Reminiscing Karnali River Adventure

Manohar PhotoManohar D Shrestha / Kathmandu: Years ago I had watched a movie called “Deliverance”, starring yesteryear’s he-man Burt Reynolds about a fun-filled, adrenaline packed, adventurous river trip of a few friends that ends up in tragedy. The story of the movie was eerily surreal.

A few years later, we were invited for a trip to Bardia National Park. It was the month of fabulous February with warm sunny days, pleasant evenings and bone-chilling mornings. We spent the night in tents on the bank of the River Karnali, which would lullaby us to sleep with its gentle murmur. At the middle of the first night I woke up to the thundering sound of a sort that I had never heard before. I stayed awake for some time listening to the ethereal sound with awe. I could also hear the crashing sound of the branches of the trees in the park, which got me into the fear mode lest they break and fall on us. I stayed awake inside my tent for the rest of the night. As the night progressed into day, the sound slowly receded and subsided all together. In the morning, I was informed that the sound was caused by the strong winds from the Tibetan plateau gushing through the Karnali gorge. What I found extremely puzzling was that the wind did not reach us on the ground. This could be because the path of the wind was high above the ground and that the speed forced out the wind as if through a tunnel. In the morning, the jungle was shrouded in mist, the trees and plants bathed with its water, and the grass on the ground completely wet. On the jungle walk we were greeted with droplets of water falling off the branches drenching our rain jackets. The day was nice and sunny enhancing our pleasure while ambling around the rural villages and the farmlands. February was a wee too early for snakes to be seen. So, that was nice. But, this is one of the finest places in the country for viewing a great variety of snakes including the most feared and awesome King Cobra and python. I just love snakes and at one point in time thought that I could do well to start up a snake farm. But I was always too timid to approach our bureaucrats for the permission lest they find me weird. Just did not have the heart to deal with the serpents in the grass!

Our trip was rolling on in great fun-filled activities with idle talks, jokes, laughter, plentiful of good food and assorted bottled inspirations. Beer would keep us indolent and drowsy during the warm sunny days and the much manly varieties such as scotch, rum or vodka, passed around the crackling fire in a simple rustic alfresco setting, would enliven our conversations in the dark starry nights. The murmur of the river would be occasionally interrupted by the shrill hooting of the owls, barking of the deer and the howling of the jackals.

On the third and final day of our stay, we started off after a hearty breakfast of cornflakes, toasted homemade bread, butter, marmalade, cheese, beans, bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, roasted potato, glasses of fruit juice and cups of tea and coffee. We hiked along the ancient trading route to Jumla and, in fact, came across several traders and herds of sheep going downhill towards Nepalgunj. We shortly descended the hills and reached the Karnali River further below Chisapani where we jump into the raft for a trip downstream. It was a scenic float with just a few small rapids strong enough to gently nudge and sway the boat. The day was beautiful with the sunlight glittering on the crystal clear water forcing us to don our sunglasses. We passed by a crocodile or two basking in the sun and some deer quenching their thirsts and others grazing on the grass by the river bank. We also saw plenty of resident and migratory birds like Brahmini ducks that fly all the way from Siberia to escape the harsh winter. This is an annual ritual for these birds that go back before the onset of summer.

As we kept on floating, soaking in the scenery, and catching the sight of a lone eagle circling in the sky, we were eagerly looking forward to arriving at the picnic lunch site on a small island full of sand, deposited by the overflowing river during the monsoons, on which wild shrubs had grown in thin patches. We arrived here around mid afternoon and immediately started fishing out cold beer bottles from a jute sack kept under the water in the river. Soon we were relishing plates of wild boar, stuffed with rice, cashew nuts, almonds and spices, barbecued in a pit fire. While I was eating and drinking, I contemplated if there was heaven on earth, it would be right here on this island in the middle of the great Karnali River, drenched with copious sunlight, grand views all around and the azure sky high above. It was a great day at a great place with great food and great company. I was in a state of total bliss. I thought it was a pity that the hippies missed it completely. They would have turned this into a Tom Leary paradise with dense smoke and conjoined bodies all over the place.

