MAIN STORY: It was in 1997 when the first kayak expedition reached the country. The expedition consisted of a team of international kayakers.
The team were hosted by Tourism Council of Bhutan, which was known as Tourism Authority of Bhutan at that time. The team were invited to look for other adventure activities for western tourists.
Many Bhutanese were not accustomed to tourists coming to the country and many were also not accustomed to see foreigners carrying huge boats and kayaking down the rivers.
One of the kayakers of the first expedition was Gerry Moffatt from the United States.
During the month-long expedition, Gerry and the team mapped the major river systems and kayaked down the unexplored gorges and crystal-clear rivers of Bhutan.
Before coming to Bhutan, Gerry first worked in Nepal on a British expedition in 1983 at the age of 18. Over the next 20 years, he became the first man to descend down all the major rivers in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Gerry is today a white water consultant in the country. He trains local tour guides on the skills of kayaking and rafting, which is gaining popularity among tourists visiting the country.
Gerry, who is familiar with the rivers in the country like the back of his hands, recalls the expedition clearly.
“Everybody had a dream of coming to Bhutan. It was one of the last havens to be explored within the Himalayas. It was a rare and great opportunity for every body in the expedition,” Gerry recalls.
Team members did not know what to expect when they reached but the expedition had exceeded their expectations because there was no information and no body had kayaked before them, Gerry said. “We had to figure out all the logistics, put in and take outs, as we went across the country. People thought we were from a different planet and were scared for us because they thought we were going to kill ourselves.”
It was life-changing experience for Gerry because he fell in love with Bhutan and he fell in love with the rivers. “It was a lot of hard work and dedication to explore these untouched rivers in the most exotic places in Bhutan.”
After the expedition, the team helped budding local tourist agencies in bringing resources and contacts to develop kayaking and rafting into an industry within the country.
“Many Bhutanese showed a lot of interest in developing kayaking and rafting into a business,” Gerry said. “So we started developing programmes and itineraries to facilitate the demand for people who wanted to come to Bhutan.”
Bhutan is not a destination for people who want to learn how to kayak but for the experienced kayakers who want to experience a world-class kayaking, Gerry said.
With Gerry and his team’s connection at the Discovery Channel, the first film crews were brought into Bhutan to document the first descent from Mangdechhu in Trongsa to Manas in 2006. It was another milestone achieved for Gerry and 17 other members. The documentary is titled ‘Adventure Bhutan’.
Gerry clearly remembers how challenging it was for the team to cut through the Himalayas and kayak through the rivers that were impenetrable by any other means than through the kayaks and rafts.
“I remember looking down through Trongsa and seeing an impenetrable gorge, and we were going in to an area where there was hardly any human activity for decades,” Gerry said. “We were going into a lost world. It was a magical place but it was very challenging since the most of the rivers falls under Class V white water only for experts.”
Rivers are graded from Class I to Class VI, I being easy to VI being dangerous.
“We didn’t know if we will make out on the other side but eventually we came out into Manas after one month from kayaking, rafting and camping during breaks, and it was magical,” Gerry said.
Today, Bhutan is at an interesting crossroads in the development of white water activities apart from other exciting developments.
“Now there is beginning of tourist agencies who operate such activities. It can either go a good way or the bad way and it is going to need the correct guidance, and enforcement of rules and regulations,” Gerry said.
In neighbouring countries such as India and Nepal, there are many rafting companies and the price of such white water sports has gone down for tourists and the locals.
“When that happens, the standard of operation falls apart, the impact on the environment is very harsh and the safety and guide’s quality is diminished,” Gerry said. Bhutan has the great opportunity to not go there because the country’s policy of restricting tourists can be similarly enforced in the kayaking and rafting industry with minimum cost, added Gerry.
“This is something new here as the country moves forward and we hope that the new industry can implement the best possible practice in an international level,” he said.
Along with Gerry, Bhupendra Chhetri, was also present during the expedition of Mangdechhu. He was one of the four Bhutanese who were rafting during the expedition to Manas.
“Despite being new, white water sports such as rafting are picking up among the locals,” Bhupendra Chhetri said. “Many families come for rafting during the holidays. It is an enjoyable and safe sport.”
Bhutanese have always been out-door people with natural connection with environment. However, it is also important that we appreciate our environment and protect it, Bhupendra Chhetri said.
“We make sure that we don’t let people illegally dump or harm environment during rafting or kayaking,” he said. “It’s important that we monitor and protect the environment. There should be a balance so that apart from allowing such activities, environment is protected.”
However, the pristine natural setting and variety of river courses provide a unique opportunity for kayakers and rafters to explore the country, Bhupendra Chhetri said.
“The river courses offer something for all visitors, regardless of experience. There are easy routes for beginners and difficult runs for the veterans,” he said. “The best time for rafting and kayaking is from March to April and November to December.”
Experts like Land Heflin from the United States frequently visit Bhutan to kayak. Land Heflin has been in the country for six times already.
Land’s first visit to Bhutan was in 1999, working as kayak guide, helping some friends with a trip they put together. A few years later Land returned with his company bringing a group of folks to kayak and travel around Bhutan.
Since then, Land has brought groups of kayakers, rafters, outdoor lovers over to enjoy the exciting rivers, beautiful countryside and warm Bhutanese culture.
“White water kayaking is popular in mountain towns across the world. Anywhere an adventure is to be had, people want to explore. There is no better way to get to those ‘hidden places’ than in a kayak,” Land said. “There may be only a few tourists and locals kayaking today in Bhutan but I can tell you, there are sure a lot more than there were 15 years ago.”
Land also took part in the first descent of the Mangdechhu along with Gerry and Bhupendra Chhetri.
(Photos: Jock Montgomery, a freelance photographer and expedition kayaker)
By Thinley Zangmo