The Nomadic NepaliMingma Sherpa scholarship students return from New Zealand just before Nepal shuts down to COVID-19
Sunil’s eyes shine with excitement and his wispy beard blows in the southern hemisphere breeze. The churning ocean accounts for his queasy stomach, but he is thrilled by the squawking mass of seabirds and dense stench of penguins on the rocky island behind him.
The names of New Zealand’s forgotten Subantarctic islands are unfamiliar to most of us - Campbell Island, Auckland Island, The Snares – and about as far from the hills of Sunil’s Langtang home as it is possible to imagine.
This month Sunil Tamang returned home to Nepal after two years in New Zealand completing his Masters degree in environmental science at Lincoln University. His fellow Mingma Norbu Sherpa Memorial (MNSMS) scholar, Ngawang Thapke Sherpa, only just made it on the last flight from Singapore before Nepal closed. Already the days of pre-COVID carefree travel seem long gone.
Sunil and Ngawang stayed in Christchurch long enough to settle in the two new scholarship recipients, Pasang Lamu and Tsewang Nuru, both Sherpas from the Khumbu who arrived fresh and keen last month. These distinguished four are the most recent of 14 young Nepalis selected from dozens of applicants for the scholarship that honours the conservation legacy of Mingma Norbu, who was lost in the Ghunsa helicopter crash 14 years ago.
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Specialising in disaster risk and resilience, Sunil came to our notice on the scholarship committee because of his outstanding response to the 2015 earthquakes when he single-handedly raised the funds and organised the rebuild of 22 houses in his home village of Old Syabru Besi. “Tired of waiting for slow moving and ineffective government assistance, I initiated the project to rebuild the village.”
After helping Langtang, he joined ICIMOD to continue post-disaster reconstruction and recovery work across the country. I first came across Sunil when in January 2011 as a 20-year-old he set out on foot from Kanchenjunga with Rs28,000 in his pocket and trekked the Great Himalaya Trail all the way to Lake Rara. He was just the kind of village kid we thought would appreciate two years of life and study in New Zealand.
Sunil’s focussed energy did not go unnoticed at Lincoln and he soon joined a summer project with his professors, assessing economic valuation of urban waterways of Christchurch. He has been spotted hiking in the hills, lounging by pristine lakes, messing about with bikes, and swimming off the coast with Dusky dolphins.
When Mingma’s widow Phurba and I visited last year, he showed us the Lincoln campus and exhibition he had helped assemble to celebrate 100 years since Sir Edmund Hillary’s birth, his easy smile and Harry Potter glasses glittering with zeal.
Prompted by the university staff, Sunil entered the Heritage Expedition’s True Young Explorer scholarship whose prize was a two week cruise on one of their purpose-built ships in the Southern Ocean. Heritage Expeditions is a family-owned New Zealand company committed to ‘conservation through experiential learning’ to create a league of ‘ambassadors’ inspired to protect the unique flora and fauna of these precious areas for future generations. And Sunil won.
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Normally costing close to $10,000, the privileged prize took Sunil with a few dozen clients to these remote rocky islands in search of birds, nature, botany and history, protected as World Heritage Sites for their vast array of wildlife including albatross, penguins, petrels, prions and marine mammals like sea lions, fur seals and elephant seals. I coveted this trip of a lifetime to distant dots on the map.
Whilst Sunil was fighting sea-sickness in these tiny inhospitable havens for some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on the planet, I was taking the two hour flight back from a job in New Zealand’s most eastern territory and another biodiversity hotspot, the remote Chatham Islands. The rattling Corvair prop plane had an albatross bill painted onto its nose, parked in the furthest corner of the airstrip as if in shame.
“I think I had better wash your hair three times!” The Wellington hairdresser was impressed. Dust from the gravel roads of the Chatham Islands was so thick I had scarcely been able to drag a brush through it for days. But I missed the wide-open windswept spaces – the tidy streets and dark suits of New Zealand’s capital seemed tame in comparison.
Dave and I had been helping to sort out a failing tourist lodge in New Zealand’s most eastern territory, owned by the original Moriori inhabitants and located overlooking rolling green sheep pastures, trees that grow horizontal in the perpetual wind, and a peaceful lake full of black swans. “Introduced from Australia, and breeding something terrible,” we were told by a gnarled resident. “We shoot them regularly but they still proliferate, threatening to eclipse our local birds. Same as the weka.”
Cherished as a protected native bird in New Zealand itself (never referred to as the mainland as you might expect), the squat brown wekas are so ubiquitous that we found weka pate and weka stew on regular island menus.
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Along with plentiful seafood, glistening paua, kina shellfish and huge blue cod for which the Chatham Islands are renowned. Fanciful fishing stories abound, and Dave must be the only angler who never got a bite in an hour diligently spent trying on the Waitangi wharf, though a sinister shark-shaped shadow patrolling the harbour gave him a scare.
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Swimming and beach activities are not encouraged as the Chatham’s feature as a favourite patrol of Great White sharks, as well as other less deadly species. One of the first islanders we met was a young chap missing an arm, the result of an accident diving for crayfish.
The archipelago, ‘a land apart’, boasts an array of endemic birds and unique flora that have developed differently in the Chatham conditions, as well as New Zealand species that have been blown there 800 km offshore in the midst of the empty ocean.
But although rare and rescued from extinction, I doubt the black robin, mollymawk and magenta petrel of the Chathams compare to the wonders of wildlife that Sunil saw on his Subantarctic expedition.
So welcome back, the nomadic Nepalis flying the MNSMS flag. And keep up your exemplary energy and gusto now that you are home.