Friday, June 30, 2017

Rafting the Himalayan Rivers and Safari in Chitwan, Nepal

After our rest days in Pokhara, we got our adrenaline pumping with two days of rafting on the Marshyangdi and Trisuli Rivers. Since we were traveling in the off season, there were not very many rafting trips scheduled, but the companies were very flexible and willing to make something work. We had two options for trips and of course we chose the more "extreme" one. We are not white-water paddlers by any means so in reality we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We chose the raft company Adrenaline Rush Nepal in Pokhara. They were very professional (they even have a website!) and were happy to discuss how they scout rapids and have 2 kayakers spotting the raft. We were the only clients on the trip so were joined on the raft by 6 enthusiastic guides-in-training and a fully trained raft guide. 
Our raft team - a crew of river guides in training
We started on the Marshyangdi River, the river we had followed from Besi Sahar to its headwaters only a week and a half prior on the Annapurna Circuit. This is know as "the raging river" in the local language and is considered a pretty difficult river.
Sit at the front they said, its more fun. Or more terrifying
Getting into some of the whitewater
Things were going well and we went through some pretty big white water. Then, we pulled off to the side and they guys went scampering over the rocks to check out the next feature, a class 4+ set of rapids. It was crazy! We came around a big rock and there was a huge hole in the river. It looked like we were clear, but then the raft started getting sucked back towards the hole. Before we knew what had happened, the raft had flipped and I was underwater. I surfaced a ways down the river but was still getting tossed by the rapids. Paddles, flip flops and people were everywhere. I couldn't see Kyle. He had come up under the raft after being pinned underwater for a long time and was going for a pretty terrifying ride. When we all regrouped at the bottom of the rapid, we were pretty shaken but everyone was ok. We somehow managed to collect all the equipment and the guys got the raft righted. After that experience, we were pretty shell shocked but all the other rapids felt pretty mellow.
Near drowning experience in class 4+ rapids

Local kids out for a swim saying hi
We spent the evening camped out on the banks of the Trisuli River, at the raft company camp. As the only clients we had the place to ourselves except for when the guides came by to make us dinner. We were exhausted after a day on the water and went to bed early, but the guides stayed up late singing, playing guitar and telling stories.
We had the raft camp all to ourselves
Day 2 on the river was a lot more relaxed. We had a few sets of rapids to run but we spent lots of time playing rafting games, getting dunked in the river and stopping to do some cliff jumping. We body rafted some pretty significant rapids and spent lots of the day in the questionable water trying not to swallow any.
Another day, another river
Locals going about their day on the suspension bridges
Elaborate shore lunch - all hands on deck
Quite the spread
Once we reached the take-out point, we drove back to the raft company storage room and the boys spent the next few hours trying to flag down a bus that would take us to our next destination, Chitwan National Park. Part of the rafting package was travel from Pokhara to the rafting and then to either Kathmandu, Chitwan or Pokhara at the end of the trip. They didn't specify how they would get us there.
This little truck fit all the boats and all the crew
View from the back seat
Main highway connecting Kathmandu to India
Indian trucks cruising up the highway
There were some huge vehicles on the tiny highway
After a few hours of unsuccessfully trying to flag down a bus, they finally found a truck driver that would take us to Chitwan. What we didn't realize was that the highway to Lumbini and India (and also Chitwan) had been closed for over 24 hours due to a landslide so all the buses were full. Traffic had only just begun to move a few hours before and it was moving very slowly. We loaded into the truck eager to get on the road after cooking in the sweltering heat at the side of the road.
Kyle in the back of a TATA Truck, Chitwan bound!
The breeze from the open truck windows didn't last long. Soon we had caught up with the long line of traffic that was stop and go for the 53 km from Mugling to Sauraha (where the hotels for Chitwan National Park are located). Google says that this should take about 2 hrs. It took us six. The entire ride was loud, bumpy, dusty and hot. It was also very stinky which was strange, until we passed a truck full of animal carcasses and it all made sense. It was very uncomfortable. By about 4 hours, we were getting cranky. When we finally got dropped off at the side of the road in Bharatpur and had to find a ride to Sauraha, we were ready to bite each others heads off.

