Hiking

The Swarm of Bees – an Adventure Story from Mt. Abu

Some dates are hard to forget. They are engraved in your bio-memory due to the very extreme life-threatening experience that you have either gone through or witnessed. The same is the case with the date 15th May 1986. I don’t make any effort to remember it.

The entire story of “THE SWARM” unfolds before me.

It Started at the Mountaineering and Leadership Camp, Mt. Abu

Since 1967, every summer, month-long Mountaineering & Leadership Camps at Mt. Abu were conducted by Fr. Erviti. A saintly Spanish Jesuit priest Fr. Ramiro Erviti S.J. was the sports Director at St. Xavier’s Loyola Hall School, Ahmedabad and also the founder Director of St. Xavier’s Social Service Society (SXSSS).

He himself was an adventurer, with a thin lanky athletic built, clear childlike eyes, and a heart filled with only “LOVE” and “COMPASSION’. He believed in the positive benefits of being in the great outdoors, and had initiated mountaineering camps for students. A tremendous confidence and leadership qualities were noticed in the students who participated in these camps. In fact, he had even started exposing the students to the Himalaya, every alternate year after proper selection, gruelling physical training, and planning.

Successful expeditions to Friendship Peak (17,365 Feet), Ladakhi Peak (18,200 Feet), and the difficult Hanuman Tibba (19,565 Feet) took place in the years 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1979 respectively. Unsuccessful attempts to scale Makar Beh Peak (20,031 Feet) and Sikar Beh Peak (20,460 Feet) were also made.

Students themselves would be involved in practically all the logistics and planning of the expedition right from the word go. These adventure trips to Himalaya continued regularly till May, 1979 when a major avalanche struck the climbing students in the Tantu Pass gulley while climbing Hanuman Tibba. Fortunately, there were no casualties except some bad bruises, broken ribs and loss of equipment.

Till date, the climbs of young Loyola school students on those mountains remain as a record. However, the camps at Mt. Abu continued uninterrupted every year.

The Camping Ground near Gaumukh Hanuman

Abu Wild was the name given by Fr. Erviti to the camp ground near Gaumukh Hanuman. Locals simply called it Xavier’s camping ground. In fact, in those days the road ended at the Gaumukh Hanuman temple. From there one had to walk for about 400 meters inside where a slogan “GIVE YOUR BEST & GET YOUR BEST” on a huge granite rock greeted the visitor.

The campsite itself was a flat ground surrounded on three sides by high mountains with huge rocks and lot of Jamun, Mango, Erythrina and lantana bushes. There were no lights, no toilets and no water. All water was sourced from the Upper Kodra Dam carried manually.

The campus of Abu Wild. Photo by RajendraSinh Jadeja

Simple cotton tents were pitched for the students to stay. All the cooking happened by using dry wood. The only source of light was a French butane gas lamp which was lit every evening at dinner time only. In the tents there were kerosene lanterns just enough to discern the things around.

Breakfast and dinner were on a huge rock and lunch was always under the shade of huge the Jamun tree with a lot of leaf litter under it. Few big outcropping roots of the Jamun tree served as a bench and yes, we had a tape recorder which was played for a little while at lunch time.

We were at the Tail-End of Basic Rock Climbing Course

On 14th May, 1986 the 10-day Basic Rock-Climbing Course got over and the boys were to depart on the next day early morning. In the evening a bada khana was organised and post dinner lot of dancing, plays, songs, and jokes around the crackling campfire went on for quite some time.

Besides them there was a team of 6 boys who were doing a 30-day long Coaching Rock-Climbing Course. Their course would end on 30th May, 1986 and after few days of team climbing on the Adhar Devi rock wall, they were to do a new route opening and climbing exercise on the Craigs, at pillar No.47, about 800 feet below the Anadra Point or what is popularly known as the Honey Moon Point. And that was to happen on 15th May, 1986 from early morning and I was to join that team as I had already done my Coaching Course few years back and was keen to do that route.

Getting Ready to Open the Route on the Craigs

On 15th May, 1986 very early in the morning at around 04:00 Hrs, after a quick breakfast the Basic Course boys got ready to depart for their respective destinations in a Matador Van with Prajit Kapur. The Coaching Course boys, all six of them, with their equipment, rucksacks, and water bottles were ready to trek up to Anadara Point and find a crack to climb up.

Everyone walked up to the Jamun tree on the road where the Matador Van was parked. Fr. Erviti though he had severe back pain and in spite of our request not to ride the motorcycle, still decided to ride back to Ahmedabad on his favourite motor cycle – The Royal Enfield Bullet.

I, who was to join the climbing party, by divine providence, as a spur of the moment decision, decided to ride as pillion rider with Fr. Erviti on his bullet. Here the six boys, namely, Robert Parmar, Wihang Garde, Trikam Dantani, Arif Pathan, Azim Shaikh, and Kanti started their long walk towards Anadara Point where they were to meet the Gujarat Government Senior Instructor Sri Pravin Gangadia and one more local resident boy, Rajesh Thakkar also doing the Coaching Course.

Rajesh Thakkar on that day got up late (luckily) and did not join the team on that day. Pravin Bhai joined the team at Anadara Point and from there went down, following the path made up of arranged rock pieces leading to Anadara village at the base of the Mt. Abu on the west.

In those days’ villagers from Anadara would climb carrying milk from that route to Mt. Abu every day. Soon they reached Amba Paani, where in good old days was a natural water point where both humans and animals, without distinction, quenched their thirst.

The Group Started from the Andadara Point

At Amba Paani, Pravin Bhai showed the general direction in which they were to head and then pointed out roughly the few cracks leading up the mountain and ending few hundred feet away from the Anadara Point. Boys trekked through the dried lantana bushes for about half an hour and reached at the base of the cracks. They identified two cracks and divided themselves into two teams of three each.

In one team Robert Parmar, Wihang Garde, and Arif were there, while in the other team Kanti, Azim Shaikh and Trikam were there. After dividing the equipment and some eatables Arif and Azim started lead climbing on their pre-decided routes.

An Unseen Disaster, Ready to Sting

It was around 08:20 Hours as remembered by Robert. As a lead climber both of them had taken a belay rope which was tied around their waist with a bow-line knot. Both the lead climbers could hear each other but were not in visual contact. After the first pitch of about 50-60 feet a platform was found, where a belay system was set up. A rope was anchored and belay set. The remaining extra rope was thrown below so that the second climber could climb.

In the other team, Azim was fast and had already gained quite some height, and was already at least 80 feet high. The team was busy climbing and totally unaware of the massive beehives hidden in the deep crevices of the cracks and on the overhanging rocks.

Few guard bees buzzed pass the boys, some did head butting and few others started hovering over the boys. One of the boys when stung by just one bee got hold of it and squeezed it in his palm. Few more met the same fate, got crushed and palms brushed off against the thick cotton/jeans pants they were wearing.

This acted like a trigger and a full-fledged bee attack started. Soon the climbers who were below were engulfed in a swarm of bees.

The Bees of Abu

Bees have always been one of the banes in summer in the wilderness of Abu. These bees are way too tenacious in defending their hives and if their hive is disturbed or if they feel threatened, these bees will attack the person by the hundreds, sometimes thousands.

Boys were getting stung by the bees relentlessly. Each sting was delivering a lethal dose of venom into their exposed skin. Wihang committed a blunder. He removed his full-sleeved shirt and started shooing off the bees.

In the process the entire upper body got exposed and he was being attacked the most. The extent of number of bee stings was so high that both the ear lobes of Wihang turned black. He soon became unconscious. Robert Parmar too got stung on the exposed skin of the face and hands. Even his lips, inside of the mouth, and eyelids were not spared.

Trikam Dantani panicked and tried to escape but the bees were in hot pursuit. In the process he lost control and fell off from a cliff straight into a gap in the crack. With both the legs fractured, one hand fracture and head injury he lost consciousness immediately. Maybe after that the bees just left him and he lay there jammed in a remote crack.

