Day one was "orientation day". It was the first visit to the East for most of the children and some of the adults and, however experienced a traveller you are, Kathmandu comes as a shock. The city has the capacity to attack all the senses at once and it did not let us down. At the Hindu Pashupatinath temple, bodies were being cremated on the bank of the River Bagmati while wild monkeys showed off by diving into the ash-strewn water all to the accompaniment of flute-playing snake charmers. The children (and adults) were mesmerised.
We visited the historic city of Bhaktapur, a half hour's drive away, which has been sensitively preserved and gives the best impression of how Nepal might have looked a hundred years ago. We headed back to Kathmandu in the evening for a candle lit ceremony at the Boudnath, the giant Tibetan Buddhist stupa. Tibetan monks let the children lend a hand with lighting several thousand tiny butter lamps. The end result was dazzling, a huge "Bombe Alaska" with sparklers. Beside herself with excitement, the 11- year-old asked me how I had arranged it. "Easy," I replied. "I fixed it with the Dalai Lama." I always believe it important to establish an aura of semi-divine authority at an early stage of a family holiday.
The next day we drove to Pokhara - the setting off point for all the treks in the Annapurna sanctuary. It took eight hours and the drive was a chance to see what Nepal offers, the terraced paddy fields, snow-capped mountain ranges and rivers so wide that there are white sand beaches on either side. Alas, we arrived too late for the first glimpse of the Annapurna range but that made it all the more exciting when we woke in Pokhara the next morning.
We rose early to watch the colours thrown on the range by the sun at dawn. From the breakfast terrace on the roof of the hotel we could see Annapurna's 8,000-metre summit at the back with the familiar "fishtail" peak in the foreground. We felt that the holiday was starting in earnest and there was a nervous scramble for mountain boots, cameras and trekking paraphernalia. We took a short bus trip to the start of the trek at Naya Pool and met up with our 30 sherpas.
They intrigued us. Their loads were unbelievable. One appeared to be carrying a dining-room suite, tables and chairs all of which we would recognise later that evening, reassembled at the camp site.
Another resembled a hardware shop, festooned with saucepans and tin bowls. The "senior" sherpas were given the apparently easier option of accompanying the party and helping out when necessary. When this involved hoisting the 11-year-old up in a backpack the next day during a particularly hard ascent, we reckoned she was probably lighter than the mobile dining room.
The first day was easy. Five hours tranquil ascent to the village of Hille where we found our tent city already erected and tea and biscuits ready on the table. There was a candle-lit, three-course dinner and a sherpa played a drum while the physiotherapist organised relaxation exercises and the urologist unearthed a fund of "holidays-from-hell" stories. There was a crate of beer provided by the trek company and a bottle of rum was found at the bottom of a rucksack. Trekking was a pushover. We slept faintly exhausted and inebriated.
The second day was a rude shock. A couple of suspension bridges and then 3,000 stone steps, we climbed nearly three kilometres to the Ghorepani ridge. The scenery, however, was fabulous, the weather sunny and the children were awestruck and uncomplaining. We passed from rich paddy fields, with chance glimpses of the snow-capped Annapurna as we followed a zig-zagging route, through thick jungle and then on to a more desolate terrain as we reached 3,100 meters at Ghorepani. The village reminded me of Tibet with its blue and whitewashed houses, tea houses serving butter tea and that "rooftop of the world" feeling you get when you look on to rather than just up at high mountain ranges.
At 4am, the sherpas came to our tents with tea. The plan was to climb up to Poon Hill (3,200 metres) to watch the sun rise on the Annapurna range. From Poon Hill, you can see Annapurna, Manaslu, Dhaulagiri (all 8,000-metre plus mountains) the Fishtail and the Himalayan range stretching east towards Everest. We had come a long way for this, the high point of the trip. But the sun failed to rise. At least, the day was so cloudy that if it did rise, it was barely perceptible. It certainly did not paint the peaks pink, as promised in the guide books. Nonetheless, the view alone of these giants was exciting and humbling. I thought of those early climbers like Maurice Herzog (who "conquered" Annapurna in 1950) and Mallory and Hillary and the view of the summits looking so threatening and unwelcoming made their achievements even more impressive.
There then ensued a climb that, for us at least, compared with those Himalayan legends. Because of the forecast of untimely monsoon rain, we walked until 6pm, a 14-hour day, in order to get the most difficult part of the trek behind us and to reach the Gurkha village of Gundrung before the rain did. It was dark and we were all nervous as we climbed down into the village, uncertain as to where our camp might be, finding our way through the unlit streets. But it is challenges like this that give a journey that "edge" of excitement and certainly it made the children feel a sense of achievement as well as adventure.
True to the forecast, the rain began at 3am the next morning and continued for 15 hours. The sherpas, wearing flimsy waterproofs and with not enough umbrellas, served us our usual three-course breakfasts through the flaps of our sodden tents. The dining tent was already under water. "It never rains at this time of year," we had been told by the guide books and now, by way of apology, by the tour guide, Krishna.
Maybe Nepal too was feeling the effects of "El Nino"? We were all too wet to deliberate and relieved that Krishna had forced us to march until we dropped yesterday. The terrain had been difficult and would have been treacherous in the rain.
The weather was an inconvenience for us but a tragedy for the villagers who had harvested the rice and laid it out to dry. It was now ruined. The photographers among us, however, were jubilant. The mists rising up off the valleys, far below the ridge where we were walking, apparently produced unique and challenging photo-opportunities. At least some were happy.
