I'm totally zombied out. Sitting in bed, looking at the sun dappled bamboo outside my window, I'm finding it difficult to express the experience I underwent yesterday. All through the drive back home, I kept checking in to figure out what I was feeling and drew a blank. Such as I often do when any event is overwhelming or extremely challenging. It had been a long and arduous day but I wasn't tired, even though my body was hurting. I was in a nirvanic – a beyond words, kind of space.
I woke at 5am to leave for Panjim by 6am, to meet Bianca and Bjorn and their team from Off-trail Adventures by 7am. I had to park my car at Patto Plaza, walk across to the other side of the Panjim-Ponda Road, meet the other trekkers at Heera Petrol pump and board the bus that would transport us to the location.
Strapped with a ten litre backpack, a fanny pack with my phones and emergency essentials, and carrying yet another bag with a change of clothes, more water and food, I ambled across, the ten minute distance, without demur. Ordinarily, I would have scouted for help, but I had signed up for a day long trail where I was supposed to traverse 18 kms, so this was just the start.
Picking up people along the way at Cortalim Junction, Verna and Margao, we reached Quepem at 8.40 am for a quick breakfast. Before leaving for the final hour-long bus lap towards the Netrawali Wild Life Sanctuary, where the expedition officially begins.
Goa is so green in the monsoon that it's a delight for the eyes. And the emeraldic-leaf green of the paddy is a very special colour. Unlike any hue in my paint or thread palette. But, this agrarian landscape wasn't a patch on the virgin forests that unfolded as we tread the terrain of the Western Ghats.
It was my first hike of this kind and that too as I completing sixty years of age. It was ambitious but I had no idea of the agony my frame would go through as I negotiated smooth rocks, wet and slippery with slime, the possibility of leeches shimmying up my flesh unseen to suck warm blood and more. And, when I got home at 9 pm, fifteen hours later, the top of my thigh muscles were stiff – more like rigor mortis rigid, but it was my big toes that were wailing louder than the cicadas of the forest. Even the gentle touch of the light quilt I sleep with, was evoking yowls of pain. And to top it all, grasping at crevices to find a grip, at the very edge, before we glimpsed the Mynapi waterfall, I think I may have cracked the middle finger on my left hand. Or at the very least pulled a muscle. I had to put the full weight of my 65kg on hands and knees to scramble up. They're not used to it.
Yes, there has to be a next time. Being so close to nature, without the trappings of urban behavioural niceties, I felt the rawness of fear. I faced the power of the resolve: ‘I have to find a way’. I grappled on all fours, heaving myself up or slithering down on my butt. All very ungainly and un-lady-like, and in full view of strangers – all of them, mostly youngsters in their late twenties or early thirties. It was a no-holds barred episode. It was a getting in touch with yourself encounter like nothing else I have associated with. A revealing confrontation at that.
As we entered the sanctuary, leaving the bus behind, we strolled along a tarred, regular road but within minutes turned off to the left, towards the Mynapi falls. The signpost said 4.5 kms. Very doable I thought. Since the age of 34 years, when I'd become aware of the merits of some exercise, I've been striding exactly this much each evening - down Walkers Lane in Friends Colony (East), in New Delhi- topping it up with swimming and cycling, so I thought it was going to be par for the course. Yes, uphill for sure, because we were going to the waterfalls, but just a couple of years ago I'd done the haul from Gethia up to Nainital and back and also climbed up and down Matunga Hill in Hampi, at the crack of dawn, wearing plastic Crocs without a strap. That had been quite scary too because it had rained and the boulders in Hampi, well they’re something else. So I thought I was prepared. Doubt hadn't even entered my head.
As we entered the forested area, I could hear an uprising of some insects. It was as if they were wailing that their coveted greens were being invaded. I was told they are the cicadas – extremely small but very noisy. And yes, they could really cook up a racket. I was looking around eagerly, at flowers and the tall foliage, growing higher than us. Reminding myself to keep my gaze focussed on whoever was ahead of me lest I lose sight. We bent lower than low, crouching under boughs and leapt over fallen or felled tree trunks lying in the path. Trampled over a seemingly unending carpet of leaves, red, green, brown, blackening as they composted themselves back into the earth. The light on them glinting as if shining off silver. It was an overcast day, but no rain yet. I couldn't imagine what they'd look like on a sunny day. Even as the tall forestation probably doesn't let in much light anyway. But the mulching leaves fascinated me – especially the blackened ones.
An adept trekker classmate of mine had shared a few tips. She'd suggested changing into sandals as we crossed the rivers and streams, advising that it's best not to keep your feet in wet shoes and socks all day long. But we came upon a narrow rivulet within fifteen minutes and it was barely four feet wide, so I didn't change. I couldn't bring myself to stop to change and revert back into Keds after a minute’s stride. My socks and shoes were now wet and we later strode 3-4 kms in the river itself. With uneven rocks, often jagged and pointed, where I needed to lodge my feet in whatever gaps I could find, I cannot envision the state of my feet without the protective covering of my socks and shoes. Even though the wet and confined feet did eventually lead to unbearable pain and a mild infection necessitating antibiotics and loss of toe-nail. t didn’t make sense then, to fiddle around with footwear mid-way.
At first we rambled alongside the river. Vicinal to the soothing resonance of water rushing downhill. Gurgling and splashing as she fluidly opposes boulders and mud banks, insistently carving a path despite all the obstacles in her way. I was loving every minute so far. Then we crossed to the other side because the topography was relatively easier. At one point all we had, to place our feet on to cross a hilly edge, was a thick vine. Bianca kept encouraging us, saying it's very strong, don't be scared. But I was. Having her at hand-holding distance, should any of us topple or if it gave way, was little consolation but as I put one foot on it and then the other and crossed that two-foot space, and it didn’t break with my bulk nor after ten or more who came before and after, I realised just how strong they were. And later, grappling for support among the boulders, as the flow of the watercourse got rougher, I scanned the foliage on my side, looking for these vines to hold on to.
We kept crossing the gushing stream back and forth - guided by Bianca at the front, Prashant in the middle and Bjorn at the tail. I chose to stay with Bjorn. I couldn't contemplate attempting the hazardous slog through the water, flowing with quite a strong current at points, all on my own. I'd already slipped once and his strong, youthful arms had saved the day. So this is what I banked upon the rest of the way.
Every time he thought there was some stable ground, and let go of my hand. I took a dunking. I must have fallen at least five times. But being at the end, also gave me time to stop and take some photos. It was dicey taking my iphone out of its protective cover. I only attempted this once in a while. The photos I have are mere trinkets of what I saw with my eyes, endured with my body and the unbounded beauty which gave me the strength and spirit to keep on track.
The youngsters that were part of this group didn't think this old aunty, would actually manage that final steep cliff which led up to the water fall. And honestly, if I'd thought about It, I wouldn't have. And when I do reflect back on the trek, it's this moment that keeps coming back. I'm filled with such a sense of daunting. It was treacherous, to say the least. I'd be terrified attempting it again, knowing what a close call it is. That hard rocks and fast flowing water, awaited my fate some fifty metres or more down below.
But Bianca had come back for Priyam and me, the stragglers who were being assisted by Bjorn and Prashant. Just thinking that she's gone up with the others, descended, back-tracked to find us, then scaled up ahead of me, showing me how to do it, gives me the shivers. We were so close to the waterfall, in its full flow at the monsoon. I could hear the flowing waters, I was wet with its far-reaching spray And so was the almost ninety degree vertical cliff-rock we ascended – without any mountain-climbing skill or gear. It was just a short stretch but what a task it was!