After a hearty lunch, as we were getting ready to leave, I suddenly realized that it was Shivaratri on this very day. They say old habits die hard. Although I am not superstitious, I felt a slight pang of guilty uneasiness about eating boar meat on this holy day. I mentioned this to an older companion, a Brahman, and he blurted out, “Oh, Yes! That is absolutely true” He then advised me jokingly to forget it as Lord Shiva was aware that we were on a pleasure trip, away from home. Incidentally, this gentleman died years later in a Necon Airline crash near Thankot. His mortal remains were delivered at home in a piece of cloth.

We started packing up for the return journey. It would take us a few hours of rafting and a short drive up to our camp. At the nick of time, some friends egged me on to row the raft. I loved boating and I still do. A few years earlier I had spent a week in pristine Pokhara rowing dugout boat daily from end to end of the Fewa Lake. I pounced at the offer, took charge of the raft and sailed into the rippling water. There were four of us on the boat. I was doing just fine with my oar and was enjoying the jokes and the compliments. Everything was fine ….until I negotiated a sharp bend to put the boat on the main river channel. Suddenly, without any warning, the raft capsized, tilting slowly on one side and flipping upside down in a matter of seconds. I went flying in the air and as I started falling into the water I could see my friends going down with the tilting boat. All my mates were wise men, very careful – they were tightly holding on to the lifeline running around the entire length of the boat. However, in a panic fit, one of them let go of the lifeline and grabbed a trunk of a tree that was jutting out of the river. I was the fearless and careless one. I had not donned a life jacket and could not swim. In fact, none of my friends had worn life jackets, and I did not know until everything was over that none of them could swim either. In the river, I bounced up and down a few times. The undercurrent was extremely fast that you could not see or feel on the surface. The water was ice-cold. I was told later that the low temperature of the water can trigger fatal heart attack. So don’t really have to drown to be dead.

I thought this was the end of me. This is all I could think of, that this was the end of me, when I was tossed up once again and my hands, frantically waving in desperation, felt something that I clutched at like, as they say, a drowning man grabbing a straw. It was the lifeline of the boat! Hope ran across my mind. These boats are so versatile and secure that they do not sink. They stay afloat. When they flip, there is a vacuum on the inside around the tubes so that people trapped beneath it can still breathe oxygen. The vacuum also slows the speed. Hanging on to the lifeline with my both hands, I raised my head above water and gasped for air. I knew I was going to live. I then started screaming out for my friends. Two of my friends answered in faint but calm voice, and I saw the third one hugging a tree tightly with both hands. He was shortly picked up by another boat. A little later, a driver that had come to fetch us, jumped into the river, swam up to our boat and dragged it to safety with three of us hanging by the lifeline. We were too stunned for words. However, not wishing to spoil our farewell party in the evening, we put on brave face and sportingly imbibed jokes directed at our silly adventure. At night I thanked Lord Pashupatinath for keeping us all alive. Till date I often wonder at my miraculous escape from the jaws of certain death. What if I had simply sunk or swept away further from the boat! Was it a miracle, a good luck or the hands of God that saved us? I have no answers.

When I flew home the next day, I was greeted by my anxious mother, who had come to my place, to make sure that her dream was not real. In her dream she had seen me stranded in the middle of a river and as she yelled for help to save me, the water disappeared. She said she woke up in sweats and had rushed to my place as soon as dawn broke. When she saw me, all her fears and doubts were gone. Till date I have not told her that I actually was lucky to be coming out alive from the Karnali River.

A few years later I had another brush with death as I went sprawling face down from my bicycle in the middle of the busy road. Luckily for me the road was empty during the peak office hour. I could easily have been run over but escaped with only 22 stitches on my chin and my face right between the eyes.

(Editor’s Note: How do you find this article please send your comment at: editor@nepalekhabar.com or editor.nepalekhabar@gmail.com)

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