Sea kayakers on the Sun Kosi


“OK – see you at the airport tomorrow around 6a.m. then.”

I put the phone down.  It looked frighteningly like Paul was about to pull off a new world record for spur-of-the-moment, ‘let’s do it’, spontaneous kayaking trips.  To Nepal.  Tomorrow.

Five days ago, on the previous Monday morning, I’d paddled out of Merrica River to beat, by the skin of my teeth, the nor’easter that subsequently weathered in Paul, along with James, John, Shaan and Cathy, for three days.  This scuppered their plans to paddle down to Nadgee.   Paul and the team had finally escaped from Merrica on the Wednesday, and made it back to Sydney on the Thursday.

It was after 2p.m. on Friday when I’d called Paul to see whether they’d made it.  We started chatting about my white water kayaking trip to Nepal, for which I was leaving the next day.  It was clear that Paul was interested and enthusiastic.

“What’s it like?” asked Paul.

“Well it’s the classic big water kayaking trip in eastern Nepal.  Along with the Grand Canyon and the Zambezi, it’s one of the top three greatest white water trips in the world.  I’ve been wanting to do it for years.   I’m sure you must have seen the video of Wildey on the first descent back in 1982, which looked fairly epic when he got pinned in his boat, but the section we’ll be doing is lower down and just big volume Class 3 to 4, with maybe the odd Class 5 rapid like Hakapur.  Wildey reckons there are some cracking surf waves and play spots.”

“Sounds fantastic. I’d love to do something like that.”

“Why don’t you come along?” I suggested.  “You can roll, you’d be fine.”

“Could I?” he said.

“Well it’s Slime’s trip, so I’d better just check with him that he’s OK with you coming along and that the logistics are OK – like that there’ll be a seat on the bus and a boat for you to rent.  But the main thing is you’d better find out if you can get a flight which will get you to Kathmandu by Sunday at the latest.”  It seemed like a very long shot at this very late stage.

“OK, I’ll get onto it.”  We rang off, agreeing to touch base later in the evening.

“Hey Slime, do you mind if I bring someone else along on the Sun Kosi trip?  He’s never run a river before – if you don’t count doing the upper Snowy in an innertube – but he’s pretty good in a sea kayak and he’s got a bombproof roll.  I think he’ll be fine on the river.”

“No problem – fine by me as long as Mahendra’s got a boat for him.  Look forward to meeting him.”

Early evening, and Paul rang back: “I’ve managed to get a seat on the same Cathay flight as you tomorrow morning.”

A plan was coming together – fast!

“That’s great – I’ve spoken to Slime and he’s cool, and Mahendra’s emailed back to say that he’s just taken delivery of some brand new rental boats, so it looks like you’re on!”

“Awesome!  Have you got a white water paddle I can borrow? Do I need to bring a spraydeck? What about food…?”

And so it was that, after sorting out the administrative minutiae and a few paddle hassles with a check-in baggage nazi at the airport early the following morning, Paul and I settled back into our seats for the long flight to Kathmandu via Hong Kong.

So a day later, it was completely surreal to be wandering the grubby streets of Kathmandu with Paul almost exactly a week after we’d paddled into the pristine sanctuary of Merrica River.  The usual urban chaos of Kathmandu was replaced by a far more mellow post-Deepawali hangover, evidenced by the garlands of marigolds festooning doorways and draped round sleeping dogs’ necks.

That afternoon, after boarding the Equator Expeditions bus and picking up Slime and the rest of the crew from the airport, we were on the road out to Mahendra’s riverside camp where the trip would start.

We were soon drinking cold ‘Everest’ beers around a blazing open fire, and getting acquainted with the rest of Slime’s assorted crew who’d all flown out from England. Slime, legend in his own lunchtime, veteran of  thirty years of Himalayan paddling and author of the white water guide to Nepal, has been running trips like this for years, and gave us the lowdown on what we should expect from the next ten day’s kayaking on the Sun Kosi.

The Sun Kosi is a big volume, beautifully blue-green Himalayan river flowing from near the Tibetan border through eastern Nepal down to the Indian plains.  In the nearly 300km that we were to paddle, there are some monster rapids, with formidable-sounding names like Meatgrinder, No Exit, High Anxiety and Jaws.

Slime had organised a raft support through Mahendra’s Equator Expeditions, so we’d have the luxury of paddling empty boats to run the powerful, foaming rapids of the ‘river of gold’ and surf the enormous standing waves for which it was famous.

