Riders in the sky

It was after much persuasion that the Doc finally agreed to accompany me for a ride on the Thunderbird to the hills. It was nearly two and a half years since we had made our historic first trip to the Tikkar Cottage in the hills on the motorbike. We had somehow managed to resurrect the badly rusted Enfield and had thundered through the hills all day, excited at the discovery that the aged machine and its novice, forty-plus riders still had what it takes! The Doc shuddered at the memory of the sore backsides that the trip had given us. I had ended up with fever from the exertion! But it was only the beginning*. I had since ridden the bike on the winding forest tracks, through the thick mat of slippery pine needles. I had braved the treacherous rocky beds of dried up nallahs on my unrelenting quest for the picturesque. I was confident that I could now make my way around my beloved hills on the ‘bird’ without any fear of a mishap. The bike had also gone through a series of overhauls through our journey of discovery of the hills. The bike had to be picked up from the workshop after its nth refit. The clunky gear shift had been fixed. The bird now sported a brand new chain sprocket set. The brakes had new pads. The speedometer wire had been replaced. The engine serviced. The Phoenix was ready to rise from the ashes!!
The Doc grumbled about my penchant for crazy capers. He tried to enlist the support of the ladies in his futile attempts to convince me that the car made more sense at our age. Gone are the days when the ‘sensible’ inspired me. Sigmund Freud, the famous early 20th century psychoanalyst, had postulated a ‘death drive’ that pushes us all to seek adventure and risk, if not death and destruction. It is as primal and powerful as the life instinct that drives us to seek safety and self-preservation. One has only to persist long enough and surely even the most sensible of men will succumb to the inexorable call of the wild. It’s there, powerful and live, buried deep down in each one of us. The Doc is no exception.
It was lunch time by the time we made off from the workshop. The engine throbbed beautifully. We picked up some soft drinks and eats from a store only to discover that the saddlebag had a torn bottom. The Doc was carrying his camera in a shoulder-bag but was not ready to lug the additional load for the entire journey. We were losing precious daylight hours and I drove the bike impatiently as we tried to locate a store for buying a fresh motorcycle saddlebag. We eventually managed to buy one and struggled with the screws and the half-witted shopkeeper who took ages to fish out the size that fitted our bike. It was sunny and humid as we drove up the scenic road to Jallah along the Ghaggar River to hit the hills. We rode up the hill until we reached the tin-roofed tea shops under the huge banyan tree on the tri-junction with the main Morni road. It was past 3 PM by the time I clicked my first picture of the day, the picturesque Kheda Bagdha village.

Kheda Bagdha, Morni hills

Kheda Bagdha, Morni hills

We had samosas sandwiched between bread slices and tea from the stall as we enjoyed the cool breeze. A small cavalcade of jeeps emblazoned with flags of the State’s principal opposition party appeared from Mandhana and the campaigners alighted noisily to spoil the quietude. It was nearly a year for the elections and it seemed early for a campaign in these sleepy hills, where nothing seems to excite its peaceable residents.
We pushed off towards Morni. The verdant hills and the fresh breeze made the Doc forget his earlier misgivings about the trip and he settled down happily for the ride. We halted briefly to click the Himalayan Balsam bushes in bloom next to a rather large yellow-green signboard marking the residence of the ‘Van Darogah’ of the Bhuri Block of Morni Forest Range. I hoped that the incumbent was as keen about his job as he seemed to be to announce his presence to one and all.

Van Darogah Niwas!

Van Darogah Niwas!

Himalayan Balsam, Morni road

Himalayan Balsam, Morni road

We turned left to descend down the road to Barisher and Chhamla. I stopped to click an acacia shrub with pink flowers.

Pink Acacia Flowers

Pink Acacia Flowers

A large portion of the hillside across the Ghaggar River had been stripped off its green cover by a landslide and I wondered if vetiver grass could help hold the soil at such a sharp gradient.

Eroded hill slope near Chhamla, Morni foothills

Eroded hill slope near Chhamla, Morni foothills

We crossed numerous springs and streams flowing into the Ghaggar before we reached the bridge across the river at Chhamla. We parked the bird on the bridge and clicked photographs of the area. The river water was surprisingly clear and sparkled in the sun as it flowed through the rocky bed.

Ghaggar bed at Chhamla village, Morni hills

Ghaggar bed at Chhamla village, Morni hills

Ghaggar river at Chhamla Bridge

Ghaggar river at Chhamla Bridge

I prepared a small video for the website to capture the gentle roar and the mood.

It was beginning to get cloudy but the Doc wanted to check out the river bed. To my surprise he removed his shoes and socks and rolled up his jeans to wade through the sharp current and seat himself on a rock. He wondered why he didn’t do it more often!

Clear waters of Ghaggar at Chhamla

Clear waters of Ghaggar at Chhamla

Gushing white waters of Ghaggar River at Chhamla, Morni hills

Gushing white waters of Ghaggar River at Chhamla, Morni hills

I had to dissuade him from further adventurism as the Ghaggar is notorious for springing nasty surprises on the unsuspecting tourist. Only a fortnight ago it had washed away some college youths who had gone for a swim in the unforgiving river near Burj Kotian, further downstream of Chhamla. We enjoyed a cold drink to refresh ourselves before making our way back to the bridge.

Bridge at Chhamla

Bridge at Chhamla

The Doc had decided to keep his jeans rolled up and wear his shoes without the socks. He was going to carry his picnic mood all the way back home!! A grey-white bird flew over us and settled down on a rock in the middle of the river to peer into the gushing waters. It was a Pond Heron and had come to fish in the Ghaggar waters. I had already started the bike and struggled to get my camera out. I zoomed for the rock only to discover that the bird was gone. The Doc’s triumphant grin told me that he had beaten me to it.

Indian Pond Heron, Ghaggar river at Chhamla village, Morni hills

Indian Pond Heron, Ghaggar river at Chhamla village, Morni hills

The clouds were now moving in fast from the north and I hoped that we would not get trapped by a deluge. ‘Let’s move,’ I called out to the Doc, who was still scouting for the Heron to get a still better shot. He stowed his camera carefully into his shoulder bag and swung his leg stylishly over the rear seat, enjoying his newly discovered hiker spirit. The foot missed the footrest and the hot silencer scorched the exposed portion of the leg where the jean had been rolled up. It was an ugly burn. Thankfully, the bike had been parked for some time and had cooled down a bit. The Doc braved the pain without a sound but had been woken up rudely from the reverie.
We rode on north along the road towards Barisher and then turned west to take the forest track that led up the Tipra hill range. I had once done the trip from Chhamla through Daman and Thapli to Pinjore with Zorba in his Gypsy and was planning to repeat the adventure on the Thunderbird*. It would be nearly 25 KMs of back-breaking hill driving before we hit the Ghaggar again near Thapli. The road had been bad beyond Daman on my previous trip and we had driven through the river bed to hit the Mallah road for Pinjore. The river could not be forded during the monsoons but I had spotted a freshly constructed bridge across Ghaggar at Thapli, from some distance, a month earlier. The road to Thapli runs high up along the ridge line of the Tipra range that lies to the north of the Morni range. The two ranges run parallel to each other and are separated by the Ghaggar River. It had started to drizzle lightly as we climbed up the dirt track that was being prepared for metalling. We crossed some construction workers along the way and I stopped to enquire whether the road was motorable all the way up to Thapli and whether the bridge was ready for use. The contractor who was supervising the work told us that he had driven from Pinjore along the same road and that it was fine.
The hills were a lush green and we did not meet a soul as we rode along the beautiful road with the rain lashing our cheeks lightly.

Picturesque Chhamla-Dhaman-Thapli road

Picturesque Chhamla-Dhaman-Thapli road

Ride to Dhaman, Tipra hills

Ride to Dhaman, Tipra hills

We stopped to click the terraced fields around Daman, the largest village in the Tipra hills. I spotted a Kestrel, perched high on a rocky cliff and managed a nice shot powered by my brand new 42X camera.

Common Kestrel, Daman-Thapli road, Morni-Tipra hills

Common Kestrel, Daman-Thapli road, Morni-Tipra hills

Terraced fields around Dhaman, Morni-Tipra hills

Terraced fields around Dhaman, Morni-Tipra hills

The occasional loose rocks and boulders strewn along the road after minor landslips were beginning to make the Doc nervous. The clouds were now an ominous grey-black and I increased my speed lest we get engulfed in a downpour.

Ominous Clouds

Ominous Clouds

Our bottoms were beginning to hurt from the continuous driving and we were reminded of our woeful state at the end of our first trip on the Enfield. ‘Lal lal Milkha de tui!’ said the Doc suddenly, reminded of the joke in the recent biopic on Milkha Singh where the child Milkha gets a red bottom from the hiding given by the village Maulvi!

We laughed out loud and repeated the joke endlessly as we drove fast to beat the rain. But it was too good to last. The road deteriorated rapidly after we crossed Daman. The rains had created deep furrows in the dirt road and the road virtually disappeared into deep slush at places.

The treacherous ride

The treacherous ride

I was now beginning to get worried. The Doc chose to walk as I negotiated the worst patches.

Playing it safe

Playing it safe

The rock slips were no longer looking harmless and a sudden downpour could easily bring down a shower of rocks and boulders. I was driving expertly on the narrow flat ridge between the furrows and was negotiating the bends with ease. ‘I have come a very long way from the day when I first started riding the Bullet,’ I patted myself silently. ‘Are we not going a bit too fast,’ the Doc cautioned me and I decided to slow down a bit. That was when we went around a bend to discover that the narrow strip of dry road that we had been driving on for a while ended unexpectedly and disappeared suddenly into the rut that was running along its side. The bike skidded and before we could realize what had happened the beast was on top of us. My left leg was trapped under its terrible weight. The Doc was looking incredulously at me. So we had done it after all! I pulled my leg from under the bike and stood up shakily to assess the damage. The ankle-length jungle boots and the metal leg guard had saved my leg from a fracture and from getting seared by the hot engine head. The Doc seemed shaken but not in any apparent pain. I had minor bruises on an elbow. The Doc had bruised his knee. Miraculously, we had survived the fall without any major injury. We hauled the motorbike onto its stand. ‘Cowboy change your ways today!’ I thought wryly as I inspected the bike for damage.

Rider in the sky- Mornee hills

“…their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat.

He’s riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain’t caught ’em yet!

‘Cause they’ve got to ride forever, on that range up in the sky.

On horses snorting fire, as they ride on hear their cry.

 

As the riders loped on by him, he heard one call his name.

“If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range;

Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride;

Trying to catch the Devil’s herd, across these endless skies!

Yippie yi yaaaay!

Yippie yi ohhhhh!

Ghost Riders in the sky!!”

The gear lever was twisted out of shape. The footrest on the left side for the driver had born the weight of the fall and had snapped from the base. Other than this, the bike seemed okay.

Inspection after the fall!

Inspection after the fall!

The engine had gotten flooded with petrol and I worked the kick start repeatedly, fighting the rising panic. The bike spluttered back into life and I thanked our stars for having been spared the walk through the Morni jungle in the dark without a flashlight. The missing footrest made the balancing on the hill road very tricky and I let the Doc walk down any part that looked threatening. The Doc was walking quietly with that ‘I told you so’ look in his eye.

A road less travelled!

A road less traveled!

We spotted a party of Grey Francolins scampering down the road to disappear into the scrub. The Doc was rendered speechless to find that I had the gumption to attempt bird photography after having gotten him stuck in that predicament.

Grey Francolins on Daman-Thapli road, Morni-Tipra hills

Grey Francolins on Daman-Thapli road, Morni-Tipra hills

It was a long and tiring drive back home. We kept wondering how the hell had that contractor driven up that road. Thankfully the bridge was operational and we happily crossed the Ghaggar to the safety of the Mallah road to Pinjore. We stopped for a photograph of the landscape around Ghaggar.

Thapli from across Ghaggar

Thapli from across Ghaggar

My leg ached from hanging in the air and we took another break near the Kaushalya dam. The reservoir had filled up considerably with the rains.

Kaushalya Dam Reservoir, August 2013

Kaushalya Dam Reservoir, August 2013

We ate the onion kachoris that we had been saving for a leisurely break at a roadside dhaba. We were now back to our old ways and were raising our tired bottoms mechanically at every halt on the traffic signal! It was with sore legs, an aching back and a very lal lal tui that we finally rolled the bike back home.

* Reader may find the following posts of interest

A walk to remember!

It was 7:35 AM when the phone chimed softly on receiving an urgent SMS. “It’s raining cats and dogs. Please reconsider the trip!” It was the King, getting the nerves before the trip. The request was five minutes too late!! I had actually managed to start dot on time at 7:30 AM. Not that I would have been dissuaded from the trip had he managed to catch me in time. It was three months since I had last visited Morni. I had planned out interesting treks for the two-day sojourn in the hills. I had a brand new camera to try out. I had downloaded new music for the drive to Morni. I had to inspect the progress of the vetiver grass we had planted at Tikkar cottage as an experiment. And the hills always looked their best during the rains. I waited until I had crossed the Delhi border before I responded, ‘On my way, crossed Delhi!’ “He’s probably worried about wetting his Woodland shoes,” I chuckled to myself. The King likes no unnecessary hardship. He sees no fun in putting oneself through avoidable discomfort and makes no bones about it. And he hates the humid weather that makes him ooze sweat like a tap.
He maintained ‘SMS Silence’ after that until I reached his home. The car battery had given me a scare when I had restarted the car after a loo break on the way and I let the engine idle for some time before turning it off. I downed the extra-large glass of rich-lassi that has become a ritual for the start of all our adventure trips. The King appeared with his precious Swiss Army bag and numerous paper bags that carried the ‘grub’ and the fruit. We were all ready to move when I discovered that the battery had finally conked off. It was a strange coincidence that I had got the first whiff of trouble with the battery on our last trip together, some three months back. We had actually got the battery checked by a car mechanic that day. The battery had been behaving quite well since then but had curiously chosen the very same spot and a similar occasion to give trouble again. I had resigned myself to a wasted half-day when my friend appeared with a professional looking red and black jumper cable. He connected my Honda’s battery to that of his battle weary Alto and jump started my car with a shocking nonchalance. I had to grudgingly admit that I was impressed. ‘From where in heaven did you produce that cable so quickly?’ I demanded. ‘Oh! We had an old Fiat that gave frequent trouble with the battery,’ he told me in a matter-of-fact way. It had indeed rained heavily in his town and I drove carefully through the water-logged roads to reach the mechanic’s shop. The battery was declared ‘Brought dead on arrival!’ In less than ten minutes we had a brand new battery under the bonnet and were on our way to Morni.
‘Hills can be tricky in the rains,’ he said, sharing his anxiety. ‘Don’t want to get fuc*ed by a disaster like the one in Uttarakhand,’ he said. ‘Don’t you worry yourself about the rains,’ I comforted him. ‘It shall be beautiful weather in Morni and we shall have the time of our life.’ ‘How long a distance do you propose to make me walk today,’ he wanted to know. ‘Oh! Not much. Trust me, it shall be a walk to remember!’ I kidded him. He grumped about my being a f***ing sadist and we reached the spot where a driver waited to take over the wheel.
Our first destination was Burj, a village in the foothills of Morni on the Southern bank of Ghaggar. The village gets its name from the modest hunting lodge of the Patiala Rajahs that had been built atop a hill overlooking the Ghaggar to resemble a castle tower and now lay in ruins. We left our car on the road to Jallah and walked up the cemented path that led up the hill to the village and the tower (Burj). I spotted a colony of Baya Weaver nests on a palm tree near a seasonal nallah and I happily zoomed in with the 42X of my brand new Fuji HS50EXR.

Baya Weaver (Male), Burj, Morni foothills (July 2013)

Baya Weaver (Male), Burj, Morni foothills (July 2013)

We walked up to photograph the tower and the views of the Pinjore Doon to the north of Ghaggar. I could spy some interesting carved structures inside the Burj but am paranoid about snakes in the rainy season and decided not to risk venturing into the ruins.

Burj, the Hunting Lodge of Patiala Rajas

Burj, the Hunting Lodge of Patiala Rajas

Some vegetable with a curious mottled stem had been planted outside the Burj and I photographed it to identify it later. I clicked the water tank tower on the hills across the Ghaggar river at Chandi-Kotla village, where I had had the ‘dar-keh-aageh-jeet-hai’ experience on my last adventure with Musafir!
We now made our way back down the hill to check out the water harvesting dam that had I spotted during my Google-Earth exploration of the area prior to the trip. A track led to a stream of clear water running through a densely forested area with high mud cliffs on all sides. We followed the stream towards the dam and spotted clouds of Common Emigrants, Mormons and Yellow Orange-Tips mud-paddling by the side of the stream.

Mud puddling butterflies, Choe bank at Burj, Morni foothills

Mud puddling butterflies, Choe bank at Burj, Morni foothills

I spotted a solitary Lemon Pansy.

Lemon Pansy Buttterfly, Forest at Burj, Morni foothills, July

Lemon Pansy Buttterfly, Forest at Burj, Morni foothills, July

We photographed a small sparrow-sized bird that was bathing in the stream to beat the heat, completely unmindful of us.

Bathing beauty!

Bathing beauty!

We walked through thick undergrowth and crossed a meadow where a couple of village ladies sat by their grazing goats. They looked at us with curiosity while their scraggly dog barked angrily at my unfamiliar hat. Both of us were carrying lathis and he maintained a respectable distance. We trudged up the steep mud embankment of the dam and we clicked the reservoir that lay beyond.

Water Harvesting Dam, Burj, Morni foothills

Water Harvesting Dam, Burj, Morni foothills

There were no birds to be seen and the King lay down on the grass to give his aching back a break.

Taking a break

Taking a break

He was already sweating profusely and this was just the teaser trek! I had reminded him a million times in the preceding week to buy a cloth hat but he had paid no heed to my advice. He is pretty mule-headed, my friend the King. We kicked ourselves for having left the water-bottles in the car. I persuaded him to start back for the car as we were getting late for the ‘Walk to Remember’! We stopped to click a tree with curious thorny dark seed pods. We finally reached the car and after taking deep swigs from our water bottles, drove east along the Jallah road towards Bharal our next destination.
Bharal is a small hamlet on a hill along a nallah that drains the thickly forested hills to the south of the Ghaggar. A masonry dam has been built across the nallah but has failed to create a reservoir due to frequent breaches in the wall. A narrow kutcha path crosses the nallah at the foot of the Bharal hillock and climbs onto the hills to the west. As per my ‘research’ on Google Earth, the path would skirt the terraced fields of Chandi-ka-vas village to its north and would turn left to head south along the ridge of the hill that overlooked the nallah and the thickly forested hill side and valley below. We would get amazing views of the forest and the dam as we trekked up the slope to reach the commanding height of Jansu. We would picnic on the terraced slopes of Jansu and hopefully click some beautiful panoramic photographs of the forested hills and Ghaggar plains to the north and possibly even the Pinjore dun that lay beyond. I was also secretly hoping to spot some wildlife on the way, although the monsoon season is not exactly the best time for a sighting. We would then descend to reach the Guga Marhi temple on the outskirts of Mandhana where the driver would be waiting with our car. As per my measurements with the Goggle Earth path measurement tools, it would be a modest trek of 2 KM at 10% gradient.
We parked in the shade of a tree at Bharal and prepared ourselves for the walk. I packed the sandwiches and water bottle into the Nike schoolbag that I had borrowed from my daughter. I slung my camera bag securely across my shoulder, pocket the Swiss knife, donned my hat and goggles, picked up my stout lathi and was ready for the adventure. The King was sweating still and had decided to sulk. ‘How far do we have to walk?’ he asked with a scowl, letting me feel his resentment. ‘Not much,’ I said cheerfully and produced the printouts of the route that I had marked out on the Google Earth map. He was shocked to realize that I had no clue about the route and was going to rely on some fuc*ing printouts to guide us through the hills and the forests in peak monsoon season! His skepticism was making me edgy and I asked the driver to wait for 15 minutes before he drove off towards the rendezvous point up in the hills, just for safe measure. I was secretly worried that we might find the path completely obscured by the heavy undergrowth of the monsoon season and might have to call off the trek. We crossed the nallah and climbed up the narrow path pushing through the Congress grass and Lantana bushes that crowded its edges. I advised my friend to beat the ground with the lathi as we walked through the bush to scare off any snake that might be sunning itself somewhere inside the dense growth. Things were not looking too good just then and I could see the King checking his watch. He was obviously making up his mind whether to proceed further or to head back to our car while there was still time.
To my luck we met some school girls walking back home from school. They wished us politely in the beautiful tradition of the hills. ‘Does this path lead to Jhakhri?’ I asked one of them to reassure myself. She nodded enthusiastically. A short climb later we reached a large terraced area with lush green fields of paddy and maize. I was relieved to note that we were on course. My friend got visibly cheered up to discover that we were not heading for some wild-goose-chase and that we were still fairly close to habitation. He could depend upon my maps after all!

Fields at Chandi-ka-vas

Fields at Chandi-ka-vas

A light breeze made him forget the humid heat for the moment and we walked westwards on the path along the edge of the fields. As per my map we were to turn left at some point but I could not spot any obvious turning. We could spot the houses of Chandi-ka-vas to our right and we continued along the path for want of an option. We then spotted a solitary house in the fields and I asked the King to cross-check from its inhabitants whether we were indeed on the right path. ‘Ask for Jakhri,’ I advised him as he knocked the outer gate with his lathi. A boy appeared from inside and asked us to head on further along the same path until we reached a choe. We were then to turn left until we reached the Jal Ghar and to continue till we got to Ghati. It was not clear whether Ghati was the name of a dhani or he meant it in the sense of a valley. The boy had a peculiar hoarse voice and it was difficult to comprehend his excited directions. His father had also emerged in the meantime but he stood silently and let his son give the directions. We waved our thanks and walked on till we reached the thorn fence that walled in the fields. We now entered the forest area and trudged on in search of the choe. I did not, however, like our general direction of movement. My maps could not have gone that wrong. We should have turned left long back and as per my gut feel we had come too far west. We had still not reached the choe when I spotted a narrow path that led up the hill to head back east. ‘Let’s take this path,’ I suggested. My friend was not too sure and he wanted us to stick to our little guide’s directions rather than trust my black and white Google printouts. We were still debating on what course to follow when we heard the boy shrieking in his raspy voice behind us. He had decided to follow the shehari babus and ensure that we didn’t get lost. We waved back gratefully and headed in the direction he wanted us to follow. We finally reached the rocky bed of the choe. Little did we realize that our enthusiastic friend had us properly fuc*ed. Not that it was his fault. We had asked the way to Jakhri and he had only made sure that we took the path that got us there. Only we were not to go to Jakhri at all. I had made the blunder of mixing up the names of Jansu and Jakhri, both of which are dhanis of Mandhana, but are kilometres apart. But we were not to know this until after we had finished the trek and were happy for now to be ‘On Track!’
A narrow stream of clear water ran through the rocky bed of the nallah. It was clearly one of the many seasonal rivulets that drain the Morni hills into the Ghaggar River. These nallahs appear very tame for the most part but can quickly swell in size once it starts raining. A nallah flowing in full spate during the monsoons can be scary and one can actually hear its roar till quite some distance. It was bright and sunny for now and the gentle trickle looked anything but threatening. We sat down on a large rock by the side of the brook and munched on the cheese sandwiches. It was hot and I drank from my water canteen quite liberally. The King, however, was reluctant to use up his share of water too fast and was clearly saving it up for the literal and figurative ‘rainy day’. For if it did rain we would be forced to flee from the nallah bed to the safety of a higher ground in the forest and would be most definitely lost!
A large rusted water supply pipe ran along the choe and we could expect to reach a water boosting station (Jal Ghar) as promised by the kid if we followed the choe. The nallah was cutting through steep clay hillsides and the banks were covered with dense undergrowth. We were thus forced to stick to the bed and walk over loose rocks and boulders for most part. This made the climb doubly tiring and I knew that I had got us into a spot.

