A Spring Day In The Life Of The Mirage

I wake to the sound of noises on the roof above, and think it must be monkeys.

When I turn my groggy eyes towards the window, I realise it's the thunder, lightning outside.

Everything feels unfamiliar: The rustic room with its uneven adobe walls, the sounds, and the four-poster bed.

Then I remember that I am a guest at The Mirage.

Yesterday my soulmate, travel companion and wife Anne, drove down to The Mirage in the artist colony of Andretta from McCleod Ganj, exploring, on our way the Wha Tea Estate near Palumpur.

I sleep for a further two hours, and reawaken for breakfast.

Outside, the morning is still wet, cloudy and dark, and the Dhauladhar mountain range is shrouded in cloud, getting another dusting of springtime snow.

When the rains clear, and the sun shines, the view is breathtaking. The peaks here are all 3000 meters higher than any single peak back home in the Pyrenees.

We step out from our traditional mud brick cottage, up the stone path, past the flowers, green shrubs and trees, across the terrace, to the breakfast room, where Denis pours Anne and I a cup of piping hot chai from a large thermos.

“Did I hear monkeys on the roof in the night?” I ask.

Denis explains that it's hard to keep the animals out of the residence, and the slates on the roof can shift in the wind.

Denis is well known in the Kangra valley, and a much-liked personality. He reminds me of a dear surfer friend in Northern Ireland.

As we sit with our tea, everything about us feels organic and elemental. The gardens, terraces, verandas, and rooms are adorned with Indian curios lovingly curated and exhibited by Denis for our enjoyment: Slate roofs, Nepalese beds, cotton curtains, various statuettes, and a garden landscaped from local stone and pebbles.

Amongst this cluster of cottages I glimpse Denis' latest addition: The Glass House Yoga Studio, a hexagonal yoga shala, decorated in bright mosaics and surrounded by bamboo plantations.

All about the garden tits and warblers chit chat as they too enjoy their breakfast.

The Mirage is one of several residences that make up the Andretta Artists Colony, and we’re slap bang in the middle of the Andretta Woodland that was once home to artists like the saint philosopher, painter, sculptor and poet Sobha Singh, and the Irish writer and dramatist Norah Richards, as well as Sardar Gurcharan Singh, who founded the flourishing Andretta studio pottery.

The pottery and the little cottages are a delight to visit, and we feel blessed as guests in these beautiful surroundings, far from the hubbub of busy life, letting our hair down, and drifting between one artist house and another, across the wooded grounds.

Sobha Singh, whose art is famous throughout the world made his home here in the 1940s. After an illustrious career as an international painter of repute, he died in 1986, leaving his home and studio, which combined, are a well maintained local museum.

Inside are photographs and postcards documenting his peaceful, but well travelled life, as well as a photograph of the Him with his neighbour Norah Richards having tea.

Her quaint mud house is also just up the lane. This Irish writer, dramatist and follower of Tolstoy settled in India in the1930s. She passed in 1971, but on October 29, every year, the students celebrate her birthday by enacting dramas in the open air auditorium in the garden outside her house.

In the Andretta Pottery, the style of the earthenware is the same as that which Denis uses in his homestay, with the same rustic glaze, that we like so much.

A glazed fruit bowl catches our eye and I'm delighted when the showroom manager knocks the price down for me, from 2000 to 1500 rupiah, because the glaze is imperceptibly bumpy so I buy it, along with an earthen coffee mug each to remind us of our visit to this special artist community in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.

On an outing in his car, Denis drives us through the back lanes to Bir, just North east of Andretta. He knows everyone and everyone knows him, including all the local bus drivers, who honk as we pass. Denis drives his 4x4 Mahindra like a local, swerving at speed off the roadside to let oncoming traffic pass, which is exhilarating.

We pull off the road after passing a barber shop in Bir that we will return to later for a shave, to lunch on Thali and Tuborg at a terrace cafe right on the edge of the world circuit paragliding landing spot.

Denis cracks open a beer and launches into tales of his paragliding at Bir, which he did when he wasn't busy guiding groups on treks.

He's deceptively young for his age. Earlier that morning I had accompanied him and his dog "Friendly," on a brisk pre-breakfast jungle walk up the forested hill behind the house. He was quick, sure footed, and fit, and clearly still abides by the moto "carpe diem."

Our outing with Denis into the backwaters of Himachal takes us past many places that please the eye and the soul. As we drive home, I spot a Puja, a group of women and children chanting and dancing beside their local deity and shrine.

Denis pulls over at my behest, and we spend a glorious 30 minutes in their delightful company, taking photos of their lovely festival, Anne joining them ladies for a dance, and the kids eager to practise the English they've learned in their English-medium schools.

The colours, the light and the festive spirit of this sundown community occasion fills all our souls with glee, and reaffirms all the beauty in Indian rural life.

Once again we feel our privilege as guests in this rich cultural district of India, absorbing its beauty, and appreciating the way this valley nourishes its people so well.

As we drive home we watch the sun go down, the birds fly home and the tea stalls close.

The thunder, the lightning, the storm of the previous night feel distant now. Throughout the day the mountains have changed colour and the rains have given way to sunshine.

As we near The Mirage, Denis pulls over for one final "authentic" local experience.

On Andretta high street, inside a blackened tea shop, Denis' gardener's wife greets us with a smile, sits us down, and serves us a copious glass of the local brew.

I don't know what it is, and Denis doesn't seem to know either, but Do know that I'll be back for more, when I return for my trek over the Indrahar pass.

Thank you Denis for a wonderful few days in your company.