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Milk On The Rocks

INDIA | Sunday, 12 October 2014 | Views [350]

Every night in NITK Surathkal would be stirred by the long whistle piercing the deafening silence. The heavy diesel locomotive would lead the giant reptile through the Konkan Railway, arguably the most beautiful strech of railways in entire India, running through the shoulder of the Western Ghats. The single line system covers the West Coast from Mangalore to Mumbai, taking a few detours from Madgao. One such by-route gets menacingly close to the Dudh Sagar falls. A very popular destination for the photographers, the internet is flooded the photographs of a blue train bisecting the Milk-On-The-Rocks. I had always wanted one for my own!

Somewhere something happened, and Friday was declared a holiday. It was a late decision, and when we got to know, the Thursday was already in its last fraction. With a longer than usual weekend ahead, the locals were booking tickets for home, and the 'unfortunate' us were dreaming for a good sleep. I submitted my lab keys to the key-guard, and walked past the trolly bags and backpacks headed for home. A lone dog somewhere in the campus let out a painful howl, which submerged in the long whistle. The last train for Mumbai is leaving. From the distance I could only make out the chain of windows which sped through the darkness. I felt left out. As if the train was supposed to wait for me, take me along. Okay, I thought, I will chase the selfish giant.

One shirt, a pair of trousers and socks, a bottle of water, a torch, my camera and four batteries. I left the sleeping campus at midnight with my backpack. And as I had done quite a few times before, stood on the National Highway 17 with a outstretched left hand. And as I had always noticed, private cars seldom showed any interest. It was an empty mini-truck that gave me a lift. Night time highway truck drivers are either very talkative, or pretty much silent. This one clearly was in the latter section, and the Kannad song that his radio was playing reminded me of a Bengali sufi folk song I had heard long back. Kandiya akul hoilam bhobo nodir pare... “Oh, how I cried in despair on the bank of the river of life...” The tune wasn't the same, and of course I didn't understand the Kannad lyrics, but somewhere the feel was similar, of a repenting man splilling out his hopelessness and desparation.

He took me till Udupi, where I had to bear the pungent ammoniatic odour of a nearby open-access urinal until a reluctant homeward-bound banker agreed to drop me till Kundapura. This man, however, had a few questions for me. I had to lie. “My friends had taken the night train to Madgao, I missed it. No more trains today, and no direct bus as well. So I am trying to get as close as possible, and then take the first bus whenever and wherever I get one, instead of waiting in Mangalore. This will save me some time.” Sounded convincing to me! I started rehearsing the paragraph in my mind. I knew that I would certainly have to use it many more times before I actually get to see the mighty DudhSagar! Just as I gave in to that compelling urge to close my eyes for a bit, he stopped. Kundapura, he pointed out. He'll take left now.

For a few moments hence, I felt so drowsy that I considered taking a nap on the bus stop bench. I would have done so, but the mosquitoes did well to change my mind. I yawned on the NH17 as heavy oil-tanks sluggishly went on. I thought of changing position. I should stand somewhere well lit, I thought, nowhere shady. I started walking forward to find a tea shop surprisingly serving to a couple of elderly people at 3 in the morning! I sat on the disbalanced bench, inclined towards me, and waited for some vehicle. A truck came. It stopped. The driver came out. He sat on the other side of the bench and balanced it for me, asked the shop owner for a bhaand of tea, and gave me an inquisitive glance. “I am stuck”, I said in Hindi, imparting a futile Kannad accent, “ Can I... ? Will you... ?”. “Kaha tak jana hai aapko?” He replied fluently. “I am from Bihar”, he added, and smiled. His paan-stained teeth was more authentic than a passport! I insisted on paying for his tea, and a couple of biscuits. From an airconditioned front seat of a Ford to the boiling cabin of the Full Punjab truck, what else was in reserve for me? Little did I know the answer then...

For a long stretch, the highway ran parallel and close to the Arabian Sea, and the phosphorescent waves almost outgrew the beach and touched us. We reached Bhatkal when it was 4. It was still dark, and judging by the city-lights, Bhatkal was a bigger town than Kundapura. I was hopeful. More streets merging with the NH would mean frequent vehicles. I was wrong. Half an hour, I was stuck. Quarter to an hour, no sign of relief. Ten minutes past an hour, a pair of headlights flashed. I started waving at it. It did slow down. And managed to scare the life out of me. It was a police jeep. Four uniformed cops began interrogation. Fortunately enough, I had rehearsed my cover. They were a little skeptic, but nevertheless agreed to drop me till Honnavar, where I could avail bus as well as train service, since the Konkan Railway had an intersection with the NH17 at Honnavar. And of course, I had to promise not to wander about alone at night around these places!

