Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Mist, Mayhem and Meesapulimala

By Malini HariD

UP & Away at Chennai Central -

The FIRST AND VERY PLEASANT SURPRISE was to see at the station, an old friend from one of Student Concepts last years trek - HEAT 2003 - Anita & her family. Besides her, I bumped into Aishwarya another friend from college days as part of the group. So, it was with positive vibes, a high fun & adventure quotient that I got into Trivandrum Mail, at 7:20pm on Friday, 9th July 2004. Of course, the dude of all "Manoj" was there too. It did indeed promise to be fun - one way or the other.

The train journey was comfortable, though I couldn't sleep all night. The gentleman in the berth above me, dressed in a lungi, kept waking up and climbing down to check which station we were at every time the train halted. Then, he would climb back up to his berth and in the process kick my bag - I was resting my head on it !! If that was not bad enough, he would then, from the upper berth use his leg to switch the fan off & on !! At 2:30am, I just resigned myself to no sleep & watching his "hairy" antics. Thought I would catch up on my sleep in the next couple of days:) Definitely no middle berths for me next time.

Breakfast at Ernakullam - Come morning - 6:30 am on Saturday & the train arrived at Cochin City. It was nice to see a spacious & comfortable pick up van standing there with a beaming driver. We drove a short distance and stopped for breakfast. The more adventurous ordered Appams and kadala curry and sat down to wait for a piping hot meal. Like Manoj said, the hotel waiters just did not like the table at which Karthik & I sat!! They served us last, down to the solitary glass of chaiya. But who can complain on a stomach full of good mallu food.

The anticipated drive to Munnar -After refusing Manoj the window seat (the direct result of which was that he got the front view seat right next to the driver …ahemJ I can be so good for some people) I resigned to watching the rain through the glass pane. The drive up to Munnar started by 7:40am, & was gladdening as always. Coming into Kerala and seeing all that green around you does your heart good. Not to mention what all that rain feels like to a "water - starved - chennaite." The stop at the water falls en route to Munnar was awesome. It kickstarted all the cameras and the group photographs. In a while, certain "weak" stomachs ached for relief and we stopped the van for a brief walk up the winding mountainous road. At this time it was just past 10:30 in the morning. 10;30 on a Saturday morning, and none of us were in office! None of us were at work, we were walking up the mountain to Munnar. That simple thought lifted our spirits way up. The good thing about a holiday which gets you up early in the morning is the realization that there are indeed 24 hours in the day and for once we were using more time doing something we enjoyed than we did in the city. The van picked us up a short distance away & we were on our way again.

Lunch at Munnar -The green reverie was interrupted only by those solitary hunger pangs that came to the fore by noon. On reaching Munnar town, we met Binu our local trek guide. The entire group had lunch at Saravana Bhavan - massive dosas and vadas washed down with the very, very "local" black tea. I couldn't have it better being a tea aficionado myself. Others in the mood walked around with ice creams and did some last minute purchase of glucose & medicines for the onward trek.

The First Trek to the Base Camp -Hmm…here the first shock - was Binu's announcement that we had to walk with our bags - of which Manoj had given us no indication!! We eventually did it but imagine the plight if there were some more suitcases in the group!! Haha !! The novelty here was the "leech socks" that looked like ridiculous gum boots!! I'm still waiting for the photographs to see how they look. But they saved more legs than I can care to mention - so to all the future trekkers, love them when you get them and wear them faithfully.

The walk up began nicely with a dozen of us nibbling on carrots under bemused grins from Binu and Mr.Johnson - the forest officer who had made all the arrangements for us and who in the next 24 hours would seem GODSEND to some of us. The climb was good, not too steep and it brought out the first ration of dry fruits that Manoj had urged us so not to forget. When we just crashed midway on the track for the much-awaited break, Binu was threatening us with another days' walk with bags on our backs. All the "soft trekkers" balked at the idea and fervently started looking for solutions to dump all our bags elsewhere but on our backs when we attempted climbing the Meesapulimala the next day.

