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.
As usual, many of us were up before sunrise this morning, so were able to watch as the sun first turned the sky a deep orange and then peeked over the ridge in front of us. Before breakfast, I also went for a walk through the village, where life was already in full flow, chicken being fed and porters loaded up.
When it was time for us to get going, we all lined up to receive our Khata scarves from one of the teachers from the school in which we camped last night and then began trudging up into and through the village. For a while, we followed a rough road through another village, before slipping down a loose slope and joining a path through the terraced fields. As the path started to head downhill, we stopped for a short rest beside a building that hadn’t survived last year’s earthquakes. Virtually all of the buildings we’ve been passing (which can be up to three storeys tall) are constructed from the local stone. In some areas, some or all of the stone is shaped into squared-off blocks, giving the buildings a certain solidity, but in others, the rock is simply piled up, dry-stone-wall-style, around a wooden frame and then a rough mud render is slapped on. Little wonder then, that when a big earthquake hits, many of the buildings collapse, the stones tumbling down to create a series of rock piles around what’s left of the timber frame, the roof perched haphazardly on top.
From our rest spot it was possible to see a large yellow digger cutting a road into the adjacent hillside – the continuation of the road on which we had walked earlier. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this extension to the road network for the local community. With so few roads passing through the region, everything that comes in from outside must be carried, from food to fuel to building materials to, well, just about anything you care to mention. It also means that if you want to get anywhere, you have to walk (or be carried). So if you want to get anywhere in a hurry – like a hospital, for example – your only option is to walk faster. At present, roughly a third of Nepal’s population lives at least two hours walk from a road, but the country has embarked on an ambitious road-building programme, with about 1,000 kilometres of new road being constructed each year – but the difficulties it faces were evident enough just from the example we could see from our rest stop.
When we were all sufficiently rested, we resumed our downhill walk. The path we were following quickly became significantly steeper, and as we passed into a pine forest, the needles on the ground made things even more treacherous. But we were doing it easy compared to the mother and son we passed on the way down. They were heading up the hill with several freshly cut wooden beams on their back, straining with the effort.
And then, finally, we made it all the way down to river at the bottom of the hill, where the cooking crew was set up and preparing lunch. One by one, we slowly made our way down to the river, removed our boots and soaked our tired feet in the cool, no, cold, no, frigid, water.
After lunch, we began our afternoon climb. The river crossing is at about 1,000 metres; our camp is at about 1,500 metres, so we had a lot of ground to cover. When we reached the next village, the group split up – four of us would continue up to tonight’s camp while the other eight would peel off to visit another school. Our guide, KK, grew up in this area, and he was influential in establishing the school. There was once a copper mine located nearby, and many of the people living in the area are Dalits – the de facto ‘untouchables’ of contemporary Nepal, historically discriminated against and oppressed; almost half of Nepal’s Dalits live below the poverty line. In this area, the Dalits mostly worked in the mine, and when it was closed down, they struggled to find other sources of income. Their young children were also effectively excluded from education because the nearest school was too far away for them to walk to. But thanks to KK’s efforts, the Australian Himalayan Foundation (AHF) now funds the salary of a teacher at this small school, which caters to grades one to three.
KK had come bearing gifts, including educational materials and a big bag of woolly hats, which were gleefully distributed and modelled by children and adults alike. Lindsay, Kathmandu’s community coordinator, also handed over a package of LuminAIDs – inflatable solar-powered lights. As part of its corporate social responsibility programme, Kathmandu donates one of these lights to the AHF for every ten that it sells. The AHF (or in this case, Lindsay) then distributes them to communities where people don’t have access to a reliable source of electricity, providing them with a clean, safe and reusable light source – which is of particular importance for families with school-age children, as it allows them to study after dark.
After saying our goodbyes (and receiving our Khata scarves, of course), we continued up the hill, stopping for a rest at KK’s old house, where we met a few of his relatives, including his brother’s mother-in-law. We also met up with the rest of our group, who had taken a particularly leisurely stroll up the hill while we were at the school. Together, we then walked further up to the main village school, where our camp was being set up. Conveniently, there was a water point located beside one of the school buildings, and several of us took turns washing our hair and our socks. And then we took a well-deserved rest. We walked for about seven hours today, most of it either up- or downhill – our first serious day’s walking – and many of us were feeling the effects.
Australian Himalayan Foundation
Kathmandu community partnerships
Kathmandu Summit Club treks