Rafting the Sun Kosi – the best thing I have done travelling (so far)

None of us slept well that night, our fourth night of sleeping in pup tents on the sand in the bends of the Sun Kosi river in Nepal. It wasn’t lack of comfort, or lack of tiredness – whitewater rafting all day and getting up before sunrise meant we were happily exhausted and crawling into our tents before 9.30 every night and sleeping deeply.
Our raft gets the rock, Harkapur 2, Nepal

No, it was a potent mix of adrenalin, fear and excitement that had us all tossing and turning that night. Well, the ten of us travellers on our ten day white water rafting expedition were tossing and turning, it’s quite possible that Samir and Nigel, our guides, were sleeping much more comfortably. Four days previously we had all met up in Kathmandu and headed off up into the mountains for our “put-in” spot on the Sun Kosi. We inflated the two rafts, stuffed everything in dry bags and strapped everything we would need to eat, drink and sleep for the next ten days into a large pile in the middle of the rafts. From the put-in at Dolalghat to the take-out at Chatra, 272 kms later, there were no roads or towns, just the occasional picturesque village and friendly shouts of ‘Namaste’ from the bank.

Daily life white water rafting on the Sun Kosi.

Each day we were up before sunrise, getting back into our cold damp clothes from the day before (it’s too cold for them to dry overnight). It was sunny, even hot, on the water in the middle of the day, but very cool overnight. We had to pull off the river and make camp each day by about 3pm otherwise we lost the light behind the mountains and canyon walls. We quickly fell into the routine of unpacking all the gear off the rafts, carrying the rafts and the gear up the beach, gathering firewood while it was still light enough, getting a fire going and the tents up. Then we relaxed around the campfire for the night, as the temperature fell quickly, and re-lived the day’s rapids, and heard about the ones still to come.
Nigel's raft, Harkapur 2 rapid, Sun Kosi, nepal

That’s how we knew about Harkapur 2, the toughest rapid on this river.

The monsoon every year changes the flow and rapids of the Sun Kosi, and so once the monsoons were over in October, the guides from the different rafting companies joined together to do a “guides trip” down the river, to see how things had changed. Harkapur 2 is a fast deep rapid strewn with massive boulders where a tributory joins the Sun Kosi on a bend. And this monsoon had washed much debris in from the tributory river, narrowing the bend in the  Sun Kosi, forcing the water volume through the narrower gap and  making the rapids more dangerous. Nigel and Samir delighted in telling us how one of the guide rafts had gotten into trouble, had been trapped in a whirlpool, and the raft had filled with water and sunk to the bottom of the river. All the guides aboard were thrown lines and were pulled out, but the raft was still down there. Normally a grade 5+, it was now a Grade 6 rapid. Since we were there only 4 weeks later, with river levels still very high, the good news for us was that it was still considered unraftable, and that we would be portaging our rafts around it. Although the idea of scrambling over rocks for hundreds of metres carrying the rafts and all our gear didn’t sound like fun either.

A grade 5 rapid is defined as: “Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids, following each other almost without interruption; riverbed extremely obstructed; big drops; violent current; very steep gradient; close study essential but often difficult. Requires best person, boat, and outfit suited to the situation. All possible precautions must be taken.”

A grade 6 rapid is defined as:  “These runs have almost never been attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. The consequences of errors are very severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapids has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.”

Here comes the challenge.

At the end of our fourth day we made camp after Harkapur 1 and just before Harkapur 2. Nigel and Samir went down to survey the river ahead in the remaining light while we set up camp. They arrived back in the gloomy dusk and announced “the river has fallen a bit,  no-one has run it yet this season, we think we should raft it tomorrow”. We all went silent, went to bed early, and tossed and turned all night to the sound of the rapid thundering right next to us.
Oar Raft, Harkepur 2, Nepal

At day break we were ready to go. We had our two rafts and had been joined by a third (oar) raft which had caught up with us yesterday evening as well. There is a pecking order in rafting, on “real” rafting everyone has a paddle, including the guide who uses the paddle to steer and control the raft. Oar rafts on the other hand are maneuvered manually by the guide using 2 long oars. Other rafts consider oar rafts to be “cheating” – yes there is rivalry, even on water. This morning however it’s all about safety in numbers. We will go one raft at a time, with the members of the other two rafts spread out along the rocky bank over the length of the rapid, armed with life buoys and ropes to attempt a rescue if any raft or people get in trouble. We draw straws, our sister raft will go first, then the oar raft, then us.
Samir on alert, Harkapur 2, Nepal

How to run a Grade 6 rapid.

