Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Just 7,000 feet below Everest!

AT 4 AM, it was dark. One could barely see the gray Antonov 32 parked in a remote corner of the tarmac with its tail ramp open. Half an hour later, the pilots kicked off the two engines even as we somewhat nervously took our seats. The ramp was pulled up slowly and it was now even darker inside. The AN32 started rolling and gathered speed. A dim yellow light came on. As the aircraft took off and the commander announced phones to be shut, I just about managed to text my younger brother one thousand miles away not sure if the cell was still getting signal.

We were little more than a dozen and accompanying us were a couple of officers and a few Army and Air Force men. There were two long benches along the both walls of the aircraft. These benches had no cushion and no backrest. Along both benches were two overhead cables hooked from front end to back end of the aircr

aft. One had to sit with straight back, pull the belts from behind around your waist a

nd hold on to the overhead cables. While taking off and landing, the AN 32 shakes almost violently and if you are not holding on to the overhead cables with all your strength, your upper body or torso could be thrown around in all directions.

The aircraft did not seem to be air conditioned nor sound proofed. For toilet, there was a 7-feet high box fitted at the front end just outside the cockpit with a tank inside

This is how we would make the first two hours of our three-and-half hour journey to the Siachin Glacier!

Message came late previous afternoon. I was on the list for Army’s trip to Siachin next morning. As a journalist, I was being invited along with a dozen others to visit Siachin, its command headquarter

s and some forward posts for a first person experience on how it was at the world’s highest battle field. How the officers and men of Army and Air Force were doing their job – selflessly. In the most inhospitable weather and terrain where some of the posts are at a height of up to 22,000 feet, these men are defending the frontie

rs with immense sacrifices in their personal and family lives.

It was going to be a dawn to dusk trip from Delhi. After a light dinner and lots of water – important for spending the whole day in such high altitude – I went to sleep early. We were to gather at the Palam Air Force base at 4 am. After last minute verification of credentials and briefing by a battle-hardened Major, we started walking towards an AN 32. Army jawans were loading biscuit packets and water bottles for us.

With its both propellers on either side in full blast, the Russian built twin-engine turboprop aircraft roared into the dark Delhi sky. AN32 or the Antonov 32 aircraft is highly versatile and effective in mountainous high altitude flying where the air is thin and conventional engines produce lesser power than capacity due lack of oxygen. While in conventional aircraft, engines are fitted underneath the wings, AN32 engines are fitted above the wings. Navigator on the aircraft informed me later that the high-fitted engines and propeller gives pilots a far greater control and maneuverability while landing on mountainous air strips.

Soon we left the northern plains behind and were approaching the Karakoram ranges. Stretched far and wide I could see from the window hundreds of kilometers of ice peaked mountains underneath us with the

average height of these peaks at 5 miles. The K2 at little over 29,000 feet is the highest peak. The propeller on my side was right outside the window behind me and to see the machine cutting through some fierce icy winds sent shivers down my spine – not because of the cold outside but the very thought of anything going wrong at this point. No rescue team will ever reach these most glaciated mountain ranges on earth. Despite the intense roar and noise of the engines, I could feel a pin drop silence inside the aircraft.

With the early morning sun coming out at a far distance, the skyline was turning bright from golden. Everyone had their heads turned backwards with their faces into the windows. Fear aside, none wanted to miss the rare sight outside either. Watching the sun rise over the great Karakoram was indeed a rare site.

To relax the tensed atmosphere, an officer suggested why not we have some biscuits, Cadbury chocolates and cold drinks. Soon we would be landing at the Thoise Air Base at over 10,000 feet, the gateway to Siachin. We arrived at Thoise amid bright sunlight but very chilly winds. Walking down the ramp of the aircraft, I had the first jaw dropping look of the mighty ranges – the Saltoro Ridge.

Despite still being at a distant, the ranges looked like ramparts of a fort that could never be captured by the enemy. For years now, the Indian Army has held all the dominating heights of these ranges.

At the officers’ lounge in the terminal area, hot breakfast was served with tea. It was so chilly that most of us were gulping the steaming tea and still couldn’t feel it. A little later the commander of the Siachin brigade arrived in a helicopter from the base headquarters. We had another round of tea with him while he briefed us on the history of the glacier, its terrain and the work he was doing.

He also spoke to us in detail about how the Army supports the local civilian population. There are very small settlements in the area and villager go high up the mountains with their goats and sheep. Their most important needs from the Army are kerosene and medical support. Many a times choppers rescue them from higher ridges when they fall ill. We were witness to one such mission which I will write about in Part II.

Helicopters are the lifeline in the entire Siachin area – be it supplies, fuel, medical rescue or surveillance. Doing this round the year is the 114 Helicopter Unit of the Air Force – more famously known as the Siachin Pioneers. Recently it was reported that a pilot landed his chopper on a peak at 28,000 feet!

It was time for the most crucial second part of our journey – a one-and-half hour flight by the MI17 helicopter to the base camp. This flight would take us to unprecedented altitudes and amazing sights...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Trip to Corbett - My Annual Pilgrimage

The "call" was typical. Less than 500 yards inside the Dhanagari Gate, in the dense forest, everything seemed to stand still on this warm morning. For once, even wind seemed to have stopped. Tearing through this deafening silence was the repeated shrieks of the monkey warning the miles of dark jungles. It was on the prowl, Akram whispered. Engine of our Gypsy shut we waited in nervous anticipation .....nothing was moving, the trees, leaves, as if in fear......Our chase for the Tiger had begun!

