Ghuttu is a small village in Uttrakhand’s Tehri Garhwal about 40 km from Ghansali and 64 km from Tehri. Ghuttu is also a base point for various treks including Khatling Glacier and also a trek to Kedarnath which was one of the oldest routes used for the pilgrimage. A tiny guesthouse is also functional here for that purpose. Very next to Ghuttu is also Bhilangna River as an exciting place for tourists travel.
It is still freshly drawn in my memory, the spellbinding canvas of landscape, road vanishing inside deep fog, the silhouette of trees and the golden hue of setting sun, producing just a hint of colour in otherwise a gray scale enigma.
Ghuttu is covered with fine forest cover and often overseen by the famous Garhwal ‘Bagh’ as a discrete animal. In Garhwali language Bagh is the spotted leopard the predator of Jim Corbett lore’s.
It was about the end of July, PGG (Pauri Garhwal Group) arrived at Ghuttu for their ‘Awareness Camp’ an activity carried out for the benefit of students at far off places in Garhwal region. The goal of the camp is to keep them in sync with possibilities that await them after their preliminary education.
We have just finished our last session at “Ghuttu Inter College” at about 1:45 pm.; the event was a success with many students and instructor communications.
Everyone was heading back to the guest house and talks were on to head back home to Delhi as the majority of the PGP contributors came from. There were ideas for sight-seeing as well after the group activity and a possibility of night halt.
Understanding that most will get to enjoy a full Sunday the next day at home, everyone got ready to pack and leave. Rainy weather and decaying sunlight meant that leaving at 2:30 pm will allow them cross mountain range to reach Rishikesh before 7 pm around 147 km (Ghuttu – Ghansali -Tehri – Rishikesh).
Tehri to keep or not
Three folks including me were from Dehradun, both being my companions at the guest house. I was the only one on motorbike to Ghuttu from Dehradun so after conversations with companions, it was accepted that they will board the team bus till Tehri and will stay there for the night, as after 7 pm there is no public transport to Dehradun from Tehri.
So I was also directed to join them at Tehri for a night stay as me going further was not desirable due to presence of fog on the mountains with no sunlight left by the time we reach Tehri.
Within half an hour everyone packed and got on board to the bus and left, while I saddled up my bags on my bike. The road up till Ghansali is old, deserted, and hilly adorned with flora fauna and rather unnerving silence signifying its remoteness. Such silence has many fold opinions on a city dweller, the most prominent one is the awareness it brings in particularly ‘of being aware of one-self’ and the nature around.
Those of adventurous minds among us meant to keep aside worldly worries like darkness, rains and solitude for a while, one’s unconsciousness will surely turn the corner to a likely encounter with the mystical Bagh, the reclusive man-eater which comes to the mind only after listening to the local stories of the mysterious predator.
Rejecting my thoughts I finished saddling as the bus has vanished in the dust. For someone who just likes his bike for its incredible handling, I was not in the mood to let the bus keep a lead, be it road of rubble, potholes and randomly scared innocent herds. I was all out and within few minutes tailing the bus which was speeding over an incline. Charming myself into dreams of being on a 1200cc at a Dakar rally I drove up and around 4 pm I reached Ghansali, waiting for the bus.
We all corresponded pleasantries and said goodbye to each other as the bus stopped for fuel and refreshments for the route ahead. I left to not let darkness overpower my ‘secretly planned’ desire to press forward to Dehradun a decision opposed to the decision of my companions, but not before I have reached Tehri in time.
The road from Ghansali to Tehri was freshly laid and without traffic, I drooled over the ease of pushing the bike to its extreme, it was all fun till the direct sunlight continued which was lastly prevented by the hills and clouds. The total distance of 40 km’s till Tehri was covered by 5:20 pm; the Tehri’s town was still 10-12 km’s ahead. 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.
With seemingly sufficient light at the moment I raised the visor of the helmet and shifted to sunglasses only mildly dark as at that moment I wanted more clarity than the visor closeness and to appeal me the fresh air was hard to resist. I gained altitude to Tehri and by now a thin rain shower took me by surprise, it have brought along the fog, my fears were alive the ‘nemesis’ of my plan has lastly woken up.
As I neared Tehri I could see locals moving about for their evening walks 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 an emotional or a liberating act I could not know!
For me, the only thing mattered was reaching Tehri before 6 pm, which I finally did at around 6:10 pm. Much to my relief, the rain had died down to drizzle in just a while.
With the first aspect of ‘my plan’ a success I was at crossroads to decide next state, whether to reach Dhanaulti a good 30km and lastly to keep time for the third state to reach Mussoorie again about 30 Km ahead of Dhanaulti. Beyond Mussoorie, I anticipated little or no problems with the fog however it is in these two stretches set my main attention.
Upon inquiry with the locals, I came to learn that Mussoorie had sparse rainfall that too later in the day sadly for me that holds my spot with fog under question, 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 kind fellow he inquired this for me, I looked up to him smiled and acknowledged him for he had just made the alternative easier for me.
