Below is the unorthodox description of the trip. It is not a run-down of rapids, or of access and egress points. I like that. I kind of like the way it is 8848 words long. I kind of like the way I can remember the feelings. I kind of expect people not to understand it.
I do not want to share the trip. Now I have internalised it – now I want it lock away, shackle it in a dungeon. I know that you would never understand - how could you, why would you. It was more than the water, it was always going to be. It was magic and peace, meditation and action, love and hate, romance and lust. It is not a trip for peers or voyeurs. It is a selfish indulgence that means more than I can write and less than the world should ever care. Whilst I don’t want to share, I owe a debt, to myself, to family, to friends. I need to repay the emotional cost – that in sharing may help as part payment. You will learn nothing about the experience from these words. You will learn nothing about the rivers. The ever flowing possibility for change will not allow it.
Since winning the funding from Berghaus, for a trip of a life time, the 8848 descent the solo kayak descents of the Dudh Kosi and Arun in Nepal. To ride these tears of Everest. Many other people have approached me with the offer of products. Some I have accepted with care and understanding others I have quietly rejected.
I have been riddled with self-doubt, an unconscious tugging at my heart. For me this expedition is not about the promotion of brands. It is not even at the same level of other expeditions I have done. I have dreamed about this expedition for over 10 years. With a cause and a reason others are willing to pay for the trip. It is not a hand out, and I don’t see it as a job. I will be looking for the 'pure' in all aspects of the trip. I know that many feel I have stained any notion of a personal pure, with marketing and brands on the line up to promote the trip and market products off the back of it. It is not about the silken purse. It has no room for image – more or less than it is worth.
Sponsorship in all its disguises is a costume I hate to dress in. The fit is not right and I look foolish. Like a homeless Santa dressed, but soiled, in the week between Xmas and New Year. In the past I have cut ties with those that have assisted me, because I don’t believe in the values of the brand. Now this piece of me has been ripped away and marketed like a lone night walker that stands on the street corner, showing the promise of a good time.
Things have not changed, not now, although I have to fight the impressions others have about me and my acceptance of sponsorship. Many see it like a contract with the devil or acceptance of sweets from strangers. The dirty rain coated stranger. I see parts of the sponsorship game like this, but I see the flip side. Here the loving family supports its children to grow. That is what it is all about. That is the golden-fleece I must allude to. I have been beating myself up about it for too long. Chances slip away in the breeze and we must run after what we want – with care. Not too strong to harm ourselves or others along the way.
I will try to tell you, want you think you want to know. I will try – I cannot promise. This was a personal quest. One not shared, stored, lived, relived, now diluted in the passing. The door of the story teller can jam with magic and wonder, but the breeze is not the truth – far from it – it offers nothing – only a melted candle effigy of what once was.
Cold concrete scattered with old trodden in chewing gum, littered with days old cigarette butt ends and plastic vending machine coffee cups. This station floor in England’s black country, is hardly the best place to bed down for the night. A cold wind blows across the platform. I left my jacket and shoes in Kathmandu. Flipflops and a t-shirt that is all. I would have paced the windy platform to keep warm, but my trousers keep making a descent to my knees, they don’t hold anymore – guess I lost weight. I shuffle on the balls of my feet – the left heel is cracked and bleeding worse than the right, I can’t stand still.
Looking down the straight parallel pair of train tracks a whole orange globe slowly lifts and wakes the day. The sun finally appears to be marking the start of a new day. Commuters rush for London bound trains. It seems this is where all briefcase stress and pinstriped suits collect.
Weak black tea with too much sugar, it’s my 20th cup since I arrived in Lukla. I made the morning’s flight, upstairs to the cloud city. Delayed flights had troubled me, too much wind, rain or snow. By rights I should be at the Nepalese consulate in London, a black tie dinner. I’m not. This adventure cannot wait. Sitting on a ridge looking down at the Dudh Kosi where its blue talons are cutting deep in the belly of the mountain. My gear, kayak, paddle and all still sit on the run way in Kathmandu – too big for this tin toy plane. After baksheee and tea, phone calls and stress I held hope that it would make cargo today or the next. It was a long night, frightful sleep, the ghosts of the past crept in. Crisp morning sun, clear run way, if you think a one line path to an allotment cut in a cliff is a run way and airport.
Snow peaks surround, like the walls of an auditorium. Clenched beneath are coffee shops and wifi stations galore– this is not why I came. The jewel I am searching for, now hidden behind this surreal mask of want and need. Switching on my video camera, I don’t like it – how it is a watchful eye – a gaze on the trip, invited yet unwanted – from the outset this has been about me a selfish indulgence. Private. Words of the last few days are playing in my mind, critiques of reason, people whose doubts have been trying to take a piece of me. Like Walter Bonatti, I am very disgruntled with the whole expedition ethos, I want to make this as pure as possible – just to go alone with skills and intelligence and simple basic equipment.
A cheap breakfast of aloo and roti whilst I make mental notes hoping all my gear is still safe in the kayak. Spot emergency receiver, kayak gear, food, sleeping bag. Tourist flights come and go, skidding to a halt on the tarmac. Bemused and daunted, rucksacks are collected from the pile near the police officer, boots laced and a conga line of matching fleece jackets march up towards base camp. No cargo yet. I look up and down the valley, a light wind, clear sky. If either changes I know the cargo will be grounded for another day. I go back to tea drinking at a small lodge in Lukla. The clock ticks slowly, 1100am comes and goes, I make a lazy walk to the airport, not holding much hope for any cargo plane.
Turning around the curve of the well-worn path as it bends to the left of the runway. Far too close to the rusty the razor wire. There sitting still and motionless on the tarmac, my dunga, my kayak. Packed with gear and with a weight of 45kg, it is heavy. Porter style, using the back band on my head – the tail of the kayak points skyward, I walk back to my lodge. Lakpa is a porter, a friend of a friend. Work has been slim for months and I know he needs the money if I offer him the job of taking my kayak up the Dudh Kosi. I don’t want or need his support, but it’s better to give to the community than to race on in a selfish ideal. He sorts his gear. I race ahead past Ghat and Phakding, 6 hours up the trail to the lodge and Monjo. Lakpa knows. The well-worn trail, littered by tourists and trek groups, follows the arc of the crystal clear river, weaves and turns, with the clear cascades. Each lodge and rest stop passed an uncertain homage to Tenzing, Mallory, Hillary – a museum of faces, of the brave and the fallen.
The morning air is fringed, no sun yet this is an early start. I get issues at the permit check post, NO DUNGA. I don’t listen. Walking past the carved gate post without a glance back, without a Kodak moment. More grief than I need in all honesty but another bribe and the problem is gone. This old bridge crossed and the put in, same as before, same as 2003 see my boat. No reason to hang about and wait, I don’t want the gaze of the tourists walking up or out of the Sagamartha national park. This water is low, frozen in the eddy and cold. It’s a slow paddle, at first in the blue clear water. Only just day light, the definition of the vista bleary, leaked water drops on an oil painting. Slalom moves behind rocks call out– class 4 I expect. I don’t want to grade it. It matters not, on this trip the grade is simple, either yes – or no. It all chocks out near Monjo – portage done. Still I paddle quick, Phakding and its not even lunchtime – I was going to call it a night here, but this seems a shame. Not wishing to waste the day with the tourist trail. It’s down to Ghat and beyond. The ride is fun, just the boat, paddle and me. A unit now chained in my own ideal, for the length of the pursuit.
The smooth rapids roll in and out, no hidden unwanted surprises. Boulder passes to be made, left and right. Too many tight lines the alpine style. Ghat creeps up all too quickly, the bridge I am set to take out from. I paddle past. Why? I just don’t know? I keep going. I know that this section down to Lukla is rough and who knows if it goes. Smooth tongues of water slide past the rocks. The gods own hand scatters the rocks in a maze. One eddy passed, one portage as the river goes too steep landing on a jumble of rocks. Sliding back in the eddy it is a slow paddle into the flow – skipping from wave to eddy and back again, reading and running. Twist and turn the river dances. I sneak a small eddy on a custom wave close to the cliff; my line of sight is lost. Then I remember. Least I think I remember. A larger eddy sits just behind this shallow bend. Had I glimpsed it on the run down? Only 50% sure it really existed. A stroke, a tight move and I am out in the flow, I reach the next eddy and paddle to the far edge. Over my right shoulder the water sumps out. Natural rock arch and a disarray of rocks. One false stroke, one missed move and I would have been sucked under the rock – a certain death, no escape route. The liquid pours and sucks, finding least resistance. The emotion came quick, the cold sweat, the heart-beat. ‘Fuck it’. It took me less than a minute to rationalise my predicament as water was forced through letterbox slots and cascades in Lucifer’s garden, where no man is meant to be. I was one step from ending not just my expedition, but also my life. In my pocket I could feel my spot device, press the button – wait for rescue. No good. Looking at the cliffs on either side, I look down the flow for an escape route. I look right and left, back up toward Ghat. That is one hell of an attainment to make, to cavort - opposing the flow and chancing the paddle upstream. Above I can see the lowest houses at Lukla, but no means to get to them. Attaining it must be until the fisherman’s footsteps form a trail near the almost dry river, a sanity of this unnamed tributary. It’s a heavy grunt up back to Ghat. Where the familiar taste of dhal bhat and tea where boiled rice and vegetables will bookend this day.
