"Okay, guys," Ali called for attention as the small group assembled on the railway platform, hiking boots tightly laced and backpacks securely strapped.
XIV. Milk & Mist: Trek to Paradise
They had reach Collem by 7:45 and Sandeep arrived fifteen minutes later, making Harsh worry for a moment, and with the introductions and greetings over, Ali led the group into the station building.
"Well, we'll be following the track up to the next railway station, and then take a jungle trail, walking through some of the most pristine and unspoilt areas of the sanctuary," Ali announced grandly, "admire the grandeur of mother nature, and see some of the most stunning sights that the place has to offer..."
"Hey, cut the drama..." Mayank quipped with a sneer.
"Yeah, just make sure you know what you're leading us into," piped in Kajol. "I want to get back home before evening, in one piece and safe!"
Ali gave them a hurt look and then grinned around, "Well, it seems some of our more unenlightened members would rather stumble through the woods without bothering to notice, or appreciate the wonders of nature, so, we'll just start, hope you guys didn't forget the raincoats, huh? And, no trashing!"
"Ali, have you ever considered becoming a tour guide, huh?" teased Kajol, making the others laugh, "You would excel!"
With a dejected shrug and a sigh Ali jumped off the platform and crossed the track... the others following him. "Now, off we go!" he said, leading the way.
Walking along the track they headed east... seeing the jungle close in once they left the precinct of the Collem station, a curtain of green on either side... verdant. "Harsh, you asked me not to carry anything," Sandeep whispered as he walked by Harsh's side, "but you guys are loaded, and I've just got my camera!"
"Well, we are carrying the food and stuff, so I asked you not to bother," Harsh smiled in reply, "and I've also got an extra raincoat for you, since Ali insisted we'd need one."
"Between Ali and Kajol, they packed everything that they could lay their hands on," laughed Milind from behind, adding, "We've got enough water, munchies, sodas, food, first-aid and insect repellent to sustain an army on a campaign!"
"Huh," snorted Kajol, "what do you guys know about things you might need on a trip. You think just putting on your boots and setting off is enough!"
"Yeah, only you and Ali know about trekking and rations," Milind grinned.
"The only thing we need worry about is Ali getting us through without getting lost..." japed Mayank, walking right behind Ali.
"Well, if he does manage to do that, then we can survive for a week on comfortably rations!" added Milind with a snicker.
"Ha-ha, very funny," Ali retorted, getting off the track onto the narrow strip of mud path running parallel to the railway line.
"Oh, please, guys," Harsh finally said, feeling bad about everyone ganging up against Ali, "he's actually doing you all a favour, so why don't you guys just look around and enjoy the beauty of the place instead of harassing him!"
"Well, you guys do scare me..." Sandeep said with an exaggerated shudder, giving Ali a brief look before smiling at Harsh, "but then, Harsh here thinks highly of Ali and his knowledge of forest tracks, and I believe I would like to trust Harsh's judgement!"
Harsh beamed, "Yes, he does know the route..."
"Thank you Harsh," said Ali turning back to smile at Harsh.
The track cut its way through the verdure, two shiny parallel rails, vanishing into the distant vegetation - lush, green and sparkling, different shades of it... intermittently broken by an explosion of brilliant colours - flowers and butterflies, hordes of them. Simply magnificent!
And the first thing that they all noticed was the silence... a curious silence that lacked the dissonance of their daily urban life, yet filled with the sounds of bird calls and rushing water... numerous rills criss-crossing the ground on either side, gurgling happily as they plunged over rocks, hurrying along... and the susurrant wind... a marvellous, soothing euphony.
The hillside was cloaked in mist... ephemeral wisps of fluffy tendrils, slithering through the greenery, smoke like. And as they followed the snaking track, taking a sharp turn, it was right before them, moist and hazy... and even before they could react to this new experience, it was raining... a steady drizzle, forcing them to quickly take out their rain gears and pull them on. But as they buttoned up, it stopped as suddenly, the sun once more dazzling the landscape... the mist retreating back to the hills!
"That's queer!" exclaimed Kajol, taking off her raincoat and shaking off the water droplets.
"Well, be prepared, there'll be more of it!" chuckled Ali, still leading the way.
They had already done over six kilometres and the initial exuberance had somewhat lessened as the steady upward climb made the team pant... "That's the first tunnel," pointed Ali, "and after that comes the Sonaulim station, but we'll leave the railway track just before the station and enter the forest."
"What happens if a train comes now?" asked Kajol, her voice sounding hollow in the darkened interior of the tunnel, the daylight pouring in from either end casting a faint glow.
"Nothing, we just get off the track and wait, there's enough space on either side of the track," replied Ali, the words bouncing off the walls, echoing eerily.
