Phoktanglung Lunch Boxes

I won’t bore you with the details of each school visit we made. This is not really the platform for that. However, there its one success story I would like to share. For some months we have been running a pilot scheme where each child in a number of schools have been provided with a thermos lunch box. Having supplied the boxes, it is then up to the schools to educate the parents into putting food into the box each day before sending their children to school.

It was while on our way back to Taplejung that we made time to walk up to Phoktanglung School to see the children enjoying their lunch.

We arrived at 12.55, five minutes before the lunch bell went. The thermos lunch boxes were stored in the head’s office. We had two representatives of Rotary with us to assess the project.

When the bell went the children lined up on the playground. A member of staff handed out the lunch boxes one by one, with the children taking them quietly. There was no rush about the process. The children took their lunch boxes and placed them on the grassy playground. They then went to wash their hands before returning to sit in a whole school group to enjoy their lunch.

Opening the boxes there were a variety of vegetables on the top layer. Beneath was an ample portion of rice. They mixed their vegetables with the rice. Some ate with spoons while others used the traditional right hand. It was civilised and quiet. The staff were around but they did not have to intervene at all. There were 34 children and they all had a lunch

When they finished they washed their lunch boxes out and put them on the wall to dry.

Meeting with the head afterwards he said, when asked if there had been a noticeable change since the introduction of the lunch boxes, that there had been improved attendance and that the children were more focused.

The Rotary people who were with us were very impressed and also see no reason why we should not promote these plastic lunch boxes rather than the all stainless steel version, which is almost twice as expensive. To supply 1300 children with similar boxes would cost approximately £4500.

At the time of writing we have had a number of donations amounting to around £2000. Another £2500 would ensure that all the children in our project area can receive a lunch box, and further increase their learning potential and educational outcomes.



Travelling to Lelep

Under normal circumstances we would fly from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, but the latter was closed for renovations, so we had to fly to Biratnagar, one of the industrial centres of Nepal.

On arrival at the airport we hung around outside the terminal waiting for one of the hotel staff to bring our packed breakfasts, which both we and they had forgotten. Fortunately, we did not have to wait long as motorbikes can weave their way through the early morning traffic more easily than a car. Entering the domestic check-in terminal you are hit by a cacophony of noise, of shouted instructions echoing in the high ceilinged hall, giving us little chance to understand, even if we could speak the language. But, remarkably, it seems to work. Our bags were checked in, boarding passes issued with a warning that the flight was delayed due to bad weather.

Having passed through security, it was simply a matter of sitting in the departure lounge and waiting. More indecipherable announcements called people to departure gates, which, interestingly, the longer we waited became less indecipherable as our ears and brains adjusted. Eventually, an hour late, an almost indecipherable announcement called us and we boarded the ancient bus to take us to our waiting aircraft.

On these flights it is always best to sit on the left when you fly east. This gives you the best view of the mountains. All of our party, except Anna had left sided seats, so I gave up my window seat and sat on the right side. I have done this flight numerous times and it is only fair that others, who may never have the opportunity again, get the best seats.

And what great views they had, once we had cleared the early morning mist and smog of the Kathmandu Valley. Above it all, as clear as a bell, a wall of majestic, snowy mountains like no others in the world. First the peaks of Langtang, but as we flew east more recognisable peaks came into view – Cho Oyu (6), Pumor Ri, Nuptse, Lhotse (4), Everest (1), Makalu (5) and Kangchenjunga (3). Five of the world’s top six mountains in one view. It is remarkable and a view that excites, whether you have seen once or ten times.

On arrival in Biratnagar, our two land cruisers were waiting for us and as soon as they were loaded, we started the six hour drive to Ilam. Biratnagar is a sprawling city and it seemed to take ages to escape the urban area that makes up Nepal’s fourth largest city. Escape we did, and we travelled through part of the low lying agricultural landscape of the Terai. The rice harvest was well under way and fields of stooped saris could be seen on either side of the road. It is mainly women who do this back-breaking labour, and even though the landscape is flat, there is little evidence of farm machinery to make life easier.

