Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Misnomer called Failure

Any climber, however intrepid, insane and outrageous he or she may be who says has never felt fear of death is bullshitting. On return while laying our aching limbs next to a lumbering fire with a pint in our hand we may be pouring out boisterous songs and ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, but mark my words friends, up there when the elements were trying their best to nip our lives, we had forgotten all our cockiness and had only a silent prayer on your lips and thought only of surviving through the day and through the moment. It’s not so much as the fear of death as the familiar world of the living that we don’t wish to give up yet.

Do we ever actually fail or it is the pre-eminence of a failure that puts us in a quandary! Why is it that we can walk comfortably on a thin line of 6 inch in width on ground, without ever stepping out of it, whereas put a similar sized and equally sturdy plank 10 ft above ground and we would perhaps not find it that easy. Take that plank 100 ft up and perhaps only one out of a thousand of us would even dare to walk on it.

All our lives we are taught to cater for contingencies, for failures, for things that may never happen in the way predicted; we insure ourselves against the unknown future, safeguarding our interests in the eventuality of a failure. Isn’t this one of reasons why parents are often so cross with their kids if they don’t excel in the exams, since there is no insurance for exam. You either did well or didn’t. How the parents would wish that an insurance company would insure a child’s exam and who wouldn’t wish to insure a marriage! I remember a small anecdote that I witnessed towards the beginning of my submarine career. Till then we all had been trained and brought up in Russian origin submarines where there is a back up for everything, including that of a back up. So if something fails, another thing takes over, for an automatic system you had semi-auto, manual backups etc. So when we shifted to the German HDW submarines we suddenly found that they most often did not offer a second line of defence. There was a system and then that was all. So our senior commanders, grown through a staple of Russian ethos, before signing on the contract would hound the Germans, what if it fails, what then, where’s the safety back up. The Germans would guffaw to that and reassure that the systems would never fail, period. But we were stuck up with ‘What if’ syndrome.

Even before we attempt something why are we so concerned about the outcome, why do we wish to be certain first that we would succeed and since that certainty can never be assured, we are scared ‘what if we fail.’ One of the fundamental teachings of Gita comes to our rescue when it says, we should be detached from the outcome of our efforts and in our efforts we must be sincere and give in our best. Are we ever competing with others or with ourselves, our own limitations and often self-created or imagined boundaries? In a class full of incompetent morons I could be a half-wit yet stand at the top of the results, will that make me the brightest student or super intelligent, not in any intrinsic way surely; only in the relative terms. And every time we succeed in such a manner, where one eyed is the king in the land of blinds, we do not achieve even our own level best, our own capabilities. Since we are so hell-bent on winning, on becoming number one. Whereas if we do our level best, irrespective of the competition or any ranking, then we would always return satisfied but determined to do better, even when we do not finish first or at the top of the class. That’s something the mountains teach us so aptly.

When we begin a climb, we are already defeated; for we can never vanquish or conquer nature and it is not a race where we have to outrun someone else to the top. The route to the summit of a mountain only teaches us where we are, it shows us our true perspective in terms of will, determination, courage, physical endurance and above all our humility to accept gracefully that yes, there are things beyond us that we would never conquer yet we must befriend. A climb is always successful even when I don’t reach the physical summit, since wherever I reached is my true summit, my personal best, my own world beyond which under the given circumstances I couldn’t have done any better. From that point I come down humbly and completely content. In that way I never fail since when I started the climb I had no idea of the outcome, except a strong all-consuming determination to do my best. I did not know when or where my summit would be. Funnily enough each time my summit coincided with the physical summit (and this has happened nearly 350 times or so), I felt a sense of vacuity along with the happiness to know that my personal best was either not needed to reach the physical summit or it was just adequate enough. Physical summit concluded a journey, a tryst with that mountain since I had no further up to go and this is disappointing to me personally. I remember every time standing on the true tip of Mt Everest, where everything on Earth was below me, all I could think was – is that it? Is there nothing higher than this place on our planet? How wonderful it would be if tomorrow another peak was discovered that dwarfed Mt Everest above ground!

I have no fear of failing and no pressure to succeed since I am a complete failure in my mountains yet reaching my own true summit each time I climb. Now if this is not a win-win situation than what is.

This post is not a sermon, least of all an allegory for any of you. Just my random thoughts on something that is so universal and feared. Embrace the thought actually.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tropic of Capricorn - Conclusion of the journey

In order to begin our journey onwards along the TOCAP, I felt it would be nice to recap a bit and then go forward. So let’s just return back to the Atlantic Coast when we hit the desolate beach in the Namib-Nauklaft National Park in Namibia. We already know about the skeleton coast and how really rugged, arid and spectacular the landscape is. For the very reasons that normally drive away people, many diehard adventurers from across the world flock here each year to try their hand at something exciting. Going ahead we also make a stop at Swakopmund, Namibia’s second city, a place with strong German connections, where Mein Kampf and photos of Hitler are still on sale in the local curio shop. Namibia used to be a German colony and the country has a dark past: German colonizers killed tens of thousands of locals in a forgotten genocide, in German ‘concentration camps’ in Namibia. We would try to watch pack of Cheetahs who often roam around the Namibian wilderness in search of food and if possible, let’s also stay put for a while with the Herero tribe, and learn their horseback skills. We also witness the Herero Holy Fire ceremony which is a complex ceremony of dance and rituals, much steeped in local wines and drugs and shamanic incantations.

As we move across the Kalahari Desert we enter Botswana, which though a poverty-ridden nation, has the world’s largest diamond mine, that lies close to TOCAP where millions of dollars worth diamonds are mine every week, and the money generated is used to fund education and healthcare. So I am sure you would like to take a peek at the diamond mines too. Well, to tell you honestly, if any of you are claustrophobic you can’t go inside a diamond mine since it penetrates the earth for kilometers and you have to go down in narrow chutes and one feels as if the earth is swallowing you in its enormous belly. But it’s worth a visit.

Traveling further on, at the edge of the Kalahari Desert we encounter the legendary San (bushmen of Kalahari) people who have lived and coexisted peacefully with their cousins, the lions. San people are among the poorest African tribes and they literally live off the desert land and for generations they have shared the meager resources with other animals. Their world is a perfect example of sharing and caring and living in harmony with your surroundings. San people are also known for their vigor and vitality.

From Botswana we enter the northern part of South Africa. This region was white stronghold during the apartheid era. Even now majority of the landowners are white Afrikaaner farmers who are armed and ready to defend their land. It’s a kind of wild west and a part of SA I haven’t seen much. They don’t welcome black people or the natives but I am sure we would be welcome as I have many influential friends in SA. If you recall history, this was also the site of the famous Boer War. Much ravaged land, it is not a happy place to be so let’s get going and hit the Kruger National Park. Now this is a park I have seen and it is simply awesome, can’t think of any other word to describe it. So we must stay put here for a while. The park is very well maintained with trails and all facilities for comfort. We can camp in the wild (though we may be run over by elephant herds or eaten up by lions or attacked by wild dogs) or we can camp in one of the game sanctuaries, depending on how much money we are still left with and where has our sponsors gone.

From there we literally bump into Mozambique, a country that is amazingly beautiful but still not so well known or developed and is still reeling from the aftermath of a brutal civil war 15 years ago. We got to be careful either driving or walking since landmines still litter the country and I am not an expert on landmines. Funnily enough someone has found that Giant Gambian Pouched Rats are great at smelling the explosives buried underground, so I guess we got to pick up a pair of rats who would make a safe passage for us. Since we are following TOCAP, we would cross Mozambique rather quickly as we reach the Indian Ocean. Much of the Mozambique coast is a typical tropical paradise. It is a cheap country to be in and one can have plenty of fun and frolic with modest means. The beaches are rolling dunes of white sand lined with swaying palms and coconuts. The weather is always moderate with cool evenings and mornings. There’s plenty to do in Mozambique in terms of social enterprise too, as even now not much of the world’s attention has gone to this extremely poor country.

