Monday, January 17, 2011

Ladies trek to Nagalapuram, Dec 2010


I was stuck to the rocky wall, shivering , like a fluttering leaf on its way to the abyss ! It didn’t matter at this point if the shivering was due to the cold or the wetness or just fear ; or if it was a combination of all these. My legs refused to give up the only two safe footholds available and my hands were gripping the steep wall like my life depended on it ; huh, ‘like my life depended on it ‘ ! Yes ! My life really depended on it right now. I was discovering the real meaning of this phrase practically ! But it was not the right time or place to pursue any literary discoveries – I was ‘hanging on for dear life’ here. There goes another idiom !

Nagala gorge - Dead-end pool
I looked down to see the cold pond; I looked up to see the vertical cliff rising to the skies. I was in awe of the wonderful creation. I was also apprehensive of the unknown challenges they posed.
I had been ferried across the pool by an expert swimmer while I held on to a rolled sleeping mat that doubled up as a floater. The pool was deep and I was not a swimmer ! Then why in the world did I agree to this ferrying ! I was left at the bottom of this rocky wall where I had hoisted myself up, with some help, to cling to the sides of this slippery gorge.
A few minutes ago while I was awaiting my turn at the banks of the pool, I had seen somebody slip and fall into the water from this very place I was in now. But she had been quickly helped back to safety. This image was fresh in my mind as my hands groped around for the next place to clasp. Somebody extended a hand and I held it to climb one step higher on the rocks. After a few more vertical steps it was time to traverse the length of the gorge wall.
Our backpacks were ferried in an indigenous raft made from a few branches and the sleeping mats .

indigenous cargo raft
I looked ahead and saw the wall dotted with human figures loaded with backpacks. For the next several minutes we were intently focussed on traversing the steep walls. In close view, the wall looked like layers of bread slices stacked casually; only that it was not soft or edible ! Maybe my hunger had led to this bread metaphor ! I had lost track of time, but my biological clock seemed to be working perfectly ! The colour of the rocks ranged between cream to black. The jutting edges were jagged and sharp.

Gorge wall - like stacked slices !
We reached a turn in the wall and sat on the boulders. I was in the heart of Nagala mountains – a forest in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, India. Nagala was 100 kms to the north of Chennai and it had been a 4+ hours drive. The route was scattered with fields of jasmines and roses and had for the most part been open roads with very few villages bordering it.
It was love at first sight ! The casaurina trees, dam, a small temple and beyond all that the mountains ; expansive and mighty. The weather was cool and windy.

Enchanting Nagala !
We had started our journey from Chennai at 5.00 a.m. With a short breakfast break at the interstate border, which also would be our last hot meal for a couple of days :( , we had reached the base of Nagala at around 9.30 a.m. We were distributed food packets that were picked up in a village on the foothills enroute. After some basic instructions we had started our trek.
We were at the Eastern Entry of the Nagala mountains. The dam was brimming with water and we had walked along its banks till we had reached a narrow footpath ; we were on the base of the hills and it would be an uphill trek thenceforth. We had initially walked on dry land over naturally pebbled narrow pathways which had given way to rockier paths as we progressed. And then we had sighted the Stream ; bubbly and beautiful in all its charms !
I could hear the soft murmurings of water grow stronger and then I saw the stream ; its water pure and clear . This mountain stream flowed through the mountains eroding the rocks and forming this beautiful gorge. It was fed mostly by rain waters and covered the breadth of the gorge. This stream would be our friend and guide on this trek and we would just follow her path, trying to reach her source. The mountain was lush with huge trees, shrubs and grass peeking out of every available nook and crevice.

