“It is still freshly etched in my memory, spellbinding canvas of landscape, road vanishing inside deep fog, silhouette of trees and the golden hue of setting sun, bringing just a hint of colour in otherwise a grey-scale enigma.”
It was late in July PGG(Pauri Garhwal Group) was at Ghuttu for their ‘Awareness Camp’ a unique activity carried out for the benefit of students at far off places in Garhwal region. The goal is to keep them synced with possibilities that await them after their preliminary education.
Ghuttu is a very small village about 40 km from Ghansali, covered with excellent forest cover often overseen by the notorious Garhwal ‘Bagh’ as a distinct fauna. In Garhwali Bagh being the spotted leopard cunning predator of Jim Corbett lore. Ghuttu is also a break point for the famous Kedarnath trek; one of the oldest routes taken for pilgrimage. A tiny guest house is functional here for that purpose.
‘Pauri Garhwal Group’s’ Camp at Ghuttu Inter College 2010
We have just finished our last session for the students of “Ghuttu Inter College”; it was close to 1:45 pm. The event was a success with many students and teacher interactions and talks.
Everyone was heading back to the guest house and talks were on to heading back home to Delhi as majority of the people were from there. Delineation from the scheduled sight-seeing that was kept as after activity and a night halt.
Realizing that they will get to enjoy a full Sunday next day at home, everyone was ready to pack and leave for Delhi. Rainy weather and decaying sunlight meant that leaving at 2:30 pm will push them to reach Rishikesh before 7 pm a good 147 km (Ghuttu – Ghansali -Tehri – Rishikesh).
Tehri to keep or not
Three folks including me were from Dehradun, those two were also my roommates for the trip, and me being the only one on a bike. It was agreed upon that they will board the team bus till Tehri and to break there, as after 7 pm there is no public transport to Dehradun from Tehri.
So I was dutifully instructed to rejoin them at Tehri. Within half an hour everyone packed and got on board to the tempo traveller, while I saddled up the bus waited for me seeing that I requested them to go ahead.
The road up till Ghansali is old, deserted, hilly, enriched with fauna and rather unnerving silence. Such silence has many fold effect on a city dweller, the most prominent one is the awareness it brings in particularly ‘of being aware of oneself’ and nature around.
If those of adventurous spirit among us were to keep aside worldly worries like dark, rains and loneliness for a moment, one’s unconscious mind will surely turn the corner to a possible encounter with the mystical bagh, the reclusive man-eater, listening to local stories about the mysterious predator knocks on the consciousness.
Jilting my thoughts I finished saddling as the bus vanished in the dust.
For someone who just loves this bike for its incredible handling, I was not in the mood to let the bus keep a lead, be it road made up of rubble, potholes and randomly scared innocent herds. I was all out and within 10 mins tailing the bus which was speeding over an incline, like a venerable tortoise on roller skates uphill
Charming myself into dreams of being on a 1200cc at a Dakar rally I drove like a true blood ralliest if there ever was one inside me, and around 4 pm I was at Ghansali, waiting for the bus to catch up. We all exchanged pleasantries and said goodbye to each other as the bus stopped for fuel and refreshments for the route ahead. I left so as to not let darkness overpower my ‘secretly planned’ desire to press forward to Dehradun a decision opposed to the decision of my roomies, but that not before I have clocked Tehri in time.
The road from Ghansali to Tehri was freshly laid and devoid of traffic, I drooled over the pleasures of pushing the bike to its extreme, it was all fun till the direct sunlight was blocked by the hills and clouds. The total distance of 40 km’s till Tehri Dam was covered by 5:20 pm; the Tehri town was still 10-12 km’s further. I had two options to either go to Tehri Bazar or skip it by going through Tehri bypass and saving myself from the traffic congestion the small towns at hills are so good at.
I retracted the transparent visor of helmet and switched to sunglasses, the fresh air was hard to resist, as I rose in altitude a thinly veiled rain shower took me by surprise the showers have brought along with them the dreaded fog, my fears were alive my only ‘could be nemesis’ of my plan has finally woken up.
I could see locals moving about for their evening walk over this part of old Tehri, many locals come out here to enjoy the weather and to glean over the land where old houses of their generations lie somewhere submerged in the deep waters of now the world’s biggest man-made water reservoir. Was it emotional or a recreational act I could not know!
But for me, the only thing mattered that day was reaching Tehri before 6pm, which I eventually did at around 6:10 pm. Much to my relief, the rain had died down to a drizzle in just a while.
With the first phase of ‘my plan’ a success I was at crossroads to decide next phase, whether to reach Dhanaulti a good 30km and finally to keep time for the third phase to reach Mussoorie again about 30 Km ahead of Dhanaulti. Beyond Mussoorie, I expected little or no problems with the fog however it is in these two stretches lay my main concern.
This was an absolute driver paradise, on my left was pure whiteness deep from valley to the sky and beyond, it was a screen of cloud painted with the silhouette of trees. At the front was pure black road duly washed ready to be driven on? Well decorated with yellow reflective paint lines on both sides. On the right again mostly in fog were impressions of boulders and hills along with trees.
The world I was in was magically painted in shades of black and white; to complete the effect the direct sunlight just let a touch of gold. The grey in the scene varied with every rotation of tyre gliding over the road; it varied whimsically in tune to the smooth hum of a relaxed engine.
Upon enquiry with the locals, I came to learn that Mussoorie had sparse rainfall that too later in the day unfortunately for me that keeps my place with fog under question mark, but I was also told by a bystander that it is not raining there right now, his live update was the cause of an active phone conversation with his relative in Mussoorie, being gentle helpful fellow he was he had enquired this for me, I looked up to him smiled and thanked him for he had just made the choice easier for me.
At that moment atmosphere had enough visibility left and I expected that it to be so until 7 pm or maybe more. I figured that till Chamba I can mostly zip through as the fog was not thick enough to be a cause of worry. At the back of my head, however, I knew I was underestimating the complex fractal simulation of fog brew and its distribution over varied terrain with unpredictable inputs from rain gods 😉 and little luck fairy.
But before I proceeded I had to clear my conscience, I rang my roomies to be at Tehri to deliver them a change of plans talk. However, I could not get through the brilliant wireless network in the area. With excitement of a kid with a fresh issue of ‘Crookbond comics,’ I decided to take the chance of my otherwise very exciting life 😉
I left Tehri mentally apologizing to the roomies, I knew this chance won’t come again, driving alone in this weather with a road which is to be devoid of traffic, weather chilly and wet enough to bring elements of challenge, to keep the tempo paced enough was the atmospheric light dimming with each passing moment and of course to bring another dimension to adventure a was big question mark on ‘the fog’, little did I knew I was right on all counts ;-).
As soon as I got out of Tehri, there was a certain eeriness in the weather as expected not a single soul was to be seen, all kuccha/pucca houses that appeared occasionally in the scene appeared shut, so unless I am in a chit-chat mood I won’t be knocking on them, not today not even to sit out in open for absolute cracker of our Indian tea, for tea in such a weather begs you to be sipped, for it will give you nice aroma and will make you feel fuzzy, warmer and content.
Chamba and Beyond
It took me about 30 mins to wade 10 km as the fog has started to dance, time was nearing 7 pm and I have just crossed Chamba. It started to feel a little lonely as the light went down drastically, making me switch to head lamps. The ambient light had that dead grey tone to it, the headlamp was not penetrative enough for the fog, and it brought me down to halt eventually.
“I was driving slower than expected at a 20-25 kph, my adversary which only existed in the rainy season have started to dictate terms.”
Thinking my next move over a breather will help I got down from the bike and took off the helmet and removed the shades which I have completely forgotten by now. Those precious 30% photons were being kept away by polarised shades, the extra light is hidden inside the darkness of shades was like a balm on a sour body, I was happy and recharged, even if for a short while, I had control over moves of my nemesis.
Just a while later the fog made it is another critical move and began to descend and condensed as the weather grew colder. The white wall was thick enough to prevent me seeing beyond a few meters, the riskier nature of drive had the upper hand and I respectfully kept driving through it, the only play I had been when at any point the fog will leave any patch of road unguarded and I taking advantage could rev hard till alert fog sentry reoccupy it in groups leaving me no option but to slow down. This became the rhyme of the drive for a while, and I was playing along.
It have to be said that when you are waiting for time to pass, it makes you really wait for it.
A few km ahead of Chamba I had just turned towards right through a whiff of thick cloud and suddenly the road ahead of me appeared to vanish. It reminded me of a patch where the boulder has broken the road towards valley while I was on my way towards Ghuttu two days back, I slowed and turned right to safety, at this point fog visibility might have been about 2mts I suddenly sensed myself on collision course with a black motionless car on the right.
Passing it by gave me the impression that car was vacant and rendered immovable with its bonnet crushed from one side by either a collision or a loose boulder. I could not know and I found it pointless to stop for investigation while I have problems of my own to deal with.
