A MODEL FOR KAYAKING

Manik Taneja (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A school to train aspirants, a shop to buy good quality gear, a festival that brings the best in the sport to India – this is a model to grow kayaking imagined from landlocked Bengaluru. It appears to have worked well.

“ In India, Bengaluru has the highest number of recreational kayakers,’’ Manik Taneja said.

Traditionally Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other places along the Himalaya, have dominated river rafting and kayaking in the country. Kayakers are more in these parts. They do kayaking for livelihood. Bengaluru in contrast, has a growing number of recreational kayakers pursuing the sport as hobby. Landlocked and located at the southern end of the Deccan plateau, some 2300 kilometers away from the Himalaya, the city is an unlikely magnet for the sport. The sea is a few hundred kilometers away and while rivers for kayaking take anywhere from four to six hours to access; none of them strike imagery in the head as grand as those from the north do. It was late August, 2018. We were at Manik’s house in Bengaluru. Aside from sporadic showers there was little in the city for sign of what monsoon had unleashed further to the south west. The floods of Kerala were just over 10 days old.

Anvesh and Sanjay of Expeditions India; from a multi-day trip on the Mahakali River (Photo: Dileep Marar)

Manik is among names you turn to for kayaking. Born in Dehradun, he grew up in Pune. During his school days, he was into sports and athletics; later he played hockey all the way up to league level. He graduated in computer science and took his masters abroad, in Amsterdam. Following his masters course, Manik went on a small bicycle tour in Ladakh. Soon after this, he did a three day rafting trip in Uttarakhand’s Alaknanda River. The latter, he did with the well-known adventure travel company, Aquaterra. The rafting trip was led by Anvesh Singh Thapa, an experienced river guide. The two became good friends. The trip was Manik’s first exposure to kayaking. Upon securing a job back in Pune, Manik drifted into work. Sports receded to being strictly recreational. However as disposable income rose, he got back to the outdoors. When Anvesh commenced his own river rafting company (Expeditions India), he asked Manik if he would like to sign up for a rafting trip. Instead, Manik asked him to teach him how to kayak. Anvesh put together a training program. Five people registered. Only Manik showed up. “ That’s how my journey in kayaking started,’’ he said. It wasn’t easy.

Kayakers compete at the 2014 Ganga Kayak Festival (Photo: Manik Taneja)

To the lay observer, kayaking seems simple. You sit in a boat and paddle. According to Manik, learning to kayak requires patience. For instance, the type of balancing kayaking demands is different from the regular type of balancing people are used to. For most people, the popular image of balancing is riding a bicycle. That is typically done on a flat, stable surface, at worst on surface where unevenness can be anticipated in advance. Unlike land, water is dynamic. A turbulent river – on which whitewater kayaking is done – is even more so. The closest a cyclist can come to whitewater kayaker’s predicament is in downhill biking, where the pace is fast and the going, constantly dynamic. If you wish to be a good kayaker you have to be mentally ready for dynamic medium. Then, there are the details – the techniques of the sport. “ For newcomer to kayaking, the scariest part is getting flipped upside down,’’ Manik said. Legs placed well into kayak and the chamber sealed, instinct is to use one’s free torso to get back up. It takes a while to understand that the roll is done applying momentum to the lower half of one’s body. Executing the roll properly is merely beginning. It takes longer to keep ones cool and be good at doing the roll in all circumstances – rapids included. “ You have to keep your wits about you. Women tend to do better at kayaking. Men try to power through everything. You have to contain panic, slow down your mind, remember the techniques you learnt and execute them,’’ Manik said. Within the world of water sports, Manik believes kayaking is more individualist than say, river rafting, which showcases team work. He finished the introductory program Anvesh designed but on return to Bengaluru found himself as high and dry in kayaking as the city itself was in South India’s geography. Every time Manik wanted to kayak in white water, he had to haul himself to Rishikesh via Delhi. It wasn’t an efficient situation to be in.

Manik, Jacopo and Sid at the 2017 Adidas Sickline, Oetz, Austria (Photo: Manik Taneja)

The mountains and rivers of North India are bigger than those of the south. Despite this, river rafting and kayaking had presence in pockets of South India. It was of modest scale. Naveen Shetty now runs a company in the adventure travel space. Originally a software engineer, he got hooked to kayaking after a couple of commercial river rafting trips in Karnataka. The connection he felt with this new experience was so strong that Naveen and his friends did not hesitate to buy inflatable kayaks, which they had to import. “ We invested in four or five kayaks, for ourselves and to also take anyone else interested, along,’’ Naveen said. Problem was – the potential for kayaking hadn’t been properly explored in South India. There were paddlers in Bengaluru; most of them frequented lakes in the vicinity of the city. Around this time – early 2008 – Sohan Pavuluri, having spent eight years in the US, picked up whitewater kayaking over there and since shifted to Bengaluru, was looking for a local community of kayakers. That put Naveen and him in the same boat. “ I came across this website called Dream Routes. It was operated by Sohan and while mostly dealing with activities like trekking, had a section meant for paddlers,’’ Naveen said. The two – and interested others – agreed to meet up at one of Bengaluru’s lakes. Thus was sown the seed for a group that sought to take Bengaluru’s kayaking beyond its lakes. “ There were five to six of us. Sohan had a proper whitewater kayak; the rest had duckies – inflatable kayaks,’’ Manik said. According to Sohan, over a period of time and after experimenting with a few names, the group came to be known as Southern River Runners (SRR). Paddling was largely seasonal; during the monsoon. In the rains, the rivers of the south swelled with water and for a few months as the water rushed from hills to the sea, select rivers became amenable for kayaking. Bengaluru’s kayakers traveled to Coorg and Chikmagalur in search of rapids. But there was a major problem. It was one that adventure sports earlier into India – like rock climbing – had faced. Pioneers have to navigate the rapids of social perception and judgement. When society is unfamiliar with any risky sport, it clamps down. Climbers saw this happen many times at various places in India before a degree of accommodation for their sport set in. It was the same for whitewater kayaking in South India. Unable to comprehend what the kayakers were up to in the fast flowing, upstream section of rivers, forest officials and sometimes local people, objected, Manik said. And when such objection was overcome, permission became next challenge. In most instances such permission in India has to be obtained from officials unfamiliar with adventure sports and the human instinct driving it. Eventually as accessing water bodies became difficult, Bengaluru’s fledgling community of kayakers realized that the only way out was to grow their community further and enlarge the overall kayaking ecosystem.

