Do you ever get the feeling…?

Do you ever get the feeling that someone is trying to give you a hint?

“There’s been a change to your flights. You are now travelling with Virgin Atlantic as Jet Airways is no longer trading.”

“There’s bee a change to your flights. Please see the amended schedule.”

“There’s been a change to your flights. Please see the amended details.”

“Kashmir is in communication blackout, but it’s okay as Ladakh is still safe.”

Circumstances beyond anyone’s control have created a series of hitches, glitches and uncertainties that have made the run up to my latest trek rather like a stage of the Tour de France over cobbles in the rain and howling wind. Bumpy, uncomfortable and with the distinct possibility of a fall. Merde! When I think back to previous treks, I’m sure the build up wasn’t as challenging. Ok, so there was training on the Brecon Beacons in the winter for my second Everest Base Camp trip, battling gales and storms. I had to postpone Kilimanjaro when I injured my knee and when I resumed training, I got caught in a thunder storm on my last training walk in the mountains. There was last minute stress when I thought I needed a Yellow Fever jab to get into Tanzania. I even contemplated travelling to London to get one, as there weren’t available locally.

But this one! You may have read about the problems in Indian controlled Kashmir recently. Yep, Ladakh is right in the middle of Kashmir. The FCO and the local trek crew both confirm that it’s safe to travel there but there were moments when I was watching the news and thinking ‘really?’  Then, out of the blue, a strike by ground crew at Heathrow this week, with the promise of more to come. The strike was averted but a number of flights were canceled. Then more problems with British Airways IT systems caused delays and cancellations again. Now there are storms predicted for the airport this weekend. And it’s monsoon season in most of India (though not Ladakh, strangely).

And if you’ve been reading my Facebook output you’ll have noticed several posts about luggage weights. You may need a strong coffee and a pen and paper for the next bit and yes, I will be testing you at the end. The journey to the start of the trek involves two flights. An international one and a local flight. Both have weight limits on luggage, as you’d expect. Both are different with the internal flight weight limit being 15kg (8kg less than the international one). On the trek itself, there is a third weight limit for the porter’s load. It’s 3kg less than the internal flight limit. Simple, you say. Pack to the porter weight limit and all will be fine.

Well, yes, it would. But this trek involved a semi-technical climb of Dzo Jongo. For this I need a climbers helmet and harness, ice axe, crampons and crampon compatible boots and a thick down jacket. And my sleeping bag has to be rated to -10c. All of this stuff is heavy and bulky. In fact, all that kits comes to nearly 8kg. But to help a little, the technical kit (but not the jacket and sleeping bag) will be carried separately from the start of the trek, so suddenly I have an extra 4kg to play with.

Packing has been very much a compromise. I have learnt not to skimp on the warm stuff so although I have a lighter insulated jacket, the bigger one is coming with me as summit night will be cold. I wore it on Kilimanjaro and despite also wearing thermals, two fleeces and a windproof jacket, I could feel the cold. It’s surprising how much waterproofs, fleeces, thermal base layers and socks weight. I may not change my socks every day (sorry for handing you that thought) but from previous experience, the really bad smelling won’t start until we return to normal altitude as the bacteria can’t grow in low oxygen environments (I hope, I really hope). As long as I can seal them in bags, I’ll make it home without being accused of attempting biological warfare.

So, after all the planning and weighing and repacking and reweighing, my kitbag should now be around 15kg which means it will sail through the international flight and with fingers crossed that my scales are accurate, pass through the internal flight. But just when you though it was safe to relax, I have to tell you that my kitbag currently weights 21kg!

“Has he gone mad?”

No more than usual. I’m taking a load of donations for a local school that Exodus, the company I’m travelling with, support. They do this at all the destinations they run treks in and I think it’s a fantastic scheme. I have the spare capacity and so I’ve packed pens, pencils, geometry sets, paper, socks, toothpaste and tooth brushes. These will be taken from me at Delhi before the internal flight. I’ve also put more things from my carry on luggage in the kitbag to make boarding and leaving the plane much easier. Once in the hotel, I’ll have to do a lot of repacking to even out the weights (the back pack will be maxed out with camera gear).

Compared to all this, the physical training was simple.

The test: What is the international flight weight limit for my kit bag?

Travel Fun

I’ve just been travelling. I love visiting new places, seeing new things and particularly experiencing new cultures that challenge my way of thinking. I have been fortunate to visit Nepal, Tanzania and Morocco and each one brought new adventures and challenges and a completely different attitude and approach to doing things. I’ve been to various places in Europe and America and while the culture is general familiar, there are always little characteristics that make a place special. I love that. But there was one common element to each of those trips that I hated. Getting there.

We can fly across the world. It is now possible to fly non-stop to Australia thanks to technology. I can check the weather in the High Atlas, chat to friends over the internet from the top of Kilimanjaro and send electronic postcards almost instantly from Everest Base Camp. But it still takes 6 hours to get to Gatwick, via a bus and I still have to walk several hundred yards to get me and my baggage from bus to check-in. And at the other end, I have to walk the same amount again to get my bag and drag it out of the airport. And lets not talk about airport transfers.

