Today, I was watching the documentary on National Geographic Wild featuring the Big Wild Cats of South America - The Puma. The documentary showed the two year campaign of two wild life photographers, Todd and Henry, who wandered the mountains of Chile` to create that magnificent documentary. Penny- the female Puma, as she was nicknamed by those photographers, made me nostalgic and reminded me of my Himalayan Tour in Uttarakhand. It was an encounter up-close with the wild, a rare moment, I long to experience again!!!
20 May 2010- Niti Village- The last Himalayan village of Uttarakhand, India. At an altitude of 14700 feet, the climb is enduring, yet, an experience of a lifetime. The skies are never so blue, the waters never so clear. Every breath of air that fills up the voids of your lungs as you try to walk up there seems to bless you with unbelievable inner strength. No wonder why the sages walk these mountains in search of eternal truth. The golden sunshine says it all. The burbling sounds of the flowing river, the calm silence in the air, and the patterns of green forests will force you to find your reasons for an instant connection.
Our team camped near a riverbed on the way to Niti village. We were here for a Himalayan expedition ahead of Niti. It was not one of those regular days at the office. An unusual forest fire in the Kumaon valleys showed its impact this far. The locals sometimes 'try to create rainfall' artificially by setting up fire in the dry jungles. It would cause a cloud formation in the narrow valleys, causing rainfall, that would protect the dying crops from the direct heat. This time, they were not that lucky though. Instead of a rainfall, they ended up with 'snowfall' this time. I came to know the reasons of that abrupt snowfall 3 days later, when I saw the news on TV; authorities trying to put off the fire, by showering gallons of water from helicopters, creating more cloud, and even more snowfall.
We had to explore and trek the place that morning. My team had moved ahead, on their jeep, 5 kms from the camp site where the road came to an end and the trek started. I chose to stay back with my camera instead for some time and take a walk. I wanted to capture some early morning sunrises before the uninvited clouds covered it all. My radio cracked in silence as I captured this last shot -
'Rajat, be careful, there is a group of tigers sitting on the road'.
I was alarmed. I had already reached halfway towards the trek location and had not seen any activity so far. The team had smartly sent the driver to fetch me from behind, as they were not much interested in that 'unwanted' pursuit. For me, I was hopeful that I had already crossed halfway, and I will not see them. Overconfidence!!
Photo Credits: Steve Wilson @Flickr
I reached that road bend and halted. A huge boulder stood staring back at me. For a moment, I felt a movement behind the rock. And then, it came out, slowly- alert, with its eyes fixed to mine. Just 20 feet ahead of me was a rare moment- a near extinct Himalayan Cat. People spend years in search of one, and here I was, looking directly into its eyes! It was unbelievable.
The cat crouched a little; it was taking a stance and preparing for the worst, as I slowly tried to raise the camera to capture this moment. They are equally scared of human beings as we are of them. I guess it was my lucky day today! As I saw through my digital camera, I could see not one, but two of them now! I took my camera aside to see. Another cat came from behind the rocks- it was time for me to get serious now!
From their fiery eyes, I could make that I would be a sumptuous breakfast for them today. They growled slowly, and started to move towards me with baby steps. I could clearly see those long canines sticking out from the edge of their mouth. I started stepping behind.
Screech!!!! The jeep came and braked right in front of the beasts, as the driver pressed the brakes hard to avoid accidentally running over them. Those who have ventured into Himalayas may be aware how you cannot hear absolutely anything at road bends, as the vast valley eats up all the noise in the air. Even the cats couldn't hear this one coming. They were taken aback with surprise; they turned around and without any hesitations, took a giant leap into the vacuum of the valley. It was almost instantaneous, like a 'Mission Impossible' movie. The driver chose to wait inside the jeep. I ran towards the road end, from where I had just seen the impossible happening.
There is no way anyone could survive those verticals. Uttarakhand mountains are unforgivably straight, with little or no slope for a climb or a descent; which means there will be no sound of anything that goes down, until it reaches the bottom of the pit. These beasts were the masters of this territory though. I tried to peek a little bit into the valley, with my now shaky legs, so that I can take one picture of those 'escaping' cats. (Frankly speaking, deep within, I was still thinking how I escaped becoming a breakfast today). What I saw next was just jaw-dropping. In between the grooves of the rocks, I could see the two cats running downhill, as if they were running on a flat ground. They leaped from one rock edge to the other, defying all Newtonian laws, and years of my education.
Before I could realize, my new friends were gone. It was a brief encounter, but it engaged all the raw instincts between a man and a beast. It was a rare encounter, one that may not happen again. I was not able to comprehend whether to rejoice the moment of being alive or to feel sad about such a brief moment. I wish I could have watched them from a distance, without disturbing them much. I wish, I could have seen them some more time.
But I think this moment taught me the most important lesson of life - the rare moments await the ones who dare to walk that path less traveled. I realized the meaning of the phrase 'path less traveled'- A magical experience. So, I would make my way back to those mountains again; this time, to spend some more time with them.