The Last Phase

Remarkably, despite being out in the field for seventeen days we had only seen nine schools. In the concluding four days we would be visiting a further eight schools.

During our last evening in Lelep we were joined by the Deputy Chairman and Deputy Director of the SWC (Social Welfare Council). They are a government organisation with the function of checking on all NGOs and INGOs in Nepal. This visit, by such important people, was part of an accreditation of our and REED’s work.

Before we left Lelep, we took the two visitors from the SWC to look at the girl’s hostel. Not only are the facilities unsatisfactory, but we wanted to share our concern with the lack of pastoral care for the girls. They agreed with our concerns and vowed to speak to the Ministry of Education on their return to Kathmandu, to lobby for a full time carer and improved facilities. I hope they live up to their word.

Feeling rested, particularly in my case, we climbed out of Lelep to find a path that generally contoured around the hill overlooking the Timor River far below. After about two and a half hours we reached Sabriti Basic School, a lovely school for a little over fifty children. When we arrived the children were playing on the playground and I was interested to see that there were two games of football taking place. One of the games consisted of girls only. Whilst this is not perhaps uncommon on school playgrounds in the UK, it is the first time I had encountered such activity in Nepal. The school continues to make progress as it embraces the skills and child friendly approach so ably taught by the REED team. The school now benefits from a fresh water supply, part of last year’s initiative to make sure that every school has access to water. On my previous visit I was concerned for the safety of children as they came out of their classrooms as there was a significant vertical drop from the narrow walkway, without any protection. There is now a very sturdy fence, ensuring that children, in their eagerness to go to play, do not fall and hurt themselves.

The dismal environment of Mohendra School

Whilst Sabriti School is flourishing, the next one we visited, barely an hour further along the track, is in a very sorry state. Mohendra Basic School once had 165 pupils, but because of poor leadership by the head, now has 23, a decline that has occurred in just a few years. Two years ago I gave the head a dressing down. Then he had to write a letter of commitment ensuring that he would improve his performance and that of the school. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have improved and I gave him another serious dressing down in front of all there, including those from the SWC. The head has a serious drink problem. In most other countries he would be out of a job but, for some reason, he cannot be replaced. Sadly, until he is replaced, he is letting down the community and children within its catchment area.

From Mohendra, we climbed steeply up the terraces of maize and potatoes for several hundred metres to Deurali Basic School. Deurali has a great sense of community and there were lots of people waiting for our arrival. There were some REED trainers working with staff on the concept of MGML (Multi Grade Multi Level) teaching, where children are all taught in the same room by a number of teachers. We visited the workshop. At first it appeared to be quite noisy, but then you began to appreciate that it was focused noise and that the children were not distracted by what was going on elsewhere in the room.

Deurali was another of the schools damaged in the earthquake and all the children were gathered in the single, large classroom that has been built. It is quite large and lends itself to this style of teaching. Everything we saw impressed us.

Once the training had finished the opening ceremony of the new building took place. Unfortunately, it started to rain so the formal gathering had to take place in another part of the school, across the playground. By the time the formalities were finished, the rain ceased and we were able to go outside under the makeshift shelters that had been erected. As was now the tradition, great pots of rice and goat meat were produced for the whole community. We chose, without offending, to decline the food.

Our distinguished guests from the SWC left us after the ceremony, well pleased with what they had seen and with the work of the Himalayan Trust UK and REED. If ever we need support from them in the future, I think it would be guaranteed.

That night, instead of putting tents up on to a wet and muddy playground, we all slept on the floor in the new classroom. It was one of the best night’s sleep of the whole trip.

The five classroom block built by the Gurkha Welfare Trust

The following morning we left Deurali to wend our way on a beautiful walk to Sundevi Secondary School. The walk took us through a variety of landscapes from terraced fields, to cardamon plantations to thick forest. The walk was made all the more interesting because it was wet and there were thousands of leeches just waiting to latch on to us. Roma popped into a house as we passes and collected lumps of rock salt for each of us so that we could fight back. It was very funny watching a paranoid group walk, constantly checking their footwear and legs for leeches.

By the time we reached Sundevi School, the weather had brightened up. A tour of the classrooms and of the lessons taking place, confirmed that this school is performing well, giving the students the best possible start in life.

To mark our visit, nearly every child in the school had made a garland. Each child, in turn, presented their garlands to us as we sat in a line in front of them. We were fairly heavily weighed down by the time the procession was finished.

From Sundevi, we could see our next school visit, Bipudham but in order to get there we had to descend steeply for about an hour before climbing for a further three quarters of an hour. It was a slippery descent and we had to take care not to fall.

One of the bright new classrooms

Bipudham School is situated on a little plateau on the edge of a ridge stretching down towards the Timor River. It too was damaged in the earthquake and we were going to experience yet another opening ceremony. Unfortunately, shortly after we arrived, it started to rain and the proceedings were moved into one of the temporary learning centres we built in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. I was disappointed to see that the school, despite the fact that we had built them some new classrooms, were still using the TLCs, now looking a little worse for wear after nearly three years of use.

Amongst the parents attending the ceremony was a mother who was very drunk. She staggered about the school, making a nuisance of herself. One cheek was heavily swollen, probably as a result of a drunken fall. Later in the proceedings she sat on a bench hugging a girl, her daughter. What chance does that girl have with a mother that is incapable of looking after her properly? The mother would be in no fit state to provide a meal. At least there was going to be food available after the ceremonies were completed.

The school certainly benefits from the new classrooms we have built, and we saw evidence of improvement in the teaching. However, this school has a weak head and you get the impression that that weakness is holding the rest of the staff and the children back.

Having avoided the rice and goat meat we took our leave and descended to Chhiruwa for the night, where we were to stay in the lodge I have used frequently in recent years. We had more rain in the night. There had been hardly a day during this trip where we had not had rain. This is the wettest part of Nepal but the pre-monsoon rains seem to have come early this year.

Early the next morning we visited the Phoktanglung Health Post. Nothing has changed here in the last three years, apart from the personnel looking after it. Each time I have visited they have requested a birthing centre and nothing has materialised. Since my last visit they have had a fatality during childbirth so I am hoping, that once Yamphudin is finished, we can give some attention to this particular need. It will not cost anything like the money we have put into Yamphudin.

While Kate and the rest of the team stayed on at the health post, Tim, Mike and I went down to Phoktanglung School. We arrived in time for assembly on the playground. This was led by one of the older girls, but even so she could not have been any more than ten years old. She fulfilled her role with confidence as she first led the assembly and then the brain gym activities. Upon the conclusion the children set about going to their classrooms but before they settled to their work they swept out the rooms while other children litter picked around the playground and others filled buckets for the toilets. At no time did a member of staff have to tell them what to do. This was a daily routine and was very impressive.

This young man does not want to miss out on his classwork just because we are visiting.

Having observed some lessons, the school then wanted to give us a short cultural show. Just before it started the Chairman of Phoktanglung Rural Municipality visited the school. During the show there was one member of staff who was particularly impressive, the ECD teacher. She seemed to be efficiently involved in all aspects.

This school relies very heavily on community contribution, having only one government allocated teacher. All other staff are paid for from the interest raised from a community fund. It means that they get paid only a fraction of the normal rate. I seized my opportunity after the presentation was over and went to speak to the chairman of the PRM, asking him to use his influence to improve the remuneration of the teachers in this school. He gave me a positive response without any guarantees.

A Sewalung lesson

From Phoktanglung we headed up hill for an hour or so to reach Sewalung School. They too had had a rebuild programme following the earthquake, so this would be our fifth building opening ceremony. When we arrived the children were still in lessons so we had the opportunity to observe some lessons in the new classrooms we had built and also in the government funded classrooms that were under construction when I visited the school in 2016. In 2016 the school was in a sorry state. There had been significant damage to many of the school buildings but they were still having to use them out of necessity, along with a neighbouring building that was not really suitable. Then all the classrooms were dark and the teaching was uninspiring. Now, they have bright and airy classrooms and the teaching was much improved.

I remember there being a weak head teacher in 2016. He has now left but has been replaced by a similarly weak head, appointed based on his years of service to the school rather than his quality of teaching and leadership. At least the Key Teacher is good and there are others who are self motivated to work for the benefit of the children.

Embarrassingly, I suggested that we might have some noodle soup before the formal celebrations started. Unfortunately the formalities started before the soup arrived, so, when it did come, we sat there in full view of everybody eating noodle soup. These events, despite their formality are actually fairly relaxed and chaotic so I doubt for a minute that anybody was surprised or shocked by our eating lunch.

After about two hours, during which there were a lot of speeches, the longest being from the Chairman of the Rural Municipality, who spoke for seventeen minutes and which Rajendra translated for us in just forty seconds, the event came to a close.

Climbing up further from the school, we eventually reached a path that contoured high along the hillside. After about an hour we reached our overnight accommodation, the house belonging to one of the Sewalung teachers, where Tim and I stayed in 2016. The difference this time was that there were ten of us, plus Rajendra, Passang, Sujata and eight porters. There was a surprisingly large amount of space available to fit us all in, although Tim, Kate and I elected to sleep on the upstairs veranda. That produced one of the best night’s sleep of the trip.

My last speech of the trip!

We were only about twenty minutes from our last school, Rani Basic School, in my mind the best school of all those we work in. Despite it being a Saturday nearly all the children turned up to enthusiastically greet us and show us, with pride, their school. After the usual assembly and brain gym, all ably led by the children, we were able to observe a number of lessons that were both engaging and informative for the children. They also have a computer suite and there I observed, with the use of a programme projected on to a wall, a geometry construction lesson. It was all really good.

Afterwards, we all gathered on the playground again for us to be festooned in so many garlands that they weighed heavily and the strings cut into the back of our necks. As we listened to the speeches the clouds cleared from the high mountains and we were treated to super views of Jannu at the western edge of the Kangchenjunga massif. Eventually there were no more speeches to be made or dances to be performed. It all came to an end and we began the long, knee jarring descent to Siwan 1000 metres below. After three hours it was good to finish. Despite all my trouble earlier in the trek, in these last few days I had felt much better and much more able to cope with the endeavour needed to visit these remote schools. This trek, unlike most is unusual. A normal visitor who embarks on a trek gradually gains height by following a recognised route up a valley to a high point. On reaching that high point they either turn round and return the same way or continue down the other side. We were not having it that easy. In order to visit a school we might have to climb anything up to 1000m to then descend before visiting the next school. And all the slopes were steep, the temperature and humidity levels high. Mike and Ann, who have done a number of treks with me, maintain that this is the hardest they have ever done! Well done, everybody!

The full team of REED staff, porters and ourselves

The jeeps were there to meet us and take us back to Taplejung ready for the journey to Bhadrapur the next day. In fact we were only travelling as far a Ilam, so that we could then make sure that we got to Bhadrapur in time for the late morning flight.

The flight back to Kathmandu was remarkably on time, which gave us some time in the afternoon to do a bit of necessary retail therapy. Tim, Kate, Ian and I managed to eat in the Garden of Dreams before returning to our guest house in Patan.

Our last full day in Nepal was largely spent in meetings with REED where we discussed the various options for our future involvement. It has been made abundantly clear to us that there is a growing need for us to expand our work. At the same time, there are schools that need less input from us now that they have had the training. What they have learnt and the approaches to education that they have adopted are now part of each school’s culture. We have made a difference, and, as long as the schools are monitored and supported further when necessary, we can move on and give more children in these remote mountains the better opportunities in life that a quality education brings.

One of the problems I have wanted to solve is the provision of a midday snack for children so that they can focus on their learning in the afternoons rather than worry about their rumbling stomachs. We had looked at a number of ways we could do this but never found anything that was going to be guaranteed and cost effective. REED announced that they were going to make some savings in their budget so that they could buy every child a snack box. That would be about 2,100 snack boxes, costing NRs200,000 (£1400). They would then use the schools to educate the parents to send their children with a simple snack. I had NRs50,000 left in the trek kitty, so that immediately went to support the cost of snack boxes. While the problem is not entirely solved and there can be no guarantees that all children will be eating snacks, it is good to know that very soon every child in the schools where we work, may soon be having refreshments in the middle of the day, allowing them to concentrate on their afternoon lessons. All it requires now is some parental responsibility and cooperation.

The three trustees

Despite the difficulties at times, this has been a superb trip. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to share what we do in this remote region with people who had little understanding of the problems associated with trying to provide quality education and health care. I hope it has opened their eyes and that, perhaps, they can find some way of supporting the Himalayan Trust UK to continue with this important work.

 

Deep into the Mountains

We delayed our departure from Taplejung until 10.00am so that we had time, hopefully, to get our washing dry. Unfortunately, the damp atmosphere that prevailed overnight meant that everything was still damp. It was also a good move as it took one and a half hours for breakfast to be served after ordering.

The drive to Tapethok was interesting, to say the least. Up to Suketar the road had a proper surface but beyond that for the next four and a half hours we were subjected to an increasingly bumpy ride as the, jokingly called road, was created more recently. At one point the driver, hardly more than a boy, became concerned about something behind him. He was looking at the rear off-side wheel. He should have been looking at the rear nearside wheel, for when he realised it the wheel was almost off. A little time was wasted while he tightened up the nuts. In places the road was nothing more than a collection of misshapen rocks randomly placed on a steep slope or mud filled ruts. Needless to say the going was slow. Nevertheless, it was beautiful the further we delved into the valley with the raging waters of the Timor River below. As we reached places we knew it was interesting to see where they had taken the road. Thankfully they did not try to take it through the centre of Chiruwa, but beneath it between it and the river. Soon after passing through Chirewa we reached Tapethok where we were to stay for the night. As we did so the rain began to fall. Seven could be accommodated in the lodge while three of us had to camp. We quickly put up the three tents before the heaviest of the rain in the hope that the inners would have an opportunity to dry out.