We finally take off from Mozambique in a shanty boat for the final leg of our journey and sail across the Mozambique channel and land on Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island. I guess as this would be our last country on our journey before setting sail for India, we can stay here for a while and explore this beautiful country. So let’s head for the capital city of Antananarivo where we would see a unique blend of African, Indian and French Colonial influences. There are many Indian origin people, so we would be welcome profusely, especially when they hear of our valiant tale of navigating around the world. If you are up for some gastronomic adventure then no harm in trying out the zebu penis soup, which is a local delicacy. Madagascar is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and also one of the poorest nations in the world and while we pass through its forests and lands and encounter giant octopuses and the ubiquitous baobab trees we might also go on sapphire hunting with the locals through the dangerous maze of underground tunnels. Finally we would take the train through the mountain highlands to the east coast for our home run.
But as we are about to set sail and head north towards the Malabar coast of India, we spy the girdle of Mauritius right on our path that we would otherwise skirt to our left and I insist that we must land there too. This is purely off the records since our TOCAP journey is now complete, but on Mauritius we must set our feet for a while, since I have been there couple of times and it really has some of the finest beaches and islands in the world. So we go to Mauritius and romp around much like nature meant us to, both in Rodriguez Island and Port Luis. By now I am sure we all are expert scuba divers so we play in the corals with the dolphins and the manta rays. From here it’s a long journey back to India and for some reason none of us seem really keen to return, so let’s just stay put here till we figure out where to head off to next. Our next stop might well be to another Indian Ocean jewel, the Seychelles, another of the tropical paradise I have been to and can vouch for. It has white beaches, gorgeous sunsets and green hills to climb.

That's where I would conclude our journey and thank you all for being with me on this incredible voyage. I hope it was a memorable journey for all of you along the Tropic of Capricorn though some parts were done virtually. If this excites any of you to undertake the journey in reality then do let me know and I would love to be at the helm of the boat that would be needed to cover the Oceans.
Bon voyage!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tropic of Capricorn Part 4

As soon as we leave Paraguay, we enter an area generally called the Brazilian Highland. Funnily enough, despite its vast size and neighboring Bolivia and Argentina and every country in Latin America except Chile and Ecuador, Brazil doesn’t have any high mountains and the highland ranges rarely exceed that of 1000 m. So in terms of climbing I never did find Brazil exciting though in terms of natural diversities and people it’s a wonderful place. I have few very good Brazilian climbing friends. We first go through Parana province that is a major agriculture area of Brazil. We can make a short day / night halt at Londrina thereafter. Actually the route along TOCAP through Brazil is rather boring and flat till we hit Sao Paulo and that’s we are headed exactly.

Soon enough we enter the great metropolis of Sao Paulo. This is not only the largest city in all of South America but is also the largest city in the world that falls exactly on TOCAP. My friends Paulo and Helena live here. Paulo is a nuclear scientist while Helena is a mountain guide. Both are fantastic people and damn good climbers. We have been together on Everest and several other peaks across the world, so obviously a stop at their place. This place is too crowded for my taste, though people from world over flock here for fun, hot girls and salsa and capoeira. What I like to do most here is a walk up the rock cliffs and little hills dotting the sea shore and climb up to the famous statue of Christ with his hands spread into the sky as if he was about to fly. This is a very lively city with people constantly on a feast of something or the other. It’s full of dance, music, good food and all night partying. People are really happy and friendly to outsiders. After Sao Paulo we can take a detour up north and also visit Rio De Janeiro.

Rio, as it is commonly called is known all over the world for its four day carnival where scantily clad women gyrate whatever they can and are worth all through day and night. Despite over hyped and populated the beaches of Rio are really beautiful and lovely as they stretch out for mile after mile along the blue Atlantic. Perhaps it is also the best place to watch the finest women bodies in the most diverse and delectable bikinis, swimwear, and thongs. They even have something like voyeur tourism where tourists sit on the beaches all day just to watch the women. And the women don’t mind all the ogling at all. You can look at a man or a woman through binoculars and telescope if you like or take pictures and no one minds anything at all. The city has great museums, art galleries, lanes and amazing Portuguese churches. Things are cheap and again the people are way too friendly.

