Wednesday, 13 January 2010

On the Rituals of Trekking 3


When the hike is done it’s often a relief to finally reach the intended campsite and throw yourself on the grass to rest. It seems that on most days the sun was still shining and we didn’t have to worry about getting our tents up in a hurry and diving for cover.

We usually started out on the trail before our porters and mules but they would often pass us along the way. It was usually a case of leapfrogging along the trail; they would pass us when we were resting and vice-versa.

This means that it was a bit of a lottery as to whether or not our gear was already at the campsite when we arrived. It generally didn’t matter but once or twice it was a bit frustrating to sit out in the cold and rain waiting. Mostly however the first thing to notice when arriving was the sight of all the others spreadeagled on the grass using their packs as a pillow. If the porters were there then they too would be lying out amongst the piles of gear. Everyone is usually finishing off their packed lunch.

The first thing to do after the initial recovery is to find a suitable pitch for your tent. Somewhere flat, without rocks and preferably with cow pats! It’s not often that we fight over this as it’s usually first come first served. Unless we are tight on space campsite etiquette requires that we do not pitch too close to one another. This might be due to trying to avoid being disturbed by snoring or other night time noises! We always pitch our tents a little distance from the three large tents reserved for the crew. Obviously that many people need a lot of space but it seems important to them and to us that this distance is respected. I don’t we need to read too much into this. I think it’s important that they can relax and enjoy themselves without feeling that they are permanently on duty. Apart from Surosh (Cook), Ajay (Guide) and Maneesh (Liaison) who will be preparing the evening meal for us they are done for the day as far as we are concerned.

Once the porters and muleteers have rolled in we amble over and retrieve our bags. Hopefully we have had time this morning to leave our tent and stuff in the sun to dry so that when we get our tents out now we can just pitch them and get all our gear sorted. On most occasions we can do this at our leisure but from time to time it has to be done quickly; either because it’s raining, snowing, bloody freezing or dark!

I like to pitch my tent so that the door is facing the rising sun. A quick look at where the sun is setting and my compass and I have a rough idea. This means I can stick my head out in the morning to see what the prospects are for photography. If the ground is not perfectly flat it’s usually best for your feet to be at the lower point. Generally you don’t want a slope from side to side but this can be difficult to assess when you’re in a hurry. Inside the tent I unpack my gear so it’s always in the same place. This means I can easily put my hand on anything I need and the things I need most are close at hand. My stuff is in a long line down one side of the tent and my sleeping mat and bag is on the other side. If I do have a slope from side to side then I arrange it so that I’m rolling into my rucksack and bag. In this way I don’t roll out the side of the tent! I had one or two nights when I didn’t get this quite right and had a disturbed nights rest.

Round about this time, when the tent is up and your gear is safely stowed, Maneesh will come round with the afternoon tea. How completely civilised! We usually had a plate of biscuits too but on some days the cook would have have cooked up something hot for us; chips or pakoras. Fantastic. We even had ketchup!

So what to do now? Now is the time to relax, read a book, go for a walk and generally laze about. As mentioned in a previous post it’s a good time now to think about a fire for this evening. Time to collect some firewood and build a fireplace.

One thing I like to do now, whilst at the same time looking for firewood, is to scout out places for tomorrow morning photography excursion. It’s usually quite obvious but from time to time I’ve been lazy and rued the fact that I didn’t spend some time doing this and only discover a perfectly good place when it’s too late and the sun is gone. This trip was noticeable for the fact that though the weather was generally very warm and sunny during the day almost every afternoon the clouds would begin to roll up from the valleys and begin to obscure the mountains around us. We didn’t have a single decent sunset on the whole trip. I can’t complain though because almost every morning was clear and bright. At least for a short time!

From time to time when we stay at Hostels or Rest Houses we can take a cold shower or perhaps have a bucket bath with swarm water. Usually we can only keep clean by using wipes. However when we are camped next to a stream we can take the opportunity for a bathe and a wash. This only happened twice on this trek. On our second night out at Nilara we swam and bathed in the river though the experience was marred by Keith picking up a leech! The second time was only two days later at Bhudar Kedar which was also marred as it was very close to a village and the ghat was obviously used as a toilet by the villagers. We just hoped that the river was fast flowing enough to be clean! On each occasion it was a great pleasure to take our hot and sweaty and dirty bodies into the icy water. The glacial streams were breath-catchingly cold and it was only with some effort that you could slowly submerge yourself. After some effort it was great to great your shoulders under the force of the stream and get a free massage whilst frantically preventing yourself from being swept away. At these places we also took the opportunity to wash some clothes in the river. We would borrow a plastic washing-up bowl from the Kitchen tent and swish out some shorts socks and t-shirts. Of xourse you’d have to carry around the damp clothes for a couple of days before they got dry!

