Mountains of the Moon – 8

Posted in adventure, books, Chander pahar, fantasy by jrahman on June 18, 2017

For those who came in late:


A couple of days had passed after that.  They gradually entered into ever-deeper forest.  The path was never plain, always up and down hill, broken by rough and long grasslands, water was rather rare, and if there were a fountain or creek somewhere, Alvarez wouldn’t allow even to touch the water.  Seemingly crystal clear water is flowing from the fountain, cold and tempting, too hard for a thirsty man to refuse the temptation — but Alvarez would rather give cold tea instead of water, but wouldn’t allow drinking that water.  But cold tea is no way to satisfy the thirst for water, it’s the thirst that Shankar found the hardest to cope with.  They came across a rather dense grassland.  Plus there was a deep fog surrounding them.  Suddenly the day broke and the fogs close to the ground disappeared — looking ahead it seemed to Shankar that there stood a rather large cliff ahead of them, impossible to tell exactly how high as the peak is entirely covered by either thick fog or cloud.  Alvarez said — The real range of the Richtersveld.

Shankar asked — Why do we need to cross this?

Alvarez replied — We need to because last time I approached the foothill of this mountain from south, but didn’t cross the main range.  The riverbank where the yellow diamond was found, that flows from east to west.  This time we are traveling from north to south.  So, how can we locate that river unless we cross the mountain?

Shankar said — Given how foggy today is, perhaps we can wait a while?  Let the sun come out.

They put up a tent and had a meal.  The day unfolded but the fog didn’t lift much.  Shankar fell asleep in the tent.  The day was almost over by the time he woke up.  Coming out of the tent while rubbing his eyes, he found a frowning Alvarez poring over a map.  Seeing Shankar he said — Shankar, we have a lot of suffering yet.  Look ahead.

Looking ahead as Alvarez talked, Shankar’s eyes set on a sombre scene.  The fog was long gone, and in front of him was the massive Richtersveld, whose main range seemed to ascend step-by-step into the sky.  It was as if the waistband of the mountain was covered by a stormy cloud, but its peak stood erect in the blue sky, looking heavenly in the dusk red.

But the part of the mountain that stood in front of them was utterly impossible to climb — just vertical cliff — no slope whatsoever.  Alvarez said — It’s not possible to climb the mountain from here, Shankar.  You must have realised it by just looking at it.  Let’s trek due west.  Wherever we come across a gap and slope, we will cross the mountain there.  But it may well take over a month to just find where in this 150-mile range is a place like that.

But after trekking west for five or six days, they reached a place where there was a very climbable slope.

Climbing began from the next early morning.  It was six-thirty by Shankar’s watch then.  By eight-thirty Shankar could barely move.  The mountain rose six thousand feet in a span of four miles where they were climing, therefore even though it was a slope, it’s easy to understand how steep the climb was.  In addition, the further they climbed the more dense the forest became, and dark, no sunlight even though the sun had already risen.

There was no such thing as a path. Tree trunks seemed to have been like steps rising to the sky.  Who knew where the water was dripping from, but the rocks beneath their feet were wet and slippery, and almost everywhere damp.  A false step and there would be certain injury from hitting sharp edges far below.

Neither Shankar nor Alvarez had a word in their mouth.  Both were fatigued by the tough climb, both breathing heavily.  Coming from the planes of Bengal, with no experience of climbing, it was tougher for Shankar.

Shankar wondered when Alvarez would call for a break.  He couldn’t climb any more, but he could never tell Alvarez that he couldn’t go on any more, even if it meant death, lest Alvarez thought — these East Indies folks seem to be pretty useless.  He represented India in this uninhabited mountainous forest — he couldn’t do anything to put the motherland to shame.

The jungle was amazing, like a fairy kingdom, with little springs flowing here and there from up above.  Colourful birds were flying around on tree tops, blinding their eyes.  There were white flowers atop large grass, and orchid flowers swinging from tree branches and trunks.

Suddenly Shankar noticed a bunch of bearded faces on branches.  They were all sitting serenely, yogi-like.  What was going on?

