I originally wrote this article for Wired for Adventure volume 13, which was also published online here. Having gotten carried away as usual, these articles were much shorter than the full story below.
Words by: Mathew Wilkinson
Photos by: Sam Brown, Sagar Gurung, Mathew Wilkinson
About the author: Mathew has been hooked on whitewater kayaking for just over a decade and a half, but still finds he has to remind himself to paddle at the top of bigger rapids. He is the Head of Marketing at Pyranha, P&H, and Venture, and enjoys telling the world about the exciting and innovative canoes and kayaks produced about 100m from his desk in Cheshire, England.
If you only take one thing from this tale of adventure, I’d like it to be that no matter what obstacles your mind or the world throw in front of you, keep on pushing through them until you reach where you want to be.
The prologue to the movie based on my whitewater adventure in Nepal would be compiled of hazy footage of various gatherings of friends and I from as early as 2011, circling around the details without getting to grips with anything other than our beverages… that is until 2019, when one of those friends had had enough, booked himself on a trip, and sent us the details to decide whether we were joining him or not.
Looking at the extremely reasonable cost of guiding and flights (there was a reason they were so cheap; you’ll see!), and with the looming feeling that this might be THE chance, it was hard to say no… so I paid my money and finally began leafing through the Nepal Whitewater Guidebook I’d purchased in 2013.
They say if you buy cheap, you buy twice, and that was certainly the case with our flights; Jet Airways went bust in April of 2019, but after a short panic, we (Alfie!) managed to get a refund and rebook with Etihad.
Thankfully, the rest of the lead-up to the trip was quite relaxed. George, Alfie, and I had a ‘warm-up’ trip to the ice cold whitewater of the French Alps, spending our evenings in the highest ski resort in Puy-Saint-Vincent watching thunderstorms – as it was the off-season for skiing, the accommodation was quite cheap, but driving up and down the mountain every day to get to the rivers was rather inconvenient. Are you sensing a theme?
George had gone out to Nepal early, and Sam and Tony (a friend of Sam’s from a previous kayaking holiday to Uganda) were travelling separately, so myself, Alfie, Will, and Ben (all of whom, along with George and Sam, I’d met in Manchester University Canoe Club) gathered at my house to throw all our kit in a pile, decide what of it we actually needed, and then attempt to split that evenly between our hold baggage so each bag was under the weight limit.
My ‘bag’ was a kayak; a Pyranha 9R II Large, to be precise.
I’d poured over Bren Orton’s YouTube video about flying with a kayak before heading to the airport, and knowing my kayak was definitely over the maximum length, and thanks to all the kit I’d packed inside it, almost certainly over the weight limit too, I followed his advice to a T; park it far away from the desk so it looks smaller, bag it so you can claim it’s a surf board, and then ‘accidentally’ lift some of the weight while it’s on the scales.
The young lad on the check-in desk looked almost as nervous as I felt, but seemed confident in what he was doing and unfazed by my unusual baggage… that was, until he reached a snag in the system and called his manager over… uh oh.
My luck held out, though… even through being sent from the oversized baggage desk to an even larger scanner, ironically placed in what must have been the smallest room in the whole airport; if someone had videoed Alfie and I wrestling a kayak full of gear into this room while trying to maintain the illusion that it was small and lightweight, it would have gone perfectly to the Benny Hill music.
Eventually, I was waving goodbye to my ‘surf board’ as it disappeared into the mysteries of the world behind the rubber curtain; is this the same world as behind the pins at a bowling alley? We’ll never know. All I could do was cross my fingers that we saw it again on the other side, and be thankful that I didn’t have to unpack all my things from it and be the first person ever to buy a suitcase from the airport.
The adrenaline crash must have been massive, as I don’t really remember much of what happened next beyond snapshots of playing Monopoly Deal in various areas of Manchester and then Abu Dhabi airports, and never quite being sure what meal I was eating whenever we got food.
The second plane from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu was quite a bit smaller, but through its window I was relieved to see my kayak had also made the transfer.
We’d pre-booked transport from Kathmandu airport to our accommodation, and sure enough, as we emerged with VISAs in hand, a tiny Bedford Rascal arrived with a roof basket. The driver jumped out, climbed onto the van’s roof, and gestured for us to pass the kayak to him, securing it with some fragile looking twine. I was too tired and/or polite to protest, so we went with it.
The ride that followed was reminiscent of the opening credits of Naked Gun, as the van twisted and turned through the narrow, pedestrian-filled streets of Nepal at speed; the only difference was that no one was jumping out of the way… or really even looking concerned in the slightest.
After a brief pit stop at our hotel, we headed out again to find George; he’d done some important ‘research’ in the few days he’d spent in Nepal before our arrival, so we followed him to the bars. The first one involved climbing up several flights of the steepest, narrowest stairs I think I’ve ever experienced, passing through several small rooms filled with people sat on padded floors, until we reached an empty one at the top. It felt like the entire building could tip forward at any moment, but the whisky helped ease those nerves.
In the second bar, we got our first taste of the Nepalese rock scene, as well as momos, which Wikipedia describes as ‘bite-size dumplings made with a spoonful of stuffing wrapped in dough’… picture Chinese dim sum, and you won’t be a million miles off. In fact, China and Nepal share a border, so you won’t be any miles off.
Another bar had a mezzanine floor with a balcony above that, and a large, fibreglass tree stretching up from the ground floor and through both. On the mezzanine floor, there was a room built into the tree that we promptly locked a quite-inebriated George in. We’d later find out he’d lost his bag in this bar, and feeling guilty, head back in vain to find it.
We picked up Sam and Ben somewhere along the way, and ended the night in a gay bar. I always find these to be reliably welcoming, but this one did have a slight air of tension – Nepal is quite progressive in terms of laws relating to LGBT+, but societal pressures to live a ‘traditional’ lifestyle still remain.
I’m not known for being a party animal, but now and again I find a night out is just what I need after a stressful experience; this particular one, plus sufficiently lowered expectations of the hotel, meant that I slept beautifully… well, perhaps not, but it was certainly restful!
I promise I’ll tell you about the kayaking soon… but there really wasn’t a moment of this trip where I wasn’t fascinated, both on and off the water!
I couldn’t tell you what we ate for breakfast the next morning, but what I do recall is that I had a cup of ‘Nepali tea’ and immediately realised I was amongst my people… it was milky, sugary, and lukewarm. Hate me if you must.
Walking through the streets of Kathmandu towards the Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the ‘Monkey Temple’, we passed dogs, chickens, cows, and more, all calmly walking the streets with the humans… that was, sadly, with the exception of one monkey. He was (presumably) joyfully swinging between powerlines when one short-circuited and exploded, sending him to the ground with a thud.
The crowd of people in the vicinity had just recovered from the shock (I wish I could say the same for the monkey), with one of them heading to his aid with a bottle of water, when the broken powerline lying on the ground began to snake around, sparking ferociously, and then exploded again. We quickly got the fudge out of there and hurried along the street until we were no longer under the spaghetti tangles of powerlines and phone lines that are commonplace in Nepal’s cities.
After climbing the many steps to the top of the temple, admiring the myriad of prayer flags and monkeys, we headed back down, being overtaken by monkeys sliding down the handrails.
That evening, we visited the small unit where the guiding company we’d booked with were based, and quickly went from thinking we were on a trip of 7 friends, to realising the group was at least double that. The kayaking world is a small one, though; I already knew a few of the others, and we became fast friends with the rest, who hailed from Japan, the USA, Sweden, Belgium, and the UK. We all went for dinner that evening to get to know each other.
A brief discussion with the guides about boats over breakfast the next morning presented an opportunity for me to play a prank on Sam; he’ll tell me at every opportunity how inferior Pyranha kayaks are to his favourite brand (who I won’t give him the satisfaction of naming here), so naturally, I let the guides know that he’d told me in no uncertain terms that he absolutely must have a Pyranha Burn for the trip. I had to rapidly backtrack when I realised that’d be the only boat loaded on to the coach roof rack for him to use over the first half of the trip, though!
Crisis averted, we all piled on to the coach and left Kathmandu for the first river of the trip, with the guides stood on the coach roof to lift the powerlines over the boats – I don’t know what they’re paid, but it isn’t enough!
River 1 – The Trishuli
A few hours later, we reached the banks of the Trishuli, unloaded a mess of kayaks and people from the coach, and began what should be a simple process of getting into our kit and on the river, but always seems to take exponentially longer the more kayakers are involved.
When we’d finally gotten on the river, one by one we checked our roll, and then split into 3 groups which set off in turn towards the first rapid… and then promptly merged into one, mega-group that would remain for almost every other river on the trip.
The river itself was, at times, approaching some of the biggest volume water I’ve paddled, with large horizon lines you’d slowly see more of the river behind as you approached, and then only at the last minute spot where the person in front of you had wound up, or catch a fleeting glimpse of a clear path through the chaotic water. With only the briefest of descriptions shouted over the roar of the water to a bustling group of kayakers before each rapid, you really had to believe in your own judgement, and learn from the mistakes of those in front of you!
After the river, we were loaded back into the coach amongst the bags and under a roof full of kayaks to be transported across hours of ‘main’ roads that would have been described as impassable in the UK. As some were still in the process of being built, it often felt like the workers had just forgotten to put out the cones and we were driving through their construction site.
Our destination was Pokhara, where we’d spend the next few days of the trip within driving distance of the Upper Seti and Modi rivers. Along the way, we’d set up a WhatsApp group titled ‘Guys & Team’, as this was how the head guide frequently addressed us before issuing a confusingly conflicting series of statements under the guise of a briefing of the day’s itinerary.
A long, uncomfortable coach ride after a day of kayaking meant we were looking forward to bed when we reached the hotel, so it was a crushing disappointment when we realised not enough had been booked for us to have one each, and each group of 3 had to play Rock Paper Scissors to see who got the single bed and who shared the double. If we hadn’t gotten to know each other well enough already, the unlucky ones amongst us soon would!
River 2 – The Upper Seti
The Upper Seti was more technical than the Trishuli, which is generally the kind of paddling I prefer. There was even occasion to get out of the kayak, climb up to a ruin atop a cliff, and scout a steeper rapid leading into a gorge before we headed back down to run it in smaller groups. I was relatively pleased with my line, right up to the point I mounted a rock at full speed, did a 180, and had to finish the rapid backwards.
In contrast, the section through the gorge was quite calm… until someone mentioned they’d seen a snake on the gorge wall, and the head guide started yelling at us all to get out of the gorge right away.
As we approached the get-out, we paddled towards a footbridge draped in prayer flags, and received confused stares from people who had just gone to wash their clothes in the river and weren’t expecting 15 people in brightly coloured kayaks to float by.
River 3 – The Modi
Like the Upper Seti, the Modi is a boulder-garden style river, with a select few lines winding through the boulders; the sustained, mega-train approach to guiding did not pair well with this style of river, as we were all trying to stay close enough to the person in front to see the line they were taking, but not so close as to lose any space to pick up speed and clear a feature if we needed to.
In a boat as fast as the 9R II, playing such a close-quarters game of follow-the-leader often just simply was not an option, and I found myself on more than one occasion forced into an alternative line, or even having to boof* over the person in front after they’d gotten stuck in a hole**. I was frustrated as this rarely meant I was able to run the rapids with any style, I was just rolling the dice and taking what I was given.
*a move where you ‘jump’ the kayak horizontally over a drop to clear the hydraulic feature at the bottom.
**a type of hydraulic feature often found at the bottom of a drop, which recirculates and can hold a kayak if you don’t have enough speed going through it.
Singing loud to rock music is generally how I vent any frustrations, and thankfully Nepal has a strong rock scene, so we headed out to some of the clubs in Pokhara that evening to embrace it.
