Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Good Break

The boys had a week off school – spring break – and Jen was able to secure three of those days for holiday as well, which, together with a weekend, gave us five days straight to get away. More than long enough.

The Ganges River tumbles out of the Himalayas at Rishikesh, or slightly downstream at Haridwar if you prefer. Upstream, the hills rise sharply on both sides of the river as it breaks into nine main tributaries and other waterways coursing through steep steep valleys. Downstream, the river course broadens and starts its slow, thickening fall towards the Bay of Bengal. Traditionally, this area is home to ashrams and numerous other ‘holy’ places, where Hindus bathe in the Ganges, or siphon off the ‘holy water’ for transport to other parts of India, and the ‘historical’ site of much Hindi mythology. It’s also the location of a small hydroelectricity project and the start of a canal that siphons off much of the water of the river for various uses elsewhere in India. Over the last twenty years or so, it’s also being increasingly developed, creeping upstream along the banks of the river, by whitewater rafting enterprises.

And that’s where we went. To Himalaya River Runners, the original whitewater rafting camp, on a broad stretch of white sand on the bank of the river, for the 8-9 months of the year that the sand isn’t underwater. The camp has tents just metres away from the river – far enough away from the bush that the mosquitos stay away, has well-managed accommodation facilities, including hot showers and hot meals, and has a well-experienced and well-trained team of river guides operating the rafts.

To get to our ‘glamping’ location, we took the train. India has a well-managed railway network – one of its boasts that it moves more people everyday than the population of Australia. We arrived at New Delhi Railway Station at six in the morning, and the station was bustling with life already – the typical Delhi mess of motor vehicles. Our driver took us to the discharge point for VIP passengers (I mean, if you can …), and we grabbed our bags and headed in through the main door, to find our platform – platform one, right in front of us – with the stopping point for each carriage of the train marker above our heads in LED lights.

We were in the first class air conditioned carriages – the two carriages at the very end of the train – and easily found our seats, and plenty of room for luggage etc. All very relaxed easy and organised. The hardest bit, in fact, is getting the tickets. They go on sale two months before date of travel, and quickly sell out. First chance I had to buy tickets, there were only 7 seats left – I bought 5 of them.
The ride is uneventful and typical – staff serve food and drinks and papers, at one point, the engine moves from one end of the train to the other, and the train starts off again in the opposite direction, before veering off on another track. The toilet starts to smell pretty bad after a few hours.

The train drops us at Haridwar, and we find our ride quickly. But the poor guy has lost the car keys – what? You start thinking bad thoughts. Ultimately, the driver we had turned out to be a very competent, dedicated guy. He was having a bad day. He was running back and forth, to the shops he’d been in, to the security office, to try and organise us another ride, back over the ground he’d covered earlier. Eventually, at about the same time he’d arranged another vehicle, someone handed his keys in and we were on our way.

We drove an hour from Haridwar, first crossing the Ganges, several courses over a long bridge, and then through a national park and then along the side of the Upper Ganges canal, until we reached Rishikesh. We weren’t mean to go into town, but we did because we’d forgotten to bring towels. Rishikesh is typical developing world chaos – noise, shops spilling onto the street, traffic all stops and starts, but we got our towels and headed off towards camp, another 40 minutes upstream, passing ashrams and temples, and suspension bridges across the pale green Ganges, moving quickly, as the valley closed in and the walls soared.

Camp was a lot nicer than a lot of hotels I’ve stayed in. We had lunch (though I actually ate the last of the food the cook at home had prepared, since I couldn’t see any reason to waste it), and I had just fallen asleep on the camp bed, listening to the river flow, when the call came to get ready to raft.
Rafting is a lot of fun – crashing over rapids, getting wet with cold water, getting a different accentuated view of life on the river, swimming in a life jacket, stopping to jump off rocks, singing. Kids had a ball. And we all slept very well after hot showers, hot food.

