Sunday, 26 May 2013

Thrilling Bheri, raging rapids and adventurous rafting

Plunge boldly into the thick of life, and seize it where you will, it is always interesting.
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

We had been waiting for our turn to raft in Bheri since long and when we got a call from the man who runs the business, we just jumped in. A group had cancelled the booking owing to the bad weather forecast and fearing the flash floods that might bring in violent rapids with it. Our team was ready to weather the waters of Bheri – be it calm or hostile.

Rafting in Bheri started recently and the waters are still uncharted. Out of the three options we chose the Bheri bridge – Ranighat section. It has more rapids and bends than the Mehelkuna – Ramghat section. The longer one spans over three days and ends at the Chisapani of Karnali River.

Nepal’s rivers are world famous for white-water rafting. Trishuli, Seti, Bhote Koshi, Kali Gandaki, Marsyandi, Sun Koshi, Arun, Karnali, and Tamor have already been acclaimed for the thrilling white-water and sandy beaches for camping. A group of entrepreneurs led by Sudarshan Shrestha has recently launched rafting in the Bheri River.

“After mid-May, the snow starts melting and the water level rises bringing in more rapids,” said the guide. Even it was his first expedition after brief showers in and around Surkhet. The usually clear water was muddy and we could feel the waves on the bank while inflating the raft. It has eight sections and we took turns to get our craft ready. One of my friends had suggested, “This is high time you come across flash floods, be prepared.”

Kapil inflating the raft
Only Madhu and I had been to rafting earlier and it was the first time for rest six. Even it was first for me in Bheri. The guide instructed, “Don’t panic, in case of emergency cling to the ropes tied around the raft.” With a crash course on basics of rafting and rescuing, we started our sail on the river.
Clinging to the ropes is the best way to stay safe during an emergency.
The first few bends and small waves were welcoming. We enjoyed the ups and downs on the water. The water was calm at a place and the guide said it was safe to swim. Few of us dived in the cool waters and started swimming along with the raft. It was refreshing though the water was dark and muddy. We practised pulling in our mates in the raft from the fast moving river.
Practise well before you leap into the river.
The giant devil catfish
As we were passing by, two fishermen called us to show their prized catch. We stopped by the sandy beach and took turns to hold the fish. It was a giant –nearly 3.5 feet long and weighed more than 40 Kgs.  

“It’s a mahseer,” said one of the fishermen. “If you wish, you can take the whole fish with you. The price – just Rs 350 per Kg.”

You can imagine the greed. We were ready to buy the whole fish. Then some of us didn’t buy in and we left the fish and the beach.
Holding the giant devil catfish wasn't an easy task.
I was still in doubts. It could not be a mahseer. It had sharp teeth and whiskers, and had no scales. I could sense, it was the giant devil catfish (Bagarius yarrelli) also called “goonch”. It is found in large rivers, including rivers with fast current and reaches up to 2 m (6.6 feet) in length, and weighs over 200 pounds.

The Kali River goonch attacks were a series of fatal attacks on humans believed to be perpetrated by man-eating goonch catfish in three villages on the banks of the Kali River in India and Nepal, between 1998 and 2007. This is the subject of a TV documentary aired on 22 October 2008, as well as an episode about the Kali River goonch attacks on the Animal Planet series River Monsters. (

And the raft turned turtle
We were told rafting in Bheri is very easy because the rapids in the river are not violent in comparison to other rivers in Nepal. However, as we crossed two bends after witnessing the giant devil catfish, the waves started growing bigger and bigger. Madhu and I were paddling on the front. We could feel the excitement and thrill more than others. Some waves were more than ten feet high. Water splashed on our faces and we were shouting with joy. The feeling was like being among the huge sea waves. The only difference – the water was dark and muddy.

Seeing us enjoying to the hilt, Kapil wanted to be in the lead. So we changed the places as a calm section appeared. Then within seconds, we could see one of the biggest waves. I hadn’t seen such huge waves. As we were shouting with thrill, the waves devoured the raft. It capsized and all of us were struggling to get hold of the rescue rope.

I don’t know what happened to others but I was under the raft and the rope was nowhere to be seen. I gulped the muddy water and it was dark everywhere. I could not even get above the water surface. Then suddenly I caught hold of the rope.

As I got hold of the rope, I took out my head above the water surface. The only thing I could see was Kapil, Abhijit and Madhu clinging to the rope. We had passed through the killer waves and the water was calmer at the stretch.

Then I saw two yellow helmets in a distance, being swept away by the river. One of them was yelling for help but there was nothing we could do. All of us were helpless. Then I could feel somebody struggling beneath me. I thus, left the rope and started swimming towards the shore. Kiran was also swimming.

