Star treks

Star treks
ROCKY MOUNTAIN RANGE, UNITED STATES AND CANADA

On April 25, a severe 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal, killing close to 8,000 people. Among the dead are dozens of adventure trekkers, killed by avalanches that were triggered by the quake.

At least 18 climbers died at the Mount Everest base camp.

Still, Mount Everest remains open to climbers and travel agents here say that bookings and inquiries continue to come in. Treks taking place later in the year will proceed as planned.

Mr Clarence Lee, manager of PacWest Travel adventure travel agency, says: "Nepal is a beautiful country with a diverse culture. The demand for the destination should not be affected."

Trekking continues to appeal to Singaporean travellers hoping to find peace and quiet in nature and to push their physical limits on popular peaks such as Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and K2, which is in China and Pakistan.

Nepal is a top destination for experienced Singaporean trekkers looking to expand their horizons beyond treks in the region, such as Malaysia's 1,276m-tall Mount Ophir in Johor and 4,095m-tall Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, and the 3,726m-tall Mount Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia, which are popular among beginner trekkers.

Demand for trekking holidays, which account for 70 per cent of PacWest's business, has remained steady since 2000, says Mr Lee, and shows no signs of slowing.

With 18 years in the industry, Mr Sim Tim Suan, travel consultant with Adventure Quests travel agency, agrees that demand for trekking holidays has been consistent over the years, with Singaporean trekkers now exploring newer destinations such as Taiwan, Sichuan and Yunnan in China, and Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in East Africa.

Mr Calvin Tay, owner of Campers Corner outdoor outfitters and trekking supply shop in Waterloo Street, says the number of Singapore trekkers started to increase about five years ago thanks to cheaper flights, lighter equipment and more adventurous travellers.

He estimates there is now a local community of 600 "hardcore" trekkers, plus 2,000 newbies coming into his shop to discuss trips to regional destinations each year.

Mr Sim says: "What is noticeable in the past few years is that more people are going into the more challenging aspect of trekking, such as light mountaineering and climbing alpine peaks over 5,500m."

Mr Simon Cameron, founder and managing director of Lightfoot Travel, a Singapore-based travel agency which offers treks to Bhutan and Nepal, has recently seen increased interest in treks in Peru and Patagonia. The well-travelled Singaporean's desire for unique experiences is pushing his business further afield, he says.

"Trekking allows travellers to explore more remote areas of the country, interact with locals and witness their way of life.

"In some destinations such as Peru or Bhutan, the possibility of visiting centuries-old ruins, remote monasteries or tracking wildlife is equally appealing."

A trekking holiday to Mount Kinabalu costs about $600, while a 20-day trek to Mount Everest Base Camp costs more than $2,000. These prices exclude airfare. Treks can involve three days to three weeks of walking for five to eight hours a day into mountainous wilderness and nights spent in basic tents.

They are physically demanding and often require months of training to strengthen trekkers' hearts and lungs, legs and core muscles.

Mr Jeremy Tong, 25, a sports science and management student at Nanyang Technological University, has been trekking since he was 14.

He has more than 60 treks under his belt, completing routes in Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

This year, he will head to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. He plans to trek through Kyrgyzstan and go to Pakistan to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, over the next two years in preparation for an attempt to climb Mount Everest in 2017.

He begins training for major treks two to three months in advance. He runs to build his cardiovascular and respiratory strength until he can run at full clip for an hour. He also strengthens his muscles and hones his endurance by donning a 15 to 20kg backpack and climbing the stairs of a 31-storey building 10 times, twice a week.

"You need strong lungs and a strong heart to trek two to three hours at a time, to be on the move for six hours a day. This training also helps prepare you to reach high altitudes," he says, which is important to prevent acute mountain sickness.

Characterised by dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea and shortness of breath, acute mountain sickness is the result of reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes and can cause fluid in the lungs, swelling of the brain and death.

Muscle aches, sprained ankles, hypothermia, frostbite and even severe constipation exacerbated by altitude are other ailments which can end a trek for the unlucky or under-prepared.

To prevent this, adventure travel agents spend weeks preparing their travellers, checking equipment, fitness levels, providing a run-through of what to expect on every leg of the trip and connecting travellers with an experienced guide who knows the trails and what to do in an emergency.

Once fit and suitably attired in hiking boots and layers of comfortable, warm and waterproof clothes, trekkers say the hardships are well worth the rewards of magnificent scenery and an opportunity to experience ways of life in remote corners of the world.

Ms Ailin Mao, 30, has been hooked on trekking since her first impromptu experience in 2010. While teaching English as a volunteer in Ladakh, India, she and a friend decided to explore the surrounding mountainside. They enlisted a local horseman as a guide, borrowed a tent from nuns at the local monastery and set off into the mountains of Zanskar province.

Unfit, wearing jeans and running shoes, with little in their packs other than bars of chocolate, the bewildered pair completed a 10-day trek in six days.

"It was a challenging, epic first trip and I was very ill-prepared in terms of clothing, equipment and physical fitness, but I learnt from that," she says.

The slog over rocky mountainsides and through rivers and rain was made magical by sights such as the Phuktal Gonpa, a Buddhist monastery built like a honeycomb in a natural cave and accessible only on foot.

Ms Mao, who is now a travel consultant with A2A Safaris travel agency, says 75 per cent of her holidays are trekking trips. Her favourite is a trek she took around Socotra Island, Yemen, with her fiance Kelvin Koh, 33, in 2013. The five-day trek took the couple around the island, home to the dragon blood trees, famous for their other-worldly shape and oozing red sap.

"I felt like Alice in Wonderland. It was very strange but also very beautiful," she says.

For Ms Mao, the destination is more important than making it to the top of the world's tallest peaks.

"I'm not a mountain-bagger with a checklist of mountains I have to climb. I like being able to head out into the pristine wilderness with friends and family and see remote ways of life, how distant communities adapt to their environments. Something completely different from what we have in Singapore."

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