Leaving The Black Dog in Nepal

Just laying there, eyes open, it’s not doing anything. When I approach, hand outstretched, its tail sweeps the ledge it’s laying on to show I’m welcome. Having finally mounted the final set of steps on the second to last leg towards Annapurna Base Camp, this dog is a sight for sore eyes. It’s not uncommon to find dogs on the trails, but this one is different.

Winding up the trail half an hour earlier, we spotted the tea houses perched at the foot of the cliffs. Like lighthouses, their blue rooves gave us flashes of hope from two kilometres away. As we get closer, the stone walls reveal themselves and the lone black woolly whelp is there waiting for me. I’m eight days into my trek through the Annapurna Sanctuary, having already made it up to Mardi Himal.

Thus far the trek has been the hardest physical activity I’ve done in my life. I still have four days left and I want some comfort, so the dog welcoming my pet was relief in more ways than one. It’s just me, my friend and our guide, recuperating from the day’s walk. A stream of clouds pass overhead, it feels like it’s going to rain, and I’m happy. I know I’m going to make it to the top.

The dogs are generally friendly and, if you’re lucky, they might follow you up to the next village. They look far healthier than their city-slicking counterparts – probably living off the affection of travelers – and they are damned fit. There are a handful of breeds, and mixed mongrels, and there are at least three in each hamlet. Like the locals, they make easy work of the trails.

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It’s a funny feeling being so high up. I’ve been through the hurt all day, and the days preceding, but I feel a odd moment of zen. It’s a feeling I haven’t genuinely felt in a long time. The type of contentment that makes you smile for no reason, the type of happiness that makes you whistle and sing without a care.

Sitting next to the dog, as my sweat cools, I look closer at my new canine friend. It’s a relatively run-of-the-mill Nepali hill dog; it’s black and woolly, slightly matted, but in good health. I’m drawn to it. It has the body and coat of a border collie, but the face and temperament of a Labrador. It’s a she, and what a fine lass she is. I’m sure she thinks nothing of this oaf – except I am an exceptional petting machine.

While my counterparts play cards in the dining room, I find myself hanging out my sweat-drenched clothes while singing Scottish folk songs, and frequently stopping to pat the dog – I named her Kalo Kukur (Nepali for black dog). I wonder what host suddenly overtook my pathetic carcass as I dote on this pupper. Is there some care-free old Scottish hen inside me? I’m not the cheery type.

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The surroundings fuel a spiritual feeling, one I’ve not felt since I foolishly bathed in the Ganga at 13 years old.

Walking up the trail to its end the next day, to Annapurna Base Camp, I’m left thinking the dog stayed behind in Deurali. I keep thinking about her, for reasons unknown to me.

She was there, dozing in the background for the entire night. I would pet her every time I left the dining room, giving her attention. She would be receptive, but wouldn’t give too much back. She would just lie there in the background, no barking or growling. She knew her place, and the locals didn’t mind her hanging around. I needed was looking for comfort, I didn’t know I exactly did, nor did she give a toss. She gave it to me anyway.

I arrive at the top of the hill under the cover of the thick clouds and, leaning against the sign for Annapurna Base Camp, I break down in tears. Hyperventilating in the altitude while weeping without fear of being seen, a sense of achievement overwhelmed me. I did something I never thought possible.

And the black dog, little did I know, was up there waiting for me.

At the end of the trail, sitting on top the large rock and looking up at the Annapurna ranges, I break down. I look up at the mountains, I look down; I break down and do the same again. Kalo Kukur leaps onto the rock, nuzzles into my lap, and I dry my tears. But the black dog is my crutch. She eases the pain quickly, she’s not a long-term fix, and I realise she was with me before last night. I pet her, she snuggles me and I pet her more.

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Another dog jumps up with me, he’s a rugged mongrel, but I keep focus on the black dog. She’s an indulgence, and despite being no help me while I trekked up the hill, she’s a comfort. It’s only when I’m back in civilisation that I realise how symbolic Kukur was. The past couple of years have really tested my resolve, I’ve had some times in the hurt and the black dog was never of any help – despite being there in the background, nuzzling me when the time was right. When things really hurt, the dog was there. The dog didn’t bark, wasn’t cause of sadness, but she was some naive form of comfort for me. She was my crutch and temptation.

Back in New Zealand, I felt the black dog’s presence greatly. Winston Churchill famously spoke about his relationship with the dog. He spoke of being unable to stand on the edge of the train platform for fear of what he might do. For me, it was roads.

He spoke about how colour returned when the black dog was away, and how he despaired over the dog’s return. For me, here in Nepal, it’s an amazing experience to have the sepia haze saturated with vivid colour – albeit while my dog is present. The clouds dissipated before me, revealing the mighty Himalayas in front of me.

But I leave the dog at base camp, and I don’t see her again. She remains only in my memory.

And while I left her at the top of the trail, I know she’s always going to be following me. I’m not stupid enough to think that beautiful mistress won’t nuzzle the back of my mind again. I feel the black dog is a pet one has for life, but training the dog to be obedient and to heel when she comes near is what one needs. All I hope is that, next time, I could shoo her away before I am tempted by a little petting, or a bite.

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