SUPing the Lower Kali Gandaki

Words and photos: Liam Kirkham. Fun, unpredictable and slightly uncomfortable…

Words and photos: Liam Kirkham
Some adventures you undertake are those you have dreamt about for years. In the meticulous planning you have traipsed all over Google Earth, devoured blogs, memorised the guidebook and spent hours poring over Facebook reviews before finally booking a flight and committing. Others come about because you bought a plane ticket when you were drunk. This is about one of those adventures. 

Over the last few years I’ve invested a large amount of time and money in going  on ‘trips’ or ‘adventures,’ normally involving a kayak. Many of my best experiences and most interesting friendships have been born from days floating down a white-water river in a little plastic tub.

I value time on the river so much that when my friends and I were evicted from our lovely rental house after four years, I was ecstatic rather than upset. Why? Because the landlord refunded my deposit, and with that I funded a trip to Idaho and Pacific North West America with some friends. A trip I thought I was going to have to miss. With the flights covered, I saved the rest through selling old gear on eBay and laying off even the smallest luxuries for a few months. Eviction complete, bags packed and other belongings scattered between friends and charity shops, I boarded the plane.

I embraced this new ‘freedom’ happily. Months passed sleeping alongside rivers, under trees, on friends’ sofas and, more than once, in a cold warehouse full of kayaks. It was a blast. (Though my long-suffering girlfriend may disagree).

Lower Kali Gandaki
Rich and Liam Kirkham

Since then, despite my best efforts, I seem to have grown up. I live in a house, pay bills and even have a baby daughter; the baby paraphernalia really limits the space available for new kit. I even – whisper it – have a slow cooker.

Though I know time outdoors is good for me, it’s easy not to go on an adventure. Very easy. Of course it is. But I have found one easy, fool-proof way of making time. It’s not necessarily advisable (nor is the adventure itself) but by taking a strong irreversible decision, such as spending several hundred pounds on a flight, you kick yourself into action.

As I busy myself about my day I try to ignore the angry, energetic chimp residing in my brain, shouting out in frustration. “Oi fat boy! What we gonna do this year?” If he gets too loud I pacify him by reading guidebooks, tracing maps or (worst of all) buying some kit that I ‘really need.’ In truth that’s not enough. It’s feeding the chimp a mere breadstick.

Liam Kirkham
Liam Kirkham

With no trip on the horizon and no idea in mind, I floated through the days, weeks and months. I glued myself to Netflix, binging on those programmes that are irresistibly entertaining yet utterly forgettable. One good idea (paddle boarding form Bath to Big Ben) didn’t happen, with the real but cliched excuses: a lack of time and money, and the option to continually delay. The now dog-eared books, annotated maps and scribbled plans, evidence of once strong enthusiasm, were discarded in the corner of the office, atop guides for other places to which I am yet to go.

A while after the launch that never was, my mind drifted towards Nepal as I supped a pint. I’ve had the good fortune to visit several times, both as a guide and a tourist. Nepal is synonymous with adventure. High Himalaya for mountaineering, green foothills for long treks, incredible white water: Nepal has it all. I sat thinking back of evenings spent in Kathmandu, and its dusty but oddly pleasant tourist centre, Thamel. It’s a maze of shops selling ‘authentic’ Nepalese artefacts and decent knock-off gear, with hundreds of steaming eateries. Many of the thin alleyways snake their way to beautiful hidden courtyard cafes. In many of them you will find a bunch of kayakers nestled in a corner, sun-kissed and smiling after a week on the popular Sun Kosi River.

Miles away, sat in my local, I pulled out my phone and browsed flight comparison sites. With all the certainty of someone on their third pint, I hit ‘buy’ on some very cheap – but very non-refundable – tickets for a few weeks away. I had backed myself into a corner. Twelve days in Nepal with no idea what to do whilst there. It was a bad plan, but a bad plan is better than no plan. I was committed, and the chimp in my head roared excitedly

But what to do? I considered kayaking, packrafting or trekking but the hangover of my failed paddle board trip was still lingering. I searched for appropriate lakes and rivers in Nepal, but quickly realised a river would be more exciting. The river needed to meet two requirements. First, it had to be a class 3 max, as I had never paddled boarded white water before. Second, it needed to be long enough to give a sense of a proper journey. My guidebook had one that ticked both boxes: the Lower Kali Gandaki. 135km of class 2/3. Perfect.
“Life is too short but in the wrong company life can be too f***ing long.” – Tommy Tiernan  

My friend Rich
When thinking about who to adventure with, it’s easy to think, “The more the merrier,” or politely say, “Yeah of course your new partner can join,” but in truth it’s important to think carefully about your travel companions. My head hurt at the thought of organising a group, but going with one other can be risky. My friend Rich came to mind – we are close mates, lived together and I was even a groomsman at his wedding.

Lower Kali Gandaki
Lower Kali Gandaki

That said, I’d hesitate to say we get on well. Our friendship is built on bickering. We can chat pleasantly, disagree violently or sit in happy silence, each equally comfortably. He’s somebody I can trust, somebody dependable. (Apart from that time when our night out ended up with me being rescued by the fire service and passed into the back of a police car whilst he had disappeared. But that’s a story for another time).

Despite these attributes, Rich lacked one thing: experience. He had never done a river trip, owned no kit and didn’t understand anything about white water or camping. In total he had spent one wobbly half-hour on a paddle board. Like me, he was a new father with little time to practice and a lot of reasons not to go. “Fancy an adventure?” I texted. “Where? Maybe.” His hesitance was fair; our last trip had been a multi-day hike in Scotland that he was physically and mentally scarred by. “Nepal” I replied. He shot back instantly “Oooowww,” which I optimistically interpreted as excitement rather than a howl of pain.

Five months, several hundred texts, several re-packs of our bags, and one paddle board session later it was time for Nepal. On a breezy April afternoon we were dropped by a taxi next to the river in the village of Ramdi. We spread our kit on the beach and pumped up our inflatable 13-foot paddle boards. Organisation was sacrificed at the altar of excitement and we stuffed our bags haphazardly with food, tents, sleeping bags and everything else before strapping them to the boards.

First WW theory session
There was a rapid to get us started straight away. Though as a kayaker I could read the smooth tongues of water, eddies and slow flows, I could tell from Rich’s face he could only see a confusing mess of fast flowing water and pointy rocks. We climbed on to a boulder and looked down at the water as I gave Rich his first white water theory session, in the middle of Nepal 135km upstream from our final destination.

Liam Kirkham
Liam Kirkham

Falling rocks
We were set to go when we heard an ominous rumble, and we saw something splash in the water. I was confused, but not for long as we saw several more boulders smash into the water. We looked up to see a dusty bulldozer working up on a cliff, clearing a road high up the river. Rich looked queasy, but based on the trajectory of the falling rocks I was confident we could hit the target pool and paddle well away from the boulders. Rich trusted me (amazingly) and we headed out to the Kali Gandhi, down the first rapid and away from the rockfall. As ever, the water looked a lot smaller and slower from the bottom than it had done from the top.

The first camp was beautiful, a high bedrock ledge on the riverside. At the top were pockets of soft sand and clumps of firewood. We set up our sleeping spots, the nearby cat prints encouraging us to huddle closer than we otherwise might have. We passed the event trying (and failing) to organise our gear, eating rice and staring at the sky, congratulating ourselves on surviving the first day.

We woke at sunrise and eagerly set upon the water before 08.00. When it was flat we could chat and enjoy the view, but these moments were quickly interrupted by long bumpy sections littered with large rocks. Enjoying the challenge, I tried to stay upright as much as I could, with varying degrees of success.

Rich ‘kayaked’ the board down them, aided by the paddles we had brought in anticipation of such challenges. Neither of us cared too much about these different methods. We were there for some fun and time away, neither of us purists. This didn’t mean Rich avoided swimming, though. Early that morning Rich overcooked a turn and was lurched into the water. He bobbed to the surface panicking, frantically looking for the board that was leashed to his waist. I smiled and nodded at him, trying to convey some reassurance.

Calmed, he found the paddle and scrabbled back on the board. After we drifted further he began to settle, and with each successive capsize his confidence in self-rescue grew. We started to discuss in more detail how better to paddle the rapids, and his technique improved quickly – the paddling more considered, the angles neater and his power more controlled. Paddle boarding, like kayaking, involves a nasty paradox: you must relax to be good, but it’s difficult to relax until you are good.