Getting Help

Azim and Kanti who were quite high on the other crack could hear the screams of their fellow team mates and also could hear the drone of the buzzing bees. They could also see the swarm from the top. In fact, some bees flew to the top but instinctively these two boys became motionless and froze in their climb.

Soon they freed themselves from the rope safety system and did free climbing to the top. Soon they rushed to the institute trembling and informed the then Principal of the Mountaineering Institute of Gujarat (MIG) Miss Nandini Patel. In the meanwhile, Rajesh Thakkar who had got up late, got ready and walked up to Anadara Point where he was informed by the milkmen coming from below in Marwadi language that your team mates have been attacked by the wild bees (bhanvar e khadho).

Rajesh went down to Amba Paani where he met Pravin Bhai. They borrowed the turbans and clothes from the milkmen, covered their faces and ventured into the thicket, in the direction of the accident with some hostile bees hovering over their head. They retreated as there were simply too many bees all around.

By that time, it was already 11:30 Hrs. By that time the word had spread and the locals including the Nakki boatmen gathered at Anadara Point. A humming of the bees could be heard in the valley below and nobody dared to go down and help.

Somebody thought of calling the Gaumukh Hanuman temple and informing the Xavier’s Campsite.

In those days a message was taken by the then Swami Trivenidasji and then conveyed to our camp. Both the incoming and the outgoing calls were charged. At the campsite the only responsible person present was our Head Cook Shyamlal Joshi. There were other members also in the kitchen team, plus the four labourers who fetched water from the Upper Kodra dam. Shyamlal immediately started for the Anadara Point.

Head Cook comes to Rescue

After reaching the S.T. Bus stand a taxi was hired and he reached Anadara Point. When he reached there a huge gathering of onlookers had collected. The then Principal of the mountaineering institute Miss Nandiniben Patel was also there trying to put up some rescue team.

By that time, it was already 13:30 Hrs and was very hot. Shyamlal and few brave heart locals went down with water and frooti. They had taken instructions from the locals about the rough directions and possible where abouts of the students. Within 1 hr they reached the spot. Both Robert and Wihang were lying almost unconscious.

When Shyamlal called their names only Robert responded. A little water was poured through the little opening of the swollen lips which could barely be opened. On hearing Shyamlal’s voice and after some water going inside Robert’s system, holding Shyamlal’s hand Robert said “Shyamlal now that you have come, I will not die”.

Somebody was sensible enough to inform the army station and soon the Indian Army soldiers from the G-11 Gorkha Rifles in their full combat gear, excepting the weapons, arrived on the scene with stretchers. Both Robert & Wihang were carried in stretchers to the top of the Anadara Point and from there in a vehicle to the Govt Hospital.

Arif proved to be the smartest of all the boys. He put his head in the rucksack made of thick cotton. Also, on his hands he wore the thick rappelling mittens and put all the extra ropes on all the exposed parts. He escaped with only a few stings. He waited motionless till the help arrived and then walked up on his own up to Anadra Point and then onwards to the campsite. It was already 1800 hrs and some bees were still hovering. Few smoke bombs were thrown which forced the bees to fly away from that area.

It was sunset, yet Trikam was missing

Some discussions in the hushed voices were happening and suggestions of halting the rescue operation till morning were made. It was then that Shri Nandalal Purohit, another Senior Mountaineering Instructor and popularly called Dada decided to look for Trikam, one last time.

Sri Nandalal Purohit was in the past a senior team member of St. Xavier’s Loyola Hall’s climbing expeditions to Hanuman Tibba and other Himalayan mountains in the past. Dada along with Harji (a local guide) rappelled down from the top following the crack with a torch. After a few hundred feet of rappel Trikam was found wedged into a crack – breathing but unconscious.

He was taken out of the crack and tied with a rope on the back of Dada and with the help of Harji carried to the top. He too was taken to the only Government Hospital of Mt. Abu.

