We climbed in a slow circle above the earth-colored houses and pagodas of Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. The mountains looked lifeless until the sun reached them, first touching Himal Chuli and Annapurna and Macha Puchare, and then exploding into the glittering ice fields of Ganesh Himal as we climbed east along the peaks. The engineer came back wearing a Sikh turban above his white beard.
"Everest!" he shouted. "Everest coming!"
The plane shuddered and droned past the Himalayas and we stared like children at peaks that towered above us. Gauri Sankar reflected its snowfields in the rivet-patterns of the wing, and Cho Oyu towered above the pass at Changri-La. Clouds drifted across the terraced foothills. Fresh snow covered mountain ridges that layered steeply into ice fields below the summits. Peak after peak soared into the sun, until in the distance beyond Kanchenjunga they disappeared into the mists of China.
"Sahib," the old engineer pointed. "Everest."
The glowering face of Everest loomed above a jumble of ice fields and glaciers, dark and brooding in the sun. Sherpa tribesmen who live at its foot watch the snow plumes trailing in its unseen winds, knowing its moods and calling it their Sagarmatha—the Mother of the Mountains.
The rain forest of the Terai is another world three hours west of Katmandu. The hot plain was a lacework of dry paddies waiting for the monsoon. Nepalganj, our destination, was merely a dirt strip shimmering in the heat. The pilot made a low downwind pass, growling his engines to clear the sacred cattle, and we turned back to land. The engineer wrestled with a cargo hatch and we climbed down and stared into blinding heat and the faces of the natives.
There were tall Raji tribesmen, slender and almost naked in breechcloths and turbans. The terminal was a huge mango with several graceful Tharu women in its shade. They wore jewels in their noses and stood apart from the men, regal and totally aloof. Two cows ambled back and lay down in the shade of the DC-3.
We started our land journey in jeeps, and it was six hours later that the trail left the last village and wound into the jungle. It was getting cooler and our clothes were covered with dust. Wild pigs scuttled past the jeeps, and at twilight we watched a huge python slide endlessly across the bullock track.
It was dark when the jungle ended and our jeeps worked down through the rocks. We could hear a river roaring ahead in the darkness when we stopped. "It's the Karnali," said Colonel Rama, my host. "We'll go upstream tomorrow."
The next morning after breakfast we collected our rifles and other gear for the trip upriver into the gorge. Three dugouts of Raji boatmen waited on the beach below Chisapani. We loaded the mahogany canoes and the Rajis poled expertly upstream along the banks. Fish eagles circled lazily along the cliffs and otters splashed and played in the gathering currents that eddied along the rocks. Crocodiles slipped into the river.