Sattal

Apparently Sattal is a paradise for bird lovers, at a nice distance away from crowded Nainital, Sattal is thickly wooded, and forested, thankfully the woods here are protected and this in return has meant loads of birds and an odd leopard and a bear being spotted.

We stayed at the Incredible Birding camp, the place was highly recommended by birders and a friend of mine Tikuli. The Incredible Birding camp is run by Khusbu and Rahul Sharma who are themselves very keen birders and apparently are very good photographers of birds. Unfortunately whilst we went there, the pair was away to Iceland for birding! Well, atleast now I know some people are living the life! Anyways, since they were not there, the guy in charge was Vipul, coincidentally from Surat, 75 kms from my place, the fun of communicating in Gujarati in this state far from home! He aided us in identifying and finding favourite spots of birds around Sattal, Garudtal and Chafi river.

 

The reason why this is a bad time for birding is, the foliage is lush, the leaves are dense, there is water all around, moving around is troublesome and it keeps raining on and off, however, that did not deter us, we went out, we were patient, photographing was more tricky, but watching them with a binocular much easier! Mornings and evenings were particularly active, the chirps and coos wouldn’t stop, we kept spotting quite a few residents there and we actually saw a lot of species that we had not seen earlier!

 

The lakes here are quite beautiful and pristine, especially now with it being off season and no tourists boating in the lake or traffic on the roads it was blissful and you could actually have the whole lake to yourself. It was so quiet that you could hear and identify birds just by their calls. I can’t imagine how it would be in proper dry season and winters which is the ideal time to visit this place for birding. I have heard people saying they would spot 150 plus species in 2-3 days. In this off season we spotted 46 species in the one and half day excursions we took around.

 

Some pictures are in the below slide show :

 

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the rain affair!

In a country where the sun shines almost 11 months a year, please excuse me if I don’t appreciate it as much. I loathe it, on the other hand, I love the clouds! Damp, gray, dull weather for me any day over the sunny days. Unfortunately we barely have that sort of weather at best for 1-2 months a year. So it is very important for me to make the most of it when that weather lasts!

Since three years now, I have been driving to the Himalayas from my hometown in Gujarat, this honestly is the best time to take a road trip in India! Entire India is beautiful during this time of the year, all those dusty towns in Haryana, those dry deserted rocks in Rajasthan, the dry north Gujarat, everything springs to life, suddenly there are more lakes, the greenery seems to have taken over, there is a vibrant coat that all trees are wearing, this dusty country suddenly has a green sheen to it and it looks amazingly pretty. Especially when the clouds descend in various shades of gray, innumerable small waterfalls begin trickling down slopes thanks to the clouds drooling drops of rain on the earth and mist floating around, the whole image is impossible to capture in a photograph, but you all surely have seen it haven’t you?

Trust me, if you haven’t you are wasting your life, go out and see the Indian countryside in the rains, its simply as good as any place on earth during this time.

Since I am a more greedy person than normal, I can’t make do with just the normal pretty Indian countryside, I prefer to travel to the Himalaya’s! Three consecutive years, end of July I am going to the Himalayas and take it from me, it is a super time to go there. The weather is not unbelievably cold, infact its quite friendly unless you are opting for a very high altitude, secondly, there are no crowds, thirdly the mountains are hibernating, the trees have been washed, the leaves are sprouting, the valleys are full of flowers, at times at certain places I remember it was difficult to walk without trampling flowers! Can you imagine that? On some trails at certain times, it is a problem, you cannot walk unless you put your feet on flowers! Coz the floor is that full with flowers! There isn’t just one valley of flowers, yes that is a famous one, thankfully, it keeps people from going everywhere! There are quite a few valleys that bloom and they are a sight!

Please do not let people deter you by saying landslides happen and all that crap, enough accidents happen on roads in cities. If we are sensible and prudent, accidents mostly like will be avoided, yes you might get stuck in a place for a day or two longer, but that’s about the worst it can get. Come to think of it, getting stuck on a holiday is the best thing that can happen to you! You can always tell your boss, sorry but road closed, I couldn’t come back and enjoy!

