The rum­ble in the jun­gle

Trekking the re­mote East­ern Hi­malaya

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - WORDS AND PHOTOS BY AMAR DEV SINGH

Th­ese ad­ven­tur­ers search­ing for the un­ex­plored source of a river in the East­ern Hi­malaya get more than they bar­gained for.

The bridges on this trek were some­thing else: the team makes their way across an­other mar­vel of lo­cal engi­neer­ing.

BEYUL, OR HID­DEN val­leys, are be­lieved to be pock­ets of par­adise in re­mote parts of the Hi­malayas. Leg­end has it that th­ese are places of peace and refuge from the out­side

pro­tected by dan­ger­ous ter­rain and fe­ro­cious guardians. Some beyul are well known, some are even in­hab­ited, while oth­ers are se­cret, only oc­ca­sion­ally vis­ited by spir­i­tual seek­ers and ad­ven­tur­ers.

Re­cently we had the priv­i­lege of find­ing one such se­cret beyul in the re­mote East­ern Hi­malaya.

THE FIRST HU­MANS

We sprinted up a steep veg­e­tated hill­side; pulling heav­ily on branches and grab­bing at tree trunks. I gasped at the thin air at nearly 4000m above sea level. My heart pounded wildly and my head felt like it was go­ing to ex­plode. I stopped ev­ery few min­utes and dou­bled over, wheez­ing for air. We had only one hour to make it to a place that no one had ever seen be­fore. And we had only one chance at this, as both time and our sup­plies were run­ning out.

Huge spruce and fir trees tow­ered over us, their branches droop­ing, heav­ily laden with moss and drip­ping with long ten­drils of old man’s beard. My boots sank into the ground, soft as a mat-

I felt a rush of plea­sure as I took a mo­ment to re­alise: we were the first hu­mans to have the priv­i­lege to stand at this en­chanted place.

tress, cov­ered with a deep layer of moss. I swung my ma­chete at the thick­ets or rhodo­den­dron to hack a path through the dense un­der­growth. There were no tracks here. There was no record of any­one ever ven­tur­ing this deep into this part of the moun­tains.

We were fol­low­ing a river to its source, deep in a re­mote cor­ner of the East­ern Hi­malaya in Arunachal Pradesh. Un­like the well-trod­den trails of Nepal and the Western Hi­malaya, the moun­tains of Arunachal are largely un­ex­plored. We criss­crossed the river a num­ber of times be­fore reach­ing the fi­nal ob­sta­cle in our path – a se­ries of wa­ter­falls.

We clam­oured over the lip of the fi­nal wa­ter­fall and could fi­nally see the river’s source, a lake, in the dis­tance. It had taken years of plan­ning and now I was fi­nally there. I prac­ti­cally sprinted the fi­nal 20m to the shores of the lake and stood, hands on my hips, gasp­ing for breath by the pris­tine shores.

Steep moun­tain­sides swept up from the lake edge to un­named 6000m sum­mits. The lake was like an emer­ald jewel set in gran­ite, its clear placid wa­ters drop­ping away steeply into dark un­fath­omed depths. I could see across to the far side where the glaciated val­ley climbed steadily lead­ing to the bor­der with Myan­mar.

I felt a rush of plea­sure as I took a mo­ment to re­alise: we were the first hu­mans to have the priv­i­lege to stand at this en­chanted place.

Un­for­tu­nately we didn’t have much time to spare. We had four hours of day­light and as much time to trek back to camp through track­less for­est. I took one fi­nal glance be­fore bound­ing off across the boul­ders to re­join my com­pan­ions.

A DAN­GER­OUS JOUR­NEY

I won’t re­veal the ex­act lo­ca­tion of this beyul so that it may lie undis­turbed til the next group of seek­ers re­dis­cov­ers it, suf­fice to say that jour­ney there was a long and some­what dan­ger­ous one.

The val­ley was so deep and nar­row at this point that nei­ther our GPS nor sat phone could es­tab­lish a con­nec­tion. We were truly cut off from the rest of the world.

Ice axes in the jun­gle: Our route climbed from the sti­fling heat of the vine-tan­gled jun­gle into the crisp moun­tain air of the high Hi­malaya.

Our Se­cret Com­pass team had flown in from all over the world on a warm Oc­to­ber evening in Delhi. While we were from very var­ied pro­fes­sional back­grounds: IT spe­cial­ist, fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst, ex-sol­dier, min­ing elec­tri­cian etc., we shared the one thing that had brought us to­gether: a quest for ad­ven­ture.

We caught a flight to the north­east re­gion of In­dia, then boarded a cou­ple of four-wheel drives and hit the road. It was the tail end of the mon­soon and heavy grey clouds dark­ened the skies. The air was muggy and thick.

