What is strange is that strangers are nicer than friends
— — Mahmoud Darwish, The Stranger
I think what Mahmoud Darwish probably meant when he wrote this line, as he explored themes of alienation, identity, and the complexity of human connections is that sometimes, unfamiliar faces might be just a stride away from aiding us in our quest for self-discovery. Perhaps I allowed myself a touch of creative interpretation, momentarily immersing in the poetic flow. But I trust you catch the essence, don’t you?
Several months back, I crossed paths with Manas during a solitary escapade to Goa. Our meeting inspired a joint decision to embark on the captivating Antaragange Caves Trek together, this Independence Day.
It was Independence Day, and also the first match of Manchester United’s Premier League season against Wolves. We won 1–0, and my spirits were sky high already. Perfect day for a trek!
Manas came to pick me up around 4:30 AM, we started off by pinning Antaragange Trekking Starting Point on our Google Maps, and on his FZS bike. I donned a snug woolen cap beneath my helmet, the latter precariously perched on my head, dancing in the wind as our motorcycle sped along NH75 at a blazing 105 KMPH.
My gaze alternated between the constellations above and the road ahead, a broad grin stretching from ear to ear. The brisk breeze brushed against my skin, causing my eyes to well up as the formidable wind streamed past my face.
It took us around 1:30 hours to reach the Trekking Starting point, we reached at the crack of dawn around 6 AM, as our guide helped us start the trek to the top where two caves awaited us. As I made my way through the rocky mountains, with boulders and stones lining up the trail which can be confusing at times, I couldn’t help but take a pause every now and then to simply take all the beauty in. I could hear peacocks call at the distance, and breeze greet me with its softness. Behind me, the sun had just started to rise, and the sky adored a beautiful golden-orange hue.
We had booked the tickets through Karnataka Eco Tourism and it showed that only 150 people were allowed in a day. At 6 AM, there were hardly handful trekkers, and unlike Skandagiri or Uttari Betta, this was a peaceful and more offbeat experience. Especially considering we were going on 15th August, trekking at peace with just a few fellow trekkers was a welcome experience. You can book this trek (mandatory), and get an official guide from the Karnataka Eco Tourism website — Link.
I reached the summit in about 30–45 minutes, and entered the first cave. The cave had really narrow spaces, and I navigated the intricate passageways of the cave by contoring and adjusting with each twist and turn, in my journey into the earths secrets. There was darkness surrounding me, albeit for the the mounted flashlight I had. I felt the textured rocks under my fingertips, the coolness of it calming me, as the earthy scent filled the air.
I was present and aware, taking a much needed break from living inside my head with cacaphony of thoughts. The necessity for careful navigation amplified my senses. Every movement was deliberate, every touch deliberate, as I intuitively gauged the dimensions of the passage and my place within it.
At the end of the first cave, we came out and took a bit of a breather, before taking on the challenge of discovering what secrets the second cave held dear.
Our guide suggested us we open our shoes outside, and we soon found out why. The spaces in this cave were even narrower than the first one, it was pitch dark inside, and stream waited for us at the bottom of the cave. Of the 7–8 trekkers that were with us in our batch, 1 decided to pull out of going in, and 2 joined him a few minutes later after seeing the narrow gaps we were supposed to go in through. There was barely enough space to stand. Let alone walk or creep or crawl through. The rest of us went in one-by-one as the others waited.
I went in and met my first challenge. It was just like a hole in a wall of rocks, I had to go in blind, feet first, with the head still in a different section of cave hoping my feet finds a stable bit of rock, and I find my balance before the rest of my body slips. After that there was a bit of crawling because there wasn’t enough space to even sit, and I twisted and turned to find the next pocket of space. If you are on the claustrophobic spectrum like me, this will be a challenging but rewarding experience too. I had a flashlight mounted on my head, and Manas didn’t have any light. He called out for me for some light, I tried to turn around and show him the path, but the rocks didn’t allow for any such luxuries. The guide was in front of me, and I asked him to go around for Manas, and he thankfully obliged and asked me to wait at the bottom of the cave.
I turned my light off, took a breather and laid down on the cool rock, and took it all in. I could hear the gentle stream murmur at the bottom of the cave. It was peaceful, a calming and serene experience.
The guide was taking a lot of time, so I decided to try and come out of the cave on my own, as I could see the light at the end of the cave. I hoisted myself up with a bamboo that was there to pull yourself up, and I made it out of the cave.
The guide was taking payment from one of the other trekkers, as Manas was waiting at the bottom, I requested him to hurry up a bit, and he thankfully obliged, and I decided that going through this experience just once wasn’t enough for me.
So, I went in a second time, this time, I gave my flashlight to Manas, and went in dark myself hoping to experience this again by pushing the stakes up even higher. I had assumed the second time around would be easier, but probably nature’s challenges do not work that way. Going in dark made it even more challenging, but even more rewarding too. This time again, I crawled, creeped, twisted, turned, contoured my way through this beautiful pocket of earth, and was ready to go in a third, a fourth and a hundredth time!
After the second cave, we made our way down back to the trek starting point, and began our journey back to Bangalore, as I prepared to hold on to my helmet again as it tried to fly off, at times trying to take my head off with it!
I probably live at my fullest, when I am in these little pockets of space, where there isn’t enough space to sit, where there is pitch black darkness, with just a stream murmuring under my feet, cool rocks and a gentle breeze calming me down.
Antaragange Caves trek is an off-beat trek which is less crowded than the usual treks which attract the Bangalore crowd, and is defintely a must try!
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