Day 9

 

Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi and High Camp

I awoke refreshed with no altitude headache and a renewed appetite for the ‘French toast’ I’d ordered for breakfast. We headed out in bright sunshine for Thorung Phedi – and High Camp if we remained in good form.

The trail followed the contours of the steep valley, a gradual but steady climb. The slopes were gravelly and the path narrow; signs were posted cautioning of the danger of landslides. The landscape was a little bleak – not much vegetation, but enough to sustain the flocks of Himalayan blue sheep the guides pointed out to us. It was the busiest day on the route so far. We all looked like we were moving in slow motion – the altitude effect was pronounced. I remembered something I had read and tried to follow my breath as I walked, matching it to my pace. Whenever I felt winded, I stopped for as long as it took to normalize my breathing. This worked, but by the time we reached Phedi I’d nearly run out of steam. Neil, Ria and I brought up the rear, but three of the porters who were crossing the pass for their first time – Jaluna, Primila and Kalpana – kept pace with us.

The door to the  dining hall at Phedi opened onto a warm, noisy room filled with buzz. It was so like a ski resort that I was momentarily disoriented. We enjoyed a hearty lunch and recovery period. Patrick (characteristically) discovered a musical connection with the proprietor. Bhagawati pronounced us ready for the climb to High Camp for the night, assuring us that she’d be monitoring everyone carefully. There were some misgivings, but we knew that continuing would shave off considerable time and effort for crossing the Pass in the morning.

High Camp was almost visible from Phedi; we were only on route briefly when we caught a glimpse of the flags waving at the crest. Gazing up the 45° slope as we set out looked a little silly – a scattering of brightly coloured figures wandered (seemingly) aimlessly back and forth across the face of the hill. What one couldn’t see because of the incline was that the track switchbacked constantly, turning the steep climb into a gentler trail. I recalled reading a description of this section: it’s only 45 minutes – but you will remember every one of them!

I was the last to arrive as light flurries began to swirl and found the others huddled around a table in the dining hall. The only heat came from the press of bodies – and the room was filled. After hot drinks, we dispersed to our rooms to – supposedly – warm up. The snow was now falling in earnest and the toilets were across the courtyard from sleeping quarters. I suited up in my thermal layer for the night – determined not to be naked one single time more in this cold!!

I’d enjoyed some lovely conversations with Kathleen over those past days. This day we had touched on identity and our perceptions of self. I’d come to view myself as strong and independent, so being sick had taken a bite out of that. I was, as yet, the only one remaining in our party who had no symptoms of altitude sickness – and the only one not on Diamox – and that had become inordinately important to me. Fingers crossed for a restful night.

Midnight. Dinner was a little dismal – the antibiotics were making things taste strange so I had chosen something fairly bland and disappointing and choked it down. I needed the calories. I’m huddled now in my sleeping bag, cradling a tin cup of hot mint tea. The warmth is a pleasure, but I’ve drunk only enough to ease my pills down my throat. I’ve just returned from my third foray to the far-too-distant facilities (another side-effect of altitude is frequent urination) and I don’t want to make another!! Trudging through the newly fallen snow, I’m grateful that I splurged on the purchase of a new sleeping bag. Sandwiched between two Nepali quilts, it still retains a trace of warmth upon my return. The stars are peeping through here and there. Hoping for a clear morning!

Note: I’ve been back nearly three months and creating this record is taking far longer than I imagined. Meanwhile I’m trying to get a house ready for selling and down-sizing for a move, so my time has been occupied elsewhere. Heartiest of apologies for making you wait for the instalments! I’ll keep plugging away…

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Day 8

Manang to Yak Kharka

Our second morning in Manang dawned bright and clear – a hopeful sign for the road ahead. We were only two days from crossing the Throrong La pass; snow would be a potentially serious setback now. No worries – the day was soon warm and the layers were peeled away.

At 3,519 metres, Manang sits at twice the elevation of the Lake Louise, Alberta, the highest settlement in Canada. While our bodies were definitely acclimatizing, altitude decidedly affects athletic performance. The feeling is something like perpetually slogging through deep water; this would only grow more pronounced. Our first day’s goal was to reach Yak Kharka – a half day’s hiking and a gain of more than 500 metres. Bhagawati would decide over the next day whether we were managing well enough to push on to High Camp the next day, or remain overnight at Throrong Phedi for a bit more adjustment. The second scenario would mean a more gruelling climb to the pass, but perhaps a safer alternative.

