Monday, June 25, 2007

Gambirgadh Trek: High Jinx

Gambhirgadh. The Serious Fort.

They say that if God has not summoned you here... you will never be able to reach it. I'm beginning to believe in it now. This has been one trek that was so severely jinxed from the word go, I'm beginning to think it had been systematically cursed.

Starting off really early, and T saw the face of his boss the first thing in the morning. Do you believe that the face of your boss should be the face that comes before your eyes even before the dawn light has reached the sky? I don't either.

Then V got late, and called and asked us to wait. We knew he wasn't going to make it, so we told him not to try - it was simply too far for him to drive, from his home to the pickup points. He gave a solid senti SMS and signed off.

Less than an hour into the journey, we had our first flat tyre.

Explored the flora and fauna of the brush while the wheel got changed, and stopped later at a puncture repair place and fixed the flat spare while having the tapri-chai. I swear the sight of those stacks of yellow-painted tyres can be such a welcome sight in the right circumstances, on highways. And no flower must have looked as beautiful as the electric blue of the tarpaulin on the chai stall.

A while later, barely a few km from our destination, we stopped to ask for directions and got commandeered by Auntie. Auntie is a grey-haired, short and rotund elderly Parsi lady who's a social worker / trade unionist / local pain in the butt who uplifts workers' rights, educates them, makes life hell for the cops and walks around like a well-meaning but fairly effective short-range disaster area. She ordered us to drop her to the village - "Only 4 km out of your way," - so, kind-hearted souls that we were, we agreed.
Bare minutes after she got off and pottered off to her village, our bus ran into a patch of mud on a bridge and ran aground. Literally. The front wheel sank to the point that the body was resting on ground level, and the rear wheel giving it stiff competition. Barely a foot front the edge of the bridge, it tilted over and then settled heavily into the mud with a squishy sigh.

We got out to inspect the damage. It was bad. The wheel was mired so deep - and so thoroughly - that going either backwards or forwards was impossible. The only way to go was up.
"Good thing V wasn't here," remarked Y. "If he'd been, we'd all have been in the river by now."
But even without V's residential evil aura, the problem was bad enough. We were several km away from the nearest thing to a main road, and further still from the highway. Getting help was going to be very difficult. Our bus itself - a large white monster named Vishal, which means, appropriately enough, huge - simply sat there and looked like the heaviest thing it could think of.
We tried every possible strategy we could think of.

First, we tried to push the bus upright. That didn't work.

Then, we tried to lift the wheel out of the muck. The bus got lifted, all right - 22 Nature Knights pack a fair amount of muscle - but the engineers at Ashok Leyland, or Tata, or wherever knew their stuff; the suspension just let the wheel stay right where it was.

Then, we tried to push the bus back along the road where the rear wheel could get a grip. No go. The edge of the asphalt now made an extremely effective chock which made any backwards movement impossible.

Time to take a break and stop using brawn, and start using brain instead. And also recover for a moment. So we can't push it out. We can't push it up. We can't push it back. We probably could push it over into the river, but that wouldn't help.
How about pulling? Out come the ropes, knots are tied, and half the public pulls while the other pushes.

The bus remains immovably stuck, and begins to exude a kind of self-satisfied smirk that you see on particularly bloody-minded animals who you just cannot make do something while you get increasingly frustrated, heated, dusty and sweaty. Not to mention caked in mud to your elbows.
Time to call in the professionals. D heads off to find a tow truck, and the rest of us scatter across the fields to wait. I spend an hour or two under a banyan tree with R, T, and A, eating mangoes and giving gaali to respective bosses. And to Auntie, who we promised to pay double auto fare next time if we saw her, on the promise she leaves the next trekker's vehicle alone.
After a while, the Pandit Towing Company breakdown truck arrives. By now the village is besides itself with delight - we must have served them several months' worth of entertainment in one go. All shows running house full.

Pandit is basically built for power, not speed. So most of the journey had him gently chugging along, being passed by cycles, running kids, and goats, while D sat and vibrated with frustration. But once he was here, his skills and abilities were showcased in a dazzling display of strength as Vishal was pulled out ass-backwards out of the mud, squelching, screeching and slurping.

Knocking off as much mud as we could, we got in, studiously ignoring the anguish in the driver's eyes as he watched several kilos of mud being tracked into his pristine-clean white vehicle, and headed off again.
Fifteen minutes later, we had another puncture.

But thank god for small mercies - this time we were near a village, so we sat around munching mangoes and having chai, watching the cool rain, getting deliciously wet, while the wheel got changed.
Then we missed the turnoff, and had to backtrack.
Finally, at around four in the afternoon, we reached our trek start point - only six hours late. Do we stay put? Sleep? Lunch?