At the hospital, all the preliminary and possible medication were administered by the present Doctors. Mt. Abu Govt Hospital had limited resources and was simply not equipped to handle such serious cases. Miss Chaula Jagirdar (Instructor) and her sister Urvashi sat there practically for the entire night removing the stings with a plucker (the one used by ladies) from the bodies of Robert and Wihang. Trikam was not severely bitten but had fracture in both his legs, one hand and head injury. Rajesh Thakkar too, as he remembers, removed the stings from the Wihang’s body.

Few dead bees were taken out from the nostrils and ear canals of Wihang.

Here in Ahmedabad Fr. Erviti was informed over phone about the accident. Soon I was informed by Prajit Kapur another fellow instructor. It was decided as suggested by the Abu Doctors to shift the boys to Ahmedabad Civil Hospital. Now there was another problem.

There was no ambulance in Mt. Abu.

Soon Fr. Erviti contacted Glen View Retreat in Mt. Abu where few Jesuit priests were doing their retreat.

Next day morning that is on 16th May, 1986, Fr. Franco got in touch with Governor’s bungalow, through some connection, from where it was decided that the local police will give their closed truck to shift the casualties to Ahmedabad. The three injured boys were shifted to Ahmedabad and admitted in the Civil Hospital.

Along with Fr. Erviti, I met them at the hospital. Wihang’s parents were also there. Wihang’s father was at that time the Director of ATIRA. There was not a word of protest from them and the incident was accepted as part of the high-risk mountaineering sport. Robert was kept for almost 3 months in the hospital and then discharged. Trikam was kept for few weeks and then plastered and sent home.

Story of IKDRC at Ahmedabad Civil Hospital

The IKDRC (Institute for Kidney Diseases & Research Centre) was housed in the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital grounds and had a superlative team of Doctors headed by Dr. H. L. Trivedi. The story goes that when he was practicing in Montreal, Canada, Smt. Indira Gandhi, the then PM, visited this hospital in Montreal – and asked why a great doctor like him is not practicing in India.

Paraphrasing what transpired is that he said that there is too much corruption and nepotism to manage hospitals ethically and professionally. She gave him a commitment that neither of these will be a factor – and that’s when he returned, set up the IKDRC.

Wihang was put on dialysis and stayed in hospital for almost more than 6 months and took almost a year to recover. While writing this article I communicated with him. Wihang mentioned that he basically owed his life to Dr. H. L. Trivedi and the entire team. Upon complete recovery, as he remembered he was not 100% certain if he was ‘afraid’ of bees going forward.

Fear of Bees?

To prove this oneway or the other, he went on a trekking trip to the Gir Sanctuary around February of the following year. It is the time of the year when mango – and other trees – are flowering and bees were super active.

He was around them, one even stung him and this greatly helped to establish two things:

1) The body is not allergic to bee stings (there was a concern in the hospital that it may happen)

2) There was no lasting ‘fear’ of bees.

Wihang continued trekking and in the year 1992 did his Basic Mountaineering Course in Ice & Snow Craft at the premier Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi. He is married and settled in Canada. His left his ear lobe is still partially missing.

Robert too is married and lives in Ahmedabad. Trikam too, I hear is in Ahmedabad but I have no contact. It was a new beginning, a gift of life to them. The two army soldiers from the Indian Army’s G-11 Gorkha Rifles were awarded President’s medal for bravery.

Legacy of Fr. Ramiro Erviti S.J

Fr. Ramiro Erviti S.J. passed away due to the heatstroke on 20th May, 1986 at the age of 56 years, just 5 days after the accident. From the very next year, that is from 1987 until 1994, I continued his legacy by conducting Mountaineering & Leadership Camps at Abu Wild under the banner of SXSSS. Fr. Erviti’s charismatic personality had inspired many youngsters like me.

The No.30th Coaching Rock-Climbing Course in which these boys were there was continued as per Erviti’s wishes. The four remaining boys successfully completed the course. That particular course is still referred as MADHUMAKKI Coaching Course!

Abu Wild is a place of pilgrimage for me now. Whenever I go to Abu, I spend some quite moments over there.

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