WINTER IN WONDERLAND !! ~~ Camping in the Misty Mountains !

DAUNTING DOWNHILL

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.

lake house

A scenic spot in Kodai Lake

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 !

roasted corn

Roasted, spicy corn on the cob !

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 PATHFINDERS

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.

PERSISTENCE PAYS

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.

calf

A cute calf in the campsite !

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 !

A hut in the forest

A lovely hut in the forest ! My dream house !

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.

village woman

A village woman going home with the days rewards.

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.

Just walking ma'am !

Just walking ma’am ! Really !

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 !

slushy trail

Climbing the slippery slope

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.

lemon grass

Lemon grass fringed trail !

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 !

misty trek

“Are we crossing mountains ?!” Trekking to somewhere in low visibility !

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.

IMG_20141220_111529

“Where are we ?!!”

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.

water falls

The top of the steep falls

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.

gorge

Gorge receiving the water from the falls

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.

village temple

A quaint village temple covered in mist

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.

misty river

Misty River !

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 !

TEAM BUILDING

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 !

Collage KODAI

Pathfinders in blue – a cool collage !

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.

camp activity

Camping grounds with the mountains as backdrop !

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.

hula hoop

Hula Hoopers !

SPECIAL MENTIONS

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.

tandem plank

Tandem Bridge ! The seniors leading from the front and guiding from the rear too. The juniors learning team spirit !

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.

campfire

Stories by the camp fire ! Pic courtesy : The Study

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.

Tha cubed !

‘Tha’ cubed 🙂

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’ !!

ADIEUS !

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.

tree swing

Cheered by the students to try this very long roped tyre swing ! An exhilarating experience !

~Punitha Lakshmi

Happy Campers Speak !! – Kids Trek @ Nagala

Happy Campers ! Charting their trail !!

Write up by Abhimanyu (8 + years) !

Abhi enjoying the cool pool @ Nagala !

Kids Trek at Nagala !

I like the trip very much. It was a wonderful experience.

I woke up at 5.00. I went to Chennai to my Thatha’s house. Then from there I went to Nagala in car. When we reached there, we played some games. Then I went to sleep at 12.30 a.m.

I woke up and brushed my teeth with neem sticks. Then I played for little time, then I climbed very little to watch the lake. Then I got down and had boost with chocos !! Then they gave me cap, lollipop and jelly ! Then my mummy gave us swimming tubes and life jackets. After that we started the trek.

It was so adventurous. I walked so much distance. In half the way we stopped in the stream and took rest. Then we started walking to second pool. All the uncles and aunts helped us .

When I reached the second pool, I gone to swim for a long time ! Then they called us to eat noodles. After I ate I went to swim again ! Then I ate my lunch.

Then we climbed down the mountain and came down. We took group photos. Then I had gone to Chennai again.

I enjoyed the trip very much. I made lots of new friends. The forest was so green !

Abhimanyu

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Write-up by Rahul (6 + years)  !

Rahul enjoys the pool !

Happy Camper !

I was very happy !

I enjoy to swim.

I enjoy climbing rocks.

I, my mummy and my brother enjoyed the camp.

I ate noodles and lollipop.

I got new friends.

I was very happy to come to the camp !

Rahul

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Charged trekkers ! Fresh even after a day of trekking !!

Interpreters of A Dream – 3G Frequency Variance !!!


The following scene took place in our home @ 5.30 am one morning… a few weeks ago…

Puni : (Lazily sipping coffee & talking to kids): Kutties I had a dream last night ! I was in a beautiful forest with lots of trees and rivers. There were some snakes around me !

(The half-sleepy kids perked up their ears & excitedly started a volley of questions !!)

Kids :

Abhi : How many snakes ma ?

Rahul : What colour ? Were you scared ?

Abhi : How many metres long ?

Rahul : Did it raise its hood and hiss ?

Abhi : Was it cobra or python ?

