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Hunting for honey in Nepal’s Himalayas


This is it.

This is what I travelled a third of the way around the world for; by train I travelled through Europe, across Russia, into Mongolia, then by plane I journeyed on to China, and finally here. Nepal.

The tents are set on the banks of the river and the road to the honey-cliffs peters out here to become a path which, in one place, disappears. The monsoons have washed this part away and the cliff is accessible only over some large pieces of bamboo that are somehow held together tightly against the cliff edge over the roar of river below.

Smoke billows from just out of sight round the corner. Whoops and shouts announce the honey collection. Along this part of the path bees, drowsy from the smoke, litter the ground. I am getting closer. Then suddenly I am here. Apis laboriosa, the wild cliff bee. More than 50 combs of wild bees hang from the cliff face, each comb covered in a mass of brown-black bodies driven upwards by the smoke. Like rolling up a blind, the single large comb beneath each colony becomes visible as the bees rise en masse. The combs are creamy-beige and sweep down in a curved arch from the cliff above them. Some of the combs are as huge as the man harvesting them, the Honey Hunter.

The Honey Hunter hangs from a rope ladder secured at one end to a tree at the top of the cliff and secured at the other to something at the base of the cliff. I can’t see what it is at the bottom as the large smoky fire has obscured my view. He hangs on, this god amongst beekeepers, some 90 rungs up the ladder. Dressed in a white beekeeping suit, his bare hands and legs are covered in bees. Apis laboriosa is much bigger than the domestic honey bee in Europe and about the size of a British hornet.

Two bamboo poles, each twenty feet long, hang from his hands, secured to his body so that they don’t fall. One cuts the comb from the cliff, the other moves a basket into position under the comb. The basket is also on a rope to the top of the cliff here another man lowers it into position. I watch him manoeuvre the bamboos into position. He shouts at the team on the ground and the man at the top of the cliff. With a few stabs and cuts one comb is cut loose from the cliff. It falls into the basket, but some breaks off and crashes one hundred feet to the ground just feet away from a man standing there. The basket is lowered, the comb collected and taken away to get the honey out.

The Honey Hunter comes down from the ladder, rung by rung sliding his body down to the ground. He talks confidently to the gathered crowd, complaining about the team, about the honey, about the tourists.

‘He is a moaner’ says Major Ram, the tour organiser.

This is a man’s world. In some honey hunting areas women are not allowed to the site but here I am. I lie back against a boulder on a dry part of the river bed and look up at the golden combs hanging there. This is what I travelled a third of the way around the world for.

Was it worth it?

It sure was.

‘Chocolate?’

I look up from my boulder and his young white teeth smile down at me.

Again he asks, ‘Chocolate?’

Chocolate.  Always chocolate.

‘Chocolate chhaina’ I laugh (which loosely means ‘I don’t have any chocolate so stop asking me for it’)

‘What’s your name?’ I ask him.

‘Deepak Pandi.’ He grins again ‘Chocolate?’

‘Chocolate, chocolate!’ I laugh, ‘Always chocolate. I’m going to change your name,’ I tell him. ‘I’m going to call you Deepak Chocolate.’

I look at this little man, sappy and happy. This kid is street-wise, or at least he would be if this village had a street.

It is so beautiful here; I have fallen in love.  So green.  So lush. The mountains are the most beautiful I have seen. The Annapurna Mountains of Nepal are 6000 to 8000m tall. Tonight I camp on the very top of Tarahill at 2713m in view of the Annapurna Mountains under a clear sky and near full moon. Above me stars and the moon in the same silver sky that I watched when I travelled through Mongolia only a week ago. Below me small villages are visible in the dark as clusters of orange dots randomly and sparsely poised on the hills.

And above me the mountains. They shine gossamer above the black tree lined lower mountains.

‘We’re bloody high!’ I hear one of the other trekkers exclaim in the morning when he gets up. We arrived in cloud last night, ‘Look at that mountain over there! It’s only a little bit higher than us!’

I love it here. I could stay forever.

Ram, the mountain man, has been teaching me Nepali. I’m fluent as long as the conversation contains only the words hot water (taato paani), potato (aloo), thank you (Dhanyabaad), is (chha), mountain (himalayi), man (manche) and, my favourite word, beautiful (raamro).

raamro

Roll the first ‘r’ on the tip or your tongue and let the ‘aa’ slide over the back of your throat. Allow your lips to flirt briefly with each other as they close over the ‘m’ then drop the second ‘r’ into the ‘o’.

raamro

raamro Nepal

raamro himalayi

raamro himalayi manche

Maybe it’s because I’ve fallen in love that everything seems so very beautiful; because falling in love causes an ethereal, chaotic beauty. Unplanned, unexpected, intense, spontaneous and carefree. I have journeyed through highs and lows to get here, through 27 beds, 10 countries, 13 trains, 3 aeroplanes, countless cars, many buses, numerous metros, one rickshaw and a motorbike. Of all the places I have been I love Nepal the most. To sum up this place needs only two words:

raamro chha

It’s beautiful

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