Sunday, 19 August 2012

Dhauladhar 2000 - Any Excuse Will Do!

This is the way it is with a die hard mountain lover : you look at a map, you pick an area that interests you, you begin your research, you convince yourself (that is the easiest part) that this is one valley or one trail that you must absolutely do, then you cast around for an excuse that will stand up to censure in the eyes of your disbelieving friends who are probably shaking their heads and saying, "Oh no, not again, he's got that crazy gleam in his eye..."

In the summer of 2000 I found the perfect excuse to round up my niece and nephew for a child-friendly trek in the Dhauladhar ranges of Himachal Pradesh. Timothy, then 12 years old and his sister Adele, a little over ten years of age, were migrating to Canada with their parents in a couple of months. I played the genial uncle and said,"How would you like to trek in the Himalaya before you leave India for good?". Neither of them had ever seen the Himalaya and they were excited. With them on my side, it didn't take much to convince their parents who probably couldn't believe that someone could be foolish enough to make such a patently silly offer. I had barely finished speaking when they yelled in unison,"Take them!" They had another little baby to worry about and tons of packing to do, so my proposal must have come as an answer to their prayers...

Adele Noronha

Timothy Noronha

Our son Sanal was the third kid, he was slightly younger than Adele. He was the only one who had trekked in the Himalaya : at age seven we had taken him to the Pindari Glacier  in Kumaon. Before that, when he was three and a half years old, he had made it up to the pastures of Lalanti  (14,000) , below the Charang Ghati pass in Kinnaur, mostly on the shoulders of Margaret. Gavin, a friend of this threesome, made up the quartet. Margaret and I had never looked after more than one child, since that was all we had. I decided we needed reinforcements and induced my friend Franklyn to come along. He was sceptical at first. He is a confirmed bachelor and the prospect of keeping an eye on four high energy souls who might combine into an unmanageable force was daunting. But in the end, the lure of trekking in an area neither of us had ever been to was hard to resist. So there we were, four kids and three adults, bustling about on the platform at Bombay Central, looking for our berths in the August Kranti Rajdhani Express bound for Nizamuddin in New Delhi.

Gavin DSouza

Sanal Surin

Our friend Rajesh Bathija had applied his artistic talents to the T shirts we wore. "" was emblazoned on the front. Of course the domain name was never registered and the website didn't really exist, but it seemed to somehow merge the emerging ethos that these kids belonged to with the ancient art of just plain walking in the hills! The shirts elicited a lot of enquiries from our co-passengers and the kids kept up the pretence. Thankfully, wi-fi did not exist along the rail corridors of India then and smart phones had yet to become the norm, so no one could really test the veracity of our claims.

Rajesh painted a Quick Reference Map on the back of the T-shirts! We decided later to cross the Jalsu pass further east in the Dhauladhar instead of tackling the Indrahar Pass, as shown in the sketch.

Debbie and Quentin, Gavin's parents, looked half anxious and half relieved as the train sounded its horn and began to move. Hazel and Cecil, the other parents, mirrored the same expressions, glimpsed briefly through the tinted glass as we gathered speed and left Bombay behind. It was the month of May and the airconditioning was a relief as we settled down for the long ride. "He who goes to the hills goes to his mother," says an old Hindu proverb. I thought to myself, "Here we are, certainly going to the hills, but three of these children will have to settle for Margaret as their mother for the next couple of weeks!"

The 18 hour journey to the capital was fairly smooth, once we got used to the constant giggling emanating from the upper berths as the kids made up and played all kinds of games. These games were a source of constant delight and merriment for them even if they appeared inane to us. Night fell, the compartment became quiet, the children fell asleep with the exhaustion of excitement, and the train hurtled northwards.

