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Into the wild

The adventure tourism industry is booming for the new executive class in India. To find out why, BT More puts on its helmet and knee pads and heads out into the wild.

Print Edition: September 21, 2008

Scuba diving
The adventure tourism industry is booming for the new executive class in India. To find out why, BT More puts on its helmet and knee pads and heads out into the wild.

Fear, pain, the risk of debilitating injury—they don’t sound like the ingredients of a traditional holiday on the face of it. (You get enough of that at work, right?) But a growing number of young executives throughout India are spending their time off rafting down rapids, or scaling sheer rock faces, or hurtling down a mountain side on a bike praying to the heavens that the brakes work. They’re not all “outdoors types”, these guys. Many are trying these things for the first time. They have tried the sight-seeing vacation, the cultural vacation, and particularly, the recharge-the-batteries vacation— the one spent mostly on a sunlounger in some kind of paradise palace sipping cocktails and dozing off gently.

Learning the Ropes
But sometimes, the lap of luxury is just not enough. The new breed of go-getting executive wants an experience out of his holiday, a thrill, something intense. He wants to feel the flutter of fear, the lactic acid and adrenalin coursing through his system, and the exhilaration of achievement at the end. A day by the pool just doesn’t cut it. It’s no surprise that the adventure holiday is catching on in India. It’s a global trend for one—a whole industry of boutique tour operators and travel agents has grown up specifically to plan adventures for thrill-seekers. Their most extravagant customers are known as “thrillionaires”. And the adventure industry is largely built upon a burgeoning executive class and places of great natural beauty and challenge.

India is abundantly blessed in both departments. Mention the economic slowdown to R. Balakrishna of The Great Indian Outdoors, a tour group specialising in adventure holidays, and he laughs. “Hasn’t affected us! Adventure tourism has gone through an enormous boom over the last decade or so.” So, what’s great about clinging on to a rock face for dear life, over a 200-ft drop? Well, there’s the enormous satisfaction of looking fear in the face and steaming ahead regardless.

Courage is a habit, confidence is a muscle. When you’ve done the unthinkable once, it’s that much easier to do it again. Furthermore, the great outdoors is actually pretty great—even greater when you’re grappling with its majesty and power, one-on-one. So, there’s a little pain involved, a few battle scars—big deal! Wasn’t it REM who sang, Everybody hurts, sometimes? No, I’m thinking of that Nietzsche quote—“that which doesn’t kill you, makes you limp for a few weeks until they take the cast off. But the girls will dig your scars.” (Note: not all quotes can be guaranteed for authenticity).

Waterfall rappelling
Learning the Ropes

If you’re serious about an outdoor adventure, get used to the idea of dangling from a rope.Of all the wonders of the great outdoors, it’s the plunging drops and immense peaks that humble us the most. The canyons, the waterfalls, the mountains, the sheer cliffs. But there’s no way to take them on without a system of ropes and harnesses. It can get complicated with all the loops and knots and brand new words to learn like “carabiner” (a kind of D-shaped hook you need for climbing).

But you’ll learn, everyone does. More than that, you’ll come to love ropes and trust them, for they, and those nappystyle harnesses, will save your life. They are your antidote to vertigo. And if you don’t pay attention in rope class, well, you risk watching the thing rapidly unravel as you lose your footing and… Nobody likes to see that. Not on vacation.

Rappelling
It might look daunting to clamber down a sheer 50-feet rock face, but really, rappelling is one of the basic tricks in trade of mountaineers. Also known as abseiling, the art of hopping down a cliff face doesn’t take too long to master. But like most other kinds of extreme sport, you have to concentrate and trust your teammate (or instructor). To rappel down a cliff face, first strap yourself to two safety ropes. One is a fixed rope usually tied to a rock at the head of the rock face—this is the rope you use to haul yourself down. The other rope is attached to a harness around your waist.

Once strapped and ready, you release the rope while you hop down the rock face keeping your head back and feet planted firmly on the rock at roughly 90 degrees to your body. To arrest your descent, twist your guide rope around your body. It’s a handy trick to know if you want to stop and look around for a good foothold. If it sounds difficult, it isn’t. My initiation into rappelling was on a cloudy day when visibility was often very low. If you suffer from vertigo, this is a blessing. As it was, I was surrounded by a ghostly landscape of looming cliffs and shifting mists. It was an exhilarating rush.

Another form of rappelling is called “bridge slithering” in which you swing down from a bridge rather than clamber down a rock face. The ropes and harnesses are the same, but the experience is altogether different, especially if the bridge is ramshackle and the river below is roaring. Take my advice— look up, not down.

The art of hopping down a cliff face doesn’t take too long to master. but like most other kinds of extreme sport, you have to concentrate and trust your team-mate (or instructor)

Mountain biking
Waterfall rappelling
Imagine standing atop a 60-feet waterfall, rappelling and being asked to walk backwards on a slippery, moss-covered rock with raging water below. Now, imagine the rocky patch you're “walking” on is at an angle of 90 degrees. That’s waterfall rappelling— one of the ultimate adventure sports to be found in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra during monsoon season.

The water comes crashing down all over you, it knocks you off your feet, it’s a total rush. But the techniques are much the same as in conventional rappelling—you get the same safety harness, the carabiner (the hook part) and the figure of eight, which holds the rope through the harness that is tied to your waist. A helmet is provided and after all safety gears are in place, you are fitted with two ropes—a rappelling rope with which you descend down the waterfall and a belay rope (a back-up rope), which is controlled by a “belayer” at the top. The key is to carefully follow the orders of the instructor.

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