Fiction. Himalayan Blues, by Lara Hurley. Image: in the background, the Himalayan mountains. In the foreground, the silhouette of a hand holding a pen, pointing at a poppy.

Himalayan Blues

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Week 17, Wednesday March 12th 1913

How I wish I had never heard of this infernal flower. I have gazed upon it many times in my feverish dreams, so desperate am I to see it for myself. As it now stands, my quest is temporarily thwarted. I lie here, wounded, a piece of rotting meat. Stupidly, I slipped from the path into a ravine, impaling myself on bamboo, which also, incidentally, saved my life. Path? There are no paths here in this godforsaken place. It is so beautifully treacherous. Clearing our way through the forest has been painfully slow. We continue upriver to find Cawdor’s elusive waterfalls. Four long months. I think they might just be another myth, like the yeti. I long for a cup of drinkable tea, and you, my love.

To be honest, I care not one jot for the bally waterfall. If the plants weren’t so spectacular here, I would have turned back months ago. There are so many species. New, undocumented, wonderful species. Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Bamboos, Cornus… I am struggling to keep up with the classifications. I am collecting as many samples as possible but the all-pervading damp makes preservation difficult. So many gorgeous specimens succumb to rot, fungus, and flies. I have some in Wardian cases, but these continue to be bulky and difficult to carry; glass is just not practical on a trip like this. I have taken seed where I could find it, but it is early in the season. It is quite frustrating.

Thus far, we have ascended over fifteen thousand feet. It is, quite literally, breath-taking. The weather through the autumn and winter would make this even more dangerous. The last time I came, a bridge was swept away from under me. My dearest Flo, it is lucky you do not know of this. I love you more than flowers, even though you may wonder the truth of this sometimes.

Week 18, Tuesday, 18th March, 1913 

I am still so bloody weak. The fever took me and I have been lost for a week. I cannot sit upright unaided. How pathetic I feel. The expedition is held up because of me, my brief moment of clumsiness. I will miss the flowers for certain now and they will be much harder to spot in the green. It is getting too late in the season and everything will have been in vain.

A servant has interrupted my depressed reverie by bringing me some tea. Damned infernal stuff they have here. They put butter or yak’s milk in it. Spices too. I cannot help but grimace at the globules of fat floating about on the surface. He must think me terribly rude. Some things I just cannot get used to.

No biscuits either.

I am terribly grumpy today, frustrated and in some pain. The dressing slips into my wound if I sit up too long, and standing stretches it, which smarts. The wound is angry in places, but not septic anymore, thank the Lord. I am using a local concoction which the coolie said would help it to heal. It seems to have staved off the infection. I must ask him what was in it – it could be useful to know in the future. We really don’t pay enough attention to the natural remedies used by the natives. My patron’s finest whisky came in handy too, more as an anaesthetic though. Pity I couldn’t appreciate it much.

No use being maudlin. I hear that things are not so well back home either. Cawdor tells me war is impending. It may even have started, it takes so long for correspondence to reach us here. There is a war of sorts here too. The Tibetans are at it with the Chinese and are attacking anyone they think might be a spy. Luckily we are some distance from the border.

The tea has actually given me a little energy and I will try to get out of bed and join the others for dinner this evening. It gets a little dull on one’s own in a tent, with nothing but the blasted mosquitoes for company. At least I can write this journal for you, Flo. It helps me to write as if I am talking to you. I can sense you and hear your voice in my head telling me to rest and how you wished that I would come home.

I really hope that I might be able to travel on in a few days. They will leave me behind if I am not better soon. I will miss my chance. 

Week 18, Wednesday, 19th March, 1913 

I am exhausted. Just the effort of getting up and about has knocked the wind out of my sails. Cawdor was half-pleased to see me. His moustache was twitching – the girls would think he looked really funny, Flo, if they could see him. I rather think that he is planning to break camp in the next couple of days. The weather is fair and the coolies are getting restless. One forgets they too have families. I have the distinct impression that he would like to go on without me. He sees my botanising as a hindrance. I had a huge set-to with him, which is why I am so drained now. Botany will probably end up funding most of his trip if I can find what I am looking for. I tried to persuade him. The seed from this poppy will be worth more than its weight in gold. I put on a show, stood up for a long time, over-did it somewhat. I have to prove that I am fit and well, or they will leave me in this godforsaken place for weeks. 

