There was a momentary sense of respite as I lay my hands on the pitted steel railing, fleetingly cool, and cast my eyes up the V-shaped valley.
A solitary drop of sweat gently coursed its way down my cheek, slowly tracing a dusty path from lobe to shoulder – stark contrast to the churning, milky white waters of the Modi Khola (river) below.
Doubts too, rising and falling with every laboured breath.
What had I signed up for? One day of hiking, no problems – but three days in a row? With a slowly expanding waistline and more than a few old sporting injuries, was this 40 year old body up to the task?
And then, as I turned my gaze back towards the trail, I couldn’t help but laugh as I saw our effervescent Nepali guide bounce past, light-footed as a gazelle and with a cheeky grin from ear to ear.
I’d made my resolution – challenge accepted!
The words “Himalayan hiking” are likely to evoke images of soaring snow-capped mountains. Of hardened explorers with pickaxe in hand, crampons strapped to their boots and ice in their veins.
Unknown to many travellers, there are a multitude of shorter hikes in Nepal often lost in the shadows of their grand siblings, and the Ghandruk Loop is one fantastic example.
Starting in Nayapul, just a short drive from Pokhara, this hike is easily accessible and the drive gives you an excellent taste of what’s to come over the next few days.
At nearly 30km in length – linking Nayapul, Ghandruk, Pothana and Phedi – hiking the Ghandruk Loop is no Sunday stroll. But the clever way in which it eases you in, tests you, relents for a moment, and then tests again is both unique and refreshing.
Let’s face it, the steep sections are VERY steep – one on the first day and two on the second. And yet there is so much to see, hear, and smell, that you’ll find the fatigue constantly being pushed aside and replaced instead by a growing sense of wonder.
Sweeping panoramas of craggy Machhapuchhre (the ‘Fish Tail’) and Annapurna South looming between the clouds. Vivid green terraces of millet and rice, precariously stepping their way from the valley floor to misty heights. Laughing school children, and waterfalls leaping and diving their way down the valley walls. Tiny villages sprouting from the hillside, each offering friendly smiles, cool refreshments and temporary relief from the heavy humidity – with one even offering the legendary Nepali hallucinogenic honey, harvested from nearby cliffs!
Accommodation options are plentiful in both Ghandruk and Pothana, and the quality of their ‘tea houses’ is very good – but do make sure you bring a sleeping bag liner.
The meals on offer are simply superb, and across the three days you really should make the most of the opportunity to taste as many delicious traditional Nepali dishes as possible. Dal bhat, Gurung bread (a local specialty), Mustang coffee, yak cheese and so much more – it all represents exceptional value (even the Western options), so make the most of it.
A guided hike with porters is well worth the investment. Not only will you learn so much more about the Nepali people and their culture, but it means you can tackle the climb with only a day pack on your back. In such extreme heat and humidity you’ll be glad for the assistance!
Even now, the memories of my last morning hiking the Ghandruk Loop are vivid…
Waking to the sound of rain drumming on the tin roof. And then standing under the sinewy boughs of an old fig tree, eyes wandering across the slate lined paths and maize fields ready for harvest – anticipating the last few hours of hiking down into Phedi where our transport would be ready to take us back to Pokhara.
Casting my mind back three days to that uncertain moment on a bridge – I allowed myself to smile. It was hot. It was tough. My body ached in strange places. But I was buzzing!
I had overcome my doubts and proven to myself that I was capable of stepping up my hikes to the next level. And what a place to do it, in the foothills of the legendary Himalayas.
There’s no turning back now!
Article and photos by Andrew Strikis.