Interview with Peter Van Geit, founder, Chennai Trekking Club (CTC)
A few days after we spoke to Peter Van Geit, we came across a video on the Internet. As person wielding the camera, his voice was audible in the background. Some of those we had met along with him were in the frame. The location was out at sea; it appeared to be a sea-swimming session. A bunch of happy young people bobbed up and down in the gently heaving sea. Chennai’s profile graced a line on the horizon. The pleasure in talking to Peter is that despite his acceptance of social media as tool for networking, he hasn’t traded the outdoors for the comfort of commanding a virtual community. To meet him, we had to be at a large, deep pool – an abandoned quarry – at Ottiambakkam on the outskirts of Chennai. It was 6.30 AM and members of the Chennai Trekking Club (CTC), which the Belgian national founded years ago, were already swimming laps in it, preparing for the triathlon. Some of them, like Peter, were swimming after a stint of running still earlier in the day. The location wasn’t far from Chennai’s IT corridor. Swim done, the IT corridor was where many of those who came, headed to. Early morning run and swim, straight to office thereafter. A few days after we came across the video on sea swimming, Peter was in the news for running from Chennai to Puducherry (Pondicherry) and then running a marathon at Auroville. As Peter told us, I don’t have time – isn’t an excuse for denying oneself the active life. If you are keen, you will find time. Born January 1972 in Lokeren in Belgium and completing his masters in computer studies from the University of Ghent, Peter moved to Chennai in 1998. Excerpts from an interview with Peter, founder of CTC and a project manager at Cisco:
CTC claims a Facebook driven-membership of 40,000 people. That’s a lot for an outdoor club. How do you keep them engaged? Do you have a busy calendar?
Our activities have evolved nicely and naturally over the years. Nothing planned. Every year we get into five new activities. Open water swimming, triathlon, ultra-running in the hills – it all happened so. Initially, we were focussed only on the weekends because all of us work. We never thought of making time for weekday mornings. Now they get up at 5 AM, they run, they swim; they do so many activities during weekday mornings. In the earlier days, it was mostly hiking on weekends. About two to three years ago we realised that we had time; so we started planning all 52 weekends. There are biking trips, hiking trips, photography trips. We also started doing major events like big marathons where over 1,000 people participate, triathlons and cleaning up of Chennai’s coastline. It got very busy with a mix of major and minor events. That’s why two to three years ago I started thinking how can we do more and thus became active on weekday mornings too. Now from Monday to Friday we do many activities such as running, swimming, cycling and zero waste community work. We go to fishermen’s hamlets for cleaning up the place, educate people on segregating dry and wet waste. We have been successfully doing this for the last six months in fishing hamlets close to Marina Beach. There are tree plantation activities going on. So a lot of things are happening on a daily basis. This February marked nine years since Chennai Trekking Club started.
Of the 40,000 members, how many are truly active?
That’s of course an interesting thing. I am a bit of a known person here. Whenever we meet there is somebody or the other who tells me, “hey Peter I am one of your members.” My response is, “have you been to one of our events?” Nine out of ten people will say I have been a member for one year but I haven’t had a chance yet to attend. A lot of people become members seeing our pictures on Internet links and our Facebook page. I would say of the 40,000 members about 5,000-10,000 would be active. That is also a sizeable number. Of these, there are some people who probably come just once a month or for some weekend activity.
When it comes to a physically active life, the popular excuse you hear is that there is no time for it. In a city like Mumbai many activities are held over the weekend. How do you take out time during weekdays? Today for instance, you all first ran, then swam and will shortly proceed to office. How do you find time for this on a day to day basis?
Too many of us come up with excuses. All of us are working. Most of our active members are working in the IT corridor, which is within 30 minutes from where most of our activity is. If they start working at 9 AM then definitely they can do something till 8-8:30 AM. I don’t think office is the limitation. It is more like people getting into morning habits. It is a mental issue. The morning is so beautiful. If you sleep by 10 PM and get a good night’s rest, you can start early with some activity. Once you get used to it, it is very addictive. If you go to office after three hours of sports you feel so fresh, so focussed. This morning physical activity routine is so good. Everyone has time according to me. People think they don’t have time. Everyone has time. It’s just a question of discipline and motivation to get up early and start the day.
CTC is now a multi-activity club. Did this profile of activity grow organically or were there people driving specific interests?