So we return after all our merry making and tanning on the beach and again take to the sea from a place called Ubatuba. I have no idea what it means but it sure is funny. Now we are in the South Atlantic. The way ahead is perilous and as devoid of any other human company. We have a continuous stretch of 6100 km till we hit the dreaded Skeleton coast of Namibia in Africa. We may as well take more than a month to cover this enormous distance in our sailing boat. South Atlantic is not known for its good weather so be ready for storms and cyclones and now we need to brush up our skills like how to bail out water and carry out hull repairs and also how to run the bilge pump manually if the motor fails. And as we would be sailing eastwards now, every day, the sun would be rising earlier than the day before. We would begin to observe and understand many geographical phenomenon that happen solely due to the Earth’s spherical shape.

Our boat would be heavily laden at the beginning since we would have stocked up at Sao Paulo. So tropical fruits and salads would be our favored meal perhaps with desserts before and after every meal. There’s a good chance that we would be caught in a TRS (Tropical Revolving Storm) during this part of our voyage and we would get to experience one of the most dreaded natural marine disasters possible. But fret not, I know all about how to navigate outside the eye and the circle. Though we could end up suffering severe battering and damage to our boat but I am sure we will manage to come out of it alive.

What lies when we touch ground is equally challenging and perilous. The skeleton coast of the Namibian desert that we begin to sight now is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Though now it has a road running all through, many die simply due to thirst and hunger since nothing grows there, and hence the name. Recently a friend of mine did the skeleton coast walk and the entire team got nearly wiped out despite modern modes of communication and all safety backups, that’s how dangerous the desert is. I actually have no idea how to cross this desert since I have never done it myself and hence a detour to the Namibian capital city of Windhoek seems to be in order. The best bet would seem to hire a 4 X 4 Landcruiser and simply bulldoze our way through the desert. But for the desert I would have preferred to walk it through but no ways would I do it through this desert. As we drive along TOCAP, expect to see many rock formations and countless sand dunes that are beautiful and ever shifting and shimmering like gold. Now something really interesting; Namibian desert is also a rich source of diamonds and precious minerals and other gems. So there is an outside chance of our finding diamonds on our way. Many diamond seekers have given up their lives here too.

As we exit Namibia, we land up in another hell hole of the world – the great Kalahari Desert of Botswana. Now let’s take a pause before we go further. I can’t take this heat any more.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Tropic of Capricorn Part 3

Well my navigational tables and sun fix tells me that we are somewhere close to N 23 deg 30 min & E 112 deg (wherever that is – LOL) and after having braved the maddening seas of the Pacific we are nearing our Easter Isles, the island of legends and mysteries. So it is time for us to set course to true 125, now let’s get our boat in that course using the steering wheel. We now put the wheel to starboard 20 and watch the tilt as our boat cuts across the blue ocean like a dolphin. Well, by now we are only two days away from the Easter Isles and the dolphins have started following our wake that cuts a white foamy trail across the waves.

As we approach Easter Isles after our long journey, we start seeing the distant volcanoes that jut out like a gigantic trio out of the misty horizon. As we come closer they become bigger and more overwhelming. Now we enter the official territorial waters of Chile. Easter Isles of Rapa Nui as it is called is a whopping 3700 km away from Chilean mainland yet it is a part of it, and I think that makes it the most distant land from a country’s main land in the world. Though American and European tourists are found here, very few Chileans ever make to this distant land, which is much more expensive for them to go than going to Europe or US.

Rapa Nui is a land of mystery and one of the last few on Earth that hasn’t been solved yet. It is the land of those gigantic megalithic monolithic statues that have baffled explorers, archeologists, seafarers, antique and extinct civilization experts right from the day it was first discovered in 1722 by the dashing Dutch navigator Jacob. Even today we are not very sure why these statues were made out of the volcanic rocks and exactly by whom. Though it is suspected they were done by Polynesian immigrants since this island doesn’t have any original natives. The only source of water here are the rain waters that fills up the three extinct volcano craters. It is perpetually windy and temperate climate. Less than 2000 people stay here, mostly natives and few Chilean officials. Most of the tourists visit here to see these over 800 statues that are rated among the greatest mysteries of mankind. Erich Von Daniken, the great explorer writer and the proponent of the theory that outer space civilizations came to Earth, believed that these were not the work of human. Well they certainly don’t seem so.

