Funbus screams up through the Shimla Hills to find the intimidating
River Sutlej and its tributaries, the River Beas, trekking guides
pretending to be fishing guides,
the snow capped peaks of Manali, a visit to Buddha's HQ at Dharamsala
& Mcleod Ganj and ends up with a traipse into
the back of beyond to stinking Pong Dam to find a certain flair for
Punjabi dancing and to catch some more Mahseer of course...
enjoyed my bit of people watching in amongst the "yoga
workshops" of Rishikesh. After all, there were plenty of
bezerkers floating about the place to keep an eye on, and the
eavesdropping was pretty interesting as well. At the place we
stayed, there was Rochelle from Oz (amongst others), who when
asked where she was from, replied that she was a "child of
the government", whatever that was (and I sure as hell
couldn't be arsed to ask). There was a confirmed man-hater from
NZ who was feeling good about being in touch with her
spirituality- although apparently not half as good as she felt
about "the downward trend of the price of business
class air tickets between Brisbane and Perth these days". Om.
There was an English lady who'd hightailed it out there for three month's henna-hugging and left her three kids with her
other half in London to "get some me time" whatever
that was (and I sure as hell couldn't be arsed...). We met a
young English girl who was rooming next to us- very pleasant but
not the sharpest tool in the box.
"Hi there. Where are you from?" she asked.
"Cumbria", replied Lynne.
"Oh reeeaally? That's Cool. I thought you were from England"...
course there were the ubiquitous supercool Israeli travellers in
a cluster of festering dreadlocks, ripped vests and those rubber Croc
their feet that looked like they'd been shopping for their
holidays with Ronald McDonald. I'm lovin' em.
narrow mountain roads provided some interesting moments.
most fascinating of all was a strange middle aged lady from Tel
Aviv who ghosted about the place with bottle-blonde hair and
thick turquoise eye make-up in the style of Barbie-does-Rocky
Horror (always a nice touch)- with elocution by Zsa Zsa Gabor-
Zsa was also somewhat of yoga nazi, and I was interested to hear all the
ailments that could be fended off by breathing out a bit while getting
yourself in a headlock.
These included migraines, cancer, bowel problems, strokes, heart disease
and fertility issues. Amazing. She concluded with a flourish:
"Hiyyaaa!" Waiting for the big pull with Ravi on the
Sutlej in one of the few places I could hold the bait on the
bottom without a house brick on the line.
daaaaaling is good forrrr prrrrreventing HIV aaaaalso".
Blimey. And to think of all those thousands of hours wasted in
the R&D department of AstraZeneca when all they had to do
was take a dip in the Ganges and have a bit of a humalong. I
made a note to give Terrance Higgins a ring when I got home.
When she told me she didn't drink anything other than water cos
it was bad for you, or eat anything other than fruit, nuts and
veg because "eet is bad forrr yourrr digestion daaaaaling",
it confirmed that I was yet again in the presence of either a
Chipmunk or another complete mentalist.
as nutty as High-Fibre seemed in the oasis of (relative) calm
that is Rishikesh, she was small beer compared to the resident
of the horrible, scabby looking things stumbled across a bin on
the walkway outside the room next door and began to have a ferret
When it turfed the fag packets and Coke tins out on the floor I
sprang from my patio chair and charged at it like a windmill, hissing
through clenched teeth... But instead of bolting away across the
rooftops the bloody thing just looked me up and down and then
charged back, barking through it's own set of horrible bright
yellow fangs. Oooh. I swiftly shat my shorts and backed off as
it scurried towards me, realising that surviving a medium-rare
Indian chicken is one thing, but a nip from this nasty little
primate would probably cause more than a smudge in my boxers.
The Monkey Bastard continued its offensive, so looking round for
available weapons I picked up a chair and threw it, spot on, and it
bounced right off its head. There was a split second stand-off
while it worked out what to do, and I hoped it didn't just pick the
chair up and chuck it back at me. Thankfully it just shook its head, sneezed
and then scurried off back along the balcony. The last thing I
saw of it was its mangy pink arse disappearing over the
railings- and its the only time in my life I've been happy to
see a monkey's arse, to be quite honest. I looked down into the
courtyard below, and a group of locals were staring up and
looking all bothered:
"Monkey Bastard", I explained.
"Ah. Very good sahib".
Monkeys: they're just soooooooo cute.
Scary Sutlej had a spot of brooding to do. Yikes.
in town, we
did manage a little daytrip to Dehra Dun - by my estimation a town with more open sewers
per capita than anywhere else in the world. When we returned to
Rishikesh, Anna & Symon
from Melbourne (the only other sane people we'd met there) sat and chatted with us
up on the hotel roof.
"Where you guys been today?" they asked.
"Dehra Dump". There was a second's silence.
"Erm... right... Why?" That about sums it
is a nice place to visit and relax for a while, but after a few days I
was feeling the itch to get the rods out again- time to get on the bus,
head for the hills and get the Mahseer itch scratched- somewhere up the Beas or
Sutlej valleys. This seemed like some kind of a plan.
path north to Shimla required a change of bus in Chandigarh, a strange
city of identical, square, concrete buildings arranged around a
thousand roundabouts- like Milton Keynes, and after
an overnight in a shoe box we found
ourselves shoe-horned onto yet another tin crate for several hours.
Approaching Shimla the bus squeaked its way up and down the tight
hair-pinned hills. But the driver still only had two speeds- "stop"
and "full". Very scary, and he must have had a piece of
string from his accelerator foot to his honking hand cos it seemed the
harder his foot pressed the pedal, the harder his hand pressed the horn,
although this was the only concession to road safety he employed. I
wondered if Indian bus drivers have to take a test? Or do they just get
in and go and leave the rest to natural selection? Somehow we made
it, and Shimla eventually crept into view, with its old colonial
buildings and myriad of bazaars tenuously clinging to the steep
a little help from one of the Shimla porters called Aziz- whose "I
not from Delhi! I not from Agra! Shimla people good people!" sales
pitch got him the deal- we
got a room with a view up on
the hill. Aziz was a
lovely bloke whose tiny size belied his strength and
he helped us greatly in our quest to find a bed.
Sikh and ye shall find the mystical Mahseer...
... And he
showed us some lovely Sutlej tributaries- a much less
intimidating prospect than the Big Mamma herself.
the Mahseer were only too happy to oblige, with
Sgt. Wilko getting in on the action too.
In the end we finished
up in Hotel Dreamland. "Dreamland" was probably pushing it a
bit, but the view from the balcony was really something else. As
we moved in to our new home a tangerine sun slipped lazily behind the
foggy hills which seemed to stretch almost to infinity- and heck, it even cooled
down which was a welcome change from the hundred degree
temperatures of Rishikesh and the Ramganga valley. Very convivial, and it's little wonder
that back in colonial days the British shifted their seat of government
up there from Delhi lock, stock and barrel to avoid the furnace-like
temperatures down on the plains.
my maps and planning a path up the Beas and Sutlej valleys had brought
on a bit of a panic attack. Their catchments cover thousands of square
kilometres, and for every few kilometres of river there's a load of
smaller tendrils feeding the main artery. Then I traced the squiggling lines
of blue around a million closely spaced contours and wondered
where the hell you start looking in that lot. So the decision was made
to get a driver and a guide, which I thought should probably make all the
Chotu cunningly camouflaged against the rocks at the confluence.
logistics of it a bit easier. After a couple of hours discussion in
Great Escapes Tours & Travel round the corner from Dreamland, it
seemed that our man there could arrange a driver, a car and a local
guide to take us up into the valleys for a week. He assured me that the
guide would be a local fisherman, knew his way up and down lots of the
rivers and would speak to the locals to find the best places to go and
find a fish or two. Sounded good. But in God we trust; in Indian Tour
Operators we reserve the right to be cynical.
paid the deposit and spent the rest of the day wandering the town
getting a few supplies, some new flashy Reebok sandals for Lynne, some
bait, and then batting off dozens of the local Bubble-Noses; for whom it
has to be said Lynne also did a couple of notable acts of
charity. The first was to buy a big bag of bananas at the market. Each
time some of the kids accosted us for cash, she'd give em a banana each.
On the face of it this might seem a bit tight, but when you realise that
most of em's mum will swipe any money off them the minute they walk in
the shack, it's probably as good as it gets. The second occurred while a
barefooted kid of about 8 years old stood patiently outside the sandal
shop inflating and deflating his bubble
of snot. As we
left he held out his hand, "Money lady. Money" he
said. Lynne held up her old sandals- an almost new pair of 80 Rupee Bata
specials which weren't proving to be comfortable enough (or the right
"Would you like these?" and she handed the sandals over. His
bewildered little face was a picture as he stood and scratched
his nits. All he wanted was a chapatti. I
imagined the conversation
amongst the kids at Bubble-Nose HQ that night:
"You seen that English bird in town today?"
"Yeah- she's nuts, man! She gave us a f***ing
A banana! The cheeky cow!"
"That's nowt. She gave me these! I mean, Bata?!
F***ing Bata?! I'm not wearing f***ing Bata!! They're not even f***ing Reeboks,
man. She's off her head!!"
has never been a clause entitled "Acoustics" in the
specification of any Indian hotel, and our room at the Dreamland was next to the
staff dorm. At 5am next door they started, erm, "excavating".
Then they filled up their buckets like a team of a racehorses pissing in dustbins. And then they started
clearing their throats- which seems to be some kind of national sport.
