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Trial by night

A stroll on a hill is one thing. A long trek in the mountains is another matter all together. Prep yourself for it with a sampler, says Aalap Deboor.

travel Updated: Dec 04, 2009 15:26 IST

It is well known that the ability to withstand a protracted spell of ascents and descents over Herculean mountains commands veneration. After all, acclimatisation to the elements, especially at night, is not an easy thing. To get an inkling of what a Himalayan trek is like, we decided to go on an overnight trip to a hill close by to battle it out in the night. By the end of the journey, we'd know exactly how vindictive sleepy mountains could be.

My group of four set off to Mahuli, a fort from Shivaji's times, in what was the lead-up to a bigger, tougher coup. While some trekkers opt to pitch tents and carry sleeping bags, we decided to camp in the caves that were our destination. We carried an eclectic assortment of supplies - kerosene and chocolates, water, a rope, torches, batteries, food, noodles, a vessel and some medicines.

It was dark by the time we reached the top of the cliff. The expanse of monsoon land looked like a carpet of smooth, black velvet. The cooing of birds had long stopped, making the shuffling of leaves the dominant sound. The four caves in front of us were little hollows in the rock face; their floors damp with moisture and their edifices a giant void.

The cave we chose as our abode, though freezing at night, was a homely establishment devoid of bats and ghouls. In one corner we set up kitchen, the rest was our living room. Our shoes, worn and clammy with perspiration, were banished to the far end of the cliff; else the smell from them would have been the death of us.

Cooking a meal
When we sat down to cook the noodles, we realised that this was going to be tougher than it seemed. The twigs had to be broken into smaller pieces and kept dry, and a circle of stones created for our fireplace. We had to keep the two-minute noodle perception aside; the water took no less than 15 minutes to boil. And every few minutes we had to run out to fetch more wood. All this time, water kept spilling, quenching our already feeble fire.

Two bottles of water and countless matches later, the noodles started to cook. We stirred the concoction diligently, our appetites whetted by the toiling. What came out of the vessel a good half-hour later was a questionable mishmash of uncooked noodle cake and burnt noodle strands. But on a trek, even that seemed divine. All it needed was a generous sprinkling of chaat masala to make it appetising.

Energetic after our meal, we sang and regaled each other with stories as our small bonfire, forever needy of dry wood, kept us warm. It fails me whether it was the general quiet or the acoustics of the cave that transformed our howls into heavenly melodies. Each musical note filled the air with an energy and vitality that the city denies us.

The edge of the cliff at the far end was an abyss that threatened to devour us in a gulp if we leaned even a bit. The crescent moon looked dull yellow, as if bathed in a turmeric concentrate. We learned not to wander too close to the edge. It was a myth that was settled deep within us: if vexed, the winds would carry away full-grown humans.

Of beds and loos

Straw mats are neither too heavy nor a burden to carry. But we'd forgotten them, and so we discovered that among the various purposes newspapers serve, one is that of bedspreads. We wiped the cave clean using sheets of a popular English tabloid and then used fresh ones to spread out for the night. It's probably the only time tabloids have proved useful to mankind.

By morning the newspapers were shredded owing to all the tossing and turning. Our hands were full of insect bites though we'd applied a variety of repellents. The cinders from our fire had left a sooty residue on the cave floor for us to clean. We stuck to the trekkers' rule of thumb -- never dispose garbage in the open; it all came back to the city with us.

The loo situation, as always on treks, was particularly strained. Evolution paused for a bit at each go of ours, as papers and leaves started to mean more than any modern wherewithal. Luckily, the reservoir at the top was a saving grace, in more ways than one. Cause, let's face it, a day into a trek, it's the acrid smell of your own sweat and that of others around you that only too often propels you during the climbs and descents. So there's nothing quite like finally finding yourself seated underneath a waterfall, humming the lines, "It's just a spring clean for the May queen" from Stairway To Heaven.

Lesson learnt
The next day, we skipped our way down the hill, only too happy to return. With no idea of what we'd signed up for, a night on the hill had turned out to be a bit more formidable than we'd expected. Each one of us returned with a long mental list of things we'd take along the next time; sheets, soap and toilet paper not the least among them. We're only lucky that we didn't make these discoveries atop a cold Himalayan peak!

Keep these in mind
Different types of tents are required for different terrain. A high altitude tent will keep the howling wind out, but will make you sweat in the Sahyadris. All tents need basics like water proof, breathable fabric, ease of setting up, and quick drying.

A torch is your lifeline at night. On dark nights, it becomes impossible to put a foot out of your tent without illumination in hand. Get a headlight that will keep your hands free.

Keep a medical kit which will help you contain allergies, nausea, and food poisoning. Also include field dressings and blister bandages.

Each member of the team should have an emergency ration kit on them at all times.

Carrying a walking stick is a great idea. Helps you shoo off dogs, push aside prickly shrubs, and support you on those arduous inclines.