There are certain tropes that go along with the rockstar image, and Nepalese rockers have fully embraced those… some lead singers would take advantage of any break in the lyrics to yell, “MOTHERF*CKERRRRR!”, or tell the audience to put their middle fingers in the air, and most bars featured a band delivering their interpretation of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’, or ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries. We jumped around and screamed along into the early hours regardless, knowing there was no paddling the next day.
Looking back now, it feels strange to have had a rest day after just 3 days of kayaking, but when I remember how much of a feat of endurance the coach rides either side of the kayaking were (and yet Nicki had managed to crochet almost the entire body of a lion pattern during these without so much as a scratch!), I realise why it was necessary.
We used our rest day wisely by doing the most relaxing thing imaginable; taking to the chaotic, cavernous-pothole-littered roads of Nepal on mopeds, some of us having never so much as sat on one before. Riding one from the rental shop to the hotel in nothing but sandals and shorts was the first stupid idea, deciding to drive them up a winding, mountain track (thankfully in trousers and shoes now) was the second, and driving them back in the dark was the third; but damn, was it liberating!
Only Alfie, George, Will, and I were stupid enough to take on this adventure, and as lovers of puns, we promptly named ourselves the ‘Momopeds’, with each of us being named after a different flavour of momo we’d found and devoured on the trip so far; ‘Chicken’, ‘Mixed’, ‘Veg’, and ‘Buff’, respectively.
Some much-needed decompression and a small reminder of home came in the form of a rooftop bar showing Rick & Morty episodes on a big screen later that evening. As Morty says, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. We’re all going to die. Come watch TV.”
River 4 – Upper Marsyangdi
Unbelievably, the Upper Marsyangdi featured only the second cause to get out of the kayak and go take a look at something; there was a chunky, S-bend rapid avoiding a large hole and an even larger boulder. I managed to stick the first move, but on the second bend I went right through the guts of a ‘pit’ of water which threw me and my 9R II over backwards and left me rolling in the confused water afterwards.
The rest of the river was a bit of a cage fight, between technical rapids and big volume, mixy water, but it was all the more fun for it.
That evening we moved to what was without a doubt the worst hotel of the trip; I wasn’t expecting great things from any of the hotels, but this was the only time I had to cocoon myself in my sleeping bag liner to avoid touching any of the sheets or pillows at all. It was a good job I was tired from the river and sleep wasn’t a choice.
River 5 – Lower Marsyangdi
The Lower Marsyangdi offered no warm-up time at all, and it was straight into the meat of the rapids; overall it felt quite similar to the Upper, just a little more continuous and slightly fewer boulders.
Although it was right next a road with trucks thundering past in the middle of the night and occasionally sounding their excessively tuneful horns (as is the fashion for trucks in Nepal, it seems), I think the next accommodation we graced was my favourite. It consisted of some metal framed, canvas tents with proper beds built into them, next to a beautiful pool and a covered dining area where we were served dal bhat for absolutely every meal.
This new accommodation also marked a turning point in the trip, when the head guide left one of the younger members of his crew in charge, and suddenly we were having much nicer, more helpful chats about what we’d be doing the next day.
River 6 – Lower Bhote Kosi
The Lower Bhote Kosi was a step down in intensity, and a chance to unwind a little… so naturally, it’s where I had my first out-of-boat experience of the trip (i.e. I capsized and swam). No cool story, no good excuse, I just let my guard down and gave up a little too easily on my roll. Something I need to work on!
River 7 – Balephi
The get-on for the Balephi was right in the centre of a small town, and a few of the locals, curious about what we were up to, came over as we were kitting up… this made it a little awkward, as after a long coach ride, a few of us were looking for secluded spots to have a wee!
The river itself may have been my favourite, possibly because it was a little low and felt familiar to how in the UK we’re generally forced to experience most runs, with just a little less water than you’d like, or perhaps it was just because it lent most towards the boulder garden style of paddling I prefer, with plenty of flares off smooth boulders up for grabs.
