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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We then proceeded into thick forest and discovered a deserted stone shelter.
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.
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.
The path to the tracks lay through dense thorny scrub and we decided against the venture.
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.
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.