Thursday, May 5, 2011

Whitewater Kayaking the Seti River & A Visit to Chitwan National Park

As I write this, I am in Royal Chitwan National Park sitting next to the river listening to birds and watching the sun come up. Yes, it is as pleasant and relaxing as it sounds! When I last left off I was back in Pokhara after the excellent rafting trip, and that is where I will pick up.

This day I tried to sleep in (it never happens) and then went out for breakfast and wifi. As I think I mentioned before, Pokhara, like Kathmandu, is great for free wifi, nearly every restaurant has it and it is a great help. Anyways, I got breakfast and sat down to write my last blog entry and think about what to do for the rest of my time in Nepal. The writing took me a while, and I stayed put at the same restaurant, eating lunch as well as breakfast there.

After finishing my business on the computer, I wandered the lakeside area doing errands, getting a shave and once again trying to decide what to do next. Because the rafting trip was so nice and because it looked like the kayakers were having so much fun, I decided to return to Paddle Nepal and sign up for the four-day kayaking class/trip. Whitewater kayaking is one of the many things I've always wanted to try and I decided this would be a good opportunity to do so. Once that was settled, I met Libby (from the rafting trip) for dinner and we talked travel and shared photos.

The next morning I first had business to attend to. My Nepal visa was expired by a day (since I was unable to renew it the other time I'd tried) and I needed to take care of it ASAP. I went to the office, filled out the form, waited around for a while (waiting for what??) and got my 15-day extension without any problems. Because the office didn't open until 10am, and I was supposed to start the kayak class at 9:30 or so I missed the start, but it was not a problem. I went straight to the Paddle Nepal office, got my gear, and headed out to the water.

The first day of the four-day program was on the lake learning about the gear, how to get out of the boat when you flip, how to brace, the t-rescue, how to do a roll, and all that kind of thing. The group was myself and 6 other people plus guides, and was I thought, a pleasant group size.

The focus of the day was learning how to do the roll when you tip over in the rapids and it was something I've always been curious to learn. We went over the roll one step at a time, breaking it down into its component parts. Hint: it's all in the hips! We all worked at it for a while, ate lunch on the lake edge, and then paddled back across the lake towards town. I had not been able to do the roll yet and I was frustrated by that, but in the middle of the lake the instructor told me to try again, and I was finally able to do it. Goal for the day met, I was happy.

We returned to the shop, went over the plan for the trip, what we needed to bring and what time to show up in the morning. After that was all over, I met David, one of the people going on the trip, for dinner. The service at dinner was terrible, but we had a good time chatting and drinking a few beers. Being from England, David had (mostly as a joke) t-shirt made up for the upcoming royal wedding the next day, and wore the shirt on the kayak trip. I particularly like the crooked 'S', haha.

The next morning we were to meet at 6:45am at the Paddle Nepal shop, and leave on the bus by 7:15. The previous night I thought I'd set my alarm, but instead fell asleep reading my book and never managed to do it. I was awoke at 7:15 by a knock at my door, oops... Part way through the drive we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, and I think it was actually one of the best tasting meals I've had in my time in Nepal!

About two hours later we arrived at the put-in point on the river and began to unload out gear. Just as on the rafting trip, we had a ton of stuff, because of course on river trips here, you camp in style. We had one large raft for gear, then I think 11 kayaks.

Our group, left to right is Ali (Canada), Yentse (Denmark), Sarah (England), David, (England), Sara and Andrew (Canada).

Our head guide, Kesop. Very friendly, very helpful and a lot of fun to have on the river with us. We also had one other guide, a guide in training, and the man paddling the gear raft, Ram.

And here we all are on the river. We began on one who's name I forget, and quickly joined the Seti River. The water on the river was quite warm, much warmer than the river I rafted on, and that made getting wet very pleasant. I spent lots of time practicing my roll.

Early on we were hitting rapids, and doing our best to stay right-side-up. Most of what we were doing was class 1 and class 2, good for us beginners.

Lunch break on the river. Unsurprisingly, the menu was identical to that of the rafting trip, but as I said before the food was quite good and there was plenty, so it was not a problem.

Me in my boat.

Locals watching from the many bridges that cross the river.

Making camp the first night after a day on the river. It was a full five hours from start to finish, so we actually had a good amount of time on the boats. As usual, the scenery was nice, the water was comfortable, and between rapids we could mostly relax and float.

In the evening we collected firewood for the campfire and introduced some of the other members to the art of toasting marshmallows on a stick. A few people (including our guides) had never had marshmallows (and certainly not s'mores, but we didn't have all the proper fixings for that unfortunately) so this gave us marshmallow pros the opportunity to debate the pros and cons of lightly browned verses burnt, and other classic North American campfire debates.

