The development of the water jet unit by C.W.F. Hamilton led to many now famous expeditions to demonstrate its abilities, assist scientific study or provide aid to remote areas, none more memorable than the Colorado and Nepal expeditions of the 1960s. This history is well documented in various publications and often the subject of animated discussions amongst keen jet boaters, particularly on the river bank, such is the influence these pioneers have had.
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Duncan Storrier is a man who shares this passion for jet boating and history with many of us, much of it dedicated to seeking out challenges for boat and crew. After some discussions with Jon Hamilton, Duncan forged ahead to organise an expedition to do history proud and break new ground. Sir Edmund Hillary, Jon Hamilton and Jim Wilson set off on a journey in September of 1968 to explore the Sun Kosi (Son Koshi) and its tributaries, in an effort to open communication between the remote villages. Ed Hillary clearly has a passion for the people and thought the jet boat a great instrument to render assistance. Discussions with Jon Hamilton prior to the expedition revealed a man just as passionate and vivid of memory as he was all those years earlier, describing his experiences of boating the rapids, the friendly people, launching and suggesting campsites for which he still had longitude and latitude co-ordinates. Almost exactly 38 years later three boats were on their way from Christchurch, New Zealand to Calcutta, India for the start of a very exciting journey, a journey in the spirit of the “Ocean to the Sky” expedition on the Ganges, one which would boat the Dudh Kosi which flows directly from Mt Everest. You could say we were boating in the spirit of the ‘ Sky’ portion, across the two main river systems in Bhutan and the three main river systems in Nepal, all of which empty into India on the Assam Plains, Sikkim and Bengal before joining Mother Ganga (River Ganges) the most Holy river on earth. A group of twelve boaters left Bangkok for Paro Bhutan not really knowing what to expect, other than that our first task would be to unpack the shipping container which had been transported by road from Calcutta a few weeks earlier. The flight gave some indication of the weeks ahead, Jeff and I lucky enough to ride the jump seat in the cockpit, witnessing the incredible sight of the Himalayas and the truly huge valleys and gorges below. We caught a glimpse of our first river, the Torsa, as it left the plains of India and cut its way through the Bhutan mountains.
Land of the Thunder Dragon
Bhutan struck me immediately as a very special place, virtually untouched by modern conveniences, no sign of entrenched western culture, topography best described as near vertical and a village atmosphere found only in some fictional magical kingdom or Shangrila. The Kingdom of Bhutan is a nation situated between India and China. The entire country is mountainous except for a small strip of subtropical plains in the extreme south which is intersected by valleys known as the Duars. The elevation gain from the subtropical plains to the glacier-covered Himalayan heights exceeds 7,000m (23,000ft). Its traditional economy is based on forestry, animal husbandry and subsistence agriculture. The country measures its peoples’ ‘ happiness’ and focuses on preserving traditional culture and religion. Bhutan is one of the most isolated nations in the world; foreign influences and tourism are regulated by the government to preserve its traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture. Most Bhutanese follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The official language is Dzongkha. Bhutan is often described as the last surviving refuge of traditional Himalayan Buddhist culture. A reflection of their intense Buddhist religious beliefs, the Bhutanese have treasured the natural environment for centuries and today more than 65% of the land is still covered by forest and some of the rarest of Himalayan wildlife. On arrival we were met by our Bhutanese ground crew consisting of a guide, three 80-Series Toyota Land Cruisers and drivers, a small mini bus and driver (Rambo!) and our host Sonam (Toby) in his 100 Series Land Cruiser. We wasted no time in packing the vehicles and set off for the town of Phuntsaholing (pronounced ‘ pin-so-ling’ ) on the Bhutan/India border where our 40-foot container and boats were stored. A drive of some 160km ended up taking a long and torturous 6.5 hours and set the standard for the month ahead – we would rarely travel more than 25km in an hour on any day. The road was a great feat of engineering, clinging to the steep mountains with literally thousands of feet below us and no guardrails. Clearing customs and unpacking the container was completed without incident. Tow bars were fitted to the three older Land Cruisers and some light engineering in town (which cost just $3.00!) meant we had the boats and Land Cruisers ready by lunchtime.
