Not a cloistered train ride or a blink-and-miss flight or even a rickety semi-recliner bus. I want the comfort of sailing along a road on smooth tyres with the window turned down, the music blasting and the wind turning my hair into a bird’s nest. The last time I went on a road trip was in Kanatal, a romantic (but aren’t they all?) hill-station in Uttarakhand. We were travelling from The Terraces, a boutique spa resort to Kaudia Forest, where we’d be having a starlit bonfire dinner party. It was more than a few kilometres away and several hardy SUVs had been purposed for the journey.
But what made the trip excitingly memorable was the option of sitting at the back, with no roof to protect us from the elements and only make-shift seats to cushion us from the rumble of the CEAT tyres.
It was the month of October and winter hadn’t yet engulfed the rest of India but here in the mountains, cool sheets of wind made contact with our sun-warmed skin. We were actually relieved as the hours progressed and the sunshine grew in strength. I donned shades and a hat and hung on for dear life, lest the vehicle should decide to send me teetering over the edge. Of course, we were protected by a latched door but the feeling of travelling by a truck instead of a cosy car was inescapable.
We paused along the way to explore a waterfall but I was as charmed by the panoramic view of the Himalayan hillside.
We stood in silence, gazing and gazing into the valleys and finding it more captivating than any film or television show.
Perhaps because we felt like we were gazing into reflections of our own selves – beautiful, vast, full of secrets and infinitely deep. Before embarking on the ride, Ajay Ghale, the hardy naturalist had warned us, “You’ll not find it comfortable.” But we had been undeterred. It wasn’t every day that you got the opportunity to ride on the back of an SUV and feel like you were on a mountain rollercoaster with every turn and pothole sending your stomach lurching into your heart.
By the time we reached Kaudia Forest, dusk had already begun to descend and we were too late to make it to the sunset point. Nevertheless, a few of us ploughed on, leaving the others to set up camp.
It was a surreal experience riding through the forest in near-darkness with the leaves rustling furtively and shadows training their invisible eyes on us.
At any point, we were sure that a leopard would leap out of the foliage or the valley would claim us for itself. But none of that happened. We turned back mid-way, seeing as the stars had come out in the sky and returned to camp, safe and sound. The next morning, there would be another bumpy yet adventurous ride to look forward to, with only the accommodating CEAT tyres offering solace, while our bodies braced themselves for the Spartan back of a SUV.
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Over a starlit bonfire in the thick of Kaudia Forest at Kanatal, Uttarakhand, a naturalist of Nepali descent regaled us with tales from his army days. Blame it on the several glasses of the good stuff but a few of my co-travellers imagined that they’d seen the fiery eyes of a leopard a few feet into the darkness. The unknown enveloped us all around, kept at bay by the leaping flames of our camp fire but only just. Who knew, perhaps the sonorous voice of our young guitarist had touched a chord in some feral hearts as well. This unearthly experience was one of many, crafted by Ravi Malhotra, the MD of a boutique spa resort called The Terraces and his team, comprising mostly of locals.
The Himalayas are a far-off place for those of us who reside in the city of dreams, Mumbai. We must undertake the long and arduous journey to New Delhi and thereon to legendary places like Mussoorie, Manali and Dharamshala. Yet when I opened my bleary eyes to the mountain-ringed view at a chai stall in Dehradun, I knew that I would travel many times that distance to be treated to this. This was my second encounter with Asia’s most majestic mountain range. The first was at Manali in March this year. Then, the landscape was draped with the last of the snow, sending chills through my gloved hands and booted feet. Now, the pine trees stood tall, braving the summer sun which still played second fiddle to the northerly winds. We were full of expectation and excitement for the days to follow, no doubt filled with breathtaking moments and memories to be treasured. Now when I transport myself back to that morning, I can almost convince myself that the trip isn’t long finished but just about to begin.
On our very first day in Kanatal, a picture-perfect hill-station a short drive away from Dehradun, we were driven to sweet exhaustion thanks to a gruelling trek over narrow hilly paths strewn with pine cones and slippery grass. Our destination? Vinod’s humble abode where we’d be having a healthy mountain lunch on the terrace, with the food laid over a straw bed that many of us had earmarked for a nap, later on. During our three-hour long trek that involved a decent amount of climbing and unseemly scrambling, we spotted deer and local plants like kidney beans and something resembling mustard. More than once, Vinod, a hardy local duped us by saying “We’re nearly there! Just five minutes more,” or “This is the last difficult stretch! From here on, it’s a straight route.” The icing on the cake came when we realised that his house was just a stone’s throw away from The Terraces and we had adopted this circuitous and at times precarious route just to have a taste of the mountainside. But a few bites of the scrumptious dal and vegetables that Vinod’s household had prepared, and all was forgiven.
Have you ever noticed that mysteries are more prone to unfold in the wee hours of morning or night, rather than the harsh light of day? I noticed it anew as we assembled in the beautiful garden at The Terraces, with dusk casting a saffron glow over the mountains behind us. A dhaba-style set-up served up hot tea, pakoras and even pani puri. Sitting around and chatting over food and beverages seemed like a great idea after the long train ride and trying trek that we’d undertaken earlier. But my attention was drawn to the pretty little lamps lighting up the lawn as the shadows of night took over.
