Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Shock and Awe

Fifty thousand years ago – give or take a few centuries – a rather large chunk of rock came hurtling in from space. As it screamed through the atmosphere, it heated up, lost some of its mass. But enough of it was left over (a meteorite about 60 metres across, weighing in at about a million tonnes) to make a rather large thump when it hit the planet’s surface. Not surprisingly, it made a fairly decent sized hole where it landed - a crater close to two kilometers in diameter, with walls over 130 metres high. The meteor itself – or what’s left of it – is, various references tell me, buried deep in the earth’s crust in the centre of the crater.

The impact, a six megaton explosion (or six hundred times the explosive force released by first atomic bombs), say scientists, generated enough heat to not just shatter the basalt rock, but to melt and vapourise it. It would have, quite naturally, finished off any local flora and fauna in the ’hood without a trace.

But the long years since then have seen Mother Nature slowly reclaiming what was hers. Water from underground springs liberated by the explosion flowed into the crater, covering the bottom of he basin with a lake. Rain, sand and wind erosion and erosion saw tortured rock being covered with sand. Seeds flew in, worked their roots into the soil, held it together, raised grass and shrubs and bushes and trees into the sky, and the earth healed.

But it healed in unsual ways.

While the walls of the crater became densely wooded, the lake turned into something altogther unique. The waters that fed it had nowhere else to flow - it is a basin after all. And the only escape is evaporation. But the salts and minerals they brought with them had nowehere to go and the lake slowly turned turned brackish. It now has very high pH value, it’s saltier than sea water, and a veritable soup of minerals. A hostile environment for life as we know it. But in the same way as Science has found life near volcanic vents on ocean beds, where it has no business being, it has also found unique, hitherto unknown, and evolving life in the Lonar lake. A small consultation with Auntie Google reveals that there is a form of blue-green algae that is essentially a new life form.

It’s not just the micro-biologists who will salivate though. Geologists spent decades debating the origins of the crater. It was once assumed to be volcanic in origin, considering that it was in the middle of the Deccan Plateau, which high school geography will have told you is the result of a steady build-up of lava oozing from the earth’s innards. It was only in the twentieth century that it was agreed that it was an astrobleme, not a geobleme. (Ooh, how knowledgeable search engines can make one sound! Those words mean, respectively, the scars on the earth’s surface formed by collision with extra-terrestrial objects, and those formed by internal explosions, like ’quakes or eruptions.)

Even now, with its provenance agreed upon, Lonar is a happy hunting ground for the rock-heads. Aside from being the third-largest impact crater on earth, it is the only one in basaltic rock. For more examples, you’d have to travel quite a bit. Like to the Moon, or Mars.

That’s all very well, I can hear you (and the editor) say, what of those of us who are not working on our theses? This is a travel magazine, not a Bill Bryson wannabe piece.

Very well.

Shun the carved out steps near the town - they’re for wussies. Make your way down any of the other paths, following the hoofprints of cattle, and, sigh, the trail of paan masala sachets down any other part of the crater. Start out from the East, where the gradient is less steep, and the walls less high. That’s because the meteor came in from the East, at an angle, causing the West side to pile up a little higher and steeper. Throw a large ballbearing into smoothened beach sand at an angle, and then look at the results to see what I mean.

Pick your way through the rocks (wear non-slip soles, please!) and look down around your feet frequently. For the collector of oddities, a five-minute stroll near the lip of the crater will yield a handfull of unusual pebbles in various shades and shapes. Glazed, fractured, veined, translucent, crystalline, pitted, deformed, they are the remnants of one our planet’s last known arguments with the solar system. That’s practically stardust you’re holding there, laddie!

(They, I tell Abhijit, are the merely surprised pebbles as opposed to what the boffins call “shocked rock” that sticks out of the earth walls like oversize warts. Abhijit is not amused. Photographers are a hard room to play.)

Oh right. Enough already with the Short History.

