Nepal: a family’s destination

Nepal offers a range of real adventure experiences that appeals to all ages, something for everyone

Misty jeep drives in Chitwan National Park. Photo: Rufus Van Gruisen

It was our mother’s idea to do a family visit to Nepal to mark her 80th birthday. Although over the years everyone had been to visit in various combinations, the idea was for us Van Gruisens with spouses to all be together with our children, who in 2004 ranged from 17 to seven years old, resident as far apart as the US, UK, Australia, India and Nepal. A carbon footprint that created memories and forged cousinly bonds.

The cold months suited school holidays and us five siblings getting time off our various work commitments. In all, 21 of us were gathered in Kathmandu before heading off to Chitwan then a trek in the Annapurna foothills followed by New Year at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge. As well as Christmas and New Year, there were birthdays to celebrate, and palaces, temples, jungles and mountain villages to explore.

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“We don’t do sightseeing, Mum,” my teenage boys warned, supported by the doting younger cousins. Nepal is one of the world’s best family destinations offering a range of real adventure experiences that appeals to all ages, something for everyone.

The Tarai in winter can be one of the coldest places in Nepal. Thick tendrils of grey fog insinuate their way into your bones, through the thatch roofs and bamboo walls, stubbornly refusing to be burned off by the weak winter sun. After warming ourselves by the fireside, my boys led their tribe of clamouring cousins, willing uncles and eager aunts on chilly wildlife safaris, elephant camp visits, misty jeep drives, boat rides and forest walks.

Rinchen’s 16th birthday party featured the statuary elephant dung cake as well as late night singing, Tharu dancing and animal impersonations on the mud floor of the tented camp Golghar. We fell asleep under heavy quilts to the sound of nightjars and a distant deer barking an alarm call.

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Always the keenest and most intrepid walker, our mother elected to miss the trek this time. On previous visits she had done most of Nepal’s main trekking routes, especially enraptured by the Everest region, and  in England she lived within reach of the Ridgeway with its ancient white horse carved into the chalk hills. My childhood had been punctuated with hearty Sunday afternoon walks through the ploughed fields and winter woodlands of Northumberland or, even worse, being dragged up Lake District peaks on day hikes to admire yet another view. It was only after I arrived in the Himalaya that I learned to love the rhythm and cadence of days spent travelling at the speed of my own two feet.

Our mother left us late last year. Actually, she would have preferred to have gone a couple of days earlier. “Why does dying take so long! I wish my brain would switch off,” she sighed impatiently. “You are so strong, and your time has not yet come.” Sarita, the Nepali nurse stroked her grey straying hair, something we were not permitted to do. Along with talking or laughing too loudly. “Well, I don’t want to be strong,” she said crossly.

Six weeks earlier I had been with her in the bleak flat landscape of Oxfordshire. “It was 80 years ago today that the Second World War started – 3 September 1939. So consumed with Brexit, no one seems to have noticed.” My mother was 94 and had taken to her bed. “I remember I was 14 and it was all rather an adventure. The air raid sirens rang out that first afternoon and we all sat in the kitchen which was supposed to be the safest place. That was the beginning.”

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My mother’s wartime career went on to define her. Like many women from that era she missed out on a proper education, and found excitement in opportunities offered by World War II. She worked in SOE (Special Operations Executive, secret stuff) based in Ceylon (as it was then), and later founded the Special Forces Club in London, located in a crescent behind Harrods and known by taxi drivers at the Spooks Club.

We had all gathered from our various corners of the globe, around her high-tech bed in a pleasant beige room in an Oxford hospital. Outside the autumn trees ebbed into gold. At her insistence there were no tubes, no sighing machines, no medical clicks and beeps. “The British national health is very good at being born and dying, not so great in between” my sister with two medical daughters observed dryly.

My other sister, who lives in India, kept vigil each night sleeping on the blue lino floor. “Very third world,” discerned the doctor with mild disapproval on one of his rounds, spotting the mattress propped against the wall. My sister was annoyed to have missed the actual moment of her death, around the midnight hour. Typically with minimum fuss, it must have been quiet and peaceful.

Sangjay and Rinchen stood beside her bed, a little bleary after long flights. They were lucky to find her lucid and chatty on one of those last days. “We have left the world in such a mess and it will be up to you to sort it out and save us” she tells them, passing the baton of responsibility. “Our generation has so much to be blamed for.”

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Even with her last energy she appreciates her Nepali nurses in Oxford, and asks about Kathmandu friends. Recalling the family trip and time spent walking in the Himalaya, a distant look comes into her luminous pale failing eyes. “What I would like is for my ashes to be scattered in the Nepal mountains – at Tengboche, amongst the forest and rhododendrons with those beautiful views. Sangjay, can you arrange it?”

Thus, the Van Gruisens are committed to make their own intensely personal contribution to VNY2020 with another family visit of siblings and cousins later this year.

Lisa Choegyal