Nepal is best known as a mecca for mountaineers and trekkers, but the reputation of its rivers, which carry rafters and kayakers on winding rides through the country's stunning scenery, is on the rise.
We were going over the rapids, and I was paddling hard, fighting desperately to keep my kayak upright on the turbulent surface of the Kali Gandaki, which was trying to tip me into its silty waters with a determination that was beginning to feel personal.
It was a fight I would lose, and soon I was upside down, grasping at the kayak's skirt before coming up, gasping for air. Once the water had drained from my nose and eyes, I could see in the distant sky a kettle of vultures, circling idly in the breeze. The next thing I saw was Amit, one of our guides, paddling towards me with the grace of a swan, to help me back into my kayak.
"You must paddle harder," said Amit. "Always."
Named after Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, the river dissects Nepal from north to south, flowing for more than 600 kilometres from its glacial beginnings in Tibet to its confluence with the Ganges in northeast India.
There were a dozen of us on a five-day expedition designed to take those with little, or no white-water kayaking experience, and enable them to traverse class-three rapids.
We floated through canyons, past thick jungle and sandy beaches that sparkled with quartz. Buffalo wandered in desultory lines along the shore behind white-bellied herons wading in the shallows. Occasionally, a water scorpion or snake flitted or slithered across the surface. Neither is lethal; it was the rapids that might cause me harm.
We were approaching another set, and I watched the others go through, some bobbing like toy ducks over the bumps and dips before gathering, with their dignity, in the still pool below. Others enjoyed less graceful descents, and were now separated from their kayaks, scattering the surface with a motley jumble of upturned hulls and flailing arms.
As I tried to pick my line, I could see several vultures hovering over the roiling water.
I dropped into the first section, and immediately there was a great thud as my kayak's nose hit a submerged rock, doing serious damage to both the kayak's hull and my morale. I was flipped violently, and left upside down and clutching once more for the release string of the kayak's skirt.
This time another guide, Rajeep, would come to my rescue. I checked myself for broken bones and blood, and finding neither, climbed back into my soggy seat.
"You must shag your hips!" said Rajeep.
"What!?" I asked.
"You must shag your hips!" said Rajeep again, rocking his kayak from side to side.
"OHH! Shake your hips!" I said, and began mirroring his absurd gyrations. "Yes! You must shag your hips," said Rajeep. "Always."
Most of the time we were utterly alone, but occasionally small bands of children would gather at the riverbank, racing us along pebbly beaches shouting "Where you from?" and, more often: "Give chocolate!" Once I spotted an old woman in a bright crimson sari, peering at us from the jungle's edge, like a red berry hanging from a holly bush. Many seemed to be seeing outsiders for the first time, and later, I asked a local man with some English how often he sees people floating downriver in this very foreign manner.
"Second time in life," he said.
"How does it make you feel?" I asked. "Happy very!" he said.
But river kayaking, apparently, is a sport best left to light-skinned fools in bright orange vests and silly plastic hats. Would he ever like to try it? I asked.
"Never!" he said, looking at me like I'd just asked him to wash my underwear, and returning to tend a fishing net strung between two dugout canoes from a series of flip-flop floats.
As evening came, and the light turned the hills a warm bronze, we would haul our boats up onto the bank and set up camp.
Late at night, the only sound would be the fading waves of insect thrum from the jungle and the occasional pop of bamboo exploding on the campfire, and the only light from a few hovering glow bugs and the reflection of the moon on the Kali Gandhaki, which continued its lazy pace away from camp and out into the utter blackness of night.
On the last morning, we awoke to an emerald mist floating over the river like a silk scarf, while a troop of nosy langur monkeys watched us from the trees. There'd be no morning campfire, save the unceremonious burning of the previous night's toilet paper, which isn't the sort of thing you'd want to cook a hot dog over.
It would be on this day that we would face the final and fiercest set of rapids. We started out gently enough, floating past cows swatting flies with their tails as songbirds swooped over the river, picking off dragonflies. On the bank of one bend, several vultures picked at the carcass of a drowned calf, and lifted their bloody heads to eye us as we drifted past.
Looking downriver, I could see the white, boiling froth that signalled the top of the rapids.
"Paddle hard!" yelled Amit, over the river's growing fury.
"Shag your hips!" yelled Rajeep.
I did both, and entered the gauntlet looking like a string puppet at the hands of some fitful manipulator. Then some invisible current put me in a vicious spin from which no amount of hip shaking or power paddling could save me, and I was — again — separated from my kayak and being whisked through the chutes. This time it would be Som, the lead guide, that would collect me and my scattered gear.
"You must not paddle, only if tipping," he said, hauling me back into my boat. "Always."
"Som," I said, trying to catch my breath. "Each of you is telling me a different thing; Amit that I must always paddle harder, Rajeep that I must always shake my hips, and you that I mustn't paddle at all."
"Yes," said Som, without sympathy, and with a distant stare back over the rapids, besides which stood a few disappointed vultures.
"You must paddle differently at different times," said Som. "Always."
Matt Whelan is a professional freelance travel writer and photographer whose work has appeared in many publications, including The Globe and Mail and the U.K.'s The Daily Telegraph. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.mattwhelan.ca or on Facebook at Matt Whelan Writing and Photography.
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