Dust 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ten of the best
Personal needs were low on the list of priorities for Jonny Hawkins once the earthquake changed their plans in Nepal. Instead it became a case of finding equipment that would prove useful to the people they were trying to help. From physical kit such as multitools and medical kits, to digital equipment to provide help in the wider relief efforts...
Alpkit Rig 7 Tarp – £60/550g
Accommodation was at a premium when we visited devastated villages. This versatile shelter kept rain and sun at bay. Although it is not the lightest available design, the Rig 7’s price and durability were clinching factors.
Leatherman Charge TTi – £135/240g
This turned out to be the only screwdriver we had access to in many places. The can opener introduced our Nepalese co-workers to tinned tuna for the first (and probably last) time.
Pyranha Shiva – £950/22kg
This boat can hold two weeks’ worth of gear, and is sufficiently manoeuvrable to negotiate difficult whitewater. When packed with kit, my Shiva weighed in at 30kg, making portaging extremely tiresome. The thickness of its polyethylene hull was therefore crucial when it came to withstanding portaging as well as paddling.
4. Medical kit
Lifesystems Explorer – £23/395g
Many villagers we met were injured, and we frequently ransacked our first aid kits for zinc oxide tape and antiseptic cream. It is important to customise the Explorer for your intended destination.
Alpkit Viper – £17/94g
From portaging a 30kg boat at dusk to applying nails to a sheet of corrugated roofing before a nighttime storm, I would have been lost without my trusty Viper. At 125 lumens it is not the brightest but its size, water resistance, weight and cost are just right. Delivers up to 190 hours of light from a set of three AAA batteries.
Lonely Planet Nepali – £5/141g
Although I was nearly buried by falling tomes while buying this phrasebook in Kathmandu at the time of the earthquake, it proved invaluable when interacting with villagers. The family that we spent five days with spoke even less English than we spoke Nepalese so learning a simple phrase like ‘delicious dinner’ earned us second helpings.
7. Global Positioning System
Garmin eTrex 10 – £100/142g
This vital piece of equipment took on a whole new use after the earthquake. We used it in conjunction with Google Earth and QuakeMap (quakemap.org), an online data sharing service that enabled people to share information about settlements and inform aid agencies about relief items that were required.
8. Mapping software
Google Earth – Free
Many Nepalese villages are missing from traditional maps. As a result, they receive little foreign aid. Our project involved locating these settlements, assessing their needs, and then utilising Google Earth to inform aid agencies where the habitations were located and what supplies were required. On occasion, we returned from Kathmandu to these invisible villages with vital provisions.
MSR Whisperlite – £110/405g
Although bottled gas is usually easy to obtain in Kathmandu, it is extremely hard to find elsewhere in the country. We therefore took two of these liquid multifuel stoves to Nepal. Petrol could be bought pretty much everywhere, and the burner’s simple yet effective design delivered a huge amount of heat.
Alpkit Numo – £35/454g
While travelling, we slept on riverside beaches, dirt floors and even a tabletop. The 8.5cm of cushioning provided by this lightweight sleeping mat softened the lumpiest and hardest of surfaces.
… inexpensive Nepalese cotton shirts. They protect you from the sun during the day, are durable and are easy to wash with biodegradable soap on a riverside rock.
This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.