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A week before I’m due to leave for Nepal, I have several slightly anxious phone calls with Steve Berry, the managing director of Mountain Kingdoms, who has organised my trip. He has sent me an itinerary which specifies the services of a guide. A guide, Steve? I say. Do we really need a porter and a guide? Isn’t that a bit over the top? “Actually,” he says, “you’ll have a guide and two porters.”
What next, I wonder? A liveried footman? A box-wallah to bear me up the mountain in a canopied sedan chair? There are only two of us – my friend Louise and I – and I try to talk Berry out of at least one of the porters (“It’s going to be like the ‘memsahibs go hiking!’” I say. “Isn’t it just a bit colonial?”) until he points out, quite reasonably, that he’s been running trips to the Himalayas for several decades, and I’ve never been. “The guides are brilliant. Trust me. And you might actually find out a bit about Nepal.”
I love walking but the walking holidays I’ve done – in Britain and the Middle East and all over Europe – have involved, at most, a map and a guidebook. This, however, was “trekking” and not even any old trekking, but “luxury trekking”. In the foothills of Annapurna, and the Everest region, it’s been possible to stay in simple teahouses, or lodges, for years. But there are now a handful of “luxury lodges” and it was this discovery that has led our original plan – simply to turn up and walk to Annapurna Base Camp – to morph into a full-on, five-person expedition with an itinerary, a set of branded holdalls and, there at Kathmandu airport, a delightful young man who refuses to even let us touch our bags, hangs silk scarfs around our heads, ushers us into a taxi and speeds us to Dwarika’s Hotel, where we’re garlanded with marigolds and made to sip cooling fruit cocktails in a flower-filled courtyard.
“I think,” says Louise in a whispered aside. “I may be having a Princess Diana moment.” In fact, for all my phone calls and liberal angst, it takes about two-and-a-half seconds to come around to the Mountain Kingdoms’ way of doing things. We’re whisked from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and then from Pokhara to the trailhead, where, for the first time in days, we’re required actually to do something, namely put one foot in front of another.
We’re in the sub-tropical forest zone: a leafy canopy of foliage, filled with the sound of running water and birdsong, and it’s idyllically green and verdant. Apart, that is, from the leeches. It’s early October, the end of the rainy season and we can see them standing on end, wavering in the air, waiting to backflip towards us. I feel something on my heel, rip off my boot to find my sock covered in blood, and have a full-on Lady Memsahib meltdown. “I can’t touch it!” I say. And Tom, our guide, rushes forward and plucks it off my foot.
Our first two nights are in the luxury lodges run by a company called Kerr & Downey, and then it’s normal teahouses for the rest of the way. Not that the Sanctuary Lodge is “luxury” luxury: there are no gold-plated bath taps, or starlets leaping in and out of a Jacuzzi, and it’s all the lovelier for that. Our room is very simple and very clean, with fluffy down duvets and a view out across a manicured lawn. The owner of Kerr & Downey is ex-British army, and there’s a certain military edge to it: a cup of tea and biscuits appear on the dot of 4pm, and at 7pm, we learn, it’s gin o’clock: drinks before dinner.
It’s there that we meet the rest of the guests: all members of a Saga group. Or, as one of the group tells me, “Sexually Active Geriatrics Abroad”. She’s not exaggerating. They’re having a high old time, draining bottles of gin, laughing uproariously at each other’s jokes, flirting outrageously. I’d been worried we’d be spending most of our time with vomiting gap-year students who’d make us feel like their grandmas, so it’s all very gratifying. “I feel like a spring chicken,” I say to Louise. Although slightly less so next morning, when we drag ourselves awake to face the 4,252 steps between us and our next lodge in Ghandruk.
It is quite a lot of steps. The lower reaches of the Annapurna Base Camp trek are a network of paths that connect a handful of villages and it’s still the locals’ only means of communication with the outside world. Teams of porters carry goods up and down, huge bundles, 50kg at a time, of food and drinks and building materials, and the young and old and infirm: first thing in the morning we pass a porter carrying a woman and a baby in a basket. “Complications in childbirth,” says Tom.
