THE monsoon struck with unprecedented force. People spoke of ''the mother of all monsoons'' - the calamity said to come once every 100 years. The water rose at lightning speed - 26 metres in 24 hours in one place - bridges were ripped to shreds and roads disappeared. The destruction was enormous. Colonel Mike Kefford, the defence attache at the British Embassy, said on his return from assessing the damage: ''This disaster has put back the development of Nepal by 10 years.'' By July 20, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala declared a major disaster and appealed for aid. The British Overseas Development Authority (ODA) promised help and the British Army's Queen's Gurkha Engineers based in Hong Kong were placed on standby. Two days later, a reconnaissance party flew to Kathmandu and inspections by air and ground revealed the vital Prithvi Highway, the link between the capital and Nepal's second city, Pokora, and the main supply route to India, was breached in a number of places and four bridges were down. Experienced officers were shocked at the scenes of destruction. ''When we came to Kathmandu there was no apparent sign of any problems,'' one said. ''It was only when we hit the road going west out of Kathmandu towards Pokora . . . it suddenly went quite quiet [in the jeep] - the devastation was amazing. ''We saw the effects of landslides, where the road had come down the mountain, and there were mountains of mud. It got progressively worse and worse. ''Then we came to the first bridge which had gone and we were just open-mouthed. The bridge, which was 10 metres off the river bed, was gone. ''The whole span of the bridge had been swept away with a section of the concrete structure, in broken parts, scattered downstream. ''The two-lane main road to the flooded area was new, and had only been finished by an Anglo-Chinese team in March. ''Parts of it were barely wide enough for vehicles. The line in the centre of the road had gone.'' He said the lack of bridges did not stop truck drivers attempting to ford the river when the level dropped. ''We saw a couple of lorries try and we thought they were going to go over,'' he said. ''The vehicles made it across the river but without their loads.'' As a result of the four-day rain storm there was major flooding throughout the country and in particular on the plains southeast of Kathmandu leading into the Chitwan National Park. It was there the majority of the 2,000 reported dead and missing had been living. There was also catastrophic damage to the infrastructure. The Kulekhani Dam, which provides half of Nepal's power, was put out of action and vital roads were breached or washed away, including parts of the Prithvi Highway, a major development built by China and Britain under World Bank arrangements and only completed in March. In a country listed as one of the world's poorest, Nepal has more than its fair share of disasters. With the per capita income averaging less than US$200 (about HK$1,500) a year, an exploding population approaching 20 million and set to double by the end of the century, it is a country neither prepared nor equipped to cope with a catastrophe of this magnitude. Help was at hand. There were aid agencies in the country, such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Medicin Sans Frontieres and others who were working further south on the flooded plains. The sight of a small mountain of blankets flown in and held by the International Committee of the Red Cross at the airport illustrated that some aid was ill-conceived - the futility of using valuable air freight to move blankets to people sitting in temperatures of more than 35 degrees Celsius in the southern part of the country spoke for itself. The Queen's Gurkha Engineers, based at Perowne Barracks near Tuen Mun, had the ability and expertise to bridge the vital gaps on the road. The 60-metre gaps at Belkha and Mahadev Besi were made temporarily fordable by building causeways. These had to be constantly ''topped up'' to try to avoid them being washed away by the strong current and by over use. The gap at Malekhu was not fordable. The only way for traffic to cross had been by a bridge, which was washed away in the floods. This site, about 60 kilometres from Kathmandu, was selected as a priority. The commander of the 68 Gurkha Field Squadron of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, Major John White, was the man coming to grips with the situation on the Prithvi Highway. Watching his soldiers work expertly at the bridge site at Malekhu, he said: ''I saw, as a youngster, pictures of Royal Engineers building a Bailey Bridge in Kenya, 'that's for me' I thought. I have waited 17 years to do this for real - it's a great feeling.'' The task was enormous. A number of houses had been washed away and the rice crop had taken a heavy pounding. The people relied on the bridges for supplies and transport. ''The impression we got was of a village that was completely devastated,'' said one officer. ''There were hundreds of people just sitting there watching, with nothing for them to do. ''The other impression I got was of the resignation and stoicism of these people. They get dumped on so often they just accept it. ''But at no time did I come across any sullen faces, they were smiling and happy, and there was no begging. ''Their lives' had been shattered, members of their villages had been washed away, their cattle and goats had been washed away. That is their life and they don't have any choice.'' The plan was to bridge the gap at Malekhu with the first of several Bailey Bridges sent from Hong Kong and at the same time prepare the other two sites for bridging with equipment on its way from Britain by US Air Force C-5A Galaxy transports. Major White watched his men, all volunteers for this mission, create order out of chaos and a vital 22-metre gap was bridged within hours of the material arriving at the site. There was a great cheer when the first truck went across the bridge. Meanwhile, Major White moved on to his other bridge sites where there was much to be done. He has assured the Nepalese authorities that he will have completed his task of bridging the Prithvi Highway as soon as the bridges arrive - by the end of the month at the latest.