Little orbs of light Nestle within fluttering floral masses A garden of nightly secrets Whose gatekeepers are the mighty mountains.
Countless stars in this Himalayan sky Twinkle at us from a bygone era And a cheery crackling bonfire Sends sparks to meet their lofty silver cousins.
A silence broken only by the whispering wind Drifts through the lawns and shrubbery Wraps itself around errant leaves And lies in wait for the morning dew.
Later in the night, when our frayed nerves had been suitably smoothened by the happy conversation and endless cups of chai served in earthen cups, we headed to the bar and discotheque for a night of unforgettable revelry. The monk, soulful Coke Studio tracks and the company of good people make for a beautiful combination when you’re holidaying in the mountains. From jugni to madari, we danced on songs that I’d loved and lived so many times in front of my computer screen at home and at work. Most of us never made it to the buffet dinner spread but those who did, vouched for its deliciousness on the morning after.
Mornings at Kanatal are cloaked in curtains of mist, ranging from gossamer light to heavy enough to obscure visibility completely. We were lucky enough to confront a morning that let us commune not just with the birds of the Himalayas but also the stoic peaks in the distance. Ajay Ghale, the aforementioned Nepali naturalist led the birding tour and pointed out long-tailed minivets, thrushes, magpies and Indian turtle doves that we struggled to capture in our slow lenses. They looked like darting flames of colour as their vibrant wings flew from tree to tree, only to be veiled by the foliage in the end. We walked over the shaky Burma Bridge whose stability seemed to dangerously decrease with every extra pair of feet that hopped on. Our rumbling stomachs roared with ferocity as the enticing scent of poha filled the air. Some of the staff was enjoying an early breakfast in their quarters and they generously shared a portion with us. That didn’t diminish our appetite when it came to the actual breakfast though.
The portly chef Mahatam had whipped up an array of baked and Indian delicacies for our breakfast in the restaurant, which also had the option of outdoor seating with an alluring view of the green lawns and mountains beyond. I’ve observed that mountain folk are really good at baked and western delicacies as compared to traditional Indian delights like upma, dosa and idli. This belief was reconfirmed at The Terraces where I enjoyed the cardamom tea, muffins and spinach egg the most. Once we were suitably fortified, we embarked on a long drive to Saur Cottages, a cluster of cosy pastoral apartments set in the midst of cabbage patches and farms.
It was to be our venue for a lavish lunch but visitors to the Terraces also have the option of staying overnight in the cottages equipped with all modern amenities. I was sorely tempted by the idea of waking up to the sun rising over those endless green fields with so little civilisation to blot the untouched landscape. But Ravi and his team had more adventurous plans for us in store.
That was the night we became one with Kaudia forest with guitarist and singer extraordinaire Ashish Kaur’s rendition of ‘Gulabi aankhen’ mixing with the sparks from the hearty bonfire and lending the forest air a special fragrance. We sat in a circle around the bonfire, the flames reflected in our eyes and setting the liquids in our glasses aglow. The music inspired many to loosen their heartstrings and speak of matters that had troubled them for a long time. The music inspired the rest of us to empathise and often a listening ear.
There was laughter, good food and conversations that would never happen again, at least not at a night-time bonfire in the middle of a forest frequented by only a smattering of natives. All too soon, it was time for the last song, the final drink and an unforgettable look around the velvety black wilderness. It’s strange but I feel much more civilised in the wild than in the city; everything is so much more real and unfiltered.
When holidays begin to draw to a close, sadness usually makes an entry much sooner than it should. Not so in Kanatal. On our final morning at The Terraces, impenetrable swirls of fog had taken over the mountainside completely. But after an invigorating session of yoga and meditation, we found that the Himalayas had allowed a little beauty to seep through. A co-blogger and I managed to capture a vibrant bird (soon to be identified) in motion and the sheer joy of that accomplishment sent any untimely depression scuttling. Besides, there was lunch by the Satyun River to look forward to, before we departed for Dehradun railway station.
Our lunch tables were set up inches away from the gurgling Satyun River, sheltered by a cliff and waterfall. The sight of the sudsy water crashing over the rocks and descending into cool green ponds sent me searching for a pen and paper.
Gurgle swish swoosh Fingers of liquid mist Set the rocks adrift Race over the cliffs To join the lazy lagoon.
There in the innards of the forest Conifers stand tall And keep watch over the bubbling froth Like nature’s broth For all of modernity’s ills.
This constant music And ceaseless movement Like the turn of the world’s wheel An eternal tireless dance.
In a stroke of nature-inspired genius, the staff had set bottles of cold drinks below the waterfall for ultimate cooling. The food tasted particularly delicious with the gushing of the water for background music and occasional sprays wetting our faces and hands. The more adventurous members of our group ventured further into the rocks and posed by a bigger waterfall beyond which the mountains towered like they did throughout Kanatal. After our meal, a friend and I took a walk along the cliff and soaked in the views of the hillside in the manner of someone about to return to the hubbub of the city. It was so silent, so peaceful and so utterly perfect.