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.