The drums call at Dambuk

It was 1 a.m. and deep inside underexplored Arunachal Pradesh; six people were bouncing across the dry riverbed of one of the tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra, in a Tata Sumo. There was no road. Just rocks. Accompanying me inside the vehicle were — a videographer for the Orange Festival, a musician who would be playing at the festival, a travel blogger from London who was covering this first-of-a-kind adventure festival, a paid attendee and the cab driver.

We were truly off-roading towards Dambuk, a little patch of land known for its beautiful orange orchards. The hillocks were covered in green and speckled with thousands of orange dots. No photograph could possibly ever convey the beauty of such a sight. Six months of the year, because of swollen rivers on all sides, Dambuk is cut off from the mainland. During those months, the only way to cross the river to reach Dambuk is on elephant back.

However, at that moment in the cab, little did I know that less than 18 hours from then, I would be racing across that very rocky riverbed in a rally-ready Polaris All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) that was worth Rs. 25 lakh.

I went to the festival aiming to just bungee-jump from a bridge, river raft, zip line through an orchard, and play forest paintball, among other heart-thumping moments. I didn’t expect that one unexpected adventure would dominate a whole quarter of my time there.

The first-time festival was short on hands to collect the rally vehicles. So I volunteered to rescue one of the cars locked up in a truck 60 km away. Trucks and buses could not make it closer to Dambuk because of the lack of roads.

The moment I stepped on the pedal of the ATV, it lunged forward, and it felt like the front wheels had left the ground for a few seconds. I was squeezed into my rally harness and it felt as if my lungs emptied themselves involuntarily. My eyeballs dared to peal themselves from the road for a split second to the speedometer to know that I was already pushing 100 kmph. What was this ridiculous vehicle? Within 20 minutes, I had noticed that the 10 litres of fuel that I had just filled was half over, and I still had a long way to go. Maybe I had a hole in my fuel tank? I later came to learn that I was burning a litre of petrol for every 5 km. I found a small desolate gas station near the next village. The local kids begged me for a ride. I couldn’t blame them. Who had ever seen a car like this before? No doors, windows, no boot or bonnet, a body the size of a Maruti 800, but 6-ft tall, and wheels like spider legs. I fought off their requests, fearing the car owner and founder of the 4x4 Fury Rally, Lhakpa Tsering’s wrath.

Soon, I was racing across the river bed, splashing multiple jeeps as I overtook them through 3-ft-deep puddles, like an annoying brat in a new toy. When I finally got to the venue, the music leg of the festival was on, with travellers, rally drivers, musicians and locals dancing in front of the stage.

Over the course of four days of adventure, sports and music, there were also two major “rescue projects”. One involved a dozen journalists who got stranded on the Brahmaputra at 3 a.m., when the ferry hit an invisible sandbank. The other was the artist bus, as the driver decided to cross a stream in the bus, with artists, equipments and all. The bus got stranded mid-stream and the artists had to roll up their pants and escape the rocky glacial stream at 6 a.m.

Hosting this ambitious festival was the biggest adventure of it all. Abu Tayeng, the founder of the Orange Festival, said that Dambuk has given India a lot, despite which the country has neglected to give them basics like roads and electricity. He points out that the electric grid reached Dambuk as late as March 2015. Gum Tayeng, the local MLA, said she hopes that a multi-pronged event like this would put Dambuk on the map, and highlight their desperate need for infrastructure.

On one of the days, the musicians could not complete their sound check, because the generator had run out of diesel, as the rally cars had used them all up. More had to be brought in, in barrels, on the backs of pick-up trucks. The organisers were up against three major opponents: the lack of infrastructure like roads and electricity, Mother Nature and Arunachali Standard Time.

Despite beached ferries, drowning buses and the constant dependency on diesel, the festival was a success, and local legend Lou Majaw rocked the stage despite a massive downpour. The crowd, a high concentration of what is possibly India’s most adventurous lot combined with the hardy locals, lost their minds with all the apong (a local snack), adrenaline and music. They had shared four days of music, offbeat adventures and motorsports.

There were hilarious stories of someone dropping a camera into the crowd while zip-lining overhead; the river guides stopping the white-water rafts midway to serve their guests hot noodles with spicy local chutneys; rally drivers towing drowning cars out of a turbulent river; newbies toppling ATVs after pushing them to their absolute limits; and a few people dipping in freezing waters. Too bad a carbon dioxide cylinder was lost en-route to the festival; so forest paintball was cancelled. And the bungee master sprained his foot while walking on uneven ground, far away from the bungee bridge, before anyone actually jumped. Those were quite possibly the only big disappointments at a festival that was hosted beyond the reach of steady electricity, roads and the Internet.

(The Orange Festival of Adventure and Music took place from December 15-18.)

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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 6:01:55 PM |

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