[The longest write-up ever written by Prem - a 55 year young trekker - who joined our Nagala East Combo 1 month ago. Narrated in entertaining style and utmost detail. I am not too comfortable with too many occurrences of my name below - credit for anything in CTC goes to all active volunteers within our group]
‘The Gates of Heaven’
My close encounters with Peter
It was way back in June 2010 that I had come across some faint information on Chennai Trekking Club and I immediately subscribed for its membership. Adventure in raw nature has been a part of my school days and trekking during that time was the most unforgettable activity that I had cherished all along since then. I was one of the early students who got admitted in the Loyola Public School at Guntur in the year 1963-64. The LPS was a very ambitious mission started by the Jesuit Society of India. The Madras Loyola College in Madras and the Andhra Loyola College at Vijayawada, were also started by the very same Jesuits society two decades ago and LPS was the third institution that was started in the South India by them.
LPS was commissioned in the year 1963 near Nallapadu, a small village nearby Guntur which is famously known as the Tobacco Capital of India. The school was built along the Perecherla Reserve Forest and its mountain range is a maximum of 300 mts or so in altitude. During those times the entire location was so virgin and we thoroughly enjoyed our Hostel life right from the time we woke up at 5 am until we retired at 9.30pm in the night. It was mandatory for a student to live in the hostel for the sake of overall personality development. A few students from the nearby town of Guntur were exempted on special grounds and were permitted as day scholars.
The Public School is spread over 100 acres in area and it is the only school even now which boasts of large playgrounds occupying 2/3rds of the 100 acre campus. The play ground consists of a Cricket field, Football field, Hockey ground, Basket Ball court, Baseball court, etc apart from a conventional swimming pool. Our daily curriculum started with Jogging at 5.30am for a minimum of 30 minutes with a combination of brisk morning exercises. After the usual school hours we had a regular time-table for games starting from 4pm until 5.30 pm which was compulsory. This was after the evening refreshments served in our huge Dining Hall accommodating almost 200 students. Our games time-table for the weekdays consisted of a different sport each day not only giving opportunity to the student all the games, but also to pursue to master a particular game of his choice during the weekends.
The most awaited was the week-end. Saturday being a half day, we were given the option of choosing a sport of our own choice and in the evening we were shown a movie either of English or some regional language. The school had its 16mm projector maintained in an impeccable condition ready for any day. Ours was the only school which had all such entertainment.
The Sunday was special for us and students like me anxiously waited for the Sunday itinerary. Apart from free-games extended to an hour more on Sunday, it was the day we had the programme of ‘trekking’. The Perecherla mountain range consisted of medium sized hills and mountains which were wonderful and it was just a 2km walk from our school campus. We usually started after 12pm and returned by 7pm. It being a notified ‘Reserved forest’, wildlife like rabbits, foxes, porcupine, snakes, mongoose, wild cats, etc was the usual sight for us. I used to love this activity and I along with my close friends was always among the first to reach the ‘top’ of the mountains which we proudly considered as a sort of victory.
Since those school days I always admired mountains. Their shapes and size always thrill me and even now I just look at them in awe. All these years I longed to go for trekking but our professional life springs immense excuses for not going for one. It was only during some trips to ‘Kaveri Fishing Camp’ near Mysore, and the ‘Kali River Camp’ near Hospet, both in Karnataka that I cherished some minor trekking exercises along with my children, but not a real one which could challenge my fitness in the present age of 55 years.
I received my first mail from Chennai Trekking Club on 1st of June 2010 requesting my confirmation if I was interested to join the club. I confirmed immediately. Since then I have been receiving many mails of different dimensions and activities. The club was founded by one Mr.Peter Van Geit and there was no other information about him other than his Himalayan passion for trekking expeditions and motivating the club members to participate in social welfare programs such as cleaning the beaches and sponsoring the child orphanage homes. He seemed to be an inspiring personality and I only waited for the right opportunity to meet him. There were calls for trekking trips, reports of post-trekking trips, social service programs, charity programs to orphan children and many other affiliated trekking programs that were long distance giving access and opportunity to interested people locally. I have been also reading some articles in the Hindu and other newspapers recently.
All along I was a little apprehensive of one main issue which was whether I would be able to merge and mingle with all those young trekkers and the other was whether I would be fit enough to return in one piece from those expeditions. The summer arrived and I was waiting for the right opportunity. I kept myself fit enough but was not successful in reducing the excess weight I had gained since past two years due to the long hours in front of my inseparable laptop which I treat it as nothing less than my partner in profession and not as an electronic machine.
On 1st of May the perfect invitation came for the Nagala East Combo trekking program that is planned for 7th & 8th of the month, and I should have been the first person to send the confirmation as early as 4.30 am in the morning on the very same day. The excitement that enveloped me was exactly what I experienced in my school days 45 years ago. I started my shopping spree organising all those mandatory items prescribed by the club and stressed myself on the treadmill in our Gym at the apartments during the entire week as a preparation.
Peter called for volunteers to organise the food items, for accounting, for leading groups as guides during the expedition. There was some confusion in the finalisation of the interested members. Due to shortage of experienced volunteers and organisers only thirty members were shortlisted initially and shockingly my name did not find place in the list. I immediately sent a mail to Peter that it should have been a terrible mistake not including my name in the list. I thrust the argument that I should have been the 1st person to have filled and submitted the form for enrolment.
Within an hour Peter replied, “No issues Prem, you can jump in”. I was back to my excited mood once again and started to prepare my backpack. Incidentally the next day Peter notified that two of the CTC organisers, Brijesh and Naveen, sent their willingness to join and accordingly he opened the gates to whoever showed interest.
The day arrived and I reported at 3am early morning at Guindy in my Accent Viva. There were a few guys waiting at the Toyota showroom and I introduced myself ‘Hi, I am Prem’ and everyone greeted me and introduced themselves. I continued ‘you must be wondering what an old guy is doing here!!’ I joked intending to instil an air of ease. Within minutes Peter arrived in his grey Fortuner with some members along with him. He instructed all to sign the Disclaimer forms and then we all proceed to Koyembedu for a final pool of the members. The indicated amount of Rs 500 for expenses was also paid to the guy who volunteered to maintain the accounts. .I introduced myself to Peter apprehensive that he may raise a doubt about my fitness on assessing my age, but he just did not mind it even after observing me at close quarters. I was relaxed and proceeded to the next rendezvous taking a few along with me in my car.
At Koyembedu, a count of the total pool of members was taken and the participants were comfortably accommodated in all the vehicles. They had hired two tempo vans which also accommodated some motorcyclists who did not prefer to travel by two wheelers. From there we were instructed to follow Peter’s vehicle and not to get lost especially at places where the roads deviated. Despite which there was some confusion at midway and Peter had to track the Maruthi 800 which had taken the wrong route and immediately assigned some members to go back and realign the lost car back to the convoy. The rest restarted the journey to the destined location and the lost car too joined the convoy a few minutes later.