The monsoon in the Himalaya’s is quite spectacular, the water usually at most places is quite pristine and clean and clear, no brown falls here (largely) secondly, the breeding season of birds, so lots will be about with worms in their bills feeding, without worrying how close you are getting to them, thirdly, apple, peach, plum, pear season, pluck them and eat them! The freshness and the juiciness will blow away your mind! You might even not eat fruits any longer once back thinking, this is no way the same fruit that grows on trees! Take my word on this one too! The mountains near to you are lush green, the ones further away from you seem a lighter shade of green and eventually become blue, the clouds flirt with not just the mountain peaks, but they come down, settle down in the valleys, they flirt with the trees and even you! Yes, go walk in the clouds, you can also sing “aaj main upar” for many times the clouds will actually be in the valley below you!

The places are empty, the popular tourist sites, which are pretty, but usually made places to ignore because of the crowds are empty, the hotels are empty, you get loads of discounts, if you stay there they treat you like royalty, there are many local village deity festivals, if you can befriend locals you can have a ball visiting these villages during festival days, the people are generally in a good mood and relaxing.

Talking of festivals, I remember one afternoon we stumbled into a stranger called Rajinder in Buhad village in Parvati Valley, when he learnt we were from Gujarat and that we had come to see their local customs, he invited us home for tea, we tried to ignore but he insisted, we eventually went for tea to his home, in the middle of an apple orchard at around 5pm. That tea was followed by Bhatture Chhole, Fruits, Salad, Kingfisher Beer, Bholebaba Prasad, Chicken, Naan and by the time we left his place at 11.30 in the night, we were happy high, belly filled and stoned! Today that stranger Rajinder is a friend, we also meet for treks and I hope someday he will visit Bharuch and maybe I can reciprocate his kindness in some way!

Encounters like this do not happen in summer season or diwali season, the locals are also busy at that time! Its during rains that everything takes a back seat in the Himalaya’s. The atmosphere tells you not to work, to sit back, relax, gaze, sigh, soak in fresh air into those lungs of yours!

This year we headed for Kumaon, opting for the small corners in Naintal hills and Almora hills, we visited Nathuakhan, Sattal and Dhamas. We stayed in two places that are sort of hotels where we were the only guests, the cooks would ask us what we’d like to eat and cook, it was good to have their undivided attention and having everything cooked as per our whims and flavours and at times we wanted to! In Dhamas, we took up a house in the middle of nowhere, to get milk we had to drive about 10 mins after walking to the car for another 5 mins and to get proper vegetables or butter or bread, we had to drive 13 kms one way! The place though, had only three kinds of sounds, birds, cicada’s and crickets and rains pattering on our roof! The villa was secluded, very well equipped, with a view so good, for two days we plonked our asses on the bean bags in its balcony and read books, drank cups of tea, drank the other drinks, did the things and everytime we looked up from the books the view was to die for. We didn’t feel like moving, we didn’t feel like coming back, it was the ideal sort of house that I’d love to have some day in the hills. I’ll leave you with a few pictures and I hope it inspires you to take a monsoon road trip to some place if not the Himalayas!

The view from our balcony in Dhamas after the rains when the clouds descended seemed like this place was out of a fantasy!

Neither the sun, nor the stars were visible, but the hues the skies changed at dawn and dusk were so amazingly spectacular that I cannot describe or capture, this is the best I could do!

The empty roads are a pleasure to drive on!

Bob’s place at Nathuakhan is very popular, but we got it all to ourselves! A childhood dream came true by visiting this wonderful place!

Garudtal lake all to us! No visitors, pristine colours, silence and well you get the idea right 😛

Monsoons and the Himalaya’s

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I thought to start with the story of our monsoon roadtrip to the Himalaya’s it would be apt to begin with a picture of prayer flags. Before we left we did talk to a few people about our plan and most of the times everyone would immediately show concern about the rains, landslides, bad roads and how it was a very bad idea, not out of anything else but out of worry for us. Its kind of a catch 22 situation, you know they care for you, you know they want you to be safe and yet you must ignore cause it cannot be explained to them that its not such a bad idea, that things can always be worked out, that people live in the Himalaya’s in the monsoon and travel there and that nothing happens if you just be careful.

