The Chennai Trekker


by Abhinay Reddy

It was in the summer of 1998 that Peter Van Geit decided to take a break from the hectic life of an IT professional. Seeking a respite from the mundane desk job, he took it upon himself to embark on a journey on his Royal Enfield Bullet across the Western Ghats, which starts from Maharashtra and extends all the way down south to Kanyakumari. The five thousand kilometre trip he made would be the starting point of his journey to connect with nature. A decade later, on February 22nd,2008, the Chennai Trekking Club was established. With over seventeen thousand existing members and an average of fifteen joining in everyday, CTC is the most active adventure club in India.

Peter was born and brought up in Belgium, a small country in Western Europe occupying around 30,000 square kilometres and having a population of 11 million, roughly equal to that of Chennai. Frequent holiday trips as a kid with his family got him interested in the beauty of the wilderness. He worked as a manager at Cisco, Thoraipakkam, ever since his arrival at India. But with his spirit of adventure intact, Peter ensured that he made frequent trips to a few places around Chennai with a bunch of fellow enthusiasts from his office. On one such trip to the Tada waterfalls, Peter and his office mates decided to take a new trail to the top of the waterfall . This proving to be successful, the group contemplated on starting a devoted trekking club in Chennai and soon started the CTC. Recently, he addressed the students of IIT Madras, as an initiative of the institute adventure club. He talked about people’s perceptions about trekking, the importance of it and the meticulous preparation that goes into every single trek plan.

Peter Van Geit

Peter was in campus on the 27th of September where he delivered a lecture about organizing a trekking boot camp. “Trekking isn’t simply going to a tourist place” started Peter. It is rather a total wilderness trip taken with no prior idea of the trail. Save a few camping gears, navigation equipment, food and water (fresh water is generally abundant in streams along the trails), it is all about learning to survive in the wild, a refreshing endeavor to escape the concrete jungle we otherwise reside in. He delved on a few important things one needs to know before setting out on a trek.

1. Understanding the terrain :

A thorough knowledge of the terrain is of utmost importance. Terrain features like pools, valleys, boulders, gorges, ridges, and saddles are among the basic things taught before the trek. Most knowledge is common sense, e.g. one needs to avoid valleys in the monsoon season and walking on a ridge saves time as compared to walking up and down a slope. One can use Google Terrain maps to study.

2. Scrutinising the Maps :

Maps are singularly the most important navigatory sources in a trek. G.P.S. Topographic maps and contour maps are studied for details of the place one wishes to trek at. All the terrain features can be identified in the contour maps. Among the two days spent in planning for the trek, one day goes into the deciphering of details from these maps.

3. Proper Gear :

Since Chennai is located in the southern part of the country, heavy gear is to be avoided if one needs to overcome the challenges of the tropical climate. “The lighter the better” as Peter put it. Longer pants are preferred to avoid any cuts on the legs. Maggi noodles is the signature food of any trekker, with the convenience of its transport and preparation rendering it so. Sunblock is mandatory while a closed shoe is deemed a suicidal trek gear. With high chances of water bodies being encountered, an ideal trekking shoe must be light, breathable and rigid soled (this rules out the popular Woodland trekking boot which is inadequate for the tropical climate ). A 9*12 feet Tarpaulin sheet and a tent sufficient for three people complete the list. Good gear in South India is available in Bangalore, according to Peter.

4. Managing a trek :

People, time, trail, water, and climate are the five things which a trekker needs to constantly keep in mind. Trail management gets very important with limited time allotted to each part of the trail. It is advised to take sips and not gulps from water bottles and fill them up at every stream along the path (yes the water is almost always pure!). One needs to manage the climate too with proper clothing (Leeches are quite prevalent in the monsoon season). One needs to gain proficiency in making a fire out of twigs too!

Following the lecture, a few people in the audience asked questions which Peter was more than willing to answer –

Q. What is the major danger in a trek expedition ?

A. “Water, or the lack of it. Loose rock can prove fatal too if straight climbs (one vertically above an other at some point of time) aren’t avoided. Also , the group needs to proceed as a closely knit one, minimizing the gap between any two members.”

Q. What was your most perilous moment ?

A. “ I once came within twenty feet of a blacksnout bear (an extremely rare occurrence). Given the unpredictable nature of these creatures, all I did was stare at it for a few seconds. It reciprocated my stare and thankfully left us unscathed.”

Q. What was the highest altitude you were on?

A. “ I once went till the base of Kanchenjunga, which is around 4000m above sea level. But it takes more mettle to steer through the trails in tropical South Indian climates than to follow an algorithmic trek path in the Himalayas (the highest peaks being the exception ofcourse!)”

Q. What would you deem as your best moment?

A. “ I once was atop a peak in the Tirumala hills and I could see a cluster of stars on the night sky, a view not fathomable in the polluted metropolitan area.”

Q. What is one dream trek you want to accomplish?

A. “Nah! Nothing of that sort. Every new one is just as amazing, and just as different!”

Resuming activities from this academic year, a few ideas were discussed in the adventure club’s first meeting. The plans include organizing activities every weekend (barring the quiz weeks) such as a skateboarding workshop, surfing, trekking, cycling and collaborating with other clubs such as Survival Instincts, CTC, and the Adyar Rowing club.

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