It’s a half past five in the evening and I’m roused from my reverie by the gurgling of the river nearby. A gentle breeze tickles my cheek and I open my eyes to the sound of… silence!
We’re somewhere in the middle of the mountains, in a clearing in the woods, where we have chosen to set up camp for the night. Behind me, the guide and porter accompanying us have just finished pitching the tents; these will be our home for the next 2 nights. I gaze upwards at the towering façade of the steep mountains around me, the thicket of tall trees on top are reaching for the skies. Giant boulders litter the ground around me, a constant hurdle on this trek to Kareri Lake and back.
It is calm and peaceful here, cocooned in the midst of nature. But the journey to get here has been tough on me, a novice trekker.
Trekking in the Dauladhar Mountains
It all began a few weeks ago, when my brother suggested I join him and a few of his friends on a trip into the hills. The mountains are his happy place, and it’s where he wanted to celebrate his birthday – trekking and camping in the wild! Because cutting a cake is too mainstream, and he’d rather roast marshmallows on a bonfire instead!
It took a little bit of cajoling on his part. The idea of being completely off the grid for days, with no washroom in site for miles on end, is really not my idea of a good time! I relented eventually, and before I knew it we were on an overnight bus to Dharamsala, a hill station in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh and a starting point for quite a few treks in this portion of the Himalayas.
Our destination of choice was Kareri Lake, a mid-altitude, fresh water lake in the Dauladhar Range, also known as the Outer Himalayas or Lesser Himalayas. It’s a glacial lake at an altitude of about 9,000 ft. above sea level, and it takes trekking 13 kilometers in the mountains to get there.
WHAT WAS I THINKING?!?
Remaining frozen for most of the winter and fed by the melting snow from the Dauladhar Mountains come summer, the trek to this elliptical-shaped lake is said to be a relatively easy trek, which was the reason we opted for this one in the first place. I’d really like to meet these people who classified the Kareri Lake Trek as easy, and literally punch them in the face!
This was by far the hardest thing I have ever done.
The Volvo dropped us off at McLeod Ganj, 4 kilometers north of Dharamsala, on a cool summer morning, the 12-hour journey from the swelter of the plains to the freshness of the hills was a fairly comfortable one. We proceeded to make our way up to Dharamkot, another kilometer or so away from McLeod Ganj, for what one of our companions claimed was the best breakfast served in this area. He had recently travelled to Dharamkot and couldn’t stop raving about the food at Trek and Dine Café; it turned out to be every bit as good as he had indicated and then some!
Breakfast at Trek and Dine Cafe, DharamkotWe stuffed ourselves silly on a lavish breakfast of eggs and toast, baked beans and sausages, and Banana Nutella Pancakes, not to mention superlative cold coffee; the last supper before heading off in to the wilderness had to be a good one of course. After a leisurely morning exploring the quirky town of Dharamkot, and a purposeful afternoon collecting last-minute supplies for our trek, we were on our way to Kareri Village by early evening.
The taxi ride from Dharamsala till Kareri Village, where the narrow motorable road ends, is a 1-1.5 hour journey of sharp hairpin turns and steep inclines, but with stunning views of the valley below.
The view on the way to Kareri Village by road
There’s a Forest Rest House in Kareri Village, the caretaker of which had indicated to us that rooms might be available for the night. We headed there, beckoned by the promise of hot water to freshen up with and a warm meal to indulge in. Sadly though, there were no rooms available for us by the time we reached. Our guide, whom we had met up with on the way, thankfully came to our rescue. He knew of a local resident of Kareri Village who had an unoccupied house nearby with rooms to let. Phew.
Home for the night2 bare rooms with a washroom in the out-house was what this unoccupied house entailed, but for a group of tired and hungry to-be campers, it provided all the comfort we could need. After a dinner of aloo-paranthas pre-packed from Dharamkot village, with the dark silhouette of the mountains for company, we called it an early night.
We awoke the next morning, well rested and rejuvenated, eager to begin the trek in to the mountains. Little did I know that no amount of sleep or refreshment could have prepared me for what was to come!
After compactly re-packing our rucksacks, taking stock of our supplies and redistributing the weight evenly amidst all of us, all important things to keep in mind on a trek, I learnt; we set off.
It started off simple enough; a brief 30-40 minute climb over rough stairs and a path cut into the mountain face, followed by a relatively level walk interspersed with a few steep inclines. This isn’t too bad, I thought to myself! I can actually do this!
A level path, meandering leisurely through the mountains. The calm before the storm, I was soon to find out…!Roughly about an hour’s walking later, we came to a large bridge crossing the Kareri stream. A brief stop by the water to get a breather later, we continued on.
Taking a breather at the streamA narrow path to the right branched off into the forested cover adjacent to the bridge and it was all downhill from here (I wish I meant that literally!)