The rocky trek route

The rocky trek route

We were completely boxed in by the cliffs of mud on both sides.

The narrow passage

The narrow passage

There was no wildlife to be seen. No birds. No landscape. Absolutely nothing. It was a dull torturous walk up the hill and we had to be careful not to sprain an ankle on one of the treacherous rocks. To make matters worse I had forgotten to change into my rubber-soled Jungle Boots that I had been carrying for the trek. I did manage to click a damselfly and a glossy millipede to add to my collection of ‘wildlife’ pictures. I also spotted a dull coloured tadpole-like fish in a puddle.

Damselfly at Chandi choe, Morni hills

Damselfly at Chandi choe, Morni hills

Millipede, Chandi choe, Morni hills

Millipede, Chandi choe, Morni hills

The freshwater fish

The freshwater fish

A local village woman and her cross-eyed husband crossed us on our way up and I tried to confirm the route from the man. He didn’t seem too interested in giving directions and vaguely agreed to our plan of following the choe till we reached Jakhri. ‘How far are we from the main road?’ asked my friend hopefully, seeking to reassure himself regarding our situation. ‘Kaafi door hai, samay lag jayegah (it’s quite far, will take you time),’ answered the man morosely as he rudely broke the conversation to continue with his journey. Our destination wasn’t anywhere close if we were to believe this man. The King looked worried. ‘He was probably a half-wit,’ I said to discount the man’s estimate of the distance we had to cover. I went on to discuss my hypothesis that the people of Morni would be at a greater risk to suffer from genetic disorders as they had been inter-marrying within a small population for past innumerable generations. It did not, however, interest my pal who resolved to be even more careful with his water supply. ‘Ha! Ha! This is not the Arizona desert and we are not after McKenna’s Gold!’ I kidded him. ‘No fun in dying of dehydration in this heat and carrying your entire water supply intact till the top,’ I advised him on a more serious note. But nothing would make him change his mind. As per him, we were clearly lost and were going to spend the night in the wild until we got washed away in a flash flood! End of the story!! He is not an optimist, my friend the King.
We crossed a baoli, where a natural stream had been harnessed by a stone masonry enclosure and made to flow through a pipe to enable the locals to fill their pitchers with ease.

The baoli

The baoli

My friend washed his face and head to cool his overheated ‘radiator’. I advised him to not risk drinking from the source as there is always the risk of eColi contamination these days. Human shit seems to travel far!
A cloud had appeared over the sky and I scanned the steep hill sides on either side for possible escape routes were it to suddenly start raining. ‘Hope you won’t be doing anything crazy!’ were the parting words of my wife and I was beginning to get this bad feeling that our trip was bordering on just that. ‘I may be crazy but it keeps me from going insane!’ I said out loud, suddenly remembering this quote that I had heard someplace. The remark amused the King for some reason and he laughed out loud with sudden good cheer. I pointed to a yellow painted sign on a cemented ‘bundh’ for checking upstream erosion that declared that we were walking up the ‘Chandi’ choe. ‘This is not a fuc*ing choe, it’s a beh** choe!’ he said dryly, venting his ire at the pointless trek and the friend who had got him into one yet again!!

Chandi Choe, Morni hills

Chandi Choe, Morni hills

We reached the water boosting station which was locked much to my friend’s disappointment who was hoping to drink to his fill once we reached the promised Jal Ghar.

Goats near Water Boosting Station, Chandi Choe, Morni Hills.

Goats near Water Boosting Station, Chandi Choe, Morni Hills.

A dull-witted youth was grazing his goats near the building and he belied all our attempts to get any meaningful directions out of him. He seemed a bit soft in the head and I returned to my earlier discussion of dangers of in-breeding.
We were panting and exhausted by the time we reached a well with a cemented roof.

The well

The well

We now crossed some thatched huts and learnt that we were near Mandhana. A couple of youths directed us towards a path that left the choe and went up the hill side. I spotted some Harar trees and stopped the click its fruit that is an important ingredient for Ayurveda medicines.

Harar leaves, Mandhana, Morni hills

Harar tree, Mandhana, Morni hills

We now reached a cemented track and after a back-breaking effort reached Mandhana. We asked a man for directions to reach the main road and he offered to lead us there. He was warm and friendly and was at a loss to understand why we had walked all the way up from Bharal along the choe when we had a car to drive up to Mandhana. He confirmed my fear that we had missed the shorter and direct route to Jansu. I covered up my mix up with the names for the moment and followed the man through the fields until we reached the main road to Morni. He led us to a village grocery store by the roadside and we were happy to find that it had chilled bottles of Sprite! We settled down with a bottle each on the doorstep and enjoyed their light-hearted banter. Our friend had come to the shop to exchange some shoe he had purchased earlier. The shopkeeper seemed to know him well and allowed him to rummage through the groceries stacked in piles all over the shop floor to find something of interest. They discussed the sky-rocketing rates of vegetables and the magical super-glue mouse trap with which the shopkeeper had caught as many as six mice in a day! We thanked our guide and trudged wearily down the road to the point where our car was parked. The driver was peering anxiously into the forested hills below the road and did not hear us approach. It had been four hours since he had dropped us at Bharal. ‘Probably deciding what would be a good time to send out the search parties!’ I thought wryly. He was very relieved to see us. I dropped my load into the car including the half-full water bottle of my friend. ‘See it was so stupid to not drink that water,’ I pointed out. ‘You should have trusted me to get you out of the forest,’ I said. ‘I would have gotten out any which way,’ he said most confidently, ‘God walks with me!!’

I later figured out that we had walked for over 5 KM from Bharal, most of it uphill, as we followed the rocky meandering choe, more than twice the intended distance.

The route we followed

The route we followed

We dropped the driver at the Mandhana bus stop and headed wearily for the Tikkar Cottage. The bath restored our spirits for a while. We had recovered enough at least, to open a bottle of chilled wine and savoured it with the fruit salad that my friend had laid out with the flair of an Italian chef. He had thrown in some ultra-large jamuns to the usual spread of sliced fruit. The inverter battery of the cottage had died out completely and I asked the caretaker to arrange a candle. But then I had no real cause for worry. The King had bought two-more FENIX torches to take the total tally up to three! He was carrying all three and happily demonstrated their different features and capabilities as sleep overtook us. It was a measure of our exhaustion that we left the wine bottle unfinished that night!
It was early to bed and early to rise for us that day. By the time the Scribe’s old jalopy rolled-into Tikkar Cottage’s grassy drive-way, we were all rested and raring to go. At least I was. I had certainly not made the 300 KM back-breaking journey only to waste a holiday in recovering from a minor misadventure!
The Scribe came bounding up the stairs with a new found zing. The morning sun gleamed softly on his sporty white tee-shirt. The ink-blue, straight line jeans looked brand new. Actually, so did my pal. He had recently done a ‘Bhaag-Milkha-Bhaag’ on himself and had been doggedly pursuing a fitness regime for past several months despite his taxing work hours. So here he was, Scribe 2.0, smiling cheerfully, as he announced himself in his new athletic Avatar.
It was now an overwhelming two-to-one and the King agreed to a ‘short’ trek. It was going to be a trip to Thalapur, a tiny hamlet of Bhoj Balag that occupies a hill that overlooks the ‘Valley of Tikkar’ with its twin lakes, green meadows and paddy fields. A hill adjacent to the Thalapur was the site of a near calamitous landslide in 2010 that had wiped out the newly constructed tourist huts of the Haryana tourism complex on the Tikkar tal bank. I have ‘identified’ the hill for some future soil conservation intervention with vetiver grass and I planned to take a closer look. We took the road to the lakes and stopped short of a hair-pin bend some 2 KM from the Badah tal. I had identified the exact spot while surveying the area on Google Earth! The Scribe parked the old lady on the road berm, tenderly placing a rock under her tyre to prevent an accidental roll-off. I am often reminded of Humphrey Bogart’s famous love affair with his rusty old tub, the African Queen, on seeing the Scribe getting sentimental about his Station Wagon, which is clearly well past her prime.
A rather wide dirt track descended along the hill side from near the point we had parked. The path crossed a seasonal nallah as it led to a small cluster of scattered stone houses that comprise Thalapur. A small masonry dam has been built across the nallah to create a modest reservoir that provides water for irrigating the surrounding terraced fields. It was paddy season and we could spot a farmer slosh through the knee deep mud after his oxen as he ploughed his fields.

Water Harvesting Dam, Thalapur

Water Harvesting Dam, Thalapur

Farmer ploughing paddy fields at Thalapur, Morni hills

Farmer ploughing paddy fields at Thalapur, Morni hills

The weather was pleasant and we ambled along happily under the shade of the hill, enjoying the freshness of the lush thick vegetation that is so typical of the Monsoon season. The King had not yet forgiven me for having hauled him up that rocky bed under killing heat on a parched throat the previous day and got back at me by drawing avoidable attention to an embarrassing bout of flatulence! The earthy humour can hurt when one is at the receiving end!!
We left the shaded hill path and descended a series of terraces of fallow fields to reach the very edge of the cliff. The spot offered an excellent view of the twin lakes with the intervening forested hill.

Twin lakes from Thalapur

Twin lakes from Thalapur

One could clearly make out the Lakeside Cafe on the bank of Badah tal, the dome of the adjacent Thakur dwar temple and the demoniac facade of the ‘House-of-Horrors’ at the Adventure Park.

Lakeside Cafe from Thalapur hill, Morni hills

Lakeside Cafe from Thalapur hill, Morni hills

We could also make out the numerous hamlets of scattered houses on the hills to the south of the lakes- the Chhota Tikkar, Dabor and Darda. The sun was beginning to hurt and we started making our way back to the pathway to get back into the shade. Just then a quaint little man clad in a white kurtah-pyjama appeared on top of a terrace above us. His oversized white moustache was twirled proudly at the ends and did appear a little dramatic if not comical against his the wiry build. He was Amar Chand, a tough little man, who smiled at us benevolently and signalled us to join him at his modest stone home. We made our way up the sharp slope crossing his paddy fields that were being watered by a rubber pipe that drew water from a large water harvesting pit located on the ground above. The pit had been dug up to harness the rain water run-off and was full to the brim. The pipe was obviously employing a siphon action to draw water over the raised embankment around the pit.

Rain water harvesting tank at Thalapur

Rain water harvesting tank at Thalapur

The old man’s ingenuity in setting-up an effective rain-fed irrigation system was quite impressive. He proudly told us how he had hewn the blocks of stone for building his home from the rocks and boulders retrieved from his fields. The Scribe commented upon the low carbon footprint lifestyle of the simple hill folks. Nothing fascinates the Scribe as much as austere living and he hates wastage of any sort.
We were sweaty and hot by the time we reached our host and he happily invited us to rest inside the cool cob interiors of his home. The King gratefully stretched his back on the rope charpoy and recovered under the direct blast of cool air from a large pedestal fan that seemed to be the only piece of furniture in the room. ‘Yeh shehari babu hain, pehli baar gaon aayeh hain,’ I informed my host pointing to the King, who glared back in response but chose not to contradict me. The home was simple and bare but everything was spic and span. We gladly gulped down the water served by the hostess and politely refused the offer for tea. After a while, we accompanied our host on a round of his fields and the area around. He rued the damage caused to the crops every night by the wild boars and the sambar stags. A heavily wooded hill across a nallah was the home to the sambar hordes in the vicinity and he tried to spot one of those ‘pests’ for his urban visitors. It was the same hill that had experienced landslides on its southern slopes in 2010. One could clearly see the badly-eroded portion from Amar Chand’s fields and the challenge involved in any attempt at reclamation was apparent.

Tikkar tal from Thalapur

Tikkar tal from Thalapur

Amar Chand was amused at our enthusiasm for the lakes and the surrounding landscape and decided to oblige us by spinning-off some yarn about a massive earthquake in the ancient, forgotten times that had created those bottomless lakes. ‘Jo toot jayen Morni keh tal, toh rurh jayen Dilli keh mall,’ he proclaimed cheerfully. He then warmed up further to the subject and embarked upon a long incoherent tale of a Mor Dhwaj Raja and a Raja Barat who threw hapless villagers into dark dungeons! I interrupted his flights of fancy and asked him whether he would be willing to experiment by planting a Vetiver hedge around his terraced fields for conserving soil and water. He immediately looked interested and asked me numerous questions about the grass, its height, the spread of roots, palatability for the cattle etc. He agreed tentatively to experiment and plant the vetiver slips in the monsoon season of 2014.

Comrades in arms

Comrades in arms

I was excited at the prospect of getting my first ‘convert’ to the cause of vetiver and accompanied my friends happily as we made our way back to Scribe’s wagon.

‘One actually asks for only the first three pegs. After the third, it’s the whisky in you that demands the fourth!’ This is one of Scribe’s pet theories about human behaviour. Or should we say drunken behaviour. And he invariably repeats it after the third!! One can easily extend the applicability of this theory to thirst for adventure (read escape from monotony). Once you have done three exciting treks in the space of 24 hours, you just can’t stop. You are now driven to seek more. It was already two past noon and I had a 300 KM distance to cover on my drive back home. We were hungry as it was beyond the usual lunch hour. Logically, we should have called it a day and I should have headed back home. Yet we decided to drive down to the lakes to try and meet the one who could easily be Morni’s most interesting inhabitant. A man, whose relentless journey through life has taken him in and out of jobs, interests and countries. He has studied the Tibetan religion. Is fluent in Portuguese. Has reported on the warring factions from within the crumbling Russia. Has authored a book. Has grown strawberries. Now owns a Cafe. Has plans to bring some ‘real’ adventure to Morni’s Adventure Park. And all for a lark!!
He was not home and the care taker directed us to the Adventure Park further down the road. We caught him reading peaceably in the lawn next to the park’s mushroom shaped ticket window. He was visibly pleased to see the Scribe.
At first appearance he strikes you as a modern day throwback to the Vedic-era sage. The same deep creases on the broad, thoughtful forehead. The same mane of soft white covering the head and the sunburnt face. The lean, athletic frame. The calm that is bred out of years of unrest. Of searching. Of following dreams without fear of the unknown. A remarkable looking man who is straightforward and unaffected in his thought and ways. Morni had definitely got its Hemingway.
He was warm and welcoming and took us around the park, discussing his plans for the future. His tan-black German shepherd followed him everywhere like a shadow. It was a large, terraced campus and his plans to give the park some real character of adventure seemed promising.

Machaan at Adventure Park, Morni

Machaan at Adventure Park, Morni

The park had some beautiful flowers and I tested the macro feature of my new camera on a dainty pink Rain-lily. I also clicked a not so pretty picture of frogs mating in a pool!!

Rain Lilies at Adventure Park, Morni

Rain Lilies at Adventure Park, Morni

Frogs at Adventure Park,Morni hills

Frogs at Adventure Park, Morni hills

Amongst the planned future adventure activities was the short walk to the waterfall, that is formed by the stream that falls over a drop of about hundred feet from the cliff at Thalapur to the rocky pool below and thereafter disappears into the Bada tal. I had never noticed the waterfall before and was surprised to learn that it was a perennial though the flow declined in the dry season. We could make out the fall from a distance and I requested him to lead us to the same. The King was exasperated at this sudden development. He protested and grumbled at our plan of making him trek through the heat yet again, but relented like a good friend, as always.
The path to the waterfall led through the fields on the banks of the Bada tal. We crossed a massive Mango tree that would easily be several hundred years old. We then hit the rocky bed of the nallah that led to the pool created by the waterfall. The rocks were large and slippery and we followed our guide cautiously.

A road less travelled- the way to waterfall

A road less travelled- the way to waterfall

We could not, however, match his confident pace and he soon disappeared somewhere in the distance ahead of us, his dog staying faithfully at his heel. I missed the opportunity to click a monstrous sized black and white dragonfly spotted by the Scribe. I did manage to click a smaller navy blue one.

The dragonfly on way to the waterfall

The dragonfly on way to the waterfall

We eventually reached the waterfall to find the Sage waiting patiently at its foot with his dog.

The waterfall

We needed to clamber up a large boulder to reach the small muddy pool at the foot of the fall. The King chose to save himself this final trouble and clicked the three of us and the dog with the fall as the backdrop. I had to climb onto yet another tricky rock to get a clear shot of the waterfall, largely to oblige my friends. The flip side of wearing a Nat-Geo style jungle-hat is that it raises expectations of people regarding your willingness to risk breaking your neck for the sake of a good picture!

Waterfall over Thalapur cliff, Morni hills

Waterfall over Thalapur cliff, Morni hills

The Sage was not happy with the dam we had seen earlier in the day at Thalapur as it reduced the grandeur of the fall by restricting the flow of the stream.
We were late and we made a quick return journey to the park. We thanked our friend and he promised to take us on an interesting trek to a new location on our next visit. We drove back to the Tikkar Cottage and after a quick meal I started with the King for the long drive back home. I had to turn up the volume of the car stereo to drown the King’s angry grumbles on having discovered the sun burns on his baby-pink cheeks! He never could see any incongruity between his bulging biceps and his concern for a clear complexion!

Jungle Warriors

It was aloo paranthas topped with dollops of delicious (cholesterol-enriched?) AMUL butter for breakfast! I hogged to my heart’s desire without any of the attendant guilt as we had decided to skip our lunch for the day. We had reached our friends’ rather tastefully kept home at Panchkula the previous night and I had the day long adventure activity planned with Musafir. I spotted a curious red-black beetle crawling on the floor and I clicked a close-up to identify it later. I was getting warmed up to a day of happy photography!

Beetle

The Beetle

Running a hobby website on the Morni hills has been a life transforming experience for me. In my endeavour to create a rich panoramic picture of the Morni ‘ilaqa’ for my readers, I have tried to include pieces on its interesting history, a description of its diverse ecosystem, a guide to its resorts, an account of its quaint bhojs and dhanis and their somewhat reclusive inhabitants. The journey has got me interested in a range of things that I had barely noticed in my forty years of rather pedestrian existence. It has awakened a sudden curiosity for nature. A compulsion to know and understand the ways of God that are stamped in life around me and I rue the decades wasted in ignorance.
As I picked up my jungle hat and my sun glasses and pocked my precious Swiss-knife, Musafir appeared with a cardboard box, grinning enthusiastically in his characteristic manner. He was carrying the Jungle Boots that he had purchased for me sometime back from a road-side factory outlet. He was already wearing the pair he had bought for himself and was eager to test the fauji shoe in the day’s adventure. Liberty produces an excellent, light weight, high-ankle; rubber-soled, anti-skid canvas shoe for trekking that is sold under the name of ‘Warrior Jungle Boot’. The colour is a manly, military green, a natural choice for the manufacturer as the shoe is almost exclusively produced for and sold to the country’s military and paramilitary forces. I had last worn such shoes as a trainee cop and it felt good to slip into these manly and youthful shoes after a gap of fifteen years.

Warrior-Jungle Boot

Warrior-Jungle Boot

It was end April but the weather was pleasant and we headed in the direction of the Chandimandir railway station.
I planned to check out the ‘Chandi Gurh’, the 19th century stone fortress that had been built atop a small hill, short of the Pinjore fort by the Manimajra rajas. The fortress had a small temple dedicated to Chandi Devi and was a modest outpost that commanded a pass and overlooked the Ghaggar plains to the South and the Morni hill ilaqa that lay beyond. The modern city of Chandigarh had been named, for some curious reason, after this rather unimpressive structure that seems to have played no role in the history of the region. The hill fortress overlooks a modern, ornate Chandi devi temple built at the foot of the hill and lies across the railway track to Kalka in the area of Chandimandir village. I presumed that some hill path would lead up from the temple to the fortress on the hill. We parked near the temple and crossed the track to reach the pretentious gateway to the temple.

The temple gateway

The temple gateway at Chandimandir

A small drain ran along the railway track and the entire area was covered under a thick lantana bush cover intermingled with the ubiquitous railway creeper with its distinctive mauve flowers. The area was abounding with butterflies that flitted about the bright-coloured lantana flowers. We seemed to have discovered a natural butterfly park of sorts and we happily clicked the Common Mormons, the Yellow Orange-tips, the Indian Cabbage-White, the Common Gulls and the Common Emigrants! I spied a Common Castor and quickly clicked its picture, careful not to give away my ‘find’ to the Musafir who had to pay for keeping ‘his’ fresh water crab a secret on an earlier trip to Morni!

Common Mormon at Chandimandir

Common Mormon at Chandimandir

Common Castor, Chandimandir

Common Castor, Chandimandir

Yellow Orange Tip, Chandimandir

Yellow Orange Tip, Chandimandir

Indian Cabbage  White, Chandimandir

Indian Cabbage White, Chandimandir

A faded information board at the gateway proclaimed to the gullible visitor that the site of the shrine was 5000 years old. That the mighty goddess had slaughtered the infamous Mahishasura at this place and had later appeared to a devout Sadhu who built the original temple at the site. That the Pandav princes had performed penance at this place during their 12 year exile and that Arjun was blessed with a powerful sword by the Devi. The Pandavs went on to win the Mahabharat at Kurukshetra.

The board attributed the construction of the stone fortress atop the hill to the late 19th century Manimajra king, Raja Bhagwan Singh. This seems to be incorrect as the fortress finds a mention in British travel accounts of early 19th century.

The temple was completely deserted, its incredible history notwithstanding!

Chandidevi temple  at Chandimandir

Chandi-devi temple at Chandimandir

As I clicked the orange flower ball of a kadam tree, a man emerged from a house located near the temple compound. He probably belonged to the family of priests who managed the temple. We inquired about the way to the fortress on the hill that was almost completely hidden from view by a thick cover of forest scrub. He seemed annoyed at our ignoring the well-kept and ornately sculpted temple run by his family and at our preferring the run-down stone structure that had obviously been forsaken by its reigning deity. He tried to persuade us to give up our plan of heading for the derelict two centuries old structure. ‘There is nothing worthwhile to see in that fort,’ he said in open irritation,’and it’s anyway locked to visitors.’ We, however, persisted with our query and he finally relented and reluctantly gave us the directions for the place. We drove on further on the Shimla highway, parallel to the track until we reached a level crossing. We then turned left to take the road that went up the hill to the Chandi-Kotla village. The village is located at the edge of a large level area atop a hill. The hills of Chandimandir area form the backdrop to its north. We asked for directions to the fortress and made our way along the path that skirted the village’s periphery to reach the edge of the hill that overlooked the Shimla highway, the muddy Ghaggar river that flowed down from the Shivalik hills and the Morni hills that lay beyond. Just short of the fortress was a twin-towered temple of the Chandi with intimidating artwork in relief on its whitewashed exterior.

Twin towers of Chandi temple at Chandi-Kotla

Twin towers of Chandi temple at Chandi-Kotla

A large idol of the goddess draped in a black saree stood under the protection of a plastic canopy facing the temple. Chandi devi’s belligerence contrasted sharply with the composure of the meditating blue-blooded Lord Shiva to its rear.

Idol of Chandi at Chandi-Kotla

Idol of Chandi at Chandi-Kotla

The temple’s dual towers seemed to reflect an eclectic mix of the architectural styles employed in typical Hindu temples and those found more commonly in Masjids. The village probably had inhabitants from both the faiths and the fiery goddess to whom the village owed its name, seemed to have made an impression on both the communities. The temple had an eerie quietness about it. I spotted the pretty yellow flower of the delicate prickly pear and the Musafir obliged by taking its close up with his Nikkon DSLR.

Delicate prickly pear, Chandi-Kotla

Delicate prickly pear, Chandi-Kotla

We also clicked the orange berries of the Bistendu tree with its curious looking flowers.

