Doongas on Fewa Lake

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

Friday was the eve of the new year (2075) in Nepal, with big celebrations in Pokhara. We celebrated by paddling a doonga (or dunga) on Fewa Lake.

A doonga looks a bit like a canoe, but it’s much heavier. They’re made of old teak from the Terai in southern Nepal. This is much denser wood than found in the local teak, hence it’s stronger and heavier. One doonga can weigh 500 kg (1100 lbs.).

Our dunga (blue & yellow)

Our dunga (blue & yellow)

They’re good boats, which can easily carry five or more people. They’re stable unless the wind gets too strong. We found them to be slower than a canoe, and a bit tiring with the heavy teak paddles. Nevertheless, they’re mystical to see on the lake.

Navaraj repairs a 35 year old doonga

Navaraj repairs a 35 year old doonga

Fewa Lake is beautiful, with large sections of shoreline undeveloped. There are views of green hills all around, and behind them the Himal, with occasionally clear sights of Machupuchare (Fish Tail) mountain.

Cotton rope, a form of oakum, for sealing the doongas

Cotton rope, a form of oakum, for sealing the doongas

After our paddle, we talked to  Jhapu, who builds and repairs doongas. He described how he used cotton rope to fill cracks between the planks. He then covers the rope with pitch, applies a layer of primer, and finally enamel.

Lake view with marina in center back

Lake view with marina in center back

Desmond X. Holdridge

Whaler and fishing vessels near the Coast of Labrador, William Bradford

Whaler and fishing vessels near the Coast of Labrador, William Bradford

I’ve been learning about Desmond X. Holdridge, starting with a quote about boats from his book about sailing around Newfoundland and Labrador:

For boats, even the uglier ones, are among the loveliest creations of man’s hands, and though owning them brings a train of debts, hangnails, bruises, bad frights and all kinds of worries not experienced by those who content themselves with more practical vices, the relation between a man and his boat is as personal and intimate as the relation between husband and wife. –Desmond Holdridge, Northern lights: A voyage into danger, 1939

Holdridge was an explorer and author who lived a short, but interesting life (1907-1946). It was filled with dangerous expeditions and the extreme versions of the nautical disasters that I thought only I could create. He died in an automobile accident near Baltimore (Democratic Advocate, April 19, 1946).

When Holdridge was 14 he fitted a rowboat with a sail. Soon after, he was caught in a squall and crashed the boat. At age 18 he and two others sailed a 32-foot schooner for six months around Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador. A five-day gale battered his boat to pieces on that trip but they were rescued by another schooner.

Holdridge was again feared lost at age 21. He visited Labrador in to find evidence of Martin Frobisher’s colony from his search for the Northwest Passage in 1576, possibly on Resolution Island.

Not long after that, Holdridge went on an expedition to the jungles of southern Venezuela. His camp was attacked one night, but the attackers fled when he blew the campfire into flames.

The end of the river (film)

The end of the river (film)

Holdridge wrote about that expedition in several books, including the novel, The End of the River, about a South American Indian boy who leaves the jungle for the city where he is accused of murder. That novel was the basis for a film produced by Powell & Pressburger (1947), which was made in Brazil.

He also wrote technical articles, such as “Exploration between the Rio Branco and the Serra Parima” for Geographical Review (1933). He writes there:

The section of northern Brazil enclosed by the Negro, Branco, and Uraricoera rivers and the Serra Parima has long been indicated on maps of Brazil as terra incognita and it was in the hope of finding there aboriginal cultures unchanged by contact with white men that the writer’s expedition was undertaken. During the seven months from May to November, 1932, explorations were conducted on three of the five large tributaries of the Amazon system that have their sources in the Serra Parima–the Catrimany, Demini, and Aracat.

Throughout the several journeys low mountains at strategic points were ascended and bearings taken from them on near–by and distant peaks and sketches made. The resulting network of bearings constitutes a rough triangulation of the whole region and with the photographs and sketches has made possible the construction of a map giving an approximate representation of the topography. A part of the Brazil-Venezuela boundary, following the crest of the Serra Parima, lies within this area, and as a consequence its delineation will be quite different from any shown heretofore.

