ABC Adventures: Part One

Notes from the Annapurna Sanctuary

Written by Pete Gardner

Team ABC Ready to Begin their Journey at Kathmandu Tribuhvan Airport

Team ABC Ready to Begin their Journey at Kathmandu Tribuhvan Airport

Davi sat in the testing chair. He looked more nervous than the other children. I looked at his notes, no problems with his vision had been reported, but his vision was not as good as expected.

One quick flick with the retinoscope, and I slipped a pair of -1.50 lenses into the trial frame. The smile spread across his face as he saw clearly for the first time. It will live with me forever.

This is why I do optometry for a living, and now I have the chance to do it at an elevation of 2000m in the shadow of Annapurna South.

The Annapurna Base Camp team, Ashley George, Jenny Hsieh, Megan Zabell, Wendy Berlecky and myself Pete Gardner, arrived in Kathmandu three days ago. I met Jenny at Kuala Lumpur airport as we caught the same flight in, and we passed through immigration at Nepal international airport without a hitch, unlike poor Ashley who apparently had some explaining to do as to why she was carrying 100 bottles of eyedrops.

My first experience of Kathmandu traffic was... exciting. The chaotic dance of taxis, mopeds, and rickshaws is a sight to behold! I realised quickly that Nepalese vehicles don’t have indicators, or possibly brakes, but they all have a horn, and if you are a pedestrian on a zebra crossing, well... good luck!

We met Julie Lam, our E4E representative on the ground, and after a briefing on how the next couple of weeks were going to look, we set out to explore the sights, sounds and sheer frenzy that is Kathmandu, finishing up with Julie taking us to her favourite back street curry house for a magnificent vegetarian curry. We all heeded the warnings, and the carnivores amongst us resolved to join our non meat eating colleagues, and go meat free for the trek.

Returning to the hotel, some hasty repacking was done to ensure all the equipment for the trip fit into the Eyes4Everest duffel bags. The weight of which was a struggle to get down the stairs the following morning, as I remembered our porters were going to be carrying these up the mountain... more of that later. 

After an early breakfast, we loaded up the cab, and headed back into the much quieter early morning traffic, still like a ride on the fun fair dodgem cars, but with random cows thrown into the mix, to arrive in good time to meet Tashy, our resident Nepalese optometrist. 

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as an airport”, and Tribhuvan domestic airport wastes no time in proving Douglas Adam correct.

Fortunately Tashy’s expertise navigated us through the chaos and through security (with separate male and female channels to facilitate efficient frisking) to arrive at our gate in plenty of time for our unsurprisingly delayed flight. Considering all flights to the Everest region have been cancelled for the last week due to poor weather, I consider we were lucky. 

Everything made it to Pokhara

Everything made it to Pokhara

Pretty soon we were aboard the small Yeti airlines flight leaving the haze which shrouds Kathmandu behind us. Blue skies opened up above the cloud and we drank in our first view of the Himalayan mountains. I spent the whole flight staring out of the window, mesmerised, with my mouth open in awe doing my best to look like a goldfish. Meanwhile, local resident Tashy, sitting next to me, idly flicked through the in flight magazine. 

25 minutes and a rather “solid” landing later (not sure if we left a dent in the runway...) we were disembarking and collecting the luggage.  We met the remainder of our team in the car park. Our guides Kami and Santos, and our porters Laxman, Dil and Mani, whom I suspect may be part Kryptonian, due to their incredible strength and stamina.  

A two hour bone rattler of a road trip led out of Pokhara up the mountain, dodging mopeds on their way down the switchbacks. The road rapidly deteriorated, giving the bus driver ample opportunity to show off his driving skills keeping four wheels on the road and not relocating us into the valley below. Arriving at Naya Pal, the starting point for the Annapurna sanctuary trek. I watched our trio of porters tying together the Eyes4Everest duffels with other bags and rucksacks, then lifting the whole dead weight onto their backs, held in place by a strap around the forehead. Did I mention their super human strength?

In the shadow of Annapurna South (Pictured Left)

In the shadow of Annapurna South (Pictured Left)

Over the next few hours we trekked in glorious sunshine under blue skies past rice paddies, wallowing water buffalo and through small villages, with people going about the business of life, chatting with the neighbours, bathing the baby, fixing dinner, and even the obligatory bored looking teen glued to her mobile phone. Doesn’t matter where you go in the world.

As the afternoon wore on we started to feel the heat making what should have been the easy day to break in the walking legs a bigger challenge than expected. The heat also took its toll on our porters, proving that even supermen have limits. With the heat slowing us down and the initial delay in setting off, it became obvious that if we carried on to Ulleri we would be finishing the climb in the dark. Kami our head guide made the call to pull up early so we spent the night in Tikhedhunga. 

Waking bright and early, we breakfasted on Grung bread, like a deep fried naan bread, and when eaten with jam, tastes like a guilt free jam doughnut. Over the next two hours we made the vertical climb up the 500 meter staircase to Ulleri. As we struggled up the steep climb in the heat, we were overtaken by a number of school kids in shirts and ties, skipping up the steps, not breaking a sweat... we would meet these kids again later for their eye tests. I wonder what they really thought of these weird Australians?

After a 500m climb in the hot sun up to Ulleri, the ABC team set up our makeshift consulting room in the local school, we had our team briefing and took our assigned stations. Megan and Jenny having the ignominy of setting up the ocular examination station in a newly built, and fortunately unused, toilet as it was the only place they could shut out the light!

Over the next four hours the team examined all the children at the Shree Ulleri Primary School. The kids were typically excited, nervous, and highly inquisitive, and totally unable to resist picking up my retinoscope and trial set lenses for a closer look.

Patients waiting outside the Ulleri Primary School

Patients waiting outside the Ulleri Primary School

Over the afternoon, we saw over fifty kids and a couple of teachers, a few hyperopic kids were struggling with reading, and Davi needed his distance correction, but the kids were generally fit well and happy, and having a great time being kids! I only had to stop them fiddling with the trial lenses several times...


The following morning we woke early with a magnificent view of Annapurna South, which towers over the villages, a quick commute back to the school, found a bustling queue already starting to form. Over the day we saw over 60 people for full examinations. With many people trekking in several hours from the surrounding villages, showing the need for basic health care services in these remote areas. We attempted to get through everyone who turned up, but we are only a small group and by 5.30 the light was fading, Wendy and myself were speeding through our refractions with steam coming out of our retinoscopes, but eventually it was too dark and I’m sad to say a few left disappointed. Over 30 orders were placed for glasses, the majority as expected for near work. A few cataracts were diagnosed, and many drops for dry eyes and allergy were dispensed. I am happy to say we did not find much pathology, Himalayan people are a lot fitter and healthier than your average Aussie.

Wendy refracting a patient

Tonight we will have a well earned rest and head off bright and early for the trek to Chitre where we have another two full days of eye exams booked in. 

We are just getting started!!!!