Some experiences are such, that every time you are reminded of them, they leave you with a smile on your face. It may not have been pleasant throughout, but it had left you with a sense of fulfilment that still lingers on. Harishchandragad was one such adventure for the seven of us. Situated in the Kasubai-Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary, it is more than a 100 Km from Mumbai, and is a go-to trekking destination. It is approachable via four routes — an easy route, one difficult, one very difficult and another that requires professional rock-climbing skills and licence. We were no rock-climbers, but most of us were experienced trekkers by then, so we took the second route. It is also the longest of the four, taking at least 5 hours to climb from the base, and does not leave an option of returning the same day. So we decided to camp for the night.
It was in the wee hours of the last Friday of January 2016 when we started from TIFR and caught a train to Kasara. We had with us ingredients for food, utensils, sleeping bags, and a bottle of dilute propanol to make fire. After catching breakfast at Kasara, we caught a bus and got down at the village of Khireshwar around 10 a.m., walked around 6 Km to the base village and caught lunch in of the local homes. There was very little vegetation around, and the afternoon January sun was far from being comfortable. It was here that a dog started following us, and could not be pursued to go back.
For the next part of the 2 hours, the climb was easy, and the trail was pretty broad. We stopped once, and so did our new friend, Mr Four Legged.
After another half an hour or so, the climb got steep and soon we hit what is known as the “rocky patch”, where the trail gets extremely narrow, and there is a deep gorge on one side. This patch lasts for around 20 minutes of very slow and careful climb, sometimes on all fours, and the delicate balancing acts are more of a psychological challenge than a test of skills.
Once this patch is over, the going becomes easier, and there’s a sudden spring of vegetation around the trail — mostly plants of the cactus family. The variety of dry shrubs and bushes is mesmerizing, and so are the flowers.
Our destination was a set of caves at the edge of a village, where one can rest for the night. We had planned to reach the destination by 5 p.m., which would allow us the time to catch the sunset from Konkan Kada, another half an hour’s climb from the caves. Situated at the edge of a sharp cliff going all the way down to the valley below, Konkan Kada is point facing the west and offering a majestic view of the sunset. On the way back, we would collect woods. However, we managed to reach the caves only at 6, and it was already starting to get dark. So we gave up the plan of catching the sunset, and split into two groups: while a group of three were cleaning the caves and making sandwiches, the rest of us went wood-collecting!
Initially, we were not that lucky. Most of the broken branches were caught in thorny shrubs that we could not reach. Soon, however, we managed to get hold of a few long branches by using a well-known trick. It was fun! However it was getting dark and on the way back, we collected every piece of small little branches and figs that we could find. Thankfully we had torches with us because the darkness descended very quickly and dodging the thorny shrubs was no mean task. On the way back we met an old man who was returning to his village at the top with lots of thick wood, a part of which he readily sold to us. So we happily dropped some from our own collections and replaced it with his thick branches. Although it was difficult to carry these heavy pieces back to the caves in the pitch darkness, we were lucky to have made this deal. Or so we thought.
On returning to the caves, we hungrily devoured the sandwiches. Mr Four Legged was still with us, happily munching on biscuits. Then, two of us went to look for a well we knew existed at the edge of the village, down the slopes. It was a priceless lake of pristine, clear water, with all sorts of small to big fishes swimming in it. There were a few artificial steps through a narrow alley on which one had to crouch carefully to reach the water, and it took the two of us a lot of teamwork to fill up the bottles and secure them. It was when I turned back that I caught sight of heaven!
I had been to a few overnight naked-eye sky-gazing camps but had never had the fortune to see such a clear sky. As the constellation of Orion stared at us in the evening sky, we were lucky to catch a few meteorites. And Venus! Never in my life had I seen it so bright. That vast expanse of the clear night sky was a thing to remember for ages, and I don’t have words to start describing the magic that it spelt in the surroundings.
After returning to the caves, we were very tired hence decided to rest for a while before making the fire. Chit-chatting about the experiences from the day, I felt dizzy. I was woken up from my nap by loud voices of some my mates, who were apparently trying to put a fire and failing every time. I decided to teach them a lesson in fire-making, and this was my opportunity to get humbled.
