It was 1 in the morning and I was suffering. I was in the throes of an allergic reaction, probably from the dust of the train, sneezing and coughing all over the place. I took an anti-allergic and as the medicines took hold, I slowly drifted into that state between waking and sleep, where the world is an indeterminate black, but your mind’s awake. This is a properly luxurious way to feel, I thought to myself, swathed in the comfort of my four-poster bed. A sliver of moonlight came in through the window at the far end of the room. The night was dark, and I lay in that enveloping silence, and gently floated into sleep.
Rambagh Palace, the erstwhile residence of the Polo-loving Maharajas of Jaipur, sits calmly in the oasis of lush gardens and tall trees in a busy part of the city. The elegant double-storied complex of the palace wings is topped by arch domes and cupolas of understated beauty, sprawling over 47 acres of land. It is now a Taj Heritage hotel replete with the sheer classiness the group’s properties are known for. The discreet, tree-shaded corners form little pockets of enchanting light and shade, while the air around you is full of birds, flying, rustling, crying out, fidgeting.
My first walk through the grounds with P. Sairam, my butler who hailed from Vishakhapatnam, pretty much convinced me that this time, I was not going to go out into the city. The great forts and palaces of the Pink City I knew very well, and this was fresh ground to explore. A charming young man, Sairam took me on a tour of the Palace. There is a “Historical Tour” for residents at the hotel every evening at 5:30, but Sairam was only too happy to show me around.
Rambagh Palace had been among the first royal houses to convert into a Palace Hotel way back in 1957. Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II sided with modernity, opening up an elegant palace which is a wonderful amalgam of Rajasthani art-deco splendour to the public, albeit a very exclusive one. Such are the high standards of restoration the Taj undertakes to keep the rooms in their original condition that the Maharani Suite has never seen a redecoration, only updates. Once the room of the late Rajmata Gayatri Devi, who fell in love with the way it looked as a young woman, the original decor has been preserved in all its opulent Hammond’s-of-London magnificence. The four-fixture mirrored bathroom, a fulsome fantasy of endless shringar overlooks the Mughal Gardens, a delightful pavilion with water channels rushing through, cascading over into flowing channels dotted with gushing fountains.
My wood-panelled suite shared the view with the three grand suites, including the Maharani Suite. On an early winter day, that meant a welcome access to the warming sun. While nursing the cold with two glasses of fresh orange juice—all that Vitamin C—and two hard-boiled eggs, I could feel the sun on my back while I sat and read, and wrote. Too ill to stir out, I decided to enjoy this forced respite. Not a difficult thing to do at Rambagh.
The previous night, Executive Chef Ashish Kumar Roy had conjured up for me the best Rajasthani Thali I’d ever had. All my past unfortunate experiences with concocted “Rajasthani cuisine” were driven away by an explosion of the richest spices and the softest meats. The red lal maas cleared my sinuses immediately, while the mutton melted on my tongue in a flourish of chillies and spices, wonderfully balanced. It was a rich banquet in the stunning Suvarna Mahal, the old grand dining hall of the royal family, fringed by original Florentine frescoes, under massive hanging chandeliers. So when I followed that up with the healthy breakfastin-bed with Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, I was essentially using luxury to combat my illness, and guess what, luxury was winning!
When Conde Nast’s readers voted Rambagh Palace to be the Best Overseas Leisure Hotel for Asia & the Indian subcontinent, they clearly got their basics right. A magnificent palace hotel, which re-enforces your sense of privacy and luxury, thanks to an unobtrusive service that takes care of you like an invisible hand. Those readers have chosen well.
The big day- pass day- we awoke to a dark, chilly morning. Dawn was still a couple of hours away when I blearily opened my eyes and was informed by Oli’s disembodied voice that it was 4 am. The cave was a blur of movement as a little candle and many flash-lights threw dancing shadows on the low roof. At the risk of repeating a truism, I must say that getting up in the cold and going about your business is an easy thing to do when you don’t really have an option. So I felt around for a toilet roll, put on my slippers and started the tricky traverse to some suitably private boulder behind the cave. Just the first faint glimmers of the day all around. The sky was still overcast, though it was difficult to say how heavy the clouds were. I cold only hope that there would be no rain while we were crossing the pass later today.
Time was of the essence, and after quickly wrapping up our sacks, and swallowing the horrible nut-flecked gloop that passed for breakfast, we were off at the dot of six. I was glad to be free of the cramped environment of the cave, and walking again. I knew myself well enough to know that soon I’d be bringing up the rear, so I started out early in the wake of Gulab, who had already leaped his way up through the tangled maze of boulders, and was waiting for us to catch up with him. I looked down to see how the others were doing. Jagdish was making his way up the slope in his unhurried gait, thoughtfully puffing on a biri. KP was looking up at the ridge-line suspiciously while Devon wasn’t moving too well, thanks to an unwelcome bout of constipation. Oli was the very picture of economy, never hurrying, never stopping, slowly making her way up in measured steps.
My sack was heavy but it felt good to have it on my back, as it gave me a sense of solidity in this unstable world. We climbed out of the rock couloir that held the frozen Bhated and came out of the boulder maze just above Lahesh when the views opened up all around. It was almost getting to seven, and the sky above Indrahar was clear. The sun still hadn’t made its presence felt but behind me Kangra valley was bathed in light. Predictably enough, the others soon passed me by as I kept stopping to get my breath back and take pictures. The lower ridges of the Dhauladhar were slowly creeping into light, as the distant villages of Naddi and Kareri shone a vivid green in the slanting sunlight. Triund seemed impossibly remote, some 3,000 feet below, and I suppressed a smile to be looking down upon something that I’ve always looked up at from McLeodganj. With the mounting exertion, a part of me wanted to be down on that green alp, walking around aimlessly. But I was glad to be out on this fine day, and we were making progress.
Well, not all of us. Devon had become impossibly bogged down and had to take a toilet break. So for a change I wasn’t the last man panting. Not that it amounted to much, as I was frequently taking rests as I struggled to find a rhythm which I could keep up for at least ten minutes without tiring. Still, landscape has a way of inspiring, and even if I had the choice I wouldn’t have wanted to stop. A couple of hours into the climb, the angle of ascent had eased off a bit, but the boulder tangle was even more pronounced if anything. The sky above us was clear, and for the longest time the notch of Indrahar beckoned invitingly, before being lost to view due to fore-shortening. Oli had dutifully dropped back- as she says, its unthinkable for a tiring person to bring up the rear- while KP was above me, charging on with a will that moves mountains, the ends of his Tibetan wool cap flying in the breeze. He had hit upon a novel idea- force your way up past the obstacles in the vapour trail of Gulab, and then wait with him for us to catch up. It was a pretty ingenious ploy, as it ensured that he got the most rest. Me, I would huff and puff up to the waiting party some 10-15 minutes late only to see them set off before I’d even had the chance to down my sack. Oh well, I guess it was only fair.
We were fairly sure that the good weather wouldn’t last long, and naturally we were anxious to get over the pass and on our way down before the weather broke for the day. Even then, there was only so much we could do for our pace. Though I didn’t know it at the time, KP was feeling the altitude, and getting the beginnings of a raging headache. It says a lot about his grit and fortitude that he was still crashing ahead the way he was. Oli was patiently bringing up the rear behind me and Devon, smiling to herself.
Soon the angle steepened again as we started up a series of vertical rock stairs that the Gaddi shepherds had industriously created for easy access. This was looking even more like Lord of the Rings now. They distinctly reminded me of the exposed steps of Cirith Ungol leading up to Shelob’s Lair. Just as I had this thought, Devon stopped on a boulder, turned towards me and asked me if this didn’t remind me of the Lord of the Rings. I mouthed the words “Shelob’s Lair” at him, and he broke out in another of his 100-watt grins and started nodding his head vigorously. Oli, caught up in the traffic jam, asked us testily if we had to discuss this in such an unstable place. She was right, of course, and we resumed our upwards trudge, one moment climbing up a narrow gully and the next moment traversing a grassy shelf in the direction of a cairn that marked the beginning of another narrow stair-way. We were close to the top now and every now and then I would crane my neck up and see the massive petrified wave of the ridge looming over me, while wisps of clouds were being blown over the Mon by a pretty strong wind.
Oli was again enticing me with cream biscuits, so I figured she must be pretty worried. There was still nothing I could do about my pace, so I carried on the best I could. At least, the ascent would soon be over, and apart from the exertion I was fine. And no matter how difficult the descent from the pass into the Ravi valley, at least I wouldn’t be short of breath. I was just thankful that altitude wasn’t hampering my progress. I felt excited enough that soon I’d be bettering my altitude record, and finally see the promised land behind Indrahar Pass. Plenty of reasons, then, to keep going.
Then the weather turned. It didn’t start raining, but a thick mist descended upon us. The temperature dropped and a keen, cold wind started blowing. Stumbling up through this sudden dreamscape, we passed many false summits topped by gargoyle-shaped boulders, and each one was a blow to the morale. By now I could see nothing above me, and all around us was the monolithic mist. At least that meant that we were pretty close to the top. Another ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour, I had no clue about the time anymore. It was my job to go up, so go up I did, with Oli prodding me ever so gently.
Suddenly, indistinct shapes started looming up in front of me through the mist. Were those things…trishuls? Yes they were! A little shrine, and then no more dark rocks but empty space! We’d reached the pass at last. I could see Devon’s blue rucksack a little way ahead as he finally made the ridge-top. I wanted to holler but my voice had failed me for the time-being. Indrahar pass! I could weep.
The others had been waiting for a while- KP and Gulab a good 30 minutes- and were arrayed all over the steep ridge-top, grinning at us laggards. To my left the ridge climbed in a rock wall to Slab peak. To my right, the ridge extended like a massive wall to the Cairn and Mon peaks, a few hundred feet above me. The ridge itself was like being on the back of a massive stegosaurus skeleton, with a man behind every spike-like hump of the ridge. It was pretty exposed, though behind us, the mist hid what would have been spectacular views of Kangra. Ahead, the mist was breaking, and suddenly you could see for miles.
I had prepared for this sight for years now. Straight to the north rose the tall peaks of the Pir Panjal- the Tent and Barakanda peaks the most distinctive of them, in the direction of the Kalicho and Chobia passes into the Chandrabhaga valley in Lahaul. Although the range was decked with strips of clouds, you could still make them out. Due North-East arose the closer ramparts of the Manimahesh Range, but Kailash itself was hidden by long, rolling banner clouds. Below the pass, the ground fell away spectacularly into a boulder-filled glacial wasteland- this being the warmest and most moist time of the year, the ice is mostly stale and rotten- and one of the most amazingly wild cirque of mountains I’ve ever seen.
I sat and compared the scene with all the different reports I’ve read of Indrahar. The legendary Harish Kapadia writes of this part of the Dhauladhar, which he often used to visit for a quick weekend of climbing. Some five hundred feet below me was the hanging lip of this high plateau, sheltered from the wind blowing up the Kuarsi valley by some massive boulders. That could have been the site of the base camp that he mentions from which he undertook climbing trips up the various peaks. To my right, across the glacial waste, the northern face of Mon sloped up relatively gently, an easy climb on a fine day. Its southern aspect, which I’d seen so far, is truly terrifying, and as far as I know, not many climbers have had much joy from that direction. To my left, past the immediate hump of Slab peak, lay other peaks, with quaint British names like Two-Gun, Camel, Dromedary, Rifle-horn and Arthur’s Seat. In fact I could even see Arthur’s foot-stool, a prominent rock obelisk on the ridge leading up to Arthur’s Seat.
While the Gaddis have been using the passes of the Dhauladhar for at least seven hundred years now, it was only when the British established their cantonments in Dharamshala and nearby Dalhousie at the turn of the Twentieth Century, did vacationing soldier-alpinists start climbing in this region, and naming the amazing landscape they saw. It must’ve reminded them of the Dolomites or, more likely, the Alps (there’s even a Dhauladhar Matterhorn further to the east, north of Dadh near Palampur), and with the great British push for exploring and climbing the Himalayan range in full swing, many considered the Dhauladhar a perfect little pocket-sized version of the bigger mountains in which to train. The additional fact that the range was so easily accessible from the plains must have been a big factor too. One man in particular did a fair bit to popularise the region around Indrahar, a Col. J O M Robert. Writing in the third volume of the Himalayan Journal in 1937, he says,
“The Dhaula Dhar has, I feel sure, a big future before it in the history of Himalayan mountaineering; for here is an ideal and very accessible training ground. Although there are snow-climbs in plenty before the monsoon breaks scores of first class rock-clmbs, especially on the Dharamsala side.”
That sadly never came true, but what he said then, still holds true now. I really can’t think of a more ideal training ground not just for mountaineering, but also for getting a taste of travelling in the mountains in general. Here you have mini-glaciers, mini-peaks, and as we were to find out, a mini Valley of Flowers too, especially during the monsoon months.
Jagdish pointed out our camp for the day, about 2,000 feet below in the green valley of the Kuarsi nala, called Chhata Parao. A traditional pasturage, from this distance it looked like a gentle green meadow, made all the more alluring by the clear sunlight that shone on it.
The Kuarsi nala drains the northern face of the Dhauladhar and this particular cirque of mountains, with side-streams feeding it till it becomes a raging torrent further down and ultimately merges with the Ravi near the village of Choli. After finishing our smokes, and posing for some pictures for Oli, we started our descent. I would’ve liked to have loitered here for a while, but storm-clouds were forming in earnest behind us in Kangra, and we wanted to be home and dry in our camp, still some three hours away.
The descent was a tricky one, primarily because it was a first for me, and also for KP. Now the correct way to descend rock faces is to face outward and gingerly shuffle down. Often, its just a matter of holding your nerves. I had no intention to try. So I started down like I was descending a ladder, face-to-rock and searching for toe-holds. Then I realised that to do so would be to miss the ever-changing views. So I stopped, hitched my tiny camera bag like a holster and kept it ready for a quick draw. Then I slowly descended the boulder zone, as many of them were precariously loose, and there was no way I could tell which boulder would take my weight and which one wouldn’t. So I was soon reduced to descending on my ass. While this technique is not the most elegant, its definitely effective when you’re feeling unbalanced by a rucksack on your back.
The northern face of the Dhauladhar is softer in aspect than Kangra the side, and it resembles a proper mountainscape in that it doesn’t rise with the sudden upthrust of the Kangra face. Instead, it’s a gradual descent from pass to glacial moraine to grassland, to tree-line. The Kuarsi valley though is fairly wide one, and imposing. As we headed down past some glacial lakes and traversed under the other rocky peaks, the lay of the land finally became clear to me. After descending the 500 feet to the lip of the plateau, we traversed to the west until we were on the true left of the snow-fields that fed the principal streams of the Kuarsi nala, and then started descending gradually into the valley as it opened out. It was pretty much as I’d expected from Google Earth, but of course this was in glorious three-dimension that threatened as much as inspired.
Lagging behind, taking pictures, I would often be spooked by the sheer massiveness of everything, and would hurry to meet whoever was before me- mostly an exasperated Gulab who wanted nothing better than to tear on ahead but chose to wait for this clueless tourist. Often I’d come across these extensive rock gardens resplendent with yellow and blue alpine flowers- alas I don’t know their names- and I would feel like lingering, watching the clouds drift and change over this immense landscape, the like of which I’d never seen in my life. But then I’d catch sight of the last person a good way ahead, and I’d force myself out of my reverie and rush.
The granite slabs on the Chamba side of the Dhauladhar look like immense smooth rectangular tiles, slab after slab rising up to the pinnacles. To think that so much of this rock started life somewhere in the present location of the Bara Banghal range in the North-West overlooking the Kullu valley many eons ago! Thousands of years of glaciation and rains had worn them smooth. Down these now flowed down many little streams, gathering together and forming larger flows which would then tumble down to meet other streams coming down from other snowfields in the cirque. Although we were bang in the middle of monsoon, many of these higher reaches of the Kuarsi nala was still glaciated. Jagdish told me how when travelling over this area in early summer or late autumn, you could substantially save time by following the banks of the frozen Kuarsi, sometimes even walking on the river. This area must look completely different in summer or autumn. Robert had described rolling snowfields extending up to the peaks in 1937. Kapadia describes a similar landscape in his jaunts from the 70’s and 80’s. Due to a warming climate, the Dhauladhar is no longer snow-bound all the year around, and although this creates many serious disruptions, from falling rocks to water-scarcity, the one upside is that it allows you to see what it all looks like under the snow.