Testing On The Torsa
Our first boat fuelling stop later that day attracted a great deal of attention as we pumped the 82 octane fuel (which did cause some engine run-on) and set off up the river Torsa, which runs just below the town to give the boats a good test run. The newest of the boats, a red 141 named ‘ Adventurer’ with just 2.5 hours on the clock also needed some engine timing adjustment to the trusty HT 383ci Chevrolet. All motors incidentally had been fitted with special carburetors to cope with the expected poor fuel and high altitudes. The two remaining boats, a white Hamilton 141 and a red Hartz Marine are called ‘ Discovery’ and ‘ Explorer’ respectively.
The Torsa River entered steep country very quickly and due to plenty of rocks we had a short run upstream before turning about. Passing our launch site, we entered India by water and boated approximately 30km downstream. Scattered down the riverbanks were a few people washing, fishing and bathing, all amused to see our boats. After a small push (all three boats!!) we were underway again and turned about at India’ s Highway 31 as two Bangladesh air force jets thundered overhead, an amazing contrast. Word had been sent out and on our return trip upstream many hundreds had assembled, frantically waving and greeting us as we passed. One rest stop brought the local farmer, his wife and daughter to the riverbank. They strolled through our group coyly brandishing their sickles, soon learning we were friendly and staying to watch us boat up the river. We occasionally shared the shingle chutes with large Tata trucks intricately adorned with colourful artwork and overloaded with river stones. They were very surprised to be using the same river bed as us. As the roads are few and far between in Bhutan, in order to travel west to east meant we had to enter India and use the main northern highway, a single lane road in very poor condition. The border crossing was in a large but dirty town and we were soon surrounded by locals, children and beggars, some so curious as to take turns and peer into a 10mm drill hole in one of the hulls.
Underway on the Son Kosh
The drive to the Son Kosh river (not to be confused with the Son Kosi in Nepal, ‘ Son’ means river) in India was relatively fast compared to the steep mountainous roads of previous days, the Indian roads whilst single lane were quick (up to 50 km/h) as we were on the flat Assam plain. We arrived at our campsite on the banks of the river and quickly launched the boats whilst our tents were set up. The trip upstream started with a clear braided river, teaming with people floating down on man made log jam rafts with their bicycles atop. We surmised that they sell the timber downstream, deliver it by bicycle and then ride the bikes home. Part way up the river we helped recover a timber long boat that sank before us. It was overloaded with around five tonnes of river stones, which they transport to be used as road base or cement. All the stones are crushed into road base by hand. We learned that these road gangs travel the country with all generations of the family working, living, giving birth, eating and dying by the roadside – a harsh life indeed. Before long the Son Kosh river grew steeper, our local contact Sonam pointing to traditional flags and Stupa (religious buildings) on the bank, signaling that we had just entered Bhutan again. Almost immediately we were presented with huge mountains and our first white water. Sonam, an experienced river guide, was able to identify various grades of rapids, initially grade 2 and 3. After entering steep gorge country we soon found ourselves climbing a grade 4, with no mishaps (but quite a few very wet people!) and bearing in mind we still had a long trip ahead of us we turned about for the bumpy ride home, having spent a good part of the day on the river. We returned to find our camp well set up on the river bank and great traditional Bhutanese food for dinner. On the 23rd of December we made a five-hour drive along the single lane India Highway 31, covering just 100km, which was punctuated with a few stops. In one small area we found a roadside stall and could buy only flat Coca-Cola and a few
biscuits, most of which was clearly very old stock. We declined a meal from the kitchen that consisted of an earth hearth and compacted dirt floors.
Class 4 on the Manas
Launching into the Manas River on the India side of the border, we attracted a crowd and we took some of the local kids for a ride in the boats. We set off upriver for the Manas National Park and accommodation at the Bansbari Lodge in India (called the Royal Manas National Park on the Bhutan side). Along the way we had to negotiate many ‘ long boats’ carrying river stones with only 50mm freeboard, so a good deal of time was spent avoiding or idling past them, many surprised to see us dart up a side channel only inches deep. After about 1½ hours of boating we again entered Bhutan by river, signaled by the majestic steep countryside and the bright Bhutanese flags on the shore. Weeks later, this was to be a somewhat surreal moment or memory. Sonam had pointed out to me a large white building on the Indian side of the border, indicating that it was for storage and said no more, instead continuing with a great hobby of his, photographing his country’ s wildlife. I was not sure why he would point this out but gave him a smile of thanks and we continued on with the great boating. Weeks later, in fact on our last night in Bhutan on our return journey, we learned its great significance, one of the Hamilton jet boats from the 1977 expedition“From the Ocean to the Sky” was stored there! In fact, Sonam had told them of our visit and hadorganised for us to view it with the intent to get it going! As our day on the river had worn long he did not mention it – crikey! We boated right past less than 100m away! However, this provides a great excuse to return and be part of this great history. We were soon climbing Class 3 water on this very fast river of clean, clear water, quite a contrast from the Indian portions of the rivers often polluted with rubbish. After about 25 minutes of great boating and a few people getting very wet we came across a Class 4 rapid. This was studied carefully as there seemed to be only one real option up, so all the gear and passengers were ejected from Jeff’ s boat and he climbed his way to the top, pleased at having gone further than the rest of us. Our downstream run provided plenty of action as we all received a good drenching from the water coming over the bow, one boat being swamped after a spectacular run down a steep bit of water, and having to be bailed out before continuing. The lower half of the downstream run back to the lodge was great, boating in a fantastic light and scenery of wild buffalo and some elephants, at one point passing under a huge pedestrian suspension bridge only to notice it had a dozen donkeys crossing, which where not impressed by the boats! Of course, we boated past the 1977 expedition boat again in blissful ignorance. Elephants were to come in handy as we used one to pull the boats up the steep bank to safety, but not before some interesting parking up was done to get them clear of the water.
Christmas Eve – A Day of Chaos
At the Manas National Park Lodge, after a superb night’ s entertainment by local dancers, we were up at 6am. There was no elephant available this morning, so we pushed the boats back in with a Land Cruiser that had been driven around the night before with our gear. By 7.30am we were on our way downstream to the trailers. As
the fog was heavy we boated the braided shingle river mostly by GPS. Word had got around and there were groups of locals along the Indian banks for almost the entire 30-minute trip. Occasionally we stopped to say hello and meet the people. Never did we see unhappy or crying children on this trip. Despite inadequate housing and food they were all very happy and well behaved. I think we have much to learn here. The drive to the India-Nepal border took more than 12 rough arduous hours, the first 9 hours on poor roads and the last on a much better, faster road (60km/h). The road was chaos, all vehicles had close calls with trikes, bikes or pedestrians, one Land Cruiser and trailer all locked up as was the minibus! But come night time it only got worse as the hand trolleys loaded with bamboo, the walkers and bikes all had no lights. We too eventually resorted to taping our head lamp torches to the trailers and turning on the boats’ navigation lights, as the locals, unaccustomed to trailers of any type, were pulling in behind our trucks only to find a boat there – many close calls resulted. The Kingdom of Nepal is bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and by India to the south, east and west. Nepal is a kingdom of various geographical features, and is culturally rich. More than 80% of Nepalese follow Hinduism, which is higher than the percentage of Hindus in India, making it the single most Hinduic nation in the world. For a small territory, the Nepali landscape is uncommonly diverse, ranging from the humid Terai in the south to the lofty Himalayas in the north. Nepal boasts eight of the world’s fourteen highest mountains, including Mount Everest on the border with China. Kathmandu is the capital and largest city. This is a place of deep religious customs, the most radical topography on earth, and one of the least developed infrastructures in the world. Most of the population of Nepal are subsistence farmers, living man days’ walk from the nearest road. We arrived at Nepal late in the evening at a very poor and filthy Indian border town, only to be stopped by Indian Customs and denied permission to leave India, partly because we needed to use the Bhutan Land Cruisers for the last 200m to the hotel located on the Nepal side. A call to the Bhutan Embassy at 10pm and around 1½ hours later we were through, only to find the promised 80-Series Land Cruisers were in fact 60-Series (1980 vintage) and none of our tow bars would fit. So with the trailers parked under the arch of the border in ‘ no man’ s land’ , we secured the tow hitches to the 60-Series Land Cruiser bumpers with tie-downs for the short haul of 200m to our hotel. At this point in our trip we farewelled our Bhutanese crew and changed over to our Nepalese crew. The “hotel” found at short notice was an “absolute hole” and that’ s in guide Dave’ s own words. He’ s an expatriate Kiwi and has been 25 years in Nepal. We spent Christmas day tracking down an engineering shop (i.e. a tin shed lean-to) and made our own tow bars with the assistance of local Nepalese fabricators. Christmas Day also revealed that the entire country of Nepal was in the midst of a ‘ road strike’ (all roads were blocked by political factions, no cars or buses were allowed to go anywhere) and told that if we attempted to drive we would likely be stoned and have the vehicles and boats burnt. This was a huge blow as we needed to get to the Sun Kosi, our nemesis. So David our guide had some large official looking flags made up and the vehicles were adorned with them, standing high on flag poles. We set off in tight convoy and due to the lack of other road users were able to travel at speed, bluffing our way
through many checkpoints, obstacles and makeshift bamboo boom gates, only being stopped once. As the day wore on we saw more and more vehicles on the road as it appeared even the hardened factions were tired of being stuck at home.
River of Gold
We arrived at Chatra on the banks of the Sun Kosi just as Ed Hillary and Jon Hamilton did almost 40 years earlier. For two weeks our Nepalese team had a guide living in the Chatra area trying to track down one of the original Hamilton/Hillary 1968 Expedition boats. Raj a very slight and softly spoken rafting guide thought nothing of his two week search. The Nepalese have no trouble passing the time slowly without our fervor for deadlines and egos to hinder them. He did have some good news though – he had found a boat of 1960’ s vintage with the name “Sherpa”. We were very excited at the prospect of finding one of the boats but were a little doubtful it could be “Sherpa”, which had been sunk at the very beginning of the 1968 Expedition in a Sun Kosi tributary called the Arun. As 38 summers of massive monsoon flows had passed, surely it would have been destroyed or buried forever. Raj took us to the site and we approached an upturned hull, but it was not “Sherpa”. In fact, the name on the side written in English and Nepalese said “Sherpa 2” and a plate fastened to the inside said it was built in 1969. We suspect it was named so to honour “Sherpa” and the Expedition the year before. The afternoon turned to evening and at Chatra we hurriedly launched our boats down a steep embankment with the aid of logs into the famous Sun Kosi (Son Koshi). Our equipment is a far cry from that of our predecessors. We have resilient aluminium hulls, huge horsepower from our 383ci HT Chevrolets and the latest High Thrust 212 jet units fitted with white water ‘ turbo’ impellers, whereas they had glass and timber Jet 41s and two-stage Colorado jet units! Our challenge, however, was great – possibly not achievable – as we were boating the very steep fast water of the ‘ dry season’ with many more rapids to negotiate, of unknown gradients through countless rock gardens. Our base camp was proposed by Jon Hamilton, the very same camp he used in 1968, some 25 minutes up stream from our launch at Chatra, it consisted of a large high sand beach on the Sun Kosi (Son Koshi)/Tamur River confluence. It was very late now on Christmas Day and we were keen to get to camp and relax. We set off at sunset and entered very steep country almost immediately, losing our light instantly.
