Trekking in Nepal. Chapter 1: Another Fork in the Road

Then one day, when you least expect it, the great adventure finds you.” – Ewan McGregor

A number of times throughout my life I have found myself facing an impromptu, intrepid decision. A decision that would potentially peel me away from my fixed plan, something that in the past, with an OCD induced routine and a tendency to fear spontaneity, I have found difficult. Yet sometimes it feels as though these decisive encounters find you, as if these opportunities were meant to happen. Perhaps it is chance, perhaps it is fortune, perhaps it is fate? When faced with such a decision, I experience a sense of familiarity, it feels almost like déjà vu. My mind ignites in a firework display of could-be dreams and fantasies. And one thought runs through my mind, “If I say no, I will regret it.

One notable decision fell into my lap in Sydney, Australia, 2013, when a dilapidated looking Canadian swanned into the hostel I was staying at. Having enjoyed a few bottles of Coopers Pale Ale, I jovially welcomed the newcomer and engaged in the typical traveller exchange. It just so happened that he had arrived by bicycle after completing a cycle tour down the east coast from Brisbane. He had a flight booked to return home to Canada and was keen to sell his bike, panniers and all the cycle touring paraphernalia to a like-minded traveller to have an adventure of their own. Having previously read Alastair Humphreys’ account of cycling around the world, I had frequently fantasised about a long distance cycle tour. He put the offer on the table and I, in my inebriated state, tentatively accepted the offer of 190 Australian dollars and a Coopers ‘long neck‘ ale. Due to the influence of alcohol, I made the prudent decision to sleep on it. The next morning, without hesitation, I accepted the offer, we shook hands, “If I say no, I will regret it.

No Turning Back

It was official, the deal was done. My dwindling travel funds were 190 Australian dollars worse off but the decision was undoubtedly the right decision. I embarked on an unforgettable adventure cycling from Adelaide to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road and later on to explore Tasmania. My cycle touring dreams became a reality, my eyes were opened up to a whole new means of travel. The elation and sense of adventure was almost overwhelming, I met and stayed with some incredibly altruistic and warm hearted people along the way and, to quote a conversation I had with my sister shortly after arriving in Melbourne, “I found a Luke Woods that I never knew existed.” This phrase now crops up in conversation time and time again over the years during the many occurrences when I yearn to rekindle that sense of absolute, venturesome contentment. Her response is always “That Luke Woods has always been there, he never left.

Cycling the Great Ocean Road, Australia

After enjoying an indulgent and festive Christmas in Kathmandu with great food, games and company, thanks to Eliza’s hard work and planning, my best friend, Biscuit, flew out to welcome the new year with his new found partner, Eliza. I was so excited to hear of their relationship, what more could I possibly hope for than two of my best friends planning a future together. We spent the evening in Nagarkot, with a hope to spot the summit of Mount Everest as the sun rose to herald the start of the new year. The views were incredible but unfortunately the almost inevitable Nepali morning haze obscured our hopes of spotting the top of the world.

A New Dawn. A New Day. A New Year

Biscuit had a limited time in Nepal so we planned to squeeze in a variety of activities. On January 2nd we took a bus to Pokhara, equipped ourselves with the required permits to trek in the Annapurna Conservation Area and, with very little forethought, almost aimlessly put our fingers to the wind and decided upon Poon Hill, a well renowned, short term and accessible high altitude trek.

In the morning we set off from Nayapul. We followed the Bhurungdi River upstream to the foot of a climb consisting of 3,700 near-vertical steps to Ulleri where we planned to spend the first evening of our tea house trekking experience. With our heavy packs, it was undoubtedly leg day. Fortunately, we arrived at the Prastuti Guest House before the heavens opened. After a meal enjoyed by the wood burner we retired to our rooms where I was joined by an unexpected guest, the dreaded huntsman spider. The hairy creature left me in peace during my slumber however, I did wake up once in the night and in the periphery of the glow of my head torch I spotted that he had moved closer to my bed on the adjacent wall. Pretending I didn’t see, I somehow managed to fall back to sleep. In the morning he had thankfully retreated back into the far corner of the room. Surviving the eight legged encounter and waking spider bite free, I pulled myself out of bed and packed my rucksack for the day ahead.

Tea House Trekking Lodge

At lunch time of the second day we reached Ghorepani, the small Himalayan village that accommodates the eager, early rising trekkers who stay with a hope for a clear sky and an unrestricted view of the Annapurna Massif at sunrise the following morning. Shortly after arriving and feasting on the views of the Dhaulagiri mountain range we were joined by a sweaty, steaming trekker, Michael from the United States, who had just taken off his shoes after the ascent from Tatopani to Ghorepani. Michael joined us for lunch and I tucked into a delicious daal bhat as we shared travel stories. Quickly after hearing that he had trekked the Annapurna Circuit and crossing Thorong La Pass, 5,416 metres, my ears instantly pricked up.

Biscuit, Eliza and the Dhaulagiri Massif

That afternoon Biscuit, Eliza and I went to hike to a nearby view point whilst Michael continued on up to Poon Hill for sunset. Unfortunately, neither of us were treated to a fantastic view due to the low cloud cover. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself that, maybe I could do some more trekking in Nepal before I continue on my cycle tour. It made complete sense, trekking in Nepal had been high up on my ‘Must Do!‘ list for an age, I had no official set plan and once Biscuit returned home and Eliza headed to New Zealand I would be a solo adventurer.

In the evening, whilst huddled around the log burner with a beer, perched between Michael and another fellow trekker, Rebecca from New Zealand, absolutely inspired by Michael’s trekking adventure, I voiced my thoughts on potentially returning to the mountains. They were both excited to hear of my potential impromptu change of plan, they were highly encouraging of my decision and were eager to hear of me following yet another dream. Michael was heading into the final few days of his trek and offered to donate some of his trekking gear if I was to commit. It was relatively simple, apart from overcoming my fears of changing my plan, all I needed to do was extend my Nepali visa (a second time) and hopefully find people to trek with. I was almost convinced that this is the path I would take, however, I am a terrible decision maker and was somewhat merry from the beer. “Provisionally it’s a yes, but I will sleep on it.” We planned to meet at 05:45 in the morning to hike to Poon Hill for sunrise. I lay in bed knowing that I had to say yes but I always like to sleep on a big decision. The Annapurna Circuit has, in the past, been voted as the best long distance trek in the world. and not to mention that I am emphatically in love with mountains, have never experienced altitude above 5,000 metres and I am always keen for a physical challenge.

The next morning was a morning of phenomenal natural beauty. We summited Poon Hill about 20 minutes before sunrise. With each passing minute the view became more and more spectacular. I find it hard to put into words how incredible the view was, so to quote my diary entry “Absolutely insane view, at this moment I can’t quite think of a more incredible, awe inspiring moment of my life. I need to trek the circuit!

Sunrise at Poon Hill
Sunrise at Poon Hill

I immediately broke the news to Michael who was delighted, he then generously donated his hat, yak wool mitts, gaiters and crampons. He also shared his detailed itinerary and I learned that he managed to conjure up a trekking team through a website for solo trekkers, trekkingpartners.com. He had basically given me all the tools I needed to do it, I was extremely grateful and felt that familiarity, that this was another opportunity that I simply had to take. We sadly said our goodbyes but were excited for each other, Michael was to finish his trek and then heading to Mynamar whilst I was soon to step foot into my own Nepali trekking adventure.

Michael, The Man Himself

Biscuit, Eliza and I headed back down the way we had come to catch a taxi back to Pokhara. They enjoyed the sunset from a rowing boat on Phewar Lake whilst I created a trekking partners account. There wasn’t much time to summon the dream team.