My feet are already blistered and sore, cracks in my heels make walking up the small ladder to the bed, in a Sherpas tea house, difficult. Blood races from my heart, I can feel it – like the beating sounds of a haunted civil war drummer alone after the battle. Thud-Thud-Thud. Its dark in the dusty room, as sleep comes. The moment to end rest comes without notice. I open my eyes quickly, breathing heavy. All around the world is suck and fizzed into the sump I avoided, all at once the world and its contents annulled and dry. It’s a flashback, a war wound. Panting – how to rationalise, so close, so close. Sleep comes uneasy, the black hole of reason and doubt – enough – enough.
The sun rubs her eyes slowly as she is waking up, her glowing warmth still hidden behind the jagged snow drizzled mountains. Ruled by black tea and stale bread I know today is a certain portage, the chasm around Lukla, perhaps one day – but not today. The trail leaves the tourist route and cuts down past Lukla to Waku where I join the river again, opposite Basa. First light, one foot follows the next with no time to waste the river soon folds and rolls in the chasm. This porter trail skips the tourist stops. It’s no place for social media updates or filter coffee. Long march to the end of the horizon and double back on the ridge.
My porter quit. Think I scared him. So now I am walking with Dawa, a silent young man. Why have a porter ons a solo unsupported trip? I reason it out – like I have before. Dawa or other are no help when I am in the flow.
It’s no quick walk, whilst blood and blisters scold each step. Covering my feet in angst and faults – the passage keeps going. 10 hours of hiking, of vistas and memories. Thoughts loop and crack, join a jigsaw storyboard. Sepia toned friends and lovers, skips and jumps – gramophone and cinefilm stained to the route of satisfaction and dismay. Of what dies inside when plans fail, or what is born when passion rages.
Footsteps are uneven and worn. Whilst the view is stunning, of mountains and ridges, it is not enough to remove doubt and pain. I am here to shake the hand of a demon, a fiend that has been chewing at my heart. For me, now, it is time to embrace its will. To keep going into its lair at all cost. For our tomorrows are built on the chances we take in our dark moment. To live without embracing our demons, to me, seems like not living. We are a whole mix of identity; to be centred we must explore these gestalts. This is a place where our operational principles dictate the holistic nature of the brain as self. Through the myriad gaze we adopt self-organizing tendencies. Situating our entirety, that is perceived, not as a sequence of individual parts that are linked without signification. The dark dog days, howling in the icy wind and the sun shining at dawn. The empty picnic hampers of wanting. These are all us, all our own making. Without it, nothing – no thing can happen. We are legion, the sons and daughter of our bastardised thoughts and actions.
It is dusk as we settle in the village of Waku, too late to walk to water level. A young family, where all toddlers, covered in snot and dirt, cling to the mothers breast. A small fire in the corner of the dusty room boils up tea. A cold pan of rice sits still on the wooden shelf. Solar panels have stored the light and a dim bulb in the centre of the room feebly illuminates the scene. Porters and village kids alike, all touch and play with my boat and paddle. It is an alien object in this world. A world where the beast of burden still works the land and the food that is grown in the local land is the only food that is eaten. Modern times are crashing in, cell services, text alerts and pay as you go coupons. Youngsters giggle at a joke, told and re told in text speak – across cultures.
Slow sun again this morning, it struggles to get over the ridge. It mirrors the emotional ebb and flow of each hour, each minute. From the small home, I can see the clear blue, snaking lines in the valley floor. Decisions over the previous days and months have brought me back to this place – back to the engaging flow, the launch back to Everest’s tears.
I struggle to get my boat to water level the bank is higher than the length of my rope. No matter how I try the boat clipped to the rope swings, in the cool air. Ten feet and more of empty space – it hangs like a pendulum. What choice? Letting the rope slip from my grasp the kayak falls, that slow motion fall, of cartoon scenes, were the bank collapses and the coyote struggles to regain a hold. Watching I want the kayak to piton, to settle in the rocks, it takes time, skidding on the smooth bedrock, it skids and lurches. Coming to rest when it flips and the cockpit catches a boulder.
The sight is perfect, each move settled and precise. This moment is all it could ever be. It is a gift. The payment for this isolation, a fleeting yet paradoxically everlasting moment, a simple credit in an account riddled with debt. Payment made with interest that now cannot be counted. It has no fixed sum but simply holds the risk of bankruptcy of the heart, mind and moment. Although the reward is more as much as this dance this ballet will ever be.
Each stroke is tight now. I don’t want a mishap or close call like I had on the upper section. That was too close to be fun. The river banks and curves in its immortal dance. A pristine plaything dismisses my isolation for short periods. No villages scatter the bank, no people, just me and my craft. Alone, little things bother me, the leak in my dry top, the water in my camera. Little things that should not taint the scene sadly do. The horizon dips and rolls with rocks to dodge. The moves to be made, the ones already made, irrelevant with the oncoming breath. A simple in and out, that is all that matters.
