Thursday, September 06, 2012

Kaas Plateau ~ Venna Lake Walkathon - 2 Sept 2012

I was awake even before the alarm could go off at 3 AM. I almost jumped out of bed before I remembered the time and decided to take it slowly, least I make any noise.

I had already laid out my things the previous night. All that remained for me to do was fill up my hydration pack, arrange things in my backpack and get my trekking gear on. All this, right after a steaming cup of coffee, a little something to satiate my stomach and a brief reading of anything handy. This is the routine three things that I simply cannot start my day without, no matter what the time of day I get up. Even a torn sheet salvaged from a laundered shirt will also do, I simply have to read.

My friends indicated they were on their way to the meeting point via my home. I was just wearing my shoes and then at the last minute decided to switch to sandals instead. Gear on, food in place, backpack on my back and my heart was singing already. I wish I could go on adventures every single day.

4 AM: I hear a car outside and guess it must be my friends. I managed the whole putting-locks-in-place process at record speed and knowing my home to be secure, I met them on the road. By 4:05 AM we were at the meeting spot on Sihagad road. The bus would be there soon and the other participants started trickling in. I helped identify some so that we knew who was already there. By 4:45 AM the last of the late latifs had arrived and we were on our way.

I might have done over 40 treks by now, yet the thrill of embarking on a new one never escapes me. As the bus made its way to Satara, my anticipation increased. This is also the time when I think of and curse myself about things I had forgotten to take. This time it was the hand sanitizer that I had left behind. Shoot! There is eternal consolation in the fact that other participants may have some to share. Food, good shoes and water are some things that I never leave home without though. So I would have had something to bargain with, if it came to that.

A quick 20 min halt at the Satara ST stand was arranged so that we could have breakfast. This was a well thought move to save us time. Nothing can be lovelier on a trek morning than a bowl full of kande pohe and chai followed by satyanarayan style ravyacha sheera. I stuffed myself well and still had my eye on the remaining bowls. A good rule while trekking is to eat when you can, you never know when you will eat next. And I may not follow any other rules, but this is sacrosanct.

By 7:30 AM were doing good time on the Bamnoli route. At one point, the road forks. The road on the right leads you to the Kaas Plateau. It is easily identified by the beginnings of a barbed fencing and a small office issuing permissions. The fencing extends quite some distance inside the plateau, and is in place to prevent damage to the surrounding meadows.

It was almost 8:30 AM, all participants from both buses were ready to set off, and we started down the fenced path. It is about 20 feet wide and was comfortable for us to walk side by side, chatting all the time. The rain was upon us almost at once. This initial patch is where all the famed flowers of the plateau are to be found. As you go deeper into the region, grassland and shrubs takeover.

If there was one highlight of this trek, I’d say it was the fog. Dense, constant, it was with us almost till the time we reached the end point. The fog made it difficult for us to get any views of the valley or the flowers or of each other. Visibility was reduced to 15 feet. Another reason we did not see the flowers was too much rain—that had caused them to wilt. Too much precipitation does that to flowers as fragile as those that grow in Kaas.

The weather, though, was delightful to begin with. Mild rain, no sun, great cloud cover, our feet carried us swiftly over the rolling hillocks. The path alternated between rising gently and dropping down slightly. Enough to keep us interested in what we were putting our feet on. We did not encounter much wild life save a few lizards. I was surprised by the absence of crabs altogether. For the wet place that it is, I was sure Kaas would have some. Maybe they all went away in search of flowers. The other big absence was that of birds and their calls. I think the dense fog was the culprit. Some excitement was provided by a small worm who took a fancy to Pooja and tried to stick to her ankle. When flicked, it landed on her sock and quickly tried to make itself at home. A surer flick with a knife point sent it to its doom in a water puddle. It was good that Pooja remained calm through the entire drama.

