Saturday, March 28, 2015

At the foot of the Shivalik range

As the car pulls into the camp, a flurry of black and brown activity catches my attention. We are a long way from the main road and quite deep into the forest. To my great respite, two of the camp’s faithful aides arrive just in time to greet us. Meeting Leo and Kaalu, two of the four dogs at the camp, ensures that my cramped muscles have enough to stretch about as they sniff out at my clothes and bags. Satisfied, they lead me to the dining area where the owner of the camp, Sunil Gupta, awaits. The journey has been a short six-hour drive but the last one hour has taken its toll. “The Shimla road is still under construction. Once completed we can expect another half-an-hour reduced in travelling,” he says. For now, I need the comfort of a bed and a nice shower.

Riverside retreat

A small stream runs through the camp. At its deepest, it is about five ft but makes a worthy attraction for birds, animals and reptiles. A baby monitor lizard, for example, gets quite upset when I absent-mindedly walk into its spot for the night. It is, after all, too late in the evening to walk around without a local member from the camp. Suzie, the camp’s white Labrador, jumps ahead of me causing the creature to scamper off only to look back quite menacingly. Suzie is undaunted by the threat and after a few more growls, returns to guide me along the stream. Her confidence inspires me and I follow her on. Soon, we come across a meadow most beautiful with a carpet of thousands of tiny blue and yellow wild flowers where Suzie offers me a stone she’s picked up from the river bed and sits back, waiting for me to hurl it to a distance so she can fetch it back for me. I oblige the dear thing and sit back to gaze at the wonderous charm of a place so tantalisingly close to the city and yet untouched by everything it represents.

I have my fill of the mountain air and decide to walk back to the comfort of the camp. Back at the camp, preparations are on for the evening campfire. I sit back to enjoy the sight of the last rays of the evening sun shimmering the top of the pine trees. Almost an hour later, we are told that the guest who had gone towards the meadow just after me spotted a leopard by the stream. A prominent shiver runs down my spine.

Starlight and bonfire

The sun has set and the cold wind makes us huddle close to the bonfire with snacks. With a leopard on the prowl, the natural drift of the conversation veers towards encounters of a wild kind. “We occasionally have monkeys visiting the camp but a few months ago when one of their babies was picked up by one of our dogs, it became quite an ugly scene. They do not venture close to the camp anymore,” informs Gupta. “Of course, we also hear a lot about the leopard that preys on cattle and dogs in this area but I haven’t seen it and I believe that the noise and sound from the camp keeps it at bay.” A log breaks noisily in the fire startling all of us into silence. It is now that I notice the voices of the creatures of the night, the bright shiny stars and a moonless sky. At the same time, I have to admit that I get a bit scared as soon as the feeling of being watched by a hungry predator comes to my mind. Sensing my apprehension, the camp organisers decide to take me for a short night drive to admire the forest in the dark. It is comforting to know that I will be inside the car all the while and I am happy to find only the sight of a few mountain hare. The surprise comes on our way back to the camp when the car stops suddenly in the middle of the road. The first few minutes are frightening but the beauty of the stars, glittering to their own tunes in the silence of the forest, is breath-taking.

Adventure galore

The following morning, I wake up to paradise. It is still the early hours of the morning when I head for a round of the camp. A range of activities are lined up for me that day and I want to know what I am signing up for. After breakfast, we head for the first obstacle course — the Burma bridge. It may sound childish but it’s not child’s play, especially if you take growing up too seriously. The only other adventure I indulge in is rappelling over the stream. Once through, I hardly find time to catch my breath before I am led to the impressive display of a five-course adventure spree that children and corporates visiting the camp keep coming back for.

By lunch time, I have a clear idea of the amount of exercise I need to get the stamina to keep up with such an adventure course. But there is more. As I proceed to check out of the camp and bid adieu to my four furry friends, I am told that the journey back would start with a visit to a local temple. This ancient temple is hardly anything to see from outside. As we climb up at the stairs, I find it no different from thousands of other such hill shrines accessed by a flight of stairs. It is only when I reach the top that I realise why the organisers have chosen this particular temple for a visit. An elaborate underground cave system lies before me.

Compared to the other caves that I have seen, this one is formed not by water cutting through the porous portion of the rocks but by years of sedimentation of particles brought in by the water. Leaving the comfort of sunlight behind, we dunk, bent only at the hip and soon on all fours, to the bottom of the cave. It is here that the sage Bhrigu is believed to have meditated for years on Lord Shiva. A small pool of fresh mountain water lies at one end along with a host of rock idols which the locals believe to be crafted by Gods. The cave system also heads upwards from the entrance and the more adventurous ones can relish the experience. On our way back, we stop at one of the greenhouses that are being used to promote horticulture in the region. I walk around soaking in the small joys of such a blissful life when a bunch of fresh colourful carnations is gifted to me. At that instant I know, this is more than just another summer romance with the mountains.

Copyright: Exotica, the wellness and lifestyle magazine from The Pioneer Group, available in all rooms of select five-star hotel chains across the country

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