Considering we have been travelling together through all sorts of foul weather and country, we do usually get along passably well. He has aristocratic tastes, even bringing hampers from Fortnum and Mason, can you believe? I could have had two more Wardian cases had he not wanted luxury treats on the trip. I can’t say I mind too much, although the weather and pests have done for some of the more perishable things. Pity he forgot to pack a tin opener though.  

After we had argued, I swallowed my pride and decided to partake of some of his luxuries. He offered some port and I jokingly said it would be lovely with stilton. He went back into his tent and rummaged around for a moment. Silhouetted by the gaslight, he fussed about with a hamper until eventually he found what he was after. Sure enough, a little clay jar of potted, ported stilton. It was over six months old, but the wax seal looked good and yes, by golly, it stood the test of time. We scraped it out onto some crackers and relished the taste of home. The local lads were a little taken aback by our mouldy feast. They were positively revolted by the smell. I think that we can be just as strange to them as they are to us, sometimes.

‘I used to teach there, a long time ago. So much must have changed since my day.’

Week 18, Thursday 20th March, 1913 

I am up and about a bit more. I did some stretches, took the air, pottered around with my pressed samples. The climate is terrible for preservation – too much moisture. If I do find some seed, I will have to be so careful to keep it dry.

I feel much better today. The wound is knitting together nicely and has lost the red heat of inflammation. I think the stilton and port has helped immensely. It probably frightened the local nasties away. I told Cawdor that I think we should decamp in the morning and continue our route upwards through the ravine. He was delighted by the news and has set the coolies about dismantling the camp and packing up all but the bare essentials. I pity them carrying his hampers and clothes – he does not travel light.

He watched me like a hawk all day. I dared not show any weakness. I retired early under the premise of letter writing and have written some letters to the children. I do hope they are well. They will have grown so much by the time I see them again. I worry that they will not know me. Flo, I miss you so much. The smell of you, your silken hair, I cannot wait to hold you.

There is a

Week 20, Thursday 3rd April, 1913

I never thought I’d say this, but it is good to be back at camp. Suffice it to say, I am glad to be alive. Ten days in a prison cell, living on rice and dirty water does not do much for one’s morale. The other inmates were in a bad way, treated appallingly. Cawdor has some nasty bruises on his face. He wouldn’t speak about it. They didn’t beat me – I think they could see I was already wounded. Besides, Cawdor is the man in charge. He acted the typical Brit abroad, loud and obnoxious and it didn’t go down well, I suspect. At least they set us free. They had thought we were undertaking some sort of espionage. Probably the surveys – they do not trust our equipment. Theodolites must look suspicious, even if we are only mapping the topography. I suspect our arrest had more to do with international politics than our expedition. The British Consulate were involved and eventually secured our release. Not a moment too soon. They made a mess of our camp, smashed up a couple of the Wardian cases and destroyed some of the specimens. They took the rest of Cawdor’s fancy foods as well. We’ll be alright, I think, although my wound has festered again. More of the local poultice will sort me out. Sadly, I’m not sure Cawdor has the heart to continue now.

Week 21, Friday 11th April, 1913 

Several of the coolies have abandoned us in the night. We will have to split our supplies between us now, or perhaps leave some things here, but I don’t trust the locals after what has happened. It has soured everything. I really hope Cawdor doesn’t give up. I think we are quite close to his valley with the waterfalls, and almost at the right place for the poppies. I had a wander out (very cautiously), and through my binoculars I could see the terrain changes above us, the vegetation thins. It looks decidedly more alpine, drier and cooler. I am going to try to persuade him at dinner. To have come so far and been through so much to return empty handed would be unbearable, Flo. I miss you terribly. 

Friday evening

He is a broken man. I think he is concussed. He lacks all his usual vim and vigour and wants to head back down. He says the war has changed everything. I tried to persuade him to continue up the valley. I told him what I had seen today. He no longer seems to care. He said it was hopeless and that now we are at war, nobody will care very much about a Himalayan waterfall or a few ‘bloody sticks and leaves’. I think he is weary and homesick. Without his luxuries and having to carry more supplies, it will not be easy, even to make the return journey, let alone to forge higher still.  

What am I going to do? I cannot come back empty handed. I will be a laughing stock at the Royal Society. All that money, time and energy. For what? A few twigs and leaves. Flo, I am so torn. I wish you were here. I know you would probably tell me to come home, but I have come so far and risked so much. What am I to do? 

