Way back in January of this year I began looking at my options for an overseas trip in November. It was always going to be about photography. I had a fairly decent mid-range SLR when I saw the Pentax K1 Mark II body had hit the stores internationally. As soon as I saw it was available in Australia, I pre-ordered (I even got it about $1,000 cheaper than the list price through a reputable supplier!). Soon after, I replaced my Tamron 10-24mm wide angle (made for APS-C sensors) with a Pentax 15-30mm wide angle (for full frame). I also packed the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art lens and a cheap, but reliable Sigma 70-300mm lens. All up, the weight was around 5-6kg not including the tripod. On the trek I would carry two lenses only in my old camera case that I strapped onto my pack, with the other packed in with the porters.
Although this is a photography site, I feel compelled to add some travel insights as this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
Our guides were outstanding! Our lead guide, Lhakpa, is experienced and most amenable. The secondary guides, Lakpa and Pemba were equally as knowledgable and offered their own insights along our journey. The porters were incredible in their tenacity. While I didn’t really get to know them, their strength and will was obvious, all while smiling and laughing.
Day Zero – Introductions
I’d booked the Khopra Danda Trek through KimKim.com. They are a global company that use local companies around the world. The local trekking company they use is Nepal Myths and Mountain Trails. We really did get lucky – NMMT are highly professional and incredibly friendly.
Our briefing for the trek was held at a hotel that two of the group were staying at. Even though we were all from different locales (3 Australian, 3 American), we hit it off quite well. There was Rich (who I was to share rooms with throughout the trek), Gary and Vicktoria (a couple who had had bad luck the last time they attempted this trek, getting snowed in at Ghorepani), Geoff and Evan (uncle and nephew) and me.
Once all the introductions and briefings were done, I walked back to Thamel with Gary and Vicktoria for a meal at a recent favourite restaurant of theirs. Gary contracted some kind of stomach bug from his meal, which impacted his strength and bowels for a few days to come.
Day One – The Beginning
Nayapul – Hile (pron. Hilly)
Distance: 9.5km — Climb: 540m
We had an early start at 5:30am. I arrived at the meeting point closer to 5am, where Lhakpa was already waiting. We were chatting away when a couple of transvestites crossed the street to introduce themselves. One of them wanted to give me a hug and more – which was all a ruse to get into my… camera bag. I noticed later that one of the zips was undone – I think they were expecting to find money. One of them was quite insistent and had to be pushed away firmly.
Lhakpa asked afterwards if I knew what they were – I did (the deep voices across the street gave them away!), but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully, no harm was done, and it provided a good ice-breaker on the way to our flight!
The flight was great. It was a small plane, but Lhakpa had secured us all window seats with the mountain views! This was a sign of the company’s influence with the local operators.
As soon as we landed and collected our luggage, we were straight onto a bus to our starting point at Nayapul. The main road to Nayapul, and through to Tatopani and Mustang, is being upgraded and widened by hand, which made our ride rough and slow.
From Nayapul, the trek began in earnest. Over 4 hours, with nearly 1.5 of those stopped for lunch, we walked a rough dirt road that serviced the local villages through beautiful rural settings.
Day Two – Stairs, Stairs and More Stairs
Hile – Ghorepani
Distance: 14km — Climb: 1500m
Leaving the road behind, we started the day with the news that there were 3,400 steps to our lunch stop. The local stone is shale/slate and splits nicely into small, even slabs. Not only were the stairs constructed from this material, all the buildings were made of the stuff.
Being the “road” to Ghorepani and, by extension, Poon Hill, we were never alone in our group for very long. Our guide, Lhakpa, set a steady, slow pace which I discovered we could keep up all day long. We played leapfrog with a bunch of other groups, who took off up the stairs only to stop for regular rest breaks.
After our lunch break, we climbed through rhododendron forests, which are native to Nepal.
Gary was still struggling with his illness, although he pulled his strength from somewhere and kept up the steady pace, never lagging far behind.