Alvarez said — That’s female collobus monkey.  Male collobus aren’t bearded, but the females have foot long beard, and as you can see, they are very serious.

Looking at them, Shankar couldn’t stop laughing.

Beneath their feet was neither soil nor rock — instead there was rotten leaves and dried tree trunks.  In forests like these, over centuries a cycle of life continued, with falling leaves that rot, upon which are moss, fern and mushroom, and new trees, branches, trunks, and leaves that fall again.  In places, fallen leaves are sixty, seventy feet deep.

Alvarez taught him to step very carefully in such places.  It was quite possible in such places that one could simply fall into a heap of leaves as if it was an ancient well.  Unless immediately rescued, it would mean certain death by asphyxiation in such cases.

Shankar said — Unless we start chopping the woods ahead, it seems impossible to climb this dense forest.

The razor-sharp broad elephant grasses were like Roman-era double-edged swords.  Walking through them, neither felt safe, when it was impossible to see two feet ahead, any danger was possible.  There could lurk lions, or poisonous snakes.

Shankar heard a drum like sound from somewhere in the forest.  Was it some tribes beating drums?  He asked Alvarez.

Alvarez replied — Not drums, large baboons or apes are beating their chests.  Where would humans come from here?

Shankar said — Didn’t you say that there was no gorilla in this forest?

There probably is no gorilla.  Gorillas aren’t known to be found anywhere beyond some places in the Belgian Congo, the Rwenzori Alps or the Virunga volcano.  But apes other than gorillas can also make that sound by beating their chests.

They had climbed over four and half thousand feet.  They camped for the night there.  Shankar couldn’t shut his eyes because of the strange and scary night sounds of a genuine and large tropical forest.  It wasn’t just fear, rather surprise mixed with fear.

A variety of wild flowers bloomed above five thousand feet — there was a large blood red bright erythrina.  And the flowered ipomoea vines looked like the banakalamee of Bangladesh, though it wasn’t quite as deep purple.  The air was heavy with the fragrance from white veronicas.  Flowers of wild coffee, as well as colourful begonia.  Flowery forest in the cloud kingdom, clouds resembling white balloons would be stuck on tree tops — or sometimes descend further down to wet the veronicas.

The nature of the forest changed completely after crossing seven and half thousand feet.  It took them another two days to climb that far.  Their backs almost broke from unbearable pain.  The face of the forest here is very peculiar, every tree trunk and branch is covered in thick fern, which dropped from every branch, sometimes nearly to the ground — and sometimes they sway in the breeze, on top of which was the fact that there was no sunlight anywhere, as if it was forever twilight.  And all of it is covered in an unearthly silence — the breeze is without any sound, nor was there any chirping of birds — no human voice there, nor any howling of animals.  It was as if they arrived in the realm of bearded ghouls in some dark hell.

As Alvarez ordered to set camp that afternoon — sitting outside with a mug of coffee, it appeared to Shankar that this was a primordial forest, before the flora took its modern shape, in the era of dinosaurs — as if he had somehow arrived at that past magically…

After evening the woods deepened even more.  They lit fire outside the tent — nothing was visible beyond that.  Shankar was surprised by the surreal silence of this forest.  Why wasn’t there any of the night sounds they heard earlier?  Alvarez was staring thoughtfully at the map.  He said — Listen Shankar, I have been thinking.  We have climbed 8,000 feet, but are yet to find the ridge that would allow us to go to the other side of the range.  How much further should we climb?  Suppose this part doesn’t have the saddle?

It’s not that the thought hadn’t occurred to Shankar too.  Even today, while climbing, he tried to look upwards through the field glass, but the heavy cloud or fog covering the peak had thwarted him.  It’s true, how much further should they climb, what if the saddle can’t be found?  They had to descend, and then climb some other way.  Tough.

He said — What does the map say?

Alvarez’s face suggested that he had lost confidence on the map.  He said — This map isn’t all that detailed.  Who climbed this mountain to chart a map?  This map that you see — this was charted by Sir Filippo de Filippi, who gained fame by climbing the peak of the Fernando Po in the Portuguese West Africa, and was in the expedition of the famous mountaineer Duke of Abruzzi.  But he never climbed the Richtersveld, and the contours in this map aren’t probably all that accurate.

