Following an animated chat with the septuagenarian Dev Maya Tamang at Damdame, Shishir and I headed for Thumki Danda. Before long, a piercing note sounded, which continued unabated. It appeared to be someone blowing a whistle, the resounding drone bouncing off the hills.
“Bhai (bro), what noise is that?” I asked a guy we met on the way. “They are Ghanti keera (bugs) called Kankuli by some,” he said. I’d a hunch they were cicadas (jhyaunkiri) as I had done a little research on them. They sounded different from those from the Shivapuri forest, though.
You won’t believe it! The male cicada’s chirp can reach over 100 decibels during the mating season, close to as loud as a motorcycle, nay, a tractor, or a subway train!
After Bhattarai Gaun, the entire area seemed predominated by the ethnic Tamangs: Bhal, Jimba, Thing, and Syangtang. Strange, every time my cycling took me across a Tamang settlement, I ran into a new ethnic Tamang community.
As we pedaled uphill, my eyes fell on two women; they had just picked tori ko sag (mustard spinach) and tied them up in bunches to take some home and sell some. Shishir suggested we take a little for the night’s camp kitchen—it sounded swell. I took out my wallet to pay, but the Tamang ladies refused payment. We thanked them, and following a brief banter, we left.
As we hit the road to Thumki Danda, the hills seemed obscure as the fog set in. We arrived at Bhanjyang Pokhari, named after a small pond built by the Rana Prime Minister, Juddha Shumsher. As Shishir stopped by the bazaar, my curiosity drew me to the historic pond. To my horror, it turned out to be a dumping site.
Darkness crept in as we headed off a stiff hill towards Lama Gaun. The climb was not only grueling but needed lugging our bikes; a recent landslip had washed away the entire hillside and the dirt road.
With the backpack and the crippling weight of the bike, we had to heave ourselves over enormous boulders—nothing short of a nightmare for me.
We switched on our bicycle lights and detoured onto a single track that cut across a wooded hill. The tall pines shed shadowy figures in the beam of our bicycle light, creating almost a spooky atmosphere—so quiet I could hear my heartbeat in the bargain.
Unawares, Dev Maya’s words struck me: Baghs (tigers) infested the isolated forest of the Mahesh Narayan shrine. The village folks call leopard a bagh. Once, I was a fan of the legendary British hunter/author/naturalist Col. Jim Corbett (Man-Eaters of Kumaon); his stories always recounted how the predators pounced on their prey from behind—and to my misery, I brought up the rear as Shishir led the way.
We soon dismounted as the track got only a foot apart and slippery with steep drops to our right. The trees and underbrush seemed to play tricks on my eyes in the narrow flare of my light.
We finally arrived at Mahesh Narayan. The night was coal-black with no moon or stars. We did not dare go further to Gupteswor Mahadev as the pitch-dark trail seemed buried under dense brush.
We put it off until tomorrow and hastened to find a spot to pitch the tent. It was already eight, and we’d a pile of work, including the cooking. Shishir signaled and led the way.
“A little above, there is an ideal level spot amid the pine trees with easy access to water,” he said. But he looked disoriented, as he could not locate the access trail; then, for 10-long minutes, he got swallowed by the inky night.
The sudden hush after he left felt creepy, and I kept looking behind me, a jumble of thoughts crawling across my mind. I felt relieved when I saw the beam of his headlamp inching toward me.
One look at the track made me almost buckle. It was a near-vertical wall with steps dug into red mud, slippery with rain. Shishir helped me heave up the bike over, though. Next followed a 20-minute punishing shove through pine woods.
I was gasping for breath by the time we cleared the incline. The site was smack dab in the thick pines, with a large clearing where we could play badminton. ‘Wow, a magnificent spot for pitching our tent!’ I said aloud.
The hush seemed profound, and the noisy cicadas seemed to have turned in for the night. Good for us, I mused and felt at peace.