Saturday 21 September 2013

Trek to Everest Base Camp: Insert Destination/Journey Cliché

I didn’t realise how petrified I was in the lead up to my trek to Mount Everest Base Camp until I returned home having completed it. I’d spent months prior to my trip collecting the necessary overpriced gear at various Kathmandu mountaineering stores and the sight of the twin peak logo as I drove past a shop a few months later sent a chill of panic through my very bones.

A year earlier I’d spent a few weeks in Nepal and was touched by the sight of the Himalayas when I glided over them on a scenic flight. So imposing and brilliant, the Himalayas were said to be created when India as a land mass crashed into South Asia 60 million years ago leaving the earth nowhere to go but up. None went higher than Sagarmatha. “Sagar” meaning “sky” and “Matha” meaning “head”, the great Mount Everest stands somewhere around 8848 metres above sea level.

The “head of the sky” however wasn’t even established as the tallest mountain on earth until the Great Trigonometric Survey of India in 1856, and until then was of little importance to the Nepalese or Tibetan people whose borders cut the mountain in half. Tucked away seemingly at the end of the earth, Everest was so difficult to get to; it invaded no-one’s consciousness and was home to only a minor deity.

Far from its humble beginnings, today Everest is the ultimate test for mankind. An assault of the body and mind, a successful summit is the highest accolade and achievement any could aspire to. The title of Everest Summiteer invokes proof of every desirable attribute a human could possess. But tales of inhumanity, sabotage, and deadly ambition now litter the mountain along with the tons of rubbish left by climbers every year.

The ambition to reach the highest accolade has been said to drive people mad with desire, and while I’m no mountaineer, I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. So what’s one to do? I thought a good compromise would be to climb three fifths of the way up and turn right back around again.

Everest Base Camp sits at 5,364 metres above sea level and concentration of Oxygen in the atmosphere is less than half that at sea level. Before departure I didn’t really know what any of this meant for me, but I sure found out soon enough.

I arrived in Kathmandu with absolutely no idea as to what lay ahead for me. I was hoping that I wasn’t the only novice hiker in my trekking group, and was relieved when others told me they’d “never done anything like this before”. Even for novices, the pull of Everest was unmistakable.

Everyone had heard about the infamous Lukla airport; carved out of the side of a mountain, one end of the runway 60 metres higher than the other. Rated the most dangerous airport in the world, we all boarded the plane with a degree of nervousness; some more so than others.

As we careered down the runway at Kathmandu airport, the plane came to a sudden halt and the pilots in the cockpit of the tiny plane could be seen twiddling knobs, pulling levers and talking animatedly through headsets in Nepalese.  The flight attendant came and politely told us that we wouldn’t be flying into the Himalayas today as Lukla airport was closed due to bad weather. Resigned to try again the next day, we would merely have one less day to descend which our guide told us was very doable.

We arrived again the next day with high hopes only to be told the same version of events, only this time waiting another day wouldn’t give us enough time to get up and down the mountain and still make our flights home. We were given a choice: charter a helicopter, or do a different hike. The half of us that could afford a helicopter rose above Kathmandu airport with soaring hearts and empty pockets and 30 minutes later landed on a patch of grass a few hours’ walk south of Lukla. Two shy young Sherpas met us to take our packs, and our journey upwards began.

The first day lulled me into a somewhat false sense of security that the hiking wouldn’t be too difficult. I worked up a sweat for sure, but the amazing scenery of mountains and waterfalls, and the unique experience of being railroaded off the track every fifty metres by load-bearing yaks and donkeys, detracted from the exertion.

Day two was a completely different story. We’d been warned that we would begin to feel the altitude after 3000 metres but I didn’t think it would be so literal. Every step became more difficult and every breath yielded less oxygen. After 7 hours we reached Namche Bazaar, the largest settlement in the Khumbu Valley, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved to put my feet up. Namche is the first acclimatisation point for all trekkers to Everest and is subsequently a bustling little village. Carved into a valley, colourful tea houses and lodges, and small banks, supermarkets and internet cafes, Namche is the trekkers’ last sight of this kind of civilisation.