Bistendu berries

Bistendu berries

Bistendu flower

Bistendu flower

The 19th century ‘Chandi-Gurh’ turned out to be as unimpressive as the youth at Chandimandir had warned. The entrance to the modest 50’ X 50’ stone fortress was blocked by a rather flimsy looking iron gate with a makeshift locking mechanism that however defied all our attempts to gain an entry. We finally satisfied ourselves with a photograph of a rock carving that we could see from the outside.

Rock carvings at Chandi-ka-Garh

Rock carvings at Chandi-ka-Garh

A horrible semi-finished modern brick monstrosity had been added by some fool to the 200 year old fort.

Semi-finished modern red-brick structure being raised inside Chadi-gurh

Semi-finished modern red-brick structure being raised inside Chadi-gurh

We walked along the narrow path that ran around the fort wall. The fort sat at the edge of the hill and was surrounded by thick shrubs. I startled a pea-fowl resting inside the shrubs as I got closer to get a picture of the dainty yellow flower of an Indian Mallow that I had spotted amongst the shrubs.

Indian Mallow, Chandi-Kotla

Indian Mallow, Chandi-Kotla

I tried scrambling up the 10 feet high stone wall but the knees are long past the stage of such adventure and I decided to ignore Musafir’s amused grin in the larger interest of saving my neck. I had anyway identified a conveniently located water tank tower near the fort that had an iron ladder leading to the top.

Chandi-ka-Gurh, Chandi-Kotla

Chandi-ka-Gurh, Chandi-Kotla

I planned to climb to the tower top get a nice picture of the fort and capture its dimensions from the 50 feet height of the tower. I would also get a panoramic picture of the Ghaggar flood plains of the Pinjore dun to the south with the scenic Morni hills forming the backdrop.

Floodplains of Ghaggar, view from Chandi Kotla

Floodplains of Ghaggar, view from Chandi Kotla

I could spot a spiral of smoke rise from the solitary stone crushing plant in the Morni foothills that is operated by the company that has built the Pinjore-Kalka-Parwanoo bypass. The foothills along the southern banks of Ghaggar have been the site of the scores of ugly stone crushing units that had ravaged the ecology of the area by spewing smoke and stone dust into the atmosphere. The giant claws of the earth diggers had mercilessly scarred the surrounding forest land as large pits were dug up to extract stones and boulders for crushing. The stone quarrying and mining in this ecologically fragile area was finally shut down by the High Court and the ban has managed to prevail despite persistent efforts of the mining lobby to circumvent the Court orders. The stone crusher zone today bears a deserted look with hundreds of acres of despoiled land waiting to be reclaimed and restored to the wilderness that once engulfed it. I have often hoped that the Government will acquire the entire area and bring it under the Khol-Hai-Raitan wildlife sanctuary that lies to its south. The sanctuary was notified recently in an attempt to save whatever little remains of our depleted forest heritage.
And then there is also this childhood dream of creating my ‘Hundred Acre Wood’!  A. A. Milne, while creating the enchanting world of ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’, set the adventures of his endearing animal characters in a ‘Hundred Acre Wood’. The ‘Wood’ was a fairy-tale forest with pine groves and hills, streams and wooden bridges, grassy meadows and quaint tree-houses. The Pooh Bear bedtime stories were beautifully illustrated by E.H. Shepard’s sketches that were inspired by an actual five hundred acre forest in Sussex, England.

100 Acre Wood of Pooh Bear

100 Acre Wood of Pooh Bear

The sketches would stay with you long after you had finished reading the book. As the eyes would get heavy with sleep, one couldn’t help slipping back into the fascinating ‘Hundred Acre Wood’ of the Pooh Bear and his friends. My favourite place was the wooden bridge from where Christopher Robin would drop his sticks and I would watch them go floating down the meandering stream, following them till I drifted into the happy world of childhood dreams.

The Bridge

The Bridge

I still like to believe that the forest was real. That I will one day recreate it, in its every fascinating detail. How it shall happen or when it shall happen, I do not know. But yes, the ravaged stone crusher zone in the foothills of Morni has all the potential of being restored to an enchanting forest.

I walked to the tower and inspected the ladder for making the planned climb to the top. ‘Areh darogah saheb, chhoriyeh yeh sab natak,’ advised Musafir, realistic and grounded as always. The 50 feet climb up the vertical ladder suddenly seemed a not so simple affair.

The tower at Chandi Kotla

The tower at Chandi Kotla

I have always been afraid of heights and have often woken to a nightmare of hanging from the edge of a high building only to slip and plunge to my death. I had already committed myself to the stupidity and started climbing up the ladder at a tentative pace. Midway to the top my heart started pounding and I decided to take a break. I hung at the spot for several minutes. Musafir asked me whether my arms were tiring. Climbing up a vertical ladder places a tremendous strain on the arms as I was realizing. It was pointless to hang on further and I was too scared of attempting to climb any further. I decided to shelve the crazy plan and slowly made my way back to the ground. Musafir pretended to not have noticed my sheepish expression as we made our way back to the car. ‘It’s only an irrational fear, after all, the ladder is perfectly safe,’ I thought aloud. ‘Yes, it is an irrational fear,’ the Musafir said rather unexpectedly. I had hoped that he would disagree with me and would say the sensible thing that it was risky and pointless venture. I was all prepared to be ‘dissuaded’ by Musafir when he put me in a spot by agreeing to my statement about my fear being irrational. He was grinning mischievously and I could visualize his mirthful description of the episode later in the evening over wine and dinner, of ‘Darogah saheb’s misadventure with the tankee!’ I cursed myself for starting the stupidity in the first place. I once again made my way to the tower and began the climb with my heart in my mouth.

The climb

The climb

I reached the midway point and halted. ‘It’s an irrational fear,’ I reminded myself. It was tiring to remain hanging at the spot and I continued the jittery climb. ‘I am destined to die today,’ I told myself, ‘that damn dream is going to come true.’ ‘How stupid this will all appear in the hindsight!’ I rued. ‘Why the f*** did I start this?’ I asked myself over and over again. A couple of steps were missing in the ladder and Musafir guided my step and reassured me that I was doing fine. ‘He’s probably visualizing the scenario of my breaking my neck and him having to face my wife and explain as to how he had allowed me to embark on this idiocy!’ I thought, amused at his sudden concern. I finally reached the top of the ladder.

The final steps

The final steps

A short step would have taken me to the top of the tower with its short parapet wall from where I could have clicked some amazing photographs for my website. But as I said, I am terribly afraid of heights. I had actually got the jitters standing on the tipsy top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the sheer delight of my wife! I knew that it would be unnerving for me to stand on the tower top without a reassuring railing. But that was not all. Stepping back onto the ladder, with my back to the drop, would be a nightmare. I decided not to push my luck any further. The descent was simpler as I knew that the worst was behind me. On touching the ground I looked up the tower again and wondered why I had been so scared. ‘It IS an irrational fear!’ I finally concluded. My arms ached from the strain. The time spent in vacillation at the midpoint had caused an avoidable fatigue. ‘I’ll be back,’ I promised myself and I clicked the beady seed pods of a large babool to cheer myself.

Seed pods of a Babool, Chandi-Kotla

Seed pods of a Babool, Chandi-Kotla

We now drove back to the highway and stopped to click the Kaushalya Dam.

Kaushalya Dam

Kaushalya Dam

We now took the Jallah road along the stone crusher zone crossing Burj and Kotian. Midway to Jallah a road climbs up the hills for Chaudhury-ka-vas, one of the seven dhanis of Mandhna. We crossed a number of school kids walking back home from the village school. All of them carried school bags and were dressed in nice clean school uniforms and looked every bit like their urban counterparts. The road got narrower at the top. Musafir was impressed with my having correctly predicted that we would cross a small pond with a large banyan tree, based on my off-site Google earth exploration!

Pond at Chaudhury-ka-vas

Pond at Chaudhury-ka-vas

The road ended near a village grocery store. I made my usual queries about NREGA as I bought some mineral water and cold drinks. The shop keeper was annoyed at the poor progress due to the funds under the scheme having been given to the forest department instead of the gram panchayat. I was happy to spot sparrows on the village street.

Sparrows at Chaudhury-ka-vas

Sparrows at Chaudhury-ka-vas

Musafir was in his ‘art’ photography mood and went around clicking the typical ‘village scenes’! A crooked ladder, a machan and a fodder shredder!!

Art photography

Art photography

The crooked ladder, Chaudhury-ka-vas

The crooked ladder, Chaudhury-ka-vas

Machan at Chaudhry-ka-vas

Machan at Chaudhry-ka-vas

The fodder shredder

The fodder shredder

I was astonished to find him focusing his camera on a rather scraggly looking street dog. ‘Why on earth are you clicking that mongrel?’ I demanded. ‘Take a closer look,’ he told me triumphantly,’the dog has rubbed ash all over his face like a naga sadhu!’

The 'naga' cult!

The ‘naga’ cult!

We then headed back for the Jallah road, clicking photographs of the area.  The road to Chaudhury-ka-vas offered a fantastic view of the Ghaggar floodplains and the Pinjore dun with the thick forest of Bir Shikargarh Wildlife Sanctuary. We had stopped by the roadside to click a panoramic photograph of the picturesque landscape when a scooterist coming down the slope waved to us from a distance. He had switched off his engine to save fuel and we could not see his face on account of his helmet. He stopped his scooter next to us and removed his helmet to reveal a cheerful, unshaven man in his forties. He was a teacher from the secondary school and he taught ‘chitrakala’ चित्रकला to his students. He was an art teacher. ‘I have many talents,’ he told us. He liked collecting old coins and artefacts. ‘The Chandi temple near Jallah has several ancient sculptures of the Pandav era,’ he told us. He lived at ‘Burj’ village that got its name from the hunting lodge of Maharaja of Patiala that was now protected by the archaeological department. He then produced some jaggery (gur) from the scooter dicky and insisted that we eat the same to wash down the dust. ‘I know all about yoga,’ he carried on enthusiastically. Before we could react, he had lifted his shirt and did a Ramdev on us. His stomach went in to reveal his rib-cage and the unseemly outlines of his intestines which he then moved expertly from left to right to leave us shocked at the turn of events. The worst was yet to come and I rushed to get back into the car as he produced a rubber tube from his pocket. The tube went into the nose to emerge from the mouth and Musafir ignored the unpleasant churning in his stomach as he clicked a horrible close up for my website!

The yoga artist!

The yoga artist!

We waved a hasty goodbye to our talented friend and drove on till we located another spot for shooting the landscape.  As I took a wide angle shot, we marveled at the mesmerizing beauty of the landscape. The Morni area is definitely one of the most picturesque in the country.

A panoramic view of the Ghaggar river and the Pinjore dun

A panoramic view of the Ghaggar river and the Pinjore dun

I discovered a bamboo stick lying concealed in the bushes and I retrieved it for the last adventure of the day.

We now proceeded towards Jallah to head for the tri-junction with the main Morni road. I stopped to click a giant Drumstick (Sohnjana) tree near Jallah and ‘educated’ Musafir about the virtues of its seed pods.

Drumstick tree at Jallah

Drumstick tree at Jallah

We crossed a warning board of the Wildlife Department put up recently by the roadside to announce the provision of harsh punishment under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, including a possible 7 year imprisonment, for hunting or killing wildlife and for destroying their habitat within the area of the Khol-Hai-Raitan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Warning Board

Warning Board

I often wonder why a bounty is not declared on the poachers. The locals would definitely help round up the poachers and game hunters for even a modest monetary incentive.
We reached the tri-junction with the Morni road near Kheda Bagdha and I turned right to drive towards Mandhna. I stopped at the Guga Marhi temple on the outskirts of Mandhna and parked the car next to the temple. We had been driving around the hills for most part of the day and it was now time to test the Jungle Boots! I took out the bamboo stick from the car boot, donned my jungle hat and was ready for the walk to Kadiyani.
‘How far is this place that we are headed for?’ inquired Musafir as he trudged along the path that descended sharply into the narrow valley that is wedged inside a bend in the Morni hill range to the east of the Mandhna ‘plateau’. I lied about the distance to comfort him. He grinned to acknowledge the lie and stopped to click the orange bloom of a Dhak tree.

Dhak tree, Mandhna-Kadiyani track

Dhak tree, Mandhna-Kadiyani track

Kadiyani is a picturesque dhani located at the mouth of a steep valley created by a large seasonal nallah (rivulet) that drains the hills to the east of Mandhna.

Kadiyani from the cliff at Mandhna

Kadiyani from the cliff at Mandhna

The rivulet is joined by numerous streams and choes as it falls sharply to the South west and becomes recognizable as the tempestuous ‘Dangri’ nadi that drains the region between Ghaggar and Markanda. The valley broadens out to the south of Kadiyani as the nadi crosses Dudhgarh and Khetpurali. I had made an abortive attempt to reach Kadiyani on a motorcycle from Dudhgarh on the previous weekend. I now intended to walk down to the village from the hill road to its north. I had often watched the dense forest that covers the ‘secret’ valley and the steep hill slopes from the cliff-side viewpoint at Mandhna.

View from cliff-side viewpoint at Mandana

View from cliff-side viewpoint at Mandana

I was certain that the forest would be home to a lot of wildlife and made the descent to the valley with an air of anticipation. Large patches of the hill were covered by the pink-white profusions of the husky seed pods of the hop-bush that grew wild in the area.

Winged Seeds of Hopbush, Mandhna-Kadiyani track

Winged Seeds of Hopbush, Mandhna-Kadiyani track

I clicked a blue dragonfly (Black-headed Skimmer) to add to my photo-collection of pretty insects of Morni!

Black-headed Skimmer (Dragonfly); Mandhna-Kadiyani track

Black-headed Skimmer (Dragonfly); Mandhna-Kadiyani track

The area seemed completely deserted and we did not encounter a soul as we made our way steadily down the hill side. It was past five in the evening and we did not want to be stuck in the forest after dark. I searched the forest around us for signs of wildlife, ignoring Musafir’s playful jibes about my never ending and fruitless search for the big cat. The path now followed a narrow strip of high ground that ran between two large nallahs that ended at the rocky bed where the two nallahs merged to flow as one. The path veered around to the west to wrap around the hill that lay beyond the nallah to our right. A large stone embankment had been built across this nallah to check erosion and to permit fording of this rivulet during the rainy season. The structure had taken a beating during the rains and needed urgent repairs if the path to Mandhna was to be kept open in the wet season.

The damaged stone embankment

The damaged stone embankment

Kadiyani is a small hamlet built on a level strip of high ground in the foothills that is bound by nallahs to its south and east and by a sharp cliff to its north. It would surely be getting cut off from the world during the rains when the nallahs would be in full spate. Musafir’s brand new jungle boots had turned out to be one size too small and he decided to give his feet some rest and to catch his breath.

Musafir takes a breather

Musafir takes a breather

I could hear some activity further down the path and as we resumed our journey we came across some abandoned loads of firewood. There was nobody in sight. It was probably my jungle hat again that had caused the locals collecting firewood in the forest to flee on mistaking us for forest rangers. We expected Kadiyani to be close but could spot only a deserted temple with a narrow white tower.

Temple at Kadiyani

Temple at Kadiyani

Some village kids watched us shyly through the bushes and scampered away on our asking them for directions to the village. We hurriedly followed the bed of the nallah expecting the village to be somewhere further west. We were desperate to touch Kadiyani for sake of record and head back for Mandhna before it got dark. A man finally called out from the hill above us and inquired about our destination. He told us that we had taken the wrong path and that we would need to retrace our path till the temple and then follow a narrow hill path that would take us to the fields and the village beyond. We decided to call it a day and head back for Mandhna as it was getting late. We now encountered some men smoking beedis as they squatted by the bundles of firewood we had crossed earlier. They had probably figured out that we were only some aimless wanderers who meant no harm and had emerged from their hiding. We exchanged greetings as we walked past them. The return journey was a steep uphill climb and we walked quietly, careful not to show any signs of fatigue to be made sport of by the other. I spotted a leafless tree on the far side of a nallah that was virtually covered with langurs. It presented a strange sight in the fading light and seemed slightly eerie in the silence of the forest.

The langur tree!

The langur tree!

I asked Musafir to maintain a sharp look out for wildlife as animals are known to re-emerge in the evenings after staying hidden through the day. He had barely finished laughing at my optimism when I spotted a barking deer on the terraced slopes of the hill across us. Its trademark snow-white tail was held upright as it flitted around the trees. It was a female as it had no antlers. Musafir’s Nikon was firing in the burst mode while I struggled to make my first live wildlife video. Yet another Muntjac started its shrill bark from the scrub behind us, probably to attract the attention of its coquettish mate that posed for our pictures while swishing its pretty tail. To my surprise Musafir broke into a low whistle to draw out the hidden deer. Now, I am not much of a wildlife expert but I am sure it doesn’t need one to know that the whistle that works for a six-month old Golden Retriever may not be exactly ideal for the Indian Muntjac, even if its call resembles a dog’s bark!!

The deer disappeared from our sight and we made our way to the car triumphantly. Musafir had managed some excellent pictures despite the poor light.

The Snow-White tail of the Barking deer

The upright Snow-White tail of the Barking deer

Barking deer at Mandhna

Barking deer at Mandhna

The seductress!

The seductress!

‘You have the potential of becoming a NatGeo wildlife photographer,’ I said in appreciation. ‘Only you’ll need me to do the sighting!’ I finished. He smiled good-naturedly, all too pleased to return the jibe.
As we drove back home through the Khol-Hai-Raitan Wildlife Sanctuary, we kept our eyes peeled to the surrounding jungle for making another lucky sighting. Musafir made some adjustments to his camera settings and held his camera ready for any opportunity that might present itself. He is a great believer of the power of positive thinking. He often repeats Paul Coehlo’s famous quote from the Alchemist, “When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it.” I saw the principle work when we finally sighted a tiger just before sunset at Corbett, after having scoured the National Park from dawn to dusk for two full days. Well it worked again that day. I sighted a White-crested Kalij that had all but disappeared into the scrub and Musafir managed an impossible shot through the windscreen in virtual darkness. Had it been cricket, he would have been squashed by his jubilant team mates for getting that impossible one handed catch on the dive! Only a birder can know the value of a clear picture of this shy pheasant in the wild.

White-crested Kalij Pheasant, Khol-hai-Raitan WLS

White-crested Kalij Pheasant, Khol-hai-Raitan WLS

We could not have asked for more on a single day’s adventure and we now sped home to an evening of wine and music.

A forest in flames and the tranquillity of Thandog

A glass of sweet ‘lassi’ (buttermilk) awaited me as I turned into the lane for King Uncle’s house and headed for the majestic palms that make his house stand out in an otherwise nondescript small-town locality. The car battery had given me a scare on the way and I was not sure whether I could safely turn off the engine. I didn’t want to ruin the ambitious adventure programme that I had chalked out for the day by getting stuck at his home. My pal appeared sporting a brand new pair of jeans and Woodland’s super tough, high-ankle, rubber-soled high-end trekking shoes. He was also carrying a Canadian made, high power, LED torch by FENIX. A lad appeared with numerous packets of food and fruit. Then there were several bottles of water, meticulously wrapped in sheets of newspapers! His precious SLR camera was slung safely across his shoulder in its cushioned bag. Then followed the lap top bag. We intended watching the Lawrence of Arabia on his laptop yet another time, later that night. And finally his Ray-bans to complete the fauji touch. I gulped down the lassi and we were on our way. I told him that the battery could go kaput anytime and he should be mentally prepared for a mid-course change in plans. He persuaded me to waste our precious five minutes to get the battery checked at a roadside shop rather than risk getting stranded on a deserted hill road. It proved to be a false alarm after all! The battery was good for another six months at least. We took it as a good omen and drove expectantly to our rendezvous point where an old acquaintance waited with the Enfield ‘Bullet’ motorcycle I was going to borrow for the day.

I chided my friend for not having heeded my warning on the afternoon sun and for failing to carry a hat to protect his head. He sweats a lot due to his rhino-type muscled physique and I was worried that he would ruin my peace by cribbing about the heat. It was harvest time and the wheat fields were a lovely golden. We crossed the Terminal Ballistic Research Laboratory of DRDO, a sprawling 5000 acre campus in the foothills of Morni. The King was suitably awed to hear that the scientists periodically rocked the entire area with powerful underground blasts. I thought of kidding him that it was actually a TOP SECRET nuclear weapon testing facility but then changed my mind. He was definitely not going to buy something that absurd. We drove north on the metalled road that runs parallel to the eastern boundary of TBRL towards the scenic foothills of Morni. I stopped on the way to click a Shrike.

Rufous-backed Shrike on the road to Belwali

Rufous-backed Shrike on the road to Belwali

The foothills of Morni are clothed under a multi-hued, dry deciduous scrub forest that is typical of the rocky Kandi belt of the lower Shivaliks. The soil is comprised of clay and gravel and is full of rocks and boulders that are brought down during the rains by the numerous rivulets (nadis and choes) that drain the Morni hills. The villages in the foothills are generally populated by the semi-nomadic Gujjar pastoralists who practice terraced-farming on a limited scale due to lack of availability of water during the dry season. The forest department has built numerous earthen dams across choes near the villages as well as at locations deep in the forests to augment the supply of water in the area by harvesting the rain water. Aasrewali forms the western-most flank of Morni’s kandi belt on the Southern side of the hill range. The Gujjars of Aasrewali converted to Muslim religion sometime in the past and are thought to be related to their Hindu brethren residing in adjoining villages to the east. A fine metalled road runs eastwards from Aasrewali and connects it to Belwali and Bunga. One has to take a detour and trace a tight ‘U’ to reach Baloti, a small hamlet to the north of Bunga. A wide and deeply furrowed, dry river- bed checks our further progress eastwards and one has to head south again till Dabkauri to reach a bridge for crossing the nadi. One then heads eastwards till Rattewali and turns back north again to reach Tibbi in the foothills. Sabilpur, Khetpurali, Tirlokpur and Bhood are some of the major villages lying further east.

The road we had taken hit the Aasrewali-Bunga road at Belwali, our rendezvous point. Baghera was waiting patiently in the shade of a bus shelter. He was our guide and comrade-in-arms for the day and was going to lead the ‘biking-expedition’. We were going to follow him on a sturdy Enfield Bullet Classic that sported the new fangled alloy wheels that have been recently added to the model. Baghera was driving an identical bike. I slipped into my leather-laced Woodland moccasins with the rugged outsole tread and strapped the camera to my belt. The Tommy shades followed for a dash of style!  I handed over my car keys. Kick-started the 350cc beast and the twinspark-engine thundered to life sending up my heart rate with its own deep throb. My friend kept the water bottles in the satchel and arranged his camera carefully as he settled on the pillion seat. The weather was beautiful and a cool breeze made the bright afternoon sun bearable. We were headed for the Dhak forest to the rear of Aasrewali. It was April and the trees would be in full bloom. I slipped the bike into the gear and followed Baghera at some distance. As we reached Aasrewali, we had to drive through a patch of slush created by an open drain. I asked the King to hold on for his dear life as I drove the bike through the tricky patch. The bike did not skid or slip despite my struggling with the gears. We then reached a sharp descent to the river bed. ‘What the f* * *!’ he swore loudly as the bike lurched dangerously on the incline due to my poor handling. As I regained my balance and my wits I bounced back with the final lines from the ‘Thriller’, ‘And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver …’ It was not particularly funny and did not make too much sense but I endlessly repeated this nonsensical line all through the two-day biking trip to make light of every dangerous skid and lurch that I scared my companion and myself with!

We drove along the kutcha track through the river bed for some distance. Baghera was surprised to find that I knew my way around the place. It was my third trip to Aasrewali. I had spotted leopard kills on my last trip on the banks of the forest dam. We turned right to climb up a rocky pathway onto a large level piece of land with numerous Dhak trees in full bloom. The profusions of red-orange flowers covering the bare branches of the deciduous beauty were indeed setting the forest aflame. The tree is not named the ‘Flame-of-the-Forest’ for nothing. An empty straw hut at the edge of the hill completed the artistic appeal of the colourful landscape. We clicked photographs to our hearts’ desire.

