Wind beneath my wings

paragliding1

The takeoff itself wasn’t particularly tough; it was the decision to board that took courage. This happened on a recent whistle-stop tour of Kumaon’s “lake district,” with Bhimtal as my base. Stopping on the hill roads one evening to stretch my legs, I was drawn to the bustle of people milling around a large parachute spread out on the flat surface of the cliff-top. And in front of my eyes, a young couple took wings, each tethered to an instructor who would help them stay in the air for the next few minutes of their paragliding adventure.

I knew that paragliding was popular in Himachal Pradesh, but I hadn’t expected to find it in this remote corner of the Uttarakhand hills. After a few minutes of watching, as I was ready to get back into the car, my cabbie fired the first salvo by inquiring if I had done this earlier. I mumbled sheepishly under my breath, hoping he would drop the subject, but that was not to be.

A moment of hesitation – rightly interpreted by them as a sign of weakness – was all it took for the paragliding team itself to take his suggestion forward. And they went at it non-stop, slyly suggesting that it was silly to be afraid, when even a five year old child could do this easily.

The clinching argument was made as a joke by the instructor who would fly with me – “Oh madam, remember, it is my life also.” So, before I knew it, I went from curious bystander to intrepid paraglider, all harnessed and ready to soar. One, two, three, four steps forward – and the wind force carried us up into the air.

Courage on the ground was all fine, but my first minute up in the air was one of sheer terror. I confronted that with a volley of questions to Vir Singh, who hailed from Himachal and had been doing this for seven years. Vir was remarkably patient as he explained – yet again – that he had all the controls in his hand, direction, altitude and speed included.

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I closed my eyes for a moment to take a deep breath; perhaps it was the feel of the wind on my cheeks or the sound of absolute silence, but when I opened them again, I had begun to actually enjoy the ride. There may have even been a brief moment when I let go of the straps and spread my hands in the air a la that classic scene from Titanic. I had been on a hot air balloon ride a few years ago but this exhilarating sense of flying, strapped on to a massive parachute and perched on a makeshift canvas seat was like nothing I had ever experienced earlier.

When it was finally time to land, Vir decided to test my nerves one final time with a few trick moves – and whoosh we went, swinging treacherously to a side, dipping low and high, and almost upside down. Forgive me for not describing it in great detail, for all I remember is holding on tight and pleading for my life to be spared. And unlike the ride itself, I didn’t have time to get used to this and begin enjoying it. But by the time we landed, I had managed to rustle up a halfway genuine smile for the camera that was capturing the flight all the way.

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That night, I had adrenalin fuelled dreams of sprouting wings and flying high. My last coherent thought before I fell asleep was that I couldn’t wait to try paragliding again.

TRAVEL INFO

Distance: 307 km from Delhi

Time: 7 hours

Route: Take NH 24 from Delhi towards Ghaziabad and Moradabad. Connect to NH 87 going up north towards Haldwani and Nainital. Or take the overnight Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam and hire a cab for an hour’s drive (Rs.1000) to Bhimtal

Stay: Fredy’s Bungalow; tariff for double room starting from Rs 6053, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

Essential Details: My flight was with Eagle Eye Adventure (http://www.eagleeyeadventure.com/; Rs. 1500 for the flight from a height of 1500 feet). There are dozens of local operators, so ask around before signing up.

Published in the ‘Weekend Vacations’ section of Mint

Faces from the trek

Some interesting people I met on the trek…

Ram Mohan, our guide’s assistant warms his hands while making tea at Kacheru

Beeru sips chai at his shop

Dipender with his Aamir Khan smile

Taking home fodder for the cattle

The shepherd… and his sheep

Naughty Sahil with his mother

Heavy burden on young shoulders

Adventures of an intrepid trekker 2

Continued from here

And so Manjhi. Just before the campsite is Beeru’s tea shop – now Manjhi is not an inhabited village, a few people from Agoda, 11 km away come there during “season” (meaning the summer months which sees some pedestrian traffic in the area) to graze their cattle and sell tea and snacks to the trekking public. Beeru had spotted potential sales, when he saw our group and another the day earlier headed to Dodital and so he had made his way to Manjhi to set up shop with his supplies of instant coffee, Maggi and Kurkure. Now that is the irony of modern India – call it shining or shaming, what you will – this is territory without electricity, where women travel 10 km to collect fodder for their cows and children trek the same distance each day to go to elementary school but there is unlimited supply of Pepsi and Kurkure everywhere you see.

Anyway. We stopped at Beeru’s tea shop, tucked into eggs and Maggi and made conversation with him and the other porters who had arrived by then. Beeru blushed prettily when asked about Jai’s whereabouts but otherwise chatted merrily about his life. The campsite was close by and when we headed there, our lovely cook Dipender had chai and snacks ready for us (any thoughts of getting slimmer and fitter thanks to the trek evaporated when we saw the food that appeared every few hours). It was just past five in the evening but there was a chill in the air and soon the bonfire came up. The sun was about to set and cast glorious orange light on the distant mountains; everything was perfectly still and quiet. That is how we brought in the new year – warming ourselves in front of the fire at minus five degree temperatures, tucking into piping hot dal chawal. Cannot think of a better way.