As I reached the bank, I could see four friends clung to the raft and the guide trying to turn the raft upright. On another side of the bank was just one helmet, one had been swept away. I hastily counted the heads. There were only eight including the guide and I. One of us was missing!

I could see the sandals and paddles being swept away by the river. I already had one paddle with me and I gathered another one from the river. In spite of being drowned by the river, I hadn’t left the paddle!

Madhu and the guide mounted on the raft and along with them five of us quickly got inside the raft. The guide started shouting, “Forward, quick, quick.” And we paddled to our might. We reached near Raju who had managed to step on a rock on the bank of the river. But we left him there and asked him to come downstream following the raft. We panicked. There was no sign of Krishna.

We travelled with the flow of the river for almost 20 minutes but still didn’t find Krishna. Our hopes were fading away and unwanted thoughts started arising on our minds. Then, at a distance we saw some boys running on the rocky bank of the river. The guide said, “The boys must be running to save our friend.” A faint hope appeared within us.

As we neared the site, we could see a yellow helmet. Our hopes bounced back. There was Krishna, sitting on a rock, surrounded by locals. We brought our raft to the side and thanked the Almighty for keeping all of us alive.

We then waited for Raju for almost an hour. It was a terrible and exciting experience for him, walking alone, along the bank of the river, through the rocky patches and dense forest with the fear of leopard pouncing on his back. 
Finally our team is complete. Raju returns!
At last we were united. With the prodigal sons Krishna and Raju in the team, we were once again ready for the jaunt in the river. We thanked the locals and especially the boys who rescued Krishna from the fast flowing river. 

Kapil and Abhijit - reflection of the ordeal on their faces.
Still I could see the fear in the eyes of our mates. It was inherent. The face is mirror of the heart. It was hundred per cent true – we could sense the fear within us, in the surrounding and of course, in the dark murky river!  

Picnicking on the pristine sandy beach
Within minutes, we were once again rollicking on the waves. This time, we tried to avoid the huge rapids and kept to the side waves, so as not to get overturned once again. After few bends and rapids, we stopped by a sandy beach. The sand was crystal clear and a perfect spot for picnicking.
Sanjeev relaxes on the sandy beach.
We opened the dry box and took out the juice cans, dry fruits, apples and boiled eggs. It was fun to fill the empty stomachs. Madhu connected his portable sound machine to his mobile and the music filled the environs. “Sadda Haque!” I was listening to the song, but my mind was still hovering around the capsized raft. So was the mind of others.
Picnicking on the beach.
Second raft follows us to the beach.
Then we saw another raft coming at a distance. They also picnicked together with us. We exchanged our experiences. They had ducked the huge rapid where our raft overturned. They had three guides and most of them were good swimmers. In comparison, only three of us were good swimmers and rest were just dabblers.
Posing for a group photo.
We clicked a group picture and then again set together for the remaining part of the journey.
Set for the next round of rafting.
Swimming in calm Bheri waters
With us on the lead, we continued the ride. I took the lead along with Madhu and it was fun paddling against the giant waves once again. This time we were prepared. We paddled to our might whenever huge waves confronted us. The appearing rapids instilled more courage inside us and we were shouting on the win over the waves.  

After few huge and few short rapids, we came to a plain spread of river. “Bhurigaon of Bardia is nearby,” said Raju. The actual distance of Bhurigaon of Bardia and Surkhet is only 22 kilometres.

Then the friends of the second raft started jumping in the river and swam with the flow of the river. I too could not stop myself and swam along with them for few minutes. The water was calm but the flow was still rapid underneath.

The swim was refreshing. Kiran also swam for a while and Abhijit also took a short plunge. We were then back in the raft.

As we approached the end point in Ranighat, we could see the settlements along the bank of the river and smell the aroma of cooked food. We clicked a group picture with the guide and helped him carry the raft to the unpacking spot.
Final group photo at the end point.
As we emptied the raft, we found two sandals – one belonged to Madhu and one belonged to me. I took a snap of the sandals not wavered by the rapids. So were we, Madhu and I were still raring to go for a second joyride on the waves. Madhu was smiling with his one-glassed spectacles. The glass on the left had been swept away by the waves!    
Madhu with his one-glassed spectacles.
Widow and orphan - these two clung to the raft till the end!
Drying off the raft. Our friends carried it to this spot.
Ride with the entrepreneurs
We stopped by a hotel in Ranighat. Sudarshan Shrestha, the man behind the rafting in Bheri had ordered a meal for us. He along with his friends congratulated us on our successful ride. Krishna cautioned them on being more careful with the security. They agreed to his proposition and informed that a rescue team was getting prepared. From next week onwards, the ride will be more secure. 

We also visited a farm managed by them. They had kept pigs, cows and capons (castrated roosters) in the farm. I had never seen a capon, had just heard about it. We purchased a black beautiful one for our dinner and left the place.
The beautiful capon (castrated rooster) captured by our friends. 
The four entrepreneurs joined us in the rented Force jeep. On the way, they discussed about their further plans. “We are launching paragliding in Surkhet soon,” one of them said enthusiastically.

We nodded in unison to go for the paragliding. Madhu said, “Make sure I am the first one to do the paragliding in Surkhet.”

We were still thinking about the adventure that we had had during the rafting. Had our raft not capsized, the journey would not have been so thrilling, exciting and memorable.

I remembered Mercedes Lackey saying in Spirits White as Lighting. “Adventure, yeah. I guess that's what you call it when everybody comes back alive.”

It was a lifetime experience. Thanks go to my mates Sanjeev, Madhu, Kapil, Abhijit, Krishna, Raju, Kiran, the guide Ashok and the entrepreneurs who started rafting in Bheri River. Rafting in Bheri is an adrenaline rush to the fullest. Go for it!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Bardia, water snails and waiting for the tiger

Republished from

The area surrounding Bardia National Park in Western Nepal has a unique weather. While the surrounding Banke district boils like a hot cauldron, the cool breeze from the nearby dense forest and branches of Karnali River make the area pleasant, even in summer. Surprisingly the evenings are cooler and in the mornings are misty.   

As we reached Thakurdwara, the ambience, the weather, and the smiling people, all seemed to welcome us to their land. We chose to stay at the Tharu Home Resort, on the banks of a branch of Karnali River. The river flowed gently; the water was cool and refreshing. The park is close by the resort. And, we could hear the peacocks screaming in the forest. The huts are traditional from outside, but inside you will find all modern facilities. There are around 19 such small resorts in the vicinity.

Thakurdwara is the main entrance of the Bardia National Park. It is around 13 kilometres from the East-West Highway. At Ambasa, you will find a huge gate to the south of the highway, leading to the road to Thakurdwara, with hoarding boards displaying messages of conservation. The ride to the park entrance is a bumpy one with only a small patch of black topped road. Rest of the road is gravelled and adventurous for off-road drive lovers. There’s a river on the way which generally remains dry in other seasons but has knee-deep water in the rainy season. 

Thakurdwara is named after the famous deity “Thakur Baba”, worshipped by Tharus and locals of the
area. “Dwar” means door. Literally translating, it is door to Thakur Baba’s temple. On 1st Magh (around 15 January), every year people from the region and neighbouring India flock to the temple to observe the “Maghi festival”. 

Sunset, dolphins and Thyodene laced grass
Having travelled to the area many times, I suggested driving to Hattisar, the elephant stable for a scenic sunset. The stable is around six kilometres from Thakurdwara. Having reached the location, our two shutterbugs were busy capturing the sunset, cattle and women crossing the Karnali, wooden canoe-like boats tied to the river bank, and of course posing for the perfect picture.

“The three boats are used by villagers to cross the Karnali River,” said Madhusudan Pokhrel, owner of the Racy Shade Resort. “Every villager pays ten kilos of rice in a year to the boatman to cross the river every day.” The Rajapur island houses many villages and the only way to cross the river is either a boat or a pontoon bridge at Kothiaghat downstream. During the rainy season, a ferry is used to cross the river – and it is full of people, children, motorcycles, cycles and even cattle!

As we talked about the beauty of the place, Madhusudan disgruntled with hate, “We don’t know how to save our heritage.”

“See, the water level was much higher in previous years. The people in adjacent Kailali district started extracting sand and pebbles unsustainably, making their side of the river deeper. The park authorities don’t allow people to extract even a piece of pebble from this side of the river. The result – the water level is lower here, whereas it is increasing every year at their end.”

He was sad. “Well, if you come here after few years, you will not find any water in this season, if the practice of extracting sand is continued in Kailali.”

We were curious about dolphins. On enquiring, he replied with zeal of a conservationist, “Dolphins were found here, but they are almost extinct in this part of river – the reason – snatching away dolphin’s prey through unsustainable fishing, throwing plastics in the river which is eaten by dolphins, causing deaths.”

Our topic of discussion then moved to tigers and deer. As we were figuring out the number of tigers in the park and discussing famous Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit to the park, we were bewildered to hear the unusual method of hunting deer.