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Looking back toward Manang

The trail swung away from the Marsyangdi River that had been our companion for so long, turning up the Jarsang Khola valley – so we still had a chattering, watery accompaniment below. Above, our journey was punctuated periodically by rumblings from the Gangapurna glacier as avalanches thundered down the distant slopes. We walked now in arid sub-alpine terrain, the slopes cloaked in autumn-coloured barberry shrubs, low spreading junipers and sparse alpine grasses. The climb was gentle but unrelenting and continually up.

We took our morning tea break on a roof top with an unobstructed view back toward Annapurna III and Gangapurna stretching across the mouth of the valley, splendid in the full sun. Time to catch our breath and soak in the light then back on the path, past a chorten stacked with exquisitely carved mani stones and on to our destination.

Until now, we’d seen relatively few other trekkers, considering we were traveling in peak season. Manang had been something of a gathering point, and we were definitely encountering more traffic. Fighting the altitude seemed to have levelled our own group’s disparate speeds and our porters, too, were slowing. On previous days we’d have ended up strung out over a fair distance; now we were traveling as more of a pack, resting together in little clumps and more frequently. I had more opportunity to chat with our ‘girls’ and learned that for several of them this was also their first time over the pass – and also the highest altitude that they had experienced. Bhagawati was not only monitoring our adjustment, but theirs as well – and the porters were carrying our baggage as an additional challenge.

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Our intrepid porters

We reached the Himalayan View Hotel at Yak Kharka in time for lunch. The tea house offered an ambitious menu, and although Nepali pizza was credible, the moussaka was something of a stretch.

The recommended afternoon action was a short hike to a higher altitude, then back down for the night, but we staged a minor mutiny. Neil and I made personal health decisions to rest and nurse our virus. Ria very kindly offered me an Indonesian massage – a welcome addition to my recovery regimen, but sadly not as relaxing as we hoped because I coughed through the entire process. Then, blessedly, I slept – curled up in the afternoon sunshine streaming through my window. Nightfall brought us all together in the toasty warm dining hall. The porters gathered around a melodrama on the television; the rest of us huddled near the fireplace, variously occupied with journaling, reading, charging devices, treating water, drying socks and staying warm. Much of our conversation circled around our itinerary for the next days. None of us were having serious difficulty but there was an even distribution of early symptoms of AMS – mild headache, loss of appetite, nausea, sleeplessness – although it was hard to tell if these were also cold symptoms. No one was experiencing all of them, but nearly everyone had elected to take Diamox as a precaution. Ironically, while I was still recovering, I seemed mostly unaffected by altitude. Bhagawati was encouraging us to consider reaching for High Camp the next day and I think we were all anxious about gaining the extra altitude, which maybe accounted for our sleeplessness? In the end, we were in her hands; she would make the decision as our lead guide.

As pleasant as the day had been, nights were growing increasingly colder; the expanding thickness of the quilts at successive establishments testified to this. We left the warmth of the dining hall early to burrow under those ample quilts and await the next day’s decisions. Tucked up in my room with the requisite thermos of mint tea, I huddled by the window, tenting my sleeping bag around the steamy warmth. The stars – and later the moon – were spectacular. So many! So bright!

Day 6

Lower Pisang – Manang

Morning dawned clear but somewhat colder than previously – the socks I’d left to dry on the railing were frozen stiff. We warmed up somewhat before breakfast, hovering near the juniper scented fire in the dining hall.

There are two routes from Lower Pisang to Manang, Bhagawati explained to us over breakfast. One follows the river, gently ascending toward Manang. The other climbs higher for the view. Some of our porters would take the lower, faster route to go ahead and make arrangements for our accommodations. We would take the higher, longer route. It would be hard, she admitted, but it would be worth it.

I was at my lowest ebb at that point and would gladly have accompanied the porters. Miserable with cold symptoms, I was tired, achey and coughing continually. Ria, our Dutch recruit, had slipped me a course of amoxicillin the day before – out of pity, no doubt – but I wasn’t showing any improvement as yet. I could spend this entire entry telling you how miserable I was.

