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The day the Himalaya shook

  • Written by  Jonny Hawkins
  • Published in Tectonics
Jonny and his team approaching the Thuli Bheri River ahead of their kayaking expedition Jonny and his team approaching the Thuli Bheri River ahead of their kayaking expedition Jonny Hawkins
12 Jul
A planned kayaking expedition in Nepal took on a whole new dimension for Jonny Hawkins when he found himself caught in the devastating Gorkha earthquake. Thoughts of exploration soon turned to helping those in need

Earthquake WeekDust billows behind our vehicle as we trundle along a winding mountain road in the foothills of the Nepalese Himalaya. We are perched precariously on top of a small mountain of food, heading for a remote village in the Nuwakot region devastated by the earthquake, which one week earlier killed more than 8,000 people across the country. Shambu, the Kathmandu waiter travelling with us and whose family lives in the village, points across a terraced valley. We are not far from his home. He has not seen his house since the earthquake and is noticeably apprehensive yet excited to see his family, who he already knows have survived the catastrophe.

One year ago, as we sat down in a Scottish pub to plan our kayak descent of one of Nepal’s hardest rivers, we could never have imagined that we would experience Nepal’s largest earthquake in more than 80 years. After arriving in Kathmandu, I spent three weeks with George Fell and Stu Martindale kayaking the Humla Karnali river, which was described in our guidebook as: ‘one of the finest whitewater rivers of its length in the world’. Just after George and Stu departed Nepal and my two new expedition teammates, Lee Royal and Rory Woods, arrived to tackle another river, the earthquake struck.

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We were in Kathmandu at noon on 25 April 2015, working separately to gather supplies for a descent of the Dolpo region’s Thuli Bheri river, when the deep rumbling and vibrations of what felt like an underground train filled the air. Books and shelves clattered to the floor of the store I was in. People dashed into the mayhem in the streets. Citizens and tourists clung to each other, screaming and shouting, as the road rippled like an ocean swell. Just as a large group of people bundled out of a side street, the ground split down the middle. We all looked up at the shaking buildings that surrounded us.

Meanwhile, in Shambu’s community, villagers tending their crops at midday watched their houses wobble like jelly. Residents and livestock were crushed as buildings crumbled. Dogs howled and children cried as food stocks and possessions were destroyed in seconds.

explore2A flattened school building in a village near Kathmandu (Image: Jonny Hawkins)

Back in Kathmandu, the tourist area of Thamel turned into a ghost town after the shaking subsided. Taxi wheels squealed as tourists fled to open spaces or the international airport. We checked on our kayaks, then began walking to an area containing only single-storey shops to wait for news. We passed cars flattened under rubble, a line of toppled four-storey buildings and a collapsed house where nearly two dozen men were digging out a buried person. That night, we slept in a large car park with local residents. Everyone lived in fear of an aftershock.

The next day, telephone lines were down and the internet remained offline. Local newspapers reported only the damage that had been sustained in Kathmandu. We were ignorant of the scale of the disaster in other parts of the country and so forged ahead with plans to paddle the Thuli Bheri. It was only after we had made the 24-hour bus journey to the less affected west of Nepal, and bought expensive flights to Dolpo, that we were able to log on and receive emails from family and friends who had been fearing the worst.

Should we abandon our plans and head back to Kathmandu? Or paddle the river and get involved in the rebuilding effort when an organised aid plan was in place? Our contact in Nepal, Daz Clarkson-King, recommended that as we were not builders, doctors or disaster management specialists, we would be a drain on the existing limited resources if we returned immediately. In the end we decided to paddle the river. We vowed to lend a hand when the relief effort was under way, at which point unskilled labour might be needed.

explore3Giving aid to a family in Kattike (Image: Jonny Hawkins)

We returned after six days of kayaking to plan our initial aid project with Daz – who was now spearheading a grassroots relief effort – and Shambu: delivering tarps and food to the waiter’s devastated village. We gathered a month of supplies for all the families in his settlement, then travelled for several hours along rutted tracks to reach what was left of the habitations.

