Introduction. I was due to finish studying at Sussex University in late September 1979 and had obtained three months for birding before starting again in January 1980. I decided to spend the first month on Scillies and the next two in Asia where Nepal was an obvious destination - it couldn’t be adequately covered in a more ‘normal’ 4 week trip as it was done mainly on foot, something that also appealed as I was not able to drive or afford a hire-car. This would mean carrying my stuff a lot of the time, hiring porters was out too, so I had to be ruthless in what I took. Fleming’s Birds of Nepal was essential, and light, otherwise I wouldn’t know what I was seeing, although it sometimes wasn’t quite up to the task. My notebook almost ran out but writing in two columns for the last few days saw it through with a page left over. I took a camera but not a telephoto lens, something I soon regretted. Taking candles instead of a torch was also a bit dim, as I discovered the first time I had to go to the toilet at night – one of the disadvantages of being at altitude. A warm coat was a must, although layers might have been more useful, while I got by with a single pair of sturdy shoes. Good friends of mine Frank Lambert and Nigel Redman had been to Nepal the previous year as part of long overland trips and provided me with very helpful information. None of my other friends had the time to join me so it was to be a solo trip. With some trepidation I set off for Heathrow Airport on 4 November 1979 to catch an evening Ariana Afghan flight to Delhi via Kabul. It was delayed by 24 hours and I was put up in an airport hotel, not a very encouraging start.
We left Heathrow on the evening of 5 November 1979 and I saw a number of fireworks as we took off. After several stops we landed at Kabul Airport on the morning of 6 November. I was keen to follow up a possible Bimaculated Lark seen from the runway as we were taxiing in but transit passengers were not allowed off the plane. With 20 or so MiG fighters by the runway and a couple of tanks near the terminal building it probably wouldn’t have been sensible to wander around anyway. I finally landed in Delhi late afternoon, 25 hours late, having missed my connection to Kathmandu. The Royal Nepali Airlines Office was by now closed and the next flight tomorrow so I collected my bag and wandered out of the airport to go birding around nearby fields for the remaining hour or so of daylight. Here I saw Large Grey Babbler, Indian Robin, Ashy-crowned Finch-Lark and 250 Ring-necked Parakeets, all new for me. After dark I found what I thought was a quiet place to crash out. It was superb under the stars but unfortunately I was also under the flight-path.
7 November 1979. I stuck it under the flight-path until gone midnight but with no apparent letup in departures and arrivals I returned to the terminal and found a corner to sleep on my luggage. It was somewhat quieter although I slept no more solidly for fear of waking to find my bag had gone. No chance of oversleeping and early that morning I had no problem in getting on the first Kathmandu flight. I hadn’t even collected my bag when I was being hassled by several touts for taxis or hotels. I wasn’t ready for such and after changing a bit of money I decided to walk into town as it was only about 4 miles. This enabled me to unwind a bit with a flock of 5 Grey-headed Lapwings in one of the fields on the way an unexpected bonus. Once in Kathmandu I found the lodge I’d been recommended just off Freak Street although I was not impressed – it was quite a dive – but I hoped to get away the next day. I then went to the Immigration Office to apply for a trekking permit and was told I could collect it that afternoon. On the way back I saw a brilliant male Siberian Rubythroat by the Bagmati River. I changed enough money for the trek, getting a 3” thick wodge of very low denomination notes at a better rate than at the airport. I then booked a bus ticket to Pokhara for the next morning, collected my trekking permit and tried to find Jamaly’s restaurant but gave up as most of the population of Kathmandu seemed to be on the streets. I returned to my dive and wondered what I’d let myself in for.
8 November 1979. The bus to Pokhara took 7 hours and I noted seeing several interesting birds that I couldn’t identify and an Egyptian Vulture and two Crested Buntings that I could. I found a lodge in Pokhara and spent the rest of the afternoon in fields to the east of the bazaar and across the river seeing a pair of Pied Stonechats, 3 Egyptian and 5 White-backed Vultures and several Olive-backed Pipits.
9 November 1979. I left Pokhara at 06:00 as it was starting to get light and started walking slowly north out of town, past the Tibetan Camp and up the wide river valley. The trail then climbed up to Naudanda, where I stopped for lunch, and followed a ridge to Chandrakot where I arrived at 17:30. I’d walked just over 17 miles, climbing 2,500 feet, in 9 hours - not bad for my first day. My nose was running like a tap but otherwise I was enjoying myself, helped on that front by 8 new birds although I only saw Red-billed Blue Magpie in flight and Long-billed Plover was a bit of a disappointment. Birds of prey around Khare gave superb views flying low over the ridge, here at its highest point, with Lammergeyer, Black, Red-headed and Himalayan Griffon Vultures (the last two new), 9 Steppe Eagles and a male Pallid Harrier. A male Rufous-bellied Niltava was superb while Grey-hooded Warbler and a flock of 30 White-throated Laughingthrushes were the pick of my other new birds. I’m fed up with dal bhat already but Nabico Glucose biscuits and Star Bars make decent snacks.
|view north after leaving Pokhara
|distant snowcapped mountains north of Pokhara
|classic view of Machhapuchhare or fish-tail mountain, from Hyengja when the early cloud had cleared
|porters on the way to Naudanda. Most goods on the Jomson trek have to be carried by porters or mules
|looking back east at Naudanda
|welcome rest stop on the way to Khare. Perfectly designed to sit on the step and rest one's pack on the top without having to take it off. Also provides shelter from the hot sun, although on this occasion it had clouded over so that wasn't an issue.
10 November 1979. With only two miles to walk today left Chandrakot as the sun was rising at 06:30 and descended through remnant forest to the Modi Khola at Birethanti, arriving mid morning. I found a lodge, left my bag and spent the rest of the day wandering around by the river (River Chats, Plumbeous Redstarts and Blue Whistling Thrushes were common) and adjacent forest before returning as the light was going at 17:30. A really nice day with lots of birds seen. Highlights were 4 Lammergeyers, a flock of 20 Grey-headed Parakeets, a giant Crested Kingfisher, Barred Owlet, 2 Brown Dippers, 3 superb Little Forktails, Scaly Wren-Babbler, 2 Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babblers, 30+ Pallas’s Leaf Warblers and a Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch while a tantalisingly brief view of what I was almost certain was a Long-billed Thrush was unfortunately one that got away.
|early morning at Chandrakot. I couldn't get Carole King's 'Morning Sun' out of my mind. The morning sun comes shining through my window and its good to be alive ...
|descending from Chandrakot
|approaching the river at Birethanti
11 November 1979. I left Birethanti at 06:20 and didn’t linger at the police checkpost for anyone to appear to see my trekking permit. I was heading for Ulleri. The first part was easy going along the Bhurungdi Khola where the common riverside species were very evident (Little Forktail, Brown Dipper, River Chat, Plumbeous Redstart and Blue Whistling Thrush). I left the river and started the 2000 foot climb up to Ulleri. This was on rather uneven steps – the so-called ‘Stairway to Hell’ - up alongside terraced fields and patches of scrub although I was concentrating on the climb and didn’t see much. I also had to watch out for hazardous mule trains careering down the steps seemingly unaware of how wide their loads were so it was with some relief that I arrived in Ulleri at lunch time with only a couple of bruises. Ulleri did not look to be the sort of place I wanted to spend any longer than was absolutely necessary so I decided to take advantage of my good progress and press on for Ghoropani which I was confident of reaching before dark. The trail continued to climb and soon entered superb Oak/Rhododendron forest. Here I started seeing birds again and my progress was considerable slowed – not something I’d factored into my calculations. Highlights were single Rufous-breasted and Robin Accentors, a female Red-flanked Bluetail, 15 Pallas’s, 2 Ashy-throated and 4 Orange-barred Leaf Warblers, 10 Rufous-winged Fulvettas, 4 Whiskered Yuhinas and 3 Gold-billed Blue Magpies. As the light was starting to go I disturbed a male Kalij Pheasant on the trail ahead and followed it for a short distance, superb. I’d not brought a torch, a rather foolish weight saving measure as became apparent the first time I tried to find my way out of a lodge and to the toilet with a lighted candle! I was therefore on the lookout for somewhere sheltered to camp out before it got completely dark and was very surprised at 17:45 to come to a small clearing that I hadn’t noticed on my map. There were a couple of houses and the two women in the first were more than happy to provide me with food and accommodation. A bowl of dal bhat never tasted so good! Reading my Trekking Guide more carefully I found I was staying at Thante. I’d walked just 7 miles – a very slow pace when there were birds to see, although the Guidebooks 9 hours from Ulleri to Ghoropani seemed a bit hopeful?
|south of Hille looking north. Ghoropani, my objective was somewhere to the left of the far ridge
|looking back south/down on Ulleri with Chandrakot on the far ridge. The steep climb up to Ulleri changed the song in my head to Kiki Dee's 'One Step' at a time although I'm not sure the lyrics were that appropriate
12 November 1979. I left Thante at 06:35 and slowly continued through the forest to Ghoropani, little more than a mile away. It was a somewhat bigger clearing with a few lodges just before the pass. I stayed in the first I came too, Poon Hill Lodge, and after a biscuit and starbar snack left my bag and wandered around the clearing and then spent the rest of the day, to 17:30, along the Ghandrung Ridge to the east. Views across to Dhulaguri and Annapurna were superb until the clouds came in and birding was excellent. I saw 13 new birds including Red-tailed Minla (a superb flock of 10), Hoary Barwing, Striated Laughingthrush, Rufous-vented and Stripe-throated Yuhinas, Green Shrike-Babbler, White-collared Blackbird, Grey and Black Crested Tits, Stoliczka’s Treecreeper and Dark-breasted Rosefinch. I also saw 11 Red-flanked Bluetails, Rufous-breasted and Robin Accentors, Blue-fronted Redstarts, Lammergeyer and 4 small phylloscopus warbler species. A brilliant day.
13 November 1979. I intended spending a few days at Ghoropani and was out from 06:30-17:45, again primarily along the Gandrung Ridge. More great mountain views while the clouds held off. Another six new birds today, all good ones – Blue-headed Redstart, Spotted and Black-faced Laughingthrushes, White-browed Fulvetta, Fire-tailed Sunbird, and Beautiful Rosefinch. The pair of Spotted Laughtingthrushes I saw were particularly impressive. I also flushed a large pheasant from the ridge that was probably a female tragopan and had a distant view of what looked like two Snow Pigeons but these were minor disappointments. Other species seen included Red-flanked Bluetail (only 5 today), Nutcracker and Scarlet Rosefinch making this another great day.
|Annapurna South from the Ghandrung Ridge
|Dhaulagiri from the Ghandrung Ridge with the Kali Gandaki Valley in between
|Dhaulagiri from the Ghandrung Ridge
14 November 1979. Another day at Ghoropani and I was out from 06:30-17:30. I headed up Poon Hill, 1000 feet above Ghoropani and a popular lookout to watch the sunrise. I was more interested in birds which I wouldn’t see climbing up in the dark so I was rather late on the scene. I found it to be a very steep one hour climb and was often overtaken by other trekkers. Taking my time birding along the way was a good excuse for a rest. Views were good but I wasn’t convinced they were any better than at places along the Gandrung Ridge. The law of diminishing returns was coming into play with just three new birds today, although White-throated Redstart and Variegated Laughingthrush were superb. I wasn’t so convinced by Hodgson’s Mountain Finch although it was OK. Other birds seen included Collared Pygmy Owl, Red-flanked Bluetail (just one) and 4 Lammergeyers. My intention was to walk up to Muktinath and then return so although there were good birds I hoped to see at Ghoropani I would get a second chance at seeing them on my return. I also felt that it was probably a bit early for some of them to have arrived so I decided to move on.
