Satyan Chawla
Designer | Photographer | Human

Thoughts, Ideas, Reflections

When you go camping, carry more than just a book

Monsoon in India is an exciting time for travelers, especially the adventurous kind who like to connect with nature in its most innate form.

So one weekend we set out with our troop of trekkers, all seventeen of us to scale the hills on rented cars since the Varandha Ghats were a good 250 kms south-east of Mumbai.

One of the many tiny waterfalls in the Varandha Ghats

I was all excited, prepared and packed up for my first such camping expedition. Having received a long checklist of equipment and utilities, thanks to our coordinator, my backpack was all stuffed to the point of tear. Some of the stuff in the bag was admittedly useless and inefficient like three rolls of toilet paper because who knows when in the lap of nature, natural phenomenon create a turmoil.

The aha moment, and the oh crap

It didn’t seem like a bad idea at that point, hell it was my idea to begin with to keep some of our bags in the other car which had a more spacious boot space and because ours was getting a little too cramped for the 5–6 hour journey ahead. Let’s just call that moment of insight, the “aha moment”, for I thought, this journey would get more comfortable now.

Not much after, I started cursing my aha moment when I realized I should have taken my camera too out of my bag for the scenic journey apart from the book I had packed to get in the adventurous mood. I thought it would be fine, for I could always take it at the next rest stop, only later word came from that group that they had taken some other route to reach there, the longer but faster route. And I started dreading the aha moment whenever I felt I needed something from my bag — earphones, water, snacks, camera, etc.

The curious case of the missing car

We were in the ghats, our driver slowly and cautiously executing the hairpin bends, and we had one arm raised out the window trying to catch cellular network. Few more kilometers into the valleys and we stopped by some local snack shops for tea and hot bhajji, learned from them about a temple up the hill and decided to set our camp there before it starts getting dark. We had no way to contact the car that opted for the other route, neither did we have any prefixed destination or rendezvous point.

More than the missing car, I was selfishly worried about my bag and how I was going to survive the cold night without my jacket, what if it rains, heck I didn’t even have my shoes with me to trek up to our camp site. Thankfully it wasn’t a long distance and my sports sandal didn’t disappoint me either.

More aha’s and more oh crap’s

We were there, everyone is single piece except the four in the missing car who eloped with my precious bag. And then the struggle to set up our tents began. On occasions like these, everyone tries to be the underdog, and it takes more than patience to keep oneself from shouting “that’s not how its done you idiot”. Some of us who didn’t want to be a part of the mess took to collecting some firewood and dry grass, we even collected some twigs and sticks to feed our bonfire. I was really skeptical if we could pull off getting a fire out of the damp wood using just some vegetable oil that some genius bought from the village before the ghats, thinking that that should be an efficient replacement of kerosene.

All the while I was thinking to myself of ways to contact the missing car. I climbed up to the top of the hill to catch a signal with no luck. Then I went round the hill trying to get to the other side but came back disappointed.

And then it clicked, maybe one of the four in the missing car contacts the drivers of our cars, who drove off to the village for the night, and find out about our whereabouts, next moment I realized who all were the occupants in that car and thought they probably would be taking selfies and having a gala time of their own.

Throughout the evening at the campsite, someone or the other needed something which I had in my bag. Half of the conversations that I had that ended with “Yeah I have what you need! Its in my bag, in the other car.”

“We need a lighter or match for the fire”

“Yeah I brought a lighter! But its in my bag that I left in the other car”

starts drizzling, everybody puts on raincoats or ponchos or jackets

“Damn! My raincoat is in my bag”

no more rain, cold breeze, wet t shirt

“Shit! I had a towel and change of clothes in my bag”

“Wow! These ghats look amazing at twilight! Such picturesque landscape! Should’ve taken my dslr out of the bag instead of the book! I’m not even reading the book. At least I have my phone camera! Something’s better than nothing!”

Its really sad when you’re cold, have nothing to eat, and no equipment to contribute to the work being done by the group. Everybody was kind enough to share some food with me. A couple slices of bread slopped with some nutella and cheese can truly save your ass. Although a real treat would be catching a wild hare or something and cooking it on the fire, but nobody would want to do the dirty work

The disappointing miracle

It got dark and the missing car really had us worried. Everyone was wondering if they’d ever find us, or are they setting up their camp some place else, or have they turned back to Mumbai. We had absolutely no idea where they were.

Earlier two people went all the way down to the road to inquire about them from the shops, and one of the shop owners recalled that he saw a red SUV passing by and it didn’t stop. They got some kerosene from the shop owner and requested him and a few others to keep an eye out for the car if they turn back trying to find us.