We would rest here for around a week, and explore the hat shaped tiny island and climb all the craters and swim in the crater lakes, also scuba dive in them. But first let’s tie up our boat properly with berthing bollards all in place or else the high winds may damage our hull and we can’t afford that – can we! The weather is perfect, the sky blue, and our hearts young and merry, so let’s go and explore one of the deepest mysteries of mankind.

We return from our trip, thoroughly tanned and bronzed and after topping up our ration, whole lot of fruits and wine we are ready to go. Now comes perhaps the longest uninterrupted sea voyage in the world. A straight run of around 3700 km without encountering any lands till we hit Chile! It will take us anywhere between 30 – 40 days to cover this immense distance. We might cross other boats or ships and nothing else. Since it will be more or less a straight enough run bang on true course 090 we can set the auto-pilot on and literally forget about any further navigation. It’s time to party. But hang on, during this time we can also learn and revise marine communication, how to monitor various radio frequencies, the distress channel, how to challenge and respond to unknown callers, etc and even how to open up and repair radio instruments.

Now we sail and sail and pray for speedy winds to carry us to the great land of South America –my beloved land of Andes, Patagonia, carnivals and salsa and wine. After much wine and feasting we finally sight the barren and arid but mountainous coast line of Chile. As you all know by now that South America is my top favorite continent in the world and among all the countries here, I have been to Chile maximum number of times to climb and also to go to Antarctica. Chilean wines are among world’s finest, the people warm and hospitable, and women hot and they are very kind to Indians. It is also one of the world’s largest producers of fruits that are majorly exported into the European markets. The favorite national fruit is Palta or avocado that I really don’t dig. So after many months afloat in the oceans we finally touch land and now we would be on land over the next three countries that we pass. We come alongside in the harbor of Antofagasta that is Chile’s largest and busiest harbor. In the ratio of area to coast line, Chile has the longest coastline in the world among all countries. And it is a thin narrow country squeezed tightly along the Pacific Coast. These peace loving people have been constantly attacked by the Bolivians and Argentines through history.

Now hold your horses’ folks as we hire a 4 X 4 (I have no idea who is sponsoring our trip) and cut across one of the driest and loveliest places on Earth, the great Atacama Deserts. You have got to see it to believe that a desert can be so colorful and haunting. Google Atacama Desert images and you will see what I mean. It is among the rarest of rare places to go on Earth but what views. There are many massive volcanoes all through this desert land and countless blue water lakes full of rare minerals and bauxites. The world’s highest volcano Ojos Del Salado (eye of the sand) is here and I have climbed quite a few mountains here including Ojos, an account of which you will find in one of my earlier posts. I have absolutely no idea how we are going to drive across these mountain ranges but I am sure we would be able to and in few days we can make it to the dreaded Jujuy province of Argentina where the borders of Chile meets in a small area with that of Bolivia and Argentina. Huaco bandits lurk here to loot travelers. People and climbers have got killed here for few dollars. It’s virtually a no-man’s land and not many dare to enter here. But don’t worry, they are friendly with Indians and of course I have my contacts from before. All they might ask us in exchange of our lives is to carry their boot contraband stuff across into Paraguay. The border is highly porous here and the border posts are as greedy as they ever come so few hundred dollars will see us across. The road ahead is not easy either as we now enter the area of Gran Chaco where road finding is as difficult as looking for a match stick in a stable full of hay.

Gran Chaco is cut by two prominent rivers that flood often and it is a wild, hot swampy marshy land with very sparse population and any habitation. What I am really looking forward though is the unique wildlife of this region that has not yet been properly explored or recorded by any naturalists that I know off. Expect to see the jaguar, ocelot, tapir, anteater, capybara, peccary, and agouti, among many others. Tapir is among the cutest animals one can imagine, I am sure some of you have seen it before. Then we get into Formosa and then across into Paraguay. This is a small country where the language of Guarani is spoken more than Spanish. What’s funny in this country is that a child is normally given an option of choosing either Spanish or Guarani so even within Paraguay there’s some who can’t talk among themselves. You would love the wild life here and the flora as there are many nameless exotic flowers that are not found anywhere else in the world. But soon enough it would be time for us to enter Brazil. And this definitely calls for a pause, since in Brazil along the TOCAP lies the great cities of Sao Paulo and Rio De Jenerio.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tropic of Capricorn Part 2

