24th November to 9th December
Our plan was to start our current jouney from Tanakpur, where the river meets the plain, and till where I had traveled on different trips from tributaries in the mountian reaches of the Mahakali river, as well as her tributaries in India and Nepal. All the gates on the Tanakpur barrage were shut off and all the water diverted into a canal, so it was not possible to begin our journey there. We had to travel down to Banbassa, another barrage 12 km downstream, where one gate was partialy open and where there was enough water downstream to put-in our small boat.
Nepal beckons - with rapids!
We enter immediately into Nepal on both banks, and paddle down the river bordering the Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve. We stay one night and paddle for one and a half days in Nepal through very beautiful territory. Unexpectedly, we encounter 8 rapids in this section, something our wood-skeleton sea-kayak is not designed for. With no choice, we manage to walk our boat through the first two rapids, and then run the rest which were too swift to walk though. The river is still very young here, with boulders and cobbles as substrate, and remains so for some days, till we have only pebbles, and then sand.
Fishermen confirm, from photos we show them, the presence of the Anguilla eel right from Tanakpur downwards. They also confirm the presence of a small freshwater shrimp (the description makes it unlikely to be Macrobrachium gangeticus). We are hoping to follow both these long-distance migrants all the way to the sea.
Crocodiles, tigers and more
From Day 3 onwards we encounter numerous marsh crocodiles on relatively wild banks and sand bars that we cross. It is with some unease that we wade chest-deep and then swim to a friend we have made along the way, who has tracked us on our phone to bring us parathas and tea from his home, at a bank far away from where our boat is tethered.
We pass through a series of Protected Areas along the banks of our initial stretch. The Royal Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal, the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, the Kisenpur Wild Life Sanctuary, and the buffer area of the Dudhwa National Park, all of which are home to tigers. We camp by the river-side and are advised by people we meet along the banks to burn a fire at night, but are unable to do so on most nights for fear of setting the riparian grasslands of Saccharum ablaze.
At Day 12, we stay one night at Sargada village, where we are cautioned about an isolated pack of around 20 wolves in the area. We are not blessed by a visit by them that night.
Make haste while the water flows
We find that the water level in the river reduces substantially every day. Once past the Sharda Barrage that links the waters of the Sharda with the waters of the Karnali-Ghaghra in a reservoir through a link-canal, the waters are diverted entirely through a massive canal (carrying 17,000 cusecs of water) for irrigation into a vast network.
We are told by a gate-operator at the barrage to make haste down the river, because they are scheduled to shut the last gate on the morning of the date of our departure, and will not release water into the river-bed (other than the leakage from the gates that they are unable to prevent), till the month of April next year. That's when snowmelt in the mountains will begin to fill their reservoir again. Sure enough, we see a substantial reduction in the water levels everyday thereafter, even upto 3 feet over one particular night. It is almost a race to reach the confluence with the Karnali-Ghaghra, before very low water levels make the going harder.
We talk to many fishermen along the way, and ask them about the current diversity and relative abundance of fish species assemblages, turtles, crocs and shrimps, their hunting methods, and changes they have witnessed over the years. We speak to farmers along the way too, about what it means to live on a very active and turbulent floodplain.
1 turtle, 5 dolphins, numerous fish and a topple!
It is on the morning of Day 16, December 9th, that we paddle into the swirling eddy-line at the confluence of the Mahakali-sharda, with the Karnali-ghaghra. The river is big now, and the flood-plain, seemingly horizon to horizon. We are greeted by a turtle that swims up to the surface and bobs and swirls vertically with the currents at the eddy-line.
We had heard of very recent sightings of 5 freshwater dolphins (Platanus gangeticus) on the stretch above the Sharda Barrage. We begin to see them ourselves frequently downstream of the barrage. Our boat is bumped and rocked by one dolphin that also douses us with splashes of its tail. We hear of, and then see fishermen hunt in cooperation with dolphins along the way.
We are told of at least 34 species of fish in this stretch of the river. Transparent fish, tiny swordfish, fish that swim with their eyes out of the water, fish that skip on water, fish that sting like a scoprion, and frequently of giant goonch catfish.
All goes well, other than the incident of me toppling the boat entirely, it filling up and soaking all battery banks that were charging on a solar panel on our boat, and our camera. We stop for a day and dry everything out, and then limp back to recovery over the next few days.