Goodwave kayaking classes on the Cauvery River (Photo: Manik Taneja)

At the time of writing Jacopo Nordera ran a vineyard in Italy. Back in the time Bengaluru’s kayakers discovered that they needed to grow their community to get the sport going, Jacopo was part of the group of paddlers Manik belonged to. Jacopo lived in Chennai and every time there was a kayak session planned out of Bengaluru, traveled in from Chennai to join. “ He was the most committed member of the group,’’ Manik said. The two kayakers joined hands and formed a business composed of two distinct halves – a kayak school (called GoodWave Adventures) to teach the sport and a kayak shop (called Madras Fun Tools [MFT]), from where local kayakers can buy good quality equipment. A good kayak can cost over a lakh (100,000) of rupees. Manik said that prices at MFT are better than overseas despite import duty for kayaks beings high and General Sales Tax (GST) pegged to highest bracket. “ We have to grow the market and so keep our margins thin,’’ he said. In tune with the overall niche market kayaking is in India, MFT is a small but profitable operation. “ It took us two years to sell the first container-load of boats. The second container, we sold all the boats in a year. Now we take 6-12 months to sell a container of boats,’’ Manik said. According to him, at least half of the total number of recreational kayakers in Bengaluru, own kayaks. Over time, the community around SRR grew. Those who had previously gone kayaking or formally learnt the sport joined the group. Resident expertise improved. “ Initially, everyone went to the same river. Now the group is mature enough to have different groups going to different rivers,’’ Manik said. In 2013, Manik and Jacopo did their instructor course in kayaking from Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in the US. As SRR, GoodWave and MFT slowly grew, a new project started taking shape in the mind. Bengaluru’s kayakers had seen the Ganga Kayak Festival in Uttarakhand. How about one in South India; and if so, where?  – That was the question.

The start of an enterprise; items from the first container load of kayak gear Madras Fun Tools imported (Photo: courtesy Manik Taneja)

Besides equipment cost, one of the major components of overall cost in kayaking is transport. You have to take boat and paddler to river and within that, to specific section of river. Since rapids are a product of water volume, gradient, nature of terrain inside a river and surrounding geography (how it channelizes flow of water), the home of rapids are not always close to urban centers typically located in the plains. You have to travel to meet rapids. An element of research to make sure the destination one is heading to is apt to kayak, is appreciated before spending on transport and access. Google Earth was a great resource for kayakers to get a fix on rivers suitable for whitewater kayaking along with the best sections of river therein. “ Among us, Jacopo was the one who was most active on Google Earth, scouting for engaging sections of rivers,’’ Naveen said. For two to three years, SRR confined its activities to the rivers of Karnataka. Then it started to explore Kerala. “ We were skeptical. But Jacopo pushed for it,’’ Naveen said. On India’s map, Kerala is long and thin. At its widest it is probably less than 150 kilometers but within such distance and less, offers landscape changing from seacoast to backwaters, rivers and hills. In terms of elevation this can range from sea level to 6000 feet plus (the highest point in Kerala’s hills is 8840 feet). It has 600 kilometers of seacoast and an equally long spine of high hills. The state is environmentally sensitive and if you take a bird’s eye view, short of space for the consumerist excess, which characterizes contemporary notion of success. Yet Kerala lived oblivious of its geography and environmental fragility.

Bird’s eyeview of Kerala; hills and rivers. This photo is an overview of the terrain around Kuttiyadi River in north Kerala (Photo: Goodwave Adventures)

The floods of August 2018 changed popular imagination of life and Kerala, at least temporarily. A remittance economy measuring human existence by capacity to afford and lost to the deep end of settled life, the monsoons of that year combined with the deluge caused by multiple dams opening their shutters at once, flattened rich and poor alike. Suddenly people noticed geography and nature, both of which had been pushed to the backdrop for long and were now returned to center-stage. Across the state, the aftermath of flood was time to reflect and as many feared – reflect briefly – for Kerala’s deep rooted affection for wealth and consumerism is a bigger flood that can be kept at bay only for so long. By late September 2018, aside from their banks still adorned with the debris they bore when flooded, neither Chalippuzha nor Iruvanjippuzha betrayed any sign of monsoon’s fury. “ The water level has dropped,’’ the driver of our autorickshaw said looking down from the bridge over the rocky Chalippuzha. A rather tame river flowed below. The only trace of white water kayaking around and an annual kayaking festival claimed to be among Asia’s best, was a house in Pulikayam rented by kayakers, where preparations were on to ship kayaks back to Uttarakhand, Bengaluru and wherever else they came from. This was GoodWave’s outpost in north Kerala, from where they ran a season of kayaking. The boats lay stacked in the courtyard of the house and inside the garage. Kayak season had ended in Pulikayam. It will return with the next rains; as would – hopefully – Sagar Gurung and Amit Thapa, river guides from the north. In the same room and chatting with Sagar and Amit, was Vishwas Radh from Balussery, a town roughly 30 kilometers away. Having kayaked regularly in the rivers near Pulikayam, he on the other hand, aspired for a taste of kayaking on the Ganga.

