Thursday, November 22, 2007

Prabalgadh Camp

Dawn.

Misty sunlight filtering through the trees on the highway, tankers and trucks lumbering past growling and bellowing with gouts of black smoke. After a while, even that fades away as the roads get rougher... and emptier. After a while, Prabalgadh starts becoming visible in the early morning haze.

Stopping to let the rest of the group catch up, we find a dead snake - a krait - on the road. It's been killed by a vehicle / stick, and is lying with one half-inch fang, razor sharp and needle-pointed, straight up in the air. Step on that, and...

dead, but still deadly.

Prabalgadh is a double-step trek; one to reach the first plateau, with the village of Thakurwadi on top; the second, a steep, gruelling climb in the sun to reach the fort. But that's just incidental; this trip is about camping under the stars. R has come fully prepared with a tent and a blanket; I stick to just the sleeping bag, gratis from ICICI because I was such a profligate user of their credit card.


Vardoli to Thakurwadi takes around a couple of hours, mostly through moderate terrain until the plateau; then, it's fairly dense forest. We pass through a clearing where the locals are brewing some moonshine; the fumes of the gur-based alcohol fill the jungle, and by the time you walk through the clearing, you've breathed in enough to fail a breathalyzer. It's more than just an olfactory assault; looking at it gets you drunk. A giant drum, nearly six feet high and four across, bubbling over a woodfire, filled to the brim with think, brown syrup, while the real stuff drips out of small outlets in the side and trickles down pipes into giant white jerrycans... it's a visual happy hour. You're flying just looking at it.




Another thing you find in the jungle is wildlife. No, not the regular kind like you thought, but the more interesting, unexpected kind. Like sitting down to take a breather, tilting your head back for a drink and seeing a Giant Indian Woodspider suspended in a perfect six-foot web overhead. The scuttling rustles in the undergrowth that's land crabs the size of your fist, pale yellows, ochers, browns, blacks, and the occasional ferocious orange, waving claws threateningly if they realize you can see them. Beetles that look like they have emeralds embedded in their bodies. Ferns growing out of solid rock.

Thakurwadi takes you back in time a dozen, fifty, a hundred years. From outside, nothing changes... there's still the village well, women washing up with ash, the tethered goats and roaming chickens, guard dogs... inside, there's satellite TV, a DVD player.





After lunch, we head off to the plateau where we're going to camp; it's an open field of grass, with the Prabalgadh peak on one side towering up into the sky, and the whole of Panvel district on the other, 3,000 feet below, turning hazy with distance and height. It's so quiet... the crunch of grass under your footsteps, a single distant bird, the sighing wind... which form a perfect counterpoint to crackling plastic sheets being spread, trekkers snoring in the shade of the trees in an impromptu but very welcome siesta.


After which, it's time to setup the camp. The site is brilliant; open fields with grass for a comfortable rest, good view, flowing water, the works. We spread the sheets, unpack and set up the tents. R finds out that the extraordinarily heavy tent-bag she lugged all the way up to the top actually contains, not a tent, but an inflatable bed. There is much cursing of misguided non-trekking parents that can't differentiate between a tent and a bed, but it still makes history - the first time on a Nature Knight trek has someone actually carried their bed up with them.







After a brief game of highly customized cricket, we relax and watch the sun dip into the mountains. Every sunset is always spectacular up here, and every sunset is unique in it's own clouds, colors, reflections... the only thing any sunset from the top of the Sahyadris has in common with it's kin is that no photograph ever does justice to the real thing. There's an insider photographer's joke -


"What does it take to get a great shot?"
"f/8 and be there."
You have to be.




Dinner is back at the village, where by candlelight, we sit down and stuff ourselves with the local village food... bhakri, rice, a mountain of papads, and a veg that blasts the roof of your mouth into orbit. And in between the tears and the gasps and the desperate struggle for one of the five glasses of water between 21 people, you would have D putting in his 2 cents' worth - that what we feel now in our mouths is nothing compared to how the other end of the alimentary canal is going to feel tomorrow morning.
Thanks, Mr. Sunshine!

But the actual sunshine's all gone, and night comes fast. A line of torches marks our way back to the camp, through dense undergrowth, muttered curses as we stumble over rock and into cowshit, the freaked-out hysterical dog having a nervous breakdown in the distance, and on a couple of heart-stopping instances, a sudden twitch and rustle in the bush that says, less than three feet away from you is a large animal and it's watching you.




The moon takes a long time rising, and when it does, it's breathtaking. Three hundred and sixty degrees of silvery desolation, broken by the giant, dark, and faintly foreboding bulk of the Prabalgadh fort outcrop, and one lonely campfire pushing back the darkness that fills the universe by a few feet, in which we sit, chatting and laughing. NK has come up with a new add-on to the trek experience; team games. Your chance to wreak unholy vengeance upon all those who trotted lightly up ahead of you like mountain goats while you gasped under the sun, the slope and the sack of stones on your back. We spend several hours trying to make the opposing team run itself ragged, fall off the cliff, or commit suicide in frustration when struggling against a very unique set of rules we produce; and vice versa, so in the end, everyone's happy.
Maybe not everyone, though...

Unbeknownst to us, K had decided to call it a night early and had comfortably snuggled into their tent, and just while they were drifting off to sleep...

(snuffle)
K: (leaps upright, wide awake)
...
Silence
...
(lies back down)
(snuffle, crunch, much closer)
K: (petrified whisper) J! J! Wake up!
J: (snore)
K: shutupshutupshutupshutupshutup
J: (louder snore)
K: wake up stop snoring goddamn you there's a leopard outside the tent!
J: (grunt) Hm? Wha?
K: LEOPAR- there's a leopard outside! Don't make noise!
J: (blink)
...
K: Go see!
J: Are - are you sure?
(crunch. crunch. crunch. snuffle. crunch)
...
(side of the tent suddenly bulges inwards with the zrrrrrrr noise of something sliding over nylon)
K&J: AAAAAAAARGHH !!
'Leopard': MOOOOO!

After that experience, everyone was laughing too hard to go back to sleep while J & K hyperventilated for a while.


Morning is sleepy, and people finally come to life when D and I arrive from the village with a giant vat of woodfired Maggi.




Afternoon goes in trekking up to the top of Prabalgadh, where we wander past more wildlife like a giant termite nest, a fire ant nest hanging in a tree like a frankensteinian fruit, and monkey calls. Didn't see any monkeys, though, in spite of having D, J, S, and J climb up into the trees and make monkey behavior to attract them. They just hid and hooted at us. Possibly in disdain.


Reached back in a state of utter heat-exhaustion, and dozed off in whatever shade we could find.
Woke up with the horrible realization that there's still 4 hours of walking to do back to the vehicles... still, had to be done so was done, chai in the evening, and long drive back. Blah, blah, etc.

I remember the silence. The sound of the wind in the grass. The sunset turning every tiny trickle of water into blazing gold. The incredible moonrise. Setting up the tents. Sleeping on plastic sheets, staring up at the sky.



1 comment:

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