Blind Award participants take on the jungle

“My heart pumped fast when I heard [where we were going] for our Gold level Adventurous Journey. It was my dream to stay a night in the invincible jungle... I was not frightened to share a jungle night with elephants, deer, rhinos. I was eager to take that experience which hardly ever comes to a visually challenged person.” - Jashimuddin, 17, Gold Award participant.

In the Indian foothills of the mighty Himalaya, not far from the border with Bhutan, lies the lush green habitat of Garumara National Park. In this wildlife sanctuary of around 80 square kilometres, Indian Rhinoceros and elephants range across the grasslands, and leopards slink through the forest. Single track roads meander under the canopy of sal, teak and rain trees, while the gentle Naora River carries icy mountain water along the edge of the park.

Jungle challenges

It may be a sanctuary for the animals that inhabit it, but Garumara presents plenty of challenges to those who decide to make it their adventure. The Indian python and king cobra, amongst the deadliest snakes in the world, call the forest home, and the Indian Rhinoceros, the fifth largest land mammal, can mount a charge to threaten any hiker.

But the young men from the Ramakrishna Mission Blind Boys’ Academy in Narendrapur were not deterred by these dangers as they embarked on their Gold level Adventurous Journey. If anything, as 21-year-old Kartick confirms, the challenges only made them keen for more. “I wanted to have tough tasks during camping days... I believe a visually challenged person can do everything a sighted person can, but I will do it in my way.”

No retreat

Their journey took place in mid-August, when the group left Kolkata by Kanchan Kannya Express. After reaching the camp site at Bana Bitan, next to a tea plantation, the young men were later briefed on what to expect and how to deal with the hazards that might await them.

These hazards were soon apparent, as 20-year-old Shibnath comments. “It was raining, and we suffered a few attacks from leeches and insects but we did not retreat. It was a tough trek; the instructors wanted to return for our safety but we forced them to give us permission to complete our task. We knew that a tusker elephant was moving very near to us.”

A multi-sensory experience

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine undertaking this kind of journey without relying on our sense of sight to keep us safe, and to record our progress. But as Rupanjan Goswami, one of their Award Leaders, explains, the group’s journey was a rich sensory experience. “While trekking... participants touched different herbs, orchids and trees. They felt the texture of the leaves – saw the differences in a tactile way. They smelled the fragrances of different flowers, and knew their identity through their noses.”

Nerves of steel

Working closely with their Award Leaders, and guides from the Institute of Climbers and Nature Lovers, the young men located and neutralised a bees nest so that they could extract honey, interacted with the local tribal community, learnt to pitch a tent, and ‘jummered’ up a tall tree. (For anyone who hasn’t experienced jummering, it’s a bit like trying to abseil up a tree or cliff face, and demands nerves of steel.)the whistle of parrot, crane, and pheasant. Instructors delivered a whispering running commentary to them. They touched a footprint of a tusker elephant that passed just before us: they were amazed to feel the shape and size of the footprint...”

Stronger, mentally and physically

The participants had recorded what they heard and experienced on their Ipods, including the various training and safety briefings which took place during their journey. Later, they used these to write up their experiences in their Braille note books.

They are all clear on the enormous benefits which they got from their trip. “I was in seventh heaven when we completed our Adventurous Journey successfully, says 17-year-old Koushik. “[I am] more strong mentally and physically, fearless... co-operative and optimistic too.”

Omprash, 25, agrees with him. “What I got from the Adventurous Journey was really beyond my imagination and expectation... Being a visually challenged boy the world was very tiny to me, believe me, it was in between my two hands, but this Adventurous Journey let me know the magnitude of the world.”

Brave new leaders

Rupanjan has also witnessed a “remarkable change” in the participants since completing this journey and their Award programme. “The Award makes them bold, brave, laborious, communicative, co-operative and enthusiastic... They are seriously thinking about being brave leaders of their young society. It all has happened due to their strong self-belief and self-confidence.” And as Sabirul, 21, says, this means choosing their own path. “Yes, I will be a teacher... but in my way.”

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