All that commotion had made me more aware and deep respect for nature now began to root in. Keeping a close look at both watch and the speedometer tells me that it was close to 7:30 and 10-15 kph. I might have endured 10-15 odd kms since Chamba and this was one of the quietest and loneliest stretches today.
I was getting little agitated by the fact that I have not yet reached Surkanda still or maybe I had? I did not know since the fog made it impossible to look beyond a few meters. And I had stopped looking at the speedometer a long back.
LIGHTS WERE OUT
The death of ambient light meant I needed to switch to full beams, a moment I dreaded the most as I had found out in my experiences that the last thing you want to do in strong fog is switch on to full beam.
The scatter of your own light becomes blinding more than the fog itself I reluctantly switched to full beam, I still have to cross 10 odd kms to reach the safe place Dhanaulti in this state.
I ran out with foxing nature with my tricks, within a few seconds I have to make an emergency stop, as the scatter of my head lamp in the dense fog ahead have left me confused about my position, I could not see anything other than a white light, kind of like those alien ship lights in movies.
“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” – Rabindranath Tagore
I had to have a plan or evolve a method to not depend on just regular vision, then a thought struck me, and I moved a little closer to the edge of the road on and over the white or yellow reflective paint marked on the road, the reflection of lamp light on this paint strip gave me a bit more sight inside through the fog, enough for me to feel confident again.
On average humans can pace walk at about 5-6 kph, I was not far from that despite being on a bike. While the driving conditions were certainly not ideal they were, in fact, getting really threatening by now, and I had a hard time keeping the main headlamp on.
Without many options, I keep shifting the lamp from parking light – night lamp – head lamp. I made a mental note of installing special purpose fog lamps for any such misadventure in future.
Up ahead I sensed few voices and could see pale glow of lamps to my left, my first instance was that finally, I have reached Dhanaulti till a voice coming deep from the fog spoke to me in Hindi, “अरे भाईसाहब कुओं जोखिम उठा रहे हैं?”
I stopped and a guy appeared from the fog probably from one of the shops nearby, shops because with him the air brought the smell of freshly deep-fried pakoras, my mind stood confused for a second and suggested to sit there and munch on warm pakoras along with a fresh cup of hot tea.
I have forgotten all about the fellow as he looked straight into my eyes with questions. I replied with a heavily articulated smile “वो तो उठा चूका बस अब ख़तम होने की देर है” and he inquired if I plan on to go beyond Dhanaulti which he considered insanity.
The place ahead was under rains and it is too cold to drive wet for another 30kms, besides its no guarantee that the fog will be any different from Dhanaulti onwards.
Good thing was that I was at Surkanda and I have only less than 8kms left for Dhanaulti. The time was past eight already and I could only take one step at a time, so I thanked him for the warning, decided against surrendering to senses which were fixated by the delicious smell of fresh pakora and tea in this cold weather. I promised myself to break at Dhanaulti if what the man at Surkanda said was true.
If I thought the fog could not get any denser, I thought wrong it did and visibility has now dropped to a meter maybe less, speedometer read near 3 kph. As I moved my head from speedometer I went over a wood log and bump, my heart started to beat faster and I barely managed to crash the bike on road, I was safe but till when? 😉 Focus my dear Watson, said me to myself as I straighten the bike and kept the snail pace.
The water droplets from fog were settling over my eyelashes and also have started to seep the cloths wet. I endured that chill I had turned towards over an open turn and suddenly the hill had now shifted to my left, luck fortunes the brave? eh?.
It seems that all those loner trips on Sundays to Dhanaulti and more had their final useful say, I recognised this part immediately I was quite near to Dhanaulti I knew this place almost like the back of my hand, I needed to do this till about 2kms from here now. Those last 2kms took me about 10-15mins to complete as I kept crawling at snail pace towards Dhanaulti.
As I got closer to the place the thrill of what I had accomplished today kept growing deep within my heart, I felt high, I felt good, I felt euphoria and that unimaginable ride made a permanent place in my fuzzy little heart.
I managed to reach Dhanaulti at about 8:55. A good 1:45 hrs late and 30kms behind schedule I set for this trip. If everything was perfect I was supposed to be at Mussoorie, finalizing next step. None the less I was very glad and I went straight into Dhanaulti GMVN Guest house, took a deluxe double room and ordered myself meal reserved for kings. Crashed on to the bed and that euphoria lingered inside my head and heart the whole night and a few days to come…