To imagine that Tonga is actually an independent nation by its own right is nearly unbelievable since it is so tiny and is actually a collection of miniscule islands, with Tongatapu Group, of which Eua is the southernmost, being the largest of all. I wonder why it isn’t under any other countries occupation or sovereignty! Landfall means the first sighting of land and as the lookout with a telescope stuck to your eyes, you are supposed to scream from the crow’s nest at the top of your voice ‘Land ahoy!’ and then the all-knowing captain would come down, snatch the telescope from the novice’s hand and shrug, ‘Hmmm, you just got lucky, I would have seen it if I wasn’t drowning in wine.’ So we make ground in the bay of Tufurai. This postage stamp sized island measures only around 12 miles at its longest and 4 miles at its widest. Despite that it remains one of the least explored islands of Polynesia. Almost all of it falls under the national park and is hilly and covered with volcano ash, though there are no volcanoes on the island.

Now an interesting fact, Eua is the only island in the kingdom of Tonga that has a river running through and the only bridge in Tonga is here that helps us go across to the capital of Ohonua. Now we must hurry up and climb the hills and to the highest summit of Te’emoa (chicken shit) that at 382 meters has the solitary grave of a soldier right at the top. The island is lush green and the view from the top is jaw-dropping. We would rest a while here and then go to explore many of the caves and potholes in the island. For exploring the island we can go by foot, bicycle or on horse – so take your pick. And to make me entirely happy this island also has hilly trekking trails. To the north we would walk up to the coastal cliffs that fall off straight into the sea nearly 120 meters down and is a good lookout for whale watching since the water is so deep right next to the land that the whales come very close. Due to the cliffs all around this island has only bathing-worthy beach close to the villages so let’s do more caving, should we! The rainforest in the park will show us many exotic birds including lorikeets, musk parrots, pacific pigeons, kingfishers and tropic sea birds.

Soon after setting sail from Eua, a funny thing happens – we cross the International Date Line.

Essentially IDL is an imaginary line (don’t we have so many of these!) through the Pacific Ocean nearly corresponding and running along the 180 deg longitude. It basically divides our Earth in two halves of east and west. By international agreement the date on the east side of the line is a day earlier than to the west. You could physically be in the past and the future simultaneously if you straddle IDL. Umberto Eco dealt with it beautifully in his highly entertaining book, ‘Island of day before’. That tells the tale of a ship-wrecked sailor stuck on an island right on the IDL. The IDL like any other meridian connects the two geographic poles. This line deviates only at few places from a straight line, one being in the Bering Strait (I have sailed here) to avoid dividing Siberia into two different days and then deviates west to include the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in the same side. Into the Polynesian Islands it again deviates quite far to the east so as to include all the islands into the same time zone as of New Zealand. A reason could be Captain Cook who had single-handedly discovered majority of these islands prior to discovering New Zealand.

Now after sailing for nearly 1600 miles (which will take us around 12 days) we enter the Austral Islands and reach the Island of Tubuai that sits almost plumb on TOCAP. This too is a French Polynesian territory and belongs to France. I have no idea how they exercise any kind of control or governance in this island. This is one of the islands discovered by Captain James Cook in 1777. Like all French Polynesian Islands, Tubuai too is of volcanic origin and the ocean can reclaim it any time. Tubuai resembles the shape of a thumb print and is a laughable 5 miles by 3 miles in area. We should be able to walk all around its coast in few hours. But we must stay put in such places like Mataura, Tamatoa, Huahine and Mahu just for the names if for nothing else as we would be able to say forever that the evening in Huahine can outshine all other. Interestingly, Tubuai is one of the islands featured in the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. Well we are here to have fun, so let’s climb the twin volcano peaks and to the highest summit at around 420 meters. From the top when you look out into the emerald sea you will understand why despite its remoteness few people do still come here. The beaches are typically white and made of the finest sand and the water changes color from white at the beach to sheer shades of turquoise. And then time once more for us to depart.

From Tubuai we travel for nearly 920 miles and finally sight the Gambier’s Islands and we enter the Tuamotu Archipelago. Now let’s take a deep breath for we are about to enter the remotest island group in the entire French Polynesia and a place which is known to very few. I along with my shipmates must be the only Indians to have ever touched Gambier’s Islands. It is literally far from everywhere. An entire book can be filled up with the exotic and rare beauty of Gambier’s but here’s a very briefest of brief gist.

The main islands of this group are Mangareva, Akamaru, Aukena and Taravai. This exotic island group has a sad history of severe deforestation, nuclear tests by French military and housing thousands where naturally only few hundred can survive. Presently it is only a tourist hub and sporadic logging at places. The highest summit of Mt Duff in Mangareva at 440 meters is a must climb for us. Though spread across four major islands the area does not exceed 34 sq km. After Mangareva we must stay in Akamaroo too, which in my opinion is the prettiest of all the islands in this group. Now among all other offerings what’s great out here are the fruits on offer and it has the most succulent mangoes you will ever find anywhere. As far as I can remember the fruits we would get are mangoes, grapefruit, papaya, mandarins, guavas, lemons, breadfruit, pastiches, coconut, little red tomatoes and oranges. Most of the tourists we would see here are private yacht owners and families sailing from New Zealand. Drinkable water is scarce and we will have to use rain catching devises to stock up on water since after this we have a long haul across the vast expanse of the Pacific. We could stay in Rikitea for a while and walk around the island at leisure. The endless bays full of lapping waters would of course keep us busy with snorkeling and swimming. French wine is freely available and we must stock up on wine as well.

After this comes the second longest stretch of our trip, from here we would now only set foot on land when we reach the Chilean outpost of the famous Easter Islands after nearly 1750 nautical miles. Though the Easter Isles are more than 250 miles south of TOCAP and do not technically fall on our route, there’s no way we can avoid it, since Easter Island is the home of the famous and most mysterious stone statues in the world. There’s much to say about the Easter Islands since I have been here before. While en route let’s all get down to deck scrubbing, painting, cleaning etc and oiling the cleats and ball bearings and bottle-screws, clean the sails and polish the masts. Our boat must outshine all the others in the Pacific.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tropic of Capricorn Part 1

This is the first of an odd series of posts woven around, within and about the Tropic of Capricorn. Odd since I have not personally done all that I am going to chronicle in these posts though a vast tract of it have I traversed and also odd as to the genesis of these posts. They arise out of a chain of correspondence I did a while ago with a very dear friend who is born under the sign of Capricorn. She is an armchair traveler, till now, and a dreamer like me and when I wrote these mails to her, dedicating them to her zodiac, I had intended to fill her up about some of the remotest and prettiest locations on Earth. So I took her on a whirlwind trip around the world staying near the circle of Tropic of Capricorn. After our virtual trip ended, I felt that this needs to be shared with a wider readership since we all dream of such wonderful places and incredible voyages that I have been fortunate enough to have undertaken. So here it is, for all of you, whether or not you are a Capricorn. Read, travel and enjoy the journey called ‘Life’.

As you all know our Earth has several imaginary lines covering the globe, either running north – south or east – west. We normally call them longitudes and latitudes and any point on earth can be localized and pinpointed by a combination of the two or as we call it by the coordinates. But among all these imaginary lines, there are six major ones – five of which are latitude parallels and are mainly used to define and enclose common climatic zones and the last one is used as a base for all longitudes. The five are (from north to south) – Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle and the sixth one is the Prime Meridian or it is also the Zero longitude or the Greenwich meridian. Now let’s look at Tropic of Capricorn in a little more detail.

