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Dear Diary, Part 2: What About the Kayaking?!

Dear Diary,

In the last instalment, I wrote about my trip to the Humla Karnali, but I left out the most important part – the kayaking! 

So what about the kayaking? That is why we went after all. Well, because the river was so high, we quickly learned to add half a grade to the guidebook description. The in-between “read and run class 3/4 “ sections turned out to be some of the most amazing class 4/4+ pushy water kayaking I have ever done. The river cut its way through some beautiful canyons and the scenery changed constantly as you descend from the mountains to the plains.  

Awesome rapids in a beautiful backdrop of mountains, forests and gorges. Photo: Dan Rea-Dickens

At the start of the trip, I probably had around 20kg of equipment in my boat, including my sleeping bag, mat, liner, bivvy bag, 2 sets of clothes, my onesie and a spare set of thermals, toothbrush, toothpaste, biodegradable soap, suncream, hand sanitiser, deodorant, hairbrush, a travel towel, head torch, water bottle, life straw, pot, cup and spoon for meal times and my kindle for relaxing in the evenings.

The extra thermals, warm sleeping bag and bivvy bag were not necessary with the weather, but we didn’t know that in advance. The spare clothes, towel, soap and deodorant were “luxury” items in the eyes of the rest of the team, but personally, I liked to wash myself and my clothes every couple of days!

My contribution to the group kit was to carry a breakdown paddle, my Garmin Inreach device and spare powerpack, my camera, the kelly kettle base for making cooking fires and the “drug bag” (medicine kit). Even without food, this equipment probably weighed in at around 13kg. We brought freeze-dried meals for dinner, to reduce weight. For breakfast, we either had porridge or muesli and for our lunches and snacks, we had a range of options such as trail mix, biscuits, chocolate bars, flapjack and noodles. 

Packing! Photo: Nick Bennett

The Scorch might be the best expedition boat I have ever had. It is much harder to paddle a boat when it is loaded, but the Scorch tracked really well and I could use the waves and features to accelerate in the direction I wanted to go. I didn’t feel like I was fighting it to get where I wanted, and I could still fly off the waves, even with 10 days’ worth of food and equipment with me. On the days that I was sick, it was comforting to be paddling a boat that was predictable and looked after me when I couldn’t necessarily drive it as much as I would have liked.  

Scorch love! Such a good expedition boat for me. Photo: Dan Rea-Dickens

I had spent the trip worried about the 20km continuous section near the end, given how high the water level was. However, it turned out that trusting guidebooks to be 100% accurate is not always the best idea and, although there were some long rapids in that section (the longest being about 2km), it was still individual rapids rather than a 20km continuous section. The rapids in this section were still pretty sizeable, and a lot of the main lines just did not go, with the full power of the water forming some monstrous holes. Lucky for us though, the water was SO high that new chicken line channels opened up on a vast majority of the biggest rapids. This meant significantly less tedious portaging than I had feared.

Avoiding massive holes became the name of the game on the Humla. Photo: Dan Rea-Dickens

However, on day 10 we did face one of the longest portages of the trip (other than the mandatory portages at the start). The river constricted to form a huge rapid, with no hope of chicken lines around it. The portage required climbing around on giant boulders, which would be hard going at the best of times, but we were also pretty beat up from 10 days on the river. It was also oppressively hot, and I hadn’t realised just how long the portage was going to be, so I didn’t gear down early enough and became a sweaty, dehydrated mess. We were quickly surrounded by local children, who “helped” by pushing us off balance on the rocks and demanded chocolate for their work. 

Challenging terrain for portaging, especially in 30+ degree heat! Photo: Beth Morgan

Eventually, I made it to the end of the portage, where I found the entire village out to watch the foreign kayakers tackle the mighty rapids below. In other circumstances, I might have found this endearing. But on day 10 of the Humla, at the end of a tough portage, when I was hot, thirsty and frustrated, I just got annoyed with them all. To top it all off, I completely missed my line on the next rapid down. We were meant to be going right to left, but I did not drive across early enough and I was out of power. I had seen there was also a bigger line down the right, so I just committed to that, but I still rolled at the bottom. I made the eddy on the opposite bank and shouted “leave me alone”. No one could hear me over the roar of the water, but sometimes screaming at the world is all you need to do to feel better.  

It felt like the whole village came out to watch us descend this section of the river. Photo: Nick Bennett

The next few rapids down were powerful, and we could feel how much bigger the river had gotten since we put on 10 days earlier. I was pretty drained of energy at this point and started portaging a few rapids that looked totally good to go. I didn’t feel like I had the power to make the lines, or the mental capacity to deal with it going wrong. It was a shame to walk some of these rapids, but it is definitely better to err on the side of caution, especially when you are so remote. 

The river just kept getting bigger and bigger as we made it further downstream. Photo: Nick Bennett

Finally, on day 11 we had made it past all the hard rapids. According to the guidebook, we had an easy float to the start of the rafting section, with just the odd class 3 rapid to keep us awake. We had switched off and were enjoying the scenery when a horizon line caught our attention. Scrambling for the final eddy, we jumped out of our boats to find yet another class 5 rapid. It was actually quite a cool one – we could sneak the first move down a narrow chute on the right, and then rejoin the main flow to charge through powerful waves and push to the right at the end to skirt the final hole. However, at this point, we were all quite done with whitewater. So what would have been a really fun rapid a few days earlier, became more of a chore to get past so we could carry on floating. 

Nick drops into the meat of the “class 3” surprise class 5. Photo: Beth Morgan

Realising we were all happier to see flat water than rapids at this point, we debated whether carrying on to do the rafting section was really a good idea. We had never planned to do it, as originally we had been hoping to fit the Thuli Bheri in as well. When it became evident that the Humla Karnali was going to take longer than we had originally planned, we ditched the dreams of the Thuli Bheri and planned to carry on down the Karnali, all the way to Chisapani. However, Will was pretty sick again so we were making plans to get him out early, and we were still quite a ways of flat water from the start of the raft run. It seemed as though most of us had a “take-it-or-leave-it” opinion on the rafting section, so we bailed. Less than 24 hours later, we were back in Kathmandu for a shower, cold beers and food which hadn’t been rehydrated. It was a dream come true!

I never thought I’d be so happy to see flat water! Photo: Dan Rea-Dickens

When people ask me how my trip to Nepal was, I tell them that it was intense, hard work, and amazing. I definitely do not regret going and I am so happy that we had such a good team of people to stay calm and help each other out with all the challenges we faced. If we had known how high the water level was going to be before we put on, would we have changed our minds? Maybe – but I am very thankful that we didn’t know and still went to the river. We got to experience the Humla Karnali in a different way from other groups. I would love to go back and kayak it at normal flows, but I think that it was quite special to have the higher water levels, and maybe open it up to other groups at those flows. If we had known an accurate weather forecast, however, that would have been very useful as all of our warm clothes, heavy-duty sleeping bags, and rain tarps could have been left at home! But all-in-all, I don’t think I would have changed much about our trip, and it has me fired up for more expeditions in the future.