Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Dhak-Bhairi... Experience

A word of warning.
This blog entry will be written the way I write all my blogs - information, trivia, and a general this-is-what-happened. But there's something else I want to put in this one; a warning to all trekkers. Read it through, and judge for yourself what kind of experience we had and how you can protect yourself. I'll try to help you as much as I can.
But first - the trip.

A call came from D at around 7, asking if I want to go to Dhak-Bhairi. Small group, more of a recon trip than anything else. Met up with D, G, V, and B at Andheri.
A little background - D and G respectively are core members of two different trekking organizations, and have several dozen treks to their credit. I have barely a dozen. B is a trained and certified mountaineer from HMI who's spent several years doing Himalaya trips & expeditions. V was on his second trek.
Dhak Bahiri, on the other hand, is supposed to be one of the tough treks of the Sahyadris. It's impossible in the monsoons because it's simply too dangerous; and in the summer, the rocks will roast you alive.
Dhak Bhairi also has a reputation, I realized a few minutes into the conversation, of being difficult. It's like there's a curse, or a jinx on the place. Almost everyone who's been to Dhak before, has a story of something going wrong. A lot of treks have never been completed. There are personal jinxed peaks; but Dhak is the personal jinx of altogether too many people.
As usual, we reached VT, hung out stocking up on supplies and took the last train to Karjat. Reached around 3 AM, did a quick few rounds in the deserted silence - every shutter was down, door closed, window latched and the only lights were street lights. Startled dogs barked, and that was the only sound. Finally we located a temple where we settled down in the verandah and dozed off.
Trivia - don't sleep directly in front of the temple entrance; too much psychic energy being channeled through. It will give you screaming nightmares if you block it.
Early morning, we located a chai stall with some tumtum drivers were getting ready. Got on, pushed off for Vadap.
From Vadap, around 8-9 km from Karjat, it's a fairly relaxed, straightforward walk up; not too tough or difficult. But that's completely dependent on the weather; the last time this had been attempted by D, it was May and the heat nearly killed them. Today, this early in the morning, the sun was behind the mountain almost for the first three hours. Beautiful trekking conditions.
We went through very DDLJ-type fields of flowers. The Shahrukh-Kajol scene happened later, but that's another story we'll come to soon enough.
The later part of the trek became a little tougher, with lots of loose scree and a steeper slope, uneven surfaces. Took a pitstop at a tree lying across the road, generally fooled around; we were in extremely good spirits. We stopped at the sarpanch's house, where an old man was cooking up mawa. We chatted up the sarpanch - a guy called Patil, also the resident quack - for a while, found he was doing some side business apart from farming - local medicines. When asked about what medicines, he said, "fifty rupees is the cost."
Slightly surprised, we asked again what it does.
His response? "Medicines don't do anything. What actually cures people is the chanting I do. Medicine is something you have to give because people expect it."
Hmmm. A point to ponder, indeed. We have a true-blue faith healer amongst us.

Dhak is a village that's different from most other Sahyadri villages, for several reasons. One, there are no near neighbours; it's the only village within a massive radius of land. Two, everyone in it is related; cousins, in-laws, brothers, etc. One big happy(?) family.
We ate at the house, and G and D developed an extreme affection for the goats.
Then we arranged a guide - the sarpanch's son - who would help us up to Dhak fort and Bhairi. Starting off, we were surprised to find an old man instead of the son; there appeared to have been a last-minute substitution.
The climb up to the fort was fairly tough; the sun was full out now, and the incline was pretty tough as well. The fort itself is not much; almost all gone, just a couple of water tanks are all that's left. There are fresh flowing streams, though; good places for campaing out. B's leg started cramping up when we reached; he had done a rock-climbing session the previous day, and might have stressed it too much. We used something that D had procured; it's a homeopathic paste called dard-dabav lep, a brown powder you mix with water to make a paste and smear on. D & G swear by it; G had once used it on a hairline fracture.

After a quick rest, we left B at the tank with the bags and went ahead with our guide for the Bhairi climb. People - read through what happened next, and tell us if we were wrong in our final decision.
Until now, everything was fine. The situation started getting worse from here on.

The climb was extremely long and circuitous, going through some extremely difficult terrain along the cliff-face; at times, so narrow that we had to rope ourselves together for safety. The guide kept moving ahead, exhorting us to go faster and faster.We reached the Kalakri-Dhak rift around 3 PM; this is a narrow gully, fairly broad but with very high walls so it looks narrow. It does narrow down towards its base, though, to an extent that backpacks have to be taken off or you get stuck. After the gully, it's a clear, straight path... for about fifty feet.

