Gone hiking

On a hike, the days pass with the wind, the sun, the stars; movement is powered by a belly full of food and water, not a noxious tankful of fossil fuels. On a hike, you’re less a job title and more a human being….A periodic hike not only stretches the limbs but also reminds us: Wow, there’s a big old world out there.”
― Ken Ilgunas

I’m off on an adventure to the heart of my country. There’s a trail out there that winds along for 223 kilometres, broken into 12 sections. I’m not walking the whole trail, just a few sections of it. My beloved and I will walk for six days, carrying all we need in our packs. We will sleep with our backs to the red earth and be surrounded, night and day, by the spirit of this amazing country we live in and the spirit of the traditional owners of the land who have passed before us. I’m sure I will have some tales to share when I return.

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A bittersweet return from Nepal.

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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.

Returning to Nepal

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 “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy

I’m off to Nepal. I hadn’t planned on returning but an opportunity arose that I couldn’t pass up. It was either go to Cornwall to immerse myself in the landscape, weather and all, for a solitary four weeks of writing and coastal walks or accompany my beloved on a trek to base camp of Ama Dublam.

How does one choose you may ask? It was a difficult decision. My heart was set on Cornwall and the inner peace and time for contemplation it would bring. I felt a primal pull to return to a place I felt  I belonged. At the same time my husband was taking a month to go climb a mountain in Nepal. I’d been there before and wasn’t particularly keen on returning, until I discovered some trekkers were accompanying the climbers for a section of the trail. I didn’t trek when last in Nepal. After a year of convalescence I wanted to do something closely resembling adventurous and hiking is one thing Duncan and I love to do together. A true tug a war was waged in my heart.

I guess I’m a sucker for love. Love won out. Time with my man, doing what we love was the decider. So I’m returning to Nepal.

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I last visited Nepal four years ago. I stayed for three weeks and saw a nice smattering of places: Kathmandu, Boudhanath, Pashupatinath,  Pokhara, Lumbini and Chitwan National Park.  I visited temples, monasteries, markets and monuments.  I rode an elephant, paddled a canoe down crocodile infested waters, sat on the banks of a river watching the sun set and saw where the Buddha was born. I spoke with wise men, drowned in the  gorgeous chanting of monks and revelled in the silence of a peace garden, in the middle of Kathmandu.  I ate glorious food, drank tea and did a spot of shopping. I skated on slippery pigeon poop in the streets of Kathmandu, held on for dear life on a bus as we clung to the edge of a steep cliff, on my way to Pokhara, and was sobered when confronted with the burning bodies on the holy river at Pashupatinath.

It was hot and humid. The streets were crowded and teeming with people, distances between places were further than I’d realised. Simply catching a bus seemed difficult. I was asked for money often, swindled by taxi drivers, more than once, and looked at warily at times too. I experienced my first earthquake in Kathmandu, that rattled me. All alone and far from family I was concerned should another occur. Needless to say that was a sleepless night.

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I was overwhelmed by the place yet in awe of it also.  I was on edge when asked for money and heckled in the streets yet overwhelmed by the kindness I experienced. My nerves were tested by the constant noise, the squalor and the heat yet also calmed in quiet and peaceful sanctuaries. I was shocked by the presence of soldiers with guns on Kathmandu street corners yet amazed at the laid back nature of locals in Pokhara and Lumbini and Patan.

For me, Nepal is a place of contradictions. It is a place of many faces. It is a place you can blend in or stand out depending on where you are.  Nepal is a place I wouldn’t say I enjoyed but feel richer for having been. It’s isn’t a place I felt a strong pull to return to but I find myself about to depart for her again.

Last time the majestic Himalayas were hidden from view by thick white clouds. On my last day in Pokhara, standing in a dusty bus station, the clouds parted  and revealed a sight truly worthy of postcard status. A silence descended as we travellers all looked in awe.

What new adventures will unfold this time as I head out beyond the cities and into the real heart of the country? I wonder?

Hiking mighty Maroon

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 “My thoughts have climbed mountains and I’ve overcome boundaries set by the mind.”
― Jeremy Limn

I found myself at the base of another mountain last weekend, poised for the long hike up. This time I had company, my gorgeous husband and his mate. Now, company on a hike up a steep mountain might appeal to some. Hiking with one’s husband should indeed be a welcome opportunity to spend quality time together. Yes. Normally that would be true. However, you must take into account that my beloved is a super fit, deeply driven and totally focused mountain climber, in the true sense of the term. He climbs rocks all over the world and he has added Alpine climbing to his repertoire.  He’s driven. Did I say that already?  And he’s preparing to summit a Himalayan mountain in a few weeks time.

As you can imagine, my idea of a casual mountain stroll, taking in nature and enjoying the view, doesn’t necessarily match with his blinkered view of getting to the top in the shortest time possible.  Add to that my slow return to something slightly resembling fitness and I started to get myself in a tizz.

It all began a week ago when beloved husband asked if I’d like to hike Mt Maroon the following weekend. He mentioned his mate, probably slightly fitter than I but without recent hiking fitness under his belt, would join us. I agreed thinking it sounded like a nice morning out.  The day before the hike  I started to get scratchy about the whole thing. You see, I made the fateful error of doing some research.

Is forewarned better than ignorance? I’m not so sure. Accounts from other hikers suggested the hike was steep to vertical in sections. Some took six to eight hours to complete it. Many mentioned it was pretty hard on the knees. They all agreed the view from the top was stunning. I’m all for a view when I can get it but six hours? Seriously? I hadn’t planned on that one.  Okay, there’s nothing wrong with a six-hour hike, I’ve done longer but I was under the impression from my super lean, super fit hubby that it would take about three hours (he usually runs up in 45 minutes. See the pressure I was under!?).  I don’t do vertical elegantly and I certainly don’t love the jelly leg, arthritic joint pain that follows a steep descent. My head and heart were in conflict.  I couldn’t bail, as I too was in need of preparation for  a Himalayan trek. There was nothing for it but to suck it up and strap on my big girl hiking boots.

Sunrise on the way to the mountian.

Sunrise on the way to the mountain.

The drive from my home town of Brisbane, in southeast Queensland, took approximately and hour and a half. Leaving early ensured we had a nice cool start. The early stages of the walk are through open forest. It’s fairly gentle but certainly not flat. In fact, it isn’t long before the track becomes quite steep going. We rose very quickly leaving the surrounding farmlands behind us. The views were spectacular.

Everything was looking good for me, it was sweaty, heart pumping work but pleasant enough with a gentle cool breeze.  Until the gully (read gorge). Yep, there was a vertical section. While I was initially freaked out it turned out to be a fairly enjoyable, though strenuous scramble. We made use of tree roots and stone pockets to pull ourselves up. At one stage my husband told me to use my feet to bridge between the rocks??? Must be a climbing term. Anyway, it was a handy tip, once my brain wrapped itself a round the meaning.  I can’t say how long this section lasted, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes.  Once through the gully we could see the prize. The top of the mountain.

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A pleasant stroll through forest and a scrambly traverse up some rock slabs had us at the top in no time, where the biggest cairn I’ve seen, since hiking Ben Nevis, marked our arrival. As luck would have it, we arrived soon after  two parties departed and so, we had the summit to ourselves.  I can’t describe the view. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. We had an unimpeded 360 degree view of the national park, surrounding farms and the lake. There wasn’t a sound to be heard, man-made or otherwise. No cars, no planes, no people. It was superb.

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I was pretty excited to have completed the hike. I came away relatively unscathed, only one small scratch and a nasty egg on my shin from a rock, hidden amongst foliage, that I wacked good and proper on my descent.  We moved pretty consistently, with minimal rests (there was considerable huffing and puffing),  so the hike took us an hour and forty minutes up and an hour and twenty return. Not too bad after all my fussing. The track isn’t well-defined. In places it’s hard to know if you are on a track at all. I’m glad I was with someone who was familiar with the area.

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Mt Maroon forms part of the McPherson Range in the Mount Barney National Park. It is a 967 m peak surrounded by other mountains; Barney, Earnest, Clunie, May, Ballow and Mt Lindesay. It was named Maroon after the first grazing property in the area but it’s true, and original, name is Wahlmoorum which means sand goanna in the Yuggera language.

The national park has extremely varied vegetation with open forests around the foothills of the peaks, subtropical rainforest above 600 m and heath shrublands towards the summits. There are endangered and near threatened plant species in the National park. This knowledge really does make you want to walk gently on the earth and adds to the awe of the place.

As for the rock itself, Mount Maroon consists mainly of rhyolite. Rhyolite can be used to invigorate your emotional state and provide energy, relieve depression and lethargy. I’m not sure I felt the energy on the way up but I certainly felt the love once we reached the car park at the end of the hike. I was definitely rejuvenated.

What mountain have you found yourself scaling lately?

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