After a day acclimatising in Namche, which included an ascent and subsequent descent of a few hundred metres, we continued for another four days to reach Gorakshep, the last lodge before base camp. Altitude affected each of the hikers differently on different days. It seemed everyone had their turn of being the slowest in the group; days when you could barely breathe, your bones ached, and the sight of another staircase or steep hill was enough to make you want to cry. Other days you could sing as you walked and pitied those whose turn it was to suffer that day. Often the scenery was lost in the effort it took getting up the mountain. You had to remind yourself to look up from time to time, to appreciate where you were and the experience you were a part of, rather than just dreading the steeper ascent that was always around the corner.  Altitude does weird and wonderful things to the human body, every functioning organ used to having twice the amount of oxygen it’s now getting. Sleep proved often near impossible for me without the aid of sleeping tablets, and once asleep vivid and whacky dreams disturb the restfulness. Even when awake your eyes play tricks on you, and I found myself hallucinating spiders on walls and colourful floaties in the sky. Even stuffing your sleeping bag of a morning becomes a massive effort, your breaths deep to retrieve as much oxygen as possible. The one great thing about altitude is that your metabolism goes in to overdrive. Partner that with the hours on end hiking, and we were consuming food at a rate I’ve never experienced in my life. Pizza, pasta, chocolate bars and porridge, and the dal bhat (a traditional Nepalese dish of rice and lentils) was refillable.

While in Tengboche we sat at our lodge (most of which were quite makeshift and appeared to be made of ply wood with the lack of insulation and soundproofing) exhausted and barely talking, when a troop of babbling hikers entered the lodge; spirits high. They were making their descent down the mountain and the jealousy and longing for us to be on the way down, having completed the climb, was palpable. But we still had a way to go, and we were all determined to overcome our lack of sleep, headaches, stomach cramps and colds to make it there. If not for ourselves, then for the shame of having to go home and tell our friends we hadn’t made it.

On day nine of the trip, we trekked the four hours from Gorakshep to basecamp, a trek that started with us blasting music and pumping fists in excitement. An expansive glacier stood before us, covered in rocks and not much else, when our guide stopped. I assumed we were taking a break and sat down for some water. “How long until basecamp?” I asked naively. “This is basecamp”. “Oh.”

This was the biggest anticlimax of my life, I thought at the time, is this what I had come all this way for? We had started our journey up the mountain on the first of June, and climbing season, it was now evident,  had already ended. All of the basecamp trekkers and summit hopefuls had departed a few days before, leaving behind only a few remnants of prayer flags. Usually littered with tents and bustling with people preparing to ascend to the summit, basecamp can often be an exciting place, we were told, but during climbing season, only the elite summit hopefuls are allowed to enter the camps, not the lowly basecampers.

We took the obligatory photos and slowly the realisation that we had made it overtook any disappointment we had felt that we had missed out on the most exciting period of base camp life. After an hour or so we started the descent down to Gorakshep, some of us preparing for our summit of Kala Patthar (5545 metres) the next day.

We then had four days of descent to think about what we had experienced, and I thought to myself the cliché “it’s not the destination, but the journey” had never resonated more with me until that moment. Although on a minute scale compared to the summiteers, we basecampers had pushed our bodies and tested our minds to reach a goal our egos and our adventurous spirits had driven us to. We learned about ourselves, about human nature, and witnessed Mother Nature’s piéce de résistance, the top of the world. At a tiny Irish bar awaiting our flight back to Kathmandu, a fellow trekker raised her glass and said “well maybe we didn’t stand on top of the world, but the top of the world stood before us.”

Thursday 4 October 2012


As Globalisation makes our world smaller, and the economic downturn makes travel partners harder to find, solo travel is becoming more and more popular. Alexandra Hansen explores the ups and downs, and why in the end, solo travel is more worthwhile than any other kind.

“This is as far as I can take you,” he said, the tassles hanging from his crooked rear-view mirror swinging menacingly. “What do you mean?” I asked; first time setting foot in Africa, 11pm, no French or Arabic to speak of other than your average ‘merci’ and ‘habib’.
As I wandered the streets of Marrakech, 18 kilogram backpack in tow, I cursed whatever (now long-gone) courage led me to tackle this alien city alone, and prayed to a God I don’t believe in that providence would get me safely where I needed to go since apparently the taxi driver couldn’t. ‘Never trust anyone whose pants match their shoes which match their shirt which matches their fez,’ I thought, but in Marrakech, I soon found out, that would leave very few to trust.

I had spent four months backpacking Europe, making friends along the way, and thought all cities were equally combatable, but Marrakesh was something I hadn’t banked on. I’d travelled alone, I’d been to Islamic and impoverished countries, but there was something about the souks and bazaars of Morocco that made one feel, well, overwhelmed.
I was seriously questioning my desire to travel alone, when one day while overlooking Djemaa El-Fna (the main market square), I realised what I loved about it.
I’d had my hand in both, travelled in a group large and small, travelled in a threesome, travelled in a pair. Aside from the unlikelihood of finding people who want to go to the same countries, cities, hostels, monuments, cafes, paintings at the same time as you for the same amount of time and with a temperament not too disparate from your own, travelling accompanied is somewhat like being on anti-depressants. The lows aren’t as low (being lost is not so stressful, being followed home by drunk Athenians is funny, and needing to go to the toilet when you’ve just picked your luggage off of the carousel is no inconvenience) but the highs are also not quite so high.

