It’s like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. The place is wild, exotic and oozing with an air of mystique. The roadside shack resembles the little bird boxes I was used to seeing nailed to trees in the garden of my parents’ suburban family home. This box, perched on the cliff edge that is holstered up by a few pieces of bamboo however, is made for people.

Inside, an exposed light bulb hangs from a hook taped to the roof of the corrugated tin roof.  A soft light glows from the candles flickering inside the glass case, a shrine to the Hindu god, Shiva. In front, a garland of jasmine flowers hang next to the incense sticks that burn slowly, filling the room with the delicate fragrance of patchouli.

A number of unclaimed electricity wires hang like tree-vines. In the corner is a small cockroach refuge where a clump of ruddy coloured shiny bodies huddle together. Beneath my feet, I peer through the floor boards. Through the cracks reveal the deep slippery plunge – any coins that escape down these crevices would fall into the deadly oblivion of the Kali Gandaki River that flows below, prizing the ground apart leaving a dark lacuna that slices through the landscape.

I am in Nepal; a country where the bravest men claim the prestigious title of Ghurkhas, where the people have spearheaded a revolution to overthrow their monarchy, and a country that is now braving the teething pains of an emerging democracy. Conflict has long deprived the country as its righteous position as a traveller’s destination, but now, the war is over and tourism is now taking the center stage.

The country is positioned like a small wedge in between two of the world’s big players – India and China. The southern landscape consists of steamy jungles and swampy wetlands where elusive tigers, gangly wading birds and chunky rhinos reside.

The northern border is an entirely different matter. The Himalayas are draped across the scenery, complete with a multitude of small hamlets where time has stood still, isolated in a cocoon of traditionalism having access only by foot. Alluring trekkers to pinpoint their ‘to do’ destination map, the world’s highest peak – Mount Everest, is also claimed along with a lavish sprinkling of other impossibly impressive mountains, making for an adventurer’s playground.

I’m on the ascent to the magnificent Annapurna range that has an unparalleled reputation for breath-taking views, quaint Sherpa villages and an enviable array of flora and fauna. My first stop is Hyangja – a Tibetan refugee camp where I enjoy fuelling myself with freshly steamed buffalo momos and hot chai in preparation for walking that awaits me.

I’m hoping to see some of the estimated 900 bird species that dwell here, especially the Himalayan Monal, Nepal’s national bird. Also on my check list, are the soft-coated, gentle yaks that tackle the tough terrain saddled with goods to trade between the various villages that speckle the mountains. Ambitious, maybe, but leopards and red pandas have been sighted by some of the lucky ones – I keep my fingers crossed.

Danphe Monal, the national bird

However, the twinge of superstition and curiosity nags me, hoping I might also catch a glimpse of another legend that currently lives in the same book of mythical creatures shared by the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot – the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman. But, with more realistic expectations, I set off with a pair of binoculars, my book – ‘Wildlife of Nepal’, and my worn in, scotchgarded pair of hiking boots.

The following day, my alarm clock rudely awakens me at 5.30 am, interrupting my peaceful, jetlagged sleep. I’m setting out early on my journey to gently introduce myself back into my trekking pace after a brief flirt with the decadent dining scene of one of Nepal’s top tourist haunts – Pokhara. Today is tame – climbing only 200 meters to Lumre Riverside.

It provides a sterling opportunity to walk and watch the wildlife I pass. I sit next to the riverbanks – circling above is a large menacing looking vulture, searching for carrion. A little higher, a kite patrols the area. Skilfully darting into the water are resplendent turquoise coloured crested kingfishers, fishing alongside spotted forktails. As I continue, I see a couple of white-capped water redstart bathing in the shallow enclaves of warm water and nimbly shaking the moisture off their soft, fine feathers.

The next day I am excited to be heading to the famous Rhododendron forests that paint the mountainsides with colour. It is like stepping into a wild florist, packed with an overwhelming amount of flora. Rhododendrons alone compose over 30 different species of flowers, so receive the well-deserved title as being Nepal’s national flower.

This is Mother Nature’s answer to how to create a flawless flowery wonderland – a sure winning draw card that could trump even the most skilful prize-winning gardener for the perfect patch. The plants and trees provide a haven for an abundance of bird varieties, yielding a bounty of food such as seeds and insects. As such, many of the trees are colonised by the charming flowerpeckers and rubythroats. As I venture deeper into the flower-filled forests, the landscape begins to metamorphose, adopting the appearance of a more alpine vista.

My climb continues to soar into the skies. Then I hit Korchon – situated at an altitude of 3600 meters. For many that venture into these ranges, they’re looking for that infamous picture-postcard view. The view that is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring panoramas that any eyes could see. The jewel in the crown of the Annapurna mountain range: the majestic Machhapuchere peak, framed by the immediate scenery consisting of the floral wilderness that is alive with the sounds, scents, and sights of flora and fauna. Protruding 6,995 meters into the horizon, spiking the sky with its razor sharp pinnacle, it makes the ambiance of the area truly mesmerizing.

Recovering from the sights that have left me in a warm and fuzzy daze, I continue to weave around the wooded paths that crawl with wildlife. I realize I’m faced with the dilemma of where to turn my attention to. The giant magnolias look and smell stunning. Fire-tailed sunbirds light up the trees with dramatic flashes of amber.

The avian chorus is fore-fronted by warblers, singing their tune against the accompaniment of laughing Thrush. The bark that encases the Acer trees are constantly preened by the rusty-flanked tree creepers that feast on the harvests. Overhead, buzzards and golden eagles cast their silhouettes against the backdrop of the endless snow-capped mountain range as they gracefully glide with just a few intermittent flaps of their enormous wings.

The next day I follow the trail that leads me to Pipar Gully. Although birds are still abundant, this is also home to a number of other animals that line the way. Resilient Himalayan tahrs and bharal graze on the foliage. Catching sight of the beautiful coloured rosefinches isn’t a challenge, scattering only when I am drawn too close by their enchanting winsomeness.

As the sunset begins to sink into the bewitchingly beautiful scenery, dusk rolls in bringing the night-shift fauna foragers en-tow. In the distance, I make out a cat-sized figure waddling around with a tail as bushy as a feather duster. Not allowing its cover to be blown, the little creature remains vigilant. I am as still as a statue. I’m beyond thrilled – it’s an adorable warm russet coloured red panda.

The climax of the journey doesn’t end there. Pipar continued to introduce me to some spectacular animals. The national bird of Nepal – the flamboyantly coloured Monal or Daphne pheasant, strikes a pose with its iridescent plumage matching the colours of spilt petrol. The flashes of electric blue and azure turquoise leave me puzzled as to why the neighbouring national bird of India – the peacock, steals so much of the limelight for this bird category.

With my journey drawing to an end, I head down through the Seti Khola passing through several archaic villages. Still alive with a plethora of pheasants and a medley of butterflies, it provides a good chance for me to be slowly re-introduced into civilization and to dwell on many of my humbling experiences. I’ve witnessed so many visually stimulating sights and have been on sensory overdrive, being confronted with so many gems.

Who would have thought that this small country could have kept all these natural wonders secret for so long? Well – the cat is out of the bag now. Although I wasn’t able to spy a Yeti, Nepal is a treasure trove tempting both adventure-thirsty trekkers, bird-loving twitchers and everything else in between.

 

 

 

 


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