It was not going to be a strenuous trip, given the demographic of most of the participants.  All of us except Paul were mates or acquaintances of Slime, i.e. old school ‘has-been’ expedition paddlers from back in the days when white water boats were still made of glass fibre and paddles were feathered 90 degrees.

As a result, the daily routine was not to be too strenuous.  Breakfast at 8a.m., on the water by about 10a.m., followed not long after by morning tea and then a brief lunch stop.  Like any good sea kayaking trip, this one was more about the eating than the paddling.

By early to mid afternoon, we’d pull in to a convenient sandbank, and Arun, the head guide, and his team of wonderfully good-natured Nepali raft guides, safety kayakers, cooks and bottlewashers, would set up camp and prepare afternoon tea and dinner, while we indulged in a little tarpology to provide shade from the afternoon sun and keep the dew off, spread out our sleeping gear and then spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out, reading, sleeping, writing journals or just hanging out.

The highlight of each day was waiting for the Arun’s echoing call of “Ruuuuuum puuuuuunch” at 6p.m.  Our responsibilities extended to eating as much as we needed or could before telling tall tales around the campfire and soaking up the immensity of a star-studded Himalayan skyscape.   Our greatest concern was whether the jerry can of rum would last the trip.

Fortunately the river began gently enough: wide, fast and green – and warm! –  but with some not-too-scary rapids and eddies which allowed Paul, along with the rusty rest of us, to get the feel of paddling dumpy little plastic river boats less than half the length of a sea kayak.

We practiced cutting in and out of eddies behind rocks, a key survival skill when an eddy is the only means of stopping on the river that’s heading quickly downhill.  Paul quickly picked up the basics of moving water and in no time was looking for standing waves to surf like the more experienced veterans.

Most rapids were ‘read and run’ – i.e. scout from the boat and if it doesn’t look too bad let someone else go first to find the gnarly bits.  Others required some scouting to check out the line down and avoid the big holes.

The biggestmost fearsome rapid on the river, Hakapur 1, demanded a portage as the whole river headed towards two enormous and deadly pourovers, flowing over the vertical faces of massive rocks and creating a deadly backwash from which it would be unlikely that a raft or kayak would escape.  It was all I could do to persuade Paul that it was not a really good idea to try and run it – but he still took the chicken chute where the rafts were being lined down.

Below Hakapur 1, Hakapur 2 offered a big, bouncy ride and a couple of great surfing holes.  I paddled towards one hoping for a good surf, but bottled out and slipped past it when I saw that it was actually quite a retentive, ‘trashy’ hole, i.e. you’d likely take a bit of a pasting if you dropped into it.

I eddied out downstream from the hole and saw Paul come down, heading enthusiastically for the hole; he’d obviously seen me heading towards its juicy looking foam pile.   Undeterred, he angled across the river, paddling hard upstream to ferry across, and caught the face of the wave.

But after a few moments the wave suddenly had him bracing sideways.  I saw his boat disappear for a second or two as he got ‘windowshaded’ in the hole, catching glimpses of a flailing paddle blade.  A moment or two later one or other of the pointy ends of his boat could be seen cartwheeling skywards as he did a couple of involuntary enders.

I prepared for a rescue, fully expecting him to come out swimming.

After a few seconds Paul got flushed out of the hole, still in his boat but upside down.  As ever, he rolled up, with a massive ear-to-ear grin.  Anyone else would have eyes like dinner plates and be trembling violently, but Paul just smiled and yelled above the roar of the river “That was faaaantastic!  I hope there are some more like that!”

After eight days on the river, some other paddling buddies of mine caught us up, by prior arrangement, and I left the group and shot off with them.  Our plan was to blitz the last couple of days on the Sun Kosi, including the fantastic Jungle Corridor, and then trek in to another classic Himalayan river, the Tamur which flows into the Sun Kosi just before the take-out.  Paul continued on to finish the Sun Kosi, and in the couple of days left before flying back to Australia, he also ran the upper Sun Kosi and the Balephi: two much harder, steeper and more technical runs.

There can’t be too many paddlers out there whose first river is one of the biggest white water runs in the world.  But, like Paul, if you’ve got a reasonably solid roll and a taste for adventure, cold beer and warm water, there’s no reason not to consider a trip like the Sun Kosi.  After all, the worst thing that can happen is if you don’t like the look of a rapid, you can put your kayak on one of the rafts and take a ride down on the rubber bus.