Of course, we all had grand plans to usher in the new year at midnight at minus 20 degree temperatures. And surely enough, by nine pm, we drifted off towards the tent by turns and the new year came in silently, punctuated only by our snores. We woke up to see the ground covered with fresh snow. The little stream in front of our tent had turned into ice. There was a sharp bite to the air, fresher than anything any cit slicker would have ever inhaled.

Dodital the next day was an easy five kilometer hike that only half of the group undertook – the freezing temperatures added to an unforgiving wind chill factor made it a miserable morning for the trekkers. But the rest of the day was spent back in front of the bonfire chatting and sipping endless cups of chai. The trek back towards Bebra was easy given how most of it was downhill – we reached the camp just around lunch time and got to spend the entire afternoon there – again, inside the small chai and Kurkure shop owned by the local who also ran the camp site (Nabeen Pawar Lodge, proudly says the painted sign).

And finally, the last day – the easiest part of the trek – going back into civilization and easy downhill walks. We stopped to photograph and chat with locals – mountain goats most of them, who walked the toughest stretches with great ease. Back in Kalyani, the starting point, we stopped to catch our breath and take the “after” photograph – weary and aching but happy to have completed the trek. Beginners and gentle it may be, but it still required a level of fitness that none of us possessed. Never mind, the plans for the next trek are already on – Valley of Flowers in August. And this time, we go prepared!

Adventures of an intrepid trekker 1

That’s me, folks. Intrepid I was, because I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. A gentle trek, he said, the guy organizing the trek. For beginners, he assured us. A mere walk. And so on. You get the drift.

Ten minutes into the trek and I could not hear anything, even my own thoughts: my heart was pounding so loud in my ears. As I stopped yet again to catch my breath that promised to desert me at any time, I asked my husband, “tell me again, why do people do this for pleasure?” I then asked our guide who was patiently bringing up the rear, “Vasuji, will I ever get used to this or will it be this tough till the end?” Vasuji, many things but not the best diplomat said, “how can I say? It is all up to how you manage it.” Very reassuring, not.

We were staying in a homestay in Dehradun (Shri Krishna Guesthouse run by the lovely Renee and Jayant – but more on that later) – we had barely survived the gruelling (read head spinning, stomach churning) six hour drive up to Uttarkashi and had lunch there before we drove further ahead to Kalyani. Also known as Sangamchatti, this was the beginning point for our hike to Dodital, and further on to Darba, weather permitting.

Grand plans.

As a friend said later, “in the first half hour of the trek, I had questioned every single decision of my life, and not just the one to come on this trek!” Vamsi and I huffed and puffed our way up, step after weary step – we were six of us in all, plus a couple of guides, porters and cooks each. Of the six trekkers, V and I were right in the middle, neither superfast like the “competitive” ones racing ahead nor the friends trudging along even slower than us. Renee at the guesthouse had given sound advice – just focus on putting one step in front of another. True, if I looked any further ahead, things just seemed insurmountable. By the time we finished less than half the trek, I was telling Vamsi that I wanted to go back down the next day. “I just cannot carry on!”

Luckily, we persevered. The first day was bad, given that we had driven for a long time and started the trek after 3 p.m. – all of us trek novices. It got dark soon enough and we were then walking on these narrow mountain trails using just torchlights and a foolish hope that the end was in sight. By the time we reached Bebra, our first camp site, it was completely dark and our friends who had reached ahead of us were sitting around a tiny bonfire (this was what helped us survive through the five days, even in minus temperatures!) Hot soup and popcorn soon materialized and the tiredness of the day was forgotten as we tucked into dinner dinner immediately after that. Bed time was early: and that means 9 p.m – at the camp site, there was no electricity, nothing to do in fact but stare at the brilliant sky above. And then the struggle of getting into a sleeping bag and getting used to the feel of the hard earth under the back: at that point, every thing seemed an adventure.

Bebra is at a very pretty spot, just by a gurgling stream, surrounded by mountains but we were too busy with other things to notice. The second day was better in terms of the trek itself and we were able to manage it, if not easily, then certainly with less difficulty than the earlier day. Sure, the steady incline was a challenge; muscles that we did not existed cried out in protest. We stopped for a quick chai made by one of the guides near a small stream called Kacheru and then made our way to the next camp site at Manjhi. The original plan was to head on all the way to Dodital (14 km from Bebra) but seeing our state the earlier day, our guide had decided to halt at Manjhi just 9 km away.

(to be continued)

At the Ootea festival

I had never heard of the Ootea festival before – and from the looks of it, neither had many of the participants. We were walking out of the railway station after inquiring about the timings of the heritage train when we spotted these costumed kids waiting in long lines, restless as only kids can be. Turned out they had no idea what was happening – “some rally”, one of them finally ventured.

The Ootea festival is an annual affair that celebrates Tea and Tourism in the Nilgiris. We stood by the road watching the pageant – school children, Tibetan women, folk dancers and musicians, music bands, a miniature heritage train, and a flower garden, among other things.

What about you? Do you know anything more about this festival? I hope the Tourism Department makes a louder noise about it from now – and make it an event people want to attend, rather than discover by chance.

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