Nepal: Craig Parker
Trekking to 3,600m, rafting, and riding on the tops of buses... Popular Kiwi actor Craig Parker discovered adventure in a big way in Nepal...
Day One: Kathmandu
You step off the plane and know you are in another world. Weaving through the crowds of people on the street are cars, bikes, vans, trucks, tuk tuks, and cows, all with horns and all somehow getting from one place to the other in one piece. The poverty and dirt is apparent but so is an incredible sense of vitality. The poverty is hard and I don't know how to deal with it, especially when it takes the form of kids begging in the square.
Day Two: Kathmandu
The funeral ghats at Pashupatinath, Nepal's equivalent of Varanasi in India, show how extreme the culture shock can be here. This holy site beside the Bagmati River has several ghats were bodies burn atop their funeral pyres. You can't quite believe what you are seeing. It is odd, eeiry and yet ordinary in Nepali life. Our grief is private. Here the process is as public as it gets - the air is thick with ash and the smell of burning flesh.
Day Three: Trekking in Helambu
We leave Kathmandu on a local bus. The first half of the trip is paved luxury, but then we turn off onto small bits of road linked by millions of potholes. Thanks to my perch on the roof of the bus, I have a piece of very valuable advice to those coming after me.... the power lines are low, come often and insulation is rare, so to avoid death by electrocution or decapitation you need a keen eye and flexible neck. Surviving the bus ride means we start walking and it is so much harder than I imagined. Thank Krishna I stopped smoking last year!
Day Four: Trekking
Up at 5:00am to have a wash at the village tap, only to discover the water isn't turned on yet. Had a splash bath in mineral water instead - very super model. I have discovered a great trick for the coming days. The views are beautiful and you MUST STOP to take them in. I suspect the others are doing the same thing. After a day of Nepalese flat (i.e. walking uphill), we arrive at our village of Shermathang. Our beautiful guest house overlooks terraced fields with a fantastic monastery on the hill and watercolour mountains in the distance and the shower is hot! I'll never take hot water for granted. The lady of the house cooks on a low wood stove, beautiful and calm as she serves up a million different dishes, a large percentage of them for me. We also discover raksi, a Nepali wine resembling whiskey and saki mixed with kersoene. Very dangerous at altitude and near naked flames.
Day Five: Trekking still
We trek through forests of rhododendrons where tiny orchids sprout from rocks. Mossy paths and ancient stone steps lead through it all. It is very "Middle Earth" and at times you'd swear it is a movie set. I guess Tolkien never got here and even if he had, these hills would have busted his bookish ass. We have our first taste of rain but don't care as we focus on the flush toilets waiting for us at Tarkenghayang! On that topic, we have discovered a serious medical condition in an old trekking guide - HAFE or high altitude flatulent emission caused by the deadly combination of lower air pressure plus a dhal and egg-rich diet. Since this is a documented condition everyone is much freer about discussing bodily functions. In fact, for a group who were complete strangers five days ago, there is nothing that can not be discussed in great detail and with remarkable regularity (no pun intended).
Day Six: You guessed it.... trekking
Leaving a perfectly lovely inn at a perfectly respectable altitude, we walk to another one just across the way at the very same altitude. Problem is the two villages are seperated by a huge chasm. It's downhill all morning and the afternoon is a desperate battle to reclaim the lost height. We arrive at Melamchi Gau mid afternoon - plenty of time to wash, discuss bodily functions and have a beer. I try out my one magic trick on the kids, the first time is a raging success, even the grown-ups are impressed. I should have remembered the golden rule of magicians - never repeat. Over-buoyed with confidence and light-headed due to altitude, I try it again and it goes horribly wrong. The coin doesn't disappear and the magic leaves the building as the kids bust me and laugh. Oh the humiliation!!! Then at dinner every time I stand up I bash my head on a hanging lamp. I play cards, lose badly and realise it is one of those days so have a nice early night.
Day Seven: Trekking up, up and up
The dreaded BIG one - we climb from 2500m to over 3700m. Starting in shorts and t-shirt weather, we end up trudging up near vertical tracks into snow, reduced oxygen and near blizzard conditions. For the first time I want to go home, or cry, or sitdown and throw a tantrum, anything to make the hell stop. My happy thoughts go away and I think things that wouldn't make very nice TV One telly. After much whining, we make it to the ridge and everything is white and extremely cold. Our hut is a giant wooden crate - slightly colder inside than out. Just when I'm thinking about hating it, the mist clears and we can see enormous mountain peaks all around us. Sunset comes and tops that - utterly beautiful, setting fire to the snow and clouds.
