Capt Barry Hannigan RAMC report of trek with Birdie Smith October 1972

This trek report by Barry Hannigan has come to me courtesy of David Thomas and gives an interesting insight into the state of things back then. Brigadier ‘Birdie’ Smith was Commandant of 1/2GR 1965-68.

HQ Brigade of Gurkhas moved up from Calcutta to Dharan in East Nepal in the late 60s.This was a small Nepalese town on the Terai but just a few miles south of the Siwhalik hills and beyond were the great Himals.
As a young medical officer at BMH Dharan I was lucky to be released to go on this pension paying trek with Brigadier Birdie Smith Commander HQ Brignepal.

Rumjatar 31st October 1972.

After much uncertainty the trek finally got off the ground,literally via the STOL.a superb aircraft manufactured by Cessna and flown by ‘J’ a pleasant American pilot lurking behind sunglasses.The stol is hired by the army from the American Linguistics Institute,probably quite innocent but darkly presumed to have something to do with the CIA.The first flight took up the stores and No 1 porter Sukrabahadur with the Brigadier’s batman Kalu and a soldier,second flight ourselves.On the way up to Rumjatar we had superb views of the snows notably Makalu and Katchenjunga and the black cold uninviting face of Everest swept clean of snow by the high winds.One thought of the British Everest expedition cowering on the face.,
Rumjatar airstrip sits on the edge of a pretty plateau where scattered groups of whitewashed houses form a clean and delightful little community.Met by the welfare officer Bhimbahadur Gurung and taken in bright sunshine through millet fields to the Area Welfare Center,a functional building where we will sleep tonight.After a brief discussion with Bhim,we visited the local school (primary and high) where the youngest children sat close packed on benches and on the hard earthen floor learning elementary English and Nepali while the 5th form wrestled with Euclid’s 15th geometrical theroem or puzzled over Wordsworth’s Lucy Grey.From there we visited the local hospital staffed ostensibly by a doctor away in America training,his assistant away in Okhaldhunga and present a very pretty Nepalese nurse who had trained in India.
From the school we went to the house of Padambahadur for lunch in his courtyard where he had laid out tables and chairs (with,amidst all this natural beauty,plastic flowers).Drank ruksi and millet jhar and chatted away happily.Subsequently we wandered along little sunken paths among the millet fields to Bhim’s house.I only had to lift my eyes to see the most beautiful hills rising to 7000 feet in places all around the plateau.From the superb vivid green of the surrounding fields to the stepped paddies on the lower slopes two miles away the eye could rise slowly over the purple and green slopes high up into the sky,the highest hills covered with a little wispy cloud.
In Bhim’s bedroom we sat at a table covered by one of those bright linen cloths from H.K. or Belfast and drank more ruksi.The Brigadier gamely chatting away in ghurkali to the corpulent wily host and his gay little friend Padam,white teeth flashing as old names came and went.One only had to look out of the low little windows to see the orange trees in the garden and beyond,the superb mountains.In the fields Nepali women moved carrying bundles of firewood on their backs and women working away in the courtyards of their clean whitewashed ghars.Bhat was produced at the surprisingly early hour of 1630,the usual huge plateful of rice and meat and chicken curry with sloppy dhal to pour over it.We wandered back as the sun was setting and catching the sides of mountains with bright unnatural clarity,stopping every so often while ex-soldiers paid their respects to the Brigadier as he passed.
So now I sit in the welfare centre at the desk where doubtless Bhim’bdr cross examines various hopeful supplicants after welfare grants,writing this with the shadow of the pen following the words only just visible in the light of the flickering kerosene lamp.

A small stock of harmless dawai held in the welfare centre and resupplied by the AWO when he goes to BMH Dharan for a conference.Dispensed by one of the welfare staff,BMH trained with help from an old tattered aide memoir supplied by the BMH.General impression of Rumjatar, a clean well kept area,no illness seen.More medicine needed rather to create an impression than to do any good.

