The mission: Deliver a thoughtful, ethical, exciting and life-changing experience shaped around photography, adventure and community. Saying it is one thing, delivering it something else altogether.
So how did we do?
The excitement bit was tangible from the very first moment – excitement from our side; excitement bouncing back at us from our guests, who have just witnessed for the first time the sublime majesty of the nearby peaks of the Annapurna, freshly adorned with snow; excitement as they sit facing us in the conference room of the Temple Tree Spa Hotel, where in the coming days they will learn from some of the best in their field – the likes of Levison Wood, Saraya Cortaville and Timothy James.
So where is this adventure taking us?
First of all is a foundational period. We invest time in theory in order to maximise our chances of achieving photographic success when branching out into our photogenic surrounding: the mountains, villages and streets.
An early highlight is the ‘Evening with Gurkhas’ during which we are immaculately hosted by the Gurkha Welfare Trust at the residential home in Pokhara where the oldest and most vulnerable Gurkha Welfare Pensioners are cared for. They make us feel extremely welcome. The ladies are dressed in wonderful bright pinks and reds and adorned with their finest gold jewellery. Their excitement echoes ours whilst their dancing is significantly superior!
The following morning we are lucky enough to have clear skies for our pre-dawn walk up to the Sarangkot viewpoint for sunrise and a full panoramic view of the Annapurna. Twinkling on a distant ridge is the corrugated tin of the Mardi ridge ‘Upper View Point’. It sits 4000m above sea level and 3100m above Pokhara. Some among us hope to be there later in the week.
Among other highlights is Levison’s new material: a session in which he shares insight and experience in documentary photography, as well as what he is learning in the process of producing his first photography book (out soon – we can’t wait!)
And Timothy’s candid exposé on how he crafts a creative career as a social media content provider (it’s not what you think and it proved a game changer for many of us regarding our relationship to social media).
Having laid the foundations, our guests are now split according to their chosen option: Mountain, Village or Pokhara.
Mark, leader of the Mountain option had this to say about it:
“The first thing to say is how fantastically supported I was: everybody played their part. Min did a great job of co-ordinating everything porter-related. Aadi was brilliant in both photographic coaching and trek leadership. Tim, Gavin and Times journalist, Ash, all played their part. What struck me most was what a great rapport every one of them struck up with our guests and how naturally they paid attention and showed care towards them – true validation of having picked the right team.
We found ourselves with a great group of guests; nine in total, all women, never a dull moment (or a quiet one!) Among them we had a good range of photographic backgrounds and experience, from true novices packing nothing more than an i-phone, to some more experienced operators, one of whom even privately hired a porter to carry her significant weight in photography kit! (he also carried my guitar and courageously volunteered to take charge of the infamous process of taking group food and drink orders – he became known simply as ‘God’).
The unit gelled well and was a pleasure to guide.
In terms of trekking experience, most were fairly ‘green’ and every day brought a life experience. Everyone met their personal challenges with grace. There was quickly a strong sense of mutual support and no matter the fatigue after a day’s trekking, evenings in the teahouses were always jolly affairs. Many expressed surprise about the high quality of the teahouses and were impressed in particular by the co-ordination and quality of the meals that were prepared in such basic conditions.
On the fourth day we reached High Camp. The enchanting forest was now far below and around us in every direction we experienced vast mountain vistas. Perhaps in the morning some of us would even reach the 4000m ‘High View Point’, seen earlier in the week as a twinkling speck from Sarangkot.
Day Five witnessed a 0400 hours departure and a line of excited head-torches (are head torches able to be excited?) climbing steadily into the darkness. During one pause we turned off all torches and simply took a moment to take it all in: the peculiarity of our situation, the first light showing on an unfathomably distant horizon, the profile of the mountains taking shape and the bright stars above and around us (yes, crazy as it sounds, some of the most distant stars near the far horizon did indeed appear to be below us!)
As the last of the group reached the summit, so the sun crested an adjacent ridge line. All nine guests reached the high point. 4000m! Time for tea and biscuits!
We were incredibly fortunate with the weather. Sun and no wind meant we could spend a few hours enjoying the moment. The huge cloud inversion covering everything below 3000m gave us a magical sense of having climbed into a different world, of which we were more or less sole occupants.
The following day’s descent was full of chatter as people processed their experience, shared hilarious stories and found themselves simply enjoying the company of people who until so recently had been strangers but whom they now call friends.
What the guests said:
“What an adventure it was. An amazing experience and such special memories!”
“Photo Journey really was something special and to come away with some great portrait pictures is very exciting”
(Gemma Sisson, professional chef at The Kitchen Mixer – baking killer cakes)
“Thank you for creating the most incredible life-long memories and bringing together such a special group of people”
“On a personal note, it was a life lesson that I can do these challenges and that I need to continue building up my confidence. I must thank you for that”
“Developing relationships with new people whilst sharing such special moments is what made this so unique”
(Sabrina Bell, fundraiser at War Child)
“With Mountain Mark guiding us from the jungle floor to the mountain top we have never felt safer. Can’t wait to see you on the next mountain”
(the Mountain crew)
“Photo Journey was incredible, unforgettable and spectacular. I learned so much about photography and about myself. I felt safe, looked after and challenged. And you created a great team spirit. It was truly special”
(Louise Rey, consultant at Gate One)
Johnny, leader of the Village Option had this to say about it:
Getting into a remote hill village and having the opportunity to stay there for 4 days was incredible. There really is no better way to experience this very basic village way of life than living amongst those whose daily lives revolve around it.
