An outstanding 16-day trek in the Nepal Himalaya convinced Bob Doe that with Trekking in Nepal changes your outlook if not your whole life, as many who have ventured to this Himalayan Shangri-la confirm. And a small but growing number of travel companies are keen to encourage schools to take their pupils to the top of the world where it is not only geography lessons that come alive in a big way. You cannot fail to be impressed also by the cheerfulness and apparent contentment of the hardworking and devout Nepalese; people who have so little by our own material standards.
Adventure activities are increasingly hemmed in by regulations and hazard-avoidance. So it might be thought that school trips to the world's highest mountains in an undeveloped region would be out of the question. But Robert May's School in Odiham, an ordinary Hampshire 11 to 16 comprehensive, albeit with an extraordinary sense of adventure, has twice shown that it is possible to take 15-year-old pupils trekking in the Nepal Himalaya.
What it requires is careful preparation; the support of parents; arrangements carefully tailored to the needs of a school group; a clear grasp of potential hazards; and brave teachers.
A vital part of that preparation, according to Sandra Cole, the senior teacher at Robert May's who led both expeditions, is to visit the country first. In fact it was only after Sandra had been on a Himalayan trek on her own initiative that the idea of a school trip was first mooted by the then chair of governors at Robert May's.
"Nepal is a relatively safe developing country and a stunning place to take pupils," says Sandra. As well as providing a first-hand insight into the Nepalese way of life and the Hindu and Buddhist religions, she felt it also gave pupils "a better appreciation of the world around them and a love of travel and adventure".
Living together under basic conditions gave them a chance to test themselves and to experience values that we may have lost in the supposedly developed world.
Sandra thought it important too that she and Adrian Dee, the other teacher on the 1998 expedition, got to know the pupils beforehand on a series of weekend walks. Fundraising also meant the trip was something the children had invested in. "That's important when the going gets tough."
The arrangements for Robert May's 1996 trek were made by Himalayan Kingdoms, the Bristol-based agency which looks after logistics for Chris Bonnington's expeditions in the region. And it was to Himalayan Kingdoms that she turned again last year when the school agreed to allow me to accompany them. HK offers a bespoke, ABTA-bonded service to schools covering all travel and trekking arrangements.
Spring or autumn are the best times for trekking, avoiding the summer monsoon. But with pupils starting their final GCSE year, time out of school needed to be minimised. So an efficient flight to cover the 6,000 miles to Nepal's capital Kathmandu was high on Sandra's priorities. She wanted a reasonably direct one that did not involve any hazardous stopovers.
The Qatar Airlines service to Kathmandu via Doha proved fast, comfortable and efficient, though Sandra would have liked the whole party booked into adjacent seats; a requirement important to school parties that travel agents may not normally think about.
Most school trips do not have to contend with altitude sickness either. But around three trekkers a year die of it in Nepal, usually in organised groups. The remedy is prompt descent to a lower altitude. But it seems the pressure to keep going and not let your companions down often proves fatal.
Acclimatisation to altitude is essential and the route Sandra Cole chose was a gradual climb up the gorge of the Kali Gandaki River to Mutkinath (12,000 feet). In the space of a few days we went from the sub-tropical southern slopes through the highest mountains in the world to the arid Tibet-like trans-Himalaya.
The landscape, ethnic groups and environment we encountered changed daily, underlining the amazing diversity of countryside and culture in Nepal, where 48 different mother tongues are spoken.
It is possible get closer to the people by bunking in local teahouses along the trail. It is also cheaper than camping, which requires more equipment and porterage. But few of these lodgings could accommodate a whole school party, making it more difficult to supervise pupils or what they are eating or drinking. High fluid intake is essential to replace that sweated out on the trail and to ward off altitude illness. All drinking water needs to be treated by prolonged boiling or with iodine drops to kill off bacteria and parasites endemic in these parts.
"A trip to Nepal is not easy, comfortable or predictable. But the rewards outweigh the demands it makes on visitors," one pupil said afterwards. "The sights are staggering and the people unforgettable. The whole thing guarantees a new outlook."
The effects of tourism on this beautiful country and its contented people poses a dilemma for every Himalayan traveller. There is a Himalayan Tourist Code designed to minimise environmental impact and the arrangements for our trek were strictly in line with this.
Sandra Cole says, "I feel its important we give something back to Nepal. We were not able to stay long enough to help with a village community project but we are sending equipment to a school and raised pound;400 for the Sir Edmund Hilary Trust."
Listening to the pupils of Robert May's weeks after the trek, it was clear they realised they had enjoyed an extraordinary experience and how lucky they were that teachers are still prepared to venture on such expeditions. "The trip of a lifetime," was how one put it. That was exactly how I felt.
Himalayan Kingdoms put together packages to suit school's requirements. This one cost pupils about pound;1,500 including all camping equipment, visas, trekking permits, travel and food. Himalayan Kingdoms, 20 The Mall, Clifton. Bristol, BS8 2DR 0117 923 7163. Web site: www.himalayankingdoms.co.uk
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TREKKER
The Himalayan day starts at around 6am with "bed tea" served scalding hot through the tent door by our ever-smiling Sherpa guide, Jayrem. There is just time to slurp it down in the cosiness of my sleeping bag before facing the chilly mountain dawn. Meanwhile our Sherpa team make a second circuit to place bowls of washing water outside the tent flap.
With no baths for hundreds of miles I soon discover it is possible to have an all-over body wash and shampoo in about two pints of luke-warm water, provided you are quick. And it is not just the bracing morning air that makes me want to hurry.
For one thing, since waking I have been putting off the chilly visit to the distant toilet tent and its fragrant, if shallow, trench. For another, within half an hour we have to be shaved, washed and packed. When we sit down to breakfast our tents are struck by our tireless Sherpas and our kit hauled off by those other heroes of the trek, the porters. I can barely lift my kitbag. Yet these tough hill tribesmen and women, shod in little more than rubber flipflops, carry two of our bags each, plus a tent.
Our porters haul our food for 10 days; the stoves, kerosene and pots and pans to cook it; the steel chairs, tables and tableware and the pretty floral table cloths off which we dine; paper napkins, toilet paper and an aluminium washing bowl for every trekker. Our apparent need for hundreds of items to sustain life contrasts sharply with the porters' own small plastic bag of essentials.
When we emerge from our tents to be waited on by Sherpas with breakfast porridge and eggs in one form or another, there are our porters waiting to rope our kitbags together and to attach the headband with which they will carry them.
Our 15 trekkers comprised 12 pupils, two teachers and one journalist. But with a cook and five cook boys, half a dozen Sherpa guides and as many porters again to carry all our stores and equipment, it is a party of 50 which will soon be strung out over the trail.
Managing all this is Om, our trek leader or Sirdar. Om, an experienced guide from the Everest region, was once a high school maths and science teacher. But leading treks is more lucrative and the outdoor life more to his liking.
In rural Nepal a Sirdar is clearly a man of substance and Om is no exception. His job is to hire porters, manage the staff, organise transport and campsites, share his knowledge of the geography and customs along the trail and generally look after trekkers' health and welfare. Om dispenses antibiotics on the few occasions this is necessary and when our bush flight out is overbooked, it is Om who ensures we are on it. And when expensive Swiss Army knives are confiscated by airport security it is Om who produces them later from his pack like a magician.
As soon as breakfast is over cook sets off for our lunchstop. We, laden with little more than a light daysack for waterproof, camera, water bottle, and suncream, are shepherded along the rocky trail by our Sherpas.
The pace is brisk but not too demanding and anyway you can choose your own. The main trekking hazard apart from landslides is said to be yak attack. They are not particularly mean beasts; more clumsy and a mob could easily push you off the side of a mountain. Every hour or so we rest and regroup, usually at a trailside lodge or teahouse. Bottled Coke and Fanta can invariably be bought, drunk from our own cups rather than from the bottle to avoid any contamination on the outside. Similarly we peel all fruit - or avoid it altogether.
Lunch is a leisurely two or three hour affair. Trek cooks produce miraculous results on nothing more than a primus stove - apple pies and birthday cakes. Ours quickly discovers that Western adolescents will eat anything provided it is potato and fried.
Nepali cuisine is spicy but not especially hot. The delicious coriander soup alone is enough to bring me back to Nepal. I'd go a long way to avoid yak cheese, however.
We usually reach camp - or where camp should be if we have overtaken our kit - shortly before darkness falls which it does rather suddenly at around 6.30. Having sweated all day in shorts and T-shirts, when the sun disappears behind the mountains we reach for sweaters, fleeces and even down-filled jackets at our highest camp.
Dinner is served by the Sherpas in the large mess tent by the light (and warmth) of hissing pressure lamps.
