The trek to the head of the Dudhsagar Falls was supposed to have been the highlight of our trip. We were taking a four-day break at a place called ‘Off the Grid’, a house belonging to a couple called John Pollard and Sylvia Kerkar, situated near Castlerock in the Western Ghats. Everything we had heard and read about it before we left Goa made us feel it would be the perfect place for us and the dogs — the kind of place we had been hunting for ever since we got to Goa, but had so far failed to locate.
(You can click on the photographs to view them larger.)
Off the Grid had lived up to its promise. It’s a wonderful house, built to sustainable principles, in the perfect of places. It’s in a bowl surrounded by hills, with a sparklingly clear stream running along one boundary of the property. The place is literally off the grid – there is neither electricity nor telephone connectivity. Solar lights are charged during the day, and provide ample but not overly powerful illumination at night. The house itself is built on two levels, with delightful little innovations such as a stone platform bed in the main bedroom, left hollowed for storage under it, and canvas tents in place of cemented walls on the first floor.
Small channels have been diverted from waterways to run through the grounds of the house, which are then used to irrigate beds where John and Sylvia grow lettuce, tomatoes, tambdi bhaji and various other vegetables and fruits. Some rivulets water the fecund Mallika mango trees that cluster close to the house. One channel perpetually replenishes a small tank right next to the house, in which stepped borders allow you to loll about in waist-deep water.
For the dogs, there was ample room to frolic, and a stream to play in or drink from. For us, a tranquil place to do nothing for a few days. With Shankar and Kalpana to look after our every need. It was perfect.
We arrived on Sunday, exhausted after a late-night party the day before, and spent the first day simply relaxing, our only effort being an evening stroll down to the stream. John and Sylvia have created a natural dam with rocks across the stream at one point, which forms a knee-deep pool upstream of itself. On both sides of the dam, little black fish congregate in the limpid water. Sungta and Soulkadi chased these, Jaya sat down in the shallows, while the rest of the dogs splashed around or explored the banks. Knowing Hero’s proclivities, I held on to his leash most of the time, but the rest were restrained only by our commands. At one point, Chipku led an attempted break back towards the house, but it took only a strident admonition from one of us to keep the escapees in check.
On the next day, we went with Shankar for a long hike through the woods and hills above the house. It was strenuous to our unaccustomed bodies, but the beauty of the area made it worthwhile. After a little tussle, Anjali agreed reluctantly to my suggestion that we let the dogs go. Again, Hero was the one dog whom I held on to. The others responded as I had expected they would. The unfamiliarity of the area, and perhaps its threatening smells — after all, leopards prowl in these jungles, as do various other smaller predators such as wild dogs and hyenas — kept them a little nervous. So while they hit the trail with enthusiasm and energy, they never drifted far from us. The pups, in particular, stayed close, stopping for us to catch up every time their exploratory instincts pulled them ahead of the peloton.
So it was that we left for the Dudhsagar trek on day three with great expectations. The drive there was, for lack of a better word, invigorating. The large proportion of the ride was on dirt tracks, and in extended stretches, you couldn’t even call it that. At times, we were taking slopes in first gear with the car’s nose in the air, seemingly vertically above us. At others, we were heading down equally sharp slopes where the car’s weight was sending the scree skittering downhill, making me wonder whether we would be able to make it back up when we returned.
The Scorpio’s original tyres had worn down over the years, and we had bought two new tyres and retreaded two others just before we left. The Dudhsagar journey made us very grateful we had — the old tyres would never have taken the beating.
Eventually, we reached a clearing where we parked the car and commenced the trek on foot. The path that led into the forest was overhung with brambly branches, and would have served well as a model for a magical entrance to the enchanted Fangorn Forest in ‘Lord of the Rings’.
This trek was much tougher than the previous day’s. The jungle was much thicker, and the path quite evidently less-travelled. In many places, you wouldn’t really have been able to tell there was a path at all, except for the now-faded white arrows that had been painted on rocks and trees every now and again. Of course, Shankar seemed to know every branch and stone, and led us at a brisk pace that had not just Anjali and me, but the dogs panting as well. As with previous days, Hero was restrained on his leash, while the other dogs were allowed to walk unharnessed, with their leashes trailing behind them.
The last descent to the falls was very steep, and I knew we would really be tried when we came back up that way. I was holding on to Hero’s leash, and he was remarkably conscious of my needs. No doubt he wanted to rush down the slope the way the other dogs were going, but I only needed to give the leash a gentle yank now and then to remind him that he had to go down at my pace.
The path came out onto a largish flat rock, from which we would have to hop from one rock to another to get out to the actual head of the falls. This had to be done very carefully. Not only were some of the rocks large enough for us to need to use handholds as we went down them, the gaps between rocks was often large enough that we had to make measured jumps. Also, though the summer had rendered the stream of water quite sparse, there were still enough places where the water gushed through or collected and kept the rocks slippery.