1st Nov ‘72
We were invited last night to a khana and cultural show put on by the local school.We entered and sat on the ramshackle school desks facing about thirty dignitaries of all sorts.Their grinning faces lit up by bright kerosene lamps,the wooden rafters in shadow and dust rising from the earthen floor.After our somewhat gruelling day another bout of difficult conversing forced a grim fixed smile onto my face especially when more ruksi,peanuts and dried goats blood appeared.After this yet another huge bhat;everybody awaited us to start and then all was silence except for hungry gobbling and chewing noises from all about.Various worthies came and spoke with us and then the show started,mainly Gurung songs and folk dances.
Bought a locally made blanket weaved from sheep’s wool,taking two women a week or so to make.

2nd Nov
Yesterday we set off from Rumjatar at 0600 and descended from the plateau.We followed the right bank of the Throtne khola high up along the hillside with a fine sweep of valley and hills on the other side.Saw the Dudhkhosi from high up and crossed the river at the Rambna bridge.Walked up the river a little way,looks a good one for fishing especially where the Rawa khola enters a little higher up.However although Kalu had my rod the rest of the tackle was with the porters who left Rumjatar two hours after us so sadly we had to move on.Walked along the valley of the Rawa khola a pretty stream like a salmon river.Difficult going as we had to wend our way through the paddy fields either splashing along the irrigation ditches or balancing on the dividing walls.We had to struggle waist deep across the Rawa khola before Magpa aided by a couple of local fisherboys who had their wicker traps out across the river.This was a difficult feat for Brigadier Birdie who lost an arm in a helicopter crash in Borneo (amputated with a clasp knife by Capt Patrick Crawford RAMC)and has various other wounds and infirmities.We sat on the far bank looking through binoculars hopeful for the porters to come up and just before dark saw them winding through the paddies towards the river much to our relief as with them came food and bedding.The two lads helped them across one at a time and one nearly got swept away.We made camp on the bank,the Brigadier in the tent.Bhim rigged up a poncho basher for me.Kalu cooked a good plain rice dish and with some hot sweet tea and whiskey we felt much better.After dinner I sat resting my back on a rock watching the fireflies drifting over the river and listening to the water swirling around the rocks.After a chat about the hospital and my predicament we went to bed.I spent a reasonable night on the camp bed although kept on moving up and finding my head over the end in the sand.
Rose before dawn at 0450 and pottered about in the dark trying to sort myself out,wash and shave and pack.Moved off at 0530 along the Rawa,then struck off left to begin the climb to Aiselu Kharka.Got a bit lost and crashed about in a small stream bed,eventually reaching the village of Basciri where I now sit looking out across the ridges of hills up to 10,000 feet,a fine sight.

Aiselu Kharka.6,000 feet.
Out of the window of my little mud floored room in the welfare centre I should be able to see the Himalayas if only the cloud would go away.We saw them first as we turned into the village looking up the valley towards Namche,not very far from here.It was quite a steep climb up from the Rawa valley.After the village where we had breakfast,a gruelling two hour climb up and up the steep paths,the rocks at least convenient as steps.But what views! Smaller hills with green terraced rice paddies rising to a miniscule 2000ft,beyond ten miles away the other side of the valley a great distant landscape capped by cloud.Difficult to catch the immensity on film but even more so in words.This village has a pleasant row of houses scattered along the ridge,clean and whitewashed.Its a Newar village,the Nepalese builders and craftsmen,but not warriors so there are few ex servicemen here.(Just been given a glass of ruksi by a keen little fellow ‘doctor sahib —‘ke chha —ruksi chha’.)Ruksi the evil brew made from distilling millet jhar.
I’d better get the medical bits in before I drink the ruksi.

Welfare centre: supplies running out due to the end of the supply year approaching Medical assistant away.
Items available:
Sulphadimidine,sulphaG one jar each.
Aspirin quarter bottle
GV crystals
Chorodyne 1 bottle
One tube Albucid eye ointment
Rusty scissors

Medical register:week kept up.Patients seen so far-186
Main complaints:
Dysentery,worms,abdominal pain
Cuts and bruises,sprains etc
Lacerations often quite severe
Skin infections and scabies
Gastritis and gastric ulcer
Conjunctivitis otitis

Medical register should include:
Date No rank name age unit village complaint findings treatment and signature if receiving drugs.

