November 4, 2009: Rafting on the Kali Gandaki…So Right, But So Wrong

Since I’ve been in Nepal, I often find myself pondering the thought that my actions here could prove fatal– that a little mishap or a lame-brained error in judgement could have tragic results. After all, this country is wild; rescue is not always possible; and you really have to be self-sufficient here or else pretty serious things can happen. I think about this probably too much and often find my heartbeat racing when faced with travel challenges. Like when I’m taking a sunset stroll through dense forests far removed from civilization, and I wonder what it’d be like to get lost. Or when I’m a lone westerner among a throng of non-English-speaking Nepalis, and I’m riding on a bus that’s doing ninety around blind corners. Or when I accidentally eat something that maybe I shouldn’t have.

I like to always have a plan– to know what I’d do if the worst case scenario were to occur. But while traveling I find that sometimes you just have to surrender,  take a leap of faith, and trust in your ability to make it work out, or deal with it. Along this road of unpredictable outcomes and random situations unfolding constantly, you just have to believe in yourself. Once I convince myself of this, a peace comes over me. It says reassuring things like: ” You are smart enough and you are strong enough– you will not die.” 

Perhaps this a common stepping stone along the path of all travelers, and I smile to think that someday I, too, may exude that Rambo-like confidence that I witness among experienced-travelers. You see these types with their huge backpacks and you know their passports have stamps from all the scariest of countries– you know they’ve ridden 80-hour long bus rides through India, have slept in many hotels that don’t even get a single star, and have fallen deathly ill to every kind of intestinal parasite. And yet, they are still smiling and carry on with bright eyes undaunted by the challenges that come before them. 

The flip-side is that sometimes tragedy is right around the corner and you don’t even know it. You set out for some leisure– to have a little fun– and you don’t even realize how wrong things can go. 

When signing up for a white-water rafting trip I never even considered the risks. It’s rafting. I’ve done several rafting trips and on each of them it always seems like the guides freak out and holler excited commands just to make the customers feel like they are having an “extreme” experience. The river is an awesome force– this I know– but a good guide makes good decisions and everyone gets splashed, enjoys the scenery, and has a good time. 

In the Hindu faith, Kali Ma is the great goddess of time and change and is sometimes known as the goddess of death. Symbolizing the ego, her death is supposed to celebrate the triumph of the soul over the body. One of Nepal’s largest rivers, the fierce Kali Gandaki is named after the goddess and is considered a particularly holy river. Consequently, it’s an auspicious place for cremations and today stone burial mounds can be seen alongside the river. Most rafters, however, only see icy-cold green waters flowing through tall canyons and steep hillsides. Its several quality class 4 rapids make it an exciting river to run. 

Many of the rafting outfits here offer the Kali as a three day trip–  two nights spent camping on riverside beaches. I was extremely intrigued by this trip, especially when considering what it’d be like to be on the river during the full moon, which was Monday night. What could be more romantic than camping beneath the moon and bright shining stars as the river sings me to sleep?

There were many rafting companies to choose from in Pokhara– in fact, the main drag here in Pokhara is littered with signs and storefronts of business offering white-water adventures. One company named Paddle Nepal, in particular, was recommended by a few folks I encountered and seemed like the cosmic choice for me. They cost more than the other outfits, but I got a good feeling about their experience and safety record. So I decided to go with them.

Eight of us signed up for the trip. A funny vodka-swilling macho Russian guy, his Israeli girlfriend, a few English folks, a lighthearted French-Canadian kayaker, a young teacher from California, and a 32 year old gal from Holland. Our guides, four Nepali guys– all in their twenties and completely hip– had shaggy surfer hair and Hawaiian shorts. These guys are quintessential cool. 

Monday afternoon, after a five-hour bus ride to the start of the journey, we began paddling. Memories of previous rafting trips quickly returned as I recalled how shocking icy-cold water can be. But everyone was having fun, the scenery was beautiful, and given that we had several more hours to go this afternoon I was trying to exercise Buddhist mastery over my mind. (I wasn’t succeeding though and was freezing my ass off.)

