Magazine article Geographical

The Lowndown on Nepal

Magazine article Geographical

The Lowndown on Nepal

Article excerpt

Nepal might be the best known on the tourist circuit for its mountain treks but you don't have to head for the highlands to have an adventure. Deputy Editor Jo Salt gets a dowsing as she rafts through the lush jungle-lined valleys and wide plains

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FORWARD HARD," shouts the rafting captain for the umpteenth time as we try to manoeuvre our craft downriver and outrun the current. But it's all too late. As the boat plunges forward a shock of iced white water rises above the bow and drenches its aching, yet exhilarated crew. It's alright for 25-year-old Captain Dan, who has represented his country, Nepal, at whitewater rafting, but for eight novices trying to row in unison, on command, and stay in the raft as it lurches in the frothing water, it's proving to be a difficult task. "Back right," bellows Dan, his voice partially drowned by the raging torrent. The paddlers on the right-hand side of the boat frantically paddle backwards, while the leftsiders forge the boat ahead. Finally, after two hours on the river, we have succeeded in negotiating the bends of Nepal's Seti Gandaki river.

Although the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Nepal has long been considered synonymous with trekking, with one in every four visitors taking to popular trails like the Everest trek and the Annapurna Circuit, we were finding out that this tiny landlocked country has a lot more than just trekking on offer. With over 6,000 kilometres of cold glacial rivers rushing down from some of the world's highest mountains, Nepal is providing some of the most challenging white waters in the world. As well as the adrenaline rush of bouncing down a river in an inflatable rubber raft, passing through the steep gorges, hills and valleys heading to the jungles and plains of the south is also a great way of seeing Nepal's natural beauty. To the people of this kingdom, a river -- as a source of life -- is considered a goddess. Often coined as the country's white gold', the large rivers with their steep gradients have massive potential for generating hydroelectric energy as well as attracting tourists wanting to raft.

SMOOTH PASSAGE

The milky-blue river widens and enters a calmer phase giving us a chance to look at life on the water as we float gently downstream. In a flash of electric blue a kingfisher swoops into the icy waters, emerging with a silver fish in its powerful beak. Wall creeper birds hop across the rocks, while white egrets and sand martins dot the sandy banks. Laughter from children we can't see rises from the densely forested slopes. Yellow butterflies flit in the sunlight landing on the river's buff-coloured beaches, the sand glinting with streaks of silver. It's November -- generally considered the most stable time for rafting. Boulders, carried downstream in the previous season's monsoon when the rivers became torrents capable of carrying over 50 times their dry season flow, line the river banks. The raft floats under a suspension bridge -- a centuries-old communication lifeline in a country where roads fail to link the most isolated of communities and hidden valleys. Donkeys plod across this crafted bridge, while schoolchildren in navy skirts and plum jumpers wave their exercise books in delight at the spectacle passing below.

With rivers previously off-limits being approved for commercial operation by the government, Nepal is entering a new era for river-running. The boom in river rafting has been compared to the increase in mountaineering and trekking in Nepal in the 1960s, and is fast becoming big business. With a plethora of rafting companies swinging into operation it is essential to seek out those whose priority is safety, using proper equipment -- including lifejackets and helmets, and whose guides are trained to international rafting standards. So too is it crucial, if rafting is not to degrade Nepal's environment in the same way that trekking has, to find a company with an ethical tourism policy. …

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