It was a hot summer evening. Somewhere in the chaos of the city, amidst the honking of the vehicles who carried corporate slaves desperate to reach home on that Friday evening, there were five souls of twenty-something seeking adventure. Kiran, Pradeep, Dev, Hrishi and Babu had decided to trek from Katraj to Sinhagad – a 22 km trail popular within the trekking fraternity of Pune. As narrated by Kiran, the story of that fateful night is as thrilling as it can be. Read on…
Acting almost on an instinct, we set off with a few packets of biscuits, a water bottle and whatever cash we had in our wallets – which was far from adequate, but we were oblivious to that. Upon alighting the bus which dropped us at Katraj, we began walking in the direction of Sinhagad with the help of Google maps. Being deprived of moonlight due to the unseasonal appearance of clouds, we proceeded on a route which was alien to all of us. We did not realize the lack of torches as the road was pretty decent for an hour or two, so we managed on our mobile torches. Taking long strides of enthusiasm with bathroom slippers, we kept walking without knowing where we were headed. At one point, the road ended with a lake in front of us and some buildings beyond that. Hrishi checked the location on his mobile once again, and we ridiculed ourselves as we saw the mobile screen – it was Sinhagad College!
Disappointed and a little tired, we changed course. The forest was dense and left little room for breeze. We were sweating like bottles of beer pulled out of the fridge. After traversing an ascending path for another hour or so we reached a clearing with a big banyan tree in the middle of it. We sat down for a while. A slight gust of air blew from somewhere giving us a pleasant feeling. The climb had fatigued Dev, Hrishi and Babu as they were city kids and had no experience whatsoever about trekking. Pradeep and I were the only ones who were from a rural background and wandering in the woods was normal for us.
As we were scouting the surroundings for searching the route hereon, I spotted two gleaming eyes staring at me through the bushes. And then I heard it – a slow grunt. The sound of an exhale from a larger animal from the feline family. I froze. And immediately looked towards Pradeep. The exact same expression on Pradeep’s face confirmed that he had heard it too. Without uttering a word, we quietly went back to the tree where the other three were sitting and urged them to get up and start walking. Surprised by our haste, Hrishi asked the reason for moving immediately, but I signalled Pradeep to not mention anything. Having seen our potential demise a few feet away, the two of us were already terrified, however we kept mum and decided to keep it to ourselves until we reached a safe spot. We kept walking without stopping and did not even dare to look back. The sight of those shiny eyes refused to leave my memory. We had to get out of the forest as soon as possible. If there was one, there was every possibility of an imminent occurrence of another. Even after a couple of hours we did not have the nerve to stop. The danger was not over.
For the next few hours, until the sun rose, the only thought in my mind was survival. I had long forgotten our destination and given up on reaching Sinhagad. Right now, all I knew was we needed to reach a human settlement. What if the animal tracks our scents and finds us? What if we get attacked suddenly and are taken off-guard? What if our bodies are never found? Back home, no one knew that we had come here. We would just be wiped out off the face of the earth! Clearing my mind with the horrifying images of probable situations, I repeatedly kept assuring the others, albeit false, that we were on the right track and our destination was not very far away. A definite solution when you are lost in a forest is to follow the river, it always leads to the village. However, this option was not at all feasible in this situation as the animal might be lurking near the water body. Though I was experienced enough to know this, I was also scared to death. The wildest of my nightmares had come true.
Just before daybreak, Hrishi gave up. He sat down on the ground and refused to budge. He was exhausted to his last breath. It was next to impossible for him to take even a single step forward. But then he did a stupid thing – he removed his T-shirt and Pradeep went crazy! He immediately ordered Hrishi to wear it back. Hrishi did not understand the reason behind this sudden weird behaviour, but he obliged when Pradeep explained that animals are attracted to body odour.
The day was up and finally I decided that we could stop for rest. Everyone was happy with this decision, Hrishi being the most. It was then that Pradeep told the others the reason for not stopping anywhere before daybreak. Everyone was shocked, but agreed with our presence of mind of handling the situation well and avoiding panic. Once on the road, we stopped a tum-tum and asked him to take us to Sinhagad. When he learnt the route we had traversed through the night, he too was shocked that we managed to reach here alive as it was a very dense forest and even the villagers thought twice before entering that area. It was a classic case of ‘Ignorance is bliss’.
When we reached the top, the wide vista of Pune city on one side and the beautiful expanse of the Sahyadris on the other soothed our senses. It was a very fulfilling view given the hardships and terror we had gone through in the past 12 hours. Just then Pradeep pointed out in a direction and we followed his finger to find the lone Banyan tree, the same one where I had spotted those eyes! We were terrified when we saw the density of vegetation around that tree.
We had actually crossed the forbidden jungle on foot without any weapons, torches or sticks. We had never thought, in our weirdest dreams, that we could do such a thing!
“The human being is very resourceful. When you fight for survival, you don’t think much; you just do. If you think too much, you sink.” – Frank Lowy