The Gurung tribesmen of Nepal scale hundreds of metres up cliff faces to collect potent honey. As the pressure on the hiking regions increases, tourism options are beginning to diversify into the world of the honey hunters.
Words by Henry Comyn - Honey Hunter Images by Sudarshan Pradhan
Last week, Joro sat down with Pawan Tuladhar, founder of Dharma Adventures to find out about the phenomenon of the honey hunters.
HC: Pawan, who are the honey hunters and why do they harvest this particular honey?
PD: We call it cliff honey here and besides being very potent it can also be a hallucinogenic and can bring your blood pressure down to the extent that your heart drops. People have died taking cliff honey – it can also make you lose weight as it speeds up your metabolism, it is recommended not to take more than one teaspoon. Not all cliff honey is like that but you need to be very careful.
The hunting of the honey goes back generations and the honey hunters come from the ethnic group called Gurung, which is one of the ethnic groups of the British Gurkhas.
They are predominantly farmers but also a few traders. The traders would generally have been more well off and it is the farmers who go and collect the honey. It is just the Gurungs that hunt the honey, although the younger ones a little bit less nowadays due to urbanisation. They keep their skills of honey hunting to themselves and rarely share it with other ethnic groups.
The areas where they collect the honey are often not very suitable for tourists as they require a lot of hiking. Last year I went to a village and they showed me a very steep mountain, I didn’t realise that the next morning I was meant to climb it!
The reason they hunt the honey is mostly for economic reasons. Generations ago there wasn’t much trade happening in that region for the farmers so twice a year they would harvest the honey. There is a strong demand for it and it fetches a very good price on the market, since it is very potent.
So it is definitely for the money, but the income from honey hunting does not support them all year. Their main income is farming and two months a year they are able to hunt for cliff honey.
Harvesting in May and October is fantastic because the weather is good. Sometimes they harvest 30-40 honeycombs and that will take them 3-4 days and they will come back with 50, 60, 100 litres of honey. There is a large local demand, but they also export a lot. It is popular in South Korea and I know that the Koreans come with helicopters and harvest it in the mountains. So there is a good export market there.
Sometimes I will talk to the headman of the villages and explain that it is not only that the tourists are coming in and witnessing the whole event and then leaving, but there are people who would like to help the community. Having visitors witness the events can go in so many different positive ways, but of course, nothing should be expected. But the key thing is that there are people who have this really wonderful experience and say ‘wow, this is fantastic, these guys are just heroes of their villages, let’s do something for them’
I am continuously seeing areas where it could work as an experience for guests. I believe that what makes it special is to fly in with a helicopter in the morning with the guests (the staff go a couple of days before and set up camp) and they spend 2-3 hours watching the guys harvest the honey. The location is key, there are areas you can trek to but the quality of camping is quite simple. But when we fly guests in by helicopter it becomes a very special day experience.
HC: What do you think visitors get out of seeing the honey hunters?
PD: When this article came out in National Geographic a couple of years ago it was sensational, not only for the rest of the world but for people in Nepal who didn’t realise that this actually happens in our country. So it created a lot of interest that there were villagers that would just climb ropes and harvest honey, get bitten by these huge bees and come out with swollen faces.
The thrill for people watching the whole event is that it is very extraordinary, daring, and it doesn’t happen in other parts of the world and people cannot replicate it. The Gurung community have been doing this for generations and it’s like a set straight out of a movie but of course the difference is that this is happening in real time. The only thing that is touristy about it is that we are there to witness it.
HC: How does it make you feel when you are watching it?
PD: I am not much of a rock climber! You definitely get a chill. There are a lot of videos on Youtube; people hanging down, smoking the bees out, they bring down the basket to collect the honey as one guy pokes the honey comb with a long stick. It really is something. But you also know that the guy who is coming down with the honey is very very experienced.
HC: Is there a hierarchy between the men that do it?
PD: I would say so because the older people are the ones that are trained and are very experienced, they call the shots. One interesting thing was that when we were going up, there was a small ritual – one guy came with a branch and brushed everybody off with that branch to ward off the bad omens and spirits.
HC: How do the clients who you have taken feel when they watched the guys collect the honey?
PD: Well, initially there is a bit of screaming ‘come down from the rock!’ but after there is an adrenaline rush. It’s just the beginning when they come down to the hives people get a bit excited and the hunter is poking the hives with a long stick. After that, the excitement is still there, but the fear is gone.
HC: Nepal is known for its trekking and there is a lot of pressure on the Khumbu region, with the honey hunters can you diversify tourism to some degree?
PD: With the entry of tourism the honey hunter’s income almost doubles. One is from harvesting honey which has a huge market and they are also being paid to harvest it. The final income is much better now, so this is something that will go on for a couple of generations. But again one of the major problems that’s happening is people leaving the villages and going to the cities or just leaving the country for better employment.
This is definitely a big threat so I don’t see honey hunting lasting for a long time, but tourism has certainly increased the lifespan of the honey hunting experience.
HC: Have you seen a change in the type of experience that visitors to Nepal are after?
PD: If you are looking at the upper segment it is all about the experiences and how to recreate the same trek. A good example is Everest Base Camp.
One option is to take the helicopter, timing is less and it is possible to do it in a week. But how to go beyond that, to create a more inward experience? We are introducing a meditation trek to Everest.
The trip has a whole different meaning when you are meditating in the Himalayas, the source of spiritual energy, home to the Hindu and Buddhist Gods and Goddesses. It makes a lot of sense and the whole experience of meditating in the mountains vs the lowlands is a totally different experience.
Yoga actually came from the Himalayas before it went further south so when you do yoga in the presence of the mountains the energy you can harness is just fantastic. These experiences that took place thousands of years ago with the Sadhus is almost a lost era, so now putting it back into the treks makes total sense.
Joro runs trips to Nepal and other remote locations. Get in touch to start your journey with us.
Henry is the co-founder and Managing Director of Joro Experiences and when not in the office creating unique experiences for clients he is travelling the world is search of the next one.