How’s this for a sign of the difference in leadership style; our new head guide had spotted the different comfort levels and preferences in the group and sat us down that evening to talk us through the intended choice of river for the next day, but also to offer an alternative option.
Knowing it was the last river of the trip, feeling more comfortable under the leadership of our new head guide, and reassured by the fact we’d finally be split into smaller groups, I’d decided to go for it and test myself on the harder option, the Upper Bhote Kosi.
River 8 – Upper Bhote Kosi
On the coach ride to the river, I felt the absence of Ben and Sam, both undeniably better boaters than I. Glimpses of the river did nothing to ease the nerves, and neither did the imposing dam being built just above the get-on by a Chinese construction company.
As promised, we were split into three smaller groups, and George, Alfie, and I were in the third group in line… more nerves were gathered waiting in the eddy*. I’d gotten myself to the point where, when our guide left the eddy, I had to follow right after him, get stuck into the river, and just get it done.
*a calm bit of water at the side of the river.
The next 500m or so were chaos; I saw our guide disappear over the first horizon line, then as I planted a stroke at the edge of the same drop, saw the bow of his kayak flying towards my face as he was backlooped by it. It took a few powerful strokes to get me out of the towback, and then I caught a small eddy to see our guide swim out of his kayak. Alfie and George descended the drop and joined the fray as the three of us scrambled to get the guide, his kayak, and his paddles to the riverbank.
Rescue complete, we set off once more… only for the guide to get stuck in another hole and swim again. This time he decided he’d had enough, and the three groups became two. Not the most comforting start to what was an already intimidating river.
The rest of the river was pushy, but enjoyable; I remember distinctly one 90-degree bend at the foot of a towering cliff, which cast a shadow over the whole river. Trying to pick out a route as you hurtled towards the horizon line and transitioned from bright sunshine to gloomy dark was quite a challenge, but eventually I spotted the curling wave we’d be headed through the tunnel of, as well as Nicki being capsized by it… I put in a couple of good strokes and braced myself for a similar experience, but the 9R II’s speed saw me through.
As the river eased off towards its end, we were unwinding and reflecting on its events when I caught an edge and spun towards a concrete wall at the side of the river; I thought nothing of it, until I saw the rusty sections of rebar sticking out into the river. I began scrambling to get away from the wall, when the back of my kayak hit something hard and stopped dead; I had just enough time to look around and realise the bottom of one of the stanchions had crumbled and the stern of my kayak was now wedged in the cage of rebar it had left. I had to get out of there, and quick.
Once I’d exited the boat and resurfaced, I realised I was now in the water and travelling at speed without my kayak to protect me from being impaled. I was thankful that George and Tony were there to help get me to the riverbank though, and eventually I was safely on dry land, unscathed apart from the loss of a shoe. Definitely one of the scariest swims of my life.
With that, the kayaking segment of our trip was over, so we said our goodbyes to the guides and the rest of the group (after one more rock club and a final Rage Against the Machine singalong!), and then made plans for the last couple of days before our flight home.
Nagarkot had come up as having one of the best views of the Himalayas, so a few of us went for one more coach ride to check it out. Our mission on arrival was to find a hotel high up the hill with the best view possible, so we walked up to a group of three right at the peak, decided the first two were too expensive (even though in reality, they were still less than the price of a night in a Travelodge at home!), and booked in at the third. Success(?)!
Will, or rather, his stomach, wasn’t feeling up for the 5am start to catch the sunrise over the Himalayas, so Alfie, George, and I left him behind; in the end, he probably got the best deal as we’d half-jogged a fair distance, snuck into another hotel’s grounds, scrambled through some bushes, and stood on a wall for an hour or so in what we thought was a prime spot, only for a mist to roll in at roughly the same rate as the sun rose, and a swarm of giant hornets to explode from a bush just a few metres in front of us!
Adventuring done, we headed home. Just a few short months later, all the handwashing practice would come in useful when the COVID-19 pandemic hit; I was so glad we squeezed this one in when we did!