The rain was heavy and relentless now. Whup Whup!! A sudden noise startled us in the gloom. A high tower loomed above us to our right and huge arms rotated in pace with the wind. Windmills!! I never expected to see any there. It was eerie, we could not see them due to the fog and all of a sudden we were besides them. They really are huge monsters, these windmills. The last time I saw one was in Scandinavia, a traditional windmill house. These windmills at Kaas are spread almost over the entire area and I could hear about 10 of them. On a clear day we could see more perhaps.

It was now almost noon and we had been walking continuously except for a break to regroup. Vikas had been claiming that there is a chai point up ahead and in all that desolation indeed there it was. He was most relieved to see it than any of us since he was under threat that he would have to make tea for us all if the hut turned out to be imaginary. This was going to be our longest break before lunch. The tea point guy was clearly overwhelmed with all of us descending on his little hut for Chai. It was both an aural and a tasty experience. The steel glasses we were served tea in held a secret. A ghungroo, (one of many small metallic bells) hidden away in the false bottom of that glass, rolled around as we tilted the cup to drink in! What an enterprising idea. I am sure to remember this particular tea break all my life.

The monotony began to settle in an hour past our break. No valley views, no flowers, no change in terrain. Just an occasional jeep passing us by, not even a village to take in. Even the worms or ticks seemed to have forgotten to stick fast to any of us. Occasionally we saw shrouded figures of the cowherds up the hills or down on the slopes with their charges. The boredom made us take a wrong fork at one turn and we walked almost a KM into the Kaldeo (I hope I got that right) village. It was there that we had our first glimpses of the huge Koyna valley. Before we could venture any further on the wrong track, we had someone call us back to set us on the right one.

Towards the last 5 KM, there was a slight ascent. It did our feet a world of good to have another set of muscles working. Many in the group were by now affected by foot soreness, blisters, wet cloths rubbing against skin and general lack of motivation. But nonetheless, we trudged on in anticipation of a much deserved meal. And at long last we were rewarded by the sight of the whitewashed temple which would be our end point. It was some distance away yet, but the sight itself did wonders for everyone’s morale. We picked up our feet and therefore our pace.

A big group of us has made it ahead and the more experienced members we leading the rear with some others who were tired. The gym group reached the temple and we decided to have our lunch as we waited for the rest. The grand finale was the come just yet. Finally within an hour everyone was at the temple and yummy food was passed around. I counted at least 15 different types of snacks that I sampled that day. One big advantage of treks – being treated to homemade delights from others and at village homes. Lunch done, we decided to head up to the point where the buses would pick us up. Our gym group, enthusiastic as ever, started ahead and bang bum bump- some nicely laid out stone steps became my downfall. I slipped and bumped my way to the bottom. A sore bum is a big damage to ones pride, I think and I had to hitch a ride in a rickety old van.

The van itself was another story. It had landed there right from the times of the great Shivaji Maharaj. It moved neither forward not backward, only made strange choking noises that clearly told us that it was counting its last breaths. The owner who-was-clearly-not-the-driver, offered it for our service. So it fell upon poor Abhijeet to navigate the unwilling beast up to the bus and he was very gallant about it. The van owner, all this while sat in the back giving much unnecessary advice. The only one thing we listened to was to keep the van in the first gear all through the ride. Else it just refused to move.

40 min after reaching the bus, we had changed and felt refreshed. My bum was now less of a pain. We anticipated the journey back to Pune would take us about 3 hours. We halted for tea and vada pav at the Mahabaleshwar turn, and then took a long time to navigate the toll booths on the expressway.

And when we entered Pune finally, everyone was ready to hit the sack.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On this day last year!

On this day last year, I began my long journey into the Gobi desert of Mongolia with 10 other crazy folks, an equal number of camels and 3 locals.

More details here.


Friday, April 27, 2012

A Hike into the valley of shadows - Sandhan Valley

Sandhan valley always seems like a mysterious place that a few have visited. Its description as a valley of shadows added to its charm even more.

The valley is located on the west side of beautiful Bhandardhara region near Samrad (pronounced sam as in farm and rad as in rudd) village. The village itself is located approx.  at 3000 ft above sea level. It is made of up of folks who stare at you are you walk by, but are equally eager to help if you hesitate even slightly. About 500 meters away from the village is where the Sandhan valley entrance is located. Nothing fancy there, just the point where the path starts to descend steeply.

All around the village you will find the great peaks of the Sahyadris – the famed Alang-Madan-Kulang (AMK) tri peaks, followed by Kalsubai, Ajooba and of course, Ratangad.

When you walk to the mouth of the valley you realize that you are essentially walking in the path of a stream, a big one at that. In summers and winters, except for a few ponds where water remains accumulated, the rest of the route is dry. In the rains, the area is inaccessible, as expected. This is that unusual trek where you go downwards first and then hike up.

We left Pune at 4 since the journey was a lengthy one. We went via Kasara, Bota and Kotul bifurcation, and reached Sandhan at 1.30 PM (We would have typically reached at 10 AM had our bus not run out of fuel near Ratangad. It is quite a story, more later). Since the walk was to be in shadows we set off immediately. A local youth joined us as a guide.

There are a couple of ways to see the valley. The easier route ends where the valley slopes down sharply to overlook Thane district. You can make a halt here and return, the total distance covered from mouth of the valley till this point is about 2.5 KM. We reached there at 3 PM or so and had our lunch. The return took longer as it was a climb and we were back in our seats on the bus at 5 PM.

The longer and more exciting route is to continue down the slope all the way to Karoli Ghat and then to Dehane village (Base of Ajoba fort) in Thane district. This involves a couple of rappels down the rock face along with trekking downstream through huge boulders and rocks. You will most certainly need to wade through waist deep water. This trek is an overnight affair and it is best done when the sun is around. The terrain is tricky to navigate in the dark  due to the fact that it is made up of boulders, rocks and stones most of the way. In the dark shadows can trick your feet into a hole which may deeper than you think it is. Even the full moon may not help – if the valley shades you from the sun, then so will it from the moon.

The other way to enjoy the longer route, part of the way is to continue from Samrad towards Karoli Ghat and return from there back to Samrad. This should take about 4 hours. This also involves the rappelling point mentioned before.

The typically routes to go to Samrad are three:

  • Via Sangamner  - (Total Distance approx - 248 km)
    Pune - Narayangaon - Alephata - Sangamner - Akole - Rajur - Randha falls - Ratanwadi phata- Shendi Bhandardara - Panzare - Udhawne - Ghatghar Dam - Samrad village

  • Via Bota - (Total Distance approx - 200 km)
    Pune - Narayangaon - Alephata - Bota - Bramhanwada - Kotul - Kotul Phata - Rajur - Randha falls - Ratanwadi phata - Shendi Bhandardara - Panzare - Udhawne - Ghatghar Dam - Samrad village

  • Via Otur - (Total Distance - 200 km)
    Pune - Narayangaon - Alephata - Otur - Bramhanwada - Kotul - Kotul Phata - Rajur - Randha falls - Ratanwadi phata - Shendi Bhandardara - Panzare - Udhawne - Ghatghar Dam - Samrad village

Of these, the route via Bota is recommended as it is shorter and take you via major state roads which make your journey faster.

Now about our fuel fiasco. It seems the bus driver was under the impression that the tank is full and by the time Samrad was much in our grasp, the bus finally shut down in protest. We managed to convince a fellow working the land using a excavator to spare some diesel for us. After taking about 5 litres, we proceeded and stopped every time we saw an excavator or a loader. Thankfully there was some road work or other in progress on this route so excavator we plentiful. Interestingly, the jeep drivers, who ferried passengers on those routes refused to help us.

Though we had reach Samrad, we were still woefully short of fuel to carry us till the nearest pump. It was 60 KM away.

