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.
Despite last night’s late finish, today got off to an early start, with most of us awake before 6am. At 7am we were brought a mug of tea and an aluminium bowl of warm water (for us to carry out what is affectionately known as ‘washy-washy’).
While we waited for breakfast, we milled around the tents and in the small pine forest behind. Through the trees, we caught sight of the first big, impressive snow-covered mountain of the trek – 6,958-metre Numbur Chuli, its pointed summit towering over the surrounding hills. I also spotted my first impressive birds of the trip – a small group of red-billed blue magpies. Related to the Old World magpies of Europe and Asia (and members of the crow family, the Corvidae), rather than the Australian magpies, these colourful birds have one of the longest tails of any corvid. I was also interested to see some European birds that took me back to my time living in the UK, including several species of tit, as well as others with more of an Asian influence, such as drongoes and bulbuls.
Breakfast offered what would prove to be a regular opportunity to load up on carbs, featuring porridge, cereal, toast and a boiled egg, all washed down with ‘a nice cup of tea’. After breakfast, we were joined by Ekraj Koirala, a senior trainer for REED Nepal. Ekraj will be accompanying us for the first half of the trek, acting as guide, interpreter and explainer for the school visits that we’ll be making as we walk. He came with us as we went for a short stroll up to the nearby village of Garma, which was one of the Solukhumbu villages worst hit by last year’s earthquakes. Although most of its 350 houses withstood the first quake, only 50 survived the second, the epicentre of which was just 80 kilometres away.
Although we’re only in the foothills of the Himalaya, the surrounding topography is still quite dramatic. This is very much a land of hills and valleys, with steep, pine-forest-clad slopes descending to clear-watered rivers that tumble over jumbled boulders. Large patches of forest have been cleared and the slopes terraced for agriculture – primarily potatoes and corn. Terracing is the pretty much the only way to create land that can be cultivated around here, as naturally flat farmland is a very rare commodity.
After lunch, we all climbed back up the hill, through the village and up to Garma school, where we were greeted as visiting dignitaries. In the dusty playground, two rows of seats had been set up for us, facing another seven rows of seats and benches on which was perched an impressive crowd of schoolchildren and their parents. No sooner had we taken our seats than a wind suddenly blew up, whipping the fine dust from the ground and swirling it around us. When it had died down, we were given a traditional greeting and gift of scarves, known as Khata. The students were then called up to present us with their gifts: mostly posies and garlands of red rhododendron flowers.
After a few speeches, we were then treated to some traditional Nepalese dancing by six young students. This was followed by several more speeches, including a few heartfelt words from Lindsay Tallott, community coordinator at Kathmandu, and Gunnedah-based science teachers Prue Kesby and Chrissy Pearce. Then, after a lengthy delay while the performers changed costumes, we were treated to another display of traditional dancing by the same group of students (and a few more speeches).
Formalities now over, we made our way over to the crowd, causing much hilarity as we sat among the locals, greeting children and parents and doing our best to forge a cultural connection. Then after the crowd has dispersed, we took a tour of some of the school’s newly rebuilt classrooms, which featured skylights that flooded the rooms in natural light. Ekraj explained that the school is unusual in that it has begun to offer a vocational training programme, where students can learn about agricultural techniques. Like the village the school was hit hard by the earthquakes, with eight of its nine classrooms completely or partially destroyed. The Nepalese government only provided $2,800 for reconstruction, but a number of NGOs and aid groups, including the Australian Himalayan Foundation, have since stepped in, and by the time of our visit, many of the buildings had been rebuilt. And now it was time for us to play our part. Paintbrushes were handed out, paint tins were cracked open and we set to work adding a splash of colour to one of the new buildings, sustained by trays of biscuits and mugs of sugary tea distributed by a crack team of smiling students.
Australian Himalayan Foundation
Kathmandu community partnerships
Kathmandu Summit Club treks