Many years ago, when in College, I'd gone on a monsoon trek. And the resulting trauma almost put me off trekking for life. To begin with, it was a night trek, my shoes were all wrong, my bag wasn't waterproof and my dinner was a sodden mess. The spare clothes were also soaked. And to make the ignominy more thorough, we lost the trail.
Faint memories of that fiasco stirred in my mind when I signed up for the trek to Prabalgad on Independence Day. Of course, I was a more experienced trekker now, but one didn't take a trek rated 'Difficult in the monsoons' lightly. What added to my nervousness was that two of my friends, both first time trekkers, had also signed up. In convincing them that it would be fun, I hoped I didn't make it sound like an easy amble.
But when we reached the base village of Poinje, just a few kms. off Panvel, and saw the lofty slopes smothered with every hue of green, and not a soul in sight, all concerns fled. 'Let's GO!' said 15 pairs of itchy feet.
Crash! My friend, S, stepped on a mossy patch and found herself nose to the ground. We hadn't even left the village.
'Watch your step, don't fall,' cautioned someone, in what proved to be the most useless bit of advice in the whole day.
We crossed the little hamlet and headed out into a wide expanse of green. It was 11 a.m. but the scowling, low-hanging cumulonimbus, created an end-of-day feeling. The peak of Prabalgad, shrouded in mist, seemed unbelievably distant. 2318 feet, said the guidebook. Of the fort itself, not much was known save the fact that the Great Maratha Warrior had wrested it from the Mughals in 1658. I couldn't wait to see the view from the fort ruins. I couldn't wait to have my head in the clouds.
We squelched through the moisture-soaked earth. Initially, I tried to avoid getting my shoes wet by stepping nimbly over stones. I gave up when I realized that the only way to keep them dry would be to walk on my hands. We waded through streams and bent low as we hacked through overgrown thickets. Crabs dozing in little puddles, scuttled away as fast as they could.
The rain swooped down on us intermittently; unqualified windcheaters offering little resistance. I couldn't even remember the last time I drank the rainwater streaming down my face. It was unbelievably pleasurable.
We started the steep climb to the second plateau. Although we were alone, the woods were far from silent. Birds chirruped, brooks gurgled, mosquitoes hummed, we grunted. The trail was all but washed away at places. And after climbing a particularly steep and slippery patch, we scrambled onto a flat, green expanse of land.
The view on almost every side was heartbreakingly beautiful. Peaks rose and fell, rose and fell in wide sweeping arcs. Prabalgad, Irshalgad, Kalvantini durg… all so much closer now. I was transfixed by the sight of billowing clouds racing towards an immutable peak and getting torn to shreds. The swirling mists created an effect of 'smoking mountains'. What time was it? The gray clouds gave no clues.
Somehow I’d always thought of gray as gloomy. But it seemed to bring out the rich green hues of the surrounding foliage so stunningly that I didn’t want the sky to be any other colour.
And then the perfect picture got marred.
‘We’ve taken the wrong trail. It will be another 3 hours to the fort,’ said the trek leader. ‘We have two options – continue or head towards the village’.
Sanity would have chosen the latter, considering there were far too many first timers and the trail was almost non-existent. But we were the ‘let’s-give-it-a-shot’ kinds. We started climbing. Correction, we started scrambling on all fours, gingerly treading our way. And we slipped and tripped like sozzled barflies.
We’d almost gotten ¾ of the way to the top, when a decision was taken not to go any further. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall and then started the precarious descent. More slipping and tripping.
I was disappointed at not having reached the peak. But S & P were exultant. ‘I’ve never done anything like this before’, said P. ‘I’m so glad I came along’, marveled S. And my spirits lifted a bit. Prabalgad could be conquered another day.