Nervous energy that has come to pass the gauge is empty – time to rest for the night. Looking left the beach looks homely warmth will come from the wood scattered and quiet. That’s important to just be, me alone. It takes no time to undress from the wet thermals and light a fire. This time it is easy, a few candles, dry leaves and some dry wood. In my down jacket and leggings I lay exhausted on the sand. I can feel the earth open up, to welcome me into her, as sleep comes. I shake awake, sun is still alive and I have yet to eat.
In my dry bag pouches of ready meals sit, waiting. I’ve only 3 dry dags. One has food, that sits between my legs when I paddle – its tied to the central pillar of the boat, the others in the stern have the following split between them, sleeping bag, down jacket, wool hat, lighters x2, note book, wallet, gaffa tape, first aid kit, shorts, thermal and a spoon. Never did I think it would be easy to eat well, whilst this limited space has meant I cannot carry sufficient food and calories for the day, the food I have got is nutritious. Foil packed and ready to eat I lean the packet on a small branch close to the fire. The flames lap curls of amber heat, that fade and fight, as the breeze picks up. Soon the foil is charred black. I know the pasta in tomato sauce will be hot enough to eat. No sooner is the last mouthful rested in my gut, slowly digesting, then sleep over takes the will to sit and stare. It is no surprise the gps read average speed 10km, I just paddled for 8 hours.
Solid, it’s a deep sleep, dreams now don’t wake me – an embrace of each scene is all I do. Lucid these are all too easy to remember. The deep sinking feeling as I loose grip and fall deep down in the abyss. A solo climber his worst nightmare, the scene fades. Opening a new melodrama the river sucks in a maze of damnation – go on Freud, work with it. Revel in it. I presume I know the games and routes my mind is going. It is playing with the certain, the Cartesian formula – I think therefore I am. Thinking is all I have and it is all I can ever be. The visions I perceive, the places I see. These are no more than my thoughts and analysis, even in the moments of eyes open wakefulness. All I can be is the thoughts and mind – the place I think to think.
I think I know some-thing, but that it no-thing to think. It is only the abyss of freedom, the escaping from the binds of time, the slip and dance, away from thought. Even our simple thought is bonded to action, linguistics and perception. To turn off from it all, float in the bardo on purpose, willing to go alone. Dreamscapes have forced the bardo experience. Unconscious mind presuming so much about the involvement of the bardo, presuming the experience is a transmission I welcome, with arms open.
From the slumber I wake, its positive, quick, 0530. Shaking the sand from my hair and a mouth of dry oats and water, then without fault its water time. 0600 stroke-stroke it is all automation unconscious and driven. The willingness just to get out of the Dudh Kosi and then to the familiar waters of the Sun Kosi before I make the journey to the Arun Gorges perhaps that’s the fuel I need.
Within 2 hours I cruise to the confluence, left turn in to join the river of gold on its route to the Terai and India. Sun Kosi, memories of my first trip on the river, conversations, the prayers friends and I sent to Dr Jones on subsequent trips. To friends gone now is not the time for melancholy. All the strokes in the world don’t seem enough to race away from emotions. It’s a simple head down paddle that forces the mind to amble. I must centre the thoughts, to place it on the breath – at peace. Each stroke brings the trivia of my daily life to a crashing soap opera. The laundry pile, the unpaid bill, the work-a-day ethic of family, and friends each breath centres this, to the here and now. No moment but that which is, not the one gone or the one to come. It is all meaningless now, this is a time of beautiful isolation, a simple pleasure in this world we construct around our modern lives. The Sun Kosi plods along, slack pools and friendly rapids I know by heart. The named and shamed commercial runs, Jaws, Dead man eddy, Rhino rock. I have run them as a customer and a guide for over a decade. Helmet off now and glasses on. The warm wind wafts up from India, the hidden smell of exotic spices and eastern promise, causes angel wings of spray to dance in the air. I stay in the flow, no eddy, no rest, no time to let the thoughts in. It is just me and the water. Rainbow arcs of water curve from my paddle blade, the silence broken by the slice and the cutting of the blade in the river. Ripples spool and reel from the bow. I watch the refraction dilute as waves cross my path, like thoughts in the passing. Like the promise of possibilities. “Mommy, why haven’t I been born yet?”
It’s a long paddle, but I don’t want to find a beach and camp. Just keep going and paddle through the blistered pain and cramp. My favourite rest day beach, where the waterfall cascades on a river left, deep in the jungle is long gone. Just a memory now. One of the places I have passed along the way. Villagers have started to appear again simply finishing the chores of the day. A routine evolved of the ages. For the last fifty km or so I have adjusted by reach and paddle grasp. My hands have moved closer to the centre of the shaft, perhaps 3-4 hands from the throat of the shaft and blade. I can feel the difference. I have a low swing action now, like I did when I first learnt paddle sport skills, it is all upper chest muscle and only a hint of torso. Bad form indeed, but it feels good. Feel is important it is a pleasant diversion from the hungry ghost realms of what and need that litters the days outside the expedition. This is a realm where through richness of want and need. Through a society that offers instant gratification we are forever hungry for more. This deprives us more than we know. We have no satisfaction unless we make the journey to our prize. It all seems so obvious now. A champion for our jouissance; it is what is left, as a by-product that is the crux. Where the past is a mirage and the future has not happened.
