As narrated by Manish Pandey on Facebook:
Well I believe that it was the playing field next to the squash court where the idea was mooted by lokesh aka loke. I remember that it was lunch break and we were sitting in one corner on the cemented water drain which was to drain out the excess water from the play field. We were having eatables and lunch from our tiffin boxes and loke said “Let us go for hike.” I thought it as a far off thing in which I would never indulge in, well I was to be proved wrong within a few days.
As the topic was being discussed Kamesh, Kamu joined as well. Since the inception of the idea Santosh was out as his mother would have never allowed it. Kamu as usual was enthusiastic and then the Vickram also joined in, now the initial plan was being seen as a feasible one in which senior boys could indulge in , it was summer of 1990 and we were in the senior most class. One motivating factor was our annual day was round the corner and with it came the much anticipated holidays, the other was that as Ramnee also had its vacations during the same time there was no great reason to hang around at Nainital.
Since that day many plans were conceived and the venue remained the same place as after a quick game ( approx 40 min out of an hour of lunch break) we used to get together and discuss the requirements ,place to go and of course the money involved. Now I definitely don’t know when or how the final location was decided but it was to be Mukteshwar ,my birth place and home, 52 km away from Nainital. Next came the articles to be collected loke was the leader and drew up a list and seemed he had thought about everything i.e. rice ,bread, tea, dal, onions, jam you name it and it was listed not to forget Maggi .Now a real problem arose of the mode of cooking while utensils could be from my house a suggestion that the meals could come from my house were shot down, the other problem of gathering the medium of cooking vexed us for a couple of days. The solution came from unexpected quarters ,my father who gave a suggestion that the gas lamp being used by us at home can be used for cooking as it could be converted into a stove by changing burner, further it used to use small cylinders of LPG only weigh 1-1.25 Kg. Oh! It was god sent solution and would lessen our load at that time that seemed to be the case ,anyway.
The next few days literally flew and we got busy or be more appropriate sucked in for the annual day celebrations. Whatever time we could muster was for finalizing the quantity of goods & items we would require ,sometimes a knife was added at other time candles and match box was added but some things got missed out as you will discover in the latter part of the narration. The budget came out to be Rs 100 per head minus tickets, during that time the ticket from Nainital to Mukteshwar costed Rs 9/- and the roadways bus was the only form of connectivity other being the occasional plying trucks, which of course I omitted least loke be tempted to take a hike.
Well the D day came and Sports meet went off very well and probably Gandhi house won with Pant coming second ( I was in Pant house, kamu in Tagore ,Vicky was not much into these activities during that time and loke was again in Tagore). That afternoon we spent in picking the loose ends of our plan and maybe the date was 14 May 1990,we were to embark on our adventure on 15 May.
We assembled in Tallital bus stand and had a huge (even by modest standards) rucksack of loke was filled with our rations and smaller bags containing our individual items and of course the gas stove(LPG). I had specially managed two spare cylinders from my Mamaji who also had similar lamp and had them filled from a shop next to mamaji’s shop in tallital bazaar. Loke started to climb the bus but due to sheer weight of the rucksack nearly fell back, Virk who was climbing behind him along with kamu pushed him inside the bus after that a relatively uneventful journey we reached my house at gross bazar, Mukteshwar.
That night my mother had prepared dinner and loke had to eat it reluctantly as he wanted to do some self cooking, others were thankful we had something to eat and went off to sleep as we were tired except loke and kamu.
Next day as per the plan of our leader loke we were to get up at day break and move off to jungle to a place called CPRI where I had once gone along with my father .I had chosen that place as it was sufficiently far off and yet near my house ,the jungle started almost immediately across my house and a track of about two kilometers along foot tracks used by regular commuters would have taken till the starting of our destination CPRI jungles. Well as can be fathomed we all got up late ,very late for some. I was the first one to get up at around 0830 ,my mother made breakfast for all of us and my younger brother siddharth, siddu along with my (still) younger cousin gaurav took tea ,breakfast to the room where we were staying.
Well we all managed to get ready by 11 o clock and went to explore the local small marked, over the years it has shriveled even more. After a round of tea we set off at around four, the weather was still warm and bright. It was decided that we would take turns in picking up the rucksack, two big empty plastic Dalda containers for storing water (we had not included them in our original list) and started on the track in roaring spirits.
We reached our destination after about in an hour plus of tracking the load being shared by kamu and loke while I held the empty containers and one small bag containing clothing, Vickram also carried one bag and a plastic bag containing utensils (these were not part of original list).
On reaching the leeward side of CPRI we searched for a suitable camping place inside the jungle ,and it was decided to go further down. The foot trail descended quite sharply and loke stumbled a couple of times along with his rucksack. Finally as we had covered a considerable distance and lone huts for Chowkidaars of CPRI fading from view we settled down and before commencing the hunt for a camping place we decided to make tea.
The stove was ignited and pan placed over it .We had a water bottle so we poured water in the pan but we forgot to place the stove on a flat piece of land so our first attempt met with a failure. Getting wiser we repositioned our stove and started the process of making tea, by then Vickram wanted something to eat we took out bread and butter. The tea was poured in steel glasses and butter applied bread passed around invariably it had become non veg item with lots of mosquito, flies and smaller insects deciding to either stick on to the butter or deciding to dive inside the hot tea. Loke was the first one to get on with it and seeing him all followed suit and finished the evening tea.
It was getting dark and we had come upon a small place which had a gradual slope ,covered by bushes on one side and a foot track about 50 meters away. There was no overhead cover barring few pine ,deodar trees. The work was distributed Kamu and Vickey went to fill water ,I took on responsibility of cooking ‘kichchadi’ and loke visibly tired after carrying the load was to set up the camp and help me out in cutting onions and potatoes, here the most important tool of cooking was found to be missing , the knife was forgotten, notwithstanding we utilized services of butter knife and as darkness engulfed the only concentration was on the burning stove and cooking rice or pulao (kichchdi). It was time for rewinding, sitting, waiting for dinner and talking as time passed we became restless as the open vessel was not doing a great job in preparing food for the hungry. After about an hour we were sitting around the stove with plates in hand and myself tasting at regular intervals which had telescoped into duration of five minutes. At last it was decided to have dinner in whatever state it was in. The raw half cooked kichchdi tasted much below our expectations but none complained.
The plastic mat (not included in our original list) was spread out and we made a small boundary of our clothes all around us hoping no nocturnal creatures would be able to cross that. Then it was decided to give a watch in turn in anticipation of wild animals (we had learnt that a leopard was frequently sighted in that area). My turn was till ten then was Vickram followed by kamu and loke.
I sat down resting my back on the bark of a tree and listened to songs in Walkman while others started dozing off. Suddenly we heard a voice akin to someone using saw on wood, I remembered that the leopard also makes similar sounds. We all got worried and were alert trying to pierce the darkness and see if the creature was lurking near to devour us. We got hold of our torches, two of them (these were four batteries half a foot heavy steel types ) & a butter knife now we were ready to give a fight and decided ‘we will fight till the last’. The sound seemed to fade away and we relaxed. The whisperings grew to confident speeches and then the unthinkable happened .We saw a light coming towards us, something like a burning cigarette moving across the bushes and as there was no foot path towards that side probability of any human being walking was ruled out and again speeches turned into whispers a cautious investigation with limited light of torches revealed nothing and we returned to our camp with lingering doubts but too afraid to let them out least they be ridiculed. It was Vickrams turn to give a watch and time was around midnight.
I woke up at around one I felt few drops on my face and hurriedly awoke all (Vickey had also fallen asleep).The sky seemed to be clear with stars shining but towards one side they seemed to be less bright on looking with deliberation I found they (stars) were being covered by clouds which were fast and ominously approaching. After wasting around half an hour in debating the course of action and waking up Vickram and Kamu we started to pack our things with urgency as first drops of rain had started to fall in. We could manage to pack things and picked them but finding shelter was a major problem as we were in a jungle with little overhead protection ,the only hut which we had seen was uphill about half hour track .As the lightning started we unanimously decided to head for the hut. Loke was again carrying a little lighter rucksack (minus the rations we had consumed) .He had to be pushed, shoved from behind in one or two places en route to the hut .The hut as we reached seemed to be a deserted one and I must confess at retrospect it seemed ominous. I’ll add that the route back was easily traced due to the ‘X’ marks on the trees as per loke’s idea.
I along kamu were the first ones to reach ,the hut was offset from the foot trail,it was made of mud and a thatched roof. On opening the door a stale smell encountered us, we had kicked it open. Looking inside I froze for a moment as it was a small room with a ‘tahakth’ beside the door and on it I saw a form akin to someone sleeping on the cot. On closer scruitiny it was found that it was an old blanket rolled up and kept there. Once inside loke with his load also followed and searching for a place to sit, sat on ground opposite to the wooden bed. We had lit a candle and placed it in the space made on the wall for placing a lamp in old type of homes and this hut had two of them. It was a small hut barely enough to accommodate the bed ,opposite to it was a old fashioned ‘chullah’ now not in use. The time was around three thirty we were drenched and three of us except loke sat on the bed. The cow webs were visible and as our eyes got accustomed to the light of the candle I saw the place where loke was sitting.
