Dr Malleeka Bora, MD: Once in a while, right in the middle of an achingly human story,mired in quotidian details, life gives us some tectonic moments- moments which leave one feeling all the more blessed and accomplished. Such was one life-changing trek we undertook- the one to the Dzukou Valley somewhere in the month of July 2018. The sleepy monsoons had seeped in and we ( my husband Nitu and I ) had nothing much to do aside from our run of the mill jobs and monsoon inspired catnaps. So we planned a trekking trip to Dzukou Valley with two of our friends.
The designated day arrived and we, on one wet morn of July hopped on into our car to hit the roads. Intending to use Zakhama in Nagaland as our jumping-off point for the trek, we hurtled towards our last to-be port of call for that day- Zakhama. Guwahati to Kohima (capital of Nagaland) is 355 kilometres and it took us around 9 hours to reach Kohima. Thereafter following NH 39 , we had to traverse a span of another 16 kilometres or so to finally reach Zakhama, where we had booked our respective camps.
The wonderful Mr George, who was the owner of the campsite at Zakhama, had our camps already laid out and suited to our needs. Thus we had to bear no qualms or travail in pain in the painstaking activity of camp-setting and simply slithered into them lazily, as it was already nightfall by the time we gained the campsite ridge. Further to satiate our gargantuas appetites after a long, hard day, we also had Naga traditional cuisine served at the campsite which we gutted down voraciously. We settled in early for the night as we had a big day ahead of us the following morning- our much contemplated Dzukou trek.
Quietude reigned the hamlet of Zakhama when we woke up from our slumbers at 6 am. An incessant drizzle hammered the already wet monsoony earth. After gorging sufficient portions of carb-laden nutriments which we had hoped would pass muster with the arduous ascent, we started off for the trek. We were already juggling with our bags packed with essentials, when Mr George , with a chuckle, nudged and adding to our pangs, put some energy bars, fruit juices and bananas , chortling“ You will need them”. We just sniggered not knowing at the moment how much grateful we would be to him later for the additional weightage in our bags.
There are 3 ways to reach the Dzukou Valley- the trek from Zakhama is steep and demanding yet shorter whereas the trek from Vishwema is relatively easy yet longer. Also it can be reached from Mount Tempü of Senapati District of Manipur. This new 5 hour trek was opened by MMTA( Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association) only recently.
A motorable road runs for 3-4 kilometres through forests of bamboo and deodar before the ascent from Zakhama starts. The end of this motorable road marks the start of a trail so steep that it would remain forever etched in our memories. At the very onset, the trekking path is a narrow dirt road with uneven stones, pebbles and slush pools. There’s a stream and the trail scales towards the left spur along the stream for about a kilometre or so. Chasing this left bank will, in the fullness of time lead to a tiny hovel for a little rest. A water tap lays installed by the Nagaland Government here; where one can have a drink of water and refill their flasks. After an ultrashort power- break , we continued walking along the left of the stream when we noticed that we had reached the starting point of our steep-stone uphill trail. The uphill trail ran for an approximate 5-6 kilometres from here to the passageway into the Dzukou Valley.
An irregular drizzle spat on the plats of forest grounds making us all the more tentative and chary in stepping onto the hewn moss-strewn stones. Thanks to our plastic capotes that served as raincoats and fielded us from the drizzle. Braving the sitch, we took the plunge and headed for the stones laden with moss and soused with rain water. At certain places, the trail got so precipitous and vertiginous that we needed to get down on all fours. Also on occasions, there were not even the slightest sign of any track and we had to literally crawl through muddy knolls and stony wodges to carve our course. To my utter surprise, our guide seemed to be in a different world altogether- he simply romped around, as if gambolling in leisure. Gasping and out of breath, we reached an old dilapidated shed where we rested ourselves, massaged our feet, cozied our dog-tired legs on the remnants of a little fire the previous group of trekkers who went ahead of us had enkindled and chomped on energy bars and bananas. Munching on the energy bars, I whimpered in my mind “God bless Mr George”, as my body wreathed in pain , attempting a skittish smile. We met another group of trekkers in that shed who were making a descent from the Dzukou Valley, giving us hopes of “Utopia” on the other end- the need of the hour for us- as I was on the verge of renouncing my mount. That is the beauty of meeting sanguine trekkers, ain’t it? Their momentum and optimistic outlook on life keeps you going. The rest of the mount till the passageway to the Dzukou is an onerous affair on narrow, steep but well-balanced stone steps.
Although tired and wasted, yet our eyes were relishing a nature banquet. Gushing streams, overgrown bushes, tall trees and a myriad of jungle flora did us good. Much to our horror, we had to cross two streams- one big and one small, with torrents of water racing down in series of cascades over big slippery stones. Those of you looking for adventure can shoot the rapids but we were in no humour for any stunts at the moment. Under our guide’s firm tutelage, we somehow managed to cross the streams.
Our visions were at times obscured by the tall, overgrown canopies of oak, chestnut, maple, birch and bamboo. Eventually we broke through to a resting point near a stream and savoured natural chilled water which we also filled our flasks with. 5 long hours into the trek and we, huffing and puffing, dragged our limbs and somehow managed to trudge around 5000 hewn moss-strewn stones. As we reached the top where the passageway provided ingress into the Dzukou Valley, a smile of victory loomed large in each of our weary visages. But life still didn’t get any easier because this was where Dzukou started but the main valley was still another 2 hours walk away.
