"Trek-king?" Such was the puzzled question we repeatedly encountered during our foray into the beautiful wastes
of the Rann of Kachch. Part of the puzzlement had to do with the fact that the very concept of people going for a 'walk' across
the rann carrying their own equipment and rations for several days, when buses or at least bullock carts were available, was
simply laughable. We could almost read their thoughts, as they looked agape at us, "These people are crazy!"
And what of the composition of our group? Guys in their late twenties and early thirties to people barely out of their
teens, men and women, people from all parts of the country, seventeen of us and the only Gujarati, we spoke between us was,
Khemche, (we picked up pretty fast though, adding a 'che' to every other word we spoke in Hindi!).
The trek to the Rann of Kachch was a first for the JNUMC, made all the more eventful by the biggest earthquake to hit
the nation in a hundred years. But first things first. Our departure for Ahmedabad, was pretty uneventful, except for a flat
tyre on the bus we caught. However after reaching Ahmedabad the following day, things went like clockwork and we reached Rapar,
our starting point, by nightfall. After renting a big dormitory for the night, we faced our biggest challenge until then -
getting a guide. After much persuasion, a young chap named Naveen agreed. He had spent a few years in Pune and fancied himself
more as a man of the world than his fellows. And the thought of breaking out of the confines of the small town in which he
lived, if only for a few days must have swung the decision in our favour.
Trekking is not only about carrying a heavy rucksack across the miles. It is also about knowing yourself and the limits
to which you can push yourself. It is also about getting to know other people, your fellow-trekkers, as well as those whom
you meet along the way and about seeing and experiencing their lives, emotions and thinking. You would have to be pretty numb-skulled
to come away from a trek without learning to think about a wider universe than your own private world.
The trek started from Rapar on the 24th of January at first light. Since we could find no porters, we carried our tents
and the duffel bag of utensils ourselves. The village of Geddi, nearly 18kms away was the first destination of the trek. As
our feet crunched across previously un-trekked terrain, we drew stares from all and sundry, who passed us. As the day progressed,
and we travelled across a mixture of sand, mud and rock, with more greenery, than we expected, a cool breeze caressed our
faces, despite the sun.
Midway, at a village we were able to arrange a bullock cart for our equipment though I dare say, the trekkers would have
preferred a camel cart instead. We also managed to draw a horde of children around us who willingly accepted the sweets we
offered them, but scurried for cover, as soon as we took out our cameras. Also, at this village, we had another addition to
our trekking team. An old baba much enthused by the sight of us strangers, and by the prospect of trying out something new,
joined us and kept up a stream of mutually unintelligible conversation with us - the khemche-only party.
And so we made our way to Geddi, spotting some avian life, but little else that was mobile. There was enough, however,
in those austere surroundings, of peace, of wind and sun, of that indefinable far-from-the-madding-crowds element, that make
you come back for more. Trekkers are a tribe apart. We walk miles with blisters on our feet, sore backs, shoulders rubbed
raw by rucksack straps, grimy faces and caps caked with the salt of our sweat, and yet, as soon as one trek is over, we want
to go for the next. Our parents have given up trying to understand us. And I am not sure whether we understand much ourselves,
except, - and I will risk using a cliché, here - that the dil maange more.
At Geddi, the now familiar scene of children gathering around us, was reenacted as we hunted for a campsite. This time
though, we had something else to show them besides distributing sweets. As the villagers gathered around us, we set about
pitching our tents. And over the shouting of instructions, was the excited chatter of the villagers and cries of a wonderment,
recognizable in any language, as four colorful pyramids rose before eyes that had seen many a sunrise. But my hope was for
the younger pairs of eyes that were watching, hope that they would now realise that there was indeed a world beyond the horizon,
that no matter what, they would dare to dream big.
The sun rises pretty late in these parts for obvious reasons, and so we had a late start the following morning. Our baba
had now taken on the role of porter and Naveen managed to arrange for another from the village, the bullock-cartwallah having
left us the previous day. Jatawada, 14 kms was our destination for the day. A couple of hours into the trek, we made a detour
to a cave which according to local legend, was once occupied by Bhima, one of the five Pandavas. Well if it was, it was pretty
small, for one of Bhima's size. Even for us ordinary mortals, there was only just about enough space to turn around.
