Monday, March 12, 2007

Tikona: Night Trek

Night treks generally happen when it's too hot to do the day one; a fairly different experience, with it's own pleasures and pitfalls. I did this night one after nearly three years...
Tikona's a small fort on the edge of Pawana lake, around an hour from Lonavla. You start from Gavhande village, from where it's an easy hour or two up to the fort itself. The fort, Tikona - also called Vitandgadh - has a unique three-cornered shape, from where it gets it's name (teen-kona = Tikona).
Though a fairly small fort - just a hillock, a tiny Trimbakeshwar Mahadev temple, a couple of caves with brackish water, and a flat open space with a hillock - it had major strategic importance in the 1600's because you can control the entire Pawana region from here. That's why there's so many other forts around, nearby, like Kathingadh on the other side (very intimidating looking but quite easy), Visapur, Rajmachi, and the infamous Dhak.
We hired a private bus from Mumbai around 2 in the afternoon (with a brief hilarious interlude where we had to wait on the highway for the owner to arrive with the permit to go out for 2 days, which meant everyone we were supposed to pick up and were now waiting in the hot sun would call D every five minutes and abuse him. After a while D curled up into a defensive ball and just looked hunted. In the end, the problem was solved the way all such problems are - try it yourself - by the cigarette method. If nothing's happening after waiting, just light a cig. Immediately events will swing into motion which will ensure that you have to throw away your ciggie half-smoked. It's the first useful practical application of Murphy's Law. Copyright, Me. Next time something goes right because you lit a cigarette, you have to pay me a Rs. 100 royalty fee. Credit cards accepted.)
Back to the point - bus to Kamat's, where we again drive yet another waiter mad with wildly conflicting orders, pack dinner and head off again. Brief stop at Lonavla where we stocked up on batteries, Odomos, and 2 days worth of traffic jams caused by horny couples with libidos larger than imaginations who descend on the poor place every friday night for some brief nookie; then off again.
It was dark by then; the road to Tikona is extremely deserted, blackness on all sides except for the wash of light from another car's headlights every once in a while. Then gradually the nature of the traffic changed; now it was exclusively Qualises filled with drunk single men, giant trucks filled with soil and occasional packs of couples on bikes looking very lost.
Reached the village of Govandhe around 10, where we outfitted ourselves with torches, headlamps, batteries, chocolate, and the whining squeak (or squeaky whine?) of hand-powered dynamo torches filled the night air with a distinct skratchkratch-zweee, skratchkratch-zweee like a bunch of cyborg frogs.
A quick round of introductions - we had media people looking to escape clients, recently placed MBA passouts looking to become clients, salesmen escaping bosses, bosses escaping families, consultants, lawyers, and a dog.
The trek up was fun. Tikona's fairly steep, in parts, and most of the trails are just about 1-person wide except for a few clearings. I immediately discovered a new sport like 3-legged racing called 1-flashlight trekking, where the person I was paired with was flashlightless and therefore blind as a bat; we had to walk extremely closely together, light illuminating enough path for both; if the leader gets to far ahead, she's stumbling in darkness, and if I speed up too much, I walk into her and invite charges of harassment. A fine balance.
We passed a big frieze, a blood-red Hanuman carved / painted into the side of the mountain; normal, but somehow still slightly startling in it's vividness in the dark of the night. The guide we had aquired - a village dog who seemed to be convinced we were a hunting party - shared no such timorousness and busily snacked up on the prasad around the statue.
Walking up, and occasionally resting, you keep getting struck by how silent - and how big - the night is. The moon was behind the mountain, so there were hundreds of thousands of stars scattered above, cold and silent; lights from the surrounding villages made their own mirror constellations below, breathing out that living silence that can be heard only by people who hear traffic and the hum of ten million people moving around them all the time. Sometimes a faint snatch of music and songs would waft up from the wedding in one village below, but otherwise, with stars above, stars below, in the cold silence, it was like being suspended in space.
An hour and a half later, we were at the top, through an extraordinarily steep staircase. Apparently this was a special anti-Aurangzeb design; The big Persian horses the Mughals used had speed, strength, and courage, but were simply too big to navigate the narrow, winding steep paths that Shivaji built into each fort, while his own smaller, sturdier mountain horses could clamber up. Rural Maharashtra is a fascinating study of how Shivaji's brilliance in guerrila warfare came to the fore. Every fort teaches you ten things about using the terrain to defeat an enemy far stronger and bigger than you - and you also see glimpses of a truly wicked sense of humour. Just like the huge impressive gate at Rajgadh that opened directly over a ravine to let the invading forces smash through and fall to their deaths, you could practically see how once, long ago, the huge white Arabian horses had struggled halfway up and slipped down like equine bowling balls into the ranks below.
The fort itself has a smallish flat area, about thrice the size of a cricket pitch, and a couple of caves surrounded by a low wall. However, three and a half thousand feet up, and next to one of Mahrashtra bigger reservoirs, we realized something we hadn't thought of before - the wind was downright evil and there was negligible shelter.
At first it was fun, while we were cooling off from the climb up and breaking out the food and gobbling away by the light of candles and torches; then the chill started setting in. Time for a scavenger hunt for firewood! There was enough around - we got some fairly large branches - a lots of dry grass for the immediate kindling, but the sheer force of the wind would turn the smallest of campfires into a ravenous monster that gusted and roared and gobbled up everything in it at record speed. But as long as it lasted, it was amazing.
