TIMELESS TRAVEL: A JOURNEY OF 8400 NAUTICAL MILES ACROSS SEVEN SEAS !!

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          “We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” – John Hope Franklin

What is it about travel that once a man is smitten by he finds no respite in anything else .I would find it a herculean effort indeed in the literary sense to try and explain this to someone who does have have the senses to understand the same .

For many of you this may seem bit of a plain tale considering that it does not speak of landscapes encompassing wide plains or towering mountains that normally travelogues  are made up of .This tale of mine is for those whose senses are alive to savor the yearn  of travel other than that of the ordinary and conjure in their mind images that leap from the words written in these lines , for the journey starts in the Arabian Seas charts its course through the Gulf of Aden cruises through the Red Sea transiting one through the wonder that is the Suez Canal thereafter soaking in the Mediterranean after which as one gazes upon the Indomitable Rock of Gibraltar as we power ahead to the Bay of Biscay to meet up with the wild Atlantic and push ahead  finding oneself in the icy green waters of the English Channel which soon make way to the seas of medieval yore that were the playgrounds of the Vikings who ruled realms surrounding the North Sea , the Norwegian Sea and the black blue icy waters of the Barents Sea. I do hope that the pictures do justice to the world that I saw and experienced!!!!!!

The Beginning : As with all journeys one has to begin a journey and mine began one fine afternoon in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai as I turned my vision westwards and followed the setting sun .My course was to reach the Gulf of Aden , dance with danger in the waters infested with sea pirates .Socotra islands were passed to the left of us as Yemen appeared and went over in to the horizon. The vistas kept changing and so did the cloud formations and the spectacular sun sets .The myriad of colours and formations are something that one can never experience over land, a sun rise on the vast ocean is a sight that is best experienced in solitude. The total distance traveled from Mumbai to the Gulf of Aden is around 1100 nautical mile. Soon we were reaching the famed city of Djibouti which simmered in the afternoon heat in the distance. This voyage was to conquer the seas; land played no part in this .The strait of Bab El Mandap beckoned us as we marked our entry in to the Red Sea. Numerous companions passed me on my journey and they came in all kinds of colours and shapes. Some were leviathans that thundered past displacing over quarter of a million tonnes while some were more modest.Some had lengths that extended beyond 350 mts while others were well within the 100 meters mark. On a city street or a town street when one passes another there is not much attention that is given but in the vastness of the ocean each traveler is looked upon with interest and warmth at the heart for in the wild blue yonder the sight of another does gladden the heart immensely.

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The Gulf of Aden lies between the Somalian coast on one side and Omani and Yemeni coast on the other. The Gulf leads one right to the straits of Bab El Mandap which form the gateway to the Red Sea. This area is the bee hive of all piracy with numerous piracy reporting’s heard almost every day. The civilized world has established IRTC (Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor) which are patrolled by multi nation naval warships which guide merchant vessels safely through the Gulf of Aden acting as ferocious but cautious guard dogs shepherding docile sheep from the cunning and ever present wolves of the seas.

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As soon as we crossed the Gulf of Aden we were in the Red Sea, having covered a distance of 2000 nautical miles. The passage through the red sea has the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the right while to the left we have the war torn country of Sudan. The Red Sea is a sea water inlet lying between Africa and Asia. North of the Red Sea we have the Sinai Peninsula, Gulf of Aquaba and Gulf of Suez. It is through North that I was headed onwards. The Sea is one of the most saltiest in the world and historically was associated with the exodus of Israelites crossing a body of water which parted to give way. I crossed several atolls on the way which had arisen from the sea. The 2250 km long sea was crossed over a period of three days. Moments spend at sea have their own charm as one is restricted to a limited space within which one must adapt oneself. Many a evening was spent playing volleyball on the high seas with the sun setting in the distance or sometimes it was a tranquil afternoon reading some literature while on some other days it was filled with tossing and turning as the sea proved to be very wild and angry.

On the evening of the fourth day I glimpsed the Suez Canal and Port Tawfiq where I stopped for the night in order to prepare myself for the journey through one of the most famous of all canals –The Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is an artificial sea level waterway in Egypt which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea .Constructed over a period of 10 years it allows passage between Europe and Asia without having to go round Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. The Canal is 193 km long and 205 mts wide with a depth of 79 feet. The canal is owned, maintained and operated by the SUEZ CANAL AUTHORITY and can be used “in time of war as in time of peace, by every vessel of commerce or war, without distinction of Flag”. This was my second visit to the Suez and I took the opportunity to explore the canal to its hilt as I spend almost majority of the transit looking with interest the world that moved by .

