It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a trek, about five years. The last time I went, the most difficult part of the trek was a pain in my knee, which flared up right away when I did 20 km on day 1, some of it extremely steep. Never having been particularly fit, I’ve always been reduced to a gasping, panting, quivering heap by any ascent on a trek, but I usually hang in there in the belief that I’ve seen worse. And that’s an easy belief to cling to given that our first trek was ridiculously difficult and scary.
I’ve also had my share of panic moments. Not for a while, though. The last was probably back in 2005, where on two memorable occasions, a gushing body of water that I was immersed in up to my thighs threatened to carry me away. In the treks since then, I’ve been in some difficult situations, I’ve been tired, I’ve even been lost, but I’ve never been scared in the same way.
So Madhugiri came as a surprise.
Madhugiri is a small hill which is home to a fort constructed in about 1670. It’s a comfortable two hour drive from Bangalore, so it was supposed to be picnic, a one-day picnic. We were part of a larger group: the four of us, another family of four and two other guys without their families. One of the guys was born and brought up in that town, so he knew the fort well. Without him, we’d have gone and enjoyed the place anyway, but I really doubt we’d have kept going all the way to the top.
A couple of years ago, Amit and I had taken the kids to the fort at Chitradurga, and of course, we’ve seen various other forts in Delhi, Rajasthan, Daulatabad… so we thought we knew what to expect. It was hot, it was steep, there were rocks and walls and gateways. All par for the course. The initial part, though steep, was easy enough to walk or climb and there was a metal railing (mysteriously wound around with barbed wire at regular intervals) to hang on to if you needed it.
And then there was this vast sheet of rock sloping at some impossible angle. There were notches cut into the rock, but not so comforting as to be able to call them steps. And the railing suddenly disappeared. It reappeared after a short gap, and then turned into a very substantial and comforting looking wall, but before attaining the sanctuary of the wall, there was the GAP. And the GAP must be crossed.
I couldn’t shoot at this point, so this is a picture from someone else’s blog to illustrate what I mean
It’s not that the stretch leading up to the GAP was very easy or reassuring or safe, but it had a railing. I summoned up enough courage to lodge myself against it while I tucked my camera into the camera bag on my shoulders. The GAP was not to be attempted with a camera in one hand.
With my heart in my mouth and a cold sweat on my hands, I turned my back to the drop, almost spread-eagled myself across the bare rock, and edged my way across the GAP. The kids came next, and how they managed it, I don’t know. I was too petrified to even help them. And there was no way to offer a help hand anyway – you could only place the tip of your shoe in each notch and you could barely reach the next person ahead of you or behind you while you stretched towards the next notch.
At any rate, those of us who had attempted this stretch made it safely across the GAP. Three of our party elected to stop well short of it. I wonder how it looked from there, watching us inching our way across that unguarded slope.
The fun wasn’t over yet, though. Next we had a vast stretch of rock to climb over. It was dry and not slippery, and not as scary as the GAP, but it was steep. I thought my calf muscles would snap. Amit’s shoes decided to part company with their soles and he slipped and fell flat on his stomach. That took care of the bottle he was holding in one hand. It wasn’t an easy task, for him to haul all seven feet back into what passed for vertical on that slope.
At last, we reached the top of the slope, where the ground leveled out, albeit briefly. From this point on, there was no apparent path onward. There were chalk arrows on the ground, but it wasn’t clear what you were climbing towards. Before this, there had always been a path, a wall, a doorway, something to beckon you on. Now, just the arrows.
We followed them anyway, over rocks, through a small cave-like structure, onwards, upwards, to another level and then there was the DOOR. The DOOR was just another doorway, the kind you see several of in any self-respecting fort. But this wasn’t just another doorway, this was the DOOR. And the DOOR looked out over a precipice. One hell of a way to welcome visitors. It was perched right on the edge of the hill, so that if you missed your footing and happened to fall in just the wrong place…
Here’s another photo that I didn’t take. This link goes to the blog I’ve borrowed this from. I’ve also added the photo here, but with no claims to having shot it. You see where that girl in the red t-shirt is? That’s called being between a rock and a hard place
I don’t know how they could ever have had a proper route through the DOOR. The broken wall on one side offered one terrifying option, and the rock on the other side had an incline of a mere 80 degrees, offering another impossible option. Between these two there lay a short stretch of rather difficult-but-preferable-to-the-alternatives option, which we all attempted with varying degrees of skill and elan. (Why is it that when you know that looking down into the precipice is going to scare the living daylights out of you, you are inexorably drawn to looking down into the precipice? Whatever happens to the survival instinct at such times? Why does it flee and leave you to battle with vertigo unaided?)
After the DOOR, there was another short climb, and suddenly there it was. The temple at the top of the hill.
It looked more like a fort than a temple, but after making it all the way there, I suppose a temple was more appropriate. Forget meeting the king – you just want to thank your maker for letting you get up there alive and ask him to help you get back down in the same state. I imagine if any invading emperor ever got all the way up there, the king, if there were one, might clap him on the back and offer him a cup of tea (if not something stronger). At any rate, I doubt anyone could create murder and mayhem by the time they reached the top. So it’s a pretty effective defensive strategy, albeit somewhat suicidal as well.
Alright, the view was great. It always is, when you get to the top. It was peaceful, the wind had died away, the sun was welcome, there was nobody else up there but us. But, nagging away at the back of my mind was the thought of the descent. The DOOR. The GAP. Oh my god!
I was so nervous going through the door that I even resorted to making loud nonsensical conversation and giggling hysterically at it. I don’t think anyone else in our group, including the kids, was as traumatized by it as I was.
But then we came to the GAP and that was the great leveler. I doubt anyone has ever got through that and not been scared shitless. Amit went first, and much to my alarm, he started off facing outwards, so that his entire body weight was leaning out over the abyss. Thankfully, he turned sideways at some point. Mini was behind him. She was scared, but brave. I called to Amit to help her along, but really there was nothing he could have done. You have to make it across on your own – there’s no way you can have someone stand next to you and hold your hand.
Tara went next. She was petrified and almost whimpering out loud. I was equally petrified, but I knew I couldn’t afford to show it. I started talking to her and egging her on, comforting her, encouraging her, just another step, almost there, keep going, that’s it. The effect, of course, was that my pep talk worked on me as much as it did on her, and having to think of encouraging things to say helped me not think about how steep and how brutal the fall would be.
It was easily the scariest thing I’ve done in at least ten years, made even scarier because the kids were with us.
The rest of the descent was easy enough. Going up had taken two-and-a-half hours. Going down took about half that time. And the rest of it was a picnic. Except that I couldn’t walk straight for the next several days, my legs were so stiff. The kids were fine, of course, bouncing around as though they’d only gone for a walk in the park. Amit was fine, of course, although his shoes lost both their soles and never did recover from that.
As for me… I have a new benchmark. The next time I attempt to do something difficult or scary, I just have to remind myself: I’ve done Madhugiri. If I can do that, I can do (almost) anything.