It’s pretty simple really. Lots of places have great hiking, but Nepal has the greatest treks of them all. I was privileged to be invited on this trip, and ‘voluntourism’ was an excellent way to start. I can’t gush about this enough!
As we gasp for breath in the thin air above his village, Ang Tshering Sherpa tells us a story. When he was a little boy, his mother sent him up this mountain to tend the family yak. It was cold, so Ang sneaked some matches and lit a fire to keep warm. But the wind sent the blaze racing out of control, burning the whole hillside and bringing all the neighbours running to save their livestock.
Thirty years later, Ang has more than repaid his village for the trouble he caused them. At thirteen he became a mountain guide. Then when a grateful Australian client asked what his village most needed, Ang explained that the nearest medical help for many Sherpas was a gruelling 2-day walk away. Not only are there no roads here, there are no wheels. Sick or injured patients have to be carried on the back of man or beast.
Ten Australians and three Britons have come to Nepal to work on Ang Tshering’s next initiative, building incinerators to dispose of the garbage polluting land and waterways. Then he’s taking us on a nine-day trek.
Getting here hasn’t been easy. Our plane from Kathmandu was cancelled due to bad weather, leaving us two options – an expensive chartered helicopter or a bus followed by a walk. There was some group discussion, until somebody asked Ang, ‘How long is this bus trip?’
‘Twelve hours bus, then walk.’
‘Hmm…maybe four days.’
End of discussion. The chopper was worth every cent – a spectacular flight with the snow-capped Himalayas as a backdrop.
After lunch we climb another hour to the Phungmochhe Buddhist Monastery where we’ll be building our incinerator. Deb Wilkinson from World Expeditions tells me it’s not always easy to sell these community development trips. ‘People say, “Why should I work on my holiday?” They just want to get to Everest Base Camp so they can tick off their achievement.’
My fears turn out to be unfounded. I learn that a substantial proportion of the money from our trip pays for materials and local builders, and the red and saffron-robed head lama is wielding a pick beside us. None of us has any experience in this work, but it is a project where many hands can achieve a lot in three days.
We’re building the basic incinerator structure with stones from the hillside, then covering it with cement. Former metallurgist Robin from Geelong has brought his own geologist’s hammer, and quickly ensconces himself on the growing wall, chipping and fitting the blocks into the puzzle, working tirelessly alongside the Nepali builder and his young deaf apprentice.
Environmental scientist Charelle works with Ang mixing cement, while Sydney maths teacher Chris shows she’s a dab hand with the trowel. Up the hillside, trekking guide Subar swings a sledge hammer to break up larger lumps and the rest of us form a chain gang to heave rocks to the experts. It’s a great bonding experience, bringing visitors and Nepali hosts together.
With the work nearly complete, rain stops play, and our porters entertain themselves and us with a lively music and dance session. Sherpa dancing is a sort of modest foot-shuffling, but the music of Santosh’s flute and Amar’s drum, with Ang and Kailash singing, is still in my head.
Next morning we set off on a trek towards Mt Everest. We won’t be able to claim, as Sir Edmund Hillary famously did, that ‘we knocked the bastard off’, but we plan to knock off the bastard’s lower half at least.
This trek is officially rated ‘introductory’, though it quickly becomes apparent it’s ‘challenging’ to most of us. These are the mighty Himalayas and they’re not flat. We climb and descend up to 1500 metres a day on rough tracks, and on occasions some of us take 10-12 hours to reach our campsites. The rain is turning the path into a quagmire.
Fortunately we have the world’s best trekking guides. Ang and Amar, his sirdar (foreman guide), keep the pace steady and ensure everybody is safe and coping. Younger guides Subar, Kailash, Kisam and Jiban skip nimbly between us, perching over every awkward step to lend assistance. Kailash, ‘The Human Handrail’, is particularly attentive to Jemma, who seems to get a helping hand more often than is needed.
The scenery takes our minds off any tribulations. It is far lusher and more varied than I had expected. We follow terraced fields of green millet and pass through villages of grey shale cottages, with blue and white window frames. Above 3000 metres, there are wild rhododendron forests under pines dripping with ferns. Water is everywhere, pouring as waterfalls from rocky crags, swelling streams, and making a mockery of our raingear. The soles peel off Jemma’s hiking boots.
Paths in this area see few outsiders, so from every doorway giggling villagers greet us, palms pressed together under the chin. ‘Namaste (I bow to you)’, they chant, and we chant back as we slosh past.
Trekking days begin at 6am with a discreet knock on the tent flap. Nobody can knock loudly on a tent flap. ‘Black tea, Richard?’ Kisam and Jiban pour the life-restoring liquid into aluminium mugs, then return with bowls of warm water for ‘washy-washy’. As soon as our bags are packed, porters lash them together in bundles. They’ll tote our luggage and soggy tents to our evening destination.
Breakfast is served. Our cook Chitra Rai, aka ‘Mr Yum-Yum’, and his kitchen hands have been preparing porridge and pancakes or fried bread with omelettes. There’s plenty of food, and we need the fuel.
We’re on the trail before 8, aiming to do the bulk of our day’s trek by lunchtime. Mr Yum-Yum’s team overtakes us and clatters past, wicker baskets piled high with kerosene stoves, cooking pots and bags of provisions. They’re off to cook us a full three-course lunch; vegetable soup, with pappadams, Tibetan bread, lentils, chickpeas, chips, boiled vegetables, curried spam and apples as dessert.
After we’ve eaten and are strapping on our light daypacks, the crew quickly wash up and rush ahead to evening camp, where they cook an equally varied dinner. Porter Gopal carries two folding steel dining tables, sandwiching folding chairs, the bundle tied up with string and supported by a strap across the top of his head. Naturally I can’t resist trying his load. It takes all my strength to get it off the ground and my neck nearly snaps. Gopal grins. He’s been carrying it up and down hills all day, and he’s half my size.
When we fall a little behind our schedule, Ang takes us to camp in his sister’s field in Muse village. While her father-in-law carries his granddaughter around on his back, we sit in the warm, dry living room drinking salt tea (an acquired taste) and local liquor (an easily acquired taste).On our fifth trekking day we reach the main track between Lukla airstrip and Everest Base Camp. It’s known as the ‘Everest Highway‘, and it’s busy. We share it with mules, yaks, armies of porters and trekkers – Germans, British, French, Italian and Japanese as well as lots of Australians. Larger groups like ours have up to thirty porters, cooks and guides. There’s less time for saying ‘namaste’, but the mood is cheerful and the weather clears as we reach Namche Bazaar. For centuries Namche was the Sherpas’ principal marketplace. Now it’s booming, with property prices higher than in Kathmandu and locals cashing in on the flood of trekkers. Every building is a lodge and restaurant, with cow bells, tramping poles, mittens, socks, pack covers, jewellery and knitted beanies for sale out the front.
Most of us get some clothes washed, send very slow emails or enjoy that rare Himalayan luxury, a hot shower. There are still no wheels, though, and Namche’s ATM is out of order; last week it was hit by a passing yak.
The morning sun lights up the snow-capped spire of Mt Ama Dablam, and we set off up the Everest Highway again. Soon after leaving Namche we get our first clear view of Mt Lhotse, with behind it the rocky dome that is Mt Everest itself. After a picnic lunch in the sunshine, Ang leads us away from the throng up the ‘old route’, a steep forest track which has the great advantage of being deserted, apart from us and some wild goats, Himalayan tahrs. Late that afternoon we pass through the gate and spin the prayer wheels of the Thyangboche Monastery, at 3870 metres the highest point we’ll reach on the trip. There’s a local festival starting and it’s all go – the moaning of vuvuzela-style horns played by the monks, porters setting up tents, yaks being watered, and cafes selling pastries and real coffee. Above it all there’s a gap in the clouds, perfectly framing the summit of Mt Everest. Someone pumps up an Aussie Rules footy and we play kick to kick with the Sherpas, so now we can say we’ve played the game at the highest level.
Two days later we’re farewelling our crew in Lukla with yet another party, featuring an extraordinary solo dance by our friend Mr Yum Yum, before we fly back to Kathmandu for a final dinner at Ang Tshering Sherpa’s home. There are tears, and promises to return.
In years to come, we’ll meet others who’ve been to Nepal. Maybe they whipped around the Annapurna Circuit in record time or even climbed Everest. If they ask what we achieved, we’ll reply that we didn’t go the farthest, the highest or the fastest. We built a little stone incinerator which is probably still standing. And we met the best people.
WHEN TO GO: The trekking season is spring (March-April) or autumn (September-November). Trekking during summer monsoons or winter snows is a serious ordeal.
FURTHER INFORMATION: World Expeditions runs guided treks combined with community development projects in Nepal. Cost of $2790 includes 18 days accommodation (a mix of tents, lodges and hotels), all meals while on the trek, local flights and transfers, guiding and equipment. worldexpeditions.com.au. Phone: 1300 720 000.
For more about this and other World Expeditions community projects, click here.
For information on Kushudebu Medical Centre, click here.
The writer was the guest of World Expeditions.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney