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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Nero goes deep sea soloing: The scariest adventure I have ever been part of

Disclaimer: The deep sea soloing pictures aren't mine. A camera was the least of my concerns that day.

Below, the water looks black and menacing at this hour in the night. We are sitting at the edge of the pier, our legs dangling over the sea. They are playing with me, the three of them. Rob tells me that he’ll push me into the water. And that I’ll be an expert swimmer by the time the night ends.
I met these fellows in Laos, a week ago. I never thought I’d see any of them again. The life of a solo traveller is such. But here we were, the four of us, Rob, Keegan, Jason and me, in an island in the South China Sea, off the Vietnamese coast.

It is 2 am. We have a big day tomorrow. We finish our beers and walk back from the pier.

-------- Earlier in the day ----

We walked into an adventure agency offering sea kayaking, rock climbing and deep sea soloing.

I couldn’t believe it. I have been watching deep sea soloing videos for over a year now.

For those who do not know, free soloing is a sport where you climb a vertical mountain, without using any ropes, gear or any sort of protective gear. All that you use are your limbs, finding crevices for your handholds and footholds. It involves an incredible high amount of risk as one mistake and you might fall off a mountain, and lose your life. Deep sea soloing is, free soloing in an ocean.  There are regions in oceans which have mountains emerging from underwater and you climb these. If you fall, well you better know how to swim.

You must watch this video (but in a new tab)

The guy there told us that it would cost us 37$. This would include the cost of the climbing shoes. A boat would take us into the the ocean to the cliffs, and would return after two hours to fetch us.

Rob and I signed up.

                                --------- The Affairs of the next morning -------

We were in the boat by 8 am. Besides us, there was another group of people who were going kayaking. They were in high spirits and there was a lot of chatter going on in the upper deck. Feeling a bit unsettled, I took the staircase to the lower deck and sat at the edge of the boat, with my feet only a metre above the water.

I could not shake off the nervousness that came with the task in hand. The sky was overcast. It did not look like a good sign.

My head kept going to how shocked the organizer had seemed the previous day.  Alan was a really nice guy, and had smilingly explained everything. We had all but paid up the money, when I decided to tell him.

Err, I need to tell you something. I’m hoping it won’t be a problem”, I said laughingly. Alan looked at me enquiringly.

Err I am not a trained climber. I have trekked and hiked, and I love adventure sports, and am half decent at most. But yeah, I haven’t really every been trained in rock climbing”, I confessed.

But mate, that is serious. You can’t expect to be deep sea soloing if you aren’t good at this” he exclaimed.  As I looked on, he continued. “You realize that when the cliffs come of the water, they are at an obtuse angle before straightening out.  You will have to climb at a backward incline for a bit, and then climb straight up, and it will be extremely difficult if you haven’t done this before.”

I told him that he had nothing to worry. That, if I could not climb properly, I would lose grip and fall into the ocean. But from a lesser height. That, in a twisted way, was better than falling off a higher elevation. He just shook his head.

“Umm”, I continued, “there’s one other thing” I said hesitantly. My friends grinned for they knew what was coming up. “I am not a swimmer really. I mean I can float for a bit, but.. yeah not really a swimmer.” Alan stared back as if he could not really believe what he had just heard.

After a long pause, he finally said, “You can’t swim? But how in Jesus Christ’s name do you expect to survive when you fall into the ocean then?”

 Err I don’t suppose you could give me a life jacket, eh”, I said as casually as I could. From the snickering, I could make out that my friends were really enjoying this now.

You don’t realize the gravity of the situation, do you Nero?” Alan said, wincingly. “When you fall from that kind of height, the gravitational force will cause your jacket to shoot up from your body, and fly off your head and you will go right into the water, to the bottom of the ocean.”

That did not seem like a good thing to happen.

It took a lot of convincing from me and Rob to let Alan sign me up. I insisted I would tie the life jacket tightly, even through my legs so that it would not fly off when I fell.  Shaking his head he gave me a form that said that we, solely, were responsible for our lives and I quickly signed it before he could change his mind.

You know Nero,” he shot as we left his shop, “You are probably the stupidest man I have ever met.  All the best mate, and I shall see you back here tomorrow evening.”