We made it back to Pokhara that night, soaked through, bruised and exhausted, but exultant. We had seen some of the most dramatic scenery on earth, we were fitter and leaner, we had survived a monsoon storm with only slight injuries and through the sherpas and guides we had experienced the renowned good humour, loyalty, strength and hospitality of the Nepalese people and found it all to be true. And what's more - everyone wants to go again next year.
DAY ONE: We arrived in Kathmandu in the late afternoon and were greeted at the airport by crowds of very rowdy Nepalese boys pleading with us to stay at their hotels. One, about my age, tried to chat me up. It was an exciting ride to the hotel except that in Nepal there are no driving rules so everyone has to beep a lot. We went out for a walk and saw that Kathmandu is full of temples and shrines. We went home in a rickshaw.
DAY TWO: I wore long trousers because we were going to visit temples and anything else would be disrespectful. The Hindu temple was unlike anything I have ever seen before. We saw a body being cremated, monkeys and snake charmers. I liked Bhaktapur best. It is quaint and has better air than Kathmandu. No one pesters you to buy stuff. The restaurant had a view over the square and temples. But when I needed the loo, I took one look and decided to pass.
DAY THREE: We settled in the bus for our eight-hour drive to Pokhara. We read, slept, played and most of all looked at the scenery. The further we climbed through the mountains, the more beautiful it became. We took a long walk in Pokhara when we arrived after dark and everyone bought a pair of Nepalese trousers in different colours for the trek. My "spag bol" at supper was horrid but the banana fritters made up for it. Krishna (our guide) briefed us about our trek. He's bought his 15-year-old brother, Prakash, along with him for the trek as it was half term.
DAY FOUR: I am writing this in a dimly lit (by torchlight) tent. The walk was enjoyable and satisfying. It is amazing how the sherpas carried our bags which are so heavy. When we arrived in the village we saw signs for "power showers" on some of the houses. We grabbed our towels to try them out only to find that the word "solar" was written in front of the words "power shower". Perhaps there wasn't much sun there that day because the showers were cold, in a garden shed and not very private. I don't think I'll bother again. It got dark quickly and we had supper by candlelight. There is a loo tent but it is very horrid and I have not mastered it yet, but that is my challenge for tomorrow. I am very concerned about the sherpas as they are in the open without a tent.
DAY FIVE: we left the camp at 7.40am after the sherpas had already gone on ahead with our bags. The first part was extremely steep with millions of steps and it was very hot. Danny was carried most of the way by one of the sherpas which was NOT FAIR. But I am happy because I wanted to do it alone and I did. The jungle is beautiful. I had a toilet-related, painful, smelly, yucky, unfunny experience which I won't go into.
DAY SIX: The sherpas came to our tent with tea at 4am for the climb to Poon Hill. After breakfast, I had a flood of energy and kept at the front from the top of the first hill. The views were incredible. We were above the aeroplanes. I had a long talk with Prakash. Then we had a very long walk downhill which was painful. We cut some bamboo to use as sticks which helped. The walk seemed to go on for ever and I was so tired, cold and achy. My favourite sherpa, Norris Tubba, kept me company. He is sweet. All the sherpas know my name now. We arrived as it was getting dark and some of the party were still missing. But the sherpas stayed with them to look after them and they arrived at last, thank goodness.
DAY SEVEN: Last night one of the group snored so much and it rained so we didn't get much sleep. We were woken by Larry playing his newly acquired Nepalese flute. It rained all day and the sherpas brought us breakfast wearing anoraks and umbrellas. During the night we accidentally left our outside zip undone so most of our things, including Gabby's sleeping bag, got sodden. Despite the weather, we kept going but with lots of stops. The sherpas wore plastic bags. The clouds were at our level. Soon the countryside looked familiar and we were back where we started. We had completed the five-day circuit except that, because of the rain, we had done it in four days. We missed one night in the tents although I'm not sure I minded because we got to a hotel where I had a bath, washed my hair and there was a decent loo!
DAY EIGHT: Because we came back from the trek early, we had time to take a boat on the lake in Pokhara. It was, of course, a beautiful, sunny day and it gave us the opportunity to take a last look at the mountains, although we also got wonderful views on the flight back to Kathmandu. We had a last afternoon's shop. The shopping is great. Mum and I did all our christmas shopping. Some of the sherpas came to our farewell party. They played music and we all danced. I like the Nepalese and Nepal and hope I can come again.
nepal fact file
The current trekking season lasts until about May, then restarts in September after the rains have finished.
The cheapest way to trek is to fly to Katmandhu and buy your trek-package locally. Flights to Kathmandu can be arranged through Marut Travel, 0171 734 8604. Royal Nepal Airlines fly via Frankfurt for about pounds 660; Air Qatar via Dohar for pounds 600. A highly recommended trekking agent in Kathmandu is Ying Yang Travel, tel: 00 9771 423358. Fax: 00 9771 421701, E-mail: email@example.com. An eight-day "package"costs about pounds 350.
For all-in packages from the United Kingdom, try Himalayan Kingdom (tel: 0117 923 7163) who run lengthy trips - between two weeks and a month - for groups of a minimum of four people. World Expeditions (tel: 0181 870 2600) are also worth contacting for their Annapurna and Sherpa Everest treks.