Then, nothing. A little searching and squinting shows you... a pair of pitons hammered into the rock face where the path ends.
That's when it hits you... This is it. No alternative except proper rock face traversing. Some minor footholds are there... under you is a couple of hundred feet into the valley, straight down. Rock. And if you make the mistake of looking up instead, there's another five hundred feet of cliff, ever-so-slightly leaning outwards so you can almost feel it ready to topple over on your head anytime. Hundreds of feet high, hundreds of feet across.
The guide quickly went across the rock like a monkey, and the last we saw of him was going up about fifty feet ahead. We decided not to be stupid, since we had fairly limited experience; lashed up a belay line and started moving along the rock. Immediately discovered the rock had been facing west through the entire afternoon; it was hot enough to blister, broil your flesh under your skin in minutes. We didn't have an option; we wrapped our hands in handkerchiefs, and carried on. The fingers obviously had to be left open to find handholds, but the palms were saved.
Will be a while before I can feel anything much with my fingertips, though.

G reached first, and looked up. One hundred and twenty feet. Vertical. No safety lines. Minimal handholds. One small ledge. Straight up. This is why Bhairi is considered tough.

But the situation suddenly and completely went from challenging to completely frightening the minute G reached the last leg of the climb, and four heads looked out from the cave at him. One of them belonged to the original guide, the sarpanch's son, who was supposed to come with us; at no time he had passed us. And yet was there ahead, waiting.
They were yelling at him not to bring his shoes up; never mind that at that point there is no place to keep them. He somehow managed to get his shoes off, balanced on a 2-inch ledge; then climbed up one of the ropes hanging down. When he reached the top, he asked the guys there to give him a hand up. And they refused.
They said he has to climb up himself.
He somehow did. He was immediately surrounded and asked for money for the Puja. He refused there as well. They told him to wash his hands and feet, and while doing that, he looked into the adjacent cave. It was filled with the carcasses of chickens slaughtered for the sacrifice. At this point, one of the four suddenly 'got possessed by the spirit of the Mata' and started screaming at the top of his voice, eyes rolling back. Another told him that no black colors were allowed in the cave, and snatched and threw away the cap G was wearing. Over the cliff. And a shoe as well.
Remember, this is in a small cave in the middle of a rock face, in the middle of nowhere, and he's alone. We're still coming up.
At the beginning of the trek, three of us had said that we had never freaked out during treks. All three of us had the pleasure of that experience on this one.
When we finally reached the top - no help again as usual - the act stopped and they assessed us. I was too freaked by the climb alone - this was the first time I had tried rope climbing, and this is not the easiest of environments, not helped much by bloodcurdling screams and moans from above and the sight of your friends' cap and show flying past your head into the valley three hundred feet down - I just pulled myself up and in, and sat there.
The guide was sitting in a corner, watching. We watched each other for a while.
Then D came up, and the four guys immediately pushed off. We knew something was wrong by now. Very wrong. G was too shaken to even think of moving down; I frankly couldn't have. So we told the guide instead to quickly get back to B who was on the plateau alone with the bags, stay with him, and wait until we came back. It was still four in the afternoon, and we were fairly confident we could get back while it was still light.
The guide was sent off. We recovered our nerve, refilled the bottles, and started down.
The toughest part of the climb down is lowering yourself over the edge. Because you have to search for the knots in the rope to find toe-holds, you have to look down occasionally. And see a beautiful view, going for a long, long, long way, straight down. A group of monkeys also came out and started snarling at us; luckily none actually attacked, or someone would have fallen for sure.
We reached the bottom safely, and moved off towards the plateau. Unfortunatley we had overestimated the time we had left; and with one shoe missing, the going over rock and jungle was slow. And without a guide, we soon found ourselves on territory that looked more and more unfamiliar.
We paused for a minute to take stock of the situation. We had no food. One bottle of water. One was barefoot. We had a medical kit, and a torch, but it would consume it's batteries in under two hours. We had no idea how to get back to the path by backtracking, or how long it would take, or if it would work. We had a rope. All of us were fairly tired, tensed, and continuously worried about B and what might be happening. And cut off, so there was no way to get a
message to him.
And it was getting dark.
Sabki g&$# phat ke haath mein aa gayi thi.

