“Slowly slowly” – this is perhaps the best advice that Dak, the porter we hired for our trek in the Nepal Himalaya, continues to give us. We are not the type of travelers who usually take things slowly. Rather than lazing around on a beach, we prefer to be active explorers and we are always on the move. We had not consciously realized that at this altitude, it is really better to take a slow approach: to take your time and not rush the thousands of steep steps that lead up to the Annapurna mountain range. Here, oxygen becomes more and more scarce the higher you get, and you are likely to exhaust yourself well before you reach your home for the night if you think you can tackle this climb with ease.
Before embarking on our trek, we were a little ambiguous about hiring a porter. We like to be independent when we travel, and felt that having a porter with us at all times during our trek might hinder this longing for independence and freedom during the walk. However after some deliberation we had decided to hire the services of a porter for two reasons:
- We are lazy bums. Well, not really, because we are very active, but we’d rather be active without carrying an additional 10kg backpack on our shoulders when walking up mountains for days at an end. It really makes a world of difference when all you have to carry is your light daypack because it allows you to enjoy your surroundings much more, it eases the difficulty of your hike and at the end of the day (and the next morning, when your trek continues) you are not all worn out from the weight on your back.
- We wanted to support the local community. By hiring a porter, you are able to support a local and his family which is of importance especially now in these years after the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal and its tourism industry in 2015. Of course we made sure that our porter was properly clothed and that he carried a reasonable weight. Read more about how hiring a porter contributes to sustainable travel in Nepal in this blog post.
Once on the trail it turns out that our porter helps us out in many more ways than just carrying our bags. Dak knows this area very well as he has walked this route numerous times before, and knows exactly where the best shortcuts and the best resting places are. “Some rest. Drink water.” He knows exactly why it is so important to stay hydrated on this track. If it wasn’t for him, we would probably never rest before reaching the top of each hill, and we’d be dehydrated in no time because we are just too stubborn to stop anywhere short of the top.
On the first morning of our trek, when we meet Dak for the first time, he is cheerful from the moment we shake hands and we are happy to hear that he speaks reasonable English. Many porters in Nepal do not and this complicates communication, but with Dak our conversations run pretty smoothly. We set off together in a taxi that brings us to the starting point of the Ghorepani trail: Nyapul. Dak goes way beyond the services we expect of him: besides carrying our bag, he insists on arranging the registration of our trekking permits at the trail’s checkpoint. We are not used to having this type of hassle taken out of our hands when we are traveling, so we sit idly while Dak stands at the small office window to collect the stamps on our permits. We feel uneasy to have Dak take care of us like this. The notion of a porter initially evokes ideas of colonialism in my mind, and having someone carry my bag as if I am some kind of imperialist with a servant gives me a sense of awkwardness. We are very independent travelers and always happy to take care of our own business, so this is a new experience for us. I ask Dak if our bag is not too heavy for him. It must be around 10 KG in weight. We had left one of our backpacks in the guesthouse in Pokhara and combined our clothes and toiletries for this trek by putting them in the other backpack, so that we’d only have to bring one back to the trail. Dak laughs a merry laugh. “Heavy? It is light! It is so easy!” – despite his fragile frame, Dak slings the bag on his back with little effort and climbs the steep trails at a pace that is at least twice as fast as ours. He tells us that he often carries packs of 20 KG or more, at longer trails at higher altitudes, and that this is like a walk in the park to him. I feel relieved and remind myself of the fact that we are doing Dak a favour by hiring his services: it helps him to provide for his family, a wife and children who are living some 300 KM away from here near Everest Base Camp. Dak travels to Pokhara in the trekking season and returns home to his family when the season ends, pockets full of well-earned cash. “I also eat well when I am tracking!” he smiles his kind smile – indeed the dal bhat dishes we eat for lunch are very satisfying.
“One more hour to Ghorepani. We will sleep there.” On the second day of the trek, I am getting used to having Dak around all day. His guidance allows us to take our mind off practical issues and to completely emerge ourselves in the trekking experience, enjoying the out-of-this-world landscapes freely. When we arrive at Ghorepani, the skies that have been overcast all days turn a dark hue of grey. “We have to walk 20 minutes more,” Dak says as the skies tear open and an apocalyptic rain soaks our clothes before we have a chance to put on the ponchos we had bought at one of the outdoor gear shops in Pokhara some days earlier. Ghorepani consists of a lower part of the town and a higher part. We take shelter in the lower town’s permit check point and watch the rain turn into icy chunks of hail. Dak keeps smiling and as soon as the sky clears up, our bag is on his back again and we walk the final 20-minute stretch to upper Ghorepani, where the hotel he recommends us has a magnificent view over the mountain range. This is another benefit of walking with a porter: had we been on our own, we would have called it a day back in lower Ghorepani, not knowing that just 20 minutes onward there would be a hotel with such spectacular views.
