As always, it was the little things that slowed us down. The finding of lentils, rice, a small cook-pot, a spare pair of socks, charging batteries, and printing what few maps we could find. The objective was the Thuli Bheri. At its confluence with the Sani Bheri, the two rivers created the largest tributary to the Karnali River and as a result drained the entirety of the Dolpa region including the Dualaghiri range. Through what little description could be found, the four of us; Adam, his brother Jeff, Joe, and I had concluded that the trip would require at least 5 and at most 7 days on the water, three days of travel and trekking to get to the put-in, and two days travel to get back to Pokhara. Just enough time before we all parted ways for various ends of the earth for the next legs of our various adventures.

We had been in Nepal since late September, and after three months and countless other river trips working as photographers, safety kayakers, and stand-in instructors, we felt like we had what we needed to pull off what has been described as one of the top expedition kayak runs in the world. And aside from the aforementioned handful of necessities, we were ready.

One taxi ride and an eighteen hour overnight bus ride later, we were disgorged out of the bus and onto the rutted out dirt bus park. A chilling gray fog hung low around the idling busses and a crowd slowly gathered around us and our growing pile of boats, paddles, drybags, and sleep-deprived, bleary-eyed selves.

Adam and Joe started asking around for a taxi or two to take us to the airport while Jeff and I took off in search of tea, bananas, and whatever other breakfast we could find to fuel the next leg of our journey. Having found four cups of tea and a bag of oranges, we returned to our pile of gear to find Adam and Joe hard at work with three local kids hastily loading our boats onto the back of a pair of run down but serviceable tricycles.

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Four cam straps and various pieces of cheap, frayed nylon rope later we hesitantly climbed up on top of our “taxis” and began to roll, hurriedly down to the main road. We quickly realized that brakes were not included nor required equipment as we careened around pedestrians as our young drivers shouted and rung the little bells affixed to the handlebars.

As we came to the bottom of the hill, our speed slowed, and soon we were required to hop down from our perches and assist the boys in pushing ourselves up and over a small bridge and down a dirt track toward the airport.

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A very confused guard stood at the other side of the gate at the entryway to the main terminal while we dug for our passports. He approved, handed us our “VIP” passes, and told us to leave our boats by the concrete steps. Other than the guard, the airport was abandoned at seven in the morning. We poked around looking for the ticket agent, until the guard came in and offered to call him and let him know we wanted to see him. Thus is the state of national flights in Nepal.

After a short while, our agent bustled in and hurried us into his office. Rifling through thick three-ringed-binders he put his finger on what appeared to be a random page, and looked up with a worried face.

“I’m sorry my friends, but there is no scheduled flight into Juphail until Thursday, and unless you can find five more people, that flight won’t depart either.” We all stared around blankly, half expecting this answer, and half-longing for the straightforward reliability of western air ticketing.

“Well even if we had five other people to fly on Thursday, where would our kayaks go? We know the plane is small,” Adam replied.

“Oh, well with the boats, you will need to charter. Kayaks are not allowed on scheduled flights,” he replied. We had been warned that this would be his tactic, and were prepared to argue with stories of past expeditions experiences through this same airport. He claimed everyone chartered flights and after vigorously poking at his calculator, claimed, “$450 each.”

We looked at each other and laughed. Back in Pokhara, we had been told that we need not pay more than $250 each including gear. The bartering fun began.

“That is too far over our budget my friend,” Adam replied, “we cannot pay that much.”

“Of course you can, you’re Americans! Your money goes much further here, I know you budget for these things on your trips.” His attempt at guilt-tripping us into siding with him met with eyes that were familiar with this game, and not interested in leaving more of our rupees than necessary.

“We’ll pay $200 each. Total. No extra charges for boats and luggage.”

“My friends, this is too little. Airplanes require airports, gas, and pilots. How are we supposed to pay for these things if you won’t pay the price of a ticket?”

“We are willing to pay the price of a ticket, but your price is too much. The ticket doesn’t cost more than $200, and the rest goes straight into your pocket.” He stammered at this, perhaps unaccustomed to being called out at his own game.