Dhak bloom at Aasrewali

Dhak bloom at Aasrewali

The hut at Aasrewali

The hut at Aasrewali

We now had the choice of checking out the water harvesting dam where I had discovered the remains of a wild boar and a sambar deer or to ride our way to Muwas that lay in the middle of the scrub forest in the foothills to the rear of Belwali. I wanted to explore a fresh destination and my friend was game for either of the plans so long as he rode pillion with Baghera. He was willing to risk his own neck but his camera was completely another story.

We rode back to Belwali and took the narrow dirt track leading to the rocky bed of the nadi that separates Aasrewali and Belwali villages. I had got a hang of the Classic by now and was enjoying the fresh breeze in my face and even the dust kicked up by Baghera’s motorbike. We crossed an impressive riverbank plantation of sissoo and eucalyptus trees.

Eucalyptus plantation along the river bank

Eucalyptus plantation along the river bank

The nadis emanating from the hills of Morni flow with terrible violence during the monsoons and cause heavy erosion along the banks as they hit the plains. The forest department is making an attempt to contain the further spread of the banks by planting trees on small ridges of rocky soil that have been created along the banks. The torrential flow is reduced to a negligible trickle in the winters and the bed completely dries up in the summers. Muwas lies upstream of Belwali along the bed of the nadi and the villagers use the narrow sandy strip that snakes up the bed amidst the rocks and boulders strewn all over. The village becomes inaccessible during the rains and one has to make one’s way on foot through the dense thorn forest to reach this remote village. We crossed a rock-paved well to reach a breathtaking landscape with a riot of red and orange of the Dhak blooms peppered all over the forests and the low-lying hills.

The rock paved well

The rock paved well

The ride to Muwas

The ride to Muwas

We crossed a mud cliff with parrots nesting in the numerous holes in the face of the cliff. I attempted a picture of the same but it was beyond the capability of my point-and-shoot camera.

Mud cliff with nesting holes of parrots

Mud cliff with nesting holes of parrots

We crossed an army of grey langurs who looked at us with curiosity.

Langurs on Dhak trees

Langurs on Dhak trees

We passed a beautiful solitary Dhak in the middle of the stream bed.

Dhak on the river bed

Dhak on the river bed

We stopped and clicked the dainty Mexican poppy, the ‘Satyanasi’ that caused the terrible dropsy epidemic in the 90s.

Mexican poppy-the terrible Satyanaasi!

Mexican poppy-the terrible Satyanaasi!

The track rose and fell and twisted and turned as it passed through that rugged untouched thorn-country. The Enfield was negotiating the bumps and the loose sand with ease lent by its phenomenal balance and its lion heart. I felt that one could easily try this track on horseback and imagined myself as the John Wayne of the 60s riding effortlessly on a powerful steed through the land of the blood-thirsty Comanche Indians, the rifle slung along the saddle. I have fantasized fighting the Chambal dacoits as a 13 year old to keep myself amused as I cycled back home alone from school under the blazing afternoon sun on the deserted road that led to my village. I would race my horse up and down through the treacherous ravines and would shoot down as a matter of routine, the scores of bandits who pursued me, before finishing the daily 5 KM ride back home. Some things never do change!

We reached Muwas a rather forlorn hamlet atop a small hill.

Muwas

Muwas

We parked are motorbikes near an impressive banyan. The aerial roots had fashioned themselves into a regular secondary tree trunk.

Banyan at Muwas

Banyan at Muwas

The King produced the bottles from the satchel and we gladly guzzled the cool water.  “How does the water feel?” he demanded triumphantly. “Good,” I responded. “I meant is it not cool despite being in the sun for all this while?” he asked in irritation. “Oh! Yes. It’s amazing!” I said, opening my eyes wide for additional emphasis. “It’s an old fauji trick,” he told me gleefully,” you fill cold water in a normal plastic bottle and wrap it inside a newspaper. It will stay cool for a very long time.” He loves these little Tom Sawyer type tricks, my friend.

We made our way after Baghera as he walked with confident long strides up the mud embankment that forms a water harvesting dam across a choe. We reached the top to see the beautiful untouched lake with the hills in the backdrop.

Muwas dam

Muwas dam

It was quite similar to the water harvesting dam I had visited earlier this year at Aasrewali. We spotted a lone red-wattled lapwing (teteeri) flapping around aimlessly over the lake. We also spotted a bunch of butterflies, the Common Mormons, paddling in a dung pile near the bank.

Common Mormons at Muwas Dam

Common Mormons at Muwas Dam

We scampered down to get a close shot. My friend managed a phenomenal close up while I got a Painted-lady and an orange dragonfly.

The Painted-Lady, Muwas Dam

The Painted-Lady, Muwas Dam

Orange Dragonfly at Muwas Dam, Morni hills

Orange Dragonfly at Muwas Dam, Morni hills

Baghera had been busy hunting for something as he walked up and down the embankment. I was contemplating crossing over to the far side of the lake to hunt for leopard pug marks when he called out to get our attention. He had found what he was looking for. The brown speckled eggs of the lapwing that lay completely unprotected on the open ground. The red-wattled lapwing, as we learnt, lays its eggs in the open ground and banks upon the natural camouflage due to the resemblance to rocks for their protection.

Natural camouflage of the eggs of the Red-wattled Lapwing

Natural camouflage of the eggs of the Red-wattled Lapwing

We made our way back to the motorbikes and rode back to Belwali where our car was parked. We drank to our fill from the bottles lying in the car and opened the food packets to discover loads of delicious homemade sandwiches. The sandwiches were passed around and we chatted in the shade of a tree as we munched on them and planned our next move.

Riders in the Sky

Riders in the Sky

On many an occasion in the past, I have stood atop the cliff at Mandhna, gazing at the thick forest that clothes the valley below, the small hamlets and the numerous choes. I have always wondered about the people who live in those quaint hill houses with sloping thatched roofs and who work the pretty terraced fields that lie hidden in the forest. As a child I loved an Enid Blyton story from her earliest (and finest) adventure series where the ‘adventurous-four’ visit Baronia, an idyllic mountain kingdom, with its majestic Killimooin castle and the magnificent royal guards in impressive blue and silver crested uniforms. The children befriend a blind shepherd-boy who plays the flute to his goats and are drawn to the mysterious and completely inaccessible valley that lies hidden amongst the towering Killimooin mountains of Baronia. The children eventually discover a secret tunnel-passage to this thickly wooded valley that takes them to the heart of the forest where they come upon a cleverly concealed village with numerous thatched huts set around a large blue lake. It’s the hideout of a secret robber cult (something like the thugs of the 19th century India) who have hidden in the valley for centuries and wear wolf tails as a lucky charm! The valley seen from the Mandhna cliff reminds me of the valley of the Killimooin-of-my-imagination. The same inaccessibility and the same irresistible charm of an untold story waiting to be discovered.

The Secret Valley

The Secret Valley

Kadiyani Valley- as seen from the cliff at Mandhna

Kadiyani Valley- as seen from the cliff at Mandhna

I enquired about this valley from Baghera.  The valley lies in a deep wedge formed beyond Mandhna, as the range bends northwards in a wide arc only to continue its journey eastwards towards the Tikkar lakes. Baghera informed me that we would have to make our way to Tibbi and from there to Khetpurali that lay at the mouth of the valley from where it was a bike ride on the metalled road to Dudhgarh. Thereafter we would follow a track through a river bed to reach Kadiyani, a small remote hamlet that lay deep in the forest atop a small level hill.

We switched back to the car and drove till Bunga, clicking a Black-winged Kite on the way.

Black-winged Kite, Aasrewali-Bunga Road

Black-winged Kite, Aasrewali-Bunga Road

We then made our way to Tibbi through Dabkauri and Rattewali. I spotted an old British-style rest house tucked away behind a thick grove of trees and I vowed to find out more about it on some future trip. From Tibbi we took the road heading north-east to Khetpurali. I made a mental note to check out Sabilpur that lay to the north-west of the mid-point between Khetpurali and Tibbi, on my next trip. The road ended abruptly at an under-construction bridge at Khetpurali and we again switched back to the Enfield. Khetpurali is a fairly historic village and the fossils excavated from this site by the British Canal Engineer-turned paleontologist Sir Proby Thomas Cautley, some 200 years ago, found their way to the London Natural History Museum and many 19th century universities that received the fossils as gifts. It’s an ordinary looking Gujjar village today. We took the road that wound up the hill to the rear of the village. We were on yet another scenic drive and we thundered along the beautiful winding road to reach a large level plain and the Gujjar village of Dudhgarh. A fairly large village that shares its panchayat with the hamlet of Kadiyani.

Baghera’s motorcycle had developed a flat tire and we stopped by the side of the road. He politely refused my feeble offer for organizing help. He spoke to someone on the phone and enquired from us if we proposed to continue our journey northwards deeper into the valley. ‘Let’s drag your motorbike to some safe location,’ I suggested. A motorbike parked in the middle of nowhere is an open invitation to theft. ‘Oh! Please don’t be worried about my bike. Nobody will touch it in this area,’ he said mildly. ‘Wow! What confidence!!’ I wondered. It was decided that Baghera would now drive my motorbike as the King and I cramped on the pillion seat behind him! My friend cribbed about not finding a footrest for his precious Woodlands, worried that he would scrape his shoe somewhere.

The metalled road ended on the northern edge of the Dudhgarh plain and Baghera put the bike through a near suicidal descent through a thick layer of loose powdery clay along a track that went down along the side of a hill to the bed of the nadi that flows past Dudhgarh and Khetpurali. The ride towards Kadiyani along the dry river bed was interesting but not quite as scenic as the ride to Muwas earlier that day. Just short of Kadiyani, Baghera veered off onto the bed of a smaller choe that flowed from the north-east to join the main nadi that we had been following thus far. The King was silently mouthing expletives to keep himself calm as the bike groaned under our collective weight and as we made our way up the bed of the rivulet that rose sharply to the east. The Enfield people make their bikes like nobody else. We made it! We reached a large earthen embankment where a brand new water harvesting dam was in the final stages of construction. One more watering hole would be available to the wildlife after the rains.

Water harvesting dam being constructed at Kadiyani

Water harvesting dam being constructed at Kadiyani

We made our way up the embankment wearily. The day’s adventures were beginning to take their toll. The workers had built themselves a straw hut under a dhak tree for seeking respite from the afternoon sun.

Straw hut at Muwas dam

Straw hut at Muwas dam

The sun was beginning to go down. We decided to give Kadiyani a go by as it  required us to trek up the rocky bed of the nadi to reach the dhani that lay hidden atop a small hill overlooking the nadi below. We learnt from the locals that it was far easier to access Kadiyani from Mandhna and that a hill track descended to the valley from near the Guga Marhi temple on the outskirts of Mandhna. So the Secret Valley’s exploration would have to wait for another day! I did stop on the way back to check out some of the terraced fields atop a sharp slope. I was greeted by a friendly, middle aged man who answered my queries about the geography. No, he had not seen the leopard though he could hear it calling in the forest. Yes, the neelgais and the wild boars wreaked havoc on the crops. No, the gorals and the barking deer never bothered him. They were too shy. No, the upcoming dam would be of no use to the villagers as there were no fields downstream of the dam. I asked for his permission to click the picturesque fields. His wife, kid and dog looked at me out of curiosity. I refused his polite invitation for a cup of tea and resisted the temptation to click his artistic one room hut made of stone with a lovely thatched roof. It was his home and his wife was in the frame!

Fields at Kadiyani

Fields at Kadiyani

We rode back to Dudhgarh, stopping to click a unique clay formation carved by wind and water erosion over the ages. A langur posed against the twin mud ‘pagodas’ sculpted by the hand of God!

The fascinating mud pagodas near Dudhgarh, Morni

The fascinating mud pagodas near Dudhgarh, Morni

I was relieved to notice that Baghera’s bullet was standing parked safely exactly where we had left it. As Baghera strode confidently to his bike and started the engine with his characteristic nonchalance it gradually dawned on me that the tire puncture had been miraculously fixed. The hand of God was everywhere in this fairy tale land!  A tire-repair mechanic had come to this back-of-the-beyond location with his gear, fixed the tire and left while we were busy checking out the dam at Kadiyani. All in response to a single phone call! No further directions sought, no further directions given!! The man does not cease to amaze me.

We went past Khetpurali and crossed the river to its east and made our way to yet, another water harvesting dam and lake at Dullopur, that lies midway between Khetpurali and Tirlokpur. I made a fool of myself making a video of a ‘jackal’ sitting on the far side of the lake, motioning my comrades to keep out of the frame, with the superior air of a Nat-Geo expert. A reader had recently disputed the authenticity of my find of a leopard pug mark and I moved closer to reconfirm my subject. It was a common village mongrel with all the pretensions of a genuinely wild jackal!

Dam at Dullopur

Dam at Dullopur

The ride to Tirlokpur was beautiful. My friend had decided to trust my driving for the last leg of the journey. The evening breeze and the serene green fields in the backdrop of the blue hills looked heavenly. We reached Bhood for taking the road to Morni through Bhood-Paonta-Plasra. We thanked Baghera for the fabulous outing, returned the bike and headed for Morni.

We stopped at the shops on the tri-junction near the Morni fort where the road from Tirlokpur meets the main Morni road. I picked up some cigarettes for my pal. He has quit smoking but likes to enjoy a puff once in a while, especially when we finish our day’s adventures at Morni. We finally reached Tikkar Cottage after sunset, fatigued and happy. The drive from Delhi and the daylong biking through the challenging terrain had not done my ageing back muscles any good. We were covered with a fine layer of sticky clay. A hot cup of tea followed by a long relaxing bath and we were ready to open the Chardonnay. The King prepared a lovely spread of cut fruit and green salad. We finished the wine, laughing at the same age old jokes. My friend fished out his magic torch and dazzled the far off hillside with the amazing turbo-mode beam of that deceptively small torch. It was an expensive toy. ‘Why on earth did you buy it?’ I wanted to know. He just shrugged. Some things that you just need to have. ‘Bachpan keh shauk,’ as the Doc would put it.

We were ready to dose off as we had the usual dal-chaval. The body was sore with the exertion but the spirit was elated. We congratulated ourselves for our stamina and our undiminished zest for life and decided to call it a day.

I woke up to the sound of my friend dusting his shoes. He had decided to sacrifice his vest and was busy making the tough shoe leather shine again. ‘The clay won’t go and your shoes are finished,’ I kidded him. ‘Oh yes it will,’ he replied confidently, ‘ I had coated the leather with a thin layer of oil the night before!’ The pink rose bush was in bloom.

Rose bloom at Tikkar Cottage

Rose bloom at Tikkar Cottage

The chilli tree was covered in white. The resplendent bougainvillea was impressive as ever.

Bloom of the Chillih tree at Tikkar Cottage

Bloom of the Chillih tree at Tikkar Cottage

Bougainvillea at Tikkar Cottage

Bougainvillea at Tikkar Cottage

 

We had a leisurely breakfast and were off again. This time on the battle weary Thunderbird, which retains all of its original thunder and none of the BHP!! We drove to the shops near the fort for a tank up. We then crossed the Morni town onto the Badyal road until we reached the turn for Sherla. The Thunderbird groaned painfully as we climbed the steep track to reach the Sherla village. The German lady’s cottage was covered with flowers of all hues and I told my friend about the visit I had paid to that gutsy old lady. The adjoining fields were painted a lovely pink by Malora, an attractive pink-flowered broom shrub.

Pink broom at Sherla

Pink broom at Sherla

We rode through the village and had stopped to photograph an upcoming Forest fire Research Institute when I saw a fascinating piece of cloth, the purest of all whites, go floating past me through the air to disappear into the scrub that surrounds the Sherla Tal. It was the paradise bird and you have to experience one to understand why it has been named so. I tried hunting for the bird for sometime but it was nowhere to be found. We then rode down and took the turn at Bhimwar towards Thandog. We stopped briefly to photograph the Badyal village that could be seen below us and the road to Kalua-Bhood in Himachal as it wound down the hill to reach the nadi that formed Haryana’s border with Himachal.

Badiyal road from Bhimwar-Thandog road

Badiyal road from Bhimwar-Thandog road

The road to Thandog was in a state of disrepair and I drove at a cautious speed. I had never been to this major Rajput village of Morni that is famous for its pine groves. We spotted Thandog’s brightly painted senior secondary school from a distance. We thundered into that unusually lively hill village sporting our rather conspicuous helmets and the locals looked at us with curiosity. As we asked for directions to the Himachal border we were approached by a relatively important looking man who requested us to partake in a community meal (langar) that was being organized inside the school premises. Some kids were seated on jute mats and they chattered with excitement as they were served their meals. We were not clear whether the meal was part of some religious celebrations though the atmosphere did appear festive. I politely refused the invitation and we made our way towards Rui, a village on the Himachal border. King was unhappy with my unilateral decision to refuse the meal. He found it impolite. He is also superstitious in such matters. “You would have gone down with gastroenteritis by the evening,” I said lamely, trying to defend my decision. He looked unconvinced but chose not to argue any further. We made our way down the tricky road from Thandog layered with loose gravel and stones from the ongoing road widening and metalling work. We left this road to turn right for the hill track that led to Rui. We were now in thick forest under the shade of majestic chir pines. The temperature dropped significantly and I realized that we were certainly in one of the most beautiful locations in Morni. The track was covered with a mat of pine needles and the area smelt of the pines as they whistled with the breeze. We crossed numerous picnic spots and suddenly came upon two cottages in the middle of the dense forest. The cottages bore a deserted look and we decided against committing trespass to satisfy our curiosity about the owner.

Forest lodge on the road to Kohlan

Forest lodge on the road to Kohlan

Some cute looking village kids crossed us as they walked towards Thandog and wished us politely. The mothers followed at a distance and avoided looking our way. The hills were resonating with the calls of the jungle fowls and I made a video of the place. I was lucky to capture a yellow-billed blue magpie.

Presently a man appeared on a motorbike. He was heading for Rui and stopped on seeing us. He enquired about the purpose of our visit. He was from Sarahan and cribbed about the lack of development in the hills in Haryana, ‘They don’t let you cut trees to build roads. Kohlan doesn’t even have electricity in this age! This area was unlucky to have fallen under Haryana. The adjoining villages of Himachal are much better off.’ He volunteered to lead us till Rui which was a good 15 KM from the spot. I had to drive back to Delhi the same day and we decided to head for Kohlan instead.

The drive to Kohlan through the chir pine forest was a beautiful experience. Kohlan is a small hamlet under the Thandog panchayat and the village had lovely semi-circular terraced fields.

Terraced fields at Kohlan

Terraced fields at Kohlan

I could spot the white and violet flowers of the kachnar trees that were growing wild in the area. The last part of the village track that led up a hill had been freshly cemented and I tried to make the steep climb by putting the bike on full-throttle. The engine screamed and groaned and just when we thought that we would make it safely to the top it suddenly died out! The Thunderbird rolled backwards dangerously and I tried to restore my control with desperation. My friend had hopped-off in a jiffy and applied his full horse power to halt the backward roll of that 180 KG monster. He is a tough guy, the King, my friend. We were saved broken-necks by his quick action and we dragged the bike to a level green patch. The village seemed deserted and we walked around the place clicking photographs. I clicked the Kachnar trees and the Subabul (Lead tree) that was growing wild in the area.

Kachnar tree at Kohlan

Kachnar tree at Kohlan

Subabul at Kohlan

A house in Kohlan

A house in Kohlan

A lady finally appeared at a door. We wished her politely and told her that we meant no harm. She was amused at my clicking the Kachnar flower and told us that they made a vegetable from the flower. Her husband emerged from the house and agreed to lead us to the Solar-powered plant that had been set up in the village some years ago but had fallen into a state of disrepair after the expiry of the annual maintenance contract. The solar panels seemed to be in a fine state though the battery bank looked old and damaged.

Solar panels at Kohlan, Morni

Solar panels at Kohlan, Morni

As we looked around we noticed that the villagers of Kohlan hung their hay on tree branches to keep it dry.

Straw heaps at Kohlan

Straw heaps at Kohlan

I spotted a fascinating Indian Coral tree and clicked its brilliant red flowers.

Indian Coral tree, Kohlan

Indian Coral tree, Kohlan

Then there was the ‘Samma’ tree with curious light yellow-green flowers hanging from the branches with leaf-like petals arranged around a central axis, much like a bottle-brush. I later discovered that it was the Mauwa tree that is found in the Himalayas upto a height of 2000 metres. Kohlan also had the attractive pink, broom-shrub that we had spotted earlier at Sherla. I spied a tiny blue flower growing wild and I promptly clicked it to add to my collection for the website, much to the surprise of our ‘guide’. I impressed him by identifying the fruit of the Chimbal tree that is eaten by man and the langur alike! I was happy to spot a couple of sparrows that are today endangered in the cities but continue to flourish in the hills.

Sparrows at Kohlan

Sparrows at Kohlan

Jadwar flower?

Jadwar flower?

 

The tree with curious hanging flowers

Mauwa tree in bloom at Kohlan

Chimbal fruit

Chimbal fruit

I enquired about the working of MNREGA and the man voiced his dissatisfaction with the long delays in receiving the wages. Kohlan is an all-out Rajput village. The people have been living here for generations and live-off the meagre produce of their terraced fields as well as whatever wage employment they can manage in that area. We could not help noticing, however, that most of the houses in this rather remote ‘frontier’ village of Haryana were of surprisingly good quality. We followed the man back to his house and he invited us for tea. His wife called out from the kitchen and asked us to stay for dinner! I accepted a glass of water and politely refused the invitation for food. ‘How do you know that this water won’t give you a bad stomach?’ my friend wanted to know. He was still upset about my having refused the langar at Thandog and was making his resentment felt. The question was asked within the earshot of our host and I motioned my friend to not to persist with his query as I feared that the host would comprehend and feel offended. We spent some time on the terrace of the house and marvelled at the natural beauty of the place.

The terrace

The terrace

We were getting late and having thanked our hosts and having promised to return soon we made our way back to Tikkar Cottage. My friend prepared a phone video of the hill ride from Kohlan to Thandog. We stopped near Chhooyi, just short of Morni to photograph a hamlet on the southern slope of the Badyal road. I also clicked the Post Office, Bank and Primary Health Centre at Morni for my website! We finally reached Tikkar Cottage and hastily headed back home. I took the road through Jallah and stopped at the Nature Camp of Haryana Forest Department at Thapli. It is a beautiful facility overlooking the Ghaggar river and the heavily wooded Pinjore Dun that lies beyond. A large thatched restaurant-like structure occupies the large level area.

Dining area, Nature Camp Thapli

Dining area, Nature Camp Thapli

A more modern looking building has been added recently.

Nature Camp at Thapli

Nature Camp at Thapli

One can see a number of quaint looking Swiss tents spread all over the fenced campus, each tent being hidden within a pocket of trees and its own patch of wilderness.

Swiss tents at Thapli

Swiss tents at Thapli

The facility has the potential of taking the adventure-hungry residents of Chandigarh area by a storm if it were to be run by a professional outfit like the Banjara Group or Inme that organizes outdoor camping for school kids. There was nobody available to answer our queries and we continued with our return journey. I drove non-stop to Delhi with only a small detour to drop my friend on the way. It was 11 PM by the time I reached back home and I had been driving my car or riding the Enfields or trekking through forests for 19 of the 38 hours I had spent on the overnight trip!

 

P.S.