The dismal classroom building at Tapethok

After a quick noodle soup we headed off to Tapethok School before all the children went home. This is my third visit to this school in as many years and it does not really get any better. The school looks tired, the newer of the two buildings looks as if it will fall down at any minute. There is electricity but only to the office. The classrooms are wired up but there are no bulbs in sockets so ultimately the classrooms are very dark. Not ideal. There seems to be a lack of motivation among the staff, possibly because it was last thing on a Friday, or because there are only five teachers for the eight classes. The headmaster is basically a dull man and he runs a dull school. I think, with an inspirational head, this school could be much better.

It was good to see the newly installed water supply but much of the conversation we had was about how to provide children with a midday snack. This is becoming a common theme running through our visit. It is something that, I believe, is a major issue and one for which I would like to find a solution, so long as it does not detract from our core work.

The meeting over, we had cardamon tea and biscuits after we had been presented with numerous garlands.

That night, while most of the group slept in the lodge, three of us chose to camp and I had a really good, undisturbed night’s sleep.

We woke to clear blue skies and the promise of a lovely day, an opportunity to dry my washing and the tent. Although I succeeded in drying my washing, some of it had been wet for too long and smelt worse than it did before I washed it.

After breakfast Rajendra took Tim, Kate, Mike , Ian and me up to a place in the village where a meeting was to take place with the Chairman of the Rural Municipality. There have been a great many changes in Nepal in recent months, since a majority government was elected and there was a reorganisation of local politics with elected local leaders. No longer are there VDCs (Village Development Committees) but wards. Before we worked in Lelep, Ikhabu, Tapethok, Olangchungola and Yamphudin. They all, with the exception of Yamphudin, fall under the ward known as Phoktanglung. There are three other former VDCs now under the control of this new ward, Sawadin, Lingkhim and Khejinim, which do not benefit from the support of REED or HTUK. There is a plea that we include these three areas into our programme, which would support a further nineteen schools. I think REED, and Rajendra in particular, are under significant political pressure.

With the newly elected Chairman of the Phoktanglung Rural Municipality (on my left)

The elected chairman of Phoktanglung Rural Municipality is a young, committed politician, eager to make change for the better for all people within his remit. He is a parent at Sundevi School and has seen at first hand the benefits of REED’s intervention. Presumably he has political accountability to the electorate, and, as such, wants equal opportunity for all. This is far more important than devising a way to support a snack fund. HTUK is going to have to look very closely at what it does and how it does it within the serious confines of its financial capability.

One thing that was interesting is that he would be prepared to match fund any donation with governmental funding. I think it is important that the Nepalese Government, even at local level, should be involved in supporting their rural communities in every respect.
This then begs the question, what to do about Yamphudin? It falls under a different rural municipality and is only one of another nine wards, none of which we are working in. We cannot contemplate, from a financial point of view, to support so many more schools, despite pleas from Mamanke and Khewang for our support. Yamphudin, we know has good schools under good leadership. In a few months they will have a new health post. Is now the time to say to Yamphudin that you are well set up to stand on your own two feet?REED can continue to monitor for a period of transition but HTUK be considering moving out of Yamphudin once the work is complete?

It was a very interesting meeting and has given us a lot to think about as we plan our future involvement with the project. We may be forced to move in a direction we were not planning for, although we always knew there was a desire for us to expand.

Returning to our lodge and camp, we then visited the health post in Tapethok. I have always been impressed with this health post as it has always seemed to be efficiently run. The 24 year old nursing auxiliary midwife who showed us around was not only charming but also came across as extremely efficient and capable in her work. The sad thing is, that as a young wife, she has been posted to this remote clinic while she leaves a husband in Kathmandu. While she is excellent, the sooner we can train a local woman who is committed to living in the community, the better.

Lelep’s new building completed

Meetings over, we set out on the three hour walk to Lelep, initially walking along the side of the Tamor River, before climbing through woodland to the village of Lelep. The village is undergoing change. Many of the fields and terraces seem to be growing cardamon, a cash crop, rather than crops that will sustain the dietary needs of the community. The road will reach Lelep before the end of the year and, I believe, the community are preparing in advance the opportunity to get a cash crop out and the ability to have supplies brought in by road. Whilst it will be great for the community I fear for the environmental impact the road will have and how it will change the nature of these rural communities, not always for the best.

By late afternoon the sunny day had disappeared behind heavy clouds and another thunderstorm brought a soggy and violent end to the day.

I woke early after a good night’s sleep in my tent. It gave me time to have a cold shower and do some washing before the others woke up. Stupidly, I forgot my towel so I air dried while doing my washing.

Gradually, as 10.00am approached children started arriving at the school, intrigued by three tents on their playground.

Assembly

At 10.00 the oxygen cylinder chimed the start of school and the children lined up on the playground, positioning themselves an arm’s length of each other front and back. A speaker sprang into life and the children sang the Nepali National Anthem. A number of children were then selected to lead the brain gym, also set to music. Brain gym is a series of movements that mark the transition between free play and focused learning. When that was over a couple of older boys were called out to the front to remind us all about the importance of education.

Once assembly was over the children quickly and enthusiastically went to their various classrooms. However, before lessons could start the staff could spend ten minutes in the staff room preparing their lesson. It is worth knowing that, although term has started, the first two weeks are for registration. Not all children will show up and nor will all of the teachers. Hence, two or three classes could be combined until such time as all the teachers are present.

Lelep’s light, bright and airy classrooms

Once the classes were up and running we split up and visited each in turn. We observed an English class, two geometry classes, a social studies class discussing development, a class learning a new class song, a Nepali class and a class of younger children learning their English letter sounds and using them in simple words. Most of the teachers were animated and enthused the children. The children may have been subdued a little by our presence.

Having been round all the classrooms we adjourned to the office for a formal chat. I was able to congratulate the staff on their wonderful new building and that I wished all schools could have such a wonderful asset. All the rooms are light and airy. It was a shame that I was not able to see the electricity working but at least it was not through their fault but that of a transformer in the micro hydro-electric supply. They requested help with science, maths and English and when I asked if they would appreciate volunteers, they affirmed that they would.

I was horrified to learn that the hostel, which houses 30 girls, between the ages of 10 and 16, has no adult supervision beyond the school day. They have a cell phone so they can contact the head or another member of staff in the event of an emergency. They do all their own cooking and washing. I know Nepali children are much more self-sufficient than most western children, but I don’t think this is right.

We had spent a successful morning in the school and I left feeling much more optimistic about the school and the education it was providing.

As I left I caught my head on the bar above the gate, taking off a layer of skin just where I had taken a layer off in Kathmandu a few days previously.

With the health clinic staff

Appropriately we headed over to the health clinic to meet with the staff there. The same young woman that I had met on my two previous visits was still there. She upset me last year by saying that there would be no outcomes from our visit. Well, they got electricity from us last year. Unfortunately, it was also victim of the transformer malfunction. This time she was much more pleasant and is obviously doing a good job for the community. She is in a bizarre situation. Her home is in the Terai where she has a twelve year old son and a husband. She has hardly seen them in the last four years. Her male assistant comes from the far west of Nepal. It seems to be a crazy situation for I understand that there are similarly qualified people from Taplejung who work in other parts of Nepal at the insistence of the government.