As we descended to grasslands, one of our big mistakes for the day started to make itself felt. We had not had a morsel to eat since that bit of gloop at dawn and the occasional biscuit and nuts. It was past two now, and as we trudged on through a steady low drizzle in the direction of the sunlit promised land below, we were all tiring. KP seemed the worse off, as he was suffering from a raging headache. My guess is that he ascended to the pass too quickly, plus he had just bettered his altitude record by some 4,000 feet. My only hope was that now that we were losing height and descending to moist pasturage, he would be ok in a while. By now, wet vegetation was at least ankle high, and we walked in a daze for what seemed like hours down undulating tracks through a tangle of high grass and carpets of flowers, skirting little runnels of water, slipping and falling occasionally, or negotiating our way around boulder heaps. Tendrils of low-hanging clouds would flow up from the Ravi valley and over us, touching us wetly and moving on.
At one point Oli slipped and fell in a perfect sitting position, supported by her rucksack. She refused to get up and kept sitting. So I sat down beside her and smoked a biri, both of us not saying anything. This place was just too much for our puny brains to deal with. Arguably she was dealing with it a lot better than me, but a monsoon trek was a first for her as well, and she was moved beyond words. She’d have liked to set camp right here (so would’ve I), and was getting a little irritated with our tiring, relentless descent.
Devon had got a second wind and was far ahead of KP, Oli and me, just behind Gulab and Jagdish. The two of them, mightily impressed with ‘Madamji‘, had figured that she was capable of guiding the two of us down and were on their way to figure out the track. Gualb hadn’t come this way too often, and though Jagdish had, it was a while since he passed this way in the rains, and even he hadn’t expected such lush growth this high up. This profusion of vegetation is, of course, non-existent in other months, allowing for a more rapid descent and easier track-finding.
Soon, another classic problem of a monsoon trek made its presence felt, the dreaded side-streams. We were low enough now for the small ribbons of water further up to have coalesced into raging torrents leaping spectacularly down the ravines and into the nala. The flow would’ve been easier to negotiate earlier in the day before the upper snows melted, but now that it was way into the afternoon, the flow of water was pretty serious. Plus it had rained heavily last night.
The first one we had to cross wasn’t too bad. The group’s favourite word, “chhalang” (jump) was much in evidence, as we took Gulab’s hand and jumped over the fast flowing channels under the base of the waterfall. The next one, a little later, was trickier. A sizable stream came crashing down the cliffs to our left to meet the Kuarsi. To tackle this one, we descended all the way down to the Kuarsi’s bank and made our way gingerly to the meeting point of the two streams (we were going down the true left bank of the nala) . This section of the Kuarsi was heavily glaciated, forming an immense unstable ice-bridge. These we obviously couldn’t use, and the left bank of the stream was too steep to climb. So Jagdish and Gulab devised a route across.
We climbed up to the crest of the ice, skirted it and got onto a large, smooth rock-face through which the stream carved its way down. There was no way up this sheer sheet of rock sans a narrow chimney. So we edged up to it in a line, and waited for the person in front to jam their hands and feet into the crack and propel themselves up. It required some effort and strength. If I lacked the latter, I was alarmed enough to try it. And, well, it was a lot of fun. I finally felt that we were earning our right to be in this trek, not just being mere passengers. After making the head of the rock-face, we traversed across the face of the thundering waterfall, jumping gingerly over rocks jutting out in the stream, until with one final lunge we’d gained the other bank. The effort cleared my head somewhat, and the others’ too, and everyone was soon grinning widely. But the day was seriously getting late, and we’d been on the march for well nigh ten hours now. Oli was getting a little impatient with Jagdish and Gulab. For the past hour, she’d been able to spot some pretty good campsites, and she’d been getting worried on our behalf, especially the lack of a proper lunch, but the two were adamant for making it to Chhata. I was too gone to care, but a cessation in walking and something warm to drink would’ve helped.
Now we made our second big mistake. Jagdish and Gulab had gone on ahead after pointing out the general direction of Chhata, Devon hard on their heels. KP was stumbling along, and I was only too happy with the slower pace, so me and Oli hung back and walked slowly, pretty confident that either Jagdish or Gulab would be back to guide us once they’d located camp. There was a clear gap in communication and that soon caused us a world of trouble.