Misery is not what I remember of Day 6 and the high route to Manang.

The trail started out relatively gently through town and past an elaborately carved and decorated prayer wheel wall. The trail wound through soft needled pines and along the edge of a tranquil, turquoise lake.

And then we began to climb – two and a half hours of zig-zagging up the face of the hill, a gain of 500 metres in elevation. There was no chance of my keeping up in my state; I had to rest each time the trail offered a place to perch. Bhagawati relieved me of my day pack, but I still struggled – partly from illness but, as we were approaching 3700 metres in elevation, likely some of the fatigue was due to the thin air. My thoughts kept circling around the presence of a clinic at Manang. If I really was seriously ill, would I be allowed to continue over the pass? What would it mean for everyone else if I were sent back? What would it mean for me? Would I have to travel back along the road in transport of some kind? That was terrifying to contemplate. I slogged along, step-by-step, keeping my own pace but well behind the others. All my training and strength seemed to have deserted me.

At last, the trail brought us to the town of Ghyaru and tea-time – and it was worth every hard-fought, fatiguing, hacking, aching moment. Facing us across the valley Annapurna II blazed brilliantly in full sun – so close you felt that you might lean out and touch the mountain face. The sunshine was warm and luxurious on our faces as we rested and soaked in the wondrous beauty of the view. The day continued clear and warm, despite the snow that lingered here and there on the trail. The Annapurna massif accompanied our every step, looming over the day. (I don’t think I had a proper understanding of the word ‘looming” before this; there is just no other word for that weight of presence!) That view – that’s what I remember. That’s what I will always remember.wp_1_13c

The path continued up from Ghyaru; I continued to struggle. My companions encouraged me, tussling with Bhagawati for their turn shouldering my pack. Michael and Juliet reassured me that before the trek was done we’d all have had similar low points – this from the experience of their previous trek. Patrick and Kathleen made much of stopping for frequent photos, something that allowed them to slow down legitimately and keep pace with me. We lunched at Ngawal, a leisurely stop that allowed me to catch my breath. From there the trail began to descend towards Manang and I found my energy returning somewhat, but I was still the last traipsing into Manang – or I would have been had Janet not hung back to keep me company.

 

Day’s end found us in the Yak Hotel on the main street of Manang. Imagine a scene out of a western movie, if they filmed westerns in Nepal. The building was multi-storied and rambling with a confusing array of balconies and staircases. I was guided to my room, bundled into my sleeping bag and left to sleep until Bhagawati came to fetch me for dinner. Up the dimly lit stairs to the uppermost level, my legs barely lifting me, the door opened into a wonder of warmth and light, delicious odours and the bustle of kitchen staff and roar of conversation. The fire was crackling, the dining hall was filled to bursting with trekkers and the menu was an international hodge podge: pizza, burritos, rosti, dhal baat….in my memory the evening remains surreally magical.

Warm, fed, restored, I stumbled down through the labyrinthine levels to my cosy suite. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, a thermos of steaming mint tea to see me through the night, awaiting a visit to the clinic in the morning.

And more photos…

A few more images from days 4 & 5:

Day 4-5

Dharapani – Chame – Lower Pisang

It was only a few days in to our 21 day trek, but we were already falling in to a rhythm. Each day we’d gain about 500 metres in height, so each night would be a little colder and we’d add more layers the following morning. By tea time we’d be back down to our lightest clothes; hiking generated a lot of warmth and the mountain sunshine was strong. Mists clung to the heights, but the weather had cleared and at last the stunning Annapurna mountains were in sight.

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Each morning Bhagawati reviewed with us what to expect for the day and we were slowly learning to translate this information. There’s a t-shirt that reads “Nepali flat: a little bit up, a little bit down” which gives the idea. Bhagawati’s “mostly flat” meant the vigorous ups and downs over the day would cancel each other out. “A gentle climb”? That would be a steady few hours uphill. When she warned us it would be “a little steep” we prepared for a serious work-out and a day of aching calves. For the most part, a strenuous day would be followed by a gentler path and shorter distance on the next.

Day 4 out of Dharapani was one of the long days but we were energized by our first glorious view of the Annapurnas. A steady climb to rejoin the road brought us through a string of Tibetan style villages, past one impressively large prayer wheel and a long wall of smaller wheels and out to the countryside. A brief descent took us over a small wooden bridge and then zig-zagging up across a forested slope on a seemingly endless stone stairway. When the lead hikers reached level ground at last, a celebratory whooping  let the rest of us know relief was near.