Tropic of Capricorn (TOCAP) is an imaginary line that runs along the parallel of latitude roughly 23 degree 30 minutes South. But in reality this line is constantly shifting by a miniscule amount every year in a northerly direction. The reason for this is too complicated to be explained here and is not really relevant to understand or know. So today the TOCAP is actually more around 23 deg 27 min South. Now when I think of TOCAP two things come to my mind. One is the novel by Henry Miller of the same name. It is a soul searching book and mostly autobiographical by the great author and has a good dose of adult material though not in a cheap porno way. It was first published in Paris since US banned it as too obscene. Now the other thing about TOCAP which is more interesting is to trace its path and see through which all countries does it pass or in our case where all would we go if we set sail along TOCAP. To my knowledge no one has ever done it in that way that is just stay on TOCAP either by a boat (since most of it is on water) and then by foot / on animals or car (wherever it ran over ground). So let’s go over it and find out the lands we would come across! A magic carpet can be real handy. Needless to say, I have been to all the countries that TOCAP runs through but not all the way along this line so that’s something that even I haven’t done. A suggestion at this point; it would be prudent to have an atlas or a globe handy as you read this post.

So let’s start our journey from Australia and then travel east and go around the Pacific and then return to the Indian Ocean after covering South America and Africa and many islands in between.

Well, we begin our journey from Australia and land in Perth, from there let’s rent a 4X4 all terrain camper van and head north towards Charalta Creek and the Warroora Bay. En route we cross Monkey Mia Island that is haven for the eponymous dolphins. We cross desert dunes, swamp forests, marshlands and real wilderness and reach the coast and reef of Warroora exactly where TOCAP enters Australia mainland and the blue waves of Indian Ocean laps up the reef. We stay on the coast for a day and then head due east along TOCAP. Our aim is to stay right atop the line. As we head east, the first place we run through is the great Gibson Desert. Mind you now we are in extremely arid conditions and we will need to conserve our water and also make water from the air and desert. The desert will turn very cold at night. The desert is also full of life and perils. We have a rugged and difficult journey across nearly 2500 miles through Australia.

Let’s make a little detour and stay put and catch the local colors at the quaint town of Alice Springs. After that we enter Queensland. Let’s make our next stop at Longreach town, from where we drive almost parallel to the Landsborough Highway. After a while we come across the Capricorn Highway. Jordan Creek would be difficult to cross but I am sure we would find a way around before we enter the Great Dividing Range where little towns are often named after gems like Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, etc. What comes thereafter cannot be crossed right through on a vehicle, so for Retreat Creek we got to come down a bit to the Capricorn Highway proper. Next stop Duaringa – what fun. It’s a tiny town with less than 500 people, mainly all railway workers and great beer drinkers. There are some dramatic waterfalls, cliffs and bushwalks around that I think we should do since it has been a long and tiring journey so far. After a few days of merry making we head up and onwards and make our next halt at Rockhampton. This is a merry town that is full of tourists on the way to the Pacific Coast. We are now rather close to the Ocean again. We soon cross the Fitzroy River and then head for the coast. Shortly we reach the Ocean and our Australia tour along TOCAP is concluded. Now we enter the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

After few days of scuba with shark and coral watching, we hire a dhow and set sail further east from the Keppet Bay in the Coral Sea. Soon we cross the Heron Island and the Capricorn corals where we dive for a while. After all we have all the time and money in the world and we must cover TOCAP at leisure. Soon we sight One Tree Island to our south.

Covering nearly 1100 nautical miles (1 nautical mile =1.852 km) we now enter the New Caledonia archipelago which belongs to France, so practically we enter France. Though on TOCAP there are no islands of Caledonia I think you all would like to make landfall in the nearest Isle of Pine. Barely 50 miles north of TOCAP, Pine is a tiny little isle of 15 X 13 km area. It is often called as ‘The closest island to Paradise’ and with good reason. I was lucky to have been here and this is another must visit islands for all of you in this life. It is famous for scuba diving and snorkeling and amazing coral reefs and ecology. Among its numerous land animals it houses the world’s largest specie of gecko. For a climber like me, it has mind boggling boulders rising straight out of the turquoise lagoon waters that one can start climbing straight away without any danger of falling and getting hurt since you will fall into the water. The sea is as pleasant and calm and blue-green as you can imagine and perhaps beyond. After few days of sheer bliss we again weigh anchor and set sail across the great Pacific. Now we enter the Melanesia group of Islands and pass to the south of Vanuatu, Fiji (no, we can’t land at any of these two exotic islands) and head for Tonga. Yes, here we do turn north and make a landfall at the Eua Island of Tonga group.