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.
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.
We turned left to descend down the road to Barisher and Chhamla. I stopped to click an acacia shrub with pink 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was now beginning to get worried. The Doc chose to walk as I negotiated the worst patches.
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.
“…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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