Tuesday, December 27, 2011

10 things you must have on a short trek/hike in the wilderness

  1. Wet wipes – though they a add a little to the weight, they are incredibly handy in a lot of situations from wiping hands clean, to sanitizing the area around wounds and soothing itchy skin.

  2. Spare water bottle – If you have a shake or an energy drink to mix, keep one with you besides your hydration system that will hold the bulk of your water.

  3. Energy bars/chocolate/Glucose mix/Snacks/nuts – you might be sure you have it all, but weather on treks, especially heat my sap your energy drastically. A energy bar goes a long way to give you the energy till you are back in civilization. Also for emergencies carry some snacks, they’ll keep you alive till help reaches. This is besides your main food items that you/your team may be carrying. If all goes well, you can polish the snacks off. Else they are an necssary weight.

  4. Head torch – hands remain free and you can use it in various battery saving modes. Keep one with you even though you might be planning a day trek/hike. It’s weight may be worth your life eventually.

  5. Panty liners – there is a lot you can do with these besides their intended use. Blister packing, wound dressing and even to soak up moisture from the ground. The last bit is for when you find yourself lost with nothing but moist soil as your source of water.

  6.  Whistle – When you want to reach out to your mates through the sound of wind or rustling trees or to get their attention at a distance, it is wise to keep a whistle handy. When you call for help, yo want to make sure you are heard.

  7. A length of rope – this is one of the most handy piece of equipment you can carry and I carry it all the time. A rope can repair a broken backpack, hold together several things that can then be attached to your pack, help carry a wounded person, make a sling, help climb a patch….to name a few. The rope need not be of the rock climbing variety, anything sturdy will do. However, avoid nylon ropes as their knots are unreliable.

  8. Buff – it is one helpful piece of clothing. Can protect your hair, neck, ears, mouth by putting it on in various ways. It can be a binder for things, can hold together a rolled mat…as good as a rubber band.

  9. Swiss knife  - must have

  10. Old newspapers – nothing insulates you from the cold floors of the caves or the moist soils in the forest like a bedding layered with old news papers. They are handy when you want to sit and have lunch in a cave or want to lay you sleeping bag on. Besides, they’ll help you keep your equipment clean.

Can you think of other items and equipment that you usually carry? Drop us a comment telling us what they are and why. We will be sure to feature your ideas with credits.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moonlit nights

On those moonlit nights, your tiger yearns for you…where is my pretty lady of the deep dark stripes, the beauty that I call mine? As I close my eyes on yet another day, I wonder where I shall rest my head, if not on your lap?

The days are tough, the hours are long and the nights brim with expectancy. How I look forward to the time when one hunt ends and the next one begins. The hunt for a great time to spend, a hunt for pleasing conversations, and for intimate escapes of the mind. A look that scorches the soul, equally loving at the same time. Profound touches and alighted senses that make life livable, one day at a time, one memory at a time, one moment at a time…..

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bhairavgad(Moroshi) trek - Up the rock wall.

Of all the various forts located in the Junnar, Malshej Ghat region, within Pune or thane districts, Bhairavgad near Moroshi might be the least known. Shivneri, Hadsar are well known. Harishchandragad, AMK, Ajooba, Naphta etc, dominate the landscape to the west of the valley. Not that there is much to see on Bhairavgad, except a few abandoned huts and 4 huge bulls who graze about (Valus). They are really huge, often seen grazing together. We were warned at the village, not to make too much noise or attract their attention. I can imagine only image our fate, if we indeed had them on our tails. A scramble downhill at breakneck speed – one speed record we never want to break.

The distinctive feature though is a huge rock wall that stands up between the peak and the approach ridges. It is a vertical structure, without leaning anywhere. On its face on the peak side, were rock cut steps, once upon a time. Some of them still exist up a distance as we begin an ascent, but after that it is a technical climb all the way. Towards the top again, a few sturdy steps give you some hope. The tallest peak is 3000 m in height and the rock wall matches it. I believe it has strategic outpost value than anything else. From the top, you can keep a watch on the entire valley that opens up, not only in the front, but also behind the peak, to the east. The east is dominated by Jivdhan and Naneghat.

The village is located on the state highway ahead of Malshej ghat. Keep looking out for a rock pinnacle to your left are you travel along the road from Pune. Once you spot it, you can take a stop at the Kahjuraho Beer bar and a tea stall. That infact is also the start point for the village. It is best to take someone from Moroshi to show you the way to the top. The approach ridges are numerous and it is easy to be misled, though keeping the rock wall in sight helps set the directions.

The Climb:

There is no well beaten path that you can really follow. The initial route meanders through fields until you start ascending gently. The terrain alternates between loose soil, pebbles to rock patches, slippery hay and Karvee thickets. I image that in all seasons, a lot of hay or grass makes the road difficult to tread and to keep a foot hold. Also, it is easy to get lost in the thick karvee. After the initial part, the ascent becomes steep and you begin to see some cacti along the way. At one point the road turns in the direction away from the peak and it is easy to assume that the route is wrong. But infact, it is not. What you ideal end up doing is ascending till the top of a ridge, then circumventing a rocky patch to reach directly on top. Once on top, you will see the rock wall facing you once more and a huge plateau opens up. This is the area of the valus and the abandoned huts. You will also find a Bhairavanth temple under a huge tree. It is hardly a temple to speak of, a place indicted by green bangles and a bunch of tiny cradles hung by a trishul. It is a blink and miss.

The plateau has a lot of wet soil mingling with some rock patches. A lot of crabs can be seen crawling about in the moist surroundings. As you make your way towards the rock face, you enter a small jungle. Keeping on the right direction is important since visibility ahead is low. Right after you emerge from it, is a steep rock patch that will take some time to climb. Mid way, you will come across a rock cut water reservoir. The water is great, and very potable. Make sure you take your fill as there is no other source ahead. Then you are suddenly there. The sheer rock face stands tall next to you. Realization hits home, to be replaced soon by marvel. At this point is will be good to look behind, at the road you have tread to reach here. And also at the grand peaks that stand out across the valley – AMK, Harishchandragad, Naphta, Ajooba, Konkan kada etc.

On the top:

Once past the water tank, and some distance ahead, the route turns to your right. This leads you straight to the pass which joins the rock all to the peak and opens up the next valley. There is a lot of loose scree, so watch out. Your climb will end when you reach this pass other side of the rock wall. You can see some steps leading towards the top and then after a point they suddenly disappear—blow away by the British to prevent freedom fighters from hiding or conducting meetings there.

The rock climb starts on an interesting note. At the end of the steps, you have to enter a rock cut cave via a rabbit hole. This cave might have really been a water tank, gauging its depth. Then you have to climb the high wall of this cave using a piton permanently driven in the wall. Once you are on the ledge, you have to work around the cave pillar and land on the other side, all of this in one step. The rush starts from here. There is a climb of about 12 feet before your feet find some more sturdy steps. There is an overhang where the steps turn and disappear upwards. After that it is only you and your grit that take you all the way to the top. Well, you can’t really go all the way up, cacti block you way. The path is more or less made by steps, generous in some places, quite narrow in others. But the trip is worth it for the view.

The climb down is the same way, you can choose to rappel down, but that is not really necessary. The walk down is pleasant when you are not losing your footing in the hay and over the loose stones. It should take you about 1.2 to 2 hours to come down and meet the tar road.

The recommended way to time this trek is to travel in the night and stay at Moroshi, then start early for the peak. It will take you a good 3 hours to reach the pass to begin the rock climb. Try and get back to the base by 5 pm, while it is still light and you can see in the thick jungle.

Difficulty Grade: 3/5

Adventureconnect always tries to explore forts off the beaten track. If these articles encourage you to go visit them and experience the same joy, it will be worth every drop of our team’s sweat. Enjoy and keep exploring. Remember, anything you need guidance about while taking off on an adventure, just drop us a line at:  mail(dot)adventureconnect(at)gmail (dot)com.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Korigad Trek

Korigad is one of the easiest for to climb in the Lonavala region. It is popularly clubbed with Ghanagad, another fort to the south. A marathon trek weekend can include visits to Korigad, Ghangad, Tel Bailya, Sudhagad and Sarasgad – all in 2 days. The fort affords a great view of the Aamby valley set up. I’ve seen many a planes take off from the runway inside that facility. You can also club this trek with a half a days’ visit to the adventure centre in Aamby valley –19 Degree latitude. Pre booking is apparently required.

How to reach and back:

While using a public transport from Pune, you can take the local or ST bus to Lonavala and further an ST bus that takes you to Aamby valley and beyond. From Lonavala you need to be on the bus that goes to Bhamburde, Ambavne, or Salter. You will need to alight before the turn for Aamby valley at a place called Peth Shahapur, a small village at the foothills of the fort. Bhamburde is the base village for Ghanagad and some distance further is the Tel Bailya village. Ambavane is at the foothills of Korigad to its east but the way to climb is from the west, via Peth Shahpur, just so that you know. There are not too many jeeps that ply this route so I would rule out that option.

Or you can drive there in a private car. Once in Lonavala, turn left at the Kumar Water Park and that is the road you need to follow. There are sign boards for Aamby valley all along. On the way to Peth Shahapur, you’ll pass Bushi Dam, the Airforce base station, and Tiger valley view point. The village is hard to miss as the fort looms large in the background. Korigad is characterized not by height, but by its expanse – the top is a huge wide plateau. The roads are in excellent condition for the VIPs who visit Aamby valley. Once the road leaves the Aamby valley area though, it is fairly pothole ridden. Obviously, no VIP movement beyond Aamby.

If you are going by private transport, you can park your cars in front of the temple in the village. They are safe there and I have not encountered any damage in all my visits to Peth Shahapur. The public transport vehicle will drop you on the main road, just a couple of minutes walk from the village. Follow the road inside and ask the villagers for directions to the point where the climb to the fort begins.

The Climb:

The actual climb for the fort begins some distance from the village. There is small thicket you’ll need to cross and gain some height before you spot it. A lot of flower bearing shrubs and bamboo groves are also along the way, which make it a pleasant walk. There is rusty sign board at the start point and most of the way up is via a stone staircase with occasional rocky patches. The villagers will direct you to the exact point where the climb to the fort starts.

Almost half way enroute, you’ll arrive at a nice resting spot. There is huge tree with a foundation around it and bang opposite that is a rock cut cave. There are three or four sections there and a couple of them used to have water, but not anymore. So remember to carry plenty of water with you. There is a single route up the fort and you will not go off track anywhere. The steep steps start after this cave and it’s a mere 20 min climb to the fort from there.

You will take not more than 40 minutes maximum to summit this fort.

On the top:

As soon as you climb from the main door you’ll notice that the whole fort is a big plateau. The only standing modern constructions are 2 temples. One is too small to accommodate a group and the other has its roof blown away. There are no trees to speak of on the top plateau so shade is hard to come by. The ramparts of the fort are in a fairly good condition and it is possible to walk along those to cover the entire periphery of the fort and enjoy views from all directions. To the east is the view of Aamby valley, its structures and the runway I mentioned earlier. Much further in the same direction you can see Tung and Tikona on a good day. Right at the eastern base of the fort is Ambavane village, full of fields and pretty meadows. To the south, if you know the terrain well, you will see Ghanagad, Sudhagad and Sarasgad. However, I have yet to see Tailbailya from Korigad. The walk all around the fort will take you a good hour or more depending on how much stops you take to enjoy the views.

One of the highlights of Korigad is the presence of 3 evergreen water bodies. Though swimming or drinking from these is not advised, they make a wonderful sight amidst the dry rocky soil around. There are a lot of birds visiting these ponds, so just sitting around watching is a great way to spend time.

Food and water:

The base village has no canteen/shop to speak off and I have not seen a tea stall either. Carrying your food and water or packing some from Lonavala will be your best bet. There are a few restaurants along the way and you can always troop back to Tiger Valley point to eat at the stalls there.

Difficulty Grade: 1/5

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Core expedition equipment

In this piece, I’ll be listing the core equipment we took along, with its pros – cons and my observations. Some of this equipment is specific to our kind of expedition and is in part generic for all expeditions.