With only an hour of daylight left camp routine returns with too much haste. I build my fire too close to my sleeping mattress, and that’s a mistake – it melts the corner and the air escapes. Too foolish a mistake, sleep for the rest of the trip confined to be uneasy. For now I don’t care, the angel of dreams comes quick.
Through the chatter of monkey conversations both natural and in a self-styled metaphor of the minds tangent of wanderlust, through bird calls in the jungle and the lapping water in the gentle flow I awake knowing that all I want is to be sat in Chatra away from this river. It is not that I don’t like the river. It is not that I have fallen on unfriendly terms. I just know that I must move on, keep going. In the morning dew the paddling gear is still damp and cold. Droplet crystals hang on my hair and beard. Breakfast, a simple handful of oats and dry maggi noodles, washed down with river water. From my place of sleep to the Arun confluence the river rounds bend after bend. Slow and restful in its journey now, the river seems at peace. Bamboo rafts float uneasy with trade. The green bamboo lashed together with vines. Through the bends and twists on the horizon the Arun valley cuts in from the left snaking its way to form the Sapta Kosi only when its sibling the Tamur. It takes only a simple moment of pause, to gaze back up this river, I don’t wish to sit too still. Not now, stillness will come when I reach this confluence again.
The unnatural end, at Chatra, where the water is sucked into the concrete irrigation pipes, is all too obvious. All this before it is leaked out on the Terai where it seeps merging the forced border of India and Nepal. Here this one journey is over, although the next one has yet to start. Here the dust and dirt cannot be washed clean in the ashes of times past. Here one too many bus rides home to Kathmandu litter my over lapping memories.
The once thriving administration town of Dharan waits, on my route to the Arun. To relive a journey I made with friends. It was my first major expedition in 2002. Without the success or failure of that Arun Gorges trip with peers would I have continued to journey on these rivers?
Eyes peer through the open window. It is not open on purpose, it just will not shut. These are not the happy eyes of childhood innocence. These scan the scene, phone, dry bag, pelican case, sleeping bag, thermals. I watch as they dart left and right. Then they fall still, resting on my half naked body. The eyes soon disappear in the night. I pack all my gear and pile it away from the doors and windows. I reposition the stained couch to block over the door. The power has tripped out and I use my head torch cursing the cheap Chinese batteries that offer only a faint light. Once on the bed I pull the blanket up and curl in foetal position. This hotel, the ‘Dharan resort’, offers no rest. I can feel the bed bugs crawling, the slow drip of the leaking toilet and the restless bark coming from the small pack of street dogs outside the window. It offers no justice for a tired man, less still the 03.30am alarm call, as I walk the dark streets to the bus station. Crumpled ticket in my pocket I curse the manners of a night in Dharan.
As is usual for a bus station in Nepal, chaos and pandemonium appears to engulf the solitary bus. The engine is silent, although we all know it will not be long before the black smoke coughs from the tail pipe as the engine is raced past idle. For now, in this darkness, a small crowd has gathered around a fire built from trash. Sitting close to the heat an old woman squats over a pan of boiling milk. Here 10 rupees in enough for a hot, sweet milky brew. It is supposed to have tea in it, although I don’t think this one does. With my kayak and gear now neatly tied on the roof, this breakfast comes easily, before the mad rush to board. I have played this game before, inside is always too cramped – this is no different, so I climb out of the window as the bus moves slowly through the still dark streets. Pulling my weight out over the roof rack rim is easy. Although getting past and the basket of ducks and other assortment of luggage tied to the roof proves tricky. To get settled I untied a rucksack and a few sundry items, tying myself to the bare metal, I try to sleep – just as the bus speeds up and over the pass towards the Tamur. Within an hour the sun is out and the roof starts to fill with people, Tibetans, Indians, Nepali but I am the only scruffy Englishman. The road gets worse and worse, from tarmac to dirt and dust. Conversations repeat to fade. ‘Only one? Your alone? Are you married?’
It is not just the quality of the road that gets worse, but the villages we pass. Dakhuta our first stop proclaims itself to be an ‘open defecation free zone’ – why it needs to advertise this seems remarkable. I mean do people in the 21st century still find it acceptable to crap in the street? Although as we get closer to the once trail locked Tumlingtar, filth and trash litter the villages. Open piles of waste litter the verges. Sewerage is an inadequate situation – a mine field for those in sandals. Before the road was cut in, before the villagers had access to jeeps and buses, waste and litter was minimal. Now the small village infrastructures cannot cope with this advancment.
