I was stuck to the rocky wall, shivering , like a fluttering leaf on its way to the abyss ! It didn’t matter at this point if the shivering was due to the cold or the wetness or just fear ; or if it was a combination of all these. My legs refused to give up the only two safe footholds available and my hands were gripping the steep wall like my life depended on it ; huh, ‘like my life depended on it ‘ ! Yes ! My life really depended on it right now. I was discovering the real meaning of this phrase practically ! But it was not the right time or place to pursue any literary discoveries – I was ‘hanging on for dear life’ here. There goes another idiom !
I looked down to see the cold pond; I looked up to see the vertical cliff rising to the skies. I was in awe of the wonderful creation. I was also apprehensive of the unknown challenges they posed.
I had been ferried across the pool by an expert swimmer while I held on to a rolled sleeping mat that doubled up as a floater. The pool was deep and I was not a swimmer ! Then why in the world did I agree to this ferrying ! I was left at the bottom of this rocky wall where I had hoisted myself up, with some help, to cling to the sides of this slippery gorge.
A few minutes ago while I was awaiting my turn at the banks of the pool, I had seen somebody slip and fall into the water from this very place I was in now. But she had been quickly helped back to safety. This image was fresh in my mind as my hands groped around for the next place to clasp. Somebody extended a hand and I held it to climb one step higher on the rocks. After a few more vertical steps it was time to traverse the length of the gorge wall.
Our backpacks were ferried in an indigenous raft made from a few branches and the sleeping mats .
I looked ahead and saw the wall dotted with human figures loaded with backpacks. For the next several minutes we were intently focussed on traversing the steep walls. In close view, the wall looked like layers of bread slices stacked casually; only that it was not soft or edible ! Maybe my hunger had led to this bread metaphor ! I had lost track of time, but my biological clock seemed to be working perfectly ! The colour of the rocks ranged between cream to black. The jutting edges were jagged and sharp.
We reached a turn in the wall and sat on the boulders. I was in the heart of Nagala mountains – a forest in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, India. Nagala was 100 kms to the north of Chennai and it had been a 4+ hours drive. The route was scattered with fields of jasmines and roses and had for the most part been open roads with very few villages bordering it.
It was love at first sight ! The casaurina trees, dam, a small temple and beyond all that the mountains ; expansive and mighty. The weather was cool and windy.
We had started our journey from Chennai at 5.00 a.m. With a short breakfast break at the interstate border, which also would be our last hot meal for a couple of days 😦 , we had reached the base of Nagala at around 9.30 a.m. We were distributed food packets that were picked up in a village on the foothills enroute. After some basic instructions we had started our trek.
We were at the Eastern Entry of the Nagala mountains. The dam was brimming with water and we had walked along its banks till we had reached a narrow footpath ; we were on the base of the hills and it would be an uphill trek thenceforth. We had initially walked on dry land over naturally pebbled narrow pathways which had given way to rockier paths as we progressed. And then we had sighted the Stream ; bubbly and beautiful in all its charms !
I could hear the soft murmurings of water grow stronger and then I saw the stream ; its water pure and clear . This mountain stream flowed through the mountains eroding the rocks and forming this beautiful gorge. It was fed mostly by rain waters and covered the breadth of the gorge. This stream would be our friend and guide on this trek and we would just follow her path, trying to reach her source. The mountain was lush with huge trees, shrubs and grass peeking out of every available nook and crevice.
After a couple of hours of trekking we had reached the first pool where we had taken our first break. I had indulged in the cool waters happily. Everyone had enjoyed the welcome break and the refreshing waters. We had resumed our trek and after another hour had come face-to-face with the Dead end pool – the crossing of which was in progress now.
I looked around at the tired yet hopeful faces of my co-trekkers. It was a ladies trek and we were a motley bunch of 20 ladies and 4 guys who were our guides. A few hours back we had all been total strangers , but now we were helping each other in survival ! I did not know what I was signing up for when I registered with Chennai Trekkers for this trekking adventure. But something inside me kept compelling me towards this adventure. Perhaps it was Nagala calling !
Chennai Trekkers is a group of adventure enthusiasts who organize treks and other daring adventures. They form an active bunch with numerous activities every week. It is commendable that it is a completely volunteer based group. On this trip, they were very supportive of the mostly first time trekkers, instilling confidence and pepping up if someone was tired.
The rest of the trekkers started arrivng at this rest point; well , it was a rest point only because it was a bottle neck before the next crossing ! A few had already started to cross the rest of the pool. I was next. I climbed up a small boulder and jumped on to the next big boulder.
I sat on the edge of the huge boulder and peered into the dark green deep waters with fear.I looked up into the sky hoping against hope that a chopper would magically fly by and pick me up into safety ! I looked around – a few faces were intently looking at me, expecting me to take the next step anytime. But it looked like my mind had frozen.
I could hear the instructions being repeated again – slip down this boulder, walk across that rock, climb the third boulder and slide down and walk across the vertical wall into the shallow end of the stream. Looks easy ? Definitely not, especially when you have just gained the knowledge that the pool is around 10 – 15 ft deep near the boulders and adding the height of the boulders it would be a free fall of 30 ft to the bottom of the Dead-end pool ! Whoever thought of this appropriate name – Dead-end pool ; and why would they use the redundant words ‘dead’ and ‘end’ in the same name to extinguish even the faint glimmer of hope that a first timer would have of crossing the pool alive !! Phew, what had I got myself into ?!
A few hours back I was lazing in the safe and warm confines of my home, sipping a hot coffee and enjoying the monsoons ! But now I was out in wild in an adventureous trek !
“SLIDE” ! Somebody said this rather urgently, breaking my flashback bubble in its infancy !!
I had to slide down the almost vertical boulder now. I decided to go ahead; as if I had any other choice !! Even a return at this point would mean sliding down the other end. The other choice was being perched atop the boulder for eternity; no, that option didn’t look inviting either :(.
I took a deep breath and started my slide… somebody held my hand and in that few seconds of unaided drop my heart jumped out a thousand times. My foot hit something hard, i looked down to see myself on the next boulder. A couple of steps and I started my upward slide on the next boulder. Mid way through the climb somebody extended a hand and helped. Once atop this boulder it was a slide down again. Then I walked a few steps on a gorge wall and stepped down into the shallow end of the pool. I had crossed the Dead-End pool; and I was alive !!
I walked a few more steps in the stream and stood on solid ground. A tiny water falls trickled by the rocks. The gorge ahead narrowed down once again after having been broadened by the pool. Here it truly looked like the walls could cave in any moment ! It was an amazing sight, worth the risk of crossing the Dead-End pool.
We played in the stream and the waterfalls. It was ice cold but that hardly deterred me from getting soaked. I was brimming with happiness. Both were overflowing – the stream and my heart ; the stream due to the active monsoon and my heart due to the frolicking in the stream !
We walked for some more time through the stream and stopped for lunch at a cluster of flat boulders. We had been given a packet of lemon rice and pickle by the organizers at the start of the trek. That looked like Mannah from heaven after the cold and adventurous day of trekking. There was much chattering and singing during the meal and everybody lightened up before embarking on the next leg of the trek.
After a satisfying meal we were back on our journey. Our backpacks became heavier with the water. The trek prep mail had listed things to be carried and also a to be avoided in the trek kit. Important among the to-carry items was a LED torch ; make-up kit was the most prominent of the dont-carry list ! The latter was not a problem for me as I do not own any except my favourite kajal, which I reluctantly left behind for this trip ! One set of change of clothes, a pair of floater chappals , camera, mobile, a swimming tube, a blanket , a sleeping mat, a toothpaste & brush, soap (these 3 were not used at all !), energy bars and a packet of biscuits were the other items that made up my kit. And ofcourse my trusted companion – a book. This time it was the JK book – First & Last Freedom. Well, the book would be subject to much water treatment before it would see the light of the day after the trek and experience its freedom from the backpack !
I tightened my sleeping mat to the bag and restrung my backpack across my shoulders. If human beings had to carry around all their material and land possessions on their backs all the time, then none would dare hoard wealth ! Corruption would become non-existent ! Neither would we be spending all our waking hours working mindlessly to buy some useless coveted product or save for some big vacation or an unknown rainy day ; we would just step out of our self-imposed convictions and fears and drench in the rains and bask in the sun . We would not even be praying for ‘Kani Nilam Vendum’ as the great tamil poet Bharatiyar sang in one of his poems.
We waded through the rocky stream and through its wooded edges; slipping, falling, singing, talking, tracing a route and retracing at times to find a safer passage, flowing with the stream and swaying with the breeze. But mostly a cheerful silence predominated. Only the gurgle of the stream and the swish of the breeze throught the gorge resonated. I felt the Silence permeate my being. It was Heavenly .
The daylight was slowly giving way to darkness. We were scheduled to trek up to another pool for the night camp. Our camping site was nowhere in sight .The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost must have been on a similar trek when he wrote this poem !
We were weary, cold and hungry. The organizers had become a little skeptical about reaching the pre-determined camp site. Darkness crept in gradually and the falls and slips increased. There was a quick discussion and we decided to camp at the first available flat surface. Yep, flat surfaces which we take for granted in the plains was a premium in the gorge.
We trudged along for some more time until we could see no further due to darkness. There appeared a small clearing by the stream which was flat too. One of the organizers who had already gone on a fast recon mission to find a much bigger camp site returned with a negative answer. So we decided to pitch our tents on this small patch.
We threw our bags and spread out our sleeping bags. We then collected some firewood and somebody started a fire. The cooking pots which the organizers had carried in addition to their own bags were quickly put to use. The 2 pots were filled with water from the stream and instant soup was cooked in one. Out came the ubiquitous Maggie Noodles from each of our bags and added to the other cooking pot ! We drank the soup and ate the noodles from the one bowl each of us had brought in our trekking kits. It tasted relishing and filling than the best buffet I had ever tasted !
At one side of the small clearing a camp fire was burning. We gathered around the camp fire and broke into songs. There was a slight drizzle and there was a possibility of the stream swelling up and flooding our camp site if heavy rains lashed through the night. But we did not have any choice; we could not go to higher ground. The ground was also wet. A few dead branches were cut off to create some sleeping space. After more singing and second helpings of the noodles we crashed on our sleeping mats. Out came the can of Volini spray to give relief to the sprained muscles and strained joints ! We were told to lie still if a slimy visitor from the forest ran glided over us ; yes, the place abounded in snakes ! Great, this last bit of trivia made the scene dangerously perfect 😦
As I started drfiting off to sleep some body covered us with a tarpaulin sheet since the drizzle had become heavier now. Snakes, stream, rain, darkness, flash floods, insects – I slept peacefully amidst these. Not one trace of the sleeplessness that one experienced even in the most luxurious bed !
In this cozy state, the events leading upto the trek and the start of the trek itself ran through my mind. I was smiling in my sleep when I realized how I had managed to come on this trek 😉
Take a break – We’ll resume the trek in Part 2 !!