 

Its sort of important to stay on course and not budge, because once you set out of home let me assure you, you are in for a trip of a lifetime. The Himalaya’s are in a totally different mood during the monsoon, they seem to have bathed, they seem to be breathing clouds, they seem like they have been put through some filter that is just amazingly fresh and pristine. If the Himalaya’s were people, they are probably living their lives at their best during the monsoon.

 

It is fresh apple season, the streams are full, the nullah’s are overflowing rapidly and ferociously, crossing them is a thrill in itself, the hills and pines seem to be cooking clouds all the time and its time when you just sit, gape and gasp at the changing weather. You are admist clouds for a minute and another minute you could have a scorching sun on you.

 

The 20 days we spent there were pretty much without any dangerous incident, we didn’t go looking for trouble and I would say the Himalaya’s in the monsoon are a perfect destination to travel. I would actually prefer the monsoon over the summers for a trip to the Himalaya’s, even for us guys from the plains. Not only is the temperature perfect for us but the amount of freshness that is oozing there during these months has probably increased a couple of years of our lives!

 

So stay tuned for more stories and pictures of the Himalayan Monsoon Roadtrip and before I go, here is one more eye candy!

 

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Road Trip – South Africa

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Ever since I have come back from South Africa, I cannot stop raving about the amazing road trip we had there. The feeling of being cock a hoop is not leaving me. The country has amazing panaromic views all around, the roads are in top notch condition and the traffic there is absolutely nothing, especially for a guy who lives in India! After driving around about 4050 kms in the country and spending 12 days there I am quite adamant that anyone that goes to South Africa has to do a road trip.

 

For someone who had not driven in any foreign country before there were a lot of apprehensions and doubts let alone half the known world here telling me it was a horrible idea, that in South Africa after dark people are just waiting to mug me or rob me. Let me tell you, nothing of that sort happened, we infact in our 12 days trip did not ever encounter any of those scary experiences. The thrill of self driving in a safari in a bush full of Elephants, Rhino’s, Giraffe’s and what not has to be experienced and soaked in. Once you complete the trip it seems all chilled out and I wondered what the fuss about it was.

Okay lets first give some information for you guys if any one of you plan to drive in SA :

 

1.) Indian driving license is valid in SA as long as your driving license is in English. However, we had read on the internet that car hire companies could demand an International Driving Permit and so we actually got one and spent money on it, but it was never asked or checked!

2.) In South Africa like in India they have a right hand drive, so its almost no adjustment for us Indians. They do follow rules though, which might be a little tricky for us Indians 😛 However, if you just drive carefully and watch around, there are plenty of signals and signboards and they are all in English and so once you get a hang of it you are sorted.

3.) Budgetcar.co.za was the car rental that we used and believe it or not for 12 days and 4050 kilometers for two drivers it cost us just 20k. How cool is that? Yes we paid for the fuel and toll (which was at very few places)

4.) We did actually pay around 2500 extra for road side assistance (included in the 20k) however we never required it.

5.) When we left we had booked a Volkswagon Polo, however they gave us a ford fiesta. Which was a pretty similar hatchback type car.

6.) For Safari, ideally you want to hire a jeep or a higher vehicle. We made a slight mistake and didn’t opt for the higher vehicle.

7.) Dropping a car and hiring was very easy and whilst picking up it took us some 15 mintues while dropping the car it took us hardly 2 minutes.

 

See it is that easy and hence I recommend you do a road trip in SA and never opt for any other option. If you are weary of driving a very long distance, which we are not, you can drop a car at an airport and pick up another one from another airport. Its easy and no hassles.