Shankar said abruptly — What’s that?

There was a faint sound outside the tent, and a coughing sound the next moment — as if the a phthisis patient was coughing in sufferance.  Once… Twice… Then the sound stopped.  It appeared immediately to Shankar that this sound was not of any human.

He got up promptly with the rifle to check outside the tent, but Alvarez grabbed his hand and stopped him.

Surprised, Shankar asked — Why?  What’s making that sound?

As he finished and turned, he was shocked to see Alvarez’s ashen faced.

Immediately, it seemed that a heavy but light footed animal passed through the woods in the thick darkness beyond the campfire.

Both went quiet for a bit, then Alvarez said — Add some wood to the fire.  Check if the bus are loaded.  Seeing his face, Shankar didn’t have the guts to ask any question.

The night passed.

Shankar was the first to awake the following morning.  He went out in search of some wood to light a fire and make coffee  Suddenly he noticed a foot print on the wet soil — it was at least 11 inches in length, but only three toes were clearly visible.  He followed the foot prints for a while — number of steps, all with three clear toes.

Shankar remembered the story of Jim Carter’s death that he heard from Alvarez in the rail station in Uganda.  The three-toed footprint of that unknown fierce beast in the sandpit outside the cave.  The kafir chieftain’s story.

Immediately, he also recalled the ashen face of Alvarez from the previous night.  Alvarez was scared that away another time, when the first set camp in the footprint of the range.

Bunyip!  The bunyip of the Kafir chief’s tale that terrorises the forests of the Richtersveld, fearing whom not only any humans, but even no wild animal tread these woods above eight thousand feet.  It became very clear to Shankar why he heard no wild animals the previous night.  Even Alvarez became pale in fear hearing that beast. Perhaps Alvarez had prior encounter with that sound.

That day Alvarez took a while to wake.  Swallowing some food and hot coffee, Alvarez returned to his daredevil form.  Shankar consciously avoided showing him the footprints of that strange animal — what if Alvarez had said — Let’s head down since we haven’t found the saddle yet.

It starting raining heavily that morning, with water pouring down the slope as if there were a thousand fountains.  This forested hill plays tricks on the eyes, they had climbed so much, but everything seems the same looking down from every thousand or so feet higher — hence initially it appears that only this much had been climbed.

The rain didn’t stop that day — Alvarez ordered to start after 10ish.  Shankar wasn’t expecting it.  Here Shankar noticed an aspect of the European work culture.  He was wondering, why head out in such rain.  What difference will one day make?  What is to be gained from getting wet in the rain?

They climbed whole day through the deep forest in torrential rain.  Climbing, climbing, and even more climbing — Shankar was about to collapse.  Clothes, luggage, tent, all wet, not even a dry handkerchief anywhere — Shankar was feeling drowsy, in body and mind — when the dusk fell and the evening darkness combined with the darkness of the forest and the cloud to form a somber black, he started wondering where he was headed, through in terrible beast ridden forest, in the rain soaked evening, in search of what unmarked diamond mine, or perhaps even worse unknown death?  He didn’t need a diamond mine. The huts of Bangladesh, peaceful tree shaded village paths, rivulets, chirping of the known birds — all these seemed to be unreal stuff of some fantasy-land, which were no less valuable than some African diamond mine.

But this feeling of his passed at late night, when the moon appeared after the cloud had parted.  That unearthly moonlit night cannot be described, as if there was no land called Bengal.  Everything was a dream — he didn’t want to return anywhere, nor did he want diamond — he now inhabited a divine land far above the earth, the beauty of which no man had ever seen before.  The unfathomable silence, no man had felt that before.  The barren Richtersveld stood tall beyond the clouds in the dead of this night, majestic in its own glory — earthly men is very rarely fortunate enough to enter here.

