The new day was slowly waking up to a gorgeous misty morning, in the mountain town of Yelagiri. The monsoon dew hung festively amidst the July sunshine, stirring a perfect weather, to trek up the ranges of this remote hill station in South India. I’m not an early morning bird, but there was something in the air that triggered a natural alarm, and I was all set to conquer ‘Swamimalai’, the highest point amongst the numerous lush green peaks that loom majestically over Yelagiri.
The first stretch of the trek was a smooth starter. The trees that adorn the peak seemed to be deep in meditation, instantly leaving the trekker in a state of blissful trance. The chirping of the mountain birds sounded like the chanting of mantras, creating an aura of natural divinity. It had been ages since I had some real physical exercise, and this seemed like the perfect place to rejuvenate my body and soul. Soon enough though, my lack of fitness caught up with me, and I could climb no more.
The trekking path was a mix of rugged steps of stone, and stretches of slanting pieces of land in between. I had reached a little clearing with an upturned log that served as an interval, between the two portions of the journey. I was panting for breath, and was gulping down what seemed like gallons of water in a small bottle, when two forest officials passed my path. After exchanging a hasty smile, I realised they were in a hurry. I just found enough energy to ask them where they were headed, and back came a whispering voice, ‘mountain marathon.’ I presumed that a group of professional athletes were on their way up the mountain.
What followed, simply took my breath away! There were around 40 boys and girls from the neighbouring villages, in the age group of 9 to 15 years, who were gliding up the terrain with just one support ingredient, rugged determination. There were neither fancy trek suits nor sprinting sneakers. Well, on a second deeper look, most of the lot had no shoes on! Not even everyday casual footwear. Before I could recover from the initial amazement, I was struck by the enigmatic smile of a little girl who was running up the slope with zealous strides.
She was hardly ten years old, and was the leading runner amongst girls. But her goal seemed very clear. She was indeed eyeing for the overall top spot, and was amazingly ahead of most of the boys. As I watched her run past the resting log, with her bare feet clicking ferociously ahead, I bent my head for two reasons. Out of shame for my tiring spirit, and respect to the mountain spirit, that was glowing brilliantly, in the eyes of that little athlete.
As the troop came sliding down the hill for the final kill, there she was, the little girl with the monstrous spirit. I steadied my camera to capture this inspiring moment. As she came around the log, she did not stop to pose for a rare opportunity to be photographed, although her eyes let out a glimmer of shy smile that hinted at a missed little chance. I quickly asked her name, and she replied without altering her pace, “Gunapriya”. Her name meant ‘Of lovely character’, and I could think of a truckload of adjectives that could be added on, to describe the strength of her character.
With renewed spirit, I walked up the remaining stretch of the mountain, without another murmur of fatigue. The top of the peak was an absolute stunner of a spectacle. The view from the 4338 feet pinnacle was magnificent, but the journey was no less spectacular. The winners had covered that distance up and down the hill, in less than 40 minutes’ time. I later learnt from the forest officials that this was the annual marathon organized by the forest department. The motto was to encourage the children from the neighbouring villages to aspire for their version of the popular marathons, held in various cities across the world.
The prize was a small trophy and a certificate. So, it was certainly not the prize that allured them to ‘test the limits of the human heart’! Steve Prefontaine would undoubtedly be proud of the mountain girl and her spirit to keep scaling higher grounds ‘Without Limits’!
Vaishnavi H S