“Well perhaps, for you, we can make a deal.” He quickly punched a string of numbers into his oversized calculator which he then spun to show us, “$1,200 is the cost of the flight there and back, that means $300 for each of you.”

“But we’re not coming back on the plane. We go up, and kayak down. No plane back.”

“Well the plane still needs to come back, my friends, it cannot just stay there.”

“Well that’s your problem then isn’t it?”

“No, my friends, you charter a flight, you must pay for return too.”

“How about $800 for the flight total?” We tried back. I’m sure there are people in Juphail who will pay to come on the return flight, and you can charge them the extra money to reach $1,200.”

“That’s not how it works, my friends. The flight must be paid when it leaves. We’re on a tight schedule. The plane will arrive soon and needs to go somewhere else if you don’t want it. $1,200 is the cost. Will you pay?”

Tired of his attempts to force more money than necessary out of us, we told him we needed to discuss the matter with ourselves. The four of us stepped out of the cramped office and into the still empty, echoing terminal. Agreeing again that the most we could pay was $250, Jeff pulled out the plastic bag of oranges and passed them around. The small cup of tepid milk tea from the bus park was not quite cutting it, but it didn’t look like we were due for anything else to eat until we got to Juphail.

The ticket agent poked his head out the door, “my friends, the plane has landed. I need to know if you will take it to Juphail.”

“Okay, we’re coming.” Oranges were finished and we filed back into the office, feeling more and more like we were being hustled into a shady deal, than on a kayak expedition.

“We have an offer for you. It’s the highest we can pay, and know that it’s the same amount other westerners have paid for the same flight. $250 is our last offer.” We sat back apprehensively. That price brought the flight total to an even $1,000; more than adequate for fuel, pilots, and four pieces of oversize baggage.

“Let me think, my friends,” as his fingers rapped on the calculator keys. His face furrowed into what looked like an unhappy and bitter acceptance of truth. “Alright, we can get you to Juphail, but we must be fast, the plane needs to be somewhere else this afternoon.”

We breathed a quiet sigh of relief and pulled out our pre-counted wads of American bills. He counted, re-counted, then handed the stack to the guard to count again as he passed around a clip-board to collect our passport information and write out boarding passes. Paperwork and payment completed, and we were hustled into the departure area and asked to sign into a log book stating who we were and where we were headed. Under the “Reason for Travel” heading, we joined every other entry above ours that read “Kayak expedition” or “Kayaking Thuli Bheri.” The list extened at least three pages back into previous years, with only three or four parties per year.

A quick “security check” with another guard and our gear was readied for takeoff and loaded into the back of the small single engine plane sitting on the tarmac.

We climbed aboard and buckled ourselves into our seats, grins slowly creeping onto each of our faces as the realization that we were one step closer to actually putting on the river arrived. Take-off brought us views of expanding horizons cloaked in clouded valley-floors and growing snow-capped peaks. As we banked to the north, shimmering rivers twisted their way up ever-deepening drainages forking and splitting until the solid unbroken strands of aquamarine and turquoise were no more than thin ribbons of white.

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Our flight brought us up and over a handful of lower passes each one clawing closer and closer to the belly of the plane, until we dropped down over the last one into what we then realized was the Thuli Bheri River valley and the tiny hillside village of Juphail.

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The pilot brought us down level with the dirt strip that served as a runway, and as we sped closer, a downdraft dropped us below the front edge heading straight at the mountainside just beneath. A quick adjustment later and we were back above the barely level hard-packed surface.

Hearts racing and stomachs much higher in our throats than is normal, we disembarked from the plane into the morning dust. Boats were quickly unloaded, and to no surprise from our end, a handful of local villagers boarded the plane for the return trip. Even in one of the most remote regions in Nepal, news travels fast with the advent of cell phones.

As the plane taxied out to the end of the runway and revved up for takeoff, we set upon our pile of gear; re-organizing last minute food additions, water bottles, and other miscellaneous items. The rest of the day would prove a struggle to find the best way to carry a boat loaded with 5 days of food and gear on the front edge of winter in the Himalaya.

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Easily weighing in at more than 100 pounds, it appeared that the best method was on end using the seat-back as a tump-line over our foreheads. Unaccustomed to that much weight on our heads however, we each soon encountered head, neck, and back aches beyond what had formerly been deemed possible. Winding our way down from the airport, we encountered a small village, and after unsuccessfully searching for porters, we continued on our way.

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The guidebook claimed an hour and a half hike from the airstrip to the river. Setting a tone for the rest of the trip, it took us almost double that time. The sun had already dropped below the ridge above us by the time we made it to the river, and gave the afternoon a distinct early winter chill. We dropped boats at a small hut and hoped for a passing tractor or jeep to help us get the rest of the way to Dunai before dark. Two cups of tea later, and still no tractor or jeep, we donned life jackets, and proceeded to drag our fully loaded boats the five kilometers up to Dunai arriving just as darkness crept into the medieval-feeling town.

Everything we had read suggested that we find the Blue Sheep Hotel and base out of there for the next few days. By the time we had changed out of our cold sweaty t-shirts and into long underwear and down jackets, town had virtually shut down. Due to the regions relatively recent opening to westerners, Dolpa is very undeveloped compared to the rest of the country. If you’re looking for the Nepal that’s storied about with dirt tracks, porters, and very culturally rich villages, Dolpa is it. No cell service once you pass Juphail, no vehicles past Dunai, and an extremely rugged landscape devoid of the usual trappings of tourists and trekkers. English is definitely not spoken here.

As we wandered around the main street in the dark, doing our best to avoid piles of donkey manure, we managed to find one little shop with it’s single light bulb still on and the family inside agreed to make us dal bhat. Between stuffing handfuls of rice, lentils, and potatoes in our mouths we created a plan for the next day; find porters, start hiking as early as possible, don’t stop until we get to Tarakot, sleep.

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12:45am

When most people consider getting a taxi ride at one o’clock in the morning, the intention is usually not to go boating. Over two different bottles of liquor and one rowdy card game, the three of us, Oliver, Adam, and myself discussed the coming days plan and the impending probability of a nationwide baahnd (strike) that would shut down all services for at least a week. This baahnd would include reducing/eliminating taxi and jeep services, which for us, meant no shuttles to or from rivers. The loophole, and reason behind the hour of our departure, was that the strike only lasted during the day, most services opened up sometime around five in the evening for at least a few hours, and things like taxis could operate as long as one was willing to pay.

For $35 the not-entirely-sober three of us procured a taxi with driver and appropriate roof rack willing to drive us the hour and a half or so to Nayapul. Twenty minutes after finding our ride, we had each gone back to our hotels, packed enough gear to make our boats with enough gear to be more than just slightly burdensome, however not quite enough to be comfortable the entire time and piled ourselves through the doors of the waiting taxi.

1:11am

Roads in Nepal really aren’t that bad (okay maybe they are) it’s mostly the traffic that makes travel an arduously slow endeavor. Without traffic on the roads however, we left Pokhara and were climbing out of the valley at an incredible rate! Between conversations of a broken heart over a girl named Angel, and late night Nepali lessons, the kilometers passed by, and soon enough, we found ourselves driving through a sleeping village.

“So you want this Nayapul, or the next one?” our dutiful driver turned around and asked.

“Uhhhh,” Oliver and I stammered, “there are two?”

“Yes, one here, and one twenty-five kilometers away.”

“Oliver, do you have the guidebook?” I asked, already knowing that he hadn’t brought it.

“Wake Adam up,” Oliver replied, “maybe he brought his.”

We both held our breaths as I poked Adams shoulder. He turned head as far from the light at the front of the taxi as possible and kept on sleeping.

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“Adam! Wake up! Is this Nayapul? Is this where we want to be?”

“Huh? What? Yeah, Nayapul,” Adam agreed still obviously asleep.

“Come on Adam, we need you’re help here,” Oliver tried to rouse him again. I gave him another vigorous elbow to the ribs and his head lifted and eyes opened.

“Is this where we want to be?” We repeated to him.

“Where’s Byrantanti?” Adam groggily asked the taxi driver.

“Byrantanti?” he replied, “two kilometer that way,” and pointed down a dirt road that disappeared downhill into darkness behind us.

“Okay, this is it guys,” Adam said, now more or less at his senses.

We spilled out of the cab unfolding ourselves and realized that we weren’t alone on the side of the road. Under the unfortunately bright flourescent lighting of a streetside shop was a line of sleeping bodies packed together tighter than a pocket-smashed pack of cigarettes. We found a similar space for ourselves in an adjacent stall and unloaded our boats and gear onto the cold concrete. A quick photo, an exchange of rupee notes, and thankyous to our taxi driver and assistant, and we watched the red tail lights weave their way back up the mountainside toward Pokhara.

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With a silent strike-stricken road and chilled Himalayan air we had no trouble finding sleep in front of an adjacent street-side shop, at least not until 5:30 when the teahouse owner whose dining space we were occupying began opening up shop for the day. A cup of tea on the way and we were all three up looking like we had been out drinking and woken up somewhere completely unexpected, which wasn’t actually far from the truth. We regained our bearings and began discussing the days options.

Assuming a jeep or pickup truck was out of the equation due to the strike, Option A looked like packing up our boats and hiking the nine kilometers up to the end of the road, then four more to Old Bridge, and taking all day (and probably the better part of all night) to do so. Option B looked like finding porters to do the same thing as Option A. And Option C was to somehow find a jeep with driver who was willing to drive us as far as possible before needing to switch back over to either B or A.

As we sipped tea and slowly arranged and rearranged our kit, we were slightly surprised by the sound of a jeep working its way up the road toward Nayapul. Assuming it was destined for a pre-arranged group of trekkers, we gave it little notice until it puttered up in front of our boats and stopped. We looked up at the passenger (left) side of the jeep to see a jolly roger decal on the window with the words “Scurvy Dog” emblazened beneath. The driver stepped out and, fitting his vehicle, asked somewhat gruffly “jeep? You want jeep?”

The heavens had answered with Option C. After a few minutes of haggling, the price dropped to what we understood to be two thousand rupees ($20,) and boats were quickly loaded onto the roof under a tarp and we were hustled behind the dark tinted windows. We bumped and jostled our way down to Birantanti, across the bridge, and with no sign of the Annapurna Conservation Area permit police, made continued up the Modi Khola valley.

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Rounding a bend in the road our jaws dropped. The view before us of Macchupucchre’s stunning snow-capped slopes, spines, and pinnacles had us all rushing for our cameras before we bounced our way around another corner. The peak appeared and disappeared as we wound our way up the valley, each time set behind a slightly different foreground of rice terraces as the sun made it’s way up the valleys’ eastern ridge. Smoke from cooking fires cast drainage-wide shadows in the lower elevations adding stripes across the opposing mountainside.

Eventually, we made our way to the end of the road, unloaded boats, and took off on foot continuing our journey up the valley. Views of terraced fields, small traditional huts, and bits and pieces of infrastructure clung to the sheer walls that rose up in every direction. Needless to say, the going was slow. 45lbs of boat, 25 lbs of paddling gear, 15 lbs of warm clothes, camera, ibuprofen, leftover tequila, and drinking water left us with heaving chests and stumbling feet longing for the hand-painted sign for Old Bridge that seemed to never appear.

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3 hours later…salvation. I stumbled through a narrow passage to find Adam and Oliver reclining in cheap plastic seats sipping tea under a blue and white sign that read “New Bridge Tea House Wel-Come”.

Three pots of tea and three massive plates of dal bhat later we had made a plan. Drop overnight gear and anything else deemed unnecesary here in our soon-to-be-rented room, gear up, and continue the march uphill with boats and paddling kit another 5km to New Bridge, and from there paddle back down and reconnect with our gear, beds, and more dal bhat.

Against better judgement, up we went, and up, and up, and up, with only vague glimpses of the turquoise ribbon below us to keep our spirits from coming crashing down in an overwhelemed, sleep deprived, sweaty mess.