Before we reached the final destination, we stopped at the roadside tea-shop for tea or coffee as per the preference, and it was almost 6.30am. At the tea shop I could see the faces and study for acquaintance sake. I could spot only three females among the whole bunch and the rest were male. Most of the participants were in their twenties. There were a few foreigners; one pair Eric and his friend Christine and there were two more young guys I do not know their origin but could be French or Spanish. Peter made sure that none were lost henceforth and then gave the signal for resuming the final drive to the starting point.
The Starting Point
On nearing the destination, I could visualise the Mountain range as we headed for the eastern entry of the range. As soon we arrived at a clearing after crossing Nagalapuram, a small silent village, we were asked to disembark our vehicles and Peter instructed all to pick their portion of eatables which consisted of Oranges, Cream Buns of different flavours, usual dry Chapatti packets, Teplas which looked like chapatti, , Flavoured Glucose packets, Etc. My fears began to rise, for my backpack gained more weight now. I strictly followed the instructions and packed as advised but the biggest blunder was that I purchased a 50 ltr backpack which I eventually found that it was for much bigger treks. Comparing the luggage others were carrying, my bag was definitely bigger and heavier; and considering my age I had doubts whether this would work. I quickly unloaded all my belonging to see if there was anything that I could leave behind in the car to reduce the weight, but I was utterly confused what to discard and what not to. Peter was repeatedly instructing all in a raised voice to unload the excess baggage. I finally unloaded my second water bottle which reduced a meagre one kilo maximum.
All the vehicle owners and the van drivers were instructed to park the vehicles way back near the end of the village at a clearing. I parked my car along with others, Peter was giving some instructions to the Tempo drivers, and I slowly lifted my backpack and buckled it at the waist. I felt the heavy weight and the apprehension grew whether I would make it. Two doctors who also parked their car along with us advised me to buckle the front main belt just below the navel to avoid back pain.
After parking the vehicles, one of the Tempos was asked to drop us back at the starting point where the rest of the members started off. In the van, I asked Peter whether my bag was heavier and he confirmed it saying that it was actually a few kilos more than what it should be. I tried once again to search for something to unload and I could only spill the water in my additional ½ litre bottle. I had no choice and I proceeded to walk briskly once we got off the Tempo.
I started without much effort trying to keep at pace with the others ignoring whatever I was carrying. A determination to be at par with the youngsters possessed me and I progressed as per plan to join the rest of the batch at the 1st pool. We climbed up a bund which I was told was a sort of mini-dam erected to hold the stream that flowed from the Nagala range continuously throughout the year. The water from the catchment was in return released through canals for irrigation. For a moment we had a panoramic view of the path we were going to take and then we started to climb down the bund slowly.
After the mini-dam we passed through a temple where some local families were in a festive mood waiting to start some sort of ceremony or a celebration and the children cheered us innocently as we passed by.
Peter picked up fast and sped away to the first assembly point which was the first pool. I strode in the company of a few who started late. I walked briskly along with Siva shanker and after observing me carefully he enquired if I had any wheezing problem for which I immediately replied that I had no health problem and my heavy breath could be because of my weight which I have added in last two years. I explained him that it was it was my passion since my school days and I was ready to go the extra mile to cherish this experience after a long gap. He might have had doubts on assessing my age but he was kind enough to volunteer any help if required. I thanked him and managed with ease; and in half hour we reached the first pool.
The First Pool
When we reached the 1st pool, a sudden urge spurred within me to jump into the water, but Naveen one of the organizers advised that we would come across several pools ahead to cool ourselves and this stop was only to rest a while and have some breakfast before we resume. I sincerely took the advice and cooled until my knees in the chilling crystal clear water, spilled some stream water on my face which was absolutely refreshing and then I had cream bread and an orange to energise until the next stop of the hike.
It was at this point I happened to interact with Naveen who was organising the groups. The 1st group started off with Peter for the Level –II hike on a different and difficult route and the rest of the members were assembled as the 2nd group for the regular Level –I hike. Naveen enquired whether I faced any difficulty to which I replied that as such except for my backpack I have no difficulty. I explained him how I had purchased the extra-large one and did not foresee the additional weight which I would be carrying. He advised me to rest a few minutes and carried on to organise the group reminding everyone that we would resume our trek in five minutes. It was then that he introduced me to Brijesh who without any discussion lifted my back pack and said we would carry it and relieve me from the difficulty. I could not believe whatever he uttered and I apologised for my mismanagement. He just brushed my thanks aside and stated it was nothing. I eagerly volunteered to carry any of his belongings in return, and to my surprise he said, “I have no backpack. No belongings. I travel light and the only thing I carry is this white cloth of almost three meters”. I stood there dumbfounded and was amazed at his travel plan. His simplicity was unmistakably seen by his attire. I imagined him like a God-sent angel to help me.
It was the first time that I felt that this trek was no ordinary one and I was realising that it could be a discourse from a Guru. Who is this Brijesh, and why did he volunteer to carry my backpack despite having the wisdom to travel light? I would not treat it a sacrifice but visualise it as a contribution. A selfless service to others without even having any thought that he was doing any service was something I saw within him. It was a new dimension which emanates many messages. This was the first lesson Peter might have taught to all his followers with gestures and not by instructions or preaching. It was a priceless contribution.
From that point onwards I was given the privilege of travelling without a backpack and the only burden I had now was to keep pace with the young trekkers. I placed my feet carefully on the boulders along the stream and at time jumped on large boulders to quicken the pace. It reminded of my schooldays but at the back of my mind I have not come to self from the selfless gesture by Brijesh. The beauty of the indirect teachings from the trek was taking shape before my eyes.
Naveen let some members to proceed ahead and he kept calling the rear to keep pace and catch up. I learnt that usually there would be one to lead ahead and one behind to see nobody is lagging too much behind. The man behind is called the sweeper he said, the title which I found a little misplaced but it did make sense. The organisers have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. They make efforts to ensure the trekking by all means would be a pleasurable experience and watch the participants with hawk’s eyes. I now understood why Peter decides the size of the trekking team basing on the number of organisers available for the expedition.
I started a conversation with Naveen and found that he is working as a Team Manager in a software company and this is his fifteenth expedition to Nagala. He knows the range inside out. As we discussed about his experiences, we sped at a brisk pace, jumping on the small boulders, and sometimes crossing the stream from one side to another depending on the clearing. It was exactly how Peter had briefed on April 30th at his residence when he conducted the workshop on ‘maps, navigation, and GPS’. The path was along the stream with trees and foliage on either side protecting us from the scorching sun which was not less than 38 degrees. The planning of the trekking path is vital for we need to see how long a person can continue without any resource and shelter. In the present instance it being the summer, water is a vital support for frequent refill and the shade from the meagre forestry on the either side of the stream is much more important to keep us going totally avoiding the sun. Both kept me from any dehydration or exhaustion. I found that in this Level-I expedition the sun protection cream was not necessary; maybe it was useful for the Level-II trekkers. Peter had given a clear picture of the entire expedition during the briefing session at his residence. It was not an adventure of overcoming extremely dangerous terrains like we see in Hollywood movies but a pleasurable expedition with pleasurable experience.
Many greeted me with a ‘Hi’, and I know what bugged their brains about me. I knew I was conspicuous among the young adventurers. The best part was no one called me ‘uncle’ or ‘sir’ but instead addressed me by my name as ‘Prem’ which was comforting, helping me to merge with the rest without any embarrassment. The group was lead by Brijesh, and Naveen was the sweeper at this juncture. There was one young couple who were also trailing behind, the husband helping the wife frequently with a firm hand at the slippery and rugged terrains. I really appreciated their participation and hoped they continued in future.
Before we reached the next destination, I realised that we had reached almost one third of the planned route. Frequently I splashed the stream water on my face and neck which was refreshing and drank the water from the flowing stream. If Aquafina costs fifteen bucks then this handful of stream water can be positioned at a hundred. I remember Peter informing that despite the summer, the water from dew and humidity collected drop by drop would collectively gather into small streaks and then flow as a stream. The lessons nature teaches is that even during adverse conditions we can have hope and strive to reach our goals. It is not necessary that one needs to be intelligent or a genius to be successful. All we needs is faith and harnessing of inherent talents. We only need to consolidate our inner strength and build our future on it. Peter has lured all these youth to this wonderful sport with strict rules only to realise that happiness and pleasure is not going to a multiplex and indulging in a variety of junk food, watching mindless movies, and getting loose at bars; but to observe the surrounding and learn to enjoy the real pleasures of life. Even though I have spoken passionately about my school days earlier, now I feel this experience as more rewarding and enlightening, for apart from the adventure there are plenty of messages.
The Dead End Pool
As we travelled further along the stream for almost a kilometre nearing the next destination we could hear the loud histrionics of the group which reached earlier. My heart leaped at the sight of the magnificent ‘Dead-End Pool’. I found Brijesh and the other guys who came earlier were already in water playing gleefully without any bounds. Having my back pack conveniently at the spot, I immediately changed to my swimming trunks and splashed in the water. Having only the habit of swaying in the swimming pools at our residential apartments would not be enough to dare these deep waters, I took support of the thermo mat. Even though the water is shallow at the banks, it could suddenly fall deep at the centre of the pools to not less than 20 ft to 30 ft. The sleeping mat was useful to float around even at deep places. Peter had made it mandatory in all mails to bring the air tubes or any other safety item as a precaution unless you are capable of swimming like a fish.
I pulled out my new Olympus 720 SW waterproof camera which I purchased only a few days back for this trek at their Guindy Showroom at a ridiculous price of Rs 4000. I was told that they import 10,000 pcs of every model distributing for sale all through the country and was marked at Rs 22,000; and the last few pcs are sold at an unbelievable discount. I switched on the camera with an intention to take it into the water for some memorable snaps but to my shock the battery power was blinking red. It was then I remembered the advice of the salesman at the showroom to charge the SDV battery for a minimum of seven hours before use, which I failed to do in the excitement. I only realised that I could snap a few before it goes totally dead. Hence I got busy in the water asking others to snap photographs from my camera and thereafter enjoyed without any bounds just like any of those youngsters in the pool.
I was told that all these fancy names to the pools were christened by Peter himself. The Dead End Pool was named because the path was blocked by three huge boulders at the far west end and there was no possibility that one could walk alongside the pool as we did until now. The pool was lined with steep step-like walls with not much place to tread with steady feet. The only place they could step on the wall was half way at the middle of the pool which was slightly slanted enough allowing a person to negotiate as if on a trapeze until the base of the second boulder. I was told that the only way to avoid the steep wall and the first boulder was to swim across the pool to the other side, going beside the first boulder where there was a small gap and the wall adjoining curved with a cave like cavity giving space to swim across. One needs to slowly stride towards the bottom of the second boulder and then mount on it and then jump over the third boulder to reach across the other side.
Meanwhile in the middle of the exultations, Brijesh, Naveen and others prepared ramps to transport the backpacks to the other side. The swim tubes were covered by the thermo mats upon which one or two backpacks and shoes were placed at one time and slowly pulled until the slight platform raised on the right side at the centre of the pool which were unloaded by one person standing at the edge of the wall. This exercise was repeated several times until the whole lot was transported. It was Brijesh, Naveen and others who could swim well that completed the entire job of transportation of the luggage as well as the members.
As time passed, one by one started off to swim upto the centre of the pool and lift themselves to the right side of the wall to start walk steadily leaning on the cliff wall. My turn came for the crossing. Before I could take any initiative, Naveen called up someone to help me until the second boulder through the water. I held the thermo mat close to my chest and slowly stroke to negotiate the water and alongside came one of the good swimmers who pulled me until the second boulder. I felt relieved but the bigger task lied ahead. There were two boulders to cross. I took an estimate of the second boulder and found that it would be not an easy task for person of my age to perform such feats, but still I did not want to be a liability to the organisers and cause additional burden. I just skipped under the narrow cavity under the second boulder squeezing through the slippery stream just a little larger than my waist and successfully emerged on the other side of the second boulder. Having half succeeded, I stood up and looked up to the third boulder upon which Brijesh was sitting helping others to mount the boulder. Brijesh extended his hand suggesting me to stretch and swing to the third boulder to a height of almost ten feet. I said it was just impossible for me but immediately Naveen and others volunteered to make pseudo steps with their firm hands providing me to place my feet for the climb. I realised that there could not be a better help and trustingly swung into action placing my feet on the fleshy steps firmly and heaved with all my might. I did it and everyone at the location clapped in appreciation for the achievement. I almost blushed remembering that it was truly a challenge for my age, but not without help. It was unbelievable as I looked back to see what I had overcome. Silently I slipped to the other side towards the upstream.
It was almost one in the afternoon and Naveen suggested we stop for lunch at the said location. The other side of the Dead End Pool was a narrow path like a ravine. It was a location between two steep mountain walls. The path was laid with smaller gravel like stones which was more comfortable to sit and have lunch. A small stream passing at the centre of our circular gathering was sheer luxury. Everyone ceremoniously pulled out the food stuff from their bags preferring the chapattis and jam and ketchup. I didn’t want to fill my stomach more than two chapattis and preferred to share the pack with others who have already exhausted their stock. It was interesting to hear the experiences from the regular trekkers including Eric and his girl friend who sat alongside the wall expressing how thrilled they were with the day’s trek.
I was in a different world and not a second did I repent that I was older and may not be able to participate repeatedly in such outings. It inspired me to make an agenda of this passion and passed a conviction within myself to stay fit than now and that I should repeat as long as I can. We wound up after a few minutes for Naveen was always keeping a watch on the time being spent at every stop and started to pursue all to continue the journey. Here the most impressive practice was that no ever spilled any waste packing or plastic in the open. Each one ceremoniously stuffed all the used packing and plastic into their bags and the gravel flooring was as clean as before. The environment was preserved after enjoying its benefits. Peter has brought a consciousness irreversible and uncompromising within the minds of all the members. This is a college where basics are taught without any lectures. It is the conscious and a religion that has to be followed universally but not an imposition without understanding. I began to realise that the methods of teaching is important than the syllabi. The pupil grasps it quickly making it an integral part of his nature and not as a specific duty. I followed suit as others and checked twice around me once again. I resumed the journey, content that I have learned one more profound teaching of Peter.
