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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville


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Adventure Travel

Apr 18, 2018

How Locals are Saving Delhi’s Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Delhi locals are overcoming fear-mongering and illegal mining operations by venturing outdoors, volunteering and ensuring that a hidden swimming hole in Delhi's backyard, the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, remains pristine and blue.

Though most of us will never act on it, I believe at some point we all have an impulse to go away. What happens when that impulse becomes an inner directive?

Upon looking at the geological makeup of the range on Google maps, the deserted wilderness struck us as something unbelievable.

Marc’s impulse to leave his country had landed him in India almost 14 years ago. Having been brought up in the Pacific Northwest, he spent most of his time outdoors. He loved scouting the unknown, and trying new things. He often speaks about his time spent exploring the backcountry in the state of Washington. Spending days around lakes while searching for life outside of our own species excited him the most. He’d often pick still water mollusks and bring them home.

Having resigned to a life in one of the most polluted cities in the world for the last seven years, Marc and I lamented the lack of outdoor activities. Most people living in Delhi seemed to be more interested in going to the mall rather than exploring the outdoors. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t in our culture and was new to people, it occurred to me that there was also a lack of education and appreciation.

We had spent most of the winter and spring going to Sanjay Van – a forested area within the Aravalli range. The boulders in Sanjay Van had widened our perspective on the scope of an outdoor scene in Delhi. But as soon as we felt the sweat from Delhi’s unforgiving heat, we felt the need for a body of water. The closest city we could have thought of was Rishikesh, however, the presiding thought of a 6-hour long drive made it less compelling.

Is the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary a Mirage? Too Good to be True?

On the contrary, and on one uncomfortably hot Saturday, Marc stumbled upon Asola Wildlife Sanctuary on his phone; a forested region scattered over the south of the city of Delhi, along the Haryana border – the Faridabad and Gurgaon districts. A ride just 40 minutes away from where we lived.

The search had also led us to sources across forums with fear mongering reviews where a moniker such as “Death Valley” was intermittently used to describe the sanctuary. While Marc appeared least concerned I couldn’t get over my preoccupation with Faridabad being one of the most crime-ridden cities around Delhi. Furthermore, whenever I spoke to others about it, I was repeatedly asked to err on the side of caution.

However, upon looking at the geological makeup of the range on Google Maps, the deserted wilderness struck us as something unbelievable.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

In a city with more than 17 million people, we were shocked to see how remote the sanctuary felt.

Come Saturday, Marc had already made up his mind whereas I was a bit apprehensive in the beginning and kept reminding him of the dangers of visiting such a place. It wasn’t until a 45-minute ride and then, walking for another 20 minutes on the deserted trail, that my perspective on the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary began to change. Although I was still a bit skeptical, the seemingly endless relief from having found a swimmable lake in Delhi had renewed not only his sense of appreciation for the capital but mine as well.

Signs of Wildlife All Around Us

Following our hike on the rutted track, we immediately registered the first sign of fauna around the region. Seven-inch-long hollowed quills made us cognizant of the presence of Asiatic porcupines in the region – an animal I thought existed only in North and South America. Peacocks and peahens were a common sight and so were blue bulls. What wasn’t common was the sudden appearance of a hyena that went off the trail as soon as it became wary of our presence.

Illegal Mining’s Lasting Impacts

In a city with more than 17 million people, we were shocked to see how remote the sanctuary felt. As I walked further out to a banyan tree, a gentle warm breeze swept over me and I began to follow up on my findings prior to entering the sanctuary. Once an illegal mining operation facility, Asola had been amongst the most coveted regions for construction businesses avariciously excavating red sand, stone, and other minerals.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the Government decided to put an embargo on the mining operations and declared it a wildlife sanctuary. Over time, the deep-pits around the sanctuary have filled up with water and have morphed into lakes with an ecosystem healthy enough to sustain life.

Upon reaching the blue lake, we were surprised to spot a clear body of water. The oasis appeared so blue in colour that I was mesmerized. Unfortunately, we found beer bottles and pollution strewn across the beach. Marc was visibly upset and immediately began cleaning.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: 21 Marine Sanctuaries That Are a Step in the Right Direction.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Launching Operation Clean Up

We started visiting every week. The blue lake, despite its deadly reputation, was popular amongst the local kids. Soon enough some of the kids spotted us cleaning the shore and decided to volunteer. It wasn’t long before we had a group to ourselves where we discussed ways in which we could clean the beach.

Within a short span of time, our objective was clear; before we left to put up with our own challenges, we had to clean the shore for at least 30 minutes. And thus, with each visit, our pile of garbage kept getting bigger and bigger and the local kids who we’d befriended became more sensible in their approach to the environment.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Why We Fear “Death Valley”

“This lake demands a sacrifice every year.”

On one hand we had the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, home to one of the oldest mountain systems in the world, and on the other, we had the familiar bad habits of those littering the environment.

How much longer can it sustain itself without the intervention of those who understood its ecology? Who understood the importance of preserving an ecosystem that not only supports life in it, but around it. For far too long, its image had been smeared with irrational fears and superstitions.

Over time, we learned that the moniker, “Death Valley” was mostly related to drowning where amateur or non-swimmers from the local village had accidentally drowned. One time, Marc, along with some local friends had to rescue an adult who had jumped into the lake without giving it a thought.

Following his near-death experience, a conversation broke out and we overheard a person from the group saying, “this lake demands a sacrifice every year.” It was sad to register how deeply rooted our superstitions and irrational fears are and how much impact they have on our perception of our surroundings.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Having said that, so long as we can attempt to think beyond ourselves and be a little more considerate of our surroundings, our appreciation of nature will grow. However, it demands a conscious effort. The Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary itself has, over time, transformed into a healthy ecosystem and set the tone.

Our obligation would be to expand upon it. While Marc remains committed to restoring the beach, more friends have joined the cleaning bandwagon. This paradise of ours that we have just set our foot in has sheer cliffs extending above the blue surface of the water. High rock faces are scattered all across the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary along with several diving spots. A more ideal setting for outdoor enthusiasts or adventurers couldn’t have existed in Delhi’s backyard.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: How the Plogging fad turned into the missing piece in one of my life’s missions.

Feature image © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

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Environment

Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.

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WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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