Now we decided to send someone again down to the road to check if the shop owner had any updates. Three men volunteered to go down in the dark, but we could find only two flashlights. Of course I had one in my bag which was in the missing car.

Around 20 min later, when everyone else was chit chatting, I saw a couple flashlights. Someone was coming up. I identified a third light, but the group that went down had only two. It could be that they bought a third light from the shop below or maybe one of them was using his phone’s flashlight. I started blinking my phone’s flashlight trying to signal them, and I got similar response. Every minute or so I exchanged the same signal with the group so they knew they were on the right track.

Then I heard their voice and I distinctly recognized it to be of one of the person’s from the missing group. I tried to hear carefully and yup I recognized the second person too. They were here. They must have been waiting for us down there by the shops and the group that went down had intercepted them. I informed everyone that they are all here. Most of all I was relieved that finally I could have my bag. This was no less than a miracle to me! These guys driving around the mountains had somehow found us in the dark without any contact, without any rendezvous point and without our cars on the road as an indication that we must be here. It was a huge coincidence that the group that went down to find them was at the right place at the right time when their car must have been driving by.

But there was another twist! When they reached the campsite, they were alone. They didn’t intercept with the group that had gone down to find them. They had just stopped by the shops on the road and the noble man had told them that we are camped up here. They were able to find us just by their guesses and thereafter following my flashlight signals. That had intensified my belief in miracles. I asked one of them if they brought my bag from their car. He said no.

The high time

That moment I just decided to forget the bag, and make use of whatever I had and enjoy the time there. The group that went down was still searching for the car on the road, and they found it parked on the side, but no one in there. We heard them shouting names and after 5 minutes of blind shouting from both the sides, they could finally comprehend that the others are already up here and then they started coming back.

Amidst all the shouting, we noticed a sharp white spotlight aiming at us. It was as intense as that of a lighthouse and a good 5–6 kms away from us. It was really dark and foggy and dead silent, we got pretty conscious that they must be some forest rangers or some authority who were able to hear our screams and perceived them as a call for help. So we went silent, turned off all our flashlights, and after a few minutes their light got turned off too. Few in the group got quite scared by that.

With the whole group finally together, and having some kerosene now, we quickly set up the fire and started munching on the snacks. All of us were having a good enjoyable time, chatting, walking around, exploring the surroundings. But whenever there are 17 people together, someone gets highlighted in some kind of incident that makes the whole experience memorable for everyone. That is exactly what one of the girls did by gulping all of our kerosene. The dragon lady herself has something to say about her strange drinking habits.

It was way past midnight now. We were all high up in the hills sitting on the grass four people in four rows as if in a kindergarten classroom. Talented ones had just finished their performances of singing, stories and mimicking our boss. We were now calmly observing the firefly sitting on the spot where the humans were performing earlier, silently blinking, glowing in the darkness. Up ahead in the distance, across the valley, once in a while a truck would appears from the other side of a hill, its high beam turning directly towards us, magically lighting up the whole foggy valley in yellow. Just a bright yellow spot far far away killing the dark of night. That was an ecstatic spectacle I won’t forget. An experience that makes all of this worth doing for. That was the high time.

The morning after

Most of the peaks were always covered behind a blanket of mist

Waking up early morning, stepping out barefoot on the wet grass, with vast mountains and deep valleys right in front of you and taking a piss at the edge of a cliff. That’s how every morning should be. The whole group was packed up and ready in the next half hour. We started the harder trek downhill, since it had poured in the night and the path was getting muddy and slippery, which was making it much more difficult in the sandals. Somehow I managed to get down to the road without falling even once by taking alternate grassy steps wherever I could.

Finally I was united with my bag, and I had my camera with me now. Spent some time clicking some pictures of the valley while the same shop owner from previous evening was preparing tea and vada pao for us. Hot tea and bhajji early morning in the valleys with cold winds and clouds streaming against your face is no less than divine.

Clouds passing by the ghats sprinkling cool showers

Cold mountain waterfalls perfect for a morning bath

Soon our cars were loaded and we started our journey back to Mumbai. After some 20 minutes of driving we stopped by a waterfall. The water was as clear and fresh as it could get, and we couldn’t stop ourselves from taking a dip there, no matter how cold it was. Our coordinator was the first one to scale the rocky waterfall, and soon others followed. Sitting on a rock with cold mountain water pouring over your head would surely clear your mind of any kind of earthly stress. After an hour of fun in the water, we quickly got changed up and set on our way to the 4 hour ride back to the city, and this time, without a doubt, my bag was sitting in my lap.

TravelSatyan Chawla