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We rejoined the road, ‘paved’ now with stones set upright in countless rows. No vehicles passed as we traversed this section, but it looked like a tough ride, although that pretty well described any section of road we’d seen so far. It made one grateful to be on foot.

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Another hour of switch-back trail brought us to the gate of our lunch stop. Released from our packs, we stretched out in the sun on a small plateau overlooking the valley, Annapurna II shining at one end, Manaslu at the other, the sun silhouetting the lesser peaks beside us. After lunch we rounded out the day with an easy, “Nepali flat” stroll to Chame for the night. The town didn’t seem so much bigger than others we’d been in, but there was a more commercial “vibe” to it and definitely more trekkers in evidence. The guidebook indicated a clinic – or at least a pharmacy – and I was hoping for the means to deal with worsening cold symptoms, but we were unable to locate it or it had closed for the night. I had to settle for draping my head with a towel over a bowl of steaming water. I struggled not to cough in the smoke of the dining hall but was reluctant to forego the warmth of the fire.

Over dinner we chatted with a Polish trekker, in Nepal for his second time and with hiking experiences stretching from Europe to Kilimanjaro. “If you want things to work,” he said, “ you go hiking in Switzerland. But if you’re looking for the unexpected, you come to Nepal.” We were all enjoying the darkness of a power outage at the time.

I passed an uneasy night, convinced that I was keeping everyone in the adjoining rooms awake with my spasmodic coughing. In the morning, I debated the merits of taking Cipro – an antibiotic that several of the group were carrying for possible intestinal issues, but a bit of research indicated that it was not effective for respiratory infections. Nix that. I acknowledged that if I’d been at home feeling as I did, I probably would have stayed in bed but it wasn’t an option. By day’s end, I would be so grateful that I was not – not in bed, nor at home.

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The road out of Chame took us past a ‘hydro-powered’ prayer wheel – perpetually turning in the flow of a stream. A line of inscribed tablets – mani stones – and a beautifully decorated chorten (a Buddhist shrine) marked the exit from town. It was an easier hiking day, but my energy was ebbing. Bhagawati and Khim were both plying me with ‘horrible’ lozenges – or at least, that’s what I understood the description to be at first. I was reluctant to take one, until I finally asked Khim “what makes them horrible?” She looked at me, puzzled, and said, “ well…they are natural, made with plants and flowers…you know – herbal.” Ah. It turned out that they were not at all horrible and very soothing.

Mid-morning brought us to a tea house at Bhratang in the midst of an extensive apple orchard. There were fresh, crisp apples for snacking and a sunny deck to rest and soak up the sun. One of our porters found a drum, Vishnu brought out his flute and soon the group was singing and clapping together. As other trekkers approached along the trail, the smiles grew and the music drew them in. Gazing out at the sun glinting on the apple trees, framed by the bright plumes of prayer flags and immersed in infectious laughter and music I found myself momentarily awash in tears, completely and sublimely happy. Later on the trail, we were warmly greeted by a lone hiker coming in the opposite direction. I commented that he must be so happy because he was going down and he answered, quite convincingly,  “you have wonderful days ahead of you!”

I held on to that prophecy through the afternoon. I ran out of energy along our next climb and Bhagawati persuaded me to give up my pack. Lunch and medication revived me somewhat and I was able to reclaim my load for the last hour as the road levelled out to ‘Nepali flat’.

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Our hotel at Lower Pisang was perched on the side of a wide valley. Upper Pisang was across and above us and some of the others headed off to tour the monastery there. I wrapped up in my sleeping bag to catch a nap. Later I went seeking warmth in the dining hall where a fire had been lit. I sipped a hot lemon tea and caught up on my journal. The porters start to slip in after a time and tuned the sound system to Nepali pop music. By evenings’ end this turned into a full-blown dance party – and soon mostly everyone had taken a turn on the floor, including the family who ran the tea house. Their little son circulated among us, delightedly showing off his school work and the photos he had taken on a broken smart phone some trekker had discarded.