Help came in the form of a local boy who took his van all the way to the state highway and came back with 20 litres of diesel for us. He also runs a small snack centre, can prepare meals if requested I advance and has a room that you can rent for a short overnight stay. With the bus as nicely fed and rested as us, we were on our way back.

A great experience with the members of a new group I meet and agreed to go out with. Sandhan valley is a must visit for many times.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Princess on a bike

Shocked silence greeted me when I identified myself as the bike’s prospective owner at the showroom. Of diminutive appearance, I did not appear up to the task of riding an Royal Enfield let alone a tricycle.

After a few mumbles to recover his stance, the salesman ran me through the choice of colors available.

I had done my research on the bikes made in the stables of this particular brand and needed to make a final decision. The salesman was not really helping my cause. Little did he know that I had grown up around these roaring and beautiful machines.

My first bike was an old Java, when it was neither a type of coffee or a programming language. It was a great bike of its times. We actually, it was my Dad’s bike. Every now and then I would demand to be given my fair share of rides on the mean machine. As I started saying my first words, I used them to make sure the rides lasted longer and longer. My parents did not know how the loud monster could hold any fascination for a little girl. They realized though that I was hooked.

When the Java finally gave out after decades of joyous rides, Dad opted for a sleeker and more ergonomic Hero Honda bike. I had a big say in that choice. I loved the smooth lines, and the uncluttered look. Though my father never ever gave in to my request to ride the bike by myself, he always indulged my hunger to go for a ride with him. This one made much lesser noise and I could hear the wind whistle in my ears. I loved the rides we went on, away from town where the roads opened up, the skies seemed blue-er and the wind blew unfettered. I loved the bike for enabling me to experience these moments of pureness and natural beauty.

We seemed to like the brand, Hero Honda. The next bike I bought, on my Dad’s behalf, was one of its kind. Again a breezy design. This one was more powerful than the first, at my insistence. I would soon be legally eligible to drive and I wanted to cut my teeth on a racy machine.

The learning lessons went well, I took to the bike like a fish to water. Most of my early rides were on country roads. We’d take a nice picnic basket, pack a camera and Dad took the driving seat till we left the city chaos behind. Then I’d take over. Though country roads do not need you to walk a tight rope between other vehicles who do their best to drive you off the road, you really have to watch out for the unexpected. And I have a scar on my chin to prove it.

That buffalo just turned up from nowhere right on to the path I was riding and decided at that very moment, that this spot was nice to stand and gaze. Along we came, cashing headlong into the surprised beast. The bike fell sideways, throwing me and Dad off. The helmet I wore saved my head but could not prevent a loose rock from scratching my chin badly. Dad managed to injure his leg.

And what of the big beast? Well, it just stood there as if a fly had settled on him and without a second glance at us, set off at an easy pace.

Soon it was time for Dad to let go and watch his princess take the machine out for a spin all by herself. With the usual dire warning that only Dad’s can give, I was handed the keys. It was the most joyous day of my life. I could ride to college, I could ride to the umpteen classes I had enrolled in, I could take a friend along and I could ride when I felt like. The bike meant freedom to me in many ways than one. Where girls had posters of their favourite heroes, I had those of the world’s most powerful bikes.

The bike was with me when I applied and got selected for my first job, but sadly it was my turn to let go now. Which brought me to the Royal Enfield showroom a while afterwards. It was the culmination of the passion of my entire life so far. The Royal machine with the famous thunderous firing. I gazed spell bound at the shiny machine, powerful and majestic in appearance. Inviting enough for me to want one right away.

Finally I gave up on the salesman and decided to take things in my own hands. I made my selection, I handed over my hard earned money—a result to many months of savings. The Bike was mine. Mine.

On a cloudy evening, with signs of imminent rain I took possession of my dream bike. Then I took my Dad on a long ride back to those country roads we loved so much.