Loke was sitting next to the chullah which was permanently made inside the wall and connected to a chimney. A medium sized stone jutted near the challah and loke was sitting on top of it, curiously area around it seemed to be dug up and then filled with stones and mud .The area extended till the chullah. A small piece of leather probably part of a chappal and a light blue piece of cloth was also jutting out inconspicuously ,the first thought which came to me was that someone was buried in that isolated hut. Kamu and I saw each other and chose to keep quite least we awake the explorer in loke and find something we feared we would discover in a dark night.
At around five the rain had stopped and we decided ,against the wishes of loke and kamu to go back to my house and subsequently carry out the remainder of the camping. Well the day passed in drying our stuff loke was adamant in cooking as we had everything so we relented after a cup of tea ,which loke never used to drink. After coming back loke and kamu got ready in preparing lunch and so their tryst with cooking ,which I had a strong belief was the first one ,began. The stove was ignited and one full packet of noodles was put inside the vessel. The two brothers of mine were eager to help. Now the colour of the water inside the vessel turned white and noodles began to dissolve so our master chef ,loke poured ketchup and the noodles were declared to be fit for consumption. As can be inferred that there were not many takers and as my brothers , siddu along with my( still) younger cousin gaurav were keen to help they finished a portion of the porridge noodles the rest as can be said is history down the drain.
In the evening of day three (we had planned for a seven day track) it was decided that we would go to ‘chauli – ki – jaali’ it was at the footstep of Mukteshwar Mahadeo Mandir and at that time one small foot trail passed through it to the Dak Bunglow. The place had huge cliff and rocks with a sheer drop of about 150-200 meters. People used to visit that place and itch their names on to the rocks, couples not able to conceived were believed to be blessed after they went through a small hole in one of the cliffs a seemingly impossible feat and a dangerous one too as slip of a few inches could land you hundreds of meters down.
We reached our chosen place at around three and started the ritual of making tea ,this time we were more successful and more sane in bringing less ration (at that time it seemed so). After tea it was decided to hunt for fallen twigs for bonfire planned for the evening.
A couple with two children ,tourists interacted with us and were impressed with our zeal and enthusiasm, some young boys from nearby house came and sat down with us, one middle aged fellow was befriended by Vickey and Loke and was telling them unheard stories and simply BC . (Lokesh) The stories were of Bruce Lee and Nanchuk. I still remember I had a brown wooden one with green tape to cover the nails and we gave some live demos to those tourists.
The sun set was marvelous and by them we had itched our initials. The bonfire was lit and we enjoyed our half cooked vegetable with bread sitting near the fire .The stock of twigs was getting exhausted and we now were cautious in utilizing the wooden twigs, well it lasted till about eleven and then this time all of us went to sleep, deciding to take sentry turns from our sleeping bags. At night around two I awoke shivering ,well Mukteshwar is not a place to sleep outside even in summers and we were under prepared as for as sleeping in open was concerned. Previous night was relatively warm due to jungle and cloud cover but that day stars were sparkling at their best.
We didn’t had adequate woolens not to mention caps and gloves. The two sound sleepers Vickey and loke were I suppose more comfortable as they had better sleeping bags but kamu and I were in trouble. The sleeping bags were supposed to be rotated as per the sentry duty so as per the present occupants their turn had not come as yet. I remember sitting huddled up trying to look at watch after every ten minutes and hoping as hell that daybreak comes, kamu had dozed off huddled up trying to get access to Vickram’s sleeping bag. The bonfire had turned cold so after an antagonizing wait of another two hours I started of towards my house I don’t think any of the sleeping beauties heard me stating my intentions.
The sun was coming out of the horizon and while going back on the footpath I fell down, face and belly down, it must have been a few seconds but seemed like eternity and the feel of cold grass touching my cheeks helped me in regaining my senses. I was sick and went off to sleep as soon as I reached home.I awoke at around noon and was down with fever Kamu came to see me and told that they had decided to call off the adventure and they were leaving the same day.I was not able to see them off but felt sad as our planned outing had not turned out as we had fantasized but it still remains one special moment where we had dared to undertake an adventure with no guidance, experience and merge resources.