Rahul : I will catch it like Chotta Bheem does !

Puni : whoa… whoa… kiddos… too many questions !! Well…. the snakes were…

(My mom overhears our conversation & does not allow me to finish the sentence… she rattles off her opinion seriously !)

Grandma K : Punitha, I think it is some dosham. We need to go to some nagalinga temple & pray & offer milk to snakes.

Puni : Hayyo… Ammaaa… plzzz nooo… don’t try to put me thru’ that ‘dosham’ circuit again !! You know it doesn’t help me ! No milk, silk etc !!

Kids :

Rahul : Mommy, we will give coke or maaza for snake ! (Bcos he is trying to dodge drinking his morning milk and instead dreaming of some cold drink !!)

Abhi : Rahulllll…. snakes can’t drink all that da !!

Rahul : Snakes can drink maaza ! Right ma ??

Abhi : No, it can’t ! (Continues sarcastically) You don’t even have science subject da… only EVS ! I have a separate science book… so I know better… ha ha ;)))

3 G Frequency - Abhi the Scientist conducts Viva Voce for the Snake ! Mom helps him !!


(Before Rahul could think of a retort, Grandma restarts her agenda !) 

Grandma K : We should go to Kalahasthi. Last time we visited Tirupati we did not go there. That is the place for naga doshams.


Now that Abhi has firmly established that Rahul is an outsider to ‘real science’, he continues to build up his superiority !!) 

Abhi : Rahul, do you know that snakes do not have ears outside their body ?

Rahul : tchchk…. how can that be ? Snakes have ears !!

Abhi : Poda… you dont know any science !

Rahul : I KNOW SCIENCE !! I’ll catch a snake and show you its ears !

3 G Frequency - Rahul the Brave catching a snake valiantly and shows off to Mommy !!

(My mom tries again !)

Grandma K : Was the snake’s hood in raised position ? Atleast you go to some local temple today.

1 G Frequency - Grandma K dreams of taking away all doshams !!

(Watching with amusement the animated opinions of her kids & mom, Puni regrets telling out her dream ! She has not even completed describing her dream, but scores of opinions are already floating around !!)

Raising her voice to be heard above the three…

Puni : Wait wait people… let me complete the description ! I was playing in a river in a forest, lots of trees & birds. A few snakes were sliding on the ground, some were hanging from trees !! The weather was cool and only the sound of the breeze, birds & river was heard ! It was like heaven !!

(Addressing her kids) Abhi, we will do a complete read-up on snakes, ok ?! Rahul, we will go to a zoo and see snakes, deal ?! Amma. NO, I’m not going to feed milk in temple. I think this dream is a call from nature for me to go trekking & camping in a forest soooon !! Even if I have to pay obeisance to snakes, I’ll do it in a forest in its natural abode than in a temple !

2 G Frequency - Puni the Nature Lover sings in the River and is @ Home in the Forest !!

(Puni finishes her long monologue in the gap she found and spells her decision emphatically !!)

Grandma K : One more trek ???? No. Go to temple.

Kids : I’ll also come to the forest !

Puni : Only trekking in forest !! Time to go on a TREK & sleep under the stars !!!

Kids continue their one-upmanship dialogues and also plan to go to a forest with Mommy !

Grandma goes to Pooja shelf to search for some sloka to safeguard against snakes !

Puni rushes off to check out the upcoming treks in CTC ;)) !!!

Peace reigns again !!

This happened few weeks back !

3G Frequency variance – 3 Generations interpreting a dream in 3 (or 4 !) different ways !!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Forward to the present :

Fortunately, a CTC kids trek (with parent) is coming up this weekend and me & my kids are gearing up for that !! So, this weekend, its time to walk in the forest, jump in the pools, sleep on rocks under the stars… and yeah, pay my respects to the venerable snake !!!

I believe now that dreams do come true !!!! So I’ll continue dreaming !!!

Happy weekend folks !! ‘Citi’zens, stay safe in the cities ;))

~ Punitha


A M!n!-Trek with M!n!-Trekkers @ Yelag!r! !!

trek trail

The drive up Yelagiri hills was strewn with hairpin bends – 14 in all I think. The weather was very cool . Monkeys welcomed visitors along the route and our small group of tarzans in the car were excited to see those !

When we reached Yelagiri, my first mission after settling down kids was to find the possibility of treks that the resort arranged ! There were two treks – one was a shorter one in the evening and the other was a longer and more adventurous one in the early morning.

After discussion with my sister Arthi, we decided on the smaller trek as she is new to trekking. Also I decided to take my elder son Abhimanyu, 8.5 yrs, along as it was to be a short trek of about an hour each way. I had earlier taken him on one in Munnar about 2 yrs back; but that was a tough one and he could not complete it. So this short Sunset Trek proved perfect for our small group ! But then we thought it would be tough for our parents to manage 3 little kids in the room till we came back from the trek. So we decided to take my younger one Rahul, who had just turned 6 yrs, and my sister’s elder one Shakthi, 5 .2 yrs, along too ! Now our group had grown bigger !!

We were a little apprehensive about managing three active and exuberant kids on a trek . So we briefed them on certain trekking ettiquettes; not making the trek into a running race being the most stressed point of the lot !! We were worried about one of them declaring their legs ached too much and we having to carry them. That would have been impossible and we jokingly decided to camp wherever that happened !!

We were all set the following evening for the Sunset Trek. But we had to dodge Arthi’s younger son Surya, all of 3 yrs, who got a sense of our preparations and was alertful to tag along wherever it was we were going. The trio getting ready only made him more aware that something was cooking up right under his nose ;)) But we successfully sneaked out, all 5 of us, leaving Surya to keep our parents company !!

Since our group comprised of first-time, enthusiastic mini-trekkers we were ready well ahead of the 4 p.m that our Guide had indicated to us !! Our group of minis meanwhile indulged in warming up by running all over the place !! Atlast our guide and 4 more co-trekkers arrived to the waiting area and we all took off to bid adieu to the setting sun !!

The sun was still shining bright, albeit on the mid of the western sky. The short hike up the main road took us to a forested area. We climbed over a short broken wall and literally jumped into the forest !! Here only occasionally the sun peeked through the tall trees, most of them Eucalyptus. Soon, civilization was left behind !!

M!n! Trekkers !

Our mini-troop gunned forward as if they were tarzans of the jungle and like they knew the trail like the lines on their palms !! They marched behind the guide, tripping, laughing, but always focussed. I had told them to not lose sight of us or the guide and they remembered it now and then ! Our 4 co-trekkers called out to the guide to stop here and there, but our mini-trekkers were impatient with all the pit stops and were raring to march on ! I had carried snacks and water, thinking the little ones will feel tired or hungry or both one after the other. But they disproved me and were more keen on exploring the forest trail.

There were lot of overgrown thick roots which jutted out of the ground. They tripped over those, but were back on our feet almost instantly. There was a stretch of low web of branches and we adults had to bend in double to navigate that path. But the mini-tarzans just held their head high and glided thru that difficult stretch !! Ha, the advantages of being really short !!!

After 45 mins to an hour, we had reached the sunset point. The sky had turned a multitude of hues now – ranging from red to blue ! The sunset had begun ! The view point was a very narrow area, with just one or 2 boulders to stand on. We could climb a few feet up for some photo-ops; which we did a lot ! But then we came back to the point and there was this big boulder on the edge of the ridge, and it seemed to hold the mountain back from the deep valley on its other side !

Even in that narrow piece of land, the kids found room to jump, play and run ! They were so happy to have trekked there ! Fearlessness – thy name is Child !! The kids were blissfully integrated with nature and did not think twice before doing what came naturally to them. Children have such a Divine Connection with Nature. Absolute Trust that they are also part of it, which many adults forget as they grow up and start distancing themselves from Nature and Existence.

Mini-trekkers enjoying @ Sunset Point

The kids atlast asked for some water and snacks and eagerly nibbled on those ! We then settled down to watch the glorious sunset, in silence. It is amazing how the sky and sun play together to create such myriad tints, changing every minute ! The children were fully soaking in the glory of the sunset. This is a sunset they will not forget for a long time, as they had earned their way to watch this cosmic spectacle !

A glorious Sunset over the Yelagiri hills...

The guide repeated for the umpteenth time that we had to leave as it was already dark. We broke out of our reverie and reluctantly started the descent. We had forgotten the flash light and I fished out my cell phone to get some light. But we had to be sure to follow the guide as he was the only one with a flash light. There was friendly banter on the way back with our co-trekkers from Bangalore and they had lot of questions about Pondicherry as they were planning to make a trip here next !

The kids were too excited and did not have a trace of any fatigue ! They were eager to share their exciting experience with their grand-parents and ofcourse their little brother who was obviously solely ruling the roost in the room, in their absence ofcourse ;))

I could not do the longer trek due to lack of time.  Maybe next time :))

~Punitha

Cliff Hanger

Cliff Hanger

One beats all odds and conquers the highest physical creation of Existence.
The Other without effort concedes to death at the tallest man-made skyscraper.

One set the goals high and trained for months under difficult conditions.
The Other became down & out and plunges in an instant of trouble.

One survived on meagre food and braved the cold and the strong winds.
The Other could not overcome a few man created problems and failures ?

One has grown 8850 metres taller.
The Other has shrunk 828 metres shorter.

One has created history as the first in her category to conquer this zenith.
The Other too has created history - the first in that building to hit this nadir.

One has become immortal.
The Other has given in to mortality.

One got the courage from where ?
The Other lost the sanity there ?

One's courage vanquished fear ?
The Other's fear overshadowed courage ?

One's attitude determines 'altitude'
The Other's fortitude hastily elude ?

One is within us with Hope
The Other screams inside, "Nope".

When One goes through highs and lows,
Which is the 'One' which comes to the forefront and wins

Hanging on to the cliff is not a feasibility, 
Because inertia cannot be a permanent state.

Hardships push us to the edge of a cliff,
And spread out two possibilities before us.

