The silver rings on Kaanchi's blackened toes glistened in the sun as she walked barefoot along the rocky bed of the dry river valley. The 12-year-old giggled to her sister as she overtook us, her step brisk despite a heavy load almost her size. It was the start of a four-day trek home for Kaanchi's family. They had completed the downhill trip to the market town of Katari, loaded their baskets with essential provisions - salt, sugar, medicines - and were returning to their remote village in the foothills of Everest. The family, and thousands of other hill farmers, make similar back-breaking journeys for supplies every few months. During the hot, dry season, when the river bed holds refreshing shallow streams, the going is relatively easy. In the wet season, when the river is raging, the only route is along treacherous dirt paths clinging to its side. During the three-month monsoon an average of one person a day dies in landslides or falls while making the perilous trek. It is the only way of life the hill farmers of Nepal know and they're not a people to complain. In this mountainous land where there are few roads, distance is measured not in kilometres but in the number of days a journey takes to walk. But things are about to change. The boom of an explosion rumbling along the valley echoes the encroaching modernisation. For once, this is not a tale of greedy capitalists ransacking the land. The blasts are a blessing, confirmation that a road is being cut through the unforgiving landscape to link the vital supply towns of Katari and Okhaldhunga in the north, the main town in the Everest region, and, in so doing, literally easing the burden of these people. The project is part of a national road-building programme to link all regional centres in Nepal, the fourth poorest country in the world. But progress is understandably slow in a country containing the world's highest mountain range and where money is so scarce that around half the national budget is provided by foreign aid; this 100-kilometre road alone will take 10 years to complete. It couldn't have been more appropriate then that as its final project before disbanding later this year when half of the men will be made redundant it was a Gurkha unit of engineers, the Hong Kong-based 67 Squadron, who flew to help the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) build the road. For all the soldiers, some of whom hadn't returned to Nepal since joining the British Army, others who will be going back prematurely at the end of the year, it was a symbolic trip - the road home. 'This means a lot to the squadron in terms of what we have achieved because there is no way I can make the disbandment of the unit a happy, carefree event,' said Commanding Officer Major Alistair Sheppard. 'For the soldiers to be back in their own country and doing something to help is very good and they're enjoying it. For me to be in charge of soldiers who are so clearly enthusiastic about what they are doing is a pleasure.' Captain (QGO) Mohankumar Gurung, the most senior Gurkha officer in the squadron, said: 'It is certainly very special for us to be able to do this work in our country. It is a hard life in the hills.' Captain Gurung knows what he is talking about. He, like many of the sappers, joined the Army from his hill village more than 25 years ago. Later this year, he is being made redundant and will return to Nepal. By Western standards, the road as it is now is little to shout about: at its best it's 4.75 metres wide and gravelled; at its worst, a ripped, potholed earth track a few metres across, but in this terrain any road is an astonishing feat of engineering. The initial earth track, or pilot road, is being blasted out of the hillsides by a battalion of RNA engineers. At the highest point, it rises to a relatively low 1,200 metres, but in places the road is so narrow, gradients so steep, the camber so sharp, the drop on either side so far, that normally fearless local workers hired by the squadron have refused to drive on stretches of it. Landslides are a constant threat, particularly during the monsoon season. Already, just 21/2 years into the project, nine workers have died in accidents. The task set for the 120 men of 67 Squadron was, in just six weeks, to make secure specific sections of road identified as especially vulnerable to the effects of intense rain. The work would involve laying a compact gravel surface on a 3 km stretch of the pilot track from the 91/2 km point, dig drainage ditches, build retaining walls above and below the road, use bio-engineering to secure some of the surfaces and lay a concrete causeway at a site where a gully crosses the road surface. Although the work is relatively basic, it is the only feasible way to improve the chances of the road remaining passable. While the RNA has been forging ahead, so far blasting away nearly 50 km of track, the work of gravelling the road beyond the 121/2 km point has not started. If the RNA has the resources, it will surface the road at a later date. Even now, as the traffic rises daily and the rainy season approaches, the risk of the surface being churned up to the point of destruction is enormous. But what would be an easy task for a squadron of highly trained Gurkha engineers anywhere else in the world is a logistical headache in Nepal. To start with, 29,000 kilograms of freight had to be flown from Hong Kong to Kathmandu on a chartered 747, then transported east by road for 22 hours to Katari. 'It's a logistical nightmare,' said Quarter Master Captain Les Thomas, whose job includes ensuring the smooth arrival and running of the camp infrastructure. A farmer's field 5 km along the new road is the site for the MASH-like camp, where tents were pitched, kitchens built, food supplies sourced, hot water systems engineered, and plant hired and transported from all over Nepal. 'Because of the geography, the way we have approached this as a military exercise. It's really a test of our leadership and organisational skills,' said Major Sheppard. The squadron's four troops were each assigned a separate task, and local workers hired and assigned to the troops. 