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.
I spotted an animal skull that one of the kids identified as belonging to a rabid dog that had been killed by the villagers.
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.
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!
I did manage a decent picture of a red dragonfly.
We reached the waterfall that fell into a small pool that appeared green because of the algae.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The fountain installed near the Tikkar Tal Tourist Complex looked impressive against the dark skies.
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.
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.
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!’