Salvation came again, this time in the form of a steep thorny bushwhack down to the river, and a quick icy dip to rid ourselves of the thorns, sweat, and grit. A speedy superman-changing-act later and we were on our way bouncing down steep class IV, gloriously oblivious to the portage madness that awaited us downstream.

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The water was instantly chilling, and as the sun continued its downward trajectory below the ridge above us, the temperature plumetted below the comfortable threshold of shorts and flipflops. Each rapid became more and more serious; first portaging every four or five drops, then every three, then two, then we were hiking again, this time through waist deep water over boulders the size of houses, all the while wondering if the saving grace of the Old Bridge teahouse was ever going to appear. “It must be just around the next bend” became our mantra as darkness began to creep out of the shadows.

The “next bend” came and went a dozen times and finally, a glimmer of hope. A moss and lichen covered PVC pipe hung down from a mess of baling wire and cheap nylon rope into a pool. Just beyond the next horizon line the silohuette of an old trestle framed walking bridge emerged out of the growing darkness. We stashed boats and crawled up the hillside toward the warm lights emanating from the kitchen and patio.

Shedding wet life jackets, sprayskirts, and board shorts, we quickly retired to down jackets, dry long underwear and endless pots of tea while we waited for heaps dal bhat to be served.

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The next morning came cold and shaded as we each found our way from bed to patio table still wrapped in sleeping bags. More tea. Breakfast. Blessed sunshine. Nap-time.

We re-connected with our boats and began, once again, picking our way downstream, alternating leading rapids, photographing, and taking in the spectacular scenery.

Morning turned to afternoon, and soon we found ourselves in a small town shin-deep in rice harvest. Every open inch of floorspace was covered in drying grain, and upon investigation, the rumors we had heard of waterfalls were confirmed. A short hike up the side-drainage and we were rewarded with clear pools, and clean free-fall.

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Daylight began to wane and we made our way back down toward Nayapul to confront our next adventure; getting back to Pokhara. Remember the strike…still in effect. Luckily for us there was a Russian/Tajikistanian tourist group in Nayapul, Oliver was living in Tajikistan, and they had exactly three empty seats!

Having been here for a little over two weeks now with very little by way of downtime, and even less of consistent internet (sorry about getting cut off on skype last night mom), I suppose it’s well past time to start documenting at least part of my experiences here. A little bit of house-keeping first:

1)     Due to the aforementioned lack of internet, and thus excruciatingly slow speed, there will probably be an unfortunately small number of photos in my posts. I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises.

And:

2)     Because of my busy and often chaotic/disorganized/last minute schedule, I have no idea how many posts I’ll be able to put out here. We’ll see.

And now on to the rest of the post:

Getting here!

I left Flagstaff on October 26th at 8:30am. After packing Thomas and Christinas Volvo with an 8’6″ creek boat, plus paddle, plus backpack, plus Huckleberry Finn, we realized that due to a logistical error, the keys to that particular vehicle were already on their way to California. Fifteen minutes and a search for what we thought was a lost and wandering Huck later (who turned up in the passenger seat not wanting to be left behind), we were on the road heading south. We somehow managed to avoid Phoenician rush hour traffic, and made terrific time to the airport where the second monkey wrench of the day presented itself in the form of “airline regulations.” Chances are, most of you reading this saw my post on Facebook cursing American Airlines, but for those that didn’t here’s the long version.

Upon arriving at the airport, Thomas and I unloaded the back of the truck onto the sidewalk and I set out to find some sort of luggage cart for my obscenely large pile o’ stuff. The only cart immediately available was at the SkyCap stand 50 yards from where we parked, and the attendant was kind enough to let me use it as he stared in disbelief that would actually be able to check everything onto the plane. I made a temporary farewell with Thomas who would park in the cell phone lot for the next hour until I either got everything checked onto the plane or needed him to come back around and pick up the boat in case plans went south. Making my way inside the airport and up to the American Airlines check-in booth, I received skeptical stares from everyone, and sighs of relief from other airline check-in employees that I wasn’t headed their direction. The looks I received from the AA booth however, were disheartening. At first, the agent I spoke with was simply curious, and after explaining to her that the object in question was a wave-ski and that AA and Quatar Airways would actually allow it on board, she inquired as to my final destination. When she didn’t quite understand where Kathmandu or Nepal were (she thought I meant Naples) and thus couldn’t find my reservation, the odds seemed to stack higher against me.

