In “Back to Gondwanaland”, its author Akhil Bakshi relives his exhilarating 90-day expedition to retrace a topography of which India was once a part
An explorer, a crazy rover, a set of itchy feet and seemingly on wheels forever.
With four significant international motoring expeditions to his credit, and loads of other travels that began pretty early on, Gurgaon-resident Akhil Bakshi needs no proof of his continuous wanderlust. “With no school to pin me down,” he recalls accompanying his father on official trips, for days together, to the interiors of Tripura in a Land Rover or a Willy Station Wagon in the early '50s.
Then of course, many travelling opportunities presented themselves to a young Bakshi, often on a shoestring budget. At 14, he “went alone to Paris, without any bookings or references,” “undertook a 1,400 km bicycle tour of Holland and Belgium” with his two American schoolmates, Todd Kelly and Tim Sherman, “living in youth hostels or camping on the beaches.” And then to “South France, Andorra and Spain, bussing all the way.” In later years, “he trekked extensively in the German and Austrian Alps.”
Now middle-aged, Bakshi's love for travel has only grown. And even as book, “Back to Gondwanaland” (Odyssey), retracing his 90-day-long passage through 16 countries — some at war with each other — comes out, Bakshi is already planning his next trip, this time to Pangea, which broke about 180 million years ago into two supercontinents, Gondawanaland and Laurasia. “I'll Follow The Sun”, his next book — on what else but travel — is also set for release.
To some, Bakshi is also known as the man former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi picked to be the first director general of Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, a government-funded organisation for rural youth. This MBA from the University of Washington, Seattle, also led the famous Azad Hind Expedition with the INA veterans in 1996. But his first chance to lead an expedition — to Central Asia, came in 1994. More afield than at home, here he answers a few questions over email on his journey and his job, the envy of many.
What holds your interest in geographical history, and this distinctive way of motoring down to retrace the winding routes?
To answer your question, I rather pluck out lines from the foreword written by Prof. Dr. Fanor Larrain for my forthcoming book. To quote him, ‘Adventure has provided the buzz and stir in Akhil Bakshi's life. He has explored all corners of the planet not just to satisfy his wanderlust but also to quench his thirst for knowledge, his inquisitiveness of the natural world, and his deep curiosity in the past and present.'
In 1994, while I was working in the office of the then prime minister, Narashimha Rao, as a special officer, Everester Major HPS Ahluwalia offered me the leadership of the Central Asia Expedition. Its purpose was to renew India's ancient academic and cultural links with the region. We drove 12,000 km, passing through the newly formed countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before crossing the Tien Shan Mountans into Chinese Turkestan and stepping into Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. We travelled through Tibet and drove to Mt. Everest's northern base and reached India from Nepal. The expedition film series, ‘Beyond Himalayas', directed by Gautam Ghose, won the National Award for Best Documentary in 1996.
My recce for the Gondwanaland expedition happened during a family holiday after my Hands Across the Borders expedition. We toured 5,500 km through South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It, however, took seven years for the expedition to mature.
How big was the team to Gondwanaland? Were all from India? Was Were there any woman among them?
Ours was a 10 member team comprising two geologists, one anthropologist, one zoologist, one botanist, a medical doctor, a vehicle engineer, a two-member film crew besides myself, the expedition leader. We all were Indians. The scientists were screened and nominated by our Government. No woman had applied for the job.
There must have been many trying moments… Did you feel it might get shelved?
I have written about it in the last chapter of the book, particularly the final 301 km journey from Mossel Bay to Cape Agulhas, driving through continuous stretches of pastoral scenery and undulated terrain. We stopped on the lonely road to make acquaintance with some ostriches. Letting off long sighs, I felt relieved at the approaching end of the long, long journey.
I wrote about the flood of memories that came rushing to my mind then: the months spent poring over maps; contacting countless authorities for permissions; obtaining clearances from ministries and goodwill messages from the prime minister addressed to the heads of States of 16 countries; seeking support of the Indian missions in these countries; selecting the team and chasing government departments to nominate the scientists and partially fund their expenses; the frustrating but crucial chore of getting funding from sponsors who open their coffers for cricket but have no money for exploration. Many had advised me not to waste my time and energies on the overwhelming task of organising an impossible mission through disturbed regions. With no support coming in, my confidence was shaken. Yet I had managed to stumble on.
How was it to plan your first trip? Any lessons learnt?
In all my expeditions, I work down everything to the last detail, planning is as important a quality as endurance. The Gondwanaland expedition was my fourth big international expedition. West Asia and Africa are no place for amateurs. The success of the expedition would depend on its organisation. The members had borne well the fatigues and all the privations of a 90-day journey. The talented scientists had a lifetime's opportunity to make firsthand observations in some of the world's most vital natural history regions and exchange knowledge with scientists of 30 universities and research institutions.
Personally, the journey led me to question the theory of human origin and migration. It also made me realise man's insignificance to nature. A little nudge, a small jolt by the quaking earth could wipe out in an instant the proud achievements and works of man, and perhaps eradicate life itself. Ever since the end of the expedition I have been living in mortal fear of a major earthquake, with its epicentre under my feet, striking anytime.
Pangea One World Expedition to be undertaken in 2012-13.The pre-historic supercontinent of Pangea, when all the continents were joined together, symbolises One World. By focusing on climate change, the expedition will draw the attention of the people towards the environmental interdependence of all countries.The multi-disciplinary expedition will drive 35,000km in three Indian vehicles from Dead Horse Creek, on Artic Ocean, to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, where the Pacific, Atlantic and Antarctic Oceans meet.