2015; kayakers training on the Chalippuzha River (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

The gateway to whitewater kayaking in north Kerala is the small town of Kodenchery, some 40 kilometers away from Kozhikode. It is agricultural country; not in the paddy field sort-of-way but in the manner of plantations and densely vegetated, green land holdings typical of the hills. Three bank branches situated close by in town would normally hint wealth by remittance. But the drivers of the autorickshaws we hired as well as Joby who ran that home of delicious Kerala food called Janata Hotel, assured, wealth in these parts is mostly agrarian. Hailing from Wayanad, he had been in Kodenchery for the past 17 years, initially toiling as a farm worker, then driving an autorickshaw and eventually running the hotel. Janata Hotel was classic Kerala; affordable and serving portions big enough to satiate one’s hunger. It was practical, functional ambiance. Style and glamor had no place in it. “ The restaurant has just begun stabilizing,’’ Joby said of the business. Kodenchery is not far from the ascent to the hill district of Wayanad. The hills on the edge of Wayanad and Kozhikode were visible from town. The most prominent landmark around was a large hotel – Tushara International. You wondered how something that big ended up here. Yet securing a room over the weekend was difficult. They had none to spare (it is usually not so; a special occasion like a wedding can take up rooms, kayakers familiar with Kodenchery said).

James Smith from UK practising at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Not far from Kodenchery’s main junction, at Pulikayam, is Chalippuzha. Further away is Iruvanjippuzha. The former is a tributary of the latter, which in turn feeds into the bigger Chaliyar River. The Chaliyar, close to where it met the Arabian Sea near Kozhikode, was host to Jellyfish Watersports, an enjoyable destination for paddlers into gentler, expansive waters. The first people to do whitewater kayaking near Kodenchery were Jacopo, Manik, Naveen and a few others from Bengaluru. Some aspects about the two Kerala rivers and Kodenchery attracted them. Between the two rivers and the sections on them selected for kayaking, they found a healthy balance of technical kayaking and voluminous water flow. The rivers of the Western Ghats maybe small compared to those of the north. But they have good gradient and as in the case of Chalippuzha, is rocky, requiring a degree of technical expertise to negotiate its stretches. With rapids ranging from Class 3 and below to Class 5, both amateur runs and pro runs could be hosted. Above all, after encountering suspicion and hostility in some of their previous river exploration trips, the group from Bengaluru was happy to see none of that attitude in Kodenchery. Naveen recalled the kayakers’ first visit to Kodenchery and the nearby rivers. “ Jacopo had done all the required scouting on Google Earth. The section of river we kayaked on wasn’t inside the forest. It ran through villages and as the kayaks navigated their way downstream, word quickly spread of what was going on. By the time we reached the bridge at Pulikayam there was a crowd of enthusiastic people gathered to witness the proceedings. We stayed at Tushara International. On the last day of our trip, a local journalist appeared and said someone wished to talk to us on the phone. It was the District Collector! He welcomed us to the state and offered support. That was a big difference compared to what we had encountered previously, elsewhere,’’ Naveen said.

Intermediate category race at the 2016 MRF (Photo: Neil D’souza)

Nistul, who hailed from Kodenchery, attributed the local support for kayaking to Kodenchery’s innate affection for sports. According to him, the region has produced district level swimmers and a clutch of physical education teachers. “ We were swimming in these rivers before kayaking reached Kodenchery. When we saw whitewater kayaking, more than anything else we became curious to learn it,’’ he said. Further, within Kerala, north Kerala has always been close to sports. The famous track athlete, P.T. Usha, hails from this part of the state (she is from the adjacent Kannur district). India’s first cricket club was founded in Thalassery and while cricket never really fascinated Malayalis, football has stayed much loved madness. There are many national level football players from north Kerala and during the FIFA World Cup, international football stars are portrayed on posters, wall paintings and the sides of transport buses. This is sport loving-country. Once they got a feel of the rivers, mapped out its stretches suited for kayaking and sensed the local community’s empathy for sport, Manik and others from Bengaluru knew they had found the venue for the kayak festival they sought. In otherwise quiet Kodenchery, the annual Malabar River Festival (MRF) seemed appreciated as a valuable revenue generator for the local economy. It brought international caliber kayakers, lovers of the sport and tourists to town. Several people we spoke to found it an engaging fixture. Tushara International serves as base camp for the festival. The house at Pulikayam rented by kayakers was known locally as Kayak House. Say so and autorickshaw drivers knew where to drop you off.

UK kayaker and film maker Joe Rea Dickens competes at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

MRF, which is now supported by local authorities and the state government, has carved a niche for itself. The event is well known in the global kayaking community; the sections of river it is based on are deemed world class for whitewater kayaking. Diligent and smart marketing aside, the event has merits founded within the sport. “ In India, this is probably one of the hardest courses. In the north, volume of water and its temperature make a difference. But in the Western Ghats, rivers are typically steep making for narrow passages and tighter maneuvers. Less water volume in these rivers also means that they are less forgiving; chances of physical injury are high,’’ Manik said. The event attracts some of the world’s best kayakers. Of greater interest is how over multiple editions of the festival, kayaking has sprouted roots in Kodenchery. There is now a small team of kayakers from the region, regularly paddling in the two rivers, competing in MRF (with podium positions earned in amateur category) and hoping to earn a name in India’s kayaking scene. Nistul and Kevin were among them. Other names included Nitin, Vishwas and Reshmi. About 18 people from the locality had initially trained in the sport, Kevin said. Ten of them continue to be active. Those this blog spoke to recognized Jacopo and Manik as their main teachers (Manik’s approach of holding down a regular job even as he pursued his passion of kayaking and managing a business, seemed preferred pattern for the trainees too; of the three we spoke to, at least two weren’t targeting full time kayaking). Training sessions with expert kayakers arriving to participate in MRF were bonus. Visiting kayakers and the group from Bengaluru have provided a few kayaks to these enthusiasts. But they had two constraints.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

First, the transport component in kayaking – the need to carry self and kayak to where the chosen section of river can be accessed – makes every outing expensive. You need a vehicle. You need money. There was talk of sponsors. But if they are not adequately self-aware and self-critical, sponsorship can be delusional sense of accomplishment for young athletes. Real sport is a long journey and the right ecosystem is one that keeps it so. How do you support athlete and yet keep the journey long and continuing? Second, given kayaking is seasonal experience in Kodenchery and the water level in the two rivers drops once rains recede, year-round training is not possible. When water level falls, paddling and practising of skills reduce to what is possible within the stretch afforded by a check dam at Pulikayam. Those committed to the sport, wished to spend time in the rivers of North India. Moving to northern rivers like the Ganga, when water levels fall in Chalippuzha and Iruvanjippuzha, appeared the right thing to do. It made sense from another angle too – a paddler’s repertoire of experience is based on the variety of waters he has tackled. You can’t be well rounded in the sport if all you know for experience are two rivers. Kodenchery’s kayakers have a long way to go.

Looking ahead, Manik hoped that more considerate import duty and tax structure would grace kayaking. He also wanted the sport to find greater acceptance and merit more towns hospitable to kayaking like Kodenchery. As yet even within Kerala, Kodenchery has proved an exception for some later river exploration trips in the state didn’t find the same popular support as extended at this settlement near the border of Kozhikode and Wayanad. But a model to spread kayaking, commenced from Bengaluru, has worked – training school, gear shop and community of those practicing the sport. The results encourage.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He visited Kodenchery during the fading portion of the 2018 kayak season and after the year’s MRF was over. He is yet to witness MRF and the region during the festival.)  

VEDANGI’S QUEST / AN INCIDENT IN SPAIN; RECOVERY AND RETURN TO JOURNEY

Vedangi Kulkarni (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

An incident in Spain unsettles the young Indian cyclist. Recovered from it and resolved to complete what she began, she is back on her project, circumnavigating the world on a bicycle.

Nineteen year-old Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, suffered an incident of mugging in Spain early October.

Recovering from the setback, she has since reached France and at the time of writing this report, was cycling there.

Her father Vivek Kulkarni, shared Vedangi’s description of what happened, with this blog.

According to it, on October 6, around 21.30-22.00 hours, somewhere around Guarena in Spain she was stopped by a couple of people on motorcycles. They had knives and while one of them took her hydration pack and started examining its contents, the other held her at knife-point. They took the money she had in her bag. Then they pushed her and her bike into “ what seemed like a ditch at the side of the road.’’ Vedangi went down head first and suffered a concussion.

She informed the police of the matter, including her recollection of how one of the assailants looked like. A few kind strangers, upon realizing what happened, later took her to a medical center; that’s how the concussion was discovered.  Vedangi has had to take it easy for a few days thereafter. But she has persisted with her solo circumnavigation project. “ Frankly, the incident had terrified me and I was inches away from giving up on the entire ride. But something in me didn’t just want to let go of everything I’ve built up so far and somewhere inside me I know that giving up and going home without finishing what I’ve started is never an option,’’ she wrote in the account, shared with India’s Ministry of External Affairs as well. Officials are aware of it.

At the time of scripting the description of the incident (she was in Spain then),  Vedangi was more than 17,500 kilometers into her circumnavigation trip and had already cycled across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. In the process, she crossed both the antipodal points advised under circumnavigation rules – the first was Auckland in New Zealand and the second, Madrid in Spain. Cycling in Spain was to be followed by passage through France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. “ I had reached the halfway point at 14,432 kilometers in 55 days,’’ she wrote, adding that her experience with people worldwide had been mostly “ extraordinary.’’ Before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell, cycling in Iceland. That didn’t go well. There were storms; there appears to have been a minor mishap on the road as well.

