The best of the journeys are the ones that are least planned. This strikes me as the minibus
we are traveling in winds through the snaky and precipitous road inside Aru National park.
The drive brings back the memories of the fear I felt when I first journeyed in a recklessly
driven and rickety Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam bus along the treacherous, hilly stretches of
Uttarakhand. But what breath-taking surroundings!
Aru, the base camp of the trek, looks spectacularly beautiful and serene in the fading
evening light. The orange-colored tents are pitched in a glen, away from a small hamlet.
We are a group of twenty-three, mainly from Bengaluru, Pune, and Delhi. Our trek leader is a
passionate, bearded young man, Ankit, who is in love with the mountains. The trekkers’
exchange pleasantries, strike up conversations with each other and when darkness finally
envelopes all by 8.30 pm, slip into the tents.
The next morning, the sky is clear and the mood upbeat as we begin the trek. A slushy climb
along a village track. Then we enter the deodar forests and occasional pines. A comfortable
walk through the conifers. Most of us have offloaded our rucksacks and carry a light
backpack. We walk in and out of the forests and the slopes are gentle. Lunch break is near a
stream. Water is clear and clean and none of us have any hesitation in quenching our thirst.
Our campsite in Lidderwat is in a large grassland. There is a government department
building nearby that looks like a forest guest house. Two more groups are camping a
hundred metres away from us. Lidder river gurgles downhill. We gorge on hot bread
pakoras. A cricket match is on in the backyard of our tents. A lone woman trekker from
Europe sits atop a rock and watches the proceedings with interest and occasional smiles.
She is trekking alone to Kalhoi glacier which is the source of the Lidder river. During an evening
walk, I come across another lone Western trekker who is sitting at the mouth of his small
tent, painting the vista in front of him. He doesn’t notice me or doesn’t care. I take a quick
peek at the small canvas and get a glimpse of trees and snow peaks.
The next morning is bright at five and damps and dulls at six. Ankit takes the tough call
of going ahead with the trek hoping that the weather would improve. It doesn’t and we walk
in the constant drizzle. Ponchos and raincoats are out. The climb is a bit tedious today and
there are not many trees now. A few trekkers are tired but march on bravely. The toughest
part is crossing the rivers. It is not dangerous but the water level is slowly rising. The chill
freezes the bones and the force almost sweeps us off. After wading through rivers and
streams four times, the sole of my right shoe comes off. Nagendra lends his gaiters to me
and it makes a good job of holding the sole in its place. By noon, many are exhausted and
all are hungry and we invade a small Gurjar house on the way. There are several Gurjar
habitations dotting the terrain. What lovely people. Men are tall and handsome, women are
exceptionally beautiful and children are angelic. The ladies serve us Kahva tea and we
polish off our packed lunch savouring the warmth of the house and the hospitality. A Gurjar
woman shows an abscess on her shin and pleads for medicine. A child has a gash on her
leg. A man asks for a stomach-ache reliever. It is a tough life up here in the mountains. What
in case of an emergency?
Rain relents briefly when we reach Shekwas, our campsite. Draught horses, with their forelegs tied together lazily graze in the meadows. The landscape is bewitchingly beautiful and
dazzling blue Aconitum flowers are everywhere. There are many more too, of different hues.
White, blood red, yellow, and blue.
Cloudy skies clear by 7.30 the next morning to a collective sigh of relief. A stream hugs the
trek path throughout our walk, giving us the company of its murmur. It is a moderate climb of
five kilometers and the weather gets better as the day progresses. Butterflies bask on
flowers and a skink briefly mirrors sunlight on a rock. What a panorama! Green undulating
grasslands interspersed with clear brooks. Mountains all around. Ground carpeted with
blossoms of indescribable beauty. It feels wonderful to walk slowly during a trek and more so
if you walk alone. You don’t need words. There is so much to see, so much to appreciate, so
much to soak in. As Ankit says, the trek is about the walk and not about reaching the campsite
quickly. We are at Tarsar lake before lunchtime. All of us try our hands in pitching the tents
and it is easier than imagined. The tranquil lake beckons. The rocks and boulders are strewn
around become the royal seats. The blue waters are crystal clear. This and Marsar are holy
lakes for the Kashmiris. No one is supposed to touch the waters. Stone-throwing and
polluting in any form is prohibited. Our Kashmiri guide, the ever-affable Bilal warns of terrible
weather in the event of sacrilege.
As I walk in the vicinity, I notice a trekker from another small group of youngsters, spit into
the lake. I am aghast. So are my trek-mates. I confront him and sparks fly. The literate
hooligan feigns ignorance and apologizes. Later, the same group throws stones into the
lake, plays loud music, and dances at the banks. This time, I keep my counsel.
On the fourth day, we cross the Tarsar peak in the morning. This is the highest point of our
trek, at around 13,400 feet. All rejoice at the successful scaling. After the ascent, the steep
downhill walk is tricky. And then it is rolling grasslands all the way till we reach Sundarsar
lake. The campsite is next to the waters. The weather is windy and chilly. Anup has pitched
and reserved a ‘lake view’ tent for me and Sanjeev. After lunch, we head towards Marsar
lake, a small distance and a sharp climb away. The blooms are everywhere. Delicate,
creamish Saxifraga flowers with red and yellow center cloth the lakeside rocks in all their
splendor. We walk past the boulders, streams and more flower beds and begin the ascent.
The hill which looked innocuous from far seems intimidating now. Once atop, it is a leisurely
stroll of twenty minutes to the viewpoint. Marsar is mesmerizing and we enjoy the view from
the hill overlooking the lake. The lake is supposed to be almond-shaped but I am not so sure
as one side is a straight line. The skies continue to disappoint the shutterbugs and clouds
clear only in bits and pieces revealing a reluctant blue underneath.
Later in the evening, a game of cards in the dining hall followed by checking of blood
pressure and blood oxygen level Ankit. Then the much-awaited, lip-smackingly delicious
food cooked by Kushal. We wonder how this man manages to dish out Gajar ka halwa,
custard, and cake at 13,000 feet!
In the night, I try my hand at sky photography, aided ably by Kishan. Not a bad beginning but
the results are not entirely satisfying. The chill in the air brings out gloves and thermals and I
snuggle cozily into the sleeping bag.
Sonmasti is our last camp and the downhill walk is easy and relaxed. Again we reach early
and have lots of time to explore the area. Some people decide to take a dip in the cold
sparkling waters of the rivulet nearby. Later in the evening, I spot several Himalayan marmots
on the hillside. They look healthy and alert. They let out a shockingly shrill alarm call on
spotting me and scurrying towards their burrows. Sonmasti waterfall is not much sparkling, as I would imagine it to be.