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Reluctant to leave the warmth of both the fire and the company, we stayed up later than had been usual – but not, of course, as late as our dancing porters.

Day 2-3

Ngadi-Srichaur-Dharapani

It rained during the night – a gentle noise that softened the roar of the river below our ramshackle little inn and also put an end to the regular small animal expeditions across my ceiling. We downed a hearty breakfast and then set off in a light drizzle.

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The day was spent mostly climbing. The way was rocky, steep at times and slippery with the rain, but we exceeded our guide Bhagawati’s expectations, taking our late morning tea perched above the terraced rice fields surrounding Bahundanda which had been our projected lunch stop. Instead, we later lunched beside a lovely waterfall after climbing further on. Our previous jaunty pace allowed for a leisurely meal and extended tea break, so I took the opportunity to begin a short sketch. Perched on the steps overlooking the trail, taking in the view and the myriad passersby – trekkers and lines of ponies carrying goods to neighbouring villages – strains of music washed over me. Although I was wrapped up in my drawing and missed the lead-in, I recall it began with singing and then Vishnu, a porter, brought out his flute. Someone else – Patrick? – tried the flute too, I think. In any case, there was a great exchange of laughter and song and the beginnings of how music was to knit our disparate group together. The next day would find Vishnu engaged in a Nepali ‘dance-off’ with a young traveler during one of our rest stops.

We had entered the predominantly Buddhist area of Nepal, and from here the architecture became increasingly Tibetan in influence. We passed through the first of many stone gateways housing prayer wheels.

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Our afternoon hike was a gentle rise and fall ending with a rickety suspension bridge which took us directly onto the flag-stoned main street of Syange and then on to Srichaur and the Hiker’s Guest House: a tiny enclave painted in a jumble of unlikely hues. We were barely settled in before the rain began in earnest. We huddled in the dining hall over hot drinks and spent the afternoon pouring over the map, catching up on journals, showers and laundry.

The next day dawned overcast but was soon gloriously sunny. The Marsyangdi valley had closed to a narrow canyon from the sides of which our route was carved. Another day of climbing; I was surprised how quickly we gained height, leaving the valley floor and soon hiking near the crest of the surrounding hills. We’d start each day dressed for the early morning weather and by the time we’d warmed up and stopped to take our jackets off, our previous night’s lodging would already seem far below.

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We passed through numerous villages, walking sometimes on the road, sometimes on the trail, although the two were hard to tell apart at times. We criss-crossed the gorge on the now familiar suspension bridges, at one point stopping in disbelief to watch a bus and a transport truck pass each other on the alarmingly narrow road across from us. Not surprisingly, all the passengers got off the bus before the maneuver.

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Look closely…yes, that is a road winding around that outcrop! The tiny orange spot to right of centre is a vehicle and there’s a white one coming around the curve at the left…

Lunchtime found us at Tal and another gaily painted establishment. Here the valley opened and the river snaked through a gravelly flat plain. We were again ahead of schedule and Bhagawati decided we would carry on to Dharapani for the night. The clouds closed over once more and we walked in a light drizzle, but the afternoon’s trail was easier and we were soon at our night’s accommodation at the Heaven Guest Hotel. That laryngitis I’d started out with had developed into a full-on cold, so it was heaven indeed when the promised hot shower actually hit the lovely temperature of 42C!

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A last thought to ponder: throughout the day we occasionally glimpsed snow-covered peaks above us. Each time the clouds parted to reveal a snowy face we would eagerly enquire: which mountain were we seeing? Our guides patiently explained that the clouds were still concealing the mountains, and that we were only seeing “hills.” At 3000 metres a Himalayan hill earns status as a “peak.” At 5000 metres, it is considered a “mountain.” The Annapurna mountains are between 6000 and 8000 metres high. Everest tops out at 8,848.

For perspective: the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies is Mount Robson at 3,954 metres and the highest in the Alps, Mont Blanc, is 4,808: mere “peaks” by Himalayan standards.

And they’re off!

