If it has been traumatic for Scots parents returning kids to school amid face-mask debacles, heavy rain and one-way traffic, spare a thought for a family from Aberdeen stranded in Nepal under a second lockdown.
Round-the-world travelers Kris and Julie Smith — plus their children, Erihn, 9, and Jacob, 4 — realized a dream by reaching Everest Base Camp in June after the pandemic left them trapped in the mountains. More recently, after nearly six months as the only Europeans in the region, they opted for a treacherous journey by foot through monsoon, landslide and leech-infested terrain to the capital, Kathmandu — carrying out their own version of home-schooling along the way.
Walking at the pace of their youngest child, they trekked for 40 miles to Salleri in the foothills of the Himalayas. Spending five days under ponchos and umbrellas was one of the biggest challenges, according to Kris — “Locals don’t even walk out in monsoon” — but they then followed it with a 13-hour bone-rattling trip by jeep for the 150 miles from Salleri to the Nepalese capital. “We did not know whether our jeep would make it because there were flooded river beds.”
Julie adds: “When we got to Kathmandu, we wanted to kiss the ground.”
A week after their arrival, however, the city was put under military curfew as Covid-19 surged. The family — who had been on the road for 14 months, in which they visited 19 countries — were told to isolate.”We came straight back into a second lockdown,” says Julie. “Cases are rising here; there were 1,000 yesterday.”
Being in the mountains had its challenging moments, including dealing with bucket baths, stomach upsets, sinus infections and a hospital visit when Erihn’s finger became infected. “I don’t think we were fighting fit to walk to Everest: we were skinny malinkies,” says Julie. But they had a “mindset to keep pushing”.
The children adapted well and “were quite strong through the whole thing”. After being home-schooled with basic reading, writing and math, they began to pick up Nepali. “They are so much more confident and are learning so many different things,” says Kris. The family had hoped to travel next around Sri Lanka by motorized rickshaw but entry to the island country is currently prohibited for all non-nationals. The Maldives is now an option. “We would not rule out coming back to Scotland,” says Julie. “Our family worries about us and we worry about them.”
The couple, from Hazlehead, both worked in the oil industry and saved for months to take the two-year trip with their children. But while Covid may have scuppered detailed planning, it has had its upsides, not least that as the UK media chronicled their story, they became famous in Nepal. A local guide called Kevin helped them cut through red tape to travel the 25 miles from Lukla in the Solukhumbu region to Everest Base Camp in the Sagarmatha National Park. Teahouses that had closed down to the public opened their doors, and one luxury hotel in Kathmandu offered them bed and board.
“The people in the teahouses don’t see children often,” says Julie. “To see them interacting was amazing.”
The family have only a three-month visa, but the Nepalese authorities have indicated that they will extend this until December. According to Julie, the goal of getting to Everest Base Camp had been “the one drive that kept us going”, but the current situation is “unsettling”. They had a Covid test in Lukla, which “gave the locals peace of mind because we were the foreigners going into the town,” she says. The region had a low incidence of the disease, but the borders with India and the capital now have a problem.
The family now hope to make a virtue of their experience. They are setting up a website to chronicle their journey, and the Nepalese Tourist Board has been in touch and is keen to work with them to promote family holidays to the region.
When Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty, she said that her purpose was “to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses”. Whether or not she would have encouraged people to bed down next to them will never be known. But that is on offer in a holiday experience where guests sleep in a converted stable alongside a horse.
They can choose to share with a Friesian, described as “a real black beauty”, or a “cheeky” Shetland pony called JB. The guests of Stable Stays, based in Cartmel, Cumbria, and run by Black Horses Ltd, stay in a room with a double bed and single bunk bed above it. Lit by fairy lights, the accommodation includes a mini fridge, microwave and en suite wet room with a shower and lavatory.
The horse sleeps in a stable section on the other side, which is separated by a transparent divider. It means that guests can reach over from the top bunk and stroke the horse in the night and feed it carrots or Polos.
The horses have water and hay in their own spacious area. Food buckets and a grooming kit are provided, which includes accessories such as plaiting bands so that visitors can braid their neighbor’s manes.
Tracey Alexander, the owner of Black Horses Ltd, says: “As a child I used to read books about people who let their little Shetland ponies in to sleep on their bed and it’s just something that’s stuck with me. I’m surprised no one has come up with the idea before. The breeding of Friesian horses is very closely monitored and they are known for being very people-orientated, friendly and kind, so this suits them perfectly. “Our little Shetland pony is also really sweet, although I do have to warn people he is a bit nibbly sometimes.”
Prices for the holiday, which has been running since last October, start at $320 a night. Guests have included a woman in her sixties who had dreamed of sleeping next to horses since she was a little girl. “Horses don’t sleep like we do. They are up and down during the night and can often be heard wandering around or munching away,” Ms Alexander said. “We do offer earplugs but people don’t come here for a full night’s sleep, they come for a magical experience.”
Despite the luxury setting, guests may be a little concerned about how a shared room with a horse might smell. However, the owners said that so far this has not been a problem mentioned by guests.