The people here even when driving communicate a lot, while we were driving around in Kruger National Park almost every car that would pass us would wave or flash a light to say ‘hi’!! On the highways when you let a car pass, it would switch on its parking light to say thank you and we would flash our light to say welcome! Seriously almost everywhere this was the norm! In the city of Cape Town though all that disappeared but then I guess folks in a big city are always too busy and in a hurry. It used to amuse me though when our host in Cape Town warned us of traffic on the way to the airport, for someone who comes from India the traffic in SA was an absolute non issue, they simply dont have that many cars or people. There were very few two wheelers and that is half the problem solved.

Having our own vehicle in a national park doing safari was something I was most apprehensive about, how do we find routes, how do we identify animals and birds, what if we encounter big animals on the road? If you are just a little sensible with the animals and keep a distance, the animals were fine, most of the time they kept their distance as well. Kruger National Park has amazingly clear sign boards for a park that is spread across 28000 square kilometers! Riding there and tracking animals or finding a waterhole and spending hours waiting there was so amazing that I cannot quite describe it! We have always complained that in Tiger parks in India they do not let us spend enough time inside the park, here from morning 6 to evening 6 you are free to roam in the park track animals or sit at spot and wait for animals. Can you imagine 12 hours of being in the wild looking for animals and birds? I could not before this trip! We bought one animal identification book in the park and it was great to spot birds and refer the book!

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An Impala walks patiently for us to cross before it crosses! 🙂

The most amazing moment was when we encountered was when we saw a family of Cheetah, the parents were teaching their kids to hunt, the kids were pretty inept and could not stalk at all and would always alarm the Impala and Zebra before they could get near enough to chase. We spent an hour with that family and eventually left that family to perfect their art. It was like the first time that we got to see a wild cat for such length of time! We spotted a pride of lions when we were driving and there was no one else around, just us and the lions! One night we got delayed and drove in pitch darkness in the park and encountered wild dogs, Elephants, Rhinos sitting on the main road! Oh I can go on and on about our 3 day drive in Kruger National Park.

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They were more curious about the cars then the Impala’s!

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The usual traffic jam in Kruger! We looked forward to such traffic jams, which clearly meant some good sighting was happening! We used to rush in the midst of all traffic jams! 😛

 

After Kruger National Park we went on a drive on the Panaroma Route and the route is named totally aptly! The views on that drive were amazing, SA generally has less trees and small buildings so the visibility is amazing, you can see far and wide and the landscape is absolutely stunning. There are so many waterfalls on the route that we didn’t know which to visit and which to skip. Overall we felt we should have given ourselves a few more days to properly explore the Panaroma Route and the Drakensberg Mountains, but perhaps that would be for another time. Here are some snaps from the Panaroma Route.

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The drive upto the Three Rhondavels View Point is amazing and the reward at the end of it equally stunning!

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We found loads of maple tree’s near Graskop where we had the best Pancakes ever!

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The Golden Gate Highlands National park is straight out of the wild west or Texas! We were pleasantly surprised to see it!

 

We absolutely loved the Garden Route, picture this : Green Mountains on a side, the top being full of clouds on one side, the ocean on the another and you are zipping about on a tip top highway! The country is amazingly beautiful and one way to see a lot of it in a short time is to take a car and drive! There were innumerable view points, the amount of stops that we took to take photographs would drive any other driver mad, unless ofcourse if the driver and the photographer are the same person!

 

Here are some more pictures of the Garden Route, a full travelogue comes next and then our experiences of our encounters with locals there!

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I told you green mountains with their tops in the clouds on one side!

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The ocean on the other!

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when clouds descend on the garden route!

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Thoda to style maarna banta hai!

 

 

 

 

The road to Munsiari

When driving in the hills is something you like you just cant get over the fact that you are driving in the Himalayas and you just want to keep talking about it, starting from Binsar and onto Munsiari we had a fabulous drive. It was such a special drive because almost rarely did we get 50 meter of straight road, just curves and curves and bends all the way and the distance was a mean 240 kms!!! Yes, imagine the thrill a driver gets on these roads, you are constantly into the drive and every new bend suddenly lends a new perspective to the whole view you have been having.