The next morning, when we leave our hotel room at 4 AM for our trek up Poon Hill to watch the sunrise, we smile warmly when we see Dak waiting for us downstairs, ready to guide us up the dark hill. Most trekkers on this route take a short detour in the early morning on Poon Hill, coming back to the hotel in Ghorepani after viewing the sunrise there. We did not expect Dak to join us on this early morning outing, but he is committed to walk with us to the top (“slowly, slowly”). We take photos together on Poon Hill where we are exhilarated by the views, and tell Dak that we are so happy that he took us here. He points out the different peaks to us and effortlessly remembers each mountain’s name and height: “Dhaulagiri, 8167 meters. Annapurna One, 8091 meters. Annapurna South, 7219 meters. Machapuchare, 6993 meters…” We are making amazing memories together and Dak has already become an inseparable part of our journey in the Himalaya.
We continue our days walking, with Dak sometimes some distance ahead, but always looking back to see if we are still around, or telling us to take it “slowly, slowly”, guiding us to rustic but beautiful places to have our lunch and going out of his way to find an available room for us when we arrive exhausted in Thadapani where all guesthouses appear to be fully booked. In the evenings he joins us for dinner but refuses to eat after we have finished (despite us begging him to eat with us, he is of the opinion that his guests should always finish first. He prefers to eat later with his fellow porters who sit together around the wood-fueled stove of the common room). In the mornings he brings us breakfast, then cleans up our plates, and while the uneasy feeling that comes with being served like royalty still nags in the back of my head, we clearly see that Dak is enjoying his role and takes pride in being not just a porter, but a brilliant guide on this trek.
On our last day we pass through the village of Ghandruk, where Dak wants to show us the helicopter pad (if you encounter any trouble on the trail, you’ll have to somehow make your way down here to be evacuated) and the small visitor’s center, where a short film on the Annapurna range is being screened on request. There is no one at the visitor’s center, and we indicate that we are happy to move on, but Dak insists and walks out to find the proprietor. He comes back smiling and says, “she is coming!”, then urges us to sit down in the small room where a projector then starts rattling. While we look at the scenes shot in the region – of Ghorepani, of Jomsom, of the Upper Mustang region, Dak continually smiles: “I have been there!” As he proudly exclaims the names of every town and every mountain featured in the film, we see how much of his identity is formed by his job and the thousands of steps he has taken on the Himalaya’s trails, working hard for people like us who leave Nepal not only with memories for a lifetime, but also with a new friend who will be remembered fondly.
Create your own adventure!
Our experience hiring a porter on the Ghorepani/Ghandruk (Poon Hill) trek was very positive. We hired the services of Dak through our guesthouse in Pokhara: Pushpa Guesthouse which is run by the amazing Raj Ohra who is a trekking agent and guide and can arrange guides, porters and transport to and from the trail as well as any trekking gear you may wish to rent. You can contact him via email@example.com. Some tips:
- We were lucky to walk with Dak as he was more of a porter-guide than simply a porter who only carried our stuff. The difference between a porter and a guide is that the former carries your belongings and the latter actually guides you on the trail and provides you with a lot of information about your surroundings. A porter-guide is a porter who speaks some English and is thus, while not fully a guide, able to provide you with some background information on the area you are walking in.
- Try to hire an independent porter or work with a small independent agency like Pushpa Guesthouse, to ensure that the porter’s earnings go into his own pocket rather than that of the owner of a large business. It is easy to arrange your porter upon your arrival in Pokhara, but this is best done at least 2 days in advance of your trek.
- Ensure that your porter has proper footwear and proper clothing (including raingear and something warm to wear as it can get chilly out there).
- It is nice to provide your porter with lunch and tea when you sit down somewhere so he doesn’t have to pay for such expenses from his own pocket.
- Tip your porter at the end of your trip; this will go a long way and will show your appreciation for all the weight he’s taken off your shoulders during the trek. A general rule of thumb is to tip one additional full day of wages for every week worked or 15% of the total sum.
Want to walk without a porter? Of course this is possible, we have seen many people carrying their own large backpacks. Just be sure to pack as light as possible – the trail is often very steep (going both up and down) and you will probably curse yourself for any unnecessarily added weight as you progress. Or, if you don’t mind to get a little dirty, take only your toiletries, rain gear and a camera and just wear the same clothes for a week. If you include a rest day in your itinerary you may even be able to wash them somewhere along the way.