No way. We head off to see how far up we can get in the time we have. And do a pretty creditable job, too; around halfway, in just about 45 mins. 45 mins of clambering over slippery wet mud, of a particularly thick clayey consistency that makes it stick to your shoes like Spiderman and makes each foot weigh around 5 kilos each.

But it was a nice walk - there's a long ridge with the hill falling away on both sides, so you get a beautiful view all around. Would love to do it on a full-on howling rainstorm; that would be intense.

Rested and chatted for a while at the plateau-clearing, eating plum cake, and interfering with the sex life of Gambhirgadh Grasshoppers and Crickets; the poor couples would barely get a chance to mount before they would find themselves surrounded by Nature Knights armed with digicams, DSLRs, and inquisitive fingers, clicking and prodding away.

R went one step further and frightened ten years off a poor beetle's life by convincing it she was about to eat it there and then. Not to mention collecting the ticks, beautiful velvet-textured, Ferrari-red creatures.

Finally, it's time to go... and so we head off back, slipping, sliding, falling, and chatting.

Adventure treks come in different forms. We had set out to trek, but like they say - getting there is half the fun. And a journey is always more than just the destination. We had adventure all right, and of a sort that you don't get so easily - we had fun, we learned how to get a bus out of muck, and basically, we learned how you can still have a good time even when everything seems to be going wrong.


And as Arnie would say -

I'll Be Back.

Gambhirgadh Trek - see the photos here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

taste of rain

What's the name for that kind of rain that comes as a fine drizzle, so fine it's weightless, a fog in the air but still dense enough that if you breathe it, it's like the smell of drowning?
I experienced that today, finally.

With due deference and credit to Mr. Gump -

Stinging rain, scrunching your face into hard little knots.
Sheets of gusting rain, knocking you sideways off the bike.
Fat drops from the trees.
Fine spray from the vehicles in front of you.
Flat horizontal sloshes from those around you.
Coldness that trickles into your belly when the jacket finally gives up and lets the water through.
That wet tang running off your lip, onto your tongue.
Vertical opaque sheets of white.
Hissing, drumming, roaring, gusting, splashing, dripping, pattering, tinkling, white noise.
Forearms aching from the deathgrip on the clutch and brake, knuckles numb.
Suddenly growing wings like a water-angel every time you pass through a puddle.
Smeary red glows on black asphalt.
Glittering double columns of silver needles, swishing by in the adjacent lane. Cars don't exist anymore. They're invisible, seen only by their signature on the rain-radar.

I like biking in the rain.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Borivili National Park

First of the season, starting small. Borivali National Park. Everyone's backyard. But it's surprising how few people have the time to even visit their own backyards... BNP had always been a kind of ya, it's right there, I'll just drive over and drop in one day, kind of feeling... until six long years have passed by, and all I know of BNP is the sight of the hills rising above the buildings every morning when I'm crossing the overbridge to get to the train, or the green expanse when I'm looking down as the plane enters the final glide down to the runway... It's 104 square km of parkland, right inside the city. At any time, you're never more than 5 km away from the busiest stations - Borivali on the west, Mulund on the east. All around, the city, crawling, teeming with humanity like ants, the Great Unwashed Masses of India, hurrying, scurrying, worrying. Cross a gate, pay 15 bucks, and suddenly you're in a different universe.

We start at 7:30 am, collecting at the entrance. There's already two groups getting ready to go in that look like organized tours - thirty children in one (I'm pretty sure that's not a family outing, not even if the dad was the minister for railways) and a normal trekker-type group.
22 of us pile into 4 cars and reach the parking spot at Kanheri inside, where we reassemble and get ready. D takes the opportunity to market the new ponchos acquired by Nature Knights - hooded rubber / plastic sheets that button under your arms to make an effective shield against windblown rain. I liked it because it's as effective, and definitely a lot easier on your conscience than a 2,999 jacket from Westside, which should ideally be used only to impress women. Subjecting it - or, for that matter, anything - to a full-blown Mumbai monsoon tends to, um, reduce it's lifespan significantly.

Kanheri's a complex of old Buddhist caves; the place used to be a settlement, and served as an inn for travellers visiting the ancient twin ports of Sopara and Kalyan. Kanheri is a derivation from Krishnagiri, or 'Black Mountain'. And black it is - the same dark volcanic rock that's spread across the whole of the Sahyadris thrusts itself up in a 400-m hillock over here, and Kanheri caves are the part of the exposed outcropping that's been shaped and carved into a rock village of 109 spartan stone cells, and elaborate chaityas and viharas.

I'd like to spend some more time here - preferably on a weekday when it won't be so crowded - just trying to reconstruct how it must have been like, back then, living here. Under the Maurya and Kushan empires, this place was a full-scale Buddhist University.

Now you have another essential and unavoidable part of any modern Indian university, large groups of noisy, boisterous and rowdy students of another kind - a troop of rhesus monkeys has taken over the spot, and lives happily off the tourists.