I slept outside which was very pleasant, but at around 3:30am I was awoken by a few rain drops and thunder. I quickly got into one of the tents, and shortly after we were hit by a huge rain storm with plenty of thunder and lightening.

The storm had passed quickly, and by morning it was another perfect day. We did the usual breakfast, packed the gear, did some warmup stretching and games and hopped back onto the river.

Before many of the rapids we would all gather as a group and the guides would explain the course ahead, telling us where we needed to go and what parts were shallow (where we could not roll if we tipped) and what parts were deep enough. In the end, you really just had to follow the guide down the rapids and hold on.

More life along the river. At the ends of most of the brides were complexes of homes like this.

Our guide rescuing a tipped boat from one of the rapids.

Here is me doing a roll.

Another lunch on the riverbank.

And more rapids. I am happy to report I stayed up for all of the first and second day. Not that I felt especially skilled, but I was always comfortable and enjoyed every section of rapids.

After another five hour day on the river, we reached our camp for night two, where a man with a dugout canoe and net was fishing, very old school. I wonder how well these guys can run the rapids!

At this campsite we were met by another Paddle Nepal group, some on rafts and some on kayaks. We built our little town on the sand and waited for the sun to go down, because there was no shade and it was very very hot out.

In the evening we had dinner, the guides started a 'rock shotput' contest, we had a fire and did lots of relaxing. I slept outside again and it was very nice.

Packing up after breakfast and preparing to head out as one big group.

Going around a river bend.

In the flat sections, a river-weed and water fight broke out between the two rafts, with much splashing, boarding of other crafts, and pulling others into the water.

This day had many rapid sections, including this which was a class 3. For some reason I was having a hard time staying upright. In two previous rapids I'd gone sideways and tipped over but was able to do the roll in the middle of the rapids and continue going but on this section it was not happening. I got turned and flipped rather quickly. As I was upside down and trying to roll, I felt my paddle jam between some rocks and become ripped from my hands. This meant the roll was impossible, and I had to pull out and float down the river to shore without my boat. The paddle stayed jammed between the rocks, and the guides made quite an effort to save it. In the end the attempt was futile, and the paddle broke in half...

At the bottom of this rapid section, we spent a while playing in this little wave, with the guides trying to do flips and spins, and those of us less skilled mostly just getting tipped over, rolling and trying again, haha.

A ways down the river we joined up with a bigger, colder and muddier river which was mostly flat and relaxing. Right towards the end however was probably the biggest section of rapits on the trip, with a long section of waves that were probably five or six feet high. I am happy to report I made it though this fun section upright, but it did tip a few boats and hold us up for a while as they tried to collect the boats and paddles from the eddies and strong currents.

A bit after 11am we arrived at the take out point, and our time on the river had unfortunately ended. We carried the boats and gear up the hill to the road, ate lunch and said our goodbyes. Overall the trip was excellent and I'd recommend it and the company to anybody.

Where the trip ended was also close to Royal Chitwan National Park, which was my next stop here in Nepal, and was one more good reason to do the trip in the first place. Ali had looked into a package tour for the park, signing up for a 3-night 4-day package at Island Jungle Resort for $220 and one of the guys from the trip had just come from there and recommended it. Having done no research myself as usual, I decided to tag along with Ali and give it a try. It was a bit of a splurge, but it was supposed to be very nice, it was inside the park, all sorts of activities were included and at this point in my trip I'm kind of in the mood to do some nice things that are easy, rather than struggling to save a few bucks.

We waited on the side of the road for a little while, with our kayak guides flagging down buses trying to find one that was headed in the right direction, and eventually we ended up in the back of a pickup truck in order to get to our destination, which was only about 45 minutes away.

Ali and I were dropped off at the office of the resort and I asked if I could join. Of course they said yes, and I hopped on the bus and we were off to the park. About an hour and a half later we arrived inside the park where the 'resort' is and got off the bus.

As the name implies, it is in fact on an island in the river, meaning you take a boat across the water to get to the actual complex.

This is the dining hall where all meals are served, buffet style and an idea of what the place is like. There is also a bar area, many tables and chairs by the river, a common area, the rooms and various other buildings irrelevant to guests. Being 'semi-remote' and on an island, there is no steady power, instead there is just a generator that is run between about 6pm and 9pm. Not a problem, and while the place is nice, it is much more rustic than the word 'resort' implies.

As I said earlier, the package includes a full schedule of events and an hour after we arrived we were hopping on the back of an elephant to go for a walk and see some wildlife. I haven't ridden an elephant since Thailand and I'd forgotten how lumbering their walk is. To be honest, it's not a very comfortable ride.

