What kind of person is willing to drive, and to painstakingly organise a full-scale expedition, from the Himalayas to South Africa? Akhil Bakshi is. He talks to Rrishi Raote
Between India and South Africa there are 17 countries to traverse by road — not counting inhospitable Pakistan. In 2006 Akhil Bakshi led three cars and a team over three months from the Himalayas at the top of India to Cape Agulhas at the bottom of Africa. He called it the Gondwanaland Expedition, because it crossed two continents that were, until 170 million years ago, part of the supercontinent of Gondwana.
The route followed the faults and rifts where the Earth’s plates meet. At the Himalayas India meets Asia. In Iran the Arabian plate meets Asia. From Syria to Zambia there are rift valleys where Africa and its neighbouring plates edge apart.
Of the 25,000 km of the drive, Bakshi tells me over tea in Delhi, “11,000 km were dirt track.”
Indian tourists rarely go to such challenging places. But there is much to see and describe. So what are the running themes of Back to Gondwanaland (Odyssey, Rs 395), the book Bakshi published this year on the expedition? Immigration and customs bloodsuckers, of course, local sights, local politics and history, the inevitable catalogue of travel mishaps — and breasts.
Really, breasts. Here is how Bakshi describes his first impression of a city in Syria: “An Arabic proverb says that three things make the heart of man glad: water, vegetation and beauty. Aleppo had all three. The women were gorgeous. Their huge, convincing, pneumatic frontages burst out of tight, half-buttoned blouses revealing dizzying cleavages that plunged to tantalising depths.”
There’s more like this. At first it sounds silly. In Turkish Kurdistan the team piles out of its Mahindra SUVs to join a wedding dance — and have eyes only for the women. Secular Syria and Egypt are full of buxom women, some of whom are expensive prostitutes. Thankfully, by the time the group penetrates to Ethiopia the admiration is directed more chastely towards graceful tribal women — even in one roadside settlement known as a brothel stop. The travellers didn’t yield to temptation, Bakshi writes: “It was not in the national interest.” After all, the expedition carried letters from the PMO to heads of government and the crew was feted at Indian embassies along the route.
Bakshi is a good observer, despite the quirks. Sudan in particular, though its roadlessness gives Bakshi’s team hell, shines as a place that would richly reward study and travel, if they were possible in safety. Bakshi conveys the sense of tininess that huge, complex, ancient land imposes. As for the breasts, perhaps the sartorial freedom in conservative societies is a sign of some particular cultural depth or fissure, and therefore worth recording. Israel, as Bakshi portrays it, is more prudish and traditionalistic than its neighbours.
In person Bakshi is a neatly moustachioed 55-year-old, trim in jeans and sneakers. His eyes look more used to focusing on the horizon than on the person across the table. Indeed, when I meet him in October he is just back from a trip to Kailash-Mansarovar — for no particular reason. He shows me, with awe, a photograph from this trip of an anonymous mountainside where rock and snow form an immense natural “Om” sign.
Despite the restlessness, Bakshi can handle details. Organising an expedition is a monumental job. In 1994 he led a drive through Central Asia. “The purpose was to reestablish the ancient cultural and educational links we had.” In 1995-96 it was the Azad Hind expedition, from Singapore to Delhi, “to remind the people of the sacrifice of the INA soldiers”. In 1999 he led Hands across the Borders, “a mass contact programme” for “peace and development” that took his team through South Asia; this involved dozens of mass public meetings.
The next expedition will be Pangaea One World. Pangaea was the first supercontinent, the parent of Gondwana. It will involve driving 35,000 km from Alaska to the tip of South America.
Sponsorship, more than paperwork and visas, is the biggest headache. “That’s the boring part,” he says, “and that takes time.” For the Gondwanaland drive PSUs like IndianOil and ONGC-Videsh (which has oil interests in Sudan) gave Rs 5 lakh each. “The total cost was Rs 92 lakh,” Bakshi says, “of which we raised Rs 48 lakh through direct sponsorship. The rest was in kind, like the shipping of the vehicles from here to Bandar Abbas [in Iran], or from Cape Agulhas back — that was taken care of by the Mahindras.”
“I try to merge my sense of adventure with a sense of public service,” he says, to explain the grand-sounding objectives of his expeditions. He delivers the line so admirably that I have to believe it is genuine.
The Gondwanaland objectives included geological “exploratory research” and study of seismic activity. So he needed a team of scientists. Bakshi let the government pick. He got a seismologist, a geologist, a botanist, a zoologist and an anthropologist, to add to his vehicle engineer, doctor and two men for filming.
But how much research can happen on the fly? He yields the point but adds, creditably, that exposure matters. “Now it depends what [the scientists] do with it individually. If they are serious they can do a lot.”
His own CV is stuffed. After studying in Germany and the USA, he returned to India to work in rural development. In 1981 Rajiv Gandhi picked him to work in Rai Bareilly and Sultanpur, the UP constituencies. There, instead of spreading scarce resources thinly, Bakshi says, “[We] made a five-year plan. The first year we would link all the [larger] villages with an all-weather road. Year two we provide clean drinking water. Third year, electrification. Fourth was food. Fifth was drainage. These five things we did in five years.”
Impressed, “Rajiv-ji” made him head of the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan, a youth volunteer programme. That work is long over, but Bakshi still heads an NGO, Yuva Shakti, which has some presence, he says, in 171 districts. He started a film production company and sold it, investing in factory space which brings in rent — and funds all his private travel, such as the Kailash-Mansarovar trip as well as visits to scope out the route for the upcoming Pangaea expedition. Efficient, as always.