It took us some time to realize that the wood that we had bought from the old man was damp from the inside, and that is why instead of it catching fire, the propanol would burn away with heavy steaming, hurting our eyes. Eventually, we had to give up the idea of lighting these thick-yet-damp woods and had to rely on the branches that we had collected ourselves. How we wished we hadn’t dropped some of our collection when we met the old man! Because that posed another problem: there was just enough of dry leaves and small branches to cook the dinner. Our plans to cook fancy dishes, then camp-fire into the night and then sleep peacefully with a fire by the side, went out of the window — rather — the cave.
What followed was extremely efficient team-work. From cutting the vegetables, setting up the fire, constantly kindling the fire, continuing to add small figs as others got burnt up, taking turns to do so because it also hurt the eyes after a while, boiling the water, supplying the raw materials, and cooking the food — all seven of us gave our all into that pulaw. That one and half hours turned out to be a tiring and humbling experience, making me realize how lucky we are to get all the necessities of life so easily back in the city. And the pulaw? It was delicious. We didn’t have enough energy to cook any of the side-dishes that we had planned to but devoured the rice with the pickles. That was a dinner whose every bit was earned with sweat and tears, quite literally.
We were so drained that we bunked the camp-fire plans and made arrangements to sleep. While some of us had sleeping bags, others carried mattresses. There was enough space along the walls of the cave for all of us to snug in, sometimes in pairs, while Mr Four Legged comfortably slept on the floor and guarded the cave against external threats. I took the opportunity to just stare at the night sky for a full hour before I started feeling extremely drowsy and returned to the cave.
I could not sleep. My senses were alive to the slightest of noises — the insects outside, an occasional squeaking of a rat, or the slightest movement of the others. Another dog came sneaking from outside which our Mr Four Legged happily barked and scared away. The hardness of the cave-floor and the chillness of the night (being in Mumbai we are not accustomed to cold nights even in winter) were not helping either — the walls right above me were sucking away at my body-heat. As I lay there semi-consciously, alive to every tick of my watch, staring at the semi-darkness outside, I felt humbled. I imagined how it must have been to be a cave-dweller, who hunted animals and measured the seasons by the stars. I kept thinking about the amount of effort that we had had to put in to secure water, food and shelter. I just could not sleep.
After a while, I realized that my mate next to me was shivering in the cold, and had not slept either. There was nothing more that we could do to improve our conditions. We felt helpless. I finally decided to spend my time in a more worthwhile manner and came out once again to observe the sky. It was close to 2 in the night — how quickly the time had passed. As the Milky Way arched along, I was excited to catch the constellation of Sagittarius, that hosts the centre of the galaxy. However, the Moon played spoilsport — it rose from the east and soon it was up and glaring. Disappointed, I decided to make another attempt to sleep.
This time the tiredness engulfed me, and I slept. However, it was not long after that I was woken up by voices mulling over the options of continuing to shiver and getting up and putting up another fire. After a while, it was unanimously decided that we had had enough and we badly needed a fire, come what may. We went wood-hunting in the dark and added to whatever we had left, to make a low fire and managed to keep it going for another hour. Soon it would be morning, and we could start out early to Konkan Kada. As morning arrived, the two of us went to refill our stock of water, and then all of us took turns to freshen up. We didn’t have enough energy or enthusiasm to make another fire and cook the Maggi as we had planned, so we made do with whatever stocks of biscuits we had.
As we embarked towards Konkan Kada, however, Mr Four Legged refused to come with us. A few amongst us had a strange theory for this, as he disappeared into the jungle without even a formal goodbye, but the rest of us will always be sceptical about this theory. Anyway, once we reached, we were greeted by a spectacular view.
There was even a small hole for a man of average height to stand safely right at the edge of the cliff.
From then on, it was a linear journey under the hot January sun,
an interplay of light and shadow all the way…
down to the nearest village at the base,
then a ride back to Kasara, and a train back home.
What stayed with me were the experiences from the night before and a deep sense of respect for the comforts of home, the night sky and the meteorites, the companionship of Mr Four Legged, and a stick that I had been using to kindle the fire the night before.