This is my entry to the The Castrol Power1 Blogging Contest. Visit the link here:

Friday, February 03, 2012

How to shop for your trekking boots online

Scarpa Kailash GTX

Once I was firm about walking a 1000 km across the Gobi, I started a search for good boots in earnest; after all they would be on my feet for almost a 50 days. A lack of good quality long haul boots in the local market prompted me to look for them online. It was a tough decision to order online– without ever having handled the boots, or putting them on my feet even once. It was a risk I had to take. I looked at almost 20 odd websites before zeroing down on Not only do they have a lot of and very varied stock, but there is even a live chat with customer support where you can look for advice and opinions. I asked a lot of questions about brands, sizes, fit, material and then chose my Scarpas after much research. My only problem was that they did not ship to India, which I managed to circumvent with the help of some folks. So how do you choose excellent boots when you can only view them, talk about them, and read about them but not wear them? What do you really look for in good heavy duty boots? Let me take you through the journey.

1. Clarify your purpose – what are you going to use them for? Backpacking boots differ vastly from trekking/ hiking boots differ drastically from climbing boots. Each has a build, weight and structure to suit the activity it is intended for. With this at the back of my mind, I determined all the possible uses I’d put these boots to. I listed the surfaces I’d be walking on - sand, loose soil, pebbly surfaces, scree, wet soils, through streams, rock, and also tar roads. So hiking/trekking shoes definitely fitted my bill. I ruled out backpacking and lite trekking shoes simply because they were not up to the rigor I had planned for them and myself.

2. What build do I go for? My expedition activity involved walking endlessly day after day on all aforementioned surfaces through sun, rain and cold. The shoes had to definitely love my feet. I chose high ankle cut for my boots for the simple reason that it would keep small stones and sand out as I walked. Also, these boots support the foot far better than any other cut. From your ankle to your toe, it all acts as a collective in motion. Additionally, I observed that when you tie laces higher up your leg, they tend to stay in place more than they would when tied above ankle joint, in the usual place. So no bending down to retie laces often. One great advantage of an ankle length boot is that it prevents you from twisting your foot. Imaging walking continually over uneven surfaces, sometimes your foot just gives way to one side of the other. Not with these boots on. The weight is distributed evenly and with a big pack on my back, I had no issues with the boots.

3. Will it be leather or nylon or..? it is best to determine the material your boots are made from depending on the weather you will encounter. We had a mix of all—at the beginning we had cold weather, as we went into the plains it went on getting hot and then we met the occasional stream or oasis which we had to cross. Even some rain about 5 times or so. I chose boots that would allow my feet to breathe, not seal in my sweat, and yet seal out any water. My scarpas have Gortex lining which works just great with allowing breathability and are covered with a layer of suede on top which protects. The leather on top also kept the fine sand out. True I had blisters in at least 5 places when I started, but then that is to be expected after walking 35 km every day. Blisters apart, there was no trouble whatsoever with the shoes. One of my team mates sole came apart after just 14 days of walking. I cannot thanks my scarpas enough!

4. Soul of the sole – When the terrain is as varied as I walked on, the sole quality and material assumes equal importance. My boots had Vibram soles which they claim provides excellent traction on the widest range of surfaces, and have a high degree of abrasion resistance. I can definitely vouch for this claim because my boots have done close to 2000 KM to date and are not any worse for wear since they day I wore them first. Along with strength, flexibility is very important too since your foot is going to touch the ground in many different ways. The Scarpas I use particularly have a flex midsole that provides support and flexibility.

5. Weight issue – when it comes down to a choice between strength and weight, always go for weight. You’d rather have a weighty boot than one with weak build. The weight might seem a drag to begin with, but the boots hold your rock solid on any terrain. In any case, gone are the days when you had to lug your feet around in huge boots. The current breed are much lighter than their predecessors yet are build for a happy feet experience.

6. Buying online - When you have decided what kind of boots you want, trawl the internet for sites which offer a lot of variety, give good deal, have a comparison feature and are quick to support with expert advice. Shortlist about 3-4 websites that meet the criteria. Read up all you can about the boots and related information. When you have finally shortlisted about 5-7 different boots online, don’t make haste in choosing and ordering one right away. The worst mistake you could make is to run out of patience at the end of painstaking research and order a boot only based on its looks/color. Drop a mail or chat with their customer support of all these websites, asking for advice, opinions and more importantly return/exchange process. From their response you will be able to gauge which website offers you more bang for your buck. Don’t dig out your credit card yet. Get rid of all the boots in your list until you have the best 3 left, price being the last criteria to factor in. All these should meet all the criteria above within 1 point +/- of each other. Let the customer reps help you with comparisons. Don’t forget to read the review comments from actual users. They can be extremely helpful.

7. Finally, size - Boots from different shoe companies come is slightly different dimensions for the same size. For example a size 32 from Scarpa might fit you well than a size 32 from Astro. If possible try all the boots you have shortlisted for a good fit. When trying make sure you put on the socks that you are actually going to use in the trek. And as they say, try them on in the evening when your feet are most swollen. Walking and trekking are going to sell your feet more so keep room to grow in the boots you choose. When choosing boots online, don’t forget to ask about this to the customer reps. They are your best guide on which brand has what fit for the same size. A good thumb rule that works very often is to order ½ size over your actual size. For example if you usually wear size 29 shoes and you have determined based on your research that 29 size Scarpa boots are an exact 29 size fit, then order for 29.5 size to allow for the swelling. If you conclude that 29 size astro shoes are actually a good fit for people with size 28 feet, then go half a size lower.

Once you beauties have been delivered, they will need breaking in like any other boots do. Read the care instructions carefully, especially if you have gone for boots with a leather surface. You will go through your round of blisters and chaffing. But once past this, they will fit like a glove. It is time to enjoy them for a solid 8-10 years, for they will just last and last and last.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

3 things to check for before you embark on an expedition

When you get busy with the equipment, the travel arrangements, creating a social media presence, it is easy to ignore items that you need to check for in yourself before you are exposed to the demands of an expedition. Expedition, as the word goes, involves some arduous task for an extended period of time -- Be it climbing dizzy heights, hiking long hours day after day, kayaking hard for months or navigating your way across uninhibited landscapes. You need to be as ready as your equipment is. Sure, you have been preparing long and hard, you are raring to go..but these 3 things below are easy to miss in the last minute euphoria of starting on the expedition. They will mean life or injury/death if ignored.

1. Check your hemoglobin count - It will pay rich dividends if you know what your RBC levels are BEFORE you go. It'll prevent fatigue during the expedition. Over time this fatigue can build up into a life threatening weakness. It might mean leaving the expedition altogether. And any hurried arrangements to get it back to normal levels while ON the expedition are of no use anyway. Know and handle this at least 3 weeks before you go.

2. Notice and feel each breath you take. Are there any tiny stabs of pain or discomfort that you have noticed in the last 2 weeks? Anywhere? Is there any tummy trouble that is more than butterflies of anticipation? Do not sweep even the tiniest of  health issues under the carpet at this stage, or decide that you will deal with it during the expedition. Believe me, there will be enough things during the expedition that you have to deal with, let this not add to the burden. Get tests done, consult your physician/sports doctor and resolve at the earliest.

3. Analyse, very very honestly... are you really really ready? Ready for the long haul ahead or ready just for smiling at the cameras at the finish line? Often, in the time after you announce the expedition till the time you actually begin it, there is hardly a second you get to yourself in between all the training, media appearances, logistics planning, choosing equipment etc. There is no shame in postponing an expedition or abandoning it altogether if you do not feel prepared enough. Never ever, however last minute that decision is taken. True, it might cost you money, time and perhaps reputation. But then are they worth your life and what it'll take away from your loved ones?

Give this a long hard think. What more do you think you would check for? Write in your experiences.