On 15th September, Mandip and I headed out in our jeep from Delhi at 6.30 am to a little village called Majkhali, 11 kms beyond the hill station of Ranikhet at 1869 metres.
Ranikhet is a cantonment town since the time of the British where the Kumaon and Naga regiment are trained and an Army hill town. We have been going there since 1996, and we built our own little small mountain hut called Edelweiss in 1999.
For me, it has always been a special area as most of my family studied there from my great grandfathers time and in recent years, our family Trust does a lot of work in the area of education, health, women’s empowerment issues, and medical, supporting almost 5 hospitals in the area and educating 15 girls at a school from entry to graduation. I have been a Trustee with the Trust and have been very involved in new projects including a clean up project of 13 villages in the area from an awareness programme to teaching the village community on segregating their waste and this was quite useful.
Being involved in responsible tourism for years, we are aware of the fragility of these parts and the ruthless treatment they are receiving from hideous construction to forest felling etc. It has really disturbed us and Mandip has separately been struggling with the Government to fix guidelines on even construction methods and materials.
Anyhow, we reached our cottage on 15th evening aware that the late monsoons were still ongoing and there may be a landslide or two to encounter but being the main artery to these parts, we also knew that the roads get cleared by bull dozers rapidly.
We had intermittent heavy showers on 16th but on 17th, the rains began and continued for 14 hours with no letting up. We knew that this was far too much than these hills can take but didn’t realize the enormity of the situation at the time. On 18th morning when we called the nearby hill station of Almora, we learnt of 40 villages being washed away as well as of a small minor earthquake as this lies in the seismic zone too. Our friend Dieter who runs a charming 9 cottages resort in Almora informed us of one of his past workers whose village home collapsed beneath the landslide, killing 14 members of his family.
Mandip and I realized we had to make fast decisions and began surfing various weather forecast websites and found wunderground.com to be most reliable. By that time, we had made a decision to sit it out until Wednesday or Thursday 22nd or 23rd September but wunderground gave us a hope of a clear morning on 21st and we decided we had to escape. We learnt that all roads were closed and there were landslides. We decided to leave our jeep in the care of one of the family Trust Directors and just move with 2 umbrellas, a basic back pack each and plenty of food nibbles to sustain us if we were stuck.
On the morning of 21st, we caught a local cab and travelled down the hill road for about an hour plus until the first land slide which looked more like the entire hill collapsing. We strapped on our bags and began venturing ahead fast and moving before the predicted 1 pm rain hit us. After crossing a few landslides, we found two innovative hill shop keepers in two small ram shackled cars offering to drop us a further 4 kms at a price. We took this on until a few kilometres ahead where a large tree had fallen and the hillside caved in. At this point, we knew it was going to be a long trudge. We moved fast and within a stretch of 6-7 kms, we encountered 18 landslides. Mandip kept my wits going with his puns, deciding the best way to move was to enjoy the moment whilst I offered to put in my divorce papers! A planned adventure is great but here was the real life one. Family and friends were all nervous and dissuaded us from this.
We did have a saviour in a childhood friend of my brothers who insisted and offered to wait the other side of the last landslide which turned the best thing that happened. There were no taxis, no cars, and no vehicles that would have ferried us back so getting into his vehicle with the rain lashing at 12.45 hours as predicted was like a God send.
Just when we thought our adventure was over and we’d jump into the night train to Delhi, we learnt that the highway being closed had forced all traffic to abort their vehicles and take the train. No tickets were available and we made ourselves as comfortable in a tiny unkempt hotel for the night to finally, heave a sigh of relief and take the following morning train to Delhi.
Of course, the adventure is really only over once you turn the key of your own front door. The ticket conductor informed us that the River Jamuna’s level was rising dangerously high and the train would only reach a satellite town outside of Delhi called Ghaziabad. To make matters worse, there were no local trains moving and Delhi station had been closed for that day. Taxis were not available through any organisation and finally, we managed to get Mandip’s parents to send a car and driver to Ghaziabad to bring us back to Delhi. Whew!
It was an adventure and we were happy to be safely home, not knowing what state our dear ‘edelweiss’ cottage would be and I believe it has suffered in a small way. What disturbed me more was the fragility of the mountains and the simple village folk, many of whom were left homeless, with no provisions reaching them, not knowing when and where they would have safety until the next storm?
I think this wasn’t nature’s fury or God’s wrath as people say but an environmental alarm that was straining at its chords, crying out to all of us to go slow. To tread lightly…