Travel: Thank heaven for Sherpas and ponies: With four adults and five children, including her six-year-old son, Harriet Crawley trekked through Nepal, her spiritual home

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The Independent Travel
THE Kali Gandaki riverbed was dry and pitted with white stones. The wind whipped our backs. Ahead stretched the bleak Tibetan plateau, red ochre and monumental; above soared the snow-tipped peaks of Annapurna 1 and Dhaulagiri, both more than 26,000 feet high. The air seemed purer, the light sharper and the vastness more imposing than any place on earth.

I was back in my spiritual home, Nepal. But this was no ordinary trek. We were four adults with five children under the age of 10. I had envisaged a leisurely hike, keeping pace with the little ones. How wrong I was. The children scaled the steep slopes with the energy of mountain goats while, more often than not, the adults brought up the rear. The trek had been organised by Jim and Belinda Edwards, who live in Kathmandu and run Mountain Travel, the oldest adventure travel company in Nepal.

I was woefully unfit, unlike my Russian husband, Gleb, fresh from back-packing in eastern Siberia.

Tim and Jack Edwards, aged nine and five, were raring to go, as were their best friends, Sanjay and Rinchin Chogyal, aged seven and five, the progeny of Tenzing, a Tibetan scholar, and Lisa, his English wife who edits the Insight Guide to Nepal. Spencer, our six-year-old, was no novice either; I first took him trekking in the Annapurna Himal when he was four.

Mustang was my initial objective, the remote fiefdom on the borders of Tibet, ruled by a raja who pays tribute to the King of Nepal. But Belinda and Jim dissuaded me: the route was too dusty and too long for children. So we settled on an eight-day trek in the Annapurna sanctuary, starting at Jomsom, then trekking to Kakbeni on the edge of Mustang and down the gorge of the Kali Gandaki river to Pokhara.

We flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara but, alas, the mighty phalanx of the Himalayas, including Machhapuchhare, was shrouded in mist; poor visibility is the norm in spring, before the monsoon, when the heat from the Indian plain hits the cold mountain air. From Pokhara, we soared in a twin-engine plane up the Kali Gandaki gorge to Jomsom, at 2,713 metres. Here, in this ramshackle straggling village of mud huts peppered with tea houses advertising hot showers, we met up with our head Sherpa, Sangay Dorjee, and our team of 30 porters.

A trip with children needs preparation, and Jim had hired two extra porters, their baskets stuffed with mattresses, ready for a weary child. When a Tibetan on a sure-footed pony, leading another, came hurtling down the main street of Jomsom, hoofs clattering on the cobblestones, Jim hired man and beasts - ostensibly for the children.

So the Long March began: 40-strong, a straggling line of porters, Sherpas, adults and children. But within an hour, despite their huge loads, the porters were out of sight, skipping over terrain they had known since infancy.

Rinchin, Jack and Sanjay had no qualms about riding ponies or climbing into the baskets, but Tim and Spencer spurned these soft alternatives. Day after day, with their own Sherpa who never let them out of his sight, they walked doggedly, leaving the rest of us far behind.

The first few days were a rude shock to my system; aching all over, I crawled into my sleeping bag at 8.30pm. But by about day four, the exhilaration took hold and I drank in the forests of blazing red flame trees and rhododendron bushes as tall as trees, the rice terraces, the red ochre farmhouses, and everywhere exotic birds and butterflies.

Nepal is paradise but for a child it can be boring. A beautiful landscape does not satisfy a six-year-old for long, so we devised games and competitions, and every evening Jim awarded prizes for the Best Tempered, the Best Walker and the Best Rider.

Every evening the children celebrated the fact that they did not have to bath. Washing, inevitably, was kept to a minimum - just the brushing of teeth and a quick wipe of the face in warm water at 5.30am. They also relished the drama along the way. The Kali Gandaki is spanned by hazardous suspension bridges with loose planks and alarming gaps through which you stare down at boulders and rushing water. More than once, just as we had summoned up courage to cross, a mule train would clatter on to the opposite side, causing the bridge to sway alarmingly. In no doubt about who is the more stubborn, man or mule, we flattened ourselves against the steel girders.