Late in the morning, we bundled the children out of the train and onto the platform. Our many kit bags and rucksacks followed. Since our next train departed from Old Delhi railway station late in the night, we decided to wait out the day at Nizammuddin. We stocked ourselves with a pack of chilled bottled water, arranged the luggage like a little stockade where we herded the brats in, and passed the time of day discouraging beggars and touts and coolies. The kids initially found entertainment in listening to the announcements over the PA system : each announcement regarding the trains arriving and departing from the various platforms was preceded by a very loud two-note audio signal. The children would collapse into heaps of laughter at this and eagerly wait for the next one. Their mirth was almost uncontrollable. I looked at Margaret and Franklyn and we all shook our heads; did we seriously think we could shepherd this boisterous foursome through the ridges and valleys of the Dhauladhar? Had we perhaps taken on more than we could handle?

We needn't have worried. As the afternoon wore on, the oven like heat of May in Delhi soon stunned us into a stupor and gradually the youngsters fell silent. When we judged the sun was losing its intensity, we engaged two taxis and transferred over to the chaos that was Old Delhi railway station. We had reservations in the overnight train to Pathankot, but some local commuters thought otherwise. Our compartment was crammed with office workers and others going back to their homes two hours out of Delhi. My son could not fathom the pressures of modern urban life in India and was almost in tears when four men occupied the upper berth he was supposed to sleep in and sat with their legs dangling above our noses. They were loud and uncouth and their crude conversation centred around the male and female genitals and their choice of words was injudicious, to say the least. It did not seem to bother them that there was a lady and four small children in the confined space of a second class railway compartment. We all sighed in relief when their destination appeared outside the windows and they disappeared into the heat of the summer night.

Pathankot railway station, by contrast to the one we had departed from, appeared to be neat and tidy and organised. We were impressed when we did not have to haggle for a taxi to Dalhousie, 80 km away. There was a Taxi men's Union booth where we purchased our ticket, a taxi was assigned to us and away we went. We were soon out of this neat cantonment town with its wide avenues lined with ancient banyan trees painted with the white and ochre bands so typical of such places. The road began to climb towards the foothills and the succulent yellow bunches of  "amaltas" (Indian laburnum) provided welcome relief to our travel weary eyes. Slowly and imperceptibly, the temperature began to drop with each hill contour that we ascended, the vegetation was changing, a few rhododendron trees began to appear and we could sense that our journey was coming to an end soon.

Dalhousie is perched between six to nine thousand feet at the western edge of the Dhauladhar mountain range and is one of the most charming hill stations that I have ever visited. Twelve years ago, it appeared to be far less crowded and touristy than say, Manali, Shimla, Mussoorie, Naini Tal or Darjeeling. It also boasts the closest snowline to the Indian plains anywhere on the subcontinent. The walls of the taxi booking office in Dalhousie were adorned with framed photographs of the town under six feet of snow, and cottages with icicles dangling from their roof gutters.

Instead of snow, we had rhododendron trees lending a splash of colour all over the town, and the pretty pinkish white flowers of the chestnut trees swayed  high above us in the cool breeze, perfectly cupped amongst the glossy dark green leaves. We checked into the venerable old timbers of the Himachal Pradesh Tourist cottage and ordered some chai. As we sat in the wicker chairs on the veranda looking at the distant ridges which held so much promise, there was a clap of thunder and the mountains reverberated with deep and distant echoes which lapped at our eardrums like waves on a lonely shore. Dark storm clouds soon filled the horizon, electric blue lightning rent the heavens apart, the setting sun sank like a fiery crimson orb and hail began to pelt the tin roof of the cottage. We were jubilant. This was exactly the sort of welcome you need when you go to the hills. Our senses came alive, the perspiration on our skin evaporated and with it all the sordid memories of the train journey. This magical transition, from the hot and dusty plains of a baking summer to the cool of the conifers is one of the most enjoyable elements of Himalayan trekking in a country where most of the landmass swelters in tropical excess.

