The Poon Hill Trek: Notes from a Frozen Journal

I’ve never put up a post full of notes before because I thought it’d be incredibly boring.  Maybe it is.  I don’t know.  But, I thought I’d give it a try this week.  If nothing else, it will give you some insight into the process that goes into each of these posts on MarkontheMap.  It’s a little less polished, more candid.  I hope you enjoy…

The Poon Hill Trek

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedhunga

Elevation Change: 500m to 1,540m

Dominant Landscape Feature:  Latticed hills


-There are many tourist facilities, hot showers and western toilets at the start of the trail.  I am surprised.

-Several times throughout the day donkey caravans overtake us, carrying supplies to the villagers along the track.  Bells jingle on the costumed donkeys and their master grunts, spanking them with a whip.

-A donkey farts on me – right in my face.  I cannot get the smell out of my nostrils.

-It’s remarkably hot, I started the day in a sweatshirt and pants, but now I have stripped to shorts and a T-Shirt.  Maybe they were right; maybe it won’t be as cold as I thought.

-There are a few groups passing with porters and large backpacks.  Is my small, school-sized backpack going to be enough?  Did I bring enough supplies?  Am I missing something here?

-Why did I hire a guide?  I could have walked this by myself.  This path is the highway of the region; it’s packed with villagers.

-Late winter flowers are blooming.  My room at the teahouse has a view down the mountain ridge, but I can’t stop looking at the bright orange flowers all around me.

-Across the way, yaks are working the latticed hills like characters on different levels of the early Donkey Kong.

-I’ve just watched this man walk down to the river, collect stones in a bag, carry it across the bridge and repeat for an hour.  He hasn’t stopped.  He must have done it 15 times since I’ve been here.  And what have I done in that time?  Stare at him.  And stare at the waterfall.  I’m a bad person – or maybe just lazy.

-“Namaste,” “Namaste,” “Namaste.”  Everyone in Nepal greets you when you pass.  I love it.  I think my new favorite word is Namaste.

-Okay, it’s officially cold.  I’m putting on my yak’s wool socks and going to bed.

Day 2: Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani

Elevation Change: 1,200m (drop) to 2,750m

Dominant Landscape: Steps, endless steps


-Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up

-I don’t know if I can walk up anymore.

-I don’t think that some of these other trekkers I see are going to make it up this hill.  Several are passed out in pools of their own sweat panting like dogs.  Again, what exactly do they have in these gigantic bags?

-School kids from the hilltop town of Ulleri are racing down the mountain to get to their school in Tirkhedhunga.  Does this mean they have to walk back up later today?  Everyday?  According to my guide (who is growing increasingly unfriendly) “Yes.”

-Why are all of these donkeys in hippie costumes?

-Mmmm.  Tea never tasted so good.

-Going to the teahouse is like going to the local pub.  I’m getting tea drunk on the views.

-I thought that this hike would be a great escape in nature.  But, this is no wilderness adventure.  The lands I’m trekking through have been inhabited for centuries.  If anything, this is a cultural adventure (albeit in a harsh landscape).

-It’s raining – a lot!  Everything I have is wet.  The guide told me it doesn’t rain this time of year so I didn’t pack my waterproof jacket.  I’m in wool, wet wool.  My nose is running.  I hate cold rain.  I can’t think of a worse precipitation.

-We’re escaping the rain at this nice teahouse with a fire in the two home town of Nayathani.  To get here we had to walk through what looked like a rainforest – almost like fiordland in New Zealand.  Seems like some weird microclimate, like it might always rain there (thanks guide!).

-My anger towards my guide is growing.  He was supposed to speak English.  Maybe he is, but I don’t understand him and I don’t need him.  Why did I waste my money?

-It’s thundering.  I made it to a teahouse at Ghorepani.  We are close to 3,000 meters high in the Himalaya.  The thin walls of my blue lodge are shaking.  There is no electricity, but there is a fire.  I hang everything I have up to dry.

-The teahouse owner’s daughters are friendly and speak English.  They want me to play cards with them but the game is so mindless that I give up after an hour.  The game is called “Donkey Game” and one of the girls is called “Dynasty.”

-There is one hot shower in the place.  It’s in the dark kitchen, so I shower, naked, in a kitchen, with no light.  I forgot my towel (awkward).

-After dinner there are few other hikers at the house with us.  Their guide has a guitar (and a friendly sense of humor) so we sit by the fire as he sings Newari folk songs.  Dynasty joins in, but he keeps asking her to stop because she’s not very good.

-There is something comforting about all of this – like I am sitting around the fire at Boy Scout camp.  For a second, everything feels familiar.  Then, I realize where I am at, and that I don’t understand the tunes, and that I am nowhere near anything that looks like home.

-I’m going to sleep.  I wonder if we will be able to hike to Poon Hill in the morning, or if the clouds will again stop me from seeing the towering peaks.

Day 3: Ghorepani to Tatopani

Elevation Change: 2750m to 1190m

Dominant Landscape:  Snow-covered peaks


-Everything is white.  I don’t have proper boots.  It’s going to be a long day.

-Himalaya means “abode of snow” in Sanskrit.

-We will not climb Poon Hill.  Poon Hill is covered in a deep snow and there would be nothing to see.  My perfect Himalayan photo is lost (again).

– All I can see is white: white fog, white ground, my fingertips turning white.  The snow is about a foot deep.  It’s still snowing.

-The landscape is transformed; every nook and cranny of the hills is accentuated, highlighted with white.

-I’m sliding downhill, but the snow is lessening the lower we get and I’m removing layers.

-I have to go #2 and my guide recommends that I go on the side of the path, he will be my lookout.  Great!

-What are these mountains called, I ask my guide when the clouds finally clear.  “Those are not mountains,” he says quite seriously, pointing to some 5,000m peaks, “Those are little hills.”  Only in Nepal!

-I see graffiti of a hammer and sickle in several small towns as I zigzag down the mountains.  I am in Maoist country.

-It is a long way down from the cliff over the Kali Gandaki gorge to the town of Tatopani.  My knees hurt from the endless stairs.

-There is a hot spring next to the river, I sit and bathe along the edge of the deepest gorge in the world.  Local men are in their underwear, and a few schoolgirls jump in, clothes on.

-My guide will leave tomorrow.  It’s his decision.  He has a “sick wife.”  He will not give me back the money he owes for additional days.  I am angry about the money, but happy he is leaving.  I am on my own.

-Totopani is the biggest town I’ve seen so far.  They’ve just completed a bumpy road here from Beni that two or three jeeps plow through each day.  Women and babies peek out of dark alleyways as goats, and chickens wander the streets.  It’s a visual feast.

-The Poon Hill trek is complete! But, my hike is not over.  It hasn’t yet reached the halfway point.

-From here on out, there will be very few tourists.  It’s winter, off-season, and I am going further than foreigners on a quick Nepal vacation can go.

***After completing the Poon Hill trek (never having seen Poon Hill or the famed peaks), I plowed further away from civilization. Joining the Jomsom Trek at Tatopani, I hiked north without a guide along the Kali Gandaki Gorge through the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya and onto the Tibetan plateau.

Never before had I ventured so far away from everything I’d ever known.

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap treks through the world’s largest gorge along an ancient Tibetan salt route from Tatopani to Marpha.

Abel Tasman

Planning for a multi-day hike was a bit like planning a week on Weight-Watchers.  Food was carefully portioned for each day allotting for carbohydrates and protein intake as well as expiration dates and number of days an item could be safely eaten without refrigeration.  Bread and cheese would be eaten the first days, and the lighter instant meals would be saved for days four and five.  We would have one bag of dry cereal for breakfasts and two bags of nuts for snacks.  A 70% dark chocolate candy bar and bag of yellow M&Ms would be portioned over 4 nights for dessert.  Tea, coffee and water would be our only beverage.  All of this would be prepared with two forks, two spoons, one knife, one pot, one pan, two cans of gas, one portable stovetop, cleaning supplies, and a single cup French-press (for people like me who find coffee necessary in order to move in the morning).  For five days, I would carry my food and my kitchen on my back – Weight Watchers with a touch of good old fashioned Anorexia.

