I Didn’t Understand Group Travel until I Photographed the Annapurna Circuit

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In early April, we led our first ever trip to trek the Annapurna Circuit. Ali joined us as a photographer for the trek, expecting an unforgettable adventure and some great photo opportunities. But what he didn’t expect was to have his whole perspective on group travel changed for good…

I’ve always been sceptical of group travel. From Africa to Central Asia, I’ve always preferred to go it alone and see what happens. This began when I traveled to Nepal alone in 2016, trekked to Everest base camp and then climbed Lobuche East peak, a 6119 metre mountain in the Khumbu region near Everest. I had an amazing time and met a load of amazing people.

But with solo travel there comes a price. The main sticking point is the lack of a team atmosphere. When you experience a big achievement, the first thing you want to do is to celebrate with your friends. For me, all this entailed was a simple phone call home to say “I’m alive, and I did it!”.

In 2017 myself and my partner Emma (who is, coincidentally, the Marketing Manager for The Bucket List Company) trekked across the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean to raise money for Kidney Research UK. It was 1000km of trekking and climbing across mountains, with 50 kilometres of vertical elevation gain and loss. To give you an idea of the scale, that’s the equivalent of climbing Everest 5.6 times in a row, over 600 miles! It took us 41 days of unbroken hiking, blood, sweat and tears. Wild camping, a severe lack of food and water, difficult navigation and extreme weather made it one of the hardest things we’ve ever done.

When we finally reached the finish line on the beach of a small coastal town, the two of us walked into the sea, backpacks on and tears in our eyes at the scale of what we had just completed. However, all we were met with were the confused stares of sunbathers, who clearly had no idea why we were wearing hiking gear, let alone understood the scale of what we’d just achieved.

We struggled to find someone to take a photo of us to mark the end of the trek, and then walked back into the town to get some food. A somewhat underwhelming end to such an incredible trip.

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During our Annapurna Circuit trip, on the other hand, when we finished crossing the snowy Thorong-La Pass, it was beers all round, endless laughter and a real sense of teamwork. We could actually celebrate our achievement and make it a memory to last.

Given my past travel experience, I wouldn’t consider myself someone who necessarily needs to trek with a group. However, the social aspect of group travel was something I’d always overlooked.

The comradeship of the group was my favourite part of the entire experience – we would walk together, helping each other when we struggled with certain aspects of the trek. If someone was struggling along at the back, they would have encouragement from the group to keep going, and congratulations for reaching the little milestones. These small targets often get overlooked when you’re trekking solo and only focussing on reaching your end destination.

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Group travel also makes trekking itself easier. Rather than being focussed on your breathing, or an aching leg, you can pass the time by chatting along the trail, sharing stories and insight with each other. Conveniently enough, one of our Bucketlisters was actually a paramedic by trade, so I was even able to pick her brains about the different medical issues you can face whilst hiking at altitude.

Throughout the trip, I learnt about the different lives our Bucketlisters led, from piloting a Hercules to professional gardening, to the ins and outs of working among the police force. My fellow trekkers led very different lives from mine, with different experiences of the world. Sharing these stories of our pasts was a great thing to learn from, cultivating a sense of acceptance between us – no matter how varied our backgrounds may be.

Experiencing a new culture together helped build us as a group, and a new sense of wonder was instilled in each of us. Collectively, we had endless questions regarding the different religious practices and ways of life we encountered in the mountains.  

Local Nepali families on the Annapurna Circuit trek

One of the stand-out differences for me between trekking solo versus with a group is how you spend your time in the evenings. If you’ve ever trekked from tea house to tea house, then you’ll know that there’s often quite a long period of time each evening or afternoon to fill before heading to bed. Whilst trekking on my own, I would usually sit by the fire listing to music to pass the time. But as part of a group, we would exchange stories, play cards together, joke around and explore the villages.

The highlight of the trek for me was a little village called Chame, which just so happened to have a natural hot spring where we spent a nice few hours soaking away the aches and pains of the hike together with the porters and guides. It was a wholesome experience for everyone – we were no longer a group of single individuals trekking together, but a group of friends having fun. Everyone from the Nepali guides to our group members splashed away in the water with pure joy and relaxation.

Over the course of the trek, we discovered each person’s quirks, likes and dislikes, and what each of us could bring to the group. By the third day, we had already bought team hats from a little village we passed through. Although this was a jovial idea, it bonded us. And almost all of us wore our hats over the pass, as they were a lot warmer that the hats we had brought from home – even though they were only 300 Rupees (about £2).

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On the day we crossed the Thorong-La Pass, we set out into very cold temperatures of up to -30 degrees celsius with the wind chill. This meant that we had to be reliant on each other to make sure we were all doing OK.

At the top of the pass (5416m) there’s a little “tea house” – which is more of a shed, really – where we all waited for the group to come back together, as we all had  slightly different paces. The hardships of the pass and the weather brought us even closer as a group. We enjoyed a hot drink and marvelled at what we had achieved so far. Still, it was very cold so we soon moved on down to the lunch spot to warm up again.

I made some great friends on our Annapurna Circuit trek – ones I will stay in contact with and hope to meet again during future adventures. We’ve all shared such an incredible experience that I am sure we will remember fondly for many years to come.

In fact, we already are – with plenty of friendly banter circulating on our team WhatsApp group, I know I won’t be forgetting any of the small details that would usually fade away after a solo trek. And it’s these memorable moments shared with new friends that make any adventure trip a true bucket list experience.

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Inspired to look into group travel?

If Ali has you convinced that group travel is the best way to experience the world, why not take a look at our Bucket List adventures? If you’d like any more information about the Annapurna Circuit trek or any other trip, feel free to contact us today on 01769 309 007!

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