On the way to Muktinath, Tim was charged by a water buffalo and saved by his Sherpa, who hurled a stone at its wet nose. At Kakbeni, Rinchin fell off his pony and broke his arm; we bound it in a sling and settled him in a basket. Just below Marpha we were caught in torrential storms and everyone slipped on mud and stones. Jim twisted an ankle, Gleb a knee and, to the children's amusement, they had to ride the diminutive ponies, their feet almost touching the ground.

What with Belinda's back pain from a 10-hour climb the day before and me creaking forward like a geriatric, we looked like the retreat from Moscow as we left the solitude of the high plateau and plunged through the forest into the world's steepest gorge, where the Kali Gandaki River hurtles between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna 1.

From a trekking point of view, this route is like Piccadilly Circus. We saluted back-packers of all nationalities and ages: British students, German climbers, American lawyers.

Each year 40,000 trekkers come to this part of Nepal, and even the most remote villages now have shops with everything from batteries to biscuits, bottled water and soap, and the tea houses advertise 'fooding', lodging and hot showers for 50p. Gleb sampled, and survived, such local specialities as mo mos (dumplings) and yak steak.

It puzzled Spencer that grown-ups should come so far to go 'sightseeing'. Yet Nepal left its mark. He was struck by the holy men, the sadhus, in their saffron robes and bare feet, teeth stained with betel nut, walking for weeks to visit a temple. And when Jim told him that they had no money, only what they were given on the way, he said, of course they had no money - it would be rude to take money to see God.

He was struck by the poverty of the barefoot, ragged village children with streaming noses, who knew neither birthdays nor Christmas and did not own a single toy.

He listened carefully to the Sherpa as he explained that the Himalayas are holy and gods inhabit the mountain tops. Later, Spencer told me this was quite right: Nepali gods lived in the summits, leaving plenty of room for Jesus in the clouds above.

As we rumbled along in a bus for the last few kilometres before Pokhara, it was strange to look back at the Annapurna Himal and register just how far we had come.

In Kathmandu, the first thing the children did was to turn on television, while we adults wallowed in luxurious hot baths, then treated ourselves to some good wine, before Gleb flew back to London, Jim immersed himself in work, and Sanjay and Rinchin returned home.

It was time to change gear. The next part of the holiday was a complete contrast: the jungle. Belinda and I and our three children flew from Kathmandu over the plains of southern Nepal to the small landing strip at Tiger Tops in the Royal Chitwan National Park - a world of sleepy crocodiles, mosquitoes and clouds of butterflies.

At 5am each day we lumbered on elephant-back into a gothic labyrinth of trees, strangled by vines, and termite mounds like Disney castles. Spencer counted 37 rhino, and we saw musk deer, black-faced monkeys and wild boar. But no tigers. Two years ago Spencer and I had seen five in one day, but the poachers are out again, satisfying a Chinese craze for tiger bone which is believed to cure everything from back pain to apoplexy.

For Spencer, the highlight came in the last few days. He was allocated an elephant of his own - a female, Sona Kali, whose saddle bore a shiny brass plaque reading 'Sona Kali Spencer's'. He was overcome. Each afternoon he went with the mahout, Sona Kali's keeper, to bathe her in the river. He rode like a little Mowgli, sitting on her head, his bare feet behind her ears. When she lay down in the river, he splashed her to cool her down.

Several times a day, Spencer visited Sona Kali in the elephant camp. When the moment came to leave, he took a solemn farewell. Holding out an apple, which the elephant picked up daintily with the tip of its trunk, he whispered: 'Do you think she knows I am her master?' I said I did not think there had been time. 'But the apple. She must wonder about that . . .'

The London agent for Mountain Travel is ExplorAsia, c/o Abercrombie and Kent, Sloane Square House, Holbein Place, London SW1W 8NS (071-973 0482). The lead-in price is pounds 1,434 for a 15-day 'Gurkha Homeland' trip, involving a 10-day trek in the Annapurna foothills. The price includes flights from London on Royal Nepal Airlines. A visa for Nepal costs pounds 20 and is available at the Royal Nepalese Embassy, 12a Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 (071-229 1594), Monday- Friday 10am to noon.

(Photograph omitted)

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