Nothing was planned over the past nine years. It started with hiking. Then it was natural for a lot of photographers to join our group. So we had photography related trips. We took people to beautiful natural places. We were good at map reading; topographic map reading. So we were able to make our own trails. Because of my background in biking we also did a lot of biking trips. About 4-5 years ago we started getting imported bicycles in India. So we started mountain biking trips. More recently, running became quite a rage with the help of social media. Initially we did 10 km runs around the city. Now for the last two years I have also been actively involved in hill running. Once a month we go to a beautiful hilly place to do trail running. We have a lot of hills in Tamil Nadu. We do ultra-trail running; sometimes 50 km on Saturday, 50 km on Sunday. We run from morning till evening. It is not like a marathon where we run for four hours. All these activities have happened naturally. Once we started running we discovered this big quarry just 30 minutes away from our office and then we started swimming. We then started organising triathlons. Now people come from all over the country for these triathlons. We also saw a lot of natural places being spoilt by garbage and anti-social activities. So we started clean-ups and created awareness automatically. Then we went to the next level of garbage segregation and zero-waste communities. We are working with corporates and with schools to create awareness about it. Every year some three to four new activities are being added to the list.
How receptive are your members to these activities?
We have a very well connected group. We have a mailing list of 30,000 people and a Facebook group of 40,000 people. We are pretty good in capturing whatever we do with social media, visual photography, smartphone etc. We post a couple of pictures and then it gets picked up. Thanks to digital photography we are able to capture beautiful pictures and upload them quickly. The only thing that we need to do is to keep the activities going consistently. Our organisation is pretty flat and open. But we do have a core group which plans and drives activities. .
Events like triathlons can be competitive. When you look at CTC, are you looking at it from the perspective of building a competitive group of people or making activity more participatory in nature?
There are two elements here. One is inspiring more people to get into a healthy lifestyle. The other is competition. We are not that competitive. We do timed events so that people do the sporting events seriously maintaining the spirit of the event. That said, in the last few triathlons we did not have any rankings or places on the podium. We really want as many people as possible to get into swimming, cycling and running without it being too competitive. When I see people going for the top five or top three positions, I suspect they are losing out on passion as they are too obsessed with time and podium. For us it is not just sports. CTC’s mission is being close to nature such as beautiful jungles and mountain ranges. So we always combine sports with nature. We will not swim in swimming pools; we will not run on city roads. We always take people to natural places. If you spend one hour close to nature you feel so refreshed. You get so much from nature. All of us are born in nature. During the Republic Day weekend some 25 of us went to Meghamalai forests. For four days we ran and cycled through the tea estates and dense forests from morning till evening. The amount of positivity and freshness you get from doing this close to nature rather than doing 10 km loops in the city is something totally different. It is important for people to be close to nature because everybody in cities are so disconnected living in air-conditioned cubicles and enduring traffic, chaos and stress. They desperately need to reconnect with nature. The great outdoors has such a detoxifying and destressing impact on us. Most deaths in urban India are related to lifestyle problems. We want to move people into a healthy lifestyle. Nature is very important for physical and mental wellbeing.
The Himalaya is often spoken about as the place to go to for outdoor activity. You have a great amount of experience in the outdoors of South India. What do you think about the options for outdoor activity in the south?
The Himalaya has always made a big impression on people, including me. Last September I did a self-supported 500 km solo run through Zanskar valley and Ladakh. In 2015 also, I ran 1000 km with a small group of people; not just in the touristy places of Manali-Leh but in remote places like Spiti. We carry our own tent. The magnitude, the remoteness and the beauty of the Himalaya is fantastic.
But here in the South also there are a lot of beautiful places. Many people say Bangalore and Pune are good. The Western Ghats are beautiful. Chennai is also blessed with beautiful mountain ranges. We have a couple of ranges like Nagalapuram, which is just two hours from the city. We also have a lake called Pulicat Lake. Lot of evaporation takes place, so clouds form, they rise and hit this range which is about 800 m high and then condense to form rain. Rains fall throughout the year in this place. Throughout the year there are pristine springs and because of that it is possible to go there throughout the year. Once you get inside the jungle, it is lush green forest. You have Kolli Hills and Javadhu Hills. We go to places in Kerala and Karnataka. There is the Kabini forest. In the four southern states there are so many options for hiking and other activities. Hiking in the south is nice because the weather is good. It is not too cold like the Himalaya. Also, the Himalaya attracts people for the snow and the peace. In portions, it is more like barren land, vegetation is bare. Here, on the contrary, we have beautiful jungles, lush forests; lot of water is present in these forests. In the Himalaya you cannot take a dip, here you can swim easily. Here it is quite safe to trek, there you have to be very careful because weather conditions can be life threatening. Here you can trek light, you don’t have to carry much. I prefer hiking in the south.
The peninsula is where the Indian subcontinent meets the sea. We are blessed with a long coastline, one that is longer than the mountains to the north. Do marine sports interest you?
Once every two weeks we go for a long swim in the sea. I stay at Pallavakkam, just 200 m from the sea. So whenever I feel like it, I walk out of my home in swimming trunks, enter the sea and do a 2 km-swim. That’s again an amazing experience because of the vast openness. There’s nothing above you, nothing around you and all you can see is small houses along the coast line. It’s peaceful to swim in the sea. Eventually, we would like to organise triathlons in the sea.
You have had accidents at CTC, including a couple of fatal ones. Many states have begun drawing up regulations for outdoor activities. Arguably, there is a problem in India when it comes to imagining regulations for the outdoors. Given that Indian lifestyle is predominantly sedentary, rules and regulations are often imagined by people partial to the convenience of settled life. Do you find this a problem? Do you feel that rules and regulations are not sufficiently empathetic to the pursuer of an active lifestyle?
A couple of things on that: one thing that has been difficult for us is dealing with government agencies, whether it is forest department for permission to go on a hike or the sports department of the government. There is small time corruption. It is difficult for us to get permission to get swimming pools for triathlons. Similarly, it is very difficult to get permission from forest officials to get to do a hike. It is more like an administrative hassle and I am not even coming to the rules and regulations that might be there for adventure activity. It is the administrative hassle.
Do you think there is sufficient appreciation for adventure activity?
In Bangalore, there is an outdoor culture. Also, in the Himalaya there is a large community that is involved in the outdoors. But Chennai is very conservative. There is so much beauty around but people would go to the beach or visit Mahabalipuram. Or they would go for a movie and nothing else. Even now when we go hiking, many of the parents are wary as they think those going for hiking or trekking are just going to booze and do some anti-social activity. They don’t look at it as a positive activity. Many of the guys who come with us on a trek may not have informed their parents and that becomes a problem. If an injury or a fatality occurs we have to deal with hostile parents. It is not easy but things are changing. In the last three to four years outdoor activities have become popular mainly because of social media. If you look at Wipro Chennai Marathon, it has grown phenomenally in terms of participation. About four to five years ago very few people used to run the marathon but now it has grown to 20,000 in terms of participation which was unimaginable 3-4 years ago. Runners would post pictures of podium finishes and other related pictures and that would put peer pressure on others to join. Sometimes people are obsessed about doing something quickly without proper training. We are trying to get people on a regular basis into sports, make it part of daily life and not just see it as competitive events. I prefer regular ongoing activities rather than one marathon and one month to recover.
In Europe and America people grow up with the outdoors as part of their life. There is nothing like outdoor experience being apart from one’s normal existence. In India, life is largely around human clusters and space indoors. The outdoors is distinctly ` outdoors.’ Do you find anything different in the way the average Indian relates to the outdoors?
I see that youth here is so much focused on education and studies that there is absolutely no space left for other activities. I see very few parents encouraging their wards to get into other activities. These kids are always busy at school and occupied with studies. You only see them in the month of May when schools close for longer holidays. Outdoor activity has very less priority, I would say. That’s a problem. I got a lot of exposure to nature during my younger days. I started swimming quite early. I used to go hiking with my parents. Whatever you do at a young age makes a huge impact. Young minds are very perceptive. Doing something later becomes much more challenging.
Chennai is pretty conservative compared to other cities. In school and college years, youngsters are busy with studies. Once out of college and into a job, particularly the IT sector; then, they join us. Some of them are very passionate and quite regular. Then after about two to three years they disappear completely. Once they get married they are off the radar. Not like in Europe where you see parents with two kids coming for adventure activities. Here, once you are married you are not supposed to do any of these activities. About 90 per cent of them would disappear into married lives. This is a problem for me. I need organizers to carry on activities. Some disappear as they get relocated to other parts of India. Once they get out of Chennai they lose the momentum. Also, they don’t have that energy. Some people are lost when they change jobs and then they get too busy. Some go abroad for further studies. These are some of the reasons, active people disappear completely. That’s very sad because whatever passion they had will have to be buried and whittled down.
When it comes to outdoors there must be emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Your organization brings large volumes of people to the outdoors. How much do you emphasise environmental sensitivity?
There were reports about organisations taking people to Himalaya in large groups of 50 or so. Himalaya is a very sensitive place. What we do here is we put a head count. On a hike, we won’t take more than 20-25 people. We are very strict on that because if you take more numbers there is the issue of safety and also the issue of environmental impact. It is a bit of a challenge. Almost every weekend we take people to some spot or the other. One thing we do – judiciously, depending on the place – is that we don’t follow specific trails. We go through the wilderness using maps and GPS like explorers making our own trails. That way we kind of spread out and don’t go on the same trail. We don’t want to leave a permanent trail. People have criticised Chennai Trekking Club because we were taking 300 people to some places. We have to strike a balance between bringing people close to nature and yet keeping nature largely undisturbed. We try and do activities in places which are not virgin nature. More than hiking we do a lot of trail running. Here again, we don’t go into deep jungles but mostly run on jeep trails between villages. Hiking is now pretty balanced. We never leave any garbage behind. We are very strict and disciplined about littering. We ourselves carry out environmental campaigns where we educate people about garbage. When people come with us they learn about the place and get very excited about the natural beauty. But some of them return with private groups and that’s when the problem of littering starts and things get nasty especially in places which are easily accessible.
How do you ensure safety? Do you have safety clinics at CTC?
Safety is very important and has many aspects to it. One very important aspect is to have the right organisers. All our organisers have grown as people. They have been coming with us for years and they are very responsible, very experienced. We often have two leaders on a trip, one in the front and one at the back of the group so that managing groups becomes easy and people don’t get lost. Number one killer is water. There are some people who get very excited seeing water and sometimes they jump in even though they do not know swimming. They assume someone will pull them out. We had a couple of cases in which people have drowned. Another problem is people straying away from the main group and then doing stuff which they are not supposed to do. Lack of adherence to safety is the number one killer in these outdoor activities. We are very strict about safety. We also make sure that our organisers and rescue team are excellent swimmers and are able to pull out people safely. We always ensure that non-swimmers carry tubes or life jackets with them when they enter water. In Himalaya, weather is the reason for calamities but here it is mostly water that causes fatalities. We do a lot of treks to places where there are beautiful streams and waterfalls around. We ensure that we keep an eye on people going into water. We do regular workshops in the group on first aid, basic CPR and we have an ERT group (emergency response team) who we can call anytime. When some people go missing, we call the ERT. They are very experienced and they come within a couple of hours. All these systems have naturally evolved over the years.
When you dealt with serious accidents like fatal ones for instance, what did you personally feel? Did you feel that you were dealing with people who understood what you are doing or was it a case of adventure, outdoors – all those tags automatically branding you as guilty?
Everything completely depends on the reaction of the parents. There are parents who say this was fate. And then we have had parents who went against us even though we had nothing to do with this. One time there was a youngster who jumped into the water wearing jeans. He is a good swimmer but all of a sudden something happens and he drowns. It all depends on the reaction of the parents.
In many instances the victim of an accident in adventure / outdoor activity is an adult who consciously participated. Yet when things go wrong, that wilful participation by an adult is overlooked in the quest to fix blame.
That’s definitely an issue. People in their 40s and 50s are still living with their parents and listening to their parents about what they should and should not do. I come from Belgium, which is not as forward as other countries. I come from a place where there are divorces and kids run away. I come from a place where the social fabric is disturbed. I concede that. But here people are too much under the control of their parents and too entangled in the social lives of relatives. I see many people who are extremely passionate about the outdoors facing tremendous pressure from their parents to get married, have children and then focus on the lives of children. It’s a vicious circle.
Now there are situations wherein people don’t inform their parents about doing a trek because they are conservative. This becomes a problem. We, therefore, have a disclaimer that people joining in for our activities are doing so at their own risk. Ours is not a commercial organisation. We are all doing these activities because we are passionate about them and we do it in our free time. We all come together on an equal footing. About 20 or so people come together to do some activities. Of course, we ensure safety to the best of our ability. We have had serious difficulties with some parents, who were politically connected. We try to do a lot such as supporting the parents, helping in recovering the body, helping in transporting the body home and such stuff. There was once a case when one person from the group strayed off the path and went on his own trail. That gave us a lot of negative publicity. For the next four days we were looking for that guy. He went on his own journey. He never understood what trouble he caused us. The first thing we did was we informed the parents about their missing son and also gave them the location with latitude and longitude details. Police could have easily come there but police do not have the capability to come there. We went on a very active search inside a thick jungle.
You did exemplary work during the time of the Chennai floods. What was the motivation for that?
Our group is an open group. It is fully volunteer-driven. People come because they have a shared passion. Bangalore has so many groups but some of them have a commercial purpose. In contrast, we are a group of people driven by a shared passion who come together to run, swim, cycle and trek. So the energy and spirit is much more open. When something like a natural calamity happens, automatically people come together. During the floods, in a couple of days we had about 400 volunteers coming together and setting up relief centres. Social media helped in bringing everybody together but people came on their own. We started making kits that would help one family for two weeks. The coming together of people to help was akin to volunteering during an event. For instance, during a triathlon also volunteers are happy to organize the entire event. People spontaneously volunteer for events, they don’t sleep for two days, they prepare everything, set up the route, set up podiums and do all the preparatory work. We have been involved in clean-ups throughout the years. Perseverance is the key to keep the momentum up. And then it is backed up by social media.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai. Where photo credit hasn’t been provided, the photo concerned was downloaded from the Facebook page of Peter Van Geit and used with his permission.)