In early April, National Geographic Traveller Aus/NZ editor Geordie Torr and competition winner Laura Waters joined a group of Kathmandu Summit Club members for a 14-day ‘Rebuild Nepal’ trek through the foothills of the Himalaya. Having raised funds for the Australian Himalayan Foundation (AHF) as a way of giving back to the communities that they would visit, the group visited schools in the Solukhumbu district to see first-hand some of the work that’s being carried out by rural education and environment NGO REED Nepal, with support from the AHF and Kathmandu, before joining the ‘tourist circuit’ for views of Mount Everest and other famous Himalayan peaks.
We were sitting in the bus on the tarmac watching them refuel the small plane that was due to fly us to Phaplu when the airport official stuck his head through the door and delivered the bad news. “Phaplu airport is closed. Bad weather.”
Our group of 12 trekkers – competition winner Laura Waters, Kathmandu community co-ordinator Lindsay Tallott, myself and nine members of Kathmandu’s Summit Club – had already been waiting in the terminal at Kathmandu domestic airport for a few hours, munching on packets of strange local snacks and doing our best to avoid the frankly disgusting toilets, when we had finally been called to our flight. Now we drove back to the terminal in the little bus to wait some more.
Not for too long, however – after a short while, our cheerful guide Keshar Magar (otherwise known as KK) called us all together and announced that as it was unlikely that Phaplu airport would re-open today, we were going to try to get to tonight’s camp another way. Instead of a 25-minute flight and a 45-minute drive, we would be hiring three four-wheel-drives embarking on what he optimistically described as an eight-hour drive. We quickly bought some more snacks to sustain us, collected our bags and made our way back out to the car park.
Following a relatively brief encounter with the organised anarchy of Kathmandu’s traffic, we gathered together with our bags by the side of a busy road and took in the surrounding scene: a row of shoe repairers set up on sheets on the pavement, a few cages filled with live chickens, some ‘restaurants’ of dubious hygienic status and a few beggars making a bee-line towards us. As the chaos swirled around us, a small boy approached and presented one of his thumbs, miming the unfortunate incident that had left it with a nasty gash next to the nail. One of the group, ex-forester Ian Cotterill, rummaged through his first aid kit and handed the boy a band-aid, which he quickly put on and proudly displayed to us (I couldn’t help thinking that all he had really done was trap the incipient infection). In the meantime, Laura dropped her water bottle and camera case into what proved to be an open sewer.
Eventually, the vehicles arrived and we loaded them up and set off back into the traffic maelstrom. Progress was slow at first, but then we turned off the main road and left the tarmac behind as we wound our way through the back blocks and along the Kathmandu Valley. Although we were all a bit dismayed at the prospect of the long drive ahead, many of us were secretly pleased with the turn of events as it meant that we would get to see that much more of the countryside. My first impression was that, following last year’s devastating earthquakes, Kathmandu has become a city of bricks. Everywhere we went we passed big collections of them: neat stacks of bright-orange, just-baked bricks and haphazard piles of dusty old bricks reclaimed from buildings that hadn’t survived the quakes. I even saw some children playing ping pong on a concrete table using bricks for the net.
As we picked up the pace, scenes and impressions flowed by our windows: nodding heads of wheat growing on narrow, terraced fields; a three-story brick building with white chickens in each of the windows; groups of women in brightly coloured saris washing their hair at communal water points; stray dogs rooting through rubbish; a decidedly anomalous deserted water-slide fun park.
Eventually, we drove up over a ridge and into the valley of the Tamakoshi River, which flows down from Tibet and which we would follow for the rest of the afternoon. We passed impressive suspension bridges that spanned the torrent, fields of corn growing in the riverbed and numerous small, dust-coated villages, where large fig trees grew. As the afternoon headed towards the evening, we stopped for a break, slurping down a bowl of two-minute noodles each while a group of children played what appeared to be a variant of the game ‘poison’ that featured the building of a cairn of stones.
As the light began to fade, so too did the tarmac and we were soon rocking and rattling and bumping and bouncing into the dusk in a cloud of dust along a rutted, rock-strewn, pot-holed dirt track. Eventually, we turned off, passing through the village of Ghurmi. Here the road got marginally better, heading upwards and into wisps of low-lying cloud. Through breaks in the trees, I saw scattered lights on the hillsides below, like Earth-bound constellations – as though we were looking down on the heavens.
By now, our drivers were feeling the effects of the long day’s driving, so we stopped in a small village for some driver reviving, consisting of a mug of ‘coffee’ each (significantly more sugar than coffee from what I tasted). And then, finally, about ten hours after we set off from Kathmandu, out of the darkness ahead, several faces appeared by the road – young men in down jackets; our crew. We had arrived.
When we stepped from the vehicles, we were greeted by a blast of frigid air and quickly pulled various forms of fleece garment from our bags to ward off the cold. We were shown to a long, red-tablecloth-clad table – made up of three of the least flat tables I’ve ever come across – and served an impressive array of freshly prepared, tasty and filling dishes, before being led to a row of bright-orange tents set up on a rise above the main camp, into which we gratefully crawled and rapidly succumbed to slumber.
Australian Himalayan Foundation
Kathmandu community partnerships
Kathmandu Summit Club treks