Cramped next to me on the roof are 4 government officials, data collectors. Even they are astounded by the roads existence. They don’t expect it to be finished – although it is drivable by these buses and jeeps. As Tumlingtar approaches the dusty dirt track is forced through a forded river before it switchbacks up to the flat plateau at the airstrip. With wet and slick tyres the bus races for the incline. One slip, then another, this is one too many for the roof passengers and on mass we leap to safety as the bus skids and slides. Spewing wet mud from it fast spinning wheels. On the left a 200+ft drop to the river, on the right a cliff with a 6ft deep ditch. Each slide, each skid sends the bus closer to the cliff and ditch. Rear wheels catch as the bus lurches to a standstill. It takes time to continue to Tumlingtar and beyond to Khadbhari on the ever worsening road. As the bus halts in Tumlingtar. I cannot help think back to the trip 10 years ago, were we had walked in from Hille – perhaps still a safer option. Plumes of dust and diesel smoke cover those of us sitting at the back, on the roof. We all have sore hands from holding on tight, as each bump and bend offers a new challenge. Still the bus tried to race on this dirt road. All dust and confusion, where even 20km/h appears to be light speed. Khadbari the end of the line is reached, in a cloud of fumes, just as the market is packing up. I can glimpse from my roof vantage point a fine selection of fruits, vegetables, electronics and clothes you wouldn’t wear if you were naked.
It is another run down hotel that offers the only place to stay, where power failure and insufficient sanitation is the lasting echo. Here porters, whose work has been cut because of the road, drink whisky from Kathmandu whilst asking too many questions of strangers.
Uncertain about getting to the river, about what is to come and what has gone. In the silence, between thoughts about the Dudh Kosi and family at home I wonder about the advancement of the road. How the Arun III Hydro project whose costs are funded by India, once shelved, is forcing this road up the valley. Here the trucks are raping the land and scorching the traditions of the villages. Here any benefit from the hydroelectric station will undoubtedly not be felt in these small communities. The jeep bounces along in the dirt breaking my train of thought as each bounce forces my head to contact with the unpadded roof. This waterlogged dirt track a tattoo on the nation, once here, it cannot be undone.
Empty water bottles and discarded biscuit wrappers litter the floor as this makeshift road halts against the first houses in the village of Num. Here all those years ago Maosits activists were seated to make their presence felt. Even now getting out of the jeep and shouldering my boat I feel uneasy, haunted by the foolish memories from the past. It is a long carry to the bridge, I remember. The Barun Khola crashes its aquatic joy just upstream. It calls me to explore its reaches. Now is not the time. Now is a time to return – a pilgrimage of the heart. The peaceful put in from yester-year has gone now. A small village – fast becoming a town - is moving forward, it will be yet another roadside truck halt when the project is finished.
The bank is now creased with waste, broken glass and tears. Late in the day, but I don’t want to spend the night in the village, quick change and then a launch in the flow. In minutes the rapids get steep, not too obvious. The Arun is flowing brown and rushing along. Retrospective images flicker in my vision. I can remember where we portaged, although the water is so much higher than before. My mind flicks and stalls. It jumps from the images I have as slides and tries to fill the void of vacant memories. I remember the jungle we walked on the left bank, the long portage and the camp spots; all in order.
My body begins to weaken. It has been a long few days and my concentration is also suffering. Once deep in the flow the gorge walls begin to slowly close in. Once fully in the gorge I remember camp spots are uncomfortable at best. The left wall opens and small pockets of jungle open up. Scuttling to the bank memory returns, I have stood here before, I have looked at the jaws of this horizon only once before. We portaged then. I am running on empty now, this jungle with all its noise, will offer me shelter for the night.
The air is heavy with a promise of rain. As I bed down for the night against a tree stump and small fire, content that I am well into the journey, I try to visualise what is to come. I remember how I swam from a sticky hole on day 3, all those years ago. How now should such a fate occur the issues would be much greater than a lost water bottle? As the final rays of the suns smile dip and fade into night. Silence is covered by the raw of the horizon. This raw grows and builds, again and again. An orchestra of crashing cymbals and timpani where the pulling of my wool hat over my ears cushions the sound sleep becomes me.
It is not the natural light seeping in through the trees, that wakes me, like all the days before. This time it is the breeze. Not the breeze of nature whose wind I would welcome. Sadly the breeze of doubt has kissed me. It is still only half-light as I walk to the rivers’s edge and look onto the horizon. Where the water slips and rolls in a hydraulic maze. In this half-light I can still see the line, hug left to the undercut and gamble that the run out is clean. Too early and too dark to start paddling I lay back in my sleeping bag, breakfast and thoughts. I lay still, sipping water and conserving energy. Getting kitted and leaving the safety of the eddy. To feel the smooth carbon shaft of the paddle again, as it slices and pulls the water, will be all too soon.
Risk and chance, that what it boils down to now, that is the route. Experience should mean I can read the subtle peaks and troughs. I’ve taught them long enough. Not now. It is a pure educated gamble. I know no portage route is open. Minutes pass slowly as I visualise the problem, cutting out all improbable options. The line cannot possibly hold a gaping siphon like that of the Dudh’s nightmare. The run out is too horizontal, although rocks and bad hydraulics could easily barricade the pathway.
It is a sneak nudging the kayaks bulbous nose into an undercut allowing the flow to take me. The water halts against the cliff, a swirl of water cushioning against the bare rock wall. It begins to hold me in a waltz. Fighting to pass around this bend, my heart does not beat the notes of fear. It is settled, I can feel it, my breath slow. No point in stress or panic now. It is a situation I brought myself in and one that I myself can solve. A choice, that is no choice at all, I have to paddle down river - to chase the waves. From left and right diagonal crashes of water explore and fade. My heavy kayak is thrown around, a flip, a roll, all in a few seconds of descent. It does not halt or stop the descent.
In its deep brown flow the river, cutting it antecedent path from before the uplift of the Himalayan range, the twist and turns offer no respite. Horizon lines sink and fall in the bowels of damnation. Where life for all it foibles is shown stripped of everything but the thunder before death. The choice to portage is easy. From the rivers right bank, as I struggle with my kayak in the edge of the jungle, I realise I should have stayed low and navigated the jigsaw pieces of tumbled rocks that litter the bank. Hindsight is always an unwanted accomplice. At water level it is all too obvious that the rapid continues as the gorge wall closes tighter together. Sitting alone in the small bouncing eddy against the smooth rock, only one route in the rapid presents itself. I break down the move into chunks. On the far side the water curls off the cliff and refracts into a hydraulic jump, over my shoulder on this bank the river slips in silence between tossed loose boulders and the cliff, a seamless sucking undercut. Mid-flow a small smooth route cuts the hydraulic and clips the corner of the rock undercut – it is the only line. In the pool below, where the rapid eases, it’s a time for celebration; a passing chance to relieve emotional baggage. That move was akin to the famous ferry at site Zed on the Stikine. Emotions that were chained to this past experience doubled the elation.
Rapids roll and tumble, crashing and stirring the points in the emotional womb where it can breed an insight; a manifestation of fear. A stroke and again adding more and more - not a pause or rest, just a decision to keep in the flow. Etching an existence flowing from left to right caught between jungle clad gorge walls. The mind, my own private Citadel is cast strong. It is bold and anchored - solid. The gates guarded for some time. Where guards of the past, my personal staff and serfs, sit still - watching the psyche, waiting, for the cracks to open without invitation. Day, all the sun drenched hours, the guards watch the distant views for wooden horses that never make it to the Citadel – the hitchhiker inside – no chance to cause mayhem. In this moment fear sits redundant in a failed casket. This in no Troy; this is stronger. More aware, no gifts accepted without grace or payment.
The muscles across my chest are tight after the long hours in the flow. Grey slab walls are been drawn back, like curtains at dawn. They make way for a pavement of uneven rocks that litter the banks. No place to stop and rest. Each fresh rapid is a new and complex problem. Where the vertical highway of water drops and keeps rolling onwards in its migration. Solo, all choices are mine. I have paddled some rapids I shouldn’t have, where a safer option would have been to walk around. I have walked where the river looked like it was in the jaws of hell; only to find it flatten out. I have run hard rapids I had no choice over. This is one of those times. Often rapids have slack eddy pools to wait and assess lines, these are absent. Each stroke is one requiring more timing than the last. Each stroke is made knowing that things are getting harder. It happens in slow motion. Where time slows down and the mind speeds onwards. Here, in the mist of all the hydraulic waste land, a clear and perfect line; a courtly pleasure. One precise move of the paddle blade and the boat skips over the boiling mass - entering the smooth tongue of water whose presence is a one way road sign showing the only safe route downstream. I can feel the change, the bardo, through which I have turned as each move is made. Where challenges of the mind occur I know that I cannot go back. Inside, too much has happened, the internal mind games have been accepted and understood.
In the realms of chance, where moves in the rapids are on instinct, doubt is never shelved. In isolation I can control my own thoughts, but the doubts of other people creep in uninvited. Voices of caricature puppets, of life’s own anthropomorphising characters, that are already known to me. Where they are pulled on strings by an invisible master, made to dance at another’s command. These are the cataracts in a blind sight of my mind. Here the jouissance, of any pleasure is tainted. It is forever lost in the realm of the objet a; unwanted excess. This is in the field of the visible as the gaze. Where we can grasp something which, already in nature, appropriates the gaze to a base function, that of to-be-looked-at. It shows here not as paranoia, but like hearing your own voice echo in a smoke filled karaoke bar or the first few sentences when public speaking. You realise you are more than you think. Its brief, passing, killed by my own knowledge that thought is the only known truth. Outside in the external world, away from thought, nothing. The mind is all that ever can be. I rationalise this, the fears discussed of others whose puppet faces talk and ruminate about inappropriate instances. Fear here is their transference, not mine. It is their mind-construct not one of mine. Fear has no place. It must float away on the ocean of understanding. Where all that is and all that was is a construct we control. I realise this from the sleeping bag as the waterfall echoes at the end of the day. For in the morning I know more will come unhindered by false hope.
Debris of long gone funeral pyres litter the banks where the flames were once high in the sky, now no longer, just faded ashes. The gorge has opened up it is obvious from the hamlets that are scattered on the flat fields. Beasts of burden plough these ancient soils, they have for generations. It doesn’t stop me from thinking that a surprise is just around the corner. Wider now the Arun has lost its teeth, its bark far worse than its bite, but I don’t want its prize to be given so easily. Old worn out wooded boats ferry villagers, from bank to bank, crossing the tranquil flow without concern.
It was another early start and the paddling is now slow. I have taken off my sandals and now my bare feet rest easily on the foam foot block. The curl of my toes can feel the movement of the boat as it transfers from edge to edge. As the river bends and swings towards its mating with the Sun Kosi a steady rhythm of strokes project me forwards. A small plane flies over head, no doubt landing in Tumlingtar, I know the sting of the Arun has gone as I pass the old bailey bridge. I once walked to it from Tribeni, when on a lay-over day, at the end of a Sun Kosi trip. For now I struggle to paddle. Emotions are strong. Tears begin to fall down my face, without control or the will to let them stop. I halt briefly in the cross currents between the Arun and Sun Kosi, this is all too much. Shaking, my body shows outwardly the manifestation of the achievement. Sunglasses cover my eyes, hiding the tears, although none can see. I let the votex of the converging flows spin me. Content now in the knowledge that it is done, the barrier of demons, of searched jouissance, of the search for a pure experience, formed. I paddled faster than I ever imagined, the gps reading 10km/h that’s about 120km some days. Although I find that of no interest.
This camp spot at the confluence was always going to be the place I spent my last night. Sleep cannot invade my thoughts. The hot sun of the day is still kept alive in the warmth of the sand. Silver stars, all proud and strong, litter the ink blackness of night’s precious skyline. In front the mighty river rolls slowly on its journey to the flat Terai. From the high mountains to the sea it will be complete; for now it has lost its energy. Casting nets the fishermen are still busy. I glance at my watch, only 7pm. I am beaten, still blistered, cracked, and more exhausted than in the past. Drawing back the breath I see raw beauty in each passed stroke, my reset button pressed on each breath and a belly that dined on majestic sunsets.
Memories of the actions taken throughout - those that are implied within the telling- mean that hope of a final resting of the mind – no more chasing – is a simple pleasure. I feel people will ask too much. The pleasure that was held within the expedition must fight to stay as truth. It must fight to embed its truth on me.
The bus moves from its dust bowl resting spot as the crunched gearbox jerks the old worn vehicle forwards. The drone of the diesel engine where the idle chatter of strangers is silenced and the chaos of horns punctuated. It is a rude welcome back to the world. Each kilometre from the river is a reminder of what once was. I doubt I will ever paddle again. I doubt that the moments and magic can be placed again in any finite form.
It has gone too far and too fast now. Understandings will never be as true in the evaluation. Words and the telling will always be a mask that is too full of make-up to fade and evaporate from the collected consciousness. The gaze of the Lacanian Other will always be a haunting that I must live with. Self-aware I am riddled with psychoanalytic notions. These do me no favours. The demon that I wanted challenged, the one buried inside, has come again. This time it calls and howls in the abyss with a fresh vengeance. Filling the void I had built with its own venom of filth. It still throws doubts and fake hope upon the dreams I can see forming. It growls with a hunger like never before.
The station master calls for the train doors to close. The lullaby rocking of the carriage and I drift to sleep. Homeward now – but I feel am not settled. Changed - I know the fire is not going out. I know that the conclusion of the expedition sought to abandon all future plans. That was a falsehood. It takes the passing of the meal cart and the screaming toddlers opposite to wake me. The cold cup of tea, the one I bought before slumber took hold, tastes bitter. Just one sip and a slow scanning of the carriage then truth in all its costumes flashs forward. I was back to the paddle strokes and isolation in the Himalaya and back to the quest that I brought on myself. Here where the jouissance sought and found cannot be held, this is a finite experience that fades and needs to be discovered again. The path alone is the truth. Taking the result as the path – where once was nothing, is formed and disappears. It is that form is emptiness and this emptiness is the form itself.
For now I have told you what you think you need to know, even though you may expect otherwise. I have left out a step by step guide – this is not the forum for it. This was never a trip that would lend itself to a retelling. It was never going to be written as a linear encounter. It was personal and parts will remain untold. I have expected lots from the reader. Although I also would rather you decided not to read it. In the construction of language, that which is signified, the written word will always miss the point.