Finally, in the last of the light, we decided on a desperate measure. Following semi-visible, and possibly wrong paths, could lead us round and round through the jungle and maybe even down into the valley for hours. We had to get our bearings; and the only thing we were sure about was that we had to round the mountain, get to a height, and identify the plateau and get there, path or no path.
So we scaled the rock.
Over rock, scree, bushes, undergrowth, all the way halfway up the mountain, in semi-darkness, tired, scared and increasingly nervous.
Ever had incidents where your life flashes in front of you? A moment of pure panic, where your mind doesn't work, and you can't think, move or breathe? This where I had one of mine. Climbing up, I reached for a handhold that was too far away, put too much pressure on the foot. Skidded. And suddenly I was sliding down the rock face towards the valley. The panic hit when I realized I has slipped one, two, five, ten feet and was still sliding. Four feet from the edge, one set of fingertips found a crack, barely enough for a pinch-hold, and V grabbed an arm.
And froze.
He couldn't pull me because he was disbalanced; and my hold was enough to keep me there, but the fingers were already creaking.
Thank you, Western Line and Borivli Fasts. If I hadn't hung out of the door from you Andheri-Parel for the last four years, I would have been dead. But my fingers held long enough for me to see the rope, and tell V to let me go and pass me the rope instead. And slowly, carefully, caught the rope, took the pressure off my fingers, and found a foothold.
There will be a missing patch of skin on my stomach and chest that will, for a long time, spell out like a tattoo - Do. Not. Act. Stupid.
After this, we had to take a call. The main scrub-jungle was still ahead of us. We knew that B wouldn't wait for us after dark; we also knew it would be just too dangerous to continue in the dark. We had three hours of torchlight, a candle, and half a box of matches.
We decided to keep going until we found a clearing, somehow, and wait till morning. D cut a bottle in half, and stuck a candle in it to make a makeshift lantern, and we started off through the scrub forest.
It's a lot of bamboo, and just dense enough to kake progress really difficult, about twice head-height. But still sparse enough to make identifying a path really difficult.
Then at around 9 in the night, we had our first stroke of luck. We reached a clear area with a stream. No more questions; we sat down. We must be a few hundred metres away from the tank where we had left B, but locating him now - through the next, thicker patch of vegetation - would be very difficult. We yelled, but there was just silence.
Except for a very, very far away sound of someone yelling in a very happy voice, from the Rajmachi hill, almost five or six kilometers away.
Ghostly, disconnected, and not entirely sane.
We gathered up as much wood as we could, and D melted what was left of the candle over it to help it catch fire; the grass was already dew-wet, and we had no paper. I washed off the blood and dirt once the fire got going, and we settled down to pass the night.

