In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
A Walk in the Woods
Reflection 2004/Penned 2009
I have been watching the small square of Perspex for about twenty minutes now, and it had gradually changed in colour from jet black to pale white, journeying through a variety of shades of grey. I know I should get up, but the pressure on my bladder is not yet sufficiently strong to force an evacuation from the comfort of the sleeping bag. I remove one gloved hand from the warm folds of the bag and pull my woolly hat back over my ears. God, I am glad that no one I know can see me! I must look like a right berk, with my thermals, top and bottom, trekking socks, jogging trousers and fleece. Still at 12000 feet it is better to be warm than fashionable.
You cannot rap on the flap of a tent, not literally, but metaphorically that is what Bala Singh does. “Good morning, sir, your chai.”
I unzip the tent flap, and stare into a lined, nuggetty, brown face, black eyes twinkling, even in the half light of six in the morning. His remaining teeth are indelibly stained brown by a lifetime of smoking binnies, the foul smelling mountain cigarettes. Bala is forty-six, but looks half as old as the Himalayas from which he sprang.
“Mostar.” I grunt, using up 50 per cent of my Garwali vocabulary. “Thanks.” I note with an involuntary shiver the white mantle of frost on the grassy meadow, and I duck inside the tent again, my tin mug of tea clasped in both hands. The tea is hot and sweet, and stewed, in the Indian fashion, but welcome for all that.
I wash quickly, kneeling naked inside the tent, wincing at the scaldingly hot water fresh from the wood fire which has burned all night. I rub ‘Deep Heat’ into my aching thighs, the pungent smell giving a familiar, but entirely false sense of well being. Dressing is an equally rapid activity, and is followed by breakfast, mango juice, boiled eggs, tea, and toast and jam.
At seven thirty we are all ready, hoisting on our backpacks as the boys strike camp, and load the patient mules, unconcerned by the activity, with heads down nibbling the thin mountain grass. Nidish, looking incongruous in Indian dress and a baseball cap, regards us wickedly. “Shall we go, gentlemen?”
“Do we have a choice, mein sturmbahnfuhrer?” I mutter rhetorically, as I stagger off, my mind already occupied by another twelve miles of the sight of the backsides of Nidish, Richard and Neil a hundred yards ahead of me as I wallow like a Thames barge in the wake of three schooners.
We climb, slowly in my case, through a forest of pines, rhododendrons, and silver oaks, the sun shafting down in unexpected cascades of gold. Occasionally a startled bird springs in flight from a branch in front of my face causing my heart to leap. You don’t find tigers up here, do you? There are no paths in the mountains, just a series of rocks or tree roots that countless generations of Garwalis have smoothed with their feet over several thousands of years. The air is thinner, and my breath rasps in my throat, my chest heaves.
We stop every half hour, or so, for me to catch up with the others, to recover my breath and gulp a mouthful of water before we are off again. The sun is high now, and beats down on me, spreading wet stains across my body and under my arms. My bush hat sits square on my head, absorbing the sweat. Does it make me look like the great white hunter, like Jim Corbett, or like some inexperienced city boy? I know the answer, so I concentrate on gritting my teeth and setting small objectives, that rock, or those trees. Anything, to stop thinking about the climb and the ache now beginning to seize my upper legs.
We reach the top, a flat Himalayan meadow, about a mile across, above the tree line, the air crisp and sharp like Chablis, even in the growing warmth of the late autumn sun. The high Himalayas, snow covered and regal, the real mountains, stare at us arrogantly, from the north, contemptuous of our puerile presumption. I sink to my knees, as much from exhaustion as in awe, and slowly stare around in open mouthed wonderment. This is worth the climb, these splendid guardians of Nepal and Tibet, Trishul, Mrigthuni, and Nandahunti, all over 22,000 feet, the magnetic hors d’oeuvres to K2, Annapurna and Everest. We rest, flat on our backs, using our packs as pillows, and I sleep, for ten minutes perhaps, but deeply.
We lunch, briefly and silently, and I find a cricket bat carved from a piece of wood, with a flat front and curved back. I wonder at this, the shepherds, only departed two weeks earlier with their flocks to lower, warmer pastures, playing cricket at 13,000 feet up in the mountains. The legacy of the Raj to India is not all bad, parliamentary democracy, the English language and the ultimate in civilisation, cricket.
Time to go and we plunge once more into the forest on the other side of the high plateau. The climb down is worse than the struggle up. Increasingly the unused muscles in my thighs scream in red hot protest at this abuse. Three miles around Epsom Common twice a week was ill preparation for this torture. Occasionally there is a short and blessed relief as we pass through little villages, the simple one story houses dignified by their red and blue doors, delicately carved in wood. There is no hostility from the people, only a wide mouthed curiosity. One or two venture “Good morning” and I reply in Garwali, “Mostar.” The children pose, unsmilingly stiff and formal, for photographs, while the women, their saris a blaze of colour, giggle as they pass us with their heavy baskets of firewood or fodder.
We are back in the forest, still descending from rock to rock, my trekking boots seeking out footholds. The strain on my legs is becoming unbearable. Someone has stolen my femurs, to say nothing of the tibs and fibs. My legs, so powerful on Epsom Common, are turned to jelly. It is only twelve miles, for God’s sake. Keep going, you fool. At last we see our destination, Tahrali, a small town on the River Pindar, squatting dustily far below, beside the silver ribbon of the river.
I am exhausted when I reach the roadway, where Nidish and the others sit waiting. Nidish puts his arm around my shoulders. “You’ve done well.”
I reply inelegantly, but accurately, “I’m knackered. I hope those damm tigers know what I am doing for them.”
Nidish smiles. “They don’t, but you do, and that is what really matters.”
Written by B.M