There's something magical about a fire, but you see that magic - feel it - only in the cold, in the dark. We sat around, wrapped in jackets, sheets and bedding, warmed ourselves, and generally joked around. R especially took N's case repeatedly, much to everyone's entertainment, though N took it with the most grace I've seen anyone do under similar accusations... of course, it's tough to be offended when you're seven foot two and the person attacking you is half your height. It was like watching a terrier barking, nipping, and growling at a Saint Bernard.
After a while, the fire went out, exhausted; and we curled up in whatever shelter we could find. I thought of my sleeping bag lying at home, and as the wind knifed the chill into my bones and out the other side, found even the warm feeling of embarassment at being a prize idiot in not bringing it insufficient to stop the shivers.
Note to self - Summer treks in Maharashtra - don't go by what you think. Pack for the arctic.
Lay for a while, watching the moon rise above the battlements between fitful bouts of sleep in the gusting wind; there were no mosquitoes, at least. There was some brief entertainment when Dog tried to cosy up with P, sleeping in the center, and he reacted like a newcomer in an all-men's prison on his first night feeling a hand creeping up on his leg. There was a scuffle, an outraged yell of "What's the matter with this bloody dog?!" and the dog streaking for safety as fast as it could.
Laughed for five minutes and discovered it was now impossible to sleep, so wandered around up the hillock. There, the five of us - me, and four other insomniacs - sat in front of the temple and swapped non-veg jokes.
I now know why India has so many Gods.
Finally, the sky started getting lighter and lighter, and the landscape gradually appeared, spread out for hundreds of miles. Unlike the other forts, Tikona is stand-alone; no mountains block your view in any direction, and the air was crystal clear this morning. Breathtaking.
Pawana Lake spalshed out in cool silver over the dry brown countryside, tufts of yellow wild grass, and the black-brown of the ancient rocks protruding from the earth like the Earth's muscles tearing through cheap cloth of the soil.
Took a leak off the edge of a precipice. Vertiginous. Don't try this. Found myself slowly tipping forward, semi-hypnotized...
D took the opportunity of the early morning to coin a new meal. I'd heard of Brunch, and Linner, and evening snacks, and tea, and midnight snacks, but for the first time today we ate a Pre-Breakfast. Which attracted a bunch of monkeys. I had been wondering about that... a Hanuman statue, and no monkeys? But though they didn't bother us, they seemed to be taking great offence at Dog, who looked both belligerent and uneasy, barking at them while they hooted back. Finally he compromised; took some scraps and buried them at the base of the hillock, but very shallowly. I assume that was his standard hafta for the monkey clan. After that, there was no more growling and hooting, and we made our way down peacefully, stopping for the mandatory Group Snap - where after the night, we looked like the survivors of some terrible battle.
There's D, the communications man, carrying the radio with it's antenna coiled around him; U leaning on his sniper's rifle; N the heavy machinegunner; and of course, R with - what else could it have been? - the bazooka.
We passed a cave where an old man lives and every day, cooks food for the monkeys. I think he was the priest for the Hanuman statue.
After the climb down - over some extremely steep 60-degree slopes willed with loose soil - we finally reached the bottom. Interesting photo of the day - a nest of Harvester Ants. A mini-fort by itself... look at the nested walls, bastions, passageways, guarded gates. Life imitates nature, always, just on different scales.
Drove to one resort on the banks of the Pawana Reservoir, where we gobbled down post-breakfast and headed into the water. Be careful if you can't swim - the lake is 2 feet deep for the first 20-30 feet, where suddenly the bottom drops off in an underwater cliff to god knows what depth. You can see the water changing from brown to deep blue-green there. Tried diving down as far as I could but the stress of advertising and resultant smoking has had it's effect; I barely made it ten feet down. I have to quit.
Discussed alternate means of swimming with the non-swimmers, who sat on the edge of the underwater cliff and ideated. One of the most feasible methods of propulsion that emerged was a swimsuit with attached propeller. I wonder what we'll use for fuel... gas? At least my baked beans will finally get eaten, then. I've carried them up and down three mountains already.
R also tried to swim, but a splash, a glub, some frantic thrashing and a long round of coughing later, the difference between swimming in a swimming pool and swimming in a natural lake was explained.
The water felt chilly at first; then, when we started coming out, the wind came and sliding back into the water was so deliciously warm. We stayed an hour and then lay around in the sun... no need for towels. Sun drying is the only way to go.
Somehow staggered back into the bus, and drove back, stopping only to stuff ourselves with a thali near Lonavla. Back in Bombay by five, unbelievably sticky and stiff.
Cold shower.
Cold coffee.

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Monsoon said...

it is always great pleasure reading your trek'elogues. Too good!!

Amit Kulkarni said...

Hey as always ... amazing read .... i saw the pics yesterday but this writeup made all the pics more lively .... keep up the nice writing

Anonymous said...

its so good that there are so many amazing places just outside of mumbai!!


Harry said...

Good Read Ashish ....
Cheers, Harmeet

Dnyanesh said...

Can i just say i am a cult follower of your writings? Hope you realise how much i enjoy reading your versions of the trek!
Mr. D

Anindita said...

Very interesting reading!



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