After lunch we continued our journey revitalised, crossing the streams repeatedly locating the clearing on either side of the stream until we reached the famous gorge within half hour. This was an adventure unforgettable. I was gaping at the walls on the either side with admiration and awe which was nothing less than the Grand Canyon captured by excellent cinematographers in their wide lenses. I pulled out my camera and found that it was blinking red now and I could dare only one or two snaps further. But all my enjoyment at the location came to a sudden stand-still when Naveen announced that we are climbing the hill to cross the gorge. I cautiously enquired the stretch of the climb for which he answered, “It’s not much, having come this far it’s a simple feat for you”. For a second I did not trust him. I knew he was trying not to terrify me with the truth. I had no choice and started to climb early so that even if I lagged behind I would not trouble the volunteers much. I didn’t want anyone to realise that I it is my inability to climb and the club should have not enlisted my category of members. I already have been extended the privilege of not carrying my backpack and now I did not want anyone to be deputed for any further assistance. I would not be able to come out of such guilt. I cannot afford it. As I climbed to around 150 ft, Brijesh was already at lead standing at the cliff with my backpack on him. He instructed us to stop where we were and climbed a little further to identify a safe passage for the rest of the group. In the meanwhile we stood on the small protruding platform at the cliff for photographs. I pulled out my Olympus and asked the person following behind me to click a few. These were the last two and then the red indication was final on the screen. I had to compromise for it was my mistake for not having charged the battery. The view of the gorge from the cliff was breathtaking. Naveen advised me not venture further far a deeper view. I quietly retreated.
Brijesh came back calling us to proceed in his direction and we started to climb the rocky edges slowly. The path was not much than four inches to six inches on the edge of the rock but one slip could make you fall right down to fifteen feet initially and then if you still cannot take control, the fall could continue further down the gorge. It was the most difficult episode in the entire trek. Moving my feet carefully I started to crawl firmly placing my fingers into the gaps above inside the layered rock and nothing else to depend on. Step after step I cautiously moved ahead with the encouragement of Brijesh at the other end encouraging, “you can do it, don’t look down” and finally at the last stretch of about ten feet he stretched his hand “come on! You have done it!” At first I thought I could slip away then I surrendered to him clasping his stretching hand with faith. I landed safely.
Now the path leads down the hill with loose soil and shaky boulders the size of a football. Naveen advanced forward and instructed us to climb down one by one. If any person accidentally falls, he may land on the person before him and a collective fall is imminent. Hence moving in close quarters was avoided. I grabbed the small green plants along the path using them for a firm grip and avoiding any fall. A minor slip was unavoidable but holding the plants avoided helped to control my feet and balance the body and I slowly moved forward. One should avoid the dry branches for they inevitably crack on pressure. It is the green plants with starch in their branches and roots holding firmly deep inside the ground that support you. As I swiftly ran to the edge of the landing due to the downward momentum, I heard a huge sound behind that of a falling boulder. “Move!”“Move!” everyone cried and I just ducked behind a large tree at the end and looked back. It was a slip by the person following behind and I was sure he would not have clutched the green plants as the rest have done. The boulder rolled until down but in a direction that no one could be hurt. Learning a lesson, everyone followed the instructions and from then on they came down without any danger. The most adventurous part of the trek ended successfully.
And then again another pool! What a relief! Very few opted a dip, others instead refreshed and stretched to relax. Brijesh stretched on a poly mat and decided to take a nap with the white cloth over him. Naveen and the other guys caught the small fish with their palms and carefully placed them in a pet bottle. The fish were caressing our bodies in a group and the feeling was ticklish and enjoyable and it was so easy to catch them, but they were released into the pool later. Naveen was saying that a comparatively less effective ‘fish therapy’ offered at Chennai would cost in thousands of bucks but we have it here for free. I agreed with him totally enjoying the minor stint. I dipped along others without changing feeling that it was an unnecessary ritual and opted to carry on with my swimming shorts since the Dead End Pool onwards. The floor of the pool was so slippery that I should have fallen down a dozen times, and at every fall my co-trekkers were calling ‘careful! Careful!” Initially it was alarming but slowly I learnt the safe way to land in a fall. The balanced fall came naturally and every time I fell down I enjoyed the gush of cool water over my body.
Reenergised we continued at the call of Naveen. I asked Naveen the length of the balance trek and at what time we would reach the night camp. He looked at me and replied, “Please do not try to make an assessment. The faster you walk the sooner you would reach.” I now understood his intent. He was not giving any room for anyone to fix a time or length of the destination which may later prove disappointing. The mission is to reach the goal before sunset. “A new lesson”, I laughed within me. I was enjoying.
We had to climb again a little on the right side of the stream to avoid water fall which we could not have any view of it from the bank because of the gigantic rocks in the centre of the stream. A few experienced swimmers dared against the advice of Naveen and returned with splendid experience. We climbed down after the short climb and proceeded on the path available on either side of the stream but venturing over the boulders was shorter, saving time. The boulders at this point were larger than what we had crossed earlier in the path. I had purchased the Quechua brand trekking shoes at the recommended shop at Adayar and they were just great holding the grip at the top of the boulders. While passing a stream between long gaps of the boulders at one point, I slipped again and fell in the steam with a loud thug. Brijesh who was a few yards away asked, “Are you Ok?” I affirmed with a shy smile on my face. “Take the second step only after you are sure your first step is firm”, “One step at a time” he guided me for the hundredth time. He continued, “Don’t be hasty for the second step”. “Sure!” I gestured in agreement.
The Ballet on boulders
As we travelled further for about half hour, we heard voices behind us and Naveen said, “It is Peter with the 1st batch”. Soon the two young foreigners came along, whose names I came to know as Eric Courage and Friedhelm. They swiftly crossed us like some kung-fu characters in a Chinese film in a jiffy. One of them was on a sprint in barefoot, shoes in his hand. They disappeared out of the vicinity in seconds. We all stood still watching them in awe wondering if they had any magic feet.
