Tuesday, 28 September, 2021

Dharan-Dhankuta Trek Recalled

P Kharel

Sometime in 1961. A throng used to collect out of nowhere, curious over what happened. Two bulls gone amok emerged from nearby lanes connecting New Road in Kathmandu. With very little motor traffic, the stray bulls locked horns amid shouts, cheers, comments and laughter from the teeming crowd. Children, many of them without shoes, managed to squeeze themselves in to satisfy their curiosity.

The incident comes back in a flashback as if it had happened only a few years ago. Then follow torrent of other events and incidents — big, minor and frivolous ones. But a particular personal experience comes to mind for this week’s column. Travel is first-hand view and opportunity for self-education. With fitness freak the motto and chiselled body hailed as hallmark of a tough guy image, trekking occupies the pride of place.
More than 45 years ago, the Dharan-Dhankuta pass in eastern Nepal was a challenging trail for travellers. It was a trial of patience and physical endurance for especially those not used to such exacting undertaking. This novice had spent most of his spare time travelling the city corners of the Kathmandu Valley and some major towns outside the valley.

The year 1975, celebrated the International Women’s Year in response to the United Nations call, and Queen Aishwarya addressed programmes in all the then four development regions. I and Gopal Chitrakar, the country’s first full-fledged press photographer, set out for Dhankuta slightly before dawn streaked the sky. In an hour, birds began soaring toward the sky and chirping at close quarters in search of food. As climb progressed, we seldom exchanged any words. Only the water bottle changed hands every few minutes during the back breaking climb that constituted the first segment of the three-part trek - two steep climbs and one downhill trot in-between. (The return trip meant two downhill treks and a steep climb in-between.)
When we set out for the trek, the luggage was modest for a four-night Spartan travel was light when we set out for the headquarters of the Eastern Development Region. As we negotiated the steep climb under the scorching sun, the rucksack seemed to weigh heavier every few minutes.

Muscles tightened and quick short breaths marked the climb. There was a spot, favourite of picnickers and hikers. It offered a breathtaking scene stretched to a distance as far as the eyes could arrest the view, and offered a sheer visual pleasure. Lured by a serene spot, we breathed with relish the fresh, cool, sweet breeze in its lilting, faint embracing feel. Stray glint of sun streaks struggled to emerge between the tall trees and their branches. The tired legs got forgotten — rather reinvigorated.

As we climbed, we saw other elderly folks who had corrugated brows curled up and emphasised by exhaustion. My legs complained at every step threatening to crumple and collapse its capacity to stand; fortunately, they managed to stay erect in some form. The raging mid-day sun struck the body without mercy, as sweaty–soaked shirt spoke of the testing encounter. A brief spell of cool breeze would have been a great relief, what with the midday sun striking this poor scribe’s physical frame with ruthless indifference. Everything seemed to stand still as the heat struck everywhere within sight. Sullen stare and stillness greeted us.
Scraggy trees overlooked travellers. Not a bird winged its way over us. The wind stood still without breathing, as sweat dripped from our bodies, fed up with the backbreaking ordeal and giving a sticky feeling far away from a cool bath. For once, the cloud, which at other times might have been less than welcome, would have been received with hearty warmth. Had the rains poured, the respite would have showered balmy blessings on the aching body yearning to be drenched by heavenly liquid.

Then a couple of porters alighted to announce us weary city dwellers that we had only a mile to go, which meant 30-40 more minutes of the gruelling trek. The news produced a sigh of respite. Barely 20 minutes later, the first homely settlement came into sight. Just about the time the body was in a state of losing the will to negotiate the trail, we were greeted by orchards, kitchen gardens and courtyards, strewn with weeds, tweeds, kitchen utensils and farm tools. Cows, goats, chickens, dogs and other animals were all over the place.

The flat land restored our breath to normal pace. As we proceeded to the designated host’s residence, and occasional breeze soothed our discomfort, even if my knees kept aching and complaining of exhaustion. The hosts were eager to give us their best care. They were the family of Durga Nath Sharma, who had since that year begun working in the Gorkhapatra editorial section. I worked at The Rising Nepal while Gopal Chitrakar worked for both the broadsheet dailies.

The hospitable Sharma fetched me warm water mixed with salt to dip our aching legs in a bin. The cool starry night embraced the body into sound sleep, little realising that the order was far from over. A cramp had affected the knee calf. A slight knee-bend would trigger a searing pain through the body.

Pain and relief
Next morning the pain had reduced as long as the walk did not mean bending the knees much. The wee hours gave way the first embers of rays that progressed to promise a bright day. And so it did. The IWY programmes were over in the late afternoon. I scribbled a few stories that were inserted in an envelope while Chitrakar did the same with his film roils before arranging for the same to be entrusted to a helicopter pilot for delivery to Gokhapatra Corporation that very evening.

Two days after arrival in Dhankuta, it was time for a sort of repeat of what we underwent earlier on the Dharan-Dhankuta trail. The knee pain continued. Just when the first downward trek was completed, at the foothill of the steep climb alighted a man with a rental horse. Some bargaining minutes later I mounted the horse for the next couple of hours to reach Dharan Bazaar. Chitrakar did not require the ride.

A motor car transported us to Biratnagar. On the fifth day since we left Kathmandu, RNAC’s difficult-to-obtain air service delivered us to Kathmandu via an aged but sturdy white bird branded Dakota. By that time knee pain had subsided substantially. Within a week after medication the legs were back to normal functioning.

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)