Medical health in Aiselu Kharka looked after by an assistant with two year training in Kathmandu .Amply supplied with medicines but kept in a rather decrepit state.Never regularly visited by a doctor so no supervision,left to own devices.Last visited by a doctor (Japanese)when there was an outbreak of dysentery.Sends complicated cases to Bhojpur (4 days) or to the nearest doctor in Okhaldhunga (2 1/2 days) all carried.He had a vast stock of vaccines eg smallpox,typhoid,either well supplied or not used.

3rd Nov
Had a pleasant bhat well cooked by Kalu,eaten on the first floor at a table with Kumar Singh and the Brigadier.Turned very cold at 7.30 so retired early.My Rumjatar blanket an excellent purchase and a fine mattress.Slept well. Woke at 4.00 tea at 4.30.From my window a fine view of Charbatti (4 sides) a Himalayan peak which I later ‘captured ‘ tinted pink by the rising sun from the East.A beautiful sight.Walked East from the village down to the Liding khola then up a short way and am now waiting for breakfast gazing over the valley at the scattered houses and paddies on the opposite side.

4th Nov
Have just had a splendid wash in a freezing mountain stream running down the Rupakot mountain which we are climbing, to join the Tap khola which we crossed this morning.Now have eaten a splendid breakfast of porridge and egg bacon sausage and beans.Yesterday we had quite a gruelling walk down from Aiselu Kharka across the Lidding khola up again to 5000 ft then down to the Rawa khola then up to 5000ft again to Baksila bazaar.Halfway down the other side we reached Baksila and the house of QGO Dhanbahadur Gurung 2/7 a fine old man of 64,double MC and IDSM,the latter as a naik leading a party of escaping ghurkas across the desert from Tobruk.He was also involved in various other exploits including an ambush in which he only just came out on top but distinguished himself nonetheless.
We had a rather embarrassing incident with a drunken ex serviceman who was very drunk and loquacious,gushing over the poor Brigadier ‘you are my god,my father,my
mother’etc,he was one of those drunks who become an over friendly self denigrating nuisance,and later the Brigadier said he nearly hit him (the first time he would have hit a ghurka) when the chap started to paw him .It later turned out that he was one of the pack holders who will lose his job when medical assistants are attached to welfare centres.
Dhanbahadur’s household must be one of the most well worth visiting in this part of Nepal.It stands on a hillside amongst other scattered whitewashed houses separated by millet (kodo) fields and rice paddies.There are two buildings one large one with kitchen and living room and across a small courtyard with a wall on one side and wattle built cowsheds on the other, there is another two story building with living quarters above an area containing a grain beating instrument.This is a long 8ft bar of wood with a large peg at one end,balanced so that a person standing at the other end may work it up and down and so beat the millet seeds out of their husks,while another person pushes the seeds under the peg and separates the chaff form the seeds by a deft act of throwing them into the air from a wicker tray.When we arrived two labourers were threshing rice against a stone in the courtyard.Dhanbahadur gave us a pint mug of millet jar each on arrival and eventually we managed to get rid of our unwelcome guest.However Diwali has started today 5th Nov so many Nepalis are letting their hair down drinking to excess and especially gambling are permitted.We are worried in case it becomes difficult to keep our porters going.
Eventually the sleeping arrangements were settled. I got the wooden bed outside the kitchen on the porch and the Brigadier got the better bet bed wise but right on top of the millet threshing machine which went on working till 1230 at night.However after rushing about looking at patients,one with a stroke,it became dark and we went into Dhanbahadur’s kitchen and squatted on a rug while the women cooked and he and his fine old wife regaled us.Unusually in this household the women were much in evidence and took an active part in the social intercourse.Both had huge flat gold earrings hanging from their ears and Nepali nose pieces.He had never taken his wife with him to the battalion except the last time when he wanted her to have spectacles and teeth neither of which she needed.We had a good bhat,the porters also eating in the kitchen in the dark recesses .Five ate about 13lbs of rice.After a little more jar we went to bed.

Diktel AWC
Singbahadur Rai.10 day short course with medical pack holder.
Attendance records from 1st July 72.
23 Oct -31st 26
Till 3rd Nov-12
20 September-23 Oct not prsesent -in Dharan.

Dispenses mainly sulphaguanidine,sulphadiazine,aspirins,enterocyl,primulet.

Main complaints
Stomachache-gives SG
Diarrhoea. – “
Sores. -Acriflavine
Gets resupplied when welfare officer goes to Dharan,4 months ago in this case.

Medicines in stock (general state of care good)
Small quantities of SG and SD,aspirin
Enterocyl,Alcopar magnesium sulphate
Benzoyl benzoate,iodine and acriflavine
Bandages,assorted and cotton wool
Nil else of note

Book well kept.Servicemen sign for medicine.Instructed to maintain column for ‘complaint’The local health centre in Diktel has no doctor,but a medical assistant.

5th Nov
On the trail from Diktel to Dilpa.Yesterday walked from Banspani to Diktel,initially a difficult climb but after crossing the last ridge a quite gentle walk around the side of the valley for about four miles meeting a lot of folk just back from or on their way to the bazaar in Diktel.A fairly European landscape on a much larger scale but a pleasant walk at one stage along the stream I had my dip in.Diktel Bazaar built on a ridge,a fairly clean town with few notable points except the gaol which we visited to see an ex soldier who had been sentenced to ten years for murder.The gaol was a frail mud brick built house with a gaoler and a soldier armed with a Lee Enfield Mark 1 and fixed bayonet.We were followed through the village by a long gaggle of people mainly children and in the mud courtyard were given chairs while we spoke to Bukabahadur.He,poor soul,had with a kukri killed one of twelve men who had broken into his shop,but the appeal that he was defending his property had failed.However apparently the case is being pleaded by
the British Ambassador in Katmandu.That night in Diktel welfare centre we had a fine meal cooked by Kalu with ruksi and millet jar and slept comfortably on wooden beds.One or two patients were carried in to see me and I poked around at them in the lantern light with the Brigadier interpreting.
At present sitting on a ridge up which we had a beastly climb,must be 5000ft and am watching the sun set over in the west,beyond eight hazy ridges.Its beauty is only marred by the fact that our porters have not yet arrived and we have no bedding or other essentials with us except a few blankets and breakfast.Below the village of Phalante is composed of houses sitting on the slopes among the paddies and millet fields.We must have arrived here about 4pm.I have developed a large blister on my right foot which makes walking difficult.Anyway we have found a reasonable campsite in one of the fields near a spring so at least we have water and flat dry land.There are three large clumps of bamboo and a rather pretty tree with pink blossom in front of me.Ah! I have been watching the trail and I see the five porters plodding over the ridge.All is well.

6th Nov Dilpa
Walked up here this morning and had fine views of the snows as we crossed the ridge at about 7000ft,took a shot of what I thought was Everest.Spent a pleasant evening yesterday with a little whiskey and chat.It got quite cold at 7pm and the porters went off to the nearest ghar to sleep.I spent a very chilly night under the poncho wrapped in clothes which makes sleeping difficult and had to get up two or three times for the dreaded cherauti had struck.We had sent word ahead from Diktel that we would see some patients here but the runner did not arrive till last night.This morning the pradham panch had gone off to gather any ex servicemen, himself an ex sergeant.

7th Nov
Have just come back from a quick walk around Bhojpur accompanied at a respectful distance behind by the oldest and fiercest looking porter -Buje- with a large khukri stuck in his waistband.A pleasant hill town bigger than any we have visited so far and at present colourfully decorated with flowers for Diwali.All the townsfolk are about the streets with garlands of yellow flowers around their necks and the tika mark on their foreheads,speckles of rice dyed yellow,red or pink and daubs of dye on temples and hair.All the cows have marks as well and most of the animals have been garlanded.Bhojpur has a small establishment for higher education and some of the students,resenting British presence can be a bit rowdy and boorish at times but people tend to show the polite interest in me that I show in them.

Bhojpur AWC Staff away for Diwali Tika

Store in poor state.Dirty.General care of medicines poor.The centre is a good one and the store ideal,therefore there is no reason it should not maintain as high a standard as the less well appointed ones in the hills.

Book.Not dated
Format poor,complaints not given.
Stock issues maintained but offers very little information unless balanced monthly.
F/o ex servicemen not recorded (except one widow)
Ex servicemen 133 since 1/1/72
Main issue is of: SulphaG
Good Latrine.

8th Nov
Spent last night on the ridge east of Bhojpur.Splendid sunset with views of Makalu and Everest,Kanchenjunga and many minor peaks which can be seen beautifully as one walks along the ridge towards Serong via Charanbi to Leguwa Ghat.As we walked along there were lots of Diwali parties still going on, madals still thumping out the rhythm as drunken dancers stumbled about in circles singing and trying to perform the dance steps.
The views were superb from 5000ft,absolutely clear stood out all the snows, not a cloud or haze at all.If I were to recommend the most impressive trek in East Nepal I think this is easily the one I would choose.

9 Nov
In fact yesterday we went down a left hand ridge rather than right and arrived at the Arun khola much further north at either the Kundale or Kurule ghat,probably the former.
Am now sitting on top of a ridge above the teashop with my back to a stone built shrine,one of the cupola type.The sun is setting behind another ridge to my left in the west and before me stretches a magnificent panorama,much of East Nepal.The Arun winds thousands of feet below and ridge after ridge cap each other until obscured by haze and then Makalu and mighty Everest stand clear and proud above the cloud.Yesterday we crossed at Kundale ghat ferried by Majhi boatmen.They then took me back across the river with Bimbahadur to a spot down the other bank they said was good for mahseer.I fished for an hour in the burning heat of the sun but caught nothing.
We then walked down the left bank of the Arun for two hours and camped at the Piluwa khola,a good site chosen I think by Sukrabahhadur because he knew it to be good for fishing.The Brigadier was complaining at having to go so far.However I fished and caught three mahseer,7,5,3lbs, much to the delight of a chettri squatting on the bank.I kept losing baits in the rocks and he kept on stripping wanting to go in after them but I felt he might be drowned in the swift water so I signalled him to stop.Standing there and catching fish was magnificent with the sunset glinting pink the snows on Everest’s left,seen up the gorge of the Arun valley.That night was warm and tender and I slept well under the poncho with the sound of the Piluwa running by.

10 Nov
Today we were up early and by 6 on the trail.Hot sweet tea with a little whiskey can keep me going well until 9.We stopped at the Leguwa khola for breakfast and I took another mahseer about 6lbs from the junction much to everyone’s delight.Kalu cooked up the fish from last night and they and the porters ate a fish bhat.We will eat this morning’s fish tonight.So at last I have caught mahseer.We left the Leguwa khola at about 11 and walked hard reaching the Mangma khola at 1230.The Brigadier had gone on ahead and had found a man collapsed on the track.His two companions were behind a rock doing nothing.After Diwali he could have been drunk but we got him under the shade of the rock and I saw he had pneumonia.Apparently he had been ill for some days but he and his companions had to go from Chainpur to Pakribas and they had decided to start out none the less.They were Sherpas,a rather fatalistic race and seemed unwilling to do much to help him.I told them to rest him and bring him water but his brother refused to do the latter as he said Sherpas neve gave cold water to the sick.The Brigadier got very angry and I had that irritated feeling I try to control.However the porters came up with the medicines and Kalu raged at the fellow saying he wanted him to die to get his possessions,a possibility.We won in the end and I gave him some antibiotics and aspirin with instructions and off we went.There was a hard climb from the Mangma to here,from 1 till 4 and the men are now preparing camp by the teashop.
The sun is setting fiery yellow and to my right the clouds on the ridges are pink and before me the southwest face of Everest is caught and reflects the sun’s glow.Nowhere In the world have I seen such sunsets as I have seen in Nepal,the vastness of the country is unimaginable and cannot be described or caught on film.It is very,very majestic and beautiful.
Today we passed through some very arid land like Cyprus-the Troodos-and the brown soil supports only cedar trees.But behind is the Nepal I know,great hillsides with steps of rice paddies and little white houses scattered here and there.Landslides too unfortunately.It is getting chilly and I must go and put on some clothes to keep warm (I am very smelly despite swab downs in the rivers)

