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Walking in the Hills

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January 2008
Walking in the Hills

Choose your companion carefully when you

go walking in the hills.

If you are accompanied by the wrong person –

by which I mean someone who is temperamentally very different

from you – that long hike you’ve been dreaming of could well

turn into a nightmare! This has

happened to me more than

once. The first time, many years

ago, when I accompanied a

businessman-friend to the

Pindari Glacier in Kumaon.

He was in such a hurry to

get back to his executive’s

desk in Delhi that he

set off for the glacier as

though he had a train to

catch, refusing to spend

any time admiring the

views, looking for birds

or animals, or greeting

the local inhabitants.

By the time we had left

the last dak bungalow

at Phurkia, I was ready to push him

over a cliff. He probably felt the

same way about me. On our way

down, we met a party of Delhi

University boys who were on the

same trek. They were doing it in a

leisurely, good humoured fashion.

They were very friendly and asked

me to join them. On an impulse, I

bid farewell to my previous

companion – who was only too

glad to dash downhill to where his

car was parked at Kapkete – while I

made a second ascent to the Glacier,

this time in much better company.

Unfortunately, my previous

companion had been the one with

funds, unlike my new friends.

And in Nainital I had to pawn

my watch so that I could have

enough money for the bus ride

back to Delhi. Lesson two: Always

carry enough cash with you; don’t

depend on a wealthy friend!

Of course, it’s hard to know

who will be a “good companion”

until you have actually hit the

road together. Sharing a meal or

having a couple of drinks together

is not the same as tramping along

on a dusty road with the water

bottle down to the last drop.

You cannot tell until you have

spent a night in the rain, or lost the

way in the mountains, or finished

all the food, whether both of you

have stout hearts and a readiness

for the unknown.

I like walking alone, but a good

companion is well worth finding.

He will add to the experience. “Give

me a companion of my way, be it

only to mention how the shadows

lengthen as the sun declines,”

wrote Hazlitt. Pratap was one such

companion. He had invited me to

spend a fortnight with him in his

village above the Nayar river in Pauri

Garhwal. In those days, there was

no motor-road beyond Lansdowne,

and one had to walk some thirty

miles to get to the village.

But first, one had to get to

Lansdowne. This involved getting

into a train at Dehra Dun, getting out

at Laksar (across the Ganga), getting

into another train, and then getting

out again at Najibabad and waiting

for a bus to take one through the

Tarai to Kotdwara.

Najibabad must have been

one of the least inspiring places on

earth. Hot, dusty, apparently lifeless.

We spent two hours at the busstand,

in the company of several

donkeys, also quartered there.

We were told that the area had once

been the favourite hunting-ground

of a notorious dacoit, Sultana Daku,

whose fortress overlooked the

barren plain. I could understand

him taking up dacoity – what else

was there to do in such a place – and

presumed that he looked elsewhere

for his loot, for in Nazibabad, there

was nothing worth taking. In due

course he was betrayed and hanged

by the British, when they should

instead have given him an O.B.E.

for stirring up the countryside.

There was a short branch-line

from Nazibabad to Kotdwara, but the

train wasn’t leaving that day, as the

engine-driver was unaccountably

missing. The bus-driver seemed to

be missing too, but he did eventually

turn up, a little the worse for

some late night drinking. I could

sympathize with him. If, in 1940,

Nazibabad drove you to dacoity, in

1960 it drove you to drink!

Kotdwara, a steamy little town in

the foothills, seemed to lack any sort

of character. Here we changed bases

and moved into higher regions, and

the higher we went, the nicer the

surroundings, and by the time we

reached Lansdowne, at 6,000 ft, we

were in good spirits.

The small hill-station was a

recruiting centre for the Garhwal

Rifles (and still is), and did not cater

to tourists. There were no hotels, just

a couple of tea-stalls where a meal of

dal and rice could be obtained. Pratap

had a friend who was the caretaker

of an old, little used church, and he

bedded us down in the vestry. Early

next morning we set out on our long

walk to Pratap’s village.

I have covered longer distances

on foot, but not all in one day. Thirty

miles of trudging uphill and down

and up again, most of it along a

footpath that traversed bare hillside

where the hot May sun beat down

relentlessly. Here and there we found

a little shade and spring water, which

kept us going; but we had neglected

to bring food with us apart from a

couple of rock-hard buns, probably

dating back to colonial times, which

we had picked up in Lansdowne. We

were lucky to meet a farmer who gave

us some onions and accompanied us part of the way.

Onions for lunch? Nothing better

when you’re famished.

In the West they say, ‘Never talk

to strangers.’ In the East they say,

‘Always talk to strangers.’ It was this

stranger who gave us sustenance

on the road, just as strangers had

given me company on the way

to the Pindari Glacier. On the open

road there are no strangers, you

share the same sky, the same

sunshine and shade. On the open

road we are all brothers.

The stranger went his way,

and we went ours. “Just a few

more bends,” according to Pratap,

always encouraging to the novice

plainsman. But I was to be a

hillman by the time we returned

to Dehra! Hundreds of ‘just a few

more bends,’ before we reached

the village, and I kept myself going

with my off-key rendering of the old

Harry Lander song:

‘Keep right on to the end of

the road,

Keep right on to the end?

If your way be long, let your

heart be strong,

So keep on right on round

the bend.’