That night he was abruptly awaken by Alvarez.  Alvarez called — Shankar, Shankar get up, grab a gun…


Then he listened carefully — something was roaming outside the tend, its heavy breathing could be heard clearly.  The moon had started to set, it was mainly dark outside, just a little moonlight left on the top branches, hardly anything was visible.  There was still some fire left just outside the tend door — but the light circle was rather small, and rather dim, not adding much to vision.

There was a large din — as if a large animal just ran through the woods.  The beast out there seemed to realise that the preys inside the tent were awake, and there wasn’t any opportunity left to suddenly strike.

Whatever else the beast was, it seemed to have intelligence, power to judge, brain.

With the rifle in his hand, Alvarez went out and lit a torch.  Shankar was behind him.  The torchlight showed that it was as if the plants on the northeastern direction from the tent was flattened by a steam roller.  Alvarez fired a couple of shots in that direction.

No sound could be heard from any direction.

On the way back to the tent, just in front of the tent door and close to the campfire, they both saw a set of foot prints.  There were marks of three clear toes on the wet ground.

This proved that the beast didn’t fear fire.  Shankar thought that had they not awakened, the unknown terror wouldn’t have hesitated to enter their tent — and there is no point in imagining what might have happened after that.  Alvarez said — Shankar, finish your sleep, I am up.

Shankar said — No, you sleep Alvarez.

With a faint smile Alvarez said — Silly, you won’t be able to do anything by staying up, Shankar.  Go back to sleep, look at the thunder over there, another storm coming, the night is ending, sleep.  Let me have some coffee instead.

It started pouring with the break of down, along with matching thunder and lightning.  The rain continued whole day, with no break or even let up.  It seemed to Shankar that the apocalyptic flood had begun with this rain.  The rain was so heavy that even Alvarez got deterred from mentioning to unfold the tent.

It was around five when the rain stopped.  Perhaps it would have been better had the rain not stopped, for as soon as it did, Alvarez ordered to start.  The Bengali guy naturally wondered — why start this late?  What’s the hurry?  But to Alvarez day, night, rain, sun, moon, darkness — it was all the same.  That night, as they kept climbing on and on in moonlight passing through the cloud — around then Alvarez said from the back — Shankar, stop, look over there…

In the fool moonlight, Alvarez was looking towards the left peak through the field-glass.  Shankar took the glass from him and stared that way.  Yes, the flat ridge is found.  Not too far off, about two miles, to their left.

With a broad grin, Alvarez said — Have you seen the saddle?  No need to stop tonight, we will cross the saddle tonight and set camp on the other side.  Shankar was really through.  What trouble he was in for setting up to find diamond with this Portuguese rogue.  Shankar new that according to the convention of expeditions, nothing is said against the skipper’s order.  And here Alvarez was the leader, and his order is inviolable.  While not codified in any written law, everyone has followed this convention in every major expedition in the history of the world.  He would too.

After walking without break, as they reached the saddle with the sunrise — Shankar was about to collapse.

The saddle spread at least three miles, there was a two hundred feet cliff, and then there were four or five hundred feet drop in a mile, hence it wasn’t easy — the flat bit was full of large trees, bamboos and wild ginger.  There were orchids of strange colour in every branch.  And baboon and colobus monkeys were everywhere.

It took them another two days of climbing down before reaching the valley on the other side of the main range of the Richtersveld.  It appeared to Shankar that the forest on this side was even denser and stranger.  The clouds arising from the Atlantic hit the Cameroon ranges of West Africa and the southern edge of the Richtersveld — hence there is a lot of rain here, and the trees are as virile.

Despite combing through that large forested valley for fifteen or so days, the two of them couldn’t locate the hilly creek that Alvarez described.  There were in fact a couple or two small fountains — but Alvarez kept nodding and said — Not these.

Shankar said — Why don’t you look at your map carefully?  But not it appeared that Alvarez’s map wasn’t all that accurate.  Alvarez said — What does the map matter?  That river and that valley is engraved in my mind — I will recognise it as soon as I see it.  This is not that place at all.

Nothing to do but to look further.