Accommodations and the welcome sight of base camp -After an hour's walk uphill, we pushed open the gates and entered base camp, crossing over the first mound of elephant dung that would during the next day become a familiar sight. I would have welcomed a more adventurous bathroom, but the four-walled ones were great without the leeches. Tents were pitched on a cement base and not the ground. That saved us from too much rain water seeping in. The only uninvited guests would be the one off leech that managed to get into the tent.

Refreshed with black tea and a variety in biscuits & snacks, we grumbled, deferred and finally agreed to trek to a nearby waterfall. It was a little past 3pm. No bags this time- just armed with our torches and all that energy we climbed over a wire fence and stamped away. By now we were moving through dense forest and the mist was crawling in steadily. The fun part for the "winter deprived" chennaites was just beginning. We were all blowing air out of our mouths trying to see the familiar vapor effect that is so common up in higher altitudes & colder climes.

Some parts of the terrain were steeper than we cared to climb, but climb we did. If it took us getting down on all fours and grabbing a hold before moving one more step so be it. Around us we could hear the not-so-distant roar of the water that made its way down the hill. Crossing the rivulets and smaller streams that took us closer to the waterfall made the ground all the more wet and slippery so caution was desirable. Though it takes your mind off walking, less talking conserves energy and that is a rule so easily forgotten as we move up. Reaching the waterfall was more than worth the effort. The falls were huge and entirely covered in mist. The water was freezing cold and only two of the entire lot braved the chill and dipped their feet in. The rest of us got wet with our shoes on. It was past 4:30pm now and getting dark soon. We had an hours walk back so we rushed through our photo sessions and turned back up the trail we came. I had the luck of looking straight into a tree frog when I bent down on one occasion to pull up my leech socks and tie them tight. Not that it paid any attention to me, he just hung on to his branch and I to mine.

Tired but not entirely exhausted we reached back. It had been a long day - morning in the train, drive to Munnar, trek up to base camp, trek to waterfall and finally permission to sit back and relax. Long before dinner, they lit us a campfire, a personal favorite of mine when I'm outdoors. Who can argue with lots of wood making lots of heat, warm sleeping bag, warm face, and warm feet - it was lovely. Warm water to wash up in the morning & at nights was a very thoughtful gesture & one you would particularly appreciate if you can't hold your brush right in your numb fingers. The second round of hot black tea that was offered on coming back wet & tired felt good. You won't hear the end of all the black tea from me. Campfires are meant to be noisy and ours to begin with was not. Everyone seemed busy trying to get warm around the fire - then began the first round of ghost stories. Manoj had his ears covered and Karthik couldn't stop narrating them. Throw in Raji with her share of extra sound effects and you've got a practical nightmare for Manoj & the lesser stout of heart. Some singing followed and only two good voices surfaced in Jagan & Kala. Forgive me if I missed any budding talent. But we made do.

Dinner was totally unexpected & thoroughly mallu as it should be - 10 side dishes, papadams, plus two gravies, plus rice and chappatis followed by dessert - I mean what did we do to deserve it all? I'm sure my entire group joins when I say "GOD BLESS THE COOKS & the organisers". Dinner done, we walked in the slight drizzle to our tents that were 30 feet away and got into our sleeping bags trying to get warm. It was 10:30pm at night. An early night for all that activity. Not that it was over in our tent yet. Come midnight, the 3 girls in our tent still found ourselves awake. Make it two awake, one dead to the world. Snores permeated the air on either sides of our tent - Karthik in the tent to our left and a lady in the tent to our right. I tried reading a book under the dancing torchlight above my head for a while. Then, Aishwarya turned & saw the leech over her head. The commotion that followed could only be imagined in a two-man tent. Unbelievably, Kala & everyone in all the other tents slept through it all. Nothing short of an elephant marauding the neighborhood would wake them up.