The route we followed

The route we followed

 

Into the leopard’s lair

I was late. It was Delhi again. Anybody who has had the experience of moving in to this ‘City of Djinns’ knows how the mega-polis discourages the newcomer from making the entry. It can be years before you reconcile to its undecipherable maze of unending roads, its congested gullies, the packed markets and the soulless malls. Even the colonial opulence of the ‘Capitol’ at Raisina and the majestic bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi is lost to the dirty, gray sky and the stench of the millions of tired souls that are condemned to a life of helpless coexistence.  But the Djinn-of-Dilli, much like the Medusa of Greek mythology, does not reveal the extent of her perversity until you attempt to leave the folds of her terrible tresses, the serpentine traffic snarls. She hates you for your seeking respite from her vile captivity, even when it is only a day spent amidst the freshness of the hills. She will try to deny you that tiniest relief with one malicious jam after another, her mouth curled in a wicked smile. The more you honk in exasperation, the more you fuel her perverse pleasure. That and my inability to take an early start to beat the goddamned traffic!

I drove non-stop all the way to Derabussi, turning right under the overbridge to take the dusty Punjab road to Ramgarh. My wife and daughters have learnt to put up with my eccentric ways and did not protest at my skipping the compulsory loo-break at Karnal!! My wife did appear astonished, however, when I stopped by the Guga-marhi temple at Kakrali (just short of Ramgarh) and hopped-off to get a quick picture of the quaint cement sculpture of Prince Guga on his fabled blue steed.

Prince Guga on his steed, Guga-Marhi Temple at Kakrali

Prince Guga on his steed, Guga-Marhi Temple at Kakrali

I was back at the wheel in a jiffy and pretended not to register the incredulous looks being exchanged by my family. Zorba was waiting with his jeep at Ramgarh fort as planned. I grabbed my jungle hat, camera and sun-glasses and we were off to the destination for the day.

I have earlier recounted my trip to Aasrewali, one of the numerous gujjar villages that dot the Shivalik foot hills. The forest department has built two earthen dams across seasonal choes in the village, under the water-harvesting and soil-conservation programmes. The dams have created two small lakes in the village one of which lies just above the village to the east of the nadi that flows past the village. The other, larger lake lies higher in the hills to the west of this nadi and is surrounded by a thick forest and the hills that lie to the north-east of Berwala bird sanctuary. Zorba had bought a hat identical to mine but preferred wearing a cap that he claimed to be identical to the one worn by US Army chief! We crossed a herd of cattle as we neared Aasrewali.The brick-paved village streets were layered with cow dung and were full of potholes. I ignored Zorba’s protests at my undue caution in negotiating the numerous potholes, which he thought betrayed my lack of trust in the robustness of his jeep! We crossed the village masjid. A couple of youths crossed us on motorcycles carrying firewood loads tied across the rear seat. We reached the nadi and I drove through the wide meandering bed taking care to avoid the large stones that threatened to cause damage to the jeep’s exposed engine chamber.

I had already visited the smaller dam near the village the previous summer and only had a vague idea about the location of the second, larger dam that lay amidst the higher hills. Just then we came across a young married couple who were walking back to their village from the hills. The bearded, tall man looked at us with curiosity and I used the opportunity offered by the eye contact to seek directions. He evinced no surprise at my plan to visit the dam and started explaining the path in detail while his wife continued to make her way back to the village without acknowledging our presence. I was taking too long to understand the way and he decided to accompany us to the site. We could drive up the nadi for some distance and he climbed into the rear seat. Zorba immediately started quizzing him about ‘Abdullah Sai’, the miracle man of the hills. I have never really figured out Zorba’s motives for these question-answer sessions. I initially thought that he was merely seeking to impress me with the ascetic’s prowess at performing miracles by having locals recount their experiences with the man. But then I have bought my peace with Zorba long back by joining the ranks of the ‘faithfuls’ and have avowed my complete faith in the mystical powers of the wandering Baba. I have often had this nagging suspicion that maybe Zorba does get bouts of self-doubt and seeks to reaffirm his faith by hearing the locals repeat his favourite stories about the wonders performed by his beloved hermit. Or else he suspects my professed conviction in the genuiness of the miracles and has decided to bombard me with the narrations by the faithfuls until I capitulate completely! Zorba is a complicated character and its impossible to figure him out completely!!

Anyway, Imran (the youth) seemed very well aware of all the famous exploits of the roaming hermit. He readily recounted the god man’s best known miracle where he is said to have blown his breath into the empty fuel tank of a disciple’s scooter and asked him to drive the scooter back home without a worry while warning him to never check the fuel tank again. The scooter ran without fuel for a number of days until the believer’s curiosity got the better of him and he violated the edict of the Sai and checked the fuel tank. The tank was empty of course and the miracle promptly came to an end. One thing which is obvious from all the different tales is that the Baba is extremely temperamental and can chide you in shockingly profane language if you try to put on airs in his presence. He dosent stick to any one location for long and compulsively moves from place to place, often disappearing into forests for long periods of time. Imran reported that the ascetic had stopped visiting the village after the village Maulvi annoyed him by refusing his advice to prune the banyan growing inside the masjid to prevent the birds roosting on its extended branches from soiling the neighbour’s courtyard with their droppings! To set the record straight, while I have little belief in miracles being a normal, rational man, yet, I am extremely curious about the character of this elusive hill hermit and would definitely love to meet him.

I drove till we reached a large clear patch by the side of the nadi and Imran advised me to park as the track was not motorable beyond the point. Zorba decided to wait at the spot while I checked out the dam and lighted a cigarette as I followed Imran. The path followed a stream that had clear water running through it. There were no fish in the water unlike the stream I had seen at Bharal that was alive with fish and freshwater crabs. ‘Its the water flowing from the dam,’ he informed me.

Streams at Aasrewali

Streams at Aasrewali

The soil around the stream was colonized by dense stands of the kans grass and the woolly white flowers (kash-phuls) swayed  dreamily with the breeze.

Kans grass, Aasrewali

Kans grass, Aasrewali

There were also numerous, small ‘khakda’ trees growing in the area. I had on my earlier trip to Aasrewali identified the tree to be none other than the dhak (palash) tree, the tell tale dhak-ke-teen-paat helping to identify the tree. I was determined to photograph these ‘Flames of the Forest’ in full bloom during spring and vowed to undertake yet another trip in early April. We were required to cross the stream and I managed it with some difficulty as my knee had decided to give me trouble. ‘Your hiking days are numbered old man!’ I reminded myself as I struggled to keep pace with the energetic Imran.

He inquired about my profession and grinned broadly when he learnt that I was not an official of the forest department. ‘Oh! Those poor fools,’ he exclaimed mirthfully. ‘Who are you talking about?’ I inquired  ‘Did you not notice all those people running away all along the way, leaving behind the firewood they had collected?’ he asked incredulously. I had noticed no such person and wondered why anybody would run at my sight. ‘They must have spotted your jeep from a distance and thought that you were high officials of the forest department on a surprise check and fled from the spot as its illegal to collect firewood,’ he informed me. ‘Must be the jungle hat coupled with the sarkari looking jeep,’ I figured out. Some monkeys sensed our approach at a distance and made loud threatening sounds to discourage our advance. Imran cursed them roundly and pointed to the large earthen embankment to our front. ‘That’s the dam,’ he told me. He showed me the large metal pipe with a big control valve emerging from the dam and explained that it carried water for irrigation to the fields that lay downstream of the dam. ‘Who manages the pipes?’ I wanted to know. ‘We do,’ he said proudly,’my fields also receive water from the dam.’ This was the first water-harvesting dam of the many that I had visited thus far, including Aasrewali’s other dam and the twin dams at Bunga, a nearby village, that was actually providing water for irrigation. He pointed to the jhunds (stands) of kans grass and explained how they were used for thatching of roofs of cattle sheds etc. I asked him about wildlife. He told me about the wild boars, the kakars (barking deer), the ban-bakris (gorals), the sambar deer and of course the leopard. I immediately bombarded him with numerous questions about the leopard. ‘It’s hard to spot one,’ he told me. ‘The goat-herders often encounter it in the forests,’ he told me. ‘He is a bastard, I tell you,’ he continued, now warming up to the topic. ‘The ********ker will kill five when he has to eat just one.’ ‘How come?’ I wanted to know. ‘He ll pounce on the first kill and the terrified flock shall flee in all directions to save themselves. But goats are stupid.They’ll return to the spot after some time and sniff at their dead companion. The leopard shall then kill a second goat. If the goat-herder is careless and lets them graze on their own the leopard will massacre the entire flock one-by-one and the dumb beasts will not learn till all of them are dead!’ This was an incredible story. I wanted to know whether forest department compensated the villagers if their goats or cattle got killed by the leopard. ‘Why would they do that?’ he asked me. I was sure that I had read about the compensation in the newspaper and was surprised that there was no such practice in the area. He pointed to the hoof marks of the deer, the wild boars and the gorals.

Typical hoof mark of a wild boar, Aasrewali, Morni hills

Typical hoof mark of a wild boar, Aasrewali, Morni hills

He taught me how to distinguish between the hoof marks of a deer and the boar and also between those of a goral and the domesticated goat. He told me how early mornings were the best time to spot wildlife. How gorals could be seen on the hill tops against the sky. How gorals could not be bred in captivity and how they were extremely shy animals and would die early if captured, generally out of fright.I spotted a beautiful alstonia growing wild, that looked very different from its typical pruned variant planted along the city roads. We climbed up the embankment and surveyed the lake that lay beyond.

Lake at Aasrewali, Morni hills

Lake at Aasrewali, Morni hills

I wanted to know if we could locate the leopard’s pugmarks and he immediately embarked upon a search along the bank. Not finding any on the embankment-end of the lake he suggested that we should make our way to the far end to hunt for the pugmarks. Two seasonal choes converged to form a wide sandy bed that served as the bank of the lake. As we hunted for the pugmarks we came upon bare bones scattered on the bed. Imran quickly identified the skull to be belonging to a cow. Some of the bones belonged to Sambar deer as could be made out from the fur still sticking to the ends.

Bones of Sambar deer killed by leopard at Aasrewali, Morni hills

Bones of Sambar deer killed by leopard at Aasrewali, Morni hills

‘These have been killed by the leopard,’ concluded Imran. ‘He probably gets his kills to this spot for feeding,’ he muttered, as he continued his search for the pugmarks. He discovered the remains of a wild boar killed by the leopard behind some bushes. He called out to me and I rushed to see the kill. ‘What’s that cloth with the bones?’ I asked. ‘Its the boar’s hide!’ he said with amusement.

Wild boar killed at Aasrewali by leopard, Morni hills

Wild boar killed at Aasrewali by leopard, Morni hills

I proceeded to make a video of the area and the kills.

‘Best not venture too deep into the foliage,’ he warned, ‘you may accidentally come upon the leopard feeding on a fresh kill somewhere in these bushes.’ I withdrew from the scrub and we continued our hunt for the leopard pugmarks but could find none.

Hunt for pugmarks, Aasrewali

Hunt for pugmarks, Aasrewali

The kills were probably not very recent we concluded and decided to head back to the spot where Zorba was waiting. On the way back he showed me the remains of a monitor lizard that had probably been killed by a mongoose. As I went close to get a picture, he warned me to steer clear of the bones as everything about the ‘goh’ was highly poisonous. Any kind of contact with the ‘goh’ was potentially dangerous and  I would require the services of a witchdoctor to perform a ‘Jhadah’ to undo the damage!

Bones of a monitor lizard, Aasrewali, Morni hills

Bones of a monitor lizard, Aasrewali, Morni hills

‘Do you want to see my fields?’ he enquired. I was eager though we had already spent over an hour-and-a-half at the dam and Zorba would be getting impatient. We took a short detour and climbed up a small hill to reach a large level patch with beautiful green fields.

Fields at Aasrewali

Fields at Aasrewali

Imran’s grandmother was working in the field and said something rather crossly to him. She seemed to be speaking some alien language and I could not follow a word of what she said. His overenthusiastic dog was making me nervous though he was probably barking only out of curiosity for my hat. ‘We keep dogs for company, as one of us has to spend the night on the machaan in the fields to guard the crops against the wild boars and the deer,’ he told me. ‘You must be shit scared of a leopard attack at night being all alone in the middle of the forest?’ I enquired. ‘Oh! We sleep through the night if the baghera is around as it scares off rest of the wild life,’ he boasted. He pointed to an army of langurs looking at us with curiosity from the opposite hill.

Grey langurs at Aasrewali, Morni hills

Grey langurs at Aasrewali, Morni hills

There were peacocks playing at a distance. The fields were enclosed within a strong thorn fence and we climbed over the steps of the stile to make our way down to the nadi.

Thorn fence & Stile at Aasrewali

Thorn fence & Stile at Aasrewali

‘It’s so heavenly out here. I wish I could live and farm here,’ I confided. ‘A party from Sadhaura has bought some land in the village but they rarely visit the fields and have let them out on contract to the villagers for farming,’ he told me.

We crossed a large herd of brown cows who mowed threateningly on our approach. Imran warned me to maintain a respectful distance. ‘Oh! They’ll get scared I suppose,’ I wondered. ‘No, they’ll run their mean horns through our backsides,’ he said with a laugh.

Cattle at Aasrewali

Cattle at Aasrewali

He exchanged pleasantries with the old man tending the cows. ‘Do the villagers still leave the village with the cattle to graze them in the far-off pastures ‘ I wanted to know. ‘Yes, of course. The village owns thousands of cattle head and there is not sufficient fodder and water for them. The old men in the village take them on grazing trips to Punjab during the summers and return only after the rains when fodder and water becomes plentiful,’ he explained. The kandi area in the foothills of the Shivaliks receives decent amount of rainfall but the soil-structure being highly porous the water percolates deep down and only deep submersibles can extract groundwater. The area grows extremely dry during the summer season. It did seem strange, however, that a large section of the gujjars of the 21st century were still leading the nomadic-life of their ancestors, following the same patterns of seasonal migration that their forefathers had followed for the past so many centuries.

‘What is the impact of NREGA? Do you folks get employment under the scheme?’ I asked him. ‘Yes we do get seasonal employment for doing work for the forest department. The payment is a problem though. They pay us in installments and money goes into a bank account,’ he said with some dissatisfaction. ‘Do they demand bribes?’ I continued. ‘No,’ he said most emphatically and showed surprise at the question. I was very happy to hear the answer.

‘Do you own cattle that you send out for grazing in dry summers?’ I quizzed him further. ‘No, my father and I are drivers. We drive trucks. We also rent out our two tractors to the stone-crushing units near Ramgarh,’ he told me. He then went on to narrate how he had recently got a traffic ticket in Delhi as we trudged back to Zorba. He was waiting patiently and did not protest at my being that late.

Zorba at Aasrewali

Zorba at Aasrewali

 

It was around 5 PM when we started back for the village. Zorba asked Imran about the going rate for a ‘desi-murga’. On nearing his home Imran invited us for a cup of milk. It was getting late and I had other plans for the evening. I tentatively took out some money from my purse to gift to my guide but his loud protest made me change my mind. He was a proud, young man who had enjoyed showing me around the jungles that were his home. He was not going to accept a tip from any shehri babu. I thanked him for his time and we drove off towards Bunga where I stopped to photograph a Shikra and a Kingfisher.

Zorba was game for a short trip to Morni and I headed for the Parwala-Tikkar tal road. I was curious about his having enquired about the rates of a rooster. He immediately warmed up to his latest series of strange encounters. It was a eunuch who had visited his home to congratulate him on the birth of his grandchild. He turned out to be a follower of Abdullah Sai and refused to accept any money. On Zorba’s insistence he asked for a bed as a gift. This is a great omen as per Zorba as only the blessed get to gift a bed to a eunuch. He added a top-of-the-end bedding for good measure. The eunuch blessed the child and foretold a great future for him and also brought a rooster by way of a gift for his benefactor. It was cooked with due honours and the eunuch shared the meal and then disappeared to wherever he came from. ‘They are very unhappy souls, the eunuchs,’ he said gravely and with lot of compassion, ‘we must be kind to them.’

I took the road to Tikkar village from Parwala and stopped to a click a peacock. There are a number of freshly constructed water harvesting dams in the area and I stopped to photograph the two that lie along the road near Ambawala village. It was getting dark by now and one could see the near full-moon getting beautifully reflected in the lake waters.

Dam at Ambawala, Morni hills

Dam at Ambawala, Morni hills

We crossed the Tikkar tal and stopped at the Lakeview Cafe that had been lit up rather gaudily with ‘Made-in-China’ string lights. We were greeted by a large Alsation and an enthusiastic Garhwali caretaker-cook-waiter all rolled into one. The cafe is built right at the edge of the Draupadi tal, the smaller of the twin lakes of Tikkar. There are nice, green,. stepped-terraces by the lake-side. It’s a pity that one can’t get an angling licence for the Tikkar lakes as one could have a jolly time lounging on a deck chair on these inviting terraces, reading and fishing in the winter sun. The restaurant and the kitchen was spick-and-span and the caretaker got us a cup of tea. He stood by our table and hard-sold his joint to us. The vegetables used for the preparations were farm fresh and were grown in an adjoining field. The fish was from Chandigarh, which is an irony as the fish farming contractor to whom the tals are leased sells his catch of Catla and Mrigal in Chandigarh! He told us about sambar stags grazing in the cafe’s garden at night. The room tariff was Rs. 1200/- to a room for a night. ‘Ah! We all know the kind of clientele such lonely cottage-cafes attract!’ remarked Zorba in his characteristic style. The man suppressed a grin and protested mildly, ‘No! No! This is a family hotel.’ ‘Just last week we booked all the rooms for a large family that had come to celebrate the parents’ wedding anniversary. The old man was so impressed with the level of cleanliness that he tipped me an extra 5oo bucks!’ he announced proudly. ‘This is a hint for me,’ I thought wryly, as I too had appreciated his excellent upkeep of the place. But then, Zorba is a no nonsense man and would not allow me to tip an idle loafer out of sheer embarrassment for simply doing a job he is paid to do!  We drove on, climbing the road to Morni and then descending the road to Jallah to hit the Pinjore-Panchkula highway. I had been driving and trekking for over ten hours at a stretch by the time I decided to call it a day!

The Jewel of Mallah

It was a cold, foggy morning of January as I started for a yet another adventure in the Morni hills. I had a new companion for the trip. My ‘e-pen pal’ from the land of the Blue Mountains. A nature lover I had encountered on the net and had struck a firm friendship with. We shared a fascination for the uncharted wild, the trees, the birds and the solitude. An expatriate from India, who had returned home for an extended visit. We had decided to meet and go for a drive in the hills. I had no clue about his age or professional background but he seemed an immensely interesting man. His eMails would recount his adventures ‘Down Under’, the long solitary walks through eucalyptus forests and the sightings of colourful birds and curious animals that inhabited the land.  I found him waiting outside his house. A powerfully built Punjabi with a serious, thoughtful expression and inquisitive, smiling eyes. He was a shade younger to me. A customary glass of juice, some pleasantries and we were off.

I had decided to check out a long, narrow lake enclosed by interesting terraced slopes that I had spotted on google-earth. The route was fairly clear and we had to take the Pinjore-Mallah road. I was at the wheel and we talked about this and that. About his childhood and his fascination for mother-nature.

My friend belonged to a line of what Wilbur Smith would have called the ‘Men-of-Men!’ The rugged, rustic Punjabi avatars of the 19th century British game hunters, who spent their lives in merry revelry. The day would be spent in stalking game with the cunning and stealth of a ruthless predator. The bag would be shared with the comrades after the hunt. The evenings would see them binging on their potent home brews, drinking themselves to a stupor. The brags about the hunting and tracking skills would be loudly contested. The roars of laughter would rip the evening calm as the men traded their rough earthy jokes laced with expletives. You could see the embers burn in the eyes of these men, as they would sit around the fire, watching the venison roast with contentment.  These were the men who believed in increasing the odds of the hunt to give their prey an even chance and to get the thrill of real danger. For they were impelled by a death wish to a life of excesses and risk, waiting for the inevitable, to see it in the eye when it came!

Men of Men

He recounted his numerous adventures of having accompanied his grandpa on his hunting expeditions in the royal hunting reserves of the yesteryears. He spoke of the plentiful wild boars, the black bucks and the blue bulls that once inhabited those forests. Of having waded through waist-deep ice-cold water in cold winter months to get a clean shot at a murghabi (teal). Of having been taught to skin a teetar (francolin) without getting squeamish at the sight of blood. Of learning to aim and to pull the trigger on the prey, with cool composure. The ‘birs’ (forests) were all but gone, unable to match the onslaught of urbanisation. The game was gone as was that generation of old world shikaris, their muzzle-loaders and their light-hearted banter.

He fondly remembered the jeep excursions with his dad, driving through jungles and hills. The quaint forest rest houses of Himachal that dated back to the British times. The wizened, old chowkidars and their culinary skills. The pine scented rooms with wooden floors. The bathing in the seasonal streams. The tea-stall owner who would double as the wildlife spotter. The gorals at Berwala. The scary encounter with the porcupine. The solitude of the cliff-side viewpoint at Mandana. The breeze and the rain.

It was obvious, that much like me, he was, a wanderer at heart. While he shared my quest for seeking out the unknown yet he did not share my obsession for photographing and documenting all that I saw and experienced. He is a firm believer in relishing the moment rather than spoiling it in an attempt to capture it with the camera. I positively disagree. The picture saves the moment for an eternity!

As we crossed the bridge on the Mallah road we got a beautiful view of the newly created reservoir by the earthen dam across Kaushalya nadi. The fog was down to a light mist and the strong backlight made the photograph difficult. Curiously, there were no water birds to be seen at this large lake, probably because the fish, the frogs and the insects were yet to make an appearance at this brand new lake. My friend produced a pair of field glasses, a prized childhood possession! He had been on the road once before and recounted an interesting episode of a hill man hoisting his wife over his shoulder like a sack to save her from getting wet as he waded through the swollen stream oblivious of my friend swimming in the natural pool with his dad and brother.

We drove through the Bir Shikargarh Forest.  I had been in the area a year before with Zorba and I thought about the dedicated scientist whom I had encountered at the Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre of BNHS.  A man who had dedicated his life to saving the vultures from extinction – much like the vedic saints who retired to the mountains to a life of prayer and meditation.

I clicked an interesting banyan and we turned left for Mallah.  The road was in a sorry state.  Mallah has an outcrop of limestone and had the quarries that provided limestone to the Bhupendra Cement Works that was set up at Surajpur Pinjore in 1939 by the Maharaja of Patiala.  The cement factory had provided the cement for building the Bhakra Dam which was the highest gravity dam in Asia at the time that it was built.  The factory and the mines were taken over by ACC and operated till 1997 when they were shut-down by a Supreme Court judgement due to environmental concerns.  The township at Surajpur had gradually faded away with time and now resembled a ghost town.  The village at Mallah had fared better as it lay on the route to Himachal.    A large herbal park has been set up at the turn for Mallah by the Forest Department and has been enclosed inside a high fence.  The Forest Department should not ideally fence up their parks as it creates hurdles for the free passage of wildlife.

We stopped at a dusty open patch that served as Mallah’s bus-stop and enquired about the way to the lake in the hills.  The initial response of locals was non-committal and I was worried that I may have embarked on another wild-goose chase to locate a non-existent lake.  A rehirwallah, however, knew the spot and guided us towards a steep path leading up the hill that formed Mallah’s backdrop.  The initial plan to drive up the pathway had to be shelved as the gradient was too steep and we entrusted our car to the watchful eye of the friendly rehirwallah and walked up the pathway.  It led to a landing with a couple of small cement houses and the path turned left to an old drop barrier with faded paint.

Barrier at ACC Quarry at Mallah

A Chowkidaar appeared and inquired the purpose of our visit.  On being satisfied of our credentials he let us through.  We walked up to reach a deserted office building and factory complex of the abandoned mine.  I later learnt that ACC owed some dues by way of lease money etc. to the Govt. And as the matter was under litigation, the company had not been allowed to dismantle the buildings and heavy iron machinery pending a decision by the Court.