A month had passed.  Monsoon started in West Africa in the first week of March.  And what a ferocious monsoon it was!  Shankar had tasted a sample while crossing the Richtersveld. The whole valley got swamped by the large mountainous water falls.  There wasn’t any space to camp.  One night, excessive rain caused the rather harmless shallow creek in front of their tent to swell up to giant proportions, almost sweeping away their entire camp — thanks to Alvarez’s shallow sleep the danger was avoided on that occasion.

The days hardly passed.  One day Shankar got into big trouble in the woods.  And the trouble too was rather peculiar.

That day, Alvarez was cleaning the rifle, after which he was supposed to cook.  Shankar went out with a rifle to hunt.

Alvarez had told him to move very carefully in this forest — and keep the magazine of the gun always loaded with cartridge.  And he gave another valuable advice, which was — Always tie a compass to your wrist while trekking through these woods, and make some marks on the trees while going so that you can trace your way back.  It’s certain danger otherwise.

That day, Shankar ended up in deep forest while looking for springboks.  He started in the morning, and feeling tired after walking the day, he sat under a big tree to rest awhile.

That place was full of large oaks, and all the trunks and branches were covered so thick in a kind of vine with small leaves that the original colour of the tress isn’t visible.  There were lilies in a nearby swamp.

After sitting there for a while, Shankar started feeling uneasy.  He couldn’t quite understand why he was uneasy — but he didn’t quite want to leave the place either — while he was tired, he was also comfortable there.

But what happened to him!  Why was his body feeling so numb?  Did he contract malaria?

To get over his lethargy, he took out a cigar from his pocket and lit up.  There is some sweet fragrance in the air — Shankar rather liked the fragrance.  A bit later, while picking up the matchbox from the ground to put in the pocket, he felt that his hand was no longer his — as if it was someone else’s hand, no longer under the command of his brain.

Slowly his whole body felt like collapsing into state of comfortable stupor.  What’s the point of futile travel, chasing mirages for nothing, was there anything happier than to spend the rest of the life lazily under these vines?

Once it occurred to him that it might be a good idea to get up and head back to the camp, lest some danger befell him.  Once he even tried to get up, only to be defeated by the lethargy that encompassed his mind and body.  Not quite fatigue, rather the delirium of a mild intoxication.  The whole world is trivial next to it.  It was that intoxicant that was paralyzing his body.

Shankar laid down flat, resting his head on the tree branch.  The line between the light and shade on the large cotton wood branches became blurry, there was some wild bird chirping nearby, but that was now becoming faint.  And then what happened Shankar had no idea…..

There wasn’t much daylight left when Alvarez found his unconscious body in the cotton woods shade after much looking.  Alvarez’s initial reaction was that this must have been a snake-bite — but upon investigation there was no sign of snake bites.  It became very clear to the experienced traveller Alvarez when he suddenly glanced upon the branches and trees around.  The place was full of dangerous poison ivies, the juice of which is used by the Africans to dip their arrows in.  It usually emits a pleasant aroma, but often paralysis ensues if it is inhaled in excess, and even death is not surprising.

Back in the camp, Shankar was in bed for couple of days.  His whole body was bloated.  His head felt like splitting, and he was always thirsty.  Alvarez said — If you had to spend the night there — by morning it would have been too late to save you.

One day Shankar saw something yellowish on the sandy banks of a fountain.  The experienced prospector Alvarez extracted gold dust by washing the sand — but wasn’t particularly excited.  The gold wasn’t sufficient to cover the effort — perhaps three ounces of gold from a ton of sand.

Shankar said — What’s the point of sitting around, even three ounces of gold is valuable.

What appeared to him as amazing was nothing to an experienced prospector such as Alvarez.  Plus, Alvarez and Shankar had very different ideas about returns to their effort.  Eventually Shankar had to give up.

Meanwhile they had trekked through various parts of the forest for a month.  Set the camp here for a couple of days, then move elsewhere, thoroughly look around and then move again.  That day they set camp to a new place in the woods.  Shankar returned to the camp in the evening with a couple of birds he had just hunted when he saw Alvarez was smoking pipe in a rather worried manner.

Shankar said — I say Alvarez. since even you can’t, let’s go back.