At the end of the day, we reached Ghorepani and were treated to a stunning sunset, painting the mountains burnt orange.
Day Three – Part One, Dawn
Distance: 3km — Climb: 300m
Poon Hill is on a must-do list of Nepal, evidenced by the hundreds of people we saw the previous day and the crowds that slowly gathered before dawn at the summit. It is famous for one thing: a most spectacular sunrise over both the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Ranges.
Judging by some of the comments we had heard, not every day is a good day. We had been extremely lucky with the weather. In fact, the forecast for the whole trip was for sunshine and warm temperatures. Obviously, the higher the altitude, the cooler the temperature, but that didn’t deter us at all!
With a 4am wake up call, we rolled out of our warm beds and put on every piece of thermal clothing we had. I didn’t feel that amazing – maybe it was the 3,000m altitude, or some dodgy food I had. Gary didn’t rise for the walk, as he’d already been up a couple of times when they were snowed in previously.
About 10 minutes in, someone ahead of us let their stomach go on the stairs.
As I was setting up my beast of a camera and lens on the tripod ready for a time-lapse video, I realised I’d left my glasses back in the room! There was no way I was going back down, so I had to hope that Geoff’s prescription was close enough to mine to get me set up. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough that I could see the best focus on the digital zoom.
The result (which I couldn’t see until my return home!) was incredible. I’d set the lens zoom all the way out to 15mm and opened up the aperture fully to 2.8. ISO was set to 800 and I left the shutter speed to auto to deal with the light, giving a range from 8s to 1/2500s over the course of the sunrise. The time interval between shots was 10 seconds.
There were clouds that clung to the rear of the peaks, leaving the peaks in full view while catching the full glory of the rising sun.
The beauty of taking shots at intervals is that every image is full resolution, unlike shooting a time-lapse video. I was able to lift any single frame to manipulate as a final image outside of the video.
Ultimately, I cropped the images to an effective 25mm, focussing solely on the Annapurnas. Although the later images I processed were at the 15mm crop.
Another benefit of shooting in Intervals, aside from making sure the frame is free of people’s arms, is that I could sit back and enjoy the show, instead of burying my head in the viewfinder constantly. I just had to hope that the focus was right!
With the sun finally up, I clicked off some shots of the Dhaulagiri Range and the spectators, which is a keen interest of mine.
With the sun finally up, and all the selfies taken we, along with everyone else, made our way back down the hill for our waiting breakfast.
Day Three – Part Two, Hike
Ghorepani – Swanta
Distance: 6.5km — Climb: 160m – 700m down
Over breakfast we had to make some decisions, given that not only Gary, but Geoff didn’t feel great, and neither did I. Gary and I took a tablet to combat diarrhoea – mine was only precautionary, but it did make me feel better. We decided to stop at our lunch spot, at Swanta, for the evening, rather than pushing on to Chistibang.
The first part of the hike was along the Annapurna Circuit, which runs from Kathmandu, around the back of the Annapurna Range, then back down towards Pokhara. Typically this trek takes three weeks and has now been added to my ever-growing list.
Our stop at the tea-house marked our exit from the paved trails. Gary was able to get some antibiotics from the local pharmacy for less than $10 and I bought a couple of apples (which I’d been sorely missing from my diet).
Now that we were off the tourist trail, we experienced true rural Nepal. We climbed over fences, walked on some sketchy tracks and through abandoned farms.
We reached Swanta around lunch-time. I need to talk about the menus on the tourist trails. The office of Tourism set some rules regarding the food served at the tea/guesthouses an effort to standardise menus. You will find the same menu, with the same pricing at almost every food-stop. However, even though the menu is the same, the food definitely is not. Every day, as we trekked further into Nepal, the food got better. What was considered a good meal yesterday was outclassed today.
