“The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences” : Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild. And so we believe.
We are four friends. Nitesh, Vivek, Aritra and me, Raunaq. The four musketeers! We had waited for this adventure trip for quite a few months, and after being stuck in a rut for many months, finally, our time came to experience freedom. We felt the ushering in of fresh bright positive feelings, and looked forward to the experiences we were about to have, or more aptly, make.
We had covered quite a few places in the days before reaching Nagaland, it might have seemed hectic for some, but there was hardly any moment which felt like the usual familiar endless commute. We saw the majestic falls of Meghalaya, Nohkalikai being our favourite. The exploration inducing Mawsmai and Arvah caves. The Bamboo towers and the living root bridges at Mawlynnong, which even our driver remarked, he had never seen a group go down and come back so fast. The really long and high ziplining experience at Mawdok. Boating and swimming in the chilled waters of the clear Dawki river in the evening. And the grand Laitlum Canyons, site of shooting of the movie Rock On 2.
After such a fun-packed schedule, which left us wanting for more, we set off for the last and the most awaited destination in our itinerary. The charming and beautiful Dzukuo or Dziikuo Valley.
10:00 am : So, We’d reached the starting point for the Dzukuo trek after a gruelling one and a half hours steep climb, which usually takes the locals barely thirty minutes. Thank God, no one was there to see us climb, for we would have been the laughing stock and the butt of ridicule, peculiar we may have seemed to them, lazy people of the cities. Nevertheless, we reached the point and halted for 10 minutes.
The point bifurcated into two routes running opposite to each other, one towards Mount Tempu, 9842 feet and the other Dzukuo Valley, at a much lower altitude, about 8000 feet. We wanted to cover as much of this area as we had found quite a lot about this place on the internet. We planned to go to Mt. Tempu (assuming it was nearer) and then come back and proceed towards Dzukuo valley. Ohh.. how wrong we were, such rookies and novices.
So we set off for Mt. Tempu. The trail was exquisitely beautiful. Hills all around making for a panorama. Bushes about 3-4 feet in height, light green hued, and all around us. Not a spot where a plant did not grow. Might seem stupid to say, but the plants kind of seemed happy, everything so bright, in appearance and feel. The hills looked like they were covered with carpets of fresh bright grass. Air 100% clean. Pollution level 0, as against those in most cities and towns.
We met a local hunter on the way, stocked with a British .303 rifle. He was alone, had a small bag for food supplies. We saw no animals in our entire trek so we don’t know what he would have been hunting but certainly not people, quite contrary to what people believe about Nagaland! He was quite freindly and simple. He let us hold the rifle and pose for pictures with it.We asked him the way to Mt. Tempu, and he told us we were about an hour away if we walked fast, and would need to take a left from a spot (which we assumed we would be able to identify later) to reach Dzukuo.
Oh did I tell you, we had not hired any guide, planning to rely on each other for help and morale, and the trails for navigating.
We followed the hunter’s directions and the trail, which after 15 minutes grew very tall and thick, and bit steep. We had to grasp onto the strong stems of the plants to use as support as it had become quite steep and slippery now. After walking for about an hour, the guys questioned whether to move ahead or pull back. We decided to walk for fifteen more minutes, luckily found a rest spot, had some food and were off again in ten minutes.
From here it was mostly uphill and quite strenous. After half an hour of climbing, the guys started thinking of returning as we had no clue how far the top was, and the trails were disappearing under the thick growth of bushes, now nearly 7 feet tall and quite thorny. We could tell people hadn’t come here in quite a while, giving the bushes the freedom to grow their maximum.
I urged them to continue, about three-four times, in the next 45 minutes, as I reckoned, we had come quite a distance and it would be quite a shame to know later we were 100 meters from the top, if we were. They agreed and continued without responding.
12:00 pm : To our pleasant surprise, I was spot on. We reached the top within the next five minutes and I could hear their victorious and joyous shouts. Once I reached with Aritra, I just let myself loose and I let out a huge shout of delight and success of unmeasurable proportions. The sight was so beautiful, you will only see in your dreams and if God granted us entry into Heaven.
The guys happily conceded my instinct was right, they had never seen such a wonderful sight before.It was hard for us to contain such excitement, the adrenaline rush we so love, and the high of peacefulness, clarity, tranquility, happiness and amazement. In front of and below us, lay the entire Dzukuo Valley. The clouds flowed out like curtains, as if we were the audience about to see a very major Broadway act.
You cannot even compare what you get to see here, with what you see in luxurious cities. Nothing compares to the beauty of this place, and the freedom and peace you experience here. In fact, not just this final view from the top, but the entire journey. As we believe, its the entire experience which counts and not just the end destination. That is what makes a complete beautiful memory. Our country India, has such great nearly-untouched exquisitely beautiful places and it feels shameful to think about how we are so ignorant of them. How easily we could be known as the Golden Bird again if we took care of our motherland.
Here, even the clouds posed for us creating great frames for our cameras. We sat here and soaked in the tranquility, and cleared our heads making way for the beautiful sights and filling our bucket of memories. Although, it was very cold at the top due to the winds, and we realised the tall bushes we walked through earlier was what had kept us from feeling the winds.
So this is where it starts. The story we won’t ever forget. A narrow escape. To come back here to tell you about it. As you’ll see, the story turns darker, grimmer and sour from here. To our surprise.
Okay, I’m very stubborn sometimes. Sometimes its good, pushes to me go further. And sometimes like this time, it goes beyond reasonable limits – the usual bad kind. Irrational. Illogical. Just plain mindless stubbornness led by excitement and mis-calculated adventure.
So, we carried on from the top of Mount Tempu, towards Dzukuo valley following a trail expecting it will lead us to the path, the hunter we met earlier, told us about – left and down from the top. Even midway, just ten minutes later, we ran into a very thick growth of bushes and no sign of a trail. We could see three hills in a line and it seemed obvious Dzukuo would be just a few kilometers from there.I pushed my friends on to continue on with the spirit of conquest and adventure. So they did. After reaching, we saw three more. The guys decided it would get late, which in retrospect, was correct, and this was to be our point of return – be safely back leaving a good buffer for sudden contingencies.
My stubbornness got the better of me. I urged them on for these three more and told them this would be the last strectch and if we did not see Dzukuo from there we would return. So, they did it, yet again, with difficulty this time. Sadly, even after this, we could see two more hills and something that looked like a small tent on the other side of the last hill. I think this phenomenon is called “false summit” in mountaineering terms, and was what we had encountered.
I guess, at this time, my excitement still holding strong at level 10 of 10, overcame me. My mind became like that of an animal, driven by instinct. Only here, an instinct of exploration and adventure replaced that of hunger. Or dare I call it adventure. My brain saw no reason, and became solely focussed on attaining the end. This, in my opinion, is the wrong kind of focus. Mindless. Dangerous and foolish. We had no guide, only rainwear, barely any warm clothing and just enough food that we could make last for 2 days.
To their disappointment and amazement, I told them I’ll go and check it out real quick and return in 20 minutes. There was a brief silence and disagreement but we had planned for all of us to stick together during all times of the trek, to ensure no one gets lost or separated. I have immense respect for all of them for maintaining this rule. So now they were following me unwillingly, clearing the thorny vegetation, by hand and making trails ourselves. We should have known better – No one comes here!!
2:30 pm : We finally reached the last hill in sight. But Alas! this sight left us perplexed, in shock, gripped with fear and we were now in a state of subdued panic, not letting it out for fear of affecting others in morale. In front of us stood a 60-70 feet vertical hill, which would have to be rock-climbed dangerously to get to the top, and it looked really damp and wet. We simply gazed at it for a few minutes and its slopes for ways to the other side.
Our bucket of luck, got exhausted as this hill had only almost vertical cliffs at both ends and nearly 200-300 feet dead-drops.They were not exactly vertical but with a very high slope angle. The only way accross would be by risking a near sure roll and probably breaking many bones in our body.
Well, the thing with sense is that many-a-times it comes with experience, mostly unpleasant ones, and at the wrong time, and it came to me finally. I realised what we were up against, where we were, what we were doing and thinking, and feeling. Our faces looked like we’d been cheated or robbed. I had a sense of guilt, and feelings of confusion, disappointment and amazement setting in.
It was now three hours to dark. We just thought : we spent 6 hours getting here using all our physical and mental resources. At this point, we felt we were nearly 90% spent with our body’s reserves, more because of the situation we found ourselves in. We had a small discussion and reached a consensus, we would trace back to Mount Tempu in an hour and then rush back to the starting point in two, from there.
So we started tracing back the arduous path, basically imaginary, as we had to make our own. I can’t tell you how discouraging this was, knowing what situation we had fallen into. Even Lord of the Rings’ Mr. Frodo would have had an easier trek to that infamous Mount Doom. Well, this was ours. It seemed like fate had turned evil and was laughing at us, at this tragic snenario we were in. Like defenseless prey surounded by savage predators.
Few things we learnt that day : Firstly, Nature is beautiful but a few wrong decisions can make her seem treacherous. Well, She will be what she is. Secondly, never to take uncalculated risks. Obey rules of time-deadlines. Thirdly, only venture beyond designated territory if you have necessary experience, clothing, equipment and an experienced guide. Lastly, never ever try to be a hero. Always respect the power of Nature, it can turn its fury on you.