Our heav­ily laden ve­hi­cles drove at break­neck speed through small towns and vil­lages, swerv­ing wildly to avoid cows, chick­ens, goats, cy­clists, trucks and all man­ner of po­ten­tially deadly ob­sta­cles. The driver grinned broadly, dis­play­ing his be­tel nut-red teeth, as we oohed and ah­hed in ter­ror at the near misses.

On the sec­ond day we drove more than 10 hours till we reached the trail­head near the Chi­nese bor­der. It was late in the evening and al­ready dark. We un­loaded our gear and stacked our bags in an empty room of a half-fin­ished guest­house.

In the morn­ing the peo­ple from the lo­cal vil­lage turned up to of­fer their ser­vices as porters. Sorry, did I say of­fer? They de­manded that we em­ploy them for twice the reg­u­lar rate. The ne­go­ti­a­tions started off very ag­gres­sively. They shouted their de­mands, ges­tic­u­lat­ing wildly with their arms.

The shout­ing and ne­go­ti­a­tions con­tin­ued late into the af­ter­noon. We weren’t get­ting any­where. Even­tu­ally I agreed to the out­ra­geous terms and we shoul­dered our packs and filed down the trail.

The trek started in a deep gorge; its steep slopes were cov­ered in thick sub­trop­i­cal jun­gle draped in vines and the roar of the river echoed off gran­ite cliffs. The track pe­tered out into a faint game trail used by the oc­ca­sional lo­cal hunter. We scram­bled over bro­ken ground, some­times drop­ping down to the rounded boul­ders along the river and then climb­ing into the thick jun­gle on the hill­sides and along the tops of veg­e­tated cliffs.

The route criss­crossed the val­ley a num­ber of times and we had to cross the wild river on some of the sketchi­est bridges I have ever seen. They were crude con­struc­tions made ei­ther of sin­gle logs or a cou­ple of bam­boos lashed to­gether with vines, which flexed and wob­bled un­der our weight.

Later that af­ter­noon we had made it to a suitable camp­site – a sandy spot be­tween some large river boul­ders that was the only flat spot in this nar­row val­ley.

We rose with the sun the next morn­ing, packed quickly and, af­ter a breakfast of sweet­ened por­ridge and cups of chai, en­tered the jun­gle once again. The route was much the same as the day be­fore: tough go­ing through sec­tions of jun­gle, then down to the boul­ders along the river, then scram­bling up steep sec­tions of ex­posed roots and rocks.

Over the next few days we con­tin­ued to hack our way through the jun­gle fol­low­ing the river through a va­ri­ety of veg­e­ta­tion belts as we climbed higher into the moun­tains. Tall spruce and fir trees re­placed the broad-leafed trees of the lower reaches. Most no­tice­able was the ab­sence of vines, which had be­come the bane of our ex­is­tence, tan­gling on our gear and pulling us back.

The river, a con­stant com­pan­ion, roared by our side; rapids gave way to wa­ter­falls as the ter­rain steep­ened. The trekking var­ied be­tween grades of dif­fi­cult, se­ri­ous and deadly. We waded through waist-high ferns, of­ten hav­ing to crawl un­der or clam­our over fallen trees.

While sort­ing through the sup­plies and re­order­ing loads at camp ev­ery­day we dis­cov­ered that the porters had been in­dulging in whole­sale theft of our sup­plies. By the fifth day it was ob­vi­ous that the porters had stolen so much food that they had al­most com­pro­mised the ex­pe­di­tion. They had eaten through all their sup­plies and had then stolen nearly a week’s sup­ply of food from our bags. I di­vided the re­main­ing sup­plies

into loads and re­tained only five of the porters and sent the rest back down the val­ley with all nonessen­tial equip­ment. We had about an­other week’s worth of food; just enough to get us to the source of the river and back.

We climbed through pine for­est with dense un­der­growth of bam­boo and stunted rhodo­den­dron trees. At 3500m the val­ley flat­tened out and broad­ened into a text­book u-shaped glaciated val­ley. It was great to have a broad ex­panse of sky above our heads af­ter the days spent in the claus­tro­pho­bic con­fines of the gorge and jun­gle.

We were out of the trees but the strug­gle was far from over. The for­est con­tin­ued all the way to nearly 4000m, now bro­ken into thick­ets in­ter­spersed with large spa­ces of dense un­der­growth. The river, now con­sid­er­ably smaller, was strangely silent as it me­an­dered its way through the broad flat val­ley.

Af­ter only a few hours, we set up camp and had the af­ter­noon off. It was a good op­por­tu­nity to let our bod­ies ac­cli­ma­tise.