All this was twenty four hours ago. Now, Rob and I were here, in the boat in the middle of the ocean. A South African, Rob was just twenty one, and was a stuntman by profession. He joked that he had learnt swimming even before he could walk. He joined me now at my place on the wooden floor and together we looked at the ocean.

It was an emerald green.  Even under the grey sky, it looked beautiful. They say one must visit Halong Bay before dying, and here we were in the bay that was so raved about.  I wondered how much greener the sea would look when the sun came out.

Slowly, the first of the cliffs came out of the ocean. They seemed to come out of nowhere, out of the mist, and as the boat drew nearer, they towered over us - those faces of limestone rock. It seemed like one of those shots from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. An old sailing vessel riding the sea, turquoise water all around, islands - festooned with trees – in the distance, and gigantic mysterious cliffs in between which the vessel silently passed.

Such was Halong Bay’s effect on me that for a brief period of time, I forgot my nervousness, and was seduced by all that I saw.

The nervousness returned when we neared another set of cliffs and the captain told us that this was where we would alight. There must have been a hundred knots in my stomach at that moment.

The sea was icy cold when we stepped into it. With my life jacket firmly secured, I swam with as much purpose as I could behind Rob.

Fear was not an option anymore. The only way I could do this thing was if I could enjoy it, and not be scared. I decided to take on Rob at this. I was going to beat him in the swimming race to the cliffs, and I was also going to climb higher than him.

I obviously reached the cliffs after him.

We looked for a suitable place where it was relatively easier to start climbing. As the cliff came out of the water, it almost immediately and slanted backwards. We tried hanging onto the lower reaches and pull ourselves up, but lost grip and kept falling into the water. Then, after about a dozen tries we finally managed to hold onto the rocky surface.  It was quite a sight, holding tightly to the rock, hugging the sharp surface.

Slowly, we climbed high enough to reach the bottom end of the vertical face off the cliff. The surface was jagged at most places, and already my palms were bruised and my arm had a cut. But the maximum pressure was on my shoulders, to hoist my body higher.

Rob grinned at me from his position, and asked if I was doing okay.
I’ll meet you at the top”, I answered.
We’ll see Tinkerbell”, came the reply.

The crevices weren’t very difficult to find. But once we lodged our fingers firmly in, it was trickier to pull ourselves up. I figured that the longer I stayed at a point, with my hands hanging from a crevice, the more difficult it would become.  So, I decided to do quick movements, coordinate my limbs in a manner that there was never too much stress on one sole limb at any given time. The sharp rocks kept cutting through my fingers.

I must have climbed some fifteen twenty feet when I first looked over my head. It was a terrifying sight, seeing the ocean below me, and having only a rock to hold onto. It probably would have made sense to let go off the mountain and jump into the water right then, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to jump then.

I decided not to look below anymore after that.

It is amazing how aware you can be of your surroundings in the face of fear. There was a steady wind blowing around, and as it whistled around me, fear made it almost sound like a din. The ocean below seemed to be inviting me to its depths.  The one time I had looked down, it did not seem to be the nice pretty green that it was when I was in the boat. Trembling, I put out my right arm and tried to find a crack in the surface.  When I had found one, and locked my fingers firmly in, I did the same with my left, all the time bending my right knee as if to shoot up the surface the moment both my arms were firmly locked in their spots.

I could feel the force flow through my shoulders as I went up another foot.  I could feel the pain in my fingers and the bump in my knee where I hurt it. But most of all, I could feel my blood surge in my head. It was a familiar feeling. A feeling of sporting pride.  Of resolve. To not quit. To keep going, till you bloody well couldn’t move an inch. To never give up.  Maybe I wasn’t skilled enough to climb this cliff. But adrenaline and stubborness, I don’t lack in. This cliff I was going to beat. A grunt erupted from somewhere in my throat as I moved up by another foot. 

And then there was a loud splash. Rob had fallen. I turned my head, just for a micro second, and it was enough. My left hand slipped and then my feet did. My right wrist was still firmly in a crack, but realizing that I would not be able to pull myself  back on to the cliff’s face, I let go.

I was going down.

I am not sure if I screamed, but my hands instinctively went around my life jacket in order to hold it where it was.  I must have gone down at an incredibly high speed but to be honest, those three four seconds seemed long stretched out. Here I was falling down, and there was a cliff in front of me, but oddly it would just not end. After what seemed like a long time, my feet touched and then cut through the water, and there was a resounding sound. 

It is but sweet irony that in the moments that I felt I was closest to death, I found myself living the most in them.

Once up, it took but a few moments for it to sink in that we had done it. That we had climbed maybe twenty fivefeet and fallen and were quite alright at the end of it all. And that’s when all the pent up energy came out flooding, erupting from every pore of my body. Like a man enraged, I pumped my fist and roared looking at the sky, and then thrashed my hands in the water as if to punch it. When Rob came up from behind, and hugged me laughingly, I was still punching, but then immediately subsided.

We floated around for about ten minutes before Rob told me that he was going to climb again, and if I would too.

“I’ll meet you at the top”, I told him and we set off.

Heh, we never really reached the top that day. But it felt amazing, that feeling of almost flying. We climbed a few more times, and fell too.  For anyone who is reading, there are few feelings as overwhelming as jumping off a cliff into an ocean.

But yes, please do it only if you are a good swimmer. You don’t want Alan to call you the stupidest person in the world.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How I met a Bear and got chased by Croatia

On the board was written ‘Pltivicka Jezera National Park’. “Finally”, I murmured to myself and got down from the bus and stretched my arms.
It was afternoon now.

I had first heard about the Plitvice lakes almost a year back. The waters were such a pristine mix of blue and green and it felt as if all the images had been photoshopped. As wrote a reviewer, ‘If you combine the blue waters of the Andamans with the Kuang Si waterfalls in Laos, and sprinkle Alaskan fauna all over, you will have – the Plitvice Lakes

Ever since, the lakes became a part of my bucket list.

The country wasn’t part of my original Europe solo trip plan. Back then, I had only decided to backpack and couchsurf across Spain and Italy. But a few days earlier, while standing at Padova rail station, I saw a poster for a train to Croatia and immediately altered my future plans.

Two days later, I bid a sorry farewell to my rather pretty Couchsurfing host, and boarded the train to Italy’s north eastern town of Trieste, sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia. The rail journey is beautiful and you can see the Adriatic from the large train windows.

From Trieste, I took a bus to Dubrovnik – located in the very bottom of Croatia. The town has been declared as “Europe’s Best Preserved Heritage City” on quitea few forums and it made sense to visit the place before I made my final assault on the national park I so wanted to visit.

Back to the story.

I got down from the bus, and walked over to the bus station to book my return ticket for the evening. There they told methat the return buses would only leave next morning. I knew a hotel room would cost me at least 30 Euros here, and being on a tight budget, I was not overjoyed at this sudden turn of events.

And that’s when Ivo told me that he had a tent and we could camp in the forest. Immediately visions of Enid Blyton stories and camping came to mind, and I nodded my head enthusiastically.

I had met Ivo on the bus. A proud Serbian, he was tall and had big beefy arms. It made sense to never get into a fight with this guy, because I had a feeling that he could easily pick me up and toss me all the way to Serbia.

We started walking.

Just like most of Europe, this region too had a regular campsite, and we reached there soon enough. But Ivo had other plans.

Aye Nero, there are too many people here. Let’s go camp in a real forest.”

There are a few things I am never able to say no to.  One of those is stupid suggestions.

I nodded my head, and we walked on, proud that we were not just tourists but the real thing.

After hiking for ten miles, we stopped in a small clearing in the woods and pitched up our tent.

Oii Nero, I am hungry. Let’s go hunt for some food.” Appalled at the thought that he might expect me to hurt an animal, I began to protest.

Animals? Who spoke of animals. We’ll eat berries” said my friend, with a sagely look on his face.

I studied his six foot four frame closely. His legs were as thick as the tree trunks in the forest. As he bent to pick up a torch, I saw it concealed almost wholly in his big palm. Some of his fingers were thicker than my thighs.

And he wanted to eat berries. I wondered if a sack full would be enough for this Goliath.