The steep incline begins…Steep stairs to ascend and giant boulders to climb, the next three hours or so were gruelling for me. I huffed, and I puffed, and I felt like I would tumble right on down!
The deeper into the forest we went and the higher we climbed, the better the scenery became; but I can’t say I got to particularly enjoy it much. I was too exhausted to focus and more concerned with putting one foot in front of the other, that the trek became more about the destination and less about the journey itself.
We stopped enroute for a lunch of bread and cheese and cans of chicken and tuna; with big gulps of Glucose water thrown in; and carried on. My brother and his friends, younger than I and more frequent trekkers than I, struggled less. I was slowing them down as well. But my legs had begun to feel like lead and with every step I put precariously in front of me, I was afraid I’d lose my balance and fall into the rocky abyss below.
I was so far out of my comfort zone, I wanted to collapse on one of these giant boulders and cry!
But just when I thought my legs were ready to buckle and there was no way I could go on any longer, we arrived at a little landing. An open space adjacent to the stream, surrounded on all sides by the mountains. In other words, the perfect place in which to stop and set up camp for the night!
The sweetest words I could have hoped to hear at that moment.
We had covered a distance of seven kilometers, a little over halfway to Kareri Lake, and it was a good place to stop for the day.
Our campsiteI collapsed in the grass, leaning against a rock as I struggled to catch my breath. While the boys rushed around setting up the camp, I closed my eyes to the world, too exhausted to be useful, too spent to move. But I felt myself coming around just a few moments later, the gentle breeze easing my fatigue, the sound of the water gushing nearby a balm to my fraught nerves.
It really is calm and peaceful here, cocooned in the midst of nature, I thought, and the campsite is a beautiful one.
The view from our campsiteWe hadn’t reached our ultimate destination yet, Kareri Lake was another 6 kilometers further up into the mountains, but that was a task for another day. Now it was time to unwind; to relax and rejuvenate. To sip on piping hot soup in the chill of the night, to bring in my brother’s birthday roasting marshmallows on a bonfire, to gaze up into the starry night sky and to sit huddled in the warmth of the fire as darkness enveloped us.
The next day dawned bright and early, and we woke refreshed and raring to go.
An early morning view
After a quick breakfast of milk and oats, we decided that we would continue up to Kareri Lake but retain our current spot as the base camp. So we might not get to camp by the lakeside as we had originally intended, but our progress would be faster. Without the extra weight of our camping gear and rucksacks, we’d be able to make it up to the lake quickly, spend a few leisurely hours there and still make it back down to the campsite well in time. With that plan in mind, we left one of our porters behind to keep an eye on the campsite, and began the 6 kilometer journey to Kareri Lake.
Much like on the previous day the route was a steep one, with what felt like a gazillion stairs to climb.
But we were also fairly high in altitude, almost at the snowline and there were slippery patches of ice to cross over as well.
The path kept crisscrossing over the gushing stream.
Until finally, roughly two hours since we began our trek in the morning, it seemed like we were close, the palpable feel of something remarkable in the air.
Rife with anticipation we soldiered on. Crossing the last remaining hilltop, the rocky road gave way to an expanse of green meadow. Just over the meadow, we could see the ramparts of a small temple in the distance. I had read there was a Shiva Temple at the Lake and I knew now that we were almost there!
With a surge of adrenaline, I trampled up the hill, my friends egging me on!
Stairway to Heaven…!
I was the first amongst us to catch sight of Kareri Lake, glistening in the sunshine, and I was simply blown away!
I had seen many pictures of the lake prior to embarking on the trek, but let me tell you, none of them did justice to the sight before me.
The calm blue waters of the lake, surrounded by the tall peaks of the mountains powdered with snow, a picture of serenity under the clear blue sky… what a sight!
I found myself a spot atop a large rock, and just basked in the moment. I had actually made it, I had trekked a fairly arduous trek, and one even our guide stated was not an easy one for a first-timer. The sense of achievement I felt in that moment, perched atop that rock overlooking the shimmering waters of Kareri Lake, is indescribable.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reflecting, lazing, snoozing and eating. Before long, it was time to begin our descent, so as to make it back before dark. Buoyed by our exuberance, we made it back to our campsite in around an hour and a half, and spent another lazy evening, our last, in the hills.
Packed and eager to get an early start on the descent the next morning, we covered the 7 kilometers back to Kareri Village in roughly three hours, the journey taking less time but way more effort that the one going up, and I had the aching calf muscles the next day to show for it.
The Dauladhar Range, sitting proudly in the distance
A taxi our guide had already called for was waiting for us at Kareri Village to take us back to Mcleod ganj; and as you would have it, we found ourselves back at Trek and Dine Café in Dharamkot for lunch. We felt it would be apt, it’s where we began our short holiday in the mountains, and it’s where we chose to end it, a full circle!