Abandoned factory of ACC at Mallah Limestone Quarry

It was bright and sunny by now.  The place offered an unbroken view of the Pinjore Dun (valley) and the fields, choes and forests looked extremely scenic.

The steep climb levelled out and we now entered a relatively thick forest and reached a beautiful, sparkling lake, nested by sharp slopes.

Lake at abandoned ACC Limestone Quarry Site, Mallah, Morni hills

A masonry dam had been built across a seasonal choe to create a narrow long lake.  Artistic cement banisters had been created on both sides of the dam wall.  A spill-way was built into the centre of the dam so that water would fall into a choe if it were to exceed a particular level.  A flight of stairs were added on either ends for easy access to the dam.

Check dam at Mallah lake, Morni-Pinjore

The higher slopes had been cut into wide terraces and were now clothed in a thick multi-hued scrub forest.  It was obvious that a large crater had been created by the excavation of the limestone and that it had been successfully converted into a lake by the dam. Morni – Pinjore hills look their most beautiful during autumn when leaves change colours.  The slopes were covered with the luxuriant ceylonese-myrtle.

My friend commented on the beauty of the place and lamented how we Indians did not realize the value of the natural wealth of our country.  ‘The blue mountains are not a patch on this kind of pristine beauty’, he remarked, ‘only the Aussies take such care to protect their natural habitats and do not allow them to the sullied by filth and litter’.  I spied small patches of land jutting out into the water from the far side of the lake and we decided to scramble down the slope to look for pug-marks.  The slopes were eroded and looked unstable.  My friend was not too happy with the idea of climbing down the slope.  ‘These mud walls can collapse on you’, he cautioned.  On my insistence, he decided that he would wait at the edge of the slope so that he could pull me up on the way back in case the mud crumbled.  I clambered down uneventfully and spotted some hoof marks.  There were no pug-marks.  I made my way up again and was glad he had decided to stay up!

We then decided to follow the track leading along the lake into the forest beyond.  A seasonal choe had caused a large breach in a retaining wall built by the forest department. The wall stood in the direct path of flow of the choe without any earth fill-up to provide it support or protection and was doomed to collapse. The forest department does need to better plan the engineering of the ‘dangahs’ (retaining walls) to prevent mindless wastage.

Breached retaining wall, Mallah lake

The area was completely desolate and somewhat eerie.  We talked about this and that until we reached some large bones including jaw bones on the jungle pathway.  He inspected them and decided that they belonged to cattle.

Cattle bones on the jungle track near Mallah lake

We then proceeded into thick forest and discovered a deserted stone shelter.

Abandoned shelter near Mallah lake

He pointed to a shrub with dog-flower like white flowers.  ‘That’s Bansa,’ he said, ‘my grandpa used it as an ingredient for making gun powder for the muzzle loaders!’  I thereafter treated the bush with the respect it deserved.

Bansa shrub near lake at Mallah, Morni hills

The path was unending and we had walked a considerable distance when my friend advised me to call it a day and start back.  ‘It’s panther country, for sure, he said, in a sudden sombre tone.’   He is married to a woman of the hills, who has added to his knowledge of flora and fauna of the hills and taught him respect for nature and the need for caution.  I persuaded him to walk some further distance but he seemed reluctant.  We then made our way back to the lake.  The far end of the lake that faced the dam wall had a large patch of soft mud that was covered with animal tracks.

Animal tracks at Mallah lake, Morni-Pinjore

The path to the tracks lay through dense thorny scrub and we decided against the venture.

Impenetrable scrub around Mallah lake

My friend explained how the hoof mark of a wild boar could be distinguished from that of a deer.  How a goral is generally spotted against the sky atop sharp slopes and cliffs.  How he had spotted mating leopards in the Rajaji forest.  How pahari keekar was replacing the desi keekar and ‘aak’ was disappearing due to increased humidity with spread of rice cultivation.  He pointed to beautiful, ‘Bush Morning Glory’ flowers that grew wild in the area.

Wild shrubs at Mallah

The lake sparkled behind us like the mysterious jewel from an Indiana Jones film, as we trudged back to the barrier.

I quizzed the Chowkidaar about the bones.  ‘Oh! They must be the bones of the cow killed by the leopard last year!’ he suggested.  He was surprised that we, ‘shahri babus’ had ventured that deep into the forest.  ‘A leopard prowls in this area, he told us, ‘I last saw it in the rains and it left a huge pug-mark’.  I vowed to be back again.  My pal had spotted a male and a female robin in the bush but I managed to click only the less-colourful female.   We drove all the way back to Pinjore and retraced our path to the hills, this time on the other side of Ghaggar along my favourite Chandimandir-Jallah road.  It had gotten dark and my friend rued the missed opportunity to spot wildlife.  He had never been to Morni via the Jallan road.  He indicated the spot where he had encountered a sambar stag many years back.  He continued with his anecdotes about his encounters with wildlife, the behaviour of different species of birds and his memories associated with Morni as we reached Tikkar Cottage.  We grabbed a quick meal and drove back home, this time taking the Morni – Trilokpur road to reach NH-73 via Toka.  I dropped him at his house and pondered over the day – the beautiful lake and my unusual friend.

Exploring Bharal

The discovery of leopard pugmarks near the watering hole atop the hill at Mandana had excited me no end and I was sure that I was destined to encounter my spotted friend on my very next trip, provided I dared to venture deep enough into the forest. I was determined to make the trip before I left for a two month in-service training programme that would keep me away from my beloved hills for a long time. It had been a long drive to Chandigarh the previous night and the late night binging gave me a dull headache the next morning. The Scribe had to attend office (as usual) and his lanky, moody lad agreed to accompany me. A sensitive, thinking teen who, much like his dad, revels in the contrary. He does love our jungle retreat in his own curious way but I was still mildly surprised at his acquiescing to my company for one full day. ‘Probably wants to dodge his studies like his dad,’ I mused. My chum, the Scribe, was particularly averse as a student, to anything that was even remotely connected to the curriculum. It was always a mystery to me as to how he still managed to have a fairly wide ranging knowledge about almost everything under the sun.

As we made our way towards the hills the lad was completely lost in some bizarre game he was playing on the new high end smart-phone that he had recently extorted from his parents. He was planning to test the phone’s 5 MP camera (with geo-tagging, LED flash and touch focus!) on the trip.

Photography seems to have acquired a universal appeal across all age groups. The fascination for photography probably stems from our fear of going through the journey of life without having left a trace, a mark that could perhaps be found. The Himalayan traveller no longer carves out his name on the rock at the summit. Instead, he clicks himself with an internet-enabled camera that instantaneously pushes the picture into the boundless cyber-space. The picture is a declaration to the cosmos that he was there. That the moment belonged to him. And then there is always this hope that the picture may one day be ‘found’ much like the dead sailor’s message-in-the-bottle that turns up at a beach, having survived the high seas for centuries.

Musafir was joining us for the trip and we made the detour to his home. We found him eager and ready for the leisurely trip to the hills. He was travelling in full jungle gear-complete with the Wildcraft sun hat, sun-glasses, an Out-of-Africa style safari shirt and a shoulder bag for lugging his heavy Nikkon SLR and its multiple lenses. He disappeared to emerge with a sporty orange-blue cap for our young companion. We were embarking on a day long adventure trip and Musafir wanted everyone to look the part.  He believes in creating a proper ‘atmosphere’ for the holiday and can be astonishingly playful and mischievous on a break. He had once hopped off the jungle safari vehicle to cock-a-snook at the lurking Corbett tiger despite all the remonstrations of the tour guide. A responsible, mature man, with a hidden rowdy streak that emerges in flashes on holidays and parties.

We switched cars, trading Doc’s vintage Honda with Musafir’s sporty green ‘Beat’. He got behind the wheel and drove us merrily up the Pinjore highway turning right for the Jallah road. We drove on another 7 Kilometres and reached Bharal. It was my plan to trek up the hill to the rear of the Bharal village and take the path that would lead us to the lake-reservoir formed by the dam at Bharal. I had checked out the route to this remote lake on Google earth before starting. I was sure that we would surely find some signs of wildlife at this lake owing to its relative inaccessibility. I, however, decided to take my companions first to the waterfall formed by the water escaping from the breach in the stone-masonry wall (the dam) across the seasonal rivulet flowing below the Bharal village. I had seen the dam during winters and expected the flow of water to be much heavier in the Monsoon season. I had spotted a white-capped red start and a whistling thrush on the previous trip with Zorba and I led the way to the stream hoping for at least a bird-find, as we made our way through the undergrowth.

We were greeted by a team of village kids who were playing by the side of the stream and the cows that grazed on the greens by the banks of the rivulet. Musafir clicked away happily, as he quizzed the kids about their names, their village and their daily routine. The kids trooped behind him excitedly, as we followed the stream to the dam. Musafir is a charming man and his cheerful spontaneity wins him friends where-ever he goes.

Musafir’s merry band!

I spotted an animal skull that one of the kids identified as belonging to a rabid dog that had been killed by the villagers.

Skull of the rabid dog

As we walked along the clear, sparkling stream, we spied some small translucent fish, about 4 to 6 inches long, with prominent eye-spots near the tail fin. The lad and I tried our best to get a decent picture of the fish, but the reflection of the sun made the task difficult.

Fishing for photos!

Freshwater fish in the stream at Bharal

Musafir managed to spot a fresh water crab but I learnt about this only later as he kept it a secret to keep me from clicking the crustacean! The field of nature photography can get extremely competitive!

Freshwater crab in the stream at Bharal, Morni

I did manage a decent picture of a red dragonfly.

Red dragon-fly, Bharal, Morni

We reached the waterfall that fell into a small pool that appeared green because of the algae.

Waterfall at Bharal Dam

The kids told us about a water snake that resided in that cove. And also about the leopard that stalked the cattle on the other side of the dam wall! There were no more photo opportunities and we walked back to the village. We now took the path that ran through the village as it climbed steeply up the hill to the rear of Bharal.

View of Ghaggar from Bharal

It was humid and sunny and the Musafir inquired about the likely distance to the lake that lay upstream of the dam. ‘It’s a short walk,’ I lied effortlessly, without clarifying that I had no clue about the actual distance as I was merely following the google map.

Google image of the dam and the lake at Bharal

I led the way up, happy to be finally discovering the lake and may be some pugmarks if not the leopard itself. The lad was keeping pace effortlessly and I struggled to maintain my lead. Musafir was sweating profusely and panting heavily as he grinned and raised his arms in mock despair at the impossible steepness of the hill-path.

The surrender!

I was pleased with my own progress, though the nonchalance with which the lad made the climb was a shade disconcerting. We took a break after some time and I was feeling a bit winded myself. The lake was nowhere in sight and the climb seemed unending. I was regretting not having carried a water-bottle and decided to drink the water at the dam even if it meant getting the e-Coli infection! We started again and this time I forced a halt at the point from where we could see the dam below. There was no lake to be seen, not even a miserable pond. The google image of the area had obviously been very old. The lake had obviously dried up and had been replaced by a meadow that had probably been formed with the creation of a broad level stretch due to the siltation occurring upstream of the dam. A narrow stream was running through the centre of the meadow to disappear through the breach in the dam wall, falling noisily into the pool below on the other side of the dam wall.

Meadow at Bharal

A ‘damn’ failure!

 

A local woman I had encountered on my earlier trip had cribbed about the dam being an utter failure and a waste of government money and it did not require a hydrology expert to know why she was right. The dam was, however, acting as a huge check-wall and was definitely controlling the erosion by the rivulet. Some cows were grazing lazily in the meadow and there was no wildlife to be seen.

I was swooning with the heat and exhaustion. Musafir had recovered from his initial heat-shock and was now sounding cheerful and energetic. The lad wanted to know the whole big idea behind this walk to nowhere! Musafir wanted to venture into the thorny scrub to reach the edge of a small outcrop that would afford him an excellent view of the landscape. He had lugged his heavy camera all the way up the hill without getting a decent photo and was desperate to get a good landscape shot. ‘It’s the middle of the monsoon season and the place will be full of venomous snakes,’ I cautioned. He looked sceptical of my knowledge of the terrain but decided against pressing the issue. We now started cautiously down the tricky narrow path that led to the meadow below. The lad was leading us confidently and did not seem to mind the sun. The path ended in a dried-up rocky bed of seasonal stream. The loose rocks and pebbles made the descent riskier than ever and a literal and figurative fall from grace now seemed imminent to me.

The impossible descent

The lad, however maintained his steady pace unmindful of my aching knees and throbbing head. I am a great fan of Herge’s ‘Adventures of Tintin’, and as I wearily followed that teen-aged mountain-goat, I could fully empathise with Captain Haddock’s belligerence and angry protests as he followed his younger companions through arduous forest tracks in search of the Lost City of the Incas! I made up mind not to climb up the same path again on the way back, even if it meant following the grazing cows to find an alternate way out.

We had climbed down that treacherous stream-bed for some distance when we ran into deep undergrowth. I have heard some frightful stories about unfortunate deaths from snake-bites during the monsoon season in Morni and decided to end our adventure for the day. We were still some hundred feet above the meadow, perched on the hill-side that overlooks the dam and there was no way I could take a drink from the stream below. It was going to be a hard walk back to the village where we could hope to find water. My heart was pounding crazily and I sorely regretted that extra-drink that we all should learn to resist! Musafir was concerned at my state and we took halts after short periods of climbing. The heat was unbearable. Musafir pointed out a wild mushroom for me to click for my website hoping to lift my spirits, as we wearily trudged along the jungle path.

The mushroom

I was following the lad and Musafir at some distance and  was tickled to see them walking through the thorny undergrowth with their hands raised above their heads to save their exposed forearms from scratches. ‘Prisoners of Bharal!’ I thought wryly.

Prisoners of Bharal!

We finally reached the village and to my relief I discovered a cemented water tank with a tap. I let the water fall through my hair as I put my head under the tap and could feel the steam rise from my overheated crown! The water revived my spirit somewhat and I dragged myself to the car.

We drove up the hill to reach the tri-junction with the Panchkula-Nahan road to Morni. A cold drink from the road-side tea stall convinced me that I would live to write the tale. We drove on to the Tikkar cottage, stopping to click a pair of red-rumped swallows.

Red-rumped Swallows

The rose-bush and the allamandas were in full-bloom and this immediately cheered me up. The lunch was ready and we grabbed a quick bite and decided to take a nap to revive our tired souls.

Allamanda at Tikkar Cottage

Rose-bush

We had slept for well over an hour by the time we woke up and decided to move out again. Musafir agreed to my suggestion to go down to the lakes and try out the road that went down to the Raipur Rani-Tirlokpur road, directly from the lakes. Dark clouds were forming up as we began the drive down the winding tal road. We crossed a brave-heart jogging up the steep road from the lakes and Musafir stopped to allow me to get a picture without my having to ask.

Braveheart

We halted at the Thakur Dwar Temple that houses the 1000 year old sculptures of the Pratihara period that were excavated from the site some decades ago. I clicked the ancient sculptures, some of which have been painted by the priests to make them look livelier! Musafir chatted with the locals learning about the history of the temple and the Tikkar Tal lake that is believed by the locals to be the fabled ‘Lake of Death’ of the Mahabharata. This was the spot where the profound wisdom of Prince Yudhishtar’s replies to the meta-physical questions of the Yaksha saved his Pandav brothers from certain death.

Thakur dwar temple, Tikkar tal Morni

Medieval sculptures at Thakur-dwar temple, Morni

The painted medieval sculptures at Thakur dwar temple, Morni

The fountain installed near the Tikkar Tal Tourist Complex looked impressive against the dark skies.

Fountain at Tikkar tal

It started raining as we followed the meandering road to Raipur Rani, crossing numerous small hamlets on the way. Musafir halted the car abruptly, mesmerized by the sight of the dark rolling clouds as they moved across the sky to meet the earth at the horizon.

When the clouds met the earth

We crossed a patch of exposed mud-hills having beautiful multi-coloured patterns that seemed to have been sculpted by the erosion caused by water.

Sculpted hills of Morni

A lone camel standing dolefully in the rain watched us drive by.

The scenes were picture perfect but the fading light did not allow any good photographs. Musafir vowed to revisit the area in the early morning hours to capture the surreal beauty of the landscape. ‘I love long aimless drives,’ he confessed as he turned up the volume of ‘Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Angreji Beat’ on FM! The lad seemed cheerful, as he looked out of the window into the rain. Musafir had settled down for the long drive back home, lost in some happy thought. I was reminded of my favourite lines from the Dev Anand starrer, Gambler:

‘Hum toh musafir hain, koi safar ho, hum toh guzar jayenge hi;

Lekin lagaya hai jo daav humne, woh jeet kar aayenge hi!’

On the leopard trail

It had been raining in the Morni hills for over three weeks and I was impatient to be amidst the cloud covered hills. The Morni hills are their greenest and undoubtedly their most scenic during the monsoon season but they are also their trickiest. The rain softens the hard compacted red clay of the Shivaliks thereby weakening its grip on the boulders and rocks that form these fragile hills. The boulders eventually break free and hurtle down the slopes crashing noisily through the scrub followed by a wave of mud and debris, triggering panic in the locals and tourists alike!

The weekend trip had been planned in advance and I intended to pack in as much fun as possible. I intended to take the Jallah road to Mornee and halt at Bharal and trek up to the reservoir. A reservoir has been created by a masonry dam built at Bharal across a seasonal nallah that flows down the Mandana hills. The reservoir is relatively inaccessible when compared to those at Bunga and Aasrewali on the other side of the hills and it seemed to be a promising place to hunt for pugmarks of wild animals that might be frequenting the lake for water. I was excited at the prospect of putting my newly acquired knowledge of reading pugmarks (pieced together from wildlife brochures and training manuals) to actual test. I had even pieced together a rudimentary kit for preparing a plaster-of-paris cast of the pugmark that I hoped to find.

I had received a ‘2008 Lange Reserve, Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir’ from my only friend from school (he had lugged it all the way from Portland) and I was dying to savour the rich Oregon wine after a hard day of trekking and biking in the hills.  King Uncle, my pal, was to join me for the trip and I had described the enological ‘treasure’ in great detail to him as bait for agreeing to the ‘short’ trek on the way to Morni.  Much like the rest of his blue-blooded creed, my friend loves to pamper his refined visceral senses. He enjoys indulging on his carefully prepared food, washing it down with rich wine, tapping to the beat of music as he watches the smoke rings ride the evening breeze, melting into the distant horizon. But he loathes the idea of physical adventure of any kind especially if it involves sweat. And sweat he does by God. The walk up a hill in the humid July weather was going to f*** his happiness and he knew it. He had regarded my oblique references to the trek with great suspicion. He had, nevertheless, invested in ankle-length rubber soled Woodlands resigned to the inevitable stupidity that he was to be subjected to. He cheered himself up by planning his dinner at Morni. He had picked up a farm fresh chicken and planned his detailed instructions for the cook at Mornee, lest he do a less than perfect culinary job. He had ordered the king-sized jamuns that he loves to wash and salt lovingly to have as a health snack with wine. He was also happy at the opportunity to use his newly purchased CANON SLR and hopefully show-off his much disputed photography prowess.

I also planned to carry some fruit trees for planting in the forest area around the Tikkar cottage. My friend also went along with the old joke about mandatory tree planting by tourists in Morni and purchased an Amarpali mango and a peach tree sapling as his contribution to the green cause.

I had finished my preparations for the trip. We maintain a ‘Green Mornee Fund’ by setting aside all the coins found in the purse or the pocket at the end of each day and stashing them in a green coloured Mickey Mouse piggy bank!  I intended to encash my ‘green fund’ for purchasing the plants. My wife was away on work and my daughters joined me after dinner in meticulously counting out the 500 odd coins we had managed to save, with denominations ranging from 25 paisa to 10 rupee. The amount totalled to just under Rs. 1300, sufficient for the purchase I had in mind. The cook grinned at the ‘chillar’ load (neatly divided into pouches of different denominations) that I handed over with the request for getting the same exchanged for currency notes from the local kiryana (grocery) store. The shopkeeper eventually refused to accept 25 paisa and 50 paisa coins. So much for Government claims of having reigned in inflation!

I was going to miss my rugged CANON POWERSHOT S5, my constant companion on all my adventures as it was with my wife. I had borrowed a NIKON COOLPIX with a measly 5X zoom and I hoped that my friend could handle his SLR with at least half the masterly skill he so often claimed to possess. I was also to carry wooden plank that I intended to hang as a swing in the verandah at Tikkar cottage.

On the journey day I was up early for a change. I had already packed my stuff the night before.  I started around quarter past seven and drove at a steady pace to reach my friend’s home around 11 AM without any major adventure. Just before I turned for the lane to his house I was accosted by an excited youth on a motorbike who protested at a sharp turn that I had taken somewhere back there. I was completely unaware of my alleged misdemeanour and looked surprised at his agitation as I lowered my glass. The guy had come prepared for a heated exchange and was taken aback at my prompt and sincere apology and drove of disappointed at my meek capitulation. I was not going to ruin a perfect trip with a quarrel over a triviality and I do tend to get distracted with Lucky Ali’s lilting music.

I caught my friend with his proverbial pants down. He was not expecting me to reach on time. I never am. But today I had decided to surprise him. He had not been expecting me before noon and had been busy deep freezing the chicken and packing it in a water-proof packing with ice.  I rushed him into finishing his packing as I gulped down the delicious homemade mango shake and munched on the sandwiches with astonishing lack of manners. His folks have luckily chosen to ignore my odd ways and we were off in minutes, forgetting to thank the hostess for the breakfast in the haste to be in the hills without wasting the day. The king-sized jamuns had not been delivered in time for our trip but we had our deep frosted chicken to look forward to!

We drove till Derabussi turning right for the link road to Ramgarh. We then turned left near the fort on NH 73 to reach my favourite nursery, owned by the Colonel Sahib. The fauji proprietor was not available and the mali led me to the rear for choosing the saplings through a slushy track ruining my shoes in the process. My friend chose to not follow to save his brand new Woodlands from meeting a similar fate. I chose saplings of mangoes trees of different varieties as well as jamuns and chikoos. While the mali took out the plants, I clicked a Sitaphal only to realize too late that a beautiful large glossy brown and black bird (a Greater Coucal) was sitting on a tree hardly ten feet from me.  The bird flew off before I could react and I cursed my stupidity and blamed the unfamiliar camera for the missed opportunity.  I also chose some poinsettias, the shrub with the flamboyant red leaves that stand out so brilliantly at the Chandrawal Kunj resort in Morni. The teak trees planted all around the nursery were doing well. The forest department has been equally successful in the roadside planting all along the Morni road and has created a virtual forest of teak at Berwala. I recognized a Sohanjna tree with the dried drumsticks in front of the nursery.

Sohanjna Drum Sticks

We loaded the plants carefully. The mali wanted me to write down the details of the plants we had purchased for his record.

I headed straight for the Shimla highway ignoring the turn for Morni near Nada sahib as I wanted to take the Jallah road. We turned right at Majri chowk to take the brand new toll-road to Pinjore-Shimla.

Road to Pinjore-Parwanoo-Shimla

Both of us spotted the quaint Chandimandir railway station as we drove over an elevated stretch but it seemed risky to stop for a photograph on the busy highway and we crossed the toll to turn right for the Jallah road. We stopped briefly on the Kaushalya bridge for a few pictures and then drove on towards Jallah. We stopped to pay the PWD toll and the toll gate attendant enquired about our intended destination. ‘Morni,’ I told him. I was surprised at the query as it was obvious that any tourist heading east on that road should be heading for Morni, the only destination other than small villages like Jallah, Bharal and Thapli that lie on that route. We drove on towards Jallah and I shared my plan of stopping at Bharal and trekking up till the reservoir. My friend worried about the gradient, the humidity and the possibility of our meeting slush on the track that would ruin his brand new shoes. We had barely crossed Jallah when we encountered a minor rock-slip that blocked the road to Bharal and Thapli. I was still toying with the possibility of trying to negotiate the rock pile when a local on a tractor warned us of a similar road blockage at some distance from the spot. That decided the issue and I reversed to head back for the Shimla highway and take the conventional route via NH 73 to Morni. I wondered why the guy at the toll gate had not warned us about the road blockage and I prepared myself for giving him a piece of my mind when he stopped us for the toll on the return journey. To my surprise the man did not bother to emerge from the tin shed this time, as he saw us approach and cross the barrier. The crook had quite obviously known that the road was blocked near Jallah and was content at having duped us into paying the one-side toll by keeping mum about it and was smart enough not to push his luck further and demand toll on the return journey.