I told Anjali I couldn’t hold on to Hero’s leash here. She was again uncomfortable with the idea, but she saw my point. The terrain here could cause me serious injury if Hero were to jump when I was unprepared, or even if he were to just pull me off-balance. Even having the leashes trailing behind them, I felt, was a danger to the dogs. If a leash were to get caught on an outcrop or stuck in a crevice when a dog jumped from one rock to another, it could do them bodily harm. So, for the last stretch, near the head of the falls where the going was trickiest, we took the leashes off the dogs’ collars.
The six dogs followed the nimble-footed Shankar out to the edge of the cliff while Anjali and I followed more slowly. Anjali went out to the edge, but I realised that I have something of a fear of heights and hung back, unnerved by the steepness and depth of the fall. Even from where I was, some metres back from the edge, the view was stupendous. There were deep green forests everywhere I looked, far across the void. Way down below, the Konkan Railway tracks snaked out from a tunnel and around the hillside to a point far below where we were, before continuing on their way towards the little station of Castlerock.
While we stood breathing in the view, Hero suddenly decided he wanted a closer look. Heedless of our stern warnings, he bounded off down a steep rock-and-brush slope just to the right of the falls, circling back onto a ledge some distance below the edge where Anjali and Shankar were standing with the other dogs. Though we were all a little concerned, the two of them could see him sitting on the rock shelf below, evidently quite happy with the location he had reached. Anjali even took a couple of photographs of him in his majestic pose, monarch of all he surveyed. It seemed likely that after he had had his fill of sitting there, he would return to where we were, so we let him be. Once in a while, we would yell for him to come back up, more as a reminder to him that we were up there than anything else.
After a little while, though, Shankar reported that Hero had left his perch and taken off into the forests that covered the slopes to the right of the falls. Though that was more worrying, we still felt that he wouldn’t go too far. We kept yelling his name, but the minutes passed and there was no sign of him. When it had been close to half an hour, we felt we needed to do something else. After a little confused discussion — we had begun to grow increasingly unsure of the situation, but neither of us was willing to put our dread into words — Shankar and I plus four of the dogs headed back into the woods the way we’d come, while Anjali waited on the rocks with Jaya.
As we walked back along the path, I kept yelling Hero’s name out loudly. Behind me, the sound gradually fading as we moved away from her position, I could hear Anjali doing the same. What was in our minds was that perhaps Hero had found his way back through the jungle to the path, or was somewhere nearby. Barring the rushing sound of water when one was close to the river bed, the jungle was quite still and the sound of our shouts would carry quite a long distance. But all the way back to the car, there was no sign of Hero. When we emerged into the clearing, I half-hoped to see him waiting for us near the car, but he wasn’t.
I debated what to do next — we hadn’t quite sorted that out when Shankar and I had left. The feeling that Hero would turn up had still been so strong that a worst-case scenario had not been contemplated. Finally, I told Shankar I would wait with the dogs at the car, and he should go and get Anjali.
He hesitated when I suggested this.
“Madam nahin aayegi,” he said doubtfully.
I understood his reluctance — how could he persuade Anjali to leave without Hero? But we had not amply thought the plan through earlier, and I could now see no other option. The alternative was for me to go back, and for him to wait with the other dogs, which made less sense. So I picked the lesser of the two evils, and told him that she would have to come back, so he’d have to go get her.
Without the sheltering canopy of the jungle, it was blisteringly hot, and the dogs were panting desperately in the oven-like confines of the black Scorpio. I backed the car into an area where there was a little shade, but it was still very uncomfortable. The rucksack in which we had carried the dogs’ water bowls had been left behind with Anjali, as that also had chewies and other treats that could have been used to entice Hero if he returned. I rummaged around the car, but there was nothing I could give the dogs water in. Finally, I found a funnel, and used a piece of cloth to plug its opening. I filled this with water from a can we had in the car, and offered it to each of the thirsty dogs in turn.
The wait was long – more than a couple of hours — and when I heard the sound from afar of Anjali shouting Hero’s name as she and Shankar wound their way back, I knew that her vigil had been unsuccessful too.
We drove back home, unable to talk about the situation.
“Keep honking the horn,” Anjali told me as we left. “If he hears it, he might follow.”
Though the geography of the area told me this was entirely pointless, I did as she said. On the way, we spoke to any villagers we met – Shankar describing our predicament to them as passionately as if Hero was his own – and told them to keep an eye out for Hero.
Back at the house, we fed the dogs and tried to eat a little ourselves, though Anjali found herself unable to. As soon as we could, we headed straight back to the clearing.
This time, Anjali waited in the car, while Shankar and I trekked into the jungle. It was late evening, and gathering clouds had made the evening gloomier than it would have been naturally. How different everything seemed from the way it had that morning. The entrance into the jungle, which had looked so cool and inviting earlier, was now the maw of a monster, capable of swallowing whatever entered into it and spitting out only bones.
Shankar and I made good speed — he must have been conscious of the fact that we needed to get to the falls and out again before darkness fell. By the time we got to therocky riverbed, it was already threateningly dark. By now, my hopes had sunk, so I was not really surprised when there was no Hero waiting for us at the place where we’d last seen him.
The trek back was the most painful. Despair and loss — added to a level of physical effort which I have got long unused to — had deprived me of all strength and energy. By the time we had got to the top of the steep slope up from the falls, my breath was coming in deep painful gasps, and my legs were shaking completely out of my control. Yet we had to hurry back, and I staggered drunkenly after Shankar. The undergrowth clawed at my feet, and my eyes seemed to lose focus, making me stumble at every other step. I was still yelling “Hero, Hero” but by now it must have sounded like the screaming of a banshee. Perhaps, I thought, somewhere Hero too was yowling plaintively for us, unaware that his cries would only bring him something that was too big even for his strong body and stout heart to handle.
As we crossed the last stream over the bamboo bridge that had been so enchanting when we had reached it that morning, the first few drops of rain started splattering on us. The path was all uphill from here, through dense forest, and it was now dark enough for us to have to use our torches. The jungle was already beginning to come to life, and I could hear the plops and swishes of unseen creatures getting out of our way on the jungle floor.
Up above, the rain had become more insistent. The canopy was thick, so we experienced it more as the sound of the drops on the treetops than as wetness down below. But when we emerged into the clearing, the full force of the storm hit us, a wet and windy embodiment of the realisation that this was it, that we would now have to leave Hero at the mercy of the elements. I was thankful for the rain, as I could let the tears flow and mix with the wetness on my face. I suspect that Shankar too was crying as we left.
The storm raged and the rain poured down as we drove through the darkness, lightning strikes illuminating the savage landscape. Mud churned under our wheels and there were a few places where it seemed impossible that the Scorpio would pull through. The night had brought something as terrible and terrifying as the day had been bright and sunny, and we knew how it wiped out almost any likelihood of Hero finding his way back out of the jungle.
Over the next two days, we went back to the area again and again. We scoured all the neighbouring villages and left word with everyone we could, right down to the shopkeepers in Castlerock town, some fifteen kilometres away. The final departure, as we left for Goa, was wrenching. We were leaving a part of ourselves, of our shared past, behind, and the pain of doing so was immense.
That was four days ago. Since then, Anjali has already been back to Dudhsagar with a trekking enthusiast who knows the area. They hunted in the terrain at the base of the falls, on the outside chance that Hero had climbed all the way down. They left pamphlets showing a photo of Hero with everyone they could find. Information has been spread amongst friends and forest officials, wildlife groups and trekking clubs, villagers and veterinarians.
We know, though, that it will be almost miraculous if we are to find Hero now or any time in the future. Even if he were to have survived the jungle, the geographic scope of his escapade is just so vast. He could have come out just about anywhere in a huge area.
By now, Anjali and I are reconciled with the idea that we will almost certainly never see him again. Not that it stops us hoping, but it helps us cope. We’ve had friends and family to give us strength and comfort. We’ve had words of support and advice from total strangers.
We’ve also, of course, had the occasional person who’s hinted or wondered aloud at why we would take dogs into such potentially dangerous situations. Sometimes, these words have clearly held the underlying judgement that given our foolhardiness, it’s only fitting that we have suffered this trauma. This is usually from people who don’t know us or our dogs too well.
We are, thankfully, too confident of our motives and our beliefs for such attitudes to upset us. Everyone decides in their own lives where the line between experience and adventure and needless risk lies, and we have not drawn our line without forethought. We have seen over and over how exciting our travelling is for our dogs, and that makes it worth it. Of course, there is risk in such a choice, but we do everything we can to minimise it. That we – or our dogs – have to face the consequences of that risk is something we have always accepted, and finally had to bear, after many years of dong what we all loved doing.
As to Hero’s possible fate, Anjali and I have painted so many different scenarios for ourselves. Of course, the most likely one is that he met his end at the teeth and claws of predators too large or too numerous for him to fight off. There are, of course, certain other possibilities that we can’t bring ourselves to speak about — that he might have ended his days lying in a crevasse, hurt and bleeding. Or that he landed up, out of hunger and desperation, with someone who is keeping him like we have seen so many dogs kept, chained forever, half-starved and unloved.
But there are also more positive alternatives. The most promising one, in our eyes, is that Hero found his way out of the jungle, and has gone off to forge a new life for himself, at which we are confident he will succeed. Over the last few years, as he has grown in size and acumen, Hero has increasingly taken to spending periods away from home, sometimes for weeks at a time. When we have seen him on the streets during these forays, we have seen that he has blended in with, or even taken over, some pack which he then lords over. He is particularly fond of puppies and we have sometimes seen him sitting regally on the street while other strays’ pups gambol around him.
So in the perfect case, we see Hero — like Jack London’s Buck — taking over as the alpha male of some pack of feral dogs, and leading them to lives of glory. With Hero, it’s not an impossible dream.