At the Pawali Kanta campsite, where we spent two nights, we discovered a spring near by. Keith and I used this to o some clothes washing and Keith stripped off to take a shower beneath a small fall. I decided that I wasn’t quite dirty enough to warrant this! One of the secret pleasures of camping is wallowing in your own dirt and sweat and stench. Who’s to know or care if you smell worse than a mule on heat? Does a mule go on heat?

As the sun goes down and the thermals come on our thoughts turn to dinner. At least they do unless you’ve been suffering from a stomach complaint. Several of the party were bugged (!) by this at the beginning of the trek and we had to impress on the our guide and cook the need for cleanliness. On our last trip to the Himalayas our guide Heera was a stickler for this. All our drinking water was freshly boiled. Every meal was heralded by a bowl of warm water with Dettol,. the washed their hands with Dettol too. On this trip we had to re-iterate these requirements to Ajay after a few people went down with stomach upsets at the beginning. Fortunately we did have our own hand-wipes and soap-less hand-cleaners with us but it’s not very clear how effective these are.

Anyway eventually the call would come for dinner and we would make our way to where the tables were set up. On most nights it was warm enough to eat outside. We had two plastic tables with removable legs and a set of foldaway stools to sit on. If it was cold or raining then we would eat inside the large Mess Tent, which was used by half the crew for sleeping. On two occasions when it was very cold we were brought our dinner to our personal tents. This was uncomfortable and unsociable; I didn’t like it at all.

Every night our dinner would consist of three courses. The hot warming soup would come first. Keith and I spent one evening when camped on the snow inside the Kitchen Tent as dinner was prepared.  Surosh (the cook) would always slip some fresh vegetables into the four or five packets of dried soup mixture. Invariably this would consist of a good dose of garlic. So a couple of bowls of this would warm everyone up and perhaps get the conversation beyond the usual grumps and moans. After that would come the main course. Usually this would be in three parts; firstly the base of rice or pasta, secondly vegetable curry and thirdly a bread of some kind - perhaps chapatis or parata. We had no meat whilst on the trek but we were surprised on two occasions when we detected that a can of tuna had been mixed into one of the dishes. It was all good hearty stuff and plenty of it. It wasn’t particularly spicy though we did have various condiments available if we wished. Maneesh was responsible for bringing the food and taking it away and we hardly ever saw the cook at meal times! Unbelievably we always had a dessert too. Sometimes this would just be some sickly sweet Indian cake but from time to time we would get baked apple and custard. One evening at Kedernath we we served a jelly! But we could never get enough custard. To finish off Maneesh would bring a pot of tea and hot water for those that wanted hot chocolate of coffee.

Five years ago our first trip together James revealed his obsession and addiction to chocolate by bringing out a bar to share almost ever evening. This has now become an accepted tradition and on this trip would fight over who’s turn it was to produce the chocolate each night. We had no shortage on his trip! Also on that trip Adriana produced a bottle of cognac on the occasion of Jim’s birthday. This has also become a ritual and this time around we’d all picked up something from duty-free on the way over. My whiskey had only lasted a couple of nights and Keith’s hadn’t lasted much longer but James and Jim had conspired to buy a bottle of Cointreau each. This is a disgustingly sweet and girly thing to bring but at least it lasted longer! Amazingly Adriana did produce a bottle of Cognac again and it was brought out towards the end of the trip and finished on the last night. As you can see it’s not all doom and gloom on the mountains.

After dinner, if the night was not too cold or wet, we would usually retire to the fire that we had built earlier and spend an hour or so staring at the flames and embers. This is a fine way to whittle away an evening as I described earlier.

Eventually people would drift off to bed and the fire would burn low and it would be time to retire. It’s really hard to stay up beyond 9pm!