Sunday, December 28, 2008

Back where I belong!

I guess it was a fairly crazy thing to do. But then, I am known for doing crazy things. So there I was, sitting at home, 1 hour after reaching Pune, wondering what to do. Yes, an hour after reaching Pune after 3 months. Sad :P So then, I decided to do the only thing I can in such situations - go for a nice, long trek. My old company chaps had arranged a rock climbing and rappeling expedition to Alang and Madan, 2 forts to the north of Pune, near the city of Nashik.
Starting the climb : The eastern skies light up

Alang, Madan and Kulang were 3 of the toughest forts of the Sahyadris, with tiring, steep climbs and perilious rock faces to negotiate. I had fond memories of Kulang and Alang. I'd spent New Year's eve, 2004-05 on Kulang, after traveling all night, walking all morning for around 10 kms due to lack of transport to the base, and then doing the 6-7 hour steep base-to-top climb, all with the sun on my back. It was well worth it though, and the experience for the next few days was unforgettable. Oh, those memories...

Madan, however, had eluded me for a while. It has a bit of a rock patch which cannot be negotiated without technical equipment. I was close to doing it for 2 years with Trek'Di, my old company, but something or the other had come up at the last moment.

So there I was, sitting in the bus at 11 with a bunch of 30 odd similarly crazy outdoor freaks. I didn't sleep much in the night, discussing everything from the state of the automobile industry to CAT to life in the IIMs to engineering with Tarini, who had the misfortune of being beside me and then choosing to be with me for the rest of the trek! I think Trek'Di will ensure that I sit in a single seat the next time time round, lest I scare away more of their customers ;)

Morning came with us in Ambewadi, the village at the base of Alang fort. The 3 forts stood tall to the South, lit golden yellow by the rising sun. After a not-so-quick tea outside the village, we set off. I love steep climbs, the no nonsense part of it really appeals to me. Sure, it stretches you cardiovascularly, but it takes you up quickly, and I prefer that to slow ascents. By late morning, we'd reached the base of the rock face.

After a few hours of climbing and traversing scree-clad ledges with a couple of thousand feet drops alongside, we reached the top of Madan. There's something smug about the Madan summit. It sits pretty there, between Alang and Kulang, both with vast summits, which take atleast a couple of hours to get around, but which are shorter than Madan.
Left : The vastness of Alang Right : Moi, but a minuscule molecule in front of it.

After a quick dumping of my sack in the caves, I rushed to the top-most point of Madan. There are plenty of large rocks here to perch on and dangle your feet into the nothingness below. The setting sun casts a warm glow on our faces, as people leave their chores and climb to the summit for the sunset. It's a fantastic spot, although how beautiful it is will become apparent only the next morning. The sun sets, and the temperature dips rapidly, making me wish that I'd not forgotten my jacket in the cave below. Shivering, I head back to the caves.

Left : At the Madan Summit Right : View from the top

Its such an amazing feeling, having nothing to do at all at such a beautiful place. You are almost on the top of the world and there's nobody else to bother about. Nothing else matters. The sky has lit up with millions of stars, there is a soft breeze blowing. A jacket keeps me comfortable as I sit on the top of the cave, watching the goings-on below. The call for dinner comes, and we reluctantly head down. Back to the roof-top afterwards, the sky is too beautiful to stay away from. It's got colder though, and the warmth of the sleeping bag is too tempting to continue staying up here. Sleep overpowers me instantly, although the ground is hard and uneven and rocky and dusty.

An alarm rings at 5. Time to head to the summit for the sunrise, although its an hour away. The short climb immediately after waking up leaves me huffing and puffing, and the comfortable rocks at the top are a welcome site.

Right & Below : Sunrise at Madan top

We sit there, watching the surroundings in awe. It's not yet dawn, not even false dawn. It's night, complete and proper. We can't see anything, not Alang, not Kulang, not the caves below except for the suffused glow of the torches inside; the group leaders waking up to make tea and breakfast. Above us are millions of stars again, albeit different ones. A stiff wind is blowing. The silence is like a shock, the complete lack of noise other than that made by the wind is a treat to the senses. Sometimes, nothingness feels like it is so much! There is absolutely nothing and yet there's everything, nothing to see except for a sky full of stars, nothing to hear other than the steady wind playing with the grass, nothing to feel other than the coarse rocks beneath us, nothing to smell other than the faint fragrance of I-dunno-what which makes the mountains what they are. In our busy city lives, our senses are literally assaulted, and yet we don't feel, remember, cherish or value anything. It's when you get them in such carefully measured proportions that you realize how fantastic an experience each one of them can be. I loved it, the simple pleasure of watching a brilliant star-lit sky, without the sickly yellow glow of city-lights, the soothing fragrance of a night in the mountains, the feel of the breeze on my hands. Life can be so simple, and yet so incredible at times! Everything else seemed history, irrelevant. This was me, this was the present, this was life. Nothing before, nothing after. One moment at a time. To be felt, enjoyed and forgotten to the fullest. To be lived the way life deserves to be lived. Who knew, while doing the traverse on the way back, who knew for sure that I'd place my feet where they should be put. Who knew whether I wouldn't slip and lose my balance and just roll down. Why bother about things that might never happen... Why do I realize these things so easily when in the outdoors and so quickly forget them when I go back to my 'life'?

