A last-minute World Expeditions trek in Poon Hill, Nepal

"Do you have a health problem at the moment?" asks Harka, our quietly spoken guide, who I come to regard as a Yoda-like figure. "Are you taking medicine?"

I am sitting at a table in the empty dining area of Kathmandu's Radisson Hotel with two fellow trekkers, my son, Isaac, 25, and Jo, a 50-something Melburnian who is coming to the end of five months of solo travel across Europe and Asia. She looks fit and eager. I look and feel dreadful. I'm battling my fourth bout of sinusitis in as many months and my right ear has remained blocked since the flight from Guangzhou to Kathmandu, which saw me gripping my head in my hands, tearfully. I mention my ear and antibiotics to Harka but withhold another key detail: I am utterly exhausted.

My son and I are here to mark mutual significant birthdays. It is also 20 years since our last visit to this small, land-locked country, which is still recovering from a devastating earthquake in April 2015. I feel ill-prepared. I am usually so organised and conscientious, but preparing for this eight-day trek – despite a detailed outline by organiser World Expeditions – had been repeatedly pushed to the bottom of my monstrous to-do list. My gear was bought at a camping store sale during a rushed work trip to Melbourne and after a few drinks. I have broken the cardinal rule of trekking and only worn my new shoes twice, one of which was in the shop when trying them on for size. I predict blisters the size of apricots. 

A week ago I made the mistake of Googling "Poon Hill trek" and reading a post that mentioned the grind of climbing stone stairs for hours. When I imagined the setting, stairs had not come to mind. "How hard is it going to be," I ask Harka, afraid of his response. "You can do running and fitness, but it is up here," he replies, lightly tapping the side of his head with his right hand. My husband had a similar, encouraging message before I left. "I reckon it's going to come down to determination and stubbornness and you've got plenty of both."

Fast-forward three days and a gentle knock on our lodge door just outside the village of Dhampus prompts me to drag my leaden legs out of bed. My hamstrings feel as though they will snap and my thighs have turned to stone. I dress quickly and step outside into the cool air and am startled by my first glimpse of Machapuchare, a peak regarded as sacred by Nepalese and off-limits to climbers. At almost 7000 metres it is by no means the tallest mountain in the Annapurna range, which looms large throughout our trek, but its jagged, double summit distinguishes it from its more rounded, snow-covered neighbours.

When contemplating our trip, I envisioned crowded paths full of serious trekkers with spiffy fluoro-coloured high-tech gear and young pseudo-hippies in Dunlop Volleys and backpacks held together with shoe laces. While we see both, I am unprepared for the isolation we experience given the 30-year popularity of trekking in the Annapurna region (World Expeditions established treks here in 1975).

Because of time constraints, we chose one of the shortest but stunning treks offered by World Expeditions who add a couple of days' walk beyond the main trail after you have taken in Poon Hill and its breathtaking view of the significant peaks of Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Dhaulagiri, Nilgiri, Hiunchuli and Machapuchare.

What I am also unprepared for is the stillness and overwhelming quiet. Hours pass without spotting anyone other than a couple of sheep herders or a villager nimbly navigating steep stairs in thongs. The four of us walk at different paces while the agile, fast-moving crew, which includes a couple of porters and kitchen staff, are always in front. Isaac and Harka lead, then I am in the middle, with Jo following behind.

There are few opportunities to talk while we walk because the challenging terrain demands your full attention. When we stop for a break, we're all too busy skulling water and downing sugar-laden snacks to converse. Sweaty fatigue eliminates any desire for polite chatter. 

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I lose myself in the effort. I don't think about much at all and the trek becomes one long mindfulness exercise. Free of distractions, I notice everything around me – the movement of thin branches caused by flitting finches, buzzards gliding ominously overhead, the star-shaped patterns left by fallen leaves on rocks in a stream, and the subtle, comforting scent of daphne. 

I don't worry about a thing. My to-do list consists of getting to the next destination without twisting an ankle or giving up halfway through a toe-crushing descent. I didn't realise going down would be so hard. Up and down, up and down – for up to seven hours. Each day offers different terrain; from misshapen, moss-covered stone paths through eerily silent, fog-shrouded rhododendron forests to narrow dirt trails on the exposed sides of steep foothills that are more than a kilometre higher than Australia's tallest mountain, Kosciuszko. And those damn stairs, of which I count more than 4000 during one stretch.

We savour short rests and lunch breaks in small villages and I am drawn to the beautiful round-faced children who play near the edge of heart-stopping precipices. In Tadapani, our small family-run lodge is located a few metres from a ledge that drops away to a deep valley below. The owner's toddler daughter plays nearby. Her mother's nonchalance is unnerving. "Isn't her mum worried she'll fall off?" I ask Harka, who chuckles. "She won't do that. She knows not to."