Day Eight: Trekking down at last
I survived the night... -8 degrees Celcius plus the windows are plastic bags which didn't help. Heading downhill is exciting, butthen the rain comes followed by hail, oh and thunder! We just make it to the village as the hail gets serious - we're talking lumps of ice a couple of centimetres in diameter. It's so cold we sit in our sleeping bags drinking hot tea and cold beer. It's St Patricks Day and Markham, a smart Irish lad, has carried two bottles of whiskey all this way adding significant weight to his backpack. These come out at dinner and we have what is possibly the oddest St Paddy's celebration learning Nepali songs, dancing and taking turns singing bad songs.
Day Nine: The LAST day of trekking
Today went downhill... quite literally. After a mammoth walk of 23 kms, we find our tea house is the stuff nightmares are made of. Where to start? Maybe the special dinner of chicken curry... with knuckles. The toilet, on it's own bad enough, but also home to the largest, hairiest spider alive. My high point was waking up in the dead of night with something crawled across my face. I would have swiped it off but I was too chicken (with or without knuckles) to find out what it was and whether it would kill me.
Day Ten: Bhaktapur
We are pleased to be up early for the bus to Bhaktapur. It's become the city of dreams -- hot water, flush toilets and restuarants where chickens don't have knuckles. We ride on top of the bus again. It's great fun and from here if the bus misjudges one of the crazy hairpin bends or rickety bridges you can jump for it! Bhaktapur is a beautiful old city and the streets are closed to traffic. The temples have been restored so it's very touristy but gorgeous. The G&Ts are cold but the showers are too, however the toilets flush and that's enough to make a tired traveller feel ;like a million bucks.
Day Eleven: Bhaktapur
Raj offers to take me to his barber. I am nervous about letting a stranger take a blade to my throat but he has a steady hand and not a drop of blood is shed. The massage, however, scares me. I go to hand over my rupees but he starts whacking me and tugging on bits that you really don't expect a barber to attack -- like massage crossed with a chiropractic and a S&M session. It'll feel good once the bruising eases. Being a tiger for cultural punishment, I let Raj take me to get a Nepali suit made -- a truly unique reminder of Nepal. The pants are brilliant, the top may be handy for fancy dress, but the hat! It's something special.
Day Twelve: Trisuli River
We're back to early starts and bumpy busses as we head for the Trisuli River to ride a few rapids. Three days of sleeping on the ground, squat toilets and cold washes. This country takes you places you never thought you would go again and again. We push off for fun on the river but the water levels are low so we are not exactly in fear for our lives. The first few rapids get our adrenaline pumping but by lunch-time we are seasoned pros. Setting up camp is fun but I feel we are letting standards drop so I craft a patio for my tent from river stones. Changing Rooms eat your heart out. Sitting around the campfire a lone firefly buzzed around us -- so tiny and bright, very cool.
Day Thirteen: Trisuli River
After a hard day on the river, our guides turn out a feast all cooked in a tiny tent over kerosene fires. These guys are incredible -- they climb, carry, row, swim, trek and COOK. As for the river, a South Island river is probably wilder, and in places the scenery is similar to New Zealand. But then you look over and see monkeys having a drink or vultures chowing down on some unidentified dead thing and it's quite an experience to be here.
Day Fourteen: Bandapur
We pull up on a beach around lunch time, our rafting over. The local kids gather and show off their swimming. I can't resist teaching them a trick or two and get a mouth full of sand thanks to a back flip performed in shallow water. On the road again, we head for the mountain town of Bandipur. This is another stop with hot showers and flushing toilets, but we aren't counting our chickens as they may not hatch (and if they do, they could have knuckles).
Day Fifteen: Bandapur
We have been extremely fortunate with the people looking after us and our fellow travellers -- everyone is smart, funny and their company will be sorely missed. To celebrate our last night together, a band and cultural dancers perform. All very well intentioned, but for the first time in Nepal I feel like one of those tourists I never want to be. There is something about sitting around while the locals perform that feels icky! It's even worse when you have to join in -- the horror. Rain and a most incredible thunder storm put and end to it. So to an even more traditional form of celebration, toasting the trip with fine Nepali beverages -- Bagpiper whiskey and Khukuri rum (the rum is named after the famous Ghurka knives and is about as deadly)! With the thunderstorm raging outside, we sit in Newari (local tribe) architectural splendour where everything is designed for those under four-foot, get toasted and sing endless bad songs... just like my old days at Christian camp!
Day Sixteen: Kathmandu
A little groggy this morning -- sore heads and red eyes all around. We are up early to say our goodbyes before a very long drive back to Kathmandu. I have loved it here but am happy to be heading back to New Zealand. I feel like my senses need a rest. While I may not have had a full hippy epiphany, Nepal has reminded me of what I find important. Strip away the flashy Western dressings and it's the old basics that count: a place to sleep, food, drink and excellent company. Sure, sometimes I dreamed of plump antibiotic-filled roast chicken and a grunty chardonnay, but I could quite easily live without them.