Leaning over the railing, pint in hand, screaming ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ with a couple of Germans, making the charismatic Dublin guitarist laugh; gave a feeling that this is what life is about, that no high could ever be this high, especially not with people I’d known for years, conversations with whom had been exhausted, arguments from the day before still raw.
While travelling with pals is fun, it’s rarely an adventure, everything new is not so shiny-and, and it still sits snugly in your comfort zone, perhaps with a blanky and a pack of arrowroot biscuits. The triumphs of solo travel, while seemingly small, are things that will stay with you, and do you service, forever.

The route to the hostel that seemed so lengthy, treacherous, and unknown fills you with a confidence that if you can arrive in a city you’ve never seen, a culture you’ve never experienced, a language you’ve never heard; and find your way, then you can do anything. Your parents haven’t done it, and probably couldn’t, and your friends haven’t had the guts.
The making of a new friend in the hostel that sat eating his/her breakfast while you wondered if he/she 1) spoke English 2) wanted a friend, and 3) wasn’t mental, fills you with the belief that you can approach anyone and never again will you be nervous or awkward in social situations. You can’t wait to get home and show everyone how much you’ve changed, matured, come out of your shell.

The successful excursion into the wilderness that led to the best ice-cream you’ve ever tasted, the scariest bus ride you’ve ever been on, the closest you’ve come to crying during a play, and the only time you’ve actually cried while looking at a structure made of metal reminds you that you are capable of many things you wouldn’t have thought you could do while sitting at home watching Getaway.

All of the travels-with-friends experiences I’ve had have been, don’t get me wrong, fantastic, but also somehow safer and a bit more standardised. That knot in your stomach is nowhere to be seen and that ‘no-one else has ever had these experiences I’ve had’ cannot exist.
The solo journey is becoming more popular according to and; which they say may be due to the GFC and the inability to find a suitable travel partner. However globalisation and the convenience of feedback-driven sites such as Trip Advisor, and interactive accommodation booking sites such as HostelWorld and HostelBookers mean the world is no longer as big and scary as it once was.
Such forums make the unknown seem a little less scary, and ensure others have too traveled the road less traveled, and you shan’t be entirely alone.
If you’re considering solo travel, or if you want to see the world and none of your friends can get time off work/family/commitments/their arse, I’ve compiled a list of dos and don’ts from a seasoned solo traveler.

..Forget to write down the address/directions/phone number to your accommodation. Being homeless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
..Be too nervous to say ‘do you mind if I join you for a drink?’ what’s the worst that could happen? They say no? You’re NEVER going to see them again.
..Be afraid to spend your money on day trips, bus excursions and other touristy stuff to that effect, it’s often really worth it. Use the money you’ve saved not buying a souvenir from every place you go to.
..Take pictures of absolutely every building you see. With every picture think about what it will remind you of, and what story you will have to tell about it. If the story is ‘That’s in Vienna’, then delete it.

.. Cull photographs often.
..Leave your map behind and just wander around aimlessly, you tend to find way cooler stuff that way.
..Keep a diary. Even if your writing skills possess not the wit and eloquence of my own, simple points of where you’ve been, what you’ve done and how it was will suffice, and write down those little moments that thrilled you.
..The Sound of Music tour in Salzburg and sing ‘I am sixteen going on seventeen’ at the top of your lungs with the 66 year-old American lady beside you.
..Get into lengthy conversations with other solo travelers that you’ll never forget; i.e. ‘Dance if that’s what you want to do with your life!’, ‘I’m actually in love with my best friend’, ‘I once did a poo in my pants during aeroplane turbulence’*
..Be nervous, afraid, scared of what the next city holds in store, you’ll never forget that feeling!

*The orators of these quotes shall remain anonymous. 

Sunday 30 September 2012


The man sits on a mat in his tassled hat playing the Arabic flute and I laugh and think it sounds like snake-charmer music. I double-take and see three cobras, flared, ready to strike, at his feet.

Only in Marrakech.

The first thing I thought on arriving in this city was; “What on earth have I got myself in for?” and the last thing I thought upon leaving was; “I’m never going to see a place this unbelievable ever again.” It’s not for the feint at heart, that’s for sure. But if you’re looking for something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, then it’s worth a look.

I had been travelling Europe alone for months, and I had a routine, and it worked, and I liked it. Get to city, find hostel, do a walking tour, see the sights, hang out, meet people, party. I arrived in Marrakech at 11pm and approached the information desk at the airport for some advice. I looked at the young girl expectantly as she chatted away in Arabic on her bunny-eared blackberry. She finished her conversation, unwrapped a piece of chewing gum, considered it, put it in her mouth and looked up at me ‘salaam’ (more a question than greeting in this case). ‘Salaam,’ I responded, ‘I just wanted to know if there was a particular type of taxi I should get, or whether any out there would be fine?’ ‘I call someone for you. 200 Dirham.’ ‘200? The guidebook says about 60.’ ‘Go out there and ask them if you don’t believe me.’ She works at the airport, she must be telling the truth.

Lesson Number One in Marrakech: the truth here is not so black and white; it’s a flexible kind of grey. Whether it’s real silver, real leather, really vegetarian, one can never be quite sure. An hour, 300 Dirhams, some silent prayers, and some very helpful strangers later, I happened across my hostel.

Lesson Number Two in Marrakech; there’s no such thing as a free anything. Everything, even directions, has a price.
Very quickly I learnt that everybody here has found a way to utilise tourists to some effect, (and unlike Europe, you can’t hide; they know every face in the city, whether you’ve been there before, whether you’ve just arrived) you turn left when a young boy tells you that the way to the square is left, and you get a slap if you don’t give him money. You take a photograph of the man walking around with monkeys in nappies, there’ll soon be a hand under your nose asking for your cash. And they’re smart, they know the exchange rates. You try to fob them off with 5 Dirham, “50  cents?” They respond, “I want more,” and they won’t leave you alone until they get it.
Acrobats applaud each other as they flip and somersault through the air, while you watch on from a restaurant. A man jovially swings his head around making the tassle on top swing around and around. A man has a donkey. A man has a baby camel. Apparently all of this warrants a price.

All of this contributes to make Marrakech the unforgettable, fascinating, can’t-peel-my-eyes-away city that it is, one simply has to learn the rules; Lesson Number Three: Pack small change because this atmosphere isn’t free.
I was in shock for the first day, at least, wondering why I had chosen to come to Marrakech. I wracked my brains trying to think of what so-and-so had told me about it, I’m sure I’d heard what’s-his-face say it was good, why else would I have come here? Maybe I had it confused with somewhere else?

On my second day exploring, getting tricked by the locals, being told I had ‘a nice arse’ by every second man on the street, I started to get it. These men weren’t crazed perverts; they just thought it was funny. These salesmen weren’t trying to attack me; they were trying to make a living for their families in the fastest-growing industry in the country. Once I knew how to say ‘thank you’, ‘it is lovely, but I already have one,’ and ignore the arse comments and constant proposals of marriage, everything started to fall into place and I was better able to enjoy the place for what it was, and get over the sheer shock of it all.

So Lesson Number Four (and the most important of all) is just to enjoy yourself. Smile and relax, they don’t want to hurt you after all; they just want your money.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Salzburg is alive with The Sound of Music (Tour)….

One of the cheesiest, yet most unforgettable things I did while in Europe was to take The Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.

This is probably something that only big fans of the film will enjoy, so perhaps leave your boyfriend at the pub for the day, while you hop on any number of big tacky tour buses with other SOM fans to enjoy the sights of Salzburg as seen in the film, while singing along to the classic soundtrack.

There are various travel companies that run the programme; I chose the Panorama tours, lured by their inclusion of tobogganing through the Austrian mountains. I had read many online forums which said these tours were a tourist trap, and had planned to see the sights on my own, but managing it in one day would have been a struggle, and I’d rather pay for someone who knows Salzburg to take me there on a coach than stress myself out trying to get around to all the sites by map and local bus. We were also told some of the sites are not accessible to the general public, whether this is true, I’m unable to say.

The first site is the stunning Mirabell Gardens, where the children are seen running around in the “doe, a deer” scenes. The gardens are an amazing display of colour, and you can take a picture with the famous fountain the children run around.

Leopoldskron Palace is the beautiful mansion which is the façade of the Von Trapp family home, and the stunning lake the children fall into. The house is surrounded by some of the most amazing scenery in Salzburg. Hellbrun Palace’s Gardens contain the famous glass pavilion Liesl and Rolf danced around singing “I am 16, going on 17,” however you unfortunately cannot go inside.

One of the real highlights was Mondsee, the small town containing the stunning church where Maria and Captain Von Trapp married in the film. It is evident this town largely exists nowadays for SOM fans, and there is ample opportunity to purchase memorabilia and other paraphernalia such as edelweiss jewelry and SOM postcards.

En route to these sights are other landmarks such as Nonnberg Abbey where Maria was a nunn, the street where the children were hanging from the trees in their curtain clothes, and the train station where the real Captain and Maria von Trapp escaped Austria.

It was a surprise to me that the story is based on a true one, and if you have a good guide, he/she will show you the sights from the film, and from the Von Trapp family’s real life.

While I hate to admit it, I had a brilliant time with the other (mostly) women and children singing along to “These are a few of my favourite things…” and gushing at the fact that I was standing alongside the fountain Maria had danced around, case in hand, declaring she had confidence in sunshine.