Whitewater rafting has been described as the perfect adventure sport and there is no place better for both the beginner and the pro than Nepal.
Up by the Bhote Kosi, some three hours east of Kathmandu, Claire Davies is about to get into a raft for the first time. She's "a little shivery, nervous and excited". Her fellow-rafters also have mixed feelings, but it won't be long before the river guide yells "Forward team!" and suddenly there's no time to be nervous as they paddle through huge rolls of rapids and falls. Adrenaline, sweat, splashes of crystal-clear mountain water fuel the trip.
Before they begin, along with wet suits, helmets, life jackets and paddles, rafters get a briefing on safety, paddling, emergency tips and the excitement to follow. The river guides literally show you how to sit in a raft, and tell you not to panic so often you begin to wonder what you're getting into. River guides are real showmen (yup, they're all men), mixing humour, a sense of excitement, and vital information. A good guide puts his team at ease before giving instructions and commands. "This is very important," says Ashish Lama, a river guide. "Each rider has to follow the commands to keep the raft free-floating. Otherwise. everybody will start swimming."
According to the Nepal Association of Rafting Agents (NARA), some 26,000 people, including a tiny number of Nepali tourists, went on professionally organised white water rafting trips in Nepal in 1999. After trekking, rafting is the largest sector of the tourist industry, generating 25 percent of the tourism-related revenue and employs more than 2,000 people. It all started in the early 70s when maniac rafters from overseas started paddling down Nepal's white waters. But commercial rafting only began in the mid-70s, when some of these adventure-seekers set up shop here, independently and with Nepali partners.
Crossing low-tide rapids down the Trishuli near Kurintar village, Puran Gurung, a 30-something river guide from there, remembers that eight years ago the older folks did not like what he was getting into. "But now they're happy about it." His business also provides a livelihood for other men from Kurintar, like Gangaram Silwal. "I grew up beside the river and now I earn my living here. If not for rafting, maybe I'd have become a driver or wage labourer, I don't know.maybe a simple farmer," says Silwal.
It isn't entirely a dreamy, living-off-nature business, though. Most river guides earn around Rs 3,500 a month, besides the tips. A lucky few earn more. It isn't big money compared with what they have to go through-the constant anxiety of safeguarding lives and risking their own, physical stress, and trouble with management -and many guides say as much. The All Nepal River Guides Association (ANGRA) president, Dev Raj Gurung, says most guides have no insurance cover or provident funds. "Only a few of the well-to-do agencies provide life insurance for their guides. We're now trying to organise some basic insurance for all river guides in Nepal," he says.
There is money in the business. Small rafting companies net profits of up to Rs 1.3 million in a year if the two seasons are good, while companies with larger fleets, of say around 50 rafts, and a good foreign network, can earn as much as Rs 6 million annually. A raft normally costs around Rs 300,000 and a complete set of necessary accessories is an additional Rs 100,000 per raft. Establishing a small company with a fleet of four of the cheapest rafts requires around Rs 1.2 million, not a really large sum for businessmen. "Those with money and without knowledge of the field are into it," says Gurung. "Many sahujis who run rafting agencies don't even know where the rivers are located."
Most rafting companies themselves are located in, you guessed right, Thamel in Kathmandu, and in Patan, with some branches in Pokhara. Any company you see outside these centres is likely only a storage station or a contact point. How much of rafting-generated revenue goes outside these urban centres is anybody's guess.
But these issues aside, the industry is now fighting other forces. Rafting company owners and guides alike are anxious about the increasing number of dams being constructed on Nepal's free-flowing rivers. (A "free-flow river" is trade slang for a river full of rapids and without man-made obstructions like dams, tunnels and canals.) Dams on the Kali Gandaki and the Marshyangdi are cited as classic cases that seriously cripple the industry. Chhedyup Bomzan of Drift Nepal says business has already taken a downturn, as trips now last fewer days and some areas are simply off-limits. "We don't oppose dams but there have to be ways to guard the pristine wildlife and flavour of Nepal. If the rivers are blocked, there will be no rafting. Okay, we may not be the biggest contributor to the tourism industry, but it would affect other tourism-related businesses too-hotels, airlines, restaurants, resorts," says Chandra Ale of Ultimate Descents Nepal.
Chandra's brother, Megh Ale, one of Nepal's foremost professional rafters, is trying to do his bit to keep the green flavour in. He heads the Nepal River Conservation Trust (NRCT), which conducts awareness and educational campaigns for river guides and villagers who interact with the rafting sector every year. The guides, through ANGRA, are devoted to different kinds of community service. They carry out humanitarian and social welfare projects like blood donation camps, clean-up campaigns and first-aid training. They're also renowned for their disaster-relief work and rescue operations during landslides and floods in Nepal. NCRT also organises an annual River Festival (this year from 1-3 December on the Bhote Kosi), to raise awareness about Nepal's rivers, their resources, and conservation. This year there will also be activists protesting the casual construction of dams as well.
Rafting is not just fun, but the perfect adventure sport that makes you manage adrenaline, challenges and skills, and also engage with questions of philosophy and inner peace. Nepal's free-flowing Himalayan rivers, flora and fauna, the vistas, and some rough terrain offer world-class adventure. The challenge now is to make it true eco-tourism, i.e., compatible with equally vital development projects.
All rivers operate in the Autumn (Sep-Dec) and Spring (Feb-May), except the Sun Kosi, which is operational only until June and the Trishuli, navigable throughout the year. The international system of river classification for rafting and kayaking is based on the gradient of the river flow and difficulty of the rapids. Class I is easy moving water with few obstacles, while Class VI is almost impossible to negotiate and meant strictly for professional rafters. If you're in reasonable physical shape, Classes I- III shouldn't be a problem. Beyond that require some rafting experience and confidence in water.
RIVER DURATION CLASS COST
OF TRIP OF RAPIDS (average)
Karnali 12 days (includes trek) III to IV $400
Kali Gandaki 3-7 days III to IV+ $99
Marshyangdi 5-6 days IV to V $250
Sun Kosi 8-10 days III to V- $350
Bhote Kosi 2 days III to V $80
Tamur 11 days (includes trek) III to V $650
Trishuli 1-2 days III to IV (IV in monsoon) $70
Seti 4 day Kayak clinic II to III $220
Arun 8 days (includes trek) NA $600
Lower Bheri 2-3 days NA $120
Source: Ultimate Descents and NARA