At about 11, out of the dark, we suddenly heard voices. And saw 2 or 3 torches coming towards us. Our first reaction was that B had organized a search party; but as they stepped into the light, it was obvious they had nothing to do with rescue. They were hunters, who had seen the fire and come to see who or what we were. There were about a dozen, carring dandas.
They looked us over, and we asked them if they could help us back to the village. They flatly said - "We're not from Dhak. We're hunting tonight. We can't help you. We're leaving. Don't come near us."
I'm not sensationalist enough to believe that there are actually leopards in the Sahyadris. But I know there are wild boars. And I might have heard, later during the night, something moving about outside the circle of firelight, snuffling. But nothing spotted; so better left imagined, I guess.
At night in the Sahyadris, when the wind gets going, the temerature drops; nothing compared to the Allahabad winters, but enough to make you shiver and generally be quite uncomfortable. We had to keep the fire going... so every hour or so, two of us would move into the jungle and pick up as many branches as we could find.
Trivia - Dry cactus is a good firestarter. The thorny skin can be torn off and burns like paper, and the internal wood is fairly inflammable, if short-lived, fuel.
But the woodsmoke seriously stings your eyes like crazy, won't let you sleep, and is apparently magnetically attracted to my face. In the end I gave up and just sat there, eyes squeezed shut, feeting the heat and smoke roiling around my face, breathing in sips whenever the wind changed. We slept in watches, stretched out on the rock around the warm circle.
The sky was amazing, though. A small golden glow from the fire, and pitch darkness. no moon. Just more stars that i've seen since... decades. In a completely clear, cloudless sky. And I think I was finally able to see the Milky Way.
With first light, we were up and going. In an hour, we had reached the summit, where we were in direct line of sight with Rajmachi; and therefore able to receive a cellular signal. Gave the "We're okay" message, got in touch with a previous Dhak explorer, got our bearings. Found the tank in ten minutes.
B was not there.
We then looked around. A packet of paper plates, a t-shirt, and an empty pack of his cigarettes. This is not a guy who will ever deliberately litter. This has to be a signal. He was here.
Quickly, we went down, and by 9, we were ten minutes away from the village. We spotted a group of other trekkers coming from the other side, and talked to them for a while, resting. One of them had a similar story to tell; we just had a shoe thrown off. His group lost an entire rucksack the same way.
We took a packet of biscuits, but no water; they would need it more up there.
At this point, through a gap in the trees, walks the guide and B. D had his DDLJ moment then; tired or not, as he fairly flew through the grass to meet him.
B's Story
After we left him at the tank, he had a peaceful snack, relaxed, rested. Then started getting increasingly worried as the evening wore on, and it got darker and darker. At about six, the guide came to him.
Get this, now.
The guide told him there was no message from us. We had decided to stay at the caves. He told B that B should go back to the village.
B didn't believe him, and kept him there till nine, searching the nearby areas. Then the other guys - who had been waiting for us in the cave, came and spoke to the guide. B is Bengali; he can't understand Marathi. The guide immediately did almost an about-face, and flatly refused to go any further. And definitely would not search for us at this time.
So then B did one amazing thing, which I still cannot get over. He didn't know the guide's or the villager's intentions, but knew he wasn't going to leave the bags here. So he put some food in a bag and hid it at the tank, indicated it with stone symbols, and carried three bags all the way down; two himself, and one with the guide. This with an hurting leg.
At the village, the villagers tried to convince him of a series of stories, each more bizarre and outlandish then the next.
We had got drunk, and had a fight.
We had decided to go to Lonavla instead.
One of us had fallen down and the others had run away.
There was a murderer in the village, on bail, hiding out from the cops. This bit was true; the guy in question came, drunk, and took cigarettes off B several times.
Under no circumstances would the guide - or anyone else from the village - go with B to help search for us, whatever the situation might be. He tried signal fires, torch flashes, everything. Finally, at five in the morning, he decided that he was going up and waiting for us at the tank. The guide again refused; his reason? He couldn't leave without cooking and eating mava. It was the only thing he ate, and he couldn't function without it. That went on till nine in the morning.
So that was how he found us within ten minutes. This was again an amazing coincidence, since the guide was takinbg him by a different route from the usual; we, however, had gotten lost on the way down and landed up on his way completely by accident.
The guide, when he saw us, had an expression like he'd seen a ghost. He literally stood there, mouth opening and closing, for a couple of minutes. Then started shouting abuse in marathi, claiming he had been mistreated, and we were making his life hell.

Back to the main story...
We were now all together, and safe. The next priority was recovering our stuff. The bag B had left up near the tank was gone; and worst of all, he hadn't known that V had kept his cell and wallet in it, along with a pair of shorts. We decided to head back to the village quickly, where the rest of the bags were, and move out as fast as possible. When we reached the village, we quickly checked the contents, and packed up.
Then a guy comes and says, "Are you missing a bag?" (Oh, such innocence!)
"My brother found a bag in the morning. Everything was scattered everywhere. He didn't know what to do, so he brought it back here." (Yeah. Scattered. By Monkeys? Magpies? Mischievous little pixies?)
"Can you bring it?"
"Please come."
B and I looked at each other. This smelled fishy, and was getting fishier by the minute... by knew we pretty much knew what was happening, but we were kind of seeing how blatant it would be. I guess I was subconsciously thinking, 'Let me give them enough rope so they can, metaphorically, hang themselves. So that the next time, there's nothing else they can say or do to redeem themselves. And there'll be no mercy.'
At a hut some distance away, the bag was produced.
The entire village gathered around.
We were solemnly informed that since, in the past, someone had lost his bag, he had filed a police complaint and blackened the name of the whole village, so they wanted to make a point of being honest.
The way they would make this point was to return the bag. Of course, they naturally knew exactly what was in it. How much the cellphone was worth. What was in the wallet. How much money was there.
So, as a token of our gratitude, we should give them five hundred bucks. Or, we could go on back home... without the bag, naturally.
Then followed an intense hour of negotiation, where there was a lot of yelling in Marathi (which we barely understood) and backtalk in Hindi (which apparently they didn't understand, in spite of having had a day's worth of conversation in it the previous day). There was physical snatching of bags. There was anguished, disgusted expressions, and furious glares. And finally, at the end of it, B and I walked way with all bags and possessions, but a hundred bucks lighter.

We camped out a little distance from the village, cooked and ate all the food that we had missed out on the night, and took a quick nap. No food or sleep had ever been as delicious. And chicken flavoured maggi cooked on a wood fire in pond water tasted like slurpy heaven.

