"There is something about standing at 4 200 m and looking up at peaks reaching another 3 000 to 4 000 m above you. You forget all about the altitude stealing your oxygen, the icy wind and the many thousands of steps it took to get here..." Hanlie Gouws discovers more than she thought during a hiking adventure across Nepal's Himalayan mountains.
In June 2014 I was ill - ill enough to spend an entire two weeks in bed, which for me is near impossible. A kind friend who understood my frustration brought a gift: Michael Palin’s Himalaya series.
Episodes 1 and 2 were entertaining enough but then came Episode 3: Nepal.
As I watched Palin stumble and cough and laugh his way up to Annapurna Base Camp I got google-ing to see how achievable it would be for someone like me, a single trekker who earns a salary in Rands, to do the same.
I needed a reward for my body and my brain after all this frustration and I tend to follow the wisdom of naturalist John Muir who said: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
Google had good news: it wouldn’t break my bones or the bank.
At the end of the episode, I Whatsapped a friend who also owned a copy of the series: “Watch Episode 3 of Himalaya. That is going to be my gift to self.”
She messaged back: “When are we going?”
Getting there is half the fun
I was expecting to go by myself but was glad that I would be able to share it with Jalaun and her husband Wynand.
We decided to do the 11-day base camp trek at the end of November because:
a) we were not keen on the crazy peak-season crowds and
b) I was keen on snow
In peak season during April/May and September to mid-November, thousands of people fight for space on the narrow paths and bridges of the ABC circuit and you take what you get when you arrive at your tea house. Leave it until January and it might be too cold to be pleasant, and then you start going to into avalanche season.
I found a decent-looking local outfit online, and after a few emails, we fixed the price for a full 12 days at $875. That includes all permits, transport and all meals but 4.
So I had five months to get ready. I hit the gym for some altitude training and spilt much sweat doing hill runs and trolley pushes in something that looks like a bullet-proof vest.
Our tour operator, Babu Sitaula from Unique Path Trekking and, reckoned we’d not freeze to death since he would supply us with -15 C-rated sleeping bags and expedition jackets, so we got all our gear together and switched and swapped until we all had what we needed.
We have arrived
After what felt like forever on the plane, we landed in Kathmandu at sunset. Waiting for your luggage at this airport is a test of character. But, as a local assured us, eventually it will come. An hour and a half later our blue, pink and green bags rolled along the conveyor belt.
Our hotel was in the tourist neighbourhood of Thamel, a magical maze of restaurants, shops and hotels.
Being the foodies that we are, we headed straight for supper and ordered a round of local beers and a mix of Nepali and Tibetan dishes. Nepal is true foodie heaven!
Breakfast was as delightful too. No Kelloggs or scrambled eggs on the menu here!
Babu met us for coffee the next morning to get our trekking permits in order and gave us the good news: the three of us would be in a group all on our own with just our guide, KC Bhim who wore a fluffy, glittery glam rock scarf and Top Gun shades on the entire journey, and two porters: Ale, one of the dearest people I’ve ever met, and Sunil, a shy youngster who never gets cold and did the hike in jeans and a flannel shirt.
We had an early start the next morning. It is a six-hour drive to the town of Pokhara on a dodgy, winding road shared with trucks made up like Christmas trees. Everybody drives like a maniac in Nepal, but as long as you hoot to indicate your presence, nobody gets angry and we didn’t see a single accident.
We got to Phokara just as the sun set and by then we were, of course, ready to eat again.
A final gear check followed another satisfying dinner, and we were in bed early for the ride to Nayapul, where our trek would start.
One foot in front of the other
Day one is an easy walk and almost too soon we were at our first tea house (what they call backpackers’ lodges over there) at Thikedunga. The tea houses are comfy and a clean bed and pillow and a warm (not hot) shower at R15 extra await.
The first day was a good warm-up for day two when things got a bit real.
During our after-breakfast coffee, KC arrived to give us our briefing for the day. “It is a little bit up, a little bit down,” he said.
Lies! All lies! A “little bit up” and “little bit down” actually means you are going to go up and down near vertical valleys all day long until your knees shed tears. But I’m not complaining. The scenery is breathtaking and it is never so hard that feel sorry that you came.
And therewith day two started with eleventymillion uneven stone steps up to the next village, Ulleri.
OK, it was only 3 200 or so but it felt like more.
The hiking never gets too tough and the days never too long, allowing your body time to rest and recover. But one is allowed to complain a little once in a while!
After another ridiculously filling lunch of Dahl Bat, the national dish, the path flattened all the way to Ghorepani, our home for the second night.
We had to be up at 05:00 the next morning to head up to Poon Hill. to see the sunrise over almost all 55km of the Annapurna Massive: home to one peak of 8 000m, 13 over 7 000 m and 16 more over 6 000m.