Holdridge lived for the adventure and writing about it. Speaking of a Labrador storm, he says:

that storm was another symbol, a symbol for the absolute of insensate fury… And here, I think, is the reason for much seafaring, especially for the kind that is conducted in small boats. From the experience of such dreadful chaos there is a catharsis obtainable from no possible work of art…

in the flying Dolphin, her very presence on the surface not predictable even for seconds into the future…

the coexistence of abysmal terror and god-like elation is responsible for much seafaring, especially the small-boat kind… the survivor feels that, if he can design and build the perfect vessel, there will be no terror and only that tremendous thrill. Hence the buckets of drawing ink and the miles of timber that go every year into the building of small seagoing yachts, accompanied always by more money than their owners can afford, and it must make an economic determinist feel like a fool. –Desmond Holdridge, Northern lights: A voyage into danger, 1939


Saving the coots, one dinghy at a time

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Mitchell Ransome. He was an English author and journalist, who is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books.

Ransome is still popular in England, especially among those who live in or travel to the Lake District or the Norfolk Broads, where the books are set. He’s less known in the US, which is a pity. The books relate holiday adventures of children, including sailing, fishing, and camping, and offer adventures for both young and old.

We lived with our kids inside of those books during our 1996-97 sabbatical year, as we traveled in China, Australia, and Europe. While in England, we visited many of the places described in the book. Little did I know at the outset that we would be living the adventures themselves.

We had an inauspicious arrival in England in March, 1997. We were tired from a year of international travel, living in strange places, eating new foods, and each living out of a ten kilo bag of clothes and toiletries. As we left Heathrow airport we encountered a huge downpour and to top it off, it was late afternoon and getting dark.

Coot Club, the fifth book in the series, was published in 1934. BBC produced a film based on Coot Club in 1984. In the book, Dick and Dorothea Callum visit the Norfolk Broads over Easter holidays, hoping to learn to sail.

Being devoted Swallows and Amazons readers, and as it was almost Easter season, we had to journey to the Broads ourselves. En route, I had this conversation with eleven-year-old Emily:

Emily: We’ll be staying in a houseboat there, right?
Me: Emily, I wish we could, but it’s after five already. We have no reservation anywhere, much less a houseboat.
E: But in Coot Club, they were in the Norfolk Broads and they stayed in a houseboat.
M: That was in the novel, but we’re not. You can’t just find a houseboat any old time,
E: I know we will.
M: It’s off season. I have no idea whether there are any houseboats, much less how to find one. I’m afraid we’ll be sleeping in the car.
E: I know we will.
M: [gives up]

Just as I was beginning to look for an unflooded spot to park the car for the unpleasant night ahead, we rounded a turn and saw a house lit up. There was a sign out front:


E: See?
M: OK, there are houseboats, but I still don’t know. Is it really available? Can you rent it for a couple of nights? Please don’t get any unrealistic expectations. I don’t want you (or ten-year-old Stephen, her silent ally in this parent-child struggle) to be disappointed.

Nevertheless. I went up to the door:

M: Do you really have a houseboat for rent?
Owner: Yes.
M: Is it available now for a short rental?
O: Yes, I hadn’t planned to open the boats up so early in the season, but decided just today to get one of them ready.

So, we ended up in a dry houseboat that night, just as the Callum children do when they stay on the Teasel. There was even a dinghy attached, just as in Coot Club. More conversation ensued:

E: Tomorrow we can go out to protect the baby coots from the Hullabaloos, just as they did in Coot Club.
M: I’ll ask whether we can use the dinghy, but I don’t even know what a coot is.
E: I know we will.
M: Even if there are coots, I don’t know that any of them have babies now.
E: I know they will.
M: And there may not be any Hullabaloos either.
E: There will be and we need to protect the coots from them.
M: [gives up]

The next morning we went out in the dinghy, as I remember, just Emily, Stephen, and me. We followed along one of the canals so common in the Broads. Around a bend, we saw a water bird’s nest. Inside were baby coots. Just then, a large motorboat filled with Hullabaloos came into view, heading perilously towards the coots’ nest. We quickly maneuvered the dinghy so that it stood between the motorboat and the nest, protecting it from the Hullabaloos, just as the children did in Coot Club.

We came to know the boats of Coot Club: the Hullabaloo’s motorboat, the Teasel, the dinghy, and esepcially, the childrens’s pirate boat, the Death and Glory. The Death and Glory is described as “an old black ship’s boat, with a stumpy little mast and a black flag at the masthead.” It’s rowed with oars or propelled by a “grey, ragged, patched old lugsail, far too small for the boat.”

As we related our adventure to the houseboat owner, he reminded us about that boat, too. He asked, would we like to see it?

E&S: Yes!
M: But that’s not possible.

Then he told us that when the BBC produced the Coot Club film, they used the Death and Glory boat. He now had that very boat on his property, just 100 yards from where we had been staying.

Yes, we went to see it, yes it was wonderful, and yes, I learned something about arguing with my children about literature and life.