We gather on the bank and map out a plan to get through the rapid. The real danger is getting pulled across with the huge current into the outside half of the curve in the river – this is where the guide raft foundered a few weeks before. Each raft needs to be strong enough to paddle across the high and wild current, get on the front side of the large boulder in the middle, and bounce off it into the shute which will take us through the raftable part of the rapid. Easy!

Nigel’s raft went first, didn’t make the rock in the middle, went under the water and filled up to within an inch of the brim, went through the rest of the rapid backwards, unable to turn the heavy water-laden raft, and somehow made it through the other side with everyone intact and without sinking further.

Then the oar raft went, they had an easier time of it with the oars, got on the right side of the rock, into the shute and then almost got stuck under the lip of a three foot drop but managed to drag their water-logged raft through as well.

This left us feeling a bit paranoid – were we going to be the spectacular spill, the ones that prove just how easy it is for it to all go wrong? Off we go, hearts in our mouths, paddling in unison, giving it everything we had for the next few minutes. We were in a massive, deep, fast and furious body of water. We hit the rock, bounced off into the shute sideways, went over quite a few drops (still sideways) and came out the end, still paddling, whooping with joy.

By definition, if the water level had dropped enough for us to raft it, and we got through, then it was no longer a grade 6, it was a grade 5+. But forget the semantics – for us, we had just run a grade 6 rapid and survived, and there was no sweeter feeling of achievement. The next four days on the water and the final two days in Chitwan were a blur of fun, we were all so high on adrenaline that it was as if we were walking on water. Many more huge rapids, plenty of quiet parts of the river where we occupied ourselves swimming the minor rapids and trying to remember all the words for American Pie. Twenty years later I can vividly recall that rapid, that trip. For me it was pure adrenalin and pure happiness, and that’s what made it the best thing I have done travelling – so far.

#fridayfaces – on the Sunkosi, Nepal

nepalese boy on Sun Kosi
nepalese boy on Sun Kosi

After paddling the rapids all day, we pitched camp in the sand on a bend in the river at dusk, and this local boy started swinging around a paddle, fascinated by our rafts and our camp.

The photos  which I enjoy taking the most when I travel are the faces of people I come across in my travels. There is nothing like a unique expression to take me right back to that place, that time.


#fridayfaces – hoi an, vietnam

The photos that make the most impact on me, that I remember the most, and which I enjoy taking the most when I travel, are the faces of people I come across in my travels. There is nothing like a unique expression to take me right back to that place, that time.

Hoi An woman, Vietnam 2005
Hoi An woman, Vietnam 2005

So I am starting my #fridayfaces series of photos today with this memorable woman in Hoi An, Vietnam, in 2005. It’s New Year’s day, and I have had a big New Year’s Eve, I am now suffering for it and have been sitting at a cafe for a good couple of hours, not really wanting to move, watching the world go by.

Swimming with whale sharks – the 2nd best thing I have done while travelling (so far)

three, two, one, go…and ten of us slip off the back of the boat into the water and follow our spotter – on her signal we try form ourselves into two lines of five, facing each other, ten metres apart, snorkels and fins on. My heart is pounding out of my chest. Somewhere, really close by, there is a 4-5 m whale shark, just below the surface of the ocean. We know this because a spotter plane has directed us to this exact spot – the whale shark is a couple of metres below the surface, so a plane in the air can see it but we can’t. The plane directs us to a drop-in spot in front of the whale shark’s path, the boat drops us and then moves a few hundred metres away, and we form our two lines, hoping the whale shark is going to swim between our honour parade! Our spotter is ahead of us in the water, she raises her arm when she can see the shark, and directs us to the right spot.
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

Where am I and how did I get here?

