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White-Knuckle Ship of Fools


“HIGH SIDE LEFT!!” bellowed Dave, the Scottish born chief.

Trekking in Nepal didn’t sound like such a hot idea but white water rafting did. A four day/three night rip down the Kali Gandaki River covered about 100 kms; mode of transportation – three inflatable Zodiac rafts, two for the 16 rafters and the third for supplies. I volunteered for the front, right position of the eight-person crew, promised to be the splashiest post on the craft.

So why was Dave yelling like that? Because we had missed our lane running some fast current, and were wedged half sideways up a rock, partly cross-current and partly with. The river raged over the right side of the raft and spilled over top.

Dry-bags tightly roped in a grid fashion were heaped in the centre of the raft. Dave’s high side left order meant the right side crew members were to lay over to the left, re-distributing the weight balance, and hoping an undercutting current would lift us out of the jam.

“MOVE HIGHER…PUSH, PUSH, GET US OUT OF HERE!”

It wasn’t working.

“JIM, TAKE YOUR MAN AND YANK THAT TIE ROPE AT THE FRONT HARD!”

My man, the front left paddler Anna, a woman from Iceland, and I pulled up on the mooring rope to lift the bow of the raft.

“RIGHT SIDE, PULL YOUR HANDLES ON THE SIDE OF THE RAFT AND LIFT! LEFT SIDE, LEAN OUT!”

Nothing. We were stuck.

These damn rafts need winches.

Three supervisors, experts of rivers and owners of the company, paddled along as safety kayakers. One found an eddy, stabilized himself from sweeping down the river, and yelled:

“THERE’S BLAH BLAH UNDER BLAH BLAH SIDE BLAH BLAH!”

The river splashed its hydro-orchestra. No one could hear. The kayaker moved in closer, paddling wildly as the safety of his eddy’s perimeter weakened.

“THERE’S ANOTHER BLAH CAUGHT BLAHNEATH! HIGH SIDE RIGHT!”

“HIGH SIDE RIGHT?!” questioned Dave.

“HIGH SIDE RIGHT! DO IT!”

Another rock wedged us in, which Dave – nor anyone else in the raft – could see.

“HIGH SIDE RIGHT!” ordered Dave.

Rocking back and forth. The bow twisted then boomeranged back. Anna’s knee landed in my ribs.

“GO BACK TO HIGH SIDE LEFT!”

This moved us a little.

“HIGH SIDE RIGHT!”

Bodies slammed back and forth. The floor of the raft convexed and screeched against the rock underneath. With the roar of the water in our ears and faces, we pitched from side to side, each shudder closer to freedom. Stu the kayaker nodded approvingly at Dave’s leadership and our gradual success. A final liberating kick spun us from the high-centring snare and back into the rapids.

“Right side forward, left side back!” was the next command to straighten the craft. We beached to collect ourselves and find everything in its right place. The next few hours passed meekly.

Lodgings were at the luxurious Sandbar Hotel. Leaned-over rafts supported by paddles formed half an A-tent. Light nylon tarps, anchored by guy ropes tied to rocks, constructed the other wall. These accommodations housed five. A kitchen tent hosted most of the cooking, then it converted into a bunkhouse for the night. Most just slept under the stars.

The guides, at the end of a three-month training session, were under evaluation from the kayakers. Each day, two different leader-du-jours delegated tasks and made decisions.

A nylon outhouse was an essential edifice. A paddle dug a half-metre pit and two flat rocks were positioned on each side of the hole for foot grip and to prevent the sides from caving in. A kick of sand served as a flush. Outside, the paddle was driven into the ground and crowned with a helmet, used as a vacancy indicator. On the ground meant the “coast was clear,” on the paddle meant, “occupied.” Paper was put into a plastic bag and thrown in the garbage after packing up the tent the next morning — the last chore before setting out. The paddle refilled the hole and no one would ever know we were there.

