The Himalayan Traveller: ‘Trek Reports’

‘Harper, tell me of the road,
That leads beyond this Hold,
That wends its way beyond the hill …
Does it go further on until
It ends in sunset’s gold?’

From: Anne McCaffrey: Dragonsong

Welcome to the ‘Trek Reports’ – these are my own thoughts – often written some time after the event on some of the treks that I’ve done in the Himalayas – I hope you’ll find them interesting.

Trek Reports’ 1 – The Annapurnas
1983 & 1985

‘I felt I could go on like this for ever; that life had little better to offer than to march day after day in an unknown country to an unattainable goal’: Bill Tilman – ‘Nepal Himalaya’ (1949)

Welcome to the trek reports. If you’ve already visited Nepal I hope that you will find them interesting as a record of what I’ve done in the past, and how I’ve seen Nepal change over the last forty or so years, and also (hopefully) bring back some happy memories for you. If you’re a ‘newcomer’ read them all the same, but remember these are the my memories of the country and what I saw is completely different to what you would see: even if you were to travel with me. (Remember, too, that I have a ‘wicked’ sense of humour, as those who have travelled with me know, to their cost).

My first visit to Nepal was in December 1983, as part of a long (25 day) photo holiday in Rajasthan and Nepal. I didn’t want to go to India: I desired to see the high mountains and (at that time) this seemed to be the best (albeit expensive) way to do it. I went expecting to be disappointed: it was to be a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. It didn’t turn out like that, of course, and within days of setting foot in India I was thinking of other places to visit. To return to 1983 though, much of what we did was pretty straightforward. We visited Patan and Bhatgaon, but in those days the streets weren’t paved, and Bhatgaon was much like a medieval city. There weren’t the hoards of street traders about, and when you climbed up to Swayambhunath the only things that you needed to fight off were the monkeys, not the sellers of ‘knick-knacks’. In Durbar Square the sadhus were real sadhus, not, as one local said to me recently, ‘businessmen from India’.

Pokhara was different, too. It may be a place to ‘chill out’ nowadays, but alongside the Lake, where the restaurants are, were open fields. ‘Fish Tail Lodge’ was (literally) the only place to stay. When a plane was due at the airport a siren was sounded, and someone went to clear the cows off the runway. The mountains were the same though. Our trek was a simple one (a ‘picnic trek’): north from Pokhara and then west along the valley to Phedi, and then up the hill to Naudanda. Here I saw sunset on the Annapurna Himal for the first time. The next morning we walked to Naudanda to ‘explore’: in those days it was, pretty much, the end of the Annapurna circuit. In the afternoon we walked along the ridge to Sarangot, and early on the third morning we tripped down the hill to Pokhara for the flight back to Kathmandu. You wouldn’t do this ‘picnic trek’ nowadays: the last time I went through Naudanda it was in a battered ‘Land Rover’ on the Pokhara – Baglung road, and I don’t think you’d camp there, either…

The 1983 visit had been on a photographic holiday organized by Alfred (Greg) and Sue Gregory. Both were professional photographers: Greg had been the ‘stills’ photographer on John Hunt’s expedition which made the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. With people like these in charge, and with a party that included some of the leading amateur photographers in the UK, together with some pretty hard travellers, it was not surprising that I learned a lot about photography, and about myself, too. In 1984 I was talking to Sue and she mentioned the possibility of a ‘Foothills Trek’ that they were planning to do in 1985. Was I interested?

The 1985 ‘Annapurna Foothills’ trek was a new concept. At that time there were comparatively few trekkers in Nepal, and the trekking areas were limited: Everest, Langtang & Helambu, Round Annapurna, and the Annapurna Sanctuary. There were some other routes that have now fallen out of favour: Trisuli to Pokhara, via Gorkha, for example, which followed the old trade routes. The great majority of the organized groups camped: although there were lodges the majority of them were very simple. The ‘electrics’ had yet to reach Tatopani, and satellite television was unknown.

Our trek was fairly simple: Pokhara to the Kali Gandaki at Kusma, then following the river up to Tatopani. From Tatopani we had the long climb to Ghorepani, but then we were to cut off into relatively unknown country, to Tadapani and Ghorepani, and then to Landrung, Dhampus and Astam, before dropping down to end the trek in Pokhara. (Note that the trek started and finished in Pokhara, quite close to the town; you could take a jeep to Phedi but most people walked).

Our first day’s walk took us to Naudanda, a repeat of the 1983 trek, and we camped at the same site. From there we walked to Bhadur, and then dropped down a river valley to finally reach Dobila after a long days walk. In those days there was no road up the Kali Gandaki, and there then followed a 3 day trek up the gorge to Tatopani. We went no further north, but then followed the ‘long drag’ up the hill to Ghorepani.

Ghorepani was a dump then, but I suppose that it still is. The view from Poon Hill was good, though, and well worth the effort. In 1985 the lower slopes of the hill were still clothed in trees and you needed to climb to the summit to get the views. At that time routes which are now regularly trekked were no more than ‘trods’ – one such left the main Pokhara – Tatopani trail at Ghorepani and made its way through the forests to Tadapani, and then down to Ghandrung. This is now, deservedly, a popular trek route, but it was very unfrequented in those days. Tadapani was two shacks on the ridge: but the views were the same, and Macchapuchare was impressive with a ‘crown’ of lenticular clouds.

Our route back to Pokhara was what is now a fairly standard one; we dropped down to the river from Ghandrung, and then climbed up to Landrung and Tolka, over the ridge and down to Dhampus and Astam, but we ended our trek rather further east than nowadays. Thus ended my first (full-length) trek.

There was quite a long gap before I returned to Nepal. In 1988 Greg & Sue put a trek together to go into Ganesh Himal, to the north of Kathmandu. Described as a ‘foothills’ trek I was sorely tempted to go, but on advice opted to go to Peru & Bolivia instead. This was probably a wise decision as ‘Ganesh’ apparently turned out to be an ‘epic’, but I still wonder how I would have fared on it. (Peru & Bolivia were excellent, though).