In September last year, Akshay Aralikatti was having a rough ride while pedalling his bicycle up the Rohtang La in Manali. He was in between treks, and chose to cycle up to the pass to see if he could pull it off. But soon, his body was in pain and he decided to call his friend, Gurkirat Singh, for solace.
Instead of receiving a few handy tips from Singh, who had the experience of pulling off a 23-day bicycle ride that could’ve helped him tackle the climb, Aralikatti, 27, was handed a proposal, quite out of the blue. Singh, 28, asked his mate to join him on a walk, which would push their physical and mental limits.
Singh and Aralikatti, both engineers by qualification, had gotten to know each other through their jobs as trek leaders at Indiahikes, a Bengaluru-based outdoors enterprise. They’d bonded over their shared love for adventure, the reason they’d both shunned conventional careers as engineers. Most times, they were hiking in different parts of the Himalayas, which meant they only exchanged notes over the phone. But their first meeting was enough to establish a strong bond. Over conversations, they found that they shared similar perspectives on everything from the environment to education and their philosophy on life.
Now, Singh was hoping that they could plan their first adventure together.
The walk was to start amid the picturesque hills around Kohima in Nagaland and finish by the blue waters in Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. The numbers were mind boggling - 4,000km to be covered in around a hundred days. It meant walking a marathon distance each day, while tackling everything that the open road threw at them.
But it took mere minutes for Aralikatti to arrive at his decision. As he continued his ride up to the pass, his mind was already wandering the dusty highways of India.
The outdoors calling
When the duo started their walk on November 20 from Kohima, there was no fanfare. A friend of Aralikatti captured a few photos and wished them luck. They were soon off on their grand adventure, the first few steps taken amid a heady mix of nervous excitement and anticipation.
“The idea was to treat it like your 10km run each morning, just another workout,” Singh recalls.
A few months before they kicked off the walk, they’d both quit their jobs as trek leaders, and spent the time to independently chase their calling – Singh set off on a 23-day cycling expedition that took him from Mumbai to Kozhikode, Hyderabad and Pune. Aralikatti wanted to pursue kayaking and paragliding, until Singh’s offer to join him on the walk.
“There was this sense of freedom of not working a job. At the same time, I was looking to physically push myself to a different zone of pain,” Aralikatti says.
Singh agrees. Especially since this time around, they would be far from the idyllic mountain settings where they had led treks until then.
Together, they worked out the route and the logistics of the walk. They mapped it to avoid highways when possible, while deciding to locate food and stay options on-the-go. Besides the idea of testing their abilities, they also came up with a larger purpose for their walk – to highlight the lack of infrastructure for pedestrians in the country and to promote an active lifestyle.
How the going got tough
Initially, Singh had planned to ride a bicycle across the periphery of the country. Walking though would have a different advantage – travelling by foot gives the walker time to look around, soak in their environment and ponder over anything that piqued their curiosity along the way, whether natural or manmade.
“Besides, walking is logistically easier since you don’t have to worry about parking or repairs. It is also the slowest means of mobility where you can explore the country in the most efficient manner,” Singh says.
For this, they needed to shed the weight of their backpacks. There was a fair amount of bickering over this. Singh didn’t see the need for a towel when they could use a T-shirt after the rare shower. He was later left flummoxed when he spotted a hammock tucked away at the bottom of Aralikatti’s pack.
“He thought we would be chilling by the beach. It was only after we got going that he decided to dump it,” Singh says, laughing.
Starting off came with other hurdles too. When they announced their intention to do this walk, they received a discouraging message from one detractor who said that it would take just seven days for their bodies to break down.
They weren’t wrong. For Aralikatti, it took just five days. There were blisters on his feet and his body was in constant pain – confident of his experience in the Himalayas, he hadn’t factored in a 12 kg backpack and effects of walking mostly on a hard surface.
To keep such physical discomforts, including the nagging pain of Singh’s old ankle injury at bay, the duo would talk to their friends and family back home. They’d also often listen to podcasts and music on the road.
“Guru [Singh] kept telling me that it was about getting the mind and body used to the daily grind. The suffering was temporary,” Aralikatti adds.
The stories of the road
By evening, they would stretch inside their tents and together undergo the painful process of popping and cleaning their blisters. During the day, they would each walk their own walks, but alongside each other, and in companionable silence. Often, they would be a short distance apart to give each other space, only to exchange notes during rest breaks or at camp each evening.
They’re regularly stopped by curious onlookers, unable to wrap their heads around this walk. A few would accompany them over short distances and indulge in a conversation. In Falakata in West Bengal, one such companion requested them to accompany him and address some students.
“The kids were curious about why we hadn’t pursued conventional engineering careers. Besides that, they had all the usual questions — why had we chosen to walk such a long distance, how we had prepared for it, what we ate and where we slept at night. We spoke to them about social issues such as poverty and sanitation and the need to find solutions for them,” Aralikatti says.
“We thought it would be a small school, but we ended up talking to around 200 students, who eagerly listened to our story and applauded our effort. It was a proud moment to know that we were having a positive impact on young minds,” Singh adds.
Every evening, an entire village would gather when they would try to locate a spot to pitch their tents. On a few occasions, they set up camp on the outskirts of villages to avoid multiple narrations of their story and instead, catch up on some much-needed rest. Over the last few weeks, they’ve stayed in a mosque, temple and church, a government school, the waiting room of a railway station, a police station, an inspection bungalow, a dhaba and the backyard of a resort.
The first one to rise each morning snuggles into the sleeping bag for a few extra winks, awaiting the other to stir. The sight of their shoes and sandals brings dread at times, especially when they’ve been on the road for long.
Over time, however, Singh and Aralikatti have realised that the idea is to simply show up each day and begin their walk, without putting much thought to it. Each milestone is celebrated with a little jig by the side of the road – they even share video dispatches of this on social media. Then, there are some solemn moments, like the time they sat soaking in a gorgeous sunset by the Ganga at the border of Malda and Murshidabad in West Bengal.
Someone to walk with
“Without Akshay, this would have been a mental challenge. No third person can feel what we are feeling, so it really helps. And it’s great to have a buddy who can laugh with you at your shared misery,” Singh says.
After 35 days, which included two rest days in Guwahati and Siliguri, Singh and Aralikatti spent Christmas Day in Kolkata. The next leg will take them to Visakhapatnam and onward to Bengaluru, before they end their journey in Kanyakumari.
“Walking is very meditative. The mind often trails off to the finish, where we hope to drop our packs and run off to the beach,” Aralikatti says.
And that moment will arrive soon enough – they hope in a total of 100 days – as they make steady progress together, one step at a time.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist