Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kenya Calling – Batting with Bandits


It is said (I have no idea by whom) that if you are lucky you die (which means everyone is at least lucky), if you are luckier then you almost die before finally dying, and if you are luckiest (like I always am) then you not only almost die but actually shake hands with death, smell her heady fragrance, embrace her if you may and then return before one day you finally die. This is actually a funny story (aren’t all stories are!) and has nothing to do with dying at least not of anyone I am aware of, but I thought this would make a good preamble to a tale where bandits would eventually drop down from out of African bushes.

If I would listen to even one hundredth of safety advices that my friends and strangers throw my way all the time then I would still be a simple boy from the backyards of some obscure Himalayan village and wouldn’t even dream of going out anywhere outside the precincts of my grazing goat-land. So when I declared that I was heading on my own astride a matatu for the Northern wasteland and the Mathew Ranges in Kenya, I was severely cautioned by all, Paula (this amazing lady and now a dear friend shall be introduced properly in a post later) in particular declaring that I would be drugged, doped, duped and finally robbed by bandits. She also insisted that I write down her mobile number on my palm (since I would shortly be lightened of my mobile phone by my fellow-passengers) and call her if I was indeed held up at the wrong end of a nasty gun. I have no idea if that ever happens, how on earth am I going to call Paula or anyone else for that matter. I couldn’t simply ask my assailant to hang on to the trigger long enough for me to borrow his mobile phone (since mine has long gone) and make a call pronto to Paula; and even if I could and did (not all bandits are rogue by the way) then what could Paula possibly do. But then she is Paula-the-Great (she could well be the long lost cousin of Alexander the Great) and she is loaded (with goodwill and smiles) so perhaps she would negotiate with the bandits that if they promised not to return me then they could have a free safari in the Nairobi National Park.

I am half-deaf anyway and I choose to hear only what I wish to listen (as another friend of mine would surely vouch) so all such advices and counsels fall on deaf ears and on the destined day I buy my ticket from a tout with a twisted cap on his scruffy head. I perch my precarious posterior (as they are by now soar from all the gallivanting I have been engaged in since the last few weeks) on a prickly pedestal that they call a seat in this part of the world. Soon the matatu is overflowing with mamas, papas, sisters, daughters and dangers, not to mention the abominable stench of human excretions as well as fried foods that fill up my nostrils like the smog that hangs over NYC every morning. Humans are followed by human belongings and things begin to fly through every orifice that the vehicle has and it has quite a few. From windows and sliding doors, beneath my feet and over my lap, and under my elbow, over my head things pile up like an anthill aiming for the Guinness World record for the tallest structure on planet Earth that can be squeezed into a matatu. By the time everyone settles in (in a morbid manner of speaking) I am sure that we had achieved the ultimate world record that would not be broken in this century at least, or in my lifetime, whichever happens earlier.

The air is hot, panting and porous. I am held in a death vice from all around and beneath and above. Lulled by such joyful interiors and mellifluous companions and with my dead mobile and money inserted deep within my smelly socks, which adds to the calmness of my mind, I soon fall asleep cuddling my tiny backpack as if it holds the last member of royalty (go figure which one I am talking about). I dream of the Bahamas and the cerulean skies of the Himalaya and finally the matatu reaches Isiolo (a dirt-rattled town with a large Islamic population nearly 330 km north of Nairobi) where it shudders and stutters and vomits out its passengers that nearly walk over each other to reach the outside atmosphere. Now begins my actual adventure. The first stage is to find a matatu driver who didn’t look like the first cousin of Mike Tyson and who would take me to the point where I had to meet up the vehicle from Camp Sarara.

Lest you get confused, which I am sure you all are, I must tell you how my route lay and brief you on the lay of the land. My travel arrangements with Piers who would be hosting me at his Camp Sarara located deep within the Namunyak Conservancy were thus: I had to reach a certain point in the middle of nowhere, a turning off point, where his vehicle would be waiting to pick me up around 2 pm. I just had to reach this turning off point somehow around that time. The route I would take is: Nairobi to Isiolo by road on a matatu, then hire a private matatu (since I was going to leave the main road) who would go from Isiolo via Archer’s Post and Lerata (where we leave the tarmac and hit the dirt road going to Wamba) and would drop me till the turning off point. From Isiolo it involved traveling over extremely barren, deserted and badly damaged roads for a distance of around 75 km. The area north of Isiolo is famous for Somalian bandits as they roam around the deserted and arid landscape looting vehicles and people under swaggering AK 47 or Chinese automatic rifles. Their favorite target being solitary vehicles with few passengers (that exactly fitted my prospective ride).

At Isiolo I look around for a matatu driver and all look capable enough of beating Mike Tyson. I look further and deeper into the stinking alleyways and peer inside every matatu. Eventually an old man who must have seen me poking my nose like an impatient gazelle, asked what I sought. He leads me to his son, a very capable and brave matatu driver he assures me, who could take me anywhere in the continent I wished. I meet the son, he meets my criteria though he could outpunch any lightweight boxing champion, and we start our negotiation.

The old man and his son on one side and I on another. I draw a map and explain them the exact drop off point, mentioning the distance in particular. They hum and haw and look at the sky and the moon and then on the red ground and then at me. ‘How much you pay?’ the son asks. I tell them I have no idea how much is the correct amount, but left to my choice I wouldn’t like to pay anything. They find that amusing and few more minutes pass by as they look up and down and scratch their chins pensively. I have no idea what the time is but my shadow under the sun tells me it’s well past noon. Finally the old man speaks, ‘Ok you give 6500 bobs.’ (all my male readers don’t read it wrong, there’s no extra ‘o’ in that word and in Kenya it means Kenyan shilling). I nearly fall off my feet. I nod my head gravely and declare that they were asking for a king’s ransom and where would a poor Indian student like me find that kind of money.

That makes them laugh (which is good in any form of negotiation) and I know I am winning. They find it amusing that a white haired and bearded scrawny little chap like me could be a student. So I tell them about being a student all your life, etc which they again find highly amusing. ‘Ok,’ the son now says, ‘how much you pay?’ I quote 2000 bobs. They nod and hum and haw and make an offer of 4000. Offer and counter-offer continue for a while in between smiles and finally we seal the contract at 2500 bobs. That makes everyone happy. Suddenly the old man hugs me like his long lost first born and pushes me inside the matatu next to the driver’s seat and off we go like a bazooka across the Afghan hills. My driver plays music and sings and grooves as the deserts outside rush by my window in a blur. We reach Archer’s Post in a blink and suddenly I sense a new found alertness in my driver’s demeanor.
We leave the main road and enter into the courtyard of a rundown mud house and I feel that my end is near. A group of bare bodied young men are loitering beneath a tree and they eye me through slit eyes that betray no emotion. Perfect stance for your prospective executor. The driver hops out and asks me not to step out, of which I have no intention. He soon drags out a can out of the house and I realize it’s a refueling stop. Soon we hit the bumpy road. As we come out of Archer’s Post we find a line of colorfully dressed Samburu women lined up across the road and waving at us like kites soaring in heaven. We stop to enquire and my driver chats with them through the window, one woman being the spokesperson who knows Swahili. I don’t think my driver knows the Samburu tongue anyway. They want a lift till Lerata and beyond, my driver declares and I can see that he is unwilling.

In this region any kind of vehicles are so sparse that mostly these women would be walking for hours under burning sun carrying provisions back to their village in the jungles. I have come into their land and to study them closely, to befriend them and understand their life and livelihood. I instruct my driver that I didn’t mind and we must give them lift. Soon enough the women pile up inside falling over each other, followed by big boxes and bags of provisions they had bought from the market. This would be their monthly stock and they would return again the next month. Finally a boy arrives and speaks to me, ‘we are bandits and we will rob you soon.’ He follows that with a big grin, so I know that he is being funny; or maybe not. He had only come to settle down the women and once packed in like sardines on the back seats he gets off. Our matatu roars back to life and we fly into the desert winds. At Lerata we duck left and leave the last vestige of civilization and safety. Now we are deep into bandit land where lawlessness is the law and a man and his belongings are soon parted. My money is safe but my camera and lenses are in my backpack so I hope that the bandits are not keen on photography.

The road is groovy and bumpy, topsy and turvy, and the women sing from behind, my driver keeps pushing his pedals and I look for the bandits. At a particular turn of the road, just as we approached a magnificent acacia tree, out-step a group of men on to the road and wave us down. My driver doesn’t look happy, so I know he isn’t in cahoots with them. The women behind look as serene as ever, after all to them these bandits must look like newborn kids from yesterday. They approach us and I roll down my window. I don’t necessarily detest bandits or robbers or such men, they rob after all out of need; they are often poor and have been socially victimized by those above them. It’s almost like we kill animals to eat but mean them no harm otherwise, so with such bandits, they rob out of need and they don’t really mean any harm to their victims.

It takes them no time to realize the situation; a scared driver, a busload of Samburu women who could cut them down to their smallest sizes any moment and a charming looking, openly smiling foreigner of unknown origin who looked even more ragged than them. Though I can see the rifles slung around their shoulders and the sharp knives poking out beneath their shirts, I extend my hand to the leader and wish him the day. I am neither alien to guns or gun users. I have been held up by such people countless times before around the globe. I can fire any gun efficiently and notice that their safety catches are still ‘on’. I also know that I can take away the gun from at least one of them and use it against them if needed.

I stay calm, smile my best smile and offer them my hand to shake. They ask me to step out in broken English and ask me where I am from and how come I was traveling with the Samburu women. I tell them that it’s actually they that are traveling with me and spin my usual story of being a student on research work in these parts of the world. They ask for my passport that I don’t have and they go through my pockets and find such pittance that they leave them there. They don’t think of checking my socks for some reason. My backpack is well hidden under the flour sacks of the Samburu women and the bandits don’t dare to go through the Samburu belongings. They ask me how come I have so little money and I don’t carry any bag with me. I tell them that I have already been robbed the day before and I had nothing more than what I have in person. They believe me as they are trustworthy men of God. But I can see the leader is having second thoughts, he is thinking and has stopped baring his teeth – a potentially bad omen. I am certain I would soon be abducted. And then suddenly, out of the arid desert, rises a rumbling of such proportion that I am deafened for a minute.

The Samburu women have had enough by then. To them I was a benefactor and they knew what was happening. Like a deluge they rush out of the vehicle brandishing sharp objects and surround the bandits while screaming and singing their war songs like a banshee. In a moment the tables had turned, now the bandits were being cornered. Samburu people are extraordinarily valiant and they fear none except their elders and witch doctors. The women challenge the bandits while I and the driver ogle in disbelief. Many of the women are octogenarians and each of them is really scrawny but to see the fire in their eyes is something else. It’s a perfect standoff. Eventually the bandits stand down and retreat into the jungles and we recommence our journey like before.

The moment the vehicle starts moving, the women regain their erstwhile calm and smiling attitude and they give me a warm smile and surround me once again with their songs. We soon reach the drop off point and meet up with Camp Sarara vehicle. The place is indeed in the middle of nowhere. I pay the driver something extra and ask him to drop the women where they want to go, for it would be cruel for both of us to leave them in the midst of the jungle with scores of miles for them to go with such heavy loads. As we part I shake hands with each of these brave women, not knowing or finding the words that I need to utter. But then in such worlds, words are unnecessary. I smile and they smile back, I wave and they wave back and the last I see of my matatu is a racing devil on wheels blowing dust all around with dozens of hand emerging out of the windows and waving at me like windmills.

I will never see them again but from this day on, they would always be a part of my journey.

P.S. The cartoon appearing with this post is courtesy Bruce from UK and istockphoto.com. And you guys hope you don't take me to a lawsuit now that I have acknowledged the source

Kenya Calling – Mango in Matatu


Matatu is synonymous to Kenya as the lions. The country is unthinkable without either. If I had the power, I would put a lion inside a matatu as Kenya’s national emblem. Every guidebook worth its misguided notions recommend a visitor to stay as far as possible from one while all my well meaning friends, both original born Kenyans (surprisingly) and expatriates and those working in the country for a while, vociferously united in their anti-matatu campaign and tried their best to dissuade me (even to the point of making it scary) from ever riding into one. What more an excuse did I need to decree that come what may, hail or hurricane, a matatu ride has to be an integral and absolute part of my Kenya package!