Choices were curry, Dahl Bat (lentils and rice) or fried rice, each with veg, egg, chicken or buffalo options. It was good to rotate these as much as possible for variety, although when we looked at our fellow traveller’s meal we recognised the increase in quality over our last choice. Also, don’t touch the meat – refrigeration isn’t really an option in the country. And, except on one occasion, the kitchens are behind closed doors.
Swanta is a lovely village. It was everything that we were looking for in Nepal. The whole area is made up of small farms, with the locals working the land in the traditional manner. One of the terraces was being ploughed by buffalo and rice and millet were being harvested by hand for drying.
The sad fact of rural living was evident here: there were very few young people. Families were split so that the children could attend schools 5 hours’ walk from their homes. Opportunities are better in the cities, so many farms had been abandoned.
Day Four – Rest Day
Swanta – Chistibang
Distance: 9km — Climb: 880m
Good news on the illness front. Geoff woke up feeling much better and Gary was managing solid food. It seemed that we were all acclimatising and improving. That said, a decision was made not to go all the way to Khopra Danda in a single day – a full 1,200m of climbing. Lhakpa called ahead to book us in to Chistibang and cancel the night at Khopra Lodge. In hindsight, this was a good decision, as the lodge was overcrowded, with people sleeping in the dining area and in tents outside!
We departed Swanta at a leisurely 8am, with a nice gradual climb until we arrived at a confluence of a waterfall and a cascade with a new, small-scale power station installed. The power station supplies power to Khopra Lodge, which previously had no power at all.
After some photos, we began our slow ascent to Chistibang. By this stage we all had our minds on Kaire Lake and the days ahead.
Chistibang was quite basic, but the food was exceptional. After lunch, Lakpa took us to a local shepherd, where he kept sheep and goats. We did need to be careful, as there was a guard dog protecting the flock. Dogs are used to protect against wildlife such as tigers and leopards – something I hadn’t considered at all!
In the afternoon, we discussed the day ahead. By now we were all feeling refreshed, considering the half-day’s walk and the early finish the previous day. We decided that we would leave early, then push on to Kaire Lake. This was our goal, and even though none of us would be upset if we couldn’t make it, we would surely try our best to get there. Rich wasn’t sure he was up to the whole day, so he would take his time hiking up to the ridge with Pemba.
The owner of the lodge lives alone for most of the year. In fact, it was only because of the upcoming festival that his family was there helping out.
Day Five – Our goal
Chistibang – Kaire Lake – Khopra Danda
Distance: 24.5km — Climb: 1,850m
As we had planned, we were out the door and on the way by 6am with a full complement of thermals and torches.
We reached Khopra Lodge before 8am, where we had a quick cup of lemon, ginger and honey tea, before taking off again. We were unsure if Gary would make it all the way, so we split into two groups: Geoff, Evan and Me up front; Gary and Vicktoria would go at their own pace.
It was a long, steady and tiring day of constant climbing. By 11am we’d reached the last tea house – at 4,281m. As we were served our noodles for lunch, Gary, Vicktoria and Pemba appeared on the moraine. We were all together again, ready for the final push.
It was after lunch that the climbing began in earnest – 3km and another 400m of stairs. None of us were really affected by the altitude, thankfully. We steadily marched on and up. Lhakpa had pushed on ahead, giving him a quiet moment at the lake before we arrived.
Kaire Lake is a place of religious significance for both Hindu and Buddhists. It is said that bathing in the lake will raise you to the 13th level before reaching nirvana. I can tell you that the journey alone is enough to force some introspection. The water itself is generally frozen over, but this day there was only a small amount of ice.
Day Six – The Descent
Khopra Danda – Tatopani
Distance: 16km — Descent: 2,400m
Surprisingly, we all woke up refreshed after our long sleep. The decision was made to skip our next stop and go straight through to Tatopani. There was a hot spring there and it meant an early start on the bus so we could spend extra time in Pokhara (for those who weren’t staying on).
The long descent was a test on our resolve and our knees. The porters, as usual, took it all in their stride!