3:30pm : So, as luck would have it, it turned a typical horror story for us. At this moment, for you to think “stereotypical” about this story of ours would not be wrong! The Clouds, Oh! those beautiful pieces of cotton candy. Trust me, you can hate clouds too. Tracing our way back to Mount Tempu was our only option and now the clouds were playing havoc. Our entire area was engulfed in clouds. Thick, cold, slow moving clouds.
Could things go more wrong. Oh you though that was a rhetoric! Hah! As it turned out, they can – it started raining. To add salt to injury. Yeah, it was obvious and a no-brainer with clouds around, but for us at that moment, seemed unexpected, hoping Nature knew about mercy and chose not to show. We unanimously cried out in despair. We scurried for cover but obviously there was none to be found, so we dug into our backpacks, brought out the rainwear. I was relieved to see the guys had brought that as all my trekking advice given multiple times earlier, had been mocked at and grossly overlooked. None of them had any warmwear at all, literally none. Only rainwear. Period.
We were nearly crying inside and helplessly angry at our fate, but we were the only ones to blame. The temperature now started dropping and I guess it became a good 5 degrees colder in the next 10-15 minutes, settling somewhere between 8-11 to our estimate. Our body heat generated from the nearly non-stop walking, panic-driven of course, kept us from feeling too cold.
We had marked no landmarks, so we were constantly trying to match what we were looking at with what we thought we had crossed while coming. We looked liked scared kittens, dazed and clueless about what was happening, or more as to why and more so : why us. I especially felt bad and guilty, leading them into this misfortune. I felt I could still walk for hours but this was their first time and they seemed to be struggling although I was seriously tired too. From here, I kind of withdrew into a shell and nearly stopped talking entirely because of the guilt. I felt truly sorry for pushing our luck and going much too far.
But I am happy no one blamed anyone, as we were a team. Any decision meant all had to agree to any suggestions or proposals. Kudos to them for keeping it absolutely clean, like a team, more like a family, of friends.
Now, looking at the three of us, Vivek, in whom I found another high-spirited adventurer, even more in courage,spirit and positivity. He took stock of the situation and cheered us on, leading the way with a voice of confidence and positivity. At every point when we looked down and hopeless, he filled us with lively hope and the strength to carry on, even if he himself was unsure of where we were headed. The point was to find that good place within us, hold on to that, and march on.
There were moments when Aritra’s weight and smoking habit proved to be a big hurdle to him, quite obviously. His lungs pressed hard against his chest, causing hyper-ventilation, at this altitude of 9000+ feet which was new for his body to get used to, in such a short time. He understood he could not continue further, so he started looking at all the trees we passed on our way, trying to look for ones with wide-enough branches to spend the night on. He had nearly given up. We somehow convinced and coaxed him to give his best till daylight lasted. I am quite proud of him coming through, it was the toughest for him.
We literally contemplated and prepared ourselves to stay the night there, which would have been an unprecendented step and tremendously risky. The thought of all our best memories stored in our cameras, be found by some search-and rescue team a few days later, taking a peek into the beautiful times we just had, got us even a tad bit emotional and also gave us the drive to continue further so we could live to tell our story.
The temperature was dropping,it rained every few minutes, the place could have wild animals or snakes for sure. I have a very small threshold for cold, and I knew I would have died that night, of hypothermia or pnemonia, if I stayed.
4:30 pm : After walking for an hour in the rain, we found two trails, and had a brief disagreement over which led to Mt. Tempu. One of them looked like a dead-drop but I wanted to make sure for myself and found it was a trail. It just looked like that as the step after was about 2-3 feet down. We would later agree, this was the last stretch back to Mt Tempu.
So we decided to stick to the path which looked like a regular trail, on the logic that people must have been frequently using this. This, was a wrong turn, and after thirty minutes of walking down, we realised the right way was the one we ignored. We had missed the way back. But such was God’s grace, this was a blessing in disguise, a miracle, and a very unlikely one, we thought, which led us to a lower altitude, down the hills. After walking down this route and time now being near dark, we frantically checked the network reception on our cellphones. None!! For a good nearly thirty minutes.
I know, all this sounds very dramatic and cheesy, but this is a real life event, as it happened, word to word.
At this time, nothing we saw around us looked familiar. The plants were all the same. but the route, the outlines of the hills, all looked way too different. We looked at each other and knew it. We were Lost!! At this point, we might have not even be found dead dead for a few days by a human being, we thought. I just took a look at the GPS on my phone, which showed us we were inside Manipur across the border. It showed a Potato farm nearby, and as far as I remember, I saw some Khuzama village to the front, about 2-3 kms away, going by the map scale.
I remembered our homestay owner we fondly called ‘Aunty’, telling us about that farm the day before. We had mixed emotions here. We were shocked to find that we were in a totally different State altogether, across the border, meaning we were going further from our starting point, just like a lifeboat drifts in the ocean after a shipwreck. Also, if there were any Manipur army border patrols, we could be caught as insurgents. Too far far-feched these thoughts may seem, I agree, and stupid too, but yes these are the kinds of thoughts your mind will have when you’re panic-stricken.
