A wildlife camp I attended as a kid of 10. One of the most amazing trips of my life.. where i learnt to live by myself and with a completely unknown set of people.
If ever you happen to visit Bokaro Steel City, there in the city center market is a book shop called “Student’s Friend”. Yes, very aptly named shop. The owner of that shop is Mr. Rajkumar. A very soft looking, strict man, short with a wide face, and generally looking serious, but occasionally flashing a smile.
I was in my 7th grade. Considering i’d joined school as a 3 year old, let’s assume I was 10 (or 11 at the max). My mother got acquainted with Mr.Rajkumar through her teaching. She was a famous mathematics teacher in Bokaro in those days (later she moved into the Steel Plant and then we moved out of Bokaro). She had all kinds of publishers giving her free books of maths to market to the students, since she was part of the selection committee which chose the books to prescribe to the students. Student’s Friend was one of the bigger bookstores in bokaro and hence Mr.Rajkumar was introduced to mom in one of the meetings with the publishers. He was a member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and since he’d become good friends with mom and dad, he introduced us to the club.
So around this time, the year being 1997, WWF was organising a hitchhiking camp to a nearby waterfalls called Jonha Falls, which was around 85 km from Bokaro. It was a hilly region and had a high waterfall which was quite a tourist spot among the state people.
He mentioned it to my mother and asked if she was willing to send me with his group of students from a public school. My mother agreed without much of a flinch. It was November 1997 and it was beginning to get cold. Diwali was over and the winter was setting in. These falls were among the hills and it was bound to be cold. I was into my winter vacations. I was asked if i was interested and I jumped out of the bed ready to board the next bus / train / cab to the place. Happiest guy around to leave the house and wander around on any given day.
So here we were, me and my dad, at 7 am on a winter morning standing in front of the Student’s Friend shop waiting for the trekker* which would drive us to the railway station. I boarded the trekker with a small backpack and a bedding. The backpack contained a couple of pairs of underwears, around 3-4 shirts, a pair of pyjamas and a couple of pairs of socks. The bedding had a cotton bedding with a thick dari* and a light quilt, all rolled up and tied with a nylon rope.
We set off and into the train. I knew not a single soul except Mr.Rajkumar, and that too quite faintly. But I was excited. I was going to go rock climbing, and stay in a tent in the middle of a forest, trek in the forest etc. all of which i’d always dreamt of doing.
We were about 2 hours into the journey when I saw Mr.Rajkumar talking to the other men who were accompanying us and after a few minutes of conversation they came into our bay in the train an announced us to pack up and be ready to deboard. Since the place which was closest to where we were supposed to camp didn’t have a proper train station, they had requested the driver of the train to stop the train for 2 minutes at a point on the way, and we were supposed to deboard and jump out of the train with our luggages. We were about 15 boys with around 5 adults, 20 in all. each with 1-2 luggage. All of it had to be done in 2 minutes, else we were risking jumping out of a running train, on solid stones and gravel.
We all lined up near the train door and the train slowed down and came to a halt. 3-4 persons jumped off the train and the rest were asked to line up their luggage to be thrown off the train. Once all the luggage was thrown we were asked to jump off the train one after the other. This way we wouldn’t have to jump off with our luggage and risk getting hurt.
Accomplished! All 20 people were off the train safely and the luggage was in a pile. I was worried my camera would get crushed. It was a camera dad had bought for my sister a year ago. [I still remember, me mentioning to him that I would love a camera and the next day he bought it and exclaimed it to be for my sister. He intended for it to be for both of us, but declaring it to be for her just when i’d wished for one hurt me as a kid 🙂 and hence it stays so fresh in my memory.]
We had to walk a couple of kilometers to get to the foothill. We all marched with our luggage and reached a small brick hut at the foothill. Where we were given lunch. Rice, potato curry, and 2 eggs per person. Post lunch we marched up the hill and to the place in the jungle where there was a shed like structure (4 pillars with an asbestos sheet on them, no walls, just the roof). The 5 elders in the group pulled out the tents and started to set it up.
The group consisted of boys from a public school in Bokaro run by the Steel Plant as part of their township program. These kids weren’t from the well-to-do families. Some of them were, but most of them weren’t. They all were elder to me. I was the youngest at 10 and the rest must’ve been around 14,15 or 16 yrs old.
I was asked to be with one of the elders in the group, who was a very nice man. I forget his name, but I called him bhaiya and he was the in-charge for arranging the food supplies and general needs of the children.
We dropped our bags and were asked to be lined up in 3 rows of 4 boys each. We were taken through some exercise drills and soon after we were walkng into the forest towards the water fall. We saw the water falls which was pretty high and loved the sight of it. We were all excited kids and i was walking with my camera, with the strap over my neck to avoid losing it at all costs. I was petrified of losing it as i’d be spanked back home.
We were shown a secluded area where we were supposed to go in case nature decided to call us up! It was getting dark as winter was settting in and we started to retrace back to the camp. Soon it was dark and we were at the camp. We were adviced on the general rules about going to the loo accompanied with at least one other person. About carrying a torch always, about the possibility of bears being around and hence the need for alertness at all times, about how cold the nights were going to be and the ration that each person was entitled to.
It was night and we had to walk down to the foothill to get our dinner. We finished our dinner and trekked back up to the camp and went off to sleep. I was sharing the tent with the bhaiya and one another guy, his relative who’d also come to the camp. I soon realized we were going to sleep of a bed of stones, and the bedding i had brought from home wasn’t thick enough to curve out the shapr edged stones that lay underneath the tent sheet. But i was tired and soon fell asleep. Half way through the night, I woke up to a very loud noise only to realize, the bhaiya was snoring away to glory right into my ears. I tried to get back my sleep, but it was beginning to get a little suffocating inside the tent since it was closed from all sides. I opened up the zipper from my side and breathed better. But it was cold outside, and i soon started fearing a bear coming close and ripping open the zipper. I immediately closed the zipper. The tent was small, and 3 people breathing inside it, led to condensation and my skull cap was soon wet due to the accumulation of the condensed vapor at the bottom of the tent under my head. Things were getting crazy. And now that i was up, the stones underneath hurt me. I said to myself “Get some sleep, you need to sleep through the night there’s not much you can do!”. Just when i thought i’d convinced myself enough to sleep in that Co2 packed tent, wet on the inside, the air smelt dirty. Soon it was accompanied by a resounding noise of a fart. The bhaiya was contributing quite generously to my misery.
I couldn’t take it anymore, and pulled out the torch from under my pillow and walked out of the tent to breathe easy and take a leak. I didn’t go too far remembering the advice. But i also didn’t wake up anyone since i knew none and i wasn’t very keen on asking anyone to accompany me, i knew i could take care of myself. Having relaxed my bladder, i was shivering and had to get back into the tent and convince myself to sleep through the night. I finally did get a couple of hours of sleep but soon it was morning and daylight was beginning to show up. I could hear noises and i immediately sprung up from the bed and stepped out to find the head of the team up along with teh guide who was to take us trekking and rock climing et al. I was happy i was out of that place and back in a more familiar and comfortable place. Lack of sleep wasn’t an issue.
Soon the rest woke up and we all brushed our teeth and people who wanted to loosen their bowels went to the secluded place and cleared their system and got back. I have always had a dislike for unhygenic toilets and open toilets and it makes me extremely uncomfortable to defacate in one. I chose not to go and instead keep it in. Actually i never felt the need for it. I had psychologucally convinced myself of the impossibility of going there.
Moving on without delving too much into those details, we were all asked to line up for the exercise and the instructions. We got done with the drill and were soon going downhill. I was looking forward to a good breakfast when the drill instructor (who was the head of the team, Lets call him Mr.Singh) started running followed by the other boys. I had missed something in the instructions. I soon discovered that we were going for a run for 2 km. Something i hadn’t done ever. I was a sports guy, played cricket, football, badminton and table tennis. But none of these required a marathon like run. And here i was running 2 km at a stretch. We soon reached a ground and we were now doing different kinds of exercises. Next was a game we had to play. I don’t quite remember what the game was but i remember the name of the guy who won Ankur. I have a strong feeling i once saw him in a party in Bokaro, although i could barely confirm it since i saw him run past me. Too short a time for me to register and confirm his identity.
Post the game we had to now run back! I was tired and this was unexpected. I still gave it all i had and ran half way through, after which i gave up. I couldn’t run anymore and was walking. I was then edged by one of the older men in the group and i ran in spurts and walked the rest till we reached the foothills for the breakfast. We were told that those of us who wanted to change could change and then have breakfast or could eat and then go up and change. I chose the former. I was soon back for the breakfast.
*Dari : a thick handwoven carpet made of discarded pieces of clothes.
*Trekker : a jeep like vehicle but much wider and much stronger in it’s pick up and power. Mostly used in Bihar and Jharkhand as a popular more of public transport. It can carry around 25-30 people hanging from all sides and all windows and sitting on the top of the vehicle, and still run at a good speed of 60kmph.