Every year, thousands of tourists travel to Nepal for walking, trekking and mountaineering. More than 90% head to the country’s three best-known national parks -- Everest, Annapurna and Langtang. Some visitors venture beyond these areas for rafting and jungle safaris. But few go in search of a place to swim.
The geography of Nepal was once described
to me as a large staircase. To the north is the highest step, the majestic
snow-capped mountains that mark the border with China. Of the 14 more-than-8,000m
peaks in the world, Nepal has eight -- including the world’s highest, Mount
Everest. Then there is the middle step, the green hills that rise from 1,000m
to 4,000m. And finally to the south is the bottom step, the flatlands and wild
forests that border India’s northern states.
Woven throughout the three levels are
hundreds of rivers, streams and lakes; the glacial ice of the Himalayas is a
water source for much of Asia. While a map easily identifies the many small and
large mountain lakes, mostly unknown to tourists, I was keen to find the
perfect one for a long-distance, open-air, cold-water swim.
My inspiration came from an old friend. British
explorer Lewis Gordon
Pugh has swum across some of the most challenging stretches of icy water in
the world, wearing only a swimming costume, hat and
goggles. The Ice Bear, as he is often called, also became the first person to
complete a long distance swim in every ocean in the world.
In May 2010, Pugh completed a 1km swim
across a glacial lake on Mount Everest, at 5,300m, setting the record for the world’s
highest altitude swim. The temperature of the water was a very chilling 2C. His
motivation was to highlight the effect of climate change on the Himalayas, clearly
illustrated by the very existence of one of the lakes that he used for
training. Before the 1960s Imja was a glacier, but a recent temperature increase
in the Himalayan region melted it into a substantial lake, which glistens under
the shadow of the awe-inspiring Everest range.
On Pugh’s return to Kathmandu he was able
to pass on some important tips. While swimming at altitude, he cautioned, the
key is finding the right speed. There is so little oxygen – if you go too fast
you will want stop and catch your breath. But if you go too slowly, you will
Despite careful planning, he had not
anticipated the difficulty of carrying a canoe up to base camp -- a support
boat is often the only way to ensure your safety in unchartered waters. When the
Nepali authorities refused to let the canoe into Everest National Park without a
permit, Pugh was forced to hide it under tarpaulin and smuggle it in on the
back of a yak.
Armed with all this knowledge, I couldn’t
put off my attempted swim any longer. Close to the tourist centre of Pokhara, Lake
Begnas has many advantages for the first-time, open-water swimmer. It is easily
accessible from Pokhara, and even though it is at a lower altitude than Imja, it is still not surrounded by human
habitation and thus, not polluted.
The Begnas Lake Resort and Villas, based at one end of the lake, helped me organise my swim. The
hotel manager told me that tourists did swim in the lake, but he had not heard
of anyone trying to swim across it before. Nevertheless, he wished me luck and
allocated one of his staff to paddle my support canoe.
Although it was November, the temperature
of both the air and water was still warm and it was not hard to launch myself into
the green water. As I began stroking out towards the centre of the lake, the
sun shone on my back and butterflies flew around my head. All I could hear was
the sound of my arms splashing into the water and a softer splash from the
support canoe behind me. The water reflected the snowy-white outline of the
Annapurna mountains in the distance.
Stroking slowly I made my way down the
length of the lake, covering a cool 3km. The silence and stillness was magical.
Later, as night fell, I could hear the faint sound of avalanches on the distant
mountains. But otherwise, the air was as still as the water I had swum in hours