Now most of you might be wondering what exactly am I referring to! Those who have been to Kenya would upturn their nose and declare – ha, we know it all, while those who haven’t might head for Google. But I would request you both to indulge me a bit and learn it from the latest fan and initiate into the matatu cult of Kenya.

Matatu is what keeps Kenya moving, not only forward but in every possible direction; there could be one going up too though I am yet to see one; while if there is one indeed going that way it won’t surprise me a bit. And if I am to believe the gossip-mongers then many a faithful Kenyans indeed take their last mortal ride en route to heaven on a matatu; in that way it does help you to move in the vertical plane as well.

Technically speaking, it is a medium sized mini-van; either Toyota or Nissan makes that seat 14 or 11 passengers plus a driver and a tout. They ply everywhere within the cities and then there are those that run inter-cities and in that manner you can perhaps reach every corner of the country barring only a few. The ones that connect the cities are called either a shuttle (14 seats) or an express (11 seats). Matatus are the cheapest and fastest mode of transport for Kenyans. Bad roads, road jams, road blocks, waving policemen, mob or riots, rain or sunshine; nothing comes in the way of a matatu and its destination since a matatu doesn’t run, it flies.

They stop everywhere, even the so called ‘non-stop’ ones and don’t be surprised if the tout asks you to perch your bottom on a big mama’s lap or worst still on his lap. Just be thankful that you found a seat in a jam-packed matatu and then join the rest of your fellow passengers in praising the lord. The intra-city ones have route numbers written on them and often they do multiple-routes in one single journey. So till a point it may display the number 108 (the matatu from my place to the city center) and then change it to 11. This sudden shift in identity is mysterious though it essentially doesn’t change the route and you would still reach your destination only if you know where it is. A matatu is a moving, jostling, vibrating and erupting discotheque as it blares music at top volume, entertaining even those who don’t wish to be entertained. Once inside a matatu you kind of lose your basic human rights of ‘choice’. You just ‘be’ and go with the flow.

Within Nairobi, all matatus converge to and diverge from few main places, like near fire station or railway station right in the heart of the bustling city. To go from one end of the city to another, you may have to change few matatus, but rarely more than two. The fare varies between 30 – 50 Ksh (1 Euro = 104 Ksh), irrespective of where you want to go. The tout opens and squeezes you inside while the driver floors the accelerator even as your bottom half is hanging out. It’s good for airing your posterior though not for a passerby whose hat or head might be knocked off by your jutting butt.

The touts are not really aggressive, no more than their Indian brothers, but highly persuasive and they don’t cheat like many would want you to believe. If you can make them understand where you wish to go then they would even guide you or drop you at the exact place and if they really like your hairdo then even plan your day for you; all for free with only few well meaning smiles. While compared to similar modes of transportation in India what makes matatus stand apart is that no one, absolutely no one in a matatu goes standing. Every one sits and has a seat to himself or herself. In India that’s an inconceivable luxury.

The best way to catch a matatu is to go to any road and just stand wherever you feel like, be it under a tree or beside a clump of shanty shops, and wave down a matatu as it comes roaring down the road like a bull on heat. The only thing you need to get right is on which side of the road you should stand to go your way. If the matatu has sitting space (even if it is on a lap) it will screech and the door will slide open in one fluid motion of synchronized rhythm with finesse strident enough to wake up even the prince of Addis Ababa. In you go, you might even be grabbed by your collar by the well-wishing tout, and you deposit your derrier in any seat you find vacant or something similar in shape and dimension. By that time the matatu has returned to its raging bullish form.

Initially the cacophonous music will deafen you but as you move to the groove and your body learns to handle the jerks and jumps, you would start relishing it like a long lost symphony from the times gone by. Everyone is swaying and so would you. After a while or a long while, the tout will gesture at you with a raised finger, which might be considered very crude and rude in some parts of the world; but here he is just being at his politest best. You insert your fingers into your pocket and depending on what coin or note you get, drop into the extended palm. Now here’s something that totally boggles me. The fare that the tout will accept from you will to a large extent depend on his mood, the angle of the sun, the kind of music, the roll of his eyes, and what he thinks of you. As a foreigner I could get away simply by looking adorably dumb and naïve. What exactly happens is that you might drop in a coin of 30 or 40 or a note of 50 Ksh in the guy’s palm and if you have overpaid then obviously he won’t mention that to you (since you are dumb and a foreigner) and quietly pocket the money but if you have underpaid him (since you are dumb and a foreigner) and the conditions are right then he won’t ask you for the extra money either. So each time I would simply drop the minimum matatu fare of 30 Ksh and look as dumb as possible even when I knew that the right fare was 50 and till date no one asked for the balance amount. If this doesn’t convince you of Kenyan hospitality to outsiders then what will? When you need to alight, simply rap your knuckles smartly and sharply on any piece of metal, rapid two short ones, and the matatu will halt at the place.

For inter-city matatus, you need to go to Accra Road near Nairobi Fire Station city centre and look for the signboard atop the roof of the matatus, where they declare the destinations and route they would be plying. For traveling anywhere in Kenya take only the matatus; they are the cheapest and fastest way to travel and you travel with the locals so you get to experience the country like the way it is.

Now during the initial days as I was being whisked away by my friends in their cars or I was paying exorbitant and extortion type taxi fares I would look lustily at the matatus passing me by and salivate at the prospect of riding inside of one. But my friends wouldn’t even hear of it. They opined that I would be drugged, robbed, my mobile would be snatched, my empty pockets would be picked, I would be duped, etc and literally taken for a ride.

But then all such theories only made my resolve stronger for a brush with matatu. So one day I stride out of my house and straight onto the road and jump like a sky-diver into the first matatu that comes my way. To hell with directions and decisions, for me the ride is the cake and the cream, no matter where it takes me. But I did take my precautions: all cash and card and mobile (in silent mode) inside my socks, only 100 Ksh in small changes in my shirt breast pocket. All my trouser pockets including the inside ones are absolutely empty. No watch, no fancy sunglasses, hair in complete disarray (it will be better if you go with few days of stubble); visibly dirty clothes and a big idiotic grin plastered from ear to ear. Act the fool and a lost poor foreigner in search of help and the touts and your fellow passengers, among of them some of the elitest pickpockets on the planet, would all come to your rescue.

The moment I stepped into my first matatu ride, I gained liberty and freedom of movement. I didn’t have to wait any longer for anyone, and no one had to reschedule their visitations, neither did I have to willingly submit to being robbed by the taxis. Now I know most of the routes and can avoid being delayed or duped and I am yet to be robbed or doped or taken for a ride. For me it is a jolly good ride and a ride that I intend to ride for all my rides wherever it is possible

The funny title has nothing to do with matatus actually, except that my hostess the superbly elegant and eloquent Maryjka, one day bid me to carry a mango on one of my long matatu trips and I decided to eat the ripe orange fruit in the matatu while speeding towards destined doom at F1 speed on a road that would put Cambodia to shame. I ate the fruit without dropping a single drop on my lap or on that of my neighbor and what happened thereafter is an altogether different story for another time. For now let’s all hail the matatu and clap our hands in appreciation that though these fast moving ugly boxes on wheel break the sound barrier so often they keep Kenya and Kenyans moving without killing so many as we are lead to believe. Believe me – for now I am not only a matatu expert but a champion for their cause.

Long live the matatus, may your tribe thrive and may more of us to you subscribe.

P.S. The accompanying picture is the true depiction of a matatu at its best. It has not been doctored, misrepresented or mishandled in any way. And believe me this matatu still has room for more.

Camp Sarara




Just today I returned from Camp Sarara in the Mathew Ranges, the only eco-lodge within the vast 850,000 acres Namunyak Conservancy Trust. It is managed by Piers and Hillary Bastard along with the son Jeremy. I am not going to write my post on Sarara as of now since that will be akin to riding a time machine and fast forwarding my entire Kenyan safari as I have so many more experiences to share that happened before Sarara. While departing from the lodge when Hillary handed me over the visitor’s book, the following rhyme came to my mind out of the neighboring hills and I jotted it down in the book. It might sound and seem incredibly silly but I thought that to pay my immediate tribute to this wonderful piece of paradise on earth and to acknowledge the grace, charm and hospitality of Hillary, Pierce and Jeremy I must at least post this poem that in its simplicity depicts what Sarara experience is all about. It is a place like none other I have visited before. Here’s to you the trio of PHJ; with much respect and admiration for what you are and what you stand for. Such generosity and kindness can never be reciprocated in equal measure. They are to be accepted with humility and treasured cherished for life A big thank you!

From Sahara through Mara
I come to Sarara

A paradise of love and care
Million moments of joy with elephants to share

Nurtured by Piers and Hillary
With lot of energy from Jeremy

Hyrax drop from tree
Hornbills shriek in glee

Buffalos and leopards play
Where monkeys are always gay

Samburu songs fill up the wells
Cows nod and dance with bells

I have seen the world and the 7 sea
But it’s Sarara where my heart will always be

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kenya Calling – Going Wild with Born Free








I fully agree the above title is rather on the face, as I am already in a wild place, looking for wild things and going even wilder than I was intended to become, but even then this is the best I could come up with. I am deliberately skipping the first day at Kenya since it was spent at Swara Plains Ranch, where I shall return soon and would get to experience it in a more leisurely manner. For now, let’s dive right into the wild wagon and swing free like a chimpanzee straight into Born Free office Nairobi.

Even before I had arrived I had done some amount of digging into Born Free, a UK based NGO that is proactively working towards wildlife conservation. They have a huge presence in Kenya and are doing commendable work across all fields of conservation and related community outreach programs. Born Free Kenya had graciously offered me a field trip with their country manager, Iregi Mwenja, into the far flung reaches of Samburu Region in the Northern Highlands.

Sandy drove me to Born Free office in the outskirts of Nairobi. It resembled an office less and a verdant amusement park more. After a brief tete-a-tete with Victor, the Programs manager, who is one of most soft spoken persons I have ever come across, I hopped into a Born Free Land Rover and sped across the beautiful country side heading due North.

Crossing several townships, including Nanyuki, Timau and Isiolo, and the looming dark hulk of Mt Kenya to my right, we left the main tarmac road at a junction and took to real dirt roads. No sooner had we turned into the dirt road my eyes were immediately drawn to a majestic table-land reposing to the right under the setting sun. The thick jungle at its feet around 1/3rd way up succumbs to the granite walls above that falls steeply from the table top. Another cliff to my left vies attention. Then more and more as we drive deeper into the jungles. The place is virtually littered with boulders and rock walls that can keep a rock climber happy and climbing endlessly.

It is said that in nature, magic happen at certain places, only most often there are no one around to witness. But then someone comes along at exactly the precise spot where all the tangents of time, space and continuum meet and he becomes the forbearer of the magic. For me it happened likewise on this dirt road to nowhere. The land rover at its breakneck speed careened over a sharp bend and if I hadn’t kept my eyes open I would have completely missed the tree harboring several bird nests. It’s a common sight all over this jungle, but what made this tree unique was the way it stood out in sharp relief to the blue sky dotted with cottony clouds. It seemed to be my tree, waiting for me for centuries. I went up to it, caressed its trunk and took few pictures. Soon enough we chanced upon the extremely shy dik-dik, a tiny fragile mammal of deer species. They are very difficult to photograph, but a pair suddenly after having run a few paces away, turned around and the younger one still chewing a leave at its mouth gaped at me with equal amazement. My Nikon did the rest.

After another hour of back breaking journey we reached Wamba, a small town perched at the foothills of the Mathew Range of mountains in Samburu Region. Amazingly my mobile phone came alive and so did the USB data card for internet. Mwenja greeted me at the guest house with a huge smile and so did his field assistant Natalie, along with the driver. A quick shower and shave and we drove off to witness what exactly Born Free was doing in this remote region.