Alvarez replied — The river couldn’t have flown away, it must be in some part of this mountainous forest.

— Then why can’t we find it?

— We aren’t searching properly.

— What are you saying Alvarez, we have been combing this forest for two months, what else does searching mean?

Alvarez said with a sombre face — But you know the trouble, Shankar?  I haven’t yet told you something, perhaps if you hear it you’ll be disheartened of frightened.  Okay, let me show you something, come with me.

With great interest and curiosity Shankar followed him.  What was the matter?

Standing under a large tree a bit further away, Alvarez said — Shankar, we set camp here just today, right?

Surprised, Shankar said — What does that mean?  When else did we come here if not today?

— Okay, come and have a look at this tree trunk?

Moving close, Shankar saw that someone scratched the letters DA on the trunk — but the writing wasn’t fresh, it was at least a month old.

Shankar didn’t quite understand what it meant.  He just stared at Alvarez.  Alvarez said — You don’t get it?  It was me who wrote the letters a month ago on this tree.  I had a bit of a doubt.  You don’t get it, to you all woods look the same.  Now you understand the meaning?  We are moving around in circle in this forest.  When this happens in a place like this, it is really tough to get rescued.  

Finally Shankar got it.  He said — You are saying we were here a month ago?

— Exactly.  This trouble happens in large forests or deserts.  This is called a death-trap.  It first seemed to me about a month ago that we might be in a death-trap.  To test it, I scribed those letters on the tree.  While trekking on the woods today, I came across them again.

Shankar said — What happened to our compass?  How do we get the direction wrong every day with a compass?

Alvarez replied — I think our compass has gone bad.  Remember the terrible thunderstorm while crossing the Richtersveld, that must have damaged its magnet.

— That means the compass doesn’t work?

— I believe so.

Shankar saw the situation was rather serious.  The map was inaccurate, and the compass faulty, and they were in a death trap in a very remote deep forest.  No humans, no food, almost no water as most of the natural flows were not drinkable.  What there was the fear of a terrible, strange death.  Jim Carter gave his life searching for gems in this cursed forest, it didn’t seem any good could come to anyone here.

But Alvarez was indomitable.  He kept going on for days.  Shankar couldn’t make any sense of where they were going, whatever ideas he had earlier, upon hearing about the death trap, he lost all sense of directions.

Three or so days later, the arrived at a spot where a branch of the Richterveld stood facing north, in a right angle to the main range.  This was at least 4,000 feet high.  Further west, another peak was playing hide and seek behind the dense cloud.  The valley between the two ranges was about three miles wide, and was densely forested.

There seemed three layers of trees in this jungle.  On top were the ferns and orchids, in the middle were large trees, and at the bottom were shrubs and bushes.  There was no sunlight in the forest.

Instead of going into the woods, Alvarez asked to set camp just outside the forest.  In the evening, they started planning next steps over coffee.  They had run out of food, sugar had finished a long time ago, and now it appeared coffee would run out in a day or two.  They still had some flour — but there was nothing else.  The only reason they still had some flour was because they hardly use it.  They mainly relied on meat of wild animals, but since they didn’t have an armament factory, how could they rely forever on hunting?

While talking, Shankar sometimes looked at the peak hiding behind the cloud.  Around then, for a while the, cloud cleared fully.  The peak had a peculiar appearance, as if it was an ice cream cone whose top was beaten off.

Alvarez said — Bulawayo and Salisbury are within four or five hundred miles south west of here.  But two hundred of those miles are deserts.  While the coast is within three hundred miles to the west, the Portuguese West Africa is densely forested and remote, so forget about that side.  Now our solution is, either you or I go to Salisbury or Bulawayo to buy bullet and food.  And a compass too.

It was an auspicious moment that Shankar heard this from Alvarez.  Can people always understand the old fortune plays in life?  It was fortunate that Shankar heard the names of Salisbury and Bulawayo, and their approximate directions.  He later thanked Alvarez a countless times for mentioning these names.

The talk didn’t go much further that day.  They were both tired, and called it an early night.

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