The India and Nepal Diaries Part 6
Contains some strong language
The names of other people appearing in this diary have been altered
To a degree this is a story about not very much. Mainly about being young and slightly stupid in places and cultures we didn’t know or understand. Everything told here did take place and it is more or less an exact transcript of my actual diary. And so, on that note, I do not advise anyone to do anything we did. However, we learnt a lot from it and, I think, came back from our exploration as wiser people. I hope you may also.
Straight away we ran into difficulty. The track was not a continuous gentle slope downwards. In fact nothing was in Nepal so I don’t know why we expected it to be. Instead it rose up steeply and we had to climb. Then almost immediately the path split – this time no sign post.
Studying the map, up and over the crest in front of us looked the best option. The other path dropped down the wrong side of the mountain and we didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of a ridge again.
We went up, got to the top and promptly found out that the path vanished into nothingness. Hoping to re-find it we circled up and round, climbing higher, then realised this was a stupid thing to do in the dark. We could hardly see let alone find a path. We kept on circling, now trying to descend to where we had started, slipping and sliding down the steep hillside as we did so. Finally, after minutes of searching, we came across the other path and started anew, descending round the peaks. It seemed fairly well-trodden to begin with but at times it would get lost amongst rock falls or would start braiding into many smaller paths. On we went assuming it all lead to the right place. In the distance we could see two electrical storms flashing away above distant mountains, too far away to hear the thunder.
The path slowly and haphazardly dropped down the mountain side. The night got later. And later. And later. One phone was close to running out of charge so Leon switched to the other one, the LED piercing through the enveloping dark. We seemed to be going the right direction. We passed several more viewpoints, each one pre-empted by increasing amounts of rubbish.
The route seemed to lead to the most horrendously overgrown, steep and slippery section of descending ridge there was. At the bottom of this it didn’t get any better. We now appeared to be walking through a crop field, the path quite literally someone else’s vague wanderings which had flattened the crop. We probably should have thought more on this, but the paths had been doing this to us since the beginning of the walk, and in all honesty what other choice did we have? We had barely been able to get down the previous section safely, getting back up would be an impossibility. We genuinely thought that this was the right path and so we were just hoping that it would connect up with a bigger path in due course. The darkness and long grass had taken its toll and by this point, even with waterproof walking boots, our feet were sodden.
Then suddenly the path was almost nothing. It seemed to be more of an animal track. In fact it was an animal track for we suddenly emerged into a field full of sheep and our path disappeared entirely. Still thinking this must be the correct direction and that the path must resume on the other side we walked through disturbing all the sheep in the process. Their faces formed a bank of glowing pin pricks as their eyes reflected our torch light.
There was a shed and hoping to possibly find people and a place to shelter if this was the wrong path, we walked round the side only to disturb a load more sheep and their guardian dogs. They barked their heads off as we hurried away thinking that any moment we could be bitten on the bum.
On the other side of the field we found sheep tracks. Not knowing what to do but thinking that we had travelled across so far horizontally that we must now be in the right valley we followed them. We had travelled across the mountain side before dropping down so as to end up in the right valley to take us to where we wanted to go. If we managed to get into the wrong valley we could end up travelling 90 degrees to our intended direction of travel and being carried away into rural land. Our hope was to descend and meet up with the proper path by the river in the valley bottom.
As we dropped it became more apparent that something was wrong. We had already checked the GPS several times but it wasn’t fantastically easy to discern the contours and valleys and then to match these up on the map. Particularly in the dark in our tired and exhausted state.
We had been walking down into a sludgy boggy area, dominated by woodland and undergrowth. To our left was a ridge, the bottom of which was a mass of fallen boulders. We checked the GPS again and in horror realised we had somehow ended up on the wrong side of that very ridge. We had dropped too early into the wrong valley. It was now about 2.30 in the morning. The only thing we could do was to walk back the way we had come and try to find a way over.
We took about ten steps back up the hill and with that Leon’s second phone died. There was now one slowly dimming head torch between us and an iPhone we needed to GPS and emergencies should we come to it.
It was about 3 hours until sunrise. Getting anywhere with one light was ridiculous. We were exhausted. We decided to find a rock to sit on (to try and avoid leaches) and wait for daybreak. After a little walk and what felt like a long search found a moss-covered boulder. Leon sat down on one side and I curled up to sleep on top of my rucksack on the other.
