice. We gave him fifty rupees (one dollar), and he handed them to the man who had made the deal. The excited villager yelled something up to his wife, but the response was not what he had expected. He wanted money, but she wanted the rice, and she seemed to be the boss. Mr. Lama was disappointed for a moment, but he soon found someone willing to sell and disappeared into the upper village. We soon became bored with sitting on the rug, so we broke out the hacky sack and started playing with the local children. They were naturals at this sport, and we had a great game going when a somewhat arrogant professor entered the village. “What! You play games with children?” he asked rudely, as he chased them away and invited us to his house. He was the local teacher and spoke very good English. In a few moments, we were sitting on another rug and enjoying some tea while we told him about our journey. He was somewhat interesting, but the day was waning, and our porters had not returned, so we bid him farewell and prepared to leave the village. “We would like to donate one hundred rupees to the school,” I offered, as we bid him farewell. “No! Please. Do not give it to the school. Give it to my daughter,” he replied. It seemed like a strange request, but we decided to go with the flow, and hopefully, we helped a bit with her dowry. Mr. Lama caught up with us about two miles down the trail. He was carrying a small bag of rice and had a very big smile on his face. The next day was warm and sunny, and Randy was feeling better, so we packed our boats and headed into the gorge we had been scouting for the last two days. There was a solid Class V+ drop right below our camp that Pablo was chomping at the bit to run, so we set up safety, and though he made it through the rapid upright, no one else followed his path. Just below the first drop was a spectacular Class V- canyon with many fun rapids and some friendly pools. Most of the rapids were formed by house-sized boulders, which had probably tumbled down from the high mountains that towered above the river. The low water revealed numerous undercuts, so we proceeded slowly and scouted often. We took our turns at the hard rapids and had more than a few back-endos, but we all survived without swims and had a very enjoyable day. After a sharp left turn with a very interesting rapid, the river eased a bit, and we continued onward to a pleasant beach camp on river right. A pair of interesting local drunkards wandered into our camp and entertained us while they attempted to sell us some eggs. Their sales venture was unsuccessful, but all of us, including the Lama brothers, were very amused by their antics. “Wow! That is much better than television,” Ethan remarked, and we continued laughing as they staggered away. Another sunny morning greeted us, and we paddled Class III-IV water past the village of Sarkegad. This was the first village we had seen at water level, and we were eager to go exploring, so we caught an eddy near the school and dragged our boats up to an empty meadow. Ignorance is bliss, and no one realized that we were making a major logistical error. “I’m feeling a bit tired, so I’ll stay and guard the gear,” Pablo said, as he prepared to take a siesta in the warm sun. It was a very short siesta. We returned in about twenty minutes to find about a hundred Nepali teenagers jumping up and down on the kayaks and playing with the paddles. Paul was doing his best, but the group was a bit overwhelming, so we fought our way through the throng and managed to paddle away without losing any gear. That afternoon, we camped on a beautiful green bench in a pristine forest of ancient pines next to the confluence of the Lochi Karnali. Another solid Class V gorge was waiting below us, so we stopped early and hiked upstream to a very pleasant hot spring. Because of a gastrointestinal incident a few days before, I had chosen to part with my only pair of shorts, and I really didn’t want to go swimming in my wetsuit or polypro pants, so I tried to hide behind a small boulder. The reaction of the locals was a lot worse than I could have possibly imagined. They decided not to stone me, but I finished the bath in my heavyweight polypro. The third gorge was a literal gateway between two completely different worlds. We left the pine forest behind and entered a vast desert with sparse grass, numerous cacti, and a few palm trees. The rapids that separated these two worlds were very challenging, so we scouted carefully and snuck down the edges of most of the drops. Pablo saw a line in the biggest drop, but the undercut walls looked risky, so he decided to shoulder his boat and follow the sneak route. The air temperature was suddenly warmer, and we stopped by a crystal clear pool of blue, glacial water, where we enjoyed a casual lunch of jerky and PowerBars in the warm sun. The trail had climbed high above the river, so we found