Upon arrival we were confronted by hundreds of relieved villagers lining the route. Daz had warned us to expect this kind of overwhelming reception. He had emphasised to us the importance of organisation and fairness when giving out aid. We spent an hour carefully dividing up rice, lentils, soya and tarps into 27 bundles which were then distributed to one family at a time. Many people shook our hands. Others gave us blessings. Some residents had tears in their eyes. A recently widowed lady was helped by fellow villagers to collect her bundle. The 27 bundles meant families could focus on the harvest and building water-resistant structures to survive the impending monsoon.

When all the supplies had been distributed, we took in the surrounding destruction. I encountered several men and women dressed in white, which signifies the loss of a spouse. Putrid smells of rotting flesh, where livestock kept on ground floors had been crushed, rose from piles of rubble. We passed by a small plastic sheet and were told that it was home to a family of five.

Villagers explained to us that with the harvest several weeks away, food was in short supply as debris and water had spoiled many grain stores. Despite the shortage of edible foodstuffs, residents shared what food they had, treating us to a large meal of dal bhat in gratitude for our help. The next afternoon, during the journey to Kathmandu, we saw children playing on a flattened school. We instantly decided that rebuilding these classrooms would be our next project.

Living in an underdeveloped country is challenging at the best of times. But when all communication, transport and electricity networks are faulty, life is especially difficult. Wedded to this were 16 aftershocks that registered above five on the moment magnitude scale over the course of the next month. Life in Nepal during this period was stressful and uneasy. Whenever we stayed in a new hostel we reassessed our earthquake action plan. Throughout each day, we were constantly on the lookout for open areas to which we could run when the next aftershock occurred.

explore4Jonny and his companions helping a family to rebuild their destroyed home in Bombera – despite initial misgivings, Jonny and his team were soon welcomed (Image: Jonny Hawkins)

Two days after returning to Kathmandu, we headed back to the razed school and explained our intentions to the villagers. It quickly became apparent that rebuilding the classrooms was beyond our means, and in any case the local people wanted to wait for government support before starting reconstruction. However, one family in the village was in particular need. The father, coincidentally called Shambu, had severe asthma. He was unable to run the family’s subsistence farm and had to rely on his only son, who was therefore unable to go away to work. This family was resigned to sitting out the monsoon under a plastic sheet the size of a double bed. We introduced ourselves via an English speaking villager and offered to help them construct a temporary shelter.

It took a few days for Shambu and his family to accept that we were in the village to work. Living with them gave us a rare insight into the Nepalese way of life. I was fascinated by the strict gender roles and etiquette. Much to the family’s amusement, I made multiple faux pas.

Working on the house was difficult. Inferior nails bent like paperclips and the saw barely scratched the hardwood. The language barrier was also a challenge. As the temperature soared, our different design ideas caused frustration. As time went on though, we worked to each other’s strengths and learned important phrases in Nepalese like ‘hammer’, ‘nails’, ‘rest now’ and ‘that’s good’. The women in the household, Januka and Rama, eventually relaxed in our presence and laughed at our attempts to eat dal bhat with our hands, as well as at our pitiful efforts to speak pidgin Nepalese. As we left the family and the new dwelling, we were given a traditional blessing and urged to revisit soon.

We spent another month in Nepal carrying out missions like this one. We worked hard to try to help affected residents and at the same time wished we could do more. With the monsoon fast approaching we knew more deaths were inevitable, caused by contaminated water supplies, lack of food and landslides. As we headed for Kathmandu’s international airport, Nepal’s future did not look bright. Even so, I had – I have – immense hope for the country. Everyone who has travelled to this landlocked country knows that its people are happy, loyal, hardworking and resilient. I believe that it is this spirit that will ultimately bring Nepal up from the bottom and make it a fantastic destination to explore once again.

Jonny Hawkins is an adventurer and outdoor instructor. When he is not enjoying the outdoors with clients, he explores new places to kayak and climb. The project that Jonny worked for in Nepal is now a registered charity: The Mandala Organization. www.mandaladhfn.org

The July 2019 issue of Geographical takes an in-depth look at the ways advancements in technology are improving the scientific art of earthquake detection. But will we ever be able to accurately predict these devastating incidents?
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