When the road gets washed away…
We left Kathmandu in a far more civilised manner than we had entered it, namely we were on a bus driven by a local driver, rather than having hitched a lift with 3 stoned English guys in a Landrover that was almost out of fuel, necessitating freewheeling down the tortuous bends minus power braking.
But it was 1974 and therefore seemed quite normal. Now David and I were safely on a bus full of Nepalese heading for the border. Not far out of Kathmandu the daily monsoon rains began: a deluge with a massive thunderstorm booming around the valley and purple sheet lightning mixing with dramatic zigzagging fork lightning. Darkness came early. It would be late by the time we reached the border, but we could stay the night on this side of the border as our visas didn’t expire until tomorrow.
The bus, gears grinding, laboured up a hill in darkness, and stopped. There were cries of protest but the reason soon became apparent – a landslide had obliterated the road. There was nothing for it but to spend the night on the bus and assess the situation in the morning. The storm gathered in violence, the rain drummed on the roof of the old bus, and in the lightning we could see earth, rocks and boulders crashing onto the road. Somewhere nearby we could hear the rush of a mighty river.
Light dawned and the rain stopped and a beautiful end of August day emerged from the night. We shouldered our rucksacks and followed the locals scrambling over the landslide. A piece of cake. There would be another bus…
As we rounded the corner a second much larger landslide blocked our way. We clambered over earth, boulders and scrubby trees only to find a raging torrent of floodwater some sixty or seventy feet across where once had been a road. The water surged over the roadway carrying the debris of trees, rocks and unrecognisable detritus as it crashed down the hillside. We sat watching in horror. Our visas expired today. The Nepalese government had long run out of patience with Europeans aka hippies who overstayed: imprisonment was one of the options for dealing with perpetrators.
Everybody shared what food we had between us, and as the day wore on the torrent abated slightly. Two intrepid young local men decided to tackle the flood. Using strong staffs from broken branches to feel their way, they waded in to the water where there was less current and, water up to their chests, slowly gained the far side. Cheers and claps followed them. It could be done. More locals followed and we decided to go too. With the only other tourists, a Japanese couple, we chose a point where the land next to a towering cliff of earth jutted into the water, and with a leap we would be able to land on an island of debris, and then venture into the cold swirling water.
The two boys took the lead, the other girl was next. She was scared, she hesitated,
and then a massive surge of water swept towards us, carrying a boulder that crashed through the spit of land while a new current of water widened the gap between us and the island of debris where the boys awaited us, leaving we two girls on a tiny diminishing island. We could neither get back to the main land nor jump. No-one could reach us. For a moment we sat there clinging on to a spindly tree, with no common language except the comfort of holding hands. Staying was not an option; the earth was eroding rapidly. If we went with it was simply a question of whether we would drown first or be battered to death on the boulders in the now terrifying force of the current.
So that was how at nineteen years of age I learned that having no choice engenders action. My decision was the only thing that could help us. If we stayed we would be dragged into the water and die. If we moved we might die, but we might not. Grabbing my companion firmly by her arm, I slithered from our diminishing island and entered the icy water. If we made our way upstream as near to the cliff edge as possible to avoid the worst of the current it seemed that we might be able reach another island of debris in the middle of the flood some fifty yards away.
There was of course the not inconsiderable matter of the unstable cliff showering earth and rocks into the water. If it fell on us it would no doubt kill us, but then again, it might not! Carefully we plodded upstream with the water chest high. We could just hear over the crash of the water, calls of encouragement from those who had reached safety on the other side, interspersed with an equal number of warnings about the falling cliff. Earth scattered over us, but we waded on.
After an age we were opposite the island of debris. Cautiously I lead, placing each foot gingerly before transferring my weight, trying to keep as stable in the water as possible. We made it and scrambled upon to the debris of trees and vegetation providing a brief respite, but we still had a long way to go. Those on the other side had made their way up steam on the bank and were now level with us. By gripping hands they made a human chain and several ventured once more into the water to bring us to safety. We were hauled to the other side. Our boyfriends held us tight, only to be jostled out of the way by our rescuers and travelling companions who hugged us as tightly as we hugged them, grateful for the kindness and courage of strangers.
Those of us heading for the border hitched a lift on a banana lorry, whose cargo was somewhat depleted during the journey by ravenous appetites. It was dark long before we made it to the border. Was it before midnight? My watch had stopped (never to restart) so hoping for the best we ventured in and produced our damp passports.
‘Where have you come from?’ barked the guard bored with dishevelled hippie travellers.
‘Kathmandu.’ we replied.
‘Impossible, it’s been cut off by a landslide and a flood,’ he sneered.
‘We crossed it.’
He assessed at our damp clothing and waterlogged rucksacks and with renewed respect, stamped our passports two minutes before midnight and bought us supper at the local hotel.