We take three buses from the tourist town of Ooty and drive 2 hours away toward the 8 reservoir lakes. The lake we are headed to is called Avalanche. We plan to soak in the wildness of God's creation for 4 days. More than half of the girls have never camped before, and many would have never hiked at all.
We tumble out of the buses and begin an hour-long hike up and down the rugged terrain. Many girls insist on wearing their open-toed sandals and flip flops and get their first taste of the difficulties of the trail. Everyone is in great spirits, helping each other over the fallen logs, up the steepest parts of the trail, and through the mud. On the way to camp, we look for the telltale pug marks of panthers and tigers, and for fresh scratches on trees where the big cats sharpen their claws. Excitement and danger are equally palpable as the girls catcall and joke around while we press deeper into the high altitude rain forest.
Soon we are beneath tall and ancient pine trees and the sense of majesty and hush that accompanies that feeling of awe begins to touch each of us. Many pause and gaze upward, trying to find the tops of the trees. We move on, in silence. The spacious pines give way to thick shola trees. The forest is all around us. Rhododendrons, azaleas, wild blueberry bushes, and pepper vines climb the mossy bark of trees. The jungle is dark and humid and almost feels oppressive without the touch of a breeze. We can't see anything except dense foliage on every side.
The trail keeps getting steeper and here and there girls begin to grumble. A stubbed toe, a broken flip flop. These girls don't get much exercise in their rehab homes. Teeming cities like Mumbai don't have spaces for walks and hikes. This is hard work for the girls. Sweat is streaming down faces, and a muttered curse can be heard from time to time. The girls are quiet for the most part, just trying to get through the jungle.
I smile to myself. I know what is coming. I know it will be worth it all.
Abruptly, the forest ends and we catapult out of the woods blinking in the bright sunshine. A wide-open vista of breathtaking beauty meets our eyes. I sit down and watch the girls emerge from the tunnel of trees. I see their faces utterly transform. The absorbed intensity of a long, difficult climb is swept away in an instant and there is a sharp intake of breath as their eyes take in the ranges of mountains fringing a sparkling blue lake in the valley below.
Every single girl pauses, trying to take in the grandeur. Some are quiet, observing each detail of the panorama. Others give a whoop of triumph and joy. Arms are upraised in the magnificence of the view. We are breathless with excitement. Memories of the difficult hike fade. One by one, girls tear their eyes away and turn slowly for the last descent down into the camp. The end is in sight and they plunge down the hill, eager for the next adventure.