Hills are a-calling, Travels

The Return to Gairibas and Men in Camouflage Eyeing Tits: Sandakphu Trek Day 5 and 6

I woke up to the frantic noise of camera shutters clicking. We were at the Trekker’s Hut in Gairibas, and this was the morning after our descent from Sandakphu. I looked around and found Aishani sleeping soundly. Rahul’s bed was empty though. I peered out of the window. It was cloudy and really foggy. Who takes pictures in this weather?

I crept out of my warm blanket, shivering, and walked out to the balcony. Our room was on the 1st floor. I glanced down and saw a group of men in camouflage pants, surrounding a tree, right outside our lodge, with their huge DSLRs aimed at it and clicking away. In the early morning silence of Gairibas, it sounded more like machine guns being fired. And at a distance, I saw Rahul standing and looking at them, amused.

Shaking my head, I went back into the room and under the blankets. I stretched my legs a bit – they were a little achy after the previous day’s trek – and settled down in my bed. It was too early in the morning for me to wonder about deranged men in camouflage pants.

The pretty village of Gairibas

On the morning of our downhill trek to Gairibas the previous day, I was in a good mood. With the harrowing physical exertion of climbing a mountain behind me, I was looking forward to an easier, less intense time. You know, like a walk in a slightly steep park. Because, how difficult can a downhill trek be?

Turns out, quite a bit. It’s not the same as climbing up a hill, of course. The downhill trek is simply a different kind of evil. And deceptive too, because you don’t see the strain coming.

The lady at the Sunrise Lodge suggested we take the Nepal route for our return. She said it’s not as rocky as the Indian route (the one we came up through) and hence will be a lot easier to climb down. And for once, our porter was there to guide us through this route. So we took the path at the back of the lodge and began our journey. And in the very first step, I found myself losing balance.

“Keep your weight on your heel. Don’t lean forward, or you’ll fall flat on your face!” said Rahul, on seeing me spread my arms out to balance myself. “Maybe you guys need walking sticks.”

Viraaj, our porter, immediately brought two bamboo sticks for me and Aishani. I took a tentative step with my weight supported on the stick, and it was much better! Thereafter, I could climb down without being a victim of gravity, although my pace had gotten real slow.

On a downhill trek, your knees bear the whole brunt because you have to constantly balance yourself at every step so that you don’t topple over. You won’t get out of breath here, as such. But you’ll soon feel your knees and calves burning. This means your legs, literally the only things that are keeping you going, get exhausted real fast.

I have to admit though, that the downhill route via Nepal was indeed a lot less steep and rocky than the Indian one. Our porter was saying that hardly anyone takes this route and Rovers don’t run on this path either. It was pretty nice, walking down this deserted road.

Once we reached Kala Pokhari, we decided to rest for a while at the Chewang Lodge, before resuming the long trek to Gairibas. The moment I sat down, I realised how exhausted my back and legs were.

At the lodge, we had some stir fried beef and Tongba. Tongba is a traditional millet-based alcoholic beverage found in the mountainous regions of Nepal, Darjeeling & Sikkim. It’s warm and tastes a little wine-ish. It comes in a pretty wooden container, and you’re supposed to have it with the straw lodged in it. Once the liquid is finished, you can simply pour a bit of hot water in it, wait for a while and have it again. You can keep doing it until the millet runs out of flavour. Now, we had a long hike ahead of us, so we didn’t drink much. But, if you have it in sufficient amount, it is capable of giving you a nice buzz.

Tongba. And what it did to Rahul.

After half an hour and a lot of cajoling from Rahul’s end (I was half lying on the bench, refusing to get up and walk again), we got out of the lodge and resumed our trek. We had almost 8 kms ahead of us. Rahul had promised – no “shortcuts” this time. So, I was at peace.

The road from Kalapokhari up until Kaiyakata is pretty easy to walk on. It’s just the distance that wears you down. On our way back, we crossed many trekkers who were on their way up to Sandakphu. Now that I’m familiar with the climb, it felt good to be on the other end. The day was getting cloudier by the minute. Worried about being caught in sudden mountain rains, we paced up. We had to reach Gairibas as soon as possible.

Since we were going down the Kaiyakata route, pacing up wasn’t really that easy. The road was steep with hairpin bends, and my knees were having an especially hard time. The whole lean-back-while-you-walk-ahead routine was tiring me out. Also, we still had quite some way to go and scattered raindrops had already made their appearance. So Rahul went back on his word and did what he does best – led us through a shortcut.

Of all the shortcuts I’ve been through on this trek, this was the toughest. The combination of a steep path through a forest, full of rocks, wet leaves, moss and stairs that can’t even fit one foot at a time; and legs like mine that were aching AND shaking was bad. I was leaning heavily on my walking stick, while trying not to tumble down that road (though it might have been an easier way to end the ordeal). None of us were talking – both Aishani and I were concentrating on the road and Rahul was concentrating on keeping us on our feet.

After what seemed like an eternity, I saw a peek of the familiar path that leads to the Trekker’s Hut at Gairibas. At that, I let out an audible sigh of relief.

Gairibas!

After that, the rest of the evening was blissful. We rested for quite a while, with hot tea and pakoras. Then we went downstairs for beer, followed by dinner. I went to bed early that night, too tired to stay up. Aishani and Rahul were still downstairs and that’s when they met this group of birders (bird photographers) who had come from Kolkata that afternoon. Yes, the men in camouflage pants who shoot pictures in fog.

I know, I need to work on my panoramas..

So, coming back to the morning of shutter-mania, I was getting comfortable under the blankets when Rahul walked in. At that, I sat up and enquired about those men.

“One of them spotted a Darjeeling Woodpecker on that tree,” he said as a way of explaining their action.

“Did they even get any decent picture in this fog?” I asked.

“No idea. I was too stunned at them attacking the bird like that with their cameras to ask.”

What a Darjeeling Woodpecker looks like on a clear, non-foggy day. Credits: Rahul Roychowdhury

After Aishani woke up, we went down for breakfast. It was nice and sunny by then, and we decided to laze around in the sun, just outside the lodge. Rahul had disappeared with his camera, looking for birds to shoot. Aishani was sitting with the lodge owner’s dog, an uber cute Pomeranian with the unfortunate name of Pee Pee. I was sitting right behind her, when I noticed a tiny speck of a guy, standing far away, amidst trees, dramatically aiming his DSLR at one point and walking stealthily towards it. All that was needed was the Pink Panther theme playing behind him. I gathered he was a birder from the morning team, from (surprise!) his pants. I was amused. Rahul is a birder too, and a good one at that. I’ve seen him take pictures on this trek, but never with such theatrics.

Aishani with the white blob of cuteness, Pee Pee.

Soon I spotted the others from the group – they were spread all over the area, walking around in those ridiculous pants.

“But why camouflage pants? That too all of them?” I finally wondered out loud.

Aishani was looking at them too, probably wondering the same. “I guess so that they can stay well hidden among the trees and not alarm the birds..?” she suggested.

“How does that work if you’re wearing camouflage pants and a tomato red t-shirt? Even if those pants work in camouflaging them waist down (and they don’t), it’ll still be a fat, red human torso floating around in the jungle with a DSLR that looks more like a cannon. How is that not alarming?”

“Ehh chup chup,” said Aishani stifling her laugh. The group was now walking back towards the lodge, and many of them were within earshot.

“Why?” I asked.

“Arre those guys are right there. They’ll hear you.”

“Ohhh. Damn, I didn’t see them for a minute. Those pants really seem to work!”

At that, she burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” asked Rahul, capping his lens and walking towards us.

“Oh, don’t get her started now,” said Aishani.

Just then, the guy I had spotted first amidst the trees, walked up to Rahul. He looked pretty pleased with himself.

“Get any good bird out there?” asked Rahul.

“Oh yes! Grey-crested Tit!” he said, jubilant.

“Ah, nice.”

The guy walked away, practically bouncing on his feet.

“Okay… so they’ve been eyeing tits this whole time. No wonder they needed those pants. I get their camouflaging requirements now,” I said.

Aishani started laughing again, and Rahul shook his head. “Please don’t write this in your blog. As a birder, I’m begging you. Please.”

Of course, I did not listen to him.

That’s the Tit, by the way. Credits: Rahul Roychowdhury

We stayed the day at Gairibas. This was our rest day, so we spent it sitting in the sun, taking pictures, making some more fun of the camouflage group (they had left by then), drinking a lot of beer, eating a lot of pakoras & fries and reliving the moments from our trip. And we wrapped it all up with standing on the balcony at midnight and watching the most stunning moonlit night ever. The entire area in front of us was bathed in a silvery glow and with the clear starry skies above, it looked absolutely magical!

Groupfie-ing at Gairibas!

The next morning, we left for Maanebhanjang, from where we hired a car to the NJP station. And that concludes my maiden trek to Sandakphu!

At Tumling. On the way down to Manebhanjang. Credits: Rahul Roychowdhury

Inspite of all the complaining I’ve done, this trek was an exhilarating experience. I wasn’t aware of the kind of willpower I had until that last stretch of the trek. And I have never experienced mountains as up close as I did this time. Rushing past these roads in Rovers can never compare to the joys of walking through jungles, spotting little birds and animals, shivering as the chilly breeze cools your sweat, watching clouds sail over meadows and pushing yourself to climb up the steep roads and rocky trails. Viewing the majestic peaks from the summit after all that hard work feels well earned.

In other words, if you have never trekked in your life, give it a shot! You’ll love it (and also hate parts of it, but that’s life). In my next post, I’ll lay down my notes on what you should know as a first-time trekker – based completely on all that I’ve learned from my experiences here in Sandakphu. See you soon!

Author: Muktobrinda Dash

aka Mukto. She's 99% brunette. A serial tea guzzler. Incurably optimistic and literally myopic. She loves words in all its forms. Is an avid reader, writer and wanderer. Works as a freelance copywriter for her living. Blogs for happiness. P.S. She doesn’t usually talk in the third person. This is an aberration. She's a perfectly nice and non-facetious lady otherwise.

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