Running Rapids in Eastern Nepal
Nepal has long attracted travelers seeking spiritual, cultural and philanthropic enlightenment, but since the 1950s, this small Himalayan nation has also become a global destination for mountaineers and trekkers.
What many adventurers don’t realize, however, is that Nepal also boasts world-class whitewater (all that snowmelt has to go somewhere). There’s no shortage of Class IV and V rapids, but the country’s rafting and kayaking industry remain relatively low-key, overshadowed by peak bagging.
I discovered Nepal’s rivers serendipitously while researching an assignment on the country’s high-altitude cheese industry. I’m a bona fide river rat, and my perfect trip always involves an active outdoor component, great food, cultural immersion and general dirtbagging around.
If there’s big whitewater involved, even better.
My web surfing led me to discover the Tamur River, which is located in southeastern Nepal in a remote region known as the Terai (Google Map). After thorough research (see “Choosing an Outfitter,” below), I booked a 12-day trip with Kathmandu-based Whitewater Asia.
Australian owner Patrick O’Keefe has been running rivers throughout Asia for over 20 years, and when he’s not guiding trips in Nepal, he’s based in Japan, guiding ski tours.
Getting to Dobhan
The Tamur is extremely remote, in a part of Nepal rarely visited by tourists. Following an 18-hour bus ride across the Himalaya from Kathmandu (you can opt to fly, but our small group wanted the “authentic” experience- janky bus, hairpin turns, sheer cliffs and all), followed by a four-day trek through the foothills, to the put-in near the village of Dobhan.
I hadn’t realized prior to my trip that Nepal has such diverse topography, ranging from tropical lowlands to plains. We set off from the village of Biratnagar, porters carrying our rafting gear and backpacks (using porters isn’t exploitative; rather, it provides steady income for villages and families- the key is to find an outfitter or guide who is ethical in their hiring and employment practices).
We stayed at tea houses and spent our evenings talking with the gregarious owners and villagers, surrounded by a menagerie of children and livestock.
We spent the first two days hiking through misty rhododendron forest and lush, terraced farms, serenaded by the bells of free-ranging yaks and cows. We stayed at tea houses and spent our evenings talking with the gregarious owners and villagers, surrounded by a menagerie of children and livestock, eating incredible meals cooked by our Kathmandu-based raft guides and safety kayakers.
We camped the last two nights of the trek; waking up at sunrise on day four and seeing the world’s third-highest peak, Kangchenjunga, from my tent, is something I’ll never forget We also viewed a distant Mt. Everest one morning, when the cloud cover parted briefly, as well as Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world.
On the River
The next five days were spent on the river, paddling hard under O’Keefe’s expert direction, navigating 75 miles of highly technical rapids and thundering hydraulics. Every moment was heightened by the fact that we were literally in the middle of nowhere, the only signs of civilization the occasional fisherman perched on the banks, or a distant hillside village. Monkeys screeched at us from branches overhanging the water, and at night around the fire, we feasted on treats like freshly made chapatis and water buffalo curry, in between slugs of rough Nepali whiskey.
Monkeys screeched at us from branches overhanging the water, and at night around the fire, we feasted on treats like freshly made chapatis and water buffalo curry, in between slugs of rough Nepali whiskey.
The Tamur is one of the most challenging rivers I’ve ever rafted, but it was our next-to-last-night, while camping on a pristine sandbar, that provides the most indelible memory. A gaggle of wide-eyed kids (where did they come from?) swam over to say hello; they were an endearing combination of giggles and shyness, with only a few words of English between them. Still, we spent over an hour laughing and communicating largely via sign language, and eventually I deciphered that they wanted to know where I lived, in the schematic sense.
I scratched two crude renderings of our respective continents into the sand with a stick. The kids leaned in close, their hands on my shoulders, as I drew a line from Colorado to the southernmost point of Nepal.
So far, yet so close.
Click here for information on Whitewater Asia; the next Tamur River trips depart April 1 and November 5, 2017.
How you can help Nepal
I departed Kathmandu 24 hours before the devastating 7.8 earthquake in April of 2015. Nepal is still struggling to rebuild, and in dire need housing, food and medical assistance.
If you want to help, you can donate to organizations like Global Giving, a crowdfunding community for nonprofits that uses funds to help partner organizations that are rebuilding homes, providing job-skills training, and addressing food security and education in Nepal.
Or visit our partner Vitamin Angels who is fighting malnutrition in 57 countries across the globe, including Nepal.
Choosing an Outfitter
When it comes to finding a reputable travel company, you generally get what you pay for. It’s never worth compromising your safety (or your life) to save some money, and many budget companies don’t take sustainability into account with regard to supporting the local economy or environment.
Depending upon the type of activity and country, there may be international or national qualifications or certifications you should look for. Get online and do some research, and follow-up with companies. How long have they been in business/guiding on X river? Are they transparent in answering your questions? Do they respond in a timely manner to your emails? If not, move on.
Ask companies for past clients’ emails and contact them about their experience, or look for reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and travel blogs.
Stay Healthy While Trekking & Rafting
When traveling in developing nations, I swear by probiotics to help ward off illnesses caused by less than hygienic conditions (note they aren’t a preventative) while out trekking and rafting. There’s no time for a fussy stomach out on the river, so it’s always smart to get a filled prescription from a travel or infectious disease doctor before you depart.
Laurel is a Basalt-based food and travel writer, cheese consultant and the editor of Edible Aspen magazine. When not sitting in front of her computer in her pj's, Laurel can be found enjoying the outdoors, or backpacking around the world eating street food and acquiring new and exciting tropical diseases.