Charming Stream
After a couple of hours of trekking we had reached the first pool where we had taken our first break. I had indulged in the cool waters happily. Everyone had enjoyed the welcome break and the refreshing waters. We had resumed our trek and after another hour had come face-to-face with the Dead end pool – the crossing of which was in progress now.
I looked around at the tired yet hopeful faces of my co-trekkers. It was a ladies trek and we were a motley bunch of 20 ladies and 4 guys who were our guides. A few hours back we had all been total strangers , but now we were helping each other in survival ! I did not know what I was signing up for when I registered with Chennai Trekkers for this trekking adventure. But something inside me kept compelling me towards this adventure. Perhaps it was Nagala calling !
Chennai Trekkers is a group of adventure enthusiasts who organize treks and other daring adventures. They form an active bunch with numerous activities every week. It is commendable that it is a completely volunteer based group. On this trip, they were very supportive of the mostly first time trekkers, instilling confidence and pepping up if someone was tired.
The rest of the trekkers started arrivng at this rest point; well , it was a rest point only because it was a bottle neck before the next crossing ! A few had already started to cross the rest of the pool. I was next. I climbed up a small boulder and jumped on to the next big boulder.
I sat on the edge of the huge boulder and peered into the dark green deep waters with fear.I looked up into the sky hoping against hope that a chopper would magically fly by and pick me up into safety ! I looked around – a few faces were intently looking at me, expecting me to take the next step anytime. But it looked like my mind had frozen.
I could hear the instructions being repeated again – slip down this boulder, walk across that rock, climb the third boulder and slide down and walk across the vertical wall into the shallow end of the stream. Looks easy ? Definitely not, especially when you have just gained the knowledge that the pool is around 10 – 15 ft deep near the boulders and adding the height of the boulders it would be a free fall of 30 ft to the bottom of the Dead-end pool ! Whoever thought of this appropriate name – Dead-end pool ; and why would they use the redundant words ‘dead’ and ‘end’ in the same name to extinguish even the faint glimmer of hope that a first timer would have of crossing the pool alive !! Phew, what had I got myself into ?!
A few hours back I was lazing in the safe and warm confines of my home, sipping a hot coffee and enjoying the monsoons ! But now I was out in wild in an adventureous trek !
SLIDE” ! Somebody said this rather urgently, breaking my flashback bubble in its infancy !!
I had to slide down the almost vertical boulder now. I decided to go ahead; as if I had any other choice !! Even a return at this point would mean sliding down the other end. The other choice was being perched atop the boulder for eternity; no, that option didn’t look inviting either :( .
I took a deep breath and started my slide… somebody held my hand and in that few seconds of unaided drop my heart jumped out a thousand times. My foot hit something hard, i looked down to see myself on the next boulder. A couple of steps and I started my upward slide on the next boulder. Mid way through the climb somebody extended a hand and helped. Once atop this boulder it was a slide down again. Then I walked a few steps on a gorge wall and stepped down into the shallow end of the pool. I had crossed the Dead-End pool; and I was alive !!
I walked a few more steps in the stream and stood on solid ground. A tiny water falls trickled by the rocks. The gorge ahead narrowed down once again after having been broadened by the pool. Here it truly looked like the walls could cave in any moment ! It was an amazing sight, worth the risk of crossing the Dead-End pool.
We played in the stream and the waterfalls. It was ice cold but that hardly deterred me from getting soaked. I was brimming with happiness. Both were overflowing – the stream and my heart ; the stream due to the active monsoon and my heart due to the frolicking in the stream !

Bubbly Stream !!
We walked for some more time through the stream and stopped for lunch at a cluster of flat boulders. We had been given a packet of lemon rice and pickle by the organizers at the start of the trek. That looked like Mannah from heaven after the cold and adventurous day of trekking. There was much chattering and singing during the meal and everybody lightened up before embarking on the next leg of the trek.
After a satisfying meal we were back on our journey. Our backpacks became heavier with the water. The trek prep mail had listed things to be carried and also a to be avoided in the trek kit. Important among the to-carry items was a LED torch ; make-up kit was the most prominent of the dont-carry list ! The latter was not a problem for me as I do not own any except my favourite kajal, which I reluctantly left behind for this trip ! One set of change of clothes, a pair of floater chappals , camera, mobile, a swimming tube, a blanket , a sleeping mat, a toothpaste & brush, soap (these 3 were not used at all !), energy bars and a packet of biscuits were the other items that made up my kit. And ofcourse my trusted companion – a book. This time it was the JK book – First & Last Freedom. Well, the book would be subject to much water treatment before it would see the light of the day after the trek and experience its freedom from the backpack !

