heels on fire: 05/14/06

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Day 11

11th May 2006
Silent Valley, 20km

Today was always going to be a little bit special from a runner’s perspective as we went deeper into Silent Valley, and so it proved to be. Even Stevie and Sudeep succumbed to the burning desire to join in the run.

Silent Valley is remote, and the further you wind and twist your way into the interior, the more the sense of isolation increases. As does the gut feeling that you are entering an ancient land that deserves and demands respect. I had a persistent mental image of signs I had seen many times before at touristy sites stating, ‘Leave only your footsteps behind.’ One should be humble in the presence of stunning natural beauty and character - share and revel in it, but leave it as undisturbed as on arrival. I then saw a sign that I’d never seen before in India stating that the National Park was a plastic free zone. It brought a satisfied smile to my face.

The serene silence of Silent Valley
Spread over 90 square kilometres the Silent Valley is a virgin forest situated in possibly the least violated, extensive patch of tropical rain forest remaining in the Western Ghats. This relative isolation has allowed for the preservation of fauna and flora in the valley over the 50 million years that is believed to be its evolutionary age. It has survived and flourished and become an important ecological oasis. We all agreed that a ‘then and now’ photographic sequence would probably metamorphose into a 'spot the difference competition' if motorcycles and jeeps were excluded. We did run for a good 10 kilometres before sighting a bus. Making the most of this rare freedom we ran three abreast down the winding valley road.

We passed no one for a considerable distance, which made this run distinctly different. This combined with the breathtaking views down into the valley and of the imposing rock faces that touched the clouds above us lent a feeling of total separation. Then my mobile phone in my backpack went ‘beep-beep’! In the blink of an eye both the technological and natural worlds in which we live collided. In the context of the day it seemed poignant, as here in our modern technological world was an example of a simple and sustainable existence.

We also came face-to-face with what can only be described as the wildest of monsters, foaming at the mouth and with eyes that screamed out, ‘I’m bad, you’re mine, all three of you, bring it on!’ In hindsight it was probably our imagination running wild and it could have been just an inquisitive but fearful wild dog or fox.

People seemingly walk further and we passed women carrying jack fruits and bundles of logs on their head. Home made wooden fences marked the perimeter of houses. Rubber trees grew in abundance and we got a glimpse of the how rubber trees are tapped for the sap – the latex. Trees lined the road with protruding coconut shell cups poised ready to capture the latex after the trunk had been tapped in the morning. The collected latex is then poured into trays, hardened with formic acid and then passed through metal presses to produce a sheet of rubber for the market place. In the era of synthetic rubber, it might appear minimalist, but appeared to be a sustainable source of rubber. Rubber continues to be one of the major crops of Kerala. Wonder what the impact of globalisation has been on this?

An eye on the environment

Consciousness of environment and sustainable development appeared to be everywhere. We passed a sign - ‘Fresh Water is Power, Act Now, You Can Help,’ which served to highlight the awareness that water is a precious commodity that needs protecting in order to secure a prosperous future. Despite being a rain-kissed state, certain parts of this state suffer severe water shortages. An article in today’s newspaper predicted a perhaps welcome early arrival of the monsoon, but also a slightly less than average overall rainfall. The authorities claim that the shortage is negligible, but there should be proper methods to utilise the rainwater without allowing it to flow to the seas. It doesn’t go on to explain what these methods are, or should be.
Into a wall of rain

We were to witness for ourselves this early arrival. The temperature noticeably dropped in an instance. A sudden chill that would have made the hardiest of salty sea dogs batten down the hatches rattled our bones. The sky turned a bizarre luminous tangerine colour and we got the feeling that a natural force was about to be unleashed. Having witnessed the alluring power of pristine nature all day and we were now about to witness another powerful facet of nature. Sand from the road swirled up whipping our legs and peppering our eyes, and bits of trees flew over our shoulders. We felt hesitant and excited at the same time and tried to push on as we felt comfortable and in the zone, but it soon became apparent that the only zone we were in was a slightly uncomfortable, unfamiliar and unsettling heavily atmospheric one. We needed to remove ourselves and let the storm do its business. Ten minutes after entering the safety of the jeep it turned pitch black as sheets of tropical rain descended.


Day 10

10th May 2006

Some where deep in the Silent Valley, close to Tamil Nadu Border.
Distance 18.5km

We had been looking forward to our trip into the hills, hoping that the altitude, fresh air, and tranquillity of life in the Silent Valley would provide some temporary relief from the heat, and the hustle and bustle we have encountered to date.

On arrival at the Hotel Silent Valley we were greeted with flower garlands, coconuts and big smiles. It was to be the start of a special relationship with our hosts. It would not have been out of place if Basil Faulty’s Keralite nephew had been in charge. We were the Hotel's very first guests - in fact, the hotel was not yet officially open. To say the service was attentive would be an understatement. Dan found himself having to try a number of complicated diversion tactics to slip his personal marker and escape to the roof, for a few precious minutes to work on his tan and blonde locks.

Our day’s excursion to Silent Valley was clearly not one we would be embarking on alone. We set off in convey. Our jeep and the hotel staff’s car were adorned with advertising banners. The Hotel, to their credit, was making the most of our visit to promote their new venture.

The Run
The run itself was a real joy and perhaps the best running conditions we have experienced in Kerala, so far. Running in the hills has its down side - what goes down must come up!. Our running guru, Pete told us not to underestimate the hazards of running down hill. The strain on the thighs muscles and knees can be worse than running up hill. Pete went as far as to say that he would rather run up the hill, I was not convinced, but I was not going to question the man who had got me this far.
There were less people, more space, a beautiful meandering river, fresh air, an amazing mountain and a soothing cool breeze in our faces. We were in running heaven.

Throughout the last two days of running, I had felt my legs were getting tired, taking longer and longer to run the stiffness and aches out of my muscles. Despite this and the fact that I had done over a marathon in the last three days, I felt strangely strong. I think running in the evening had given my weary legs a little more time to recuperate.

Village Volleyball

Our only stop was at a village volleyball game that we were invited to join. After a while, a sizeable crowd gathered to watch the spectacle. After a few friendly introductions,warm up shots and volleys, and we were into the real business. Heels on fire with the help of Peter (number 2) and local hero, Abdul emerged victorious, winning five sets to one. After a quick group photo with the players and spectators, we hit the scenic trail again

Religious Harmony
On the road, we discussed how our volleyball compatriots had a mixture of Muslim, Hindu and Christian names. Different religious groups appear to coexist in harmony. This seemed apparent in every village and town that we had passed through. A little down the road, we saw a statue of Jesus and Mary built directly opposite a mosque. Perhaps, a divine confirmation of our views.

We soaked up all the richness of nature that the Silent Valley had to offer. Late in the day a tractor full of mangoes sped by us. The man sitting on the trailer kindly rolled two mangoes on to the road as they passed. We gave hot pursuit to the mangoes as they gathered pace down the hill and but collected our prized with a few manoeuvres that would have done Jonty Rhodes proud. We ran the last few kilometres with a spring in our step and felt like we could go on forever. In the end, Dez called a halt to proceedings as it was dark and not safe to run. It was the right thing to do but there was no denying our sadness to realise that a very special day of running had come to an end. Our expectations of the Silent Valley had not been misplaced.

Today felt like another big day in my short running career. If you had told me just a month ago that I would run 20 kms one day and then 18.5 kms the next, I would have laughed. It has not taken long to build up the fitness and strength needed for such a run. While it has not been physically painless, I must say the biggest barriers have been in my own head.


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