We were soon on our way across parched earth, a little later, and witnessed some pretty high-resolution mirages. We were
also experienced a far more common phenomenon on treks - that of seeing your destination far in the distance but of never
seeming to get there. On we trekked with the whitewashed houses of Jatawada in our sights until we finally got so close, that
the vegetation and ridges began to block our view. As we neared, the group ran out of water and who should we seeing lying
flat on the ground under the shade of a tree but our baba. The water we offered him was so hot that he refused it, and preferred
to wait for the cooler stuff from Jatawada, now only two kilometers away.
In a move, we would later reflect on, we decided to sleep in a large room belonging to the local dispensary. Information,
which we received, on the way back, told us that the building had been damaged in the quake. We could count ourselves pretty
lucky. That night, the villagers rustled up a bonfire at the mere drop of a hint, and the trekkers were soon gathered around
it displaying their histrionic wares.
On the first Republic Day of the new millennium, we followed MC tradition as we sang the National Anthem before setting
off. This day, we would have to take the road to our final destination the village of Lodhrani as there was no track through
the desert. Things were further complicated as the baba decided that he had enough adventure for the time being, and bid us
farewell. So now we were short of a porter. As soon as we reached the road, some time later, we decided to entrust Naveen
with the equipment and send him off on whatever vehicle, to the next point. The man from Geddi would now be our guide.
When the quake struck, we were on the road and in the open with not even a vehicle in sight or going off the road, to
suggest to us the extent of destruction that we would witness over the next few days. All we had for company were a few camels
and goats as we were thrown to the ground as the intensity increased. But most of us were soon on our feet before the tremors
had quite died down, writing poems and clicking photos. And we continued on our way despite being rocked for more than a minute
observing cracks on the road and wonder of wonders - water coming out of cracks in the earth.
Balasar - the name shall forever be etched in our minds, despite not being on any map we had studied before the trek -
was the first village we came across after the quake and from far we could see the destruction that had been wrought. The
scenes and the stories were to become to all too familiar as we wound our way back to Ahmedabad. The JNU trekking team did
what little we could for a people in shock. But the trek had to continue. And we were soon without either Naveen or the porter
from Geddi, both of whom were touchingly remorseful about leaving the team stranded, as it were, in the middle of nowhere.
But we were on the road and there was no question of us getting lost and so we carried on.
We completed the trek successfully, several hours later, but Lodharani was destroyed. We had trouble find transport, but
eventually we hopped onto a truck to Dholavira and we saw for the first time the stunningly beautiful salty rann as we entered
the island of Khadir. The caretakers at the Harappan site told us that the citadel had developed cracks but that was as nothing
compared to the fact that the entire village of Dholavira was a rubble heap. That night, trekkers and villagers formed a rare
communion as we gathered round the radio, and realised the magnitude of the event that we had been witnesses to.
Having said that, let me put things in perspective. The human being is a puny thing against the forces of nature but not
the human will, nor human goodness. The villagers of Dholavira had somehow managed to inform the authorities that there was
no need for any immediate assistance in their village and that help could be sent to wherever else it was more urgently required.
Naveen's family was safe, and in Rapar on our return they insisted that we eat the lunch that they had prepared despite literally
living in the bus-stand. And the lady of the house believed it firmly when she said that they had survived because they had
fed us dinner our first night in Rapar. These are our stories, the newspapers have told you many more.
But this is an account of a trek. The JNUMC experiences tough times and more stories of courage and kindness in every
trek that never make it to the pages of any newspaper. As with the survivors of the quake, for the JNUMC, life goes on. Something
less dramatic, but far worse in consequence, can and do happen on treks. And it is not always physical. But for the reporter
or anybody else who asks, whether the experience of an earthquake makes you think twice about going on a trek again, all I
can ask in return is, "Are you kidding?" (Contributed by : J T Jacob)