I flew home on the wings of love, support and prayers from family and friends.
Leaving Nepal is bittersweet. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be back on Australian soil. Yet, my safety and my comfort are rubbing against my sadness for the Nepalese people left behind, some of whom I got to know well in my short time there. Knowing my house is safe when their villages have been destroyed; knowing my guide stayed and supported our little trekking group when his family were in Kathmandu and his mother’s house had been damaged fill me with deep respect and sadness for him and all locals.
At another time I will share the beauty of the Khumbu Valley trek I experienced but right now that is overshadowed by the tragedy and chaos an earthquake left behind.
When the earthquake hit on the 25th April I was sitting in a little tea house, on the edge of a cliff, with four other trekkers. We ran from the building with locals to that odd feeling of surfing on flat ground. Buildings shook, rocks dislodged, dogs barked, children cried and women wailed. It was surreal. It was my second visit to Nepal and my second earthquake. I was shaken.
Right away we knew it had been a big quake. Our guide predicted a 7 or 8, later confirmed as a 7.8. We gingerly and silently continued toward Lukla, our destination, unaware of the damage and destruction caused. Villagers gathered in fields, no one was in their dwelling and an eerie silence fell across the countryside.
After arriving in Lukla, our destination, we discovered, via limited internet access over the next several hours, the extent and wide-spread nature of the damage. On edge and shaken we decided not to avail ourselves of the second story room provided but to set up camp in the lodge dining room with easy access to an external door. Little did we realise just how much we’d need that access.
Over the next two days we ran, often in the middle of the night, from the building when after shocks hit. This wasn’t something I had experienced before. Initially the shocks seemed to decrease in size but a couple of big ones really threw us on a slippery slope of adrenaline. Averaging in the mid to low fours most after shocks were minimal though two, a 5.6 and a 6.1 had us reeling again. We dozed fully clothed and decked out in wet weather gear for nocturnal evacuations.
The villagers were unsettled. The structure of several buildings, including the hospital, were compromised in the initial quake and then further damaged occurred in the aftershocks. The lodge owners refused to take more trekkers and began setting up mini tent cities on their lawns, if they had them.
News from the track started coming in as trekkers returned. Ancient villages where we’d stayed were levelled, others damaged, villagers, trekkers and guides killed. We realised a decision three days earlier to bypass our planned stop and to continue to the next village had saved us from being caught out on the track or worse. The shock increased.
News of an avalanche on Everest hit the village of Lukla hard. Many local Sherpas were on the mountain assisting foreign climbers. Helicopter rescue missions set off from Lukla. In a three and a half hour time frame 71 injured people were evacuated from Everest. Foreign doctors and nurses who’d been trekking aided the Nepalese local hospital in dealing with the crisis. The response was quick, immediate and efficient. Locals and trekkers alike, lined the fence surrounding the airstrip for news of loved ones arriving via helicopter.
Our scheduled flight from Lukla was cancelled due to damage at Kathmandu airport and thunderstorms. A second day we were given boarding passes and informed that 15 flights were coming from Kathmandu to transport people out. Two airlines, Tara and Goma, service Lukla. We soon realised our airline was running only two planes and making relay journeys in and out. After a cold six-hour wait we were told the plane would not return for us this day. Our disappointment was overshadowed by concern. Trekkers were filing into Lukla in droves. Already supplies had been short, accommodation was limited. Returning to our lodge we discovered our dining room sleeping quarters of the past two days filled with new comers. That’s cramped quarters when the previous thirty or so had returned from the airport.
As luck would have it our Nepalese contact and trek organiser made a phone call to a friend who had a plane return for us. Within moments we were bustled back to the airport, rushed through baggage and security and bundled onto a plane, not our original airline. Words cannot describe the elation as we sped off that treacherous runway into the air.
Elation soon gave way to a somber mood as we witnessed for ourselves the devastation. Landslides, whole villages flattened, orange tarps and yellow tents dotting the countryside. Once over Kathmandu airspace we grappled to comprehend what we were seeing. Factory stacks that a fortnight ago had been pumping smoke were now toppled, houses demolished, tent cities set up in open spaces, and some in not so open spaces.
Kathmandu airport while usually a sea of chaos was now inundated with lines extending outside the buildings for hundreds of metes. There were tents set up on the lawns. On route to the hotel we shuddered at the lack of traffic on the streets, people were out of buildings, waiting at bus stops, camped under makeshift shelters on the side of the road, on the golf course, in any small space away from buildings. Thamel, a popular tourist section was deserted. All shops were closed. Many hotels shut down. There was no power, no water, no telecommunication service. Our hotel, one of the few still operating, had its own bore and a generator so was limping by.
A cold shower after eight days was welcome as was the spare but warm meal. Anxiety was still high especially given we were roomed on the third floor. A midnight aftershock and another early morning tremor confirmed we were still not out of danger.
Our little group arrived at the airport four hours early for our scheduled flight to Bangkok where we discovered many people had missed flights the previous day. Their planes had circled for hours before needing to return to their original port for refuelling. Down to one run way the Nepalese air traffic controllers were juggling commercial flights out with military and aid flights in. Giant cargo planes and helicopters had limited parking space and often blocked departure points for passenger aircraft.
Each step in the process was a small victory. First we gained a boarding pass, then we moved through security, finally we were ushered into a boarding ‘lounge’. Each step we got closer to departing also came with uncertainty. Cramped in small spaces with thousands of people was foremost in our minds. Our boarding time came and went. It began raining and lightening was spotted in the sky. It was late. Tension was palpable. Some travellers handled the situation better than others. Many of us shared stories, supported each other where we could, informed those who were unsure with snippets of information we had. Would we be leaving?
Four hours after our flight time we boarded the plane. Another small step. Another roller coaster of emotions. After a brief delay on the tarmac our plane taxied and then took flight. There was cheering in the cabin. There were tears also. We bunch of strangers had bonded in uncertainty.
My small band of trekking buddies and I made our connecting flight and were soon homeward bound. Still shell-shocked we arrived at Brisbane International airport, not quite believing we were home and we were safe. Joy, relief and tears flowed as loved ones met us at the gate to ferry us home in their warm embraces.
My sister called to ask how I was this morning. It’s hard to describe. I’m tired, I’m empty, I’m sad and I’m so very grateful. It’s hard to be jovial when leaving behind such devastation. It’s hard to rejoice when clean safe drinking water pours from the tap when millions are without. I read this morning many people are trying to leave Kathmandu city to return to what they assume is the safety of their country villages. News travels slowly. Many people will not find their villages still standing.
I’m heartened by the huge aide machine in place but I cannot comprehend how they will reach all in need. Does anyone really understand the extent and wide-spread nature of the destruction and need of the Nepalese people outside the immediate Kathmandu Valley? At this stage I doubt they do.
My heart, my prayers and my thoughts are with the Nepalese people.