It is pitch black and all that can be seen are the spotted head torches of pre-dawn trekkers. They move at a snail’s pace as they wind their way up yet another mountain to the Poon Hill Lookout. The lookout is more than 3,200 m above sea level and the air is thin, making every breath and every step harder and harder. The previous day’s trek has taken a toll on my muscles, but my mind is clear and determined – at daybreak I will be on top of Poon Hill to see the orange glow of sunrise highlight the snow-capped Annapurna mountain range of the Himalayas.
Annapurna is a section of the Himalayas in the central north of Nepal that is widely recognised as a naturalist’s paradise. My short trek from 1,070 m above sea level at Nayapul, to Poon Hill at 3,210 m, then back, is just a taste of the vast trekking options around Annapurna, but definitely an unforgettable sample.
My adventure starts when I arrive in Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna region, and I am bewitched by its beauty. Once an important trade route between India and Tibet, Pokhara to this day still has mule trains setting up camp on its outskirts, bringing goods from remote Himalayan regions.
After I meet my trekking guide and porter, we drive for 45 minutes out of Pokhara to Nayapul, which is the primary starting point for trekkers on the Poon Hill, Annapurna Sanctuary or Annapurna Base Camp treks. Nayapul presents me with my first taste of Nepalese trekking imagery – a scene filled with stone walkways and steps that lead past local houses and chicken coops, then down narrow alleyways. Local children wander the streets, some oblivious to our presence and others struck with excitement. An atmosphere of adventure surrounds me as I pass roadside stalls selling last-minute trekking necessities on my way to present my permit for approval at the Annapurna Conservation Area Checkpoint. After only 30 minutes of walking, we cross a bridge to Birethanti, a quaint village tucked beside a bubbling stream, but my guide is eager to move on. I reluctantly leave this cosy village, but I soon realise the reason for his haste. For the next three hours, we trek in the rain up a dirt slope, so steep that I am regularly sliding backwards. The air is fresh and the sound of the stream is still trickling in the background, now far below us. Little goat-like trails peel off the main track heading down to suspension bridges crossing the gorge stretching high above the stream.
By late afternoon, we walk into the village of Tikhedhunga, which is nestled alongside a cascading waterfall. Our lodging for the night is a $3 room in a teahouse that hangs over the top of the waterfall. I fall asleep to the thrashing sound of water beneath me and awake to the clopping of the hooves of a herd of goats making their way through the middle of the teahouse and past my door.
Early morning sees us crossing another Nepali flag-clad suspension bridge before commencing the 1,300 m ascent. A morning of literal climbing was ahead. Seemingly never-ending oversized rocks step up the side of the mountain and we launch ourselves up each of them. Dotted amongst us are local kids on their daily 1–2 hour walk to school. They breeze past us effortlessly, showing no signs of how hard this walk is. Halfway through the morning, the stunning snow-capped peak of Machapuchare appears in the distance, perfectly framed by the mountains we are climbing and beautifully backlit by a clear-blue sunny day. It’s a rare and highly sought-after condition that is generally gifted the day following rain.
With the town of Ghorepani as our goal, we continue on, still ascending but at a more acceptable angle. Being spring, fuchsia rhododendron flowers are in full bloom and they spot the landscape’s stunning vistas. Caravans of mules carrying supplies to the mountains are a regular distraction, as they are heralded by the musical bells they wear.
Finally we stumble into Ghorepani, collapsing in our teahouse room that has a clear view of the mountains. For dinner we savour dal baht – the local delicacy – surrounded by an open fire, while a local masseuse provides relief to well-worked bodies. The day ends with an early night ahead of the pre-dawn trek to the top
of nearby Poon Hill to watch the sun rise.
The memory of those final steps down the mountain will remain with me – during the descent I discovered that walking down a mountain, retracing upwards steps, is harder than walking up. The pain in every part of my body is, however, worth it. Over the next week I gasp with every movement, but then flashes of the scenery and the village people cross my mind, pleasantly reminding me of those days trekking to Poon Hill and back.
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