We woke the next morning to travel to Chitwan in a hope of spotting rhinos and perhaps an elusive Bengal tiger. Arriving shortly after lunch we wandered down to the East Rapti River to enjoy a beer and a bowl of complementary popcorn in the sun. We spotted gharials and marsh mugger crocodiles and then a man started shouting to us, initially assuming a local trying to offer us something he was ignored, then as he gestured towards the National Park, we followed his line of sight, a rhino was crossing the river. I was amazed and immediately asked the man, who was in fact a trekking guide, if I could borrow his binoculars. For a large hunk of a beast she was beautiful, I could have watched her all day but before we new it she had clambered off into the jungle.

Yeah, That Guy

The next day we followed our guided trek through the Jungle, sneaking through the thick jungle as quietly as possible. Though unfortunately my hiking boots were in need of a wax and would squeak at every footstep. At a distance we spotted two rhinos grazing in the thick scrub land but could only just make out the subtle twitching of their ears between the bushes. We also saw peacocks, makacks, spotted deer, a mountain crab, various types of bird and plenty of poop and prints but unfortunately no sighting of a wild Indian elephant or Bengal tiger. We returned to the town along the East Rapti River by a traditional dugout canoe.

The following day at 15:00 we returned to Kathmandu, I was eager to attempt to extend my Nepali visa a second time and made haste in the direction of the Department of Immigration. The visa extension process was so straight forward that, to my utter delight, by 15:30 I left with a spring in my step and a grin that would bridge the Kaligandaki River as if I had just found a golden ticket in a bar of Wonka chocolate “I’ve got a golden ticket!” I almost skipped back to our apartment, I was the proud holder of a second visa extension and had an additional 30 days to spend in this fantastic country of mountainous wonder.

It was official, I would trek the Annapurna Circuit. I was ecstatic and to top off my string of good fortune, a fellow solo trekker, Emma, had contacted me through Trekking Partners, she hadn’t finalised her decision of which trek to do as she had a limited time in the country but she was keen to join. We agreed to stay in touch. That evening I maniacally reorganised my kit, packed my rucksack in readiness for yet another bus journey through Nepal and my 4th arrival at Pokhara. It was a pleasure to spend one final evening with Biscuit and Eliza. There’s no better way to spend an evening than enjoying pizza and beer with two best friends. I was sad to say goodbye, but couldn’t contain my excitement for the adventures that lay ahead.

Team Rab. Biscuit, Eliza and I at Poon Hill

In the morning I endured the seven hour bus journey back to Pokhara, leaving my bicycle and cycle touring kit in Kathmandu with Eliza’s aunt. Michael had finished his trek and was leaving Pokhara the next day so we agreed to meet and spend the evening eating “the best Nepali thali in Pokhara” and toast to our future adventures. I cannot express how much I appreciated Michael’s persuasion, not that it took much, towards my decision to be spontaneous, change my plan and the entire dynamic of my travels. I was on a cycle tour but it never occurred to me that I didn’t have to cycle the entire time. I have loved every aspect of my bicycle adventure thus far and having spent almost five months cycling through central and southern Asia I was deeply connected to my bicycle, we had created fantastic memories. Victouria was now my only travel companion and my home but I felt liberated to be free from the cycle touring constraints.

I couldn’t help but ponder over the chance encounter with Michael, it was always meant to happen, as though our paths had been laid out before us and inevitably these paths would cross. But then again, perhaps our encounter was decided by a series of unrelated and unlikely, random events and decisions that lead to our consequential meeting. If we had stayed at a different lodge before summiting Poon Hill for sunrise, if Michael had arrived one hour later or if Biscuit didn’t fly out to Nepal then we wouldn’t have met, I wouldn’t have continued my cycle tour and would have missed out on an unforgettable journey through the Himalayas. The Nepali trekking adventure found me and I was wholeheartedly glad that it did, an extraordinary four weeks followed this decision and I have Michael to thank.

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