Walk tall

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

From Page 1 Deora is our home for the night. It’s also the home of Jo­gen­der and Jagdish.

My bed­room is on the up­per storey of a typ­i­cal vil­lage dwelling. It’s a white house with shut­tered win­dows and door frame picked out in scar­let with a stair­case at the front. It is a neat fit be­tween au­then­tic­ity and com­fort. The floor is made from packed mud mixed with straw, there’s a bare 25-watt globe and the bed is a mat­tress on a char­poy, a web of string over a wooden frame. In a con­ces­sion to for­eign ec­cen­tric­i­ties, there’s an out­house with a sit-down toi­let and a shower next door.

At 3am, I am drowsily awake and need­ing the toi­let but all I can think of is a story Jo­gen­der told me as we strolled around the vil­lage. While howl­ing dogs have tracked my progress for much of the day, this evening there is not so much as a whim­per. It’s the leop­ards, Jo­gen­der told me. Dogs are locked in­side at night be­cause leop­ards will sit on the roofs of houses, wait un­til a dog comes out and pounce.

Will a leop­ard ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ence be­tween a dog and a tim­o­rous for­eigner with a full blad­der? It is a nervy thought but even­tu­ally I de­cide it would make an in­ter­est­ing epi­taph and bolt for the out­house. Next morn­ing, Jo­gen­der tells me that ev­ery year a hand­ful of vil­lagers fall prey to leop­ards.

In the next vil­lage along our line of march the men are warm­ing up for a Twenty20 cricket match with a vis­it­ing team from Deora. To­day is a re­laxed walk, and we wait while Jagdish races down to bowl a few overs. While re­li­gion, pol­i­tics and caste are the fault lines in In­dian so­ci­ety, cricket is a uni­fy­ing force, the opium of its masses.

As we leave the vil­lage we spot a teenager in a white school shirt sprint­ing away from us through the trees. My boy,’’ says Jagdish, with a nod in his di­rec­tion. He’s wagged school so he can watch the match and his fa­ther grins in ap­pre­ci­a­tion. All that day Jagdish keeps up to date with the cricket game over his mo­bile phone. De­spite a run rate of more than six an over, Deora loses.

Near a vil­lage we wait be­side a for­est trail while Jagdish goes off to buy some bat­ter­ies. Young women with shaggy mounds of grass piled on their heads file past. They’re on the re­turn jour­ney from mar­ket to their vil­lage, where the grass will be used for cat­tle feed. They have walked for more than two hours with 30kg of grass on their heads, and there’s an­other hour to go.

Over lunch on the grassy banks of a stream, a young boy si­dles past and Jagdish can’t re­sist ask­ing if he has eaten lunch. No, he’s on the way home from school and while there’s a school meal if he wants it, the cook is a har­i­jan, a mem­ber of In­dia’s vast caste­less sea. What­ever the cook has made would be rit­u­ally pol­luted, and the boy is a ksha­triya, a mem­ber of the war­rior caste.

On the fourth day of the walk, Jo­gen­der wakes me be­fore sun­rise with tea and we make a panting climb from the vil­lage where we’ve spent the night at 2200m, up an­other 200m. It’s the high­est point around. Sixty kilo­me­tres to the north and stretch­ing for more than 250km across the hori­zon, the peaks of the Hi­malayas run like a plot of the Dow Jones in­dus­trial av­er­age in tur­bu­lence.

Af­ter a break­fast of parathas and honey, we walk down through a cool cedar for­est, fol­low­ing a stream for an hour. Deep in the for­est is the an­cient tem­ple com­plex at Jagesh­war, where a priest dabs my fore­head with ver­mil­ion pow­der and rice, and sprin­kles flower petals in my hair. A car is wait­ing to take us back to Kal­ma­tia Sangam but Jagdish leaves us half­way. He’s walk­ing home to Deora, across the hills.

We say our good­byes and, un­til a bend in the road takes us out of earshot, I can hear him clearly above the noise of the en­gine and the rush of the wind, talk­ing into his mo­bile phone. Michael Ge­bicki was a guest of Nat­u­ral Fo­cus Sa­faris and In­dia Tourism.

Check­list

For book­ings and in­for­ma­tion on the Ku­maon Vil­lage Walk, con­tact Nat­u­ral Fo­cus Sa­faris, (03) 9249 3777 or 1300 363 302; www.nat­u­ral­fo­cus­sa­faris.com.

www.in­cred­i­blein­dia.org

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