"Uncle! Uncle!", the shouts were shrill and loud and full of excitement. I glanced up the trail and saw the kids swarming around a large boulder embedded into the grassy slope. One of our guides was with them and he was poking around in a small crevice in the rock with a twig.
"We have discovered a new species of snake.....! Come take a picture and send it to National Geographic!" I knew I was in trouble: a couple of days earlier I had confidently stated to them that serpents were rare in the higher altitudes of the Himalaya and if they actually did find one they might be rewarded by some elite international organisation like the Smithsonian Institute for their discovery.
We were a couple of kilometres above Hadsar on our way back from Duggi. I scrambled up the slope, asked them to step aside and began to probe the shadowy depths of the crevice inside which the snake was ensconced. After a few attempts, and helped by the curiosity of the reptile, my lens picked up an image. The children cheered. We left the nervous snake to its sinuous adjustments and resumed our journey.
But the topic was not yet closed. Gavin walked beside me and asked very earnestly,"Uncle, how much money do you think National Geographic would be willing to pay for this picture of a newly discovered snake?" The question threw me off, but I hazarded a guess anyway, "I'd say $ 10,000 at least!" I was going by the lavish production qualities of the magazine and its international standing.
"How much would that be in rupees?" Gavin wanted to know. When I converted the money into the then prevailing exchange rate, the kids let out whoops of joy. "We'll be rich!" they shouted and went prancing down the trail.
Alas, we had not really discovered a new serpent on the planet, so the children had to be content with the ten rupees that they charged us for putting up an impromptu play that evening when we reached Hadsar! While everyone took the next day off I set off on the trail to Manimaheshwar lake. The trail was well signposted, with helpful distance markers and even more helpful exhortations for the faltering pilgrim!
In spite of the signs, I did not quite make it up to the lake, but had to turn around at the spot ravaged by the passage of hundreds of pilgrims who make the annual pilgrimage to the lake. I could see the trail snaking up to the ridge behind which lay the sacred waters. There were permanent platforms which had been carved into the slopes to accommodate temporary shelters and tea stalls.
That evening's entertainment at Hadsar was organised by the kids : they put up an impromptu skit for which they extracted a princely fee of ten rupees from us. Some of that income was used to buy bidis (a cigarette made from the tendu leaf) from a little shop and I caught them smoking and coughing and giggling all at the same time as they tried this new experience! I wondered what they would have done with the big bucks from National Geographic if we had really discovered a new species of snake!
The plot, as I recall, revolved around an itinerant street entertainer with his performing monkey and it was conceived and directed by Adele, who has since gone on to make theatre her profession in Canada!
After this performance, we were ready to move on to Phase II of our trek : to hike over the Jalsu Pass ( 3600 m / 11,800 ft ). We had a jeep drop us off at the small village of Deol in the main Ravi valley where we spent the night in a room kindly offered to us by a lady who owned a little shop on the road. She absolutely refused any form of payment for her kindness. This form of universal generosity that characterises most of the hill people is what draws me back again and again to the Himalaya - the old fashioned values which are not governed by filthy lucre!
The walk from Deol to Surai was quite pleasant, many times in the company of shepherds and their flocks and it was enlivened by a steep climb up to a ridge before dropping down again. The evening's entertainment was provided by Franklyn's sleeping bag rolling off the hillside as we unpacked to set up camp. Fortunately for him, it came to a stop just above a raging torrent and could be retrieved.
Adele became my faithful camera assistant after my near fatal fall at the Yara Got campsite. She cheerfully carried my spare lenses while I hiked with one arm in a sling. The team made it to the Jalsu Pass and we posed for the mandatory photos before beginning the long descent on the south. Gavin left his camera on the pass and hurried down the trail. Hours later, and a couple of thousand feet lower, he realised his loss and was thrown into a panic. He was sure his parents would chastise him for the loss and he was ready to climb back up the slopes to retrieve it. He had started back up the trail when we stopped him - I pulled out the camera from one of the pockets on my backpack and handed it to him: the sense of relief on his face was quite something to see!
I sensed an immediate change in the environment : the cool dry air of the northern pastures gave way to the rather more moist air on the southern slopes of these hills. The soft, pale lighter shades of rhododendron changed to saturated crimson and a tropical green began to overshadow the alpine shades. We found a great swimming hole later in the afternoon and a dip in the cool waters refreshed our bodies and our hearts.
We camped on a field at Parai where the sole tea shop served up fresh eggs while the children amused themselves by chasing the chickens down the rutted path outside.
More excitement followed the next evening at Uttarala where we foolishly pitched our tents, on the advice (which we should have ignored) of our guides, right below the head wall of a concrete dam holding back millions of gallons of water in a reservoir upstream: I dread to think about the consequences if there had been an earth tremor or quake......
As if camping in harm's way was not enough, the boys decided to hide the little steel tumbler containing the caretaker's chai while he was busy explaining the controls of the dam machinery to Franklyn and me. When the man discovered his loss, he was incensed and chased the kids right down the walkway on the dam wall! Profuse apologies later, we managed to redeem both the tumbler and the situation and grounded the lads in their tents. Adele came into our tent later to mediate on their behalf. More impressed by her negotiating skills than the lack of remorse on the part of the guilty, we agreed to lift the curfew with some clauses attached!
Thus ended a memorable mountain holiday. All that was left was to walk down the road and hop into a bus and then make our way back to Bhagsu, above McLeodganj. Bhagsu was home to Narendra, a mountain guide and climbing instructor I had come to know during an expedition 8 months earlier in the Kumaon Himalaya. He invited us for a simple but sumptuous dinner prepared for us by his wife and we were pleased to meet with his family.
The mandatory visit to the monastery at McLeodganj followed. Unfortunately, the Dalai Lama was away at the time but we did get a sense of how a government in exile has functioned successfully for over 50 years and how a people displaced from their homeland in the high mountain plateau of Tibet have coped in a host community.
With a heartfelt Om Mane Padme Hum ("Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus") we bid farewell to the mountains.
This trip was originally published on The Accidental Trekker.