One of the many teahouses along the main hiking trail to Everest base camp.
One of the many teahouses along the main hiking trail to Everest base camp.
Nepalese Sherpas are able to carry enormous loads in the thin mountain air.
Nepalese Sherpas are able to carry enormous loads in the thin mountain air.

Travel, they say, expands the mind. And these days, more and more people are travelling to seek a profoundly personal experience.

And, early next month, a group of South Africans, including high school pupils and their parents, is heading off to walk to the Everest base camp, on what the organiser calls a “physical, mental and spiritual exploration”.

Former ad executive Klasie Wessels, who is now involved in life coaching and mentoring, says the journey will enable participants to “reach a new level of understanding and appreciation of what this life is all about”.

The tour will be more than a visit to the Everest base camp, says Wessels.

“The whole experience is enhanced by combining all aspects of being human. Not only is there guiding on the physical level, but also in the mental and spiritual realms. Like Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living.”

The trip starts on April 7 and participants will return to SA on April 25.

In addition to the trek to Everest base camp, participants will also visit some sights in Kathmandu like the traditional old town, which has at its centre Durbar square; the Unesco heritage sites of Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath temples; and experience a traditional Nepalese evening.

The tour group, comprised of 18 people – most of them parents and girls from St Mary’s school in Waverley – will also visit a school to hand over funds collected by the five girls on the expedition.

For Wessels, who has hiked to base camp previously, “the Himalayas present not only a physical wonder; it holds a mystical presence as well.

“Steeped in Buddhism, Hinduism and ancient wisdom, this is a world made for reflection, contemplation and appreciation. There is no other place where the physical and spiritual worlds are so integrated than in Nepal and the Himalayas.”

The world’s highest mountains are in the Himalayas. There are 14 peaks above 8 000m, and 11 of them are in Nepal. The next highest mountain in the world is Aconcagua, in the Andes range in the Argentine province of Mendoza, at 6 969m.

The total walking distance from Lukla (the traditional starting point) to Everest base camp is 65km. “One typically walks for five to six hours per day and the journey takes about 14 days in total. The walking measure is not distance, but altitude gained in a day. It is not advisable to gain more than 300 to 400 metres a day. In terms of fitness, one needs to be fit enough to walk for five to six hours per day for three consecutive days.”

As part of the group’s fitness preparations, they scheduled a training hike up Sani Pass and onto Thabana Ntlenyana which, at 3 482m, is the highest point in Africa south of Kilimanjaro.

Trekking, hiking, climbing and kayaking are prime tourist activities in Nepal and, of these, climbing and trekking are the biggest, and most of the trekking population are Europeans and North Americans. There are many trekking and adventure companies in Nepal and, says Wessels, “they are tremendously helpful and trustworthy”.

Most foreign visitors get to the mountains via Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. With seven million people in the Kathmandu valley, the city is loud, busy, smelly and alive. Tourists mostly stay in the area of Thamel which is filled with pubs, restaurants, trekking equipment shops, hotels and book stores.

“The best way to describe Thamel is one big 1960s street party. It has the flavour of an old-fashioned frontier town, everyone is either going or returning from some kind of adventure.”

Streetschool, the organisation Wessels is involved with, started promoting the expedition in October and it took about three weeks to put the programme together and get everything booked on the Nepal side.

“Late bookings and arrivals can easily be accommodated but that is not the challenge – getting fit and being physically prepared is. It will take the average person (who is able to run/walk for 60 minutes), about three to four months to get physically ready for the trek to Everest base camp.

“Currently our participants are training about eight to nine hours per week for the journey. This involves a combination of walking with a back pack, running and gym work. Each person received a training schedule developed by Streetschool from the day they registered for the expedition.

“We take particular care to avoid altitude sickness by adhering to a few simple rules: each day on the trek drink at least 500ml of water per 10kg of body weight, drink lots of herbal tea (ginger, mint, green), avoid coffee, eat all your meals, walk slowly, be conscious ofbreathing deeply, eat garlic soup, relax your mind and appreciate being physically and mentally capable to experience this wonderful journey.”

Next on the agenda for Wessels and Streetschool is a nine-day journey to the home of the Dalai Lama. Arranged with the Office of the Tibetan People in SA, this journey will put participants in direct contact with the Tibetan refugee community.

“The purpose of this journey is for participants to develop a new sense of appreciation of the richness of life and the scope of opportunity that has been presented to them. Many people take life for granted and have a strong sense of entitlement,” says Wessels.

“With a visit to Dharamsala we hope to awaken compassion, understanding and a source of energy to live a full, creative and empathic life. In Dharamsala we propose to engage with students from the Tibetan Children’s Village. We will stay with local Tibetan families and eat the same food for the duration of the journey.”

l Contact Streetschool on011 253 9919 or 082 55 44 614. - Saturday Star