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The canal is a single lane transit with passing places at the Ballah By Pass and the Great Bitter Lake which in itself is a salt water lake in the Suez Canal. The passage through the Canal which commenced at two in the early morning took 16 hours as I traveled at a speed of 15 km/h or 8 knots .The views are quite unique as one transits through the canal with the Sinai Peninsula at one side and is the only part of Egyptian territory located in Asia as opposed to Africa thereby effectively serving as a land bridge between two continents. This land has been historically the site of numerous conflicts and is also known as the “Land of the Turquoise”.

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One also crosses two significant constructions on the Suez Canal , one is the Friendship Bridge also known as the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge built 70 mt over the canal while the other is the El Ferdan Railway Bridge which holds the distinction of the longest swing span bridge in the world having a span of 340 mt or 1100 ft.The moment one completes the passage and crosses Port Said , he is welcomed in to the Mediterranenan Sea.I have travelled close to 3000 nm by now and it has been 12 days on the sea and as I transverse through time zones I am now 4 hours 15 min behind IST.

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The image that is conjured up when one hears of the Mediterranean Sea is sun kissed beaches with island resorts catering to every whim and fancy of the rich and mighty. The French and Italian Riviera which hugs the sea is the playground of the European fashion world and home to some of the greatest DJs in the world who showcase their skills on the beaches and night clubs of Ibiza to name a few.

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The Mediterranean Sea covers an area of 2.5 million sq km and has an average depth of 1500 mt and has 22 countries located on its shorelines with some real famous countries like Turkey to the North east , Greece , Italy to the North , Croatia to the extreme North ,France to the North West and Libya ,Morocco ,Tunisia to the south. As I moved well in to the Mediterranean crossing Cyprus on the right and in to the path of the Sicilian Channel on the fringes of which stood the famed city of Messina historically considered as the gateway to the holy city of Jerusalem .This was the port city from where crusaders from all over Europe crossed over in ships to reach Jerusalem and join in their fight against the mighty Islamic King Salahuddin.

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Mt Etna soon came in to view which is situated on the east Sicilian coast and is famous for her huge volcanic activity. The places that I was crossing each had its own tale and history and was significant to world history in its own way. The seas kept changing their texture as I traveled across them and I did give my admiration to the mariners of the yore who did all these routes in wooden ships with wind as their only hope and experience their only strength. Soon on my right lay the mystical Adriatic sea around 600 nm away bordered between Italy and Bosnia. But alas this time I was not destined to cross its waters. I saw numerous deep sea trawlers who were fishing their catch as the region abounded in rich marine life right from dolphins to squids, octopus and fishes in all size and colours.I had by now traveled 4000 nautical miles and was on the move for 18 days .Up ahead lay the Gibraltar Straits which marked the end of the Mediterranean and the beginning of the vast cold green Atlantic.

The Gibraltar Straits connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea and thereby separates Africa from Europe as on one side one can see Tangiers, capital of Morocco whilst on the other side we have Gibraltar, Spain.The depth of the straits is 900 mts while the two continents are separated by only 7.7 miles, now this is something to actually think about right!!!.

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The most prominent feature is the Rock of Gibraltar, also known as the Pillar of Hercules in ancient Greek Mythology. It was indeed fortunate to lay eyes on such far flung places that I had till recently only read in my school geography classes. The crossing took place in cold weather conditions with mist swirling down on occasions but I made up the most of the opportunity to capture as much of the sights as possible.

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The mighty Alantic Ocean was the fourth ocean that I was traversing now as I turned northwards immediately on crossing the Gibraltar Straits and lay course towards another famous waterway – The English Channel. As I traveled I had Portugal and Spain on my right giving me company throughout. The weather changed significantly with the mercury dropping constantly as the air temperature was around 8 -10 deg. The skies were overcast with dark grey clouds and promised of heavy rainfall , the oceans were all choppy and turbulent as the swell was around 4-5 mts and the wind force in the region of 25-35 knots. Basically not a very good time to be in the oceans is what I mean. Anyways with a prayer on the lips I surged ahead and focused on reaching the English Channel.