My trekking kit
I tightened my sleeping mat to the bag and restrung my backpack across my shoulders. If human beings had to carry around all their material and land possessions on their backs all the time, then none would dare hoard wealth ! Corruption would become non-existent ! Neither would we be spending all our waking hours working mindlessly to buy some useless coveted product or save for some big vacation or an unknown rainy day ; we would just step out of our self-imposed convictions and fears and drench in the rains and bask in the sun . We would not even be praying for ‘Kani Nilam Vendum’ as the great tamil poet Bharatiyar sang in one of his poems.
We waded through the rocky stream and through its wooded edges; slipping, falling, singing, talking, tracing a route and retracing at times to find a safer passage, flowing with the stream and swaying with the breeze. But mostly a cheerful silence predominated. Only the gurgle of the stream and the swish of the breeze throught the gorge resonated. I felt the Silence permeate my being. It was Heavenly .
The daylight was slowly giving way to darkness. We were scheduled to trek up to another pool for the night camp. Our camping site was nowhere in sight .
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost must have been on a similar trek when he wrote this poem !
We were weary, cold and hungry. The organizers had become a little skeptical about reaching the pre-determined camp site. Darkness crept in gradually and the falls and slips increased. There was a quick discussion and we decided to camp at the first available flat surface. Yep, flat surfaces which we take for granted in the plains was a premium in the gorge.
We trudged along for some more time until we could see no further due to darkness. There appeared a small clearing by the stream which was flat too. One of the organizers who had already gone on a fast recon mission to find a much bigger camp site returned with a negative answer. So we decided to pitch our tents on this small patch.
We threw our bags and spread out our sleeping bags. We then collected some firewood and somebody started a fire. The cooking pots which the organizers had carried in addition to their own bags were quickly put to use. The 2 pots were filled with water from the stream and instant soup was cooked in one. Out came the ubiquitous Maggie Noodles from each of our bags and added to the other cooking pot ! We drank the soup and ate the noodles from the one bowl each of us had brought in our trekking kits. It tasted relishing and filling than the best buffet I had ever tasted !

Yummy noodles and soup !!
At one side of the small clearing a camp fire was burning. We gathered around the camp fire and broke into songs. There was a slight drizzle and there was a possibility of the stream swelling up and flooding our camp site if heavy rains lashed through the night. But we did not have any choice; we could not go to higher ground. The ground was also wet. A few dead branches were cut off to create some sleeping space. After more singing and second helpings of the noodles we crashed on our sleeping mats. Out came the can of Volini spray to give relief to the sprained muscles and strained joints ! We were told to lie still if a slimy visitor from the forest ran glided over us ; yes, the place abounded in snakes ! Great, this last bit of trivia made the scene dangerously perfect :(
As I started drfiting off to sleep some body covered us with a tarpaulin sheet since the drizzle had become heavier now. Snakes, stream, rain, darkness, flash floods, insects – I slept peacefully amidst these. Not one trace of the sleeplessness that one experienced even in the most luxurious bed !
In this cozy state, the events leading upto the trek and the start of the trek itself ran through my mind. I was smiling in my sleep when I realized how I had managed to come on this trek ;)