Week 21, Saturday 12th April 

I am well-rested after a humid night of buzzing flies and animal calls. I spoke to Cawdor at breakfast. He is unchanged in his gloom. I feel better. My wounds are tolerable now and I can move about much more easily. I will be treading carefully from now on, Flo… I would very much like to make it home. That is why I check my boots for spiders and the like before pulling them on. You can’t be too careful around here.

I came to a decision last night, lying awake. I am going to go ahead for a few days, upwards into the valley. I can take a couple of coolies and travel light. I will only be gone a few days, which is about as long as Cawdor will need to break camp here. Hopefully he will wait for my return before heading back down to Punakha, if he is so intent on returning. I will talk to him. Forgive me, Flo. I will be back safe and sound as soon as I can. 

Week 22, Monday 14th April

We start out shortly before nine o’clock. Progress is crushingly slow. The path is steep and narrow with sheer drops on either side in places. I need to be careful. On the plus side, I have spotted several interesting new specimens and collected a few samples. A type of primula with pretty blue flowers I don’t think anyone has ever come across – I might name it after you, Flo. Still no sign of what I am looking for though. We climb higher still. The peaks of the mountains in the distance glow white through the trees and the sky is blue today. The trip is pleasant as these things go, although I am conscious of not over-doing it. After lunch, we continue upwards. The vegetation thins out a little here. We pass through a desperate village. The natives were grinding up some sort of tree root into a powder to use as flour but they looked terribly malnourished. A hand to mouth existence up here, a tough, tough life. They stare at us as we pass through.

Week 22, Tuesday 15th April 

We walk on. Onwards, upwards. Slow and steady, one foot in front of the other. I ignored the pain as much as possible, although it is beginning to give me some gyp. Occasionally, I stop and scout around with my binoculars. It would be ironic if I carried on walking with my head to the ground then missed the very thing I have been searching for. Nothing. The coolies are beginning to hate me. The going is tough, they are hacking through the scrub and the ground underfoot is treacherous. I am being careful, Flo, really I am.

Week 22, Wednesday 16th April 

Onwards and upwards. Nothing yet.

Week 22, Thursday 17th April

Still nothing. I am an exhausted idiot. Binoculars can be very misleading. 

Week 22, Friday 18th April 

So tired. We have enough supplies for one more day of outward travel. One more day. 

Week 22, Saturday 19th April

I was peering through the binoculars and I have seen a hidden valley. It seems accessible. I am going to scramble up for a look around.

Saturday evening 

I saw the usual rhododendrons, azaleas… some scrub and scree. Then I spotted something in a distant patch of scrub. I stopped to look more carefully and have not stopped grinning ever since. I must say I even allowed myself a triumphant whoop!

I did not imagine it. This is not another fever dream. They are there in all their glory, the most beautiful blue in the world. So blue, the colour of Alpine streams, of unexpected early Spring skies, purest sapphires from Ceylon. The blue sings out amongst the dripping greys and greens of the cloud forest. I wish you could see them, Flo. 

They are at higher altitude, it is cooler here so they have bloomed later. I may have walked past many more in the green. I have pressed some leaves so I can identify them and keep an eye out for any that have begun to set seed as we go back down. Sadly we must, we have very little food left and the coolies will surely murder me in my bed if I do not let them go home soon.  

Flo, I am so, so happy.  

Week 23, Tuesday 22nd April

We have landed back at camp, or what was left of it. Cawdor has already gone. He did leave me some supplies and a couple of coolies. No doubt we can catch him up in a few weeks. Following him now is impossible. I will have to go back into that valley and wait for the plants to set seed, probably a couple of weeks. Then I will head back. It is much easier going down routes we have already made. Such a shame he wasn’t there to hear my news.

There was a waterfall in that valley, the highest I have ever seen.

lara hurley

Lara Hurley is a writer with a background in teaching landscape design and horticulture.


Her non-fiction has been published in The Guardian and Countryfile magazine, and she is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.


Her work features nature and ecological themes across all genres. She lives in Lancashire where the climate favours indoor pursuits.

This story is loosely based on the real exploits of Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958), who successfully brought the Meconopsis blue poppy to the UK. The primula he discovered was named after Cawdor. His wife, Florinda, eventually divorced him.

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