Searching out rhinos on the back of an elephant is one of those ‘pinch-yourself’ real life experiences, but it didn’t stop there for Intrepid traveller Nathan Penny on his ‘back to nature’ adventures in Nepal…
“The early morning sunlight lit up the lower plains of the Himalayas. My 2 Nepalese guides led me through the thick jungle along a narrow track, armed only with wooden sticks. Our mission was to find an elusive sloth bear.
The previous day I had been elephant riding through the tall grasslands and came very close to a rhino and her baby. My guides then announced they could smell a tiger, and a minute later we came across tiger footprints and droppings. One of the guides quickly cut down a tree branch and handed it to me; he said it was for my own protection. So there we were, walking through a thick jungle, armed only with wooden sticks, searching for sloth bears while trying not to be eaten by Bengal Tigers. Suddenly there was a large grunting sound coming through the thick scrub only 15m away. I was told it was a rhino and to move quickly and quietly along the track, so I did!
I was spending a week relaxing in Chitwan National Park, in the grassy lowlands of Nepal, after completing the 3 week-long Annapurna Circuit trek. The week was filled with elephant rides, jungle safaris, jungle walks and playing volleyball with the elephant trainers. However, I never saw a sloth bear or tiger and when it came time to leave Chitwan, my bus had been cancelled due to the Maoist transport strikes. Therefore I had to endure a 2 hour rickshaw ride down the road to the local airport, before flying back to the chaotic capital of Kathmandu.
I spent the next day gearing up for my next big adventure, the Everest Base Camp trek. That afternoon I went into a local barber shop to get a cut-throat shave. After several minutes of not moving a muscle, I was then beaten about as the barber gave me a full head and facial massage. It was so violent that it gave me a nose bleed, I quickly paid the man the 200 rupees and left.
That night I joined up with my other Intrepid Travel group members and discussed the exciting journey ahead of us. The next morning we flew out of Kathmandu and safely landed on a sloping runway at Lukla airport (2800m). Our porters sorted our gear, each carrying 3 large packs, putting most of the weight on their heads. The landscape was green and lush, and every hillside was terraced for agriculture. After only 3 hours we had reached Phakding, where we stayed at a lovely guesthouse.
The next day the track zig-zagged its way up from the riverbed, providing us with our first view of Mt. Everest, and we finally reached the main trading village of Namche Bazaar (3420m). Most of our time was spent bargaining in the street markets for yak wool socks and hats. We spent the next day acclimatising to the altitude. This meant hiking up to a high altitude and then descending back down to the guesthouse to sleep. Helicopters were seen flying up the valley daily, rescuing people affected by altitude sickness, which wasn’t a good sign.
For the next couple of days, we slowly made our way up the large valley, getting ever so closer to Mt. Everest. The track was littered with yaks and porters carrying gear up to base camp and higher villages. When we reached the village of Dingboche (4360m), at the foot of the famous Ama Dablam (6856m), the temperature began to get much colder.
Inside the lodges, we warmed our cold bodies by clustering around a single fire place, fuelled by yak droppings. When the guys in the group heard there was a pool table in a building nearby, we were over there like a shot. Three porters had carried an entire pool table (in pieces) all the way from Lukla. It was an amazing site and we gladly paid the 200 rupees to play.
The next day began early, climbing up a steep glacial moraine wall. We were now walking through snow and it was a relief to reach Lobuche (4930m). The next morning we left at 5am and watched the sun rise over the mountain peaks. The landscape was becoming heavily glaciated and bitterly cold. The freezing overnight temperatures meant that I had to put my camera inside my sleeping bag.
The hike up to Gorakshep (5160m) was tiring, so we rested in a teahouse before continuing on towards base camp. The strong sunlight blindingly reflected off the snow and ice, so I was glad to have brought my sunglasses.
The track was narrow, undulating, icy, and rocky. The peak of Mt Everest began to emerge. I stopped and stared at this magnificent natural wonder and took several photos. After 3 hours walking we eventually made it to Everest Base Camp (5364m). There were no welcoming signs and the area was only indicated by campsites from previous expeditions. The stunning Khumbu icefall plunged down the valley and the bright yellow expedition tents stood in contrast to their white backdrop. I sat there on a rocky outcrop, completely surrounded by huge mountains. It wasn’t until then that I realized my achievement.
The trip back to Gorakshep dragged on for another 3 hours. Totally exhausted, we collapsed in the dining room of our guesthouse and had some Nepali tea. That night I had a terrible sleep, waking every hour due to the lack of oxygen at high altitude. The next morning, joined by only a few of the eager group members, I headed for the Kala Pattar summit (5545m). A couple of hours later we had reached the top and were rewarded with superb views of Everest (8850m), Nuptse (7879m), Pumori (7145m), and the lower Khumbu valley.
The rest of the day was an enjoyable walk back down the valley. We treated ourselves to a flash guesthouse at Pheriche (4280m), providing hot showers, clean toilets, hot towels before dinner and music. A side trip to Tengboche Monastery, the largest in Nepal, was also amazing. It is the heart of Buddhism in the Khumbu region and has been recently rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire.
A couple of days later I was sitting around the Lukla airport departure lounge, waiting for my flight to Kathmandu. The trek was over and I had successfully reached Everest Base Camp. Upon returning to the capital, I was immediately confronted with the poverty, traffic, pollution, and the dodgy guys trying to sell tiger-balm. I just wanted to get back to the remoteness of the mountains and the small villages. But I didn’t have long to wait. I had a week off relaxing in the lakeside resort town of Pokhara, before heading off on my next adventure; the high plateaus of Tibet.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Nepal, especially celebrating the national Holi (colour) festival in a remote jungle village and sampling local food and wine (chang). Other highlights included elephant riding and game safaris in Chitwan National Park, completing the Annapurna Circuit, and reaching Everest Base Camp. I will definitely return to this amazing country and encourage everyone to experience this part of the Himalayas.”
* photo by Hamish Cattell – Intrepid Photography Competition