This road till Dhanaulti is driver’s paradise, on my left was pure whiteness deep from valley to the sky and beyond due to fog and remaining sunlight, as a screen of clouds painted with the silhouette of trees. Down my bike tyres was a pure black road rain washed and ready to be driven with decorated with yellow light reflective paint lines on both sides. On the right repeatedly 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 pure greys in the scene varied with every rotation of tyre over the road; it varied whimsically in tune to the smooth hum of a relaxed engine.
At that moment atmosphere had enough visibility and I expected that it to be so till 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 underrating the intricate fractal simulation of fog brew and its distribution over diverse terrain with unpredictable inputs from rain gods 😉 and a little luck fairy.
But before I advanced I had to clear my conscience, I rang my roommates to notify them of a switch of plans. However, I could not get through the wireless network in the area. With the 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 thoughtfully regretting to the roommates knowing well that this chance won’t come again, driving alone in this weather with a road which is to be empty of traffic, chilly weather and slippery enough to bring elements of challenge, to keep the pace enough was the atmospheric light dimming with each passing moment. Of course, to bring an added dimension to adventure a way a big question mark on ‘the fog’.
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/pukka houses that arrived infrequently in the scene seemed to be 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 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 headlamps. The ambient light had that dead grey tone to it, the headlamp was not penetrative enough for the fog, and it brought the speed down to halt eventually.
“I was driving slower at about 15-25 kmph, my opponent which only existed in the rainy season have started to dictate its terms.”
Thinking my next move over a moment will help so I stopped and got down from the bike and took off the helmet also shed the shades which I have simply overlooked by now. Those precious 30% photons were concealed inside the shades. It was like comfort on a sour body, I was happy and recharged, even if for a short while, I had control over the moves of my nemesis.
Just a while later the fog made another decisive move and began to descend and condense as the weather grew colder. The white wall was thick enough to prevent me from seeing beyond a few meters, the endangered nature of drive had the upper hand and I attentively kept driving through it. The only play I had happened when at any point the fog will leave any patch of road unguarded and I took advantage till alert fog sentry reoccupies it in groups leaving me no option but to slow down. This became the rhyme of the drive for a while, and I played along.
It has to be said that when you are expecting for time to pass, it really makes you 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 the fog clarity might have been about 2mts I suddenly sensed myself on collision course with a black motionless car on the right.
Passing it safely, delivering me the impression that the car was vacant and rendered immovable with its bonnet crushed from the hillside by either a collision or a loose boulder. I found it pointless to stop for an inquiry while I have problems of my own to deal with.
All that commotion had made me more aware and profound respect for nature now began to root in. Keeping a close look at both watch and the speedometer shows me that it was close to 7:30 and 10-15 kph. I might have endured 10-15 odd km since Chamba and this was one of the quietest and loneliest stretches today.
I was getting little upset 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 mostly.
Lights were gone
A slow drive for a while later the end of ambient light indicated I needed to switch to full beams for my likeness or not, a moment I dreaded the most as I had found out with experiences that the last thing you want to do in strong fog is switching on to full beam. The scatter of your headlight becomes blindingly stronger than the fog itself. I was to keep my drive speed checked at slowness I reluctantly switched to full beam as I yet have to cross 10 odd kms to reach the sheltered area Dhanaulti.
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 headlamp in the dense fog ahead have left me confused about my position left right or centre of anything and I could not see anything other than a white stream of glow, 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 an idea struck me, and I moved a little closer to the left edge of the road on and over the white or yellow reflective paint marked on the road, the reflection of lamplight on this paint strip gave me a bit more sight inside the fog, enough for me to feel positive 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 circumstances 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 – headlamp. 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?” (Why are you risking your life brother).
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 ignored 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” (I already did 😉 and wish it to end) 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 onward.
Good thing was that I understood that I was at Surkanda Devi and I have 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 remained fixated by the delicious smell of fresh pakora and tea in this cold weather.
I promised myself to stop at Dhanaulti if what the man at Surkanda said was remotely true.
If I thought the fog could not get any denser, I thought opposite it did and visibility has now dropped to a meter may be less, speedometer read near 3 kph. As I departed my head from speedometer my bike went over a wood log and bump, my heart began to beat faster and I hardly survived 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 managed 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 as 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 recluse 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 inching towards Dhanaulti.
As I got nearer to Dhanaulti the thrill of what I manage to do today kept glowing deep within my heart, I felt good and happy for completing this fog ride and it made a permanent place in my furry little heart.
I reached Dhanaulti at about 8:55 pm, a good 1:45 hrs late and 30kms short of Mussorie which I had set for this trip. Yet I was glad to reach Dhanaulti GMVN Guest house, rented a room and ordered myself meal reserved for kings. Crashed on to the bed and that euphoria of riding my motorbike through fogs in mountain stayed within my head and heart the whole night and a few more days to come…