Picking a camp was difficult. Ideally we wanted something to ourselves, but so often there’s a small bridge leading to a village. Though I have never had a bad experience in Nepal, I felt very aware there were only two of us, sleeping on the side of the river in a remote area with expensive and unusual kit around us. Eventually we found a small semi-secluded patch of sand behind thick scrubland. It was soon home and we settled down for the night.

Liam Kirkham
Rich and Liam

After a few hours of fitful sleep Rich shouted, “Should we be worried about that?” Thunder rolled towards us, thick and menacing clouds filling the sky. As we considered putting up our tents the rain began to fall in fat drops that left violent indents in the soft sound. If the river did rise much this perfect semi-circle of sand would quickly flood. We popped up our tents as the rain intensified. I drifted quickly back to sleep, but woke an hour later worried the river was creeping up. The rain was lashing down and the lightning had moved directly above us. I felt a gurgle in my stomach followed by a jolt of pain.. The heavens had opened above us, it was the middle of the night and I needed to poo.

Immediately. I stripped in my tent to avoid my sleeping clothes being soaked and scuttled out stark naked. I hurried kicked a hole in the steep bank of sand downstream and squatted like a dog shaking in the storm, laughing at the idea of somebody watching us at that point. So amused was I by this idea I stopped by Rich’s tent to tell him. He popped his head out but was too confused to speak, disgusted and amused to find me prancing naked in the storm.

Time to chat
We settled into a routine over the next few days. Rich grew more competent, talking me through his approach before executing a tricky rapid. I would nod and he would lead the way. As we covered ground more easily we could take in our surroundings more, and take time to chat to those we passed. An old farmer in a small village told me I paddled well. I complimented his excellent English, but he only shrugged his shoulders and explained his daughter was at Manchester University.

A group of strong young goat herders visited us, laughing as I tried out a few words of Nepalese. They offered a cigarette before departing and wishing us well, and I again felt bad for being anxious about the risk of our gear being nicked. Everyone we met was friendly and polite.

Liam Kirkham
Liam Kirkham

A floating snooze
Wildlife was abundant. We saw troops of monkeys on the banks moving along urgently, and were followed by a pair of inquisitive and brazen red throated martens who constantly scrabbled to get a better view of us. We occasionally treated ourselves to a floating snooze, laying in just shorts and t-shirts whilst we basked in the sun. Though our eyes closed we remained on amber alert for the noise of the next rapid, conscious too of the piles of stones along the river. The Kali Gandhi is a holy river and underneath these stones were the remains of those who lived and died nearby. In a few months the high water of the monsoon would wash them away.

The machinery we had occasionally seen earlier on, noisily dredging gravel from the river, had disappeared and the surroundings grew prettier. The banks comprised of dense tree line punctuated by small settlements with terraces and green fields. The water was darkened brown by the rain. After a while a tricky rapid came into view before the river became squeezed by steep cliffs. We had reached the gorge, a section not far fro our planned take out.

The rapid led to what was by far the most beautiful spot we had seen so far. It buoyed us, and we became chatty and giddy as we pulled over for an early camp. With the beach to ourselves and no one in sight, we draped out kit over rocks to try and lay on our matts to read in the heat. We even took our soap into the river for a swim and a wash. Bliss. This spot in the Kali Gandaki Gorge wouldn’t have felt half as special if we had taken a taxi. We had earned this.

Liam Kirkham
Liam and Rich

Almost at the end
On day five we left the gorge and paddled past waterfalls. Not crashing loud waterfalls but thin ribbons of white tracing the rusty cliffside until they silently hit the floor. As we chewed sandy Nutella wraps for lunch, we realised we had made such good progress we were almost at the end of the river. The river was more open now and, with more people along the bank, we knew we couldn’t top the previous camp and agreed to push on to our take out.

Rich powered ahead, fuelled by the desire for a hot shower, and I followed on with no hope of matching his pace. Within 25 minutes we had deflated our boards, trekked to the roadside and flagged down a tuk-tuk. We squeezed all of our kit and our bodies into a tiny vehicle each. Our drivers became competitive and raced each other through the town. It was the perfect way to end our adventure. Fun, unpredictable and slightly uncomfortable.

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