‘Centuries ago there was a kind king’ says Lila, our guide, as he sips his mint tea and gazes down on the village below us. Smoke rises from one or two stove pipes. It’s early, about 5.30am. I was up at 5 and having a quiet poke around when Lila appeared around the corner. He was having a quiet poke around too. He grinned, put his foot up on the flower bed and quietly continued his story.
‘The king would rise early every morning and walk out onto the wall of his palace and look across the valleys of his kingdom. If he saw any house that was absent a smoking chimney he would send someone to enquire after the welfare of that family’.
Lila, smiles at the story, and looks up at me.
‘He was a very kind king’.
We are not checking on any families as we descend from our accommodation down some very steep stairs into Bahundanda but I do scoot around to the corner store and buy four Snickers bars while everyone else is focused on getting down the track. One advantage of bringing up the rear. Some chocolate on the road will always be welcome. We drop away from this ridge top into a rice paddy scene, walking along water courses feeding the terraces below us and even through the back of cattle sheds and along the top of some terraces themselves.
Not a drop of rain. After yesterday we are well prepared for open heavens but no deluge appears. The sun is out and soon, very soon, we are ringing wet and slippery from sweat. We drop into a furnace of a valley with no moving air and humidity close to that of a lake. From my tail-end-Charlie vantage I watch bright packs and outfits wind their way through lush vegetation, vegetable gardens and rice. We cross the river a couple of times via suspension bridges, following the track through very rustic villages, houses made of stone, beautifully set and pointed. Its hot. Have I mentioned that? When we are under foliage and canopy it’s hot and especially humid after the fashion of Kokoda. When out in the sun it’s extra juicy. Sunscreen is liberally applied. My sweat rag, useless in the forest, dries out in minutes after draping it over my head.
The scenery is spectacular. How do I start to describe it? Sharp peaks stack in front of sharp peaks as we gaze up a deep V valley, lush and vibrant. White water laces its way down in numerous small falls or slides but we catch sight of a white gash in the distance the mountain looks like its flank has been rudely gashed open. The water launches out of the green slope 600 feet or so above the river and hurls itself towards the ground in a violent plunge which is the complete antithesis of romantic garden waterfalls. As we close in on it (on the outskirts of Jagat) the waterfall gets only more spectacular. I’m impressed at how the locals have tapped some of its power – an electricity generating turbine is located at its base.
We stop for a morning tea break after a slightly stiff climb. Its a three house village (that sports an Australian Silky Oak: I keep the Snickers bar offered to any of the group that could name it!) whose occupants seem to have vanished on our arrival. Not too many stop here methinks. We push on another hour and stop at a beautiful tea house and gardens, all perfectly laid out. Its 15 minutes of pleasure – mars bars and Coke are on offer and the owner is very happy to sell. Our Russian friends stroll past while we are there.
Our lunch stop surprises me. I have settled into a rhythm and am ready to keep going. It’s a simple little place. The kitchen comprises a single wood stove – a slow cooker which is fanned into flame as soon as we arrive. Cokes are thrown into cold water. ‘Hot and humid’ wrecks appetites so I encourage most to eat, even if its only rice. I am loaded with porridge and don’t feel the need for a big lunch but top up on some friend rice. We have a tough climb ahead and need to eat. Water intake seems to be being managed okay but we do need to watch those fuel tanks. A handful of rice is better than nothing at all. We place our orders and the kitchen picks up its pace. But despite that there is a lag and soon there are bodies asleep all over the place. Graham nods off in the corner opposite me. He is doing a great job and maintaining a great pace.
Tail end Charlie still offers its advantages of walking my own walk but I decide today that the down side is that there is very little socialising. In fact none at all. I plan and strategise and nut out stuff for work, think about structure issues in the new novel and pray. Its all good stuff in itself but, with the exception of praying, its all perfectly pointless. I did not come here to plan work stuff and decides there is far too much time to be dwelling on things that I should not be dwelling on.
After lunch we climb continuously for the next hour. It’s hard graft and when I stop and lean over to take the weight of the pack off my shoulders sweat rains to the ground in small shower of salt and water. I am reminded by one of my fellows to get salt tablets into me and that makes an immediate difference. All that training of the group pays off eh? We climb through swtich-back after switchback, encountering our first team of mules. There is a lot of traffic on the road – local foot traffic that is. We meet (are overtaken by) a couple of chiropractors from Chicago. We have a pleasant chat – they come on us when we have taken a break – before they race on. A couple of chiropractors. I joke that we we stop wherever they stop. My back is sore, shoulders are aching and I have yet to sort out my electrolytes/salt. But the legs and lungs are fine so I can’t ask for much more at this point.
All that altitude is given up as we drop into a village then we are forced to regain it to make Chamje. We might grumble but we have some spectacular views of waterfalls and dramatic rock features as the gorge narrows and the rice paddies vanish altogether. The kind king comes to mind as I struggle up the last slope. I figure he would never have run down to those smokeless houses himself. Not because he was the king. But because he would know what a pain it is to climb these hills. More than once.
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