 

Uttarakhand I must confess has probably better roads than Himachal, perhaps owing to the lower altitude compared to Himachal and far more bends and curves again perhaps owing to small mountains than Himachal, I am no geography or mountain expert but from my experiences this is what I draw. These smoothly carpeted road make for a pleasant drive, the country side here is wooded like crazy and that in itself is a great boost for me to be driving. I always prefer highways with trees lacing it than the boring 6-8 lane highways with no trees to talk of. These roads have a lot more character I say. It was wonderful to be crossing so many bridges on the way, stopping at random chai thela’s and munching on a momo whenever we saw a village market. Less populated as we got on the road from Thal to Munsiyari and lot more greener, with the sides of the road being laced by green fresh grass which added even more happiness to the drive.

 

Not to exaggerate the curves on the road but actually my finger developed a small blister from all the veering of the steering, call it the roads or blame my soft hands 😉

 

Here are a few pictures of from the drive and a video too! 🙂

The almora berinag road is full of pines, however, the recent rains had given the grounds green colour

The Almora-Berinag road is full of Pine trees, however, the recent rains had given the grounds green colour and not the thick pine leave layer.

 

Crossing Bridges

Crossing Bridges

As you near Munsiyari you realise the Pine have not reached or breached this area. Its all old traditional Himalayan trees that take over here.

As you near Munsiyari you realise the Pine have not reached or breached this area. Its all old traditional Himalayan trees that take over here.

Then clouds start to take up their play as the day stretches to noon.

Then clouds start to take up their play as the day stretches to noon.

That was the last pic we took before it started raining

That was the last pic we took before it started raining

 

Here is a small video we took enroute : 

 

 

 

Road trips

Travel was a bug that had bit me probably whilst I was a very small kid, however, the effect of that bug started showing its true colours pretty late in life. Earlier the penchant to travel was to be fulfilled only with fantasies or books, finally last few years it is starting to become a bit of a reality. I learnt driving also pretty late, infact 3 years back when I bought a car I didn’t even know properly how to drive. Thankfully as my wife says to me I have taken to it like a fish takes to water!

 

It was always ingrained in my brains that I want to drive my car to all remote corners of this world, more so to the Himalayas, stopping where I liked, taking in all the sights, photographing any peak I found pretty or screeching my brakes at the sight of an unknown bird! I did want to do it and no other driver could tolerate the number of breaks I keep taking to click a pic or to buy some fruit being sold or take a piss or smoke when I found a pretty view which had to be soaked in.

 

The first trip to the Himalaya’s was quite tentative with every loved one giving me loads of advice to be careful as they all wanted me to go and come back safe to this year, my third road trip to the Himalaya’s all self driven I have come a long way.

 

The thing about road trips are, they are most comfortable, you can plan your schedules without any other criteria but your own comfort, you decide if you want to drive 400 kms a day or 900, if you want to drive in the night or day, if you want to suddenly change your destination you can, impromptu decisions infact make them even better I say.

 

Selecting a place to eat is a major event for me on Road Trips, tips from friends, internet or simply places that look attractive to me all kind of fill up the activity chart along with driving all day. In the Himalaya’s stopping at a random Dhaba for tea that has a splendid view is something I really heart. Talking to folks who are amazed that you have driven all the way from Gujarat kinda swells my small ego like anything. I feel proud almost! 🙂 Suddenly sighting someone selling some berries or someone pasting fruits with salt and masala and you can bet I will be stopping around to pick up something.