The Other can either give in to the 'gravity' and sink into the abyss,
Or, One can become 'light' and soar into the wide and high sky.

~~~~

P.S : I read these pieces of news two days back at the same time and that's what triggered this introspection and this note.
The range of human potential is huge. People are distributed all across the spectrum.
But these can be viewed as metaphors for human struggles. Also, One & The Other can be two entities within oneself. 

One link is : 
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/Arunachal-woman-conquers-Mt-Everest-on-half-plate-of-Maggi-noodles/articleshow/8244492.cms

The Other link is : 
http://www.ndtv.com/article/world/man-jumps-to-death-off-worlds-tallest-tower-in-dubai-104793

 

 ~Punitha

Enchanting Nagala !! Part 2

In case you are joining me late on this trek, you can view the Part 1 of my Nagala trek here .

Pitter patter… a rhythmic sound seemed to be the bgm for my dreams !  But I was woken up by the trickling of water on my sleeping mat and I was completely wet. It had been raining all night and I had slept under the rains ! I decided to wake up and noticed a few of my co-trekkers were awake in an open tent. I joined them.

We were talking in low voices, more out of reverence for nature’s silence around us than for concern for our sleeping friends ; We wanted more people to wake up and join the early morning party !! Some were hungry and out came the snacks – it was 3 a.m ! We chatted and sang . After some time a very low light started dispelling the darkness. Through the clearing on the tree tops we could see the light. Within a few minutes the stream reflected the early morning light. The light was soft and the morning was tender. The flowing stream was singing a soft melody and the setting seemed too ethereal to be real ! One trekker woke up and when we showed her the first rays penetrating the forest, she instinctiveky switched on her torch to find out where the sun’s first rays where !! Another trekker announced that she had thought in her sleep that the constant gurgle of the stream was actually an artificial table top water fall !! It was funny and ironical. We cityzens – we urgently need more zen in the city !! We are all prone to such ironies when our lives get hardcoded in the city ! We need to become more zensitive !

First light streaming in through the trees...

The light permeated the forest slowly but surely. The rain was easing off a little. Hope was dawning among the trekkers that we would be able to trek back, provided the rain did not become heavier; then it would be hazardous.

The rest of the camp woke up and everyone felt a hot cup of chai is what would get us going and raise us out of the numbness due to sleeping in the cold and rain ! But alas, there were no dry sticks or firewood as rain had soaked all the trees and ground. We would have to wait for many more hours before we can drink anything hot.

We got down to the job of clearing the camp site – folding our mats & tarpaulin, picking up the little trash and stuffing them in carry bags, arranging our own bags. We did not have an extra set of dry clothes so we just had to remain wet.

We started the return trek. We followed the lead navigator. Another navigator brought up the rear of the group. But very soon we would be breaking into groups naturally based on our trek speed and stamina, and in some cases our photographic expeditions !! But the group always conglomerated at the critical junctures which were hazardous, to help each other out.

The day was cold and windy inspite of the early morning hope that the first rays had given. The river had swollen considerably and the banks were flooded. We could not go through the exact same spots we had used the previous day due to inundation. We had to test and find safer spots for criss-crossing the stream and scaling the gorge.

Misty Mountains

A mist had enveloped the gorge and the mountain peaks were capped by the clouds. The trees and plants were fresh having been washed by the rain. The rocks were wet and slippery. The river’s contours had altered dynamically owing to the rains. It was very deep at places and we had to rethink our steps all along.

Except for the slips and falls, which we had come to accept as normal, the first hour or so was uneventful. And then we came upon The Dead-End Pool – again !!

This time we frolicked in the swollen mini waterfall before we geared up to cross the dead end pool. After some group snaps, we formed a human chain across the stream to pass our backpacks. That done we crossed the vertical boulder cautiously. Then we carried our bags across the length of the gorge. One trekker fell off the vertical boulder into the water. She was quickly rescued. She was lucky to have escaped with minor cuts and scrapes. We were tired and hungry as we had not taken a proper breakfast. But we could not even think of that now. We were not yet out of the Dead-End pool. The walls of the gorge were even more slippery than the previous day and it was difficult to cross with the backpacks. After a point the guys offered to bring most of the backpacks. They were very helping throughout.

I was now at the vertical wall, from where I would have to get into the pool to be ferried. It was not possible to climb down as there were no footholds and the organizers had hit upon a solution – to jump into the water with a sleeping mat tucked under our hands. This would help us to bob back to the surface after the dive , provided we do not let go off the sleeping mat; in which case we would have a few seconds to explore the bottom of the pool before we rest there permanently  😦 !!Two guys and a girl would be in the pool to hold and ferry us the moment they spotted our bobbing heads; I’m sorry, its ‘if they spotted our bobbing heads’ !!

