Today was to be the first full day of off-road training. We awoke to clear skies for the first time and had a clear view of a snow-capped mountain called Machapuchare, which in Nepali means ‘fish tail’. This name is given to several mountains around the world. That configuration of peaks cannot be seen from our location, but it was impressive nonetheless. I have attached some photographs of the day with very light editing , I hope to further improve with photoshop or lightroom on my return. All feedback gratefully received.
It was about a 40km ride to get to the ‘training ground’ but we had agreed that if we saw somewhere suitable to practice some techniques, then we would stop and do the exercises.
We were riding through town to start with and whilst most of the guys had started to lift their vision slightly, others hadn’t. Checking mirrors in Nepal means making sure they’re tight enough for the kid sitting on your knee to hold on to. The most we’ve seen is four-up on a scooter with a large Labrador sprawled across the foot plate. Seemed happy enough, though…
We left the town and were soon riding on gravel tracks. Traffic was light and we wound through a few paddy fields. Now those wheelbarrows towing a trailer made sense…this was their natural habitat, working in water about 18 inches deep. That’s one mystery solved, then.
We came across a dip in the road when the gravel was replaced by mud before climbing again. Only 12 feet or so, but in the bottom of the dip it was thick mud. There was a bus stuck at the bottom. We had no choice but to watch. The driver unsuccessfully tried to climb up the bank. He then unloaded some passengers and reversed back towards us to try again. This time he set off at a fair old rate to build some momentum. He almost came to a stop again but managed to keep it moving. Success! We had already explained to the guys that the ‘usual’ route may not be the safest and to look for a safer alternative route. We went around the pool of mud and up the bank.
We were now on a river bed. In monsoon season the river here is 6 or 7 feet deep and is impassible, but at his time of year it meanders through the river bed, no more than a foot deep in places. An ideal ground for training. We stopped there a while and practised techniques for river crossings, hill ascent and hill descent, getting all the students to practice repeatedly. Eventually, we set off through some more paddy fields on gravel tracks, just me and Pete stood up on the pegs, the rest sat down, as they always had done.
I was about fourth from the back when I saw the lead guy turn left towards a bridge. Now, I say bridge and you’re probably thinking of a rickety wooden thing. Well, it wasn’t. It was a very well-constructed bridge. A steel wire suspension bridge. About 2 feet wide. At the top of a 20 foot high 45 degree slope. Constructed of gravel. The last 5 feet was steps, with a 10 inch wide concrete slope in the middle of it. The first two guys got up well enough, number 3 had a lot of problems. Focused by a 20 foot drop into a dry river bed. Luckily the low fencing caught him and his mates pulled him back. We then explained about the necessity to arrive at the mission in a fit state to do their job. Was crossing the bridge a necessity? No; at this time of year the river itself is easy to cross with far less risk. We gave them the option to go by bridge or river. They mostly chose river. Discretion is the better part of valour, and valour is the better part of courage. So Pete and I courageously took the easier river crossing.
This was a penny drop moment for the guys. They all want to show us what they can do but when I explained to them that, had we chosen to cross the bridge and got injured, the course would end. Had they crossed the bridge on their own, they could have died. Their mission would be lost and someone else would have to replace them.
In a country that has no formal training, choices like this can have a massive impact. We could have crossed the bridge, but what would that have proved? They learnt more from us not doing it. Much like IAM observing, particularly overtaking.
After that the roads changed suddenly, and we were glad we had taken the time to introduce simple lessons at the river bed, because it got damned complex, damned quick!
The road we were on traversed a hill (in the UK it would be a mountain. A proper one. Snowdon would be scared of it) called Kahun. The vertical ascent was only about 600m. But it was mostly ‘up’. Seriously ‘up’. Nepal does not do ‘flat’ in any form. This was serious stuff but the guys took on what they had learned at the river bed and reached the top in only an hour or so, but in better shape than usual. No-one fell off (seriously, seriously) though they were pushing themselves to try new things and were working quite hard. Such is the nature of learning.
There were some points raised, such as don’t stop side by side on an incline when some huge English bloke is barrelling up behind you. Two elbows, two Nepali shouts of ‘WTF was that’ and a demonstration of bagatelle soon had them checking mirrors and not stopping on slopes but waiting on the flat bits. But it was an absolutely awesome ride, fantastic scenery and an experience I would have paid for (but don’t tell my boss)! I reckon less than three Europeans have experienced this, and we’re two of them.
We stopped at a village on the way. Terraced paddy fields and potato / corn plantations were all around and it re-iterated the hard lives that the Nepali have. But their pride, honour and friendliness are beyond redoubt. If they have nothing, but they see you need it, they will give it. They have a huge reputation for loyalty and fierceness and you can see it at every level.
The internet is full of stuff about Nepal, some of it is even true. The water is one of those things. I was absolutely gagging for a drink but when the glasses (metal ones, which are quite common here. Might buy some for the missus as they drop quite well when one is washing up) were brought out the water was a brown colour, the clear stuff can give you problems from the tap, so there was no way I was drinking this! I politely declined then I heard the proprietor offer it to the next bloke and say ‘Tea’? I would have beaten Linford Christie to that tray. Nepali tea is very nice. A light hint of spice, sometimes black, sometimes with milk and usually with sugar. It hit the spot a treat so we kicked back and enjoyed the awesome view before continuing.
Bearing in mind we were on trail bikes, I was surprised to see road bikes parked up in dwellings. I guessed they must have come up the other side of the mountain as it was probably a better road. Nope, exactly the same. Incredible skill to get a road bike up here, on road tyres, over roads made from tarmac (some of it even in continuous runs), gravel, rocks, mud, leaves and bark. Or any combination thereof.
We passed several farms, but at one of them the road (I use the term loosely) was below the farm. I saw / sensed a movement in the hedge to my left. When I looked there was an airborne dog at head-height. It must have seen us coming, got into hunter mode and aimed for the biggest in the herd which was me by a huge margin (unfortunately Pete was with the other squad). I have had my rabies injections but didn’t really want to risk it so I just accelerated away. This bugger could run though. Fast. For a long time. Luckily it got bored and dropped off. Still think there is teeth marks in my boots though…
We had lunch at a café at the top of the mountain. Again, sweet black Nepali tea hit the spot. Must take some home. There was a haze in the air but the view was awesome. Bright red rhododendron were blooming everywhere and eagles where gliding all around. Until I got my camera out then they buggered off sharpish!
On the ride back down, all of the guys were trying to put the morning’s exercises into practice and were showing good signs of improvements. Using the ‘new’ techniques they were no quicker, but were a lot safer. It was a good day for them, and an awesome one for me that I would love to repeat. There is no off-road experience in the UK that can come close to this environment and no-one over in Nepal that can deliver the training. I see an opening here…any volunteers? Join the back of the queue!