As Mwenja explained, in conservation it is about educating people, human beings who are doing the damage to wildlife. The wildlife, being wild and natural, needs no education or conservation per se. In a unique initiative Born Free had produced several films to spread awareness and sensitize the local inhabitants about the need for wild life conservation and why should they stop killing bush meat for food, etc. For tonight, Mwenja is going to screen two films, one showing the harmful effects of consuming bush meat and why bush life must be preserved to safeguard the humans and the other film showing various initiatives to prevent lions and other predators attacking cattle, which leads to direct man-beast conflict. For lions, leopards, etc goats and cows found within human habitation is easy prey and those that grow old often stray into the settlements and kill livestock. Obviously this infuriates the villagers who then go out in large numbers with spears and knives and kills any lion they find on the way. This is purely an act of vengeance. This is the biggest cause for reduction in lion population.

A screen along with audio visuals had been set up in a clearing and a substantial number of crowds had gathered. The movies was first shown in Swahili and then in Masai. Spectators seemed to be in good humor since they would break into laughter intermittently and seemed to grasp the underlying message well. As Mwenja explained the idea through such movies was to stigmatize bush meat eating to a level where no one would do it, or would be ostracized by their people if anyone did so. His aim was to leave the right message with the people. Born Free had also recruited and cultivated local volunteers who were sympathetic to the cause and could take the message and idea deeper into their own people.

The next day, we stuffed the Land Rover to the bursting point and left for lands that were the purview of only the very intrepid, which suited me just fine. We were heading into the very end of some of these dirt roads, deep into Samburu Region. As we penetrated deeper into the region my eyes feasted on the rock faces, boulders and the seemingly endless chain of green mountains, undulating wave after wave like an ocean. The road (if it could still be called one) dipped and curved, disappeared and broke and over all such terrains growled and gripped the Land Rover. Soon it had earned my respects. We came to a major river crossing, where we had to deplane and then the empty vehicle drove across but couldn’t climb up the sandy bank on the other side. Several attempts later, belching black smoke and burning tyres, it finally groaned its way up. Conservation had its own adventures as I could see. Soon we came to a small manyata (family settlement) and stopped to pick up our lunch. Which in our case consisted of one live chicken and a bag of potato.

We got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. I looked for birds to shoot (with my camera) and anything else that came my way. While others spread around. Typically, soon we had a group of people around us. The chicken lady offered us a ripe papaya on the house. Even before I could reach for my Swiss knife, out swung a machete the size of my right arm from one of the onlookers and suddenly the innocent papaya looked distinctly vulnerable. Few well aimed swings and I had one piece of succulent papaya in hand. It tasted divine. The chicken now nicely trussed, we took leave.

If the road was bad till now, what lay ahead suddenly made our earlier journey seem like the smoothest highway in the world. The angles at which the land rover descended and climbed defied gravity and all sense of logic. Soon I was sweating not only for reasons of tropical heat. The vehicle was moving and the occupants along with our belongings moved like being inside a mixie. Somehow amidst all such bedlam, our lunch snored its way through. Perhaps it knew that this would be its last sleep of this life so enjoyed it fully. Not only hats off but full standing ovation to our driver Martin who got us finally atop a hill beneath an Acacia tree next to a dilapidated brick house where the cinema would be screened. Out came tents and our paraphernalia.

Being blown away while trying to grapple with the massive tent that could easily house a Samburu family, we were soon surrounded by kids and adult Samburu’s alike, all laughing at our futile efforts. We smiled back and sweated under the cheering crowd’s adulations. Finally lunch came around. The chicken when inside felt nothing like the bird I knew back in India, but food out here in this remote and hostile land was solely a means to survive so I forced the morsel down my throat. Lest I was offered the local delicacy of cow’s blood, freshly drawn and warm too.

Post lunch, Mwenja, our local guide Linda (a man, how I wish it wasn’t), Natalie and I went off for an adventure that involved nocturnal forays into such places where very few outsiders had ever gone before. What transpired thereafter would be covered in a separate post as it was a once in a life time experience for me under the watchful eyes of Mwenja. As for this post, I would recommence from the time we reunited with our driver Martin and local boy James, who had by the next morning had packed off all the movie gear back into the land rover and were ready to go.

Martin told us that they had started the screening right under the tree with the screen tied up to the vehicle and with only one spectator. But slowly others gathered around and finally it was a group of around 30, which going by the remoteness of the area and the reluctance of the Samburu people to come out in the open, wasn’t bad at all. So all said and done our trip seemed to have been fairly successful, more so since it was Born Free’s first trip here.

We drove out from the dirt road back on to the tarmac and headed once again up North. The road was under construction at many places and full of potholes, etc. We again left the tarmac (kind of) road at a point and making a curve headed for the distant hills. Under Martin’s sorcery at the wheel, ground disappeared beneath us like magic and we arrived at the very remote village of Ndoinya Wasin just as the sun was preparing to set behind the distant clouds. It seemed like a market day and many people were gathered around a house and some were carrying huge bags of grain and other household stuff away. Even before I could jump out of the cramped vehicle a little tiny kid simply wriggled through on to my lap and would refuse to budge thereafter. He sat on my lap sucking his thumb and openly laughing at me. His father (or whoever) carrying a nasty looking spear and machete stared at me with a look that I would prefer to forget as of now.

I had absolutely no idea what to do with the situation and even if it was one in reality. I tried to pet and cuddle the kid caked with mud and black as the belly of a hippo. He laughed and cuddled back but the father’s stare did not change its intensity. Eventually someone took the kid away and the village chief (dressed in military fatigue and carrying a very crooked looking Chinese Army gun) welcomed us with beer. Mwenja and gang swung into action while I swung out with my camera. Post the movie show, we were stacked inside a school room that had like a billion buffalo sized insects all over. We ate and slept under serious aerial threats. At night the moon came out in full glory and the sky looked brilliant and serene as ever. I counted about a dozen constellations and then went back inside the dark room to the accompaniment of Martin and James’ snoring and sought refuge under the sleeping bag.

Next day we did a bit of detour and pursued further north reaching the dirty little township of Merili (named after a dry river that runs by), which is predominantly Islamic in culture and belief. It was a typical shanty town that one would find all over Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt etc. We hadn’t much to do there and we just hung around like discarded packets of empty matchboxes. I observed the people around going around their daily chores, which wasn’t much in reality. No one seemed to be doing anything at all.

At a certain time, we turned South and headed for the township of Serio-Lipi where Born Free would be screening its final films for this trip. We put up in a ramshackle lodge that in the name of lodging offered us a small tiny room with one window, full of flies and vermin of all sorts. Surprisingly the fun-loving owner (what else he could be!) had named each room by the name of a city / nation without any logic whatsoever. So a room named Cairo was neighbored to Australia. While my destined room was named Chile (which was fine with me) sandwiched between New York and Beijing. I was astonished to be living in a boundary less world so deep inside the heart of Kenya’s Northern Wilderness.

Evening came and out came our juke boxes, screen, generator, etc and the village turned up in large numbers to justify this sojourn totally. There was absolutely nothing to eat there so we all slept off empty stomach, with perhaps bits and bites of a biscuit or dry bread. I was quickly learning that conservation community outreach efforts of Born Free had its ups and very low downs as well. It wasn’t an easy task they had embarked upon. And I was glad to be a part of this very special core group having the opportunity to see their work and ethos and drive from the inside.

The following morning, Mwenja and the entire team, I included were smiling our biggest smile for now we were headed home. While for me that wasn’t Nairobi yet completely true. That’s another adventure that would come as a separate post. For now I would like to conclude by saying that on our way back, we saw some spectacular sun rise across the Havana plains of Kenya, and when Mwenja dropped me at a pre-determined location for something specific I had in mind, nearly 250 km short of Nairobi, I just felt that in the last few days I had gained a dear friend and an experience to last a lifetime.

I could conclude with Hakuna Matata, but that wouldn’t mean a thing. So let’s say Jumbo Habari and Seinti.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kenya Calling – Crocodile Candy









For once the rapidity of the incidents unfolding around me has by far out maneuvered and outwitted my mental agility (many of you my staunch supporters would perhaps say, that is always the case) and consequently I am bit incoherent, confused and short on verbosity in this fine evening as I sit under a dark canopy of twinkling stars in the remote town of Wamba in Samboro Region. Very soon the moon would be up and would bereft of my soliloquy with the stars.

Therefore, let me begin with a quiz that is an answer in itself; so no prizes if you get it right. Prize might come your way if you don’t get the answer actually. And don’t even ask me why should my first story from Kenya come with the above title. I hope you would understand it by the time you reach the end. So here goes!

Q. Where on earth can you accomplish and successfully achieve all of the following within the span of the first 24 hrs of arrival: -

Cross the Equator twice
Gaze at the two highest peaks of a single continent
Shake hands with a lion before breakfast
Do a sit down lunch with a pack of zebras
Giraffe comes to sip your evening tea
At supper impalas share your meal
Lion’s growl lull you to sleep
And a cheetah rubbing its back on your tent flap is your wakeup call
Witness a gorgeous sun sink behind the clouds while wildebeests graze nearby
Welcome a full moon lit up the entire sky with hornbills flying across its glowing face

Well I must hastily add that I personally achieved all of these and a little more since I landed in Kenya. I could have done more, as any of you can, but for my jetlag and fatigue. Since the plains and the jungles, the animals and my very well meaning friends they all were totally up to it, to give me the most amazing 24 hrs of my life. I failed, they didn’t. Even if now some of you haven’t guessed yet, well I am talking about Kenya and the area around Nairobi specifically.

My proper reporting, series of stories and chapters like I had promised would commence soon, in a day or two or may be little later, as I am literally reeling under the myriads of experience and sensations that I am going through every minute. It’s too diverse and massive to be grasped by someone who doesn’t have a mind or brain (as you all know well about me), moreover ever since I landed I have been moving constantly, literally on the road so didn’t get much chance to assimilate my thoughts yet to be put down in a sensible manner. So I would begin with an extremely humorous story that Sandy told me during lunch and which is true. Despite being so humorous it has a strong message for all of us so to begin our Kenyan Safari (I am absolutely certain, that all of us are with me, every step of this incredible journey) let’s meet the Crocodile Candy.

Poaching is rampant all over Africa and Kenya in particular though game hunting is banned. Few months back, a man in all his tribal wisdom thought of a totally out of the box idea to get his animal out of the country. So he decided to put a crocodile in his hand baggage and simply got himself a ticket in a tiny 15 seater plane flying out. The crocodile did not protest or it might have been tranquilized before being boxed in. So the man keeps his delicate hand bag at his feet and snoozes off. Sometime during the flight the croc comes out of its snooze and realizes that he is totally out of his elements and doesn’t like it even one tiny bit. Perhaps he doesn’t like the airline meal either. Whatever might be the reason, for who can tell what’s going on inside a croc’s head, our friend decides to go for a stroll to stretch its limbs. Pops out croc and along the aisle he swaggers majestically flipping its horny tail and looking at his fellow passengers with utter disdain which they certainly deserve. And let me assure you my good readers, as Sandy assured me, that the croc did not mean any harm. All he desired as his birthright was a bit of fresh air and may be a little snack to go along. And if only no one had panicked, as we human are wont to do when faced with something unknown or never experienced before, this story wouldn’t be worthy of telling.

It could be the dainty airhostess (usually they are) or someone else who might have stepped on it, suddenly the morning torpor inside the aircraft erupted into an eruption capable of drowning Vesuvius. The entire occupants of the aircraft barring the croc and his sleeping master; ran forward and dived into the cockpit. One man even on the captain’s lap. The plane suddenly with so much additional head weight nose-dived and spun completely out of control. It crashed into the ground killing everyone except the croc and his still sleeping but perhaps now unconscious master.

How do we know that the story is true! Well the only human survivor of the cargo told us so! Ha! Most of you who are still awake would jump at me, ‘gotcha, how could he know what was going on, he was asleep all through the journey.’ And here I must agree. Unless he could experience reality while in his dreams. Somehow I didn’t ask this question to Sandy, but if Sandy says it is true and I totally believe him (don’t confuse him with my other friend Sandy, who is a woman), then so it is.

So let’s not argue about the veracity of the story but since now all of you are laughing with me, fact or fiction, that’s a damn good way to begin our Kenyan Safari. Until I find a net connection, some sleep, time to write up, time to dream and meet up with some inspiration, etc. etc. (for there are no dearth of excuses for a lazy crazy bum like me) and until we meet again. God bless and cheers!

Entirely for the purpose of making most of you go totally all shades of green I have posted few random pictures I took during the above 24 hrs. This might give you an indication what’s there in store over the next two months. And let me tell you that this is not even the tiniest tip of the iceberg that I am yet to see.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kenya Calling – Prologue



I am Kenya bound in less than a week. The obvious conclusion most of you would draw is that I am going there to climb Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro and jump into Lake Victoria and Turkana and perhaps try to put my head inside the jaws of a hungry lion, if only to see what happens! I have already done all of these before, well may be not the last one, yet.

While not intentionally, but providentially some or all of the above may happen, but this trip to Kenya is vastly different than my previous ones. I would be there for more than two months, spending most of my time with the wild animals and with the people who-often selflessly-are trying their best to keep the animals wild. It’s an exciting project I would be working on and gaining immense on ground experience in wild life behavior, habitability, man-nature conflict issues, and myriads of other. While there I would be writing regular posts and filing my stories as and when possible to access the net. You would be able to follow my journey through my stories and pictures till I eventually get eaten up by a lion or trampled beneath the foot of an elephant (good riddance most of you would happily sigh). Each of my subsequent posts would come with a title as if chapters of a book. So to begin this book, let me first give you a brief introduction to the main perpetrators of this endeavor (which is paramount in understanding the whole thing) and also introduce you to the main theme.

My present Kenya trip materialized because Providence decided to place a man at around 26,000 ft (within the death zone) on the great North Face of Mt Everest in the year 2004 literally at the spot where I had collapsed with my last breath and had thought I would never get up again. To cut an extremely long, complex and horrific story really short, when I lay there grasping the air for few molecules of oxygen, while slowly but surely being buried under the snow that fell from heaven like the Niagra, I had absolutely no doubts in my mind that it was my last few moments of this life. Visibility was less than the length of my outstretched arms and every feature of this magnificent landscape was blurred and blotted out by the white curtain. I was sunk to my waist, sprawled upon the snow like a sacrificial offering to the gods; which in a way I was.

Suddenly I hear a human voice, echoing and reaching my ears through the cacophony. Soon a human figure, looking more grotesque like an alien, materialize out of the white shroud and drags me inside the comforts of a warm tent filled with the aroma of good food and fluid. That was Ian, the British climber who was there sitting out the weather before making a summit attempt.

Ian in those days made living as a golf-pro in Switzerland. In my next trip to Switzerland I stayed with him and there he introduced me to his friend Sandy Gascoigne, to whom I was drawn instantly. During my travels within the country I stayed at Sandy’s place as well for few days and my stay with her was one of the best memories of that trip. Apparently we couldn’t be more different. She is beautiful, while I am distinctly ugly, she is a champion international level swimmer and I can barely stay on the surface. But we had a common thread of being passionate about what we believed in. After few more adventures, Sandy disappeared from my horizon and then several years later I got a mail telling that she now lived in Kenya working in a ranch along with someone, who too responded to the name Sandy.

Meanwhile, after quitting the Navy earlier this year, I started working on some grand plans of mine, which were ridiculous and improbable as always. Drawn out of my work on global warming, climate change, wildlife and sustainable initiatives, I conjured up a project where I wanted to travel and study 12 countries in the world about these issues and perhaps write a coffee table book on each of the nations. The grand vision being that through these extremely diverse and ecologically fragile countries I could show that the entire planet was being affected by the actions of each one of us, irrespective of who we were or where we lived. So it is time now to think of the planet as one and create a world without boundaries (a theme I have often professed) where we try to save humanity rather than an American or Indian or British. Great calamities of natural order unite human species and the issues I wished to cover and explore were the greatest natural calamities that man can expect to witness.

My project would be a peaceful battle against evil. Even if half the world is full of greedy people out to destroy our planet, there was no reason why the other half should give up and accept it as destiny.

To begin this ambitious project I made a pilot plan for New Zealand, Iceland and Peru. These countries topped the list since they are small, I know them well, have amazingly diverse flora and fauna and vast tracts of mountains and glaciated regions.

Suddenly literally out of the blue I got a mail from Sandy some time thereafter that she was visiting Delhi for a seminar. Despite my attempts to not be in civilization for more than 10 days at a stretch, I happened to be in Delhi when Sandy arrived. She visited me along with her friend Sandy and I realized she hadn’t lost any of her previous radiance and exuberance. We went out for an evening walk in Lodhi Garden following it up with sumptuous supper.

It was amazing to connect with her after all these years and we quickly discovered that we had much more in common than we had previously realized. As she recounted what she had been doing all these years and listened to mine, eventually I confided her with my grand project. Sandy immediately saw the potential and promise in what I had thought of and without a second thought invited me to come over to Kenya and begin my project with her resident country instead. After she left, we kept our correspondence and ideas bouncing back and forth across the oceans and the idea gained momentum and solidity with every passing day. In between I disappeared literally from the face of civilization on two expeditions. While I was gallivanting in the Himalayan echelons, Sandy kept up her part of the deal relentlessly, making contacts, talking to people and giving realistic shape to our common idea.

With her taking care of things in Kenya, it soon started raining lions and elephants and one day I found myself visiting the Kenyan Embassy and obtaining the visa. Now my bags are still unpacked and in complete disarray as always but I am more than ready to go. I am excited, tingling with anticipation since I know so little of what is going to happen and also that I know so little of the things in which I am going to be involved. I have no idea of my destinations, neither what I am supposed to do once I reach there, if I reach at all.

All I know is that Sandy will be there at the airport to receive me with her signature smile. And that it will be a grand adventure so keep checking back for more updates and stories as the days unfold. And hope like hell that the protagonist will continue to stay alive. Adios Amigos! Or may be now I should say it in Swahili: kwaherini

P.S. the accompanying picture is courtesy open source information ethics through internet

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Far is far enough!

How far will you go before you know you have gone far enough!

Well this is a question that cannot be answered hypothetically or theoretically. You need to get out there and into a situation where you would be stretched out both physically and mentally to know the answer. Even then you may never learn the real answer to the above quest. I haven’t, though I often go far, sometimes really far; and after going the distance when I turn around to return (for reasons of practicality) I know it deep inside my heart that I hadn’t yet gone far enough.

I don’t know if indeed there’s a horizon that would be my furthest where my heart would finally succumb and declare that I had gone far enough and it was now time to return. I don’t know if there would be a day when I would find this horizon even if it existed. People say I am living on and off the edge anyway. But how far is really far for me personally is something I have no clue about. Even then today I will relate to you of an incident that was near enough to my being ‘far’ but as you would see at the end, still wasn’t far enough.

It was a relatively large, well sponsored expedition in the Himalaya and our goal was to reach the apex of a massive peak that had never been climbed or explored before. Such peaks are exciting and challenging since so little is known about them and much of our plans made earlier fall apart on ground. This sense of the unknown allows the climber to use his survival skills more than his technical skills in order to stay alive and return from the top. So the mountain suited us and me perfectly.

Into the second week of the expedition, one afternoon, I found myself dangling from a sheer rock face around 2000 ft above ground, hammering protections into tiny fissures for my other team members to follow. On a near vertical ground being the lead is not so dangerous, since we are often protected by a sound belay from below. If I fall I would bruise, may be bleed, but death is a rare possibility. After a grueling hour I reach the end of my lead and settle on a tiny ledge and beckon my second to ascend. The ledge barely allows me to stand flat with my back squashed against the smooth rock. My toes are protruding out into emptiness. I look down and see my partner jumaring up in perfect synchronization of his upper and lower limb. Beyond him and far below lay the yawning crevasses of the glacier we had left few days earlier. If I dropped a stone from my stance it would hit nothing till it reached the glacier below. I am happy and almost feel airborne caught into the setting sun and the halcyon breeze. Suddenly my friend from below, who had been looking up, cried in alarm. I barely had time to look up and jump aside reflexively even as a thunderous cloud of rocks came crashing down from above.

Miraculously my helmet is battered only by medium sized rocks and all my anchors hold but two big stones, each weighing at least fifty kilos crash into my legs. One pinning my right ankle and toe in a gory angle while the other shattering my right knee and the ACL, before they both fall away into nothingness. It is over even before it started. In seconds the mountain side regaines its solitude and forlorn composure. There had been no warning, no signs of this disaster. My friend, who had pressed himself like a rag piece into a fissure down below, to escape the onslaught, now extracts himself and stares at me with sheer fright writ all over his face. The rope joining us hadn’t parted and hadn’t had any direct hits either. For the present I stay where I am securely fastened to my anchors and my friend dangles below. Apparently we are in no immediate danger. Even then we both know that we had just escaped an inglorious death by the narrowest margin possible.

Through my fogged brain, bruised by the rocks hitting my helmet, I slowly begin to feel pain all over my body. I look at my leg without comprehension as if in a movie I am watching a third person. And then out of the blue, an excruciating pain like a bolt of thunder leaps out of my right leg and shoots through my entire body. I scream as loud as I can. It is pure reflex. The pain makes me giddy. My head spins and my head rolls from side to side. As another jolt hit me, I scream even louder. My right leg feels like a lump of jelly. Surprisingly my pale colored trouser does not feel wet or show any shades of red. Both my friend and I are veterans in such arenas and have lived through countless such situations. Accidents and deaths are not alien to either; but the absence of blood worries me. I realize, when I had swung out, my left leg had escaped any major impact while my right leg had been fraction of a second late in leaving the ledge. I now carefully got my left leg back on the ledge and take the weight off the right, which eases the pain marginally but immediately it starts to dangle in an impossible angle, which confirms that I had certainly broken something very severely.

I try to move around a bit but the pain only increases. Just below my waist on the right side, my entire leg seems to be on fire or on a bed of nettles. After few moments when the adrenalin had dissipated a little in my blood, I calm my screaming head and convince myself that there is no pain. Willingly I dismember my right leg from my consciousness and from my sensory nerves that carry signals to the brain. It stops hurting for the time being. Despite the reduction in pain, my right leg didn’t have the physical capacity to bear any load and it remains dangling grotesquely. Eyeing my anchors absolutely safe, I signal my friend to climb up. Soon he is next to me and secures himself to the anchors so that now he can swing out and take a look at my leg. I can do nothing except sit in my harness and let my friend do the rest.

My friend takes hold of my right climbing shoe and with infinite care gets it off my foot. It takes a while to get it out fully and when it finally comes out, we see what the obstruction was and an involuntary gasp escapes us. My right big toe has totally uprooted from its socket and has traveled back towards my ankle and now it stood up at right angles to the ground like a flag pole. I stare disbelievingly at this appendage that is my big toe and couldn’t fathom how it reached this exalted position. I didn’t know that such a thing is possible in human anatomy. What do we do, my friend asks. Put it back to where it belongs, I suggest. Without it going back I would never be able to put my shoe back on. It wasn’t a fracture, only a dislocation and I thought we just had to put it back in its true location. I also know when my friend would pull it up and beyond, I would be subject to the greatest pain I have ever endured. Are you sure, my friend asks again. I nod and ask him to be quick and once he had the toe in his grip not to hesitate or stop in between.

It seemed a simple maneuver. Grip the toe firmly then pull it up in one jerk and then pull it forward till it fell back into its socket.

My friend grips my toe and I scream till I choke on my own saliva. The pain is beyond words. I can only scream like an animal being slaughtered. He pulls it up and I bite into my lips till I draw blood. He pulls it forward and suddenly we hear a resounding click as the ball joint falls back into its socket. I am bathing in my sweat in the air hovering at 16 deg C below zero. Then he rolls up my climbing trousers to feel my knee. It is swollen up like balloon and below my knee the leg is twisted to a degree that is impossible with all ligaments intact. Instinctively I know that my ACL is torn, and my right leg is therefore incapable of bearing any further weight. In place of my right leg I only have a useless stump, attached and dangling to my knees held by muscles and torn ligaments. It is a miracle that my knee cap hadn’t shattered or that there isn’t any bleeding at all.