Delhi weather had been pretty cool, with a few hot days. Up on the river, it warmed up very nicely, in contrast to the cold water of the icemelt. The first of the hot days had arrived conveniently as we arrived at a cooler location. It meant the sand was hot enough that you’d want to wear thongs to cross it, that you could enjoy just lying around, that tents were too hot to stay in, that it was hot enough you could jump in the river to cool off.
Day two, we piled into a car and headed uphill, climbing steeply until the river on the valley floor was thousands of feet below. The air starts to get really clear, space opens out, eagles soar above, the roads, just as dangerous themselves, are far less intimidating because of the lack of impatient traffic.

one of the locals
The electricity cables thin to single lines, the roads eventually run out. We get out. We’re in the Shivpuri Range. We’ll be walking roughly north, perhaps ten kilometres as the crow flies, 28km over two days on the ground, to the top of the range, and then down the other side until the road starts again, a km or two above the Bhagirathi River, one of the Ganges’ nine principal tributaries.
We have two guides with us, who insist on carrying most of the stuff of course. Other porters have already left, carrying tents, food, etc – we’re glamping, even up here, with a cook, all mod cons. The path we’re taking is one many others have taken before us.

Imagine living up here. It’s beautiful, but it’s so far away from everything. Health services come to visit in a bus, stopping as high up as the bus can reach. Children go away to school – there’s just no way and no money for them to travel back and forth.

Initially, the paths we’re walking on pass agriculture. Eventually, even that falls away, and the paths serve only as routes between the different mountain communities villages.

We walk through forests of rhododendron, flowers falling on the path in front, forests of oak.
Birds abound. We see bear poo, and the many snapped off ends of the oak branches, which the bears have broken to reach the acorns at the ends. We see leopard poo, and cross-scratchings on tree trunks, and boar poo. We see different kinds of deer, different kinds of monkey. More birds. Too many to list.
At one point a landslide has collapsed the path, and a flock of goats, tended by a gap-toothed old lady (93 I’m sure), decide to overrun me as I stumble over the rubble.

The campsite, we reach fairly early in the afternoon/evening, before four, to find four or five guys have already set it up. We’re left to lay out our sleeping bags, and bicker, and contemplate the ‘toilet’, before we’re served tea and sweets and hot milk and fruit around the fire. We walk around a while, along the top of the ridge where the camp is, nestled below the peak we’ll climb in the morning for the obligatory sunrise watching.
Ready for extremely bright darkness
Ready for sleep
As the sun moves towards the horizon, a bizarre and frightening image unfurls before me. We’re not that high, about 2300m above sea level. But where we are is pretty much exactly on the ‘smog-line’. With the sun behind me, I’m looking across at the smog line.

Clear blue sky above, brown and grey below. Imagine Australia with a smog like that – Kosciusko would poke through, a couple of other places, but that would be it. Most of India, the vast majority of course, lies well below the smog-line.
watch it swirl and settle
Dinner was great of course, and nothing to do but play children’s word games as the world turned dark, until we had supper (of course), and headed to sleep, planning to be on the way to the top of the mountain before 6am.

Sleeping in the tent, well. It did get cold, but not too cold for the bag. The discomfort of sleeping on the ground, even with a rubber sheet in between was what did me in. That or perhaps the rigmarole involved in going to the bathroom in the middle of the night – get out of sleeping bag quietly and carefully, get dressed quietly and carefully, undo one zip quietly and carefully, undo the other (q&c), do up one (etc) the other, stumble around in the dark fearful of falling in a former toilet or something equally awful, like meeting a bear, then reverses the whole procedure to have your tent partner say something like ‘was all that noise just to do a wee’ when you’re finally back lying uncomfortable on the ground.

Didn’t actually get a lot of sleep. Others seemed to sleep well though, so well that we were too late for the mountain top sunrise in the morning.

And of course, when we straggled back to the campsite, it was all laid on again. Breakfast with fried eggs and porridge and potato somethings, and indian things, and fruit, and of course lots of hot milk.
Day two was a lot more walking down hill than up. But most special about day two was the sight of the Himalayas in the distance. Or a part of them at least. And the concept of the whole mountain kingdom laid bare before us.

