Walking in the Himalaya offers the pleasure of a constant flirtation with epiphany, learns Jennifer Nandi
A stream en route to Didana from Loharjung
A morning of magic greets us. Arrogant blue skies goad us onwards. The rugged hill road from the village leads us past an anarchy of rampant secondary growth that stretches into the valley below. This riot of plant and animal life owes its fecundity to hillsides that once supported lush forests of oak and rhododendron. Sandstone country with its covering of alluvium and glacial clays evidently suited oaks and rhododendron allowing them to grow to glorious maturity. But the oak trees were much harvested to supply the British Naval construction of the 18th century.
Sporadic secondary growth of oak and rhododendron dot the higher hills and if you closed your eyes you could hear a Blue-capped Rock Thrush pouring out its rather monotonous undulating and fluty song. It is easily identifiable being the only rock thrush with a white patch on the wing. And if you look closely enough you can see the contrasting cobalt-blue throat. The largest of the rock thrushes, the Chestnut-bellied, is common enough, perched high up on tall trees, sometimes slowly jerking its tail up and down and on occasion uttering its softer and more subdued song.
A Blue-capped Rock Thrush showing off the ‘mirrors’ on its wings
Sometimes, when you close your eyes, you see more clearly. Look with your ears and you will capture the different ribbons of rhythm. Clocks and calendars are ways we have invented to measure time. But nature goes by more intricate measures and rhythms. These so-called biological clocks govern periods as diverse as the customary time of day that a bird will begin to sing, a flower will open, or a lizard will court its female. Sunning themselves on the rocky substrate are several individuals of the Kashmir Rock Agama, the males sporting a dark blue chest.
Kashmir Rock Agamas
Black-throated Tits throng the thickets of barberry that hug the path down to the village of Kuling. They share the spring orchestra with other Green-backed and Black-lored Tits. Rapid undulating musical notes from Verditers give us a kind of aural gooseflesh. The little gems, attired in brilliant turquoise blue with a streak of kajal drawn through the eyes, attract attention by conspicuously perching on exposed branches all the better to sally forth to glean insects.
The village of Kuling from where we must descend into the valley below is in a festive mood. A wedding is taking place and everyone revels in common delight in each other’s well-being. Young boys hover around us like unhived bees but their mood is one of full-bellied joviality.
The stream which we must now cross on our upward climb towards the village of Didana is a feeder stream of the Bedni, its source yet two days of hard walking away. We take a snack break and Satish pulls out the sattu made from roasted, powdered channa dal. We stir in the shakkar, add water and relish the goo.
The mountainside beyond the stream bears a more scantily-clad aspect. The forest opens up to reveal Stripe-throated and Whiskered Yuhinas, Ultramarine Flycatchers and Striated Laughing Thrushes. We train our binoculars and breathe in deep swathes the colour of nature’s tiny expressions. We try to internalize these treasured moments of life which, when later remembered, will embellish a pretty postcard scene.
Black-throated Tit in pine forest
Black clouds assemble in the west. We must hurry if we are to beat the rain. Our party breaks up. Sahastra dispatches Bijoy, Satish and Devidutt, our guide, on ahead to ready the tents. The campsite is a little way beyond the village of Didana and we have yet another couple of hours of uphill climb.
With each measured step I thought of how trekking in the Himalaya offered release from the long sentence of the ordinariness of life in the city. On the berm of that thought, I saw a blur of movement. I turn to view it from a rock jutting out of the hillside offering itself as the perfect vantage point. There it is, right in front. A Fire-tailed Sunbird pouring out its trill. We watch this little furnace of concentration wildly rocking from side to side — its long, scarlet pennant waving, a little tempest raging in its metallic purple throat, and the bright yellow belly robbing the late afternoon of its glow. We laugh at this small bundle of such large enthusiasms capable of exhausting our entire vocabulary of admiring expressions.
A large tree offers shade to a herd of goats
Can’t this count as a miracle? Can’t this provide warmth and bring joy to the aesthetic senses? Don’t such moments provide a pervasive sense of congruence within oneself and also with the world? Why do we misapply our senses to the artificial of the superficial world and so deplete their vigour? I dream of no heaven. My heaven lies about me. These are the dynamic memories that I will weave into stories to tell my grandchildren.
