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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

TIME OUT : May 2, 1999


Trimming the soul

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Ernest Hemmingway put it well. In the Snows of Kilimanjaro he asks what a leopard was doing high up in the snow of Africa's volcanic mountain. He answers his own question. The leopard, he says, was trying to melt the fat from his soul. Most of us get fatted souls. After years of stereotyped living, doing the same things, at the same times, day after monotonous day, our sensitivities begin to dull. We crave change, we need change. Excitement is therapeutic. Researchers have found that occasional jolts of adrenalin work wonders with the immune system. And you kick-start your own adrenalin pumps every time you face a new challenge, a different experience. Bungee jumping and sky diving may not be for everyday. Nor are they necessary. Here are four less risky experiences which have kept us in fine fettle.

A walk on the wild side

In the Blue Mountains of Australia, Libby Bubrich took us for a long walkabout. She drove us to the parking area of the Blue Mountains National Park. We strapped on our backpacks. And then like the aboriginals, who could have emigrated from South India during the last Ice Age, we took to the bush.

"The bush," in Australia, is what we would call a jungle here, a bit like the shola forests of our Blue Hills, the Nilgiris. The start of the walk was not too difficult. We strode down a wooded hillside, clambering down rustic steps cut by the park authority. Little streams flowed across our path, occasionally we found natural footholds on boulders, sometimes we had to move with extra care because the ground was slippery and no one had done anything to make the going easy.

R.Dev/Fotomedia

Adrenalin sharpened our responses.

Now and then we came across other walkers but we seldom heard them: they either spoke softly, or not at all.

Libby pointed out a tree that looked like a great clump of grass, identified birds of impossible colours, spoke of the geology of the mountains. We turned onto a lonely little path now. It narrowed and clung like a cobweb to a hillside that grew steeper and steeper. Then, down where a rock wept water, wild ferns flaunted myriad feathery forms. A wind began to rustle through the trees.

We sought the shelter of an overhang and shrugged off our backpacks and took out and demolished a gourmet lunch. But then the walk and the bracing air would have made even a cucumber sandwich a gourmet delicacy!

The wind grew stronger when we set off again. It whipped the trees, bent them, bowled around us. And all the while the sky remained a clear, innocent, Robin's egg blue. There was an electric vitality in the air and every time we stepped onto an exposed rock, an open ridge, the wind nudged us as if it would have us leap into its invisible arms.

We trudged along a gushing stream, stepping carefully, carefully. A twisted ankle here and we would have collapsed in the wilderness. Libby certainly could not have carried us back. When you cannot afford to be careless, you aren't. Our sense of balance became finely honed, our feet developed "eyes" of their own, sensing rounded, slime-slicked, insecure stones before they encountered them. Colours have never seemed brighter, sounds clearer, scents more delicate, the touch of the sun more loving. We could even taste the wind....

Gantzers

And so, when the next opportunity presented itself, we started

flying on the wings of the wind

This wasn't in the Blue Mountains of Australia, but in the even bluer moutains of the Himalayas, across a Himalayan valley known as the Solang Nallah. Snow covered peaks ringed the valley; enthusiasts from six years to 60 years, and over, gazed breathlessly into the sky. And from way above the green towers of the conifers, huge, bright, sails drifted slowly down carrying their high-flyers.

They call it para-gliding. We had been told not to risk it because "You're not as young as you had been; and you might come crashing down; and you know that a journalist went up recently with the Army and he did the wrong thing in the air and they held his funeral recently...." And so we replied, "No one's ever as young as they had been; and we might be knocked over by a speeding car in a metro; and the journalist was hang-gliding solo, we're para-gliding in tandem with a professional pilot." Then we had to explain the difference between hang-gliding, para-gliding and para-sailing: technicalities which are not relevant to this story.

Our para-sailor walked up the slope that rose from the head of the valley. The grass had been worn by pounding feet. At the crest of the slope our hosts' - Irvinder Singh and Sons - team had stretched out the huge sausage-shaped canopy on the ground, its ropes and harness trailing out of it like a deflated aerial jellyfish. The harness was strapped on firmly. The pilot strapped himself on behind. And we, both of us, began to run, helter-skelter, down the slope. The trees blurred past till... the wind lifted us with the gentlest of tugs. The canopy blossomed like a huge, air-filled, mushroom and we were sailing weightless over the Solong Nallah. There was no sound; it was a drifting dream sequence high, high, in the sky, floating, floating....

To the one down below, the sail was a bright dot against the sun, soaring above the pines, sweeping down with other sailors bright as wafting confetti....

Gantzers

To our eagles' eye view the people in the valley were as tiny as ladybirds on a flower bed. And there was nothing between them and us but clear, empty, air. We could see upturned faces now. Some were running. The pilot tugged the ropes and we banked and the earth turned, then righted itself after a slight, but only a slight, nauseous moment, and the ground was rising up to meet us.

An eagle sliced past, the wind rustling its feathers. Still the euphoria of weightlessness, of freedom, of silent thistledown flight; the presence of high danger only sharpening the senses, boosting the zest of living.

