The rickety pickup truck puffed its way up the steep mountain road. Excited young voices, from the back of the truck were in sync with the haphazard movement of the vehicle ; rising with speed, laughing in turns and hollering in general ! I was squeezed in the front seat with a lady colleague and carton of mountain oranges for company ! I, of course, was enjoying the novel experience !
I could not identify if the truck was hitting a pothole or was on normal road. The vehicle was lurching on the rain eroded ghat roads, at times careening near the sharp turns. After a point, I started a guessing game with myself – will the vehicle tilt to the right or left now ?! But the local young man, who was driving the pickup truck made no guesses while driving. He seemed to know every inch of the road and steered the loaded vehicle very confidently. The inquisitive villagers along the way waved out to us excitedly, while some waved down the vehicle to have a small chat with the driver, to expressly question him about the details and itinerary of his passengers !
After a good forty minutes drive we spotted the familiar yellow bus, our school bus, which was occupied by the students from earlier jeep & truck trips. A batch of the senior students has braved the steep terrain and long distance to trek two hours to the bus from the camp site ! A quick headcount and excited mini- reunions later (friends separated for a maximum period of two hours !), our school buses started the journey to the commercialized part of the hills.
Kodai Lake was hosting the tourists, hawkers and locals along its paved banks. Its waters, the main attraction, saw boats of many sizes and types. We split ourselves in groups and went out to explore the lake and its surroundings. While some rented bicycles, some chose to walk along the clean pavements. Walking had its advantages, as we could stop for a spicy freshly roasted corn here, a hot pineapple there or a chilly bajji anywhere ! We leveraged our advantage to quieten our creaking tummies ! The girls in my group enjoyed the sights and sounds as we sauntered in the lake’s circumference !
Some quick shopping for homemade chocolates and fragrant oils later, we boarded the bus for the most difficult part of our journey – the downhill drive ! Avomins became the most sought after commodity followed the ubiquitious plastic bag, in case the avomin is inefficient in keeping the contents of the digestive system inside. For once, even the audio system was shut down ! And, all the occupants of the bus maintained a stoic silence, for fear of offending their respective digestive systems which was threatening to retaliate by propelling its remnants up the esophagus and out of one’s facial cavity ! I will not reveal any specific details of that drive, sparing both the reader and the passenger in the process !
After what seemed like an eternity, we were finally in the plains. And relieved too ! A hearty lunch and lots of lemon sodas rebooted our systems and the students got back their verve ! From then on all the way to Pondicherry the mood was festive, with the students making up for the quiet time downhill !
The adventurous trip was in its last leg, and I dozed intermittently, for a teacher can never sleep deeply when chaperoning students.
The Pathfinder Camp, has been an important event in the annual calendar of The Study L’ecole Internationale, Pondicherry for a few years now. The Camp Director Dr. Kisku, has been at the forefront in organizing these camps in a purposeful way. While the junior camp, for 3rd to 6th graders, focuses on inculcating self-reliance in the kids, the senior camp, comprising of grades 7 to 12, challenges the students to higher levels of physical endurance through adventure and mental ability through puzzles and games – all in the outdoors of the pristine hills . The learnings in the four days of camping would in effect be equivalent to many weeks of classroom instruction.
This year’s camp had been overwhelmed by delays ; the original date in late September clashed with the weekend a court in a neighbouring state chose to convict a famous politician in another neighbouring state. The trip was cancelled due to the ensuing mob violences across the 2 states and 1 UT. The students were disappointed, but soon enough started awaiting new dates for the camp. The second time the camp was planned was in early November. An active NE monsoon was bringing in copious rainfall and landslides in the mountains. The Principal, Mrs. Alice, had to take a call in this and the camp was postponed again. The students were disappointed, but had not lost hope. And their patience was rewarded in the third week of December, when all the campers finally boarded the bus to Kodaikanal one cold early morning ! The 100 students, teachers, staff and drivers were ready for the challenges ahead !
The bus. after a pleasant journey, stopped at a small hill town, Perumal Malai. We jumped out of the bus, due as much from the eagerness to breathe the fresh mountain air, as also to stretch our cramped muscles. And, we did get around two hours to work our restrained muscles and exercise them, in our trek to the base campsite !
A hot homemade lunch awaited us at Kodai Camp, our home for the next four days. The students were given a choice of lodging – dorm, big tents or small tents. Ultimately, the younger ones were accommodated in dorms, while the seniors students took over the tents. The group gathered around the campfire for songs and interactions. The quiet, remote valley resonated with the voices of wonderful children.
TREKKING INTO NATURE’S HEARTLAND
It was 8.30 in the morning and all the campers had assembled to start their trek through the Elephant Valley. The trek leads, guides and teachers/camp counselors made sure their group was suitably equipped with water, snacks, team spirit and adventurous attitude !
The mountains and valleys were covered by a thick envelope of mist and fog, giving an alluring aura to the hidden beauty. The visibility was only a few feet at its best in the trail. It was as if one had to tear open the Veil of foggy ignorance to realize the hidden Summit of Truth Within. Nature carries life’s signposts everywhere in Existence.
The city bred kids and adults seemed to find their foothold over the mountain trails pretty quickly. Some fell on pebbly trails, some slided over rock faces, some glided over smooth surfaces and many rested at every opportunity ! Hands were held out to rescue the one’s stuck, bags were carried by the stronger one’s, snacks shared and songs sung ; but silence too reigned intermittently when even the kids were awed by the forest sounds.
Some parts of the slopes were eroded due to the heavy rains, exposing more rocks underneath. The roots and grasses, a trekkers natural hand bars, provided the grip in the steep slippery slopes. I had divided my team of 11 into micro groups of approximately 3’s, thus minimizing the chances of an individual getting lost. Two is a crowd in lonely forests, a desired crowd infact !
Our trek started through a spice garden and then running into an orange grove. We picked up the fallen oranges to savour the fresh flavor and aroma ! A steep walk up a paved road brought us to the edge of the wild forest – the profuse animal droppings seemed to be the welcome sign to their natural habitat ! From that point on we were leaving the last signs of civilization and going into unspoilt nature.
How respectful should one be when one is a guest in another’s home ? Shouldn’t the laws of civilization be applicable to human ventures into the forest too ? The students were told to not leave trash the forest, which they complied with in all sincerity.
We trekked through the forest, under the canopy of tall and short trees. The narrow trails, just a foot or two wide at the maximum, was bordered by wild shrubs, trees and spice plants. It seemed quite dark at places. And the, suddenly the mountain seemed to open her arms to welcome her persistent children !
The vista was wide open now. The mist became thicker, the tress had fallen back in the trail and we seemed to be on the steep slopes of the mountain. I say seemed to, because we were not really sure of how steep or how deep the slopes were. At one point it looked like we were crossing from one hill to the next, sometimes it looked like we were circumambulating a mountain. Few instances it looked like we were climbing higher to the very peak of that mountain. We had no way of confirming anything then.
Our trek guides were with us, helping us navigate the tough terrain. Some places we were wandering alone (in micro groups ofcourse). We stuck to our groups and were guided by the few feet of visibility before us, sometimes just a foot ahead. Lemon grass, a prized herb in the cities, was growing all along the slopes lending fragrance to the air. It provided the only grip in some places.
In all this adventure, we did time for selfies, pictures, talks and lots of fun. How can one not have fun when surrounded by kids ?!! We were also well past lunch time and snacks were passed around to keep the tummies happy. Every teacher took the utmost care to see her group safe through the trek.
At a point near a falls, all the students converged. The water falls had a steep drop into the gorge below and the view from the top was breathtaking. Our next stop was the river that was the source of this falls. It was a gentle river, with just two feet deep at its centre – a perfect place for splashing in the water ! And this exactly what all the kids did – jumped into the water to wash away all the fatigue due to the six hour trek.
The mist was closing in more heavily on the river now, as if telling us that visiting hours were over and the river and the forest need to get their beauty sleep ! We continued our trek out of the forest and onto our campsite through a small village. It was a beautifully adventurous day into Nature’s Heartland, where everyone, including the teacher becomes the taught.
Hot baths and hot meals soothed our weary bodies, and the kids bounced right back into action after a brief break ! Children are indeed the powerhouse of energy !
The sun shone a little the next day and we discovered that our campsite was surrounded by huge mountains, in layer after layer ! The mist had hidden this secret the previous two days. Our trek guide traced the trek route we had covered the previous day. From the comfort of our camp, we realized the arduous trek we had accomplished – straddling a few mountains, forests and valleys ! It was like looking at the x-ray in a doctor’s office through a well lit board ! The sun was shining the spotlight on our trekking path, perhaps as a reward to the endurance of the entire team !
The day was spent in team building activities designed by a team of resource people in the outdoors – photo scavenging, spotting, nature scavenging, plank walking etc. Each activity required the participation and contribution of each and every child. And making the every child to come out with ideas and involvement was the success. As a testimony to the inclusive nature of the camp, my younger son in 4th grade who accompanied me to the camp, was made part of the teams right at the beginning. The 12th graders heard out his ideas as much as they did a 7th graders.
Co-operation, inclusiveness, initiative, team spirit, idea generation, responsibility and other such lofty ideals would remain just that – lofty ideals – if confined to text books or dry sermons by teachers in classrooms. I am by no means undermining the value of the textbook or teachers – I have utmost regard for both. But it is only in a sports ground or in the wilderness that a child can get the time and space to practice first hand and make these lofty ideals a habit, a recurring habit. I am a staunch believer in this. I am fortunate to be working in an institution that too believes and practices this.
A special mention about our super seniors, the 12th graders, where the ‘super’ is not just a category name but an adjective to those seniors. They took their juniors under their wings, looked out for them, helped them out in difficult tasks, and coordinated with their teachers and other resource people to make this camp a success ! They were an inspiration to their juniors too, my kids still bring in the name of their senior annas and akkas when discussing the camp.
It is wrong to stereotype an entire generation as irresponsible or brash or brand them with other such adjectives. Sometimes we have to trust them and give them a free hand to let them experience their goodness and potential. And the perfect setting to initiate this would be away from the classroom or even home, as the classroom dynamics sometimes comes too loaded with pre-conceived baggage.
Sending out fit and responsible citizens out into the world is the responsibility of every parent, teacher, school and college. I am sure that these students will definitely Be the Change in the place and time they live.
My colleagues, camp director, the resource people, the campsite owners, their staff, the students – everyone contributed to make this camp a true ‘Winter in Wonderland’ !!
It was past midnight when we reached back to school. The eager parents were happy to get back with their kids. Teachers and students were bidding adieus with a heavy heart, for the bond had grown in the four adventurous days.