At an extremely crucial point, one foot lodged as firmly as one can on a narrow and precarious crevice and the other reaching to find its foothold, from behind me Prashant says "look up, look up, you’ll get a sneak preview”. I didn't want to take my eyes off the risky geography I was tackling. I didn’t have a secure foothold either but, I'm a sucker for waterfalls. There is something so magical about this cascade of water pouring down from the height of hillsides. Be it the Canadian Niagara or the famed milky Dudhsagar on the Goa-Karnataka border, I have made my way to them delighting in their majestic watery vistas. So I did look up - just one moment of perilous viewing before Bianca urged me to take the next few steps up, hold onto her hand and heave myself up to see it, in all its cascading glory. A bride’s lushly crocheted lacy veil, trailing through the steep rocks covered on either side - a mossy carpet of green, a vertical and hazardous church aisle with a deliciously refreshing aqueous pool at its base.
We had been walking for over three hours at this point. It had been arduous to say the least. Not because the hike was taxing in the physical capacity, but because it had required every vestige of courage, presence and sheer utter focus - such that is not factored into the rituals of daily living. At one point Prashant and a few others pulled a log of wood, from the water, for us to move from one point to the next. And in one of my photos I can see him giving a young man a push to garner enough height to rise up. It was tough. I was relieved to have reached the scenic spot. I was ravenous and drained. So the first thing I did was to eat my egg and cheese sandwich, gulp down some Electral before I off-loaded my backpack and fanny pack to crawl my way down into the water. I wanted to get right under the fall but was advised not to as, being so forceful at this point, it also carries small stones down from the mountain.
I bathed and crawled back onto the mud splattered, wet and slithering rocks, on all fours. It was a kind of primordial reconnecting with one's animal self. Uncaring of anyone's gaze, of the mud on my butt and drenched hair- looking nothing like the carefully crafted urban visage I'm accustomed to recognising as myself. It didn't matter. I sat on a stone-free muddy spot, momentarily secure of my seat and gawped at the flow of water, conjecturing with Joan and Jaffrey as to its height. Was it 300 metres, was it 200 or more, we couldn't decide but it was beautiful. Not as awe-inspiring as the Niagara, nor as wide and as gushing a river of milk as Dudhsagar, but tucked away in this nook, away from the prying eyes of the casual passer-by; away from the reach of those that don’t value nature’s bounty enough to refrain from despoiling, it was a sight to behold. Especially since one had trudged a difficult path to do so. I was exhausted but enthralled. I was mesmerized by this proximity to nature that had compelled a propinquity to my own - that sense of provocation I have always been prone to. That never giving up attitude - no matter what. That slow but steady stride and this love for being among rivers and mountains and the grace of green that surrounds it - the natural habitat of the planet. Facets of my own nature that, I don't often recollect, nor consider much, unless life mirrors them back to me, this way.
Priyam and I had taken our time getting there, so we had less rest than the others, before Binaca herded us off again. No, we didn't go back the way we had come. I think I would have died had we to do that, but the ascent up from the base of the waterfall was steep. Ultra-steep and there was barely enough mud to give our feet traction. At one point, unable to muster the spirit to haul myself up with the depleted strength of beleaguered thigh muscles and leaning on equally dog-tired arms, from behind me, Nalita gave a push up from my bums. It was effective and a relief not to rely on my fatigued form alone. It was an extremely narrow track and we had to keep moving single file. I was in the middle, not the end as before, so had no option but to keep travelling. But my vitality was flagging. I hadn't eaten much breakfast because not only was it early, I wasn't sure of how I'd fare in a bus through the Ghats on a full stomach. A sweet bun (local Goan bread) and tiny glass of tea had been enough. And with sips of water and the occasional salted Kaju, it had brought me to the falls.
Lunch was going to take time to create its own energy. And the muscles were beginning to ache. Not to forget the toes. My god they hurt. But I kept moving until the trail widened a bit and the others could pass. When we stopped, Bianca took one look at me and said my lips were white. My remaining water was turned into Electral in a jiffy and I sat on a jutting rock, resting and sipping. I relaxed enough to see the misty view of the Ghats through the vines and took a picture from that spot. Too tired to lift my butt and move ahead of the dangling vines, I let them define the view – that was after all as I was seeing them, wasn’t it.
Joan, Lucy, Prashant, Jaffrey and Bjorn stayed with me till I felt able to resume the track. My legs and hands were trembling. They said we're half-way there. It's downhill now and that gave me courage. But I realised this wasn't true. Bjorn used the half-way there phrase three times later and when I said “but that's what you said an hour ago”. He smiled, telling me only right at the end, that is the only way to keep people going. If you think the end is in sight, you muster strength. And it's true. That was probably how I kept proceeding. Even after a massive cramp in my feet and legs, when I finally changed into my sandals and gulped some salts. It was only then that I took a longish break. So long, in fact, that when we reached the bus, Bianca was beginning to wonder if she needed to get some medical facilities to us.
But the snails and flowers and unbelievably beautiful caterpillars and millipedes that dotted the landscape diverted attention from the rigour and pain. And then at the last lap it started to rain quite heavily, but the tree cover was so dense that I didn't feel much on me. We reached the bus dripping wet from head to toe. We'd crossed a few more brooks and gushes. Washing my face with the cooling freshness of the water, even our feet felt great to wade through them. It took some of the tiredness away. And the entire journey was dotted with such, always available refreshing, moments - even in the midst of hardship. It was quite an eye-opener to see just how much of what one needs is really always at hand.
Tired, relieved, but mostly chuffed at having completed the journey in one piece, I changed my clothes and got onto the bus when everyone burst into applause. Joan sat down next to me and said "can I please take a selfie with the legend" and she's got one of me looking wan and exhausted - my hair like nothing I'd ever dare post in a photo. But then I didn't care. I couldn't. These social niceties were out of place where one's endurance, grit and resilience had been tested. When the body strong was more valid that body beautiful. When triumph was an obstacle course completed and not how presentable I looked at the end of it. If only one could make this more relevant in terms of the rigours of living. Not to care what experience does to our self-image, was a profound realization.
At the end of the whole journey, when we got off the bus at Panjim, Yogesh, Priyam and I sauntered up towards Panjim bus stand. Yogesh is a young strapping lad and he was the first one to reach Mynapi. He'd been so pickled by it that he told everyone again and again. Clearly all of us had markers of achievement along the way, each one a personal triumph. I shared that my limbs were aching but that I wasn't tired and Priyam exclaimed that's exactly what she was feeling too. A question of mind more thrilled than the body could cope with, said wise Yogesh.
It was Priyam' s first trek too. She’d come from Mumbai to hike up to Mynapi. But she was much, much younger and it reassured me to know that she was experiencing similar pangs of discomfort as I. She also shared that while she watched and waited as I struggled with the last leg but extremely treacherous and precarious ledges before reaching the waterfall, she’d thought to herself, this may well be her last day on this planet. Thankfully I hadn’t had the time to think about this, that I had preceded her, and urged by Bianca, didn’t stop to fear. Those tremors came as an afterthought.
We'd walked on the edge of experience. We'd staggered on the very ledges of life. Our accomplishment lay in embracing the foreboding that nature posed on our way and reaching home safe and sound. Barring a few leeches that had sucked the blood off Lucy and Jaffrey, the soon to be wedded couple, and a few others, there had been nothing untoward and tragic that occurred. We all carried that sense of elation within – a palpable excitement of living through it - a shared journey, shared rigour and shared joys.
As I mulled over this extraordinary happening - I considered why this has been so rewarding but the other challenges where we have had to touch our primate selves in similar ways - the emotions that life can evoke in us, that others can raise in us - the rigour of relationships and more, why don't we feel this same sense of exhilaration, accomplishment and sense of our own power in them? Why do we cower and demur from these triumphs; making these expeditions in nature hallowed goals. Quite honestly, it has to be the daily march through the dark alleys of being, traversing the rivers of human terrain which are the quintessential encounters we undertake that, test the spirit equally, if not more. Requiring as much of a leap of faith. Don’t they, every day?