Darjeeling - The plaintive wail of bagpipes fills the air. The familiar sound and the mist on the surrounding hills reminds me of my Scottish roots, but huddled among 35 other runners on the main street of Maneybhanjang I’m along way from home.
We’re here for the start of the Himalaya 100-mile stage race, a five-day run in the province of Darjeeling in northern India. The mood is festive. Exuberant, brightly dressed villagers are out on the streets to cheer us on. Traditional scarves are draped around our necks then the race director, Mr Pandey commences the count down. With little ado we’re off, into the unknown.
The front-runners sprint off, then are brought up short as the tar road climbs steeply out of town snaking its way round a series of terrifyingly sharp bends. Reduced to a laboured walk, we keep thinking we’ve reached the “summit” only to be confronted by another hill. Maneybhanjang is soon a long way down in the valley below.
After three kilometres bitumen gives way to cobblestones. With its ruts and loose stones, this section of road, constructed in 1948, is navigable only by robust Land Rover taxis that hoot loudly as they pass. Our course for the next few days will follow a route steeped in history. In the early 1900s the Aga Khan, ruler of much of India, instructed his men to build a trail in the north-east Himalayan ranges.
He had heard tales of a unique spot, high in the mountains on the border of present-day Nepal from where it was possible to see four of the world’s five highest mountains - Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Kanchenjunga - all at once. So he wished to travel there.
The Khan never made it, but that same dream is what has taken me halfway across the world to run what is widely acclaimed as the world’s most picturesque ultramarathons. Tomorrow, if all goes well, I’ll see the four giants. If I can make up this dashed hill.
The air cools as we pop out onto a ridge. The views across the lush green valleys are beguiling. I can see the viewpoint where, only yesterday, we stopped on our way to Darjeeling for a sightseeing tour. Pointing across at Maneybhanjang our guide had traced out our route. It looked terrifyingly steep. “You can’t run that,” pronounced one of our party in dismay. How right he was.
But as the gradient eases we start shuffling, gradually getting into a rhythm. We stop to fill our waterbottles and fuel up with bananas and potatoes in a village where smiling school kids line the route. The atmosphere is fabulous, but if we’re to be in by nightfall we can’t linger long.
The effects of altitude are kicking in. At Sandakphu Lodge, today’s finish at 3.600m, there are 40 percent fewer oxygen molecules in the air than in Cape Town. No wonder we’re gasping for breath. But high in the clouds, on this remote border, everyone is willing us on. We feel like minor celebrities; soldiers from the Indian army greet us as we pass, offering us water and asking us to pose for selfies. It’s charming, typical of the welcome that we’ve had through out this mountainous region. This is the 26th edition of the annual event and from the start it’s been clear that Mr Pandey and his crew have it taped.
A section of downhill through the Singalila National Park, home to the elusive red panda, provides welcome relief from the climb. Until we realise that we’re losing all that hard-gained altitude. Some French trekkers provide a welcome diversion as we finally start climbing again.
With well-trodden paths and conveniently spaced mountain lodges this is wonderful hiking country, they inform us, much less busy than the popular trekking routes of Nepal.
“One kilometre to go,” a friendly soldier assures me as I trudge wearily up through the mist. Sure enough, a few minutes later I see the finish tape and the rustic mountain lodge that will be our home for the next two nights. It’s been a long day; 38km has taken nearly seven hours. But I’m stoked.
Revived by hearty soup and a hot bucket wash I return to the finish line to cheer in the rest of the field. A few have found the going really tough. Noima Williams, a 70-year-old Kiwi arrives in the back-up jeep. Full of enthusiasm and good cheer, she has wisely decided to join the walking group. Patricia Anconetani from Argentina is on a drip recovering from rehydration, but otherwise, despite the cold and exertions of the day, everyone is in good spirits.
We’re up at 5am in the morning in the hope of catching the sunrise and a glimpse of the four giants but the clouds refuse to lift as we run an out and back route along the ridgeline towards the village of Molle. Thanks to the altitude, and a couple of snoring roommates, I had a poor night’s sleep and yet again I’m struggling in the rarified air.
But the morning of day three, which starts along the same ridgeline, dawns bright and clear. The mountain goddess is smiling, revealing the high peaks in all their glory. Golden rays light up Everest and its neighbours Llotse and Makalu, while the lofty summits of the Kanchenjunga massif, on the border of India and Nepal, are in my sights for much of the early morning.
Finally acclimatised I have a spring in my step inspired by the rugged beauty of my surroundings. Shaggy yaks and their herders amble alongside on the exposed track. This is what I came here for. My spirit soars.
Today’s Mt Everest Challenge Marathon route soon sorts the trail runners out from the roadies. Cobblestones give way to a maze of tricky animal paths that weave down into lush jungle. After dropping over 1000m in altitude we pass temples and colourful homesteads with bright orange mealies, chillis and other crops laid out to dry in the sun.
Our comfortable overnight lodge is perched on the hillside in the bustling village of Rimbik, overlooking endless ridges of mountains, the furthest of which is the border with Tibet. Warm and vibrant, it’s a different world to the frosty alpine pastures that we’ve just left.
For the next two days we run on narrow, winding roads flanked by towering trees and tumbling waterfalls as we complete the circle back to Maneybhanjang.
The roadrunners are in their element, while, out of mine, I spend the time stealing final glimpses of the mountains and revelling in the fact that I have enough breath, and energy, to hold conversations with my fellow runners and the cheering spectators at the finish.
At the awards ceremony we are all treated like winners; the most precious prize the friendships forged over the week by our shared love of nature and adventure. The race epitomised the spirit of friendly competition and co-operation, facilitated by a superbly organised, motivational organising team. If you’re an intrepid runner or walker add it to your bucket list.
* To enter: www.himalayan.com