In one town we stopped for some lunch. It wasn’t a particularly welcoming place to eat, so we tended to look for very safe options on the menu, vegetable soup or vegetable chow mien. Just as well, for when we went to the loo we discovered it was adjacent to the food preparation area, which was not appealing. Perhaps, if we had gone to the loo first, we might have decided to go hungry. To be fair, nobody suffered any ill-effects.

Gradually, we could see faint outlines of hills to the north, which became clearer as we got nearer. The vegetation changed with large areas of sal forest with cattle, goats and pigs foraging amongst them. These gave way to tea plantations of finely clipped bushes. I have travelled through this area several times and never see the tea pickers in action.

After six hours on the road we reached Ilam, the tea centre of Nepal. Our accommodation for the night was the Summit Hotel, which looks very respectable from the outside. It is owned by an ex-Gurkha who used to live in Hereford, and presumably built the hotel with his pension. The rooms are all very spacious but you can never be sure that the beds have been changed. Some rooms that were not occupied looked a mess as if the hotel is still in a state of ‘work in progress’.

The owner may well have his finger on the pulse but the staff, mostly made up of young men, don’t seem to have much idea of how to run a hotel. It is bit like Faulty Towers! Despite the many little things that are wrong with it, it is still, probably, one of the better hotels in Ilam. The night was disturbed by a horn blowing, as if in a procession, at 1.35 in the morning. This set the dogs off, making it difficult to fall back into a deep sleep.

Heading off after breakfast the following morning, we continued our journey on the ever winding road, up hill and down. For the first time, I got expansive views of the Kangchenjunga range with the hugely impressive Yallung on the western end and Padam, over the border in Sikkim, at the eastern end. Looking north, we could see layer upon layer of Himalayan foothills all leading up to the snow and rock wall that forms the border with India and Tibet. It was very impressive.

Phidim, about half way on our six hour journey, gave us a welcome break from our journey north. Here we were able to stretch our legs and have a light lunch before continuing.

Reaching Taplejung by mid afternoon, we checked into the Mewakhola Resort. I popped up to the REED office to say hello to the staff there and was joined by Rajendra. It was good to see him again.

My memory of Mewakhola Resort was of very long waits between ordering food and having it placed on the table in front of me, as much as two hours. Their service has improved tenfold, with food being brought out a matter of minutes after placing the order. Despite ordering a mushroom pizza, I was given a chicken pizza, which proved to be excellent, and did not produce any ill effects.

Despite two days of travelling by jeep, we hadn’t finished with them yet, and the hardest part of the journey was yet to come. Travelling for about five hours on a very bumpy, unmade road, we headed further into the mountains to Tapethok. In places the road was so uneven that the vehicles, despite having significant ground clearance, scraped their undersides on rock. At one point, the drivers got out and rearranged the rocks to make sure their vehicles could negotiate a particularly difficult section without incident.

It wasn’t always quite that simple. On the approached to Tapethok we had to cross a river. My vehicle managed to get through, but the other became stuck mid river. Thinking that less weight in the vehicle would make it easier, Clive climbed out, slipped on the wet rocks and fell in, cutting his hand and submerging his camera. The hand could be repaired but the camera was beyond repair. I only found out about this as I was returning to look for them.

During the course of our stay in Tapethok, we visited the health post, which has had significant investment since my last visit. An extension has been built, creating a recovery room adjacent to the delivery room, providing a good level of care before, during and after childbirth. A new store room has been built behind the post, along with a new kitchen and cooking facilities. It was only after we had visited that we learned that there are plans to build a dam at Tapethok to create a lake and a hydro-electric scheme. The health post, our lodge and everything within easy reach of the river was going to be flooded. The timescale for this was five years and compensation had already been paid out to the health post for a new post to be built on higher ground. Fortunately, the school is already situated on higher ground, so will be unaffected.