At one of the permanent World Expedition campsites we use throughout the trek, there is a mirror above the handbasin attached to the small toilet block. I realise it has been four days since I have seen my reflection. Vanity has gone the same way as my expectation of a hot shower; I relish washing myself with a bucket of boiled water at the end of the day. I wear the one pair of lightweight trousers for three days before I get the opportunity to wash and dry them by a wood stove.

I am liberated from the daily domestic routine. Ram prepares all our meals, from pancakes and porridge in the morning, to noodles, salad and soup for lunch, and curry for dinner. He buys fresh vegetables and fruit along the way and boils water for our drink bottles. An upset stomach is the last thing you need out here. 

We push on. Harka has a masterful method of briefing us each evening about the following day's journey; neither saying too little, or too much. We go over the direction on our maps and he plays down talk of any difficulties, preferring to focus on time. "It will be four hours and then we will have lunch." Anyway, I don't really want to know how hard it might be. 

There is something ancient and elemental about walking all day, removed from the cosseted ease of a car. Aristotle and his contemporaries espoused the value of walking to sharpen the mind and it is at the heart of Eastern meditative traditions. National Geographic's 2017 Adventurer of the Year, Nepalese trail runner Mira Rai, attributes her stamina and focus to her village childhood. "We had to walk for hours, up and down, often barefoot, with heavy bags of rice on our backs".

Patchy mobile coverage means I am also liberated from my news and social media addiction. When I can, I message home and upload batches of photos to Facebook.  I have the longest break from email in a decade. All of this is so unexpected and welcome, as is the sense of wonder that overcomes me, time and again.

One evening towards the end of the trek, when my body has become attuned to the routine and rigour, I head outside to wash my hands after dinner. We are staying at an unfussy timber lodge in isolated Phulbari. Two hours earlier I'd watched the  panorama of snow-capped mountains glow as the sun set as though on fire. Now, though, I am dwarfed by an endless black sky wall-papered with thousands of glittering stars. I can't help but weep. It is the day-to-day beauty that does it, but I also cry with relief at having shed a thick layer of stress and enduring the physical challenge.       

It strikes me that placing one foot in front of the other in spite of obstacles is a life-affirming act. It has served me well through heartache and grief, and it serves me well amid the sublime stillness of the Himalayas. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/nepal

VISIT

A half-day escorted Kathmandu sight-seeing tour is offered before you depart on your trek and does not cost extra, though it is courteous to tip the guide. You will visit Pashupatinath Temple, a sacred Hindu site on the crowded banks of the Bagmati River, as well as the ancient Boudhanath stupa.  

FLY

China Southern Airlines operates daily flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Kathmandu via Guangzhou. See global.csair.com

STAY

World Expeditions' base is the Radisson Hotel Kathmandu and most treks include up to two nights' accommodation here. Extra nights can be arranged and cost from $185. See radisson.com/kathmandu-hotel-np/nepkathm

All other accommodation during your trek is included in the booking and is typically a mix of lodges and permanent campsites. Sleeping bags are provided for the duration of the trek and beds are available at campsites.  

Rosemarie Milsom travelled as a guest of World Expeditions.


TREKKING 101 FOR WOMEN

1. TRAIN Mild sessions at the gym or leisurely strolls won't cut it as preparation, unless you're walking and/or running on a treadmill with the incline at 10 or above. Include some big hills and steep sets of stairs in your outdoor walks. One hour of both is a good start, but build up to three if you can. 
2. TAKE ADVICE Some suggested reading: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed; Sinning Across Spain: A Walker's Journey from Granada to Granicia by Alisa Piper; Annapurna: A Woman's Place by Arlene Blum; and While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal by Elizabeth Enslin.
3. PACK Some lightweight sport bras. You will sweat. A lot. Also pack plenty of underpants in case you can't wash. The cold afternoon air makes it hard to dry hand-washed clothing.
4. MOISTURISE Use good quality face moisturiser and sunscreen. The all-day exposure is tough on your skin. 
5. SNACK PACK Pack your favourite snacks, such as muesli bars, dark chocolate and dried figs. Bring them from home if you have a particular hankering. 
6. READ A good, long book is essential for down-time in the evenings. Pack an e-reader if you want to lighten your load.
7.THE LOW-DOWN The trekking season in Nepal extends from mid-September to May. World Expeditions' Classic Poon Hill Trek is classed as "introductory" and is one of the shortest, most breathtaking treks on offer. It costs $2490 and includes most meals and all internal travel. It does not include flights to Kathmandu. 
 

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