VEDANGI’S QUEST / RUSSIAN LEG NEARS COMPLETION, INDIA NEXT

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from Vedangi’s Facebook page)

By November 24, fourteen days remained to match the existing record for fastest solo unsupported circumnavigation by a woman on a bicycle. Having been slowed down by an unfortunate mugging incident in Spain, matching the record is not a priority at this stage of the ride; successfully completing solo circumnavigation is. At the time of writing, the young cyclist was riding through the world’s biggest nation by land area; that too as the fabled Russian winter sets in. Record or none, Vedangi – she had cycled roughly 23,500 kilometers as of November 24 – has done a fantastic job.

Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, reached Samara on November 24. Samara is in the southeastern part of European Russia. It is at the confluence of two rivers – Volga and Samara. According to her father Vivek Kulkarni, the 19 year old-cyclist has now pedaled approximately 23,500 kilometers across the planet since her solo unsupported circumnavigation attempt commenced in Perth, Australia on July 17.

A warm welcome in Samara, Russia; the hotel Vedangi elected to stay at baked a cake for her (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Vedangi reached Finland in early November but given her visa for entry into Russia had expired she had to wait till a fresh visa was issued. The new visa was received on November 17. By the evening of November 21, she was in Moscow, having cycled the distance of 1100 kilometers from Helsinki to the Russian capital in that while. Given winter, she was cycling in pretty cold conditions, Vivek said. From Moscow, Vedangi cycled to St Peterburg and onward to Tver and Samara. From Samara, she is expected to cycle to Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Bashkortostan province. It has an airport. By the time she reaches Ufa, Vedangi would have covered about 3000 kilometers in Russia, leaving approximately 4000 kilometers left overall to qualify for circumnavigation. Signifying change of plan, Vivek said that Vedangi won’t be heading to Mongolia and would instead cover most of the last few thousand kilometers in India. Besides factors related to visa, one reason for the change in plan was that she would have had to cycle through Siberia to reach Mongolia and temperatures would be quite cold at this time of the year. Since she began her circumnavigation from Perth in an easterly direction, the same direction would have to be generally followed for the route she chooses to be on in India as well. At the time of writing, the exact route was yet to be finalized. Given her circumnavigation would be complete only at Perth, there would be a small distance left for finish in Australia.

Attending to her bicycle (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Vedangi’s website, November 24 marked 130 days since she began her circumnavigation trip. When she started out, the trip was a quest to become the fastest woman cyclist to accomplish solo, unsupported circumnavigation. For that she would have to better the record held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. As per Vedangi’s website, the circumnavigation trip entails cycling 18,000 miles (roughly 29,000 kilometers). Vivek said that completing full circumnavigation in the remaining 14 days is not a priority because unexpected hiccups along the way had upset some of the earlier cast plans.  Focus now is on getting the job done. When she completes her circumnavigation, Vedangi would be the youngest to do it solo and unsupported and the first Indian woman accomplishing it, Vivek said.

Vedangi’s journey has not been entirely smooth. There were unexpected challenges. The last reported one was a mugging incident in Spain that left the young cyclist injured and quite rattled. She described her experience on her Facebook page (you can also read about it in previous articles about Vedangi on this blog; please scroll down to access the relevant piece). At the time of that post, 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 (before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell of cycling in Iceland) 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.’’

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Vedangi 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,’’ Vivek had said then. Several days later, as he spoke of Vedangi’s arrival in Samara, Vivek said that Russia had so far been a happy, enjoyable experience for cyclist passing through. She got water and tea from the police and people traveling in cars stopped to quiz her about her world tour. The hotel she went to in Samara baked a cake for her; gestures that mean much for lone cyclist and parents tracking her progress from far. Language is not a barrier to find love from people, Vivek texted.

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 is a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

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

A LONG WALK / TRAVERSING THE WESTERN HIMALAYA

The team members; from left – Pranav, Bharat and Shekhar (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Over end-August to mid-October 2018, a team of three completed a long traverse of the Indian Himalaya from Ladakh to the border of Nepal. The trio covered 950 kilometers and crossed 27 passes. One of the participants, Bharat Bhushan – he is a seasoned mountaineer and hiker and an instructor with NOLS – mailed in a report on the expedition. Presented below, as an article by invitation, is an edited version of the report:     

The summit is for the ego while the journey is for the soulthis oft heard adage from the mountains, in a way, encapsulated the driving force behind the Western Himalayan Traverse. The idea was to travel in the most self-sufficient manner possible, have least ecological impact on the places walked through and keep Leave No Trace (LNT) principles in mind. Ultra-light backpacking forces you to be more efficient in the use of resources while enabling you to cover distance faster.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

India lacked a long hiking trail. The US has the Pacific Crest Trail among others and Nepal has the Great Himalaya Trail. We wanted to correct the anomaly. In recent years, the idea of the Western Himalayan Traverse seemed to have finally come of age. Establishing such routes enables and encourages the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact environment friendly backpacking.

