Rafting at the Top of the World

Shooting the Rapids in Nepal
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The surrounding peaks.
The surrounding peaks.

MARSYANGDI RIVER, Kingdom of Nepal—It was day four on the river, and the Good Ship Lollipop was in trouble again. Tarka, our Nepalese guide, had just finagled our Cadillac-sized raft through a Yugo-sized chute, only to have us careen into a boulder the size of a two-car garage.

"Hold on!"

"Holy &*#@!"

Cussing best captured the taste of the moment as the raft slammed into the boulder and slid up its side, leaving us momentarily at a 90-degree angle to the churning river. Up-ended, the raft teetered in a one-quarter pirouette, then came down in our favor. We had survived.

The raft eddied out, so we stopped paddling to catch our breaths and wait for new orders from Tarka. But none came.

I looked around in disbelief. Tarka was gone, along with Gavin, the client who usually sat beside him.

Then the raft began slipping backward with the pull of another rapid. I traced our likely path and, finding it blocked by man-eating whitewater, asked myself "What the hell am I doing here?!"

I had never been rafting and never thought to do it in Nepal—a place much better known for trails than its rivers—until I spent an evening with David Allardice, owner of Ultimate Descents, a Nepal rafting company. Part of the company's brochure reads, "Ultimate Descents accepts no responsibility for diminished career opportunities, and the inevitable chronic relationship problems which accompany the slow but undeviating downward spiral into the dark underworld of Professional Whitewater Trash." A 14-year rafting and kayaking veteran of Nepal, Allardice is living proof that there can be no escape from what some might naively call a hobby. I was infected by his enthusiasm for Nepal's rivers and became convinced that this was as good a place as any to start paddling.

Each year, more than 20,000 tourists raft the extensive network of rivers in this tiny Himalayan kingdom. The most popular are the Marsyangdi (a long, steep, white-knuckle affair), the Kali Gandaki (less action but still a kick), and the Bhote Kosi (a short kamikaze run). It takes six days, five days, and two days, respectively, to complete them. The long-haul Karnali and Tamur rivers take 12 days, while Sun Kosi expeditions take 10 days.

Now is the time to run these rivers, while they are still wild. Dams unfortunately are slated to tame many in a controversial effort to wean the country off its reliance on forests for energy. The first major rafting river to be dammed could be the classic and Kali Gandaki, a sacred river in some Buddhist traditions. Once scheduled to be finished in November, 1998, the Kali Gandaki dam will generally shorten trips to three days if it sees completion. The Bhote Kosi is also at risk, and in about five years the Marsyangdi, too, may lose its bite if two dams planned for it are actually built.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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