We touch down and gravity clutches us again....

But the memory of our tryst with the wings of the wind spurred us to

an undersea walkabout

Coral seas are like molten sapphires: off Cuba, Seychelles, Mauritius. Jules Verne's Captain Nemo had had his men walk under the sea. Our Captain Nemo was Robert Barnes, boss of Captain Nemo's Undersea Walk in Grand Baie in Mauritius.

"This your first Undersea Walk?" asked our Indo-Mauritian boatman, manoeuvring us across the bay. "Yes," we said, "and one of us doesn't swim!" He chuckled to himself. "It doesn't matter. If you can walk on land you can walk under the sea."

On the diving tender we wore their shoes, strapped on the weighted belt, started climbing down the ladder. The sea touched our shoulders. Gently, they lowered the helmets onto us. Air flooded in. We stepped onto the next rung, and let go.

There was an instant of panic as our feet felt nothing under them and we drifted down to the bottom of the sea. Then we touched firm sand and straightened up. The helmet went blub!-blub! as the air bubbled out from around our shoulders: the air pressure was all that kept the water out. Our scuba guardians hovered around like mer-angels.

We were in a world without a horizon. It blued and blued all around us till it was too blue in the distance to see anything more. We looked up. Our hoses snaked away, pierced the surface of the sea which looked like a sheet of shimmering quicksilver. Then we began to moonwalk... each step was a low-gravity float. And once again the euphoria of weightlessness bouyed up, up: quite literally. We walked through Dali-esque gardens of corals. Sea anemones like living flowers waving: star-fish like Christmas decorations: sea urchins in royal purple. And fish: big fish, small fish, flat fish, round fish, fish with goggle eyes and fish with tenuous fins like mini-archangels. One of us made the mistake of holding a fistful of bread in front of a helmet: and was blinded by a barrage of fish fighting to feed. A questing fish removed plaster from a cut finger gently, did not like its flavour, replaced it on another finger.

Time ceased to exist. And so it was soon, much too soon, that our scuba-guards gave us the sign to moonwalk back and climb the ladder.

We had been down for only five minutes: or so it seemed. Our watches told us that we had been submerged for over twenty.

"Were we ever in any danger down below?" we asked. "Er... no," said an Afro-Mauritian, "Not really," added an Indo-Mauritian. "There are no large creatures in this area," the Dive Master explained.

Which is why, when we got an opportunity to venture into waters in which large and dangerous creatures lived we decided to go

bobbing in a coracle on the black river

The river flows swift and silently at the edge of the wilderness camp. They call it the Kali River, the Black River: the clay and loam of the forests through which it passes fills its bed with black ooze.

Gantzers

Others say that it has been named after Kali-mata, the black and fearsome Goddess of Destruction. They would have us believe that the whole river has a dark and evil ambience about it.

We know that it is inhabited by crocodiles.

We went in search of these fearsome creatures, in a coracle. These light, seemingly fragile, craft are also called basket boats because they have a circular bamboo frame covered in buffalo hide.

We stepped gingerly into the coracle; it trembled and bobbed. We sat, very carefully, on small plastic stools. If you step in, or step out, or stand up, or sit down too hastily in a coracle, you're asking for trouble. But once you're settled in, it's comfortable. And it's very manoeuvrable, if you know how to steer a leather-covered basket! Our boatmen did.

The wooded banks slid past silently. Sometimes knots of village women washed their clothes but, for the most part, we had the black river to ourselves. And then we heard the soft roar of rapids. Right across our passage, the river snarled white and angry between black rocks with sharp and jagged edges. We were all quite certain that we'd hear a rrrrrip! and the river would come gushing in. But our boatmen spun us and swirled us and whirled us and though we were drenched and dizzy, the rapids fell behind.

...and next time, stay away from animal lovers

The river was as calm and still as a sheet of black plastic. Except that a few bubbles began to rise to the surface and burst with a soft plop! "Crocodiles," said our boatmen. "They're burrowing into the banks... There!" A large, grey, snout appeared, two eyes regarded us, then vanished. One of the boatmen put his fingers to his lips and pointed. In the middle distance, backed by a wall of tall grass, on a stretch of sand, a huge crocodile basked. It was about twice the length of our coracle. Its jaws were open and its sharp teeth were visible. But as we approached, it slid tail-first into the black river. A little later, bubbles appeared under us.

The river became rough again, so rough that one of our boatmen said that we'd have to get out, walk along the banks while the other boatman negotiated the rapids.

Our coracle nosed into the banks and we stepped through ankle-deep ooze and into dense, riverine, forest. There was a stale reptilian smell; the air was humid and clung to us.

"Are there any animals here?" we asked.

"Sometimes," said the boatman, squelching through the soft, wet, floor of the jungle, "crocodiles come up here...."' Our senses became razor sharp, our clothes stuck to our bodies. "And sometimes," he added, "we have seen King Cobras...."

Clearly, there are more ways of trimming the fat off our souls than climbing the snows of Kilimanjaro.


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