It starts as a deep gagging sound- a bit like a supermodel fumbling with
her tonsils- and then finishes up with the feral wail of an live animal
having it's lungs pulled backwards through it's larynx. It went on for
an hour or so, and is truly a sound to be experienced, if not
appreciated. But at least it got us up on time. Meeting up at Great Escapes an hour or two later,
worryingly the goal
to have moved to another pitch. The guide I'd met a day earlier had "cramp"(?)
and had been replaced by another fella
While I was busy retying hooks, Lynneth busied herself catching some
little fellas from the clear water of the tributary behind. Chotu made
this one into a kebab and ate it.
with worms for trout in the
picturesque valley at Jibbi and expecting Hobbits to come
skipping down the path at any minute.
Ravi told me this was his first ever fish. Which I'd kind
of realised when he wound it through the rod rings and
onto the reel.
likely spot on the Beas that provided some action with Mahseer. That
is, before they opened the dam and the water level went up 6 feet in 6
hours. Ho hum again.
called Ravi, and our car had been
for a "Bolero", whatever that was. A feeling of deja
crawling under my skin as we trudged up the hill
with the supplies.
Not again, surely?
Trout. Bait. Nice.
the heck?!" The last thing I expected from a rapid on the other
side of the world.
At least it turned out that Ravi was a nice kind of bloke, as was Kaku
the driver, and the "Bolero" turned out to be a big 4x4 rather
than the roller-skate I'd began to expect. My pessimism remained
hovering just above break-even. It took us an hour to get out of the
town, since most of the time we seemed to be in reverse, but eventually
we were on the trail headed for Tattapani- first stop on the River
Sutlej. When I first saw the river about four hours later, I wondered
just what I was going to do with it. In the bottom of the valley an
ashen grey, rabid hooligan of a river blasted its erratic path down
towards the plains. It looked like it had not a care what stood in its
way, smashing itself against house-sized boulders, roaring rapids
swarmed over anything that had the temerity to be smaller than a car,
and the couple of eddies I could see resembled giant cement mixers.
Gulp. My initial awe gave away to respect- not just for the river, but
also the Mahseer. It was hard to see how anything could survive in the
cauldron- let alone hunt, feed or swim upstream against it to find a
spawning ground. Against those obstacles, they have to be truly
remarkable creatures. After calling in at the village to claim a bed for the
night, I grabbed some tackle, some lures and some atta and wandered off
down to do battle with the river. But where?
a few minutes of sitting with a ball of paste on the bottom in one of
the cement mixers, a little cluster of villagers had taken up residence
on top of the huge boulder behind me. As Ravi translated I found out
that (not for the first time) I was there at the wrong time of year,
that (scarily) the river was too low ("over rock best sir"
said Ravi as he patted next to his seat on the boulder some ten feet
above me), and that there were no Mahseer in the river at the moment,
with them all being a hundred miles away as the crow flies down at
Govind Sagar Reservoir. This was bad news indeed, but one of the younger lads,
Chotu, described a smaller, clear tributary some 25km away which held
"many many Mahseer". After a quick word, with Ravi as
mediator, the trip was on... yes, Chotu would take us all down into the
The Cowpoker dropped his reins and his overalls before pulling up one
of his prize steeds for a family photo- and
then sending them for a paddle under my rod tip.
Cowpoker's bubble-nosed kids helped out with the chilwa catching...
the next morning.
He waved goodbye with the words "tomorrow sir you are catching many
many Mahseer". I hoped so. I tried a couple of other spots without
success during the evening, and tried a few casts with some lures, but
the river was so fast it was impossible. A heavy spoon would hit the
water some 50 yards upstream and still only end up fishing the 10 yards
of margins down under my feet- usually spinning wildly on the surface
like a bent propeller. I figured it wasn't going to be a successful
presentation and soon tied a house brick back on the end. But fish
don't like house bricks either though.
wasn't hard to find in the next village the following morning, for he
had changed into his best clobber for his day out- shiny brand new red
Batas, clean jeans and luminous orange Adidas polo shirt. At least
mountain rescue wouldn't have any location problems if we ran into a
sticky patch. Soon he was directing Kaku up hill and down dale, and
after an hour of hairpins we eventually pulled up on the lip of what
appeared to be a ravine. Ahead of us a small bridge crossed it, and
Chotu leaned over the edge and pointed downwards. There in the pool
beneath were dozens of Mahseer, just milling about and waiting for
something to eat. None were massive, probably up to 12 pounds or so, but
it was more than enough to get me nicely fluffed up. Chotu spoke to the
hermit-like old fella living in the shack next to the bridge, and
permission was granted for us to wet a line in the river, so we slid
down the steep rock face and took up position some hundred feet down in
the bottom of the ravine. The fishing was great fun, with lots of
Mahseer falling to both bread and atta paste, and soon everyone wanted
in on the act with Wilko getting a fish or two, and Ravi, Kaku and Chotu
queuing up to have their picture taken. As is normal in India, a crowd
from the village soon began to gather on the bridge, and we finished up
with about thirty locals gasping in disbelief every time I returned one
of the Mahseer to the margins. Another old man joined the crowd and
after a minute or two he began ranting at Chotu, who to be fair gave him
as good as he got, and even though he explained that we were releasing
the fish unharmed and just wanted some pictures of them, apparently the
old fella was still convinced that once the fish had been hooked they'd
be unable to eat and would starve to death. The row kicked back and
forth for what seemed like a lifetime, and in the end we chucked in the
towel to keep the peace.