Around 5:00 pm : Luckily, we caught tower in the next 15 minutes and I took my phone and dialled Aunty’s number, but my hands felt they had literally almost fallen asleep. They felt hard to move, i dont know if it was due to fear or the cold, but i am forced to think it was the former. Nevertheless, we finally made our SOS call, which I had kept for this last moment. She sensed our situation and urgency, as it was near dark, and also I made the call more to state our location incase we had to call for rescue, than ask for directions back. We followed her advice to keep finding a way down the hills even if we are not able to make out any trails later.
We kept moving forward, this being our last ditch attempt to reach our safe haven. We just somehow managed to recall the last ounces of energy left within us to help us carry on for the remaining forty-five or so minutes, to dark. I believe sometimes in life, when youre working hard and doing good work, or keeping the goodness of humanity alive within you inspite of everything going wrong, there keeps accumulating a bank balance of good luck and blessings, which at the right moment when you’re in dire straits, comes in very handy. I think this was one of those moments. And to our good luck, we heard Water!
Nitesh told us later, that while walking, he and Vivek recalled episodes from the famous Man Vs Wild show, hosted by our very loved Bear Grylls, whom I personally too admire and respect, so do all these guys. He remembered Bear Grylls talking about following routes leading to the sound of flowing water and that would eventually lead to a village or a small settlement where you could get help and survive. We did exactly this. There was steep climb down of about 10-12 feet at one place which was made slippery due to shifting wet soil, few of us even fell down on our backs but at this point, it did not even register in our brains as it was a do-or-die situation for us.
Finally, some hope found. What we saw was so pleasing to our eyes. It was only a pipeline. But this meant it led to a house somewhere. We followed it and on the way we found a low hanging tree with broad branches, which had kept about a 2X2 metres area dry. We had learned something from our experience and landmarked this place as a fallback option and would use Aritra’s matchbox to light a fire with the dry leaves. Luckily, his bad habit of non-stop smoking could be put to some good use too! We walked for about ten more minutes, just along the Dzukuo river which was just about a metre wide in this month of April.
5:30 pm : And finally, it was not a mirage or an apparition.. we saw people. I cannot tell you how light our hearts felt suddenly, buoyed by relief and happiness, we screamed our lungs out shouting for help, and to make for the perfect co-incidence, we were just about two hundred metres from the trek starting point. They saw us, and pointed us in the right direction. We were nearly drained of all our energy by now but this sight filled us with so much more, we almost ran to the safe haven we’d been trying to for the last three hours. We made it, in the nick of time.
Life came back to our faces and eyes, which had probably turned a few shades whiter than usual. We could not believe our luck that we made it. We looked at each other, smiled, and got into a huddle and jumped like some sports team, celebrating our safe return. We laughed like madmen on a high, looking at each other, and laughing even more, till we came to our senses. Aritra took out his pack of lights and wanted to smoke the entire pack right then and there out of both relief and excitement, and we laughed heartily at ourselves. It was the best laugh one could have. Like escaping the most beautiful prison camp there could ever be. Like we see in those war-camp movies. It was theatrics.
We waited for about half an hour for our pickup Aunty had arranged and finally got into it, at 7:30 pm in the evening, after 11 hours of walking in one single day. Luckily, this was the only stretch we had to use a torch on.
We decided we would sleep really late and talk the whole night, and take the next entire day off from any excursion and would rest at our homestay. Such was our good fortune that the next day, it rained from morning to evening, literally. Everywhere you turned, you could only see clouds. This meant it was really a very very close shave for us, as we would have had to abandon any hope of getting back the next day or even a rescue perhaps. I would have probably died of cold and the guys would probably have to eat me to survive…. Haha okay, yeah, now Im going overboard with this and I must stop now. So much drama, right??! Guess you’ll need some indigestion pills!
Jokes apart, this is a recount of the events exactly as they happened. Word to Word. It does not matter whether it has any buyers or not, but everything can be unprecendented until it happens. We respect those who have been in the jaws of death and back, and mostly so those who did not make it. Love and huge respect to their souls. May they rest in peace.
We acknowledge our deepest respect and thanks to the owners of Dawn Boys’ hostel, Kigwema who made our stay really special. You are wonderful people. At no moment did you make us feel like guests, but family. Your hospitality is testament to the fact that Nagaland is a place of beauty and beautiful human beings. The food, care and friendliness will fondly be remembered, until we are back again next time. We hope in the coming years, Nagaland sees the development it deserves.
Dedicated to all my great people who made this trip possible and memorable:
Nitesh, Vivek, Aritra, Vitono, “Aunty”.