Felipe and I planed for a five-day trek through Abel Tasman National Park on the northwest tip of the South Island.  Able Tasman, New Zealand’s smallest National Park, is the textbook vision of summer.  The rocky coast gnarls its way between endless secluded arcs of golden sand gently tapped by the turquoise water of Tasman Bay.  The weather forecast for this sun-soaked coast was for rain five out of the five days.  Although it was ominously familiar (see The Flood), we hoped against hope that Mother Nature would show us some mercy and she did… for a time.  With all of our food and clothes crammed tight into overflowing backpacks, we set out from the Marahau car park onto the Able Tasman Coast Track clean, dry and optimistic… all things we would lack four days later.

We followed a boardwalk through the estuary to Tinline Bay, entering the park in an excited frenzy.  Rounding the corner to Coquille Bay, we got our first glimpse at Abel Tasman’s famed beaches that draw over two hundred and fifty trampers each day in the dead of summer.  In the middle of May (late Autumn), the number drops below fifty and most are on day trips, ferried to Anchorage Bay by water taxi to wind there way back to Marahau.

All creeks and rivers were bridged and the path remained quite level, so I assumed this trek would be a breeze.  Yet, after just two hours, my bag dug a notch into my protruding collarbone and lay heavy on my sweaty back.  Ski poll clad grandmas, and rugby moms in track suites, freed of the ball-and-chain of a backpack, began shuffling past.

Night one was spent in Anchorage Hut playing cards in Spanish by candlelight with Alberto and Maria of Spain.  The hard rain of the night, followed by surprising early-morning rays, had my face in a permanent cockeyed squint when I woke the following morning.  With some time to spare before our low-tide crossing of Torrent Bay, we scrounged for sunglasses and meandered around the Anchorage area, taking various sidetracks to pinpoint the peculiarities of each beach.  Our walk under the glare of the morning sun left us hot and sweaty, and the cold, late-autumn ocean was luring us in.  Intending to answer its call on an impulse, we thoughtlessly ran into the shocking, milky green water.  Instantly, my skin went into distress mode, and a group of tourists cruised by, pointing at the bodies in the water.  It was certainly freezing, but it felt good to be in the water and not just it’s passive observer.

At about two hours before low tide, or around one o’clock in the afternoon, we crossed the lazy water of the estuary through Torrent Bay.  Barefoot, we sunk our toes in the squishy pluff while all around us curious birds tiptoed after their prey like detectives on a hunch.  On the far side of the bay, lay a small hamlet of modest summer homes accessible by boat and connected in part by a sandy “road.”  At the far end of the road we found a park and a picnic table with the perfect amount of precariousness to rest the weight of our packs.

The ways that forests can change in New Zealand from prickle to palm to pine in a matter of minutes will continue to confound me.  Heading up the steep hill from Torrent Bay, we climbed from fern-filled coastal shrub into a thick forest of Christmas trees.  Soon, two gaping valleys curved our path, with the larger linked by a forty-seven meter suspension bridge that swayed like a swing over Falls River.

We reentered the coast through the sprawling Bark’s Bay and stopped for potable water and a quick rest at its massive, empty campsite.  Continuing onward, we waded through the bay on the low tide route, which, in hindsight, was a poor choice at high tide.  The final pass through the salty-brown water left us with wet undies and chafed legs.

Heading inland from Bark’s Bay up into the stands of Manuka, we felt far away from any body of water.  An hour later, we wound or way into Tonga Quarry, the site of an old quarrying operation responsible the limestone of the looming staircase at Christ Church Cathedral in Nelson.  This peaceful, private beach facing Tonga Island was meant to be our stop for the night.  Unfortunately, an early morning tidal crossing forced us thirty minutes further to the large, swampy Onetakutu Bay Campsite.

