Not long after leaving their camp, the tiny creekbed that Dhumman’s family was following merged with a much larger one. There, they met Dhumman’s older brother, Yusuf, who was waiting with his family and their buffaloes. From this point on, they would travel together, if not exactly as a single unit at least very much like a team. They headed north, deeper into the Shivaliks. Completely dry now but for an occasional trickle or puddle, the streambed was like an avenue paved with white stones rounded by the water that rushes over them during the monsoon. It was wide enough to clear a substantial swath through the jungle canopy, and the night sky glittered overhead, casting just enough starlight for this caravan – now eighty-six buffaloes, twenty-six people, two dogs and a handful of pack animals - to travel by.
Before they could work their way into the Himalayas, the families first had to climb up and over the Shivalik's southern flank and down its northern side. This day’s goal was to get as close as possible to Shakumbhari Pass, a notch in the ridgeline that’s like a gap between the crocodile teeth that the rugged range resembles.
As dawn lit the hills, it became obvious that much of the forest’s foliage had already fallen. The terrain rose around the streambed, and soon the families were winding through canyons, between sheer walls of exposed sedimentary strata and jagged hills speckled with brown grasses and bare trees. Every so often, they would pass other Van Gujjar deras, some already empty, some still occupied. From people who hadn’t yet left, Dhumman learned that his family had already passed the last of the water in the drainage. They wouldn't find any more until they'd emerged from the Shivaliks.
Dhumman had little choice – even though they hadn’t gone as far as they would have liked, they couldn’t go much further. They had to camp within striking distance of a water source.
Jamila, Appa, and Sharafat led their pack animals on for another few hundred yards, accompanied by Yusuf’s wife Roshni, her daughters Mariam and Khatoon, and daughters-in-law Fatima and Alkoo, plus their small children and their pack animals. Goku followed behind, carrying Yasin and keeping an eye on Salma. Everyone else led the buffaloes and calves off in search of fodder and shade.
Jamila and Roshni set up their camps in the streambed, about fifty yards apart from each other. The horses and bulls were unloaded, and the saddlebags, water jugs, food sacks and cooking pots were neatly stacked on the ground. Firewood was gathered, water was hauled, and Jamila got busy in the kitchen, making dough, rolling chapattis, and cooking them on a pan; they’d be eaten later, smeared with butter and spicy chili paste.
Appa and Sharafat went off up the hillsides to cut grass and haul it back, so the buffaloes could eat as soon as Dhumman brought them in to camp that afternoon. When Appa and Sharafat, soaked with sweat, returned with their bales of fodder, Jamila teased them sarcastically about their skimpy loads. Agitated by exertion and frustrated themselves at their poor harvest, Apa and Sharafat were in no mood for jokes; they protested that they’d done their best – there just wasn’t much to be found around here. Some sweet milky chai instantly improved their outlook, and they were off again in search of more grass.
It was only around 10 o’clock in the morning, and the heat already pummeled the canyon with crippling force. As noon approached, the young children wilted and dropped like leaves in the jungle, passing out in dappled pools of shade.
After a night bivouacked in the streambed, the families were again awake by 2 a.m., loading their pack animals while the morning tea brewed. In order to reach their next camp before the heat became too intense to travel, they would have to tackle Shakumbhari Pass at night. Once they set off, the canyon quickly narrowed. Turrets of rock towered above, gothic shadows against the moonless sky. Moving through the darkness, following the twists and turns hewn into the topography, Dhumman at last found the route that cut up and over the canyon walls.
The narrow trail traversed a cliff face as it climbed to the spine of the Shivaliks. The way was always steep - sometimes nearly vertical - and often treacherous. With much shouting to each other and at the animals, some of the nomads guided the buffaloes onward. Others tried to keep the heavily-laden horses and bulls from plunging over the edge as their hooves skated over the pathway of loose dirt and pebbles. At last, with great relief but little celebration, the caravan made it through the pass and over the range's main ridge. As they did so, they crossed from Uttar Pradesh (UP) into Uttarakhand – an invisible borderline that was drawn along the crest of the hills less than nine years earlier, when Uttarakhand (then called Uttaranchal) split off from UP to become its own state. In the moment, this movement between states was meaningless, but it would prove to be significant in the days and weeks to come.
Compared with what the families had just conquered, the descent down the northern slope was fairly easy. By the time they reached the flat expanse of forest at the base of the hills, the hazy glow of first light filtered through the trees. Here, the arboreal clock seemed like it was set a week or two behind the southern side of the Shivaliks; while leaves littered the ground, crunching under foot and hoof, plenty of green still blanketed the branches above.
To hear what it sounds like to migrate with the Van Gujjars, play this short video, which was filmed while walking out of the Shivalik Hills toward the Asan River: