Five days, 96km criss-crossing the India-Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas and, as our trek guide said ‘nothing is flat in Nepal’.
Day 1 – Darjeerling to Tumling: Our trek began with a Jeep drive from Darjeerling to the town of Manebhanjang to complete formalities with the trek guide association. It is prohibited to walk without a registered guide as its a national park, and frankly you would be nuts to try. After the first day, there are many trails crisscrossing the mountains and grazing lands and no direction markings at all, so it would be impossible to negotiate, and at this time of year getting lost would almost certainly result in hypothermia with a risk of death given how cold it is at night.
Outside Manebhanjang, the trek begins up a steep path of concrete steps crossing or following the road at several sections, for about 2km. It is possible to drive to the top of this section and we wondered if the trekking guides use this to test the capability of their walkers before they get too far from town to change their mind. After that the track becomes more of a series of ups and downs on a well formed track, much of which is concrete.
We stopped for a lunch of vege noodles and hot tea at a small tea house and then continued on. As we ascended, the temperature fell and the mists swirled in, until we could not see the track ahead, let alone any of the no doubt fabulous mountain vistas which are to be had on a clear day.
The rhododendrons at this comparatively lower altitude were in thick buds, some with a few blooms.
We arrived in Tumling in the late afternoon and were delighted to discover our lodge had large private rooms with attached bathroom. No heating and no hot water, but plenty of heavy blankets. The dining building had a fireplace to sit beside for the late afternoon and dinner was an excellent spread of lightly spiced veges, chickpeas, Indian bread, papads, dhal and rice, followed by apples and custard.
The major draw card of the trek is the opportunity to see a panorama of four of the five highest mountains in the world – Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu and, distantly, Everest. That is, if the weather gods are smiling. Clearest weather is at dawn, but at this time of the year, even then prospects are slim due to the heavy mists and fog that cloud the mountains. The guide said he would wake us at 5am if the weather was clear, but let us sleep in if it was not. He didn’t wake us at 5am.
Total walk distance: 14kms.
Elevation: Manebhanjang 2,130 metres to Tumling 3,100 metres.
Day 2 – Tumling to Sandakphu: Day 2 is long – 22kms – and steep. There is a much published killer climb at the end, but actually the whole day is a challenge. First the trail climbs down to the village of Gairabas, a drop of 500 metres in elevation over 8kms, then climbs up 500 metres over a distance of 3kms to the village of Kolapokhari.
To locals this is not considered steep, but coming from a country where the highest mountain is 2,228 metres, both the terrain and the altitude were wearying. This part of the walk is through rhododendron forest and is quite lovely.
Unfortunately, later on much of the walk is on paths or roads made of rounded rocks embedded into the ground. There are virtually no vehicles on the roads, so traffic is not an issue, but the rounded rocks are a difficult surface and far less satisfying than walking on natural paths. It was like walking on glacial boulder moraine, so if that’s your thing, you’ll probably love it.
Once again, most of the day was fog bound, and then there is the fabled killer climb at the end. It’s not that bad, although by that stage, the altitude is starting to show.
The day’s walk ended in Sandakphu, where accommodation was basic private rooms with a shared bathroom at the end of the building. The night was very cold and we were grateful for the -30 degrees sleeping bags supplied by our trek company. Even in them, we needed to wear thermals and add a blanket.
Again, our guide was to wake us if the view to the peaks was clear, but alas again it was not, although at around 7am the clouds shifted enough to catch a small glimpse of K2.
The morning was crisp, with a light frost on everything, and even the flowers were frozen.
Total walk distance: 22kms.
Elevation: Tumling 3,100 metres to Sandakphu 3,636 metres.
Day 3 – Sandakphu to Phalut: Day 3 doesn’t have the long, steep climb of day 2, but it is a fair bit of what our guide described as ‘undulating’ track. Parts of the track pass through silver fir forest, with other sections crossing high meadows where cows were grazing. Walking along the ridge and across the high meadows is spectacular, despite being very cold and in some places exposed to icy winds.
The wind came up in the afternoon and the temperature steadily dropped. Our guide studied the sky and said he thought it might snow, and this was good because snow should clear the air for our final possible opportunity next morning to see Mt Kangchenjunga.
We arrived in Phalut in the late afternoon and shortly it started to snow. The trekkkers hut here is very basic, but we were fortunate to get one of the two rooms in the private hut, rather than staying in the government run hut, which is basically a large room where you may put a sleeping bag on the floor. Designed to accommodate 20 trekkers, our guide said he’d once been there with 50 people wedged in. One of the benefits of doing the walk ahead of peak season is having the track essentially to yourself. Only two other groups (one couple and a group of five) started the day we did and they were the only others in the trekkers lodges for nights 1 and 2. Both were doing a 4 day trek which took a different route to ours from part way through day 3. We had Phalut to ourselves and saw no walkers on day 3 or 4, and at no stage in the first four days did we encounter walkers coming the other way. Only on the last day did we see other walkers, a group which had walked in from another starting point for an overnight stay.
It snowed steadily through the night and we hoped for a clear morning, but it was not to be. Indeed in the morning we were surrounded by fog and the clouds were low and thick, threatening further snow.
Total walk distance: 21kms.
Elevation: Sandakphu 3,636 metres to Phalut 3,600 metres.
Day 4 – Phalut to Ghorkey: Although day 3 is billed as the most spectacular, day 4 for us was easily the best, despite the extreme cold at the beginning of the day. Finally, no more walking on boulder paths, instead the whole day’s walk is on forest paths winding through beautiful forest of bamboo and pine, and later through small villages with plots of potatoes and trellises of peas.
With the end of the snow, the sky cleared and we had beautiful views across the valley to terraced farms in Sikkim. The temperature also rose just a little.
A gentle downward gradient with some short sharp inclines, the trail leads eventually to the tidy village of Ghorkey which sits near a stream feeding into the Rammam River which marks the boundary with Sikkim.
Total walk distance: 15kms.
Elevation: Phalut 3,600 metres to Ghorkey 2,300 metres.
Day 5 – Ghorkey to Sepi: Leaving Ghorkey, the trail has a short, steep ascent to a neighbouring village, then winds around the mountains with many short up and downhill segments negotiating the mountainous terrain and avoiding the need to walk through streams, eventually entering more open areas with small village farms.
As the trail descends to warmer climes the magnolias and rhododendrons were already in flower, making a picturesque walk.
The final section is a steady downhill path which eventually reaches a suspension bridge, on the far side of which is the end of the vehicle road. Approximately 1km up the paved road is the very pretty, exceptionally clean and tidy village of Sepi where we had a lovely lunch of spiced cauliflower and potato, lentils, rice and of course bread.
The road from Sepi to Manebhanjang is not in great condition, despite some sections being relatively new, and it was a long 6 hour drive back to Darjeerling but we had the unexpected bonus of sighting a leopard cat while stopped by a creek part way back. These cats are rare and nocturnal, so we were very lucky. Our guide said that since he began guiding in 2007 this was only the second one he had seen.
Total walk distance: 15kms.
Elevation: Ghorkey 2,300 metres to Sri Khola
Wrap up: A good walk but not a great walk. Perhaps if we’d got the panorama views, we might think otherwise, but too much of the first three days is walking on roads to be a truly satisfying experience. Days 4 and 5 were the highlight as they were true rural and forest trails.
If you are determined to see the rhododendrons in full bloom, come in late March or April. If you are determined to see the panorama of Mt Kangchenjunga, well, that’s not guaranteed any time of the year, but the best chance is Autumn, so October is likely best.
But if you want to have the trail to yourself and uncrowded trekkers huts, off season such as when we trekked is perfect.
The mathematically minded reader will realise that the individual distances for each day don’t add to 96kms. This is because both the distance stated for total length and kilometres trekked each day are, shall we say, approximations. Even our guide gave differing advice on distances for the same section at different times. And there is often not just one specific track, but different trails, and options to follow the road or a trail that cuts the distance. So it’s all very flexible.
We arranged our trek through Adventures Unlimited, a local operator in Darjeerling. Catherine Canavan, who co-runs the business with her husband (who manages motor cycle tours) was super-responsive, helpful and professional. We organised it all by email and everything went like clockwork. Our guide was good, and the -30 degree sleeping bags saved us much misery! We would not hesitate to recommend this company.