|view to west from Poon Hill
|Dhaulagiri from Poon Hill
|Annapurna from Poon Hill
|Machhapuchhare from Poon Hill, the peak looking more like a fish-tail
|Dhaulagiri and the Kali Gandaki Valley from Poon Hill
|Annapurna, Poon Hill, Annapurna South, Annapurna III and Machhapuchhare
|Nilgiri, Annapurna and Poon Hill
|looking down on Ghoropani from Poon Hill. I didnt feel to bad about making a meal of the climb when I looked back down. The Ghandrung ridge goes away into the distance
15 November 1979. I left Poon Hill Lodge at 07:00 climbing the short distance to the pass. From here it was a long descent to the Kali Gandaki (or Thak Khola), at the bottom of the world’s deepest valley passing as it does between Dhulagiri and Annapurna. The trail slowly dropped out of the forest and down across cultivated hillsides. These passed patches of scrub with a few birds in them but the best thing was that it was going downhill! Despite being a ‘walking day’ I saw almost 50 species including two new birds, White-tailed Nuthatch and Rufous-gorgetted Flycatcher. Both of these and most of the day’s other highlights, 18 Blue-fronted Redstarts, 13 White-collared Blackbirds and 7 Red-flanked Bluetails, were seen in the first couple of hours while the trail was still in forest. I crossed the Kali Gandaki on an impressive suspension bridge and walked up the far side of the river a short way to Tatopani where I arrived at Tatopani at 15:30 and found a lodge. I found the deep valley somewhat claustrophobic and there appeared to be nowhere near town where I could get to any decent looking habitat and so I called it a day. I’d walked 10 miles and descended over 5000 feet and the backs of my legs felt it.
|the trail dropping out of the forest at Ghoropani
|terraces below Shika looking very dry and barren
|view north while crossing the Kali Gandaki south of Tatopani with Nilgiri in the distance
|the bottom of the Kali Gandaki Valley near Tatopani with the light going as it clouded over
16 November 1979. Another walking day. I left Kalopani at 06:15 and continued up the Kali Gandaki to Lete, 12 miles away, where I arrived at 17:00. At one point the trial forked and I was unsure which side of the river it was best to be on. I chose to stay on the western bank which was probably a mistake as I then found it to be rather precarious as it cut above a steep gorge and a rock fall. The trail flattened out somewhat and at Ghasa, by which time I’d gained almost 3000 feet in altitude, the valley opened out a bit too. This made birding easier and I saw some excellent birds including a Wallcreeper (butterfly flight, cosmic bird, lovely to see again), Himalayan Accentors (as well as the more usual Rufous-breasted and Robin), Spotted Forktail, White-tailed Robin, Hodgson’s Redstart, Red-headed Tit and Yellow-breasted Greenfinch.
|The Kali Gandaki north of Chitre. Neil Young's classic Down by the River was in my head now although again the lyrics didn't really fit ... I shot my baby
|Kali Gandaki south of Ghasa
|Dhaulagiri icefall from south of Lete, quite a sight to be confronted with on rounding a corner!
|The village of Lete on the far side of the Lete Khola
|Fortunately there was a bridge. The slate covering a missing plank 5 paces in was typical
17 November 1979. All day at Lete. I was out at 06:30, concentrating on an area of woodland that Frank Lambert & co had recommended from his visit the previous year. They’d seen lots of thrushes and Grandalas (one of my most wanted species for the trip) feeding in the wood on yellow berries. The wood, which I’d imagined being easy to stroll around, was on a very rocky hillside with huge car-sized boulders making progress in any direction difficult. Despite this it soon became apparent that I was too early in the season as I could find no thrushes in the wood at all. I widened my search and stayed out until 15:00 when low cloud and rain drove me back to the lodge. I’d seen a nice selection of birds, including over 20 Red-headed Tits, 2 Spotted Laughingthrushes, a Goshawk, 6 Red-headed Bullfinches and a male Scaly-bellied Woodpecker (the last two being new) but it was a disappointing day and I decided to continue on to Jomson in the morning.
