If traveling is all about the ‘experience’ then the eighteen days I spent in Nepal with Adventurer and Guide Pat O’Keeffe was one of the best experiences of my life.
Two weeks earlier Pat had called me out of the blue from Japan and asked if I wanted to film a trip on the Tamur in Nepal. His company Whitewater Asia specialises in unique, once in a lifetime rafting and kayaking trips and the Tamur has some of the best white water in the world and includes a four day hike in the shadow of Kanchenjunga. Two weeks later I was flying into Kathmandu with a bag full of camera gear and no idea who I was meeting or where I was going. Flying over the city at night I was struck by the hap hazard layout of the city lights. It turns out Nepal is seriously short on power and rolling blackouts are common in the nation’s capital, especially mornings and evenings.
Raji, A Nepali raft guide who I’d last seen five years before in Hokkaido, picked me up in his brothers taxi (taxi is a very loose term for what constitutes a taxi in Nepal). Raji would turn out to be my saviour, in addition to piloting a gear raft alone down the Tamur and cooking for the crew he also managed to look after my tripod and seemed to miraculously produce it whenever needed. He was also keen to practice Japanese with me, which everyone found amusing, an Aussie speaking Japanese to a Nepali in the middle of a river in the Himalayas.
After a frenetic drive through dirt streets full of street dogs, we arrived in Thamel and found Pat in a bar called Tom & Jerrys. You can pretty much find every expat adventurer in Kathmandu on any given night in Tom & Jerrys, where the walls are covered with old photos of climbers, the beer flows freely along with the stories and over charging is par for the course. Still it’s where you meet the most interesting people. On this night there was Pat who is an Aussie living in Japan and working in Nepal, A young Kiwi river guide, two Brits and an American DJ from New Delhi, who took me to some wonderful places to shoot including the Kopan monastery up in the hills on the outskirts of town. It was festival time in Nepal and everyday there was something new to see, and the Nepali people were so open to being filmed. To be able to walk around amidst so much colour and movement and have nobody concerned about me filming was a unique experience. Between the incessant hooting of car horns, the choking dust and the western tourists in full trekking gear you could be excused for thinking that Kathmandu is not the most wonderful city but you just keep finding these little pockets of amazing. At night a new festival would spring up. There was beer, good food and amazing company; it was perfect. Late at night we’d wave Pat off on his Bike as he disappeared into the labyrinth of streets to ride home and I’d roll into my hotel room, with any number of new friends sleeping on the floor or verandah, contented and happy.
So after a week in Kathmandu we headed for the domestic terminal, a step below the international terminal, which many consider to be one of the worst airports in the world. From there we flew to Biratnagar, on the Terai plains, and then took a bus up through the lush eastern part of Nepal to Basantapur, where the road ends and the trail begins. In Basatapur I stayed in my first Yak Hotel. I’m not sure if they’re a franchise but every town seems to have one. There were 35 of us, rafters, Kyakers and guides, and for the next four days we were spread across the mountain peaks as we hiked up to 3500. The first day was cold and a little wet and when we reached our destination, high up in the mountains a bunch of us huddled around the kitchen fire in a little tea house to keep warm while speculating on how the rain here in the mountains would translate to water levels in the river below. The owner, a wonderful old lady never missed a beat, continuing to cook and throw heaps of hot coals into little braziers to keep us warm. The kitchen looked out over the most pleasant little veggie garden but the view beyond was obscured in the mist. The following morning I woke up at five am, found my tripod, camera and time lapse gear and walked around the back of the little tea house. The mist cleared as the sun rose, casting shards of light across the jagged peak of Macalo, the worlds 4th highest mountain. To the left was Lapsi and the Miller peak, and in the middle where two other peaks, guides and villagers where arguing over which one was Everest. I didn’t really matter, the view was mind blowing!
Two days later we were dropping out of the cold mountain into the lush warm valleys below, swapping long pants and down jackets for shorts and t-shirts. We snaked our way down, single file towards a little village called Dhoban on the banks of the Tamur, passing through villages and schools, where the kids and teachers would rush out to see us and have their photos taken. He we got our first look at the river as we made camp and bathed in the little tributaries tumbling down into the Tamur. Some of the Kayakers climbed up above the village to test a few rapids before we all set off the following morning. Pat had warned us that the first twenty minutes on the Tamur would be full on Class five rapids with little or no respite between them. Those of us that were rafting walked up to the little suspension bridge to watch the kayakers put in and pretty soon the entire town joined us. As the Kayakers paddled underneath everyone rushed from one side to the other side and the little bridge swayed like a pendulum. I decided that Class 5 rapids where nothing compared to ten minutes on that little bridge.
The following morning our large camp somehow folded up and vanished into five rafts and twenty kayaks and we hit the river. It was warm and sunny, the water clear and cold, flowing straight down from the snow covered peak of Kanchenjunga. I was in the back of a raft guided by Pat with a motley collection of fascinating people. There was Jack, a 15 year old Welsh student with a gopro strapped to his chest who leap in the front beside Leham, Another Welshman, an Arboror who along with his Wife Deb where both experienced paddlers. Next was Claire who was in the middle of riding a bike around the world, behind her was Emma who built and ran an orphanage and a school in a little village on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Pat drilled us in the basic instructions of forward and back paddling and we pushed off from the shore and were quickly swept away in the strong current. I think Pat was a less than confident in our paddling abilities, our forward paddling was well out of time, our back paddling was haphazard and when he yelled left forward right back it all turned to chaos and he lost any control he had over the craft. This of course happened as we dropped into the first class five rapid of the day. Meanwhile the other raft lost their guide through the first rapid and managed to get themselves down just fine on their own. Two rapids later we lost both Jack and Claire out of the raft and Pat was starting to run short of patience so we decided a bit of team work was in order. By yelling Pat’s orders down the line as he gave them we were able to bring some order to the chaos, giving Pat a chance to actually guide the raft through the hundred plus kilometers of rapids, vast gorges and stunning valleys.
Over the next five days the countryside changed from lush green mountains to dry, arid land as we left the himalayers behind and headed towards the plains of Indai. The days where long, warm and beuatiful. In the late afternoons we would pull up on a remote sandy beach and make camp. Pat, Raji and the other guides would prepare a feast and we’d sit around the campfire and tell tall tales. I was finding it hard to stay up much past eight o’clock, finding my self happily crashing out in my tent and then waking up at dawn to shoot timelapses of the amazing scenery. Everyday the weather was getting hotter as the river wound its way down towards the plains taking us through some of the best white water I’ve ever seen. It all culminated on day four where we paddled down through fifty sets of rapids including class three and four, many of which are named and lived up to their reputation. That evening we made it to the end of the Tamur and camped on the riverbank of the Sun Koshi. The following morning we paddled down towards the border with India and stopped at a Hindu temple crowded with pilgrims. It was a surreal and yet beautiful experience to to climb the steep steps to the temple, amongst the pilgrims wearing an array of amazing colours, while we were dressed in our rafting gear. A few hours later, back on the rafts we left the Mahabharat and Rapcha ranges behind and paddled towards a flat horizon and the end of our journey. I’m still not really sure why I was there, whether it was to film the trip for Pat or just to experience first hand a part of his life, which he so often talks about. The reason doesn’t really matter, I’m just forever thankful to have experienced it.
Check out the Whitewater Asia website to find out more about these once in a lifetime experiences. whitewaterasia.com