5th August 2010 16:03: Kangla Jal, Himachal Pradesh
My feet are wedged tight between rocks, and the surging water threatens to tip the motorcycle over. When leaning into the direction of the flow only the tank and the handlebar remain exposed. Deafening thunder echoes through the canyon and I remember thinking that this was an almost impossible occurrence for this time of the year. Or anytime of the year, really – I’m in the high-altitude Himalayan Desert.
In moments of undue stress, sometimes better sense prevails: do not thumb the starter; hold on and make sure the motorcycle does not go over the edge. I step off and put my arms around the tailpiece and hold the rear wheel. It helped that hold-on-tight help, in the form of Anand, was a few minutes away.
Fifteen minutes seem like eternity and cold water pierces like needles through to my feet. The gushing waters start to push the motorcycle closer to the edge and there’s no sign of anyone yet. I must drag this motorcycle out before the both of us get swept away. The inch-by-inch tug of war begins as the freezing water has now penetrated through the innermost layer of clothing. One steady tug, one deep breath, one moment of rest. One steady tug, one deep breath… and after one final tug against the fury of the water, I find myself lying on the ground, motorcycle beside me, choking, gasping and trying to suck in the little bit of oxygen there is at 16,003 feet.
I help myself to my feet, trying to pick the Husky off the ground but fall over it before the last big heave puts it upright. I thumb the starter and the engine chokes and spits. I thumb it again frantically, till the battery is just about to lose all its juice and the engine sputters to life. Two options spring to mind as my pulse races and the adrenaline drowns the shivers that rack my body: find Anand and try to cross Kangla Jal, or head back to the Army camp at Pang.
16:55: The Truck: Km 295, Manali-Leh Highway
Four men are crouched under the back of the truck, barely visible but sheltered from the rain. I pull over and crawl under. They’re rounding up a differential fix that’s kept them there for two days. A few people passed before me, but no one’s come through from the other side, they inform me. Crossing is definitely out; ‘I’m headed back to Pang,’ I think to myself. The safe confines of the tin sheds in the army camp, the warmth of the wood fire chimneys and hot Maggi all seem like paradise right now. The driver hands me a beedi. It will keep you warm, he says with a wry smile. The truth is: nothing ever warms you up here, not when you’re drenched to the bone.
The four gentlemen are almost done and suggest we ride together. Me up front, them following. I get my lid on, and it’s like pouring a helmetful of water over myself. It’s wet, it’s messy and I just can’t wait for the next 10 clicks to go by.
We go around the first hairpin, I check my mirror and the truck’s right behind, I’m approaching the second when I see a lava-like flow of earth and stone come rumbling down the mountain. It’s slow, it’s deliberate and it’s taking everything in its path away into the river below. ‘The Husky will mount this with ease,’ I tell myself, as I downshift and slow down, planning my deliberate path of least resistance. The rain is loud, but the squealing of rubber on tarmac is louder. The ground under me shudders as I turn back to see the truck juddering back up the hill in reverse. It takes me a second to figure out that the rumbling is not the truck. Ten feet behind me, Mother Nature has taken back what’s rightfully hers. The road is now the steep incline of the mountain, with rocks and water and sludge pouring down.
Stuck between a mud slide and well, er... nothing, I decide to lean the motorcycle against the side of the hill, hoping that if the stones begin to fall, the Husky will just get buried instead of flowing away downstream and somewhere into the Indus. The truck’s out of sight, parked in a safe spot, but the driver and mechanic are back to get me. Coaxing me to crawl on to the side of the mountain they grab my arms and pull me across. I’m still convinced that the Husky will make it over the landslide, but I need a hand. They refuse to let me go, so we take shelter in the truck’s cabin instead.
17:30: The Truck: Km 295, Manali-Leh Highway
It’s well past dusk and the darkness of the mountains has cast its veil upon us. Not a star in the sky, not a light in sight. Instead, thunder echoes through the canyon as the rain beats down incessantly. The darkness of the moment is broken by a small five-watt bulb in the cabin of the truck. The five of us exchange stories of the mountains. The truck driver and his cleaner are making their first trip to the Himalayas; they’ve realised that it’s not for the faint of heart, or a beat-up truck. The mechanic and his helper – old hands who fix stranded vehicles on this treacherous route tell me how climate change is tearing up the fragile ecosystem here. The roads here were engineered and built for rain shadow. Rainfall here used to be a drizzle or a light shower at the most, once a year. The last two years though, the weather has been unpredictable and the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) and GREF (General Reserve Engineering Force) are unable to build roads as fast as the rain washes them away. As for me, I’m just a motorcyclist on an annual pilgrimage seeking adventure. I can’t help but wonder out loud, ‘Will this be my last?’
I learn the truck driver and his help haven’t eaten for two days. They were supposed to stock up in Pang, which was still 10 clicks away. I emptied my pockets, all seven of them stocked with chocolate. Wet, but still a hungry man’s best friend. I give them everything and plead with them to help me get the motorcycle across. They agree, but only once the rain subsided, though.
20:25: Km 290, Manali-Leh Highway
Three of us set out on foot in the light drizzle to the site where the Husky is parked. Without flashlights, we’re walking blind, joined at the hands for safety. The broken road is about ten feet wide, and the rocks and mud have stopped flowing. A narrow ridge of soft sludge remains and we tread carefully one-by-one towards the motorcycle. We wheel the bike over to the landslide and start pushing and shoving it through the mud. The mud is about five feet high, with rocks and boulders in between. With the three of us, it’s not too hard as the Husky tips the scale at about 125 kg. I’m over the slide and I promise to send help as I fire up the motorcycle and wave them goodbye. Two turns and I’m over the bridge. Only eight clicks to warmth, food and shelter…
20:50: Km 293, Riding Home
I find my way over the bridge and down the road that hugs the side of the next range, the river rumbling below, bursting at the banks. The dim headlight leads me unsteadily down the road. Elated, but exhausted and cold, I can’t help but crack the throttle open, but a slight change of surface colour on the road up ahead makes me doubtful and forces me to bring the motorcycle to a halt. For good reason, too – there’s a whole 30 metres of road missing, my eyes extend from gray to pitch black. I shudder. That was as close as I ever want it to get.
Frustrated, angry and now genuinely worried for my safety, I realise I have to camp somewhere for the night. The Camelbak is almost dry, my food supplies donated and my energy levels are low. With no trees to sit under or no precarious overhangs of rock, the truck is my best option. At least if hypothermia gets to me, it will take a little longer inside a truck. So I turn around and ride back, parking the motorcycle at the bridge. Expensive motorcycle. Must. Find. Safe. Place.
I trek back up to the truck as the heavens open up again. The weight of my riding gear tires me at every step – not surprising, given the water it has soaked up. There is water everywhere and ironically, not a drop to drink. Mouth parched and sucking every little bit of air, I collapse at the wheel of the truck. Trying to reach for my oxygen tank, I realise it’s still strapped to the back of the motorcycle. I never thought my motorcycle and I would be separated. And yet, now I was lying here with barely enough breath in me to knock on the truck’s door.
22:00: The Truck: Km 290, Manali-Leh highway
I open my eyes and find myself under a thick blanket; slow, deep snoring fills the space around me. I’m inside the truck, drenched, my boots off, but sharing the truck cabin with four familiar guys, under a communal blanket. It’s freezing cold and the silence of the mountains has my ears ringing. The void I feel with the darkness that surrounds me fills my head with so much. ‘Where’s Anand? Did he make it to safety? Does anyone know I’m here? Will they ever find me, us?’ The cold is unbearable and it’s all in my head, I tell myself, as I begin to sing Christmas carols, thinking of mistletoe and a fireplace, toasted marshmallows and hot chocolate. I drift in and out of sleep.
05:00: The Truck: Km 290, Manali-Leh highway
I’m being shook violently. The truck drivers are yelling at me, telling me to wake up; we’ve to go walking to get the Army to help us, and the others who are stranded. It’s not dawn yet as we set out on foot. Eight kilometres at 16,000 feet is no easy walk with soaking motorcycle gear. Heck, for me, 200 metres at sea level is an effort. But we talk our way through it, 100 metres at a time. We form a human chain of five, as we pull each other out of the sinking mud. We pass as many as 17 landslides in the eight kilometres we walk. We encounter a GREF captain and his entourage before the Pang camp. He tells us that all the tents were washed out the previous night and that the army barracks were bursting at the seams.
11:00: Pang Camp
As I walk over the crest, I am greeted by a whole sea of people waiting to hear from the five people who were the first to make it across. Looking for familiar faces, Anand spots me, helmet and all. ‘I knew you’d be okay,’ he says. ‘That’s much more than I knew,’ I reply. He was stuck in the car five clicks away from Pang when the car got caught in a mudslide and almost got swept away into a rising river. Him and the crew dug themselves out with their bare hands and made it to safety at night.
As for the Husky, Anand and me made the walk back that morning and carried it over the broken road to the other side and promptly rode two up over all the landslides leaving the BRO bulldozer operators a little confused, not to mention amused. We decided that we’d have to head back to our safe haven, to the town of Leh. So we washed up, fuelled up and stocked up, and made the 200 km ride that very afternoon. Back to paradise, back to a warm bed, back to four walls that would keep the elements out. We never dreamt that we’d wake up the next morning to find Leh, our haven, destroyed by a devastating flash flood.
Anand Dharmaraj and the author, organise guided motorcycle tours in the Himalayas, and other remote places in India as well as Cambodia and Sri Lanka. You can look them up at www.indimotard.com
Meet our Ex - Joshua Crasto
Meet Mr Motormouth. Or even Mr Machinehands. Josh is the quintessential Bandra Boy, but with some serious capabilities inside. Josh talks all the time, even in his sleep perhaps. And he is a serious fiddler with motorcycles, making some cool custom jobs for a handful of people whom he knows. Josh joined us in 2004 and was immediately put in charge of the Wheelies section. Though he left us in 2008 to pursue a career in flying, Josh is BSM ’s external support, being called in for long drives, shoots, etc. When he is not doing many things at the same time and talking simultaneously, he works with Indimotard and does biking tours. He recounts here one of his adventures when the heavens opened up in Ladakh.