We were on a wide alp, riven through with rocky defiles. Above us and slightly ahead, lovely pine forests signaled the beginning of the treeline. To our right, the land sloped down gradually before plunging down some two hundred feet into the crashing nala below. But the sunlit expanse that we’d been aiming for was lost in thick clouds swarming up from the Ravi valley. We were late enough to be about to be caught in an afternoon storm. The other three were hidden in the swirling mists further below, and soon we were cold, hungry, immensely tired and more than a little alarmed. A heavy mist was upon us and the air was rumbling with the sound of thunder. And then it started raining, by the proverbial bucket-loads. This turned the soft turf under our feet into a slippery mass, and made us even slower.
We soon came to a deep ravine. I was certain that I could see what looked like people on the other side and anyway, I argued that we had to cross the ravine and gain the next ridge to get a clearer idea of where to go. So we started down, and before I knew what was happening, I was tumbling into the waiting mass of man-high weeds and brambles. I tried to check my fall by desperately clutching at the plants, and though most gave way, some held, and I ceased to topple. It was hopeless, so we slithered our way down- or crawled through the undergrowth as KP said- to a small rock overhang that functioned as a sort of single-seater cave. Into this we creeped wet and dazed, and unhappily munched on a packet of Hide n Seek, while we discussed our predicament.
Oli was worried but she was sure that even if we had become lost, we should be able to find better shelter and wait the night out. It would be hard, but it could be done. I was sure that this ravine had to be crossed and suggested that we should either go higher up the slope or lower down to the river to try and find a way around it. I was pretty sure this could be done too. KP was being stoic, and indeed, though the two of us were pretty scared, we were probably more exhilarated than we’d ever been in our lives. Now that we were in this soup, I was convinced we could find our way out of it. I kept thinking of S T Coleridge, trapped inside a rocky defile in the Lake district with a heavy storm approaching, and how he had thought himself out of his predicament.
The rain had slackened a bit and the clouds had grown thinner, so we slipped and slithered our way up the wall of the ravine and up onto the alp again. KP was alternately shouting in the general direction of Chhata and giggling hysterically. Oli was fuming, and threatening to break all ties with Jagdish and Gulab once we were rescued and go on our own. I was about to head up the slope when I caught sight of a blue thing flapping on the other side of the ravine. It slowly materialised into a person, who seemed to be Jagdish, but we couldn’t be sure. We screamed at each other across the divide, to no avail, as we couldn’t hear him and he couldn’t hear us. He was gesturing us to cut through the ravine, while we were trying to tell him that we’ve tried and failed. We’d been carrying one ice-axe for this eventuality- to clear a way through the thickets- but it was with Jagdish, so there really was no way that we could find a way through that horribly slippery vegetative mess.
The person did turn out to be Jagdish, and he soon tired of trying to argue, and started across the ravine. We started descending down the track he wanted us to follow, and met him as he was coming up. Our faces must’ve worn that same stony look of anger and relief, so Jagdish didn’t argue or try to explain himself. For our part, we were just too relieved to see him. As he cut a way through the desperately tangled undergrowth, we crossed the ravine and up onto the next ridge, only to find that we had to descend down another ravine and then do a couple of sharp switchbacks before we arrived at the camp.
I call it a camp, and I’m sure it’s a great camp in other seasons, but I’ve never seen a spot so ill-suited for the time of year than this. A rock cave formed the kitchen and sleeping quarters of Jagdish, Gulab and Devon; and they’d been home and dry for a while now. Meanwhile our tent was pitched at an angle on some rocks in the middle of thick, high grass which made it impossible to spot from even fifty feet, let alone from the ridge-top that we had been aiming for. Being on the slope it also ensured that any rain water would flow right past us.
We could’ve been very angry, but we were just happy to be out of the rain. Gulab, sensing something amiss immediately got us a round of tea. That, and getting out of our wet clothes took the edge off a bit; and when warm food followed a little while later, I had recovered my peace of mind. We decided to have a conversation with the erring duo the next day, and left it at that. Meanwhile there were biris and other things to smoke, pictures to go over, things to be dried and much excited conversation to be had.
My last memory of that camp is a sight of the Kuarsi, just down the slope, completely glaciated, shimmering spectrally in the half-light and lowering mist. We had walked for 12 hours, and all things considered, I wouldn’t change a single detail.
The one thing you must learn before you dive is how to ‘equalise’. This novel way of neutralising the increasing water pressure on your body as you go deeper needs some getting used to. When you’re on land, just a yawn can do the trick, but when you’re underwater and with a breathing device in your mouth, the Valsalva manoeuvre is your only defence against an exploding blood vessel and much worse. So you pinch your nose shut, count to three and breathe out a ferocious stream of bubbles in the sea.