It was a tense time as we negotiated a couple of rapids and large shingle bars, our boat striking a prayer rope strung across the river taking bark off the driver and navigator, almost pulling them into the back set. We regrouped for a strategy and set off again deciding it safer to continue rather than attempt a down stream run, minutes later we saw the light of our camp and safely beached the boats. Our porters had set up in a great location and we soon had Christmas dinner prepared and sat by the campfire discussing what lay head. Our river guide David Allardice had spent some 360 days rafting this river in the high dirty monsoon flows as opposed to our dry season clear water, he regaled the various rapids we would encounter. However we soon nicknamed him Dave “roll the dice” as the dry season flows changed the river characteristic markedly and what he thought would be flat stretches of water turned out to be Class3 or 4 rafting rapids or worse! Instead of boating say six ‘ interesting’ rapids per day we were to soon learn this meant at least 50 or more! Whilst another guide ‘ Menesh’ one of David’ s most knowledgeable employees, told of when an ice dam on Mt Everest broke and washed him 100km down this very river before he was able to get to shore, a chilling story told the night before our big climb up river! On Boxing Day we awoke to a spectacular view, my tent just metres from the Tamur River and Sun Kosi confluence, the rapid roaring all night providing a great ‘ white noise’ by which to sleep. This was a day anchored at base camp, used to explore the local region in the morning and carry out some repairs to the boats in the evening. We set off up the Sun Kosi and into the legendary Arun River. Spectacular gorges and mountains seemed to signal the end of the river, yet we continued to climb and weave our way into the countryside, negotiating mostly Class 2 and 3 rapids. Midway we had to stop and replace a damaged nozzle that would eventually be welded later in the day. Eventually, we came across a very steep rapid, eerily similar to the very rapid Jim Wilson faced in Sherpa back in 1968. A hole seemed to occupy most of the river with a steep, tricky channel up the left providing the only access to the tongue. We set off to climb it, but in the midst of entering the rapid we got caught on a rock and spun around, the boat quickly going under at the rear and beginning to roll. All hands rushed to one side, buying precious seconds as the current then pushed us around the rock and out of the rapid. We gathered on the bank to bilge out and Jeff tried the other side. He decided it was too dangerous and turned about – we certainly did not want to lose a boat this early in the trip. Nostalgia was in the air and with history nearly repeating itself with our almost surrendering a boat to the Arun, Duncan used the satellite to call Jon Hamilton at his home in New Zealand. Jon was delighted to hear from us and it was great listening to Jon and Duncan talk about the river and our expedition – a very emotional moment for the pair as it turned out. It really brought home the magnitude of what we were doing and the challenges of the days ahead. Some riverside discussion took place including Jon on the sat phone, and without hesitation Nepal was clearly and undeniably granted the honour of being “The Holy Grail of Jet Boating”.
We boated back downstream and turned at our base camp into the Tamur River, where we were immediately presented with a picture postcard view of a high suspension bridge in a steep gorge with traditional houses clinging to the cliff edge, providing rest and food for the Sherpas on the seemingly busy trail. The mighty Tamur River is fed by the Kanchenjunga snow melt and is reported to have at least 40 Class 4+ rapids. We boated through a number of gorges before being stopped by a steep rock filled rapid, and at this point we turned about and headed back to camp. Two boats headed for Chatra to effect repairs and one boat headed downstream to a Hindu Temple set high on the cliff of the river bank. This temple, built in the 13th century, is one of the holiest of Hindu temples in the world, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. That night we had a great feast and campfire in preparation for the days ahead, with more than 350km of challenging and somewhat unknown water to negotiate. Our camp will be broken down and all our gear, save for a few essentials, will be rafted out. The trucks will wait for us 25km above Dolaghat, the beginning of the Sun Kosi, after a marathon two-day non-stop drive. The confluence of the Bhote Kosi and the Indrawati River at the township of Dolaghat does in fact signal the start of the Sun Kosi, meaning seven rivers, and our base camp at the confluence of the Sun Kosi and the Tamur River signals the end of the river and the start of the Sapta Kosi, which drains into Mother Ganga. Look for Part two of this adventure in the next issue.
Author: MATTHEW FALLOW