Once in a Lifetime

Rough seas, sub-zero temperatures and jewel mines -- three stories of extraordinary adventures


Open Waters

Kaustubh Khade, 30, Mumbai

The noonday sun was beating down on the grey, turbulent sea. The jagged coastline was a haze in the distance. Over the roar of the angry waves around me, I could hear my thumping heart. I was caught in an eddy, roughly three kilometres off the Arabian Sea coast, between Diu and Rajpara. Panic-stricken, I rowed furiously, but the mighty whirlpool below was determined to consume me. My 18-foot kayak bobbed precariously, as the rising waves lashed against it. It was only a matter of time before it would keel over and I'd be sucked deep into the waters.

No, I wasn't marooned--I was on a solo kayaking expedition along the western coast of India, from Kutch to Kanyakumari. That morning the sea had welcomed me with a golden sunrise, but soon it turned into a hostile adversary. I had no idea how I had drifted into the eddy.

Suddenly, I spotted a fishing boat. They were too far away to notice me. I'd have to accelerate to the point where I was out of the eddy. Eventually, I gained enough speed to stabilize the kayak, turning it towards land. By then the blue fishing trawler was moving in my direction. It was a miracle that they had spotted me. Watching the vessel battle the waves put my predicament in perspective. I paddled away to a safe spot until they arrived. The crew offered to tug me to land but I declined politely. I asked them the best way to get to Rajpara and then we went our separate ways.

I had set off from Gomti Ghat, Dwarka on a sunny day--17 November 2016--crossing the waters of six states and two union territories. I paddled for six to nine hours every day, at speeds of 5-6.5 km/hr. On average I would cover between 35-45 kilometres every day. I started out at sunrise and called it a day at dusk. Every four to five days, I'd take a day off.

While I felt a rush of joy riding the waves, at times it was physically exhausting. The sun left me parched, my body hurting from the hectic paddling. But all of it was worth it. I would gaze at the serene beauty of the sea often.

Near Ratnagiri, I noticed a large orange plastic packet floating by. As I reached for it to clean up the sea, my eye caught another white one and then another. Within minutes, I was surrounded by plastic. Then I realized these were jellyfish! One sting could be lethal. In the nick of time, I pulled my hand out and quickly steered away.

Out at sea, there is never a dull moment--like the time when my paddle hit a venomous snake. I freaked out, convinced it had leapt on to the kayak to retaliate. Another time, I spotted a tail fin in the water. For a moment I stopped breathing: The chilling scenes from the shark thriller Jaws flashed in my mind. I was relieved to find it was actually a harmless dugong.

In Devgad, I learnt that dolphins are real exhibitionists. They chased fishing vessels, diving, spinning and flaunting their acrobatic skills. One of my fondest memories was a curious pod of seven dolphins racing in front of my kayak for two kilometres--the best performance I have witnessed at sea.

At last, on 7 February 2017, I paddled into Kanyakumari, past the southernmost tip of India to the east coast. This made me the first Indian to have covered the entire west coast of India kayaking. On my journey I met many kind souls--people who warned me about storms, took me into their homes, fed me when I was cold, wet and defeated. That, with the unparalleled beauty of the Indian coast was the greatest gift I got from my expedition.

--As told to Gagan Dhillon


Solo in Siberia

Nidhi Tiwari, 36, Bengaluru

I am in the midst of a frosty desert. The temperature gauge in my rented Toyota Prado can only read up to −40C. My phone weather app, however, says it's −59C!  What does that even mean? I get out of the car to find out. A gust of bone-chilling air hits my face. I clench my chattering teeth, involuntarily rubbing my hands for a bit of warmth. I can't believe the moisture on my eyelashes has frozen. My nose is numb and my fingertips take on a blackish hue. I can't feel my ears or lips anymore. Thinking about Samik, 13, and Avik, 11, my children back at home, I quickly jump back into the heated car.

I am headed towards Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited town on Earth. Even though the sun shines bright at an oblique angle, I feel no warmth. The cold claims everything in Siberia, I discovered this on my 17-day Russian road trip. Covering 5,080 kilometres on this beautiful, harsh terrain, I pass picture-perfect, desolate landscapes awash in soft hues of greys, pinks and oranges. On a lucky day, I spot a herd of caribou passing through the clusters of gangly birch, pine and spruce trees. It's straight out of the long-lost Russian fairy tales.

Earlier in 2015 I drove from Delhi to London. But last year I was chasing a bigger adventure: experiencing December, the coldest time of the year, in the Siberian tundra. I took a flight from Moscow to Yakutsk, a city built on permafrost, and then drove solo across Oymyakon, or the Pole of Cold, to the port town of Magadan and back.