The park is most famous for it's one horned rhinos, and in short order we saw our first one down by the river. It stared at us for a minute, before turning and trotting away. By this point the wind was picking up, the sky was getting very dark and we felt a few rain drops, so we hurried back into the resort. Right in time, because within minutes it was just pouring, hailing, and thunder and lightening filled the sky. We then had a short slide-show telling us about the history of the park and the animals that are here, dinner was served and we went to bed fairly early.

Mornings start early, with a 5:30am wake up call. The schedule of events is written on this blackboard and this morning it was a nature walk beginning at 6:15am.

On the walk we didn't see much at all. What we did see was these neat looking cotton beetles, some deer from a distance and through the trees and birds. It seems birds are by far the easiest thing to see here, but like most parks people are generally here to see big mammals.

Speaking of big mammals the king of them here is the tiger. There are three that live on the island itself and while just like the safari in India I have no illusions of actually seeing one here, we did come across a fresh print from a female that was made early in the morning. The other thing we came across was three armed soldiers, who are on patrol in the park for poachers. You can get up to $10,000 for a single rino horn, that's a good amount of money in America, imagine how much that is here in Nepal.

Once we had spent a little while walking up the island, we were met by a boat and spent the next 25 minutes or so floating back towards the resort. Again, we didn't see much besides birds and fishermen. (That's Ali by the way).

After a short break, at about 9:15 we then went back across the river to a waiting safari truck to see more wildlife. We drove around for two and a half hours and the best thing we saw was a single peacock. Not only that, but it was blazing hot out and rather uncomfortable, a total bust! Oh well, that's how it goes, this isn't a zoo and you can 't expect to see amazing animals all the time.

Lunch back in the resort. Ali and I began chatting with a Canadian couple, who we ended up eating with each meal until they took off. One topic of conversation was the Canadian election happening the next day, but with no internet connection all they could do was make predictions and wonder!

A lizard outside the dining hall.

After lunch was elephant bathing in the river. Just like in Thailand, we got to play in the water with the elephants, and try to hold on while they were given commands to buck us off like a bull. It was more fun in Thailand though, because there was a strap to hold on to meaning you could actually hold on, and they were much more aggressive meaning a more exciting ride. Still, fun.

A full on elephant shower.

As people were lounging around some of the guides came running and told everyone there was an Indian rock python sitting next to a tree. It was the biggest wild snake I've seen, probably feet long and as big around as your leg. Cool stuff.

The afternoon activity was another nature walk and again we were not seeing a whole lot. Besides the usual birds we saw some monkeys in the distance and the spot where a sloth bear had dug for termites, but that was it up to that point. Our guide then heard one of the elephant drivers giving the signal a rino was in the area, and we all went running down the trail and through the grass towards the site.

The rino had been sitting in a pool of water when we arrived, and it began to walk off. We followed, and as it got to an open area it turned around and just watched us for a few minutes, giving everyone a good look and opportunity for pictures. I've seen plenty of pictures and videos, but in person you really realize how strange these creatures really look. They are huge, with a goofy face, ears that look like bull horns, floppy skin, and natural armor plating. Very interesting creatures.

Just a shot of the river and the surrounding grasslands.

Get used to this face again, you will be seeing me back in Seattle in less than two weeks!

As we continued our walk, again we didn't see a whole lot more than trees and birds. We then came up on another favorite rino bathing spot and spotted one. Again, this one watched us for a few minutes while we sat on a fallen tree watching it back, before it turned and walked away. We waited a few more minutes and it came back to the same spot. As we watched, from maybe 80 feet away, it gave a bit of a mock-charge, running towards us for a few feet before stopping and turning around.

Pause! - As I'm writing (later in the day than when I started of course) a group of maybe a dozen monkeys are on the other side of the river, climbing a tree and jumping in the water! One of the more amusing wildlife sightings out here so far.

Ok, where I was. Anyways, the rino kept watching us for a few more minutes and eventually turned and walked back into the forest.

In the evening, a group of local dancers came to preform. No doubt this is pretty much just one of those corny tourist performances, and it certainly felt that way... The preformance consisted of one drummer and about ten dancers, going in circles and hitting bamboo sticks together like swords.

After the dance it was dinner time, back to the buffet. Dinner was 'Chinese' with fried rice, chowmein, veggies, soup and other bits. Overall the food here is pretty good, and of course you can eat as much as you want.

This mornings activity was bird watching, and it followed the usual schedule of the 5:30 wake up call and 6:15 activity. As I mentioned earlier, birds are everywhere here and I am told there are 450 different species in the park.