We prepare to abseil, now the distant summit looming out of my reach. Pitch after pitch my friend supports me like a baby often down climbing and preparing rest points for me, and self anchoring at perilous places where a mere slip could kill us both. Words are unnecessary; any concern to my pain is totally irrelevant; only action can save us. We utter nothing and I fill my soul up with silent screams with every jolt and jerk that hound me by hundreds every minute.

Hand over hand, pitch by pitch, slowly and steadily the glacier gains proportion and finally I crash down on the hard ice along with my friend who is completely wasted. We shake hands and smile in complete glee. Our moment is now and in ‘now’ we both are alive and hence it is a moment to cherish, to celebrate, and to reseal our friendship and camaraderie. We could be dead in the next but that’s not our concern for the time being. We are still a day’s walk away from the advance base where our friends waited for our news and if I limped or dragged myself across the crevasse ridden glacier I would take forever to return. While alone my friend can get back with help much sooner.

We pitch our tent and my friend places me inside like a baby and takes his leave. As the impending gloom swallows his receding form, I know that he is indeed walking on the edge. Though now we are physically separated he still carries the seed of my life in his hand. I know he had to be dead to fail in his efforts to save me. Such trust and dependency comes easily in the mountains.

The night passes with me passing in and out of the delirious pain. I convince myself it will be over soon. The dawn is sweet and enchanting as always, only my pain fails to excite me as before. Even then I drag myself out of the tent and savor the warmth on my face and frozen limbs. I know my injuries are serious and I have no idea of the future but I wonder if I had gone far enough. My friends appear a little before noon and carry me down on a makeshift stretcher.

One look at my sprawled form and our doctor wants a helicopter evacuation. Financially we can do it, but do I want to go. I ask him to set my legs in any kind of fixture (he carried no plaster) that would at least prevent the right leg to dangle like a dismembered stump. My left leg is fine and so is my head. The big toe behaves itself. The pain is acute but then that is my friend. I also ask him to pump me with pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Otherwise I am fit. I haven’t lost any blood, no major bones broken. Is there any justification for me to leave and give up on the climb! I ponder, had I gone far enough, or should I keep going.

In my present state I am a complete burden to my friends if I decide to climb on. I can’t belay and I am a dead weight. I can crawl on ground but can I climb through vertical pitches? Being back to the Base, I am now back where we had started; in short a vertical distance of nearly 10,000 ft and a horizontal distance of six kilometers to the summit along with unheralded perils of a first ascent. Even a crazy lunatic would know that I am completely outnumbered and outweighed by the obstacles that lay ahead. For the sake of the expedition’s success I cannot ask my friends to support me. They must go for the summit. Mountains teach us practicality.

We can think of our dearest friends in the most impartial and detached manner without any emotions or guilt involved. The equation is simple, anyone who is a burden to the overall goal, is to be left behind and down below. Decision is unanimous and I am the first to declare. I am not climbing with you guys; the doctor begins to smile; but I am climbing on my own. I end with a certainty that no one else oppose. It’s my life and I have a right to do whatever I wish with it and as long as I do not hamper others or seek any kind of exemption or favor, they are fine.

The plan is simple in itself. My friends would lead and climb as a team, in two pairs while I will follow them from a safe distance by whatever means I could. They are not to stop for me or offer me any assistance, or climb down in case I come to any harm. If I fall and die or break further bones, the risk will entirely be mine. The only assistance they would however provide would be to set up my tent and cook for me since I would be well behind them. To this arrangement everyone agrees, though the doctor tries to change my mind, and fails miserably in his efforts. We rest for two more days and then we are ready to depart.

That night I lie alone beneath the stars and ponder my motivation, my need, my restlessness, my all consuming desire to go back up from where I had escaped death so narrowly.

The prize at the end of the road, if I reached, was immense to my mind at least. A much coveted summit of a first ascent, of seeing never before seen mountains, of the battle between life and death, of staying on the edge, of pushing myself till I redefined my limits or fell in the attempt. Somehow my normal logic of safe climbing, that the peak will always be there, etc didn’t sound convincing. I just wished to go. Life seldom gives a second chance, I may never return to these mountains and even if I do I may never again have the same companions, who were among the world’s finest climbers. All I wanted was to go and see how far I was willing to go before I knew I had gone far enough.

The climb to the summit lasted two weeks and it’s way beyond the purview of this post for me to chronicle how I made it to the top, limping and crashing every step of the way, but following the steps of my friends when I crawled the last few meters to the icy summit from where my friends cheered me on, and stood up on my good leg, I knew that my decision was the right one. And also that I had not yet gone far enough.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Fool’s Promise

This is not a tale of courage, or intrepidity. This is a story about a promise made by a fool, influenced by foolish chemicals rushing through his non-existent brain; a promise he fulfilled and in the process almost did not make it back to the one he had made the promise; much to the predicament of the latter. But overall it’s a story of how minds react and body overreacts at high altitudes where air is thin and summits even thinner. Enjoy this harebrained tale of a foolhardy cavalier, who has since then learnt his lessons; or has he!

It has often happened in my life that when I disappear for long extreme adventures, I had an amorous interest; but not after I return. The person either presuming that I wasn’t going to return, would herself disappear or would opt for someone else more earth and civilization bound. This has been and is an oft repeated reality of my life – no complaints though. The fault, if any, lay clearly on my court since I simply refused to promise that I would return; it wasn’t for me to make that promise since it was out of my powers to keep me alive in the days to come and I never make a promise that I can’t fulfill. But for once a particular woman with beautiful eyes and an enchanting trill to her laughter got a promise out of me just before I left for the mountains.

For the sake of this post, I would call this particular woman A. To keep her anonymous in other senses I wouldn’t mention the year as well, neither the name of the peak on which this little episode was enacted. Such details are not essential to the moral of the story.

When A came to bid me goodbye the evening before I left for the Himalaya, she handed me over a thin gold chain that she always wore around her neck. I had never seen her parting it off from her person. She takes it off and puts it in my hand and says, ‘Satya, I want you to promise me that you would bury this chain at the highest point on the mountain.’ Perhaps the moment was delicate, perhaps there were tears brimming in her eyes, or perhaps my mind wanted to believe that such promises can be made, even when you can’t predict the future. I promise that I will. We embrace and we part.

It was a long and arduous expedition, we were making first ascent of a peak that had been rarely seen before. It was massive, grand and the ice pyramid we were upon defined everything that I hold dear in my life. Despite all the severities of weather, perils of ice, cold and rock falls, clubbed with near vertical pitches of extreme nature, I finally find myself along with my companion on the summit ridge of the peak that till then had no name.

As I top the face, which had kept me and my team busy and sweating over the last ten days, I realize that the true summit could well be out of our reach. I also realize that over the last forty days I haven’t forgotten the promise made to A and neither have I lost the chain she had given me. The chain lies snuggly inside the breast pocket of my climbing jacket, urging me perhaps that I had promises to keep. Only two of us of the first summit team, my companion and I have managed to reach the summit ridge and a knife-edge ridge lay before us like a shark’s fin. It’s not really long, perhaps few hundred meters till it rises to its crest, which is more like gossamer of an icy wave, as if carved and sculpted by some truant waft of Himalayan breeze. It defies belief that this crest or summit hadn’t yet crashed due to gravity or hadn’t been blown away by the wind. The summit ridge is corniced on the other side and I have to lean out really well, held by a rope around my waist by my companion, to see the sheer ice wall zooming down to the glacier below like void into nothingness. The empty air howls up at me and I shiver in my duvet.

Vertically, we are less than ten meters below the summit crest-which is actually a huge cornice-while horizontally we are around 250 meters away. Technically if the actual summit is not a part of the summit rock feature (like it is right now) and it is objectively too hazardous to step on it (like it is right now) then any point reached within 10 meters vertical separation from it is considered a summit and one need not approach this summit feature any closer than 50 meters horizontally to claim the ascent. In other words, we have absolutely no need to climb any higher, though we must close the gap to the summit crest by about another 200 meters.

I take the lead and we walk on the ridge, keeping our two foot steadily on either side of it. Thankfully the day is sunny and the cross wind is moderate enough for us to stay upright. The sheer drop on either side of me keeps me on my guard, as there’s little room for any mistake. The rope between us stays taught and I walk with my sight fixed on the summit crest at the distance, which is gradually reducing as we approach on a literal tip-toe.

Mostly on such climbs and at such places, even if there is more than one person, words are superfluous and each prefers to submerge in his own world of thoughts and dreams. I always think of my next horizon, where would I see my next sun set and rise, and if I would see the next one at all. I think of the promises I never made but should have, I think of the paths that could have been my way but never would and I think of all the lives I could have lived but I didn’t. And I am always happy. After all, living each moment as my last, I normally am doing what I exactly wish to do, so I have every reason to be happy and content with life, wherever I may be.

Gradually the ridge keeps getting thinner and narrower as we walk on lose piles of snow and spindrift frozen in the morning chill. We literally walk on extremely thin ice. My companion urges me to stop and turn back; I too echo his thoughts. Our estimated horizontal distance from the summit crest is no more than 20 meters and we definitely have the summit in the bag (if such a thing can ever be done) and there’s absolutely no reason to go any further. We both are tired and famished and tethering at the brink of physical collapse.

I stop, digging my crampons and ice axes deep into the ice and allow my companion to catch up with me. I look back at the corniced ridge behind him and catch my breath at the vast chasm we have to walk back through. It’s dangerous enough to walk once on thin and broken ice, but to repeat the feat is almost suicidal, though we have no other option. As it is the stakes are extremely high stacked against us. I feel the chain with my gloved fingers and wonder. My partner sits next to me and looks around at the amazing world we are encompassed within. This is his first big summit and he is euphoric, but not enough to want to go any longer. He hadn’t made any promises, he longs for home and his family. I long for nothing but can’t let go off my promise. I am still not on the highest point on the mountain.

I show him the chain, tell him of my promise and he knows what I want to do. He says I am mad, I smile, he says I had lost it, and I agree, he says no ways, I say just one more time hold my life in your hand; if I fall you are free to cut the rope and descend. He prepares a snow bollard and digs into the ice. I shake his hand and stand up. A promise made out of free will must be fulfilled, or one should fall in the attempt.

As my distance from the belay open up I feel like a trapeze artist, swinging free thousands of meters above ground with no safety net below. The cornice is so pronounced now that I might as well be walking on thin air. I can go down to more solid ground on the face but that will take me away from the summit crest and my objective. I stick to the knife edge cornice ridge and with every step kick the snow hard before I rest my weight. Unbeknownst I am sweating profusely with the effort, a tight knot coiled like an anaconda about to spring lies at the bottom of my stomach. If I am still breathing I do not do so consciously. My entire world is focused on my next step. I clutch the chain in my hand and reach out at the wave that forms where the summit is buried somewhere deep down. If I extend my ice axe standing on my toes I can nearly reach the top of the wave, but I wish to climb it, stand there and then bury the chain. I plunge my ice axes and they hold long enough for me to pull myself up. My crampons find purchase and I scramble the last few feet to the top and then I am standing at the highest point on the mountain.

I let out a long breathe of relief. But before I can take the next breath, the ground beneath my feet collapse and I hurtle out into empty space like a skydiver without the benefit of a parachute. And as I fall, I wonder if I would uproot my belay or break the rope, and how far would I fall before I crashed and smashed into smithereens and should I scream or just go silently from this world.

While tons of ice breaks beneath and above me, huge ice blocks hitting my body mercilessly, I watch in slow motion both my ice axes tearing away from my hands and hurtling and disappearing into the void that would be my world soon. Death is my constant companion and I live in her shadow so she is an ally but what horrifies me instead is the gold chain that follows the ice axes, shining and shimmering in the forenoon sun, now out of my reach forever. Though I console my mind; I did fulfill my promise, it did reach the highest point on the mountain, even though it stayed there for less than a minute.