The aging, weathered Doite tent was set just before an early sunset and we scrambled around with our headlamp and flashlight to prepare dinner.  As we munched on our skimpy sandwiches, a squad of vigilant sand flies feasted on us.  For sure, they had the better meal.  After dinner, we lay out looking at the starry dome of the southern hemisphere. I was lost in the sky until brought back down to earth with the realization that a possum was sniffing my face.  The night before we had contended with small rats at Anchorage Hut.  They were cute. I was okay with them. This evenings possums, with their greedy eyes and daredevil tactics, were a different story.  Later on, the possums staged a battle royal and between the cold heavy rain that came at two and the all-night possum wars, I did not sleep well.

When it’s raining and you’re in a damp tent, waking up is never the preferred option.  However, neither is waiting for a clearing and waking up six hours after low tide (aka high tide).  We started the day late with a touch of sunshine… but yet another dose of wet undies.

We stopped at Awaroa Hut to prepare a lunch of instant mashed potatoes, which wouldn’t have been so disappointing had we not spent the previous two hours in search of a signposted café at a boutique lodge that had long ago closed.  We ate the mushy white mess (no butter or milk), and peered through the window as a couple sloshed along the low tide path through Awaroa Inlet.  This was to be our afternoon activity, but the clouds soon turned ash grey.  A hard rain rattled the wooden roof as we sat in Awaroa Hut contemplating the largest tidal crossing of the trip.  We could cross the inlet and be stuck on the other side all night in a tent in the storm, but that seemed unnecessarily cruel.  We agreed to stay in the hut and make up the 5.5 km to Totaranui Campground the following morning.

An old fire heater warmed up the dark hut as we sat under the candlelight savoring our third night’s portion of M&Ms one by one.  Our food supply had dwindled, and we were struggling to put together items for the following days lunch (“do you think a can of tuna would go good with couscous?”).  We read through the Hut’s guestbook, and below the guestbook, a collection of materials, “rescued from old Hatfield House” had been put in a binder and left for perusal.  Skimming through the rescued pages, we spent a good hour laughing about ladies toiletries in the 1950’s.

By morning, the sleepy inlet on the other side of the window had transformed into an impassable lake.  Three nights of hard rain and continued storms had flooded our path.  We knew by staying on the far side of the pass that this week’s screwy low tide would have us either waiting until afternoon or crossing by boat.  A middle-aged British couple had arranged for a water taxi to come at 11:00 to ferry them across.  It became clear that the water taxi we would all need to catch would not be taking us across the park but away from it.

We waddled away from the Hut to catch the boat at 10:30 down the previous day’s path, which was now a variable river.   Felipe, with the damp tent in one hand and his soaked shoes in the other, was repeating a word in Spanish to describe our tempestuous relationship with the weather Gods.  Later, I looked up the word and translated it to English: capricious.  Yet again, we had been trumped by nature’s sudden unpredictability.

The water taxi would stop operating after our trip due to high seas.  In fact, a prim Frenchman spent the whole trip vomiting off the side of the boat.  The journey back was rough, but the high seas and the excitement of our “rescue” made it hard to be upset by yet another defeat. We were able to skirt past the seal colony on Tonga Island and scoop into bays only accessible by water as we jerked our way through the surf towards the park entrance at Marahau.  At each passing bay, we recounted our trek from a new vantage point and at one hour by boat, felt we had accomplished a respectable journey.

$2.00 bought us showers on shore where my toes and fingers went numb to the touch of hot water after a morning barefoot in the late-autumn storm. We washed off four days of mud, grit, and sweat and stepped back out into the pouring rain, clean but damp.


It’s been two weeks since we left Abel Tasman, and unseasonably stormy skies have circled us around the country.  All the while, the rain-drenched West Coast we called home has experienced unimaginable swaths of sunshine.  I can’t explain it.  I don’t want to try.  My south island adventure has turned into pictures borrowed from pamphlets and experiences recounted from a guidebook… I am a second-hand tourist.  With the clouds fencing in the sun, I drive on through the fog as the traveler gives way to the dreamer.