Emerging out of the tunnel Ali soon turned off to the left, following a thin strip of red earth slushy from the constant rains, going down an incline... the trail meandering its way through the copious undergrowth - palm fonds and fern; the rocks covered in velvety moss. It was dark and serene under the luxuriant canopy, the path steep in places; the air resonating with odd and curious sounds emanating from beyond the thick foliage - a rustle here and a cluck there... an occasional shrill call and a distant bark.
Skipping over runnels and going past mini-waterfalls, they walked deeper into the woods, admiring the hordes of large, colourful butterflies fluttering over the water surface and the rocks... birds and troops of monkeys scattering as they approached.
"Stay clear of the undergrowth," Ali advised, "and keep your eyes open for the lord of these woods, the King Cobra," sending shivers down the collective spine of the group, and making Kajol squeal in terror, "and leeches!" he added with a laugh.
Soon they encountered the first stream, a shallow body of running water, crystal clear, the rounded pebbles and rocks at the bottom glistening in the subdued light. "We need to cross over," informed Ali, expertly stepping over the larger rocks as the others gingerly followed in his footsteps, crossing over without any mishaps or spills.
Following the gushing water, they headed further east, climbing lower, and as they rounded a sharp bend, they paused, transfixed as they spotted a peacock perched on a low hanging branch, the long, amazingly beautiful tail, with its myriad of colours, hanging low... the shrill cry piercing the still jungle air, raucous. Cameras came out and the whirr and snap of shutters broke the stillness, making the bird pause, the long neck doing a delicate terpsichore as it turned to look at the humans, disdainful, before fluttering off the branch and hurrying into the thick underbrush, lost from sight.
Two more streams, the final one larger and nearly thigh deep, the water swift, and suddenly the forest seemed to withdraw... pulling back as craggy rocks shot up into the sky... raw and powerful... the area encircled by the retreating verdure... "We've reached the Devil's Canyon," announced Ali.
Trudging over the bare rocks and going around huge boulders they stood spellbound, loud gasps filling the air. It was a spectacular sight... dramatic! The river had crafted a staggeringly rugged and powerful geological formation as it cut its way through the rock - smooth and rounded where the water had eroded the basalt; jagged and craggy at other places... the water eerily calm... awe-inspiring!
"The depth of the water is supposedly fathomless," informed Ali, "and it's prohibited to swim here due to the strong undercurrents, and underwater cave formations."
They sat down on the rocks, resting for a while, talking softly as they shared a snack. Sandeep and Harsh walking around as Sandeep took pictures of the ravine, the surrounding hills and the waterway.
"Well, let's start," Ali said standing up, "it's still a long way off and we need to be there before noon, or else we will hardly have time to enjoy the place!"
"Soon we'll be joining one of the major walkways, and we might encounter some tourists," Ali informed as they set out once more, walking under the dim shadow of the evergreen forest, thick and luxuriant, the canopy virtually closed, giving the woods a surreal feel, the trail crepuscular... "But after that we'll follow our own course, a shorter trail through the deep woods, following a stream nearly up to the falls before rejoining the main trail."
The weather which had held till then, after that brief shower along the railway track, now changed suddenly, the rains remaining a constant companion for the rest of the way - a light drizzle, or a sudden downpour, forcing them to continually pull on and tug off the raincoats.
Soon a distant rumble became a permanent component of the vista; gradually growing louder... and louder as they went ahead... and rounding a bend Ali pointed in the distance, over the green canopy, "Look..."
Through the gaps in the foliage, Mayank caught his first glimpse of Dudhsagar... a cascading torrent of froth and foam - mesmerising!
"That's just the top portion," explained Ali, as the group suddenly quickened their pace, filled with urgency to reach the spot.
The constant rumble soon increasing to become a roaring thunder, obliterating all other sounds of the silence forest... the thick canopy graciously parting to afford them further glimpses of the falls... till finally, the group got a complete view of the cascade in all its splendour - a mesmerising shower of milk and mist... Captivating...
Nestled in the crescent, wooded valley surrounded by the emerald hills, the headwater perched atop the lofty peaks plunged down a near-vertical cliff for over 2000 feet in four distinct tiers... the powerful torrent hurtling down the sheer rock face in a cascade of milk... the jagged surface spraying the falling water in a fine mist, further adding to the illusion... Stunningly beautiful!
They also spotted the ancient viaduct cutting right across the middle of the falls, Man's incongruous print on the face of Nature, jarring the eyes...
It was exactly 12.10 when they reached the foot of the falls... gazing up the rugged hillside in wonderment... transfixed... the roar of the water deafening... the misty spray invigorating.
"Well, here we are, and still not lost!" grinned Ali looking around, satisfaction evident on his face. "So, anyone for a swim?" he asked, but no one was listening as they stood, still staring up in awe, bewitched!
There were small groups of people crowding around the pools, people who had already arrived by jeep - some in the cold water, frolicking... others lazing around on the rocks... and after the initial euphoric photo session, as they sat by the side of the lake, more came along, some by the jeep trail, and others hiking down the railway track route.
"This is amazing," exclaimed Mayank, "it's really beautiful!"
"You know, the first time I was here, three of us had climbed up to the top, and God, it was gruelling," Harsh told the group, "all those slippery rocks, the shrubs and the continuous cascading water was exhausting. But wow, what a view from up there, and what a feeling of exhilaration once you've reached the top!"
"Why don't you take Mayank up?" suggested Ali, lying on the rock, feet dangling in the cool water.
"I did suggest," Harsh replied with a disappointed shake of his head, "but he isn't interested!"
"Lazy," muttered Sandeep, looking at Harsh, and then asked, "You like hiking and rock climbing?"
"Yup," grinned Harsh, "as kids we use to do that the whole time in Gokarna!"
"Well, you guys hike and rock climb later," said Kajol, "now let's eat, I'm starved!"
"Be very careful," advised Ali, "or the monkeys will take your food even before you've got it on the plate!"
"Yes, we had this whole troop of monkeys rushing at us, screeching and growling," Harsh laughed, "and when we tossed some food at them they went away. Some of the other guys that day weren't as lucky, the monkeys snatched away they plates!"
"Oh my God!" exclaimed Kajol with shock, quickly zipping up the knapsack, making everyone laugh, "So, what do we do, starve?"
"No, you take small amounts and eat fast, and as Harsh said, toss a few bits whenever a monkey approaches you."
"I don't want to eat!" she announced firmly, shaking her head.
"Oh, well," Ali said standing up, "we'll go a little further, into a secluded grove by the side of this stream and there will be fewer monkeys there since most of them are busy here, pestering the visitors."
"Yup, that's where we usually head for lunch," Ali announced, picking up his backpack. "C'mon, let's go."
It was a short ten minutes walk by the side of the gentle stream that flowed out of one of the lakes... a clear, shallow body of water... meandering its way through the rocks... leading them to an enchanting little grove... silent and secluded. "Let's eat here and make it fast before the smell of food brings the troops on our trail!"
"Forget about plates and serving, just hand out the food," Milind suggested, "and we'll just take whatever we want directly from the bags." And so they did, taking it out of the bags and eating, without the joy, and luxury, of spreading out all the goodies or loading up the plates; making Kajol complain bitterly, "Why do we need monkeys here?" as the others laughed.
"Well, lunch over, anyone for a swim?" asked Ali, as Kajol carefully repacked everything, making sure that they hadn't littered.
"Sure!" chorused Harsh and Milind, as Mayank shook his head.
"Great, you sit and watch the water flow, we're off," sniggered Ali as he picked up his knapsack, "and don't worry, we'll come back to pick you up," he grinned at Kajol as the three, followed by Sandeep, went back to the falls.
"Don't want to swim, huh?" asked Kajol, zipping up the bags.
"Don't feel like it..." mumbled Mayank.
"You've been very quiet the whole day," she observed, "something wrong?"
"Nah," Mayank shook his head.
"Okay, let's go back and watch them swim..." Kajol smiled, standing up.
Mayank nodded, helping her with her backpack and then strapping on his own, picking up the other packs as they followed the stream back to the falls. They spotted the four close to the cascade and went to sit on a rock away from the spray, watching the people in the pool, Mayank's eyes focused on Harsh, watching him swim around... The boy seemed immensely happy, thoroughly enjoying himself... laughing out loud as he swam away after dunking Ali, and even Sandeep.
Desire swept through him as he watched... Harsh looked so ravishing... the naked slender form glistening in the water, the wet hair plastered over his happy face... so breathtakingly beautiful! But this was neither the place, nor the time for such thoughts, and forcing them out of his mind he looked back at them. It was amazing how the two had gotten along, it seemed like they knew each other for ages... all his misgivings and apprehensions about Sandeep not accepting Harsh had evaporated. The two had been constantly together, all through the trek, talking and laughing... Harsh enamoured by Sandeep's expensive camera, asking question, and posing happily whenever Sandeep wanted to click his picture.
"A penny for your thoughts," the words whispered softly in his ears jerked him back to the present.
"Huh?" he uttered, looking at Kajol.
"Am I witnessing the birth of the green-eyed monster?" Kajol asked, her face serious, the eyes twinkling.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," she drawled, "you've hardly uttered a word since morning, and you have that hungry, lost-puppy look on your face, your eyes fixed, unwavering, on those two!"