Iodine added to a bucket of river water sat ten minutes to kill the bugs. Gravity fed the water through the attached spigot. The guides made a big deal about EVERYONE washing their hands with supplied Dettol soap.

A trench, with the sand piled as a backrest then upholstered further with life-jackets, circled a fire-pit in a safe, central location. I was eating dinner next to Stu, the ultimate leader on our trip, leaning back and chatting about the day when something crawled up my forearm. I didn’t feel alarmed and showed it to Stu.

He spoke sharply: “Don’t move!” and deftly flicked it away.

“Scorpion.”

Another leader, John, a robust Australian with a bearded, weathered, sunned face, knew more campfire songs than a Hearty Texas Stew commercial, and, inspired by hot-rum punch, led the sing-a-longs around the ol’ campfire well into each night.

That night delivered a terrible windstorm. I lay in my sleeping bag trying to invite sleep as the sand hoarded around any edge it could find. In the morning, a fine silt was in my ears, between my teeth, and up my nose. Breakfast crunched much more than scrambled eggs, toast, and hot chocolate should.

The next day’s first rapids claimed one crewmember, Kareen from Manhattan. She skidded over the rocks on her rapidly bruised buns, rescued by a safety kayaker, then pulled back into the raft, laughing jubilantly post-rapids.

Phenomenal rock formations eroded smooth by millions of years of high monsoon waters constantly passed by. Squawking birds competed with wild monkeys among an abandoned royal palace in the middle of nowhere.

A village celebrating a wedding waved. Teenagers clambered over one another for the coveted position of receiving and hitching each raft’s rope. Huge cauldrons of soup and vegetables bubbled on fires. Women slowly rotisseried goats over smouldering coals. When we loaded up to leave, the adolescents own pushing and shoving distracted themselves to the point we untied our own ropes. After they saw their lost opportunity, they dove into the water and swam alongside, laughing, cackling, and friends again.

Over the four days, we faced five spots of Class IV rapids, the most challenging for amateur rafters to tackle. Before each Rumble in the Bubble, the guides would preview the run from shore, then brew up a game plan for the best route through.

The next day’s first rapids, relatively mousy, claimed one crewmember, Kareen from Manhattan. She skidded over the rocks on her rapidly bruised buns until a safety kayaker zeroed in and guided her back to the raft. Three people pulled her back into the raft, then we were delayed again by her hyperventilating from laughing.

The most notorious stretch came the third day. Re-con ordered us left of a huge rock in the middle of the river, paddle like crazy, hold on to hit a hole (water gains speed over a rock and drives under the natural level of the water, creating a “hole” in the river) get soaked, paddle out, hold on for another hole, get soakeder, then paddle out to the other side. As we drifted around the corner, the rock was easy to spot.

The familiar roar grew.

“Left side forward,” directed Anna from Switzerland. The left side paddled and the right side relaxed.

“All forward.”

Our speed increased.

“All forward faster.”

Water splashed over the bow into my face. I shook my head to clear my eyes and saw we were wrong.

“LEFT SIDE FORWARD, RIGHT SIDE BACK!!!!!!” she commanded. “LEFT SIDE DRAW!!!!!!”

To draw, the left side reaches out as far as possible and draws water in, perpendicular to the craft. The right side pushes out, using the boat as a fulcrum. At that speed, draw was a euphemism for fasten your seatbelt, or put another way, if the raft was a hospital, the draw command was the gurney into ICU. We never made it to the left. In fact, we were so far right of our landmark rock, for a moment, I thought I heard the initial directions wrong. The rock passed quickly on the other side. A barricade of boulders was straight ahead.

“HOOOLD OOOONNN!!!!!”

I was hanging on before the mayday, we spun 180 degrees, the left side lurched up, I saw Heinz from Germany, front paddler on the left this day, thrown towards me, then the safety of the boat took leave from underneath. Literally and figuratively I held my breath, resigned to smashing against submerged rocks.

Everything transformed into the incredible sound of silence except for the river flowing over top and the bubbles of my exhaling. Thankfully, bones versus stones didn’t arrive.

Resurfacing to assess the situation, I was in a calm eddy, the rocky shore a mere arm’s-length away. The raft was upside-down, teetering on the dry-bag pile between two boulders, three other paddlers near, slightly shaken, but exhilarated. Oars seemed to be everywhere. Stu was tip-toes on a boulder counting heads — ours plus those floating down the river. He held up nine fingers and shouted “Nine…I got nine heads!” and his shoulders relaxed.

The four of us who didn’t wash down the river, together with Stu’s guidance, heave-hoed the raft top side, dislodged it from the rocks, kicked it out and back into the stream, and paddled like hell through, with hoots and cheers from the others along with, by then, a large congregation of hill people.

The second and third rafts found their way through properly. When they saw our flip, neither were in a position to stop and beach. They described a slow motion dream, the raft lifting high on the right side then slowly lifting, lifting, lifting from the left and landing upside-down on the rocks.

We regained our crew, unanimously demanded forthwith that Anna stop apologizing, and continued on.

The next morning, around the first bend, the water’s persistent erosion over the centuries had eaten a cave into a sheer-faced cliff. Above the cave’s entrance, water sprinkled from the ends of long, stringy, green vines. Our captain du jour, Chris from England, steered us beneath this organic showerhead for the morning’s ablution.

Shortly thereafter, we tried beaching to scout the next rapids but hit a sharp rock and punctured the raft. Heinz, sitting passively on the inflated gunwale, went straight backwards into the drink like a patsy in a charity dunk-tank. An hour later of equipment switching and repairs and on our way again, we decided to name our tub. The Titanic, The Poseidon, The S.S. Minnow tied for first. We felt we’d been through everything so the remainder of the day, coincidentally the last, would be clear sailing. Sorry to disappoint for there is no more drama. I was tired, sneezing, coughing, sick from four days of wet. Although the trip’s chores were more work than I’d hoped, I was satisfied, but also happy to be going home to a hot shower, a cold beer, a soft bed, and a sit-down toilet.

The river had long stretches of calm parts and time for nasty water fights. Usually, a few splashes from an oar woke up a lethargic crew. This time, the other raft was beaking off six lengths away. One of their guys swam over and began an open daylight assault. Time for a countering commando raid. I dropped my paddle, leapt onto the dry bags, and dove in from this higher perch. The water was a bit murky, making my detection difficult as I stroked along. The home boat grew concerned for my whereabouts; the enemy only knew I dove in their direction. Heads oscillated, eyes focused, trying to catch a glimpse of me somewhere between the two vessels.

“Where is he…where is he?”

Swimming against the difficult current, my legs, arms, and chest, deprived of oxygen, began to burn. I dove deeper, under their boat to the far side, and initiated my rise to the surface. Gaining speed, the sunlight increased in intensity. Lifting out of the water like a submarine launched cruise missile, I reached for shoulder straps on the life jackets of two unsuspecting rivals looking the wrong way. I pulled myself up onto the raft, simultaneously sending them backwards to their watery tombs. I pounced to the rear and placed each hand onto the shoulders of Dave, the traitor now commanding this miscreant pack of seafarers, and pushed him to his own Davy Jones’s Locker. Desperate hands lunged as I sprang to the top of their dry bags and plunged back into the river, corkscrewing in the air before submerging towards the safety of my home craft. The others, reeling from the lightning attack, wondered again, “Where could he be?” I again swam, this time with the current, deep to the other side of my safe-haven craft and quietly rose to the surface, detected only by those on that side. With a finger to my lips I negotiated for their silence, but snickers and giggles revealed my position.

“All forward,” directed John from Upstate New York, who was in the saddle this day. “Jim…Jim…JIM! Get paddling…stop daydreaming!”

Ah, well, made for a good story anyway.

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