Let me count the ways. A knock on the door at 5.25am and I think its one of the team playing a practical joke, even though in the same instant I think that I can’t imagine any of them up at this hour. But it’s Lila who is announcing ‘mountain view’ (though in my sleepy state I thought he said Mountain Dew and figured that could wait until breakfast). I click awake a few moments later and bolt out of bed. Lila grins and points up over the roof and surely it was a mountain view. He points back behind the building and I walk up the path until I am clear of it. The sky is one of those early morning translucent blue canopies, almost metallic in its radiance. Rearing up into it is Dhaulagiri, lit with yellow and soft white light, capping off green forests in the foreground. In the same view Annapurna I sits off on the right. The sun has not reached it yet but I don’t need any sun to stop me in my tracks. I have nothing to say. What could be said anyway? Nothing really. It’s a stupendous sight and been worth waiting two weeks to see. And no words are going to do it justice anyway. I walk to the top of the guest house where a handful of us stand there with our cameras clicking away as the sun lifts, the light changes and a power and glory all of its own radiates out over us and reduces us to insignificant but grateful spectators.
Despite the distractions of Dhaulagiri behind us, and the sharp needle of Nilgiri and Annapurna I to the right of us we manage to get away from the tea house by 7.40. it is a gorgeous clear day ad villages and farmers we pass are all cheery and engaging. The whole team is upbeat and suffused with good humour and spirit. Its is amazing how a bright day picks everyone up. Smoke drifts out from under tiles, chickens scratch and cluck, the occasional bullock bellows and the kids dance around our feet begging for a photo to be taken, the beginning of a process that has them asking for sweets in return, you advising there are none, howls of protest, and you moving quickly on. You have not divulged the soft, deformed snickers bar in your pocket.
Every now and then I glance behind me at Dhaulagiri. Its bright snowline is highlighted against the blue sky by the wind blowing trails of snow into the void above which it sits. As we drop (and it’s a total descent of 3000’ today) and Dhaulagiri falls behind we have the pleasure of the sharp peak of Nilgiri stabbing up on our left and joining us. In her austere and magnificent company we transition down out of these alpine meadows into a tighter, rocky scene and start into the mouth of the world’s deepest gorge.
It’s out of this canyon that the Gandaki dragon bellows and roars, out of sight but sending plumes of mist our way, in puffs of temper and agitation, grasping for us it seems. The geology around the track starts to unnerve me. We walk along under vast overhanging rock outcrops, much of which is fractured and rotten, cracks open enough to host vegetation and leak water. At one point I hurry past a massive rock face that looks like a giant blister on the side of the mountain, with water jetting twenty feet or more from minute cracks and fissures across its face. What immeasurable pressure is creating that spectacle I wonder? It makes me realise every crack in the rock is a potential rock collapse and I pray as I scurry past. I want everyone home in one please is what I beg. Some stop to admire the jets. I am not in the least bit interested. One day we will read about the collapse of this section of the track.
Barely 500m past this point I turn a corner and catch the view of the valley far below me. I pull up the camera and as I do so hear a loud clump just beside and behind me. I know in an instant what it is and leap for the high side of the track and hug the rock wall even as I turn around to see more rocks tumbling down. I yell at Sarah to “run” and she sprints down the track, as do Peter and Dylan as a shower of smaller rocks rain down. We pause with some wonder, for a rock weighing 10-12kg has dropped maybe 100’ and struck Peter’s pack, glancing down its side and ripping his drying socks into the mud (Dylan dives back to retrieve them). The four of us stand in amazement at how close we had come to disaster. A rock that size from that height on the head could only have one outcome. I catch Lila’s attention behind me. Its too far too shout so I point up to the overhang. He gets the message and starts to run the rest of the team past. We all agree Peter is living testimony to a sovereign God. I am a little shaken by how close we came to having to bring a body home – I have a plan for that if I was ever faced with it. I’m glad I didn’t have to action it. We gather at a little hamlet only a few hundred meters further on in order to gather our wits and to admire the crushed pack top, and the bent aluminium frame of Pete’s pack harness.
To help us get our equilibrium I notice that it must be the weekly ‘wash your kid day’ in the hamlet. Half a dozen mothers have very disgruntled children trapped under water of some sort and ears are being scrubbed, legs tubbed, hair washed, and skin towelled hard enough to raise a red sheen under their nut brown hide. And all without a stitch of clothing, for all the world to see. Life surely goes on even though death has just breathed past us in a hoarse whisper. Those kids being tubbed, in the light of that rock, made my day all the sweeter.
We press on to lunch which we take at the Waterfall Lodge – aptly named for the violent water flung off a mountain nearby. It quite literally stopped me in my tracks as it came into view. It thunders and bursts down the mountain and throws its cool spray across me as I step across a timber bridge in front of it. That is most welcome since by now we have well and truly returned to the tropical, humid heat of the lowlands and we are sucking electrolytes again. Lunch is pre-ordered (two of the porters have scampered ahead to help us save some time) and we dine again on rice and Dahl. We sit under the trees of their yard and enjoy the respite. But lunch marks the rapid transition from gorgeous clear day to gorgeous wet day. The cloud rolls in and our afternoon walk is marked by very different weather.
But its also marked by an hilarious fiasco at the expense of Alex (Booze). As we continue to drop into this gigantic fertile, tropical valley with waterfalls cascading out of the sky we come through Dana and a turbulent, gravel bedded green water foaming stream called Bhahi Khola. It looks reasonably innocuous. There is a ‘long way around’ via a suspension bridge, or a quick fording. I consider launching off a boulder – its about a six foot drop and about six feet to the other side. Trouble is, I am carrying a lot of kit so I pause to consider options. Alex and Pete are with me. Alex decides to take his pack off, throw it over and jump after it. Standing behind him I said “If you can’t jump with your pack don’t do it.’ As the pack came off Peter offered to pitch it to him (Peter is not nicknamed the ‘Terminator’ for nothing). Booze later claimed to have not heard either of us, took his pack and flung it at the gravel bank on the far side of the stream. It bounced off the gravel and promptly rolled back into ten knots of fast flowing water and was on its way to the Ganges. I was laughing too much to be of any use. Booze leapt across and gave chase. I followed him (with pack) and by the time I had scrambled up the back one of our trusty porters had launched himself into the stream and rescued the ‘floater’. Booze had most of this things in water proof bags so the damage done was really only to his pride. For the rest of the day of course any puddle was presented a ‘Booze’ challenge. It’s an event that is going to be analysed and discussed for a very long time to come. Hilarious. Even better – Booze is taking it all in very good humour.
As we left Dana a white bitch very much in heat trotted along with us, trailed in close order by a very interested black dog. Its been a fortnight of agricultural and horticultural education for my city friends and for a kilometre or so I thought that education was going to be extended and expanded right in front of us. But the dogs must have found a canine hotel and they unexpectedly vanished off the track. Perhaps they knew the rain was about to start, for indeed that is exactly what happened – the monsoon effect steps in and the heavens open. I love it. The rain is cool and refreshing and it sluices off my head and down my back. I splash through rapidly forming puddles and watch waterfalls on the other side of the Kali Gandaki swell and erupt and rip the bright green mountain sides apart with their white ribbons of water. This weather is completely animating and it gets my fur up completely. But the water holds another piece of excitement in store.
Enlivened by the weather I stride out front with two of our porters and we overhaul a Nepali traveller who is nervously watching the flinty rock escarpment above us, head cocked to one side as he walks. His hearing must be acute for he twitches at a couple of small stones that come pinging and rattling down. He stops and starts as he responds to the sound of stones I rarely see. Our porters widely advise we should take our cue from him and so we do as we march around the side of the mountain. Suddenly a trailer load of rock shifts above him and the three of us scream “run”. Or just scream. He gets the message and takes of like a startled gazelle and makes it past the fall in time for the rock to crash down on the track where he was running only moments earlier. I have an enduring image in my mind of that boy airborne as he runs up the track as the mountains slides down towards him. The three of us don’t wait and on cue we all run after him and another load of rocks slides down behind us. Instinctively I had realised there would be a pause between each fall and was happy to sprint with the porters. We turn on the other side and call the others through as they come up to this part of the track. Rock continues to tumble down, dislodged in some cases by a tractor and a couple of trucks which bounce through. Its dangerous and exhilarating at the same time but after Peter’s experience earlier in the day I am a little sobered by the easy potential for fatalities.
We arrive in Tatopani nine hours after leaving Kalopani, drop our packs and head down to the hot springs, pays our money, tub off the mud of the day and ease into the hot water as best we can. I manage to get sore shoulder muscles into hot water – fantastic. Apply some Tiger Balm, drink some masala tea and my day is complete. We encountered serious traffic today for the first time since leaving Besisihar. A convoy of fifteen trucks and four 4 x 4 vehicles were heading up country and got tangled up with some buses trying to head the other way. Some had to back up to let the others through. It makes for some very delicate pedestrian manoeuvring. You stand against the cutting and risk getting crushed. Or on the far edge and risk getting knocked over the edge. But its not other vehicles that are the only threat to safety. Sometimes our own lack of observation has the potential to undo us. Earlier in the day I crossed a suspension bridge, admittedly lured there by two porters who were encouraging me to follow them through a shortcut – which I thoroughly enjoyed. But the most disconcerting feature of this bridge was the knee high cables on either side – not the usual waist or shoulder height. The two porters set up a rhythmic bounce ahead of me. With what Lila later describes as the furthest drop below any of the bridges on the Circuit I slowly move across muttering the “stick to the middle, keep your balance” mantra over and over. I am ready to drop to my knees at the slightest hint of overbalance. I make it across and the wide grins of the waiting porters tell me they know my discomfort. But they also know the risk and with their thumbs up they congratulate me. Lila later tells me with a frown he never lets trekkers on the thing.
We are now at dinner and Booze is taking a continual ribbing for his incident with the pack. We are going to get a lot of mileage out of this one. I have had a very good day. We started with postcard views. The weather was perfect, wet or dry. Potential fatalities remained just that. And whichever way I turn this group over they come up trumps. I have said it all before so won’t say it again. We all retire a little earlier than usual but I head up to our rooms before the rest of them and get my kit sorted. I am trying to dry some clothes – I suspect that is really to no avail but hang them up anyway and lie down on a hard bed. Hard or soft, lumpy or smooth, it matters not this far into the trek. I will be asleep and lost in mad dreams very shortly. Good night.
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