A few hours later, just before reaching the beach where we’d be spending the first night, things got a little crazy in the rapids. I still don’t really know what happened, but our cargo boat capsized, a kayak got destroyed, and in the tumult we passed by our beach. Our guides were all freaking out while us customers were all just helplessly sitting there ignorant of what was transpiring. Eventually our guide informed us that we missed our camp and that we’d have to spend the night on a rocky stretch a little further down stream.

We were all shivering madly, and the makeshift campsite was in the cold dark shade of the canyon. A fleeting thought came over me as I stood there on the river’s edge that maybe the feeling in my heart was similar to Rob Hall’s when he first had the inclination that his Everest expedition was doomed. But spirits among our crew lifted once we ate dinner and got warm beside the campfire. And at the end of the night when I laid me down beneath the stars with the full moon in my eyes I couldn’t have been happier. I barely slept a wink this night on my cold hard sandy bed, but at least I had a beautiful view.

The next morning over breakfast I got a chance to chat with Sabine, the quiet Dutch girl. I never learned all that much about her, but she had a nice smile and a  peaceful air about her. We chatted about the sweet things the Dutch put on top of buttered bread and I was transported back to my childhood when my grandmother would bring these delicious sweets back from Holland. 

Once we took to the river the sun was shining and we began paddling cheerfully.  Sabine was seated across from me and whenever we’d make eye-contact we’d offer each other a friendly smile. 

Along our leisurely morning rowing, we encountered a rapid that wasn’t particularly treacherous. Our guide seemed unprepared by the huge rock that was causing the white water, however, and our raft dipped down into the deep hole on the rock’s back side where strong currents form up circulating around and around. The boat flipped over instantly and we all went tumbling into the turbulent water. The currents were really strong and once I’d barely surface, I’d get pulled back down again. It was scary but I knew that this tumult would end eventually and I just had to remain calm. 

A few moments later I surfaced and the guide pulled me back onto the boat. We began retrieving other members of our team and one by one, the terrified lot began to return to their seats. Once our senses returned, however, we realized one seat was still vacant. Sabine was missing. We shouted out to the guide and he quickly steered us to the shore, where he took off running back upstream towards the scene of the rapids.

For twenty terrible minutes we all sat on the beach angry, confused, and scared as hell. Our guides had all taken off in the direction of the rapids and no one was returning. The lack of information was killing me, so eventually I took off running upstream too.

Hobbling over rocks and around the bend, I finally came to the scene where the guides and a couple of villagers were huddled around Sabine. She was stretched out on the beach and wasn’t moving. My heart began crying immediately. As I got closer I saw Sabine laying there motionless, one of the guides was pushing on her chest.

I sat down at her side and took hold of her hand. I may not know CPR, but I do believe in the power of touch and prayer. I clutched her hand and with eyes closed I began praying as hard as possible. I offered every invocation of God I could think of, I begged for a miracle, I made promises, I cried a desperate plea for Sabine. Her hand was warm in mine, I caressed her soft skin. I couldn’t accept she was dead. I kept waiting for life to return, but she remained motionless. It all felt surreal.

For two hours I sat there holding onto that hand.  With hopeless tears in my eyes, I knew it was futile. 

Once Sabine was declared dead and covered with a sleeping bag, I stood up and walked down by the riverside. All I could hear were the sad lyrics from an old song, “I will walk alone by the black muddy river…”

So many thoughts were streaming through my mind. Was this really Sabine’s time to go? Was I ready to go? Have I made my peace? Is that all there is? So gently we walk upon this earth. And to think that we were all just looking for a little fun on the river. Of course, it could’ve been any of us– shit happens.

After offering one more prayer into the wind, I walked back downstream and found our crew gathered around, dealing with it in their own way. I knew I couldn’t just sit there and start rehashing the details which we’d already been over a hundred times. I began building a stone shrine for Sabine while great tears poured down. The shrine was a cairn- like the cairns you see on a hiking trail- a tall rock tower. But unlike the hiking cairns, this shrine was encircled with sacred rocks hand-selected for Sabine. Everyone assisted in the effort and soon we’d completed a beautiful shrine for someone who none of us even really knew. Deep down though, we were all aware that this shrine could’ve just as well been our own. 

“Black muddy river, roll on forever…”

Sabine Corpeley, may you rest in peace along the banks of the Kali Gandaki, 11-3-09

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *