Cresting the last slope up to the lip of the quarry, Bhardwaj lake was muddy brown, a colour we've never encountered in over two years of swimming.
"Panchshila Club for us, I guess."
But, by force of habit, and the inertia of a journey almost completed, we continued along the rocky ridge, then clambered down a trail marked by cowpats and goat droppings, harshly punctured by kikar thorns, to the beach from which we swim out every week, from late February till nigh on Christmas.
In the week since we were last there, the landscape had vastly altered, a huge tongue of clay had riven the beach in two, and between two spits of sand, flat as if laid by an artist's pallette knife, a marbled abstract of camel and toffee and chocolate squelched under foot. The water lapping the beach was laden with debris, darkened sprigs of vegetation uprooted from the slopes by rain water, mud and rocks. Hardly inviting, but "since we are here..."
Fifty meters out, the water was merely murky and I could see as far as the wrists of my arm, now settled into the smooth strokes of a dawdling crawl. We flopped onto our backs and savoured the quiet, the textured skies, and the cool drops that were beginning to drizzle down. The rain washed the morning heat out of the air, the lake felt warmer, and just above its flat brown surface, rain drops splintered into a fine cushion of silvery mist, painting the far cliff with a sense of mystery. We bathed our eyes in the fresh rain, swam some, then floated some, stroked back to shore, then out again, loth to leave this bowl of watery beauty, that was strangely restful and energising at the same time.
Our clothes were sodden with rain, its patter now so insistent that it made little sense to put them on. We shrugged our packs onto our bare backs, laced our shoes on without socks, and stepped into the river of clay, now turning insistently liquid. The cliffs of sand on either side had turned crumbly, and little slides were triggered at random. To our left, the cliff was a determined face of quartz, roughly hewn. To the right, a hundred meters of mud and clay and rock and keekar shrubs was already shifting. "That buffalo-sized rock was halfway up the slope a minute ago", Puneet pointed out to us.
We clambered and slithered up the paths that had now become viaducts of rain and slush - some red, some brown, some grey; some thin skeins of shallow water, one already a stream that threatened to dislodge a foot seeking purchase on a rocky path that had disappeared from view. Below us, the clay was creeping over the water, a viscous growing tongue of desert brown. On the opposite cliff, a huge cascade of water gushed grey and white-horsed down a rocky slope, carrying sludge and boulders. "Extreme kayaking, you think?" Mo asked. "Extremely extreme.."
"There's another waterfall", Dinesh pointed. And another....all draining into our favourite swimming spot. The Bhati landscape, familiar in its aridity and stillness, was now a living, pulsating being, a hundred streams, a thousand gradients, a million rocks; an automata turned on by a hidden puppet master. To torment or to delight? We turned left, following a primeval cry. A cowherd, stripped to his loincloth, was silhouetted atop an outcrop of rock, silvery with rapid water, his face turned up to the skies.
We threaded right, seeking easier passage. The shifting landscape had conjured up a massive pond, submerging the shrubs that marked our path home. "That way, I think", I stepped out into the water, to my knees, to my chest, to my neck. I floated into a cautious dog paddle. A thorny shrub grasped at my calf,
a rock scraped my knee. Is the path to the left, or should I veer around to that knoll? Keep heart. Steady as you find soil underfoot.
Play on. And thank you for the magic.