Saturday, 31 December 2011

Kathmandu to Lukla

Awoken at 0545 am after a restless, noisy night. Breakfast in the hotel 30 minutes later followed by some last minute packing. By 7 am we were heading in a rickety old coach towards Kathmandu’s national airport. Despite the hour the streets were already chaotic.

At the airport we entered through ‘local' departures. It was a hurly burly, do-it-yourself kind of check in but somehow it seemed to work.

There were already some eight planes awaiting as we were bused out to a twin engined Otter operated by Yeti airways. These planes can make four or five trips a day to somewhere like Lukla, some 30 to 40 minutes of spectacular flying time away.

Localised fog out on the runway meant everything was grounded until the sun was properly up to burn away the early morning mist. We hung around outside the plane with the chance to closely examine what looked like a flying relic of days gone by. Hopefully good enough for one more trip into the mountains.

Thought it’s not entirely logical, I feel thankful that we have two pilots as we career down the runway and buzz up into the air away from Kathmandu.

It’s a tight fit for 16 people and all the trekking gear for 10 days and we have an intimate view of the two pilots at the front. Soon we are flying over hilly farmland at about 10,000 feet. To the left there are distant towering mountain ridges.

As we can see through the cockpit window the tiny mountainside landing strip comes into view. It has to be a pinpoint touchdown here as the runway is short and ends in a wall of mountainside. No second chances as the pilots line up for what must be one of the most exciting landing strips in the world.  It is a unique and truly memorable flight.

The mountainside settlement of Lukla, gateway to Everest, is bustling with people and small aeroplanes and even a couple of helicopters. No sooner has our plane turned into the tiny parking area and another is buzzing down the runway to leap into oblivion over the mountain edge. Bags and people are unloaded immediately.

The airstrip at bustling Lukla was built by Sir Edmund Hillary and his friends to service the Everest region when he began his work of building schools and hospitals for the Sherpa people.

We are immediately impressed by the scale of the huge peaks that surround the settlement, as we greet our Sherpa team and take time loading gear with the porters and yaks.

Our party sets off from Lukla at about 11 o’clock, down from the landing strip through a narrow cobbled street. Tiny shops spill onto the walkway and there is the smell of wood fires with smoke rising into the still air.

We snake downhill on a broad and well-marked rocky trail towards the Dudh Kosi, a raging river that flows from the highest peaks. At 10,000 feet the air is already thinning and cool, and you can taste the mountains with every breath as - it is both intoxicating and exhilarating.