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My great adventure to the Himalayas; Former Emmerdale star Steve McGann's diary reveals the heartache and thrills of his charity trip to Nepal.

Byline: Sally Morgan

As Sean Reynolds in Emmerdale, he played a love-cheat husband with a selfish streak who cared little for his own kids. But, in a stark contrast, as soon as Steve McGann quit the soap last year, he headed off on a charity trek to raise money for The Children's Society.

In December, Steve flew to Nepal to take part in an 80-kilometre hike that generated pounds 100,000 for vulnerable, underprivileged and problem children. Dubbed The Rooftop Of The World because of its Himalayan location, Nepal was a big thrill for 38-year-old Steve, whose hobbies include hill-walking.

Happily married for 11 years to Heidi, and the proud dad of five-year- old Dominic, Steve waved goodbye to his family, but kept a personal diary of his trip, exclusive extracts from which he reveals here.

The flight to Kathmandu takes 12 hours, but we get an amazing view of Mount Everest as the plane comes in to land. Those lofty, snow-topped peaks remind me and the other 38 trekkers of the task ahead - to scale mountains 11,000ft high.

However, the first thing I do demonstrates what a typically spoilt Westerner I am. I head straight for a cyber cafe to contact my wife Heidi and find out the Liverpool football score.

Last night I was kept awake by a cockerel crowing. We rise with the sun at 6am with a physically gruelling trek ahead of us. We walk to the banks of the sacred Bagmati river where the locals come to cremate their dead. From a distance I notice the body of a burning child and it brings a lump to my throat. Because of bad sanitation and the low standard of health care, children here die of diseases that have been wiped out in the West. Despite the healthy diet and fresh air, the average life expectancy in Nepal is 55.

A coach takes us to Sundarijil to begin the trek proper. On the way to Chisopani, which means cold place, we visit a Buddhist temple. Temples here are a burst of colour, bright silver and gilt, and Buddhist prayer flags in green, yellow, red and white are scattered everywhere. I take off my shoes to enter. There's such a sense of spirituality inside, a feeling of serenity which all the local people exude.

On the way up the mountain, we walk through a layer of cloud to find sunshine on the other side. It's such a beautiful backdrop, tropical and green with fragrant plants, and terraces of maize and potatoes. We pass little settlements as we climb solidly throughout the day and are greeted by smiling children. While we struggle to ascend the steep slopes, these youngsters skip effortlessly past us up the trail. They, like our Sherpa guides, were born here, so to them the gradient that exhausts us means nothing.

Before the sun sets at 6pm, our Sherpas dash on ahead to set up camp for us. By the time we arrive, they've already pitched our tents and prepared an evening meal - fresh chicken curry, rice and pancakes.

My first good night's sleep in ages. After working long hours and learning scripts for three years in Emmerdale, it's such a luxury to sleep for 12 hours a night surrounded by fresh air and not a ringing phone anywhere. I watch the sun rise over the mountains.

We walk to a little place called Gulbanjang, passing through hamlets on the way. From a distance we hear singing, the sound of children's voices echoing through the trees. It's coming from a school and the children, who are impeccably dressed in colourful green and maroon uniforms, invite me in.

These youngsters bring home to me how much education is valued here. When we give them a few exercise books and pens they are so grateful that they dance for us. I take their photos and video them, then show them the images. They've never seen such things before and their faces light up with excitement.

Later, as I turn a corner, I'm confronted with the most amazing view - the Himalayas laid out before me.

We begin a gentle ascent to Ichok. At first we're engulfed by cloud, but then the sun burns it away and the temperature hits 30C. The contrast up here is very dramatic - at night the air is freezing and we curl up in our snug sleeping bags, reluctant to emerge even to answer the call of nature.

Further up the mountain, a lady invites us into her hut to sit in front of her blazing log fire. She reminds me of an old man I met in Donegal when my brothers and I made The Hanging Gale, a film about Irish potato farmers.

The sun breaks so majestically over a snowcapped mountain, washing it with a golden glow, that we all gasp. I sit in total silence for half an hour, totally transfixed by the vision. This morning we descend for three hours to the valley floor and have lunch next to a roaring river. I buy my son Dominic a statue of a little Buddha from a local seller. Later we arrive at a mud hut village with animals running wild. The children are beautiful. A lady with three youngsters greets us and one of the women in our party says, "Your son is so gorgeous I could take him home with me". In all earnestness, the village woman replies, "Please take him". My eyes fill with tears because, although her bond with her young son is as strong as any mother's, she is prepared to hand him over to give him a better chance in life.

On the way to Sermathang we trek through cool forests to a vantage point of the Himalayas. But by the evening I'm very tired and fed up with sleeping in a tent. I miss my wife, son and, yes, my home comforts too. It's almost the end of our trek so we all tip the Sherpas and support staff and, as a thank you, they dance and sing for us by firelight. Afterwards we demonstrate the nearest thing we can muster to a national dance - the hokey-cokey!

I'll miss my favourite Sherpa, Dorje. He climbed Everest with Chris Bonington and lost half his fingers through frostbite as a result.

As we eat a packed lunch, a group of starving kids watch us, waiting for leftovers. We leave them our sandwiches and they end up fighting over the crumbs. That image will forever be ingrained in my memory and shows how much more needs to be done by all of us to help them.

l The Children's Society runs similar treks in other parts of the world such as Peru, China, Africa and Iceland. Anyone interested in taking part should call 0207 841 4507.


ON TOP OF THE WORLD: Steve in Himalayan Nepal; PRIDE AND JOY: Steve with Dominic and Heidi
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 12, 2002
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