The jolt around my waist that brings me to an undignified halt nearly breaks my spine. I can literally hear the rope fibers willing to part and release the weight. I am dangling like a free pendulum nearly 6000 ft from nearest ground and I am smiling into the radiating sun; would I, could I once again shake hands with eternity and return to tell the tale.

Like I said at the beginning this is not a tale of courage or intrepidity so I must not divulge any more of this story but go back to the one in which a promise had been made and had been fulfilled as well.

When I return and tell A that I had left the chain where she wanted though it isn’t there any more, she gives me a queer look, which doesn’t make her look very happy. I am surprised, since I am elated, while she didn’t appear to be so. I am happy as well to see that she was still there. But to conclude this story I must confide that soon thereafter A left my world for another which she hoped would be better than mine.

I hope it was and still is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

One More Step

I am often asked what exactly my mind churns when I am doing a dangerous and reckless climb, where the outcome is unknown and I had already crossed the point of no return. Never have I been able to give a satisfactory answer, mostly I would nod and say I don’t remember, since once out of the perilous situation (self orchestrated) my numb and dumb brain would quickly forget all that my mind must have gone through. But in a recent trip of mine, the moment I returned to safer grounds, I jotted down some of my thoughts immediately on a piece of paper and later on reading it, thought it may still not be the right answer to the question of my mind, but it is a convincing one nevertheless, so here it is.

While I was going through the miniscule notebook that I had managed to keep and return with during this trip, through the smudged up pencil marks and torn and soaked pages, I discovered that at the end of the day when I climbed the peak and then came down through atrocious conditions, thankful that the soft snow sucked my body like quicksand lest I would have fallen off the edge, I scribbled few lines and here
they are as they were written : -

‘Always focus on your next step, one more step; the one you are about to take. Sooner or later it will be all that would matter; can you, will you take one more step or not. And remember that in almost all cases that’s all that you can do – take the next step, take one more step.’

I guess I wrote these thoughts since that’s what I had been doing through the night and that brutal blizzard since I had nothing else to do, just keep taking my next step, one more step and that’s the only thing that kept me alive and got me back to the world of living. If I had stopped even for few minutes I would have frozen and gone.

Is the above heroic, or in any way beneficial; either to you or to me? It is completely stupid and I am sure for those few days I had utterly lost my mind. Sitting right now in my room it doesn’t seem that it was I who had undergone that experience; it all seems so distant now as if it had happened to someone else.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Virtual Satya

Satya’s own website! The idea seemed far-fetched and preposterous and Satya said so to his friend who insists that Satya must immediately grab the domain name www.satyabratadam.com Satya’s logic is simple, why a personal website and who would be interested? A (Satya’s ever faithful computer geek friend) further insists that many around the globe would be keen to follow him and his stupid insane exploits and would want to know what in general is happening with him once he is out of the Navy. But I am not a celebrity, people only follow celebrities and their bovine tantrums, Satya persists. Well my friend, you are, A chips in, and if you are not we would make you one and getting a website is the first step towards it. That jolts Satya’s self esteem a bit; and he retorts, but I am a kind of non-conformist (he didn’t want to mention the word ‘celebrity’) in my own field, after all people pay for my airfare, boarding and lodging and something on the sides from many countries just to hear me talk, something that my Indian friends ask me not to do. They argue and eventually when A realizes that Satya is slowly gaining on him he barks with the finality of Nostradamus: just do it and it costs less than 500 rupees annually. That nailed the coffin for Satya. For a miser like him, money is a big thing when it is mentioned in small quantities. So Satya logs into A’s preferred domain purchasing site Godaddy the next day and buys www.satyabratadam.com paying by a credit card that was a gift from someone. He is pleased and so is A that Satya managed a .com domain name and no less, which in reality only proved that there was only one gullible loser in the world called Satyabrata Dam. But when Satya receives the confirmatory email from Daddy saying that now he is the rightful owner of the domain name www.satyabratadam.com at least for the next 365 days he feels some amount of pride pushing his chest from inside making his shirt buttons pop silently. Less than a day later he promptly forgets all about it and that’s where the website remains immobile till one day someone literally sashayed into Satya’s life.

Weeks and months passed, sun went around or rather we went around the sun, and Satya’s domain name remained only that, a name, a figment of virtual reality, a domain that could have been his but would never be. A, the good and persistent friend that he is, once in a while did try to flog the dormant idea with Satya but Satya always avoided the main topic by asking about A’s ongoing sci-fi novel or his latest photography ventures. But as they say every idea has its time and every dreamer does wake up one day. To cut a very long novel into few lines, time and destiny brought Satya to the Gujarat capital of Ahmadabad in late 2009 and just days before he would depart from there, never to return again (early 2010) he stumbles upon a brilliant graphic designer M at a Holi (Hindu festival of color) gathering and become friends. He saw her work and liked the way she dealt with colors, ideas and pictures. As his impending departure from the Navy loomed nearer and nearer Satya toyed with the idea of how to do nothing and still keep the appearance of doing something. A resumed his www.satyabratadam.com campaign with Satya with renewed vigor as if God had appointed him to get the task done. Satya discussed the idea with M since she also designs websites and told her that whatever he did in life has to be unique, whacky and deceptive like him. She surprised him by taking up the challenge and got down to work. Ideas and pictures and texts as well as despairs and desperations followed. She put her best staff on the job. She got hold of the techie guy who would bundle the entire thing in codes and mysterious binary form.

Satya is a born escapist and never does a thing that cannot be done by short cut, which means with minimum efforts on his part. So right at the moment when everything seemed ready to go up in utter pandemonium he ran away for a long expedition while connecting M with his computer consultant A (who works for Satya free since it adds to his elitist status). Satya’s logic again was simple; since these were his friends who claimed that they knew him well (even Satya can’t make that claim) and actually knew what they were talking about (again Satya can’t claim this) and he had nothing further to contribute or distribute towards www.satyabratadam.com so to reduce at least one chef from the kitchen it was time for him to depart. And boy did he disappear! In all this chaos he had completely forgotten that his domain name was nearing expiry. The rest of the story he learnt when he returned to civilization. So I am giving only a gist of it as it happened through conversation between M (designer), A (computer consultant) and B (programmer).

M: Who the hell does he think he is? Disappearing like this, leaving me to do all the dirty work. I am not going to call up any of his friends for testimonials, neither am I going to look at his pictures. He is just a pompous ass, who thinks he can make anyone do anything he wants too. Totally irresponsible, good for nothing useless bum!

A: I agree with you, but he is nice chap too. Can always make you laugh with his jokes. Let’s do it this one time for him. But I really can’t help you much, I am busy with my sci-fi novel and the spaceship has just crashed on Alpha Centauri where you know the gravity is fifty times that on sun so I am trying to figure how to get the spaceship out… maybe I shouldn’t have allowed it to crash land there in the first place. After all I am the writer, but hang on I think it was Satya’s idea, he only told me to crash, but why did I listen to him. I am the author, I am in control… you are right. Let’s forget about www.satyabratadam.com serves him right for crashing me.

M bangs the phone down muttering to herself…. ‘all his friends are loony like him’. She combs her totally unruly hair and looks at the setting sun in despair and then her artistic and philanthropic instincts take the upper hand. She had really liked the challenge of designing a different kind of website for someone as distinct and non-definable as Satya and for the sake of her own creativity she couldn’t just let it go. And she ponders that now that Satya had no visible source of income he would be really poorly off if the website didn’t materialize. She opens her Mac book, goes to Godaddy, buys server space, renews domain name, arranges the pictures, proof reads all the text, sends mails to Satya’s friends for testimonials, in short looses sleep, etc. etc.

Eventually, while the hero of this entire episode is cooling his heels on some Himalayan peak far from the maddening crowds, the trio of M, B and A finally unfurl www.satyabratadam.com to the unsuspecting world. As suspected; absolutely nothing happened, the stock markets remained bullish, no flights got delayed, moon remained in its orbit, in short the world before and after www.satyabratadam.com appeared to be totally identical expect few satisfactory smiles and self-assured pats on the back of MBA.

Soon when Satya returned from his adventure burnt black like charcoal, M calls him up excitedly to tell him about www.satyabratadam.com Satya calls her back in five minutes, ‘It could have been better.’ M fumes and frets and utters with all her restraints, ‘for better or for worse www.satyabratadam.com is here to stay, so you better get used to the idea you stupid oaf.’

With this optimistic note I must now conclude my story. I really can’t claim that the above is true though in my blog I claim that whatever I post is always true, well who knows may be some part of this story is and some of it isn’t – I would let you my worldly-wise readers to be the judge and while judging do keep a large bucket of salt next to you. A had told me once that in the virtual world one percent is belief and ninety nine percent is make belief like his never ending sci-fi novel. But as I am a good friend of Satya, I am now going to sit down and check www.satyabratadam.com and then give you my verdict. Meanwhile you all must go through it and give me yours. In this hour of need we all must stand by with our full support for Satya, even though he may never need it but then he never actually knows what he needs and what he doesn’t. Here’s to MBA and to www.satyabratadam.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

When I discovered a new style of climbing


In the beginning of the great Himalayan climbs there was the ‘siege ‘ style that was more like a jamboree headed by a sahib of British or European origin, followed by a staggering number of porters, orderlies, factotums, carrying even more staggering number and volume of scientific and exploratory equipment. They were mostly unsure of what they intended or what the specific objective of it all was; if there was one. The idea of actually standing astride a lofty summit was primarily secondary since exploration and opening up the area and filling up the blank spaces in the maps were more in the order of the day. Few intrepid climbs were done nevertheless by such swashbuckling leaders like Shipton, Smyth et al. With the end of the European exploration and British dominance of the Himalaya post Indian independence, the next few decade unfurled the siege style to its utmost glory and evolutionary developments till one day two fine men from the Alps came and introduced ‘Alpine’ style into the grand arena of Himalayan and trans-Himalayan Ranges. Suddenly, light and lightning-fast ascents became the fad as more people poured in from all over the world. Carrying all that one can in one’s backpack without any external support from the Sherpa or porters beyond the Base Camp gained prominence.

Much before the Himalayan onslaught by the western conquistadors the art of climbing was being evolved and perfected in the European Alps of France, Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland and to an extent in UK as well where people were taking the art of ‘hill walking’ to all new heights and connotation. Alpine climbs did not involve the magnitude, complexity or physical rigors of Himalaya but they required entirely different set of climbing styles and being near civilization did not need the dependence on any support team, who would not eventually climb the mountain. The minimalistic style came into being. The big walls of rock or ice encouraged climbers to climb in pairs or solo, with or without top ropes, free, or using only a bivouac device. Then someone thought of ‘on-sight’ style; which primarily means that you climb a mountain or a face or a route just by looking at it on first sight, without any previous plan, knowledge or beta about it. For example you are walking towards your intended face and en route you suddenly come across something that looks interesting but of which you had no previous knowledge and on the spot you decide to attempt it, then that’s on-sight.

Along with the different styles and development of equipment and techniques, climbers too added to their bulk, endurance, strength, gymnastic abilities, suicidal predilections, etc and eventually to lighten themselves begin to shed their clothes – first the upper torso coverings and then the lower ones too. This obviously meant that these climbers were never going to go up in altitude only in attitude on massive rock and artificial walls. Women followed men in this arena soon and we now have superbly crafted women climbers wearing less than a ‘Sports Illustrated’ model climbing such high standards that even the male spectator has absolutely no time or inclination to check out the gender of the climber. At the extreme end of this spectrum we now do have nude climbers too. So this is an established style as well. Imagine a climber wearing only a harness and rope, climbing boots along with crampons and a pair of ice axes and nothing else, going up a sheer face of ice in what they now call 5 point climbing. All these styles have many proponents and none of them are a big deal anymore, but among all of these defined and delineated styles, the one which I find most mindboggling and one that I am yet to try on a big rock wall is the one where you simply go up on a near vertical face solo without any belay or safety device. You don’t use self-belay or arrest and in fact you don’t even carry a rack, nothing at all; only your limbs, your strength and your wit. Quite a few of my friends are master of this style, which comes nearest to being suicidal perhaps since there’s absolutely no room for failure or mistake. Once you leave the ground, you better top out.

