I barely remember the first few hours of the drive. I was diving in and out of a disturbed sleep, hoping our journey had ended. You see, I detest drives on hill roads. Yet, here I was, on the first leg of a Himalayan photo tour offered by Rudra Experiences, making our way to Gagar near Nainital, where we were to spend our first night.
A bunch of litchis and a bag of boiled sweets broke the ice in the car. Soon we were chattering away about something we had in common: a lack of knowledge about taking photographs with DSLRs. A friend had lent me his Nikon 5800 with two lenses (an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm), a polariser and a UV filter, for the trip. I had no idea how to use any of the equipment I was carrying. And I was petrified that I would drop and break the camera. To which my friend had very kindly said, “If you slip and fall, shout and throw the camera to the person closest to you, or hold the camera with one hand and break your fall with the other!”
“Dude, we don’t photograph the subject. We photograph light.” Our mentor, Anurag Jetly, master photographer and mad hatter, had started his first class with his proclivity for hard talk. We were on the upper deck of Soulitude in the Himalayas, with great views of the Panchachuli and Trishul peaks, and the Pindari glacier. We had arrived at the mist-covered property just in time for lunch: rajma, rice and mutton curry.
Over cups of steaming chai, we discussed the three techniques that would be our primary focus during the trip—timelapses, panoramas and strobist. One of Anurag’s cameras was already taking photographs at short and equal intervals, which would soon come to be the first timelapse of the trip. That evening, we got to know one another over drinks and dinner in front of angeethis on the front lawn.
The wind made my hair dance as we drove out in a Thar the next afternoon towards Chaukori, where we were to stop for lunch. Lunch at KMVN, beneath a tree, was a classy affair, just like everything else that Maharaj I.S. Wahi, the proprietor of Rudra, had organised.
Drowsy and stuffed, we set off for Kausani, closer to the Panchachuli peaks than Gagar. The peaks were still shrouded in mist. The road followed the course of the Ramganga river for several kilometres. We took a long break on the rocky banks, where a mini-class taught us to keep our cameras on ‘aperture priority’. We also experimented with ISO settings while clicking the play of shadow and light on the mountains in front of us, and the water in which we were wading.
It took us five hours to get to The Buransh in Kausani. Owned and operated by photographer Threesh Kapoor, it’s a place where photography enthusiasts and art lovers can meet to share their work. We were to spend the next two nights there. We were still out of luck, though: the peaks were covered by dense clouds.
Our second lesson was held in the main lobby of The Buransh, a large room with several ceiling-to-floor windows that let in loads of natural light in the daytime. We were taking panoramas and 360° shots of the room. The camera was mounted on a tripod on to which a panorama head was mounted, and it was manually turned after each shot was taken. We would stitch the images together to form the shot the next day. Now, it was time for our evening drinking session, which coincided with a timelapse of the sky as the moon rose.
Early next day, we headed out for our nature walk, climbing up steep slopes and steps cut into the mountainside. The walk back was even tougher. Back at The Buransh, after a breakfast of puri-chhole and glasses of buransh (rhododendron juice), we settled down to learn about editing photographs. A couple of us transferred our images to Anurag’s laptop and he taught us how to work with Adobe Photoshop’s Lightroom. Our drab photographs were infused with vibrant colours as Anurag worked on them. Soon we were working on the images ourselves.
After lunch, we set off to the temple complex on the banks of the Gomti at Baijnath. Here, we were told to focus only on candid portraits. A game of hide-and-seek ensued, with each of us trying to capture the others unawares. It was a scorching afternoon and once back in the hotel, we decided to call it an early night.
Next day, we set off for Munsiyari, the base camp for those undertaking the Pindari glacier trek. The vegetation was sparse and the temperature chilling. Nine long hours of counting bends later, we arrived at the KMVN, where we were to spend the next two nights. That night was the best we had on the trip. A bonfire was lit for us on the lawn and we sat around it drinking rum and cola.
Another early morning. Another trek. We were trudging up a stone walkway to Maheshwari Kund. It was the toughest walk I had ever undertaken. But the weather was amazing and the company more so. We went on and on, climbing higher and higher until I decided I had had enough. So, Anurag and I went off the walkway and climbed up the steep mountainside, zigzagging our way up. There were several moments when I thought I would fall to the nothingness below, but Anurag guided me through them all. I realised that my fear of the mountains had ended the moment I had stepped off the track! We arrived at a beautiful meadow where wild horses were grazing, went into a forested area and found ourselves in a clearing that had a beautiful lake. Mesmerised by the surroundings, I broke into a jig.
The mountain peaks lifted their veils the next day as we were about to leave Munsiyari. How do I describe that stunning feeling of joy that coursed through our veins as we stood in a row, our eyes fixed on the Panchachuli? Each peak was visible for split seconds as the clouds drifted around them. We quickly pulled out our cameras and clicked away.
The mood was much lighter as we drove to Binsar. The heavens came down on us as we drove up to our accommodation for the night at the Mary Budden Estate, and we ran in rainsoaked. We spent the evening in our cottage’s common room and sat down to the best meal of the trip—a delicious salad, lasagna, baked chicken and chocolate cake.
The next morning , the mood was sombre. I had spent the last six days with a wonderful group of people and we had become closer than friends. I don’t have words to describe what the six-day trip gave me, but I’ll try. Yes, I learnt how to shoot and edit photographs with a DSLR, but that was planned. What wasn’t was that I would get over my fear of the hills and drop all my inhibitions and body image issues. I climbed that mountain with a bunch of strangers who I now count as my closest friends.
Rudra Experiences (www.rudraxp.com) offers a range of curated holidays over landscapes as diverse as Rajasthan, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. Their next 7N/8D Himalayan Photo Odyssey tours to Kumaon (Rs 96,500 per person) depart 24 January, 12 February and 4 March 2016.