Dispassionate deleeching. That was the first skill we picked up on the Annapurna trail.
On the first day of our four-day journey through the famous trekking route in western Nepal, the verdant calm of the Himalayas was often disrupted by our screams of “Leeches!”, followed by minutes of hysterical panic while we scrambled to find salt, or a cigarette.
The monsoon still held stubbornly over the Annapurna in early September, and some sections of the trail were muddy and damp. Most of us were first-time trekkers, and we’d decided on a fairly lenient route through the trail.
Trail mix: (above) Leeches; and the mist-shrouded vistas of the Annapurna circuit. Michel Gangne / AFP
The Annapurna trail snakes around the Annapurna peaks—the tallest of which, Annapurna I, is the 10th highest peak in the world at 8091m—but fortunately, there are a number of routes. All of them converge at the village of Chomrong, which serves as a waypoint for those heading towards the Annapurna Base Camp (4,130m).
Starting from the south-west start point at Birethanti, we’d decided to make our way north to the village of Ghandruk, 2 hours from Chomrong. From Ghandruk, which offers a stunning view of the Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) peak, we’d head southwards to Landruk (home to the greatest dal-bhaat in the region), and then further down to Dhampus, from where the highway back to the city of Pokhara at Phide was an hour away.
Much enthusiasm, conversation and loud humming of songs was in evidence as we headed out from Birethanti. The first part of this section of the trail starts gently, with great vistas, a light sloping route and waterfalls aplenty. All was well with the world.
The first leeches appeared an hour later.
It would start as a faint itching on the ankle or somewhere on the foot. You’d ignore it, walking on till the itch would persistently claw at the periphery of your attention. Annoyed, you’d decide to take a closer look, and there it was.
A congealed circle of blood. A wriggly black annelid revelling in the middle of it like in a swimming pool. Sharp intake of breath. Screams.
These were neither the tiger leeches of Apocalypse Now fame, nor the dreaded Dinobdella ferox, which crawls up a person’s nasal passage. These were garden-variety leeches, less than 2cm in length, and nice enough to inject an anaesthetic on your wounds after their fill of blood.
But to us, the leeches were like the aliens in, um... Aliens, their biology and behaviour utterly, err...alien, and every new discovery about their vampiric modus operandi was made with increasing alarm.
Salt, or burning it off with a cigarette, isn’t the most recommended way to remove a leech, though they’re the most gratifying to watch. Stubbing a leech with the ember end of a cigarette makes the bloodsuckers regurgitate on the wound, an infection risk that is best avoided.
The most efficient way is to identify the leech’s teeth, disengage it from the wound with your nails, and then flick the leech away when it emerges from its little burrow in your skin.
Of course, there’s no time for efficiency or careful disengagement when caught in a leech panic, and the only salve for a leech-haunted mind was the liberal sprinkling of salt.
We’d come about as prepared as amateur trekkers could be: fancy rucksacks, windcheaters, glucose, torches, mosquito repellent (which proved unnecessary) and a pair of solid sneakers. But nothing short of a rubber full-body suit could dissuade any of us from constantly checking for leeches. The trek slowed to a crawl, with us leaving a steady trail of salt mounds like bread crumbs.
On Day 2, we discovered that the leeches could cling to other parts of the body as well. After a bunch of unwelcome guests were discovered on a colleague’s neck, nothing was safe any more.
The bemused storekeepers at Ghandruk would watch as we scrambled up to benches like we’d stepped on hot coals and fling our shoes with reckless abandon, taking out a packet of salt with trembling hands and short breath. Deleeching breaks became as common as stops for rest, or food.
On Day 3, leech mania began to cool. None of us had died yet, and no strange fever dreams had manifested in any of our psyches. We started wearing our leech bites like war injuries, taking photographs with thumbs up, grinning. The careful application of salt to leech wounds was now something we could put on our résumé.
On Day 4, we’d saunter up like wizened veterans, and intone our troubles to the group with all the drama of a shipping manifest. “I have three leeches on my left foot, one on my right ankle, and another wiggling through my windcheater. Pass the salt, please.”
A FOR ANNAPURNA
The Annapurna circuit is a 300km trekking trail in Nepal through the Annapurna massif. Trekkers can start at one of two points: Besisahar on the eastern leg of the trail, accessible by bus from Kathmandu, or Pokhara, near the western leg, which is also the closest airport. October-November is the peak season. June-July, also recommended, is when the risk of leeches is the highest.
The complete circuit takes about 18-25 days, rising from 900-5,400m. The eastern leg, along the Marsyangdi river to the village of Manang (3,606m), is a gruelling climb. The western route is recommended for beginners. Start at Birethanti, 3 hours by bus from Pokhara, and go up either to Ghorepani and Poon Hill or to Ghandruk and Chomrong.
Permits are available at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project offices in Kathmandu or Pokhara for Nepalese Rupees (NPR) 200 (around Rs125) (for members of Saarc countries).