In Nepal, the airport at Kathmandu was an experience I wasn’t keen on repeating. I had to queue for a visa and for the 30 minutes I was there, I was subjecting to the same repeating jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant. It had an annoying jingle followed the the statement “There are two steps – one leads to Everest, the other leads to Rum Doodle”. By the time I had my visa, I had been subtly brainwashed, as had all the trekkers on my trip. We successfully got to base camp, and on our return to Kathmandu, we ate at Rum Doodle.

Outside the airport, we were assaulted by a chaos of Nepali boys and young men all trying to carry our baggage. Fortunately, we were being met by the hotel transfer bus but in the few minutes it took to identify and make contact with the bus driver, several boys had tried to pick my bag up (it was very heavy, so they couldn’t whisk it away) and I’d managed to grab it back from all of them. I loaded my bag and helped load others and still they asked me for tips and money for carrying my bag. And all the while, A Nepalese policeman with a rifle on his back almost as long as he was blew a whistle to try and regain order.

To get to the start of our trek, we had to take an internal flight to Lukla. Google ‘Worlds most dangerous airport’. It’s usually Lukla. The flight was an event in itself and while I wouldn’t quite lump it in with the nightmare of ‘getting there’, it is definitely not for those who dislike flight. The little plane climbs constantly to lift itself over the mountains that surround Kathmandu, and then continues to climb in amongst the lower Himalayan mountains until, weaving through a narrow valley, the pilots line up with an elongated postage stamp of a runway for which there is no ‘go-around’ procedure and land. If the clouds swirl up, obscuring the runway at the last minute, it’s tough. And in many cases, its tough and fiery.

On the way back, if the weather is good, the take-off is only marginally less challenging. As the air heats up during the day, it gets thinner and less able to support aeroplanes, particularly ones loaded with trekkers and heavy trekking gear. At the end of the runway is a steep drop of some 2000 feet. I watched one aircraft, late in the morning, drop off the end of the runway and only reappear 20 seconds later as it struggled to gain height to clear the mountains beyond. And the next flight out was ours.

Flying to Tanzania was via Nairobi airport. Nairobi had been bombed the year before and although security was tight, more than half the airport was closed due tot he damage caused by the bomb and subsequent fire. So transferring, we were crammed into a dark and dingy semi circular corridor that looked as if it had been built in the 70’s and promptly forgotten again, only to be rediscovered when they need ed the space. “What’s behind this door?” “No idea, lets see…”

The flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International airport was via a large twin prop passenger plane. It looked modern and inside the cabin was clean and spacious. But then I watched them loading the luggage – by hand through a door in the side between us and the pilot. The bags were stacked haphazardly behind a curtain in the front bulkhead. I didn’t see my bag being loaded but when I picked it up at the end of the flight, it had been ripped at the seams and was unusable.

The transfer from Kili airport to Arusha was an exciting hour along the main road, fairly busy with slow buses and lorries and our minibus, only slightly faster. But the driver insisted on overtaking everything, even if it took 5 minutes. We stopped looking in the end as oncoming traffic got closer and closer. We passed overturned lorries and buses and this should have been enough to warn the driver. But we survived, and turned off the main road to get to the hotel. It was along a track that had never seem any form of tarmac and was, instead, created entirely from potholes creatively linked by ruts.

The transfer from the hotel to the start of the trek was equally adventurous. After leaving the main road, we drove on rough tracks for a while before leaving roads completely and driving along what I could only describe as a muddy river bed. The ruts in the mud, enlarged by flood water which had mercifully drained since, were deep enough the the bus grounded several times on the drive up to the park gate. At one pint, we passed another bus coming the other way and only just avoided rolling down a bank into a field.

In Morocco, I flew in to Marrakech airport and after a mix up with the transfer arrangements, I was taken in a car to the hotel. The driver was clearly under orders to get there and back as quickly as possible and so we shot off at high speed. My attempts at conversation were hampered by my lack of Arabic, my poor schoolboy French and the drivers need to concentrate on the road lest he hit something. Except he didn’t really seem to mind about the impact side of things in his mission to get to the hotel in record time. We sped across pedestrian crossing barely missing people who were already half way across the road. I watched in horror as the face of one man, mouth agape, passed by inches from the side window. We overtook on corners, undertook on other corners, undertook on roundabouts, forced motorcycles out of the way and generally sped through the busy streets to finally arrive outside the hotel. To be fair, we hit nothing, knocked no one over and got to the hotel in half the time it took to transfer back at the end of the trek.

You could argue that these experiences are just part of the fun of travel, and I guess you’d be right. But sometimes, after a long flight crammed in to the seat, dehydrated and tired, arms aching from carrying bags and brain frazzled from trying to understand what the passport checking police man has just asked you, you just want a gentle transfer and to wake up in a comfy bed ready for the adventure. We’ll get there one day.

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