Then we packed up, went down to Vadap, guzzled down Mirinda, 7-up, walked halfway to Karjat, bonding over the experience, and finally headed home.
My take -
In hindsight, it seems to me that the entire plan had been to intimidate us into a state where we would give them anything they wanted. So,
  • They took us through the difficult route, and threw away the shoe, to ensure we remain stuck at the cave.
  • Then they would scare B into going to the village, and maybe even fooling him into leaving for Lonavla. This would leave our bags open for them to take.
  • If B insisted on rescuing us, then they could have done an elaborate rescue with a lot of hue and cry, and charged us a bomb for it, knowing where we were all the time.

They never imagined that
  • We would find our way back
  • We would make it down, one of us barefoot
  • B would be able to carry all the bags back
  • We would not leave without ensuring we were all together.

But most dangerous of all - all the decisions they made, all the assumptions they used, were based on their own physical capability. They could not imagine that a city person might, as a result of what they did, get seriouslt hurt or even killed.
And even if he did - big deal. Who's going to follow up? What cop is going to come up? And even if one does, the chappie can hide in the mountains for weeks and never be found. It's their own kingdom.
And the entire village is in it together.

So -
If you're planning to go to Dhak, then do it.
By all means do it, because it's a beautiful climb, and the views are intense, both during camping and while walking. The rock climb terrain alone is worth it. And no Sahyadri trekker is ever complete without Dhak-Bhairi.
But make sure you remember who and what these people are. Don't get scared. Move in groups. Stay in contact. Stay self-sufficient. And do not trust them.
All villages in the Sahyadris aren't like this. In fact, none of the others I've been to are. There, the village is the first to ensure your safety and comfort, far ahead of their own. They will never try to cheat you. They will make sure if anything happens, you get back alive, unhurt, and with all you came with.
This village is an aberration. Recognize it, be aware of it, and plan accordingly. The treks are still worth it.
But Dhak is not for the laymen. It's not for the novice. It's not for the amateur. it's a war zone. You have to be tough enough, prepered enough, to survive it.

We learnt a huge amount from this trek. We'll be going back there soon. And we're going to look up our old friend, the guide. And maybe throw something else off the cliff face because it's not allowed in the cave.
A certain guide's lungi, maybe.
See the photos here
See the slideshow here


Amit Kulkarni said...

Mind blowing !!!
will read it again and again !! well written too ... good efforts put
Amit K

oxyacetelyne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kaustubh said...

That left me spell bound.
I am feeling so awefully bad that I missed this one.
But I know D and G and have trekked with them earlier.
So hopefully they will agree to do it again with me.

Swaroop said...

Well written; the bizarre experiences seemed to be a Ram Gopal Verma movie!
I am sure you must have thoroughly enjoyed this 'funny' experience ;)

Pranay Anthwal said...

AT you are some writer! :)

and wow.. what an experience..
but arent u guys going to take those ass*&@JI to task?

if another gang doesnt have the same strength and luck - people can die.

I think the authorities need to be informed to teach these rogues a lesson.

Mycotoxin said...

@ amit & swaroop - thanks!
@ kaustabh - come along! there's another trip happening mid-december.
@ pranay - thanks... authorities aren't viable. These guys are pretty much an independent country; even if a cop does make it up here, anyone could disappear in the mountains for days and never be found.

Anonymous said...

Awsome. Scary. And yet very thrilling. Although I dont promise that i would have climbed the cave; I still miss not being there for the getting lost past and enjoy the night out. Cheers, Chaitanya.

hrishi said...

the story is good, and this may happen with some people, but i dnt belive in any jinx as such in dhak, i have been there 5-6 times and once alone. Ya thats true i am marathi and can deal very well with villagers. Climb from lonavla is really easier than from karjat. Also i will suggest
to carry biooks written on Sahyadri the maps really help. I am not a vetaaran or trained in Mountaneering, but have done many solo as well as group treks in Sahyadri.


Ashish Sarode said...

Scary ...
I never had this bad experience with villagers in Maharashtra till date.
Thanks for sharing your experience.

Mycotoxin said...

Yeah - I must have done 50+ treks in the Sahyadris by now, and never faced anything like this before or after, either - so I guess this was a one-off, and we just got unlucky.

sribee said...

Interesting flow, never went into detail of any blog without getting bored ! This was an exception. But yes, so far all the people we met along villages in shayadris were humble and helpful , lessons learnt, point noted to be careful :)



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