Those of you that know me will probably recognise it when I say that I’m not one of the more patient people in the world. I’m very pleased to say that one unexpected benefit from our travels so far has been that I seem to have lots of it now. Whether it’s been there all along or it’s something new I don’t know, but waiting 3 hours on a jeep that may or may not come was a piece of cake, as was waiting 7 hours on a train or a total of 10 hours on our busride to Kathmandu.
We were therefore not overly concerned when our 6.15 flight from Kathmandu to Lukla was delayed by 30/60/90 minutes. Piecemeal we found out that:
- Lukla airport was closed
- Even if it were open, we couldn’t go anyway as our designated aircraft was still in another airport due to bad weather the evening before
- Delayed flights are caught up last, at which time Lukla might already be closed again
After a 2 hour wait a man walked up to us with intent. He was about 60 years old, from Nepali origin and a badge around his neck. His phone’s screen shows something familiar though: Franzi’s passport photo. The man introduces himself as Ngima Dorja Sherpa, and runs the company we have booked our tour through. One of his other guests had fallen ill near Everest base camp, was picked up by an emergency helicopter earlier in the morning and was due to arrive in Kathmandu on the first flight from Lukla.
We had a nice chat about his company and the various local initiatives he runs in his local community. Having started as a porter in the 80s he became a sherpa later for a Dutch company run from Kathmandu. Around the turn of the millennium he decided to start for himself and now he is a celebrity in the sherpa community. Our guide later told us that Ngima was instrumental in the post-earthquake search and rebuilding efforts, that he is an elected government official for the Communist party and, given his long career, knows how to make things happen.
After a while he excused himself to learn the status of our flight. A few minutes pass and he paces back to us, saying “grab your stuff, give me your passports and luggage tickets and follow me”. He clearly can do whatever he wants at the airport, as no-one hinders him when he collects our luggage from the luggage department, takes us back through security to the departure hall to a very small airline operator. “Wait here. Lukla airport is closed to planes again. I’ll arrange a helicopter to take you there but we need to hurry as the window of opportunity is short”.
We wait for 20 minutes chatting to three others who likewise have been picked out of the passengers for flight 113 to Lukla: Gagan, a 32 year-old Nepalese entrepreneur and Debbie and Pieke, a Dutch couple from Roermond. After our weigh-in we receive our new boarding passes and we are escorted back to the gates. We get into a jeep who actually takes us to the helipad. A group of 6 other tourists (the maximum number of passengers it can carry) is busy paying for their seats but apparently we get priority as they get ushered out of the way, our luggage is loaded and the pilot finalises his pre-flight checks.
And then we’re off. We slowly ascent until its cruising altitude of about 4000-5000 feet. I’m lucky to sit next to the pilot and have been handed the co-pilot headphones. Quite interesting to hear all air traffic control chat with the various planes and helis in the air. I can understand most of it, as it’s all in English, and also the cockpit instruments are surprisingly easy to follow. I manage to pick up over the radio chatter that our pilot talks to a heli following the same route in the other direction. Thinking a moment i work out where this is supposed to be and indeed, a helicopter passed us on the right: crash avoided!
The landscape is much more like I would expect. Steep rolling hills and mountains, the higher ones with snow. I’m amazed at the absence of roads, and yet every square meter seems to be cultivated. Houses cluster in small villages, all connected through what looks like an ancient network of paths running up and down the hills in all directions.
After a 45 minute flight we arrive in Lukla airport, about 4 hours later than planned but hey, where there! Our guide Jambu and porter Sonam are already waiting for us. After wrapping up the necessary paperwork we start our descent to our first tea house lodge in Pakhding. Franzi and I have barely slept due to the early start and ongoing stomach problems, so we only have a small soup for dinner before heading to bed at 7pm. Exhausted but excited for what’s to come we fall asleep.