After spending 79.12% of my lifespan in the vertical arena around the globe I had pretty much lead myself to believe that I had seen it all and there wasn’t any new climbing style left for me to view or experience till I self-devised (necessity being the mother of invention) one during my recent outing into the Himalaya where all I had hoped to do was a simple silly solo traverse through some of the little known valleys and green meadows. For the want of imagination, vocabulary and thawing of my perpetually frozen brain I would like to label this style as ‘mad style’ of climbing. Here’s the story in a big nutshell.

Never before have I been so utterly and inappropriately prepared for a climb of a Himalayan peak since in this trip I had absolutely no intention to climb anything besides some passes above 17,000 ft. Besides the usual assortments in my backpack, the only equipment and clothing I carried with me that could be used to ice climb were: pair of Grivel G12 crampons, pair of OR gaiters, pair of Lekir ski poles, pair of DMM 12” runners, pair of open gate BD karabiners, one MH goretex shell jacket, Julbo micro pore glasses and my ever faithful companion the 12 function Swiss knife. As you can see I had two very vital objects missing: ice axes and ice climbing boots, besides of course a climbing partner (but that’s something I have often done without). The peak in question is a modest Himalayan giant rearing at around 6600 m by the name of Manirang standing precisely between the district boundaries between Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. I didn’t know much about the peak since it never was my intention except that it would fall close to my intended trekking trail as I would cross over from Kinnaur to Spiti. All I knew that it had been climbed several times in the past and it posed only moderate technicalities in terms of ice and rock but it had bad weather reputation since it divided two major climatologically different zones of Himalaya. Other than this all I had to rely upon was a Survey of India map that showed me the exact contours, gradients of the climb.

To begin with after I took off on my own into the Ropa Valley towards the high and difficult Manirang Pass (which lay at the base of the peak), very soon characteristically and typically I lost my way into the thick jungle; normally I would have loved to get and be lost and just patter on but this time I had a severe deadline to return to and even more severe urge to accomplish what I had set my heart upon. For some reason this time I really wished to succeed and on the second day of my being ‘lost’ I had made up my mind to attempt Manirang peak itself, or at least find out in the process if it can be done in such a way (mad style). So I retrace my path back into the last village I had come across and inquire if there’s anyone who would or could show me the way.

World is full of gullible people and if you try hard enough you would find one who would believe (even if not in entirety) in your dream and would even be willing to aid you in realizing it. So I finally find a man who very reluctantly agrees to come a part of the way, I of course do not tell him that I intend to climb the peak. He offers to take me till the base of the pass and then return. As I readily agree to an astronomical sum as his wage I had no idea what we two would soon find ourselves into.

The journey starts innocuously enough – two fools (one willing and knowing, the other willing and not knowing) bent double under heavy packs – we walk along the gorge and rushing frothing waters and head off into the same jungle where I had earlier lost my way. Every apple orchard we passed through, we cleaned some of the trees for sure and soon I hate the sight of any redder, delicious juicy apples. At our camp site we meet a shepherd and his sheep sniff around and poke inside our sacks and tent. He strongly advocates that we do not proceed further on our route as it had been completely devastated by recent rain and landslides. He cautions that even the shepherds had not ventured any further in the current year. But then listening to someone other than my own mind is totally alien to me, so next morning, after some hearty persuasion, I start off into the unknown with my guide taking up the rear. The trail takes us straight atop a steep ridge, which we finally surmount after an hour of brisk climb and we make tea at a derelict hut of some shepherd from the past. The scenery ahead looks simply magical. Column after column of green hills lay towards our intended horizon. They were steep for sure but nowhere frightening as the shepherd had cautioned. And topping out at the horizon were the lower reaches and the tumbling glaciers of the peak I intended to attempt. Such magnificent views of nature in its starkest facet is sure to gladden any grieving heart and soon my companion and I break into a rustic song even as we sip tea and frolic in the halcyon breeze. Soon we come to a point that looks virtually impossible to cross.

The faint trail simply disappears into a massive landslide that had virtually scooped up half of the mountain face. The landslide stretched right from the top till the bottom that fell away vertically all the way down to the frothing gorge around a thousand meter below. The mud was dry and solid, caked smooth and there was no purchase of any kind anywhere. It spanned around 20 meters of horizontal ground, beyond which the faint trail could be seen again. Without an ice axe or anything sharp, we had no means to cut steps on the dry mud. None of us knew the ancient art of levitation and it seems that my expedition would come to a premature halt barely 48 hrs from when it started. We both scratch our heads and xxxxx for want of anything better and look up and down and at the bright sun and the blue skies and the opposite distant hill dotted with white sheep and an emerald lake. We could go back and try to find another way but my companion assured me that the only other way in would be for us to go down and wade the gorge, which would certainly drown us both. Like I always say, there are moments in life when the best option is not to have one; and this is one such occasion. I explain my plan to my guide, who almost swoons, but the poor guy finally resigns to his fate (or to his fee perhaps).

My plan is simple for which I have Newton to thank – for it relied on gravitational pull. Being perpetually in nature I have realized that it is pointless to defy or to deny the forces of nature or going against them, like the wind, gravity, weather, etc. Rather than trying to oppose them we must go with them and harness their strength to our advantage (which in my case is to stay alive). May be the mind thinks differently above 14,000 ft, but to me it appeared perfectly logical and sane that all I needed to do to cross the landslide patch was to climb up considerably on this side and then run down diagonally across so that even as gravity is pulling me down towards the gorge below I would be able to leave the slide area around the place where the trail starts on the other side. I worked out some trigonometry and decided that to run diagonally down across a horizontal distance of 20 mtr and to emerge at the same level, provided my speed is around 15 km/h, I needed to climb up around 30 mtr on this side. Later, on returning home when I worked out the actual calculation I realized that I was way off the mark, but thank god that no such uncertainty came into my mind when I was up there. The only certainty I had at that moment was that if my calculation was wrong or my speed any less than within few seconds of my taking off I would be reduced to a ball of dust that gravity would pull down with increasing speed and soon I would be flying off into oblivion. Surprisingly, at that point of time, the option of giving up on the trek and going back did not even appear to me as an option. What egged me on was the fact that my guide kind of believed in me. Like they say, if one proposes and another agrees then it’s a sound deal; no matter what.

I strap my sack tightly to my body and climb up, from there aim for the trail on the other side, look up and send a prayer to someone who might be free at the moment and take off. My shoes slip and slide, vertically there’s nothing to support my weight, I am virtually running on emptiness with a huge void beneath. I run, I skid, I begin to fall, but I keep running keeping my sight fixed to the exit point. I dig the edge of my shoes as much as I can into the solid hard unyielding mud and keep going. The breeze catches me and I stop breathing. I am responsible for whatever I do, for whatever happens to me so I cannot blame anyone for the inglorious end that beckons me, hovers around me. My ear buzzes and my heart leaps in fright.

Suddenly I am on the other side, still sliding, falling, totally out of balance and I roll on the green grass grabbing on to anything that my fingers can clutch and I come to a stop. I have made it, I am across, I am laughing like crazy, I can’t believe it. With that I also knew I had crossed the point of no return. After much coaxing I could get my companion up on the other side. Then I took out my crampons and went back up without the load of my pack and made some cursory steps on the mud for my guide to follow. Soon we were on our way and we feel that all our troubles are over – and predictably how utterly wrong we were. The same day we cross three more such landslide zones, and applying my earlier theory to the perfection I waltzed across each succeeding one with more confidence than the previous one. My guide had by now got convinced that he was with a complete maniac who had Devil’s luck and as long as he stuck behind him, he would be all right. Though often he mentioned his wife and children with a longing as if he won’t be seeing them again.

What made the journey worse was the rain that soon caught up with us. Often mists prevented us from seeing vital features needed to cross over dangerous sections; which was a good thing in retrospective. That night we sheltered beneath a boulder outcrop, beneath which my tent barely fitted. We managed to keep the rain off us somehow but I wondered as I closed my eyes that night, what our fate would be if the boulder above us-currently a roof-would collapse and unearth due to the wet mud and crush us to smithereens beneath its towering weight.

Next day we continue further, climbing, descending, running, escaping, enjoying, laughing and lot of worrying across the majestic and pristine landscape. Just before we reach the one major river crossing on the trail, we had to negotiate a very steep, slippery descent over which my right knee came into real trouble. I couldn’t simply let go like my guide, since if I did I doubted if I would be able to brake with my wobbling, ACL torn knee, which would mean broken bones. So I down climbed sideways painfully keeping my weight on the pair of ski poles and keeping my eyes towards the horizon where the peak of my intent loomed larger and larger each passing hour.

Finally we reached the river, which was by then a swollen, frothing and raging body of furious water. We walked up and down considerable length of it but found no possible point to cross. We were only two people and we were exhausted after a long day and the water could easily wash us away. Though we tried at one point, going barely few meters inside when I pulled back. It was far too dangerous. If death came suddenly in the mountains then I was and am ok with it but I seriously decry the practice of stepping into the jaws of certain death. We decide to spend the night on this side and cross very early next morning when the levels would be lower; though the water would be near freezing. Soon my yellow tent came up on the sandy bank over boulders and we had a fire going of dry woods. Dinner followed and we slept soundly lulled and rocked by the roar of the river flowing by barely few feet away. I hoped like hell that it did not flood at night.

Next morning I wake up well before the first light and go out into the darkness to check the water level. It is considerably down, but as fast and ferocious as the previous evening. We decide to forego the morning tea and quickly break camp. By the time we are packed, it is lit up enough for us to decide on a crossing point. We sling our shoes around our neck, throw whatever else we can across the river and strip down to our underwear. I have mentally blocked the freezing cold out of my body and my guide shivered uncontrollably. We hold hand and step into the torrent. Soon we are across after some real struggle with the water. We quickly build a fire with dry twigs and get some warmth in our limbs. I make tea on my gas burner, shielded from the breeze by some rocks.

From there we climb into an ancient land with massive rocks and boulders hanging and jutting out of the steep slopes ready to crash down at any instant. We go forward and eventually get across the gorge on ice sheets formed atop the rushing water. At one point the ice sheet had completely collapsed and we again had to wade through the water much to our peril. From there we climb and rush across collapsing mud and rubbles where one minor slip would hurtle us back into the water and to certain grave. Then rain started afresh and once again we take shelter beneath a tiny rock roof huddling and holding on to the wet rocky face lest we slip and fall off the edge into the gorge far below. By now my guide has sworn at least a hundred times that he would never again venture on this trail no matter how much someone offered him. He muttered prayers and offerings to his local gods to deliver him out of his present troubles. We finally overcome all odds and step on some amount of broad bank along the stream. From there another hour of back breaking and foot-slipping scramble across some really steep and broken ground takes us to the so called bottom of the climb towards the base of Manirang Pass (which would be my base for the climb).

The night is hauntingly beautiful with thick mist swirling from all sides, obfuscating the full moon that barely reach us and I expect to see a ghoul materialize any minute from the darkness surrounding our tent. My guide kept on muttering evil-warding chants even as we cooked and made some wheat breads on a broken tin plate and wet slab rock. We could well be the last two human beings on some unknown planet. We sleep fitfully, the cold breeze rattling our tent all night.

Next morning we start off by climbing straight up into the rock ribs cascading steeply off the slopes before stepping on to hard ice beneath which a stream gurgled purposefully. We steadily gained height and as the valley below us fell away the snow covered summits rose majestically into the rising sun. I keep to the ice fall while my guide scrambles to the rock and scree after a while. He finds the ice too unnerving. Soon snow dust fill up the air and shortly thereafter it starts falling like a thick white blanket. We both put on our shell jacket and continue climbing silently. I still stick to the steepening ice slopes while my guide kept to the moraines. We both don’t talk, reserving our energies for the way ahead. Finally we converge on a steep ice face far above the glacier below. Ahead of us lay a considerable traverse across deepening snow. I gingerly step across, planting my feet strongly into the snow and finding some purchase. The snowfall is so deep and fast and infuriated that I can’t see the bottom of the yawning slope to my left. All I can make out is that the slope is very seriously steep and the fresh snow is making it very slippery over old hard ice and I simply could not afford to slip and fall and neither could my guide.

