3rd April, 2002. We break camp at 8.30 in the morning and walk 8.3 crow-flying miles up another 2,300 feet in 8 hours. This is much steeper than yesterday, with even more ups and downs. We leave the villages behind and plunge into the forest; blessed shade, birdsong. I am unlucky with my spotting, but see a steppe eagle and a Darjeeling pied woodpecker which betrays itself during one of my very many stops.
We all have different levels of fitness, and there is Marian who is even slower than I am – hooray! We meander along together at the back, stopping to enjoy tantalising glimpses of Annapurna South and the Fishtail (sacred to the locals and never been climbed to the top). The wondrous range did peep at us above the clouds early in the morning, but not really well enough for a photo.
The sherpas and Udaya are first class; there is always someone with us way at the back, most often Udaya himself, so we have the benefit of his knowledge of the berries and trees, and he spends time spotting birds with me too. Orchids trail from the branches, just coming into flower. We see several varieties. Great rhododendron trees tower over us, revealing their deep red flowers in ones and twos. The mountains must look a picture in the background when they’re in full bloom. Bracken appears, with giant ferns lining the narrow path.
Lunch is in an open terraced clearing and the sun blazes down mercilessly. I forget to use my umbrella, and try to sleep face-down, burning the backs of my knees. I must be getting acclimatised now, because I find it easier today, and it is cooler than yesterday.
Our camp is in a picturesque village perched on a ridge overlooking two deep valleys to the north and south; our blue tents cheerful on the soft green turf. Only two other small parties are camped in the area. We have two loo tents between us, and use our own toilet paper; iodine water and soap stands outside for our convenience. I’m not going to change a habit of a lifetime, but make a point of washing my left (impure) hand thoroughly afterwards. I’m getting used to squatting. It is very cold and the grey clouds sit low overhead, blotting out the hills, faint in the distance. Udaya tells us that if it rains hard tonight, we have a better chance of seeing the mountain peaks.
4th April, 2002. No mountains today; just a tantalising outline through the clouds. We have another early start and walk upwards on a winding forest path, paved and conveniently stepped. Up and up through the cloud, admiring more rhododendrons, orchids coming into bloom, with birdsong in our ears. However, few birds stay long enough to identify. On one of my frequent stops with Mahesh (the sherpa headman) we watch three raucous spotted forktails take wing nearby, their striking black and white tails streaming out behind.
Some of us charge ahead; Marion struggles mightily behind. I start off from each stop in front, but soon lag further and further behind as I chase the occasional birdsong and stop to admire the orchids. We come across three fascinating lilies sticking up out of the forest floor: from the arum family, Udaya tells me after consulting his book. Occasional glimpses of mountain outline tantalise us through the trees, but none worth a photograph.
Over two hours later we arrive in dribs and drabs at Panchase Temple (pronounced like “fantasy”), our highest point, and are greeted and daubed with vermilion dye on our foreheads by the Brahmin priest. It is a dual Hindu/Buddhist temple, like many in the area. Priests and infants less than one year old are buried here, as they are not reincarnated. All other people are cremated, their ashes feeding the roots of trees.