I am offshore from Ningaloo reef, an amazing (and relatively deserted) coral reef off the west coast of Australia. Between April and June each year, whale sharks pass through to feast on the coral spawning, and some of them come near the surface, enabling us to observe the world’s largest (and possibly shyist) fish, the planet’s largest shark (but luckily for me its a plankton eater, not a meat eater!). It is a shark, not a whale, and is so named because of it’s immense size – between 3 to 12 metres long, with a wide, flat, spotted body. It is possible to swim with the whale sharks here, in a manner designed to minimise the impact on the whale sharks, to ensure we do not affect their patterns and habits. There are a handful of licenced operators who operate out of Exmouth, WA, and who are only allowed to let 10 people at a time into the water with a whale shark.

There are twenty on our boat and I am in the water with the first ten on our first spotting of the day.

Although this is at Ningaloo reef, this is on the deep water, open ocean side of the reef, and my adrenalin is up. We attempt to form our orderly two lines of five, then our spotter starts shouting “move back, move back”. This means “you are too close to the whale shark, back paddle fast!” I start back paddling, all ten off us are going in different directions, no-one is sure what is happening, so I decide it is time to put my head under the surface and see what is happening. I duck down and my heart stops – about 3 metres under me, and rising, is a teenage whale shark of about 4-5 metres, with a mouth about 2 metres wide, open, showing its three rows of teeth, heading straight for me. I gasp, someone grabs my foot and hauls me backwards through the water, the most beautiful and elegant fish I have ever seen underwater slides past me, and I surface into a maelstorm of snorkelers trying to swim after the whale shark. I put my head back under but I have missed the moment, the whale shark is effortlessly moving away from me into the murk. We signal to our boat and wait for it to move back in and pick us up.
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

Over the course of the day we get to swim with five whale sharks

(we think it is either two or three different sharks, surfacing more than once, but it is hard to be sure). After the chaos of our first swim, we get the hang of it, although no-one has ever told the whale sharks that they are supposed to swim between our neat line of snorkelers, so there is still a bit of improvisation, but we adapt more quickly, and each time we manage to watch the whale shark swim between us, and we turn and swim with it as long as we can.

The whale sharks typically look as though they are barely moving,

an occasional small flick of their huge tails, but we have to swim our hearts out to try and keep alongside them, and no-one manages to stay with them for more than a couple of minutes. I have my underwater camera and often drop off behind the shark as I pause for a couple of seconds to try and focus for a photo, and then find myself chasing it from behind. My photos are blurry and unfocussed, (my shaking arms?) but are wonderfully superseded by my memories of sharing the underwater with this most beautiful fish. From the front it is very wide and flat, it looks tranquil and friendly as it opens it’s mouth wide, sucking in the ocean and using its three massive rows of teeth to separate plankton from sea water.
Whale Shark Ningaloo Reef Australia

I’m not sure I can really describe what it was like, for me, to swim with a whale shark,

but I am going to try – I apologise in advance if I fall into hyperbole. I float on the surface of the ocean, peering through murky water, which just fades into a dark depth, wondering if I will actually see anything. Then a shape starts to form a few metres down and drifts ever closer. From the front it is looks slightly cartoon-like, wide and smiley and harmless – but big! So much bigger than me, and it’s a beautiful blue/grey with an intricate pattern of white spots. As it’s head passes and I start to notice the body, it morphs into pure shark. The body is fluted and strong and streamlined, and as I fall behind, the view of the tail and body spells shark, upsized for Hollywood. It looks like it is barely moving, occasionally it twitches a muscle which moves it’s tail a few inches in a slow flick, but it is pure muscle and sinew, and the tiniest lazy movement torpedoes it through the ocean. I am not conscious of swimming as fast and far as I can, I only feel the rythm of my breath through the snorkel and an overwhelming sense of peace and beauty, I cannot take my eyes off this animal. It made me feel like I am dreaming of flying, but underwater.

After five swims for the day, we are all on an adrenaline high,

and the long trip back to shore, in bright evening sunlight, is euphoric. Even the crew telling us how they once, by mistake, dropped a group of ten in front of a tiger shark instead of a whale shark, is not going to dent our enthusiasm. For me it had an immediate impact beyond the experience itself, it made me question what I was doing with my life, made me admit that the job I once loved I now hated, and lead me down a path where I changed jobs within a few months and reclaimed the “me” I used to be – the one who was enjoying her life! I can’t guarantee it will have that impact on you, but I can highly recommend it as a unique and mesmerising experience.