May 29, 2013

A screwed up safari

Our bus reached the destination just after noon. We were greeted by a banner that said 'Welcome CCSAC - 1997', which was short for Central Command Summer Adventure Camp. This 'camp' was an annual affair, spanning two weeks during the summer holidays when all schools were typically closed. It was attended by children of Army officers serving in the Central Command, in the 12-18 age group. It was generally organized in some hilly cantonment in the state of Uttarakhand. This year, the chosen location was Lansdowne. One of the few major tourist attractions near Lansdowne was the Jim Corbett National Park - Tiger Reserve, where we had all gone for a day trip - about 100 kids in 4 buses.

Lunch had been served upon our arrival. While it was officially described as 'Veg biryani', it was just some low-grade rice with a bit of spice and yellow dal granules. It didn't taste great, but we were hungry and had no choice. Some kids spread the rumor that the Agra gang had mixed jamalghota (strong laxative) in the biryani while it was being prepared, and everyone who ate it would be sick soon.

The 100-odd kids in the camp were mainly divided into 4 'gangs' - Delhi, Agra, Bareilly and Lucknow (us) - and the rivalry was intense. Major pranks were commonplace, but generally limited to the hostels. Most kids didn't have the guts to try anything funny around the soldiers. Adulterating the food would have required someone to enter the cook-house and mess with the food while the soldiers were around. Not very likely, but nothing was considered impossible after the Joshi brothers had been caught trying a prank with inflated condoms in the warden's office last year. The warden was a mid-ranking Officer with no sense of humor, and if someone could be stupid enough to try that prank - anything was possible.

Anyhow, the Agra kids weren't eating, choosing to feed the rumor instead. We asked Mogambo if he knew what was really going on. Mogambo got his nick-name as a result of his tonsured head, resemblance to Amrish Puri, and being part of the small-and-unpopular Agra gang. The only reason he was friendly with us was that he had a massive crush on AD's sister MD, who was also at the camp. He thought being friendly with AD and the Lucknow gang might help him get close to her, and he was eventually proven right. Anyway, the point was - Mogambo was part of the Agra gang, had inside info to share with us, and we could trust him. He assured us the food was fine, and the prank was limited to just a strong rumor.

All this talk of jamalghota in the food meant that lunch got prolonged to a whole hour. By the time it was done, it started raining. In those parts, the rain was usually heavy and went on for a while - so it was unlikely we'd be able to get around much. We also had to cross 3 rivers/streams on our way back, and there was a good chance of those getting flooded and becoming hard for the buses to cross, so it was decided that we'd head back immediately.

Obviously, we were disappointed. We were expecting to go on safaris and see tigers etc., but our trip had been reduced to long, painful bus rides on hilly roads, with only a bad lunch in between. We tried to compensate by playing games and generally being loud and riotous in the buses - oblivious of the ordeal that awaited us.

We crossed the first stream with ease, but at the second crossing, the last bus got stuck in the water. The girls and little kids were helped out, and then some of the older guys tried to push the bus out. Most of us had crushes on some of the girls in the camp, and the atmosphere at the camp had always been competitive - so everyone wanted to make an impression, showing off our strength, smarts or both.

Each of the four city gangs took turns trying to get the bus out, but none could make it budge. Then we struck up alliances, and finally everyone got together in an effort to push it out. By this time, we also had one of the one-tons trying to pull the bus out with a rope attached to the front grille. All our efforts yielded no result and we finally decided to pile everyone into the remaining 3 buses and move on. But we'd wasted more than an hour fooling around, and all this while it had continued raining, with the streams getting deeper and the current stronger.

When we got to the final river crossing, the first bus waded into the water and got hopelessly stuck. By now the water was waist-high (chest-high for some of the younger kids) and the current was dangerously fast. It was also getting dark. The time for fun and games was over. The soldiers accompanying us gave us instructions in serious tones. The buses had no chance of getting through that stream, and we were going to have to cross it on foot, forming a human chain for safety.

At the head of the chain would be two soldiers. Behind them, all the kids had to move in formation - holding the forearms of one person in front, and one behind. We had to have 'senior (15+) boys' in every alternate position, with the junior boys and girls in between. We were to move very slowly, one step at a time, and coordinate our movements. The soldiers suggested we move with our own friends, so we were comfortable and communicating effectively. They reminded us that we were in real danger here, and should take the whole process very seriously.

AD and I being senior boys and friends, decided to move with each other. MD would be between us, and Mogambo behind me. We went in. At first, it wasn't too bad - the water was only knee high. But with every step, the next one became more treacherous. The floor of the stream was smooth and slippery, and it was difficult to get firm footholds. As we approached the middle, the water was nearly chest-high and putting tremendous pressure on us. At one point, we couldn't move for a while. Every time we tried to, we felt like we'd be washed away. But we kept moving steadily, and were only about six feet from the shore with AD having reached the anchor soldiers.

