On Saturday, 28th April 2012, 21 men entered the forests in the Palani hills. 4 days later, 19 men staggered out, some more dead than alive, having traveled 86 odd km, and endured everything the hills could throw at them. This is the story of those 4 days. Days that will live forever in the minds of those 19 men, who dared to follow in the footsteps of the British soldiers who built the ancient old jeep track and whose ghosts still haunt the trail.
The 21 men met up at their base camp on the aforementioned date. As they consumed breakfast and joked and narrated stories from past experiences, little did they know that soon they would enter some of the most mysterious terrain in South India. A bus was chartered and laughing and joking, they set off towards the drop off point. This was the last civilization that anyone of them saw for the next 4 days. And so began the most extraordinary journey of their lives. After a little climbing they happened upon a trail and set off on it towards the general direction of a big lake. All around them, the mist slithered, making even the most innocuous tree branch appear sinister. Visibility was at near zero and co-trekkers vanished and appeared out of it like vengeful wraiths from the past. As the day wore on, they climbed a few peaks and explored new trails. Stunning views of the hills greeted their eyes every time they climbed a new peak.
Towards evening, the intrepid team approached a large lake. A smooth expanse of water, it was wonderful to watch the water reflect the sky and the colorful flora around it. A brief interlude for rest at a waterfall provided some much needed relief for the legs but here the leeches first made their first appearance. Slimy and disgusting, they latched on to the feet of the hapless trekkers and sucked to their hearts content. Much expended energy and cussing later, the team happened upon a slim canal that would take them to their destination, where among the bison and the elephant, they would make their camp. The second lake itself was a shimmering mirror, hiding from them the secrets of the forests in it’s cold depths. Camp was pitched, dinner was cooked and eaten and the men made their way to their tents to sleep, not knowing what awaited them on the morrow.
Sunday dawned cold and dark. The lake too played its part by sending in waves of mist and fog that covered everything in a dense blanket of grey. It was as if the lady of the lake too was warning them to keep away from the ancient jeep track that was to be their trail that day. Soon enough they reached the old trail and started following in the footsteps of the old soldiers who had built it. All around them were old buildings, milestones and trail markers that had not been seen by anyone since the days of the British raj. Many of them were dilapidated and run down, giving the intrepid bunch a hint of what had happened at that spot 70 years ago. The team did deviate from the trail every now and then to explore alleys and peaks. The team members lost count of the number of times they climbed up and down.Up, down, up, down they went with neither rest not relief in sight.
Grimly, the remaining men walked on, silently stepping into the unknown. Towards the evening they reached a bridge, made of concrete and having a plentiful source of running water. It was the ideal campsite. But no! It was too early to pitch camp! They marched on towards the trail, splitting into groups and navigating by torchlight. Peering into the darkness, they somehow climbed up in search of water. But there was none to be found! On and on they climbed. Spirits flagged and minds broke, but the quest for water had to continue. Finally at some point, it was decided that they could go no further, having already covered 27 km that day. A few of them fell where they were and had not the strength to get up, while others lay down ans fell asleep where they were. Water was sought and found in a thin stream 40 minutes away. The team leader and his second in commands went to fetch water while the rest of the crew stayed back to prepare the fire and dinner.
Monday, the third day of the trek saw the explorers climb towards the water source early in the morning. It soon became obvious that the climb could not have been done the previous night. And soon enough they reached a nice flat where they could cook oats and prepare for the day ahead. After the tiring second day, many of them expected the third day to be relatively easy. Alas, it was not so. The target for that day was to explore the remainder of the trail and several ridges and peaks in the vicinity. And as they climbed, they had to exercise ceaseless vigil for anything who could cut short the trek. They reached a trail that was on the highest ridge, with obelisks marking out the water divide every few meters. This part of the trail was the easiest and lulled many of them into thinking that the rest of the day would be as easy as this.
As ever, they had spoken too soon. Peak after peak they climbed. As the day wore on, so did their minds. Steep climb followed steep descent as nameless peaks appeared out of nowhere. Still, they had to be climbed. It was at this point that the ghosts made their presence felt. They weakened the body and the mind of the climbers. Pain, physical and mental, harassed each and everyone of them. Hunger, thirst and cold lashed them from all sides. The mist only added to the eerie atmosphere. Everytime a climber was enveloped by fog, the person behinf him had to run ahead for fear of losing the trail. The leeches too kept up their assault. All this combined to break many a climber’s mind.
But the day was not done yet. A campsite had to be found. The nearest suitable campsite was in the same direction as they had come from. They had to head back to 1st day lake. Voices groaned and protested, but there was little that could be done for they knew that if they were to exit the forest the next day, they had to march through the pain on this day.As they retraced their steps towards the lake, they heard bison calls in the distance sounding ominous in the dark and making the ones at the back walk faster, lest they meet something that would not like their presence there. Finally after 11 hours of near continuous walking, they finally reached a campsite near the lake and collapsed, exhausted but thankful that they had survived to climb another day. They had covered almost 33 km on that day alone.
The fourth day promised to be easier as the major part of the trek had been completed by then. The trekkers had taken almost everything that the ghosts who haunted that place could have thrown at them and come out alive. With new found determination they set out for the exit point, stumbling along, gasping for breath and pushing aching limbs to the limit. Soon enough they reached the stream that would take them out. But the ghosts were not yet done. They had done all they could to chase the team out of their haunt but had failed. And so in their vengeance, they threw all they had into the fight. Rain was sent down, and with it an army of leeches. And the trail wore on with no end to it in sight.
Slippery rocks, loose ground, blood sucking leeches and bitingly cold rain dampened spirits as many despaired of ever reaching the exit.It was death in the last drive! But just as they were about to break, came a godsend in the form of a trail. A trail out of the haunted hills! Eagerly they followed it and ran along it towards the road like starved wolves towards a hunk of meat. After what seemed an eternity,and an eternity it was for they had covered almost 86 km in some of the toughest terrain, their sore eyes were treated to the sight of the exit point and civilization. And so it came to pass that those 19 brave souls who had dared to venture into the unknown, and walk on trails where few had walked before, came out alive. Each of them had a story to tell, and each story was worth hearing a dozen times over.