By now it was raining hard and our tent was sagging on two sides. The boys were doing the regular night watch but we didn't want to wake anyone else up. So, we sat huddled in our sleeping bags and by 2:30am decided we would leave the tent and go to the dining area where the warm fire was burning. Second incentive, the toilets were there! Unzipping our tent ( it takes three zips down and when you are in a hurry, the damn zipper is always in the opposite direction from where you are hunting), we bundled our sleeping bags under our arms and made our way out in the rain - back to the inviting warmth of the fire. Amazingly, Kala was the first one to fall asleep there on the chairs. The remaining two of us spent a fitful night.

Breakfast at Base camp on Day 2 -Aah, here we saw steamed bananas. Black tea, and enough variety in breakfast - bread, butter, cheese, jam, & alloo puri. We washed up with hot water, gorged on the food and moved out to begin our trek really late by 7:40am. Twelve of us set out with Binu our trek guide and Mr.Johnson, the forest warden.

Binu, our trek guide was totally focussed, and set a fast pace for the climb. His "continue, continue" reminded me of the schoolteacher who refuses to let go when you want to fail. He did threaten us with carrying our bags on Day 2 also but relented so we took smaller packs of water, snacks & our cameras. Binu just wouldn't let up on the pace because he knew we had to get back down the hill by 1:30pm so that we could drive four hours to Cochin to catch our train at 7:30pm back to Chennai.

One word for this trek, memorable - whether it is in the tents at night, in the train, lost & left behind on the trail. Mountains are made that way - they have a way of dwarfing everything else you are feeling right at that moment. You just sit still and say " I'm walking through the mist, I'm actually doing it". The person walking ten feet in front couldn't be seen. Voices sometimes carried further in the wind and sometimes were lost to us. By now the entire group had split into two - one walking faster & the rest plodding on behind. I reached the top of the smaller plateaus before the Peak and when I sat down to rest my feet, I found a steady drizzle that the wind blew right at me. It took me a while to figure out when it was the rain that was getting us wet and when it was the mist that seeped through our jackets. It is a personal indulgence to want to stay up on a mountain in the rain and the mist with the chill wind freezing the hairs off your face. Even our eyelashes had condensed water droplets hanging from them.

It hurt to see the mountain face all scarred from the forest fires in March that began from the plantation and moved all over. The soil we were walking on was black. The charred pines we were told wouldn't grow again. But the shrub had a chance to push through all that ash and perhaps spread across the mountainside once more. It was a temptation to pluck a "keepsake" but we were told "one does not carry anything off the mountain". It reminds us to respect what is fragile and help preserve what is left of it. I do wish I could have seen some elephants though - they are another personal favorite of mine. Singing in the rain on crutches has acquired a new meaning in my life…haha & I'm going to be so much more considerate to everyone in the world who has a knee problem. The sights were more and sounds rare - "of the whistling thrushes" that we came across.

Aah, Mr. Johnson, the forest warden - I will take a little time to talk about him - AWESOME, KIND, SOFT SPOKEN, AMAZINGLY PATIENT, AND WHERE DO I STOP? He was the reason some of us made it back. It gets very disappointing and disheartening when you can't finish what the entire group set out to do. What gnaws at your conscience is your discomfort seemed to be spoiling the holiday for the others as well! The 3 of us who were left behind were not only pulling each other up but also trying to keep from feeling very, very low at certain times. That is not an easy feeling to deal with when you know you are walking at a pace far behind everyone's. It was very kind of Johnson to stay with us and keep reassuring us that we could rest and proceed at our comfort. I doubt if Binu would have had that kind of patience with us. At 21yrs, he's full of vigor, all that energy and speed that some of us were wary of after half the trek got underway.

3 of us were finding it difficult to walk. Anita, her husband & her son, 11 year old Satwik fell behind to walk with us. That made us exactly half the trek group that was walking slowly and way behind the first half. Johnson decided to leave us by 4:00pm & go down the mountain faster so that he could come back with some help. The first group had proceeded & reached the van by now. By now it was too late even for them to drive to Cochin and catch the train back to Chennai. So, they waited for us - the remaining 6 to come down.

Johnson's first branch across the wooden bridge was easy to find but the others had us in doubt - after all we were in a forest & he decided to leave us "branches" to mark our way down. But ingenuity wins - Johnson had planted all his "markers' right in the center of the road every time there was a deviation in the track & we faithfully followed those. Sighting Johnsons' planted branches now became akin to hope! I do not exaggerate when I say 45 minutes of waiting for him or anyone to turn up after the wooden bridge had depressed us all a little more. We were all going through different emotions by now - some bordered on anger, some regret, some helplessness. It took effort to stay pleasant and positive. The mist moved in and our moods dipped a little more lower. But we were singing, believe it or not, we were singing. In that off tune voice, heavy with breathing hard we were managing a song.

At 5:10pm, the 6 of us hitched up our leech socks, and said, "ok, lets take stock of what ever we are carrying in terms of food, snacks, water, one small torch". Raji's entire food stock & shoes were in Binu's bag (she was walking in her leech socks), water - only half a bottle with Anita, one small torch - we pulled out batteries from our cameras to preserve them. It was indeed turning into an adventure. Ideally the trek was a 5-hour climb/walk & we had been walking since 7:40 in the morning. Yes the dry fruits, snacks and sweets were consumed but no substantial lunch. Give or take 3 hours of all the resting combined, at 6pm we had still been walking for atleast 7 hours now. For soft trekkers that is "awesome, good & killing". You will be glad to know no one was left behind.

By now, 6 of us were following the tracks Johnson left us, running all the way down to get a 4-wheel drive to pick us up halfway. A distance that Johnson was covering, running in 45 minutes, we as "semi-invalids" would have taken 3 hours to cover. Spending the night on the mountain was not a thought we contemplated for long. Not that we doubted for a moment that Johnson would be back for us. So, we trudged on, someone scouting the way ahead and the rest following. Sometime well after 6pm when we heard the jeep & saw Johnson jump out to help us in - that was the sweetest sight & sound we could have cared for all day long.

Sure that all the worries were only on our side of the planet, we reached downhill, only to hear that Kala had been taken to the hospital as she had suddenly started shivering severely. Our jeep driver who had been playing football till Johnson accosted him and asked him to drive up to help us back, now jumped out of jeep and his elder brother drove us to the city hospital. We found Kala, after an injection and an IV drip, warm & moving around once again.

It was too late to catch a connecting bus from either Theni or Madurai or Coimbatore to Chennai. Most of us were too dead to travel. So we stopped for dinner and Manoj got us booked into guesthouse right behind the station and we all stayed back at Cochin. Open tickets were bought for the journey the next day. The wake up call came at 5:30am and by 6:30 everyone was out of the lodge. We got into S6 and after the TT allotted us berths, everyone slept till lunchtime.

The group was awesome, fun, caring, a little nuts when we start laughing and it didn't stop-whether it be in the tents at night, in the train, lost & left behind on the trail. The train journey back was so much fun - 3 straight hours of dumb charades kept us engrossed!! And then we tried gossiping (yes, even the boys) & talks moved onto the secrets of the universe. Need more time to do it all. Chennai Central came too soon at 10pm and we got off and did one last round of pictures. With so much spirit in everyone, a definite opinion on everything, even the complaining was fun. I'd love to do a trek again with the same group & this time I promise to shut my mouth a little more so that everyone can enjoy the "sounds of the whistling thrushes". I will try, I really will.


At 7:08 PM, Blogger chikuado said...

Wow! That was one really good travelogue!

When we went last week, we came to the van at 3 p.m. The jeep driver set a new record - got us in Cochin station by 6.45 p.m.!! He didn't believe it himself! Another anecdote to mark an already amazing trip :-)


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