The poachers spray lumps of salt on grass patches frequented by deer. Then they spray Thyodene on the patches. After few days of exposure to the sun, the odour of the chemical normalises and when the deer come to the patches, they eat the salty grass. Due to the grass laced with poison, they die on the spot. The poachers then take away the carcasses and make dry meat. The meat is sold at an exorbitant price. 

“Don’t ever eat dried deer meat, it is poisonous and harmful to health,” Madhusudan warned us. 

Elephant ride and wild animals
The early next morning we opted for elephant safari. The elephant ride inside the park is an exciting affair. Every second is precious and your eyeballs will remain busy searching the animals. Though the safari lasts for only an hour, you will enjoy the ride. The elephant crosses a river branch, moves through sal (Shorea robusta) forest and open grassland. You will obviously see spotted deer, monkeys (long tailed langur and common red monkey) and birds. If you are lucky, you might spot sambar deer, hog deer, barking deer and even a rhino. However, it is very rare to see a tiger during the one hour’s ride.
In Bardia, even in May, the mornings are misty
We came across a foreigner couple who had been visiting the park three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening in search of the elusive tiger. They were hell-bent on seeing a tiger. I don’t know how many days they will spend riding elephant inside the park. And, the amount they were spending every day in the process is, I would say, staggering. They ended up spending a thousand dollars every day!

The park entrance to the park is Rs 1000 (1 USD = Rs 87), and elephant ride for an hour costs Rs 2500 for a foreigner. Spending six hours inside the park on an elephant, including the morning and evening jaunts, sum up to Rs 42,000 for a couple. Paying the guides, luxury accommodation, food and jeep rides to and from the park entrance almost summed upto a thousand dollars per day. However, for Nepalese, the entrance to the park is Rs 50 and one hour elephant ride costs Rs 500.

Though the ride was short, it was much more exhilarating than the one in Sauraha of Chitwan. The ride inside the park takes you to another world – a world without human clutter and tonnes of fresh air for your punctured lungs. The greenery and grassland is a marvel to watch and the momentary glimpse of animals in wild add thrill to the excitement.

Tharu Home Stay and collecting water snails
In the evening, we drove to the Tharu Home Stay in Dalla village, around 12 kilometres from Thakurdwara. We met Shalik Ram Chaudhary, owner of house no. 8 (if I remember well) of the home stay. He is a cheerful man of short stature. Before entering his house, we had asked for local Tharu food in other houses. And all of them had the same reply, “We need to be informed in advance, at least few hours, to prepare local food.”

Shalik Ram is a man of action – he responded quickly to our demand. He said, “If you want to eat ghonghis (water snails), we can collect a handful, so that you can savour its taste tomorrow.” We gladly accepted his proposal and followed him and his two friends to a series of water holes in the nearby Shiva Community Forest frequented by rhinos.

On the way, we came across a mark, scratched by a wild beast. “Look, this is the mark of a tiger: a tiger marks its territory by scratching on the ground,” said Shalik Ram. He was pointing to the rhino and elephant droppings on the way. We were scared and I prayed silently to avoid encountering any wild beast.

The three men started searching the snails. In the fourth water hole the water level was low and they started finding the snails. To test the waters, my friends Sanjeev, Sushila and Kapil also joined the team and started picking out the snails from the muddy water. Soon the team gathered a handful of ghonghis.
Searching water snails
With the catch in hand, we returned to Shalik Ram’s house. He showed us the room for the guests – it was a decent room with two beds. The room was clean and decorated with local handicrafts. To spend a night at the home stay, you will need to pay Rs 150 per bed (turns out to be Rs 300 per room). You are invited to eat with the family with whom you stay.

Two tables were laid for us quickly and the couple brought chairs and stools. We were served homemade wine (might have been stored for more than a year, the taste was sour). To munch with the sip of wine, they brought two platefuls of sliced cucumbers. Although the taste was strange, our liquor connoisseur friends gulped the wine with new found excitement.

After sipping the wine, we were offered tea. In addition to that, we received instructions to cook the snails from the couple. It was already getting dark and we bade farewell, promising to return soon for spending a night at theirs.                        

Jungle safari and waiting for the tiger
As the sun rose, two jeeps were ready for the jungle safari. Two drivers and a nature guide wearing greens took us to the park for the much anticipated tiger viewing. The entry fee of a jeep inside the park is Rs 2000 and you will need to add Rs 3000 to hire a vehicle for a 3-4 hours ride inside the park.

The jeep safari was a completely new experience for many of my friends. Though it was not the first one for me, the view was completely new to me as well. I had never been to the park in April-May. To our dismay, wildfire was rampant, devouring the grass, bushes and shrubs. The fume of smoke was causing irritation to our eyes.
Forestfire devours the forest
 “The park authorities burn the grasses, so that tender and young grass sprout up,” said our guide. The same fire had spread to other areas as well. The crackling of fire had scared the animals to run to safer areas. Only few spotted deer could be seen in the dense jungle, followed by the langurs jumping from trees to trees.          

“The park authorities and the army guarding the park should have taken this (issue) seriously,” a faint murmuring started circling our group. “Slash and burn practices are agreeable, but the unwanted spread of wildfire is unacceptable. Why are the authorities sleeping?”    

We continued our drive. The warm gust of wind slapped our faces and in between cool gushes of fresh air brought pleasant feeling. We stopped by a waterhole, only to see a herd of deer gallop away from the site. It was the most amazing sight since we entered the park. But we were sorry for our friends in the jeep following us – they could not see even a single deer.

As we passed an army barrack in the park, our jeeps screeched to a halt. “Now don’t utter even a single word, this is the best opportunity to locate a tiger,” our guide said. “Follow me and from the high vantage point you will see a tiger, if you are lucky.”

The site was perfect! We were almost 100 feet above the river bank and the sight of the river snaking around a small piece of forest was amazing. The view of white pebbles and sand on the bank, and clear bluish green water was so stunning that we once forgot about the tiger. This is the site where I once encountered a fresh kill; the deer had been killed by a tiger only few minutes ago. The blood was still oozing out of the deer. I was on the back of an elephant and my heart was thumping with the fear and excitement of seeing a tiger. But it never happened. So, I was more excited than others.
Wild animals come to drink water in the river
We stood there waiting for the tiger, but to no avail. As we were getting restless, we met a young Dutch couple who were waiting for the tiger as well. “We saw a tiger, a rhino, and an elephant by the river – all at a single setting,” the couple exclaimed enthusiastically. “The tiger crossed the site twice.”

Hearing this we could no longer wait to reach the site mentioned by them. We asked our guide to take us to the place. As we rushed towards our jeeps, a patrolling van stopped by us and the team enquired our purpose of visiting the park. They requested for entrance tickets and asked us whether we saw a tiger. To our chagrin, the man in command said, “I have been inside the park for the last one and half years but haven’t even seen even the stripe of a tiger. Best of luck!”

With heavy hearts and eagerness we drove towards the lucky site. Reaching a river branch, the jeeps stopped and the guide summoned us to gather in a circle. “Earlier they (the park authorities) allowed the jeep to enter the core area of the park,” he said. “These days, they have banned the entry, so that the animals don’t get disturbed. Now, listen, don’t make any noises, follow me and keep your eyes and ears alert. You will need at least 20 minutes to reach the site.”
Walking through the jungle
As we were taking off our shoes to cross the river, we located a tiger pugmark. It further encouraged us and instilled hope to see a tiger. We then crossed the knee-deep river. The water was cool and relieved our tiredness. “Are there any crocodiles in the water?” one of us feared. The guide said that they would lead the way and won’t leave us in uncharted waters. We obediently followed him.

On crossing the river, we were inside the core area of the park, the forest was denser and we were on our feet! As were passing through the vehicle track, we again came across fresh pugmarks. The guide was explaining, “This is the pugmark of a male tiger; next to it is that of a female tiger.” He exhibited the difference between the pugmarks.
A tiger pugmark
Veering off the track, we encountered few foot-stamps of elephants. The branches of nearby trees were broken. Fear prevailed upon us but we still followed the guide. On the way we saw elephant and rhino droppings. The guide explained the difference, but whatever the dissimilarity, we were happy to see the piles of dung.     

On reaching the said site, we assembled in a row along the vantage point. The guide told us to settle well and keep looking at the brook below. “The tiger will come to drink water as the temperature will rise,” he said.
Dry tiger scat
Then out of nowhere, he showed a lump of dry scat. “See you are lucky, this is a tiger scat,” he said. Our cameras started rolling and clicking the pictures of the scat. It was scat of an elusive animal. We thought we were getting luckier.

However, after an hour’s wait, our hopes started simmering. We were getting restless, but still, with a faint hope of seeing a tiger, waited and waited. Not only us, but many groups like us were waiting to get a glimpse of a tiger. After almost two and half hours’ waiting, as our time permit was coming to an end, we left the place. We were disheartened but the beauty of the surrounding was inviting us to visit the place again.