Every day offered something different as we wandered around the beautiful stone paths that formed the network of access routes through the village. There is no road here; the village is at the end of a rough track that can be reached by 4×4, but there is no way the roads could continue through the village because the streets are too narrow and the houses too close together; plus (and typical for this part of Nepal) the village sits on a steep incline. Tough for cars, but so photographically beautiful!
The views of the Annapurna region of the High Himalayas was breathtaking from the Eco Lodge that we stayed in, but the star of the show really was the people who live there. As with many remote places, Lwang had it’s own miller, baker, blacksmith; and they were terrific to photograph. Every house had something different going on: cooking, newborn babies being cared for, old ladies drying millet before distilling it into alcohol, men making baskets out of bamboo or ploughing the fields by buffalo. Daily life is an important routine for these incredible people, but they were delighted to have us take part and experience their lives.
Our Photo Journey guests were terrific. Everyone was friendly and fun to be with, there was a wide-range of photographic abilities, and everyone learnt something from everyone else. Each day we had mini adventures – whether that was just being in and around the village, photographing the sunrise or heading out to see some of the incredible landscapes around Lwang. In the evenings we sat around the table on the terrace over-looking the valley. It was so much fun sharing stories about the activities of the day, admiring and critiquing our images and making sure that we were all heading in the right photographic direction.
The food was basic but amazing, and the beds comfortable and clean.
The final day saw us walking about three hours from Lwang village to Dhampus village, to another hotel that was on our way back towards Pokhara. This was another lovely little eco-lodge with fabulous views of the Annapurna mountains. The best part about this hotel is that in the morning it has absolutely incredible views of the sunrise. However, this particular morning the cloud cover meant that we didn’t see many of the highest peaks, but it didn’t really matter because it’s such a beautiful valley to be in…. Oh, and breakfast was spectacular.
What the guests said:
“The engagement, enthusiasm and inclusiveness is what makes something like this so special.
People are willing to forget that there is no hot water, that they are eating Dahl Bhat for the fourth time in five days, and that the clouds are obscuring incredible views when there is excellent company, good humor, and a cold beer available.
No matter what, we always knew we were well looked after”
(Derek Liston, ER Doctor)
“A wonderful, inclusive atmosphere where everyone felt involved”
(Lloyd Wigglesworth, Professional Coach)
and Saraya, leader of the Pokhara Option said this:
What really impressed me about the Pokhara Option is that it offered something different every day. We were able to combine the experiences of Pokhara itself with trips into rural areas too.
From the first day it was clear that I had a great group to work with. There was nothing but support for one another among the guests and they were straight into their stride as we visited Bindhubasini temple and the old town of Pokhara.
It was great to be able to adopt a slow and relaxed pace and offer opportunities for folk to opt in and out accord to their wishes. It was never a stress to stop for a Nepali chiya and just watch the world go by. With such a great base as the Temple Tree it was also never any bother if people wanted to stay there, edit images and enjoy some down time.
Another really pleasing aspect was the diversity among our guests, from David, with a high level of pre-existing photographic skill and managing spectacularly with significant disability, to Carol who’d only just purchased a camera and had never experienced anything like Nepal (it was her first time outside Europe!) The level of both photographic and general life-learning happening between guests was a joy to behold and made my life really easy!
I also enjoyed splendid support from Gurkha Welfare Trust’s chief media guy, Siddhartha. Being a true local he was able to add levels of depth to the guest experience. He was a great interpreter, organiser and general support and I look forward to working with him and learning from him again during October’s Photo Journey.
For me personally, as a portrait photographer, the visits to a 96 year old Nepali Gurkha veteran and a 94 year old British ex-Gurkha officer, the legendary Lt Col (ret’d) JP Cross OBE were particular highlights. I think the guests loved that too.
As with everything this was really all about the people. To encounter so many great ones in such a short space of time meant we came away not only with great images and having progressed as photographers, but with heads jam-packed with invigorating life-experience. Such a pleasure!
What the guests said:
“Owning an accommodation business we employ photographers to create content. It struck me that as I’d always had an interest in photography, why not challenge myself, pursue this and perhaps take some of that on myself.
Photo Journey gave me that opportunity to raise my photography from starter to a decent level and I had one hell of a life experience into the bargain”
(Carol Cavendish – owner of www.northshire.co.uk)
“I felt accepted, welcomed and had an adventure.
The thing I enjoyed most is getting to the villages, away from the tourist zones and getting a flavour of the real Nepal.
The main strength of Photo Journey is that it combines the adventure with the photography, so it’s a great place to come and learn and get out of your comfort zone. The people here are so welcoming, it couldn’t be a better location”
(David Huggett, Photographer)