Over 8000 people were killed and over 22000 people were injured in an earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25th of this year. Three million people were displaced and almost a million homes needed to be rebuilt. Amidst all this chaos a young civil engineer from Cape Town was hiking through the region, not knowing the full extent of the damage that an earthquake below his feet had caused. Siraaj Hendrickse from Walmer Estate left Cape Town in April for an adventure to do some mountain trekking through the Himalayas.
“When I got there I decided to hike to Mountain Everest base camp and I found myself a guide that I felt extremely confident and safe with,” Hendrickse explained.
“When the earthquake struck I was only three days into my hike, near a village called Khum-Jung.”
Hiking through the region is one of the country’s major tourism pulls. Of Nepal’s 27 million people, more than 500,000 people work in the tourism sector, and the jobs of an estimated 1.1 million more people are indirectly tied to it.
“When it (earthquake) struck, I did not know what it was, I thought that I was collapsing due to altitude, everything started moving around me,” Hendrickse added.
It was only when he noticed that his guide was experiencing the same shifting of the earth did they both realise that it was an earthquake.
“Only upon returning to the village did I see the extent of the damage and I realised what had struck,” Hendrickse went further.
“Lots of houses had collapsed even though we were quite far from the epicentre of the first major quake and there were a few people who got injured.”
Due to communication towers being down, Hendrickse and his guide continued on the hike amidst the situation.
“We didn’t have a lot of communication with the outside world so we did not see the full extent of the damage,” he said.
“There was nothing else we could have done, one option was to return to Kathmandu but we heard that that was in a bad state so we carried on with our hike to try and make it to base camp at Everest.”
Being further away from the epicentre from the quake allowed the traveller to continue with his journey and there were no immediate need for him to leave the region.
“We were never really told to get out of the region, I was in one of the safest places to be,” he continued.
“The only reason I decided to leave was as we got higher up a lot of the lodges were damaged and so accommodation on the hike was limited.”
In the days, following the initial earthquake there were still aftershocks and in May another earthquake struck the region.
“In my attempt to leave I first travelled to Lukla (Tenzing-Hillary) Airport, it was something out of a movie, it was packed with tourists and the region was quite chaotic with helicopters coming and going on rescue missions,” Hendrickse added whilst describing the airport scene.
From there he needed to hike another five days in order to reach a village that had a bus waiting to take passengers to Kathmandu.
“In Kathmandu there was still a hotel available for me to check into,” he explained.
Even though the area was badly damaged there were hotels available for tourists to check into before they were able to make the journey home.
“There were a lot of aid workers in Kathmandu, with a lot of destruction to locals’ homes.”
“Many of the newer hotels managed to withstand the quake though, but a lot of the historic temples and architecture was destroyed,” he added.
Hendrickse returned to South Africa on May 9 after describing what he recalled as a “surreal experience”.
“I wouldn’t have planned it differently; I felt lucky that I was able to be there through that time, and I wished I could stay on and volunteer help with whatever I could.”
According to Nepali government officials, it will cost over $6.6bn and at least five years to reconstruct and rebuild the country.
In a country with poverty levels already among the highest in the world, the earthquakes have pushed nearly one million people further into destitution. VOC (Umarah Hartley)