“Well I’m just not sure it will even fit on the plane,” she said to me as she picked up the phone to call the head baggage handler to inquire about the actual opening in the belly of the plane. After getting confirmation from the baggage people that the opening would indeed be big enough to fit the boat, she took out the measuring tape to get a semi-accurate measurement of the boat.

“It’s 127″ total” she kept repeating, “I don’t think we can take anything that large.”

“Well I know that I’ve checked this boat before, and have other friends that have done the same,” I replied confidently, knowing full well that it was at least 20″ over their limit.

“Let me check with Quatar to see what their maximum is, and I’ll need to talk to baggage again to be sure that it will actually fit on the plane,” she replied now getting somewhat flustered. I tried to assuage her frustration as she dialed the general service number for Quatar Airlines, where she got three different measurements as the “maximum” all of them being different, and none of them seeming like anything close to a maximum limit.

At this point, I had all three check-in agents working to get me and my boat onto the flight, one continually taking measurements, the other trying to wrestle it (with the assistance of the SkyCap) onto the scale, and the original on the phone with two different people at Quatar Airlines trying to get a definitive measurement from them.

Final Weight: 69.8 Lbs (Limit 70 Lbs)

Final Size: Length+Width+Height 124″ Limit 3 meters = 118″

“Do you have anyone in town that can come pick it up from you here?” she asked hesitantly. And for an instant I considered lying and saying that no, I didn’t and that the boat was the reason that I was going in the first place, and that all would be lost (and maybe the world would end) if I couldn’t bring the boat. But my honest side got the better of me (having lied through my teeth on more than three occasions already).

“Yeah,” I replied, “I think there might be someone I can call.” And with that I picked up my carry-on, dragged my pile of stuff around the corner, and sank into one of the hard plastic airport seats out of sight of the check-in counter. More stares ensued as I pulled the boat out of the bag, and emptied the boat of all of the gear that had been carefully weighed and placed inside re-wrapped all of that gear back into the boat bag, strapped it all together, and went back around to check everything in.

Still not wanting to give up the fight, the check-in agent had called three more numbers at Quatar and had come back with slightly higher numbers, but still not large enough to let the boat on. I presented my bags and she offered that if I could somehow re-pack again I’d be able to avoid the 3rd checked bag fee, so back I went, again to repack, and was able to get everything down to two bags, and both under 50 lbs. After all of the hassle, they were able to check all of my bags in for free, however I was still going to be without a boat on the other end.

A quick call to Thomas and the boat was back in the truck, a quick goodbye was made, and off I went!

Travels went smoothly for the most part, although an overly long overnight layover (14 hours) in Doha, Quatar made arriving in the sweltering and humid airport of Kathmandu that much more interesting. After the longest visa application line ever, I made my way out into the bustling pick-up area, found myself a taxi, thoroughly overpaid, and found my way to my hotel room. Dinner and a couple beers went down all too quickly and I passed out anticipating a 6 hour bus ride the next day.

Needless to say, morning came much too soon, and with the help of another international Paddle Nepal employee found my way onto the correct bus and settled in for a 6 hour ride. In the US when one thinks about a 6 hour drive/bus ride, one thinks about distances akin to Flagstaff, Arizona to Santa Fe, New Mexico, just over 380 miles or 615 km. The distance from Kathmandu to Pokhara is about 100 km. Needless to say, the average speed for that kind of trip was 16 kph…just under 10mph. Since then, it would appear that most vehicles have a top speed of about 40 mph (90kph).

Once in Pokhara, my hotel for the next three months was found, I met most of the folks I’d be working with and had a chance to settle in for a bit before getting out and paddling! More on that in the next post!!