We were amazed to hear that the clinic does not have its own water supply but relies on staff carrying buckets of water from the nearest source. When I enquired how much pipe they would need to have their own supply we were told 200m which would cost NRs12,000. That is nothing and I told her I would return after lunch with the money. I wasn’t going to get involved with the details of the concrete stand pipe and all the extras, the community could do that. Even if they don’t, the clinic will still have piped water.
After lunch I returned with the money. While I did that, Mike returned to the school to do some teaching. He thoroughly enjoyed himself and was found to be of interest to the dignitaries, press and TV who arrived en route to the school opening ceremonies due to take place the next day to celebrate the completion of the earthquake rebuild, to which we will also be attending.

For some days I have been gathering a fine collection of insect bites all over my body and legs. I think I have just found the source – ants! Tiny little brown ants. The bites are driving me mad. I would much rather have leeches on me.

In the morning we woke early as we had a busy day celebrating the ‘Build Back Better’ programme after the 2015 earthquake. A number of important big wigs were also staying in the lodge including the Resource Person, the DEO (District Education Officer) and a photographer and camera man from Kantipur, a Kathmandu television station.

We set off after breakfast for the two hour climb up to Lawajin Basic School, a remote community a long way up the hillside. At first we zig-zagged through woodland until we reached the crest of a ridge, giving us exclusive views up the Olongchungola Valley towards the border with Tibet. Had cloud not been hovering at the head of the valley, we would have been able to see white peaks piercing the sky.

The climb continued at a more gentle gradient up to another high point from which we could see the village with the school at its heart. Music could be heard as they made preparation for us. After a lengthy flat section we dropped down to cross a stream by a suspension bridge. On the rise on the other side of the river scouts were waiting to greet us with khata scarves. They then led us towards the school but before we reached it a drummer and cymbalist, along with all the children from the school, came to guide us in. A welcome arch of newly cut foliage lead us on to the playground where a canopy had been erected to protect us from the sun. There was a lot of activity with furniture being placed once, then moved to another place, only to be moved a third time. The new building looked good and houses the office and one classroom. Inside, they are bright and airy with a central skylight that makes all the difference. The walls are painted white with instructive murals painted on them. Mobiles hang from the ceiling.

The Resource Person and the DEO await the opening ceremony

As we sat under our canopy we were plied with fluid, first a cold orange drink, followed by tea, sickly sweet Red Bull and beer. Fortunately the toilets were not too bad. Behind them was the new water facility, which did not appear to be connected, or, perhaps it had been disconnected temporarily by the group of women busy producing hot water and cooking a lunch for everybody. There was a lone goat tethered there as well and I feared for its well-being a little later in the day.

Eventually the proceedings started with a quiz for three teams of children, the questions based on their curriculum. There seemed to be very few taking a great deal interest. Afterwards there were all sorts of little acts of ceremony with the DEO cutting a ribbon, me reading out what was on the brass plaque, presentation of certificates to various people involved with the rebuild. There were speeches from the various dignitaries there, including me. I won the prize for the shortest speech while the DEO and the political leader of the ward were quite lengthy. Occasionally dances filled the gaps between speeches, giving the whole occasion an air of chaos and confusion, added to by the occasional malfunction of the sound system.

Presentation of certificates

After all the speeches and ceremony we were served a lunch of rice, dal and cauliflower. There was some fish on some plates, not mine, but as it was nearly all bone and no meat I did not mind. I also avoided the goat that was available.

During lunch one of the villagers came up to me to thank the Himalayan Trust. His son had received a scholarship from us and has now just graduated as a CMA (Community Medical Assistant). He was so very grateful to us for giving his son this opportunity and start in life.

After a bit more dancing, with audience participation, we were escorted down the path by the same drummer and cymbalist that greeted us.

Beautiful layered landscape

We were heading towards Lungthung School, another victim of the 2015 earthquake. I had visited it in 2016 and was shocked by the extent of the damage. It was a lovely walk through a mixture of woodland and terracing. Until we dropped over a ridge that brought Lungthung into view, we had been able to hear the continuing party at Lawajin.
When we arrived there were many parents gathered on the playground waiting for something to happen. The children were still in class so we took the opportunity to see the new classrooms with children in them. They had been built to the same design as at Lawajin but there were six new classrooms. It was good to see both children and teachers enjoying this new facility.

After the tour, we went to sit on the playground where tables and chairs had been placed for us so that we could join the many parents. It was beginning to rain lightly as the headmaster started the proceedings, which followed a similar pattern to the morning session with lots of introductions and speeches. The head who was leading the programme didn’t altogether seem to know what was happening and kept referring to Rajendra for guidance. I was pleased that we were not being subjected to microphones being wired through karaoke machines. There was similarly a little dancing.
When it was all over a meal was served of flaked rice with goat. There had been no carving of meat but a hacking of the whole animal into small bits that included a lot of offal, splinters of bone and, on Harry’s plate, a tooth. Harry is vegetarian.
Again, I avoided the meat.

Despite the remoteness of this region, they all have mobile phones

We were supposed to camp on the playground but it wasn’t really very suitable as it was stony on loose soil. Instead, we stayed in two houses close the the school, the families sacrificing their bedrooms for us. I think my room belonged to the daughter of the house.
We spent the evening in the kitchen of one of the houses having fun with the family. You don’t get experiences like that on a normal trek.

That night it rained heavily so we were glad not to be camping.

Returning to Lelep

The following morning there were snowy peaks showing at the head of the Olangchungola Valley. After breakfast we walked back to Lelep in time for an early lunch, before heading across to two schools in the Hellok Valley. I decided not to go as I was having a bit of pain from my Achilles, but was more concerned about a bit of chaffage. It was only when I went to wash that I realised the extent of it, it having turned a bit nasty. Hopefully, plenty of cream will enable me to walk comfortably to Amjilosa tomorrow.

I’ve now got a cold! As I dressed and packed this morning and took down my tent I was sweating profusely and as I took my kit over to the lodge, I moved lethargically. I took a couple of paracetamol and hoped that I could cope with today’s walk from Lelep to Amjilosa, which included a steep climb at the end.

The route to Amjilosa and Ghunsa is up the left hand valley

I started quite well, the paracetamol having taken effect. I set the pace which suited me and knew would benefit the majority of the group. Jonathan is supremely fit and likes to race on ahead occasionally. The route up the valley towards Ghunsa is not easy. It is very undulating, crosses some difficult terrain where landslides had occurred during and since the earthquake. The noise from the river was deafening as the torrent raced and tumbled over a chaotic array of rocks, some the size of a house. It really was spectacular.

After a couple of hours I began to flag and questioned my ability to reach Amjilosa. I had absolutely no strength in my thighs. What made it so difficult was the fact that I could not find a rhythm; there were a lot of ups and downs and every footfall had to be planned. I was breathing heavily and sweating so much it poured off the end of my nose. I decided at the next stop I would take two more paracetamol. Kate also distributed some of the contents of my rucksack among other members of the group.

Jonathan enjoying the view on the way up to Amjilosa

We eventually reached the last settlement in the valley bottom before embarking on the climb up to Amjilosa. I drank a bottle of coke, tea, with sugar, water and noodle soup. After at least an hour’s rest we set off, crossing the river for a fourth and final time. I felt so much better following my sugary intake. Because it was steep I could find a rthythm, control my breathing and my temperature. I led most of the way up the zig-zag path. Amjilosa came into view and we were there. I did not think I would have reached it a few hours earlier. Now I have to psych myself up again for tomorrow’s challenging walk to Gyabla.

I lost my appetite in the evening. Dal bhat did not appeal to me one little bit. I hoped this was not a bad omen!

It was! In the early hours of the morning I had to make a dash for the toilet and again as the dawn light lit up the snowy peaks at the head of the valley. It did not take me long to decide not to go any further but to head back down to Lelep. At least there I can rest and I can spend a couple of days observing lessons in the school. So, while the rest of the group headed up towards Gyabla, I headed back down with my porter.

By the time I reached Lelep and the final climb up to the lodge I was at the limits of my endurance. I could not go another step. That feeling confirmed that I had made the right decision, along with the fact that I still had an upset stomach. Hopefully four days of not doing very much will see me right for the last phase of this trip.

I spent over twelve hours in bed last night, mostly asleep but punctuated with visits to the toilet. I ate nothing in the morning, spending my time between reading and dozing. Premina persuaded me to have some noodle soup for lunch but within three hours that had passed through me. I have no energy and am beginning to wonder if I will be strong enough for the rigours of the next few days after the rest of the group return from Ghunsa.
It took at least 48 hours for the medicine from Lelep health post to kick in and for me to begin to feel as if I might be able to continue with this journey rather than return to Kathmandu early. One of the benefits is that I seem to have lost a significant amount of weight. My shorts no longer fit me snuggly! A great result but I would have preferred to have achieved it by normal means.

On my last lonely morning the whole village emptied. Roadworks have come to a standstill. Whilst the villagers want the road they do not want to lose any land to it. The road has reached a point where the landowner is adamant that it is not crossing his land. There is no compensation for loss of land or potential loss of income, so he is digging his heals in. The conversation started early this morning outside my lodge before moving on to the point where the work has come to a standstill. There was an eerie silence in Lelep. And when the people did return, nothing had been resolved. Stalemate, for the time being at least.

Early in the afternoon the group returned from their journey to Ghunsa. It was good to see them and to have some good humoured company. They had found the trek demanding and were ready for the opportunity to shower, wash some kit and to flop. Fortunately for them the next day, 1st May, was a rest day before the final phase of the trip, which would eventually see up back in Taplejung having visited a further eight schools.

 

Yamphudin

Jeeps at the ready

I had forgotten just how hard the first day is trekking from Hapukhola to Kewang!

The day started at 5.00am when the alarm went off, waking us so that we would be ready for departure at 6.00. Breakfast was coffee and three slices of lightly toasted bread but no butter and only luminous red jam after I had eaten my blank toast. It didn’t need either butter or jam as it was slightly sweet.

Two jeeps arrived with eight porters and the members of the REED team who were accompanying us and we loaded our kit on to the roofs of the two vehicles. The ten of us were to go into one while the thirteen Nepalis were to squeeze in the other.

The first 35km of the journey saw us retracing our route of Friday night towards Phidim. At the first opportunity we left the main road on to a side road that would take us to Hapukhola. Initially it was tarmaced but that soon ran out and we were treated to a rollercoaster ride for two hours as we descended one hill, crossed a river and climbed another. At times it was a really rough journey and I found there were times when I really had to concentrate hard, and I was in the front seat with Jonathan who had to sit with his legs either side of the gear stick, an experience he seemed to enjoy.

Ready for the trek

We arrived at Hapukhola an hour ahead of schedule, 10.30. Time for noodle soup before we hit the trail.

As the hottest part of the day approached, we set out climbing steeply for a while above the Hapukhola River. It was hot, and very humid. It did not take me long to realise that I was going to find it hard. To be honest, I had not really prepared myself for this trek. I had been more concerned about the paperwork preparation rather than any physical work, other than a couple of outings since I got back from Vietnam. I was also carrying far too much weight, not in my rucksack, but on my body. A wake up call, perhaps.

Having gained some height the path then contoured around the hill before dropping to another river, after which there was a long, steep climb up to Appdada. I really struggled on this climb, breathing very heavily as I pulled my frame up each painful step. Along with the physical difficulty, I was now struggling mentally with the task I was embarking on. Self-doubt. A cup of tea and some cake improved my physical and mental well-being for a while but the effects soon wore off as we climbed further but less steeply for the next two hours.

Mike trying to pick up a porter load during a brief rest

We eventually turned round a bluff, which marked the start of the village of Kewang. I had fond memories of this village when I visited and stayed there two years ago. It was a green and well-cared for village. Now a road has sliced right through the middle of it destroying anything in its path and laying huge tracks of land to waste. A giant monster has ravaged the land and left a desolate wasteland in its wake. And that is all it has done. Nothing more, and inhospitable to any vehicle that might be brave enough to attempt to travel on it. It will be many years before the road has anything resembling a surface and, thus will remain as an evil scar. If my mood was fairly black before, this site made it worse.

By the time we reached the school playground where we were camping night was approaching fast. It had taken us six and a half hours of hard graft to reach this point. Putting the tents up in the rapidly fading light proved to be interesting, but we succeeded. It was good to relax in the lodge and an early night was required after we had eaten.

The road was still playing on my mind. The people of Kewang want it, and I can understand that, but what will happen when the road reaches further villages? If tourism takes off in this area, Kewang will suffer. At the moment it is a natural overnight stopping point for those trekking towards Kangchenjunga. Once the road is fully functional, everybody will bypass the village in favour of going further towards their goal. With these thoughts I went to sleep to be rudely awakened by dogs barking at 1.15, disturbed by lightening and distant rumbles if thunder. Fortunately, the disturbance did not last long and I had a good night’s sleep.

Irreparable environmental damage

After breakfast, we set out on our journey to Yamphudin on the lovely path that once ran all the way through the village. It was not long before we hit the road again and the journey became a less pleasant trudge. This road took us to the summit of the first pass. Near the summit we came across the monster responsible for all the damage, a large digger slicing huge chunks out of a terrace already planted with maize, and spilling it on the downhill side of the road to make up the width.

At the top we took a rest before heading down the other side. We thought we could now walk down the original path but we again found ourselves forced to follow the road until it ran out. Then we had to pick our way through steep, damp greenery until we could pick up the path below. It was slightly precarious.

Atmospheric scene at the top of the pass

Just before the next climb we stopped at a lodge for tea while watching the porters play Karam, a cross between pool and shove halfpenny. We spent at least half an hour there.
The next climb was not too long but, although I was walking better than yesterday, I was still slower and more laboured than I would have liked. At the top we could look down on Yamphudin below. The descent to get there was long and steep and took us through thick woodland, woodland we have been warned that will rapidly disappear with the building of the road.

We reached the village in time for lunch and then set about putting our tents up before it rained. We just about managed it.

The new health post under construction

Later in the afternoon a number of us popped a little way up through the village to the site of the new health post that HTUK is building. They have got to above the windows and must soon be ready to start work on the roof timbers. It is going to be great and a super asset to this lovely community. We met the elderly lady who donated the land for the new health post, sitting on her porch. It is such a generous gesture as she is unlikely to benefit for very long from the facility but she will have bequeathed something very important for her community.

In the evening we had a lot of fun playing Chameleon in the lodge.

The next morning, immediately after breakfast, we headed up the steep path to Kangchenjunga Basic School. I soon began to realise that I was finding this very difficult and decided that I was committing my body to strenuous exercise when all it wanted to do was digest its breakfast. I really had no energy for walking up a steep hill and found I was breathing really heavily and needed to rest. I suggested the others went on ahead but Ian insisted on staying with me. A little further up Harry, Ross and Jonathan hung back to join me and Jonathan took my rucksack. Even without any weight on my back I still found it difficult despite being treated to some hazy views of distant glaciers and snowy peaks.

I was glad to have eventually reached the school. For a time I really thought I was going to have to turn back. I was feeling really disappointed with my performance.

Despite the fact that the school was not officially open, the majority of pupils turned up because of our visit. They were delightful and were very communicative and eager to practice their English. Their faces were open and smiling, happy children in their school environment. And what an environment, what a location with stunning mountain views from their own lofty position.

Kangchenjunga Basic School new water supply

We sat on benches on the playground and met the head teacher, chairman of the SMC and parents over tea and biscuits. They are all very grateful for the support given by REED and HTUK. We were pleased to see the new water supply functioning. It appears that they managed to get somebody else to fund the 500m of black plastic pipe they needed, and with the community contribution in the building of the standpipe they had enough funds to rebuild the toilet, which was damaged in the earthquake.

Their concern now is that the children do not have a hot snack in the middle of the day. Some bring one with them to school but by the time they eat it it is cold. This is making some children ill in the afternoon. As there are only twenty children in the school, I don’t feel that it would cost a great deal to set up a snack fund, particularly if the facilities of the lodge just below the school could be used by a rotating mothers’ group.

After formal presentations and photos, we headed back down the hill for lunch.

In the afternoon we visited Kangchenjunga Secondary School, on whose playground we were camping. This school is ideally placed and has relatively good facilities, although the whole school could do with a new coat of paint. There were no children for us to observe but we toured round the classrooms. Very few have electricity and for those that do, it did not seem to work. I fear for the long term effects that dingy classrooms might have on the eyesight of the students. It was very hard to gauge the quality of the school without seeing teachers in action and children in situe.

At Yamphudin Secondary School

After the tour we gathered in one of the larger classrooms for a formal meeting. Quite a large crowd turned up, including the head, teachers, SMC members, parents, local officials and some residents, including teachers, from Kewang, a village outside our working area. There were many introductions, lots of garlands and a formal request for a snack fund. The way they envisage it working is the HTUK provides an initial sum of money that would be managed by the SMC. This money would be invested in order to provide interest, which would be used to provide daily snacks. The school would need to purchase some cooking items. In addition, local people would be able to take out a loan from the managed fund for which they would be charged interest so that the capital fund is maintained. I think this would work but I do feel that there would need to be investment in the fund from the community members, which would enhance it and, perhaps, reduce the amount of investment from HTUK.

At the end of the event I was presented with a rug made from sheeps wool with the name, Yamphudin, woven along its length. The ladies who made it were there and they told me it had taken them three days to weave.

That night, and again the following morning I had an upset stomach, which possibly accounted for my disappointing performance going up the hill that morning.

Leeched!

We had a lot of rain in the night and it continued for much of the day. Low cloud hung around the mountains and the rain was pretty constant. The wet weather brought out the leeches and several seemed to find their way inside my waterproof trousers. I had six in total. They always look much worse than they are. There is no pain involved, no after infection and once they have had their fill they just drop off. The wound just bleeds for a long time afterwards as they inject an anti-coagulant.

While we had been in Yamphudin the monster eating up the land to make a road had made rapid progress. Unfortunately, no consideration had been taken regarding the path we were walking on. It was now lost under tons of soil, rock and broken trees, discarded without care. Hence, we had to find our way over steep, very unstable ground that was looking for any opportunity to slip lower. It was quite precarious.

On a positive note, I was walking much better, I felt more energised and able to maintain my pace. I wasn’t quite as quick up the first hill as I was two years ago but speed is not the be all and end all. It is how you feel both physically and mentally, and I was feeling good.

That night, because we had a lot of wet kit and our tents were wet, we stayed in the lodge in Kewang, providing us with a little more comfort and an opportunity to dry things out a bit.

The last day of our walk out found us walking in really sultry conditions. It was incredibly humid despite the cloud. Eventually the sun did come out and then it was really hot. I still felt good.

The jeeps were at Hapukhola to meet us and after a bowl of noodle soup we embarked on the bumpy ride back to Taplejung. It was not all plain sailing as the recent heavy rain had turned sections of the road into a very sticky mess. We came across a lorry stuck up to its axels in mud. A tractor and trailer that tried to squeeze by or move to the side, also got stuck and added to the mayhem. Meanwhile traffic waited either side for something to happen. I say traffic, there may have been four vehicles either side of the blockage. Eventually a digger came to the rescue and pulled the tractor out and then the lorry. Before any vehicles could continue their journey the huge ruts has to be filled. All a bit of fun that added an hour to our journey. Long before we got back to Taplejung more heavy rain fell from the skies.

When we got into the hotel there was frantic washing of kit in the hope that we could get it dry by the morning when we would start the next phase of our journey.

During the course of the last few days I have openly admitted that I am carrying too much weight, not in my rucksack but in front of me. I did not prepare adequately for a trek and I only have myself to blame. Kate came up with the idea of a sponsored slim, declaring that I should lose 15kg by Christmas. She drew up a formal agreement that I signed in front of witnesses. Struggling has really given me a kick up the arse. I will be much lighter by Christmas and the Himalayan Trust UK will benefit as a result.

Kathmandu to Taplejung

Kathmandu is changing. As we emerged from the haze above the city new estates of small, orderly houses are replacing the chaotic distribution of buildings and there are many more taller buildings, even in the last two years since my last visit.

No other planes sat on the apron and because we were all organised with our paperwork, I was able to walk straight up to the desk for my visa. Never before have I had such a smooth transition through the airport on arrival. Even the luggage came through quite quickly and we were out meeting Rajendra and Ujjwal much sooner than I expected. Even the front of the airport looked different with some efforts taken to create some order into the way people are managed as they emerge from their journey.

Life Story Guesthouse

The Life Story Nepal Guest House is an old Newari house that has been lovingly restored and turned into a boutique hotel. It belongs to a Ukranian and a Belorussian. The ceilings are low and the stairs steep and narrow. Rubber has been placed on those beams most likely to cause injury. The rooms overlook a square with similar houses around its perimeter and also a temple. Various religious icons and statuary adorn the square and there is a communal well where people come to collect their daily water supply. Another open balconied building acted as a function centre where there was much music and merriment emerging, filling the square and bouncing back off the walls. Black crows perched noisily and menacingly on the rooftops while pigeons cooed on the ground, picking their way amongst the sleeping dogs.

That evening we walked up to Patan Durbar Square, now still in the throes of major restoration following the 2015 earthquakes, and beyond to Swotha where we planned to have our evening meal.

At the REED office with staff

The following morning, a combination of body clock misalignment, bright sunshine, temple bells, barking dogs and cawing crows ensured that I woke up quite early. After a good rooftop breakfast we walked the short distance to the REED office where we met all the staff. They had prepared a couple of presentations for the group on the work of their organisation and on possible future developments of their programmes in schools of the Taplejung District, in the far NE of Nepal.

After lunch we took taxis into Thamel, a journey that took considerably longer than it should for the distance because of the gridlocked roads. Travel in the city is getting more and more congested despite road widening and improvements that have occurred in recent years.

Wandering the streets of Thamel in safety

In Thamel we visited Shona’s to buy some kit and then went to Northfield Cafe for a beer. The roads in the heart of Thamel are now pedestrianised, making it much safer and more pleasant to walk around. The site next door to the Northfield Cafe that used to be the wonderful Pilgrims book store, sadly burnt to the ground a few years ago, is now a new shopping mall, with plush, brightly lit shops, so out of character with old Thamel, but now, gradually, becoming the norm.  Even the Northfield Cafe has undergone change, extended its area and tidied itself up a bit.

Repairing the damage

Knowing our time in Kathmandu was limited at either end of this trip, I suggested that we walk down to Durbar Square. There are several in the group for whom this is their first visit and it would be a shame not to make the most of their time.

It now costs NRs1000 to visit and as soon as we approached the kiosk we were pounced upon by guides who were reluctant to accept, “No thank you,” as an answer. We were also pounced upon to buy all sorts of tat by street vendors. Fending them off spoils the occasion.

The late afternoon sunlight was superb, highlighting the carved wood of the pagodas.
As we walked closer to the square the damage from the earthquake became more devastating. Many of the remaining pagodas are propped up while others are being rebuilt from the ground up. The old royal palace is sheathed in scaffolding and sheets that hide the full impact of the quake. Kumari’s palace was remarkably undamaged while everything around it collapsed. With the help of a guide who, although turned down by us, continued to follow and chip in, we managed to time our visit with a balcony appearance of The Living Goddess, Kumari. This particular living goddess is three years old and has been in residence since last October. As she nervously looked down upon us you could not help but think that this young girl’s life has been manipulated. For what? A life apart from reality through her most important years and then not able to adjust into normality once she has fulfilled her role.

The taxi back to Patan was interesting as none of the drivers really knew where they were going and as the guest house is not accessible by vehicle, they had not heard of it. Eventually, we made it back.

That night we ventured out to a traditional Newari restaurant for a rooftop terrace meal while watching distant lightening light up the night sky.

In the night the Arna beer, a new brand in my experience, gave me a beer induced headache.

In the morning I was up and going quite early and left Tim purring gently. When I returned at 7.00 to make sure he was up and going, he was still sleeping. Waking him, I busied myself with a bit of last minute sorting if kit before visiting the bathroom. When I emerged, Tim had gone up to the roof for breakfast, locking me in the room. It took an age to attract attention. I tried shouting up from my open window, whistling and phoning various members of the group, none of whom answered. Eventually, one of the staff heard me and got Tim to release me from my prison. I will take my revenge but I will not rush. I will bide my time and keep him on edge for as long as I can.

The new Adventure Guide kit bags

Predictably our flight to Bhadrapur was delayed. It would not be Nepal if it was on time. By the time we left Kathmandu we we three and a half hours behind schedule having spent two and a half hours in the departure lounge, thirty minutes sitting on a bus outside departures and a further thirty minutes sitting in the plane awaiting instructions to take off. By the time we were in the air the cloud had built up sufficiently over the high peaks that they were rendered invisible. Such a shame as this is probably the only opportunity people will have to see them.

On arrival in Bhadrapur the thirty degree heat hit us as we emerged from the plane. It probably then took us a further thirty to forty minutes to load the kit on to the roof of our two land cruisers before we could begin to eat into our journey up to Taplejung. After about an hour we stopped at a restaurant for some late lunch (it was now 4.00pm). We had resigned ourselves to accepting that this would be our only meal and that what we had would suffice for both lunch and dinner.

All crammed into one land cruiser

Once we left the plains of the south we began a series of climbs and descents on largely a series of hairpin bends. Distances covered are not huge but when managing to achieve an average of about 30km per hour it becomes a long haul.

Soon after starting the climb the light began to fade but it stayed light just long enough for us to appreciate we were travelling through tea country, the centre of which is Ilam, a town that seemed to take an age to reach.

After some time I was asked if we wanted to eat but nobody seemed interested in another long stop; we just wanted to reach our destination. However, in my decision making, I did not take into account the drivers or the Nepalis accompanying us. So, we stopped at Phidim a little before 10.00pm where they were fortunate enough to find somewhere open where they could get some dal bhat while we just had tea and biscuits. It was New Year’s Eve after all and we did have some rather jubilant Nepalis celebrating the fact on the next tables.

The last leg of the journey, two and a half hours to Taplejung, was more of the same. At one point our headlights picked out two rather scrawny wolves scurrying across the road.  We came across large sections of road where there had been huge landslides during last year’s monsoon. One must have been at least a kilometre across and will have inevitably cut Taplejung off from the rest of the world for some considerable time. No wonder the rebuild programme in schools and the supply of materials for the water project were delayed.

We eventually arrived at our hotel, the Mewa Khola Resort Hotel, at 1.30 in the morning. Construction of it was completed when we were here two years ago and is probably the best hotel in Taplejung, certainly better than any I had stayed in previously. The beds are very hard but at least I did not have to share it with Tim, just the room.

Bright sunshine greeted us a few hours later. After breakfast Tim, Kate, Ian and myself popped into town to sort out Nepali mobile phones. Thankfully we had Dinesh with us to make the purchases much smoother than they might otherwise have been.

While I returned to the hotel the others went on further and visited the hospital. I remember it as being a very dismal and dark place, scruffy in the extreme. From there comments it seems to be much better. The staff they spoke to were enthusiastic and were committed to their work, unlike the District Medical Officer I had previously met, who really did not want to be there.

From there they visited the courthouse, and although they could not go in, they could go into the gardens which overlook the prison, provided they did not take any photos. They had one of the warders talk to them and they learned there were 109 inmates, largely serving time for either murder or rape. One can only assume that these were acts of violence induced by the consumption of alcohol.

The restaurant I was hoping to go to for lunch had been burnt down, a common occurrence it would seem in Taplejung, so we ate in our own hotel and had some very tasty paneer moms, although they took at least an hour and a half to materialise after ordering.

Tomorrow we start our trek to Yamphudin. Looking forward to it.

A Memorable Two Days in Scotland

An opportunity arose for me to take a quick trip up to Aberdeen to visit my son for two days. Knowing that a drive would eat into the little time we had together, and be costly, I chose to fly up from Birmingham. By taking the early Saturday morning flight I would be in Aberdeen by 10.00am, leaving the rest of the day available for whatever activities we chose to do. Unfortunately the weather was not very kind to us, and knowing this, Stephen had booked us in for a distillery tour at 1.00. In the meantime we headed out to the mouth of the River Ythan to the north of the city. Leaving the car, we walked over the sand dunes on the south side of the estuary and dropped down to the beach. A brisk wind came at us from the North Sea. Across the estuary, on the opposite shore, were hundreds of seals, a huge colony made up of large, black males, a great many paler females and lots of pups in varying stages of development. Squabbles broke out on the crowded beach as the occupants protected their space or just because they felt grumpy. Great seal groans boomed across the water from the males as they used their noise to control their females and to warn off other, nearby males.

In the water, heads bobbed up and down and some seals came close to our shore to have a look at us. When we looked back the dived noisily to reappear a little further along the shore to watch us as we walked by. They are a very curious species and their huge eyes and long lashes melt any heart.

We walked out to the end of the estuary, only to turn back the way we had come. The seals followed us, curious. Going further up the estuary we came to part of an upturned wooden hull embedded in the sand with clusters of tiny mussels around its base. How long had it been there? Quite a while by the looks of it.

Returning to the car we grabbed a bite of early lunch before going to the Glen Garioch Distillery at Oldmeldrum, one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland. Production of whisky has been carried out on this site since 1797. The tour was a pleasurable experience but, as so often happens these days, there is very little activity to see, especially at the weekend. There is nobody working anywhere in the distillery other than the guides, and the process is so automated that there are very few workers, full stop. There was nothing happening in the malting area, and certainly no heat, which would have been appreciated on such a chilly day. No mashing was taking place and all the vats and apparatus were empty and spotlessly clean. We were told it was all ready for starting the process all over again on Monday morning. We did not get the smell of fermentation or the rich fragrances from the distillery.

Once the tour was over we returned to the shop where they tempted us to buy some by giving us small samplers. As Stephen was driving, he was given some to take home. My samples were lovely, although I preferred mine without the addition of water, but as I only had hand luggage I really didn’t have the capacity for extra weight or bulk.

By now it was raining properly, so we headed into Aberdeen, to the Queen Vic to watch Ireland beat Scotland and France beat England in the Six Nation Rugby. It was an interesting experience for when the England match was playing there was not a single Frenchman in the pub but nearly everybody was willing France to win.

Afterwards, we slunk out to find somewhere to eat before heading back to Stephen’s house in Cults. An early night was in order after the early start of the morning, but also, there was promise of some good weather in the morning.

The weather was indeed good the following morning, very good. So, where to go?

Leaving snow-free Aberdeen behind, we headed west towards the mountains. As we did so the snow began to appear and accumulate the further we ventured into the mountains. By the time we arrived in Braemar the snow was piled high at the sides of the road where the snowplough had cleared a way.

Armed with crampons and ice axe we were prepared for anything.

We soon started to climb through thin woodland. The snow was about a foot deep and made the going quite tough. The skies were clear and there was not a breath of wind. The exertion of the climb soon had us sweating and wishing there was some slight movement of air.

After some time we rose above the trees on to the open hillside and the white vista opened out all around us. The climb ahead looked steady but there was no sign of the path hidden beneath the deep snow. The only telltale sign of where we should go was a single set of footprints snaking away from us towards the summit at present still hidden from view. Placing my boots into the deep depressions of our predecessor, we climbed at a steady pace, stopping occasionally to appreciate our surroundings and the expansive view across to the Cairngorms.

Most of the time we were walking with our heads down following the footsteps. Imagine our delight when we looked up and saw a beautiful white hare sitting on the snow a short distance from us. After a while he bounded off up the hill with such ease, to then rest while watching us plod up through the snow.

As we neared the summit the gradient eased and so did the snow as much of it had been blown off by the wind.

On the summit, if you ignore the radio mast and accompanying shed, there is a full 360 degree vista across a sea of white mountains. The mast had wonderful snow sculptures within its framework and the building had drifts all the way up to the roof on the windward side. But now there was no wind, not a breath of it. We sat on rocks enjoying our lunch in warm sunshine listening to lumps of snow falling off the radio mast behind us. It was too nice to rush. With the summit to ourselves except for two others who followed us up, there was no desire to leave. So rarely do you have perfectly still days in Scotland, particularly when there is so much snow about, it was an experience to savour. Capercaillie clucked all around us but we’re not always easy to see despite the fact that they were black. When they were among the rocks they were well camouflaged; it was only when they were on snow that they stood out clearly.

We had to leave at some point in time, so when we had absorbed enough of the view, we set off following a rough land rover track that was there to service the radio station. The going was easy until we dropped off the summit ridge into deeper snow, and now we did not have footprints to follow. The track was easier to see as the surface of the snow was smooth, but it was also deeper, making it tough going. For a while we left the track and tried a more direct route down the hill but that proved, after some time to be more tiring with a less predictable surface under the snow. Now we were seeing more and more hare and capercaillie on this more remote and quieter side of the mountain. The tracks in the snow left by the hare were amazing. The distance between each pair of rear prints was enormous, easily nine or ten feet apart.

The descent was taking much longer than expected. We could see our target, the old military road that traversed the mountain back to Braemar, but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. We had seen the best of the day, for cloud now hung about the summits.

As we we nearing the bottom, the track traversed round a small bluff. We must have been noisier than we thought because suddenly there were about 100 deer running across the track in front of us and off up the hill to our left.

Eventually we reached the old military road, and that is where I encountered the deepest snow. As I stepped on to it from the rough ground beside it, one leg disappeared up to my waist. I had stepped into a roadside ditch. It was a bit of a struggle to pull my leg out without the other sinking into the soft snow to join it. Having freed myself the road was fairly flat but still covered in deep snow until we came to the first farm. Now the road was clear and it was an easy walk back into Braemar.

We had been out on the hill for almost 6 hours. We had not been cold at all, apart from my feet, because my boots seemed to have lost their ability to keep the wet out. We hadn’t needed crampons or ice axe; the conditions had been perfect.

In Braemar we visited The Bothy Cafe for a deserved cup of tea and piece of cake. We had had a super day’s walk, one to remember for a long time to come. As we drove back to Aberdeen we reflected on the day with a great deal of satisfaction.

The following morning, I was up early to catch my flight to Birmingham and was home soon after 9.00am. After such a successful weekend, I can see me doing it again, quite soon.