ourselves alone in this remarkable paradise. The hard rapids continued for a few more miles as we carefully scouted and paddled our way through the magnificent gorge. It was late afternoon when the canyon walls finally opened, and we arrived at a very small village where the trail re-joined the river. It was a popular camping spot for porters, goat herdsmen, and a few other miscellaneous nomads who were traversing the canyon. But it wasn’t particularly pleasant: Goat and sheep turds covered nearly every square inch of ground, and three very vicious sounding dogs strained against the chains that prevented them from attacking anyone who tried to get too close. It was a little disappointing to camp in this barnyard after spending the day in one of the most pristine places that we had ever seen. But we needed to meet our porters, and the camp was very interesting. The first three Class V gorges were behind us, and we celebrated our success with a freeze-dried dinner, a small ration of whiskey, and a large chocolate pudding. It was a warm evening, and we fell asleep listening to the bellowing sheep, the barking dogs, and the very refreshing sound of the ever-moving river. The next portion of the river was supposedly a lot easier, and we needed to make some serious mileage. So we sent our faithful porters home and packed everything into our kayaks. We gave all the items that didn’t fit in the boats (including some warm clothes that were no longer needed) to the Lama brothers, and they were very happy to receive them. Someone donated a Tupperware bowl, and the recipient was ecstatic. He was still admiring it when we said goodbye and headed down the river alone. The Lama brothers had been great companions, and we would miss their humble smiles around the campfire. The volume was up to about 3,000 cfs now, with moderate whitewater and a very strong current. And since we were about two days behind our tentative schedule, we started early and paddled hard. The canyon walls opened a bit, and we traversed a very sparsely populated desert. The trail that followed the river was now nearly empty, and the few travelers we met were very surprised to see us. If there were any wild animals, they were out of our sight, and most of the day was spent traveling alone in this desolate paradise. We camped late on a high bench on river left, and a local shepherd and his young son came to visit our camp. They were very curious about these strange foreigners, with our plastic boats and fancy gear, and we tried to communicate as we demonstrated the wonders of lightweight tents, tiny stoves, and freeze-dried food. They seemed to be very impressed, but the young boy spit out the freeze-dried food we gave him to sample. I can’t say that I really blame him. We had learned the secret of not camping near villages from many previous Third World experiences. The Nepali people were incredible, and we enjoyed them immensely in small quantities, but large groups (especially of children) tended to be unruly and not very pleasant. We guessed that we had gone about twenty miles that day, and we slept a lot easier knowing that the end of our journey was that much closer and that our chances of starving to death in this vast desert had diminished. The rapids remained moderate, but we knew there was a long Class V waiting somewhere below us, so we proceeded with caution. “Wow! Look at that rockslide!” Pablo yelled, as he pulled into an eddy. We saw the very fresh scar of a recent landslide just ahead, so we decided to hike downstream to investigate. The geological event had filled the river with rocks and mud, which created a new rapid that looked quite challenging. While we were scouting the rapid, we discovered a hemp bridge that had been built by the local villagers, and we stopped to get some photos. The rapid looked reasonable, but the volume of the river had increased quite a bit in the last few days, and the line we had chosen was harder than it had looked. A few of us had very exciting runs, and some had to roll, but we all arrived safely at the bottom. Late in the day, we camped on a high, hidden shelf on river right. The group dynamics of our trip was excellent, and the only thing I can remember arguing about was where to camp. We were always in search of a perfect camp, and this time, our persistence almost stranded us in the dark. Luckily, though, most of our camps were incredible, and this one was one of the best. The boats had to be dragged up a steep, thirty-foot bank, but the reward was an absolute paradise. We spent the night in an irrigated orchard, with a flat terrace, running water, and hundreds of blooming plants and chirping birds. The next day, we ran what the guidebook described as chunky Class IV, and we all found it to be quite challenging. Ten days of high adventure had made us all a bit weary, and after a morning of solid whitewater, we stopped on a remote beach for lunch. As we feasted on our favorite lunch of jerky, PowerBars, and Triscuit crumbs, I was astounded to find a fully intact Triscuit in my bag. Our persistence about perfect camps led us to the brink of the fourth, and probably most difficult gorge, where we camped on a fairly steep slope just above the entrance to the roaring whitewater. We were close to the village of Sani Gad, and there was no firewood to be found, so for the first time on the trip, we were forced to use our stoves. We had camped late, and the local villagers had already returned to their homes, so we enjoyed a peaceful night listening to the raging whitewater that awaited us downstream. Rippling waters usually make me sleep very well, but a raging torrent, waiting to be run, has a somewhat opposite effect. As a result, our nervous and tired group awoke early to scout the gorge. It was a busy day on the local trail, and we encountered the worst goat-jam that I have ever seen. Hundreds of goats and their shepherds were headed in opposite directions on a one-goat-lane bridge, and there was nothing to do but wait for the caravans to pass each other. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the photographic opportunities were incredible, so we found a comfortable spot and enjoyed the spectacle. The goats eventually made it across the bridge, and we wandered downstream to scout the next rapid. It was very long, and it looked hard from half a mile away. The first drop was a solid Class V, and some of us set up safety while the bravest ones became probes. It was a technical drop with a flow of about 4,000 cfs, which meant very difficult water to maneuver in and a Class V+ rapid just downstream. Pablo made it look quite easy, but Andy back-endoed in a very bad spot, and we watched anxiously as he struggled to roll back up. “The water is really pushy,” Pablo yelled, as he struggled into an eddy above the steepest part of the drop. Andy missed the eddy, but managed, just barely, to catch another one just downstream. Randy had just launched his boat into the torrent and hadn’t heard Pablo. A few seconds later, he tipped over in a big hole and struggled to roll in the raging river. He was on a very bad eddy line, and the current made it very difficult to clear his paddle. Randy was very aware of the difficult rapid just below, so after a couple of failed attempts, he chose to bail and swim to the safety of a large rock. He managed to catch a throw bag and got himself safely to the shore, but his boat — and everything that he needed for survival — was heading down a long Class V+ rapid without him. We watched helplessly as his boat swirled through a couple of large drops and headed for the opposite shore. But the boat was well trained, and by some miracle, it wandered back to an eddy on river right, and Pablo rushed down to grab it. It would have been a long hike in river shoes back to civilization. Ethan had a fairly good run, but Ken and I decided to shoulder our boats for the first drop. This stretch had some beautiful whitewater, but it was a long rapid, and the current was very strong. We scouted carefully and ran most of the rapid in short sections near the shore. This process involved climbing many large, slippery boulders, then memorizing short sections of the rapid. The half-mile section took a good part of the day, and we were all very relieved to put it behind us. The day’s events had taken their toll on most of our nerves, and we paddled cautiously through some more chunky Class IVs before camping on a secluded beach on river left. The camp appeared to be protected by a rock cliff, but shortly after we landed, some local fishermen climbed down a very steep route where steps had been carved in the rock. One of them seemed to be of a very different origin than his friends, but we did not speak his language, so we could only speculate about how he had arrived in this remote land. After admiring our gear, they threw their nets in the water. But the overfished stream yielded nothing, and they wandered back up the cliff empty handed. Most of the hard whitewater was behind us and a celebration seemed in order, but the whiskey was gone and the freeze-dried food was tasting worse every day, so we toasted some cups of hot tea and slept soundly on the warm beach. The group embarked early the next day and paddled carefully to the brink of our last portage, which avoided a very steep and congested drop that didn’t tempt any of us. As this rapid was close to a village, we were quickly greeted by a large group of children, and they immediately began to fight over who would get to carry our gear. This drop was the last hurrah of that very difficult section, and the character of the river suddenly changed to a much friendlier big-water Class IV. There were some huge holes, but most of them were easy to spot, and we were able to make good time (with only a few big-hole rides).
 Somewhere in this section, we paddled under a large suspension bridge, which to our surprise, was completely filled with cheering locals. Word of our travels had preceded us downstream, and almost everyone in the village was waiting to see these strange foreigners in their small plastic boats. The vegetation continued to change as the altitude dropped, and we approached the fringes of the southern jungle called the Terai. The lonely desert was behind us now, and the population increased substantially as we entered a zone where basic survival was somewhat easier. Two small children were playing by the river, and I paddled near them to try to get a photo (with a borrowed camera). They looked very frightened and were starting to walk away, so I decided to roll my kayak in hopes of amusing them. It was a trick that I had used very successfully once before, but this time it failed miserably. They ran away as fast as they could, and I can only imagine what they told their parents. We were now approaching the lower Karnali, which had been a somewhat popular raft run for a few years, and the attitude of the locals was suddenly very different. They had seen gringos before, and I guessed they had probably been disappointed because those past experiences had failed to change their lives. Though the river was then flowing at over 5,000 cfs, Dave had assured us that there was nothing really death defying in this section, and he dared us to run it without scouting. “You only get one chance to run a river blind, and this is a very exciting stretch to try it,” he chuckled. “There are some very big holes, so watch out.” We decided to take his dare and paddled hard through a maze of large boulders and huge holes. Ethan was the first to get caught, but his very gallant hole ride freed him from his captor. “Wow! Did you see that?” he said, struggling to catch his breath. “I thought I was swimming for sure, but it suddenly surged and let me go.” From a bit upstream, I had seen him cartwheeling and had just enough time to maneuver around the huge hydraulic. But just downstream was an almost river-wide hole. Half the group scrambled to the left, but Ken and I were already too close, so I put my boat in warp speed and looked for a tongue in the monstrous hydraulic. My heavy Prijon Tornado managed to break through the huge wall of water, but Ken was nowhere to be seen. He was getting the hole ride of his life, and we could occasionally see his boat as it cartwheeled in the monstrous hydraulic. “He’s swimming!” Ethan yelled. The current eased below the big hole, and we were able to get him safely to shore, along with his boat and gear. “Let’s take a break and go scout that hole,” Pablo suggested. “We’ve already run it, so it won’t count.” “Wow! That is definitely the biggest hole that I have ever been in!” Ken said, still breathing hard. “I think that was the last big hole on the river,” Pablo said jokingly. After a short lunch, we paddled into the village of Jungle Ghat to retrieve a stash that Dave’s raft company had left for us. This village had seen many gringo rafters and did not welcome us with open arms. They had heard sloshing liquid in the bag and were very reluctant to hand it over, but our persistence (and a small bribe) finally convinced them to give us our supplies. We were definitely in the jungle now, and we camped on a small beach with very dense vegetation and many strange noises. We were also right in the middle of tiger country, but the French wine from the cache helped to ease our worries, and we enjoyed a reasonably good feast. The tigers didn’t attack, and we awoke early to the very pleasant songs of the local birds. The great journey was nearly over, and the whitewater was easing, but the current remained quite strong, and we traveled very quickly. The population was becoming a lot denser, and we crossed paths with many interesting people, including a herdsman guiding his water buffaloes across the river and two young lads who came to check us out in a dugout canoe during a lunch break. There were a few intermittent rapids, and Pablo entertained the locals by throwing his paddle into the air, rolling without it, and then catching the paddle. They seemed to be very impressed. The last two days passed very quickly, and the voyage suddenly ended at a large suspension bridge, which marked our passing back into the Twentieth Century. It came complete with all the noise and fumes and madness that modern technology has brought to this endangered planet. We were sad that our journey was over, but we enjoyed fresh beer and dahl bat, and spent a few days looking for tigers at Royal Bardia National Park. I was fortunate enough to have two more months to play, so I headed off into the Everest region to do some more exploring, then onward to Indonesia to recuperate.

Local boaters who came to check us out during a lunch break.









The Humla Karnali River from Simikot to Chisapani


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