IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF A LEGEND
Nepal, Kathmandu and Everest – a few names I became aware of early in life having spent my formative years on a certain little Southern Hemisphere island. Down there you learn about the mystical kingdom of Nepal even if you fail to pay attention at school! All thanks to one man – one unassuming Kiwi who made it to the top of the world and, more importantly, back down again in 1953. Sir Edmund Hillary. He is even on the NZ$5 note.
To be able to visit Nepal and trace the steps of a national treasure - part of the way at least - was to realise my childhood dreams. Eager to land, I flew into Kathmandu in February to join the Everest Trails & Ama Dablam trip for eight days of trekking in the Himalaya.
After a couple of days getting used to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, we had an early start for the flight to Lukla. Everyone talks about this flight. The scarily short, steep runway, the unnerving turbulence, the unpredictable weather… I had been told all sorts of stories but as I watched the sunrise through a window at Kathmandu airport, I thought to myself ‘how bad could it be?’
The view from the tiny plane window soon distracted me from any misgivings. The 40-minute flight to Lukla was simply spectacular. In both directions, the vast range of the Himalaya stretched out beneath us. Dotted here and there were tiny settlements, incredibly remote villages without a road in sight.
It is this extreme isolation that attracts a certain kind of traveller to Nepal. The opportunity to be far removed from modern life by escaping to a place where age-old traditions are still commonplace and your legs are your main source of transport, has a certain appeal some. No cars, no buses, no mopeds, not even a bicycle in sight. Here, only yaks and people cause traffic jams.
Despite their seclusion, the Sherpa villages we passed through were surprisingly busy and the trail well-trodden by the yak trains heading to Base Camp. The locals use this route to transport all sorts of goods, from cans of beer to sheets of plywood!
The first main point of call on the Everest Trails trek is Namche Bazaar, a two-day hike from Lukla. Well, two days in Exodus terms - the locals do it in a few hours! We were following the banks of the Dudh Kosi River, crossing it on occasions by way of the metal suspension bridges strung along the valley. A test for those with vertigo, these bridges provide vital links to the valley for the local people.
It is a steep climb to Namche but our guides made sure everyone took it slowly by setting the pace at the head of the group. There was plenty of time for stops to take in the views too. From Namche the scenery started to change. As the forested slopes of the Khumbu Valley shrunk in the distance, the landscape turned to scrubland with the big mountains coming into view. This was more like the Nepal of my imagination and it is here, not too far from Namche, where you get the first glimpse of Hillary’s mountain.
Unfortunately, the day we were there was overcast and chilly so the mountain was obscured by cloud. This did not dampen our spirits. A little further on, we were in Khumjung and Kunde. These small villages are home to the hospital and school set up by Sir Edmund, which continue to be the heart of the community. You can pay your respects to the great man himself at his statue in the schoolyard.
In Kyangjuma, we stayed in my favourite lodge of the trip – much-loved for its views of Ama Dablam from the terrace and its cosy fire in the common room. Another day’s hike from here took us through Thyangboche with its amazing Buddhist monastery. Set on a flat plateau the monastery has the best views of both Everest and Ama Dablam. Blessed with bright blue skies and sunshine, this was definitely the most spectacular lunch stop I have ever experienced.
Pangboche was our base for the next couple of nights before for the trek to Ama Dablam Base Camp, The weather held out for our steady uphill trek to the relatively flat Base Camp at just over 4,500m. Deserted in February, the site, which sits directly below the mountain, was the perfect spot for a lunch break. The lemon tea served by Shukman, our permanently happy guide, tasted better than champagne!
Although I did not venture as far Everest Base Camp, the few days spent trekking in the Himalaya were amazing. To be in such a country, following in the footsteps of the man himself and meeting Nepalese people who surely have the widest smiles in the world, this one is topping my list of greatest travel experiences. Sir Edmund always made known his love of Nepal and its people - now I understand why.
By Exodus’ Catriona Griffin – Sales Consultant