Expedition India 2019 - A journey of life changing memories It’s difficult to eloquently articulate these special experiences Travelling in India is a total adventure experience in itself. Add a 500km adventure through pristine mountain and river landscapes with incredible people, then you have a once in a lifetime experience. It's difficult to put into words the many special moments and connections made on this journey and certainly it would be near impossible to describe the emotions that accompany an adventure of this magnitude. The objective of this piece of writing is to capture part of the experience through sharing a collection of memories throughout this unique peregrination Racing hard but always smiling. Adventure racers are pretty hardcore. Having the opportunity to engage with these these athletes and seeing them perform (live) on the outdoor stage is quite something. One of these memories is a moment captured with one of the best adventure racing teams in the world and eventual winners of the race. It was at T6 where I was manning the transition at the Hot Spring Hotel in Tatapani. 400 TEAM Naturex had just finished a strong paddle and arrived in transition and proceeded to work very efficiently preparing for the big 58km trek that lay ahead. They were in full race mode - changing and packing trekking gear, refilling water, mapping routes and restocking supplies and were just about to check out of transition. The focus and professional team organisation and on the go planning and organisation was most impressive. Just before they left the transition I took a chance - actually I was a bit star truck seeing these pros in real life to be honest - and asked if I could take a selfie with them - to which they immediately agreed. It was a real honour and privilege watching these world class athletes race, whose abilities are most inspiring and yet remain so humble throughout the entire event. A very special memory indeed. The calm during storm. On the morning of the race the logistics crew left early ahead of the teams to setup the start. It was about a 90 minute trip up the notoriously, winding, cold and icy Rohtang Pass and the small group in the bus were on high alert at the possibility of a wheel sliding close to the precarious steep edge or even a landslide along the route. The bus broke down driving about 2km from the start point, which meant that the team had to get out the warmth of the vehicle and walk the rest of the way - a rather unexpected twist to the pending start. The weather was very unpleasant. Freezing cold conditions (-4°C) with a strong breeze which made the walk up the steep, winding pass most uncomfortable. The snow was thickly blanketing the high peaks all around and the grey light added to the sombre atmosphere. Then finally the sun rose over the top of the pass and flooded its warm, golden light over the Solang Valley glacier below - a spectacular sight. We paused for a moment to take in the view. At that moment there was a calmness, a stillness void of all inhabitants. An inner peace ensued - difficult to explain. “There’s a special magic in these mountains” I whispered silently to myself and carried on the walk up the pass - smiling into the fierce breeze. A difficult start I thought - but this is an adventure after all. Celebrating Life. A colourful memory celebrating our arrival in India and the start of the Festival of Colour. Teams arrived in good spirits filled with nervous anticipation for the next couple of days of adventure. After settling into their hotel room at Anantmaya Resort they had a couple of hours to explore the town of Minali, unpack and sort out some provisional racing gear before the first planned activity for the teams - The Celebration of Holi Festival - The Festival of Colour. The Holi Celebration is an ancient Hindu Festival and it signifies the arrival of spring, the blossoming of love and a happy celebration of good fortune. For many that celebrate, it’s a festive day to meet friends old and new. To play and laugh. To forget and forgive, and repair broken relationships.It signifies the start of something new and exciting and ushers in new blessings for the year ahead. It was therefore a meaningful and special celebration for the teams participating and an opportunity for them to reflect and appreciate their journey to the start of Expedition India 2019. Personally is was a moment of reflection and an outpouring of thankfulness of a day filled with colour and love and the beginning of an incredible adventure. A spiritual journey in nature. An opportunity to explore the magnificent Himachal Pradesh region presented itself on a glorious day. The Maa Shali Temple is magnificent and well worth the steep 2 hour hike to the summit - it’s one of the Highest Temples in the Himachal Pradesh region. The challenge of the hike and the climb towards the summit was a great way to experience the area. Most teams had finished the race and unpacked and sorted gear for the return home and were excited at the opportunity to return to a section of the course at CP22. They eagerly packed their day packs and a couple of snacks and jumped into the bus to the start of the trail and the day outing - much like excited school kids on a field trip. Teams arrived at the start point after an hour trip through the valley Nauri Khad River valley - journey experience in itself. What followed was a trek up the mountain in a relaxed yet sightly competitive manner with teams enjoying the camaraderie and mutual appreciation of the magnificent scenery. What was most memorable for me was hiking with many of the top adventure racers in the world - a unique opportunity to gain insights and understanding about these phenomenal athletes and to share a mutual passion for the outdoors. The culmination was reaching the temple and experiencing the view with these amazing people. Teams spent time admiring the mighty snow covered Himalayan Range in the distance, soaking up the sun and enjoying each other’s company - there was even time to share a beer that one of the teams carried up the laborious climb - a real toast to health, wealth and happiness atop a special peak. It’s was almost a perfect day - certainly an experience of a lifetime. Mountain evacuation. Safety in remote mountains is critical to the success of adventure racing. It’s an essential component to track teams and ensure that they are safe and can alert the event organizers should the need arise. At about 01:00am in the morning we received Team Bend Racing activated the SPOT Help function. The Race Director requested that we rescue the team located near CP21 on the trek high on the high mountain pass. This was both exciting and a bit overwhelming. Navigating, locating and evacuating a team in a totally foreign country at night was a huge responsibility and it was critical we reached the team as quickly as possible. Our rescue didn’t start off well as the hotel gates were locked and we couldn’t get out the premises. We eventually found the guard on duty and set out to find out driver - who hadn’t answered several of our urgent phonecalls. We eventually found him a couple of hundred meters up the road asleep in his vehicle. The look on his face afterbung women up and told we had an emergency was priceless. Thanks to GPS navigation and some tech skills we were able to track good time although the drive up the pass was very treacherous and steep. Fortunately we arrived safely to find the team safe and warm in a local house where they were cared for and fed by the humble home owners. This experience was another incredible adventure and although the rescue was successful, it was even more amazing to hear how the team was taken in by the locals in the middle of the night and treated like celebrities. Initially they took cover in a bus shelter along the road and were then later spotted by the generous hosts after they heard the team scurrying about nearby. They were given warm tea and offered food whilst a fire was lit to offer some warmth. The family even gave up third room for the team to sleep and offered additional blankets and pillows. Was was most memorable was the sight of elderly couple standing at the doorway and waving at the bus as it departed with the team safely aboard. This will certainly be an experience the team will remember for a long time. Thoughts as a volunteer It’s a full on adventure volunteering at Expedition India 2019. Arrangements were finalized very quickly and before I know it I was on my way to Johannesburg to meet the rest of the crew. Being part of the Adventure Racing World Series meant that there would be a wider international audience watching every aspect of the race and therefore additional pressure. To start off our crew was small but highly skilled. The range of abilities and personalities was outstanding and this was critical in an event of this nature. The directors also wanted people that had had previous experience in India. This also ensured that there was a proper understanding of how systems, businesses and people operate in India - very different would be a fair assessment and challenges would be a daily probability. The scale and distance over which the race course was designed was always going to present a logistical challenge - 450km through mountains and river valleys connected by precarious roads and passes. The team managed extremely well and were able to setup transitions and transport bicycles and gear bags successfully despite many challenges - some of which were out of our control. In addition management of team safety and well being was a core focus and with the assistance of local accommodation establishments we were able to deliver a high standard of race support to each athlete. The hours were long and the challenges great but our strength lay in good leadership and the team focus on providing workable solutions when faced by the many challenges - a real testament to teamwork and everyone working towards a common goal - that of ensuring the event was memorable and a great experience for all the athletes. It was incredible working with these amazing people who are now part of our close adventure racing family - I believe that together this team was able to perform at an extremely high level and deliver a world class event. A massive thank you to Stephan and Heidi Muller for their incredible vision, passion, sacrifice and leadership throughout the entire event. It was indeed a real honour and privilege being part of this very special and successful event. Closing thoughts Although the trip was physically exhausting for most of the journey, I left the mountains with my mind feeling refreshed and invigorated. What ensued post reflectively was real clarity and sincere appreciation of the people, culture and landscapes. I gained valuable insights into the meaning of adventure and invaluable lessons about life . In amongst all the craziness and energetic cultural uniqueness that embraces you from start to finish, there was (and is) an appreciation of the beautiful magic and spirituality of the region and its people embracing the simplicity of life. A contrast of emotions and experiences that challenge you on a daily basis - yet remind you that the journey of adventure is always about love. India certainly ignites your soul and takes a little piece of your heart in the process. Craig Giese is an Outdoor Adventure Photographer and Media Content Developer from the Eastern Cape, South Africa and part of the Expedition India 2019 Organizing Team.