It was getting dark now. We strolled out of our tent and walked into the trees, whistling merry tunes. Oh we were adventurers, men of the land. We were not those who looked for material pleasures. In our hearts lived Robinson Crusoe, Long John Silver, George Mallory and Captain Cook. Oh we were adventurers.

I looked at the stars, pretending as if that was all I needed to guide me. I had to look back at the ground, when I tripped over a stone.

And that is when we saw it.

A giant brown bear.

I wondered what Robinson Crusoe would have done in a situation like this. I wondered if this is how Captain Cook would have felt when he saw the natives on the New Zealand Coast.

And from the pits of Ivo’s stomach came an eloquent voice, “Uh oh”.

Maybe he’s a nice, friendly bear”, I whispered to Ivo. When we proceeded to weakly smile at the bear, he let out such a snarl that we quickly subsided.

What does one do when one sees a bear ten metres ahead of them? Weeks later when I read on the topic, the most popular recommendation was “to lie down on the ground and pretend to play dead.”

You know, I do not say that this isn’t the right thing to do. But I would really like to meet a man who on suddenly encountering a bear, actually thought ‘Alright, let’s lie down casually and wait for the big fellow to pass by.

They also say that you can, alternatively, try to look bigger than the bear, scream at it and make intimidating gestures. That might make it retreat. I looked at myself and wondered how many beers this bear would have to have to believe that I was bigger than him.

But hey, Ivo was a big man. He could do something. I turned to my right, excitedly to tell him my plan. Err why is there no Ivo on my right. I spun to my left, and again no Ivo.

Ivo, my massive Serbian friend, had turned around and was running for his life. I shot a glance at the bear who looked a little more irked now to see one of us give him the slip. What would Rambo do now, I wondered.

 The next moment, I was scampering behind Ivo. And since animals love me and can’t do without me, the bear bounded right after me. Ivo, me, the bear, all running in one line, with the occasional graceful hop over a pesky bush sitting in the way.

For some reason, Ivo ran right into the tent. For some reason, and I suspect not very sound ones, I followed right behind.

Why did you run into the tent”, I screamed at him. “What if there are other bears in the forest”, he screamed back. Point.

Meanwhile, the bear had stopped outside the tent and was probably figuring out which side to enter from. His shadow fell on the tent’s face, and we stood at the opposite end in pin drop silence. Ivo was, oddly, holding on to the tent’s zip.

Hey Nero, if he comes in, we’ll rush out from this side and zip him inside” whispered Ivo. For his sake, I hope he only meant it as a nervous joke. Nice that I am, I nodded and put my palm on the zip too.

 As the bear circled around the tent, snarling and growling, his shadow followed on the tent canvas, and dutifully, we tiptoed in circles inside as well. A couple of times it came and pawed the tent and slashed at it, and our hearts were in our mouths. Those were really tense minutes, and we would not stop staring at the bear’s shadow. Only three weeks earlier, I had fallen right in front of a bull during the Spanish bull run, and I have no idea why it did not gore me.  Right, one last miracle I need now, I told myself.

A little later, the bear retreated a few metres and plonked itself there. We took turns to look at it from a small opening. Then it moved a bit, and we could see it no longer. It was night now, and in the forest everything was pitch dark. Even the sound of rustling leaves or the wind, was enough to create doubt in our heads.  We had no clue if it had given up on us and left or if the fellow was hiding behind some tree waiting for us to make a move. Either way, we refused to budge.

Two hours later.

I want to pee” Ivo informed me.
Right, let me tell the bear that we want a loo break
You know Nero, I think I could fight him bare handed
You could barely stand on your feet when you saw him
Want a bear hug?”
I can’t bear these wisecracks of yours

And thus continued two men, cracking beary bad jokes, through the night lying in a tent in a Croatian forest. Oh they were adventurers, men of heart. In their hearts lived Robinson Crusoe, Long John Silver, George Mallory and Captain Cook.

Months later, I read that the forests around Plitive were home to bears, wolves, nineteen varieties of snakes besides other small animals. Not the best idea to camp in unknown forests, I guess. As for the story of the lakes, it is but another one.