Kaddukhal seemed ideal location since it was on a ridge, and additionally the place was peaceful and away from settlement. We were more than delighted when we stepped out of the bus. We were overlooking into a beautiful valley. On our right side, we could see the way leading up to the Surkanda Devi temple. We bowed out of respect and started moving towards the left side of the road into the jungle. We had checked out with the local refreshment shopkeeper that there was a nice view from a certain point 2 km inside jungle. The place was ideal for tents and mostly foreigners visited the place for hiking and tents. We felt that we hit the right spot on the planet earth since that precisely was the call of the day. There was one serious problem. As per shopkeeper, there were certain instances of bear sightings in the jungle but the frequency was very less.
We put the bear sighting talk on back burner, collected our evening snacks and dinner and started hiking. The trees and jungle setting was beautiful. Once a while, we could see the valley in between the trees and it felt like looking into a calendar full of nature’s blessings. The air was full of fresh flowers and other smells of plants and shrubs. We felt that we were handed over a pair of fresh lungs by the almighty. The walk seemed long and slow. We were enjoying the greenery and the beauty of the kaddukhal ridge and the hike was not very steep and we reached a very decent plain spot overlooking the valley. The setting was out of a calendar and around 6.00 pm, we decided to tent ourselves up before the darkness fell. We had a lot of time in our hand so we kept talking about the previous day and the current day. A lot of talk went into our studies, our careers, etc. We all felt that living in a fast city like Delhi seldom gave us time and chance to introspect and what better way of introspecting ourselves than with some good neat scotch in our hands!
The darkness followed dusk really fast and in no time, we were up a couple of drinks. Good thing about our drinks was that all 3 of us kept quiet and enjoyed the drinks instead of spraying talks and emotions post drinks. We gazed at the stars and the sky for a long time. By 10.00 PM, the hike during the day and booze in the evening put us in our sleeping bags pretty early. Chandru decided to continue with some more drinks even while lying in the sleeping bag. This was a warmer night (not hot by any count) and we zipped ourselves into the cozy tent. After a couple of hours, I was shaken and woken up by Nikhil. He pointed me to the imprint of the claws from outside. It was as if an animal was trying to tear the tent apart but because of the fact that it was not getting a firm grip on the slope of the tent, it was simply pushing it’s claws onto the tent.
All alcohol within me evaporated in a fraction of second. We reminded each other that instead of panicking, we should try to make some noise to scare the beer away. Suddenly, the shopkeepers’ words starting ringing in the ears about the bear sightings and we started looking out for anything to make the noise. Occasionally we could hear the grr grr sound made by the animal. Incidentally, all this time Chandru was sleeping like a log (probably he was drinking late into the night long after me and Nikhil had slept). He was not bothered by any noise and we started shaking him so that he gets up. Parellel, we got hold of the beer cans and empty scotch bottle (courtesy Chandru) and we started hitting everything together to make noise. Chandru woke up with a big fat Punjabi swearing (gaali) assuming that we were playing a prank on him. We told him that there was bear outside and we are not sure till today whether he was brave or whether he was heavily intoxicated (most probably), he sweared on the bear in loud noise. I must admit that swearing filled us with a lot of courage and we felt inside that even if bear take us, it will not be easy for him and we will make it tough for the bear.
All this time, due to the activity and noise inside the tent, the outside activity stopped and the bear was not pushing the tent anymore. We could still hear the grr grr noise from a distance. All 3 were fully charged up and ready to take on the bear (look what a mix of scotch and beer can do to urban dwellers in the middle of jungle). We decided to carefully light up the newspaper and throw outside the tent towards the sound. We had to be very careful else we could burn ourselves or burn the whole borrowed tent. Nikhil took this lead and carefully started throwing out the newspaper after lighting up the corner of paper. We continued doing all this for some time till we realized that the growling sound was not coming any more. The rest of the night was very quiet and me and Nikhil hardly slept though Chandru soon dozed off. In the morning, we came out of our tents very carefully and looked around. The setting was ever beautiful except half burnt papers lying around. Even during toilets, we covered each other and kept a vigil for any bear. After wrapping up the tent and cleaning up the area, we decided to hike back to the road though by a slightly different route. We had hardly walked 400 meters when we saw a small cottage of local villager. He had some sheep and a small potato garden of his own. He was very warm in offering us tea which we readily accepted. The tea was average but the settings made every sip of the tea extraordinary.
During the conversation, the villager told us that last night he himself was a bit worried since he could not find his dog around the sheep. Every night, whenever the villager used to wake up to relieve, he would check on his dogs and sheep since his cottage was in middle of jungle with some bear population around. He got worried on not finding the dog and remained sleepless for some time till his dog came back out of nowhere. We also told him our experience in the night and the villager confirmed that his dog came back from around the same direction. Till today, we do not know whether we had a bear encounter or a dog encounter (mystery is on!).
We thanked him for the tea and bid goodbye to him. The rest of the hike was silent and full of effects of hangover as well as lack of sleep. We took the bus back to Mussoori (via Dhanolti) and subsequently Delhi. Today both I and Nikhil live outside India, yet our male bonding of all 3 brothers is reinstated after the thoughts of the night on kaddukhal.