 

Watching how the topography changes as you keep changing states and regions is quite amazing, how when you are about to reach a Tiger reserve the forests start swelling and how the population starts to dwindle is quite dramatic. In the Himalayas when you are driving you many times wonder how some of the most steep and remote mountains have a house or two on them, wonder how do people select these places. Wonder how they manage their day to day resources living at such remote locations but then I guess many people prefer a good view, silence and peace to most other things in life! 🙂

 

As far as safety is concerned, what I have learned from my little experience of driving around Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, UP, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal, Goa& Karnataka is that most of the places are pretty much safe. We generally try not to drive a lot in the night, trying our best to reach our destinations before dark on most occasions. If you are just a tad careful and don’t be rash, frankly there are not so many terrors as people would have you believe on the road. Generally people drive safe and all want to live so don’t worry, be careful you don’t bump into anyone, most of the other drivers don’t want to bump into you as well. The fact that I am on a holiday kind of makes my driving a little more patient than say when I am driving for work!

 

As I make a road trip after another, I keep falling in love, not so much with driving but with the idea of moving about all the time, going to new places and navigating my own way.

 

Here is a picture of me whilst on my way to Jauljibi from Munsiyari where we crossed a bridge into Nepal. This place thrilled me, what a wonderful place to stop aint it?! You stop your car on a hot day, open the door and walk two days and you are into a chilling waterfall. How cool is that!? These places do exist in India and many a times there are so many pretty places you encounter on the road which are not mentioned on any travel site or included in any travel package.

 

So here’s to more road trips in future! 🙂

 

 

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A sunset

The fun thing about road trips is that you have to make halts, several halts at that, to pick up a cold bottle of water or to take a leak or to pick up some nice looking guava’s from the road side or sometimes the crowd around a Kachori wala hawker attracts you. These are some of the reasons I love road trips. You can converse all the time, you can do as per your whim all the time. This time round, instead of going to Jaipur directly from Bharuch enroute the Himalaya’s where we usually take our first break, we started a day early! Yes, that is one more perk of taking a road trip, I didn’t have much work and so we started early and we thought we would book a hotel with a pool and beat the heat.

 

So we selected Udaipur and reached there by noon, we took a dip in the pool and after that decided to stroll about the Fatehsagar lake as for us Bharuchi’s that weather that day in Udaipur was certainly pleasant. We walked about camera in hand on the many stalls of Fatehsagar lake wondering where to eat. What I didn’t know is that the place has an absolutely gorgeous setting for a sunset! Its straight out of the drawings we used to do as kids. Mostly we would have a water body, behind the water body some mountains, a sun setting or rising and maybe a few birds in the sky, a boat in the water and a few people standing by. Well I guess if I have built up an image in your head… here goes!

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There, aint it the one we, who were poor in drawing always paint this type of scenery? DSC_0297

Even junior loved the setting and kept gazing!

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As you walked about it showed different shades! Snapchat-2325227793258955769

Tea in a kulhad with such a view was a blessing I tell you! DSC_0277

Sigh… I did fall in love with this sunset!

 

 

Beloved Blue Mountains!

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I guess we have all read the mountains being described as blue somewhere or the other and frankly till a long time in my life I used to think its only poetic and that no such thing ever existed, that it was just a figment of imagination of some writers and they probably felt mountains being described as brown or green or black wouldn’t make them that exotic and wouldn’t bring that many people to the mountains and hence they used the adage “Blue Mountains”

Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be able to make a regular trip to the Himalaya’s and have been lucky enough to witness some vast mountain ranges, I have actually seen and realised that Blue Mountains exist! 🙂

There is something about these slopes on the surface of the earth, these high rising mountains lining up one after the other that just amazes me. Especially when you can find a spot to sit and actually gaze at the sheer enormity of the place they call The Himalaya’s you should consider yourself truly blessed to be able to absorb all this by your eyes. The above picture was taken when we were actually leaving the Himalayas and returning to the plains, I have always been enchanted by the mountains and will probably never ever be able to see the Himalaya’s enough in this life time and hence am always kind of sombre when leaving the mountains.

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Looking at the rear view or the side view mirror and realising and almost bemoaning the fact that I have to leave the mountains almost makes me sad, I sometimes get lost in the gazing and that it is almost fatal on a road trip! Thankfully the mountains have always been kind to me and always ensured and sent me back safely. I long already having come back just 10 days before to go back. I surely must have been somewhere there in the mountains in my last life, if there was any such thing!