Memories of those two weeks flicker into life: flashes of drama through long stretches of utter stillness. Like the time I spent in Kadykchan. A former coal town where over a 1,000 people lived, I was told Kadykchan lost many of its people in a fire that ravaged the mines. I wandered through this ghost town alone. It was like being in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Doors of long-deserted homes creaked as the wind whistled through the frozen town. I walked into a building where books lay abandoned. Perhaps this was a school once.

With three and half hours of daylight each day, I drove from one settlement to another, sometimes for 14 hours at a stretch. With the temperature ranging between −50C and −55C, most of this terrain is unforgiving, where the road is an icy track on permafrost and the frozen Lena River. There are no asphalt highways or roadside stores: just an unbelievable Nat Geo panorama.

Reaching each destination, I would park the car in a heated garage (turning the engine off outdoors would freeze the engine and the fuel tank) and walk to my hotel for dinner. Conversations with the locals were impossible despite Google, though their curiosity on seeing a brown woman driving alone was evident. The local diet of raw fish, horsemeat and caribou meat is not for the faint-hearted, but nothing about Siberia is.

Oymyakon may be the world's coldest town, but my memories are warm. My hostess, historian Tamara Yegorovna, in her 70s, has been documenting and sharing data on life in the Pole of Cold with Russian observatories for years. The town has no hotels--Tamara is the only one authorized to host travellers. Even though we communicated with the help of Google Translate, I will always remember her hospitality. She invited me to the centenary celebrations of Oymyakon's primary school. They said they had never seen a woman drive to the Pole of Cold, and certainly no Indian.

Some of the other memories induce chills that have nothing to do with temperature. Like the Road of Bones built by Gulag prisoners during Stalin's era. The remains of these prisoners are supposed to rest beneath the road.

On my journey through the Siberian tundra I witnessed the power of the human will and resilience to survive the harshest of conditions. It tested the very limits of my own endurance. It takes a while to sink in--the feeling of living up to your own expectations. When it does, the feeling is incredible.

--As told to Gagan Dhillon


Emerald Fields

Varun Rana, 33, New Delhi

To most of us the word mining would flash images of dark underground tunnels and hard hats, flashlights and pickaxes, suffocating caves and horrible accidents. And while this was true about a century ago, modern advances in mining technology have changed the game completely. Still, the actual extraction of gemstones in the pits is done by hand, and the feeling of finding one is unparalleled.

I got to do this in Zambia in June this year, at the Kagem mine--owned in part and run by London-based gemstone producer Gemfields--in central Zambia's Copperbelt Province. I went on a trip no ordinary traveller would usually experience. For four days, I stayed in the mining camp, learning about security protocols (everyone, from the miners to Kagem mine's CEO, had to go through body checks when entering and leaving the camp) and how to walk in the heavy boots that miners wear.

While I was there, I had three distinct wow moments. One was when I got to witness an explosion that sheared off an entire cliff-side with explosive charges. While I stood safe on a hilltop about three kilometres away, the entire mound opposite me lit up in a sequence of flashes. A second later, sound caught up with light, and I heard an enormous boom, followed by a mini earthquake. But this was nothing compared to my second experience.

The day after the explosion, I went down into the pit to see the miners working. They were busy attacking a seam of dark mineral--found between talc-magnetite schist and pegmatite, the ore in which emeralds are formed--with shovels and pickaxes. These weren't ordinary workmen, but trained specialists who, while shovelling the ore, have to be sensitive enough not to harm any rocks that could turn out to be precious emeralds. I went down on my knees and worked with my hands, finally picking up a dark, cuboid rock that looked like, well, a rock. But as I turned it towards the sunlight in my palm, it revealed a vivid green facet. Timidly, I asked one of the workers if this was an emerald. A cursory glance and he said, "Yes, it is. Well done!" Well done? I had just found an emerald! Temples needed to be erected in my honour! Where, in fact, was my Nobel already?

Back at the camp, I had joined the mining officers for a drink (or three) at the Lakehouse, Kagem's watering hole, built on stilts on the edge of a small lake. As I made my way across the deck to talk with one of my new friends, I was told to look out over the lake. Gliding silently on the still waters was a crocodile, emanating danger like only crocodiles that glide silently can. And a round of cheers went up all around. This croc, a baby not even a metre-and-a-half long, was Kagem's pet, named Number Seven. He (or she, nobody knows) had six predecessors with befitting names like Lakehouse (obviously), Scarface, Butch, and … ahem, Fluffy.

As we fed Number Seven scraps from the barbecue (did I mention we would get the grill going almost every evening at the Lakehouse?), I reflected on my short stay in a place no tourist could ever access. Zambia's emerald mines--and living with the miners--had taught me so much more than a holiday with its beautiful safaris ever could.