The mission started from Deurali, a one dog town, just 1km along the road from Mir Pokhari which we had visited earlier in the week. Just 1000 metres climb to this point!
From Deurali you hang the first right and head under the white banner. Follow the jeep track tending slightly downhill and follow this for around 10km to "Mamajewa". The landscape slowly gets more jungly, with some impressive swing bridges and curious locals.
From "Mamajewa" you have two options, the simple one which I took is to head straight up valley, check with the locals that you are still heading to Sandakphu. The track steepens and the valley narrows. The obvious track ends at a wooden bridge bedecked with Tibetan flags. I continued up the valley to the right and sheltered from the monsoon rains with this old couple who made me a big steaming mug of sweet milk tea. The other option is to head to Gurula...but beware for the locals to understand this you must pronounce it Guru LA (as in Los Angeles)
From where I took shelter in the head of the valley follow up the valley to the right. You will soon enter ancient rain forest with great mossy trees. As you climb you will be able to look back and see the rocky lower slopes of Sandakphu. Climb about 400m altitude and you will gain a ridge where there is a house and small clearing. Hang a left and follow up a well made stony road. You are now in full on fair dinkum rhododendron forest. Best visited in March.
If you follow up the road and tend left you will eventually hit the main ridge that leads down to Darjeeling in India (almost all tourists come from this side). Almost immediately here you will also see the small Tibetan village of Kali Pokhari, with its namesake lake, small lodges and neighbouring Indian border post. The top of Sandakphu and the multi-tiered Nepali hotel is all too visible from here, 700-800 vertical metres up into the sky to your left. The Indian jeep track is well made though and in places (like past this stupa) there are shortcuts for you to take. After a very solid 9 hours I arrived just on dusk.
The Nepali guesthouse is fantastic. Good people, good food, good prices...and then in the morning what a view. Even though the clouds obscured much of the Himalaya I saw the top of Makalu and giant shards of Kanchanjunga. The Indians have a military company stationed up here, and they must do a good job scaring of Nepali timber poachers. The forest on one side of the ridge is almost unrecognisable from the other. It is an amazing feeling to watch the sunrise over the rolling hills of the Sikkim.
After a big day to get here, and not much sleep, I headed off early. In the sunrise Ilam glinted on the tip of a spur, far far below. I wandered off along the tops, checking out the viewpoints and gazing along the ridge between India and Nepal that leads to Kanchenjunga. After only 500 metres there is a small house, and just now yak head peering west. You drop off the spur here, quite steeply at first passing a small temple under a cliff to your left.
I was heading to Gurula, and then on to Chinntapu, the second highest hill in the area at 3200. Heading down to Gurula there is a muddy jeep track on the ridge. I managed to skirt the largest knob on the ridge by taking a much older path on the southern side. This passes through some pleasant jungle and stream, with a few small ups and downs. It is still used by locals as the wrappings on the ground show. Gurula is a two horse town in a low saddle. The locals were very intrigued to see me.
From Gurula things got a little bit more comical. First I tried to slip behind Chinntapu, taking a beautiful track off to the right of the ridge. I found a little village,a football field and a little troop of people making planks out of ancient rainforest but no way to Ilam. I then headed up Chinntapu and my foot trail up a small spur soon turned into a full on bush bash through dense bamboo and rose on steep slopes...until eventually I found the top in thick fog. This is me on the top.
I still wanted to make a round trip of it, and I had heard you could get to Deurali via Chinntapu without having to retreat through "mamajewa". There was no track leading that way from the top of Chinntapu so I headed back down to the west until I found a small side track, should I/shouldn't I, prudence lost and I headed down here. At one point there was a sign (above) which I hoped said Deurali...but as I soon ended up in the mist at eerie shine on a lofty knob I suspect not. Just near this sign though there is a smaller path that leads steeply down to the right. I took this and followed it grimly in the bucketing rain for several kilometres. This path would be easy to lose, don't! At one point I ended up on a flat grassy spur and the track didn't continue on the far side. I searched around and finally did well to find the track I had come in on. Backtracking 100 metres I found a small junction I had missed...phew! From here the track descended steeply to a saddle on the ridge and then onwards sidling on the right side of the ridge heading down, probably still at least ten kilometres to Deurali but plenty of locals to ask.
Only the two hour walk down to go, with a stop for a sweet coffee at Mir Pokhari, it was a lovely evening in Nepal, sunlit people laughing, kids playing and tea fields glowing. I stumbled along in a bit of a trance, a sure sign of a good couple of days.