  • Ultra light day sack – I had taken along my a Deuter 33L sack. I could have done with a smaller capacity sack, but I noticed that when I packed in less items in mine, there was no significant weight difference between my sack and smaller backpacks carried my some of my team mates. This pack accommodated my 2L hydration pack in a special pouch of the sack, my camera + spare batteries, wet wipes, a small medicine box, rain wear, scarf, hydration salt sachets, a water bottle and a small bag of snacks. With all this in it, there was space left over. It is a good size and comfortable backpack. There is a well designed wind mesh on the surface where the sack hugs the back and loops at helpful points along the straps. A small pocket at the bottom holds the rain cover.  An opening at the top allows the hydration pack hose to travel out of the sack and can be curled appropriately to be placed on hand. The sack’s main compartment can be divided into two via a zip-able partition –this is a handy arrangement. It holds well to your body, with the adjustable strap height, and waist strap. If you want to go for a smaller backpack, just make sure it has all these features. 
  • Water bladder /hydration pack – This is the inventor’s gift to outdoors persons. The quintessential item that every person who enjoys being outdoors, in the wilderness, for extended periods of time has. I use a pack that opens up entirely from the top, it has a flap with a stopper. This makes it easier to clean and dry. Also, in our conditions, I think it was good that mine has a cover on the mouthpiece. It kept the dirt and dust out.
  • Expedition backpack/ big duffle bag – I was carrying a Quechua 65L back pack. It is essentially a travel back pack and suited my purpose well. It had sturdy straps which were useful in holding the sack in place on the camel’s back with ropes. The straps ends can be moved to suit your height.  The main compartment was divided via a detachable partition which was hard but flexible enough to take in all the pokes and angles of things moving inside. Also, this compartment is accessible from the top, if you keep the sack upright, or from the front if you have it lying down with the back straps next to the ground. I find this to be a great feature. The same pack double up as a sack as well as a duffle back, with partition. And the fact that it was all closed up with zippers makes it very easy to lock up for travel. It does not have strings that bunch up or snap locking fasteners. The top flap is further covered by a top compartment with elastic strings on the very top to hold a bulky item.
  • Walking poles – It you are the type who likes to swing their arms as they walk, the poles might not be for you. Besides giving you rhythm, the poles act as support to take away some weight from your knees and give you a push ahead. They need getting used to though and you have to set a pace where your steps match the pole placement and arm position. Practice thoroughly before use. Use ones which have a grip contuoured to be held for long and also has loops to rest your hand from time to time. All that gripping day after day can be tiring.
  • Spade – To dig holes in the ground for poo! J Handy for other circumstances as well, like digging yourself out of a snowed in tent, or a sanded in tent!
  • Document wallet -  a very handy addition to your kit list..since you want to keep all your documents in one place. This is applicable when you feel the need to rummage through your sack everyday to fish out something and loose papers just get in the way. I used one and kept it neatly folded in an inner pocket of my expedition backpack. Everything stayed intact till the very end.
  • Compass / G.P.S – if you are keen on plotting your own course take one along. A compass is better, and it’ll help improve your plotting skills. A GPS needs batteries every few days so keep this in mind while choosing. I had both a compass, that I used occasionally and a GPS watch that gave out as soon after the solar rechargeable batteries refused to work as expected.
  • MP3, Ipod -  Extremely useful to keep your mind occupied with songs, audio books. Lauren, one of my Australian team members listened to a lot of audio books and talks of her selections here.
  • Camera -  with it comes cables, batteries, and memory cards – all of them can add to the weight so be sure you want to lug along that DSLR. Charging camera batteries and keeping it clean are the biggest challenges. Make sure you have a cleaning kit too.
  • Solar panels and battery – I saw two varieties on my expedition. The hard panel kind and the soft foldable panel kind.  Both are good depending on where you are placing the panels. I used the hard kind that were sponsored for us and we placed the solar panels on the camel back and the batteries in their saddle bags. What often went wrong was that the cable connecting the two became undone with even a slightly jerky movement and that meant the battery did not charge. Faraz tried putting the panel on his backpack and the battery in it. That stayed connected because he was careful. But make sure you buy something with a firmer connection for sure. The soft paneled one was used by Yihui and it came with an array of connectors to get a decide to charge right from the panel or charge the supplied battery. The surface area of her panel was more and thus ensured effective charging. Also since the panel was soft, it adjusted to the camels movement well. I would vote for the soft panel ones.
  • Net book, laptop, PDA – carry these if you must, because like the camera, they come with cables/batteries and other paraphernalia. We had some in the team carrying the Macbook Air and Peter carrying only his iPhone. Each to his won I guess. Charging becomes a major hurdle, right after keeping the device clean and dust free.
  • Water bottle – besides the hydration pack an water bottle serves to contain your hydration mix to replenish salts and such. You can attach it to your sack’s straps so that it is within handy reach. This can be the PBA free plastic varierty or a metallic one with a glove. Though I took a plastic one along, I'd reccomend the metal one with glove. It comes with a handy lid, attached to the bottle so there is not fear of losing it. The glove keeps the water warm/cold, as required for sometime.
  • Head torch (rechargeable batteries) – Keeping aside the issue of power to charge the batteries, the head torch keeps your hands free for chores when you want to operate in the dark. You can buy torches with adjustable beam power, saves you battery charge. The basic torch has this feature and some even come with focus enablers—giving you a wide or narrow beam. I think you can safetly stick with the basic. In our case the sun was up until almost 10 pm, so the torch requirement was minimal.
  • Small trek towel/Napkin – I vote for cotton ones, not too rough though. These are cheap, quick to dry, absorbs a lot and are very dispensable. I took along 4/5, ended up using only 2.
  • Sleeping bag   - I for one prefer sleeping On the bag, than in it. The ones with a mummy shape constrict movement. Maybe that is a fine fit for polar regions. You can look for sleeping bags meant for specific temperatures so that they don’t end up being a burden. Wherever it is, I doubt I can sleep well in a bag. I prefer a mat and my own light rug to cover myself.
  • Sleeping mat – When you have a floor full of lichen clumps, bumpy rocks pebbles and uneven contours, a sleeping mat is very handy. We used the kind that was inflated when in use and rolled up into a handy bun when not. It is very light too. Besides evening our your bed, it serves as an insulator—prevents heat or cold from the ground to reach the body. Usually these mats are made of tough material and small thorns or rough stones did not puncture it in anyway. You can also take a carry mat along, it is very light but adds volume.
  • Tent – Bases your decision of a tent on how many people will share one, what area you are visiting and what weight can you carry. If you are heading for extremely windy areas, make sure you by a low tent which you need to crawl into and has extremely flexible, but sturdy poles. If you are visiting an area which, along with being windy, is hot, use a layered tent. You can remove the top covering and expose the mesh to let air in. If it rains too, the cover will be good protection. I saw Agii use such a tent and it was better than any of ours. We had one with a separable sleeping area with some space for luggage. By the end of the expedition, the poles were bent beyond repair. The pegs to fasten the tent to the ground also have to be of a quality with address the area you are pitching it in—light aluminum ones for soft soil, iron ones for hard ground. The tent material also has to be tough enough to bear tugs and jerks due to the wind or sand deposition. Make sure the tent has wind pockets on top for some ventilation and that they are placed such that cross ventilation occurs. Else be prepared for a sticky night ahead.
As usual, comments and questions are welcome.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Tikona Trek

Tikona is one of the easier and quick to access forts in the Lonavala region. It has scenic and has sweeping views of the Pavana valley, the lake ahead and a few forts in the same region, prominently Tung.

How to reach and back: From Pune, take the morning 6.30 AM local from Pune station to Kamshet. You will reach there in about 80 minutes. From Kamshet station, take the road that goes straight to the market place. This is apparent by the jeeps and buses standing there. Hop on a jeep taking you to Pavana village. That is not all though. A new jeep will take you from Pavana to Tikona Peth, the base village.

While coming back, you can wait at the village bus stop for any bus that takes you to either Pavana or directly to Kamshet. Else, the jeeps are your best bet. Same route back to Kamshet station and there are trains every 45 min to Pune Station.

The alternative to jeeps is the state transport bus. Not too much information exists on their timings though and the locals may mislead you to ensure that the jeeps are in business.

By road, and you can make it there just as well road, the route takes you towards Mulshi/Tamhini from Chandni Chowk. You will first need to cross Pirangut (Ghat) and then reach Paud Village. Look for a right turn going towards Pavana dam in this village. There is a prominent sign marked as Tikona/Pavana at this turn. If you are on the right track, you should start seeing Pavana dam on your left. Here you will see a signboard for Tikona. You have to take a right towards Tikona Peth, the base village. the distance is approx 70 kms and should take you roughly 2 hrs to reach there.

The climb: Any kid in the village will direct you to the exact point where the climb to the fort starts. The route there from the main tar road meanders along houses, small fields, farm houses and grazing cows. You will most definitely see crabs scampering along and the buzz of insects will be in your ears.

Durg Savardhan has done laudable work on the fort in terms to adding safely ropes at steep points, cleaning, direction signboards at turns or diverging paths and placing a full time guard on top of the fort. You can donate something for this cause while on top.

Once you see the sign board, the route starts there.  It is easy, gentle and singular, you will not get lost. Midway, you come to a pass, and the path diverges. To the right, the path goes to the fort top and to the left, it goes to a ridge. Feel free to explore the ridge before you go on to the fort. After this point the climb becomes a tad steeper, but not difficult. you encounter a huge Hanuman carving, a cave temple on you way to the top.  At the temple, paths diverge again, but stick to the step like structure immediately in front. The final challenge is the steep staircase. Once you are over them, you are on top. The only higher point after this is the balekilla.

You will take not more than 50 min maximum to summit this fort.

Views from the top: The sharp peak immediately in from of Tikona, to its west, is Tung fort. Further away, if the light is good, you can see Korigad as well. Rest is all Pavana dam and its back waters, as well as the further shores of Mulshi lake.

Food and water: A lone hut serviced by a village woman stands near the cave temple. Other than that, you have to carry your own sustenance. Water though is plentiful and available nearer to the top at 3 different cisterns. Its cool and refreshing.

Difficulty Grade:  2/5

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Choosing an expedition - some guidelines

After I was back from the Gobi, I had one of my closest friends come over to meet me. He is a veteran of high altitude expeditions, an A grader from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. If there was anyone I'd always listened to it was him. I was all excited about what I had just completed and was already moving on to my next. We got talking about long duration expeditions in general and I asked him about typical expeditions - the planning, leading, logistics, support. On popular request, captured below are snippets from our conversation. 

Hear about people leaving managers and not the company? Well, don't be surprised if it is the same for expeditions. Besides choosing an expedition, it is choosing who is leading it. Here are some guideline that my friend suggested to follow when you come down to the final choice between a couple of expeditions you like. Before you pick one, apply these criteria and choose wisely.

If the expedition leader considers team safety paramount, then by the time the expedition is underway, all the team members should have been through a briefing of possible scenarios they will be a part of, the safety response to those and demonstration of first aid procedures specific to the terrain they are travelling through. It cannot be left to the leader alone to manage the crisis. What if s/he is the affected party? A safety plan looks great on paper with phone numbers of people and standby services, hospitals, doctors—but none of these are within range of immediate help. The team HAS to have an idea of ‘what to do if’ kind of procedures. And demonstrating a mock up of these in the very environment has the maximum impact.

This can only happen if the team is being led by someone who has the experience to lead a team in the first place and who has the vision to foresee the difficulties that the team might encounter. Over ambitions statements have a tendency to fall flat on its face at the first sight of a malady. This, apart from being a sign of immaturity, also shows that safety is being taken very lightly by the leadership.

Promises made and expectations set before the expedition begins, have to be adhered to under all circumstances. If not, they have to be accompanied by plausible explanations and alternatives. This is the second most important action item for the expedition organizer.

The third most important the team leader can do during the expedition is continually show the team the bigger picture and encourage them. Every individual can make daily goals for themselves and try to achieve those. The idea of how these daily goals put together will look as a whole has to come from the person in charge. Not only is this motivating, because there is a sense of purpose, a journey to the goal, but the enormity of everyone’s individual achievement is understood.

A lot of people who claim to lead expeditions often are victims of their own insecurities and web of lies built up to maintain a certain reputation. They cannot defend the claims they have made when questioned and fall prey to prejudices, play favorites and love sycophants. This damages their reputation in the eyes of the team and the world at large. Then come the lies to protect previous lies, or telling opposite things to different parties to confuse them.  Eventually, the team realizes the leader’s worth and shows him/her their place. The team, through an individual with stronger will power or each member by themselves, begins to manage the expedition, takes decisions and decides the general strategy. One such expedition he knows about is the story of exactly this—the end of the team’s patience to bear with amateur planning, lies and false expectation setting. The team managed to enjoy their time with the natives and take in other sights, managed themselves and their wellbeing better and worked together to get to the end. All because they took things into their own hands from incapable hands.

Great and true expeditions steer clear of claims to ‘exploration’ of certain areas of the world and working for sustainability or being carbon neutral. If they do indeed make the claims, there is indisputable evidence to support it. There are now very few areas on the land mass that remain to be explored in the true sense. It is downright fancy to call oneself explorer, and then claim to ‘explore’ areas which are less popular just be virtue of seeing no or very little tourist activity or not being written about much. Using jet fuel to get to the locations, having gas guzzling support vehicles escort you as you go cannot make an expedition carbon neutral. My friend tells me that the world is filled with expeditions making fancy claims of “studying” the complex indigenous ecosystems, of cultural immersion, of low carbon footprint and responsible tourism. Another very popular expedition aim that goes unsubstantiated by far is to bridge the cultural divides between the natives and the exploring team. He feels that documenting the indigenous lives is another such frivolous and loosely worded aim, besides the now beaten-to-death topic of climate change and how we can learn to be responsible about it. Only if one of the expeditions that claims to have these among its raison d'etre, can prove it, it’ll be such a relief to the adventure community. If you see any of these claims being made for an expedition, make sure there is irrefutable evidence to back it up, else just have the expedition for the sake of the adventure. Nothing wrong with that. Read my friend, Al Humphreys' blog about his golden rules and you'll know what I mean.

One thing my friend swears by is to always plan ahead. Always, always. A true leader does not let day to day setbacks distract him from looking ahead. Nor does he ignore the small matters to not account for them in the larger scheme of things. A happy team is the one which knows exactly what they are doing, how they are doing, what is to be expected and what to do during the unexpected. Constant and universal communication, a point whose importance cannot be overstressed, is key— as much before the expedition as during. A poor leader reacts on the go and an even poorer one depends on others to take charge and sort out a solution. 