Pitter patter… a rhythmic sound seemed to be the bgm for my dreams ! But I was woken up by the trickling of water on my sleeping mat and I was completely wet. It had been raining all night and I had slept under the rains ! I decided to wake up and noticed a few of my co-trekkers were awake in an open tent. I joined them.
We were talking in low voices, more out of reverence for nature’s silence around us than for concern for our sleeping friends ; We wanted more people to wake up and join the early morning party !! Some were hungry and out came the snacks – it was 3 a.m ! We chatted and sang . After some time a very low light started dispelling the darkness. Through the clearing on the tree tops we could see the light. Within a few minutes the stream reflected the early morning light. The light was soft and the morning was tender. The flowing stream was singing a soft melody and the setting seemed too ethereal to be real ! One trekker woke up and when we showed her the first rays penetrating the forest, she instinctiveky switched on her torch to find out where the sun’s first rays where !! Another trekker announced that she had thought in her sleep that the constant gurgle of the stream was actually an artificial table top water fall !! It was funny and ironical. We cityzens – we urgently need more zenin the city !! We are all prone to such ironies when our lives get hardcoded in the city ! We need to become more zensitive !

First light streaming in through the trees...
The light permeated the forest slowly but surely. The rain was easing off a little. Hope was dawning among the trekkers that we would be able to trek back, provided the rain did not become heavier; then it would be hazardous.
The rest of the camp woke up and everyone felt a hot cup of chai is what would get us going and raise us out of the numbness due to sleeping in the cold and rain ! But alas, there were no dry sticks or firewood as rain had soaked all the trees and ground. We would have to wait for many more hours before we can drink anything hot.
We got down to the job of clearing the camp site – folding our mats & tarpaulin, picking up the little trash and stuffing them in carry bags, arranging our own bags. We did not have an extra set of dry clothes so we just had to remain wet.
We started the return trek. We followed the lead navigator. Another navigator brought up the rear of the group. But very soon we would be breaking into groups naturally based on our trek speed and stamina, and in some cases our photographic expeditions !! But the group always conglomerated at the critical junctures which were hazardous, to help each other out.
The day was cold and windy inspite of the early morning hope that the first rays had given. The river had swollen considerably and the banks were flooded. We could not go through the exact same spots we had used the previous day due to inundation. We had to test and find safer spots for criss-crossing the stream and scaling the gorge.

Misty Mountains
A mist had enveloped the gorge and the mountain peaks were capped by the clouds. The trees and plants were fresh having been washed by the rain. The rocks were wet and slippery. The river’s contours had altered dynamically owing to the rains. It was very deep at places and we had to rethink our steps all along.
Except for the slips and falls, which we had come to accept as normal, the first hour or so was uneventful. And then we came upon The Dead-End Pool – again !!
This time we frolicked in the swollen mini waterfall before we geared up to cross the dead end pool. After some group snaps, we formed a human chain across the stream to pass our backpacks. That done we crossed the vertical boulder cautiously. Then we carried our bags across the length of the gorge. One trekker fell off the vertical boulder into the water. She was quickly rescued. She was lucky to have escaped with minor cuts and scrapes. We were tired and hungry as we had not taken a proper breakfast. But we could not even think of that now. We were not yet out of the Dead-End pool. The walls of the gorge were even more slippery than the previous day and it was difficult to cross with the backpacks. After a point the guys offered to bring most of the backpacks. They were very helping throughout.
I was now at the vertical wall, from where I would have to get into the pool to be ferried. It was not possible to climb down as there were no footholds and the organizers had hit upon a solution – to jump into the water with a sleeping mat tucked under our hands. This would help us to bob back to the surface after the dive , provided we do not let go off the sleeping mat; in which case we would have a few seconds to explore the bottom of the pool before we rest there permanently :( !!Two guys and a girl would be in the pool to hold and ferry us the moment they spotted our bobbing heads; I’m sorry, its ‘if they spotted our bobbing heads’ !!
I closed my eyes, prayed to nature, scrolled through my bucket list which included learning to swim if I went back alive after the trek (!), kissed a goodbye to existence and loved ones, tightened my hands around the mat, took a deep breath and jumped feet first into the emerald green coffin !! I could feel chillness and darkness envelop me. I was into the water and the mat was slipping away. Water was entering my nostrils and mouth and I was gasping for breath. I was bracing myself to explore the deep confines of the pool, of that I was sure. Suddenly I could feel a breeze and somebody holding my arms; yes I had bobbed up alive ! I was ferried across the pool and the successful ones were cheered and clicked ‘on arrival’ at the banks of the Dead-End pool ! The organizers joked that since many of us were letting the mat slip while jumping, they should just push us into the water and stuff a mat under our arms if we bobbed up ! Yes, we were crazy to even attempt something like this !
Once the entire troupe had victoriously crossed over the pool, we celebrated by having the first meal of the day at around 12 noon. The rain was pouring again and we had a standing buffet. The pre-cooked chappathi packets were brought out along with 8 varieties of pickles ! The pickles were spooned onto the chappathis, rolled and dived into ! There were a few packets of namkeen and sweet rolls that disappeared quickly. After this relishing meal it was time to resume the trek.
By now, the stream had become my good friend and the slips too did not hurt much; and also perhaps my body had become numb ! I slowed down to click some snaps along the way. The mist had enveloped the mountains and the upstream. The speed of the flowing water was faster now due to the volume of water flowing from the source. This made some of the apparently clear spots also difficult to cross as less rocks meant more speed of the water. It was a live lesson in hydraulics.

