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Adrenaline junkies

Born 17 years apart in different corners of the globe, India’s first woman base jumper and a young British kayaker represent the tough new face of adventure sport enthusiasts everywhere

brunch Updated: Oct 19, 2013 17:39 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

Paddle Pusher
Joe Rea-Dickins, 24, Kayaker
Before he went to university in 2009, English adventurer Joe Rea-Dickins, then 20, decided to travel the world. He visited India twice, both times on a shoestring budget. “Travelling as a backpacker, I got to know the people better. While taking buses to India’s hill stations, everyone would be looking up at the mountains, but my eyes would be down at the rivers.”

Since then, the 24-year-old kayaker has come to the country numerous times, notably to carry out first descents of rivers in Uttarakhand, Ladakh and Meghalaya. Last week, in the city to deliver a lecture, Rea-Dickins said India’s rivers are among the best in the world for kayaking. “Adventurous types are looking to come to India, and the maximum enthusiasm is for non-Himalayan rivers. In Kerala, a group of kayakers, the Southern River Runners, is popularising the sport. The other hot spots are the hills of Meghalaya and Rishikesh.”

Early Lessons
Rea-Dickins learnt kayaking at the age of 15, when his brother and parents dragged him along on a family holiday to France. “At that time it sounded boring to me. But my brother, who had been learning the sport since the age of 12, prevailed upon me.”

The Himalayas have a wide range of waters to offer to the kayaker, says Rea-Dickins. “In Ladakh, I have kayaked the Shayak in its full volume. But I perceive the first descent of the Kynshi in Meghalaya to be one of the toughest I’ve done anywhere in the world.” Why was it so tough? “There had been heavy rain in Meghalaya. The rivers were very high and it took us three days to tackle it,” he says.

Close Encounters
A few years ago, Rea-Dickins’ younger brother Daniel kayaked off a 70-feet waterfall in Kenya and rather than emerging from below it, ended up behind the curtain of the fall. “If a kayak topples, we first do the roll (the act of righting a capsized kayak by use of body motion and/or a paddle). If it doesn’t work, we get out of the boat and swim.” The scariest experience Rea-Dickins had while kayaking was in Wales on a river called Nedd Fachan, when he was 18. “The boat upturned, rolled a few times and held me inside. I hit the bottom and stayed there maybe a minute before my friends grabbed me and pulled me out,” he says.

Surf’s up: Joe Rea-Dickins has kayaked on expeditions in Venezuela, Kenya, Pakistan and India

Rea-Dickins dismisses the notion that one has to be brilliant at swimming to go kayaking. “I am a rubbish swimmer. The day I feel I would have to get out of the boat and swim, I don’t kayak. ” Kayaking in India is set to boom, says Rea-Dickins. “At the moment, there are about 500 kayakers in India. In the next 10 years, my prediction is, the number will grow to 5,000,” he says.

Next Rea-Dickins would like to kayak in the Garo Hills. “I want to do the Umngi river that plunges 500 feet into one of the most inviting canyons in Meghalaya.” Feel like riding the rapids?

When a boat is not just a boat

What’s a kayak?
The original hunting boat favoured by the Eskimos, the International Canoe Federation defines a kayak as a boat where the paddler faces forward, legs in front, using a double-bladed paddle. The rider moves the boat forward by dipping the blades alternately on either side.

Essential protective gear
A helmet, a buoyancy aid, which is like a lifejacket that helps you swim with your head underwater and a throw bag with 20 metres of rope for a person stranded in the current. A pin kit, that works like a pulley mechanism 9 times stronger than the person pulling it.

What pushes them to the edge?
On the sidelines of Adventure Stories, a series of talks focusing on interesting adventure sports, we asked Ibex Expeditions’ (one of the organisers of the talks along with Taj Safaris) founder Mandeep Soin on the allure of extreme sports.

Although most extreme sport enthusiasts train hard and their safety gear is hi-tech, accidents still do happen. “It boils down to the human desire to test boundaries,” says Soin. “Personally, I’d think twice about taking up BASE jumping as a hobby. It’s like solo rock-climbing without protection! But extreme adventurers are wired differently I guess.”

High Achiever

Archana Sardana, 41, BASE jumper

From a girl born into luxury to a daredevil mother of two who pursues the most dangerous adventure sport on the planet, Archana Sardana’s life has seen many extremes. As the only woman BASE jumper in India, Sardana, 41, is a pioneer of sorts. “In terms of injuries and deaths, it is 43 times more dangerous than sky diving,” said Apoorva Prasad, editor of The Outdoor Journal.

Unlike skydiving, done from about 14,000 feet, BASE jumping takes place from far lower altitudes, says Sardana. So when she first jumped off a 400-feet bridge at a BASE learning school in Salt Lake City, United States, she was slightly nervous. “The reaction time is less than five seconds. If you don’t open the chute in three seconds, you are history.”

Even when she got married in 1998, Sardana didn’t let age or convention come in the way of her quest for adventure. The youngest of four children in a family of affluent transporters based in Srinagar, she chose to marry a submariner when she turned 24. “I married a Defence officer since I wanted excitement,” she says.

She got plenty of that soon after she joined her husband Rajiv Sardana, who was posted in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh. “Instead of a grih-pravesh at a fancy apartment, I walked into an austere room with two sleeping bags and a trunkful of books,” she recalls.

On their honeymoon, to save money, the Sardanas signed up for a course at Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Gradually, she evolved from climbing mountains to scuba diving, sky jumping and finally BASE jumping. “It has to be a gradual progression towards overcoming danger: If you take shortcuts, you can get injured,” says Sardana.

It’s all in the mind
Sardana says she doesn’t like going to the gym. How then does she keep in shape for extreme sports at the wrong side of 40? “I am just headstrong,” she says. Often this stubborn streak can give panic attacks to her family, says her husband Rajiv. Like the time in 2011 when she went to Kuala Lumpur. “I got a Google alert saying a woman BASE jumper had died at Al-Sattar tower. My relatives were freaking out, but Archana switched off her phone and went ahead to complete the jump. Only then did she switch it on or come online,” says Rajiv.

Archana Sardana

Whatever it takes
In 2011, Sardana got injured after her parachute got entangled in a tree. “I could not walk for many days,” she says. Without sponsorship or State support, Sardana hasn’t let the lack of funds dampen her zest for adventure. “To fund my sky-diving training, we even mortgaged our house and sold my jewellery.” But Archana claims she doesn’t have any love for material riches. “What I crave is adventure. I have to be somewhere out there doing something audacious. If I stay cooped up at home I feel ill. Put me on a plane and I’ll be fine. I don’t mind even jumping off from it,” she laughs.

BASE Jumping
BASE stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs) indicating the points practitioners use to jump off. It is done from much lower altitudes than sky jumping (which is generally done from 14,000 ft) and uses just one parachute (sky jumping has two).

Riding high on will-power, Archana Sardana has made it a habit to beat odds. Here’s how:
She got into adventure sports at 24 with a course in mountaineering
She began skydiving at 34 with a course from an institute in the US
She learnt to swim at 38 and within two years, became India’s first woman master scuba-diver
At 41, she wants to do the Everest BASE Jump from 30,000 feet

From HT Brunch, October 20

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