11 Nov 1972
At the Leuti Tamar junction.Have just caught a small mahseer about 4lb in wt on a 17 gram Eira Rublex silver spoon which seems to be a popular article of diet.The mahseer tend to lie in surprisingly rough water,right where the small khola tumbles into the large river.This is a very small stream and I wish I had been able to spend more time at the Piluwa (bigger than the Leguwa) which had lots of fast water and produced three fish in an hour including my biggest so far.
Anyway,this is the end of the trek.We had a reasonable night under canvas on the 10th and stopped in the early morning at Pakhribas,a pretty village (where Robin McLaren found his Tibetan scroll and started all that trouble) and we had tea at a darham sala,or resting place,very friendly.Beyond Pakhribas there is an area of land earmarked for an experimental farm,quite good looking land with a lot of gullies with streams,well wooded,on the side of a hill.The rice crop on it at present doesn’t look very good.We then went on to Hile and cooked up breakfast in Mike St Martin’s ODA house.He wasn’t there,bored again and gone to Dharan;the Nepalese government don’t seem to be willing to hurry up and pay the compensation they promised to those whose land is involved in the farm.He lives comfortably but simply looked after by some Tibetan refugees (including an intelligent young housekeeper called Yank!)They are making simple wood furniture etc for him but he has very few other comforts.No electricity of course.Since he speaks Tibetan and Nepali (Hile has become a Tibetan refugee centre) having lived with both Tibetan and Nepalese families,he is a fine linguist.His army career was also distinguished so he should be the right man to organise the farm.He loves the country too.
After Hile there was a long descent down to Dhankuta.The country is less wild and the atmosphere changes,the people loosing the honest simplicity of the hillmen and affecting to despise the sahibs while trying to ape them,so although Dhankuta is a pretty town long haired youths with coloured shirts,sunglasses and transistors lounge and sneer.Most uncomfortable and unpleasant.We popped into the BritNepal medical trust house and met Rose the doctor briefly and had a chat.
The trail down from Dhankuta is sheer torture,100 minutes of arduous downhill walking,the toes seem squashed into the top of the shoe.We arrived at the bottom with a bad tempered Brigadier who berated his orderly for not arranging a camp.We settled eventually by the Tamar on the bank nearly under the suspension bridge and ate an egg curry with subjees,dhal etc well cooked again by Kalu.We had run out of whiskey and the Brigadier who likes one or two(like me) I think it dulls his mind a bit as he doesn’t really care for social drinking,got a little tight on my gin.He has had a hard time physically,poor chap and lost an arm and broke a hip in a helicopter crash in Borneo.We do however manage to enjoy a pleasant chat.
It is very pleasant sitting here by the river having eaten breakfast cooked by Sukrabahadur and an orderly,the sun hot,the hills all around,the sound of water,the prospect of another fish.A pity to end it.I should have gone down and spent the night at Trebini junction.

12 Nov Dharan.
Stiff walk back over Sanguri ridge.Yesterday arrived Dharan 1600hrs.Mess and bath.Dinner and bed.
Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday.

Capt Barry Hannigan RAMC

1 Comment on Capt Barry Hannigan RAMC report of trek with Birdie Smith October 1972

  1. A brilliant and descriptive diary by a friend of mine. It brought back many happy memories of my trekking days in the 1970s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.