> Home > Volunteer treks > Trek report 2009

Healthcare, early-childhood education, vaccine fridges & solar lighting

Dave & Sheryl Tapp

With the comfort of Kathmandu’s Utse Hotel and the transit of India-feeling Bharatnagar behind us, our Kanchenjunga trek really began with an exhilarating swoop down to the high grassy ridge of Suketar airfield.


Our purpose was to assist Rob Rowlands on his 14th maintenance trek for the Kanchenjunga Schools Project, in the north-east corner of Nepal. We also hoped to visit Mt Kanchenjunga’s northern base camp.

Our programme included repairs to refrigerators, payment of healthcare and childcare workers’ salaries, training for the Gunsa medical worker, and installation and repair of lights in schools and gompas. The aim of this assistance to remote Nepali and Tibetan villages is to help them become places where people - who might otherwise be lost to the lure of dusty cities - will wish to stay and raise their children. Kanchenjunga Schools Project sees improving facilities and education and reducing population pressure as critical to this aim. There were apparently only three babies born in Ghunsa during the previous year.

These villages are considerably more affluent now than a decade or so ago, and increasing trekker numbers are bringing manifest changes to lifestyles, particularly in the clothes of teenagers and the widespread use of cellphones. Cellphones are used mainly for playing mp3 music and taking photos, but occasionally also for making calls - where there is coverage. Perhaps swapping mp3 files replaces an ancient aural tradition of learning songs, but there’s still a strong cultural pride in Nepali music. We heard a hundred renditions of ‘Resam Piriri’ and “Cincini Pani’, both popular folk songs.

It was great to be on the fringe of the familiarity and respect Rob’s many visits to the Kangchenjunga region have established. We were privileged to be part of village meetings about the future of the KSP, and Rob’s repeated use of the same trekking agency meant that many staff were well-known and ground rules for things like fresh vegetables and packed lunches were well-established.

Apart from Rob and David’s electrical engineering expertise and stocks of drugs for the health centres, we brought Rosie’s medical training to upskill Tenzing, the healthpost worker at Ghunsa, and Doreen’s early-childhood education specialisation, as well as some equipment for the pre-schools at Ghunsa and Folay.


The timing of this year’s trek (early October to mid November) meant that we coincided exactly with the longest national festivals of Dasain and Tihar. There were definite pros and cons to this: GB, our excellent Sirdar, found it impossible to find experienced porters prepared to leave their villages at this time, and in fact most of our porters (a delightful group) were students on holiday. However, for us it meant that most people we met were in holiday mode, dressed in their finest clothes, and we were included in several of the traditional ceremonies.


A play group set up by Doreen, an expert in early childhood education


Although some of us had been to Nepal before, the trekking experience held a few surprises. The most obvious one was that the climate of eastern Nepal is much wetter than that of the centre and west. It was “autumn”, millet and rice were nearly ready for harvest, and although it seldom actually rained, the tracks in many places resembled New Zealand mud and ‘bush’, plus the interesting addition of (my first!) leeches.

The scenery varied from ‘familiar’ misty mossed golden rainforest (but including bamboo) to cardamom plantations in open forest, to high narrow grassy sidles with impressively vertiginous drops to distant streams, to exhilarating, awesome green and white rivers crashing and churning through boulders and gorges beside us. One recently-constructed section of track, right beside the Ghunsa Khola near ‘Jungle camp’ was particularly memorable, although we wonder how long it can last. And the track from Lelep to Tapletok was beautifully constructed from large flat pavingstone-style rocks – a welcome break from constant observation of one’s feet!


Rosie examining health post medical records

The bridges we had to traverse across the exciting rivers were impressive, but never frightening; usually either strongly wired suspension bridges or cantilevered using the everpresent enormous rocks. We saw the dilapidated bridge mentioned in last year’s report, but fortunately it had been replaced! Some of us judiciously followed the custom of tying prayer-scarves to them nevertheless.

Then of course there were the mountains! The implacable shoulders of Jannu hung above crisply freezing Kambuchen, while Kanchenjunga unfolded its white majesty before Philippa and David, who ventured up to base camp with GB. Philippa made a day foray up to Nango La (pass), from which she confirmed the magnificent view across Ghunsa and the strenuous clamber as a pack route.

We encountered many small rock-slides and slips, and the occasional huge one. Just before Chirewa, as we descended from Lelep to Mittlung, we crossed a slip beside which all our experiences of mobile New Zealand slopes paled into insignificance. The slip seemed to have taken down an entire hillside, which had been composed mostly of enormous boulders with little ‘glue’ to hold them in place, and probably took us 20 minutes to traverse it.

There was a palpable scarcity of the teahouses fondly remembered from more touristed tracks, but also many days on which we saw no other trekking parties. We stayed in lodges a few times, when it rained, particularly in the beautifully fertile village of Lelep.

Cultural glimpses

We saw cardamom being harvested (I had no idea the ‘seeds’ come from nodules, which are taken from the roots of the plant then smoked and dried); “simpati” oil being extracted in a Ghunsa still from the foliage of a mountain shrub for its perfume and medicinal properties; and aromatic juniper being burnt as incense in little outdoor shrines and also gathered wholesale for fuel. (Always there are issues of sustainability to worry about.)

We saw huge pitsawn planks of amazing quality, cheese being made from the milk of the yak-cow cross common at the lower altitudes, penstock sections and kilometres of power cable being carried in on the backs of porters, and a beautiful and very efficient water race several kilometres long servicing the small hydro station at Ghunsa.

We saw monkeys in trees by the river, heard a few birds (but as in New Zealand’s national parks, not as many as hoped for), and after a brief encounter with an Auckland Zoo researcher(!) on our way out of Mamankhe, we managed to spot several patches of red panda scat on the track! We occasionally had to step aside for yak trains, well advertised with bells, and at one stage for horses and mules, after we’d recently climbed a long ladder, which puzzled us.

Several of us were looking forward to seeing the weaving of, and purchasing, carpets at Folay, where we’d heard they were still made with more traditional Tibetan designs and colours than those generally available in Kathmandu. We arrived in Folay in the late afternoon on our way back down (all was holiday-shut on the way up), so were a little pressed for time, but there seemed to be only two houses where the women still weave, and one of those ladies was getting old and had probably made her last significant carpet. So we didn’t see any weaving in action, but we did buy one of the older woman’s carpets. As the pre-schools were initially welcomed as baby-sitting while mothers wove, we wonder what the women do now with their child-free time.


Our technical mission had several successes and only one failure. An early success occurred in Tellok, where the solar panel controller on the vaccine fridge had failed, perhaps through a lightning strike. We replaced the wiring and controller, thus restoring the fridge to working condition.

We replaced solar panel controllers in various places, tidied up fixed wiring (which has a strong tendency towards chaos between visits), and installed a number of 12 volt lights. The warm glow of kerosene lamps in our memories and colour slides of 30 years ago have now become the stark white stare of LEDs and fluorescent tubes.

The one failure was with the vaccine fridge at Mamankhe. We fixed the electrics and used fresh rainwater collected using a plastic sheet to top up the battery, but although Rob had managed to procure a can of refrigerant from Kathmandu, we left Mamankhe suspecting the compressor, but having no gas torch (prohibited luggage on the flight from kathmandu) to braze in the replacement that we had brought.

Rob’s huge carry bag revealed a cornucopia of gadgets, including a small notepad PC, still and video cameras, a GPS with reasonable local maps, two-way radios, and a photo printer. The printer was put to good use: Rob produced a thousand photos for the locals - an excellent way of giving useful gifts - including passport photos, which were in great demand. The printer was also used to produce a flyer encouraging donations from trekkers, which was distributed to local guest houses.

This electronic menagerie was charged using foldable solar panels feeding small gel-cell batteries and using mains power at Folay and Ghunsa.

Reticulated electricity is penetrating deeper into the hills every year. We passed weighty penstock sections and cable being carried on backs northwards from Taplejung.


Please see 2010 Healthcare training.

Early-childhood education

Please see 2010 Early childhood education.


Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional