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Bhutan: Rafting in the Himalayas

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Over many years of travel to Bhutan I've walked past Punakha dzong several times, driven past it on even more occasions but yesterday was the first time I've floated past it.

The dzong was built about 400 years ago at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu (female and male rivers) that flow out of the Himalayan mountain basin that lies to the north, separating Bhutan from China.

The rivers flow full and fast and although at times I've been known to be less than sure-of-foot, the reason I was floating past the dzong was not because I'd fallen in.

I was part of the first full contingent of New Zealand white water rafters to set sail on the more tumultuous of the two rivers, the Pho.

Rafting is in its infancy in Bhutan and our rafting crew from Xplore Bhutan have only been working together for about two years. But given New Zealanders' propensity to get everywhere, even into remote corners of the Himalayas, I wasn't totally surprised when our raft master told me one his trainers had been Maria Noakes from New Zealand.

For the locals rafting is still something of a novelty so all seven of us Kiwis had to don our wetsuits, helmets and life jackets in front of a fascinated audience.

I guess this is only fair given that we can often be seen watching the Bhutanese go about parts of their daily lives that we find equally absorbing, such as circumambulating temples, harvesting rice or puttering along the mountain roads on a power tiller.

The Pho Chu rapids were running at between grade 2 and grade 3 so provided just enough excitement for our crew, aged between 47 and 75.

The stretches of calm water also gave us plenty of time to spot wildlife. How many places can you go rafting and be observed by an otter? Our otter swam ahead of us for some time, carefully observing us while lying on his back then dipping gracefully through the water and up into a burrow in the bank when he decided we and our paddles were getting too close.

Kingfishers with irridescent turquoise feathers dipped over the water and on an island in the middle of the river we spotted two endangered white bellied heron.

The longest suspension bridge in Bhutan stretched over the river at one point and as we floated underneath a farmer shepherding two cows across the narrow bridge shouted down to us. In terraced fields along the banks farming families were bent double harvesting rice.

The emerald green stems tinged with gold glowed in the sunlight and pink cosmos bloomed in the hedgerows.

Not that we had too much time to study the plant life. The Pho Chu kept us busy and just after we floated past the whitewashed bulwarks of the dzong, Bhupendra our captain told me I could jump overboard and float down to the beach where our raft would land.

The water, swelled with snow melt from the Himalayas, literally took my breath away.

It is also, I discovered not advisable to gasp with the cold while hitting a rapid. However, once I'd spat out a considerable quantity of Himalayan melt water it was simply a matter of going with the flow and hoping that someone would fish me out before I reached the Bay of Bengal.

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