On the road, in France; foggy conditions (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

“ Given the incident (in Spain) and the concussion she suffered, she had to take it easy for some days. In that period her daily mileage fell. It is only now that she has managed to ramp it up again,’’ Vivek said.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

The record Vedangi originally wished to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 she cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

AMERICA, THE TRANS AM WAY

Nishanth Iyengar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Like Race Across America (RAAM), Trans Am too is a bicycle race across the United States. There are however some crucial differences. Trans Am is an unsupported race; cyclist has no support crew. Trans Am features no cut off time within which to finish. Those who wish to see it as a race, treat it so. Records are set and bettered. There are also those who cycle at their pace, leveraging the race and its course through small town USA to experience the country in a manner that is different from mainstream. Nishanth Iyengar from Bengaluru belonged to this second category. This article is about his journey to being a touring cyclist and eventual participation in 2018 Trans Am. 

“ I like seeing new places. I don’t like anything structured. It is very hard for me to work in a structured environment,’’ Nishanth Iyengar said. Between cyclist and freelance journalist, we seemed to have struck a healthy compromise. Writing’s eccentricities often gravitate towards the old and familiar; some place known that you can settle into and listen to a story or type out one. We were at Koshy’s in Bengaluru, as landmark as a restaurant can get anywhere. It was regular haunt for Nishanth and adequately lived in for old school scribe to feel comfortable. The conversation was however cyclist’s way – we sat inside the restaurant and whenever a smoke beckoned Nishanth, we shifted to the side of St Mark’s Road, sat on the building’s skirting and continued the conversation. I understood well when Nishanth said structured approach puts him off.

At Khardung La (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Born 1985, Nishanth grew up in Bengaluru, the only child of his parents. Following school education, he studied instrumentation technology and then proceeded to run a business for four years while pursuing a MBA alongside. For project work as part of studies, he worked on developing a marketing model for a circus that was then camped at Kanjirappally in Kerala. However in 2012, he ended up an hour short of required attendance at college and wasn’t allowed to sit for his exams. In regular Indian life with emphasis on exams and marks that would qualify to be a crisis. Nishanth on the other hand elected to remember a longstanding dream – he had always wanted to visit Nepal. Why not cycle in Nepal? – He wondered. Yet again, for most people that would be a project. Nishanth wasn’t a driven cyclist; he wasn’t the sort training diligently with objectives in mind. “ I can’t wake up early and ride 100 kilometers in a disciplined way,’’ he said. Similarly even though he liked to travel on his motorcycle, he rode with a group of motorcyclists just once. Traveling in a group wasn’t his scene. For Nishanth, motorcycle touring was an earlier fix than cycling; he had commenced riding long on his motorcycle in 2003. The bike was a 150cc Pulsar; he used bungee cords to keep his travel kit in place and did little homework before any trip. He based his approach on two beliefs. “ If somebody has done something, I know I too can do it. Second, I really, really like the unknown,’’ Nishanth said. On his motorcycle, Nishanth rode from Delhi to Leh; he also visited Rishikesh. It was on that trip that he used a tent for the first time. Now he was courting a different dimension of adventure. Two wheels still, but no engine; strain, slow moving and sensing universe.

From 2018 Trans Am (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

When the idea of cycling in Nepal assumed shape, he bought a MTB – a Bergamont VTOX 6.2. He took it with him to Kathmandu and cycled a few thousand kilometers in that country, eventually exiting Nepal and entering India at Gorakhpur. Significantly on this trip, except for accommodation in Kathmandu and Pokhra, he didn’t stay in a hotel anywhere. After his return from this trip, he completed his MBA. Then with some money made from the business he ran later, he decided to attempt something afresh in cycling. This time he thought of riding from Bengaluru to Leh and thereon to Uttarakhand. While the route of this trip had to be tweaked owing to floods in Uttarakhand, Nishanth learnt a few things about cycling. He realized that it is wise to avoid pedaling during the hot hours of afternoon spanning 1 PM to 4 PM. When he kept getting punctures continuously he found that he could manage with Indian tubes for replacement; solutions of this sort altered the imagery of high cost attached to touring. He also learnt to approach time and competition differently. “ The worst thing that can happen is that I lose time. That is okay with me. I tell myself that it’s okay not to reach the end. It takes away a lot of the pressure. As for competition, I really don’t care,’’ he said. Redefining perception of time and one’s sense of self within the compulsions of the human collective are crucial to appreciate journey. What these steps seem to have done for Nishanth is – make riding more enjoyable. “ I am happiest when I ride my bike,’’ Nishanth said. He began going on a cycle trip of 3-4 weeks every year. In 2015, he rode extensively in Tamil Nadu.

From 2018 Trans Am / campsite just outside Yellowstone (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

According to Wikipedia, the oldest known use of helmets is from 900 BC, by Assyrian soldiers. They used it as protective head gear during combat. Combat and competition are cousins separated by degrees of interpretation. Over the centuries, the helmet has evolved from protection used while fighting to protection advised for a range of sports and thereon, as daily life grew competitive and distracted with capacity for accident – as protection used during daily commute by two-wheeler. Notwithstanding laws, in India, the helmet has frequently divided riders into polarized camps. There are those who embrace it and those, who are averse to it. Nishanth belongs to the latter category. “ I dislike helmets. I was looking for a long distance ride that did not have a rule requiring compulsory use of helmet,’’ he said explaining his choice of Trans Am, the annual bike race across United States. Nishanth said, Trans Am advises use of helmet but does not make it mandatory. He had always wanted to cycle long distance in the US; this race appeared perfect.

From 2018 Trans Am / bedroom for the night (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Trans Am is an interesting event. It is similar to Race Across America (RAAM) in that it involves riding across the US. But unlike RAAM, wherein cyclist pedals with crew for support, Trans Am is unsupported or self-supported; there is no crew, cyclist is on his / her own. Further, unlike RAAM which is distinctly identified as a race, Trans Am is a race and not one depending on how one treats it. Records are set by those who treat it as a race. At the same time, there is no cut-off time, leaving others wishing to cycle across the US and experience the country at ground level, free to do so at their pace. This experiencing of the country is what Nishanth does on his bicycle tours. Typical of him, Nishanth kept his homework on Trans Am limited so as not to crowd out the pleasure of discovering with information overload on race and US. That would prove both good and bad. Among things he didn’t realize was that Trans Am is not a straight line across the US; it goes up and down collecting more miles than RAAM. Attempt Trans Am in 2017: that was his initial thought.

From 2018 Trans Am / with host Curtis at Darby (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Meanwhile on the work front, he had shut down the business he commenced. Following that, he joined Runners For Life (RFL), helping out in the sales department. During this tenure, he did a bunch of half marathons, a full marathon and also a 50km-run. After a year and a half at RFL, he joined Practo, a start-up that helps consumers locate doctors and healthcare information (at the time of writing Nishanth had moved from Practo to Proline India, a longstanding company in the sportswear and casual clothing space). Having toured within India on a bicycle and realized his affection for it, Nishanth had been on the lookout for a good touring bicycle. The model he had in mind was the Surly Long Haul Trucker. The choice was inspired in part by a couple of cyclists he met in Leh, who praised the model, particularly the combination of the bike with a Brooks saddle. Surly – it specializes in steel bicycles and frames – commands much respect in the community of cyclists into touring. The Minnesota based-company’s Long Haul Trucker model is often praised for its reliability and value for money spent. In 2015, roughly a year after Nishanth’s return from his last bicycle trip to Ladakh, he met a person in Bengaluru who wished to sell a Surly Long Haul Trucker. It was the old model with 26 inch wheels. The bike had a market price then of Rs 125,000. Nishanth got it for Rs 75,000 plus all associated gear the seller had acquired. “ Every opportunity I got to ride my bicycle, I availed it. I loved it,’’ Nishanth said. By now another transition was afoot. Although he began touring on a motorcycle, the bicycle and its simplicity won him over. “ I lost my mojo for motorcycle touring,’’ he said. In 2016, he cycled for a month in North East India. The following year, 2017, he got married and spent his honeymoon in Russia, including a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. That along with the couple’s shared affection for dogs – they adopted some as pets; it entails commitment – meant that Trans Am in 2017 was a non-starter. On the bright side, Nishanth’s wife understood his interest in Trans Am. In 2018 she said: go for it. She joined his friends in gifting critical pieces of gear and equipment to Nishanth. The need for a smoke beckoned. Outside Koshy’s, a gentle rain was on. Nishanth lit a cigarette. We sat perched on the building’s skirting; Bengaluru’s traffic in front, lively restaurant behind. Existence is one and a series of partitions at once. To journey is to shift between partitions, make them translucent and be aware of universe.

From 2018 Trans Am / with Don Harter (left); Grand Tetons in the backdrop (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

“ For registration, visa, tickets – all put together, I must have spent between 3000-3200 dollars. Additionally I would have spent around 2000 dollars for gear, food and accommodation,’’ Nishanth said of his journey to 2018 Trans Am. It was his first visit to the US. But he plunged into the task at hand. From Seattle, he cycled to Astoria, the starting point of Trans Am. For company he had a cyclist from Poland, also heading for Trans Am. In Astoria, Nishanth met Don Harter. His attempt of the 2018 Trans Am was Don’s retirement gift to himself. Nishanth and Don bonded; they decided to ride together. Given Trans Am provides participants with a digital map, “ riding together’’ does not mean being together all the time. You may be cycling considerably apart; you keep a lookout for each other and sometimes plan rendezvous points to decide on places to stay or camp. For efficiency, Nishanth also divided the race into two broad stages. Soon after he completed the ride through the colder sections of the race, he packed all his cold weather gear and couriered it to an address at the finish line. True the Appalachian mountain was still ahead but Nishanth reckoned it won’t be as cold as what he had already endured. The decision to send away what he did not need made his bicycle lighter. Trans Am proceeds from Astoria in Oregon to Yorktown in Virginia. Nishanth began cycling from Astoria on June 2, 2018. He reached the finish line in Yorktown on July 28. Towards the end, Nishanth admitted he felt some pressure. It had nothing to do with Trans Am. Although the race had no official cut-off time to meet, return tickets to India already booked meant a deadline by which Nishanth should wrap up his outing at Trans Am.

From 2018 Trans Am / entering Kansas (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Developed and mapped by Adventure Cycling Association, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail was the first bicycle touring route across the US. It was the route for Bikecentennial, a massive cycle tour organized in 1976. Bikecentennial was part of celebrations to pay tribute to the historical events leading to the creation of the US as an independent republic. Trans Am uses the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The route, which includes plenty of minor roads and bike paths, gives insight into small town America. Like most big races, Trans Am has its share of those who do not finish. From among those who completed the race in 2018, Nishanth was one of the last to reach Yorktown. That was eminently acceptable for the bicycle tourer from Bengaluru; speed was never part of his plan. Seeing the country – the real US – was the priority. I asked Nishanth how he managed to feel secure and comfortable in utterly new country, that too off the beaten track, for most Indians – both as tourists and resident in the US and chasing livelihood – typically cluster in American cities. “ Nobody did anything harmful to me. If you shut up and mind your own business, nobody troubles you. I talked to people as people,’’ Nishanth said. There is also another angle. Nishanth is usually lone tourer on bicycle; he has no group, no support crew and thereby no ecosystem of the familiar around to breed the ingredients for manufacturing prejudiced views and mental baggage. He takes each day as it comes. “ I live in utter poverty when I ride. Every day I have to look after myself. The need to look after myself gets me talking and engaging with world, makes me an explorer. Further, when you are poor, the universe opens up,’’ Nishanth said. Among the highlights of his trip was experiencing July 4 in small town USA. According to him, aside from the money he spent on race registration, airline tickets, visa, food, gear and accommodation away from race – figures mentioned earlier – his actual expense on accommodation during the race (June 2 – July 28) was 50 dollars and 50 cents. As for the Surly, it proved trustworthy steed. There were no breakdowns; not even a puncture during the 6800 kilometers covered.

From 2018 Trans Am / at the finish line in Yorktown (Photo: courtesy Nishanth Iyengar)

Bengaluru had by now drifted into after office hours. Koshy’s was gathering more people and conversation. A motorcyclist dropped by at the table to congratulate Nishanth on Trans Am completed. We briefly discussed his proposed tour overseas on a motorcycle. It was a major undertaking and there were aspects he needed assistance going over. The feel of a conversation about motorcycle touring is very different from one about bicycle touring. In the former, steed and rider are not exactly one. Courtesy its engine, a motorcycle has capabilities of its own. Bicycle on the other hand is a lot like one of those prancing horses dancers get into at festivals. Steed is rider’s half; there is only you to commend, you to blame for performance. As the motorcyclist left, the conversation reverted to life on human powered wheels. Both of us were three cups of coffee-old. The vast majority of bikes used at Trans Am were road bikes, Nishanth said. They carry less but move fast. Looking ahead, he said he would like to invest in a new bicycle. A road bike makes no sense for he knows he is not the racing type. A cyclocross model perhaps? – That’s a thought. Nishanth’s future projects included a north-south ride in Europe, a ride around Australia and maybe a foray into riding with groups; the latter an attempt to see if it encourages the wife to take up cycling.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This blog encourages cyclists to wear helmets. As per news reports, 2018 Trans Am had its share of road accidents; one cyclist died while another was left seriously injured.)      

A LOSS / REMEMBERING THAKUR

Thakur (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of NOLS India and is being used here for representation purpose only)

This blog lost a good friend, the evening of October 16, 2018.

Thakur Singh, longstanding employee of NOLS India, passed away in a road accident in Ranikhet.

At the school, Thakur oversaw the maintenance of outdoor gear. Through the years, many batches of NOLS students and instructors have met him. He made sure that the gear and equipment, which every student expedition heading out to the field took with them, was in good condition. When they returned from the field, he made sure that all that was loaned from the gear room was accounted for, cleaned and maintained for use by expeditions to follow.

More important, as one of the senior hands around, he worked across functions in the early years of the school and saw it grow. His quiet nature concealed the experience he had gathered in his line of work. He was an asset to the school and a big help to outdoor enthusiasts – NOLS alumni and otherwise – who dropped by. You had a tent, jacket, sleeping bag, backpack, trekking poles, stove, boots, rope; any gear that required care and attention – you turned to Thakur for advice.

Mainly due to his commitments at home, Thakur rarely ventured into the outdoors, as in on a hike or trek. He typically kept a daily schedule that shuttled between work and home. Several years ago, I had the good fortune of hiking to Khati (in the Pindari valley) with him, camping there and returning the next day after attending a colleague’s wedding. He was a happy soul on that trip although he kept worrying whether we would get back to Ranikhet in time. It was only his second visit to the Pindari valley.

Thakur mostly stuck to the NOLS India base in Ranikhet, attending to his work and being Man Friday to anyone requiring assistance. He was quintessential person in the background; someone whose value you wake up to, only when he is gone. As I write this, I realize, I don’t have his photo.

Thakur will be deeply missed. He leaves behind parents, wife and three children. He was sole bread-winner of his family.

Our trip to Khati became material for a story on a road. Published in 2013, it was among the early lot of stories featured on this blog. Please click on this link to access that article: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/23/about-a-road/

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

VEDANGI’S QUEST / CANADA DONE, EUROPE NEXT

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from the cyclist’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose only.)

Vedangi Kulkarni, who is attempting to be the fastest woman cyclist to go around the planet unsupported, has completed her trip across Canada.

September 28 noon, her father Vivek Kulkarni informed that having finished the Canadian leg of her journey, Vedangi had just reached Iceland signifying start of the European and Russian segment.

She was expected to commence cycling in Iceland from September 29.

Vegangi has covered approximately 16,000 kilometers (roughly 9940 miles) so far, Vivek said. Prior to cycling across Canada, Vedangi had cycled in Australia and New Zealand. She began her journey from Perth on July 17, 2018.

The record Vedangi seeks to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 she completed circumnavigation unsupported on a bicycle – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days.

As per information available on Vedangi’s website, her journey of 18,000 miles (approximately 29,000 kilometers) will be attempted in four stages. The first stage will see her cycling through Australia and New Zealand. The second stage will see her cycling across Alaska and Canada. The third stage spans Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia. The fourth and last stage covers China and the trip back to where she started in Australia. Given the fact that all required visas cannot be applied for and obtained well in advance, the exact route of Vedangi’s expedition has to stay open to adjustments as her journey progresses.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Vedangi and her journey please scroll down or select from the blog archives.)