After dinner we digest the day's adventures. The rest of the world seems a long way away. Om briefs us on the day ahead and Jayrem fills our bottles with boiling water. Tonight they will be hot water bottles to warm our sleeping bags; tomorrow they provide safe drinking water. Meanwhile, even our doughty Sherpas get to rest.
Leave Heathrow in evening. Overnight flight to Doha in the Gulf state of Qatar
Arrive Kathmandu early afternoon. Transfer to hotel chosen for its proximity to area of city pupils can safely roam in pairs.
Sightseeing around this vibrant city: tumultuous streets heave with people, traders and various forms of ramshackle rickshaw. Pervading smell of sewage and sandalwood funeral pyres. Hindu and Buddhist temples thronged with holy men, tourists and street traders.
Hair-raising six-hour bus journey to Nepal's second city, Pokhara. Narrow hairpin roads teeter on steep hillsides, crowded with buses and lorries often so full with passengers that even the driver shares his seat. Meet our Sherpas and porters at beautiful lakeside campsite. Catch our first glimpse of snowy peaks.
Trek begins at about 3,000 feet in warm, humid conditions. Pass wood and rattan houses, rice harvesters on terraced hillsides, poinsettia bushes, banana plants and citrus trees. Trail winds up through bamboo and semi-tropical magnolia forests, dripping in orchids and bromeliads. Lunch of chips and hot yak cheese sandwiches. Camp Turkhedhunga 5,000 feet.
Sweat up the infamous steps of Ulleri to camp just beneath the col at Ghorepani (9,000 feet) Day 7
Descend a tributary of the Kali Gandaki river through oak, sweet chestnut and rhododendron forest. Reach main river as evening falls only to find massive landslide has swept away our trail northwards. Scramble up fixed ropes on steep hillside. Descend by torchlight so miss the natural hotwater springs of Tatopani.
Begin ascent of the world's deepest gorge between the glacial peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri along ancient trading route for Indian grain and salt mined in Tibet. The enterprising Thalaki people's substantial stone houses here have elaborately carved woodwork. Lunch in lemon grove fringed with cannabis.
Now noticeably cooler and drier. Pine-covered hillsides rise from the grey, gravel bed of the river. Native horse chestnuts beside the trail. Maize, millet and barley take the place of rice. Cultivated apples are dried or turned into fiery brandy. Camp at Tukuche, Herzog's base for the first ascent of Annapurna. Mobbed by children: older ones able to tell us in English their name, age and where they go to school.
Suddenly there are no trees, just sage bushes. A dusty wind funnels up the valley and blows us into the desert-like Mustang region in the rainshadow of the Himalayan massif. Up here it almost never rains. The stone houses are roofed with mud and built round a central courtyard to keep out the wind. Camp at Jomsom (8,000 feet), a dusty one-street, one-horse town.
Lunch in the ancient Tibetan township of Kagbeni. Afterwards we leave the Kali Gandaki behind. Slowly climb the barren but eerily beautiful mountainside to Mutkinath below the snowy Thorung-la Pass. At 12,000 feet the thin air makes everything an effort. Even tying my bootlaces leaves me breathless. Extra fluids to ward off altitude sickness. Up here buckwheat is the staple, grown in small fields irrigated by melt-water rivers.
The temple where natural gas from the rocks and a spring bring together earth, fire and water makes this one of the four most important sites for Hindu pilgrimage. Hand over gifts of pens and pencils to local primary school (pictured right) next to the campsite and children pay return visit in their lunch hour. Tibetan is spoken and women wear the distinctive Tibetan necklace: a large slab of turquoise between two large red coral beads.
Descend again to Jomsom, visiting five-centuries old Buddhist monastery at Jharkot and its medical centre, a room lined with various substances in jam jars and custard tins. An old man lies in a bed in one corner. We ask what is wrong with him. Nothing, he is the doctor. Going down, oxygen fills the blood again and we seem to be flying instead of walking.
Dramatic flight from Jomsom's short dirt strip back down the gorge to Pokhara, retracing in minutes the steps that took us days to walk. The tiny 14-seat plane is like an insect, dwarfed by the peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Six-hour bus ride to Kathmandu.
Shop till we drop in Kathmandu.
Chaos and bureaucracy at Kathmandu airport. But with aid from a professional hustler from our trekking agency we board for Doha and London. Step on the plane and out of the Third World.