Trek or Treat

The bad news came at noon. While the cooks set out lunch, we were lying in the sun, watching eagles soar the ridgetops. We had been walking for hours along a level valley floor. Our confidence as trekkers had blossomed.

Then someone asked the direction of our evening camp. Our Nepalese leader pointed to a barely discernible goat track rising sheer from the valley to a cluster of houses clinging precariously to the hilltop more than a thousand metres above us.

Everyone whimpered. Suddenly, we weren't complacent anymore.

That afternoon was a battle. Only two weeks earlier we had been enjoying pre-Christmas festivities in Australia - poor training for struggling up mountain sides in Nepal.

We had light day packs and leaden feet. The porters were each carrying up to 30 kilograms suspended from straps around their foreheads. They passed us as if it was an easy day's stroll. Perhaps for them it was.

We arrived at our mountain top campsite with a sense of achievement. The vista more than made up for all the effort.

We were camped by a small lake. From our tents we looked down into the evening mist rising from the valley, then up and up to the towering spire of Machapuchare (7000 metres) glowing in the setting sun.

Over the years, thousands of western trekkers must have camped here and gazed upon the same view. Part of the magic of the Himalayas is that trekking requires individual effort - and rewards it with a sense of personal fulfilment.

There were 15 in my group and our ages ranged from mid-teens to late fifties. We had all done some training in Australia but throughout the three week holiday we could feel ourselves becoming fitter through exercise and outdoor life.

Despite large numbers of Australians heading to Nepal over the next few months, there seems to be a general perception that Himalayan trekking is no longer fashionable. The sixties and seventies was the time for hippies in Kathmandu's "Freak Street". The eighties was for trekking.

What about the nineties? It's unlikely that Nepal will fade away as a travel destination. However it has had to deal with some substantial issues, from forest cleared for cooking fires to a countryside festooned with trekker's toilet paper.

These days, every responsible trekking company makes sure that all its cooking is done on kerosene stoves. Indeed, Peregrine has even bought stoves for the teahouses where its clients stay.

While it is easy to trek independently and stay at teahouses, that may be less ideologically sound. Trees probably will be cut down to keep you warm and to cook your meals.

The people of Nepal and India don't use toilet paper. Trekking companies have a policy that you should burn it after use. (A friend reports doing this outside a village only to have a villager look over the hedge and remark "that must have been a terribly hot curry".) The use of lime in properly dug toilets has reduced the effluent problem that used to prevail in the spring thaw.

For the next two years Nepal will have a hung parliament with a communist leaning. However, there is no fundamentalist movement and westerners in the Communist party independents.

Ecotourism is definitely a growth area. But in an age when every resort and theme park claims an ecotourism component, true adventure holidays can be lost in the clamour.

Conversely, a rising awareness of the benefits of physical fitness is tempting more people to consider making their annual holiday one which requires considerable physical involvement.

Of course, there is much more to the Himalayas than exercise. Otherwise you could save the airfare and just spend three weeks on the step machine at your local gym.

Nepal remains the heartland of Himalayan trekking. Kashmir continues to have too much political unrest and Darjeerling is too full of Indian tourists. The other parts of the Indian Himalayas don't yet have mainstream status as trekking areas. And there's restricted access to small Himalayan principalities like Bhutan and Sikkim.

Nepal has changed a lot over the decades. When I first went there in the mid seventies, trekking was a minority interest. The majority of visitors stayed around Kathmandu seeking enlightenment and cheap dope.

I returned in 1984 and found a completely different culture. The bong shops were now selling secondhand mountaineering equipment. In the coffee shops, the sounds of Crosby Stills Nash and Young could hardly be heard over the rustling of trekking maps.

Since then, Nepal has changed again. The Nepalese people now relate to us much better and, with great natural hospitality, welcome us into their land, their villages, their homes.

Several years ago, Sir Edmund Hillary told me that when he went to Nepal to climb Mt Everest in 1953, he had to walk in from India - there was no road to Kathmandu.

He related how, days later it was with some surprise that he cleared the last pass and looked down into the Kathmandu Valley and saw English cars driving on real roads. The cars had stripped down and carried into the valley on poles.

That's ancient history. Kathmandu is no longer a remote Shangri-la. Toyotas fill the streets and Nepalese teahouses now have solar-heated showers.

However, Nepal's terrain continues to defeat roadbuilders. Most of the country is only accessible on foot. Walking here is not a recreation - it's the only way to get around. This gives trekking a special validity: you visit communities and see sights that no-one will ever drive to.

The main hazards for trekkers are the ubiquitous donkey trains. Their arrival is heralded first by the notes of melodic bells they wear, then the first glimpse of the coloured plumes on their foreheads.

Goronwy Price recently returned from a trek in the Everest region. As the founder of Australian Himalayan Expeditions (now World Expeditions) he did more than anyone else to popularise Nepal among Australians in the 1980s.

However, he's no longer in the travel industry and hasn't been trekking for several years. I asked him how this Everest trek compared with his last one 15 years ago.

"It was really the same experience now as then," he related. "The scenery, the joy of walking all day then enjoying village company in the evening was just as intense as on my first trek. It was great to rediscover Nepal."

Nepal is split into two areas for trekkers. One is the Annapurna region towards the west, and north of the town of Pokhara. And, of course, there's the Everest region in the east, bordering Tibet.

Annapurna has traditionally been the most popular, largely because you can take a bus to the start of the trail.

In the past, unless you had weeks to spare, the Everest region was only accessible by way of the mountain airstrip of Lukla. That was not only more expensive but, when the weather turned bad, you could be stuck at Lukla for days waiting for a flight out.

There are now helicopter operations and several air services into Lukla. You no longer find crowds camped around the airstrip, eagerly listening for a plane. A delay of more than a day or two to get in or out is rare.

So potential delays are no longer a factor in choosing a trek.

Mt Everest has the appeal of being the world's highest peak. The treks here are generally harder and higher than those around Annapurna. Annapurna is a thousand metres lower than Everest. Even so, the solid bulk of the massif is an impressive sight.

The two major Australian trekking companies have long been Peregrine Adventures and World Expeditions. They take quite different approaches to Nepal treks.

Peregrine has introduced teahouse treks that don't involve any camping. Richard Mole from Peregrine states "Nepal has developed in recent years. We thought it was silly for a group to spend the evening in a teahouse then go outside to sleep in a tent."

"The teahouse trips are seem as a softer option and are incredibly popular. They are not only cheaper, they open up Nepal to people who don't enjoy camping."

On the other hand, Garry Weare from World Expeditions regards some of the traditional trails as over-trekked. "So we try to get people off the beaten track (and away from tea house trekkers) and into areas like Dolpo and Kanchenjunga. It is still possible to trek for several weeks in Nepal and not see another group of westerners."

"We are also finding that some people don't want to trek with strangers. So we offer private treks for four or more people at the same price as a scheduled trek. This more personalised approach is proving to be very popular."

"Since 1985, the great majority of our treks are led by Nepalese. The only exception is when one of Australia's leading Himalayan enthusiasts like Tim Macartney-Snape, Peter Hillary or Greg Mortimer takes a group to one of their favourite areas for us."

Most visitors to Nepal find the grandeur of the mountains is eclipsed by the people who live among them. My fondest trail memories are of bartering for turquoise with Tibetan traders, and learning folk songs around the campfire.

On the last day of our circuitous trek, we passed the ridge that so daunted us on the first day. It felt as if we had had a lifetime of experiences and sights since then. The "horror climb" looked flatter, too.

So it was with some amusement that we observed a group of rookie trekkers, all with clean boots and pressed shorts, looking up in trepidation. One middle aged women in our group spoke for all of us when she called "It's an easy walk - you'll love it."

If you go

The northern winter is the time to trek: the air is clear, the mountains are visible, yet the days are comfortably warm.

For more information about trekking in Nepal, contact:

Peregrine Expeditions, 258 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Tel (03) 663 8611.

Peregrine's Everest Adventure departs every Saturday from Melbourne. This is a teahouse trek from Lukla up to Thyanboche Monastery and includes four days in Kathmandu. The 15 days costs from $2700.

World Expeditions, 1st Floor, 393 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, Tel (03) 670 8400.

In March, WE has an "Over 50s Trek and Wildlife Safari" that includes a walk around the Annapurna region and a visit to Chitwan National Park. The 20 days costs from $3335 ex Melbourne.

How fit should you be?

Your pack is carried by others so trekking is not the sole domain of super athletes. There are various grades of difficulty. In fact, if you aren't overweight, you won't find trekking difficult as long as you do some pre-trip walking. In my experience, everyone find the first few days hard work then it gets progressively easy.

Visas

Australians need visas for Nepal. The Royal Nepalese Consulate at Suite 23, 18-20 Bank Place, Melbourne, Tel (03) 602 1271 issues one month visas for $50.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd