Annapurnas, Nepal: The country's best-kept trekking secrets and new camps

As dawn approaches across the Annapurna region of the Himalayas, Jomsom-bound airplanes squeeze through the deepest gorge on the planet, far below where I stand. Camera flashes sparkle on distant Poon Hill, locking away the moment as pink light washes over the tips of two of the world's 10 highest mountains.

Rising above the busy trekking village of Ghorapani, with a vast outlook over Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna massif, Poon Hill is the trekkers' viewpoint of choice in the Annapurna region. But I'm not on Poon Hill.

Instead, I'm part of its view as I stand atop Kopra Ridge, almost alone, dwarfed by summits that rise kilometres above me. The camera flashes are like distant fireworks, and even at a glance it's obvious that the view from here is far more spectacular and imposing than that from Poon Hill.

Draping from the slopes of 7200-metre-high Annapurna South, Kopra Ridge is one of Nepal's little trekking secrets. Though small numbers of trekkers have been coming here for 35 years, it's never acquired the cult trekking status of Poon Hill or the Annapurna Circuit, trails that have turned the Annapurnas into the most popular trekking region in Nepal.

Around 60 per cent of trekkers in Nepal come to the Annapurnas, a figure that might only be boosted by the fallout from last April's catastrophic earthquake. While Kathmandu was devastated, and more than 20 trekkers and climbers were killed at Everest Base Camp, damage around the Annapurna area was minimal.

Only 3 per cent of the region's teahouses and lodges were damaged in the quake and engineering assessments three months after the disaster found only three spots along its trail network that were considered hazardous.

If more trekkers do gravitate to the Annapurnas, they'll inevitably come seeking new experiences and places, such as Kopra Ridge. Australian adventure-travel company World Expeditions had already anticipated growing interest in the area. Shortly before the earthquake, it opened a string of semi-permanent tent camps along the route to Kopra Ridge, culminating in a purpose-built lodge on the crest of the ridge.

The approach to Kopra Ridge begins on long-trodden trails outside of Pokhara, rolling over ridges and foothills like a trekkers' game of snakes and ladders to the Gurkha village of Ghandruk.

As we walk, the sweet sound of chatter rolls down the hills from classrooms, and the holy, unclimbed peak of Machhapuchhre peeps above the ritual afternoon cloud like the flukes of a whale tail.

Advertisement

Around Ghandruk, where there's been a steady stream of trekking traffic for decades, there's the first hint of Nepal's great rhododendron forests coming into their annual bloom.

Covering entire slopes of the Himalayas, these trees are not your garden-variety rhododendrons. Here, the national flower of Nepal looks primeval. Trees grow to almost 20 metres in height and their moss-covered trunks are twisted, gnarled and intertwined. Beards of lichen hang from almost every branch, fed by the regular mists. It's the kind of scene that fiction writers turn into enchanted forests.

By the time we reach the village of Tadapani, about four hours' walk beyond Ghandruk, almost every rhododendron tree is in bloom, creating a ceiling of hot-pink flowers. It's less a forest than a canvas.

Twenty-five years ago Tadapani was nothing more than a shelter for buffaloes. Then trekkers began to stop here. One lodge arose, and it's now a motley and growing collection of lodges. It's a village where the Hotel Panorama Point sits beside the Hotel Super View, with both looking across to the Hotel Magnificent - trekking in Nepal can often be like wandering through a thesaurus of superlatives.

It's at Tadapani that we turn off the standard trekking trails, beginning our rise up the Annapurna slopes towards Kopra Ridge. The mountains are dusted with overnight snow, and the ground is dusted with rhododendron petals. For the first time, there's shortness of breath as we climb beyond 3000 metres above sea level. 

From here, we're leaving all villages behind. Along the trail now there's just a smattering of teahouses. Seven years ago, when I first trekked this route, even these didn't exist. It's like we've truly arrived in the mountains.

By lunchtime it's snowing, sifting gently at first, then falling heavily. As we descend to our camp at Bhaisi Kharka a couple of hours later, we are at times falling through snow to our hips. The trail winds along the top of a ridge, though in reality it's difficult to tell because we're walking inside a cloud.

Bhaisi Kharka is the highest of World Expeditions' seven new Annapurna camps. The emphasis of the camps is on reducing trekkers' impact on an overburdened environment. In the past 50 years, foreign visitor numbers to Nepal have grown from around 4000 to more than 400,000 a year. Deforestation has savaged the slopes as trees have been felled to fuel stoves and fires.

