Remembering Boxing Day 2004

After four days on a trek, news of the tsunami sounded like the end of the world

Family group photo in the Annapurnas . Photo: RUFUS VAN GRUISEN

The Twin Otter banked steeply as we came in to land amidst the green hills of Pokhara Valley. As usual in small planes anywhere in Nepal, with every bump we tried not to think about the too-many ‘incidents’ that characterise flying in the Himalaya. Pokhara has had its share.

I had been waiting beside the runway in 2000 when Princess Anne’s RAF aircraft had to gybe just before touching down to avoid a pair of circling dark kites – the air force pilots were far from amused by the near-miss. The Princess Royal was on her second visit to Nepal and her first to the newly built Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, where she and her entourage stayed for several nights whilst visiting British Save the Children projects.

Despite arriving un-amused at our Lodge covered in dust from the security vehicle that insisted on preceding her up the unmade gravel road (cautious of Maoist insurgents), and suffering another near-miss with a cockroach in her lunch box (it went to the languid British Embassy First Secretary instead), her visit went well.

Horses and dogs were safe topics during dinner, and she regaled us with a story about advising the Queen to overcome Granny’s (the Queen Mother’s) refusal to see a doctor about a suspected broken collarbone: “You should have called the vet, she won’t mind seeing the vet.”

But this trip in December 2004 to Pokhara was a lot less royal and lot more relaxed, consisting of my immediate family – five siblings their spouses, kids and our mother – a group of 21 ranging in age from eight to eighty years old gathered in Nepal from our scattered homes in UK, US and India. It was Boxing Day, the European name for the day after Christmas with its uncomfortable connotations of more feudal times when boxes of food were distributed to the poor and needy.

Jaded from Christmas indulgence and an early start, our flight delay at Kathmandu’s crowded departure lounge washed over us as we jostled with trekkers and travellers on the wobbly plastic seats, dressed in our still-pristine hiking gear. It was late morning before be reached Pokhara and the white peaks were partly wreathed in clouds. The engines gave a final roar as we safely braked to a stop, and waited for the door to open.

The plan for our unruly group was a five-day camping circuit through the foothills around Pokhara, New Year amidst the scenic splendour of Pokhara Lodge, then south to Chitwan for the last leg of the hols. Nepal has something for everyone, adventure activities to appeal to all three generations, and quite an effort to get everyone together.

Greeting our support team at Pokhara airport, excitement was high as we sorted the baggage, retied our bootlaces and gathered up the over-excited younger cousins. My boys were the oldest cousins and local hosts, though Rinchen looked like something out of Twelfth Night dressed in striped yellow tights. We said a distracted goodbye to our old friends, the Bergers, who by chance had been delayed with us at Kathmandu airport – Billy and Claire with their two daughters were looking forward to a precious and peaceful few days together by the lake.

As the US government disaster specialist, William Berger spent his time jetting to catastrophes all over Asia, advising on US strategic response, and briefing officials and even the US President. Deceptively phlegmatic in demeanour, earthquakes, floods, eruptions, drama were Billy’s staple, addicted to the adrenaline of his calamity-focussed career. Claire had a gentle smile, glossy straight hair and her own career in the State Department - their postings did not always coincide.

The Berger daughters had grown up in Kathmandu at the American School. It was Billy who gave me an early glimpse into the trials of teenage parenting – with a wry grin he admitted that his daughters had made him promise not to recognise them if they chanced to meet in Thamel.

“When we are with friends don’t speak to us, Dad. You are too embarrassing!” was the instruction. “What me, supercool, 1960s raver, me?” Billy was aghast.

The Berger family’s respite in Pokhara lasted only minutes before Billy was recalled to disaster duty, returning on the next flight to Kathmandu. Claire and the girls yet again condemned to time without him. But we had already rushed off in our Mountain Travel bus and, without communications, it was days before I realised any of this.

Mobiles and connectivity were not a feature of trekking in those days, and our jolly group of noisy brothers and sisters and their fractious kids enjoyed five days of innocence in the Annapurnas. We flailed up hills, we paused to glory in the views, we tripped along stony trails, we laughed and gasped up the steepest climbs, we were enraptured by the Tolkein-like forests, we camped in terraced fields, we woke amidst local children, we washed our faces in bowls of warm water – and all the time we were totally unknowing of the horror that killed more than 230,000 people across 14 countries.

It was only on the last day of our family trek that I was able to tune into BBC World Service on the radio. Normally after days in the wilderness one returned with weary disdain to hearing the same old news, nothing much changed. We were camping by a Gurung village with cows munching in their timber stalls and the clatter of the kitchen clearing away tea as we settled into the evening camp routine.

We looked at each other stunned and confused. Without context the newsreader made no sense. It sounded like the end of the world. The Himalayan sunset streaked across the sky as we pieced together the horror of it all, triggered by a 9.1-magnitude quake off the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. We had been wandering since 26 December in blessed ignorance of the terrible drama that had befallen most of Asia. We had completely missed the deadliest tsunami in history.

Lisa Choegyal


  • Most read