Part 1 - The Decent
My feet were cold and wet. I got up feeling the same chill throughout my body. Leon was next to me, bent forward head resting on his knees. It was still dark. I checked my watch and found it was 4 am. There was still an hour until it got light.
Leon got up as well. We both stood their looking ghostly, then started to move about trying to return some heat to our limbs and body. After half an hour of not saying much and staring blankly into thin air we decided to start walking. With the last of the power that seemed to have returned to one of the phones we set off up the hill.
The sun rose quickly and by the time we had reached the top there was a decent blue sky above us.
We assessed the ridge, now to our right. It still looked unclimbable, though according to the GPS there was a notch somewhere close by that looked like an easier place to get over. We predicted where it was and started to scramble up through the undergrowth. At the top there was no path. We knew the river at the bottom of the valley went straight down to Syange and that the path we were meant to be on was just up on the other side of it. It seemed like a logical thing to go down and follow the river along. We set off. There was no route to follow so we made our own. The ground was covered in leaf litter and so was slippery but soft under our feet. Young trees made good hand holds as we continuously descended.
We came to a water course that steeply inclined down the hill and debated what to do next. Should we cross it and continue zig zagging our way down the or should we follow the water as the fastest, most direct way to the river. Suddenly we heard a shout. To begin with I thought it was a bird. But it couldn’t be? It was somewhere between a scream, a shocked exclamation and a holler. We looked around and then saw on the opposite bank and slightly higher than we were, a face staring down at us. Exhilarated by our first human contact in what felt like days we rushed over, breaking through rows of old brittle bamboo stems which lined the stream.
The woman stood watching. She was short and stocky, dressed in bright Nepalese clothes and a pair of large black wellies. Her face was round and smiley and she laughed a genuine, good humoured laugh as we approached.
I spoke at her in English and she spoke at me in Nepali, both laughing at the fact neither of us could understand a word the other was saying. After a minute we came to an understanding where by using our arms and gesturing and repeating certain words over and over a gain we were able to roughly get our meaning across.
Initially I thought she was asking us if we had fallen down the bank, then she put her hands to her head to make horns and I slowly established she was asking if we had seen her water buffalo up the hill. We hadn’t.
There was definitely something slightly crazy about her. Her hollering calling shouts pierced your ears and yet seemed to very much fit in with the sounds of the woodland around.
We told her we were going down to the river to go to Syange. She looked surprised and gestured chopping her arm off, then pointed back up the hill and round. Slowly gathering there must be a path up there I asked “How long?” and pointed at my wrist. She drew her hands apart indicating a good distance and then held up 10 fingers. “Ten hours” we both yelled a sense of exhausted shock cutting through us. This couldn’t be right.
She gestured for us to follow her. She was going to take us there. Unsure of what to do we discussed quickly. We had literally just come down that slope and 10 hours seemed far too long. Could we face going back up it and abandoning our original plans? It was currently only about 9 am and we hoped to make Syange by mid-day if we could. On the other hand, she obviously knew there was a path and was offering to take us on it.
In the end our fatigue got the better of us. It was decided that battling our way down the hill was going to be easier than trudging back up it. We gestured our continuation down. She looked at us and again motioned the chopping off of one of her arms. I had no idea what this meant, so shook my head in confusion. We smiled a thanks and departed, continuing our journey.
We tried going down the water course, clambering from boulder to boulder. Getting our feet wet wasn’t a problem. Our boots were still soaked. The process was slow and after about 30 minutes we stopped, got back onto the bank and tried that again instead.
The woodland was interesting: a weird mix of high canopy trees with very little understory and a thick base of leaf litter, areas of thick brambly undergrowth and shrub and then large swathes of sprouting bamboo. They each seemed to occur in intermittent sections changing from one to another rather swiftly.
Our energy was flagging. We had not eaten since the previous night. However, under the current circumstances neither of us felt massively hungry… but we did know we needed to eat.
Bizarrely the inclined slope suddenly plateaued out. Exhausted we collapsed once again onto our rucksacks.
Leon was in pain. His feat which had been wet far longer than mine were developing blisters, his ankles had been attacked by leaches getting into his boots and socks and generally the rubbing of his boots were causing him a lot of angst. He took his shoes off. We sat.
