In April 2019, Expeditions India launched a new kind of expedition in which we intimately explored the landscapes and river-scapes we journeyed through. Joining us was Theo of Himalayan Ark, who helped our group interpret the natural, cultural and historical aspects of our surroundings. One participant, Monica Lehner, shares her experience below.
Our trip was divided into two parts: first, we trekked with Theo, Emmanuel Theophilus, of Himalayan Ark in the high Himalaya, and then we rafted down the river Kali guided by Anvesh Thapa of Expeditions India, with Theo as a guest naturalist and lecturer.
The journey started with our trek, a magical meandering through a pastoral landscape. My daughter, Madeleine, and I explored the high valleys, walked through alpine meadows and rhododendron forests blooming in pink, fuchsia and red. We postholed up onto the snow covered ridges of the Panchchuli massif of the greater Himalaya and glissaded down the snowy ridges of the Khali dande.
During the second portion of our adventure we paddled down the river Kali to the plains. We experienced firsthand the rapid changes in the landscape as we descended from the high alpine realm down to the tropical.
Theo’s ecological, cultural, economic and geological stories, peppered our days, enriching our experience of the landscape and village life of the high Himalaya, the Kali River, and its surrounds tenfold. While I saw rocks, trees, birds and insects in the generic, Theo named the genus and species. He described a web of life immersed in millennia.
Between the trek and the river trip we recouped in Kamla’s homestay in the village of Sarmoli. My husband, Michael, joined us. Kamla, a member of the Maati Women’s Collective, welcomed us with chai and a meal of vegetables from her garden.
From Sarmoli we drove several hours down to join Anvesh, a world class river guide, and his team at the confluence of two rivers: the Goriganga and Kali Rivers at Jauljibi. Anvesh’s skill in reading the river, handling the raft and training our group of five inspired confidence in all of us. His stories of decades exploring the major rivers of India and the United States awed us.
The Kali River …
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older
Than the flow of human blood in the veins
Langston Hughes, Poet
The Kali borders western Nepal and the northeast state of Uttarakhand in India; it descends, gathering volume as tributaries merge en route, from the glaciers of the high Himalaya down through the forests of Pithoragarh onto the plains of India.
The river-scape remains wild and villages are accessible primarily by foot. People farm the steep terraced landscape, herd flocks of sheep and goats to forage in the forests and fish the waters.
Monsoon floods and landslides carve new shapes in the valleys, rerouting and forcing tons of water through narrow passageways or spilling over floodplains. One day we paddled through a massive rapid squeezed through a choked neck of the river created by a recent landslide.
A Riverscape Under Threat …
India plans to build the tallest dam in the world at the confluence of the Saryu and the Kali.
Our river trip explored the ecological, geological and cultural weave of an ancient world threatened by India’s mega dam. With a height of 315 meters measured from the foundation, it is called the Pancheshwar Dam and is part of the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project. The resulting massive reservoir will be the largest in the Himalaya. The dam will impound the Kali, which still flows free from its source at the glaciers to the confluence with the Ganga.
The journey down the river corridor brought to life the devastating repercussions of building the dam as we paddled through the landscape, stopping en route to visit temples and talk with villagers. The dam will submerge one hundred and thirty-four villages, untold livelihoods, and a culture five thousand years old. Its construction will dispossess over thirty-one thousand families and inundate thousands of acres of forests. Eight hundred and seventy-two temples and shrines will be drowned.
River Reflections …
“Paddle, paddle, paddle! Get down!” Anvesh yelled above the river’s roar. We crashed into an eight-foot wall of water. Squawking, the chicken flew off and was dragged into the river by the cresting waves. What would have been our dinner spiced with cumin and scooped up with roti, would now feed a carp, the bottom feeder of the Kali.
We emerged drenched but exhilarated and raised our paddles in jubilation.
Class 2, 3 and 4 rapids punctuated our days, after which we would spill out into fast-moving but forgiving water. We scouted difficult rapids, pulling over and scrambling up the sides of embankments. The guides chose a line in advance.
As we paddled down the Kali, we picnicked in Nepal during the day and camped under the stars on Indian sandbars at night, away from dense undergrowth where pythons and scorpions lurk. One morning I woke to find leopard tracks passing near my sleeping bag. We paddled through a tiger reserve and crossed an elephant migration corridor.
We met and talked with people en route; Nepali and Indian fishermen, shepherds and farmers, as well as temple priests. Young boys with rubber tubes paddled out to greet us. We stopped for chai at a Nepali ferry dock, resting in the shade of a mango grove. A large wooden dory plied the waters, riding the current between India and Nepal, facilitating the shopping trips, wedding parties, and temple visits of villagers who live on both sides of the river.
We scrambled through dense forest up to a shaded pool at the base of a waterfall, standing under the clear cold water to remove layers of river silt, catching a whiff of something reminiscent of New England; was it honeysuckle? We paddled close to pigeons nesting in worn crevices in cliffs. We jumped into the gentler currents, floating eye-level with the river.
Conversations and laughter under a starlit sky and over sumptuous meals cemented our new friendships.
Theo elucidated a rich landscape shaped by past colonialism and the current political maelstrom. Words that I have tossed about my whole life took on new connotations: ‘conservation’, ‘development, ‘democracy’, and ‘justice'. Conversations Anvesh, Theo and my family had on the river spill out into my conservation work here in northern New England.
I end with a quote from Barry Lopez, American Author and Essayist.
When I visit a foreign land …
“I …ask for the stories, the voice of memory over the land. I … ask about the history of storms there, the age of the trees, the winter color of the hill … I …want to know the lay of the land first, the real geography, and take some measure of the love of it in my companion(s)…”
Thank you Anvesh and Theo for meeting our curiosity with patience, knowledge and humour. Thank you for your expert guiding and your collaboration. We recommend that you cultivate your partnership through that of Himalayan Ark and Expeditions India.