I proceed gingerly one step at a time, the void to my left side constantly pulling me to its depth. Suddenly, without warning, my companion skid and slip and fall. As I watch him slide away from my stance helplessly I know that if he can’t stop himself he would soon be history. The snow had by now become a pandemonium and a raging blizzard. Miraculously he brakes himself and came to a halt around 10 mtr vertically and little more horizontally from where I stood. His face had ashened and he knew that he could start sliding any moment again and then disappear forever. He shivered in cold and fear and he looks up at me pleadingly. He can’t move, I can’t ask him to come up. While I watch the drama I am acutely aware of my precarious position. With my heavy sack now heavier under the debris of falling snow constantly pulling me away from the slope. I quickly take off my sack without any delay and strap on my crampons on to the trekking shoes. The moment I heard the reassuring click of my crampons go in its place I know that no one will die and we had averted our present predicament. With crampons on I simply leap down to my friend and with a sling around his waist I pull him up to my level and then lead him out of the traverse.

The white out condition is complete by now. We can see absolutely nothing and the blizzard is now like a hurricane unleashed by some devilish force bent on uprooting or burying us completely. We know that there’s no other human being around for at least three days walk in any direction. My friend begins to panic while I collapse on the snow to get my breath back. We are already at 5400 m and should ideally see the pass but we see nothing. My companion declares that we were destined to die and lay buried under deep snow like an old man few years back who had died on a similar day. I assure him that the only thing that may die that day would be his fear. Through a brief lull in weather he suddenly spies the pass marking cairns straight ahead and up from where we rested and he cries out in joy though voices his concern of how on earth we would reach the pass. There’s a steep ice slope rising out like a serpent’s hood to the pass that I ruled out since my companion would certainly slip on it. The only other way is to climb high above the moraine and then when level with the pass, traverse to the ice slope. We do the same and soon enough we are on the pass.

The pass is a narrow dome of hard ice with numerous cairns strewn around haphazardly. We are now at the crossroad between two deep and narrow valleys like a tunnel and the wind nearly uproots me off my feet. I cling on desperately to a large rock while my friend collapse on ground and refuses to stand up into the onslaught. I look up into the white madness towards my intended track to the summit of a mountain I had never seen before and of which I could not even see the leading ridge. I was roughly 1000 m below the summit that now stood somewhere high up within the raging whiteness. Even to me it looked completely insane that I would actually go up and vanish into the storm without any gear and barely any food and for me to return alive I had to touch the summit or wherever I reached and be back to my friend within the next three days. I had no clue what lay above or ahead. Nothing was visible beyond a hundred meter of where I stood in any direction. With every meter gained above the cold, the ferocity of the blizzard and the snow conditions would only worsen and the blizzard did not show any signs of relenting in any conceivable future. My immediate dilemma though was how can I let go off the boulder that I clawed into and go up unsupported since I felt that the wind will simply carry me off into oblivion the moment I let go of my anchor.

I turned around and screamed my decision to my guide and he nearly had a heart seizure. He thought I was joking and started laughing like a demented. I took him behind a large rock where we huddled for warmth, out of the main force of the blizzard and took stock of our possessions and food. I pleaded with him to go down on the other side (Spiti side) and wait for me at the base of the pass for three days. If I didn’t return he should go down to the nearest village and seek help; which if he manages to get is good enough and if he doesn’t is good enough too. I hand him over most of the food and gas and also our solitary tent, which should see him through any kind of weather for four days. As an afterthought I also hand him my Nikon D90 camera and lenses. For me to have even an outside chance of making this climb and survive I had to be light. He refuses to leave me and begs me to go down with him. I tell him that my mind is made up and up is where I am going. I see him off till the steep slope on the other side and soon see him going down, slipping and sliding on the snowy ground. Shortly he is gulped up by the swirling storm and I return to the shelter of the rock all alone. I am finally on my own with my mountain with nothing and no one else in between.

I empty my sack and proceed to reduce my weight to the barest minimum. When I do this kind of exercise, I follow a very easy rule – I discard anything and everything that is not going to save my life, or whose absence wouldn’t kill me. So out goes my entire toilet kit, all my writing material, sleeping bag, all my extra clothing that were not on my person save two pairs of dry socks, the top lid of my sack, all the tags from all my clothes, the extra length of my hiking shoelaces, my whistle, one extra blade of my Swiss knife, one cooking pot, my reading glasses, etc all of which I bundle inside a cloth bag and deposit it under the rock. If I return I would retrieve them. Now I am left with a really light sack that contains one gas canister plus burner, three packets of instant noodle (one per day), two packet of glucose biscuits, one half of a TP roll, a water bottle, a small length of rope, the two pairs of dry socks carefully wrapped within two layers of plastic, one light weight Rab down jacket and my OR bivvy sack. Rest everything is on my person. I look around for reassurance that I am indeed doing the right thing – but there’s no one or nothing to offer me any advice or retribution. I am on my own. I decide finally that in this world and certainly in my vertical world there’s nothing intrinsically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s the final outcome that would decide either way. I can never pre-empt if I am doing the right or wrong. If I lived it is right, if I don’t even then it may be right. I tighten my shell jacket and take off into the tearing blizzard.

But for the atrocious weather, at that altitude (5600 m) it is easy to maintain an ascent rate of 200 m per hour and with my well acclimatized body I should be able to reach almost within touching distance to the summit by night fall. It is just after two in the afternoon, though the sky remains dark and ominous. My only reference is my contour map since I have absolutely no previous knowledge of the mountain. My feet sinks in the snow and slides as I crunch my way up on a ridge that should take me to the right direction. The ridge eventually broadens and becomes mysterious and confusing. The narrow contour lines on map now translate into a vast arena of seracs and ice falls and ice formations that appear more of a maze.

My only aim is to keep walking in the right direction and gain altitude with every step. Sooner or later I have to reach the summit that way. The going is hard and I am nearly blind in both eyes. I keep taking off my Julbo glasses and have to blow on them to get the ice off; I wonder if a climbing glass can be designed with heater and wipers. My fingers are numb since my globes are soaking and stiff and totally covered beneath a thick layer of ice. My feet is cold and wet too though I don’t feel so. The gaiters are fighting a lost battle with the deepening snow. Snow has gone inside my jacket and into my back through my cap. My normal hiking trousers are stiff and blanketed with heavy snow as well. From afar I could well be mistaken for a small emaciated Yeti. I walk like Michelin Man. Step by step I gain altitude. Every cell of my body cries for relief and I shut the pain out mentally. It’s my mountain, my friend to whom I must pay a visit, so what if he is bit difficult and upset today. I always follow my instincts and they don’t tell me that I am not welcome. Despite my sorry state I feel fine, at home, at peace, at par with everything around and confident in my goal.

By six, night had fallen though the storm hadn’t abated even a bit and I had gained only half way to the summit and I had no idea if I was going in the right direction. I looked for some sort of shelter on the steep slope and realized there were none. I estimated my position on the map though I could be far from my estimate as I had nothing to refer to, and realized I had to dig in the snow for a hole and get my bivvy fit in somehow. The snow cave had to be dug with my hands as I didn’t have a shovel so it took close to two hours and by then I was certain that both my hands were well frost bitten and that I am going to lose few fingers if not all. Somehow I unfurl and spread the bivvy sack and just snuggle inside. I put on every layer of clothes I have and an additional pair of socks. I feel completely naked and frozen. The temperature dips to 24 deg C below zero. I beat my palms and toes with my ski poles to get them going and to thaw them into some action. My palms feel like solid bricks without any sensation.

I dig another hole close by and get my burner going, which only flickers alive after I have wasted nearly dozen matchsticks. Source of fire is precious so I need to be careful with my matchsticks. My frozen fingers are not the best way to hold the matchstick but I dare not take off my gloves in the cold. Thankfully I am now on the lee side hence the blizzard doesn’t seem so menacing any more. Slowly the snow melt and I watch the colour of the flame that is going to tell me if I am running out of gas. I fill in my first cup and simply upturn the boiling water down my throat. It must have scalded the inside of my mouth but I am beyond any physical pain or sensation. I brew tea and follow it up with a packet of biscuit. I am famished beyond words but I don’t feel hungry. I loathe noodles and I have nothing else to eat. I hold my bare hands over the flame but nothing happens, no warmth creeps in, soon I smell burning flesh and realize that my palm is on fire. I douse them in the falling snow and apply some cream and then put on my gloves. This is bad. My hands have lost all sensation as the nerve endings have frozen. I was totally not prepared for such a climb; I did not have the equipment or clothing for this. My mind urges me to hurry and descend and get the blood supply going into my extremities and digits soon else frost bite and amputation seems inevitable. I wonder and ponder and look for answers in the menacing darkness.

The night passes on with my stomach rumbling for food, my body crying for warmth and my heart pleading with the sun and weather God. Dawn dawned with no visible change either to the elements or to my predicaments. My bivvy sack is buried under tonnes of snow and I have to push hard and literally lift a small snow mountain from my chest to exit the sack. I don’t feel fear or worry; I am far too numb to react. Only my mind keeps repeating, ‘go down, go down, go down.’ I tell my mind to shut up and brew a cup of tea. My fingers are solid stumps of dead flesh. I bite into my fingers and then bent them so that they can pick up stuff and light the matches. I dare not bite too hard lest I tear off one of the fingers into my mouth.

Through the night my feet is swollen and now feel miserably painful within my shoes. I dare not check my toes and feet. I stand up and feel afloat since I can’t feel anything beneath my knees. I force one packet of noodles down my revolting throat and take up the pack. I had to summit today and then go down. I check the map and take bearing with my ever trustworthy life saving device – Suunto Vector climbing watch. I climb up the face digging deep with my ski poles for some purchase and placement. My crampons keep my feet from sliding. Without an ice axe I have no ways of pulling myself up steep faces or very hard ice. I keep my Swiss knife around my neck with its large blade ready to jam if needed.

Every step I know could be my last, one slip, one wave of wind, one tiny mistake could hurtle me instantly into the land of no return. Still I feel great, welcome and happy and contented. My entire life now focuses on my each step, the next step, the only step that matters. My mind swirls headily into the white whirlpool and I enjoy the nerve wrecking focus needed to stay alive. Soon I hit the summit ridge and it is thin enough for me to know that I wouldn’t lose my way after all. There is no other way to go on such a thin crest of ice. There’s only one way down from where I came and only one way to go that is up, any other way meant an abominable fall and disappearance like Houdini. The conical summit looks near but I know better. I keep climbing and getting closer step by step. My mind is in a tearing hurry but I walk like a tortoise. And then I am there, the summit cone. I am washed with relief rather than joy, with exhaustion rather than exuberance. There’s absolutely nothing for me to see anywhere, anything in any direction. It’s all white and maddening and as elusive as before.

I feel numb in mind, body, soul and spirit. I find no reason for me to be where I am and no logic why I felt that uncontrollable urge to reach where I now stood. At the moment we gain what we desire, we lose it. The desire is gone as it has no further reason to be exist. Fulfilment of one desire conceives the next one and that’s how our life remains dynamic. I immediately think of my next climb, another mountain, another trail. Suddenly I realize that I still have to go down. I say my prayers, leave few biscuits at the summit as reverence and retrace my path before the fresh snow wiped it away. I get down to the pass, retrieve my bag and go down to meet my friend. When I reach him it is well near midnight and I scare the ghost out of him. We laugh, we roll and we can’t stop jabbering. Finally I manage to eat something he cooks and wriggle into the sleeping bag for a blissful night of comfort interrupted with dreams of doom.

Where would I go next!