High on the Himalayas

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01 February 2019
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Defender 110 Himalayas Kathmandu : credit: © Patrick Cruywagen
If you’re going to do a 4x4 trip in Nepal then we recommend heading for the monstrous mountains of Manang

All overland adventures these days normally begin with a WhatsApp message, phone call or a no-holds-barred conversation in a bar. This one was no different. “We are doing a drive from Cape Town to Kathmandu. Why don’t your join us at the finish?” asks humanitarian, explorer and Land Rover ambassador, Kingsley Holgate.                                                        

It’s certainly a long way to go for an end-of-expedition party and so I start to do some research on other possible Land Rover stories in the highest country of the world. Sam Watson from LRO magazine is very helpful and puts me in touch with Miles Chadwick of Land Rovers Overland in Kathmandu. Miles declares himself willing and able to show me some of the mountainous tracks in his incredible country.

I then find out that the Tiger Tops Lodge near the Chitwan National Park, which is famous for its tigers and one-horn rhinos, runs a fleet of old Land Rovers on its safaris. Suddenly I have three possible Land Rover stories and so I book a flight on the STA website for £450. I will be away for just over a week. Here are some carefully-chosen snippets taken from my Nepal travel journal. 

Day 1

The sights of Kathmandu

My flight lands at 8.00 pm at what can only be described as a relatively small airport in Kathmandu. I like little airports as they are normally located in cool places. I did not get a visa before leaving the UK and it only takes me about 30 minutes to apply for a Nepalese visa in the hall, pay for it ($25), collect my bags and meet Miles at the exit of the arrivals hall. There is no sign of his Defender. Instead we are taking a white Suzuki Marutisi, the weapon of choice for most Nepalese taxi drivers. Don’t expect to fit more than two passengers and a few bags in one.

Miles does not look like a trekker or climber; in fact he blends in well and negotiates hard on the price. The 30 minute drive from the airport to my hotel in the touristy Thamel area costs less than £5. In London that would’ve been £50. I already like Nepal.  

As I climb out of the little cab I have to rub my eyes because everything looks hazy. It’s the famous Kathmandu dust. I am told that the cause is a combination of exhaust fumes, slow construction projects and even slower road rebuilding programmes. These combine to form an incredible cocktail of dust so most locals wear masks to combat it. I’m here for a good time and not a long time so I don’t have a mask. 

My good South African mate and Landy nut Jacques Smit flew in the day before.  He greets us with three Everest lagers. After this we head to the iconic Sam’s Bar before going to Friends restaurant for some red meat. Thamel is tourist central. There are travel agents everywhere selling you a scenic flight to Everest or a once-in-a-lifetime trek to Everest Base Camp. 

There are also places to change your US dollars or British pounds into Nepali rupees. A sign tells me that one British pound is equal to 144 Nepali rupees. It’s around 1.00 am local time when we roll into bed and Nepal is roughly six hours ahead of the UK. 

Day 2 

There is much to do before we head out on our 4x4 trip so Miles takes us to the nearby kar.ma COFFEE shop that is run by Raj Gyawali and partner Birgit Lienhart. The locally-sourced coffee is better than anything I have ever had at a Starbucks or Costa in the UK. Then, in a first for me, when I want to pay there is a little sign that says only pay what you think the service and coffee is worth! 

Raj, who also runs a highly-rated tour company called Social Tours, suggest some things to see and do during our stay. I take out my Nat Geo map of Nepal and then Miles puts forward several possible 4x4 routes for consideration. One is east to what he calls a Land Rover graveyard and if we have the time we can even head to the India/Nepal border to see the Series Is made famous by the recent viral video entitled The Land of Land Rovers. Another option is to head to the Gorkha district, which was the epicentre of the horrific 2015 earthquake that killed nearly 9000 people.

Our Defender 110 all set for the journey ahead

In the end I make the call that we should head north-west to where the popular Annapurna Circuit Trek takes place. No other Land Rover magazine has covered this route and we will be driving around the several mighty Annapurna peaks, which are over 7000 metres in height. The little town of Manang will be our final destination.  

Our next stop is the Tourist Service Centre in town as we need a TIMS (Trekking Information Management System) card and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) permit to drive to our intended target of Manang. Trekkers also need these – it’s to control the movement of people and also entrance fees to the conservation area. They cost about $20 each. 

After lunch we head to Miles’ workshop to meet his crew and inspect the 110 that we will be using. They are an enthusiastic bunch and Jacques (who owns two specialist Land Rovers garages himself) is amazed at all the Land Rover specialist tools that they have. Anyone driving a Land Rover or an expedition-type truck would be silly not to stop off here. Even if just for a friendly cuppa and to get their truck up on the ramp.  

Our final task of the day is picking up a few essentials for the trip including a cheap fake Jack Wolfskin sleeping bag for Jacques. There are loads of shops selling imitation big brands. North Face is a popular one. Be warned that these products might be okay for a Billing Show or camping at 3000 metres but it won’t do for real high altitude stuff.  

Day 3  Kathmandu to Tal 

The bad traffic in Kathmandu is the stuff that nightmares are made of and so we are up at 5.00 am in an effort to get out of the city. As we walk out of our traditional house in an old part of Pathan I see a few people lighting candles and ringing the little bells at the Hindu temple across the road. 

We do beat the traffic and make our way east on the H02. I quickly realise that one can never escape the craziness of the Nepalese roads. Drivers of colourful supply trucks with outlandish horns come straight at us in our lane. At times they force us to slow down so that they can get back into their own lanes. Buses are no better than the trucks. Signs on the back of them read ‘please honk’. This is so they know you are coming from behind. It’s nerve-racking stuff and Miles notices my slight discomfort and calls a coffee stop. What looks like a regular old place turns out to be a real gem with a fancy coffee machine and freshly-cooked local food such as the popular dal bhat tarkari with lentils and curried veggies. I instead opt for a few samosas with curried veggies.

Soon we head off into the craziness again. Our next stop is Malekhu with its colourful fruit and veg markets. The place is famous for its fried seafood and so we take lunch here. Plates of prawns and fried fish are washed down with sweet milky tea. 

There were times when it felt like we had the track and the mountains all to ourselves

I am relieved when we turn off at Dumre and head north, leaving in our wake most of the crazy truck and bus drivers. The Marsyangdi River is now our constant companion as it follows the road. We make good time and soon we reach Besisahar. It has a proper final frontier town feel about it, probably because this is where the tar road ends and the off-roading games begin as we head towards the big mountains.

Besisahar lies at 760 metres above sea level. Manang where we are heading is more than 3500 metres above sea level and what lies in between promises to be a real adventure.

Our visit to this remote mountain track coincides with a serious and sustained road-building programme by the Chinese. A red sign warns us that this is a dangerous road and that we must pay attention and pass quickly. Not only do we have to contend with the many construction vehicles but there are also the Mahindra Bolero taxi drivers who are transporting trekkers to their preferred starting point for the famed Annapurna Trek. 

The huge hydro-electric scheme found in the lower reaches of our climb has built a tunnel for small cars like ours to pass through and then we begin to climb in earnest. I’m impressed by the general condition of the track, though Miles warns that a landslide could change all of that in an instant. We pass two rather dramatic waterfalls, one of which achieved YouTube infamy when a 4x4 dared drove through it in full flow. Fortunately for us it’s no more than ankle-deep today. More climbing and dramatic valleys follow. At times we are just driving through narrow cut-outs in the side of a mountain with dramatic rocky overhangs. It’s like we are in a scene from The World’s Most Dangerous Roads. 

We’re losing light fast and I suggest we look for a place to stay at Jagot, Miles reckons we push on another 6.2 km to Tal. Soon we are caught up in a convoy of red Mahindra tractors towing trailers filled with rocks for the roadworks. Their drivers think they are in red Ferraris and drive like they are in the Italian Grand Prix. Soon it all comes to a head on a rather steep, tight section as vehicles from the other way struggle to pass. We disembark to enjoy the views and have a leg stretch. 

It’s nearly dark and after about ten minutes we’re moving again. To get to Tal we have to drive across the river. A huge waterfall towers over this village on an island. Miles directs us to a place called Manang Guest House and restaurant, where the three of us can get a clean room for only £4. As we enter the restaurant the smell of fried onions, chicken and masala spices fill our nostrils and so we promptly all order just that as a starter. It’s so good that we all order chicken curry for main course. We exchange war stories from the day over the tasty meal and a few bottles of Everest lager before retiring our dusty bodies to our room for some deserved rest.       

Day 4  Tal to Manang (almost) and back to Besisahar

We set off just after 6.00 am as today is going to be a long day of interesting driving. The Chinese road workers are in full swing and after about an hour of driving we reach Karte, we’ve barely done 1 cm on my map. It’s about 15 cm to Manang! At lower Dharapani a red tractor blocks our passage, as they are busy off-loading bags of cement from their trailer. We take the opportunity to buy some milky coffee from the Mountain View Hotel. I go inside to take a look where it is being prepared. Strips of yak meat hang from the wooden beams below the ceiling. They remind me of that wonderful dried meat they call Biltong in South Africa. It still looks a bit too rare for my liking.

Quick stop to register our ACA permits

At upper Dharapani we stop at the ACAP checkpoint so they can record our details in their register. This pattern will repeat itself several times during the day as our permits and driving licenses are checked. On one occasion we don’t see the checkpoint and a policeman comes out running while brandishing an old rifle. I inspect it while he inspects my permit. It is covered in so much dust that I doubt its serviceability, though now is not the time to find out for sure.

Whatever you do, don’t look down!

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We reach an altitude of 2160 m at Bagarchhap, this little village and its two lodges were wiped out during a devastating landslide in 1995. From Danaque to Timang we climb another 500 metres before the landscape changes into a forested section. When we cross the river Miles tells us how he once spent two nights at this very same spot while waiting for some spares for a friend’s Defender. He says that to pass the time they played various games and the loser had to swim in the freezing water. I hope that would not be happening to us on this trip.

