Travel for mind, body and spirit: Arms Honey-hunting in Nepal

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Arms Honey-hunting in Nepal

After hanging off the edge of the cliff for the first hour my arms began to ache. After the second hour they were shaking. And what wasn't helping was the stream of water pouring down the back of my neck, down inside my shirt and exiting out of one ankle cuff of my bee-suit. Interestingly, if I shifted my weight, this exploratory trickle would cross the watershed of my groin, and exit out of the other ankle cuff. This is one of the ways to pass the time while hanging by increasingly unreliable arms from a Himalayan cliff edge.

You may have walked under this particular cliff. One of the most popular treks in Nepal follows a nearby path up into the Annapurna Sanctuary, a cirque of dazzlingly beautiful mountains. Every year thousands of tourists pass this way, using the bridge across the Modi Khola below the village of Ghandrung. Yet few know that a fascinating event takes place downstream every year. Here, on a great cliff rising 250ft above the roaring waters, you will find the honey-hunters of Nepal.

A few years ago I was trekking through a gorge to the west when I looked up to see great honeycombs, the size and shape of elephants' ears, hanging from the cliffs above. They were made, we were told, by the world's biggest honey-bee, Apis laboriosa, and each year local tribesmen climbed up there to harvest the fruit of the bees' labours. As a climber I was sceptical: where would these people find beekeepers' nylon ropes? And how would they make harnesses to sit in? We soon found out, when cameraman David Shale and I were assigned by the BBC's Natural History Unit to make a film about these people.

We met the honey-hunters, and watched as they made ladders from soaked and twisted bamboo. Then we followed them to the top of the cliff where they tied the ladders to the overhanging trees. For the best view of what happened next, we stood below, just off the path. A hunter, clutching two long poles, climbed slowly down his ladder, which twisted and creaked above a sickening drop of over 250ft. Meanwhile, down below, his colleagues ignited a large smoky bonfire of rhododendron branches to stupefy the huge bees. The bees are still angry, however, and liable to sting the climber.

When he gets close to a bees' nest, a honey-hunter pushes a toggle on a string through one of the honeycombs to secure it. He then perforates the comb along the top edge with a pole which detaches it from the cliff. The string suspends the broken comb clear over the void. It is then lowered down to boys standing below who guide it into a wicker basket lined with fresh goatskin. Then everyone feasts on honey.

To film all this we had to be up close to the honey-hunter, and about 20ft out from the cliff face. So first we built a rope-bridge across the river to establish a base at the foot of the cliff, then we had to suspend ourselves off the top of the cliff. Being hi-tech Westerners, we had two ropes each, elaborate ratchet devices, radios, a full bee-suit and a veil. As well as our safety devices, we each had a syringe full of adrenaline strapped to our thigh in case a sting caused an anaphylactic shock. The locals just had the woven rope ladder and a piece of sacking around their shoulders. Their adrenaline came free.

Our first attempt stalled as we were hit by a heavy rainstorm. We tried to sit it out, clutching on to the ropes above our heads until our arms cramped with the strain and the camera got soaked. But then the weather cleared and we got six days of good filming. On the last day, however, we made a mistake and pounds 40,000 of camera fell all the way down and hit a boulder, possibly the most expensive crash zoom ever.

There was something very strange about hanging out in space on those slender ropes. The situation was filled with danger; the big drop into a fierce river, the angry bees. But I found myself in a curiously relaxed state, indeed once I fell asleep up there while waiting for the evening light. Graham Hoyland

The honey gathering takes place during the summer. Royal Nepal Airways (0171-494 0974) provides the only direct service to Nepal, twice a week, flying between Gatwick and Kathmandu.