We say a sad goodbye to him and Duda in Ghandruk, and meet our new guide, Mani, and our porters, Vishnu and Aakash, (a slightly complicated arrangement because the Kerr & Downey lodges use their own guides). It’s a cloudy day, and we climb 1,200m through mist and drizzle along the lip of the valley which forms the main route up into what’s known as the Annapurna “sanctuary”: a bowl, or corrie, that’s home to our ultimate destination, the Annapurna Base Camp, from where Chris Bonington launched his successful first ascent of the South Face in 1970. That night, we stay in the first of our non-luxury teahouses, the fluffy goose-down duvets a distant memory. There’s just a damp mattress and plywood walls but there’s also food, beer and a hot shower, and in the morning the cloud has cleared and suddenly behind the terraced green foothills, there are mountains!
They’re just so BIG. Of course they are, they’re the Himalayas, but nothing quite prepares you. Huge masses of rock tower above us. We walk in bright sunshine, the snow-capped peaks appearing and disappearing behind the trees. We are dazzled by them at every turn. It’s such an easy walk in some ways. Not the steps, which go on and up for ever, but there’s no route-finding and there are endless teahouses into which to fall, exhausted. You don’t need a guide, really, but it’s good employment, a way to spread some money around in what is a hopelessly poor country, and anyway, we feel like a proper team. I feel sorry for the trekkers we meet without them. They look so alone, and they’re often so clueless. We meet an American woman who’s carrying a 40kg pack with all her own food in it. “But why?” we say. “The food’s brilliant!”
We simply copy Mani and the porters, and order dal bhat every night: rice with lentils and vegetable curry. I have no idea, now, why I didn’t want a guide. I have a zillion questions I want to ask: “Is that a leech, Mani?” “A twig? Are you sure?” “How high is Everest?” “Is that plant over there marijuana?” “When’s lunch?” Mani patiently answers them all.
He’s a proper “mountain man”, from a village in the foothills of the Everest region and by the end of the week, we’re dreaming up ways to pack him into our rucksack and take him home with us. And when Aadi, a Nepalese management consultant who lives in New York, cracks open the racksi, the local rice spirit, in one of the lodges one night, we get him and Mani and Hartmut, an events manager from Berlin, to sing, and Aakash, our sweet-faced 17-year-old porter, to dance. And then Susan, a 50-something schoolteacher from Hartlepool, surprises us by trying the local weed. “Oooh!” she says. “That takes me back.” It’s like Glastonbury, only with down jackets and increasingly smelly socks.
It’s a six-day climb to base camp, the last few hundred metres of which are a slow plod up through the thinning oxygen in a valley that reminds us of Scotland. Drizzle falls on brown boggy earth, and, at 4,130 metres, it is high enough for the first symptoms of altitude sickness to kick in. We spend a cold, sleepless, headachey night, but who cares? At dawn, the sky is clear, and all around us are peaks – Annapurna I, II, III and IV, Annapurna South, Hinuchuli, and Machapuchare. A crescent moon lights the sky, and then when the sun breaks through it’s the clearest, brightest light I’ve ever seen. It casts an otherwordly glow on what’s already a strange, unreal place with its memorials to dead climbers and creaking glaciers, the rifle-shot of avalanches exploding high above us. They’re all here, all the friends we’ve made on the way up, and we’re euphoric, drunk on the mountains, the light, the thin, thin air.
It’s so quick going down that we leave the snow and ice and return to the tropics in what feels like hours. We have a last night at the Sanctuary Lodge, revelling in the cosy duvets and free washing and at gin o’clock we give Aakash his first-ever beer and laugh as he describes his reaction: “I feel very strange! Like I want to dance!”
So do we. Trekking isn’t quite walking but it just might be even better.
Mountain Kingdoms (0845 330 8579, www.mountainkingdoms.com) offers a 17day trip to Annapurna Sanctuary (with 12 days’ trekking) for £1,295, including all meals on the trek, and a 13day “gentle trekking and luxury lodges” trip (with seven days’ trekking) from £1,545.
Carole Cadwalladr flew with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) which has flights from London to Kathmandu (via Abu Dhabi) from £683 return. The airline has three daily flights from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi, and one a day from Manchester.
For information about Nepal Tourism Year 2011, see www.welcomenepal.com