It is quite a sight, but if I knew then what I know now, I’d skip it. It was quite tiring and the sudden elevation to over 3 200 m was a bit much for my sea-level body.
The rest of the day’s hike to Tadapani was one of the most special of the trek. From Ghorepani, the path leads up another thigh-busting hill up to over 3 000m and then down into a deep valley next to a river.
At the bottom of the valley, Ale was already on the river bank, stacking a small tower of pebbles. He is a very pious Hindu and there was a prayer in every pebble.
His English is not great, but his stories are very funny and his caring is sincere. He would find us the best room in the tea house and sneak us extra blankets and bring our morning coffee. He is in his fifties and being a porter is his profession. And he is professional indeed.
Up, up and away
We fell into an easy rhythm, going a little bit up and a little bit down the valleys, making way for donkeys and the occasional water buffalo.
The air was getting thin and KC made sure we walk at a bistarre (Nepalese for slowly) pace to keep altitude sickness at bay.
All roofs in this area of the Nepal are blue like the sky, and the first person to spot the roofs would shout “Blou dakkies!” (blue roofs) so we’d all know the lunch/evening stop has been sighted.
Next stop was the quaint village of Chomrong, but sadly only for lunch. We had a nice chat with the Tibetan who runs the shop next to the restaurant. When we told him we were from South Africa, he reminded us that our country had refused the Dalai Lama entry…
Much more down and more up got us to Sinuwa where we spent a lovely evening massaging sore calves with our sunscreen bottles. Little bit up, little bit down, very much sore!
The next day is a tough one, but a true beauty.
Sinuwa is at 2 335m and Deurali – last stop before base camp – is at 3 200m. Quite a bit of uphill next to a river for a huge reward: the tea house at Deurali has a proper coffee machine!
It got very cold there, and the coffee plus the expedition jackets did the trick here. We mostly hiked in T-shirts, but as soon as the sun dipped behind the ridges you had to get your jacket on real quick.
Last stretch to base camp
Despite our slow and careful pace, we were at Machapuchare Base Camp (3 700m) quite soon, and there the mountains created a gap to enter the Annapurna Sanctuary and if you had breath left to be taken away, well, then it would have been taken away.
It was still a long way to the “blou dakkies” of basecamp at 4 190m along the path that follows a frozen stream over a lunar landscape that used to be covered in ice before the onset of climate change.
But all physical obstacles were quickly forgotten at the sight of Annapurna South towering at 7 219 m on one end and Machapuchare on the other. We were surrounded by 360 degrees of ice-capped peaks. K.C. pointed out the prominent peaks: Annapurna I (at 8 091m the world’s 10th highest peak), Baraha Shikhar (7 647m),Annapurna III (7 555m).
Then we went into the restaurant with the best view in the world and watched the sunset in shades of yellow, orange, pink and purple.
I woke up at about 05:00 with an extreme headache and when I finally got up at 07:00 my thoughts were slow as cold molasses. It took me forever to remember how to get my shoes on. At least I was conscious enough to realise these were the early symptoms of altitude sickness and the best thing to do is to get the hell out of there.
Luckily it was downhill all the way and 500m lower at Machapuchare base camp I was feeling better and I was as hungry as a wolf.
The road loops back down past Deurali (so we stopped for coffee), down to Dovan for lunch again and down to Bamboo at a comfortable 2 300m for the night.
It is not unusual to get depressed when your hike is coming to an end, but we were in for a treat at our second last stop: Jinhu. Not only is there a wonderfully soothing hot spring where we soaked the entire afternoon, but we had a wonderful night of partying, stories and songs shared with KC, Ale and Sunil.
And then home
The last day’s hike was an easy but dusty downhill to our last tea house at New Bridge where we met a Tibetan refugee who crossed these mountains into Nepal in 1959 soon after the Dalai Lama. He made us friendship bracelets and we bought his handwoven yak wool scarves.
The next morning it took only half an hour to walk down to where we caught our ride to Pokhara airport where we said goodbye to our three friends before getting onto a very tiny plane for a flight back to Kathmandu over the Himalayas. (Scary but worth it!)
Then it was all over.
And I had found more than what I had sought.
A country of bad luck
A few months later, in April 2015, an earthquake hit, killing more than 8 000 people.
The porters and guides need your tourist dollars now more than ever!
What you need to know if you do decide to go:
Plane tickets: +/- R9 000 on Emirates and Fly Dubai via Dubai
Trekking package (including all but 4 meals): +/- R10 000
Extra meals: Budget around R40 per meal Drinks: Coffee and tea start at about R6, local beer costs R20-50
Tips: At least $100 for your guide and $80 per porter from the group
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