The floating clouds seemed to greet us into the valley. This trekking path – i.e. the ingress into the Dzukou had been carved out of sloping hills. Lush green hills emerged on each side with swathes of bamboo straddling across a small stream coursing through the valley. However in this haven of beauty, there was soon a hint of trouble, when we learned that we had to cross around 7 hills by the side on a narrow muddy and slippery track. After walking 2 to 3 hours at a stretch through the bamboo thickets, charred logs and dense forest lands, we went crazy as we neared the last leg of our trek. Our guide couldn’t resist a chuckle or two when we slipped, fell and got up most ungracefully as we coursed through the muddy, slippery track. At last we were on the home stretch and the last few metres were monumental as our legs went next to “flying” insanely. Finally we caught a glimpse of the rest house. We relievingly scampered in like overgrown pups and raced to the rest house.
Evening had already invaded the Valley as we reached the rest house. The rest house was no manoir, but for us, it was a luxury in the midst of nowhere. This was a basic rest house overlooking the valley with a large dormitory where people slept on the floor (a bit too communal with practically no privacy cut-offs) and barebone amenities, a cook and some maintenance staff. Only limited electricity from solar light was available and there was no question of any mobile network or internet. I presume there were two or three private rooms too with wooden planks for beds which one could procure with a little extra hard cash. The dorm costed us around 50 bucks per person with extra charges for sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. With proper gear, one could however also choose to camp in the valley after paying a certain amount of entry fee. We witnessed many a camps set up in and around the valley surrounding the rest house.
As our clothes were covered in dirt and were wet from the rains, we ran towards the bathroom. Our expected “dry”clothes inside our bags were also somewhat wet, but we decided to change into them whatsoever. The lavatory and the bath were in ultra barebones with just two toilets and one bathroom. There was a small reservoir for water with a bucket made out of cheap leather. One needed to hoard water in the buckets and carry them to the bath or lavatory.
After freshening ourselves, we went to the kitchen which had a fireplace to warm up ourselves. Although it was the month of July, the valley was bitterly cold. We imagined what the winters would be like when mercury plummets below zero and waterbodies freeze and grimaced at the thought. Cups of piping hot tea and boiled Maggi faintly zapped our gelidity. Soon it was dark and by around 7 pm, plain rice and dal followed suit which we relished with utter contentment. Food here is slightly overpriced as they have to carry everything from the foothills. We then laid down to rest in the dorm expecting to be surrounded by greenery the next morning as it was already pitch dark to see anything now. The night was cold and windy and the iron sheets on the roof of the dorm made a racket while we slept.
We woke up at 5 am and were walloped by a clean, fresh morning zephyr. The green dunes of the Dzukou outshone with natural prowess. Rhododendrons of every possible hue adorned the valley. Small insects and birds chirped adding to the natural aura. A helipad can be seen from the rest house which is used sparsely by VIPs coming to Dzukou.
The Dzukou Valley is the bottom of a large caldera of an extinct volcano. Standing at 8000 feet or 2452 meters above the sea level, it straddles the borders of Nagaland and Manipur in North East India. Situated behind the Japfu peak, it is watered by Dzukou and Japfu rivers. The word “Dzukou” is derived from the Vishwema dialect of the Angami Nagas which means “dull and soulless”. Lore has it that the ancestors of Vishwema, in search of new pastures, entered Dzukou, but on account of unfavourable weather conditions were unable to harvest crops- hence bestowing the aforementioned name.
The real Dzukou Valley is about another 2 to 3 kilometres hike down from the rest house bypassing the helipad. So we, after having our morning cups of tea, set off for this trail from the rest house. A plethora of perennials and annual flowers were spotted blooming as we passed through this trail. There were a few caves towards the bottom of the vast caldera of the valley. The rest of the trek was a relatively arduous one with just single log pieces for bridges over streams flowing from the Dzukou river and is likely to raise few eyebrows. But somehow we braved the situation at hand and reached the other side of a larger stream. The other side proved to be a cornucopia of sorts as here we spotted our much cherished “Dzukou Lily” or “Shirui Lily” ( scientifically known as Lilium Chitrangadae). We were admiring and clicking pictures of the lily and the majestic valley when the rains started trickling; so without much delay but with profound reluctance, we started to retrace our steps back to the rest house. Hiking back was tough on us as we were without any proper meal and we sort of dragged ourselves to the rest house, wet as fish.We dried up ourselves in the kitchen’s fireplace, savoured a bowl of Maggi each and set off for our return downward descent back to our campsite at Zakhama, although extremely bone-tired and dead-beat.
We were leaving the valley but we were to take those lush green lingering tales of the beauty of the valley with us to the world. This valley is a test of endurance and forbearance besides being a sanctum of natural bounty. A Naga localite told us that as per a ‘Mao’ legend- when lovers go to Dzukou Valley together, the moonlight shines as of the sun. Nitu and I however do not know whether something like that really transpired; but something amazing did actually happen in our lives- we learnt a lesson in love with fortitude and our love for Dzukou Valley outshone even the sun.
See you around Dzukou!!!
Photo | Dr. Nitu Deka