I was upset about the wasted time and the lost opportunity for hunting for pugmarks. We stopped on the elevated highway near Chandimandir Railway Station this time and clicked the British age building.

Chandimandir Railway Station

We stopped to click the majestic Nada Saheb Gurdwara and the triple towers of Shiv Dham on the Morni road.

Nada Saheb Gurdwara

Shiv Dham, Morni Road

I clicked the ‘phulai’ tree which was much like the kikkar but with wonderful artistic leaves.

Phulai tree, Morni road (July, 2012)

We then stopped at the popular viewpoint facing the Tipra hills short of Mandana. A group of youngsters from Delhi were busy clicking the landscape with their state-of-the-art SLRs. Photography is the ‘in thing’ these days and the Scribe attributes the phenomenon to the age of digital photography that requires very little talent or practice for good photography. ‘Any fool can click one masterpiece after a hundred bad shots!’ he grumbles. Regardless to say, he considers himself the original film photography expert and laments the invasion by the new SLR wielding creed of trigger-happy yuppies!!

On the way to Morni

My friend had joined the youngsters in clicking the Morni landscape and gave me some crap about aperture and exposure to let me know that I had a pro on my hands. We drove on. I stopped to click a Buddha’s Coconut Tree, an impressive glossy-leaved tall tree.

Buddha’s Coconut Tree- Morni road (July 2012)

We then stopped at Green Park Mandana, the popular roadside dhaba that commands the track leading to the small temple on a nearby hill top. The hill top offers excellent views of Mandana village to the North and the Himachal hills beyond the Pinjore dun. The hill itself ends in a sharp cliff to the South with a sheer drop of several hundred feet and a commanding view of the thickly forested areas, fields and meandering nallahs till the distant Khetprali and beyond. As I parked the car, my friend clicked the donkeys grazing near the banyan that serves as the dhaba’s natural landmark and their white-haired, dhoti clad owner.

Donkeys at Mandana

The King was lucky that the Scribe was not accompanying us as he takes a strong exception to our treating the locals as some kind of curiosities for photography and would have surely spoken his mind on the subject. He is a very sensitive man, my friend the Scribe. The area is rich in birds and we spotted a tree-pie and photographed an Indian Robin.  We walked up the track and my friend busied himself with photographing the temple on the hill top and also the landscape all around. I clicked a big tree with an impressive canopy (later identified as Dhobin) and then took a picture of the small dugout for rain water harvesting on the deserted hill top.

Dhobin tree, hill-top at Mandana

Watering hole on hill top at Mandana

This small watering hole is usually dry but it had water on account of the rains in the previous weeks. And I then spotted what I had been hoping to hunt for at the Bharal reservoir. Pugmarks. Four-toed, with the toes placed close to the large heel pad. The pugmarks formed a short trail on the soft soil leading upto the water. An animal had come to the hole for water. It had rained heavily the previous day so the marks could not be old. There were no nail marks accompanying the toes so the pugmarks did not belong to an animal of the dog family (wolf, jackal, dog etc). It was a cat. How big a cat?? My heart raced as I tried to estimate the size. It was definitely large for a normal cat. I cursed myself for having left the kit for preparing the POP cast in the car. I clicked the pugmarks and the trail. I then remembered King’s high resolution camera and requested him to click the pugmarks. I requested him to keep a coin against a pugmark for estimating the size accurately. He clicked the pictures but did not look too convinced of their significance. I did not want to say the word ‘leopard’ as it seemed too incredible a coincidence to have chanced upon leopard pugmarks on the very first occasion. ‘Could be a hyena’s,’ I wondered aloud. The toes and the heel pad were closely placed. I had forgotten that a hyena is a canid and the nail marks normally accompany the toe marks. The soil was soft and there was no way that the nails would not have made an impression.

Pug marks on hill-top at Mandana, picture courtesy the King

The pugmark trail leading to watering hole

We went to the edge of the cliff to photograph the forest below. The fall is impressive and the area felt fairly desolate.

 

‘He could be watching us right now,’ I told my friend in my characteristic grave tone reserved for references to the elusive cat. It’s my favourite line and the King grinned back. ‘Let’s get back man and catch hold of something to drink!’ he replied. He had started to sweat because of the high humidity and was bored with the animal talk. We walked back to the dhaba and I pondered over my find as we drank the lemon drink. King had missed the mango shake and the sandwiches on account of my fretting him about being late and looked most discontented with a mere lemon drink. And then it dawned upon him. ‘What the f***!! I have forgotten the chicken in the freezer man,’ he moaned. ‘I was to take it out at the last moment before leaving but forgot. All because of your tearing hurry,’ he blamed me. He would have been inconsolable had I not managed to convince him about the chances of our getting hold of a chicken to eat at Morni! He clicked the buffaloes in the pond near the dhaba as we made our way to the car.

 

Buffaloes at Mandana, courtesy the King

We drove on to Morni stopping to click a Kakkarsingi with the bright red, new leaves.

 

Kakkarsingi, Morni road

We drove past the Mountain Quail resort of Haryana tourism dashing King’s hopes of grabbing a bite to quell the rumblings of his troubled stomach. We reached the Tikkar cottage. The saplings were carefully taken out and kept safely under a pine. We had some tea, picked up our helmets and thundered off on the Bullet to head straight for Mountain Quail.  We had ordered our evening snacks and dinner before leaving and the caretaker had promised to locate a chicken for the travel weary souls. The Lange Reserve and the Sula had gone into the fridge. The manager and the waiters recognize me at the motel due to my frequent visits and smiled at our cameras and the helmets. We asked for bread-omelettes with buttered slices and cutlets as we relaxed in the back garden that offers a beautiful view of the Bursinghdeo Range.

Mountain Quail Resort, Morni Hills

Mountain Quail Garden

View of Bursinghdeo Range and Sarahan from Mountain Quail

Scribe called up to know how the trip was progressing. I told him about the pugmarks. ‘Probably a dog’s,’ he said. ‘No. There were no nail marks,’ I pointed out. ‘The dog family has pugmarks with nail marks,’ I told him, flaunting my new found knowledge. ‘Could be a hyena’s though,’ I said by way of compromise. ‘That’s a contradiction,’ he pointed out, ‘the hyena belongs to the dog family.’ I wanted to kick myself for the elementary mistake. The Scribe can be painfully objective and truthful. And he was probably grumpy about having to work on a Saturday when he could have been loafing around with us. And he also had a new camera to test out!

We were back on the road within minutes and this time I took the rackety bike up the torturous climb till the Morni fort. It was getting late and I rushed my friend as he clicked the 17th Century fort. ‘Let’s try getting a shot of the entire fort from atop the hill facing the fort,’ I suggested. He had managed a decent wide angle of the fort and we drove to the moss covered cement pathway leading up the hill facing the fort.

Morni fort (wide angle), courtesy the King

It was a short climb and my friend grumbled at being made to sweat again. The hill top did not offer any special view of the fort. A small place had been cleared at the top and given a cement floor and a tin roof. It was the cremation ground of Balag village! The Morni people create a small pile of rocks and mark it with a tiny flag in the memory of the dear one cremated by them. There were many such small memorials to the departed soul and the place looked like an ancient cemetery. A tourist couple had followed us up the track out of curiosity and quickly retraced their steps on realizing that it was a cremation site. Most Indians are superstitious about such places. Luckily, neither of the two have any such issues. ‘Last stop for the journey to heaven,’ I remarked light heartedly as we made our way back careful not to cause any irreverence to those who lay in eternal rest.

My friend was all ready to head back home and settle for pakoras and wine when I persuaded him to agree for a short ride to Samlotha temple. We rode through the Morni town and had driven past the wind turbines at Chakli-Ramsar when I suddenly spotted a colourful black and brown mongoose like animal with a large black tail on a rock-masonry road edge marker at a distance. The Scribe had spotted a similar animal near Tikkar Cottage and we had debated whether it was a ratel, a badger or a civet. I switched-off the engine not daring to get off the bike or try to get closer for fear of scaring the animal. I cursed the Nikon Coolpix that was clearly not meant for wildlife photography. The camera could not achieve focus at the distance and I could capture only blurred images of the animal. It was frustrating to helplessly watch the perfect photo opportunity slip away. My friend had his SLR firing but the helmet’s visor got in the way of his looking into the viewfinder eye piece. He had to use the blessed eye piece for focus and not the more convenient LCD screen because it was the pro thing to do! Anyway he got a slightly better shot before the animal disappeared with a mate and I rued over the missed opportunity as we rode past the eerie ‘Tiger point’ rocks to halt briefly at Sherla tal. The animal was later identified to be a yellow-throated marten.

Yellow-throated Marten, Morni-Badiyal road; picture courtesy the King

I turned right from the Morni-Badiyal road for the 6 KM ride to Samlotha. The road is in a poor condition and gets quite desolate in parts. The gear-shift of the Thunderbird gives constant trouble making one over rely on the clutch and I told my friend of the time when the bike left us stranded on top of the Sherla hill. ‘We were lucky then,’ I told him, ‘that the village was close.’ ‘If this breaks down here we’ll spend the night walking back home,’ I warned him. He did not react, knowing full well that I was baiting him for a comment but would exclaim softly, ‘Shit man!’ every time we hit a particularly bad patch. It was obvious that he had little faith in my ability to negotiate the bike on that risky track and get him and his precious camera back in one piece. We, however, reached the base of the Samlotha hill without incident. The sun was setting over the horizon as we started the climb to the hill top. We could see the tower of the forest department at the top and I figured that the temple would be somewhere close. I had never actually been to the temple but had seen a white speck atop the hill on Google earth! We had climbed up a few hundred yards when the King decided to call it a day and go no further. I tried to appeal to his ‘tough nut image’ but he would budge no further. I handed over my helmet and started climbing up the damaged cement track that climbed up the hill at an impossible gradient. There was cow dung all over the steps which meant that the path was in use by the locals but there was not a soul to be seen. I lost sight of my friend and my heart was beginning to pound with the exertion.

The sharp climb to Samlotha

The tower was nowhere in sight and I considered turning back midway but dismissed the idea as my not so happy friend would  love the opportunity to get back at me. I reached a small meadow that overlooked the plains of Raipur Rani. I wondered what would happen if I collapsed on the way. The King would wait until it was dark and would not know where to go, being new to the area. The lurking leopard was not that welcome an idea anymore. I hung on and to my relief finally spotted the tower. I had reached the top. And there was a small hamlet on top. Samlotha village. There were a couple of deserted Dharamshalas. The forest tower.

Fire tower at Samlotha

Some cattle inside a pen. The Samlasan Temple, with its impressive white tower.

Samlasan Devi Temple

A small cluster of houses. The temple was locked and I paid my obeisance from a distance. I could see only a couple of people but they showed no curiosity with my presence and chose to ignore me. The Samlasan temple is attributed to the Pandav era. It finds a mention in the sannad by which the Morni hills were given to Mir Jafar Ali by the British General Ochterlony after the Gurkha War in 1816. I clicked a few pictures and walked back with greater confidence. My knees have been giving me trouble for some time now and the sharp climb down the track promised to make me pay later that evening. I found my friend clicking the sun set.

Sunset at Samlotha, courtesy the King

We were off without wasting any more time. It was getting dark and I was worried about the bike breaking down. We crossed a teenager walking silently on that desolate road without a torch or staff and I marvelled at the guts of the locals. We finally hit the Morni-Badiyal road and headed back home. We encountered a number of some pigeon-sized birds squatting on the road near Sherla and they would fly off only at the last moment with noisy flaps when the bike was almost upon them ( a friendidentified the birds to be the red-eyed night jars). We crossed the Morni town and reached the turn for Rasoon. I was tired and turned the bike too sharply. The Thunderbird skidded dangerously, threatening to crush our legs and the King’s camera under its monstrous weight but luckily I regained balance and drove on pretending to not have noticed the skid. We finally reached the cottage and I turned off the Thunderbird and wearily hauled it up its central stand. We were home. My back hurt as did my left knee. We were thirsty, hungry and exhausted, with most of the evening that we had intended to spend chatting in the verandah with wine, already gone.

A bath and change of clothes lifted our spirits. We got the music going and opened the Lange Reserve with much fan fare. The wine did not disappoint. It relaxed the tired muscles and we enjoyed the light breeze in the verandah as we checked the photographs clicked by us during the day. We had the usual pakoras and peanuts. We finished our food and settled down to watch Jeremiah Johnson. We were midway through the movie, with Robert Redford leading a tense squadron of American dragoons through a burial ground of the savage Crow Indians, when I heard the loud snores of my friend. He was through with the day!

I was still lost in the world of Jeremiah Johnson, dreaming of the mountain man’s lonesome existence in the Rockies when I heard a gentle knock on the bedroom window. It was the Scribe. He would not have me so close yet not meet up. It was a Sunday and the sleepless one had reached Morni by eight after an hour-and-a-half’s drive through the hills. I was slightly fuzzy with the lack of sleep and the exhaustion of the previous day but was glad to see him. We sat in the verandah and had tea while I described the previous day’s adventures. The King was still busy snoring or so I thought. We ordered the breakfast and the King appeared fresh from a bath and fully recovered from the previous day’s adventure. I got ready and we decided to walk down to the watering hole on the track to Deorah and look for some more pugmarks. It was humid and both my friends were sweating as we trudged along. The King fired a couple of bawdy jokes to lighten the atmosphere but he was not in his element. Royals are certainly not made for drudgery!

Scribe with the King

I pointed to a dog’s pugmark to the Scribe with the tell tale nail marks.

Dog Pugmark

The recent rain had brought down a newly constructed dangah in our neighbourhood. The power of water is unimaginable and one can experience its devastating potential in the hills.

Dangah collapse

We walked to the little pond but there were no pugmarks to be found.

Pond on Deora track

The Scribe clicked a wonderful close up of a dragonfly (‘helicopter’ as we called it as kids) sitting on a bush.

Red and black skimmer Dragonfly

We could hear the jungle fowls at a distance and I wanted to walk a little distance further on the track. The King was not to be convinced today for any more adventure as he was already sweating profusely. He decided to start walking back while I continued with the Scribe further down the track. We spotted some pied woodpeckers and the Scribe tried to capture them with the incredible 42X Zoom of his new Nikon but the photograph was against the sun and an impossible shot at the distance.

Just then we spotted a pair of swallows and the Scribe spent some time getting some nice pictures of the pretty blue-orange, cross-tailed birds. ‘See the mud in the beak,’ he said, ‘they are carrying the clay for plastering their nest.’

Red-rumped Swallows, track to Deora

Now, the Scribe never ceases to surprise you with his wide ranging knowledge. And nature is his favourite topic. He can identify most trees and birds without needing to hunt for books or resorting to google. He spent a number of years of his childhood in Army cantonments in Eastern India and can relate numerous interesting anecdotes of those days. Of sleeping under the fauji bashas in makeshift family quarters, where snakes emerged from the mud walls. Where elephants visited your house at night to pillage the banana trees in your backyard.  Of an Assamese ‘batman’ (helper in Indian army) nonchalantly catching a venomous snake by its tail to release it in the wild. Of the Rhinos in Kaziranga. Of riding elephants that would swim through the river. Of tying the tail of a dragonfly with a thread and taking it to school as a pet, hovering over the head. Of rearing tadpoles in bottles. Of the parrot that would ride his mom’s slipper. Of the pet tom cat that would disappear for days only to reappear with bruises from street fights expecting to be fed and cared for like the prodigal son! Of the many different dogs they had had as pets, each with a personality very different from the others. A curious, observant, sensitive child who loved animals and nature. A Gerald Durrell who experienced life with equal richness but never bothered to write about it. My daughters used to be fascinated with his stories. I would kid them about him actually being Kipling’s Mowgli. How his dad found him riding a rhino in Assam. How his origin was kept a secret! It was in fact the Scribe who initially got me interested in nature and photography. And I am a good student!!

We walked back to the cottage with the Scribe clicking a couple of nice pictures for the website.

Thatched huts at rasoon, picture courtesy the Scribe

Man carrying firewood, picture courtesy the Scribe

The King had taken a short nap in the meanwhile and was decidedly hungry. The Scribe wanted to eat at the Haryana tourism resort at Tikkar tal and we started for the lakes in his ‘people mover!’ It had started to rain and I was worried of getting stuck in Morni due to some landslide, as I had to attend office the following day. The Scribe was uncharacteristically buoyant and cheerful and drove on through the rain, ignoring my protests. The drive through the rain was pleasant but by the time we reached the lake the deluge was beginning to look threatening.

Deluge at Tikkar tal

We decided against stopping at the lake-side motel and drove all the way back to the cottage only to find that the rain had stopped! We had a leisurely lunch and amused ourselves handling a musket belonging to a local hill man. The hill people have a fascination for the muzzle-loading percussion lock muskets of the early 19th century and prefer them to the modern breech-loading shotguns that are so popular amongst the village folk of the plains. The man explained how a percussion cap is changed,  the gun powder is poured down the muzzle, the musket ball is inserted into the muzzle and a piece of cloth is used to plug the muzzle. The ramrod is then used to firmly push the plug, ball and gunpowder to the breech of the barrel. The musket is then raised and held parallel to the ground with the butt rested against the shoulder, the hammer at full-cock, the eye sighting the target and the finger tightening on the trigger. One can only marvel at the British Infantry troops of the 19th century who could fire an astonishing 5 rounds to-a-minute with their clock-work musket firing drill, demolishing the cavalry charge of the enemy by their sustained volley fire. These muskets are sold at a famous gunshop at Nahn that also sells the gunpowder and the lead musket balls. The musket balls are also cast at home by the hill people. Blanks are often fired to scare away the monkeys and other wild animals that threaten the crops. Our caretaker claimed to be a crackshot in firing that primitive weapon.

Musket with the ramrod

Percussion lock of the musket

The lunch had made us sleepy and I had a long drive ahead of me so we decided to take a small nap. It was past four when we finally started back. The clouds covered the hills around the lakes and look ready to pour again. I drove ahead with the Scribe tailing my car till Panchkula, where we waved our goodbyes. I then drove back home dropping the King on the way.

On reaching  home I estimated the size of the pugmark using the picture that the King had clicked by placing a 1″ coin next to the mark. The pugmark was certainly over 7.5 cm long and about 6.5 cm in width.

Measurement of Pugmark

The pictures of the pugmarks were mailed to a friend at the Wildlife Institute at Dehradun. It is official now. The pugmarks we found belonged to a medium-sized leopard. The tryst with the elusive one was closer than ever before.

The mark of the leopard at Mandana

 

A Short Trip to Aasrewali

It was April when I learnt about the plans of the wildlife department of Haryana to conduct a census of the wildlife in the Morni Hills. The census is generally conducted during the dry season as most of the water sources dry up in the higher hills and the animals are forced to emerge from the forest and visit the ponds and reservoirs on the fringes of the scrub forest in the foothills. The rangers spot the wildlife near the watering holes and also study the pug marks to estimate the numbers of different species. The upcoming census was an opportunity to learn about the methodology followed by the wildlife experts and also the techniques of reading pug marks. Moreover, the chance of finally spotting a leopard in the wild was exciting and I requested the Department to allow me to join one of the field parties as a volunteer. A nosey cop is, however, rarely welcome anywhere in the world and they ‘forgot’ to associate me with the exercise. I swallowed my disappointment and tried to elicit the details from a friendly official. I learnt that a party had spotted a leopard on a tree near the Aasrewali reservoir and I vowed to check out the reservoir on my next visit to the hills.

It was a hot Saturday afternoon when I started for the hills in Doc’s rickety Honda that did not look too promising for the off-road journey I had in mind. It was 43 degree Celsius and my pals at Chandigarh labelled me a nut case for embarking on yet another one of my crazy capers in that impossible heat. ‘One of these days its the leopard who is going to find you,’ warned the Doc half-seriously. There was no question of anyone accompanying me for the drive to the foothills, much-less for a walk on a hot and dusty track through the scrub on a wild goose chase. I was, however, determined not to waste the afternoon and I pulled on my favourite camouflage-material jungle hat and sun glasses to beat the heat.

As I drove through Chandigarh I wondered whether it would be fair to ask Zorba to join me for the trip. We had decided to check out the rose cultivation in the greenhouses near Barisher someday, but suggesting a drive in a peak summer afternoon seemed too outlandish a suggestion even for the indomitable Zorba. After all, he is touching sixty and you need more than the wild spirit for such ventures. I finally decided to make an open-ended call with only a mild suggestion that he could join in if he cared. He was having his lunch when I sheepishly inquired whether he would like to join in given the heat. ‘What about the heat,’ he demanded, ‘I was not born in Japan! Let’s go.’ I smiled at the characteristic style of his response and changed my course to pick him up on the way.

I found him waiting outside his house, smoking contentedly. He had his Gypsy ready in anticipation of the drive and I was relieved to park the Doc’s relic. I reminded him about his loud declaration of having quit smoking after facing a string of health issues including high sugar levels. He scowled at me belligerently for having cornered him on an uncomfortable issue and muttered that he would give up the habit ‘by-and-by’. As I got behind the wheel he cheered himself up by telling me about a recent encounter with burglars. How he and his servants had chased a gang of burglars from a house they had broken into in the locality. How he had got a skin allergy from the scratches he received as he ran after the ruffians through the undergrowth. ‘They are usually armed with country made pistols,’ I cautioned him. He shrugged-off my suggestion and shamelessly asked me to stop by a road-side cigarette seller. As soon as we stopped a boy appeared with a cigarette pack from the pavement across the road. He knew the brand and obviously had a running account as Zorba did not pay for the pack. His plans to quit smoking were quite obviously having a very wide time frame!

I had checked out the route to Aasrewali on Google earth. The village is located a couple of kilometres west of Bunga that I had visited earlier with the Doc. The Government has built a series of earthen dams to create reservoirs for providing water for irrigation and other needs of the locals. The largest dam was built at Bunga which also has a smaller second one, adjacent to the main dam. Belwali village that lies between Aasrewali and Bunga has its own dam. Aasrewali has two check dams, one immediately above the village to the East and another higher up in the hills to the West across the seasonal rivulet that flows past the village.

Check dams Aasrewali-Belwali-Bunga

I took the National Highway 73 and crossed Ramgarh and Bhanu before turning left towards Billa on the road running parallel to the TBRL boundary to the west. The road was in a state of reasonable repair and we crossed a series of farm houses and the deserted building complex of the now defunct Golden Forest Company. Zorba seemed to know all about the owners of the farms and had something to say on the means used by the rich and the famous to acquire such properties. We reached the T-junction with Bunga-Aasrewali road near Belwali village. We turned left and after driving a short distance reached Aasrewali.

Aasrewali is a predominantly muslim gujjar village with a prominent Masjid along the main village road.