There is a contract with a few different construction companies to re-do the road. It was supposed to be done in January of 2017. Like most of the construction in Nepal, it was well behind schedule and the companies had been each working on their own timeline and apparently not communicating. We would drive on paved road for a few hundred meters before ending up back on pot-holed dirt road. The road cuts are straight up and there are frequent landslides and mudslides along this section of highway. The landslides used to occur only during the rainy season, but since the earthquake, slope stability has been much worse and dry slides are a frequent occurrence so what we had experienced was not unusual. We we lucky that we hadn't been stuck on the road for 24 hours like some.
Getting as comfy as I could in the cab of a big transport truck. 38 degrees outside, who knows how hot inside?
Very accurate sign
The roads are cut into steep banks and the road is not very wide
Looking ahead at the long line of traffic and the dust cloud
Trying to snooze, not really possible
I was the one who had decided not to book anything in Chitwan as I figured that it would be cheaper to find something when we arrived. I didn't count on getting in at 9:30 in the dark; dusty, sore and cranky. We checked into the first place we could find. It was very hot and humid, and the room had no A/C. All I wanted was a shower. All Kyle wanted to do was eat. Somehow I won that battle, but by the time we had showered, all the restaurants were closed. Grumpy Kyle had to manage with convenience store food. He just laughed at me and refused to share his chips when I bit into a banana and started to cry. It wasn't even close to ripe.

Morning brought sunshine and chirping birds. Kyle was still annoyed that I hadn't made any plans and I was stressed that we weren't going to be able to get anything set up for a safari. We had a nice breakfast as I scoured the Lonely Planet for places that offered packages so we didn't have to arrange everything individually. The first 4 places we tried were a bust. Either the receptionist didn't speak English, didn't understand what we wanted or were just plain absent. Finally we arrived at Chitwan Gaida Lodge and our prayers were answered. For ~$100 USD each, we got a package deal that included three nights accommodation in a private bungalow with A/C, all our meals, a river safari, walking safari, elephant safari, jeep safari and a few other activities around the National Park. I breathed a sigh of relief and we were able to finally relax for the first time since our arrival. It turns out that this was the final week for safaris before all the companies closed for the rainy season. Talk about good timing.
Chitwan Gaida Lodge
Our deluxe room
Tropical paradise from the deck of our room
 Chitwan National Park is the first national park in Nepal and is home to Bengal Tigers, One-Horned Indian Rhinoceros, Sloth Bears, Elephants and many other animals. We spent our time exploring the park with our amazing and fearless guides, who carried big sticks to ward off the animals.
River boats on the crocodile infested Rapti River deliver us safely into Chitwan National Park
Cormorant waiting for a fish
Following our guide into the jungle through the elephant grass
Monkeys in the trees
Colourful insects on the ground
Beautiful deer spotted from the back of an elephant
Colourful peacock
Hiding out under a huge tree during a brief rainstorm
Another deer hiding out in the dense underbrush
Heading out on our Jeep Safari
Stunning Rhino only metres away from the back of the Jeep
Trying to decide if we are friend or foe
Checking out the Jeep
Rhinos in the water
Another rhino on the road
Elephants and their trainers waiting to go on a safari
Elephant bath-time
Elephants in downtown Sauraha
Working the fields outside Sauraha
Elephant breeding centre
Elephant sneaking a tasty treat
Following an elephant and his rider back home
Beers on the riverbank with the Chinese tourists and their fancy cameras
Epic photography photo 
Rapti River sunset
Instead of taking a bus back to Kathmandu, we decided to save ourselves another day of travel and just fly instead. The airlines in Nepal are not known for their safety record, but really, neither are their roads and buses. When we got to the airport, we had to give our passports to the driver from the hotel so he could pick up our tickets. This was very concerning and he disappeared for a long time. Fortunately, he returned with our passports and plane tickets. The next issue was that the flight was delayed. Then, we found out the flight was canceled and all the passengers from the flight would be split into 3 different flights on a much smaller plane, which meant more delays. By the time we finally got on the plane, we had been at the airport for a few hours. It was a typical Nepal experience. The flight itself was only about 15 mins and we arrived in Kathmandu with plenty of time to get checked into the hotel and wander the streets of Thamel again after 3 weeks of travel through Nepal.
Rural Nepal from the air
Clouds or mountains?
Huge mountains out the window