Mountain and River - Nature's Love Story...
We reached the first pool and decided to take a break. I lay down on the rocks and gazed at the mountain peaks. Nature is amazing. There is a wealth of information and wisdom there that reveals itself only to the seeker. We just need to sit in silence in nature and we can hear the whisperings of love and wisdom that resounds. I looked at the steep and narrow gorge and wondered at the river’s patience in making the mountain understand the river’s love for the mountain and creating a path for itself to flow through the heart of the mountain. And such a mighty mountain becoming tender enough to be moved by the gentle river. The River flowed happily protected by the strong Mountains. The witnessing of such love tugged at my heart. Love and Faith can indeed move Mountains.
I indulged in some macro photography that I could not do so far in the trek. There was friendly banter and it was time to hit the resume button. From now onwards it would be a relatively easy path. But our energy levels had dipped dramatically and this made the rest of the trek tedious.

Rain drops...
The final lap resembled a comedy movie where groups get lost and keep running into each other and going the wrong way again and again ! This mountain stream can change course slightly depending on the rains and one small wrong turn could lead us into an unknown part of the forest. The organizers were experts and they charted our course well. In the last stretch we also encountered many local villagers who come to the mountains often to pick up firewood or leaves etc. They walked as if they were walking on flat ground under optimal conditions while we struggled like a baby taking its first steps ! The locals were people who were part of nature and they did not need special equipments to visit her !
After much walking we sighted the dam. It was brimming with water. We could spot the temple in the distance. The embankments of the dam were windy and cold. The open spaces and the wind across the water made the walk tough. It looked like a storm was hurtling towards the mountains. Darkness was falling over the mountains. We crossed the dam at its narrowest part and saw our parked vehicles. One group decided to break for dinner enroute while some of us planned to go straight to Chennai.
I switched on my mobile and saw some missed calls. I would have to answer them soon and face some tough questions !! Not yet ! I had not yet bid adieu to the mountain, stream, trees and clouds ! I had the feeling that I was bidding goodbye to a close friend. It was also time to say goodbyes to my co-trekkers who had become good friends by now, having survived two strenuous days together. The organizers had done a wonderful job and were very helpful.
My brother informed me of the approaching storm and the heavy rains in Chennai & Pondicherry. It was going to be a rough ride back to Chennai. The rains would become heavier en route. We would be riding into the storm as the storm would reach these mountains in a day.

I'll be back soon !
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