Mosque at Aasrewali

We stopped at the narrow entry and I was still figuring out the way to the dam from the stored google image when Zorba confidently waved to a tailor working busily at his shop at some distance. I suggested that it would be more civil to walk down to the guy to seek directions but he dismissed the idea. ‘These are simple village folks and he shall definitely not mind,’ he said with the confidence of the accomplished ‘awaaragard,’ as he likes to describe himself. Anyhow we described the dam to the tailor. He told us that the one high up in the hills had dried up while the one next to the village had some water. We drove on till we reached a group of youngsters and children playing in the dust. We picked up a youngster and a kid who volunteered to act as guides. They happily clambered aboard Zorba’s Gypsy and I politely dissuaded the rest of the horde that wanted a jeep ride. We took the track along the large seasonal rivulet that joins the Ghaggar at some distance from the hills. The track turned eastwards as it climbed a levelled high ground to the rear of the village. The track was used by tractor-trolleys and the deep furrows created by the tractor tyre tracks had left a raised rocky ridge in the centre. There was a risk of damaging the jeep’s under-carriage and I decided to leave the Gypsy and walk the rest of the distance. My young guides got off the jeep reluctantly and trudged along the rocky track. Zorba chose to stay back and enjoy his smoke oblivious of the scorching heat. We crossed a grove of Palash trees with fresh green leaves that stood out against the dried up scrub vegetation of the Morni foothills.

Palash grove at Aasrewali

We reached the high ground with a large thatched hut in the centre. I was surprised to spot a camel feeding on the kikkar leaves. Apparently the village owned several camels.

Camel at Aasrewali

Some buffaloes were seeking refuge under the thick shade of the Bistendu tree.

Buffaloes under Bistendu shade

A bearded man with soot on his face and clothes was resting on a cot with two emaciated dogs by his side. We crossed the hut and walked across to the reservoir created by the earthen dam. Some cows and buffaloes were swimming in the large pond.

Aasrewali Reservoir

I spotted numerous Green Bee Eaters with the tell tale quill-like tail feathers in the vegetation around the reservoir.

 

Green Bee Eater at Aasrewali

A large, glistening black jungle crow was fighting a one-sided battle with the noisy lapwings.

Jungle crow at Aasrewali

I clicked pictures of the dam and the village that lay downstream. The dam was created primarily for meeting the irrigation needs during the dry season but the pipes were now buried under silt and the reservoir was more of a large pond frequented by the cattle and jungle life alike. I spotted the thorny nightshade with striking yellow berries and I clicked a picture for sake of record much to the amusement of my youthful guides.

Aasrewali village from the dam

Thorny nightshade at Aaserwali dam

We walked back to the hut and the man stirred himself up and offered us water from the earthen pot (gharah). I politely refused the water and started quizzing him about the wildlife. He enquired who I was and why I was clicking so many pictures. He then told me that neelgai, kakkars (barking deer), sambars, geedar (jackals) and gorals visited the watering hole in the early hours. He suggested that I reach his hut at 4 AM if I intended to click wild life pictures. I enquired about the ‘Cheetah’ (as the locals refer to the Leopard). He told me that he had spotted one near the kikkar tree where the camel stood feeding. ‘Oh. You must have kept these dogs to warn you about an approaching cheetah,’ I ventured. ‘They don’t even dare to breathe while the cheetah is around,’ he grinned. He had got the black soot all over him while collecting fuel food after a forest fire. ‘It did better rain,’ he said, ‘or else we are in for a tough time.’ He lived there all alone in that simple thatched hut with only his dogs for company oblivious of the world that lay beyond. He was surprised to learn that the village Bunga, a mere 3-4 KMs from his village had two very large reservoirs. Apparently he never ventured out of the village. The boys were better informed and had recently visited Morni and the tals when they accompanied the saplings being transported by the forest department. They had studied till class V and had never seen a computer.

The solitary hut and the Bistendu tree

We walked back to the jeep. Zorba gave me a wide grin when he spotted me clicking him with his Gypsy against the jungle scrub.

Zorba at Aasrewali

On the way back Zorba told the boys that they were lucky to be riding the jeep that had been specially bought for use by the famous fakir who roamed the Morni area as also the hills of Himachal and Uttaranchal. The difficult terrain frequented by the ascetic made Gypsy with its high ground clearance an ideal vehicle for his believers. Zorba has a firm faith in the divine powers of the roaming hermit and vouches for the miracles performed by the man. There is an unwritten rule between us that I will not kid him about the fakir even though he suspects that I am quite not convinced about the miracle bit. He is always on the lookout for garnering support from additional witnesses of the miracles. He quizzed the boys about the fakir’s visits to their village and whether they had seen him perform miracles. The boys were, however, non-committal and only complained that he got their CDs confiscated every time he visited the village. Zorba frowned at the louts disapprovingly and reluctantly loaned me 50 bucks to tip them for their assistance.

We drove back towards Bunga crossing Belwali on the way. I stopped to click a brilliant blue bird the size of a pigeon. Zorba identified it to be a Neelkanth. The kings used to release a captive neelkanth at Dushehra and it was considered auspicious to spot one. It was incidentally the 51st bird species clicked by me in the Morni area.

Neelkanth at Belwali

We stopped at a farm short of Bunga where I clicked a horse tied under the shade of a tree.

Horse at Bunga

I drove through Bunga streets and parked at a mandir near the large reservoir. We walked to the dam but the heat was oppressive and I shelved my plans of going further towards the scrub behind the reservoir where I had spotted the jackals with the Doc.

Magpie Robin at Bunga

Zorba told me that a large number of patients suffering from paralysis visit a girl at Bunga who has been blessed by the fakir with magical powers of cure for the ailment!

We drove back towards Kot but turned left at Dabkauri to Ratewali to check out Tibbi. I missed a perfect opportunity to click a an Indian Gray Mongoose looking at us through the scrub and only managed a fleeting shot much to the disappointment of Zorba who spotted it first.

Fleeing Mongoose

The heat was getting exhausting and we again turned right at Ratewali (leaving Tibbi for another day) to head back home via Toka and Khangesra.

Aasrewali Trip- The Route

On the way back he received a call from back home that the burglars had been spotted again in the locality. He immediately busied himself in mobilizing his servants and the local police in trying to apprehend the pesky intruders in his happy fiefdom.

On reaching his home we settled in the living room for a chilled lemonade to get the heat out of our systems. A large, brutish English mastiff ‘pup’ of six months strained violently at his leash, impatient to bite my head off. Zorba expressed his satisfaction with the growth and hoped that it would eventually match the size of the evil-eyed Great Dane who rested in his cage in the backyard. As I got ready to leave a horse keeper (sais) appeared with two mares at the gate. A fine leather saddle had been fastened on one of the mares. Zorba planned to go riding that evening and was obviously not quite as tired as he ought to have been after a day in the summer sun. He fondly hugged the duo and asked the sais to make them perform his favourite antics like saluting, dancing, bowing etc. He pointed to the knots in the mane and explained that this was a sign of their rarity if not divinity as only the great sages (rishis) had hair with similar tangles (jatas). Zorba is a greater believer in signs and the occult! I bid adieu to my favourite ‘awaragard’ friend and headed home after an exhausting afternoon.

P.S. For more on Zorba my friend, you may read an earlier post http://www.hillsofmorni.com/morni-diaries/driving-with-zorba/

On the bike with Baghera – Bunga and Masoompur

A great thing about the Christian faith is that its holidays follow the Gregorian calendar and fall on fixed dates. Better still the Good Friday holiday has to, by definition, fall on a Friday and gives one an assured extended weekend. The Hindu, Islamic and Sikh religions are less obliging and holidays fall on dates that are determined by the clergy and debated every year and true to Murphy’s law are perpetually falling on Sundays and Saturdays. By rare good fortune, the Mahavir Jayanti (birthday of the last Jain Tirthankara, Mahavira) fell on a Thursday this year and we got a clean block of four holidays in a row. Our stuff was packed and ready and we were off to the City Beautiful after office, eager not to waste a holiday in travel.

Thursday started with a lazy breakfast at the idyllic Garden Cafeteria placed at the edge of the picturesque Leisure Valley to the front of the Chandigarh Art Museum. I had planned to photograph the medieval sculptures excavated from the ancient Shiv temple site at Morni-ka-Tal that are housed in the Chandigarh Museum. The Museum was, however, closed and we settled down to enjoy the Chandigarh spring while we waited for our breakfast. We had resisted the tempting aloo-paranthas (with butter) and had settled for a bread-omelette. The magnificent cluster of ‘Golden Trumpet’ trees was in full bloom. The bright yellow, trumpet shaped, delicately textured flowers gave the trees a dazzling golden canopy. The trees, the gentle sun and the light breeze served to remind us that Chandigarh is, indisputably, the most beautiful city of the country.

Resplendent Golden Trumpet Trees, Leisure Valley

Golden trumpet flowers

The kids decided to catch-up with their friends and my wife decided to rest for the afternoon. I had my agenda cut-out for the rest of the day. I was going to check out the Bunga village in the foothills of Morni. A reservoir had been created in this village in 1980s by building a 50 foot high earthen dam across a seasonal nallah. The large lake is visible on Google-earth and I wanted to click photographs of the same. I was not very clear about the route and I decided to cross-check with a local known to me who lived in the vicinity of this village. He gave me the directions to the village over phone and promised to join me at the reservoir to give me company.

Now this guide of mine is a remarkable man. Lean, athletically built with the agility and stealth of the ‘Baghera’ (the leopard). When addressed, he will regard you with a silent moody gaze, his eyes fixed at some distant horizon. He is amazingly sure-footed and will climb up a sharp hill slope through thick thorny scrub with long confident strides. He rides his motorcycle effortlessly on the tricky hill roads and seems to blend with the hill scenery, much like the spotted predator that rules the Morni wilderness after sunset. He is well acquainted with the terrain and knows all the hill routes and the little-known pathways to the remote hamlets. He is known to almost everybody at Morni on account of his having been posted in the hills for extended periods of time. He is obsessed with the hills and will go without salary if transferred out, as ‘he can’t imagine living anywhere else!’ His detractors distrust his motives but I am inclined to believe him. Like me, he is simply mad about these hills.

The drive till Mankian on NH-73 was uneventful. I had donned my large cloth jungle hat to pep up my mood. I turned left on the road to Toka-Manak Tabra-Tirlokpur leaving the national highway. I turned left again on the turn for village Toka on a road built under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojna. The road was in excellent condition and led straight to the Morni foothills. I stopped enroute to click the beautiful landscape and the golden wheat fields.

Road to Tibbi- Landscape

The sun was warm but we were yet to get into summer. I crossed a raggedy poultry farm and sympathized with the villagers who have to put up with the pesky flies that pervade this area on account of the numerous poultry farms. I clicked a flock of Egrets in an onion field and an Asian Pied Starling near Ratewali on way to Tibbi.

Egrets at an onion field, Rattewali

Asian Pied Starling near Tibbi

 

Tibbi is a large village at the foot of the hills. I had driven about 7 KM from Toka at a leisurely pace and asked for the way to Bunga. A villager told me that I had taken a wrong turn and that there was no direct road to Bunga from Tibbi. I was unconvinced as I had spotted a dirt track leading to Bunga from Tibbi on the Google-earth map. I called up my guide who had reached Bunga by then. He confirmed that I had taken the wrong road and that I should have taken the first left instead of the second. I would have to drive all the way back and then retrace my way back to the foothills on a parallel road to Bunga. I asked him if I could reach Bunga on foot and leave the car at Tibbi. He offered to pick me up on his motorcycle. He reached in about ten minutes. I took my camera and pulled my hat tight over my head and we were off. The track ran along the foothills and passed through a major rivulet. The track was tricky and involved a steep descent through the winding narrow kutcha pathway to reach the rocky bed. The water flow was a mere trickle. The ascent to the other side was equally rough and the ‘Baghera’ ignored my suggestion to negotiate the treacherous river side on foot.

He drove across till we reached the metalled road to Bunga. We took the cemented road through the village to the base of the earthen dam and I dissuaded him from attempting to drive all the way to the top. The Bunga reservoir is an impressive lake with the Mandana hills forming a beautiful backdrop.

Main reservoir at Bunga

I spotted some ducks swimming near the far bank. An army of grey langurs occupied a hillock to our left and the bank below. They had come for a drink and I clicked a langur family taking a drink together.

Grey Langurs at Bunga

Grey Langur Family at Bunga

The hillock promised a better view of the Bunga village and the plains beyond and I wondered aloud if we could risk venturing into the langur territory. Baghera was already half-way up the hillock by the time I realized that he had already made the choice for us. I scrambled to join him and narrowly escaped breaking my neck as the Woodland’s outdoor sandals were not quite up to the task. He extended his hand and I gladly accepted the offer and followed him meekly not wanting to risk a fall in the thorn country. The langurs melted away in our presence as Baghera had predicted.

Way to Hillock at Bunga

The tricky climb was, however, worth the effort and the hill-top offered an unbroken view of the vast rolling plains that lay to the south of Bunga. I scanned the scrub forest for signs of the leopard. Baghera can recount several close encounters with the wild cat in the Morni area. It is frustrating not to have come across a leopard even once in all these years. I have driven on the Morni roads at all hours (including 2 AM) and have spotted foxes, sambhars, barking deers, and monitor lizards, but never a leopard. But then as they say, you may not see him but he sees you all the time!

View of plains from Bunga dam

After having clicked photographs to my fill we picked our way back through the scrub to the dam. We then proceeded on the motorcycle to an adjoining dam that was smaller with a smaller, marshy lake. The lake was richer in bird life and I clicked a moorhen, a couple of spotted-bill ducks, a black-winged stilt, a red-wattled lapwing and a white-breasted kingfisher.

Bunga's Small Reservoir

Red-wattled Lapwing, Bunga Dam

Common Moorhen

Black-winged Stilt, Bunga

Kingfisher at Bunga

Spot-billed Ducks, Bunga reservoir

A local approached us out of curiosity and I quizzed him about the utility of the dam. He informed us that the openings to the pipes laid for irrigation had got buried under silt and the dams no longer provided water to the fields. They did act as large ponds where cattle were brought for a swim in the summers. The water table in the vicinity had also risen by a 100 feet over the years.

It was getting very breezy as thick clouds suddenly covered the sun. We could see the village women heading back with their load of grass from the forest in anticipation of an April storm.

Clouds over Bunga

Village women carrying fodder from jungle at Bunga

We decided to get back to Tibbi. The drive back was pleasant even though the sharp wind threatened to take my jungle hat with it. On the way back, I enquired about the ruins of the fort at Masoompur. Baghera had heard about the fort and promised to find out more about it. I got back to my car in one piece only to discover that I had left it unlocked. Thankfully nobody had touched it. I thanked him for the ride and headed cheerfully back home, pleased with my exploits on day one of the holiday.

I drove back straight to join the house warming party at the Doc’s freshly renovated house complete with the Victorian wing chairs, wooden floors, antique almirahs, a large bay window and full-bodied Australian red wine. I scrambled to grab the cushy seat on the shisham bed with its ultra-luxurious mattress and stretched my legs to rest my aching knees. The mild climb to the hill top had taxed my clunky joints and I was glad to unwind and relax with some good wine. The evening warmed up gradually to a high decibel debate on the ethics of Indian print media in generating unwarranted hype about innocuous troop movements.  The Scribe stuck valiantly to the defence of the cause of media, braving allegations of being an anti-national and an anarchist. The topic then moved on to deciding the ideal position for the ornamental plants outside the bay window. The hostess pooh-poohed Scribe’s suggestion for relocating her exotic ficus bonsai. In the meantime I had managed to convince the naughty ‘Angel face’ (Doc’s cute daughter) to part with her iPad and had transferred the photographs of Bunga to the device. I flaunted the day’s capture to Doc. He reluctantly admired the shots of the picturesque Shivalik foothills and the rolling landscape. He disappeared suddenly and reappeared with his dad’s latest acquisition – a Nikon D300s.

Now Doc’s family has been in the medical line for three generations. His dad, a gentle, unassuming and extremely principled man, is one of the best photographers I have come across in my life. He manages to create magic around the seemingly most mundane subject. A black-and-white picture of a happy village urchin (that was christened ‘The Champion’ by him) has adorned my office wall for the past several years and is the object of much curiosity and appreciation by the visitors.

The Champion

His pictures have been published in well-reputed foreign photography journals but he has not let this go to his head and he is amazingly humble and low-profile about this god-given gift. Like all true professionals his camera means the life to him and is his dearest possession. He invests a fortune in upgrading his cameras and the high-fashioned lenses and accessories that are beyond my limited point-and-shoot comprehension. The laws of Mendelian inheritance have unfortunately denied the genes for photography to the Doc. It has thus been ordained by nature that he would have to learn to be content with being an excellent medicine man and a computer geek. He is yet to come to terms with this hard fact of life and continues to believe that he has only to give his photography some time in order to equal his dad’s remarkable record.

The Doc had kept his Saturday afternoon free and we decided to go for a picnic at the Bunga reservoir. He planned to borrow his dad’s Nikon and click some ‘masterpieces’. Day 2 was already reserved for a day excursion to the Tikkar cottage. On day 3, I landed early at the Chandigarh Art Museum to photograph the medieval stone sculptures excavated from the temple on the bank of the Tikkar lake. The sculptures were nicely housed in the impressive gallery but the dull lighting did not allow quality photography. The 13th century sculpture of Lord Shiva in the Kamantaki form was the best preserved piece. There was no written material available to understand the significance of the archaeological finds.

Shiva Kamantaka, Morni-ka-Tal

I spent some time checking out the Pahari miniatures hoping to find something on the Thakur rulers of Morni who had preceded the Meers. The Doc called to remind me of our engagement. We were travelling in his new Honda and he was carrying his dad’s Nikon. By noon we had picked up some burgers and bakery stuff and were off to Bunga. Mid-way to Bunga he told me about some stomach issues he was facing as a result of his binging on gol-gupas the day before! Everytime his stomach would rumble he would derive comfort from our stock of mineral water for coping with any gastric eventuality! I reminded him that we would be camping on the bank of a reservoir and that he should not eye our stocks of precious mineral water for performing such repugnant tasks.

We drove till Toka and this time I was careful to take the first left to Toka and not the road to Tibbi. We stopped to photograph a lovely flock of cattle egrets. I got a reasonable shot of the birds in flight while he fiddled with the myriad buttons and controls of his high end camera.

Flying Egrets near Toka

We drove on until we reached a village street that was blocked at the end with construction material. I was beginning to get some doubts about the route again. We reversed with difficulty and retraced our path till the turn on the main road. I dissuaded him from stopping to photograph a gnarled old hunch-back as she tottered through the village streets. ‘She’ll thrash you with her walking stick,’ I cautioned him. ‘Oh, you are such a darpok, my dad has photographed such subjects all his life,’ he retorted. ‘He looks a perfect gentleman and you must realize your obvious shortcomings in this critical aspect,’ I advised him. Finally, I prevailed upon him to shelve his plans for the misadventure at the very start of our hill excursion. We got the directions to Bunga from a local. We had to take a left from Kot village and not Toka and I had confused the names of the two villages. We drove back to Mankian on NH-73.

The drive to Bunga was pleasant. We crossed a couple of orchards and farmhouses until we reached the peculiar dual-temple at Bunga. A Guga-Marhi temple with its typical white-washed towers at the four corners had been built in close juxtaposition to a Shiv temple with large white ‘Trishuls’ in concrete.

Twin-temple at Bunga

We turned left and drove on the Bunga-Asserwali road till we reached the dirt path leading to the smaller reservoir. We parked next to a nice-looking farmhouse with a restive horse neighing to catch our attention. The owner had planted trees all over the fenced area.

Farmhouse at Bunga

A caretaker emerged and redirected us back towards the village for taking an inner road that would take us closer to the main reservoir. We drove to the Gurdwara by the side of a large village pond and leaving the car there, we trudged up to the dam. It was bright and sunny and we spotted an egret and some ducks basking in the sun on the far bank. We clicked some pictures and then decided to make our way through the scrub forest to get closer to the birds. The Doc was neither having his sun glasses nor a hat and was wearing some suede sandals that were ill-suited for venturing into the thorny-scrub. He held on to the precious camera carefully lest he should drop it and reveal his ineptitude in handling sophisticated cameras. We made our way to a grassy patch where a shepherd-couple and a local village-drunk were resting in the shade. The drunkard was amused to see us clicking the birds and kept calling out to us impertinently until I was forced to snub him sharply. This ended their break for them and the couple proceeded deeper into the hills to check out their goats. The drunkard made his way back to the village negotiating the narrow winding pathway under the watchful eye of his guardian angel.

We settled down for our lunch in the place vacated by the locals. It was fairly warm with no breeze and Doc had failed to get any worthwhile picture ‘owing to excessive light!’ A dull shot of the egret was all he had to show for the hi-tech camera with its obscenely long lens.

Egret at Bunga (by Doc)

He grumbled in protest when I suggested that we go deeper into the forest and try spotting the leopard. ‘The only wildlife there is in this forest are the buffaloes swimming in the lake and the stray dogs in the village,’ he muttered. We walked on along the track taken earlier by the shepherd couple. We had stopped for a break under a tree when I spotted a pair of Golden Jackals making their way down the hill side to our front. We struggled to get our cameras shooting like the gun-fighters of the wild west. I got one of them.

 

Golden-Jackal at Bunga

The Doc cursed his ‘bad luck’ as a long stalk of grass obstructed the face of the jackal in the picture clicked by him. The jackals melted into the scrub and left us with an air of anticipation. ‘You can’t see him, but he sees you all the time,’ I reminded the Doc referring to my favourite subject. We were debating whether or not to continue on our trek when my phone rang. It was Baghera. ‘He sees you – all the time!’ He had found the exact location of the Masoompur Fort and wanted to know whether I wanted to check it out. I asked him to meet us at Garhi-Kotaha. The sun was on its way down and we barely had time to get to the fort for a decent photograph. We made our way back to our car clicking an oriental-magpie robin, a sparrow, a sun-bird and a warbler on the way back.

Oriental Magpie Robin, Bunga

Sparrow at Bunga

Sunbird at Bunga

 

Warbler at Bunga

The Doc clicked the Grey langurs that I had clicked on my earlier trip. The reservoir seemed a major watering-hole for the langurs in the area. He also photographed the self-anointed ‘Mornee Tramp’!

Mornee Tramp (by Doc)

We drove to Garhi where Baghera was waiting on his motorbike. He piloted us through the streets of Kotaha heading on towards Masoompur. The link road took us through Rehna, a Mohamedan village where young school boys played cricket in their cute white skull caps. Masoompur was a small village by the edge of sharp ravines, at the foot of the Morni hills. The motorable cemented track ended here and the path to the fort continued as a sandy dirt track winding along a hillock. The light was declining fast and a walk to the fort would have taken additional 15-20 minutes. We climbed onto Baghera’s bike, the Doc holding onto the Nikon for his dear life as our leopard-man manoeuvred his bike on that impossible slippery track with his usual quiet confidence. The Masoompur fort is set on a small mud hillock and it overlooks the sharp ravines to its south that break into the plains beyond. We halted at the base of the hillock and made our way slowly to the top. The fort was a post under the formidable Garhi-Kotaha fort of the Meers and it dominated the route to Samlotha temple that lay on the hills beyond. The white tower of the Samlotha Devi Temple was visible on the hill top to the North East. The fort was in a state of complete ruin. The outer wall had collapsed completely. A part of a lone gateway, a couple of dark and dingy cells with thick stone-brick masonry walls and a narrow secret passage to an underground ‘tehkhana’ is all that survived.

Masoompur Fort

Secret passage, Masoompur Fort

Masoompur Ravines

The setting sun gave the ruins an eerie touch and we decided to call it a day. The Doc finally managed his photo of the day, the sunset against the gateway on the hillock.

Sunset at Masoompur (by Doc)

The bike ride back to the car was uneventful. We followed Baghera in our car till we reached Garhi. We thanked him for his help and drove back home.

Thankfully, Doc’s stomach withstood the day’s adventure (barring an ominous rumble or two) and we got to drink our mineral water on the way back!

Map of trip to Bunga

P.S. The author has desisted from producing a more candid account of Doc’s escapades on this trip as he is the web master of this website and has threatened retaliatory action!