Nepal 1994: A close call

 

 

Nepal 1994-95 
On a mountain ridge, Deorali Daara, we encountered this beautiful herdswoman, guarding her sheep. Her nose is adorned by a golden trinket. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

One of the last days of April, my companions, Niels Peter Andreasen and Helle Hansen, and I are camping near Kambachen, Upper Ghunsa Valley, near the Nepalese border with Sikkim, accompanied by our staff of guide, porters, cook, etc. I have just awoken, when our kitchen boy scratches on the tent canvas, saying, ”Excuse me, Sir! Bed tea!”

Drinking a cup of hot tea on an ice-cold morning, lying in your sleeping bag with your head sticking out of the tent, surrounded by a gorgeous landscape, is something to relish!

The ground is covered by a thin blanket of snow, and there is a thin layer of ice on the puddles. Small flocks of red-billed choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and snow pigeons (Columba leuconota) fly about over the grazing grounds, where numerous yak are grazing. Grey smoke is rising from two stone houses, situated where a small tributary joins the roaring Ghunsa River. This is the home of two men, who look after the yak, every morning milking the ones who have a calf.

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
Our entire staff, posing for me near Kambachen, Upper Ghunsa Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Wildlife in the Upper Ghunsa Valley
Soon the sun appears, and the thin layer of snow is rapidly vanishing. The marvellous morning weather is so inviting that Niels decides to shave off his three-day old stubble. Having enjoyed our breakfast, we continue our hike op the Ghunsa Valley, heading for Lhonak. The landscape in this area is harsh – dark mountains, almost devoid of vegetation, with numerous landslides, through which local people and their yak have trodden a new trail. We must pass through this area with utmost caution, so as not to create new landslides.

Following the riverbank, we make our way through shrubs of juniper (Juniperus), rhododendron, willow (Salix), and sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides). Quite a few passerines use these bushes as a look-out post, such as robin accentor (Prunella rubeculoides), rufous-breasted accentor (P. strophiata), blue-fronted redstart (Phoenicurus frontalis), and beautiful rosefinch (Carpodacus pulcherrimus), while Brandt’s mountain-finches (Leucosticte brandti) are feeding in the grass among the bushes.

From the mountain slopes, we hear a penetrating call, gukka-gukka-guk-guk-guk-grrr. As it turns out, this is the morning call of the Tibetan snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus), a large, whitish gamebird, which is fairly common in alpine regions of Nepal. We also see many alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus), and a huge lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) glides effortlessly down the valley, looking for carcasses. It will probably cover the distance, which has taken us three days to walk, in less than an hour.

On our way, Helle begins to suffer from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), a condition caused by lack of oxygen in your body. We are walking at an altitude of 4,700 metres, and the air contains less than two thirds of the amount of oxygen, found at sea level. In severe cases of AMS, you must descend, but as Helle’s case is rather mild, we choose to camp here and wait for a day. We see to it that she consumes a lot of water with various types of salt and sugar, which quickly makes her feel much better.

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
The marvellous morning weather at Kambachen was so inviting that Niels decided to shave off his three-day old stubble. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1991a 
The Tibetan snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus) is quite common in high regions of Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Beneath Kangchendzonga
The following morning, dense clouds cover the landscape, bringing heavy snowfall, so we decide to stay in this area another day to await better weather. At the same time, Helle can acclimatize. Around noon, the cloud cover lifts, revealing a very pretty, snow-clad landscape. Occasionally, a sunbeam will penetrate the clouds, which come and go, and the evening light is fantastic. Throughout the night, we hear several avalanches, thundering down the slopes. The night is cold and clear, and in the morning, the grass is covered in rime.

During our hike towards Lhonak, the weather is indeed very pleasant. On our way, we pass a remarkable rock formation, called ‘Shiva’s Finger’. Shiva is among the three main gods in the Hindu pantheon, the other two being Brahma and Vishnu. (Read more about Hindu gods – and about Hinduism in general – on this website, see Religion: Hinduism.)

On a slope, we spot a flock of foraging Himalayan blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), called bharal in Hindi. This species is unique, as it is neither sheep nor goat, but shows behaviourial traits from both groups. The adult ram is a splendid animal, with massive, sweeping horns and a bluish-grey fur (hence its English name), with black markings on chest, flanks, and legs. Ewes and young animals are more uniformly grey. In December, rams fight to gather a harem of ewes, but outside the rutting season, rams, ewes, and young form mixed flocks of varying size. Their main predators are snow leopard (Uncia uncia) and Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), and quite a few are killed by avalanches. This flock is rather confiding, and I manage to approach them to a distance of about 50 metres.

The trail now follows the northern slopes of the valley, alongside the huge Kangchendzonga Glacier, most of which is covered in brownish-black moraine. Here and there, the shining ice is revealed, adding a green tinge to the numerous meltwater pools on the glacier. As it turns out, Lhonak is a large grassy plain along the sandy banks of the Ghunsa River. Here, not far from the third-highest mountain in the world, Kangchendzonga (8,586 m), we camp for the night.

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
Between Kambachen and Lhonak, we awoke to low clouds and heavy snowfall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95 
During the day, the dense cloud cover lifted, revealing a very beautiful landscape, with wandering clouds, occasionally penetrated by sun rays. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
Evening light on Merra Peak (6,344 m), almost hidden behind clouds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
This rock formation in the Upper Ghunsa Valley, near Lhonak, is called ‘Shiva’s Finger’. Shiva is among the three most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95 
Outside the rutting season, rams, ewes, and young blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) form mixed flocks of varying size. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

A close call
After enjoying the harsh landscape around Lhonak, we commence our return hike down the valley. I make a stop to photograph a flock of feeding Brandt’s mountain-finches, lagging behind as usual. When I catch up with our guide, Dil, and the camp attendant, who are waiting for me at the first of the numerous landslides, we begin our crossing.