'We've got here the opportunity for sappers, using their own skills and abilities, to take 10 or 20 locally employed workers and to be given a task to go away and complete. 'All the way up, from the people controlling the task site, up to myself dealing with government agencies, it's a great opportunity. The distances and terrain involved are highly testing. 'The translation is that if we can do it here, then we can do it when we go to the Falklands, the Gulf, wherever, because you just transpose it and add a few bullets. 'The engineering experience in terms of what the RNA is doing is invaluable. We have a lot of admiration for this battalion of Nepalese engineers. They are the ones building this road; we are just an add-on. 'We're learning a lot from their experience because they are having to operate with limited budget, political imperatives and a lack of resources in a challenging environment. 'I don't for one minute think the Brits are coming here and teaching them everything. We are learning a lot from them about how to build a road in a mountainous area; we don't employ mule trains in the British Army any more, but you see them here and they work.' Certainly, things progress differently in Nepal. The RNA had agreed to supply building materials, including cement. One afternoon, the supply simply stopped, said Project Officer Captain Jim Fernandes. 'Work just ground to a halt. When I asked why I was simply told the cement had run out. I had no choice but to grab a wad of money and spend the next few hours driving around trying to find some. That's not as easy as it sounds in this environment.' Exercise Holdfast has offered more than just a learning experience for Nepalese and British soldiers; it has brought work and hope to a region of Nepal where many of the people can afford to eat meat only once or twice a month. One hundred civilian labourers have been employed on the project; unskilled labourers receiving 70 Nepalese rupees (HK$9) a day, skilled labourers 130 rupees. 'It may not sound like a lot but that's the going rate and they are very happy to receive it. Many of these people are farmers and there is no work at this time of year,' said Captain Fernandes. And that does not include the work given to the woodcutter's family living on the hill above the camp, the boys who wash the dishes, the dhobi wallah who cleans and presses all the uniforms and laundry, and the town shopkeepers who have provided food and drink for 120 men for eight weeks. The squadron was able to help in other ways; the two camp medics offered treatment to local people. 'We haven't opened the floodgates because we simply don't have the facilities or manpower, but people have come and we have been able to help, like a little girl who had boiling water spilled over her feet,' said Major Sheppard. Other, more long-term aid has included the laying of a 3 km pipeline supplying water to a village and a school located at the point of two troop work sites. The school offered rooms for the men to use and the headmaster, so grateful at the prospect of a water supply, went out himself to help dig a reservoir for the water. The exercise has also brought benefits to other Nepalese: the wives and families of the Gurkha soldiers. Nine men brought their wives, some of whom they hadn't seen for three years, to live in nearby Katari. 'The priority is the work but when and where they can, they take advantage of being in their home country,' said Major Sheppard. 'If I was posted away for three years and then was posted within a few kilometres of my wife, I'd take full advantage of it. We brought the nine wives to camp, gave them hard hats and then took them up to the sites.' Corporal Taj Kumar Pakhrin enjoyed the opportunity. He brought his wife and young baby to Katari, bought himself a bike and could be seen most evenings cycling off to visit them. 'It has been a very special exercise for all of us, but especially for me because I have been able to see my wife and baby, and also do something positive for my country,' he said. Others were able to visit their families at the end of the project when everyone was given one week's R&R before returning to Hong Kong last Tuesday. The aid project, the third and largest the British Army has conducted in recent years in Nepal, was funded from various sources. 'It's a bit difficult to say exactly how much it cost because of our wages and things like that but, if I were to hazard a guess, the whole cost of bringing us out here and the input into the exercise is probably about GBP250,000 (HK$2.9 million). 'It's a lot of money, I know, but in terms of what we've brought with us and what we've done it's not bad value. The thing about Nepal is you don't need a lot of money to do very much as long as the money you've got goes into what you intended it to,' said Major Sheppard. The cost of the exercise once in Nepal: the hire of plant, fuel, labour costs, camp infrastructure and construction materials cost GBP82,000: GBP50,000 was sponsored by HQ British Forces Hong Kong and GBP19,500 from the RNA for construction materials. The remaining GBP5,000 came from MOD Community Relations Funds and GBP10,000 from the Hong Kong philanthropist Kadoorie family, which has close links with the Gurkhas and frequently sponsors projects in Nepal. The remainder was spent hiring a 747 aircraft and flying the squadron to Kathmandu. For Kaanchi, her family, and thousands of other hill farmers, the road will mean they may be able to drive to Katari on occasions. It will give them better access to education, health care and jobs during the winter months. Settlements located along the road will find new business flourishing. There will be those who lose out. Porters who make their living carrying people's belongings may lose business, but this is not a tourist trekking area and most people carry their own possessions. There may be villages along the walking route who lose trade. But, as much as anything, Exercise Holdfast has given the British Army the chance to return something to Nepal, a country that for year's has provided it with some of the best soldiers in the force. For that alone, it was GBP250,000 well spent.