When adventure beckons

When adventure beckons

We stood at the head of a gentle beginners’ slope outside the alpine town of Chamonix, France, at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe.

This was our first crack at skiing and our instructor gave us a gentle push to get us on our way. Weee… We were skiing. That was fun! Suddenly, it started to go wrong and after a blurry sequence of events, we lay in a tangled heap at the bottom of the slope. A line of little kids skied past, their faces flush with amusement as they saw us sprawled in the snow.

“This is not going to be your first fall,” our instructor assured us. “The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes,” she added. And there were a lot of mistakes that we made that day, as we grappled with the basic skills of the sport: the proper stance with knees bent; how to stop; how to turn; how to move sideways.

Our third run down the beginners’ slope was calamity free but, in our next attempt, we made close contact with the snow  again. It was only after we were able to string three consecutive incident-free runs that our instructor agreed to call it quits. We promptly forgot all that she had taught us but fondly remember her for letting us experience the exhilaration of gliding down the snowy slopes outside Chamonix.

Extreme travel

Indeed, by the end of the half-day session, we had started to appreciate that travel is not just about seeing places, but challenging ourselves with activities that we would not think of doing in the course of our everyday lives.

The thrill of living on the edge is a high that is hard to beat. Like the time we stood at the edge of a zip-lining platform looking down at a river canyon that sliced through the rainforest around the Rocky Mountain town of Whistler in British Columbia, Canada. Placing our faith in the cable above us, we stepped out into thin air and the next moment we were virtually flying like birds over a forest canopy.

At Franz Josef Glacier, off the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, we found ourselves walking into the cold embrace of an icy scar-faced landscape. The crunch of our metal spike boots gripping the ice was reassuring as we followed our guide who ever so often had to hack steps across the treacherous terrain with a pickaxe.

We trudged across narrow ledges, descended into valleys hemmed in by walls of solid ice and scaled up frosty white cliffs. We were sweating and freezing at the same time. The high point of the glacier trek was when we entered an icy grotto and dropped into a cave aglow with a mysterious blue light that filtered through the translucent roof. What if the place should come crashing down on us? We brushed away the stab of fear: the moment was way too precious to waste worrying about possibilities that could dilute our elation.

Fear is the spicy edge of adventure and taming it is an exhilarating feeling. Sky diving is probably the most gut-wrenching high that few other sports can match. Just listening to our friend retell his experience jumping in tandem with his instructor off a light aircraft 10,000 feet over Cairns, Australia, was enough to give us goose bumps. We could almost feel his nervous tension as he crawled to the open door and positioned himself for the jump. And then he was free falling, face down, through space: undoubtedly, the longest and most invigorating 35 seconds of his life. And then the parachute bloomed above him.

The silent, gnawing fear that the parachute would not open — a fear he willed himself not to acknowledge — gave way to a surge of relief as he floated gently back to earth.
So we were a little surprised when our sky diving friend confessed that his explorative scuba dive at the Great Barrier Reef, off the east coast of Australia, was even more terrifying than the sky high jump. Our first dive into the sparkling-blue lagoon around the island of Kadmat in Lakshadweep is still vividly embossed in our mind’s eye. Kitted out in full diving gear, air tanks strapped to our backs, we stepped out into the blue unknown… and panicked. After a few simple exercises, designed to reassure us that the diving rig was safe, our instructor took us on an underwater cruise that culminated with prodding a bulbous sea cucumber that spat out a sticky white goo.

The ecstasy at the end of the dive was not so much at what we saw, but at the fact that we had confronted our worst fears and survived. The underwater serenade had only just begun. Soon we were gliding across the face of undersea mountains and cliffs and thrilling to the sight of exotic fish in colourful coral gardens. We witnessed the waltz of the stingrays and sharks; examined giant clams with lips painted in startling colours and swam with enormous schools of fish that showered the waters like fluorescent confetti.

Yet, before every dive — even after logging over 50 underwater sorties — there is that moment of gut-wrenching anxiety that melts as one enters an aqua wonder-world that is nothing short of an altar of creation.

Taking it easy

Not all adventure has to be extreme. Trekking, for instance, is an excellent way of getting close to nature and is something that almost anyone can do as there are easy-to-difficult trails almost everywhere. Sadly, one of the finest trekking regions in India — the higher reaches of Uttarakhand that include the Char Dhams of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath as well as the amazing Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib — suffered unprecedented disaster under the deluge of a cloud burst this year.

The one truly memorable outing we had was the snow trek at Gemmi Pass that lies above the hot springs spa resort town of Leukerbad, Switzerland. Here we donned snow shoes with flexible spiked soles and carried a stick in each hand to support ourselves and headed out into the vast alpine snowfields wedged between craggy mountains. The crunching of snow and ice underfoot added voice to the sounds of silence around us. We topped off the adventure with a leisurely stroll across a frozen lake and then sledged down the tamer slopes, hooting and laughing with delight.

Laughter tinged with fear was the theme when we went river rafting down the Indus, as she sliced through a bleak mountainous landscape of Ladakh. The river swept us off on a rollicking ride, torpedoing us down raging rapids as we paddled hard to keep our bucking rubber dingy on an even kneel. Between rapids the river showed us her gentler side. It was time to relax and appreciate the desolate beauty of the landscape as we floated down a liquid avenue lined with craggy, snow-streaked mountain peaks clawing at a deep blue sky. And then we heard the rumbling of angry rapids further downstream and steeled ourselves to do battle with the swirling white water once more. Flirting with danger had become addictive.

Adventure is out there and no matter what avatar it takes it is the pinch of spice that can make an ordinary vacation a memorable one. Kayaking down the fjords (Milford and Doubtful Sounds) of New Zealand or rivers that snake through the Alaskan wilderness; quad biking on off-trail terrain in the vast outback of Australia; exploring stalactite and stalagmite caves in South Africa.

Which reminds us of the time at Mawsmai, Meghalaya, in the Northeastern reaches of India when, in a moment of bravado, we declared that we wanted to go caving. And so we found ourselves on all fours and crawling through narrow caverns with the spotlight on our helmets lighting the path in front of us. We ducked under a row of jagged rocks that clawed at us; scaled up subterranean cliffs; slithered through narrow openings, our bodies forming S-curves as we pulled and pushed up with our hands, knees and feet... Suddenly, we were on a ledge looking down into a large cavern, its walls draped with curtains of stalactite and stalagmite formations. In silence, we admired the displays in the art gallery, tucked deep inside the bowels of the earth: it was as though nature was rewarding us for our effort.

One sport that defeated us was surfing. “The important thing to remember here is that you’ve got to enjoy the elements; harness them and let them work for you. Don’t challenge the sea; it is way too powerful to conquer…” Helen, our surfing instructor, briefed us as we sat on one of the 42 beaches along the Gold Coast of Australia. We looked out at the endless surge of silver-crested waves rushing towards the shore and, suddenly, the once inviting waters of the Pacific Ocean looked very menacing. Surely, we were crazy to think that we could learn how to surf!

Nevertheless, we went through the motions as Helen put us through the paces by the waterfront. We practiced standing up on the board, one foot in front of the other with the stronger leg behind and arms spread out like a Bharatnatyam dancer. Easy! We paddled out across the water and tried to replicate what we had done on dry land. Splash! Splash! Splash! After three sorry attempts, we conceded defeat.
Surfing was not for us. Oh, well… you can’t win them all.

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