The path deteriorates into slush. We are tired after over eight hours of walking. And we are hungry. We stop at a natural spring, walled with stone, confining it to flow under village control. Most often, natural springs bubble up at the junction of permeable and impermeable formations – clays and many igneous rocks being the commonest. We cast around for a forktail but instead find a bird in forktail dress, minus the long tail, motionless and quiet. We plough into our field guide and look under the Zoothera thrushes. And there we see it – a passing resemblance to this beauty all clad in black and white with yellowish bill and legs, a white supercilium with white on the wings, white bars on the rump, a white belly with some barring in black on the flanks.
Here we are, reading a spring, at the base of a silent village whose inhabitants enjoy the festivities of a wedding lower down in the valley. We are very focused now, looking through the lens of the binoculars. It is a drastic constricting of one’s field of vision. For the present moment, it is in this way that we perceive the world. The vividness of what we see remains in the circle of perception. Our consciousness is heightened while everything else simply falls away. The sight of this new addition to our life-list of birds triggers the release of endorphins. We savour the flow of the pleasure molecules of the body and experience a reversal of mood. We look about to determine the direction of the campsite. Paths criss-cross in all different directions. There is no sign of the rest of our party. We make feeble attempts at calling. Then give up. The opiates of the body keep our spirits up. It enhances our ability to think flexibly. It makes it easier to find solutions. And so we choose the uppermost path as the most likely one to our campsite.
And we are right!
The campsite at Didana
Amidst lopped oak trees decades of usage has converted the clearing to a grassy patch one edge of which bears the signatures of erosion. The women’s tent is pitched just two feet from this edge. Furthermore, we have been placed directly in front of the four-man tent! Maybe it was wishful thinking on the part of the men – one little push and the women are gone! However, we applaud their valiant attempts but secretly harbour fears of being washed away. I notice that the tent lacks a groundsheet and pull out a spare one that forms part of my camping gear. The broad wall of cloud is right on cue, collapsing with a ferocity that shakes us to the core.
The wind blows hard and harsh; the tattoo of hail very suddenly turns to rock-falls from the sky; within moments the floor of our tent is ice cold. Water gushes from underneath the too-near men’s tent cushioning us as would a water bed. Sunita and I huddle together and sit on everything we have. Our tent is now lightning-lit; its fragile flaps crack loudly when whipped by the wind. But just as suddenly as it had begun, the squalls ceases. We step out with renewed vigour. The Mistle Thrush’s staccato ‘tuck-tuck-tuck’ indicates to us that his business now is to search for earthworms and insects in the soft ground. He moves a few steps and cocks his head to listen before reaching for the prize, rather than waste his energy in a mindless search. Other Turdus species common at this altitude are the White-collared, Grey-winged and the Himalayan race of the Eurasian Blackbird.
Mistle Thrushes claim a rock
The sun is perched precariously on a wall of cloud. Its refracted light sifts through enveloping us in a gilded glow. Illumined on the southern slopes of the northern mountains is the Lammergeier. It limns the shadow line of the high mountains. We shall see many more in the higher reaches. But first a cup of tea. A little beyond a knoll, is a stream running swiftly across a staircase of small boulders. The hollowed-out base of an old tree offers protection from the elements and serves us well as a chula. Devidutt carefully balances the saucepan of ‘sweet’ stream water, lights up his beedi and stokes the fire coaxing it to further extend its tongues of flame. The water boils fairly quickly leaving hardly any residue. And our tea tastes fine. Uphill and out of sight, the stream’s sweet, soft waters would’ve originated from lime-free rocks, such as granites, or sandstones.
Before the gold march of sunset is upon us, we must quickly rustle up a simple meal. We pull out the rations from the rain-drenched bag to retrieve some dal and rice together with a teaspoon of salt to make what each of us imagines would be kicherdee. But we overestimate the wetness of the dal and underestimate the dryness of the rice and skew both quantities to produce a light-yellow stodge. Sunita triumphantly pulls out the ginger pickle from the bag to give good character to the stodge.
The four-man tent is already in a state of sad disrepair – guy ropes are missing and so make-shift arrangements are made to lift the outer flap clear of the inner tent to provide the four men some semblance of a good night’s sleep. We eat and hurry to our tents, well-fed and exhausted.