"Are you jealous, buddy?" she asked, looking back at the pool, both watching the four emerge out of the water, dripping but smiling.
"Why should I be?" he snorted as they observed the four dry themselves. "In fact, I'm glad that they got along well and..."
"And," Kajol cut in before he could finish, "Sandeep has literally taken over Harsh, constantly by his side, monopolising! You've hardly had a chance to be with him, talk to him!"
Mayank stared at her, shaking his head, "You and your ridiculous ideas!" he finally said.
"This place is so stunningly beautiful, so romantic," she smiled at him, "get that boy alone, go back to that grove, take him in your arms and indulge in some obscenely glossopharyngeal orgy... Get naughty!"
He stared at her, stunned, "KAJOL!"
She giggled in reply, "Well, I'm off, with Milind!" she said and getting up walked over to where the men stood, "Hey, Ali," she called, "since you know this place so well, why don't you take Sandeep around, you know, good vantage points and better angles for his photos of the falls!" before whispering into Ali's ears.
Ali nodded and grinned, going over to Sandeep, talking to him, pointing at the falls and the area to the left. Sandeep nodded in reply and then smiled, coming over to where Mayank sat, "You should have joined us, the water was terrific!" he said with a smile, picking up his camera and rejoining Ali.
"Poor guy," barged in Ali, "carrying you back to Collem will be the end of Milind!" and as Kajol gave him her freezing stare he grinned at her, "but don't worry, we can hire one of those 4x4 jeeps to drop us back at Collem, so, cheer up!"
It took them just forty-five minutes to get back to the station... forty-five minutes of a gut-wrenching and bone-rattling ride over rugged, boulder strewn mud track, crossing over two streams and numerous other rivulets...
"WOW," Kajol groaned, "next time, remind me, and I'll walk back, no matter how tired my legs are!"
"To the resort," Mayank replied in a hurry making Ali snigger, "Won't you let the boy have some rest, huh?" in turn, making Harsh giggle bashfully.
"Oh, shut up," snapped Mayank, his voice suddenly irritable with fear... returning to the city once more bringing back the realisation of the lurking threat, and his own helplessness against the unknown.
"Okay, I'll stay at Mayank's, but I do need to go back and collect my notes for tomorrow's classes," Harsh told Ali, "so, you better go there first."
"Sure..." Ali sang, grinning at his companions.
The house stood dark and silent as Ali parked the car in front of the gate, "Where are the owners?" he asked.
"Delhi," Harsh replied, getting out, "I won't be long, you better reverse the car and I'll be back by then."
Mayank watched Harsh run up the stairs, his heart suddenly beating fast, the dark house suddenly seeming foreboding... suddenly terrified to let Harsh alone... fearful of the unknown... maybe unjustifiably so, but nevertheless... anxious.
"Well, the kid isn't down yet," Ali observed as he reversed the car and pulled up in front of the gate. "Probably can't find his notes," he sniggered giving Mayank a sly look. And as he cut the engine, unbuckling his seatbelt, Mayank's cell buzzed.
"Mayank, please come up!" whispered Harsh, his voice trembling.
"What happened?" asked Ali as Mayank jumped out and ran... making him quickly follow, both reaching the top at the same moment.
Harsh stood outside the open door to his room, tears streaming down his face.
"What happened?" shouted Mayank, his voice tense.
"Someone... someone was here," cried Harsh, leading them in...
Harsh's surfboard lay on the floor of the outer room, the epoxy lamination slashed through... exposing the inner foam... totally trashed. The room littered with broken pieces of the carbon fibre rail, shredded foam and lamination!
"Why, why, why?!" Harsh wept openly, "Why did he have to destroy my board?!" he asked pitiably, looking at Mayank.
"What's the meaning of this?" Ali asked, looking around the room, and then back at them.
"There... there was a break-in at his place last Thursday night..."
"What?!" Ali exclaimed in shock.
Mayank nodded, quickly filling him in with the details, showing him the words still on the wall.
"So, that's why he's been with you these past two days, huh?" Ali finally asked, "and you never even mentioned it to me?!"
"Mayank," asked Harsh, "who is it; what do they want? I never had a fight with anyone!"
"Do you think it's connected?" asked Ali.
"What connection?" questioned Harsh, looking at Ali and then back at Mayank.
"Nothing," replied Mayank, "I think you better collect all your books, notes and clothes and come with me..."
"Buddy, what are you doing," asked Ali, "isn't it time to get help, report it to the police?"
"Police?!" exclaimed Harsh, pulling back to stare at the two men, "What's going on, will someone please tell me?"
"Mayank, he has a right to know..." Ali commented and then turning to Harsh smiled gently, "and while he's filling you in, let's get your stuff together, it's better you move in with Mayank till things are sorted out."