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The English Channel : So it was on a grey rain kissed day ( my 23RD day on the journey)having covered 6250 nautical miles of world’s ocean that I found myself on the door step of the English Channel which in reality is an arm of the Atlantic that separates the southern England from Northern France.It is 560 km long and varies in depth and width with being narrowest in the Straits Of Dover and covers an area of 75000 sq km.I found the English Channel very much like the English weather , cold and clammy with the cold spray hitting me on the face as I gazed upon it . There were a lot of ferries which were connecting the English coast with the French and I could not help but think of the great wars which the English and French had fought right at this place as they waited for the enemy ships to cross over in the mist and fog.

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North Sea .The international maritime weather forecast for North Sea predicted gale force winds reaching up to 50 knots with a sea waves having heights of 4-5 mts.Well !! the North Sea did not disappoint as it lived up to the weather man’s predictions and soon I was in the midst of thundering waves and icy winds which were threatening to blow one off his own feet as soon as u stepped in their path as they howled overhead relentlessly .Crockery went flying in all angles as one had to struggle to do even the most basic of tasks which seemed mightily uphill all of a sudden.The chairs and tables were tied down and all cupboards were locked , anything and everything which was not welded to the ground was in a danger of embarking on its own reckless journey and to prevent this they were tied down using sturdy ropes. Metal screeched against the force of water that again and again pounded it as man and machine braced themselves against the fury of nature.

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As it so happened that on the 28TH day of my journey and around 7300 nautical miles from Mumbai I found myself in the Norwegian Sea .The Norwegian Sea is a marginal sea and is located North West of Norway. It is one of the deepest seas and has an average depth of two kms.The sea is located near the countries of Norway and Ice land and one of its boundaries is the famous Bear Island. This sea is the transitional zone between the Arctic region and the rest. The mercury was plummeting down very rapidly by now and I was in the region of 2-3 deg with a late sunrise and early sunset. The weather conditions too were grey and cloudy with rains occurring intermittently. The rough sea can be seen in some of the pictures that I have posted and it was a strength of endurance to withstand the weather conditions for more than 20 -30 min.The companions at sea had also reduced by this time and soon there was hardly anyone visible even on the radar. Numerous whales abound in these waters and extensive whaling expeditions are conducted out there. The weather out here borders in the region of harsh to extremely harsh and hence is a challenge for every kind of activity. Finally on one afternoon I crossed yet another major milestone of this unique journey – GPS 66 deg 33’ 44” .Now some many might wonder what coordinates are these, well these signify the entry to the ARCTIC CIRCLE. It is a dream that most of us do not even dream about and I consider myself lucky to have lived it.

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A few words about the ARCTIC CIRCLE, which is one of the five major circles of latitude that mark the maps of the world. The region within this is known as the Arctic Region and is home to the phenomenon known as Polar Nights where the sun does not rise at all. It is the region of extreme climatic conditions that test man to the limit as one move northwards towards the pole. The wind chill factor in the region of sub zero coupled with strong gales is something that is not experienced anywhere else.

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Dec 01 saw me entering the Barents sea( 7800 nautical miles from Mumbai) as I travelled to 71 deg 50’N ,25 deg 36’ E which is my own personal achievement if I may say so .The North pole is only 300 miles from here and I can feel the cutting arctic icy winds as they wheeze past me .The mercury is well below zero hovering around minus 10 deg with the wind chill factor close to minus 17 deg and I am experiencing the Polar nights phenomenon with the night extending continuously for the next six months with no sun rise. It is truly a surreal feeling as you slowly get habituated to this kind of a life and schedule. I can now humbly say that I have travelled to the equator, to the tropic of cancer, the tropic of Capricorn and to the Arctic Circle in this single life time.

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This brings me to the final sea of my odyssey – the Barents Sea which is a marginal sea of the Arctic Ocean located north of Norway and Russia. The sea is loneliness redefined especially in the winter months with hardly any sea companions visible for miles around. I experienced regular snow fall in this sea with snow replacing rains that we experience in India. My destination was the Russian port city of Murmansk which beckoned me as I completed my one way travel of close to 8400 miles in 32 days and gained an experience of a life time with sights seen that can seldom be described or captured.

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Its time that I sample the sights and sounds of this northern most port city of Russia , as in the not so distant future the port city of Lisbon, Portugal awaits me with bated breath .

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