Once settled in Tapethok, we walked up to the school where a new head teacher has recently taken up post. Already, there seemed to be a much better atmosphere in the school, now that it was being run by a headmaster who embraces the ethos of REED of providing quality, child-friendly education. We watched a number of lessons, and, more importantly, I had a close look at the classroom block that we have severe concerns about. The walls are crumbling and it is only a matter of time before it comes tumbling down, with, potentially, devastating consequences.




Moving on, we then met with the Chairman of the Rural Municipality, Saroj Limbu, who offered to cover 50% of the cost of a new building at the school. It would still mean that HTUK would have to raise £30,000, as they need to build on two floors to satisfy the needs of the school, but, having inspected the building, it must become a priority.

The following morning, porters arrived to carry our bags up to Lelep, where we were to base ourselves. It was good to be walking after so many days of travelling, and the walk up to Lelep is particularly pleasant.

In Lelep, Michelle Crouch was waiting for our arrival. Tim, Anna and I got there ahead of the others and engaged her in conversation. She was so keen to talk, to tell us all she had learned about the school, the girls’ hostel, which was part of our main focus for the visit, and about the health post. We had kept secret for months that she was in for a surprise. She didn’t know that her parents had come out with me from the UK and were just going to stroll into Lelep. The look of surprise on her face, the realisation and then the emotion is something to treasure. It had been a long journey ,but such a rewarding one to have got Jan and Clive, John and Ann to Lelep and to have that lovely element of surprise at the end.


Nepal – Nov. 2019 – Kathmandu

Arrival at Kathmandu airport is never the same twice. It is 18 months since I last flew into the city and changes have occurred. In order to speed up the process from touchdown to taxi they have abolished landing cards. I had pre-empted the visa procedure for the group by advising them to complete visa application forms before departure, with photo attached and money ready. And, to be fair, that worked very well and efficiently. But what came next was bizarre. Before we could go to the carousel to pick up our luggage, we had to queue to have ourselves and our hand luggage scanned. It was something to do with being metal free! To make matters worse there was little queue discipline and those who were charged with creating some discipline did not have a clue.

Having battled our way through the scanning process, the baggage collection area was heaving, not just with our flight but several others also.

Needless to say, our luggage had not come through yet, so we had an opportunity to watch the chaos and see the sort of packages many Nepalis, returning from working in Qatar, come home with. There were some huge cardboard packages, which were clearly widescreen televisions. Others could well have been fridges, freezers or washing machines. An American climbing expedition had box after box of equipment, but the most unlikely of all were two enormous animal cages with a greyhound in each! They were not very happy.

Eventually our bags arrived all together and we then joined the melee to try to vacate the airport. There was so much congestion in the green channel with boxes being inspected, that we were directed through the red channel in order to make our escape. Even then our passage was blocked by heavily laden trolleys, abandoned while their owners were changing their hard earned Dirham into Rupees.

We escaped to be met by our driver and  vehicle, directed to deliver us to the Nepal Life Story Guest House in Patan. It was good to be back.

While the rest of the group rested and caught up on lost sleep, I headed to Patan Durbar Square and Swotha, where I wanted us to eat in the evening. It was encouraging to see the progress made on the reconstruction of temples and artefacts since my last visit. There are now just two temples, one at either end, still going through the process. It was busy and a happy place to be.

Picking Tim up from Life Story, we walked down to the REED office to say ‘hello’ and to confirm arrangements for the following day. Many of the staff were out in the field but we chatted to Bhim and Gita who were both very welcoming. In fact, when I mentioned to Bhim that I wanted to buy lots of things to take back for King’s Hawford to sell, he offered to do the shopping for us, which was very welcome as he would get a much better price than me, even with some hard bartering.

Leaving REED we headed back towards Patan, stopping off at the Newari Kitchen to book a table for the following evening. We took advantage to sit and have a beer, while discussing the various, hoped for, outcomes of this visit.

As we left we looked towards the high, snowy peaks of Langtang piercing the darkening skies.

Meeting with the rest of the group who had revived after a decent rest, we headed towards Patan Durbar Square. The atmosphere was very relaxed with lots of local people sitting on the steps of the monuments and pagodas enjoying dusk.

By the time we came out of Swotha, well fed and with a beer or two, it was even more crowded in the square. Music and singing from one of the temples filled the air. One of the things the reconstruction has allowed is the installation of lighting highlighting the intricate carvings on the timbers. This also makes it a much more pleasant place for people to gather, to socialise and to enjoy some down time in their chaotic Kathmandu lives.

The following morning, having been woken by ringing bells, chanting worshippers, horns and dogs barking, all simultaneously, at 4.45am, we walked over to the REED office. There we met Bhim and Gita again. This time Gita gave a presentation on the work of REED, particularly with reference to Taplejung. It gave a better insight into our work and our relationship with REED. It gave the group an opportunity to ask questions ranging from recording outcomes, developing leadership skills and safeguarding. It was a valuable meeting and REED impressed their audience, giving them confidence in their involvement with HTUK.

Heading into Thamel for some lunch, I kept meeting people whom I knew, who were pleased to see me and made me feel very welcome. I went to see my money changer, whom I had not seen for three or four years. Remarkably, there were no issues with me asking to change £6000. He pulled wads of bundled 1000 rupee notes from under his counter. There were no locked safes, no shatter proof glass, no security what-so-ever and I was able to walk out immediately with 870,000 rupees in my bag.

Azam, a jeweller I have known for years, when at first, he seemed nothing more than a boy with a Michael McIntyre quiff, he is now middle aged with flecks of grey in his hair. I promised to go and see him next spring when I return and will have a little more time.

After lunch we went to visit another friend of twenty two years, Meyrav Mor, an inspirational, passionate, focused and determined Israeli woman who has devoted nearly all her adult life to education. She is in the process of setting up a teacher training centre and school, which brings together the philosophies of Buddhism and Rudolf Steiner. The centre she is creating, in the shadow of a Buddhist monastery close to Swayambunath, displays everything that is special about Meyrav, a calming, caring, artistic haven in the chaos that is Kathmandu, exactly as I first met her in her little school in the squalor of Bal Mandir orphanage in 1997.

Leaving Meyrav, our taxis took us to Swayambunath, the Monkey Temple. It lived up to its nickname with a huge population of cheeky rhesus monkeys jumping and cavorting around us. The foot of the hill was crowded with local visitors of all faiths, who are happy to celebrate and enjoy this spectacular venue. Climbing the steps up to the stupa, we were able to see just how much damage was done during the 2015 earthquake. The stupa and some of the surrounding monuments were unscathed, but the buildings around the edge, including the monastery, were completely destroyed, and are still in the process of being rebuilt.

From its lofty position, you can look out over the whole of Kathmandu, or at least as far as the smog will allow you to see. The growth over the twenty six years I have been travelling to Nepal has been unbelievable. I remember there being green fields all around the base of the hill on which Swayambunath sits. Not any more! Every square inch of land has been built on.

It is a great place to watch the late afternoon sun dip behind the horizon, a huge, hazy, orange ball.

Getting away proved difficult and showed to the group, many of whom had not been to Kathmandu before, or visited so long ago they remember it as almost car free, just how congested it has become. It took us the best part of ninety minutes to reach the Newari Kitchen in Patan. We arrived just on time for a beautiful, typical Newari meal.

An early night beckoned as we were heading out to the hills in the morning and we needed to be well rested before embarking on such a journey.

Wanderings in the Forest

I have always struggled with navigation in forests, and this last week has been no exception. Firstly, I ventured out into the Forest of Dean last week to plan for the up-coming group walk. I immediately discovered that unless you are walking one of the forestry commissions designated walks, the signage is, at best minimal, or at worst none existent. Without landmarks and the absence of sunshine, and an ever-present screen of trees, the odds were stacked against me. Maps are often of little use and even the phone was giving me false information. As a result, I spent the morning wandering around, becoming frustrated with my own inability to navigate, but at the same time enjoying the freedom that wandering provides. In the end, I decided to give up and leave it to chance with the group.

By the time the group walk took place, I had decided to revise the route. There has been so much rain recently, that the section along the banks of the Wye was too slippery and unpleasant; we would remain in the woods throughout. I also gave out printed maps to each of the seven walkers who had joined me, so that they could take some responsibility for the route finding/selection. I don’t think they were referred to at all during the walk.

Heading south from Symonds Yat Rock car park on a gloriously sunny, if chilly, morning, the route was easy. Conversation flowed. These walks are not just about the exercise but the social interaction, without distraction, that walking provides. With the exception of two members of the group, we had all been in Kyrgyzstan earlier in the year and this was the first time we had been together since, so it was very much a reunion.

When we reached the camp site at Braceland we had navigational decisions to make. It was clear that  it really did not matter where we went, so I made it up as we went along. Much of the time we were never quite sure which path we were on; occasional junctions or turns helped us, and we were able to adjust if we felt we were going in the wrong direction. Largely, it was the position of the sun that indicated our direction of travel, and if it indicated we were travelling the wrong way, we corrected at the first opportunity.

Remarkably, we found ourselves on the Wysis Way, which links Offa’s Dyke with the Thames Path, and which I had wanted to be on. Having found it, we stayed on it. At one point, Simon was lagging behind, and when he caught up with us, he showed us why. He had been taking photos of a stag in amongst the trees, not too far off the path. The rest of us had been either too deep in conversation, or careful with our foot placements, that we missed it.  Eventually, we reached the Suck Stone where we stopped for lunch. The Suck Stone is a rocky outcrop that provides a good view out over the forest and beyond. It is the first, and only, point from which we had had any view at all.

It was time to make tracks, and to find our way down to the River Wye. There was plenty of distraction along the route while people harvested sweet chestnuts, which were in abundance. So focused on that, and convinced that we were on the right path, we were led into a small quarry with no way out, other than to retrace our steps. I knew where we had gone wrong. There had been a hint of a path leading off at the edge of an enclosure, which I had ignored. Foolish me!

It was while on this wrong path that we bumped into a young couple. The girl recognised me but I had to be helped in recognising her. It was Olivia Hyde who had been on the Himalayan Club 2011 trip to Ladakh. She and her boyfriend had recently moved up to Cheltenham from London and were taking advantage of the countryside now available to them. It was great to catch up.

Taking the correct path, we descended steeply down to the river, which was full and brown; not the tranquil, clear river that we have grown to love on numerous canoe trips. Now there would be very little need to paddle, and you certainly would not need four days to canoe its length.

The sting in the tail is that there is a steepening climb back up to the carpark, but there is the reward of a cup of tea in the cafe at the finish. The reward is also the view from the lookout point at the top of Yat Rock.

We had managed to cover 10.75 miles in our wanderings. While I enjoy having a plotted course to follow, this walk allowed us a degree of freedom that is equally enjoyable. We were never really lost and every path leads somewhere.

Everest ’98 Reunion Weekend

Back in March, at the Himalayan Club 25th Anniversary Dinner, a group of girls from the 1998 Everest trip paid £300 during the charity auction,  for me to take them walking, twenty one years on from our previous walk together.

Have they changed? Not at all! In 1998 they talked their way, non-stop around Nepal and this weekend they talked non-stop around the Black Mountains. There was just a brief lull in the conversation as they tackled a short steep section. What has changed is the topic of conversation; a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening twenty-one years, or should I say waters broken, as the five girls have ten children between them and an eleventh on the way. What I don’t know about babies, child care (or the lack of it), pelvic floors and much more is not worth knowing. The conversation may have shifted but their sense of fun has not left them at all.

The weekend started on Friday evening, as, one by one, they arrived at the Old Chapel, each one impressing us with their navigational skills and following instructions. Over dinner, and a few bottles of wine, we broke the ice and learned where we all were in life. I brought out the list of all those who were on the trip, and despite the fact that the group of ’98 are dotted all over the world, they were able to let me know about who was where and what they were doing. It was not without the odd surprise!

Nursing slightly sore heads and sweating alcohol for the first hour, we headed up the hill behind the Old Chapel. David Thomas and Digger came with us, to add moral support and to look after Jo, who is pregnant, should she need an escape route. By the time we reached the summit ridge we were in cloud, and that is how we remained for much of the walk, until it began to clear in the afternoon. Despite the fact that they do not walk on mountains regularly, they managed a good pace throughout, despite the wind resistance caused by their constant conversation.

We reached Gadair Fawr in time for lunch on the summit, before heading across the featureless, boggy plateau up to Waun Fach. The girls were encouraged by this because they thought I’d said “wine bar”, having now forgotten about their thick heads of the morning.

On the top of Waun Fach we came across a DofE group from Reading. Apparently they seemed to think it was necessary to explain that Reading was near London! The girls pointed out that they were walking with their old teacher! Less of the old, please. When they realised that I was offended they decided to tell people that David and I were a gay couple and they were our children! I nearly fell through my pelvic floor!

Descending to the col at the top of McNamara’s Track, David continued the descent with Jo while the rest of us climbed back up to the ridge, over Mynydd Llysiau as far as Pen Twyn Glas. Along the route we met another DofE group from Stroud. This time the girls introduced themselves as part of a much larger group, who, were unfortunately, in prison. In fact the girls were only on day release and I had to get them back later in the day. The DofE group sat open mouthed, not sure whether to smile politely or run.

After 13 miles we returned to the Old Chapel for tea and rather too much cake. Lucy had some particularly good blisters on her heel, the result of having to borrow boots as she had left hers in France. The fact that she did not complain at all during the walk shows just how stoical she is.

Having gorged on cake, showered and changed, we headed next door to David and Annie’s so that the girls could enjoy a glass or two of Prosecco while easing their aching limbs in a hot tub. To add to the girlie treat, they each applied face packs with cucumber eye pads. Thoroughly spoilt!






After a good night’s sleep, the result of not drinking quite as much alcohol, we set off to Ystradfellte to experience a spectacular series of waterfalls. After recent heavy rainfall, I was hoping that they would give the girls the “Wow” factor. Unfortunately, most of South Wales was hoping for the same, so the area was fairly busy.

Walking along forest tracks, we headed to Sgwd Yr Eira on the River Hepste. This is the fall that you can walk behind on a safe, undercut rock ledge. You have to be prepared to get wet, which we did. The power of the water was phenomenal, sucking the air out of us as we breathed in. Spray was everywhere and we were immediately wet through. The volume of water tumbling over the lip was so vast that we were unable to see through it.

Climbing back up we ventured to the Afon Mellte, where were were to encounter a further three waterfalls. The first, Sgwd y Pannwr is at the end of a long limestone pavement. The water tumbles down over two ledges into a wide plunge pool. On other occasions I have seen canoeists drop over this fall, but I suspect there might have been a little too much water.

The next fall, I think, is one of the most spectacular. Sgwd Isaf Clun-gwyn is a wide, slightly horseshoe shaped fall that does not have a plunge pool but falls into a series of white, foaming cascades. It is possible to walk through the fall to a ledge behind, but care has to be taken as the power of the water can send you down the cascades with horrible consequences.

The final fall, Sgwd Clun Glyn, is the highest of the four falls and is where we had a bite of lunch. All we had to do now was return to the car park and head off to our different homes. As we walked back, the realisation that the weekend was coming to an end, dawned, and the conversations moved away from children to what next. There is a clear desire for more, perhaps a paddle along the River Wye next year followed by ambitious plans to take the adventure much further afield. And why not, life is for living.

We had a super weekend. The sixth formers I took to Nepal in 1998 have grown to be delightful women with great personalities and an appetite for fun. I am really looking forward to sharing more adventures with them. In the meantime, I am looking forward to getting back to our normal walking conversations concerning aches and pains, Stennah stairlifts and funeral plans!

Special thanks to Angela, David and Annie for joining in and looking after us so well.