A shudder of sand dusts the tent walls as he flips over for the umpteenth time, sleeping bag mangling in the decision-burdened wakefulness of the long night. Backwards and forwards, body echoing mind – get on the river, or get out. Ke garne?
The sleepfree mangler: Pat O’Keeffe: white-water adventurer; charismatic guide and pioneer of big river journeys in the world’s wilder places. A man with a fearsome reputation and, tonight, a head full of worry.
The river: The Tamur, East Nepal, swollen and huge after an extended and particularly intense monsoon. A raging torrent of boulder-wielding whitewater hurling itself furiously against the dirty spew of a dozen or more landslides that are deforming and blocking her course. A river with an equally fearsome reputation and right now, at her most violent and unforgiving.
It’s late October, a week since Pat, his raft crew and their seven expectant clients began their journey in from the chaotic Nepalese capital. It’s been an epic already. A short flight down to the Terai, then a long and heinous bus ride of sliding and churning up increasingly tenuous ‘roads’. A long day and longer night of the big Tata growler dodging the stone chutes and ephemeral cascades of the cheekily mobile hillsides up, down and all around until any last hints of ‘motorable’ finally disappeared shortly after the town of Basantapur. From here they’d continued on foot trekking up to the high yak kharkas and eventually cresting the ridge at Gupha Pokhari; sparkling water, tumbling, rosy-faced kids and first views of the Eastern Himalaya. Thence down and ever down through the dense rhododendron forest to Dobhan, to the river, to this shattered beach.
A long way to come – a lot of planning, of time, money and effort.
A lot of expectation.
A lot rested on reputation, to be here now.
An inkling of the dilemma ahead had begun back in Kathmandu some weeks earlier. The skies still thunderous and heavy a month after the expected end of the rains, downpours still flooding the muddy streets. Rumours of washed out bridges and trails were trickling through from the East. Some river operators had got the fear and cancelled early season trips. But other contacts were calling in with more positive reports “it’s big dai but not so much, dropping daily”, “all same same dai”, “all is well – sabai ṭhīka cha”
Pat’s team, indeed the Nepal raft community, were all waiting for a decision. Someone had to go first. They all looked to him.
Weighing up the somewhat thin and highly contradictory information against 16 years and 24 trips of experience on this one river alone, he has chosen ‘go’. It’s a risk but there are still 10 days before they reach……… a lot can change in that time, especially in Nepal.
The first sighting of the river, he and Sammy hanging out of the bus door at Mulghat on that long journey in, is frankly terrifying. Their gaze centred on a point mid-stream, the point their depth marker, a massive petrified tree stump stands anywhere between one and a few metres proud. The stump was virtually submerged. The Tamur is monstrous.
That sighting – that is where it really started. The unstoppable anxiety, his mutinous mind playing out ruinous scenarios and what-ifs; pinballing off the previous near misses, returning again and again to the accident two years back (not with his team thank god). Mulghat – when the mental wave train of angst took on its own life force. Yet they didn’t turn back. He didn’t call it then. Because he also knew himself well enough to understand what was happening. He called on that lifetime of experience – so many places he’d walked the line and come through – Myanmar, 19 days of gorges and hell holes on the first descent of the Maykha; keeping a film crew alive on the Drangme Chu in Bhutan, Hokkaido, Karnali, The Grand… many rivers, many epics, many lessons learned. Applying logic, stepping back from the emotion into analysis he found moments of calm to counter each crest of fear. ‘It’ll be alright’, ‘still 6 days to go, she’ll drop’, ‘the team are strong’. Fear and calm. Crash and fall. Eddy – breathe.
The undercurrent: knowing these good people have travelled half way around the world on a promise of remote adventure, days of wild white water, temples gods and gurus and the ragged draw of Nepal’s unkempt beauty. They’ve come for the Tamur. They’ve come for Pat: for his affable charm, for roguish tales of beer based breathtakingly out-there exploits. They’ve come above all for his strength, for his reputation, for his judgement, for his ability to guide them safely down the Tamur.
Right now all of those things are on the line.
The light of a torch flickers to and fro past the side of his tent. One of the guys off walkabout. They’re nervous too. A reminder of their vulnerability. The utter trust they place in him to make the right call, do the right thing. He feels it in every sinew, the enormity of carrying this faith, the lonely responsibility of taking the right line……….. ‘too far towards caution and I’m killing dreams, destroying reputation… too far towards risk and I may be killing people’. The essence of adventure, particularly the adventure we sell and buy is the ability to maintain that fine balance of real vs perceived risk. It runs an incredibly acute, knife-edge line tonight.
He plays through the memory of each section again, knowing also that this may now be utterly useless, that everything may and probably has changed.
What cannot have changed though is the unconditional commitment this river demands. From put-in until the first camp there is no escape. If the shit goes down, if a boat flips someone is going to have a long and terrible swim. A swim that we’ve seen could be terminal. Nowhere to pause and re-collect. The rapids surge relentlessly into each other with few breaks to catch lost souls.
It’s always been on the edge of what’s possible in commercial rafting. This season it may have gone beyond.
They’d spent hours that afternoon, he, Krish, Ganesh and Sammy, scrabbling up and around boulders and broken trees scouting the first section, checking lines, calculating margins for manoeuvre. As they stood together in the warm sunlight, he’d felt it, the unspoken sense of optimistic hopelessness: ‘it is possible, sure boss.’, ‘yeh, we keep hard left and should be fine’. This he’d outed with a change in tack: ‘But would you wanna take your kids down there?’ ‘No way boss’
They’d all put on the face for the evening: camp fire, warm food, positive, confident briefing … fulfilling a promise. Clients heartened, seeing only the swans smoothly gliding, oblivious to the desperate paddling beneath.
5am. Dawn seeping slowly in. The mental paddling is ferocious now. Day One – maybe there was a way around, avoid the nasties, start at day two? There was a rumour that the locals had dug a new track to extract precious sand somewhere near the Kabeli chowk. He could hire a tractor and shift everyone downstream. Maybe. Yeh, with luck we can miss it. Day two, maybe it’ll go. Day three provides a little respite but still no exit. Day four… jeez day four. Some really big rapids down there – 40 at least. Once we’re into the canyon there’s no way out. One little mistake could cost a life, crew or client. With the water moving that fast it would be hard to contain if someone something went wrong. They’ve come all this way. They expect…
5.30am he hasn’t eaten for three days now, hunger replaced by dread.
Pat made the hard call. They didn’t put on. Instead enduring another epic bus journey. 18 hours through another long night. No brakes, no headlights, driver and his mate hanging out the side windows shining headtorches to see the route ahead. All the while Pat on the phone setting up the alternative. Haemorrhaging cash with each next move. Eventually back to Kathmandu, familiar faces, concerned faces – was it really that bad? The inner voices continue their questioning. Was it really that bad? Has he just blown a chance for a first? Is he getting too old for this game? God, he’s tired. Second guessing each client’s comments, trying to read between lines. Just how disappointed are they? Plan B – the next-best thing. An alternative river: bigger, heavier and roadside; not the wild journey of the East but … ke garne? He adds some thrills, creates some spills turning Trisuli to Tamur style adventure. The endless doubts. Did he make the right call? No one died. Yes. But what if…
Two weeks later he’s here again, bouncing down the sandy track this time in a treadless jeep, down ever down to Dobhan, back to that shattered beach. A score to settle, a fear to quell, another group of expectant clients’ dreams to fulfil….
The raft guide and the Tamur