With my exams over and the school shut, I hit the road with my Dad, Mom and Dadi. The trip was long - Noida to Corbett, Mukteshwar, Nanital and back to Delhi. We left home at 4.30 am for Ramnagar in our hardworking Maruti Swift. Our rooms at Camp Dhikala in Corbett were already booked. We had to meet up with Akram and his Gypsy at Ramnagar. We crossed Moradabad Bypass at 7.30 am but the village traffic on Bazpur-Ramnagar road slowed us down - finally reaching Ramnagar some time after 9.30 am. It took us another 30 minutes to shift our bags to the Gypsy and park our Swift at Jungle Lore, a picturesque camp on the banks of the Kosi river, for two days.
At Dhanagari Gate, while my Dad went to make the necessary entries at the gate office, I, mom and dadi went to the gift shop alongside the office. It is a well stocked gift shop which sells Corbett Tiger Reserve souvenirs like caps, T-Shirts and coffee mugs. I was also hungry and had a pack of Uncle Chips from the dhaba across the gate office.
All set we started on what is like an annual pilgrimage for us now. Drive from Dhanagari Gate to Camp Dhikala will be 32kms. This two-hour long safari is one of the most fascinating and will take us through some of the most dense forest patches of Corbett, dried up monsoon rivers, some very sharp climb and finally alongside the beautiful Ramganga River into the sprawling Dhikala Forest Rest Houses.
Most people with night stay permit enter Corbett early in the morning by staying overnight at Ramnagar or tent camps around Corbett. At 11.30 am, we seemed to be the last to enter. Just 500 yards into the Reserve, we heard a monkey's "call" from woods ahead of us. Moments later we spotted a frightened Barking Dear among the trees little away from our Gypsy which by now Akram had parked and engine cut off. Me, dad, mom and Akram were all standing in the open Gypsy.
It seemed the world had come to a standstill. Nothing around us moved - the trees, the leaves... even the wind seemed to have stopped. Breaking this absolute silence at regular frequency was only the monkey's shriek that tore through the miles of dense jungle and hills, warning other animals that the King was on the move!
For half an hour we maintained sharp vigil from the point where we heard the monkey's call. We watched the path ahead of us with bated breath, in case the Tiger came down the forested hillside to cross the road to descend into the valley, into the waters of the Ramganga. After a tense 30 minutes and no luck, we decided to move on. Akram's guess was that it could also have been a Leopard which is even more discreet than a Tiger and most difficult to spot. If it was a Leopard, it could have been resting on a tree, Akram said.
Dhikala is the inner most camp in the CTR. On our way we stopped at the Crocodile Point. It is a edge of a hill top from where you can look straight down into crystal clear blue waters of Ramganga River. At this point the water, some 100 feet below, is collected into a pond like corner and we could see four huge crocodiles taking an afternoon nap. On the way we also saw a number of deers, cheetals, sambars, numerous kinds of birds, termite hills up to 10 feet and a group of elephants.
We finally arrived at Dhikala at 2 pm. We were allotted Cabin 3 A and B on top of each other in a duplex overlooking the river. We rushed for the buffet lunch - I, mom and dadi had Indian while dad had Chinese. In Dhikala, only veg buffet meals are served in the FRH Canteen while there is a dhaba also across the parking area that also serves egg. Buffet meals at the Canteen costs Rs 200 per head while the dhaba food being cheaper proved false when my Dad had his dinner of fried rice and egg curry that cost Rs 180.
Dhikala lawns are sprawling while my dadi and mom went off to a post-lunch sleep, I and dad spent the afternoon sitting on the wall looking into the Ramganga with our hired binoculars. Both of us were booked for an elephant safari in the evening and all three elephants for the safari were in the water with their mahuts.
In the two hour safari our elephant took us back into the Ramganga riverbed which now is miles of grassland. All that will change when rains hit in June. Grass at places were as high as eight to ten feet, best for a Tiger to hunt and relax. On the other bank at a distance we could see two Gypsys. Frequent reports of Tiger sighting were coming in for the past one week and in Corbett whenever you see Gypsys lined up in dead silence, it means reports of a sighting in that area. Our mahut announced silence as the elephant soundlessly approached the area through the dense grass. My nervousness was again increasing. Heartbeat getting faster. Will I be second time lucky? Will I get to see the most magnificent animal on Earth? Not just yet....
Highlight of the safari was when we spotted several turtles in the shallow waters as our elephant moved around them. We also saw a family of Otters. There were two small ones and two big ones. Except one big, other three disappeared into their hole moment they saw us. The big one was around for quite some time allowing us to take pictures. Further ahead we spotted a killed hiana which our mahut said was done by a Tiger.
Back in the camp by 6 pm, we were set for a very pleasant evening with cool breeze from the river. We downloaded all the pictures on to our lap top so that dadi and mom, who were up by now, could see all that we did. Dhikala has no TV and no phone or net. After some tea and snacks, I took a round of the lawns, checked out the dinner menu at the canteen and dhaba with my dadi. While my dad headed for the dhaba food, rest of us went for the buffet.
It was past 10 pm and time for to put off the lights. With two close shaves and numerous other animal sightings, the day ended on a highly exciting note. The next morning beckoned, full of chances – as I went to bed with my spirits high, I knew that somewhere in the deep dark woods, the Tiger lurked and two bright eyes were watching us!
(Part - II: Chase Continues Next Morning)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Corbett in March

I have been to Corbett once before - some three years ago. I am planning my second trip in March for two-three nights. Have heard Corbett is great to be in during March.