Somewhere there was a packet of biscuits left which we split while trying to work out how far we still had to go. I went on a scout and it turned out the flat area was actually quite large. At points it even opened out into patches of grass where there were a few water buffalo and a single open sided shed. But eventually there was an end and it dropped off again, steeply.
I came back to find Leon. We checked the GPS; it appeared we were about half way down to the river. Collecting ourselves we walked on.
To begin with everything seemed alright, but progressively over the next hour, the gradient by the stream we were following became steeper and steeper until finally it was more a case of slipping and sliding our way down than it was walking. We started using long bamboo shoots like ropes that we could cling to as we went.
The other side of the bank looked easier to navigate so we crossed then both consecutively put our feet on loose earth and slid down. Cursing, we wondered; this steep decent could not be right? A thought suddenly struck me and oh what an idiot I felt. I had not bothered to check the contour lines on the map to see what they behaved like around the river. I looked and sure enough they did what I feared. They dipped horribly down around the water. It was a gorge. We were going down towards a fucking gorge. I felt like crying. The frustration and anger mixed up in my weird sleep deprived state just made me want to give up. We had walked all this way to get to a bloody gorge. I suddenly understood what the woman had been saying. The ‘chopping her arm off motion’ had been her telling us we were walking towards a drop. We could not get down.
This whole fear, worry, stress caldron we were trapped in had been rotating like the water cycle during our trek. There would be a worry, then it would evaporate, then condense, soak us, then finally melt away only to rise back up from the ground like a flood. This was the flood.
I have never been a person who has got home sick, or missed the comforts of my own house and family, but right then, in that moment, the only place I wanted to be was at home, sat down with my family and loved ones in front of a film. Warm. Dry. Happy.
I hated what we had done. How could we have been so stupid as to assume that the river would be small and easy to cross or follow like most of the ones back home? We were in the Himalayas. Everything was ten times what we thought it would be. We should have known. We should have realised. We should have followed the lady. When the Nepalese say something about the land, they usually know best. After all they do live there.
We were now in a position that was potentially dangerous. It was about 1 o’clock, we were tired and without any proper food in an incredibly inaccessible part of the world with a single phone on just under 30% battery.
I’ve watched many of the rescue programs on TV. Watched people being hauled into helicopters, or life boats or onto stretchers. But never in my life had I thought that one of those people might just be me. Might be us… Now it was beginning to look like that might just be the case. If things got too bad we were going to have to call an emergency number.
We did not know whether it was going to be possible for us to get back up the slope. We weren’t sure what to do. It wasn’t easy to work out the scale of the gorge on the map. The GPS didn’t show us any idea of size either and this far down into the woods it was not able to pick a location to tell us where we were. It was just possible that the gorge was close by. Maybe even crossable – a thought that we clung to. Somewhere there was rushing water, or at least we thought we could hear it. At the very least, if we were going to need to be rescued, being on the gorge side would make us much easier to find. In the hope that we were close to the bottom and that maybe, just maybe, we could cross, we decided to push on once more.
We wrapped up everything valuable in waterproof bags and made our plan. If, while walking, one of us was to slip and break something, we would call an emergency number. If we got to the bottom and could not cross or get back up, we would call an emergency number. If we were not out of danger by 4 o’clock, we would call an emergency number.
And with that we set off down the hill.
We crossed back over the stream, Leon leading the way, both of us now not caring how wet or muddy we got. We slid down banks, fell between tree roots and splashed into muddy patches of undergrowth.
The other side of the valley (the side with the path we were supposed to be on) was visible through the trees. Judging from its proximity we reckoned we were getting close but must still be 100 – 200 meters up. Was this last stretch going to be passable?
No, turned out to be the answer. The tributary we were following disappeared over a drop and around a corner and the banks either side were just too steep and the soil too soft for it to be passable, let alone safe.
“Right I’m calling quits on this” Leon said turning to me. “Let’s go back up”.
“I agree” I replied.
We had come to terms with what we were going to have to do. So much for making it to Syange for 1 o’clock.
Assessing our options, we decided the best bet was to go steeply up onto the ridge then follow that all the way back to the top. Hopefully at some point our GPS signal would come back and we would be able to work out where we were.
We started to walk then Leon turned to me and said “Hey Silas, what ever happens this was both our fault, neither one of us is to blame, we’re both responsible.
“Yeah” was my reply, and then “Leon. Let’s get out of this safely alright.” We shook hands. We were going to survive.
Please click to see The India and Nepal Diaries Part 7