Then, suddenly, my foot slipped off the slimy base it was on, and I lost balance. As I got dragged by the current, I instinctively let go off MD's arm to ensure she didn't get dragged in with me. Mogambo and I tried to hold on for a bit, but the current was too strong. He fell, but was held by the others behind him. I got washed away.

My mind went blank. It felt like I was in a free fall of sorts, the strong current dragging me with great force against my will, and there was nothing I could do. The moment felt surreal. I'd started swimming just a year or two after I started walking, and while I wasn't an expert or athlete, I could swim reasonably well. I was sure I could swim to save my life, if it ever came to that, and this was a bad time to realize I'd been wrong.

I flailed with both arms and legs to just try and get hold of something, or re-orient myself into a swimming posture - and regain control. After all, the water was just about 4 feet deep, and I was only 6 feet from the edge. If only I could regain control, I'd be able to get to safety. But the stream was like the proverbial unstoppable force, and I was just drifting away really really fast. My heart sank. If I kept drifting, I'd end up in deeper water and probably drown. Even if that didn't happen, I'd find myself alone and lost in a tiger reserve at night. There was no way I'd survive. I felt completely helpless and couldn't believe what was happening.

Then, suddenly, two guys grabbed me from the side and dragged me ashore - Ravi, one of the oldest senior boys who was preparing for the NDA, and a soldier. In a matter of seconds, I'd drifted about 50 meters. I still don't know how they'd managed to catch up with me, because that current seemed faster than anyone could run, but I was thankful to be alive!

After that little scare, we resumed our journey. There were one or two one-tons carrying supplies that had managed to cross the streams early in the evening, and were now waiting for us. The girls were loaded into these and sent on their way. The boys - drenched and exhausted - were going to have to walk about 10 km to a rest house on the boundary, as staying in the jungle wasn't safe.

Normally, a 10km walk isn't too big a problem. When you're physically and mentally exhausted, it becomes one. Add total darkness, unfriendly terrain and  dangerous wildlife - and it becomes an absolute nightmare. The threats we faced included man-eating tigers, elephants, black bears and pythons, along with sundry other canines and reptiles.

We were told to walk in triple-file, with the tallest, well-built senior boys on the inner file (jungle side), the youngest ones in the middle, and the rest of us on the outer file. The logic - if any animals attacked us, they'd probably try a hit-and-run, capturing someone from periphery/corner, rather than getting into the middle of the pack. They were also more likely to come from the 'jungle' side, which was basically down the slope that we were walking across. We were also given plates and spoons and told to make plenty of noise. This was supposed to scare the animals away, although some of us feared it might just end up drawing attention to ourselves.

Every now and then we heard disconcerting noises - mainly howling canines or rustling bushes suggesting animal movement nearby - that kept reminding us of the lurking danger. Ravi was holding a khukri and making jokes about sodomizing any animal that dared to come near him. A few others joined him, and the distraction proved quite effective.

After walking for what felt like an eternity, we reached a gate. A few hundred meters away was the rest house. We entered and most of us just collapsed on the floor. A few guys found some blankets and just threw them around the others to provide some comfort. I'd never slept on a hard floor like this before, but it felt like a bed of roses that night. The next morning, we were driven back to the camp in army trucks.

We knew the situation was serious when we saw the CO, who was a Brigadier, along with several other officers in the reception party. Prior to that, we had been managed only by officers up to the Major rank. Having all these seniors was a big deal. We found that word had gotten out the previous evening that a hundred kids had been lost in the forest in bad weather, and naturally our parents freaked out en masse. They had been calling the organizers all night to enquire about us, and many of them had lost their tempers. As a result, our boot camp suddenly turned tourist resort. All the exercises planned for the last two days had been cancelled, and we were told to just chill and party - which we gladly did!

Most of my peers would remember that day in the forest as one of the toughest they had, but few would remember it in such vivid detail. I do, because I came closest to becoming a casualty when I slipped in the stream and drifted in that current. I have never felt so helpless in my whole life, nor feared for my life the way I did in that minute.

Nowadays, my friends often ask me to join them in adventure sports and risky activities. While I often participate, I don't get nearly as excited as they do. For all the 'rush', things like rafting and bungee jumping don't instil the same 'real' fear. It is sorta 'simulated' danger - because you are doing it voluntarily, know exactly what you're getting into, and you know the risks, the do's and the dont's. You know that people don't generally get hurt doing this, and you typically have the safety net of an instructor or a lifeguard who will rescue you if you get into real trouble. It's fun, but it's nothing compared to actually getting lost in the wild.

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