The faint outline of Alang started becoming visible to the east. Along with the first light of dawn, rose the moon, a mere thin crescent, a day away from nothingness. It was brilliant, the eastern skies turning from black to a dull brownish yellow to a bright orange, with the moon just above it. It was an enrapturing sight, and we watched it in awe. Conversation was surperfluous, and an insult to the celestial magic being weaved. I wish those moments froze in time...

The sun soon came up, and along with it, the rest of the members of the group. The Madan summit felt completely different in the morning, beautiful, but in a different way. After sitting there for a while and soaking in the sun, I descended down reluctantly.

Bags packed and all ready, we started the descent. The day's walk was not long, but time-consuming, as we had to first descend Madan and then ascend Alang, which also had a rock patch. After much loafing around at the base of the Alang rock face, waiting for the outdoor experts to fix things up, we reached the top.

It's a sunny, albeit cold morning!

A quick dumping of sacks in the caves, and we were off for the water tanks, which were a good 10-15 minute walk above the caves. A quick climb took us to the top of the caves, after which we went through the ruins of the forts, broken down walls of houses, the last remnants of a forgotten era.

Alang has 1 construction on top which still has a bit of it's old glory. It's a largish house, with its outside walls almost entirely intact. The walls are made of large basalt bricks, uneven and coarse, yet giving the feeling of solidness which nothing else would. It has a beautiful window on the South-western side, which, when seen from inside, frames the far corner of the fort nicely. After a bit of a photo session there, we headed to the hillock towards the south, with a flag at its summit. Beyond that, however, was another hillock, quite far away, and a few minutes on the uncomfortable flag-wala hillock convinced Tarini and me to go for the one further on. The distant hillock held promises of a smooth, grassy top, and looked like a nice place to watch the sun going down.

A bit of a walk, and we were there. The grass was tall, yet comfy, and the view, fantastic as usual. Tarini found a packet of a groundnuts somewhere in the hundred-odd things she was carrying around, and hey, we had salted groundnuts too!

It was a completely different atmosphere, yet, again ethereal. It's incredible how nature can be so simple and yet so beautiful, so easily. The skies were blue, the yellowing-but-still green grass was looking brilliant in the evening light. Tiny yellow flowers grew randomly in the grass. Madan looked tall yet lonely, far, far away. An eagle played with the drafts, diving, soaring, gliding, a little tweak of a feather here, a sudden flapping of wings there, sublime and majestic. Small yellow lights started lighting up the distant town of Igatpuri, where I'd spent a fortnight in the near past, although it now felt like a lifetime ago. I was staring, gawking, lost in the overpowering beauty of the place. Money, a good career, power, they all seem so frivolous, so useless, so lacking in the ability to give me a real high. What did it all mean, if it kept me away from all this? This was me, this is me, this is where I am happy, this is where I can be myself, toss my head back and smile from the heart and be glad and thankful to the maker for life and its simpler and yet so much more magnificent pleasures. Yet, I knew, tomorrow I had to go back, back into a world which, in all possibility, will take me far away from this. Yet, that did not bother me, for once, for a change, after a long, long time, I was living in the present, completely soaked in it. Life, I thought, could get stuffed.

Despite the fears of going back, I knew that I knew what it took for me to feel happy, to feel content. I hope that wherever I am, if the chips were really down, I could come back here, there and in so many of my favourite places in the Sahyadris, and feel good again. As much as I look forward to going to Germany this summer for my summer internship job, I think there's nothing which can hold a candle to some of the spots in the Sahyadris.

Fort Madan, seen from Alang

The sun dipped behind the range of mountains in front. We got up and started on the long walk back, past the first hillock, past the big ruin, past the water tanks, and on. Then, we had to look around a bit, I wasn't sure about where the first ruins exactly. If there's one thing which rarely lets me down, it's my sense of direction, and sure enough, I found them, and down we went, to the warmth, darkness and comfort of the caves. A superb day, with the sunrise at the Madan summit, and the sunset from the far corners of Alang.

An early dinner, and sleep beckoned again. Tomorrow it would all end, like I was going to wake up from a pleasant dream and go about facing life again.

5 am, and again we head out for a walk. Climbing to the summit was out of the question today, it was too much of a climb early in the morning, in the dark. So we headed down to another water tank near the spot we climbed up from. Dawn seemed to come quicker today, and soon we headed back to the cave, for breakfast and tea.

The last descents and walks of a trek really get to me. There is this growing sense of despondency and helplessness, as I come to terms with the fact that it is going to end soon. Most of these descents end with a hot, dusty, boring walk across miles of open country which also does not help matters. Anyway, as it is most of the times, there was little choice, and soon we reached Ambewadi again, where they'd managed to, remarkably, concretize most of the village roads in the 3 days we were gone. After a late lunch, we stuffed ourselves into the bus again, and headed back home.

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