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TRAIL RUNNING

AdventureLife Race Report - Expedition India

Updated: Jun 4, 2020


But the seed is planted and over the summer an onslaught of images on social media show that India is a treasure trove of majestic landscapes. Still I’m not convinced. My sister Claire is visiting from Australia in September and I have The Beast in Donegal in August and I’m still tired after Exp Africa. And then on the 28th June I’m on facebook and a post pops up looking for two team members to join Team Adventure Life. Oooh, there’s a conflict raging in my mind for well, maybe a minute and then I’m tapping out a message of interest with a short resume and before I can catch my breath to question my audacity, I’m signed up and on my way to India. The team is assembled from all around the world. Jay in New Zealand, Mike in Switzerland, Zane from South Africa and me from Ireland and Kirsten our media guru. Communications consist of one skype video call and a lot of whatsapp messages. I’m happy though that we all seem to be on the same page as regards our ambitions and race outlook and as the race approaches I get more and more excited until finally my bike is in it’s box and all the bags are packed and I’m on my way to the airport for an early morning flight to India via Istanbul.

Monday, September 11th.

Delhi and Agra

Heidi and Stephan, the race organisers, promised that Expedition India would be an adventure from the moment we arrived in Delhi and this certainly proved to be no exaggeration. My flight landed at 04:30. Jay, Mike and I had arranged to join a bus tour to the Taj Mahal at 06:30. Zane would unfortunately be arriving too late so he was going to have to look after himself for the day. Terence, Adventure Life’s CEO and the event photographer, was deported a couple of days before we arrived because his visa was not in order so queuing up at the immigration desks, I was a bit anxious that I had the right forms printed out. I joined the wrong queue first of all. It’s a bit confusing and there’s nobody to give you direction and then when I was in the right queue, it was only by chance that I realised I had to fill out another form before I reached the desk. The line was moving really slowly and it took at least an hour before I was through. I couldn’t get the wifi to work, I had my bike box and two bags and I wasn’t too sure how I was going to find anybody so it was a great relief when I walked through the arrivals door and heard Jay calling my name. He had arrived an hour earlier and was waiting for me with Jose, one of the volunteers. There was some panic that we were going to miss the bus to the Taj Mahal that was collecting us at the Centaur hotel so with no time for niceties, we were quickly bundled onto the shuttle bus with our bikes and away we went.

The first thing I noticed in Delhi was how warm and muggy it was. Monsoon season was here but the rain was in short supply and the humidity made the air heavy and oppressive. The next was the traffic and the endless cacophony of car horns. Over eight million cars - more than in India’s three other major cities combined - jostle for space on Delhi's roads. Impatient drivers use all available lane space and instead of slowing down when turning or approaching another vehicle, drivers blast their horns to warn others of their presence. They also honk violently at motorbikes, scooters, pedestrians, children, dogs, cows and anyone else unfortunate enough to be slower than them. The noise pollution is overwhelming!

Jay and I met Mike, who had arrived a day earlier, in the foyer of the Centaur hotel and also Murray from team BSB rangers and having left our bikes and bags in a safe corner of the hotel we were soon on the bus with mostly race volunteers to the Taj Mahal. The bus journey to Agra took about 3 hours. It didn’t seem that long. I think I must have slept ! The Taj Mahal is magnificent. So perfectly symmetrical and intricately carved, it’s hard to comprehend that it ‘only’ took 22 years to finish. As with most things in India though, the beauty and grandeur of the Taj Mahal contrasts sharply with the lack of sanitation outside the palace, the fetid smell that hangs in the air in places and the multitude of beggars and cripples who line the streets of Agra. We also visited the Agra fort and a workshop to see how the precious stones are carved followed by lunch and the bus ride back to Delhi. To avoid the infamous Delhi Belly we only drank bottled water.

The Taj Mahal:


Outside Agra Fort:

When we arrived back at the Centaur hotel, we caught up with Zane and Team Adventure Life was finally complete!! Tomorrow we were flying 650 km to Srinagar so we had to put stickers on our bike boxes and sort out our flights. Jay was on an early morning flight with the rest of the team a bit later and when we left for our own hotel it still wasn’t entirely clear what was happening to the bike boxes ….

Tuesday, September 12th.

Srinagar, Dal Lake

We woke a couple of hours before we were due at the airport. Jay was gone. Then we got a message that 3 of our bikes were still at the Centaur hotel and needed to be at the airport. Following a speedy breakfast with a very nice cup of tea and an even speedier checkout, we grabbed a taxi from outside the hotel, strapped Mike’s bike box to the top and did the customary negotiations for the fee. When we got to the Centaur hotel our bikes and Murray’s were the last ones there so we loaded them on top of two taxis and drove the short distance to the airport. There was lots of confusion at the check in desk because all the bikes had to be weighed and the excess charges paid for and then the bikes had to be taken to the oversize luggage. By the time all this was done our flight was nearly ready to leave and it was a mad rush through security where I lost Mike and Zane because I had to go through the women's section and I didn’t have my boarding pass so the guard made me go back out and get it from my bag which was waiting to go through the scanner which was the other side of a barrier and it took me ages. So when I was done I couldn’t see Mike or Zane and I just sprinted to the plane but I got there before them because I was in my seat when they got on the plane looking for me! After an hour or so we arrived in Srinagar airport. It’s a military airport with lots of soldiers and guns and photography is strictly prohibited. We had to fill in more forms, load the bike boxes onto a big lorry and then clamber onto the buses which would take us to Dal Lake. During colonial times the English were not allowed to buy land so they bought boats to holiday in and these house boats would be where we would sleep for the night.

We were taken across the lake to our house boat that we were sharing with the French team, Vaucluse Aventures Evasions, in the local Shikara boats. Very cool

After some tea and eggs and another boat trip around the lake to see the lotus flowers we had to get ready for the official opening ceremony which was a very prestigious event with the Minister of Tourism for the area and the CEO of J&K Bank in attendance. There was also a performance by some local Kashmiri musicians which was a big hit with the teams

Wednesday, September 13th.

Srinagar, Sonamarg

Leg 1: Dal Lake prologue

We woke early (5 a.m) as we had arranged for one of the Shikara boats to take us via the water canals to the local vegetable market. It was a bit of a drag getting up so early but well worth the trouble. We bought tea and spices and chocolate from the very entertaining and persistent salesmen who would pitch up in their boats next to us.

Then it was back to the houseboat for breakfast of eggs and toast and a trip back across the lake for the short uphill hike to the Shankaracharya Temple. The temple is at a height of 300m and overlooks the city of Srinagar. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and parts of it date from 200BC. To enter the top temple, we had to remove our shoes and then we were given a blessing from the temple priest. No photography was allowed.

The start of the prologue was in the large parking lot down the hill from the temple. Teams gathered here in front of the starting arch with some enthusiastic soldiers who were very keen to be seen posing nonchalantly with their guns in the photographs. After the countdown we ran downhill over trails and rocks and in our case through someone's house for about 2km until we reached the edge of the lake where we could collect our Shikara boat. Each boat had a local child in front carrying our flag and the owners of the boat also came along for the ride. We had a map and two checkpoints to collect.

Padding the Shikara boat:


Photo: Terence Vrugtman

The paddles were large and wooden with a heart shaped blade and the main issue we had was trying to keep the boat straight. Thankfully we didn’t have too far to go and we finished in a fairly respectable 9th position.

After devouring our lunch boxes, we returned to the houseboats and got ready for the 3 hour bus trip to Sonamarg.

Sonamarg, meaning “Meadow of Gold” is a sixty mile long valley and deep rock gorge, home to open grassy meadow land and village dotted slopes.

View from the Snowland Hotel, Sonamarg:


Photo: Zane Schmahl

In its vicinity lies the great Himalayan glaciers of Kashmir Valley, Kolhoi Glacier and Machoi Glacier with some peaks over 5000m. The town itself is at an altitude of 2800m and is abandoned in winter due to heavy snowfall and avalanches. When we arrived we were treated to Kashmir tea on the lawn and then we decided to walk into the town to buy some supplies for the hike in the morning. On our way we saw some locals playing cricket so the lads decided to ask if they could join in. We were warmly welcomed and it was just such a cool thing to do. I would have liked to play but alas my hand eye co-ordination is dismal so I had to content myself taking photos!

Thursday, September 14th

Sonamarg

Leg 2: Hike to glacier ~ 29km

Another early morning start for Leg 2 of the race. The teams who finished highest ranked in Leg 1 and 2 would start the rafting paddle first. The air was noticeably thinner in Sonamarg especially on the short uphill hike to the start.

At the start of the hike:


Photo: Terence Vrugtman

We set off at a controlled pace. There was so much to see and the landscape was truly breathtaking. We passed villages, herders with their large flocks of sheep and ponies, which were being used to transport goods from one end of the valley to the other and military personnel doing their drills.

Herders:


Photo: Kirsten Roberts

Glacier Hike:

Photo: Terence Vrugtman

On one river crossing I slipped on a wet rock and gashed my knee and ankle and earned the dubious distinction of being the first to end up on the floor. It was a really enjoyable hike but quite long. The lead teams passed us on their way back from the cp and they all said the same thing. ‘It’s longer than you think’. The distance didn’t bother us too much though

as we weren’t racing it and the terrain was constantly changing so we never got bored.


Photo: Kirsten Roberts

And there was also a really fun downhill section in the woods which we skidded down on our backsides!


Photo: Zane Schmahl

We were the last team to reach the CP @ ~ 3500m and when we got there we sat and had samosas that we’d bought in Sonamarg. I think Jay was fairly ok on the hike to the CP but on the way back he got bad altitude sickness. We had to drop the pace completely and Jay puked his guts up about three times. One of the dogs that was herding sheep had an early supper as he was passing!

As well as puking violently, Jay had a headache, very little energy and was unsteady on his feet so progress down the mountain was slow. He did improve slightly as we descended but he was still feeling pretty rough and the finish line couldn’t come soon enough for all of us and the two volunteers who had caught up to us.

At the finish of the glacier hike:

Photo: Craig Giese

Friday, September 15th

Leh, Ladakh

We left Sonamarg at 4a.m on the long drive (~10hrs) to Leh. We set off in a convoy of buses from the hotel. We would be travelling over some interesting mountain passes such as Zojila which was the scene of the highest ever tank battle during the 1947 Indo Pakistani war.


We were sharing a bus with the Kashmiri team from Srinagar and Umar was keen to fill us in on the locality and its history. We passed through Dras which is the second coldest permanently habituated area in the world, after Siberia. On 19th January 1995 a temperature of minus 65 deg Celsius was recorded there.

The journey didn’t seem that long. There were lots of pee breaks and a visit to the Alchi Temple Complex. This is a Buddhist monastery complex built in the 10th and 11th century. We had lunch here sampling different traditional cuisines some of which were quite strange to my Western palate!

Not too far from Leh we had to abandon the buses and walk for a while as the road over a river crossing had been damaged in a landslide and it was touch and go as to whether the buses would be able to get up the steep incline or not. Thankfully they did!

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Leh and Team Adventure Life were soon installed in The Wang Residence. Having eaten lots of spicy Indian food for the last number of days, we were all craving something a little more familiar so we decided to walk into town for pizza.


Mike and Zane had beer but Jay was still feeling the after effects of the altitude sickness and I don’t drink beer so we decided to go with a chocolate milkshake. Big mistake!!!

Saturday, September 16th

Kardung La pass

Where’s Jason?????

We had an early morning briefing and ceremony at the Dragon Hotel so we got up and had breakfast (toast, eggs, porridge) at The Wang Residence. Everyone seemed fine. Jay ate as normal and then we all walked down to the briefing. We were waiting outside the hall when Jay suddenly didn’t feel so good ….

Jay not feeling so good - right about now!


Photo: Terence Vrugtman

We went in for the briefing but Jay was feeling really nauseous and he spent most of the time outside. Was this more altitude sickness or something else? We hadn’t incriminated the milkshakes at this stage because I was feeling fine.

We were due to meet back at the Dragon hotel for a bus trip up to the Khardungla pass. At 5,359m it is claimed to be the world’s highest motorable pass and spending an hour or two up there would be an important part of our acclimatisation process. Unfortunately for Jay he was in no condition to go anywhere especially not to an extreme environment at high altitude. He was stuck in his bed at The Wang Residence. He was trying to stay hydrated by drinking electrolytes and water but he was vomiting so much that it was literally coming straight back up again. I was concerned about him when we left because he looked terrible. His skin was a grey colour and he was so miserable. We had to wait for about half an hour before the buses left and I nearly went back to check on him but I didn’t.

While we were waiting on the buses, Simon, one of the media guys, came on and said there was space in one of the Isuzu jeeps for 3 people. Naturally Team Adventure Life jumped at this opportunity and that was how we found ourselves travelling up to Khardung La pass in our own jeep. It made for a much more comfortable journey and our Indian drivers were very entertaining. The road up is narrow and steep so although it’s not that far (39km) it takes a couple of hours to drive.

The road to Khardung La:

Photo: Zane Schmahl

At the top:

Photo: Kirsten Roberts

When we got to the top we wrapped up warmly and headed out for some photos and some jumping jacks to elevate the heart rate.


Photo: Kirsten Roberts

We were supposed to stay up here for a couple of hours but after 45 min the race doctor said we must go back down as a number of people were getting symptoms of altitude sickness. Because the air is ‘thinner’ at high altitudes, your body cannot get as much oxygen as it needs so the only cure for altitude sickness is a drop in elevation.

When we returned to the hotel we were surprised to find Jay missing from his room. The door was locked but Mike climbed in the bathroom window and Jay definitely wasn’t there! We were due to start marking up the maps so initially we thought maybe Jay was feeling better and that he had headed down to start the map marking on his own. But when we returned to the Dragon Hotel Jay wasn’t there and neither were the maps. Eventually we found Heidi who told us that Jay had been taken to Leh hospital!!! Apparently Jay felt so bad about an hour after we left on the buses that he managed to stumble down the road to the Dragon hotel where he presented himself to reception, demanding a doct