Honnavar was a one hour journey. We'd have reached earlier, had a truck not somersaulted on the by-way and the cops had to intervene. I peeked into the bus-station. Quilt covered people lay asleep like corpses on the platform, and drowsy buses posed like ancient machines. Evidently bus wasn't an option. Neither was train. So I returned to the highway again. The Eastern horizon had barely started to fade. A one-eyed pick-up van decided to pity on me. But the driver and his son were occupying the front seats. I couldn't fit in. And it was a boon in disguise. I re-arranged the sacks of guava and cabbage on the open van and hopped in! As the vehicle grazed sixty Kilometers an hour, I witnessed a serene sunrise on the Western Ghats. As I looked upon the yawning city of Karwar at dawn, with a messed up hair, the father handed me a guava from his stock, and disappeared in the market. This was by far the most beautiful town I have seen in the Kannad coastline. The hills here have come down to meet the sea. The white sand beach was clean, the waves disciplined, probably because they were in touch with the Indian Navy base. The beach was named after Tagore, apparently he visited here for some reason.

I had breakfast in Karwar. Idli and chatni. Goa border wasn't far, although inter-state buses were scarce. I didn't want to waste any time in waiting and I found my way to the Karwar railway station. Oh, the sweet Konkan Railway and its small, desolate and poetic stations! I reached Madgao by 12.

What I learnt there, was a disappointment. Apparently, one has to go to Kulem via train from Madgao (a detour from Konkan that merges subsequently with the South-Western railway), and then go to Dudh Sagar. There was NO public bus service, tourists take train or hire cars. And the next train was at 3 o'clock.

The weariness was catching up, reminding me of the night's sleep that I missed. Three hours to kill, and an empty bench. I fell asleep, with the diesel engines singing lullabies for me. Somewhere above me, I heard... “ Welcome to the Konkan Railway, we wish you a happy and safe journey... tiriting ... Yatrigan kripiya dhyan dijiye, gari number......” with which the senses faded away...

My dreamless sleep was terminated by the alarm I had set in my mobile. I found a railway policeman inadvertantly measuring me. The curious little child wasn't so discreet though. He looked at me with suspicion, frowning, and never leaving the comfort zone of his father's viscinity. I was alertly listening to the anouncements, and changed the platform as the passenger train from Vasco made an early arrival to take me to Kulem.

“Which way to DudhSagar?” I asked a couple of men discussing some Govt. policy. They looked at me skeptically. “This way...” There was a 'but' hanging there somewhere. A doubt. I proceeded anyway. And was stalled at the entrance of the Mahaveer National Park. I wouldn't be allowed without a permit, and the plunging pool of the DudhSagar fall was 14 Km into the forest, I can't walk anyway. And I almost certainly can't hire a car. I felt like crying, when the two guards found a way out for me, probably because I was alone, and had traveled almost 400 Km to see it. Yet again, Konkan Railway was the solution.

At about halfway from top, a branch of the Konkan Railway dissects the DudhSagar falls. There is a halt station at the point, though none of the trains are supposed to halt there. The nearest station was Castle Rock, and thats where I was headed. A diesel loco pulled the Vasco-Nizamuddin Express, and two of them backed it up. Three engines for a single train to counter the steepness of the Western Ghats.

This time, I was lucky. A misbehaving signal stopped the train just as it crossed the halt. I leapt into side tracks and a minute later the train whistled away. The panoramic range of Western Ghats displayed shades in blues and greens in the cool dusk. The milky water bounced off the rocks on the other side, and plunged way beneath me. DudhSagar was worth every risk I had taken so far.

The forest was eating up the daylight, as I walked a few minutes to the halt. There was one single man, locking the last door. I took a deep breath of fresh cold air, and asked “When is the next train to Kulem?” The man double checked the lock, pulled the door twice and spoke. “No more train today, babu, yahan raat ko thand padhti hai, pani nahi hai, khana nahi hai, aur...” I was already gasping... “Aur parso sher aaya tha...” He disappeared in the circuitous cattle=path through the slope, leaving me in the leopard infested jungle. Alone.

I prepared myself to die that night. Eaten by a leopard, bitten by a snake, or out of hunger and thirst. Not thirst, I thought, not when I have an eternal source of fresh mountain water with plenty of water right by me. I got busy clicking all I got in the fading day light. A loud honk really really scared me. An engine.

Two engines, locked with each other. Apparently they pushed the train  out of the steep range, and were going back to Kulem. All that I came to know from the drivers, for I was now inside the monsterous diesel locomotive. Another item ticked of from my bucket list of hitch-hiking.

The drivers were reservoirs of stories, yet even they never encountered anything of my kind! I kept feeding there curiosities and they stopped wherever I requested them to, wherever I found a nice frame to click! A whole engine at my disposal! I was in a fairytale that I wrote for myself!
It was about seven in the evening when we were about to reach Kulem. “Where will you stay?” one of them asked. I told them that I had planned to take a train to Madgao now, and one from there to Surathkal. They looked at each other. “The last train has left Kulem at 6 in the evening. This isn't a busy route, you see. But I think I can make a way for you...”
Hours later, when I was sitting on the floor of the guard's van of a freight train, with my legs stretched and cool wind bristling through my hair, I crossed one more item from the Hitch-Hiker's Bucket list. This had been an eventful day.


Tags: dudhsagar falls, goa, hitchhiking, india, konkan railway, trekking

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