An unforgettable Himalayan trekking adventure came with an added extra of benefitting the local people and environment of Nepal.
When I found myself in the enviable position of having a few weeks spare to go globetrotting, I made a conscious decision to fulfil a long time dream of trekking through the Himalayas. However, as I explored the options available – from self guided treks to small group travel – I stumbled upon an opportunity previously unknown to me. Community Project Travel.
Community Project Travel seeks to actively benefit the local peoples we interact with while travelling, safeguard the ecosystems we explore and contribute to the sustainability of travel in the region we’re visiting. If you’re after a rich, interactive, ‘hands-on’ travel experience – community project travel is the ticket.
I’d always dreamed of travelling overseas and lending a hand in some form or another. However, my idealistic teenage fancies of pursuing a career in aid work had faded and I’d ended up in the much less altruistic occupation of a freelance TV producer and writer. Understandably I was apprehensive about what someone like me really had to offer the developing world in terms of skilful application. But adventure travel company World Expeditions assured me I’d be put to good use regardless of how well (or not) I could swing a hammer.
With seven to eight departures to different countries and causes a year, World Expeditions’ Community Project Travel itineraries vary in both length and physical exertion. Their itineraries include departures to Nepalese monasteries, Tanzanian schools, Australian marine turtle protection programmes and Peruvian footbridge projects amongst others.
The focus is on projects in communities that have little to no access to aid or funding. So travellers lend a hand with the knowledge that without their efforts no other option for development is available to the community they have helped. I signed up for a community project in northern Nepal that would buy and transport building materials and then make repairs to the dilapidated state of Saramthali school. Isolated at a high altitude, the school had no other hope of receiving either materials or labour for repairs and maintenance. Children were unable to attend in the depth of winter due to the leaking roofs, open windows and general disrepair of the school buildings.
My adventure began in Kathmandu, the remarkable and chaotic Nepalese capital. Here in a comfortable hotel I met the rest of my trekking companions, a group of around twelve from NZ, Australia and the USA of various ages. We had lots in common around what we wanted to see and do and threw ourselves with a vengeance into all that Kathmandu had to offer.
After a couple of nights on the town and a day seeing the sights of Kathmandu we left the throng of the capital behind and set off by bus through the Langtang mountains towards northern Nepal’s Ganesh Himal region.
Away from commercial trekking routes we trekked along the ridgelines of the Ganesh Himal for five nights and six days – walking through lush rhododendrum forests and soaking up extraordinary views of snow capped Himalayan peaks as far away as Tibet. Not once did we pass any other trekking group or foreigner. The only traffic along the way consisted of local farmers shifting their livestock to different pastures. Often we’d stop to chat to the locals, with our sherpas and guides interpreting for us. One 11 year old boy we met was in awe of us – not because we were from the other side of the world – but because we’d arrived from Kathmandu. It turns out he’d never been. In fact, he’d never seen a car or a bus before – only planes overhead.
Walking for around 6 hours a day carrying only a daypack, we stopped regularly for hot tea and some incredible picnic lunches each day before arriving in camp with our tents up, ready and waiting for us. Evenings were spent getting to know the sherpas, guides and others in the group over long dinners consisting of three or more courses. World Expeditions is renowned for its gourmet catering, but the meals throughout the trek surpassed even my wildest expectations with a huge variety of delicious dishes appearing each night.
One of the highlights of the trek for me was a sunset game of cricket with our sherpas. My lack of bowling talent had miraculously improved with altitude and the feeling of sharing a game of cricket on top of the world with snow covered mountains above, below and beyond was simply indescribable.
Day seven brought us to the village of Chilaune where we were met with an emotional welcome from the children of Saramthali School. Leading us along a narrow mountain trail, the excitement continued to build and build as the local kids latched onto each of us, jumping and smiling as they led us towards a group of dilapidated buildings in the distance that they called their school. As we got closer, more and more children, teachers, parents and villagers began to appear – lining the trail with flower necklaces and pots of red dust from which the traditional bindi was applied to our foreheads. By the time we’d reached our destination we were covered in red dust from hundreds (no exaggeration) of stabbing thumbs bestowing the good luck symbol between our eyes. With tens of handmade rhododendrum leis stacked around my neck I felt incredibly privileged to be able to experience and receive such a genuine and warm welcome from these people.
We were then treated to a traditional concert with ancient Nepalese instruments, dancing and singing, before being taken on a tour of the school. Rotting shutters and floorboards, rusting roofs and a lack of blackboards were immediately obvious. However the edge of the playground revealed a much more serious and urgent need – the retaining wall holding the ridge upon which the school was precariously balanced was crumbling away beneath the children’s feet.
So began our five days of work. Back breaking, hot, dusty and dirty – I can honestly say I’ve rarely worked as hard or had as much fun. Lugging hundreds of 40-60kg rocks with the help of a gaggle of incredibly strong barefoot Nepalese women we managed to achieve something resembling a solid retaining wall. Alternate days were spent inside the school, restoring window shutters and painting blackboards on to the walls. The feeling of satisfaction at the end of each day was indescribable – I’ve never been so appreciative of a cup of tea or the opportunity after 3 days to wash my (dust encrusted) hair.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave. Sad goodbyes to the children (we all had our favourites) and the teachers brought some in the group to tears, while others promised to return or write. Two days of downward trekking brought us back to the road where our bus would transport us back to Kathmandu.
Our final nights in the capital provided a very different experience from those on our arrival. We now had first-hand insight into the Nepali people and their culture – what makes them tick, how they work, play, communicate and gossip. Eating, shopping, drinking and sightseeing, we saw Kathmandu in a new light – able to understand and appreciate the chaos for what it was.
When the time came to leave, I packed my bags with a sense of fulfilment not often experienced at the end of a holiday. I vowed not to forget the smiling faces, the rhododendrum forests in full bloom, the mountain-top cricket or the taste of Nepalese rock dust. And as it turns out, I haven’t.Michelle Gimblett