THE FI­NAL PUSH

We rose early the next morn­ing as we aimed to make our way to the source of the river at around 3700m and make it back to camp be­fore dark. It was a lot eas­ier trav­el­ling light but the vir­gin jun­gle was much more dense.

By around lunchtime we still hadn’t reached the source, which I cal­cu­lated to be only six kilo­me­tres from camp. The dense un­der­growth had im­peded our progress and route find­ing was very dif­fi­cult. My GPS in­di­cated that we were only a kilo­me­tre away from the source and by my es­ti­mates we only had an hour to spare. We made a de­ci­sion to travel as fast as pos­si­ble and turn around in ex­actly an hour, whether we made it or not. We syn­chro­nised our watches and tore off up the moun­tain, fi­nally reach­ing the source of the river and rev­el­ling mo­men­tar­ily in the sight of the lake be­fore we had to turn around.

We made it back to camp just as night was fall­ing. The cook had a roar­ing camp­fire and a hot meal wait­ing. Bel­lies full, we stared in si­lence at the flames til late in the night.

Af­ter a solid night’s sleep we woke to a snow­blan­keted land­scape; heavy clouds and mist hung low in the val­ley. The porters started to pack the camp with­out ask­ing us. I was puz­zled as we were plan­ning to stay for at least an­other day. They just snapped at me and said they were off down the val­ley to a lower camp. Af­ter much ar­gu­ment I had no choice but to agree to head back with them.

I fixed a meet­ing place and told them to go ahead. Maila Chetri, one of the porters, stayed be­hind with us. We hur­riedly packed our gear and fol­lowed in their foot­steps. Af­ter a few hours of trekking through the snow we made it to the wa­ter­fall and down to the camp­site, cold, wet and hun­gry. This was where we were sup­posed to meet our porters, but there was no sign of them.

We pushed on to the next camp­site but still there was no sign of the porters. They had aban­doned us; taken off with all our food and kitchen gear. We were four-day’s walk away from civil­i­sa­tion and all we had in the way of food were the trail snacks we car­ried in our packs.

We were for­tu­nate that Maila had stayed be­hind with us. I un­zipped his bag and found, to my im­mense re­lief, a cou­ple of bags of pasta, an as­sort­ment of muesli bars and a few pack­ets of soup. That, cou­pled with our per­sonal trail snacks, would hope­fully be enough to make it back.

We wolfed down some muesli bars and headed down the val­ley. The for­est and the moun­tains, whose majesty we had revered on the trek in, now loomed over us like a preda­tor watch­ing our ev­ery move, wait­ing for us to make just one mis­take.

The next day, a few hours into our hike down the val­ley, we spot­ted a cou­ple of fig­ures along the river­bank far in the dis­tance. They were from an­other vil­lage fur­ther down the val­ley and ex­plained that they were look­ing for a hunter who was lost in the for­est. They said they had seen our porters a day ear­lier, and that we were most wel­come to join them at their camp­site a cou­ple of hour’s hike down­stream.

When we ar­rived at their camp­site, they very gen­er­ously pre­sented us with a two-kilo bag of rice and re­fused to ac­cept any pay­ment for it. We gifted them a torch in ex­change. It was good to be in the com­pany of friendly, hos­pitable peo­ple.

The next morn­ing we bade farewell to our hosts and marched off into the jun­gle; spurred on by the thought that we’d be sip­ping a beer by the evening.

We hacked our way out of the gorge just as the sun was set­ting. Elated to be out of the jun­gle and back on easy ground, we bonded for a bit of back­slap­ping and posed for photos. Ev­ery­one pro­fusely thanked Maila for stick­ing by our side.

We pounded out the last kilo­me­tres along a vil­lage track to the trail­head. I couldn’t wait to get the pack off my shoul­ders and savour an ice-cold beer; some­times dreams do come true!

We trekked for days through dense un­tracked old growth forests that have stood un­touched since time im­memo­rial.

Clock­wise from left: Cory gives the thumbs up af­ter as­cend­ing a gorge; there was no real track; snow at our high camp; the river roared through a 2000m-deep val­ley.

Cap­tion (from left) Fi­cil ipisser natquis ex­cepud ip­saerspe­rum cores resed molore eossi­tia corro cor­porp ore­ri­orero ex­e­ri­aSolla se mi, to tessedis amenisc im­ilique pla­cien­est la­bo­ri­atium se Clock­wise from left: Cu­ri­ous vil­lagers check out the trekking party; our stolen equip­ment went that way; the jun­gle drip­ping with old man’s beard; a birds-eye-view of the val­ley.

This fi­nal bridge marked the bar­rier be­tween the known and the un­known; on one side was a mo­torable road and civil­i­sa­tion, on the other lay the tan­gled mass of the un­tracked jun­gle

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