We flew from Delhi up to the beautiful state of Jammu and Kashmir, the northern most region of India which borders Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.
On arriving in the charismatic town of Leh we were obliged to spend a few days acclimatising to its 3,520m altitude. For the first two nights I struggled to even roll over in bed without getting short of breath and feeling dizzy.
With nothing already booked, we set about planning a trek deeper into the Himalayas, researching with locals who would be best to engage as our guide. We settled on a recommended guide-cum-chef, Karma, along with porter-cum-horseman, Mudup and his two trusty nags.
We established a preferred restaurant and ate there pretty much every night. I never tired of asking the waiter, ‘Tell me, what’s in the ‘Chuff Surprise’?’, although he himself got tired of clarifying that it was a spelling mistake and should read ‘Chef Surprise’.
I had an additional secret mission of sourcing the baking and icing of a surprise, personalised birthday cake for my friend who would be celebrating mid-way through our trek. It was no mean feat trying to secrete it into a bag to be carried by one of the horses on the morning of our departure.
Our eight-day trek amongst the most fantastic scenery was at the end of the season so there was hardly any trekker traffic. A smattering of small groups of people walking the same trail with their own guides were our distant companions and a civilised amount of mingling would take place each evening wherever we all set up camp.
One such trekker was Dagmar, an Austrian lady travelling by herself but now replete with a large entourage of sherpas, deputy sherpas and assistant deputy sherpas. She had, she told us, booked and paid for the trip before leaving home as she had worried about the quality and standards on offer if organising it on arrival.
Pah! We thought. That’s precisely what we had done and, despite paying a fraction of the price Dagmar had forked out, we weren’t doing too badly.
On the second day, however, we began to notice exactly what she was getting for her money.
Our guide, Karma, was an excellent cook given the basic amenities, but his guiding skills were sorely lacking. We watched enviously as Dagmar’s personal guide patiently assisted her at difficult and dangerous points on the mountain passes while ours was nowhere to be seen – as in, he had actually disappeared from sight leaving us wondering if we were even following the right path.
Dagmar’s guide, in fluent English, would painstakingly explain the names and origins of every plant and rock type.
‘Type of grass? Some kind of stone?’ was all we got when we tried the same with Karma.
No worries, we were no botanists or geologists anyway and eight days of Latin plant names could potentially be very boring. Ad hoc it might be, but ad nauseum it most certainly would be.
Then there was the toilet situation. Each night when we set up camp, Dagmar’s team would industriously set about making their Memsaab feel as comfortable as possible, which included fashioning her own private dunny tent.
As for us, we would have to ask for advice for the least dangerous rock to squat behind.
There was even a noticeable difference between our horses. Dagmar seemed to have secured a troop of Lipizzaner stallions who were impeccably behaved and very beautiful. By comparison, our two old nags were delinquents out on probation.
At the end of each day, as our camps were being set up and dinner being made, we would all crawl into our respective tents for a rest. Dagmar’s stallions would be lined up in a row and would stand completely still without so much as a snort out of them, almost as if they were playing a silent game of ‘first one to blink’.
Ours, on the other hand, would be playing a far less refined game which appeared to be one of ‘equine tag’. They would spend a ridiculous amount of time unchallenged by anyone chasing each other at high speed round and round our tent. The skidding always seemed to happen at the point just next to my head and I received many a hoof kick before summoning up the energy to ask for them to be restrained.
One morning, as breakfast was being prepared, the horses tucked into the bread dough that had been left unattended to prove, each popping a whole one in their mouth. Try though they might, there was nothing they could do to combat the ever-expanding yeast element which was ballooning relentlessly the more they chewed.
Watching as their mouths and cheeks expanded to twice the size, it was hard not to laugh at their public humiliation.
So traumatised were they from this that they decided to get their revenge by slipping free from their tethers during the night and escaping up into the mountain.
Dagmar’s stallions seemed to respond with sympathetic head shaking and tutting while managing to look rather smug and superior.
The penultimate day was birthday day and I secretly checked on the cake which hadn’t been seen for a week and was amazed to discover that the box had protected it perfectly and it was still in one delicious piece.
We had brought glamorous outfits to wear in celebration on the day’s walk and so donned sparkly skirts and tops over our trekking gear. A first, perhaps, for Himalayan hikers.
That night we invited all our fellow groups to join us for a birthday meal, with the cook from each team contributing their allotted food allowance to a make shared buffet.
Even the errant horses made a surprise return to camp, creeping in unannounced with their tails between their legs. Although we all cheered, no-one was fooled. They were simply hungry and had no choice but to re-join us.
The drinks flowed and the birthday song was sung.
The party was interrupted, however, by the strains of retching followed by the distinct smell of vomit wafting through the night air.
In one final hurrah, the horses had discovered and demolished the cake that had been come so far in such adverse conditions.
And neigh, they didn’t like it one little bit.
So THAT is what you get if you don’t book before you leave home.
But, I bet Dagmar’s, ‘I went trekking in the Himalayas, it went well,’ dinner party story goes down a storm in Austria.