Birds are so numerous you could probably do some amazing bird watching just sitting in the middle of the resort, and we saw many from there but we also walked around the trails to see what we could find. Probably the most spectacular here that I've seen is the paradise fly catcher and we saw a female sitting in her nest right outside my room. The male is white and while small, has tail feathers probably three times as long as his body, making for a fantastic looking bird, if rather awkward looking in flight. I've already forgotten what kind of birds these are in the photo...

After breakfast, it was time to hop aboard the elephants again and once again we had an excellent rhino sighting. Besides the rhino, we saw a few deer scamper off in the distance but nothing else really.

As I was writing this, I saw a few monkeys across the river from me in the trees and then jumping to the ground. A few minutes later I heard a splash and saw that a group of about a dozen monkeys had gathered in the trees and on the shore, with many of them jumping from the trees into the river like playing children! They would jump from maybe 6 feet up, then float down the river for a few seconds before climbing back to shore. Some were adult, but there were a number of young ones in the group and it was a lot of fun to see.

After lunch there was a good bit of downtime, which I spent jumping in the river because it was really hot out, working on this post and reading my book. At about 4pm, the activity was 'village tour' and while I thought it would probably just be gawking at impoverished farmers, I decided to go anyways because eh, why not? The village is made of Tharu people, Hindu, who have lived here long before the area was ever a national park.

The Tharu are farming and fishing people, growing three crops a year: rice, wheat and corn. Chickens and baby chicks were everywhere, as well as goats. The other common animals were cows and ducks. I also saw two cute cats, which made me miss my own.... ten more days and I'll be home with them!

Naturally we were followed by curious kids and as we were leaving one of the people in the group bought some candy for them. It was funny watching our guides trying to get them into a single file line to pass out the candy. An interesting observation was that there were almost no men in the village, it was 90% women and children. Our guide said that many of the men were working in India, often in hotels, in other SE-Asian countries, in Kathmandu, or out fishing. Sad that such a large portion of the people have to move away for work and makes me wonder the effects of having so few male role models around for the children.

Speaking of fishing, as we were returning to the resort we saw a group of villagers setting up a camp and a a big bamboo fish weir to catch fish in the river. I looked however, and even this group was mostly women... That evening we had an awesome lightening storm and I sat by the river watching the white and blue bolts light up the night.

This morning was the last activity in the park before leaving, and it was another early morning nature walk. As always, the birds were very noisy and active allowing us some good sightings, but we saw nothing else the whole time. Regardless, it is a nice time of morning to be out for a stroll.

After breakfast our bags were carried to the boat and we were also paddled across the river to return to Kathmandu.

So how was it overall? Enjoyable, but obviously disappointed in the minimal wildlife sightings. Maybe I was spoiled when I did the safari in India, but on that I saw more wildlife in 30 minutes than I did here in two and a half days... I think staying in the park is also the better option for people visiting, I can see how trying to travel into the park every time if you were staying outside would be a big hassle. No matter what, it was a nice relaxing time and I did enjoy it.

We started on a mini-bus (large van) out of the park and to the office outside the park. I was reading the Nepali newspaper and noticed in a business article about oil prices that Osama bin Laden had been killed a few days back while I was on the river. Huh, interesting how you get news sometimes... Anyways we then were loaded onto a large tourist bus and sent on our way to Kathmandu.

The bus took us up a rather picturesque river valley full of small towns and terraced agriculture and eventually back into the mass that is Kathmandu. Besides a stalled van causing a rather large traffic jam on the winding, bumpy roads, the six hour ride was totally uneventful, and I suppose I'm stretching it to call that an event, haha.

I'm not actually sure what this whole complex is, it was just one of the countless interesting scenes we passed on the bus. Others included artisans carving furniture on the side of the road, the massive lines at petrol stations caused by the continued gas shortage, and the ever amusing phrases painted on trucks.

In Kathmandu I got a cheap room (300 rupees, the cheapest I've managed her in town, but I haven't been trying all that hard for the lowest possible price), collected my stored bag from my previous hotel, and set about having a relaxing night at Shisha Terrace, eating a burger, listening to the band playing, catching up on my blog and on the bin Laden news.

I have 7 full days ahead of me until I FLY HOME after six months and I really don't know what I am going to do with my time yet... Maybe some day trips, maybe a few nights in one of the neighboring cities, I just don't want to sit in Thamal doing nothing. So, home soon. Really soon. This has been an amazing trip, but I'm ready to come home. As much fun as all this is, it is tiring and I'm ready to return to the real world. Until next time ;)