Of course we had the wrong maps. And the wrong shoes. And the wrong bags.
Because of our early abandoning of the road-that-never-ended, we found ourselves in a completely alien part of the Annapurna Conservation Area. As our bodies recovered from the motorbike trauma, we planned a new trek around Tatopani. We purchased another map and considered the patchy information it held. I acquired some old digital topo maps and referenced them into Basecamp. Combining these two sources with Google and Open Street Maps still didn’t provide enough information on the trails we needed to take. It also didn’t give us much indication of trekking time required between villages. Turns out these days, the kids trek with maps on their mobile phones.
We decided on 3 days of trekking and 2 nights sleeping in the hills. From the outset we had trouble with our navigation. We didn’t want to use the GPS as we knew the batteries wouldn’t last. It would only be for emergencies. Our first emergency happened within about 300m of the start of our walk. Whilst it was a popular route and well-signed later on, there was a road that criss-crossed the path for the first day. Make the mistake of walking on the road and chances are you’ll miss the path off to the side. We would overtake a small group of trekkers (and their guides) then later they would appear in front of us. Was this a glitch in the matrix?
Our amateur navigation allowed us to fall in step with a couple who did seem to know the way. As we chatted and climbed we passed through some well-kept villages and discovered yak-cheese chapatis for breakfast. After nearly 2,000m of climbing from the river, we made it to Ghorepani by mid afternoon. This gave us a chance to scope out this hillside ‘city’, grab a refreshing beverage and find a nice place to stay. The local council controls the prices of food in every guest house so shopping around is basically pointless. When our navigators from earlier turned up we learnt that the prices of the rooms are variable, as Vicky negotiated their room down to zero Rupees! We had not got such a bargain. Whoops!
Day 1: Tatopani – Ghorepani
Min elevation: 1114m
Max elevation: 2851m
Near Ghorepani is a hill that everyone climbs pre-dawn so that they can shiver and watch the sunrise illumination of the Himalayas. The hill is not on most people’s trek so is a slight detour and a big ascent. We climbed it with Will and Vicky and enjoyed the amazing colours that only the sun can deliver in mountainous regions. Back down at the guest house we scoffed our new found combo breakfast: omlette inside yak cheese chapatis! The problem with our early exertion was that it took its toll much later on. Our map was proving to be mostly crap as the authors had drawn a thick, straight line when it should have been all zig-zaggy. Additionally the names of the towns and villages seemed to be different depending on who you asked. It was a great relief when we finally found our turn off and grabbed a large lunch.
It was at this point we realised the altitude typo on the map. The map said one town we’d just come through was at 3,200m but really it was at 2,700m. We’d calculated our next river crossing to be 300m lower down from that point. A 500m vertical discrepancy doesn’t sound like much but we found ourselves at 2,400m just before lunch. It would be a relentless climb to 3,500m to get to our night spot, as this river crossing had really sapped our legs. Even with an injection of apple pie mid-afternoon, we realised we were never going to make it to our planned sleeping place by nightfall. Rain and mist engulfed us during the afternoon and we struggled with calculating where we were….or more accurately how far we had left to travel. We emerged from the wet and jungley mountainside into the young arms of Roesan and his family. We had filled our 12 hour day with 5,000m of ups and downs, so sitting by the stove at Hotel Mt Lucky in Dobato was heavenly. I could not capture the very cold starlight spectacle from the viewing platform however, but a Russian photographer showed us an amazing photo instead. He’d captured the milky way the night before, trailing from the star-lit peaks of the Annapurnas. The silhouettes of the mountains perfectly complimented the ink-blue sky and milky smear of the stars. There was no way we could get a photo like that!
Day 2: Ghorepani – Dobato
Min elevation: 2456m
Max elevation: 3408m
Light drizzle quickly cleared in the morning to give us some great views. Because we had failed to reach our target the previous day, we had to interrogate the owners about the challenge ahead. We were not going to make it back to our Tatopani base today. We would easily make the highest point of the trek, but after that, was there anywhere to stay? We stopped for smoko at Chistibang (alternate name Dhankharka) then began the steep but manageable climb to Khopra Danda. As we traversed the hillside, the mist came and went. I scouted ahead and was confused when I looked back to check on Nickiy’s progress. Through the mist I could see two figures on a distant spur. Nickiy had stopped and was talking to someone. It was cold and I had found our shelter for the night. What was there to talk about for so long? I tried to signal to her, in vain. Then Nickiy’s shoes appeared out of the mist and dwarfed these two ‘figures’. I had been staring at two shin-high plants twitching in the wind only about 10 metres away! That’s how confusing the swirling mist was.
Khopra Danda is a couple of stone buildings and a muddy goat storage compound. It also boasts an animal sacrifice site. Apparently if you make the climb three times (to sacrifice some warm-blooded beast), your dreams will come true. Our dreams did not come true as the guest house was quite a contrast to our previous night. It was cold and was run by the local community. This meant no one person was responsible and it wasn’t particularly homely. There were no women living or working there. They explained to us that apart from a village near the bottom of the mountain, there wasn’t really anywhere to stay if we didn’t stay with them. It was early afternoon when we arrived, so we could have continued for a few hours at least. I didn’t fully believe their timing information to get back down the hill, but we decided to stay out one more night at this 3,600m guest house. After we made a lot of not very subtle hints, they lit to stove and we managed an hour or two of kerosene-smoke laden warmth. The weather was nasty and we only managed fleeting glimpses of our surroundings through the rain and fog. With nothing else to do, we wrapped up and fugged down in our beds not long after dark.
Day 3: Dobato – Khopra Danda
Min elevation: 2774m
Max elevation: 3624m
Another morning passed without access to any kind of survivable showering facilities so we began our long day of descending back to HQ and the bike. Our cheap North Fake shoes were beginning to show signs of inferior build quality. Descending was particularly unpleasant for my toes in these 7-day old shoes, and my knee was also not that amused. Nickiy’s blisters were subsiding but her poor tread was now letting her fall over as often as possible. It shouldn’t be so tough going downhill, but 2,700m of straight descending was a killer. We managed about 400 vertical metres per hour throughout the day.
We arrived for lunch at Paudwar after 4 hours, which was the other village we could have spent the night at. We were both extremely grateful that we hadn’t pushed on the previous afternoon. After a long and stiff lunch we joined the newly bulldozed road (which had collapsed) and plodded forth to the river valley. The road gave us similar problems to the road on our first day; the signs had been knocked over but we didn’t have Will and Vicky to guide us anymore. We returned to our guest house and the motorbike to find it had been raining in our absence. Not only did this mean the helmets were full of water, but that the road back down the valley might be as horrible as it had been coming up. Thankfully by the time we left town, everything had dried up nicely.
Day 4: Khopra Danda – Tatopani
Distance: 11.1km (plus dist from trail head to Tatopani)
Min elevation: 1113m
Max elevation: 3627m
Even though we hadn’t started our walk very deep in the Annapurna Conservation Area, we managed to feast our eyes and souls on the huge mountains around us. The lush green foreground lapped up against the steep, icy peaks in every direction. We were blessed with good weather, good paths and good companions. This is why the Annapurnas are one of the world’s top hiking destinations.