By the time we’d done the last

bend, I had a good idea of how

the expression ‘going round the

bend’ had come into existence. A

maddened climber, such as I, had to

negotiate one bend too many...

But Pratap was the right sort of

companion. He adjusted his pace to

suit mine; never lost patience; kept

telling me I was a great walker. We

arrived at the village just as night fell,

and there was his mother waiting for

us with a tumbler of milk.

Milk! I’d always hated the stuff

(and still do) but that day I was

grateful for it and drank two glasses.

Fortunately it was cold. There was

plenty of milk for me to drink during my

two-week stay in the village, as

Pratap’s family possessed at least

three productive cows. The milk was

supplemented by thick rotis, made

from pounded maize, seasonal

vegetables, rice, and a species of

lentils peculiar to the area and very

difficult to digest. Health food fiends

would have approved of this fare,

but it did not agree with me.

The point I am making is that it

is always wise to carry your own food

on long hikes or treks in the hills.

Not that I could have done so, as

Pratap’s guest; he would have taken

it as an insult. By the time I got back

to Dehra – after another exhausting

trek, and more complicated bus and

train journeys – I felt quite famished

and out of sorts. I bought some eggs

and rashers from the grocery store

across the road from Astley Hall,

and made myself a scrumptious

breakfast of bacon and eggs. I am

not much of a cook, but I can

fry an egg and get the bacon

nice and crisp. My needs

are simple, really. To each

his own!

On another trek from

Mussoorie to Chamba

(before the motor-road

came into existence) I put

two tins of sardines into

my knapsack but forgot to

take along a can-opener.

Three days later I was back

in Dehra, looking very

thin indeed, and with

my sardine tins still

intact. That night I

ate the contents of both tins.

Reading an account of the same

trek undertaken by

John Lang, an early

travel writer, about a

hundred years earlier,

I was awestruck by his

description of the supplies that he

and his friends took with them.

Here he is, writing in

Charles Dickens’s magazine,

Household Words, in the issue of

January 3, 1858:

“In front of the club house our

marching established was collects,

and the one hundred and fifty collier

were laden with the baggage and

stores. There were tents? camp

tables, chairs, beds, bedding, boxes

of every kind, dozens of cases of

wine – port, sherry and claret – beer,

ducks, fowls, geese, fins, umbrellas,

great coats and the like”. He then

goes on to talk of “lobsters, oysters

and preserved soups.”

I doubt if I would have got

very far on such fare. I took the

same road

in October 1959, a century later;

on my own and without provisions

except for the aforementioned

sardine tins. By dusk I had reached

the village of Kaddukhal, where

the local shopkeeper put me up for

the night. I slept on the floor, on a

sheepskin infested by fleas. They

were all over me as soon as I lay

down, and I found it impossible to

sleep. I fled the shop before dawn.

“Don’t go out before daylight,”

warned my host, “there are

bears around.” But I would sooner have faced

a bear than that onslaught from the

denizens of the sheepskin. And I

reached Chamba in time for an early

morning cup of tea. Sleeping out, under the stars, is

a very romantic conception. “Stones

thy pillow, earth thy bed,” goes an

old hymn, but a rolled up towel or

shirt will make a more comfortable

pillow. Do not settle down to sleep on

sloping ground as I did once when

I was a Boy Scout during my prepschool

days. We had camped at Tara

Devi, in the outskirts of Shimla, and as it

was warm night I decided to sleep

outside our tent. In the middle of the

night I began to roll. Once you start

rolling on a steep hillside, you don’t

stop. Had it not been for a thorny dogrose

bush, which halted my descent, I might well

have rolled over the edge

of a precipice. I had a wonderful night once,

sleeping on the sand on the banks of

the Ganga above Rishikesh. It was a

balmy night, with just a faint breeze

blowing across the river, and as I lay

there looking up at the stars, the lines

of a poem by R.L. Stevenson kept

running through my head:

Give to me the life I love,

Let the love go by me,

Give the jolly heaven above

And the byway nigh me.

Bed in the bush with stars to see,

Bread I dip in the river-

There’s the life for a man like me,

There’s the life forever.

The following night I tried to

repeat the experience, but ‘the jolly

heaven above’ opened up in the early

hours, the rain came pelting down,

and I had to run for shelter to the

nearest Ashram. Never take Mother

Nature for granted! The best kind of walk, and this

applies to the plains as well as to the

hills, is the one in which you have

no particular destination when you

set out.

‘Where are you off?’ asked a friend

of me the other day, when he met me

on the road.

‘Honestly, I have no idea,’ I said,

and I was telling the truth.

I did end up in Happy Valley,

where I met an old friend whom

I hadn’t seen for years. When we

were boys, his mother used to tell us

stories about the bhoots and prets

(ghosts) that haunted her village

near Mathura. We reminisced and

then we went our different ways;

I took the road to Hathipaon and

met a schoolgirl who covered ten

miles every day on her way to and

from her school. So there were still

people who used their legs, though

out of necessity rather than choice.

Anyway, she gave me a story to

write, and thus I ended the day with

two stories, one a memoir and the

other based on a fresh encounter.

And all because I had set out without

a plan. The adventure is not in

getting somewhere, it’s in the

on-the-way experience. It is not

the expected; it’s the surprise. Not

the fulfi lment of prophecy, but

the providence of something better

than that prophesied.

Ruskin Bond lives in Mussoorie,

India. Reprinted with the permission of

India Perspectives.

By Ruskin Bond


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