Does this guy have my ears? Everyone keeps saying that

They gave us the once-over when we walked in, and pretty much then ignored us - we must have been looking not worth the trouble. Or maybe just impoverished of food, compared to the chips-packet-carrying and fruit-laden tourists who come normally. All that changed when we bought some cut cucumber for breakfast. Unerringly, the monkeys picked out the youngest member of the group - S, who stood not much larger than a full-grown monkey himself - and headed straight for him, producing alarmed cries of help and Mummy! from the intended victim before they were chased off.

Blessed by the Buddha with the Gift of Bright Sunshine, we started walking up, and almost immediately found the first wildlife of the day - a Russel viper that N almost stepped on.

Next was a group of giant bullfrogs in a small stagnant pool, each almost the size of my foot and twice as fat. I remember we used to have the same frogs in the pond at home back in Gorakhpur... so extraordinarily ugly, they're beautiful. Check out this one. Full redeye effect in the flash, which makes it look like an ancient dragon where the fire within it is flickering in it's eyes. Or some hellbeast out of Spawn 2.

Stopped for a second breakfast at a ruined building called Gaumukh, from the carved cow's head inside from where drinkable water is filtered through. Found a couple of perfectly-preserved husks of the skins shed by dragonfly larvae when they hatch. Dragonfly nymphs are voracious predators in ponds, killing and eating insects and fish many times larger than themselves. These must have been monsters when they were around - over an inch and a half each.

The rest of the trek was fairly peaceful; some relaxation, some walking, and finally we reached Bombay's highest point, called simply 'Radar' after the military radar there. Don't go walking in without permission; because it's a military installation, if caught, you can chucked into jail on a non-bailable charge before you know what's hit you. Actually, the highest point is the top of the radar; but if you climb up there just to prove that you're the highest in Bombay, the military has every right to shoot you down there and then, on principle.

We also acquired our mascot of the day, Ronnie. Ronnie is an adolescent Indian peacock, he lives in Borivali National Park, has an affectionate and companiable nature, and will love to keep you company the next time you visit. He's also an insufferable ham, and loves having his photos taken, often posing and giving you the full supermodel-to-the-paparazzi treatment. By next year, he should have his full tail grown out, too.

Anyway, we met Ronnie at the radar and he became and instant, inseparable, non-paying member of Nature Knights, accompanying us all over the park from there onwards, sharing food, curling up and going to sleep when we rested, and generally being more domestic murgi than peacock.

Radar's also got one unique feature apart from being the highest point of Bombay - from here, you can look out and see the 3 lakes of Powai in one line, the only place in Bombay where this is visible. I feel sorry for the People of Powai; no human being trying to live his life should have to deal with the kind of terrors that are faced daily by the average Powai resident. Domestic help and children get rudely assaulted and eaten by panthers and leopards coming out of the lake; vehicular traffic gets regularly stopped by crocodiles emerging from the lakes; the BMC digs up the JV Link road catastrophically just before each monsoon and puts up boards asking you to bear with them today for a happier tomorrow; Bollywood shoots action sequences and love songs in your only market; and to top it all, you have IIT students roaming around freely. If Hell were designed by Hiranandani builders, it would probably be a lot like this.

Spent the afternoon putting up and practicing on a Burma Bridge, which is two ropes about 5 feet apart (vertically) which you're supposed to walk across.

Found a giant land crab that swore horribly at us in crustacean and waved it's claws around threateningly when we picked it up, and some species of gecko that emerged from under our sheet. Ate poha, shira, mutton sandwiches, idlis, chapattis, laddoos, puri, veg, fried rice, vada, boiled eggs, and biscuits. I don't think we carry enough food on these treks... need more variety.

Walked back to Kanheri by evening, and spent some time there watching the effect that Ronnie had on the monkeys and a small psychotic spitz pup that looked like Albert Einstein.

The monkeys pretty much ignored him, and went back to picking stuff out of each other's butts; Einstein went hysterical, though, and viciously attacked a plastic bottle, a packet of chicken feet that he scattered everywhere amidst shrieks of disgust, and finally chased Ronnie way up on the side of the mountain. Finally Ronnie gave a long-suffering sigh, and flew off the cliff face onto a quieter location, and watched the pup, who now had the extremely embarrassed expression of someone who not only can't fly, but has also lost his nerve and doesn't know how to climb down either.

The evening ended with my bike getting towed for illegal parking. I had accidentally parked it in front of the traffic police chowki... that must have been the easiest two hundred bucks the Mumbai Traffic Police ever made.

See the Photos here.

Very Important Update - It appears that, in the light of recently released top-secret photographs, Ronnie was after all a peahen, not a peacock. The author apologizes for any misinformation and hurting the sentiments of the PeaPerson Gender Identity Preservation Society.



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