The raft flipped. One, two, three, four, five… six…seven, eight. Everyone quickly popped out of the water and were hanging onto the sides. This part of the river wasn’t so hard. I wasn’t sure how it had flipped. I wasn’t sure how much attention KB, the guide, had been paying to the river. I floated behind the raft in my kayak keeping a constant eye out for anyone losing contact with it. Up ahead the river was getting faster. KB got on top of the raft, counted everyone and then clipped on a sling ready to flip the raft. He then looked downstream. “Oh Sh*t!” he shouted as the raft drifted into a group of boulders that then blocked the rafts route downstream.
The raft vanished underwater as KB jumped ship and landed on one of the boulders. Everyone who had been hanging onto the raft vanished. The force of the Himalayan water had just forced a large 8-man inflatable white water raft underwater and held it there. What the hell was it doing with the people? How could this happen here? We had negotiated some of the hardest commercially run white water in the world. Yet here, where it had eased, we were in serious trouble. I drifted past the boulders where the raft was pinned underwater and I broke out quickly below in a pool. I felt ill. I was trying to work out what to do next. Everyone had gone, vanished from sight. Then, a head, coughing, spluttering and confused, right near me, then another and another. Instinct kicked in. I paddled over and helped the confused swimmer to the side. Then another and another. KB was frantically running up and down the shore gathering the stragglers and counting. Again and again, to see how many we had. Four, five, six, any more? Where are the rest? Seven, that still leaves one more. There were several more minutes of frantic searching on the land and in the water. We finally found it was a simple miscount in the muddle. We had all eight rafters safely on dry land. Zoe (now my wife) had been on the raft, but unknown to me, had managed to jump ashore with KB as the raft was going under. Everybody else had gone under, had been pulled deep into the river and forced, underwater, through gaps in the jumbled boulders. How no-one had got stuck was a miracle. One of the rafters had dislocated his shoulder on the way through. He was now lying face down on a large rock. His arm was dangling over the side holding a heavy stone, helping to get his shoulder slowly back into place. The nearest hospital was in Kathmandu. This was about a day away, once you got to the road. But the road wasn’t close to the river here. Once you did reach it, it was no more than a dirt track for the next forty miles or so to the end of the valley.
The porters, our vehicles and supplies were further downstream at the pre-arranged campsite. This meant there was only one way forward. Extract the raft and carry on. Extracting the raft was no simple task. The monsoon rain a month earlier had swelled the river and the force from it was huge. It is a rare sight for a raft of this size to be forced underwater and pinned. Finally, with a pulley and rope tied at just the right angle, the raft was freed.
That was it. No-one wanted to, but everyone (except for Robin and I safely in our kayaks) had to, get back into the raft. Back into the boat that had very nearly killed them all. There was another ten miles to go. More rapids, more waves, more villages. To the waiting porters, tents and rest.
The raft took the safest lines. KB was constantly alert. The rafters paddled determinedly when asked. There were no cheers as they hit the waves this afternoon. No high fives as a rapid was completed. But completed it was, and completed well. It was a relieved and exhausted group of rafters who stepped out onto the beach an hour later.
The evening was a quiet one. The usual loud conversations about the waves and rapids were not there. Conversations were quiet and in small groups. Friends were chatting over what had happened.
And the next day… Only one person dropped out of the rafting, and they weren’t the one with the repaired shoulder. Everyone else carried on. Determined to see the expedition to the end. Having come so far, how could they finish then? I was amazed at their determination and resilience. I thought we would have an empty raft. I slipped into my kayak and carefully stretched the neoprene of my deck over the cockpit, sealing the water out, and me in. Ready, for another day on the water.