In the new camps, animal dung is used in place of wood for heaters. Kitchens use gas or kerosene, and each dining room and bathroom was built using timber sourced from controlled forestry.

Deprivations for trekkers are few, with each camp containing a comfortable dining room, flushing toilets and showers. The camp in the village of Landruk, a few days behind us now, even has wifi in the dining room.

If the camps take custom from local trekking lodges, the loss is not entire, with each piece of land leased from local owners, and as much food as possible bought locally.

When we arrive in Bhaisi Kharka, the tents, which are taken down at the end of each trekking season to allow the land to regenerate, are frosted with snow. What remains of the afternoon is spent crowded around the heater inside the dining room, with trekkers and porters all huddled like the livestock that supplied the heater's fuel.

By morning, it's a perfect winter day in the mountains. Overnight, a few more centimetres of snow has fallen, but the sky is breaking up until soon it's polished blue. The air is warm and the ground is cold. To the north, surprisingly near, Kopra Ridge hovers above the mist that now rises from the valleys. We will be atop the ridge by lunch.

The trail from Bhaisi Kharka traverses the slopes below Kopra, passing empty stone shelters used by summer herders. For periods of time there's the incongruous sight of bamboo growing out of snow, but it isn't long before we're threading between more yaks than trees.

Finally we rise onto the crest of the ridge. Snowfields pour down its northern slopes while the southern, sun-bearing slopes are entirely bare of snow. In between, a pair of stone lodges crowns the ridge. 

The World Expeditions lodge - the newest and highest of the pair - opened in January 2015. From its porch, the ridgeline leads temptingly towards the shoulder of Annapurna South, where a holy lake - Khayer Lake - sits pooled among the bleak, black slopes.

Trekkers often make the long side journey up to the lake, but not in this sort of snow cover. Instead, we simply wander up the ridge for a while, no destination in mind, until cloud and iced rock walls force us back to the lodge.

At 3600 metres above sea level, the lodge brings an altitude-disturbed sleep. Every movement is effort, but in this sort of setting the temptation to rise early anyway is irresistible.

Dawn arrives as clear as gin. The snowfields around the lodge glow blue and, as light creeps over the land I stand at the centre of a scene that, to me, exceeds even the views on the trails around Mt Everest. 

From the pit of the Kali Gandaki, the world's deepest gorge, green fields rise to the dark slopes and icy, glaciated summit of Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh-highest mountain. Nearer to hand, almost immediately above me, are fractured glaciers, the black pyramid summit of Annapurna South and the ominous orange cliffs of Fang, the most dramatic wall on Annapurna I, the 10th-highest peak on the planet. 

Compared to this Poon Hill, almost 10 kilometres away, is very much the cheap seat.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.worldexpeditions.com 

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways flies to Kathmandu from Sydney and Melbourne, connecting through Bangkok. It's about a nine-hour flight to Bangkok, and three-and-a-half hours from there to Kathmandu. See www.thaiairways.com 

STAYING THERE

A good central base in Kathmandu is the Radisson Kathmandu, which was undamaged in the April earthquake. Trekking operator World Expeditions has a staff member based in the hotel. See www.radisson.com 

TREKKING THERE

World Expeditions' 16-day Ultimate Annapurna Dhaulagiri trek ascends to Kopra Ridge, staying along the way in a mix of semi-permanent camps and trekking lodges. The trip costs $2780, including all meals and internal flights between Kathmandu and Pokhara. See www.worldexpeditions.com 

The writer travelled courtesy of World Expeditions.

FIVE OTHER ANNAPURNA TREKS

ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT

The trek that put the Annapurnas on the travel map. Spend a couple of weeks walking around the massif, climbing as high as 5400 metres above sea level at Thorung La.

ANNAPURNA SANCTUARY

For many, the most dramatic and spectacular of the Annapurnas' trails, squeezing into an inner valley ringed by high peaks.

TILICHO TAL

Branch off the Annapurna Circuit for this testing climb to a high-altitude lake pooled (or frozen) beneath a wall of glaciers.

MUSTANG

Follow the western half of the Annapurna Circuit through the Kali Gandaki, turning away north into the cold desert of Mustang, a region open to trekkers for less than 25 years.

POON HILL

If you only have a few days and you just crave a view, trek through the foothills and rhododendron forests to the Annapurna's classic grandstand.

Comments