As much as I love Christmas, I felt a lot of pressure about where to spend my holidays while in India. I wanted to be somewhere cool and special for it, but I had no clue where. I found Mumbai not to be too celebratory in those regards.
I’ll just chill at the hostel and let something fall into my lap.
Thus entered Navneeth, who delivered an unexpected adventure right onto my lap!
Navneeth is an Indian on travel in Mumbai from Hyderabad. I saw him over a couple of days at the hostel, but never spoke to him until the 22 of December, just two days before Christmas Eve. We made general, friendly chit-chat. Then he popped the question.
“Would you like to go on a hike with me and a friend over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?” he asked.
“Where at?” I asked.
“A place called Fort Torne, just outside of Mumbai.”
Never heard of it. I already had my laptop open and google image searched Fort Torne. The photos were amazing!
My answer to him was a definite “heck yeah!”
“But I don’t have any gear…” I began to tell him. “I have a pair of hiking shoes, but no camping equipment.”
“My friend who lives near there will have extra stuff for you,” he said.
The plan was to bus it over to Pune, just three hours east of Mumbai during the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Then, his friend will meet us there and drive us over to the start of the Fort Torne trail. From there, we will hike in the evening to the summit and spend the night under the open stars and wake up on Christmas Day to one of the best sunrises one could ever witness.
The only issue I had was my rumbly tummy. The food in India has been great but I’ve been having to run to go number #2 a lot more than usual lately. As soon as my stomach unexpectedly began to grumble, I literally had two minutes to find somewhere to “drop the kids off” otherwise I’d soil my pants. Luckily, the bus ride to Pune was rumble free.
We arrived in Pune much later than planned. Navneeth was busy running errands before our bus trip which delayed us by a few hours.
“We just have to wait for my friend to meet us,” Navneeth said.
Good, because my stomach began to rumble again. I needed to find somewhere quick but there was no toilet in sight! It was night-time, so I snuck in someone’s backyard and popped a squat under the cover of darkness. Whoever wakes up and comes in this yard tomorrow is gonna find a very unwelcoming surprise. I had to do what I had to do. Besides, there is shit all over the place in India from all the stray dogs and cows anyway.
When I walked back to find Navneeth, he was already joined by his friend.
“Hi!” I said to him. “I’m Daniel.”
“Hello, I’m Bop-It,” he said.
“No!” he laughed. “Bapat.”
Bapat indicated that we had a problem. Since we arrived later than planned, he warned us that it was too dangerous to hike at this hour (Midnight) because of leopards.
“Leopards!” I said in somewhat disbelief. “Really, leopards??”
He wasn’t kidding. The highest concentration of wild leopards in the world are right here, just outside of Mumbai.
“We’ll have to sleep a couple of hours in the temples at the bottom of the mountain and then start the trek at 3am,” he said to us. “Just to be safe.”
Leopards? Temples? This sounds like something straight outta Indiana Jones 🙂
He wasn’t kidding about the temple part either. Down at the base of the mountain was a community of temples and shrines we could dwell in. They weren’t exactly made for sleeping but it provided the cover we needed I suppose. Bapat pulled out a few thin mats and laid them on the floor of a small and suitable temple we found. He then opened up a few thin blankets for us to use. Thankfully I brought my travel pillow. We set our alarms for 3am and tried to get some shut-eye.
But it was just too cold.
I barely got a wink as I shivered in my cocoon of shirts and jacket layers. Navneeth barely got any sleep either. 3am came faster than we wanted, but not before a group of ten other trekkers came and disturbed us.
Ten local Indian men, all suited and ready for a hike found us sleeping, woke us up, and suggested we hike with them. Larger numbers means lesser chances of leopards mistaking us for food. Plus, at least one of them had to know the correct way up.
We gathered our belongings and followed the group of ten out of the temple grounds into the foot of the mountain. A stray dog found us and began to follow our pack. It was completely dark but we all had torches at our disposal. Bapat, who’s been to this mountain years before looked confused.
“I don’t think this is the way,” he said. “None of this looks familiar.”
Our group of thirteen scattered about for a bit trying to find the correct path, but with no success. It seemed like each guy found what they thought was the correct route, but no one could agree on which. Navneeth and I stuck with Bapat.
“Let’s go this way,” he said to us.
We split from the confused group of ten and separated ourselves from them, going forth on our own as originally planned. However, the stray dog decided it was best to follow us as well.
Bapat led us through the thick of the night along half-assed trails. I mean, they were barely trails that guided us through overgrown grass and quick jaunts of forest. Then the trail would disappear and we’d have to find another route. At least it wasn’t cold for the time being. Hiking up and down warmed me up.
We tracked and backtracked on a consistent basis. It was pitch dark outside and we couldn’t see anything more than a few yards in front of us. We wandered for two hours going every which direction until we came to a few trapped dead ends. Where the heck do we go?
Bapat was growing a bit frustrated but no one blamed him. It was way too dark and there was no visible path. The dog continued to follow us without hesitation.
We stumbled upon what appeared to be a small farm, kept by one tiny home just on the forefront. Bapat paused and we decided it’s best we find a place to rest and wait for some daylight, otherwise we’d continue to wander around aimlessly in the dark. We found some hay and soft dirt scattered on the ground just outside the tiny home. We fell on top of it and tried to get comfortable. We stuck together, in the rare chance a leopard did appear. This was gonna be a cold night.
Suddenly my tummy went rumbly. Not right now!
I didn’t make aware of my situation to Navneeth and Bapat but instead, I grabbed the toilet paper out of my bag and casually excused myself for a bit. I walked among the farm field to a log I found where I could pop a squat. To say it was the creepiest poop of my life would be an understatement. My mind went crazy and heard crunching leaves and weird noises as I was doing my business. This would be the perfect opportunity for a leopard to come get me. I quickly buried my toilet paper and went back to the others to fall asleep.
Not much longer after, we heard footsteps nearby.
Was it that group of ten? No, the footsteps we were hearing was the work of one being.
Was it our dog? No, he was right here huddled beside my right leg, loyal as ever.
It turned out to be a very old lady, who spoke a language only Bapat could understand. I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying to each other, but it was in a tone of the utmost formality. I noticed Bapat occasionally referring to her as “maushi”, whatever that meant. The elderly woman would often point to a pile of rubble out in the middle of her crops as she spoke to Bapat. Then she disappeared back into her home.
Bapat told us that in that rubble, underneath the tarp was a pile of old wool and blankets we can rest on until daylight. Then in the morning, Maushi would point us in the direction to the summit of Fort Torne. It’s too risky to continue during the night. We were way off path.
We pulled the tarp off the pile of wool and blankets and plopped down onto its softness. Yes, this was perfect and a lot more comfortable than the temples down below. Maushi came back out to us with a few blankets she brought from inside her home to help keep us warm through the chilly night. We set our alarms for 7am.
It’s Christmas morning and I’m lost in the mountains, sleeping outside on a pile of wool and hay, on some elderly woman’s farm, with a couple of random Indians I barely know along with a stray dog who won’t leave my side.
I couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere nearly as interesting at that moment.
The sun began to show itself, but the three of us were too lazy to budge. We’ve been trekking all night. We awoke, covered in random debris of straw, dirt, and dead leaves.
Maushi was already wide awake, working on clearing some dried bush near crops just down below us. She pointed Bapat in the direction we should be going. Thank you Maushi for your kindness.
At this point we realized we wouldn’t make it to the summit of Fort Torne in time. Navneeth had a flight to catch later in the day to Hyderabad. Bapat estimated we only had a couple of hours of trekking before we had to turn around, in order to catch the bus back in time for Navneeth’s scheduled flight. So we proceeded to ascend as much as we could, as time allotted.
Although we weren’t near the summit, the views surrounding us were absolutely stunning! The early sun cast a gradient of pinks, oranges, and blues in the distance, showcasing the perfect backdrop to the valley of mountains that circled us.
The creepy hike at night turned into a delight during the day. Sunil Wakde followed us along playfully. Who is Sunil Wakde? It’s the name Navneeth and Bapat decided to give the dog who remained loyal to us. I’m not sure where they got that name from but whatever. He must be really hungry and thirsty.
We ventured upwards for about an hour and spotted a motorbike just beyond the tall grass.
“What is that?”
A few more parked motorbikes popped up on a perfectly paved road. Turns out this is the road that we began on last night but went on an alternate route because it wasn’t familiar to the others. Why wasn’t it familiar? Because this road was newly paved just recently. Before, one had to hike their way all the way up to the top but now with this new road, two-thirds of the hike can be driven up to.
We laughed at our mistake. Our alternate course turned out to be interesting at the least. Still, we continued up, hiking to around 11:30am. We came to a halt and decided we should turn around, in order not to get to the base too late. On the way down, just a few meters below, were a mother and daughter who lived on Torne, in what appeared to be the most beat-up lemonade stand in the universe.
“We gotta try some,” Navneeth said.
“What is it?” I asked. “Lemonade?”
“It’s Limbu Paani.”
The woman poured some water out of her tin canister into a bowl and added what looked to be a squeeze of lemon and some sugar, and poured the contents into three tin cups. We each took one. I watched Navneeth and Bapat chug theirs down. I held mine in my hand, unsure of whether to drink it or not. The water didn’t look boiled or anything. I didn’t know where it came from. I’ve been careful with the water since I arrived in India and this just looked suspect. The others assured me it was fine and so I took a sip.
Limbu Paani is kinda like lemonade except it’s not good. I wasn’t sure what the heck it was and my instincts told me to stop drinking it. I gave it to the others to finish it off. We continued on, but instead of the beaten path, this time we chose to go down the paved road which took as all the way down to the temples and shrines we began at the night before.
We found an empty restaurant at the base where we decided to get some quick breakfast.
My goal was to find food and water for Sunil Wakde, who followed us all the way up and down. There wasn’t anything around I could use as a bowl to pour water, so I snuck a cup sitting on one of the empty tables and filled it with some of my water. Sunil nearly drank half my water bottle! The others told me that I shouldn’t use the cups to feed the dogs because the dishes here aren’t washed very well.
I figured as much already.
We walked back to the car and began our drive back to Pune, completely satisfied with our morning. Goodbye Sunil Wakde.
My stomach began to rumble again and thank goodness it was now instead of while being on the toilet-less bus!
That would have been a horrible way to cap off one of the most unorthodox, yet satisfying Christmas’ I’ve ever had.