The trekking season is just beginning in Nepal, where caravans of trekkers, porters and Sherpas will be heading out towards the high peaks. I've been treking in Nepal three times and it is a wonderful experience. Here's a piece I wrote for TGO after my first trek many years ago. The photos were taken on my second trek, which was to Makalu Base Camp.
LIFE ON TREK
6.00am.The cheerful voice of the Sherpa wakes you from a drowsy half-sleep. Fumbling with the tent zip in the darkness you eventually manage to pull it open. A shiver of cold air slices in through the slot of the open zip. Outside the sky is clear and black with bright stars and the thin pale crescent of a waning moon. The silhouettes of black jagged mountains line the horizon. Much closer to hand a large mug of sweet tea steams. The bed tea, as it’s called, wakes and warms you. There’s also a bowl of warm water so you can splash the sleep out of your face. Another day on trek has begun.
Half an hour after waking you stumble, swathed in warm clothing to ward off the still freezing air, to the outdoor breakfast table where you join the other trekkers. A flicker of orange marks the rising sun. Soon the bright harsh light reaches the camp but it’s still too early for it to have much warmth. As breakfast is eaten porters and Sherpas bustle about taking down tents and packing gear. Soon a long line of laden porters snakes its way up the trail .Most are carrying dokos - cone-shaped cane baskets -loaded with all sorts of items. A few have unusual loads; a sack of cauliflowers almost as big as the porter, the huge folded canvas of a large tent. All the loads are supported by straps around the porters’ heads.
After breakfast you pack the gear you’ll need during the day into your pack and the rest into your kitbag, which is quickly whisked away by a porter who also dismantles your tent. As the last porters head up the trail you set off after them. At times you walk with other trekkers, at others alone, sometimes with no one else in sight. There’s always a Sherpa at the back of the group in case anyone falls behind though and when any potential difficulty appears – a steep exposed section where the path climbs over a rock spur, a stream that has to be forded – there are Sherpas to provide help if necessary.
After an hour or so some of the porters are passed, resting and having their first foodof the day. A couple of hours more and you see a large groundsheet spread out near the path. Close by the cook crew, who shoot off as soon as they have prepared breakfast each morning, have set up a kitchen from which the wonderful smells of fresh baking are wafting. A porter brings over a jug of hot fruit juice that has a wonderfully restorative effect. The leisurely lunch lasts an hour or more and while you eat, drink and rest the porters pass by and disappear into the distance. High above large birds of prey – eagles? vultures?– circle above the snowy peaks.
After an hour and a half the leisurely lunch is over. You continue along the trail,watching the snow-capped mountains, the streams, the rocks, the clouds, the flowers, the birds and the rest of the wild nature you have come to see and be part of. Occasionally a massive hairy yak lumbers into view, then another and another, each one loaded with goods for these trails are the highways of this country, the trade routes and market roads. The traders and other locals passing between villages are friendly. “Namaste”, they say, bowing slightly with their hands held as in prayer. You return the traditional greeting –“Namaste – Greetings to the God within you”
On passes long thin strands of prayer flags flutter from rock cairns, spreading good wishes on the wind. As you approach a village other signs of the Buddhist beliefs of the local people appear – stone mani (prayer) walls, chortens (stone monuments) and then an ancient gompa (monastery) high on the hillside above the flat-roofed stonehouses of the village. Flocks of sheep and goats graze, guarded by small children. Other children wander around collecting yak dung for fires. The caravan of porters, Sherpas and trekkers winds through the tiny dusty stone-walled fields around the village. On a flat rise beyond the houses the sirdar – the head Sherpa – stops. This is tonight’s campsite. It is seven hours since setting off in the morning. The timing has gone to plan and the porters arrive at the same time as the trekkers and start setting up camp. That’s one reason for the long lunch. It means you don’t have to wait, perhaps in the cold, for the porters, who need more frequent rest stops due to their heavier loads, to catch up. From the moment a porter picks up your kitbag in the morning until he reaches the next camp it’s impossible to get at its contents. All you have is what you are carrying in your pack. It’s wise to keep a warm top in there.
Camp is soon set up and the large cook tent is soon throbbing with the roar of paraffin burners. Those trekkers still with some energy explore round the camp,others lie in their tents and read or doze or gather together and discuss the days trek. Soon the sun has set and the temperature is falling as it grows rapidly dark. The porters light a fire for warmth and the flickering flames throw tree shadows on the rock face behind them. Dinner is called and you gather in the large mess tent for a tasty and filling meal of curry and dhal. As you eat the trek leader and the Sirdar discuss the plans for the next day and go over the experiences so far. Then it’s back to the warmth of tent and sleeping bag,leaving the mess tent for the porters to sleep in, and dreams of the mountains and more days trekking through spectacular landscapes.
Such is a typical day on a trek. It sounds relaxing and it is. But it can also be quite arduous. Most treks climb many thousands of feet to altitudes we aren’t used to, altitudes that slow us down, make our breath come in short pants and our limbs feel heavy. To acclimatise to these altitudes trekkers should climb slowly, no more than 1,000 feet/900 metres a day once above 12 to 14,000feet/3600 to 4200 metres. Paths can be rough and rocky and steep, climbing seemingly endlessly to distant passes. Slowly you put one foot in front of the other, concentrating on the dramatic scenery rather than the effort of walking. At other times you drift along gentle trails beside swirling torrents and through majestic forests. At some camps you stay for two nights allowing time to rest or explore local villages and valleys.
Whatever the nature of a trek it is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the culture and landscape of very different countries. Go with an open mind and respect for the local people and trekking can be an enlightening, inspiring experience.