Why did I need to learn this? Because I was diving to a respectable three metres to a coral reef off Wandoor beach in the South Andaman island. What most people don’t realise is that diving is fairly easy, and you don’t really need to know swimming to be a diver. As my genial instructor Seemant Saxena, explains, all you need to do is relax. “Stay calm, don’t panic,” his motto. Easy to say when you’re an expert, but what about someone who’s wary of water, let alone the sea? But with the promise of coral reefs, I wasn’t going to let something as piffling as paranoia get in my way! And anyway, Seemant did promise that there would be no swimming involved, only gliding.
And the corals! They feed all the clichés and more, from diverse marine life to crystal clear waters, and huge reefs. It’s an overcast day. The lack of sunlight, so vital to a reef system, allied with choppy waters, means that by the time we dive in the afternoon, marine life isn’t as abundant as it could be. But for a newbie like me, it’s good enough.
Andaman has fringing corals, which means that they occur close to the coastlines and radiate outwards forming a boundary. All the islands of the Mahatma Gandhi National Park, some 40 km south of Port Blair, are coral islands, with mangroves on one side and sandy beaches on the other. Typically, the reefs are several hundred metres wide, and separated from the coast by a lagoon.
When the ever-curious British discovered the islands in the 19th century, they undertook a survey of the group, and gave the islands incongruous yet charming names like Alexandria, Red Skin, Jolly Buoy, Grub, Snob, Riflemen and Tarmugli. Although tourist visits are restricted to Red Skin and Jolly Buoy isles, diving outfits can take you diving deep in the park in the corals by the many islets.
At Wandoor I dive to a mere three metres, but that’s a fairly respectable depth for your first dive. I’m diving with Lacadives, which is one of the best diving outfits in the country, and has a great staff. Although the bulk of their diving is based out of the Lakshwadeep atolls—hence the name—they also organise diving trips in the Andamans. Of the corals around Wandoor, Sumer Verma, Lacadives partner and a 3-star CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques) instructor, says: “The reefs are still in good condition, but there’s no denying the fact that human pressures and the warming El Nino currents are accelerating their rate of decline.” Recent government studies have declared the reefs around Wandoor to be in fairly robust health, and rich in life forms.
The first dive is often cited as a life-changing experience. Sumer’s diving colleague Umeed Mistry says his first dive off the Maldives in 1996 so entranced him that he decided to take it up for a living. Brief though my dive is, I can imagine the wonderdivers feel in this radically alien environment of shifting light, darting schools of fish and strange life-forms. Clearly, like mountaineering, diving is a full-time passion.
For a non-swimmer like me, it’s a shock to discover how difficult it is for someone to sink. Our bodies are so buoyant that a diver has to wear a ring of weights around his waist and deflate the air from the scuba harness to be able to sink. The steady, long breaths from the compressed air tank strapped to my back has a calming effect as I sink deeper, pausing every now and then to equalise. The marine world looks perfectly calm through my glasses. Schools of tiny fish—barely an inch in length—hover near my face, staring at me curiously. I poke at them with my finger, and they scatter, only to re-assemble in a flash.
Among the larger ones is the parrot fish. Found in large numbers in the Indo-Pacific region, these part-time herbivores love reefs as these supply a wide variety of organisms towards their diet. I see a few of these dining out in the corals. Parrot fish are indiscriminate feeders, so to get to one tiny mollusk embedded in the coral, they’ll break off chunks of the reef with their tightly-packed, sharp little teeth only to be excreted as fine sand. In retrospect, its amazing to realise that much of Andaman’s beautiful beaches are formed by the coral debris excreted by fish like these!
Then there are the poster boys of the reef: the clownfish. These anemone-fish have become synonymous with reefs ever since Finding Nemo was released almost a decade ago, but the Andamans are one of the few regions in the world that you’ll actually find them. I spot one hiding deep inside a sea anemone, with which the clownfish has a symbiotic relationship. But the best thing about diving is the profound silence of the sea. The only sound in this vast blue vault is the whoosh of bubbles rising from my breathing apparatus. Sitting on the sea-bed, I look up at the looming coral cliffs, and above it, shimmering beyond the surface, the world I have left behind for a dip into the unknown.