"Crazy man" muttered Chotu as we scaled the cliff face back to
the car, "but I am having another very
in turn helped out with the Mahseer catching down on the Beas.
Apologies for the pose, but the 3 inch split in the crotch of my shorts made
it necessary- and better than an explosion of man-veg across your
screen I'm sure.
place we can be trying. This place sometimes having Mahseer 20 kilo
"Chotu. Come on. Let's whip those snails..."
the walk to the next spot, we had to pass one of the most under-whelming
pilgrimage sites I've ever seen, The Shiva Cave (an accolade bestowed on
just about any crack in a rock in India)
where a little old saddhu and some Monkey bastards sat under a 20 watt
bulb taking donations
off anyone who happened to be passing (about 3 people a week). Finally
we found ourselves at the end of the tributary and its confluence with
Mummy Sutlej herself. It looked like a great spot, the murky grey waters
of the main river creating a clear divide with the sparkling waters of
the tributary, but unfortunately it was more full of snags than fish.
While I lost hook after hook on the boulder-strewn river bed, Lynneth
did manage to catch three small Mahseer from the tributary on tiny bits
of paste, Chotu asking to keep one of them to make into a kebab, before
we were finally forced to pack in by rapidly rising river levels
threatening to cut us off. Still, it was a pleasant day with several
fish landed in lovely surroundings, so I was quite content as the jeep
juddered back to Tattapani in the orange light of evening.
we were there in the wrong conditions for fishing the Sutlej (and the
fact it scared the shit out of me), we decided to press on in search of some kind of grail.
the bloke in the tour shop said we'd be going across the Himalayas by Jumbo...?!
driving drove us crazy.
Kaku explained; "100km in
takes 3 hour... 4 hour... 5 hour", and
we seemed to spend more time in the jeep
than on the bank. We'd be up and ready to go
at 5am, but Kaku got up at half seven. Then he'd spend most of
the day on the phone to his missus. I thought her name was
"Angie", but after a couple of days of "Angie...
Angie... Angie..." we found out he
was actually saying "haang jee", which basically means
"yes dear". Our man at Great
Escapes had written on one of my maps that on the Tirthan River
find chance of Mahseer more", but one of Ravi's contacts
confirmed that now we "could find chance of Mahseer
none" due to a recent shower of dynamite mysteriously
dropping into the river. And
so we phoned and we drove and we pissed about.... And then we
phoned and we drove...
and we pissed
Unfortunately, the week went mostly tits-up from this point
Very high and all that. But like a lot of India, it's only pretty if you keep looking
some more, and in the end
where we were going and what we were doing. His response was not
"I don't know sir. I am trekking guide, no fishing". Great.
The blind leading the blind, you could say.
We crossed the Jalori Pass, which at 3223 metres is by no means
a high one in Himalayan terms, but enough for me to have my
first brush with headaches and the early stage altitude
sickness. Luckily we soon dropped down into the
postman's off with stress again. The lardarse.
picturesque valley, which to be honest was one of the few
highlights of the week; first winding down through clouds and patches of
snow and moss covered, petrified looking trees, then the thick pine
forest and finally into the Garden of Eden that is Jibbi. Small stone and
timber buildings nestled in a verdant patchwork of orchards and fields bursting
with crops, and a crystal clear stream babbled its way through the floor
of the valley.
"Are there Mahseer in the river, Ravi?"
"No sir". Oh.
Still, I turned over some rocks in the garden, avoided the
scorpions (nice), collected a pot full of worms to have a little dabble down in
the stream, and caught a few of what Ravi informed me were "Brown
Trout sir", all the while expecting some Hobbits to come skipping
down the path at any moment.
the light of the day's events and Ravi's admission, there seemed to be no point in chucking good
money after bad, so I decided to
sack it off, get dropped off in the Kullu Valley at Manali, pay the boys
what was due and come up with a Plan X. "Please sir. We try one more place. Good place. Please!"
he pleaded. The poor bloke was obviously upset, and against my better
judgement I gave it one more chance. We ended up at a chai
shop just through the stinking 2km tunnel at Aut - the spot where the
Tirthan confluences the Beas - while Ravi ran
Rope Idol were auditioning in Manali.
his phone bill with some urgent negotiations.
we were hastily ushered back in the jeep and we set off back through the
tunnel and headed west, following the
down towards the dam at Pandoh. The river looked really uninspiring- like
a sedentary brown slug of a canal set in a high sided gorge, the heat haze
hanging off the top of the hills:
"Ravi, this looks crap", I noted.
"Ten kilometre more. Please trying sir".
As we approached Pandoh Dam, we encountered more evidence
that the beads, plastic temples and Ganesh stickers stuck on the front of
every vehicle in the name of road safety clearly donít work, as a bus
had smashed into an overhanging rock face at the side of the road,
completely crushing the whole front nearside of the vehicle and the roof
to about half way down the side. There must have been fatalities, and the
scene made us shudder as we crept past the wreckage and crowd gathered
around. Oh how we laughed and rolled our eyes on the bus journeys each
put our lives in the hands of another psychotic bus driver- but it was a
stark reminder that hitting anything at high speed in a bus is never
Pandoh, the river looked much fishier, the water pushing through the
dam and forced its way
above Dharamsala- a nice spot just above the trash line.
around in downtown Mcleod Ganj waiting for the Laughing Lama to put
in a public appearance.
down valley towards Pong Dam, and just a couple kilometres later I was actually thinking it could be worth
a try. White water rapids occasionally gave way to wide, clear blue pools,
and huge boulders littered the valley floor. I decided to give it a go.
While I mixed up some atta, I dropped out a small knob of bread flake on a
size 8 hook to see if I could pick up a chilwa or two. Resting it over a
took about 30 seconds to
take off, and I grabbed the rod just before it disappeared into the drink.
The 8 pound line screeched from
the spool, I ran down the sandy beach chasing after it before some fifty
yards down the river the hook came out. Bugger!
By the end of the
afternoon, I'd managed one small Mahseer of about 3 pounds on the atta, which caused
an inordinate amount of deep-joy for such a diminutive fish.
arrival. Another "what the f**k am I doing
whistled and cheered from his chill-out zone where he'd been smoking
himself to death up on the cliff, and Ravi woke up from his slumber on his
boulder for long enough to join in too. When Ravi's contact turned up and
explained that atta was no good, that we needed chilwa, and that dawn was the
best time, I'd had enough encouragement to give it another go the next
stayed in some shit-holes during our trip thus far, the derelict hell hole
in Paharganj and Shanti Lodge in Agra currently topping the list, but the
place in Mandi took it to a new level. Tiny, filthy and noisy, with
concrete floors, walls and ceilings, it did have a shower, but you needed
to squat over the toilet use it, and it did have a bed, which was like
sleeping in a trailer of onions such were the levels of comfort and smell.
The rickshaws also seemed to be coming through the window. Pretty rough. I
promised Lynneth I'd get up at 5am, fish until the heat hit 40, come back
for breakfast, and after that we'd be out of there.
managed to drag himself out of the pit at 5.30, and
while Ravi had a lay-in he dropped me off at the path down to the
river before heading off back to bed. It's
a dirty job... I'd mixed some atta with some shrimp paste,
unsure of the 'best before' date, but the tin looked like it had
probably been bought with war coupons,
I managed to arrange a fishing boat. The baling bucket
came as standard. But where's the sonar? The live well? The GPS?
caught a few 4 or 5 inch long Snow Trout from the
margins and decided to fish a couple of them in the pool. After
casting one right into a bit of white water forcing between a couple
of huge boulders, within a minute the rod doubled over and I found
myself attached to a very lively little number. After a fight
fraught with "don't lose the bugger" tension, a perfect
Mahseer of about 7 or 8 pounds splashed into the net. And I was
delighted with it- trust me, sometimes just catching one fish makes
and I dropped a dollop of it out in
the pool while I snatched a few chilwas.
First cast, the rod
pulled round and I found myself attached to some kind of fish.
Obviously not a Mahseer, I got a bit excited... could it be a new
species?! A Rohu? A weird type of catfish maybe? A couple of
minutes later a Common Carp of about 2 pounds flopped into my
landing net, the like of which there are millions in over-stocked
farm puddles throughout Britain. Not quite what I expected.
Pong Dam. The specks in the middle of the picture are
workers carrying out repairs. Yes,'tis a big 'un.
A Pongo Mahseer with the
lure that saved the day.
when you're a million miles from home and the wheels are coming
off on a daily basis! I even had another chance that morning, when another
chilwa got chomped and the rod lurched over my boulder, but somehow I
grabbed it and missed it, and wound in a limp, battered looking bait fish
a few seconds later. As I fished, a family of cow and goat herders made
their way up the valley and took up residence on the beach around me. The
bubble noses amused themselves by catching some chilwa for me and giggling
at their faces in the back of my camera, while the cows amused
themselves by taking a bath in my swim and crapping all over the beach.
All good fun.
Kaku picked me up at about 11 o'clock, I realised I had a diplomatic
problem. Mandi was crap, and Lynne was expecting to be out of town that
lunchtime. Thing is, I'd been teased enough to want to have another go on
the Beas. When I got back into the room, she was laid on the bed, rucksack
packed and all ready to go. A bad sign.
"Catch anything?" she asked.
Yeah. Erm, look, I reckon I'm gonna fish this evening, luv..."
Bless her, the look on her face said a thousand words, but she took the
news well, considering she was now consigned to another night of dhal and chapattis
and umpteen hours sweating in an onion basket. We
passed a tedious few hours cowering under the fan away from the heat,
before I left the room at half four on a bee line for the pool again, this
time accompanied by Ravi since he'd finished his lay-in by now. At
half six I was
back at the room. The dam had been opened and the Beas had risen about 6
feet in the previous 6 hours. The rocks where I'd sat in the morning were
now under water, and the river was a filthy brown torrent
full of detritus and impossible to fish. Tits up indeed. I finally threw in the
seemed there was a hotel serving beer in town and we decided to go up
there and drown some sorrows. Ravi wasn't so happy, and tried to put us
off: "Sometimes there people are drinking too much and getting with
fighting sir", he warned. But having negotiated the odd night out in
the likes of Bangkok, Cabo, L.A. and even
aquarium in the fishing lodge wasn't up to much.
Boat in Barrow-In-Furness, we decided to run the gauntlet for a couple of
pints and some kosher pork scratchings at the Raj Mahal in Mandi. The English beer
garden turned out to be a little oasis of calm in the end, and the only
thing ominous about it was the buzzing mobile phone tower looming overhead from
next door. I wondered whether all the headgear on show were really
turbans or bandages?
After another Parantha breakfast, we finished our
tour early with a 6 hour drive up to Manali, conducted in deafening
silence, the in-car ambience improved none
by the thunderous skies and lashing rain we ran into the further we got up
the Kullu Valley. Ravi and Kaku were actually good blokes, so after paying
them what was due thus far, we shook hands and said our goodbyes- the boss
man at Great Escapes should never be putting them forward as fishing
guides though, the arse.
of Manali? The lovely snow-capped mountains and visiting a Tibetan Gompa
up on a hillside to find a bit of silence for the first time in
was running about in my bed at Pong
Dam. I'm not much of an entomologist (I know it's got more than six legs
though), but something told me
it probably wasn't friendly.
Yak Butter Tea- probably the worst
drink in the world. Shocking. We did a little hiking up either side of the
Beas, and one day wandered for miles to find some desolation amongst the
snowy peaks and pine trees of the Solang Valley, but instead found dozens
of holidaying Indian families bouncing down the hill in Zorb Balls, which was quite a surprise.
On the whole, as long as you keep looking up and ignore the litter,
Old Manali is a nice place to hang out a while, and the Nepalese fellas
running our guesthouse were perhaps the friendliest people you could ever
meet. We left with optimism and batteries re-charged, though by
the time we'd finished the 10 hour overnight bus drive to Mcleod
Ganj, they'd been flattened again.
Ganj is the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, and as such its a nice kind
of town (as they go) of Buddhist Monks mingling with the beggars and
backpackers amongst the Tibetan trinket stalls. Lynneth
wanted to learn a bit about it all, and being such an avid culture vulture
I just wanted to go fishing again (I really must get a proper hobby).
Because of various tales people like Chotu told me about all the Mahseer
being downstream at the dams at this time of year, I put together a
half-baked solo-project to try and find my way down into the Punjab and
see if I could finally find a few fish in Maharana Pratap Sarovar, or,
nowadays, "The Dam Attractively Known As Pong".
painstakingly worked out my route with a highlighter pen to randomly take
in all the best names on my map: a taxi down the hill to Dharmashala, then
the bus to Kangra via Gallog, then change bus to get to Jawalmunghi. The
driver on this leg of the trip was the ultimate in badge candidates for
"No Fear of The Year", and he had me praying for the next uphill
section, because it'd stop him going flat out. Painted on the door next to
his seat, was the word "Pilot"- clearly aspirational- and
somewhat ironically on the back of the lumpy seat in front of me was a
strategically targeted sticker advertising "GO-PAK; for both types
of piles (bleeding/non-bleeding)", which I thought was a sympathetic
touch. Teetering vainly on every hairpin were some incredibly helpful and informative road safety/marriage
counselling tips, like:
We had a
glass of Fanta with a nice Tibetan family at their house while they took dozens
of photos of their trophy friends from England
and their kids stared at us. There was some great food in the form of Hot &
Sour Chilli and Chicken Soup, and finding out the big positive influence of
Israeli backpackers turns out to be cheese toasties and pizza. There was
some terrible food in the shape of Tibetan Mutton Thupka,
a kind of
veg/noodle soup where the cook has hacked his knuckles into it with a
machete. And if you can imagine floating a spoon full of Lurpak in a milky
emulsion of PG Tips and Bisto, then you
India went nuts when Richard Gere launched himself at Shilpa
Shetty on the telly, but Papa Smurf was probably keeping his head
down as well.