Not being in synch about decisions with the support staff and the team can prove costly in terms of loss of trust and harm the well being of some team members. Plan, visualize, communicate, improvise and repeat the cycle. Such leadership can be expected from individuals who have led team expeditions, have marked leadership traits or have been in decision making roles in their professional lives. It can hardly be expected of someone who, for instance, may have studied human sciences or has very briefly been a part of the armed forces. It is one thing altogether to take survival, or first aid courses and something else entirely to lead an expedition successfully. My friend has met several people who by virtue of being in rescue, emergency medicine, or bring a life guard think that they are prepared to lead. Such folks are highly mistaken. These courses teach those particular skills maybe, but not decision making or leadership. 

He further advises that, always check out who is leading your expedition by researching all you can about the person. If you find that the web is littered with pages after pages of varied claims about the same person, stir amply clear. If people have pasted vastly varied facts about themselves and equally assorted expedition statistics, it is time to ditch them. And finally, if records of past achievements suddenly go missing, you know what you need to do.

There, of course, will be other criteria as well, but these are the crucial few.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The kit list and equipment I - Clothing

There have been a lot of requests to share the kit list and the equipment that we carried, individually and as a team. I am detailing it all out, by category, with observations, pros/cons. Hope it will be of help to future adventurers to any desert region and if you have any questions, leave a comment. Though this is an exhaustive list meant only for warm climate treks/expeditions, but it cannot claim to cover all requirements. 

Clothing: Considering the duration of the trek, 2 months in our case, we could have been easily tempted to carry more of this. More so since washing opportunities were next to nil. But thankfully for our camels, we did not. I laid down simple math-  a change of inner wear every 15 days, a change of outer wear every 30 days.
The second thing we had to account for was the weather - both warm and cold, with occasional showers. Layering your clothing is always a good idea instead of wearing one bulky item. If you need to be weight sensitive, always keep more of the inners over the outers. 

So my clothing list finally looked like this:
  • ·         Lightweight trousers - 3 - I carried two Adidas track pants and 1 cotton trouser, both worked fine to beat the heat as well as the cold. These types are tough and withstand rough use.
  • ·        Cotton shirts / kurtees- 3 - These were all full sleeved and made of cotton. My experience with Kurtees was great, they are a good substitute for shirts. I would not recommend a salwar-kurta combo because firstly, the kurta is longer and can hamper your stride and second while using the salwar, your thighs tend to rub raw within hours. Avoid these. I also purchased a Northface all weather ultra shirt with a SPF of 30. It has great wind vents on the sides and handy pocket near the hip.
  • ·         Underwear - 5 pairs – go for cotton, always. You can go for thicker weave if you prefer, over thinner/less dense material.
  • ·        Light sweatshirt/fleece jacket – 2 –this is type that is light on weight and bulk, yet good with keeping you snug.
  • ·         Lightweight wool socks - 2 pairs, not the very thick ones, they cramp our feet all day long. Or just use them in the night.
  • ·         Cotton socks - 4 pairs – cotton so that they keep your feet dry. These tend to bunch up sometime, and as soon as they do, either wash or discard.
  • ·         Rain protection – 1- nothing that will flail, or be dragged with the wind. Bring something light, that clings to the body and has a hood.
  • ·         Bandana/scarf – 2/3 – can be used for keeping unruly hair in check, covering the neck and ears if your hat is not big enough, to wipe sweat and tie things up. Even if you don’t use one, take a couple along, they can be used in a lot of ways.
  • ·         Beanie – 1 – merino wool will be great and light too!
  • ·         Wide brimmed hat – 1 – with a fastening band that goes around your chin. Running after the hat in the desert wind is tiresome business.
  • ·         Woolen neck gaiter – 1 – I did not carry this personally, but will come in handy in a lot of ways. It can cover your neck, warm your hands, and even your ears.
  • ·         Buff – this is one versatile piece of clothing at my team mate Carrie gifted me. It can be used in several different ways and can be a beanie, gaiter, tube top, hair band, ear protection..all in one. Must have, carry several.
In my next, I'll elaborate about baggage to contain your personal effects and equipment.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Tri - color flies high in the desert..

A flag can come to your rescue in unknown ways.

The team had walked ahead that day, with the van following us later after picking up supplies. By 4.30 pm, there was no sign of the van. We found a good pasture for the camels and set up camp. The much touted satellite phone was not in the van, as the leader claimed. So all we could to was wait for the van to turn up and spot us.
A little later, we saw it at last, heading in our general direction, but not particularly towards us. Due to the desert heat, visibility is limited to not more than 2 km over a flat landscape. Out came the tent pole and the flag. I hoisted it high and waved madly to get the van's attention. Needless to say, it worked and we were sipping hot tea soon afterwards.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A leap of imagination

For those of you who have been reading the previous post about the daily twists and turns in the Gobi, take a minute to read a narrative of what I had imagined it would be like here. Some interesting comparisons.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A day in the life this desert nomad…

The rainbow spans the entire horizon ahead of me, to the east. The rain has just abated, though it continues to threaten in the form of dark clouds further north. As I sit at the table, munching biscuits lathered with apricot jam and my book for company, the loneliness and the enormity of the plains I am walking on is brought home to me. There is no one to share the rainbow at the moment; it does not matter. Some things are best enjoyed with self, good food and memories of those I love. And yes, good music, that is missing. Nevermind. Far away to the north, I can see the rain pelting down on the plain and the mountains that rise from it. The wind is beginning to pick up as the sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. It might reach us in the night, maybe not. I am learning to live with the unpredictability, live in the moment. It is time to make a dash back to the tent, keep my book away, and fetch the beanie. Soon we will have dinner.

The walking for the day had halted at 4.30 pm. The first half of the day had been very sunny and hot. Reaching the van at lunch had taken a good discussion with Sim about life in Singapore/India, a dash of pep talk to self, a lot of shooting from the camera and some expletives to complete. The idea of seeing the van, a small dot on the horizon at times, and a mirage at others seemed to motivate and anticipation of lunch was indeed a good push in the right direction. Funny how the thought of lovingly cooked food helps me overcome any lows at all times. I’d imagine my Aai had called up a little earlier, saying that she was making pohe, my favouritest snack of all times and inviting me to partake of it. Coming Aai, I’d say, I’ll be there in less than 4 hours. Make sure it’s ready and piping hot for me to eat straight away. Alright, she’d respond, come quick. And my feet would obey. The van became of symbol not of a free ride into camp, or a means of rescue, but it was a symbol of sustenance. I almost always walked into camp expecting to see Aai, standing hand on hips ready to scold me for being late and then proceeding to serve hot pohe. And she was almost always there in the form of Janka, the cook. Where there is a van, there is sustenance. 

By this time, typically, we would be 22-25 kilometers down.
The lunch boxes were handed out to all of us. Chris’s lunch had double helpings and we would share what we had left with Faraz. Both of them, fastest walkers, always ahead of the pack, and therefore their need for additional carbs. Peter would be done quickly with his and move to reapplication of suntan lotion. Sim would always help pack up once she was done, sorting the boxes and the tea mugs. Lauren, Flo, Chris and Faraz would go after grazing camels with Albekh to tie them up in groups. I’d some of everything, refolding the camp chairs was my favourite chore. The support staff would also have wrapped up their lunch by this time and Wontok would be busy reloading the van. Sucheta would be putting on her shoes and helping around. Almost all of us refilled our hydration packs with the elixir of life. There were some who claimed to survive on one litre of water a day, but then they met their downfall in suffering from acute constipation.

Agii would help decide where we would camp at by the end of that day. This was always determined by where we would find grazing for the camels. If we had to make camp late one day and early the next, it was only because we had met grazing ground at that point in the walk and that time in the day. A few times, the availability of a water source nearby played an important role in where we stopped. The water source was usually a public well, or a stream of melted snow when we were in the mountains. The van would go and fetch it for us—4 drums full with a capacity of 20 litres each. If the grazing was spread across a bigger area, we would do close to 12 or 15 kilometers post lunch.
The van would drive off after lunch, making sporadic stops along the way and make camp earlier than us. Janka would get the fire going on her portable stove, complete with chimney. The fuel would be dried camel dung from the plain around. If there was no dung, she’d settle for thorns and bramble from the spiky bushes. She used this stove to heat water mostly, for our thermos, for washing plates & mugs and for cooking. For our eager eyes, the blue kitchen tent fluttering in the distance signaled camp. And for me, sustenance. Sometimes the tent would appear too soon. Our hopes would be dashed for it always turned out to be a mirage. With time, we learnt not to believe everything we saw. Or believe everything we heard from people who had claimed to have passed this way before.

The first thing we did after walking into camp was not removing our shoes or throwing away our back packs. The camels had to be unburdened and set to graze. Much was dependant on their cooperation the next day and we had bore the brunt of their distress several times now. The ropes came off, the pack bags we pushed over for the fastest unloading ever. No sooner had we done this, than the camel got up and moved forward to join its friends among the bushes. Albekh usually secured them all with a rope to their foreleg, so that a gallop would be impossible.

The table would be set up with a neat row of camp chairs on either side. A batch of fresh flour biscuits would be frying in the tent, their smell carried over to our noses by the wind. It was so tempting to just go sit at the table, but there were other things to take care of first. Getting the tent up was the next item on the to-do list. As soon as I managed to retrieve my luggage, we’d choose a relatively flatter patch, remove any big stones and unpack the tent. The wind would pick up right around this time, in keeping with Murphy’s law and almost blow us away, tent and all. Just keeping the tent steady would be a challenge. Sim then taught us how we could anchor one side and secure the other with the poles. Soon, we’d have the tent up in no time. There is much to be learnt from this tough girl, the veteran of an Everest climb and a privilege to know.

In went the luggage and belongings, time for a good wet wipe-ing session to get rid of the grime. In the middle of this all, Agii’s voice would carry over-“Tea/Coffee”. A mad scramble to get things sorted, undress, dress for the night, arrange things and make for the table would follow. For those who slept under the open sky, it was simply a matter of getting up and walking to the table. Peter would already be there, downing cups of hot tea. We’d all dig in to the jams, biscuits, chocolates or washing it down with tea or coffee.
I make my way back to the tent, keep my book and come out well wrapped to beat the rising chill. During this short time, the rainbow has disappeared and the sun has come out in full strength towards the west. The wind is still blowing but is no longer strong enough to blow clouds our way. Looks like it’ll be a rain free night, better for those of us who sleep in the open. The setting is made for a magnificent sunset, one of many I have seen so far in this fabulous country. It is close to 7 pm and the light will be around almost till 10 pm. On days that I have slept outside, I’ve always faced the setting sun. It is a great view to look at as my eyes close and sleep takes over. I can imagine my friends and folks in India looking at the same view and thinking of me.
There is sometime between tea and dinner and most of us use it to write journals, taking care of our feet, or logging on the web via the B’GAN. Besides these, I also prefer to walk around, shoot a video of the campsite, and sort my photos.

Dinner is called around 8.00 and those of us, who are not already at the table, make our painful way there. It is pasta today, with cabbage, onion, capsicum and tomatoes. The pieces of dry meat floating in the soup add variety to the taste. People are livelier now, than they were at tea and stories are shared. The expected briefing for the following days never comes and never did.
By the time it is 9.00, we are feeling the weight of the day and our eyes start looking in the distance. It is time to get cozy in the sleeping bag, read a page of two on the iPhone/Kindle or enjoy a last minute coffee.  Sleep is quick to come and I believe not even an earthquake would rouse us. 

The new day will dawn as early at 4 am, but I won’t have to be up until 6. The glow of the Nite watch will tell me when it is time and I hate it already. Right after I am sitting up, the mat will need to be deflated and the sleeping back tucked in for the day. The change of night dress into walking gear is necessary before I exit the tent. Brushing teeth is next on the agenda, will be followed by dismantling tent, and arranging the luggage for loading. Then it’ll come to my favorite part, you guessed, breakfast. Janka thinks up the most delightful and nutritious items to get us going. And she’s sharp too- plates start coming to the table at 7 am, no later. A quick coffee follows. It is now time to fill up the water for the day, apply sunscreen and get the camels for loading. Loading takes about 20-25 minutes depending on how much cooperation we get and by the time it is 8, we are ready to take on a new day.

New day. Endless possibilities.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Our ships of the desert

Besides the homo sapiens on our team, we each had an animal counterpart in one double humped Bactrian camel. Like the humans though, they came with colorful and varied personalities and abilities. 

It was the first time for all of us at handling camels. Agii, Albekh, Janka and Wantok were the only folks who had lived and breathed camels all their lives.

On the eve of day one, we met them all from a distance. At the camp by the lakeside they were lined up and roped to a common line. There was even a calf running around in the camp. As far as I know, our team was all males so the calf was probably only a temporary attraction. It was strange to see the small one gallop around and imagine him as a big fully grown camel one day. They really are huge. The family which owned the camels had come to say hello and see which crazy people would now own their livestock.

Faraz was encouraged by the townsfolk who had gathered to greet us to climb and ride a camel. He tried unsuccessfully to get on one thrice. Much to the amusement of everyone, especially the kids, he was thrown off each time.

The next day, we had time before we left since the camel ownership papers were some time in coming from the town of Bulgan nearby.  The day dawned at 4.40 am so it was bright and sunny by the time all of us made rounds of the camels. There was one which was whiter than the others; that was Shadow. Another had a blue ribbon tied around its neck. He soon came to be called Blue B**tard due to his habit of kicking and spitting. But he is turning out to be the strongest of them all. Lauren choose hers—Bumblebee—a mild mannered and golden haired specimen. There was one whose twin humps were sharp and triangular, (No, I don’t mean to describe anything else other than camel humps :P) and he was appropriately named ‘Toblerone’. There were several more that remained nameless.

I did not choose Oliver right away. I was prepared to change the name to Olivia, should my pet turn out to be a she. But I was saved the trouble. I thought I’d watch all the camels in action, while grazing and on the line eventually choosing Oliver.

Our first lesson in “cameletiquetts” was to make it sit and stand. “Chhugh” is what you need to say with some amount of force while pulling the rope downwards to get the camel to sit. When the camels are young, a wooden peg is passed through their nasal cartilage, just above the nostrils to secure a rope. The Mongolian camels are not really used to a halter or a bridle. One side of the peg is a thicker, preventing it from slipping out and on the other the rope is tied with special knots. To prevent the knot from slipping, the camel handlers push a cork or a plastic bottle cap up the peg. So the camels permanently have a rope attached to their pegs and this is the one we pulled on.

If you wished to have him get up and follow you, all you need to do is hold the rope and start walking in the front. The camel will get up and follow, unless he wants to cause trouble or protest.

There are several ways to handle the camel depending on what you want to make him do. All Mongolian camels are usually used to being, mounted and loaded from the left side. They get nervous if you approach from the right side. I noticed that if I walked along their right side, they would all move away from me and bunch up, requiring the person who was leading them to sort them out. If a van, motorcycle passed nearby, they would act the same way irrespective of the side. But this was more due to the noise of the vehicles than the side they were approaching from.

We always needed to approach a camel from the front and then head to his left if we wanted to lead him, untie him, tie him or rope him to the line. They also like being nuzzled along the length of their necks, again from the left.

A loose camel will always run on further, if chased from behind. A trick we learnt effectively from Albekh was to run away from the camel first, convincing him that he is not being chased and then circle back to approach him from the front. If you are in front, the camel will not usually challenge you and run towards you. He might shake his head to prevent you from catching hold of his rope, but the running effectively stops.

As days passed, we moved quite a distance away from the habitats the camels were used to and also they began missing their usual grazing grounds. When this happened, they started getting nervous day after day. This nervousness manifested itself in team members receiving some kicks. A lots of spitting, grunting, and moaning began happening around loading time every day.  On some days a camel sat down bang in the middle of nowhere and had to be coaxed to get going once more, causing some delays. In such situations, Agii and his team were always at hand, helping and guiding. If the load was not properly balanced, the camels would stamp their feet, refuse to move ahead or grunt a lot.

Like most cattle, the camels regurgitate their fodder and keep chewing on it. This habit gives their thick lips and green/yellow ting and their phlegm also takes the colour. Though being spit at seemed disgusting at first, I realized that the green slim dries and falls off your clothes and the phlegm leaves no odour whatsoever.

With camels, you have to be agile and very watchful. They can pull themselves loose in the wink of an eye and run on till they are dead, which can be several days. If you are riding them, they can act weird and be upset by the slightest of things like you trying to adjust your perch. If a fellow camel is acting mad, stomping his feet or kicking wildly in the air, you need to quickly isolate them from each other so that they all don’t react and do likewise. To help this, camels are not tied to each other or to the holding line with a tight knot. Their knots have to be of the type that cause the rope to be completely free in one pull. Only this way can you isolate them or lead them quickly away should trouble arise.

It is the same principle with the loading. The camels already have a thick furry blanket on their back, anchored to their humps so that it does not slip off. Over this, we used to put a canvas loading bag with two big pockets on both sides, and a bridge between. They also had flaps to cover the luggage that went inside. Once everything was placed on both sides, making sure the loads were equal, the flaps were closed and the bag was closed by securing the nylon tabs sewn on the bags to each other. After that came the rope that had been passed under the camel’s belly. First the bags were lifted, the ends of the rope was passed to the other side and pulled well to make sure the bag on either side did not hand too much. Then the rope was passed under the bag and looped at the top. Once more it was pulled up to prevent the bags from sagging and then a knot was formed on top with a loop, a figure of eight or any of the climbing knots was never to be used.  Through fragile to look at, the knot stayed the whole day without slipping. This whole procedure though hard during loading, was a breeze when unloading. We just had to loosen the ropes, untie it completely, hoist the bag from the camel’s bag and lo, the animal was free to get up and graze.

Most of the camels we had were fairly behaved with occasional spitting and grunting. BB spitted the most but is a strong contender to last till the end of the expedition.  Towards day 25, a lot of them started groaning like a human would, with loud, distinct and clearly protesting noises rising from their throat. One of them moaned every time he was loaded, mounted or unloaded. Though there is much respect, the Mongolians have no attachment to their camels or pet dogs for that matter, more than necessary. They don’t give them names or pet them often. I have seen Ger owners throw stones at their own dogs to prevent them from charging at strangers (us!), if the scolding has no effect. And I think the pets don’t expect any fondness either, they are usually collarless, wild, stinky and flea ridden.

About 4-5 camels have already been sold to people along our way since they 
had grown weak or had a drop foot.

Which bring me to how I chose Oliver. Well, he was the one leading the pack at all times and was ridden by Albekh. We never loaded him until much later in the expedition, when some of the camels could not carry much loads. First out of camp and first into the next camp.

I think he looked handsome in the neck decorations I had taken along and separated him from the rest. I'll miss you when we cut you loose, Olly!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Expedition Lifeline

Most of the credit for keeping us safe and sound, healthy and on track for the daily grind goes to our support staff. Kobesh Co, an adventure company owned by the much talented and recently married Agii Makhsum is responsible for logistics and support for the expedition. The staff comprised of Agii, himself, Janka who whipped up delicious meals, Wantok who was the handy man and Albekh who had a way with camels. They left us wanting for nothing and were always around for help, each of them gifted in their own ways. Incidentally all of them are Kazhaks by culture and Mongolian by nationality.

Agii, is the backbone of support for the entire team. He had picked excellent crew – human and animal for us. By the time we reach Bulgan to make our start, he had the camp ready and waiting.
I first met him on the airport at Khvod. A cheery face, and a happy smile are a permanent feature. I think the fact that he was recently married helped too. He made sure all of us were comfortable in our new surroundings. It is no wonder that he has been a part of the BBC’s team for the Mongolian edition of the Human Planet series. 
During the expedition, he had his team demonstrate how we needed to handle camels and load them. Since he was the only one who spoke English, he would pass on tips and advice from time to time. At first our communication with him was limited to this. Over time, as our confidence in his abilities grew, he became the focal point for all expedition related issues and their resolutions. 
He is a quick decision maker, recognizes all the risks, is clear about what needs to be done and is therefore in control of what he is doing. From arranging a ride for injured team members to the nearest town, to locating us on the vast plains of the Gobi when we were led astray, his presence has been reassuring. He has never failed us. His experience and desert skills have salvaged us many a times from the results of amateur planning.
He never shies away from sharing back breaking work with his crew, be it collecting firewood for the ancient stove, or running after a loose camel. He has a Russian make van that has been specially outfitted with additional fuel storage. He diligently carries our frequent checks on it to make sure it does not breakdown. 
All this help and service is always accompanied with a smile and witty comments. You can never tell when he is serious and when he is joking. Such is this enigma of a man.

Janka, (pronounced yan-ka), has also been a part of the BBC series team and has won several awards for her skills on the expedition. I would think that hers is the hardest job of all.  She’d wake up at 6 am to get us breakfast by 7 am. Then immediately move on to making our lunch. That done, it’d be time to wrap up, collapse the tent and load the van for our rendezvous later that day. All the loading/unloading everyday would have got to me for sure…supplies packed in 20 odd boxes, the stove, the table, chairs, water drums, the gas burner…and then she had to arrange them in an order so that what she needed most was loaded last. Ugh! She did it tirelessly for days. After our lunch, the van would race ahead and make camp for the day. The first thing she had to do there was to get the firewood stove going. Then came the washing of all the plates, lunch boxes, cups, cutlery etc. By the time we reached, we’d be ravenous. So tea and snacks would be ready for us. 

She decided the rations that we needed, and how much. Her cooking never failed to take care of our dietry requirements given our strenuous activity every day. We had meat, soya, oats included. Then there were some delightful tinned fruits, a huge collection of biscuits/cookies and an even more awesome collection of hard boiled sweets and toffees. We polished off everything she made with gusto.
She had no problem in climbing on the carrier of the van and loading/unloading the kitchen items. She had the ability to pitch the kitchen tent all by herself if required. When one of the camels ran off with our supplies still tied to its back, she was the first one to run along its side with a stick. When the van finally subdued him a long way off from camp and led him back, she did not hesitate to let him know what was on her mind and gave it a few solid kicks. The supplies it had been carried were long lost in the plains and the drum disfigured beyond repair. We had to do without sugar for a few days after that. 
She speaks a few English words and never fails to ask how we are at the end of each day. Thanks to you, Janka, we are as good as ever.

Wantok’s English vocabulary is confined to one word, machine, which he uses to describe the van. He would be about 45 years old, if I can read him correctly and lives in the same side of Mongolia as Agii, to the west. His asset are his hands that can handle the van and the camels with equal ease. He make a protesting camel sit down, can put a nose rod through the nose of one to secure it, and joke with us in Kazhak at the same time. He is extremely handy with the van and the supplies as well. At the end of the day, we’d find him fiddling with the van, adjusting things inside, tightening bolts, checking for leaks under the van body. He has this amazing intuition of where to stop so that it’d be the perfect time for lunch. 

For our daily camp, he took efforts to drive around a find a great spot. Besides a stream, under a mountain, overlooking a valley—each as beautiful as the one before it. He left us around day 25 to go back home to his family. We will miss him terribly.

Albekh was the youngest member of the team. You would not find him speaking much, but was always around to help with pitching tents, loading camels and loading supplies. He would quietly re-do any shoddy camel loading we might have done and set the balance right.
He would not join us as we left camp right away to help with the loading. But as soon as the van passed us for the first time in the day, he’d get off and make a string of about 5 camels. He’d ride the first one and lead the rest. He had grown up around them, no wonder he was so comfortable.

Every now and then, while riding, he would break out into a song. A Kazhak love song was his favourite. You can hear it here. I think it brought a glow to his young tanned face.
If I have enjoyed the expedition and been motivated to continue with the routine day after day, it was due to the combined effort of these four individuals. It is also through them that I have learnt about the generous nature of the Mongolians, their beliefs, their way of life and how they lead it in one of the harshest environments.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The art of walking...

That is pretty much it...walking....what we are doing here. After all we have 1600 KM to cover. About 8 hours everyday are spent on this activity, focused on covering distance and then there is walking between the tent and the dinning table, tent and a bush, tent and another tent.

I had not giving this art a thought until i realized that it would consume 60 days of my life walking the Gobi. It is an art, mind you, though it comes naturally to all homo sapiens, perhaps even before they can talk coherently. And it take a hell lot of practice to get it right. In fact, if we paid enough attention to correct our walking, we would be free of half our health issues. Well, this may be a tall claim, but you'll see the logic as i explain. And mind you, some of the conclusions here are retrospective too.

When i began my practice, i walked without any load at first..it was all city walking..quite a
different ball game as compared to what i am doing now. But then i had to get it right, just the walking part. There are several things you can work on- your stride, the swing of your arms, the straightness of your spine, neck and head positions, how you place your foot, what force you place it with, what footwear you are wearing, and so on.

Most if us walk in a style that is lanky, easy and steady. We can walk fast when we want to but, some are not naturally inclined towards it. I love to swing my arms, since they bring a rhythm to the walk. And if there is nothing to hold, all the better to set a pace. I used this baseline a the beginning of my practice to build on. After all, i had to play to my strengths-- speed is not my forte as prolonged activity is.

After I had established a steady pace and a style that did not cause me any awkwardness or pain anywhere, i added load. I started with a light day pack. I had not moved on to tyre dragging just yet. I now had to work my feet to take a fall on different terrain. So I was away in the hills, on the beach, on the roads and on mud roads as often as i could.

I had ordered my Scarpa shoes early on and practiced with them at all times. Just so that I could break them in. They fit me till just above the ankle and have saved me many an ankle sprain on topsy turvy terrain.

Walking can be a passive as well as an active activity. It appears active when there is passion in your walking and a great purpose in your stride. Nothing can distract you. Passive is when you are walking like you are breathing, without being conscious of it and are preoccupied with something  mental at the same time. At such times the pace is easy, you don't notice all obstacles and distractions are easy.

This brings me to my walking in the Gobi. You'd think all the practice and all the shoe breaking in has helped, right? Wrong! The shoes are as good as new...it took two weeks for them to settle down after giving me umpteen blisters all over my toes and foot pad. And my legs, protested at every step. I was made aware of every tiny muscle i have in my legs. The calves, hamstrings and thighs..all of them took a hit. Nothing prepares you for a Gobi walk except another Gobi walk.

I have begun to use walking sticks these days since i hurt my knee after shoving my foot down a marmot hole on the second day.  The pain is gone but the sticks feel good. I swing them over my shoulder, carry them one a side or use them like they are meant to be used.

What goes on in my head as i walk? A hell lot of things-- whistling, singing tunes to myself, making up to do list for that day/next day/when I am back home, thinking...a lot of thinking, plans for the future, what car I want to buy, what is the first thing I'll do when I am back to civilization, visualization of ending the day/expedition, memories with friends and family.

Then there is the scenery around, though it does not change too much daily due to our speed, but the photography is something to do.

I am not sure what every one else on my team does, but the memories and the thinking drive me hard and give me that much needed push. I count steps when the going gets tough and for every 500th step, take a sip of water.

This blog was entirely written in my head while walking, so I know i can do only 16 things at a time. :P

Cheers to the art of walking, which I am still trying to master.