I didn't know about the others, but I was certainly going to my mother! Since mothers are mothers, she insisted that we have dinner first. So we sat around the table in the modest dining room and feasted on the vegetables and rotis dished up by the cook and looked out through the glass paned windows at the thunderstorm as it slowly withered away. It was time to put the kids to sleep and look at our maps and plan the days ahead.

Phase one of the plan required that we get to the road head at Hadsar from where we would walk for two days to get to the pastures of Duggi. We would spend a couple of days here, exploring the vicinity, or just chilling out as the mood dictated. I hoped to hike to the bottom of the Kugti pass as well. We would then reverse our steps back to Hadsar and prepare for Phase Two which would  gradually lead us over the Jalsu Pass and back to the Kangra valley where we would make our way to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, home of the Dalai Lama. This part of the western Himalaya is buttressed from the plains of India first by the Dhauladhar range as the southernmost outlier, beyond which flows the Ravi river, then the Pir Panjal and behind these two rise the peaks of the Great Himalaya after the great trench of the Chenab Valley. The Dhauladhar and the Pir Panjal are pierced by a number of passes which allow access to the separate river valleys. These passes have been used for centuries by the gaddis, shepherds from Kangra who take their flocks of sheep and goats to the succulent pastures of the high mountains in the summer months. Trekking amongst these mountains and valleys via the traditional paths and seeing the shepherd's way of life is a visual treat, with the usual free dividends for the spirit and the soul that these undertakings normally generate.

As a little acclimatisation exercise, we decided to take the kids up a local hill. As we passed a little square, a street artiste/snake charmer was preparing for his act, prepping up the audience with a non stop harangue about the habits of the dangerous and poisonous snakes that he was going to show them and the plucky little mongoose who would do battle with them. The children wanted to stop and watch the main event. We hung around and waited for the performance to begin. We waited almost an hour and nothing happened. The artiste's young assistant moved around in the little circle of people that was beginning to form, dangling a couple of reptiles from his fingers like a rosary, occasionally frightening the crowd by swinging the snakes close to their faces. In the background, the loud and strident voice of the presenter continued to build up the anticipation; the mongoose could be seen wriggling impatiently inside the little hemp sack that he was confined in. He was itching to sink his teeth into the infernal snakes!

But the show was not going to start in any hurry, the artiste was sizing up his audience. "Not enough bodies," he must have said to himself, "this is not going to generate enough money....I have to wait a little longer".

Finally, even the children got tired of this non-starter and we dragged them away up through the upper parts of town, past the Dalhousie Public School where fresh faced students with red blazers were milling around during their recess. We found a track which wound its way up through the cool deodar forests and found ourselves below the air force radar station on top of the ridge. The kids thanked me for the uphill slog by pelting snowballs scooped out of an old bank of snow below the radar station. We stopped at a little tea stall before heading downhill and hopped onto a local bus which brought us back into town comfortably.

The food shopping for our little expedition was completed that same evening and a visit to the Tibetan market provided extra warm clothing for the children. The evening was rounded off with a tasty meal of momos at a small eatery. The business of packing was completed late at night, a hired jeep took us the next morning to Bharmour via Khajjiar and Chamba. Another little walk above Bharmour provided the kids with some entertainment, glissading on some old snow, playing cricket with the local lads, and cuddling a little lamb. The next day we threw the boys at the back of the Matador truck, together with the luggage, and drove off to Hadsar, where the real walking would begin. Finally, was live and on stream!


One of the many temples in Bharmour

It is amazing how much fun a little old snow can provide young children! Sanal tries out glissading.

Cricket in Bharmour
The view from the cricket ground!

Next Stop : Hadsar


  1. hello sir, i'm biswajit from delhi. though my roots are in bengal. in the durga puja vacation few of friends try escape to a trek. this year we are planning to complete the kugti pass trek. but unfortunately we are not getting any lead. we need a guide who can provide us with food, stay and all the equipment needed. can you please help me with any contact.
    it'll be a great help for us.

    thanks already