|the wood at Lete where I'd hoped to see Grandalas. It was not at all easy to wander around
|Dhaulagiri icefall from Lete
|Nilgiri from Lete
|looking back at Lete from south of the Lete Khola. I found a narrow trail tat saved me going down to the bridge
18 November 1979. I left Lete at 06:40 and walked fairly steadily to Jomson where I arrived at 14:00. It was the most fascinating walk so far and one of the easiest, involving a gradual climb of only 1000 feet in altitude, although it was 17 miles. The trail continued north beside the Kali Gandaki and the valley soon opened out and became drier as it penetrated the rain-blocking Himalayas. The vegetation became much more stunted, spikier and windswept and the hillsides much more barren - no more oak, conifer or rhododendron stands, in fact hardly any trees at all. The villages had changed too and were more inward looking with walled fields, stone buildings with few windows, interior courtyards and piles of firewood on the rooves – adaptations to a harsher environment. Chortens and prayer wheels became part of the scenery too. Jomson was a bleak, windswept town with extensive fields to the south which I had passed on the way in. I found a lodge and after a late lunch and visit to a shop (where I bought some soda bread and yak cheese, luxuries) I returned to the fields, staying out until 17:15. The wind picked up, making birding difficult, but it was a very enjoyable day. I saw 3 Wallcreepers, 16 Stoliczka’s Tit-Warblers (even better than expected), 23 Brown Accentors and 5 Red-fronted Serins were the highlights but I also saw 2 Lammergeyers, 11 Himalayan Griffons, 2 Rufous-breasted and 18 Robin Accentors, 3 White-throated Redstarts and 80 Chough. The first Brown Accentor had me scratching my head as it looked little like the illustration in the Field Guide. It was only when I saw several others that I realised it must be common and carefully reading the description fitted. The first of the day’s three Wallcreepers flew across the Kali Gandaki River in front of me. I tried to wade after it but the river was too deep. The third Wallcreeper was flushed by children just above Jomson and flew up onto a cliff where I watched it at 50 yards range before it worked its way along the cliff into the distance.
|early morning looking north up the Kali Gandaki north of Kalopani
|looking north east from a bit further north
|Dhaulagiri fro the north east with a yak train heading south in the distance
|looking south from Sauru
|heading north to Tukche
|Tukche, on the opposite river bank
|looking south from Tukche
|side village of Chhairo
|approaching Marhpa Biological Station where apples could sometimes be bought. It was now a very much drier terrain with only spiky bushes and stunted trees
|looking south from Marpha
|Marpha entrance gates which housed prayer wheels. convenient for a quick spin and a 'please can I see Stoliczka's Tit-Warbler Guldenstadt's Redstart ...' The first was soon answered.
|leaving Marhpa and another spin of the prayer wheels
|Himalayan Griffon Vultures very low over Marpha (taken with a standard lens as that wa sall i had).
|wind-swept tree and fields near Syang
|approaching Jomson and the habitat was even more arid and inhospitable
19 November 1979. I left Jomson at 07:45 and slowly walked the five miles to Kagbeni where I found a lodge and spent the rest of the day, to 17:00, in the fields. Best birds seen were again 3 Wallcreepers, 3 Guldenstadt’s Redstarts and 3 Snow Pigeons. Also an adult Lammergeyer, 16 Chukars, Blue Hill Pigeon, Shore Lark, 35 Brown and 40 Robin Accentors, 8 Stoliczka’s Tit-Warblers and 6 Eastern Great Rosefinches. The afternoon wind was even stronger but another enjoyable day. I followed my guide books advice by taking the trail out of Jomson along the eastern side of the Kali Gandaki but soon realised I would have been better off on the west as a succession of locals were going that way – along the flat river plain – while I was constantly going up and down above the river. My annoyance was short lived as I soon flushed my first Wallcreeper of the day, although it flew from below me and out of sight. The day’s third Wallcreeper started as a distant flight view but I relocated it really close. It sat for 10 minutes face on to me with its body feathers puffed out before becoming super-active and constantly on the move hopping and shuffling from rock to rock. Several times it tapped the cliff in a woodpecker fashion and once yanked a large grasshopper out of a hole and chased it down a scree slope where it caught it –a Wallcreeper hopping after a grasshopper was the most amazing sight! After several attempts to break it up, mainly by shaking it vigorously but with a few stabs, it swallowed it virtually whole. It then took half a minute before it could close its bill as the grasshopper was a similar length. It flew off when a child threw a stone at it but I soon relocated it. It often hopped sideways and sometimes backwards, always moving as it peered this way and that often scanning the sky. Easily my best views ever as I watched it for two hours, never more than 20 yards away and constantly in view. Brilliant. You may have gathered that Wallcreeper is a rather special bird for me. It still is but in 1979 it was one of my all time favourites, along with Blue Pitta and Ross’s Gull.
|looking back at Jomson, early morning
|looking south to Jomson and Dhaulagiri, the latter unfamiliar from this angle
|another steep section on my side of the river, still flat opposite ...
|Kagbeni and the view north. A trail followed the river into Tibet but this was as far north as westerners were allowed to go.
|looking south from Kagbeni fields towards Nilgiri
|my ultimate destination the Thorong La (Pass) from Kagbeni. I was hoping to climb a fair way up the pass to look for snowcock. It didn't look particularly daunting from here but I was sure that was deceptive!
20 November 1979. I left Kagbeni at 07:00 and started the long seven mile climb up to Muktinath. Although Muktinath was ‘only’ just over 3000 feet higher the effect of the altitude soon kicked in and I found it very tiring, arriving at Muktinath mid afternoon. Once there I found a lodge and stayed out until 17:00 by which time the light was beginning to go, the weather worsening and I was getting colder. I found two Solitary Snipe in the river by the temple, a regular site where I’d hoped to see them. Other good birds seen were a Wallcreeper (it flew off a wall and over my head as I was walking up), 2 Guldenstadt’s and 4 White-throated Redstarts, 5 Stoliczka’s Tit-Warblers, Himalayan, Alpine, 22 Robin and 15 Brown Accentors, a Chiffchaff and 8 Red-fronted Serins. It was noticeably colder here and I retired early ready for an early start the next morning as I intended climbing a fair way up the Thorong La to look for snowcocks and I scouted the start of the route.
|looking back on Kagbeni, just catching the morning sun
|below Jharkot looking southwest, Kagbeni being in the valley behind the middle ridge
|looking down on Jharkot
|looking down on Muktinath with Dhaulagiri on the horizon, far left
|the temple at Muktinath after it clouded over
21 November 1979. I was up at 06:00, an hour before dawn, but there was just enough light in the sky to enable me to find the start of the trail up to the pass. I was travelling light and had left most of my stuff in the lodge. I climbed steadily and started seeing a few birds which provided a welcome excuse to stop for a breather. After a couple of hours I saw a snowcock which called once as it walked off uphill. It was larger than I was expecting but was always facing away although it appeared to have a very dark grey body and a paler head with orange on the side suggesting Himalayan. I kept going hoping to see more and get better views but had no success. I had got to the stage where I wasn’t sure how high I’d climbed other than it was obviously higher than anywhere I’d been before. I would only know for sure if I went all the way to the pass, not something I’d originally thought about doing but if I stopped I’d never know how high I’d been. I kept going and after 5 hours I reached the pass, Thorong La, at 17,800 feet. I’d climbed over 5000 feet but it had not been as hard as I’d anticipated, just a continual slog. The views were superb and it really felt as if I was near to the top of the world but it was cold and I only stayed for 45 minutes before heading down, conscious that the weather could close in at any time. I’d seen no other people at all, and no birds in the last three hours of the climb so a pair of Ravens at the pass were most welcome. I returned rather more easily than I’d gone up, but with no more snowcock sightings. I stayed out around Muktinath until 17:30 and ended up seeing 13 species for the day including my 9th Wallcreeper of the trip (above the Monastery that I couldn’t relocate after it flew in front of me and behind a cliff), a very smart Robin Accentor (aren’t they all), 3 White-throated Redstarts, 8 Stoliczka’s Tit-Warblers and 20 Brandt’s Mountain Finches. I was joined in the lodge by two couples who has crossed the pass and although not birders reported seeing lots of birds in the forest on the other side. They recommended that having come this far I should complete the Annapurna Circuit but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t sleep at all well with my mind actively weighing up the pros and cons of doing so, the biggest problem being that it was at least ten miles down the other side of the pass to Manang, the first village where I could get food and shelter. Also the pass was easier to ascend from the other side, although I had done it from my side in 5 hours, albeit with limited gear. Shall I, shan’t I ….
|starting up the pass
|looking back down on Muktinath with Kagbeni in the far valley
|a similar view from a bit higher, maybe half-way, a few other trekkers following me
|view to the west from an estimated 3/4 of the way to the pass
|almost there and almost caught up by the trekkers following me
|me at Thorong La, 17,800 feet above sea-level, the highest I've been ...
|other than to take this photo
|view west from Thorong La, it felt like I was right on top of the world
|but being a pass there had to be somewhere higher
|view east from Throng La, note the trail can be seen ahead for some distance
|view southeast from Thorong La
|starting the descent back to Muktinath
|half-way down and cloudy