The Himalayas are raw, fresh, new, jagged, askew, smashed, like a giant wall of ice only recently subject to a series of blows from giant gods, yeah. They were distant from us, perhaps thirty kilometres away. But looking down, into the sheer valley below us, in the foothills, and the staggered ridges, one after another over the curve of the earth, before the giant broken wall rising behind, and you would think in weeks, if not months, planning a trip to the mountains on foot.
Before the end of a single day of walking downhill, Jen was having trouble walking. She fell in a hole and hurt a knee.

Eventually though, we came down the maze of paths on the other side of the ridge, and reached the point to which the road came up. From there, a mere three hours of mountain-precipitous cliff roads to get us back to our river-side rest.

Where we had the beach to ourselves (apart from the staff). The following weekend, there would be a hundred people sleeping on the beach. Those camp beds seemed very comfortable after the near-sleepless night before.

More whitewater rafting, lots of singing and stuff, and in the evening, Jen went downstream, to visit an ashram and account for the ‘cultural’ component of our trip.

Mid-afternoon, though, I saw what looked like Aidan and another boy crash tackling each other on the sand, getting up, and cartwheeling together, then pulling apart and smashing together again. It was his best mate from school. We had no idea he was going to be there too! He’d arrived a day after us, and left on the trek the day we came back. The two of them are happy enough just chasing each other round, and took to each other from the moment they met at school. Aidan’s mate, sadly though, is leaving Delhi at the end of the school year, just 6 weeks away now.

Anyway, he was happy for the moment (and what other time is there to be happy in?).
I did my first yoga ever, there on the banks of the Ganges. If you’re going to do it, what better place to start? Can’t say it did me any harm.

In the afternoon, lazing about on the beach, reading a book, drinking a beer, I was watching the wildlife on the other side of the river. Others had seen leopards there, I wasn’t so lucky. But I did get to laugh myself silly. Across the river, the bank rose extremely sharply several hundred metres. Not exactly a cliff, but at probably around 70 degrees. In places landslides ran most of hundreds of metres to the water, carving swathes through the bush. At the bottom of one of these, a tribe of monkeys used the rubble of the landslides to access the river for drinking. They’d spend most of the days (and the nights) in the trees, but would walk around as well, particularly late in the day. Sixty-seventy metres above them, a goat was carefully picking its way down the swathe as well, moving carefully from rock to rock.

But then it set down a hoof on the wrong piece of rubble, destabilising the whole face, which suddenly started moving, with the goat leaping in front of it, setting off further destabilisations. The goat was now bounding down, turning left and right, looking for a way off the slide. At the bottom of the cliff, the monkeys too ducked for cover, either leaping off the sides of the swathe, or bundling themselves into small caves on the bank, peering out apprehensively. After a few frantic seconds, the goat made a few prodigious leaps to the left and dived under a large rock ledge. The rock slide passed by and over all, setting off a tremendous noise, especially as the stones started to smack into the deep water of the river.

The goat eventually got its drink, regarded with some disdain by the monkey crowd, and then started to pick its way carefully back up this cliff, this time on the very left edge of the rubble of a different, smaller landslide. I got a camera, hoping to somehow capture the whole episode should it be replayed, but of course, it wasn’t.
Goat at upper right, monkeys at lower left
On day five, we started our trip home, taking a car down to Haridwar to meet the train. We passed through a national park, beautiful in the late afternoon, with a variety of colour in the leaves and trees, and, again, prodigious birdlife. We saw wild chickens – wild roosters that look just like farm one, maybe a bit smaller.

We were comfortable on the train, and home on time, about 11pm. 

For the first time, we’d gotten ‘outside’ of India – beyond the noise and pollution. We’d seen and partaken in nature and stuff. We’d swum and floated in the Ganges, walked in the mountains, and seen the Himalayas. A major contribution to making life that much more enjoyable the rest of the time – knowing we can leave it all behind, even if it means 6-7 hours of traveling each way!

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