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Scaling new heights

“I think I’m ready to attempt to meet Aung San Suu Kyi,” I said exultantly after negotiating the Burma Bridge — a precarious crossing made of knotted ropes, strung between two high trees. The Japanese army had used such bridges to ford streams and rivers when they invaded Burma.

“To meet her, I think you’ll have to cross tougher hurdles,” retorted Brigadier H.S. Nagra, challenging me to scale the next obstacle — a parallel rope bridge. In this exercise, two ropes were strung high parallel to each other, and one had to walk sideways on one rope, holding the other chest high with one’s hands.

Balking at the sight — we were, after all, 6,020ft above sea level on the slope of a hill — I swiftly declined, preferring to stand by and watch as my 13-year old daughter made the crossing with deft efficiency. My husband, too, managed — though he thrashed about rather perilously in the middle of the bridge. “Bums out, push your chest forward,” barked the Brigadier, shouting instructions to help him out of a tight spot.

We were in picturesque Barog at the Pine Hills Eco Camp, run by two retired army officers, and trying their obstacle course. This involved tight rope walking, monkey crawls, Tarzan swings and clambering over rope ladders. Of course, there was a comfortable cushion of pine leaves beneath every obstacle and people standing guard.

But I was not even remotely vying to be a candidate for Fear Factor. The scenic locale, the charm magnified by the swirling mists, and the fresh pine-scented air were adrenaline fixes enough. It was hard to believe that such a lovely, untouched pine forest existed so close to the Kalka-Shimla highway.

What’s more, it even met my family’s dissimilar requirements for a short break — while my husband wanted to go to a quiet hill town where it would be bracingly cold, I, with my history of motion sickness, refused to go any place involving too much hill driving. My daughter was not all that keen on seclusion — she wanted a place with plenty of activities.

Set up this May, the Camp is the brainchild of Maj. General Harwant Krishan, who with his old army buddy Brigadier Nagra, ventured into eco tourism after retirement. After prospecting many locations, they hit upon the Chunjri Reserve Forest in Barog, just 90 minutes from Chandigarh.

From the moment we made our bookings, we were overwhelmed by the military-like planning of the duo. The General called us several times en route to check our progress, and discuss lunch arrangements. Thanks to his directions, we didn’t miss the dirt track that leads off the highway at Barog into Chewa village. Boys were posted to receive us at the last motorable point — the village school — and help us carry our luggage up the winding hill path into the camp.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that even in this wilderness, our tent was spacious and luxurious, boasting an attached toilet with hot and cold water. The fauji touches were evident in the Naga spears adorning the tent’s ceilings.

Lunch was at the large central Machan — a delicious three-course meal, and with the hill air giving us hearty appetites, we overate. Replete, we would have liked a snooze in the hammocks strung outside our tent, but laziness was clearly not encouraged at this camp.

Instead, we were taken on a tour to get acquainted with the facilities — these included the obstacle course, a small croquet lawn, basketball hoops, archery, rifle shooting and a viewpoint at the top of the hillock. Here, logs were being readied for the evening bonfire, and the makeshift bar stocked up. “On a clear night, you can see the twinkling nights of Chandigarh from here — it’s a view that gives you goosebumps,” said Brig. Nagra. Unfortunately, the mists obscured our view.

Later, as we just lounged outside our tents, the two veterans again prodded us out of slothfulness. They urged us to go for a walk around the hill, literally pushing us onto the circular trail.

Rather recalcitrantly we set off with Bunty, the young lad appointed as our guide. But, as we rounded the hillock, all our grumpiness vanished for growing wildly under the pine trees was a lush carpet of white flowers. The tall mountains silhouetted in the distance, curling mists in front, the green of the pines and the white of the flowers made for a breathtaking sight. To complete our idyll, Bunty whipped out a flask of tea and some snacks. Sitting on a convenient rock, contentedly sipping tea, we watched a noisy tree pie gliding from tree to tree.

Bunty told us that on a good day Kasauli and Dakshai are visible from this hill. He pointed to a tall peak opposite called Paanch Mundian (named so because it has five little peaks). Those who come for a three-day stay at the camp are taken on a trek to this peak.

A chilly nip was creeping into the air by now and the thought of the bonfire was inviting. The evening passed all too quickly, as the boys, prodded by Subedar Major Suraj Bahadur, the able camp administrator, sang some lilting Nepali and pahari tunes.

We also learnt that for those seeking more diversions than the camp offered visits could be packed in to the Bon Monastery on the Solan-Rajgarh route, about 45 minutes away. One could also go to Subathu, a nearby military cantonment, which the British had initially prospected as their summer capital, before choosing Simla. A short distance from the camp, the Barog Railway Station, is also worth a dekko, especially if timed when the train is steaming in.

But we were quite content to stay put here. In the morning, in typical military style, we were woken up with a bugle call. Unwilling to exert myself anymore, I spent the remainder of our stay learning how to play croquet and trying my hand at archery and rifle shooting.

Although my daughter tried hard to persuade us to prolong our stay here — to her thrill the two army officers had given her a prize for completing all the obstacles — we had to leave. “We will be back soon,” we promised. After all, there was the Paanch Mundian that still had to be conquered!

Ready reckoner

Getting there: Barog is 60km from Chandigarh airport and lies on the Shimla-Kalka highway. It can also be reached from Shimla and Kalka by train.

Staying there: The Pine Hills Eco Camp offers tented accommodation with meals and camp activities. Visit http://www.pinehillsecocamp.com/index.php for details.

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