Then came Peter along catching up with us. “How was your Level-2 hike” I asked. ‘Great” he said. He asked me how I was doing and I replied “thoroughly enjoying and no issues” I continued “Brijesh and Naveen made sure I travelled light and organised everything in a fantastic way”. He smiled and we carried along for a few minutes and then I slipped into the stream for the hundredth time again! Peter stopped in his tracks and looked at me concerned. “May be I will slow down a bit and catch up with you later” I pleaded and started to stand upright and fell down again. It was then Peter came forward and offered his hand and holding it I stood up. After I settled and held my ground, he clasped my hand more firm and instructed me “just follow me”. There was hardly any time for preparation from my side, before which I was just pulled and forced to jump over the boulders. We bounced in the air, swaying from boulder to boulder as if tied with ropes like the stunt movies, a ballet I can never forget, like a child remembering my agile and spirited younger days. I just followed the path, step by step without any assessment, passing swiftly past a few youngsters who were in the lead, everything happening in fraction of seconds, without any choice to think, finally reaching a clear and boulder-less pathway. It was like a flawless ballet with impeccable movements and a performance I can never forget. I looked back to estimate the length, not able to, then I was sure I could have saved at least fifteen minutes of my journey time within a few minutes, apart from avoiding further falls in the slippery stream while crossing. Peter released his hold once we reached the clearing. There was no short of breath, neither any sweat, and it was no strain. I beamed with satisfaction and a minute pride. To an extent I could prove fit to Peter, considering my age.
The final lap
After the wonderful experience we came to a place where there was another pool and a further path up the hill on the right side. “Are we not there yet?” I asked Naveen. “We are here” he confirmed “you now have to make this final climb” he pointed his finger to the top. I resigned and sat down. “No problem. Take some rest and then continue” he suggested. “Yeah, sure, I have no choice” I said pathetically. In the meanwhile the rest of the group were pouring in and straight away started to climb the hill without even stopping at the pool.
“Where is Peter?” Sinu the girl who travelled along with Peter enquired. “His bag is here, but he is not here” Naveen said, and before he finished Peter emerged swimming from the far end of the pool. The other end was not visible to estimate the extent of the boundary. He walked towards the bank and then looked at me with concern. I was just sitting on a small rock looking at Naveen with some bitterness assured that even the statement of ‘another fifteen minutes until camp’ should be deceptive. “Well” I said to myself and started to take cue from others. It was then Peter signalled me, “No! Prem you come along with me”. He immediately pulled a thermo bedroll from one of the hiker’s backpack and asked me follow him into the stream. He called Sinu and asked her to secure my cap, watch, and the sunglasses in his backpack. I immediately handed over the items and dipped into the pool with Peter clinging to the thermo bedroll to my chest. As I pedalled, Peter pulled me slowly along with him with only one hand stroking in the water and the other pulling my thermo.
After about twenty to thirty meters travel in the water the sight of the camp slowly came to view. It was the rocks and a small curve that hid the vision of the camp from the clearing at the pool behind, and it was the reason we could not see. The members who already made it to the camp were relaxing at the site and Peter just pushed me with a thrust towards the bank, and I glided to the destination. Peter then swam back to repeat the same exercise with Sinu. I carefully stepped on the bank of rocks and stood up. It was an excellent place to camp, unbelievable that such a sight exists at a near proximity to Chennai. It looked like the mini-Kurtalam falls as some call it. But Peter christened it as ‘The Picnic Pool’
This locale I confirmed to myself as ‘The Gates of Heaven’ which Peter opened to all those who followed him.
The Picnic Pool
Peter named it ‘The Picnic Pool’; but I have every reason to call it ‘The Gates of Heaven’. It was a destination everyone was eager to reach at the end of the day. It is the resting place after a hectic ordeal of trekking. It had a celestial touch as if in mythological story. High above, a steady water flow dribbled silently through a meek cascade without much noise which should be because of summer, and such water flow in mid-summer at this range was unbelievable. I hope Peter would agree with me for re-naming the locale as ‘The Gates of Heaven’.
The description could be from pages of a mythological script as I indicated earlier, for it fulfilled an artist’s imagination which anyone would reckon as only conceived and not factual. It had the poet’s imagination for its description could run to reams. The location was bowl shaped, water falling from two ends and wide platforms of rock which could accommodate not less than a hundred people, and the pool occupying almost half the area. The excess flow from the pool spilled through the rocky platform dividing it into two.
As I moved forward from the bank to the small rocky platform I noted that it had been partitioned by the stream in between from the main platform-like rock. I saw that whoever reached earlier was busily involved in unpacking their backpacks and settling at places occupied for their night rest. Members reserved their resting areas like berths in a train and spread their things to send a message that it is occupied. I started looking for a comfortable area on the main rock.
Some members already jumped into the pool which was the best of all until now. It was considerably deep which can be known by its colour and already a few wasted no time in going for a plunge. I finally located a flat platform having the nearest proximity to the main falls. It was a little lower to the main rock as if chiselled purposefully for a night rest and having the right dimension to accommodate me for the night. As Brijesh reached earlier, I took charge of my backpack and slowly started to organise for the night. First, I changed to dry clothes, hung the wet ones on the branch extending to my spot from the nearest tree, I also placed my shoes upside down for them to dry besides the corner of the bed. Then I checked my camera which clearly indicated a static red rejecting further more snaps, and cursed myself for the umpteenth time for not having charged it. Anyhow I knew that once we return many participants would post their photographs through CTC. I compromised and returned to prepare my bed and the air pillow. “Hello” greeted a member who occupied the spot near me but it was at a level above on a higher platform. “Hi” I responded, “I am Prem”. “I am Radhakrishna” he continued “I know your name” he said. “How is it so?” I asked in surprise. “Everyone speaks of you” he smilingly revealed. “Nothing adverse I suppose” I asked awaiting an embarrassment “Not at all. They speak high of you”, he continued “Everyone is shocked by your participation and eagerness, considering your age”, “what is your age” he cautiously asked. “I am fifty five” I informed him, “and my childhood passion has brought me here, and I dared it only after a gap of forty five years. I should have done earlier”. “I am fifty” he said “I too have this hobby from childhood, inculcated by my father” he further narrated, “I am a regular trekker since 1994”, “But you despite a long gap are doing fine” he concluded. “Thank you” I said.
The dog which was following all along came near me and squat in a pose as if I was its master. I took out the carry bag in which I dumped the food stuff, removed one of the cream buns and ate a portion and the balance I shared with the dog. It did not gesture me for more, but silently slipped into the crowd that who have started settling.
It looked as if all had arrived, and Peter called for firewood to prepare dinner. It had become almost dark but for the silhouette at the top of the mountain edge. It should be nearing 7pm as per my estimate, my watch and other belongings were with Peter and I did not want to trouble him in the dark. Two of the volunteers were given the charge at the beginning of the trek to carry two vessels for the food preparation at camp. “Soup Packets please!!” someone called in the dark, and everyone retrieved the soup packets from their packs and delivered them to the person who volunteered to be the chef for tonight. Within twenty minutes we all queued up for the soup with our bowls. It was very refreshing and tasty, especially because we were in the middle of wild and have no menu card to choose any other recipe. I laughed to myself remembering how much time we spend at the restaurants trying to make a perfect choice, or at the multiplexes trying to finalise our choice from the enumerable stalls offering variety of food. But none of those soups ever tasted better than today’s.
The human ‘want’ does not have limitations; and the satisfaction today has no degree. “Noodle packets please!” another loud call came and quickly everyone passed those packets collected as their share of ration at the beginning of the trek. Naveen came by and advised, “Please have soup and noodles which will give you energy by tomorrow morning”. Actually I wanted to avoid noodles because I had a feeling that the soup had already done the job, but I did not want to face any problem the next morning due to under-nutrition, and contribute unwanted trouble. Tomorrow we need to return in the same route and the same quantum of calories to burn as today. After having noodles, I felt I had more than enough for the day, but in comparison I have consumed less than a third of what I usually have at home. At any point of time during the day I did not fell hungry and most of the ration I had picked up was still available except for the Chapattis which I ate during lunch and shared with others. I also made sure I had an orange before every meal. I wondered that even after such a hectic physical exercise, there was no hunger or eagerness to consume more. I chatted with Radhakrishna for some more time and then we decided to rest; bidding each other good night. Finally, at around 9pm I decided to lie down to retire in my luxurious accommodation in the middle of wild.
The Starry Night
I inflated my air-pillow which I packed in the last minute and it was really comfortable. I carefully sat and stretched myself on the thermo bed, my legs not so flexible and in control. I lied down and rested on by back hoping to slip into a dreamless slumber, but I could not avoid gazing at the clear sky where the stars shone bright like sparkling diamonds and it was the light that illuminated the entire camp in the moonless night. What a luxury!!
The camp was silent as everyone went stone dead exhausted from the hectic expedition. The only sound that we can hear was the water falling from the two sources into the pool. The dribbling from the main fall was more melodious than the other one which was farther in the corner of the bowl, its sound slightly audible. It sounded like a lullaby mesmerising everyone into a deep hypnosis, making them amnesic of whatever they have dealt with today.
My thoughts did not travel far, for the present was more enjoyable and nothing can capture my imagination beyond the beauty before my eyes. I have visited many places in my life and enjoyed many moments, more exotic and more intoxicating, but now I searched my mind why this could dominate all. After hours of research within my own, I found the answer. It is like the farmer who harvests his crop and a portion of it used for his own granary. It would taste the best for him. We have earned this pleasure by negotiating the tough terrain all by ourselves. We have not used jeeps, horses or mules, nor have been relocated by ropeways. The pleasure is self earned and cannot be at all compared with the pleasure of seeing even the mother-of-all falls in the Northern Americas from the famous ropeway or a vessel. This is multifold in rating.
My thoughts consumed most of the night and I started to wonder what could be the time then. A draft of cool air passed as I sat up to locate my mobile in the pack. I switched it on to find out that it was almost 2.30 am. Alarmed that without any physical rest, I might strain myself the next day, I forced myself into sleep with the help of the cool breeze acting as a catalyst.
It slowly dawned, the visibility has come, and I once again switched on the mobile under my pillow only to know that it is just 5.45am. I may have had rested only a few hours, but it was very much sound without any dream disturbing my deep sleep. A few in the camp started to wake and I quickly pulled out my tools to freshen up as early as possible. A few started to enjoy the pool and some still shifting in their beds, reluctant to start the day. Peter walked between the trees from his spot towards me, “Here are your things Prem” he said handing over my watch, sunglasses and the cap. I thanked him and then he looked at the place I had slept last night; “Cool!” he said “you selected the best place in the camp”. “Are you leaving for the Level 2 hike up to the peak as planned?” I enquired him. “I don’t know, as such no one is interested” “some more have to wake up and I shall wait until 7am and see whoever is coming” he replied and left hurriedly to get ready for a plunge in the pool.
Within few minutes one could hear the increased number of splashes in the pool. Peter jumped in and few others more, some with the swimming tube, some jumping from cliffs slightly high above, and others gliding in the water enjoying their dip. Brijesh was still sleeping over the edge of the pool at the half way of the main platform; his white linen covering him and nothing below to cushion from the rocky surface. He slept on the rugged terrain, a comfort which he alone can rate. I remembered him saying that he never carried any backpack for he never cared to bring any luggage; which means he never at mercy to any modern comforts except for whatever is offered by nature. Suddenly his simplicity radiated a million messages, he would never agree if I related to any similarities of enlightened souls. In my opinion he shall reach great heights in whatever profession he is in, that’s for sure, and it is here clearly demonstrated right in front of our eyes. Peter slowly pedalled toward him, caught the ankles of his feet which were accessible form the edge of the bank, and pulled them towards him into the pool, and Brijesh glided on his back into the water, instantly making strokes and without any resistance, kick starting his day with a refreshing swim. Whoever was witnessing the scene roared into splits of laughter. They all played and enjoyed in the pool, swimming from one end to the other and from time to time taking a shower below the dribbling falls.
The call came for tea packets and whoever possessed them passed on to the stop-gap chef who brewed tasty hot tea within minutes. I took a bowl full and returned to my place enjoying the hot potion sip by sip. Eric came along, “Good Morning!” he wished, and I wished him in return. “You have successfully made it. Congratulations!!” he said with a big smile. I spontaneously replied, “I totally mismanaged with my backpack, and had Brijesh not volunteered, I would have been a real liability” I confessed. “No problem! But still you made it good. You sure have stamina” he eyes searching for something on the ground. “Here it is, a perfect place, very flat like a tablet” he positioned himself for exercises. “I need to do some stretching, and this is a perfect place” saying he bent and started sweating it out. Later he left for the pool. Eric and Christine also took the plunge in the main pool and after some time ventured into the smaller pool at the other end. They were thrilled by the beauty of the smaller pool and cried to others to join. Meanwhile Sinu also joined the party and prepared herself for a daring jump from a height upon the right side wall, two experienced swimmers assembled on alert to help her after the plunge at the signal of Naveen.
I changed into the dried up swim suit and preferred to take support of a swim tube and headed to the bank. I entered the pool from the rocky bank and spent almost half hour exploring all corners of the pool. Despite having plunged in all the pools yesterday, the enjoyment in the present pool was outstanding and incomparable. It was like home and unforgettable.
As I returned to my quarters, Radhakrishna was preparing himself for the swim. “You had tea?” I enquired. “No” he replied. “Then you should have tea before you go into the water” I suggested. He immediately sped with his bowl and by that time they were already collecting further noodle packets for breakfast. After a few minutes Peter yelled, “Whoever is coming for the climb to the Peak please get ready in five minutes”, and the interested members started forming. After the deadline Peter called the adventurers to follow him towards the narrow path uphill and few others swam across the pool towards the fall and started scaling the slippery rock behind the fall itself. They all disappeared in a few minutes informing they would return by 9.30 am.
Before leaving for the Peak, Peter cautioned Naveen asking him to watch whoever is venturing into the pool, and accordingly he was on alert with himself in the pool. Naveen gave his first announcement that whoever was slow should start by 8.30 am and the rest can begin their return journey by 9 am. The announcement was for people like me, and immediately I completed packing my backpack. I took with me the aluminium water bottle which I bought at the ‘Wildcraft’; it had a convenient latch to lock with the lops of my thin pants. I ripped open the Glucose packet and spilled half the powder into the bottle. It is the only source I am depending today for keeping me going, also the Electrol which I inserted in the pant pocket. For a moment, I stood still and a strange fear enveloped me instilling a doubt whether I can make it as good as yesterday. I pulled my laces and thanked my shoes for the marvellous support it had also given me yesterday, and stood up to start off.
“You may leave your bag Prem” Naveen called from a distance “Brijesh will carry it. No problem”. He was standing at the far end making an assessment of the group under his supervision. I left my backpack at the centre of the main platform so that Brijesh could never miss it. I felt that if at all Brijesh cursed me, I deserved it, but I was sure that I will not return to civilisation in one piece within the sunset if I have to carry the bag. I felt convinced that the Brijesh sacrifice would be a better option than the liability I would impose on the entire team. I started off clearing off my guilt convinced with the theory of my own.
The return Journey
The previous night I voiced my apprehension to Naveen whether I would be able to overcome all those hurdles while returning. My only doubt was whether I could continue the second day with similar timing I had shown on the 1st day. The strength would drain and confidence could be beaten with strain.
I was dropped by a volunteer in yesterday’s fashion, from ‘The Picnic Poll’ to the last clearing by waterway. With shoes around my neck I managed to reach safely. After wearing my shoes I started off, and in the meanwhile Naveen appeared climbing down the hill. I started hopping and jumping on the boulder path from thereon. Naveen assigned Divesh at the initial stint to watch over me showing the pathway until the Gorge. Divesh was very kind and slowed down whenever I could not keep his pace. I managed to cover as fast as I could and after some time it was Muthu who accompanied me keeping an eye and assisting me where ever I could not dare over the larger boulders or skid in the slippery streams. Today I should have fallen more times into the stream while crossing than the number of times the day before.
By the time we reached the Gorge, Peter and his Level-II hikers were almost behind us. Brijesh and others reached the spot while we were resting. “How was your early morning adventure?” I eagerly enquired “Fantastic!” he replied “take anything from your bag if you need” he suggested. I told him there was nothing for me take, for I decided to eat lesser today than the day before. Instead I gulped frequently the water from my aluminium bottle mixed with glucose from time to time. The glucose recipe was more effective than anything I can imagine for the moment. I looked up to the climb towards the loose soil and boulders. Naveen was already accompanying the group giving instructions while climbing. “You can take rest Prem, there is time and come along with Peter’s group” he advised and left towards the slope.
Meanwhile Brijesh and others were engrossed in a discussion sitting on a large platform shaped boulder. “Don’t lag behind” he warned turning towards me. “No, I shall come along with you” I said looking at the steep climb. “No. Peter and we are going down the falls by ropes and you have to follow the other going before you” he declared. Having no choice I ran to fall in line with others and quickly started towards the slope.
“Naveen” I cried out loud so that he could hear if he was still on the way to the cliff. There was no response, but I started gathering all my will and courage to climb it alone. I remembered the support of the green plants and accordingly succeeded to the top. After I reached the clearing a little further I could hear voices. I shouted again for Naveen, and moved further with a doubt whether I was on the right path or not. After reaching the top I could see Naveen helping the couple to cross the edgy rock over the gorge. “Yes sir, we are here” he said. Relieved I approached the slender path which I rated yesterday as the most critical. But the ordeal was over within seconds today to my surprise and I wondered whether it was the mental state that made it easier today. Actually I apprehended disaster with reference to my abilities today, but my fears overcame now. We climbed down slowly not letting the body weight disturb the soil below which could make way for a fall. I succeeded with Naveen’s guidance landing with ease and we all started again. The journey resumed and I observed that many were in a hurry to reach early to return to their homes. The pace was much quicker than the day before. We finally reached ‘the Dead End Pool’. By that time Radhakrishna caught up with us. “How was the morning hike” I asked inquisitively. “Fantastic!” he replied “great view from the top”.
Just like yesterday, Naveen was organising the transport of the backpacks and shoes with a few volunteers to the other side of the bank and he was helping the members to cross the boulders with the support of another set of volunteers. “I suggest you go through the water instead of crossing the boulders” Radhakrishna suggested. “I came through the water yesterday too, but only until the second boulder” I informed him. He then pointed out to the deep pool below and said that it was very deep and I could cross with the help of tubes and assistance of a good swimmer. I agreed immediately after experiencing the episode with Peter yesterday, but the difference was that now I needed to jump from a height of ten to twelve feet. I decided to dare. Immediately removed my shoes along with other items and handed over for safe transfer. I was given a colourful tube to wear. With the assistance of Radhakrishna I slided a few feet down to reduce the length of the fall and then jumped with a leap towards the water avoiding hitting against the cliff walls. No sooner I surfaced after the splash, I was pulled by my swimming companion and he slowly pulled me with one hand. At the half way, I volunteered that I could manage to the bank for I had become familiar with the exercise.
The News of Accident
My apprehension early in the morning was wrong, I was more at ease in the adventurous parts than yesterday, but the exhaustion was immense. My body demanded rest frequently and I gulped the glucose water from time to time until it was used up completely, then I mixed the Electrol into my aluminium water bottle. This could be because of the short sleep I had last night, alternatively it could also be merely a state of mind.
At the bank of the Dead End Pool, most of us sat on the rocks and pulled out some eatables for lunch. I was surprised that my bag reached without Brijesh and I quickly pulled out the carry bag where I stored my share of the ration. I chose to have only two Teplas and I handed over the rest along with other eatables in the carry bag to Naveen to distribute it to whoever was short of food. I told him confidently that the two Teplas for me will do for the day. I chewed the tasty Teplas and washed it down with the Electrol water. As I finished my lunch I looked up to find that Eric Courage and Friedhelm were swiftly passing the Dead End Pool walls scaling them with skills we could never imagine. They sped with their bare feet but at a slightly lower velocity than yesterday. To me they looked like some flying dragons in a Chinese caper, with unbelievable movements. One of them shouted “Peter and others are held back. One of the guys had an accident while jumping and fractured his ankle. Someone asked with concern, “Who is the guy who met the accident?” “We do not his name” they replied and they disappeared after the announcement. Immediately there were discussions among all wondering who the accident victim was. But they had no clue.
Naveen got concerned knowing that Peter would not make it in time, for he would be involved in organising the transporting of the wounded person safely until the village where we parked our vehicles. “Guys, now we need to reach the Dam fast before it is dark. Peter will be late.” He instructed all who were ready to start off immediately and he made sure he assigned a group leader to organise the stretch so that no one would be lost in the wrong directions. “Be careful and do not proceed from the point where there the stream divides. Wait for me at that point” He instructed the fist group leader who was leaving with his batch.
Radhakrishna also completed his crossing of the Dead End Pool and he signalled me that we could also start off trailing the previous group. On the way our discussion mostly consisted of the wounded person, and he was narrating me how Peter would take the maximum care in safely bringing him to the destination. “Peter is an extraordinary person” he continued “and has a passion for the adventures”. “He plans everything after he himself tests the terrain along with a few of the experienced members” he informed. “And when it comes to the regular trek, he involves everyone especially the regular guys to organise food, transport, etc” Radhakrishna continued “I have taken part in Peter’s CTC treks many times but this is the best”. Eric and Christine were behind us overhearing our conversation “I too have never experienced such a thrilling trek’” he declared “We are thrilled”. “And congratulations to you” he looked at me “you made it and it’s just great”. I clarified it to him, “I wouldn’t have come farther than the first pool if Brijesh had not volunteered to carry my backpack” not wilfully accepting his praise.
Return to base
We reached the first pool, and then the final lap came. Naveen instructed all to take out the flashlights from the bags and keep them handy for it would dark in another half hour. Everyone said we could reach before the estimated time, but I doubted. I frequently rested to grasp my breath for all were striding at a different pace hurrying to reach the vehicles before it was too dark. “You don’t worry sir, you can rest” said Sinu who caught up with us from behind “we have plenty of time” she advised with concern. It was comforting compared with the strict instruction Naveen passed. I sat down until I was ready. In fact Naveen was right, which I found out after sometime when it became dark and we had to slow down the stride. The coverage of distance became almost half of what make in daylight, apart from the possibility of losing the right path was very much imminent.
My torchlight was in my backpack which someone was carrying, because Brijesh stayed back to help the transportation of the wounded member. Radhakrishna gave his torch to me, “keep it sir, I can manage” he volunteered. I thanked him and strode behind him. Some faint information about the accident came in. The name of person who met the accident was Vijay Kumar; his injury occurred when he jumped from a high cliff into the water; and that Peter and three others made some sort of arrangement with the branches and ropes they had and were carrying him, Brijesh being one of them. “They could trail four hours behind” everyone said. We felt sorry for the agony Vijay Kumar would be experiencing and all praise for Peter and the three others who were carrying him.
Before we reached the Dam, Naveen stalled all the members of the first batch at a clearing and took a head count; satisfied, he let everyone move in a line carefully searching the path in front with the torchlight. I started accompanied by Vivek as Radhakrishna was ahead guiding in the dark those who were first timers to this range. Vivek was vey inquisitive to know why I had dared to take this adventure, and I narrated my story from school days. He listened to my narration with interest and we talked about many vacations that I had enjoyed all my life right from my school days. We could hardly see our faces in the dark but our discussion went so intense as if we knew each other for ages.
As we came close to the Dam, we could see that all have already assembled at the top of the Dam waiting for us. We were the last. We got stuck in a slushy path and were unable to place our footing properly. As we struggled, Naveen sent Divesh back to help us and he guided us through the dry area. The final climb was the Dam, and I could scale it without effort because of the rough stony slope and with the support of Vivek and Divesh.
“You made it sir” Naveen congratulated me in the dark. “Of Course, with all your support” I gave him the credit. Al were sitting tiredly on the Dam worried about what had happened back there and when would Peter and party return. Soon within minutes we could see flashlights glowing at a distance near the Temple and Naveen confirmed it was Peter. “Ok guys, let us climb down to the other side and reassemble at the parking” he instructed and we all started to move. By the time we reached the bottom of the bund, one of the Tempo van came near the end of the road to pick us and drop at the parking. We jumped into the van like school children searching for comfortable seats.
The van dropped us at the parking, but I had to wait for my bag to change into dry clothes. All had assembled and there was a lot of noise as everyone was organising himself to depart. The accounts person called requesting if anyone is yet to make his initial payment of Rs 500, and also asking for any accounts of purchases made for food etc. A few minutes later the accounts were finalised and it was decided that an extra Rs 150 was receivable per head. Everyone paid the extra Rs 150 in an organised manner. In the meanwhile my bag reached me to the parking lot, and I quickly located my wallet and paid my extra share of expenses, and after a while I was repaid Rs 1000/- for my car diesel which I was informed was the slab fixed for any car.
I removed my shoes and changed to dry clothes and enquired who were coming along with me. I found that those who came along with me on Saturday morning had already left by bus and there were two new members now, including Radhakrishna. As we dumped the luggage into the boot and were getting ready, Peter arrived in the Tempo van which shuttled back to the Dam to pick him up. Everyone gathered around him enquiring about Vijay Kumar to which he patiently replied as he prepared to take out his Fortuner to pick up Vijay Kumar and others who were waiting at the Dam.
I too approached him and enquired about Vijay Kumar and felt sorry for him. We then bid him goodbye, and as I shook his hand I thanked him for permitting me to participate in this wonderful adventure. I also revealed, “This is not a trek Peter, it has more impact than a management workshop, and I promise to send you a write-up on this”. “Yes, it is better substitute for the youth than to hang out at Bars and Multiplexes” he smiled and requested “please do send me the write-up, I will look forward to it, and it would be a great motivation to all:”. I once again thanked him before bidding a final goodbye.
The final drop
We were five returning in my car and all of them requested me to drop them at Koyembedu, and I obliged willingly. We had some parotas and dosas at a shabby restaurant on the way before we sped off to Chennai. Except for Radhakrishna all the three in the back seat slipped into deep slumber and we could hear the snoring in full throttle. I and Radhakrishna chatted all the way back about our families, profession and mutual interests before we reached the destination drop, having no measure of the time we spent in the return drive.
All the four thanked me for the drop and bid me goodnight and I then sped to my home which is another 10 km away, and despite the hectic weekend I was surprised to find that I was not at all tired to the extent that I may fall asleep at the steering.
Satisfied that I have made the best use of my weekend I was very glad that I had dared in the first instance. I would not have had this invaluable experience if Peter had not shortlisted me in the first place; if Brijesh had not taken up the burden of my disorganised backpack; if Naveen had not given me special attention all the way; and all those youngsters Divesh, Muthu, Sinu, and many others whose names I could not remember now those were compassionate towards me; and the warm company of Radhakrishna .
It was not just a thrilling weekend as one would see it from a distance; it was a seminar on personality development; it was a nothing less than a religious discourse preaching that service to humanity is service to God ; it was apresentation on leadership qualities; it was a workshop on unified power; it was also an awareness program on environmental preservation. It was a package conceived and rendered by Peter not as a professional activity but as a mission to mould the youth cleverly using the expeditions and programs as tools. Just as the parent attracts his one year old child by extending a toffee while encouraging him to take the right steps forward, Peter plans these ‘trekking expeditions’, the ‘beach-cleaning’ programs, the contributions to ‘child orphanage homes’ to infuse the most valuable qualities into the youth who could lead to correct the social errors that have been multiplying without any check.
If one could see the way I had seen and make a little effort to tread the path Peter guides, then it is not necessary to seek shelter in holy texts and visit holy places; for the following the path shown by Peter itself is ‘the most blessed pilgrimage’. Hence I decided to respect Peter’s act of naming the pool at the night camp as ‘the Picnic Pool’ and borrow the name I had given ‘The Gates of Heaven’ to the path shown by him. It is not only St.Peter who holds the keys to the Gates of Heaven; but also our Peter Van Geit in flesh and blood who can give you a real experience throwing ‘The Gates of Heaven’ wide open to one and all who reach him.
(A few precious pages from the diary of P.Prem Kumar)