Pokhara and Day 1

Our original plan had been to take a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara and the start of the hike, but the fuel shortage had seriously reduced ground transport, so we flew instead. Looking back, I’m grateful. One: because it gave me my first sight of the Himalayas; aside from a view of the Annapurna panorama on first landing in Pokhara, the weather quickly grew hazy and it would be several days before we’d catch another glimpse. And two: the more I saw of Nepali roads, the less I wanted to drive on them!wp_12_3aPokhara is the second largest city in Nepal and the assembly point for most trekking. It’s a busy, colourful, commercial centre with a “hippie” vibe, but far from busy – tourism is down by 40% post-earthquake. As we toodled about town hunting down various needed items, I began to wonder just what it was that I was missing…the conversations would go something like this:

Shopkeeper: Ah, welcome – so glad you have come to Nepal! Are you trekking?

Yes, we’re doing the Annapurna Circuit.

Shopkeeper: Ah, Annapurna. Just a short trek then?

No, we’re doing the Circuit.

Shopkeeper: You are here for how long? Seven days? Ten days?

No, for twenty-one days. We’re doing the whole Circuit.

Shopkeeper: Really? The whole Annapurna Circuit?

Hmmm.

We were traveling with 3 Sisters Trekking company – an outfit that is owned and run by – you guessed it! – three Nepali sisters. Years ago they found it nearly impossible for women to enter the trekking business, so they started their own company. Nearly all their porters and guides are young women – and as we went along, we found that the company – and our girls – were highly respected and well known in the trade.

We settled in at the 3 Sisters guesthouse and then set off to the office for a short orientation. I squeezed past a group of kids in the reception area, wondering if it was ‘take your kid to work day’ or something? We were introduced to Bhagawati – our lead guide. Michael and Juliet had trekked with her previously and requested her specifically; her easy, throaty laugh was something that would become addictive, I was sure. Khim, our assistant guide, constantly beaming, seemed equally delightful. Of course, the young women who trooped into the room to be introduced as our porters were the “kids” I’d pushed past earlier. As fit and strong as these girls were, they were all tiny – and even the two male porters were slight by North American standards. We all immediately went back to our rooms to pare down the extra weight in our packs!wp_12_3bNext morning we were off in the van to Besisahar, joined by a Dutch woman, Ria, who was to accompany us as far as the pass. So now we were eight. We rendezvoused with the porters, had lunch – and then we were off. No fanfare, no official photo, no fuss – we just started walking down the road. We hiked through woods and villages, along roads and paths, following the course of the Marsyangdi River through a deep valley with the rich green hills close around us, hiding the mountains from sight. The sub-tropical greenery was lush and exotic, yet many of the plants were familiar – poinsettia, lantana, coleus – only grown to an unfamiliar height. Most houses had gardens – vegetables certainly, but also flowers: roses, hibiscus, bougainvillea and everywhere – marigolds. The pace seemed easy, with time for chatting, getting acquainted and taking advantage of the bamboo swings that had been erected in the villages for the Dashain festival just past.
wp_12_3dIn spite of the remoteness and the forbidding heights, the landscape struck me as a very human one, an engineered environment – terraced and sculpted rice fields, criss-crossed with ancient drystone walls and flagstone paths. Each time we reached what felt like an impossible height there was always a farm precariously perched on the hillside further up or a village higher still.wp_12_3eThe trail also crossed from one side of the valley to the other – via bridges. Suspension bridges. Long ones. For which I have always had a profound…distaste, shall we say? I made it across the first one; learning very quickly how far ahead to focus to give the illusion that I was crossing something solid. (Just walk…breathe…you’re good…) I also learned who not to follow onto the bridge – as in: the avid photographers. As in: the ones who stop in the middle for the best shots. (Breathe…you’re…good.)wp_12_3cOn that first day, and many days after, I reflected that hiking Ontario’s Bruce Trail had been better preparation than I imagined. Not in elevation gain, certainly, but the terrain underfoot was familiar – rocky paths, gravelly slopes, uneven stone stairs and interlaced tree roots. So, the first day I felt strong and prepared and even the steeper climbs left me feeling undaunted and rather, well, triumphant. Yes, I had a little bit of a sore throat – well, full-blown laryngitis actually. But who needed to talk? Let’s just say I was speechless.

We finished up the day just as it began to get drizzly, at the Holliday Trekker’s Guesthouse in Ngadi – rustic but cosy and dry. Bhagawati figured we’d covered about 17k. Dinner, then, tucked up under the mosquito net, I was lulled to sleep by the rush of the river below.wp_12_3gwp_12_3f.jpg