Dec 24, 2013
Team ‘Victorious Secret’ win first AquaTerra Challenge adventure race
The Outdoor Journal
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11 teams – 70 odd kilometers – 44 participants, the multi-day competition in the Upper Ganga Valley saw endurance events take off in the scenic Garhwal hills of the Himalayas
A first-of-its-kind, the AquaTerra Challenge was organized to remember the June-2013 flood victims of Uttarakhand with the hope to bring tourists back to this scenic Himalayan destination of India.
The endurance event brought together fit enthusiasts and also less-experienced teams from the corporate world in teams of four. As media partner, a team of two from The Outdoor Journal also hit the trails to get a feel of the whole competition – 23k hiking, 16k cycling, 30k rafting, which required moderate physical fitness, mental acumen and the spirit of camaraderie.
Day 1: Participants started their mountain hike early in the chill of the winter morning. With a staggered start chosen by draw to limit overtaking issues on the narrow trail, the participants crossed a suspension foot-bridge at Malakhunti, near Aquaterra’s riverside Silver Sands campsite; and walked upwards about gaining 2000 feet in altitude to the highest point of the trail. With the mineral-green Ganges flowing along the Garhwal range of the Himalayas, imposing sal and peepal trees standing guard, it was a beauty-meets-endurance trek. Hikers were greeted by locals in villages going about their daily chores, and also a chilly breeze at the first refreshment point at Mahadev Chatti. The trail passed through forests and a few fields, as well as villages with houses perched precariously on hilltops, children walking schoolwards and cattle sheds overlooking valleys and cloud capped mountain tops. The trail was up to Himalayan standards, including compact mud, gravel, rocks, as well as steep uphills and abrupt downhills that made both the pre-lunch and post-lunch sections slightly strenuous for some participants.
The picture-perfect hike did coax Bunny Suri of team Flying Dynamite to lumber along the stretch with a waterfall but he soon snapped out of the nature-induced laze and increased his pace towards the finish line. “Ah, only 3k left,” gasped Jyoti Punj (55) of team WTFIK (standing for “Where The F— is Kala”). She walked on, only to be confused at one point with the route marking… “Was it going upwards or going straight?… that was a baffling moment”, she said. Deepak Panwar (31), a team member of the online travel and ticketing firm MakeMyTrip was the first to taste pain when he stubbed his leg on a rock and lost a toe nail. Despite the bleeding, he finished the walk with a bandaged foot.
Worn participants at the end of Day 1 found themselves under a starlit sky at Beas Ghat, a pristine beach campsite along the Ganges. The remaining hours of daylight and the rest of the evening was spend sitting on rocks and logs or stretched on mats laid on white sands next to the bonfire. Teams also took the opportunity to talk about issues faced during the hike and strategise for the upcoming legs of the race. “But for the chill, I would have loved to sleep in the open, star gaze and fall asleep listening to the ebb of the river,” said Tanvi Chaturvedi of team MMT, before zipping her tent and sliding into her sleeping bag.
Day 2: The cycling leg kicked off at the crack of dawn from Beas Ghat. The snaking 6-foot wide road, with sections of both tarmac that turned to landslide-eroded trail, was cleared of traffic for two hours. Organizers instructed cyclists “to stick to the right” – mountain-side – and avoid the steep drop to the river below, on the left. The teams followed a reverse order on the starting grid as compared to Day 1, to give everyone a fair chance. “It seems like fun but I have never cycled on a steep mountain before. The plan is to capitalise right from the start and gain maximum momemtum during downhill,” says Siraj Dhanani of Team Bonobo. With the ziz-zag trail ahead of them, the participants mounted their MTB geared bikes and hit the pedals at the word “GO” from race director Somna.
At periodic intervals, the track turned rough, requiring some work from participants, quite a few of whom were new to geared bikes, on hilly terrain. “Should the front gear be on 2 and the rear one be on 4 when uphill or downhill; what happens when i press only the right brake? Will I turn over? Should I stand and ride when struggling uphill?,” were some of the FAQs by the MTB newbies. Bhavna Jaisingh of team flying Dynamite found out… “Steam came out of my pores while pedaling uphill and my heart was in my mouth when the cycle rolled downhill,” she said. A couple of flat tyres were quickly taken care of by support vehicles that provided racer with a fresh bikes.
The cyclists rolled the last downhill stretch to reach the Devprayag bridge marking the end of the leg. Each team usually stretched out along the trail, which meant that a few had to wait to collect laggards, before dashing to their respective team rafts for the final and ‘coolest’ leg of the competition, as one of them put it. Compared to the first two sections of the race, this had the longest stretch – 30k. Certain sections had red flags placed high above the river’s current flow– a grim reminder of the disastrous flooding that had taken place in June 2013. Despite rafting on fairly smooth waters in wonderful conditions and great weather, the participants’ faces reflected more pressure than pleasure. First-time rafters struggled with their paddles and circled around eddy currents many times before bumping against rocks while tackling class 2 rapids. Each rafting team was accompanied by an expert kayaker, part of the organizing crew, to ensure their safety. Some worn out participants were seen discarding their paddle for their lunch packs in the middle of the race… only to be shouted upon by their team leader to “start paddling” !
Team ‘Victorious Secret’ – composed entirely of men – was absent as a unit at all post-event campfire gatherings and were seen retiring to their tent at 19:30 hrs everyday. Their disciplined approach reflected in their overall timing 08h 33m 25s to win the AquaTerra Challenge. Team ‘Whirling Past Kala’ took an hour more in the overall standings and came second, possibly as a result of their partying every evening, according to some members.
Two days of hiking, cycling and rafting in the mountains behind their backs, it was time for the participants to take the rest of the day off at Atali Ganga (a new hotel above Camp Silver Sands owned by Aquaterra) and attend the closing ceremony that included prize distribution. A laser-cut wooden plaque was given to the winning team, while special prizes were given to team Three and A Half Men for having the oldest members (all in the 50s except for one), and team Flying Dynamites for being the most “fun” participants.
Vaibhav Kala of the AquaTerra Adventures summed it up by saying- “The event was set up primarily as a perception changer after the June-2013 floods. The idea was to bring people back to this state and take the fear out of them that it’s an unfit place for tourism. So, we set up this 2-day race, covering 70 odd kilometres, and everyone had a really good time. I hope this initiative helps to bring back tourism to Uttarakhand.”
Bombay-based alt-rock band Whirling Kalapas regaled the audience with their repertoire of mellow music. The trio of Uday Benegal, Mahesh Tinaikar and Sankarshan “Shanks” Kini made sure that the audience were on their toes right till the end.
Images © AquaTerra Challenge / The Outdoor Journal