The planning process took over a year. Three members for this traverse seemed an ideal number. Each member picked was physically well trained and equipped with sound technical mountain skills and knowledge. This would help minimize risk in case something went wrong during the traverse. Having the ability for one teammate to go down and call for help and bring aid to the others in case of an emergency, increased safety margins during those patches of the route where communication devices would be of limited use and mountain hazards faced would be the highest. Team members make or break an expedition. Pranav Rawat, Shekhar Singh and I, Bharat Bhushan, complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We made for a strong cohesive team.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

The planning process was divided equally between the three of us to get things done faster. I poured over contour maps at the library of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). The initial plan of starting out from Siachen Glacier had to be dropped due to the additional number of days it would have added to the expedition. In the end, Markha Valley in Ladakh was zeroed in on as the ideal place to start from. The trek was flagged off from Chilling Bridge. Dharchula at the Nepal border was our end point. With the start and end points fixed, now it was time to fine tune the middle portion of the traverse. We had two considerations – keeping it a simple, direct and straight route which would take less time. And avoiding as much of challenging and technical terrain en route, as that would require greater effort, technical gear and resources. Eventually, the Kalindi Khal pass was the only technical terrain we had no option of bypassing due to the nature of the route. We kept it in.

We got down to collecting as much information as possible from the internet and having conversations and meeting up with people who had done sections of the traverse before or had ground level knowledge. Ravi Kumar, Director of NOLS India, gave us maps and shared what he knew of the areas we would pass through. In Delhi, Punit Mehta, who is an independent explorer and NOLS instructor, filled us in about the Ladakh and Garhwal areas in detail. Chetan Pandey, my climbing partner from Almora, gave me details of the Garhwal Himalaya and helped me plot the way points on Google Earth map. Over conversations in the IMF dormitory, my friend Kaushal Desai along with Bhagwan Singh from Manali helped fill in the remaining gaps. Dhruv Joshi and Vijay Singh Rautela my climbing partners connected us to a lot of people who could help us when tackling officialdom – paperwork to be filled and permits to be issued.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Following this process, Pranav and I, sitting in Manali, were able to compile the information by plotting all the way points and making a rough Google Earth map of the traverse. It felt like the second concrete step towards our expedition. Step three entailed selection of lightweight technical gear and apparel. Keeping in mind the time of the year, possible weather faced and climate zones we’d be crossing we finally got down to making our required list. We also devised contingency plans. We only had cell phones as devices of communication. That made us vulnerable because connectivity is not available everywhere. Our plan was, should anything happen to any one of us, we would send one member as a runner to reach out and contact the team from 4Play, who were waiting with ration parcels at each predetermined ration re-stocking point. We also made sure to note the closest road head in every valley that we crossed.

It took us 47 days to do the entire Western Himalayan Traverse route. We started on August 27, 2018 and completed the expedition on October 12. During this entire journey we put in four rest days. We took full day stops at Kaza, Chitkul, Auli and Himni. Else, we walked every day. Some days we did up to 44 km. It was only by such a disciplined and relentless push that we managed to cover the traverse within our scheduled time frame.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

While covering the entire route we had to cross varying terrain, and different ecosystems and climate zones. We had four passes to cross that constituted glaciated terrain – Bhabha Pass, Parangla Pass and Lamkhaga Pass were comparatively small. Kalindi Khal proved to be the most formidable, being a huge glacier with open and hidden crevasses. We needed proper glacier travel equipment here. A major obstacle we faced was unexpected bad weather while crossing Kalindi Khal. We had limited fuel and were running out of rations. We had to adapt to the situation by cutting down to having just one meal a day and trying to collect water through ingenious unconventional means. We collected water by wiping the top of our tents with bandannas and squeezing it into containers to collect it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

River crossings during the traverse too turned out to be technical challenges. There were many big raging rivers that we had to cross. The biggest of them was the river in Norboo Sumdo on the way to Parangla Pass from Tsomoriri Lake. Scouting these rivers, choosing from where to cross them and the time of the day chosen for it were important factors we had to keep in mind. Steep trails on the way to Kumaon and Garhwal were a challenge. This year the monsoon was still on in full swing while we were negotiating our way through the trails. Many times we had to forgo the main trail and search for safer alternative route.

Of the 27 passes that were crossed, 10 of them were above 5000 mts in height. We covered a total distance of 950 km with cumulative ascent of 123,432 feet. The following passes were crossed during the traverse:

  1. South east pass parallel to Dhat La (5610 mts)
  2. Kyamar La (5100 mts)
  3. Mandalchan La (5210 mts)
  4. Shibuk La (5270 mts)
  5. Kolakongma La (4940 mts)
  6. Kai Yeru La (5420 mts)
  7. Koste La (5380 mts)
  8. Yalung Nyau La (5470 mts)
  9. Parangla Pass (5560 mts)
  10. Thaltak ( 4710 mts)
  11. Bhaba Pass (4910 mts)
  12. Lamkhaga Pass (5270 mts)
  13. Kalindi Khal (5950 mts)
  14. Kuwari Pass (3670 mts)
  15. Vinayak (3170 mts)
  16. Kukin Khal (3120 mts)
  17. Ali Khal (3470 mts)
  18. Pass between Garwal and Kumaon (3350 mts)
  19. Above Garkuti (2770 mts)
  20. Khati Khal ( 2920 mts)
  21. Bainsa Kharak (3040 mts)
  22. Dhara Pani ( 3150 mts)
  23. Rur Khan (3440 mts)
  24. Unnamed pass, East of Puniya Peak (2860 mts)
  25. Dharti khal (3430 mts)
  26. Chongmo (3810 mts)
  27. Balsi Khal (3900 mts)

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Among rewards, we spotted the elusive snow leopard near Tsokar Lake. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever. There was also blue sheep, monal, marmots, wild pheasants and many more; enough to fill an entire journal. All through the hike we came across bridges built by shepherds. We always examined its strength first, to see if it would bear our weight or not. There were occasions when we found the bridge weak or collapsing. We always had to keep a Plan B in mind in case we had to find a way other than using those bridges. We were a group with mixed levels of experience in this terrain. Shekhar was new to most of the passes we faced. Pranav had seen a good bit of the trail before. I too was fortunate to have covered most parts of this trail in bits and pieces on previous forays. In spite of that, route finding remained a major challenge. Not having a good reliable map and the tricky terrain of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya always kept us on our toes. Now that we have mapped the correct position anyone will be able to follow our trail by downloading the file (editor’s note: at the time of writing, such a file with updated map was in the process of being made, Bharat said) and using it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Since this was a new route, planning accurately in terms of rations and logistics was based on approximation. We set up seven predetermined re-ration stations at various places of the traverse. These were places where we had previously sent boxes of ration well ahead of time, in order to be able to collect them as we passed those places during our journey. We also ate at village homes and food shacks along the way. This helped us not to carry extra ration and instead, move faster with light backpacks.

4Play – it is an Indian outdoor adventure content and media company; Pranav Rawat is their sponsored athlete – tried securing sponsorship for the Western Himalayan Traverse. They pitched our idea to several companies here and abroad and upon not finding much of a response to it advised us to try and see if crowdfunding would help. Pranav and Shekhar campaigned for the Western Himalayan Traverse project and raised funds individually. In spite of that we still had to invest our own funds to buy the required gear. Raising the funds for this expedition was almost as challenging as completing the traverse itself.

(The author, Bharat Bhushan, is a seasoned mountaineer. He works as an instructor with NOLS.)

THE 6+6 FORMULA OF HAPPINESS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On my visit to Kerala, 6+6 was often reason for happiness. Will it stay so? I don’t know. I hope it does for it reminded of common sense in fashionably expensive times. 

From the highway as we turned into the road leading to the South Kerala tourist attraction, the ambiance changed; distinctly.

The surroundings were shaded, temperate and green.

The road we were on was unlike any other I had seen in these parts. It was well maintained with a proper footpath guarded by steel railing. Refined as it seemed, the atmosphere was also synthetic. Not that the mess of everyday Kerala is inspiring; just that you know an island of deliberately developed property when you see one.

For some reason the first thing I thought of as we beheld this place was Jurassic Park. The impression was strengthened when a posse of muscular men, clad in tight T-shirt and cargo pants, walkie-talkie in hand, waved down our autorickshaw at a junction ahead. “ Do you have tickets? It is booked online,’’ one of them said. Behind the guards and the access they regulated were the lower slopes of a hill with a huge rock on top. To be honest, the welcome had felt tad aggressive. But then gated properties are valued exactly for that. If you take away the barricades to entry, the exclusivity craved by those frequenting it, is lost. Degradation also happens faster when whole world goes in. There is an alternative. You can start at school level and teach every generation to tread light on nature, preserve beauty and appreciate solitude. That is however longer haul. Who has patience for it? Certainly not, when schools and colleges are factories in service of successful career. Given we hadn’t booked tickets online, we were politely guided to ticket booths nearby. A young man offered assistance. It seemed a junction waiting for business. All eyes were on us.

Now both my cousin Rajeev and I like to walk. Our idea of coming to this large rock, which everyone praised for a big bird sculpture recently installed there, was to walk around, eventually reach its top and enjoy the view. Although growing up in Thiruvananthapuram, we had never visited this rock earlier. In our fifties, we wished to catch up on what we had missed. At the ticket booth we sought price. Ticket price nudging Rs 500 and a strict no to going up the rock along old paths or newly created ones (you had to compulsorily take a short cable car ride) ended our original mission. Something about the whole affair – perhaps the ticket rate, the guards and the packaging of outdoors and adventure as spectacle – put us off. We decided instead to walk along the road, see where it takes us. Hopefully it went all around the rock’s perimeter offering us a glimpse of structures on top and lets us enjoy the idea of being free, devoid of boundaries and guards.

At some point on that winding road, we met a local resident parking his scooter before his house. Behind the building set in plantation like-ambiance, the rock loomed large. We chatted for some time about the rock that had now become a tourism project. We asked him if he had been on top and if so how it felt. “ Long time back it used to be our backyard and we would go there. The rock’s top is vast. The view from there is really nice. Now we also have to buy tickets,’’ he said laughing. According to him, all the planned services and attractions were yet to be in place. When they are, there will of course be a cost to experience them. “ What they are planning is supposed to be really good,’’ he said. We left it there. Staged stuff wasn’t our cup of tea.

The walk around the rock was relaxing. We imagined early morning hours and decided it was a promising place to run. About half of the distance to walk was on the well maintained road with paved footpath. It connected to a bigger road leading to the local bus depot some kilometers away. Here the traffic rose. From a curve on this road, we saw a temple like-structure on top of the big rock. If I was reminded earlier of Jurassic Park, now I was reminded of the movie, Bahubali. I liked Jurassic Park for bringing dinosaurs to life convincingly. But like the Jaws franchise and its dilemma of how much shark it takes to scare audience progressively losing their fear, it tired pretty soon. As for Bahubali, neither of the two films interested me; I saw them on night buses plying the Mumbai-Bengaluru route, breathing a sigh of relief when kings, queens and heirs concluded their fantasy and Volvo returned to being quiet. Somehow, in these years of decadence by human numbers, excess and vanity, larger than life isn’t an engaging paradigm for me anymore. On the other hand, smaller than life, quieter than life – they attract.

An hour – maybe hour and a half – later, we walked into Chadayamangalam’s bus depot, bought a glass of tea each along with dal vada from a nearby tea shop and sat down to savor it. We looked up from our glass and there, clear and free for all to see, was the bird atop the rock. It was without doubt an impressive sight. I don’t know if its destiny will be the same as Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs but this I know – for centuries that rock, just as it is, had existed brewing fascination. The question is therefore legitimate – what counts more, nature as it is or what we do to it? After the walk, the hot tea and vada felt good. Where we sat probably added to the feeling – we were seated on a large concrete block; tea shop counter behind us, bus depot in front, busy road to the side, people around, all of that open to sky and rock in the distance. It was the abject opposite of being larger than life. You were nobody.

That was when I discovered a wonderful formula in the neighborhood.  The glass of tea we were having – a full big glass, not the cutting measure of North India – cost six rupees, significantly less than Mumbai’s cutting chai. The vada cost six rupees too. In fact, according to the tea shop owner, there were other snacks to choose from as well and any of that had with tea, sold for six rupees a piece. Yet again, not the tiny portions sold for double the cost in northern cities; these were decently sized specimens. Chai and kadi (something to munch) – the combination sold for Rs 12. It satisfied my soul. Two days later in Thiruvananthapuram, I was treated to same formula at a small hotel near Vellayambalam; 6+6, no matter what snack from the designated lot you had full glass of tea with. The formula repeated again at the city’s East Fort bus stand.

It was nice to see small tea shops defying market trends even as big projects succumbed.

I sincerely hope some aspects of Malayali sensibility don’t change.

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

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 Dreamroutes. While mostly dealing with activities like trekking, it had a section meant for paddlers,’’ Naveen said. The forum on kayaking at the website was started by Sohan and administered by him for a few months. 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.)