I closed my eyes, prayed to nature, scrolled through my bucket list which included learning to swim if I went back alive after the trek (!), kissed a goodbye to existence and loved ones, tightened my hands around the mat, took a deep breath and jumped feet first into the emerald green coffin !! I could feel chillness and darkness envelop me. I was into the water and the mat was slipping away. Water was entering my nostrils and mouth and I was gasping for breath. I was bracing myself to explore the deep confines of the pool, of that I was sure. Suddenly I could feel a breeze and somebody holding my arms; yes I had bobbed up alive ! I was ferried across the pool and the successful ones were cheered and clicked ‘on arrival’ at the banks of the Dead-End pool ! The organizers joked that since many of us were letting the mat slip while jumping, they should just push us into the water and stuff a mat under our arms if we bobbed up ! Yes, we were crazy to even attempt something like this !

Once the entire troupe had victoriously crossed over the pool, we celebrated by having the first meal of the day at around 12 noon. The rain was pouring again and we had a standing buffet. The pre-cooked chappathi packets were brought out along with 8 varieties of pickles ! The pickles were spooned onto the chappathis, rolled and dived into ! There were a few packets of namkeen and sweet rolls that disappeared quickly. After this relishing meal it was time to resume the trek.

By now, the stream had become my good friend and the slips too did not hurt much; and also perhaps my body had become numb ! I slowed down to click some snaps along the way. The mist had enveloped the mountains and the upstream. The speed of the flowing water was faster now due to the volume of water flowing from the source. This made some of the apparently clear spots also difficult to cross as less rocks meant more speed of the water. It was a live lesson in hydraulics.

Mountain and River - Nature's Love Story...

We reached the first pool and decided to take a break. I lay down on the rocks and gazed at the mountain peaks. Nature is amazing. There is a wealth of information and wisdom there that reveals itself only to the seeker. We just need to sit in silence in nature and we can hear the whisperings of  love and wisdom that resounds.  I looked at the steep and narrow gorge and wondered at the river’s patience in making the mountain understand the river’s love for the mountain and creating a path for itself to flow through the heart of the mountain. And such a mighty mountain becoming tender enough to be moved by the gentle river. The River flowed happily protected by the strong Mountains. The witnessing of such love tugged at my heart. Love and Faith can indeed move Mountains.

I indulged in some macro photography that I could not do so far in the trek. There was friendly banter and it was time to hit the resume button. From now onwards it would be a relatively easy path. But our energy levels had dipped dramatically and this made the rest of the trek tedious.

Rain drops...

The final lap resembled a comedy movie where groups get lost and keep running into each other and going the wrong way again and again ! This mountain stream can change course slightly depending on the rains and one small wrong turn could lead us into an unknown part of the forest. The organizers were experts and they charted our course well. In the last stretch we also encountered many local villagers who come to the mountains often to pick up firewood or leaves etc. They walked as if they were walking on flat ground under optimal conditions while we struggled like a baby taking its first steps ! The locals were people who were part of nature and they did not need special equipments to visit her !

After much walking we sighted the dam. It was brimming with water. We could spot the temple in the distance. The embankments of the dam were windy and cold. The open spaces and the wind across the water made the walk tough. It looked like a storm was hurtling towards the mountains. Darkness was falling over the mountains. We crossed the dam at its narrowest part and saw our parked vehicles. One group decided to break for dinner enroute while some of us planned to go straight to Chennai.

I switched on my mobile and saw some missed calls. I would have to answer them soon and face some tough questions !! Not yet ! I had not yet bid adieu to the mountain, stream, trees and clouds ! I had the feeling that I was bidding goodbye to a close friend. It was also time to say goodbyes to my co-trekkers who had become good friends by now, having survived two strenuous days together. The organizers had done a wonderful job and were very helpful.

My brother informed me of the approaching storm and the heavy rains in Chennai & Pondicherry. It was going to be a rough ride back to Chennai. The rains would become heavier en route. We would be riding into the storm as the storm would reach these mountains in a day.

I'll be back soon !

I took one last look at the mountain and the stream. I’ll be back to Nagala sometime in the future. Right now, it is time to go back to Civilization !

Enchanting Nagala !! Part 1

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 !

Nagala gorge - Dead-end pool

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 .

indigenous cargo raft

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.

Gorge wall - like stacked slices !

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.

Enchanting Nagala !

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.

Charming Stream

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 !

Bubbly 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 !

My trekking kit

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 !

Yummy noodles and soup !!

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 !!