you are married divorce your speed!" and "Dear I like you
but not your speed!", but our driver was clearly either divorced,
illiterate or myopic- or all three. Nevertheless,
once more the laws of physics seemed to count for nothing in these parts, and as we screeched to a halt in a pall of dust I
kicked my dirty luggage off the steps of the bus, checked for missing
limbs and blew my umpteenth sigh
Jawalmunghi onwards, the driver was a much saner sort, and he took me
under his wing for the rest of the journey. And this was very good,
because for hours and hours we rattled down the dusty, pot-holed lanes, and
I had no real idea where the bus was heading as the
surroundings became more and more remote looking by the mile. For a while
I really felt that I was travelling to the ends of the earth- or failing that,
it could have been Pakistan. We passed through tiny villages like Dehra which felt
like they hadn't been inflicted with a visit from a farang since Partition judging by the inquisitive
stares at every stop, and eventually we "shot through" the
quaintly named Dhalaria (I shit you not). That I remember for two
reasons- the first being that it sounds like a condition most backpackers
get the minute they touch tarmac (and therefore cloth) in India, and the other being
that it was home to the only reference to recycling I'd seen in all the
weeks in the sub-continent when I saw on the front of a small shop the
words "Pure Pet Recycling" in big yellow letters, which
was kind of disconcerting for an animal lover. After seeing the back of
Chintpurni and Sansapur, finally the tin crate wheezed to a halt in the
middle of another similar looking little town called Talwara and my
friendly driver gestured that the next place we stopped would be
Pong Dam. At last, the nine hour epic was nearly over. As the crow flies
(assuming it has both wings), Mcleod Ganj was just a mere one hundred kilometres
the time I shook hands with Mr Driver at the military checkpoint at the
north end of the dam, the sky had turned to graphite and a hooligan of a
gale was blasting straight down the lake, and as the guards looked at me
with some curiosity, I stood and gazed at the wild expanse of white horses
stretching to the horizon. The first splatters of rain hit my head as I
loaded up my monster pack. I turned back and looked at the lake. Yup, it
was bad. "How the f*** am I supposed to find a fish
in that lot" was about as positive as I could come up with. Other
than the guards the place was deserted, and half a dozen of them stared at
me intently as I wondered where the hell I was even going to sleep.
I'd also figured that there would be a village somewhere near where I
could bag a bit of dhal and a chai or something, but I'd got that
assumption wrong and as things stood it looked like I'd got a packet of
Wrigley's, 6 Ritz crackers and a litre of water to last me the next four
or five days. Things have looked better.
down at the dam, and suddenly things are going just fine.
despite all the khaki and guns, the guards were a pretty helpful bunch
once they realised my tube held rods and not mortars, and they gave directions to a "watersports centre" not so far away round the
corner. Somehow, between the couple of fellas at the ancient looking
office there who spoke not a word of English, and myself who speaks not a
word of anything, I managed to buy a ticket to fish the lake, rent a bed
in the fishing lodge for a little more than a quid a night, and by careful
use of hand signals and scribbles possibly even secure the use of a boat
at some point the next day? To this day I'm still not really sure how it
happened, but it did!
watersports centre was hardly Holme Pierrepont, but there was a bunch of
school kids from Jammu there with their teachers staying in the hall next
door on a 10 day intensive course on how to use a kayak, and a more polite
bunch it was hard to imagine. I got a lift back into Tarwala on a 5 rupee
bus to get some more water and supplies, then got a lift back again, and
settled into "my lodge", feeling slightly weirded-out by the
collection of fish in formaldehyde in the lounge area and the musty smell of
moths that'd been dead since 1947, as the howling wind whistled and
clattered through the loosely shut windows. Once I was in, the kids
became my constant companions, as they each took it in turn to have an
audience and ask the same questions: "From which country is it you
are from sir?", "What is your good name sir?" and
"What is your good profession sir?", before thanking me and
letting the next one take his turn! Kindly one of the teachers invited me
to join them for their meal, and I gratefully accepted, mainly cos it
seemed rude not too, and this promptly turned into a routine for each meal
time. It took an age to get to sleep in the "suite" that evening as the wind
wailed through the gaps in the windows and I wondered what the lake held
for me in
the morning. When I finally did nod off the only thing to stir me were
the cockroaches that ran across my arms and face a couple of times during the
night- always a favourite.
5am I was chucking some lures around along the bank down from the lodge,
but the wind was still howling and I saw no sign of life- and no sign of a
bloke with a boat. I spent a boring day waiting for the wind to drop, and
when it finally did in the evening, it coincided with the arrival of the bloke
from the office who gestured I should follow him. So
I had a boat after all...
Hmmm... about 8 feet long, a couple of planks
lashed to sticks for oars and six inches of water sloshing around in the
bottom. Not quite what I'd hoped, but it'd have to do. I nodded hello to
another fella, office man left, and we baled out. I then sat on the seat
which duly split in half and dumped me on my arse on the deck. I
apologised profusely and we set sail into the
deep blue yonder. Thing is, I found out my lures just weren't small
enough- my friend on the oars suggested it with a head wobble, and the fact that as the light
failed the Mahseer were chasing fry around everywhere while I couldn't
raise so much as a smile seemed to confirm it. When the same thing
happened the next dawn, and the next evening, I realised I had a small
fella with a Singhada catfish that sucked up my legered chilwa.
In fact I had two,
the other one being that after evening meals
the kids kept insisting I join them for "happy dancing". I'd
been putting it off, but knew I wouldn't be able to stay bolted in
the room for ever. This particular evening, under a press-gang of half a dozen
small children I folded under the pressure and agreed to join them and their
CD player out on the veranda.
first I needed to address the lure issue. I tipped my tackle box out on
the table in the lodge and spread it out. And there, in the middle of it
all, was a small metal jig, a couple of inches long, slim and bright pink
in colour. It was the smallest thing in there, and as close as I had to
fry shaped. With crossed fingers it'd just have to do. I then spent the
rest of the evening surrounded by a scrum of kids elbowing each other out
of the way to throw their best shapes at me, while I hopped from one
foot to another, wobbled my head and unscrewed an imaginary light bulb.
I thought I did ok for a lardy middle aged bloke with an arthritic knee and no
coordination, but others may mark it differently.
it turned out, the little pink number saved the day. Just after first
light the leaking dinghy was paddled into position just down from the dam,
and as the roving hoards of Mahseer sprayed schools of tiny baitfish in
all directions, I fired the jig right in amongst them. The first two fish
I caught were foul hooked little chilwa on consecutive casts- not quite
the expected, but most welcome! I kept them alive in the baling bucket
"Mine's a 69er
gauntlet's down for a game of Mahseer Conkers.
fishing photo... Sometimes Nikon's "Full Auto Mode" just
up a paternoster on the spare rod. Within minutes of it being dropped out,
the Baitrunner whizzed to life and I found the bait had been ripped from
the hooks. Bugger. So I replaced it with the remaining bait and put it
back in the same spot while I continued throwing the jig in amongst
panicking bait fish. A few minutes later, as I retrieved the lure at
speed, something nobbled it aggressively and I found myself having a
run-around with my first Pong Dam Mahseer. The fish zipped around and
stripped several yards of the 10lb line off the reel, and I just prayed it
wouldn't fall off. It didn't, and (rather sadly) I punched the air with
delight as about 3lbs of fish dived head first into the landing net and yet
again I practiced the art of disproportionate celebration. My boatman
gestured that he wanted to eat it, I shook my head and handed him my
camera (see picture left!) before releasing it. He looked very upset, but
when I mentioned the internationally recognised idiom of
"baksheesh" he brightened considerably. He brightened even more
when minutes later the Baitrunner on the chilwa rod clicked into life and
a rather manky looking Singhada catfish was wound to the boat, with gobs
of mucus dripping from its flanks. He held it up for a photo, and I did
the eating gesture to him- at which my man
to Buddha HQ.
and wobbled his head before dropping it on the deck. And thus
the spell was broken. I caught another Mahseer that morning on the jig
before the sun came up and the lake went dead as if a switch had been
flicked, and after that at each dawn and each dusk I'd catch another fish or
two- all on the little pink jig. The biggest would only have been 5 or 6
pounds, but having made the journey out there and been initially intimidated
by the wild vastness of the lake, every single spot of action was gratefully
received. If I ever go again I'll be taking a tub full of tiny spoons and
jigs cos nothing else raised so much as a follow!
middle part of the days were spent fielding questions from the kids, one
after the other, and at night times I was always invited to sit and eat with
them, before being bullied into another Bollywood Boogie Night, of course.
All so very kind, and I've never had so many people want to be my friend! On
the final evening I decided to go back into Talwara and buy some goodies to
say thanks for all their generosity. This involved the soldiers at the dam
"hijacking" one of the many knackered looking lorries for a lift
into town, via a massive Sikh fella with a huge luminous orange turban, wild, staring eyes and
a furry white beard down to the middle of his chest. I
then got lost, bought the goodies,
missed the last bus
and then had to pay about ten times the going rate for a drive back to the
dam. In fact, so happy was the driver that he invited a couple of mates to come
for the ride as well- after stopping at the English Wine Shop for a bottle
of whisky and a pack of fags so they could all celebrate the size of his
fare properly. I was then driven round the lake for half an hour (as they
passed round the booze & fags) until I was wondering if I'd actually
been kidnapped. It turned out all they were doing was avoiding going through
the dam checkpoint because they'd have had to hand over a fat wedge of
rupees for having a foreigner in the car. I was relieved when they finally
dropped me off at the top of the lane down to the lodge. At least the kids
and teachers seemed to appreciate the sentiment, I guess.
leaving on the final morning I managed another couple of Mahseer on the
magic jig, then said a dozen goodbyes and headed to the checkpoint to wait
for a bus to come. The soldiers hurriedly ushered me aboard a bus they'd
flagged down; "Best way, best way, sir!", and just two stops and
five hours later I was back looking for Lynne in Mcleod Ganj. Easy as that.
What I was doing spending nine hours on a bus to get there I will never know.