As the walls begin to level out, the shrubs grow thicker, till all of a sudden you’re walking through the undergrowth of the trees that were so far below you. Insects hum, birds converse loudly, and the sun is there somewhere – you can feel the heat – but it’s dim and damp here. In a short while, you break through to the broader path, flattened by bare feet over the millennia, that circumscribes the lake. Decide whether you want to go clockwise or anti, get your bearings (so you know when you’re back here to find our way back up), and stroll. Go soft, and you’ll come upon birds of various feathers. And you’ll regret not going for those BNHS walks, because all you can say is “Look, a red one!” and “There! A yellow and black one!” You can hear peacocks, their calls clear across the flat expanse of water. If you’re lucky, you might see one. The closest we got was a peahen, which raced off into shelter, giving us offended looks, at our approach. The Greater Flamingo stops over here, I have read, and even I can recognise one of those, but it’s too early in the year for them. For the birder, there’s much to see. A photocopied sheet from the manager of the MTDC resort tells me that you’ll find: dabchick, red-wattled lapwing, dusky reed warbler, rufouse-backed shrike, golden oriole, spot-bill duck, small green bea-eater, ashy wren warbler, and much more. And for the non-aviphiliacs (yes, I just made that up), squirrels, rabbits, langurs, signature spiders, funnel spiders and, if you’re lucky, maybe deer.

As you walk around, at regular intervals, you come upon the ruins of temples, thousands of years old some of them, going by the MTDC manager’s handouts. More modern hands have left their mark too, informing us of Sanju’s deep affection for Rita in white paint on the ancient blocks. The horror. Aside from twelve temples there’s also supposed to be a dargah here somewhere, but we seem to have managed to miss it. One temple, at about a third of the way around, is in frequent use: an electric wire and a water pipe emerge from the trees, saffron flags flutter, a garbage pit buzzes with flies, litter everywhere. We move on. Or rather, I move on – my intrepid photographer picks his way through the mudflats, to take photos through the branches of a dead tree. “Surreal!” he says, breathlessly. “Get real!” I growl back at him. The sun is beginning to disappear behind the crater, and Abhijit wants a sunset shot. He gallops off, fatigue forgotten, leaving his writer panting in his wake, as photographers are wont to do.

By the time I break through the tree line he’s a distant figure near the lip of the crater.

I stop to take stock. Also to catch my breath. And as the sun turns the sky technicolour a realisation dawns on me. This is the furthest I’ve been from other human beings since a day, more than ten years ago, when I went off climbing a peak near McLeodganj, In Himachal.

I find a nice rock, apologise for adding to its trauma, and lie back to look at the sky.


The information

Getting there.
By Air: Aurangabad, 170 km.
By Rail: Aurangabad or Jalna (98km)
Road distances: From Mumbai, 553km, Pune 401km, Nagpur 388km

Places to Stay
MTDC’s guest house is on the lip of the crater - Lonar has very few other half-decent options.
The service is warm and friendly, but the food is decidely erratic. Meals ranged from uncrecognisable, fiery, oily glop to a sublime fried fish delicately flavoured and done just right.
Tariffs: Rs 550 per 2-bed room, with attached bath with hot and cold running water, each room with a small front porch and a balcony/sit-out at the other end. (8 rooms) Two 16-bed dorms also available, at Rs 1250 per room. These rates will drop to Rs 450 and Rs 1000 respectively, February to April.
Booking via MTDC Central Reservation Division, Mumbai: (+91 22) 22026713, 22027762

Things to do.
The Crater is it. Ancient temples, some in ruins, dotted around the circumference of the lake, lush greenery, a profusion of bird life, some animals, interesting pebbles to collect, unique algae if you have your slides and microscope. MTDC’s staff will gladly arrange for you to be accompanied by an energetic local lad who will ensure that the hopelessly direction-challenged do not get lost on the one circular road around the top or the mud path around the lake. Carry drinking water and a snack.
If that won’t suffice, don’t go. Lonar, the town, offers little else: an ancient step well that has run dry and has become a rubbish dump, and a few temples near the Crater lip, a movie house. Oh yes, a wine shop of two.
You could take day trips to Ajanta and Ellora, but otherwise the nearest refuge for the all-mod-cons type is Aurangabad, several hours away by road.

Published in Outlook Traveller, November 2005 edition.


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