ABHILASH TOMY RESCUED

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC; this photo was taken at the time of Thuriya’s launch in Goa in 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, who was injured badly after his sailboat, Thuriya, was rolled and dismasted in a severe storm in the Southern Ocean, was rescued earlier today (September 24), reports in the Indian media said.

Upon reaching Thuriya’s location, the French fishing patrol vessel Osiris dispatched a team (with stretcher) in a small boat, which successfully shifted the injured naval officer from his sailboat to Osiris. Abhilash is conscious but tired and dehydrated, a media report quoting his father, P.C. Tomy, said.

According to an update on the Golden Globe Race (GGR) website, at the time of the rescue both Indian and Australian maritime reconnaissance aircraft were circling overhead. Weather conditions were favorable. A radio briefing was held between the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre on Reunion Island, a doctor at I’lle Amsterdam (an island in the southern Indian Ocean not far from where Thuriya was) and the master of the Osiris before the French crew proceeded to the Thuriya in inflatable Zodiac boats to assess Abhilash’s condition and administer first aid.

India’s Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, has tweeted that Osiris will take Abhilash to I’lle Amsterdam. He is expected to reach there by September 24 evening. Later, INS Satpura – one of two Indian navy ships dispatched to the Southern Ocean following news of Thuriya’s dismasting and serious injury to Abhilash – will take him to Mauritius, the tweet said. I’lle Amsterdam is part of French Southern and Antarctic Lands, an overseas territory of France. I’lle Amsterdam has a good hospital with X-ray and ultrasound equipment, the GGR website said.

Thuriya and Abhilash were participants in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entailing solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat. Ahead of storm in the Southern Ocean, Abhilash was placed third in the race. Following the dismasting and severe back injury, Abhilash was unable to move and confined to his bunk in the Thuriya. At the time of writing, details of the injury were not known.

According to the update on the GGR website following Abhilash’s rescue, Gregor McGuckin, the Irish sailor and GGR participant who was sailing towards Abhilash’s coordinates despite his own vessel being rolled and dismasted, was still 25 miles west. Gregor was attempting to motor-sail to Abhilash’s help under a small jury rig and with neither self-steering (he has to hand-steer) nor properly working engine. He was in contact with reconnaissance aircraft and although not in distress has requested for a controlled evacuation, a decision commended by race organizers given he has 1900 miles of Southern Ocean to tackle in a damaged boat and at the present juncture, has rescue assets close by.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Abhilash, Thuriya and GGR please scroll down or select from this blog’s archives.)

INDIAN NAVY AIRCRAFT SIGHTS THURIYA

Thuriya adrift in the Southern Ocean; mast broken (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Indian Navy and is being used here for representation purpose only.)

An Indian Navy P-8I long range maritime reconnaissance aircraft has located Commander Abhilash Tomy’s sailboat, Thuriya, in the Southern Ocean, reports in the national media said today (September 23).

It may be recalled that the vessel was rolled and dismasted in a recent storm. Abhilash had subsequently reported severe back injury and inability to move around.

He has activated the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and efforts have been underway to locate and rescue him. Thuriya and Abhilash were participants in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entailing solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat. It was Abhilash’s second such voyage. In 2013 he became the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat.

Reports quoting an Indian Navy spokesperson said that the naval aircraft saw Thuriya adrift in the Southern Ocean, its mast broken and hanging alongside.

Further the official website of GGR informed that Australian authorities have dispatched an executive jet to the coordinates of the stricken boat. The aircraft will also overfly the boat of Irish skipper and GGR participant Gregor McGuckin, which too was rolled and dismasted in the storm. Notwithstanding an unreliable engine (likely due to fuel being contaminated when the boat was rolled and dismasted in the storm), loss of self-steering (he has to hand-steer now) and finding that the spinnaker pole he used to improvise a jury rig was bending in the strong wind, Gregor is attempting to motor-sail his way to Abhilash. The two are only 80 miles apart, the latest update on the GGR website said. Also expected to head Abhilash’s way is Estonian sailor and GGR participant, Uku Randmaa, who was 400 miles west of both Gregor and Abhilash.

Additionally, the French fisheries patrol vessel Osiris is heading to help Abhilash. Osiris has medical facilities onboard. Although he cannot move around and appears confined to his bunk due to the back injury, Abhilash has confirmed to race organizers that he can move his toes. In first responder circles, when assessing injury, the ability to move one’s body extremities is usually taken as a positive sign. Abhilash has indicated that he may need a stretcher when help arrives. Quoting Abhilash’s latest message to race organizers, the GGR website informed on September 22 (as an update to what it reported earlier the same day) that he can move his toes but is feeling numb and cannot eat or drink. The grab bag containing more emergency communication equipment remained difficult for him to access.

As per information on the GGR website, Australian authorities are also repositioning a search and rescue plane to Reunion Island to assist with the rescue efforts; this is in conjunction with the Anzac class frigate HMAS Ballarat, preparing to leave Perth for the area where Thuriya is. The Indian Navy has already sent INS Satpura and the tanker INS Jyoti to the southern Indian Ocean, where Abhilash is.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please scroll down or select from archives for more on Abhilash, Thuriya and GGR.)