”Look out!” Dil suddenly shouts. High above us, large blocks of ice have broken off, now thundering down the slope towards us. Most of them break on their way down, but some still measure several cubic feet. We run towards a couple of large rocks to seek shelter behind them, bits of ice flying around us. Miraculously, none of us are hit. Rather shaken, we continue our walk across several more landslides, mercifully without further mishap.

Again, on the following day, we must cross several landslides below Kambachen. Niels, Helle, and I are on our way across one of these, when numerous pebbles come tumbling down the slope towards us, followed by several larger rocks. We jump across the sliding gravel on the trail, I at the rear, pebbles and rocks flying around us. Helle and Niels, who have taken shelter behind a huge rock, notice with horror that a larger rock is tumbling down the slope towards me, but luckily, at the very last moment, it hits a larger rock, changing its course. A close call, indeed!

 

 

Nepal 1994-95 
I made a stop to photograph a flock of Brandt’s mountain-finches (Leucosticte brandti), feeding in a grassy area. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
Crossing this landslide below Kambachen, I was almost hit by a falling rock. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Accompanied by a dog
Once the landslides are over and done with, we face an easy walk down the valley, through a mixed forest of conifers like Himalayan silver fir (Abies spectabilis) and Himalayan larch (Larix griffithii), and several species of rhododendron, especially the pink bell rhododendron (R. campanulatum) and the dark red R. cinnabarinum. Beneath the village of Ghunsa, especially along streams, another striking rhododendron species, R. thomsonii, is growing, easily identified by its red calyx and fleshy, waxy flowers.

We camp in a lovely oak forest, full of passerines, e.g. black-faced laughing-thrush (Garrulax affinis), bar-throated minla (Minla strigula), orange-gorgeted flycatcher (Ficedula strophiata), and golden-spectacled warbler (Seicercus burkii). We spend some time, watching a pair of green shrike-babblers (Pteruthius xanthochlorus), building a nest – a small pendent bag, hanging from a twig. The nest is made from lichens, mixed with thin roots, which the birds pick from an epiphyte, growing on a nearby rock.

In our camp, a black dog makes us company. As it looks very hungry, we feed it leftovers from our dinner. Obviously, this is very much appreciated by the dog, which, during the following days, follows us faithfully. However, when we cross the long suspension bridge, spanning the Ghunsa River at Sekathum, the dog has problems. It is too scared to follow us, instead trying to swim across. The swift current washes the dog downstream, but luckily it manages to cling to a rock, howling in fear. Niels runs back across the bridge and out onto the rock, where he manages to get hold of the scruff of the neck of the dog, heaving it ashore and carrying it across the bridge. For more than a week the dog keeps us company, until some villagers persuade us to let them have it.

 

 

Nepal 2013
Rhododendron thomsonii is easily identified by its red calyx and the waxy flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95 
A golden-spectacled warbler (Seicercus burkii) takes off from a branch. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
These trees were killed by a forest fire. A dense growth of dwarf bamboo now covers the former forest floor. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
Niels and Helle, crossing the Ghunsa River on a primitive canti-lever bridge, accompanied by the black dog, which followed us for more than a week. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
The dog was too afraid to cross the long suspension bridge, spanning the Ghunsa River. Instead it tried to swim across, but was pulled downstream by the strong current. It managed to cling to a rock, from where it was rescued by Niels. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Hiking along a beautiful ridge
Near the village of Hellok, an abundance of thorny shrubs is growing, especially a species of bramble, Rubus ellipticus, displaying a profusion of ripe, yellow berries with a delicious sweet-and-sour taste. From Hellok, a steep trail leads up the mountain slope towards a ridge, Deorali Daara. Finally reaching this ridge, we are quite exhausted, our reward being a wonderful view down the Tamur Valley. Up here, we encounter a beautiful herdswoman, who is guarding a flock of sheep, her nose adorned by a golden trinket.

Following the ridge eastwards, we pass through a wonderful virgin forest – a tangle of old and young trees, their trunks covered in mosses, lichens and other epiphytes, and entwined by lianas. The forest floor is a dense jumble of dwarf bamboo, ferns, and various other plants. As bird life in this forest is very rich indeed, we decide to camp here a few days. Unfortunately, the weather turns foul, and it is raining almost non-stop. We shuffle along muddy trails, much bothered by leeches. On its head, the leech has a sucking pad, and when it senses the carbon dioxide, emitted by your breathing, it quickly attaches itself to your skin. If it goes unnoticed, it cuts into your skin with its sharp mandibles to suck your blood. You don’t feel any pain, but the wound bleeds copiously.

During our lunch break, all of us seek shelter under a tarpaulin, with the exception of Niels and Helle, who are sitting under their umbrellas, Niels writing his diary. Finally, the rain subsides, but the heavy downpours have made the trail muddy and extremely slippery. We slide along, falling numerous times, eventually reaching a more pleasant trail, which follows a ridge. The view across the Kabeli Valley is gorgeous, with small patches of sunshine moving across the valley floor.

 

 

Nepal 1994-95 
Our guide, Dil Bahadur Pantha, presenting delicious berries of a species of bramble, Rubus ellipticus. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
From a mountain ridge, Deorali Daara, we had a wonderful view down the Tamur Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
We passed through a wonderful virgin forest – a tangle of old and young trees, their trunks covered in mosses, lichens and other epiphytes, and entwined by lianas. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
During a heavy rain shower, Niels and Helle seek shelter under their umbrellas, Niels writing his diary. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

Nepal 1994-95
The view across the Kabeli Valley was gorgeous, with small patches of sunshine moving across the valley floor. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)

 

 

(Uploaded February 2016)

 

(Revised October 2017)