Take your pick from the many colourful, comfortable and affordable places to stay

Once we reach the bustling Chame we are at an altitude of 2710 metres. The place looks like the Blackpool of the Himalayas. It certainly has more hotels and restaurants! Luckily for us it is not the height of trekking season so it does feel like we are the only tourists about though we do pass the odd trekker. Did I just say trekkers are odd?

View of Annapurna  

The broken shock was quickly fixed  

As we climb out of Chame the views of Annapurna II literally stop us in our tracks. Actually it’s the fact that we have broken a rear shock. Miles and Jacques do some emergency repairs and we proceed. At just over 3000 metres we reach the village of Pisang, while Upper Pisang stares at us from an even higher height. From here the landscape seems more lunar with less greenery. Miles tells us to keep a look out for yaks though all we pass are small groups of donkeys and horses carrying goods on their backs. At one stage we find ourselves driving on a narrow mountain ledge. Get it wrong and you will hit the rock face on your right while on the left there is a few hundred feet drop into the cold blue waters of the river we have been following for two days. It does not last long and makes for dramatic pictures.

Soon we find ourselves on snowy tracks, a 4x4 tractor with slick tyres struggles to make it up the one climb but after several goes and much black smoke it gets up. The climbs get more severe and when outside the Defender the cold cuts right through me. We reach a deserted tea shop and Buddhist monastery. We climb out to take in the views. We can see the airstrip of Manang and the town, about 10 km from us. It’s all too beautiful for words. It’s already 1.00 pm and we take a joint decision to turn around and head back along the dramatic track we have just come along. It would be nice to continue to Manang but we have a lunchtime date at the Chitwan National Park tomorrow. I vow to return to this track with my hiking boots as it’s like nothing I have ever seen in my life. I am high on the Himalayas. 


The lunar landscape of Upper Pisang with Menang tantalisingly in the distance

It takes about eight hours to get off the track as we make our way back to Besisahar. The last four hours are driven in the dark and except for a stranded truck, we have the road all to ourselves. 

If you’re looking for a 4x4 track like no other, head for Manang in a Defender. It was without a doubt one of the best 4x4 tracks I have ever driven in my life.

The LRM rules of driving in Nepal

1. Commit fully 

2. Stay calm if someone is coming towards you in your lane

3. Be patient 

4. Try to anticipate 

5. Accept that Nepalese drivers go too fast for their talents and vehicle

Who is Miles Chadwick?

Miles is originally from Cornwall but has called Nepal home for the last decade or so. He learned to work on Land Rovers as a kid and today he is known as the go-to guy for all things Land Rover-related in Kathmandu thanks to his workshop, Land Rovers Overland, to the south of the city. 

Miles tells me: “When you rent one of my Defenders for an adventure in Nepal, you are not restricted to weather windows or a particular season. Yes, monsoon rains could cause landslides but that is all part of the adventure. I want to turn Nepal into a destination where people come to overland in a Defender – it must not just be a place overlanders pass through. Though if they are taking the latter option and they need some work done, then my team and I will welcome them with a cup of local coffee at my workshop.”

Flights to Nepal

My travel guru said try Turkish Airlines as they run great deals though I got a cheaper flight on Qatar Airlines via the STA Travel website. I paid £450 for a return economy class flight. 

Where we stayed 

Cosy Nepal (Kathmandu): It does not get more authentic than this, live with the locals in a tastefully restored house that caters for your every need. 

Conservation permit and TIMS 

Both can be obtained from the Tourist Service Centre in Kathmandu. We needed the TIMS and ACAP permits to drive to our intended target of Manang. They cost us about $20 each. Take along some colour ID photos for each permit.

Driving in Nepal 

Your British or International licence will be in order but please note that it is only valid for a period of 15 days.

Land Rover Overland

 

If you want to do a self-drive tour of Nepal then Miles Chadwick is definitely your man. Miles will consider your experience and capabilities and recommend a suitable route. He has two Defender 110s (both Td5s) that he rents out. Don’t expect rooftop tents and extreme condition sleeping bags. Land Rover Overland encourage staying with locals and LRM definitely endorses this as it’s cheaper than camping in the UK, the food is out of this world and you are putting money into the local economy. 

The Defender has recovery gear, basic tools, spares, battery pack and a compressor. Miles includes an iPad with local mapping and three local sim cards in the rental package. Mobile coverage is relatively good in Nepal while GPS coverage is sketchy. The Defender has a SPOT tracker so your family, friends (and Miles) will know where the Defender is at all times. Prices available on request. For more details see landroversoverland.com.

Lonely Planet and Nat Geo Map 

I don’t travel to remote places without a map (Nat Geo Nepal Map £9.99) and a relevant copy of the Lonely Planet (£11.17). I ordered both from amazon.co.uk.

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