In April 2017, Olie Hunter Smart set off on a solo journey to walk the length of India to uncover untold stories of Independence and Partition that took place in 1947. He’s just returned to the UK and shares his story with us. You can read about the background to his journey here.
As I stared out of the aeroplane window on my way up to Ladakh, I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Not only did the plains of India look hot, dry and particularly arid, but the Himalayas looked huge and the snowy conditions were not something I was experienced with.
However, I soon became distracted by the beauty of the mountain landscape; deep purple mountains capped in white snow; huge sunny skies and crisp fresh air; and the gentle sound of prayer wheels spinning as people went about their daily routines. It was magical. I was excited about the long journey that lay ahead.
After a few days of acclimatisation, I set off with a guide essential to navigating the mountain trails that would take us off the roads, following valleys and climbing high mountain passes that blocked the route south. We carried food with us so as not to be a burden on the remote communities we passed through, increasing my already heavy bag to around 28 kilos. Thankfully, the Water-to-Go bottles saved us valuable weight as we filled up from icy cold snow melt streams. It was so thirst quenching!
As we emerged from the mountain trails some 5 weeks later, I waved goodbye to the guide and set off for the dusty plains of northern India. Temperatures soared to a staggering 48 degrees so it was critical that I kept cool and remained hydrated. I discovered this area was heavily impacted by Partition that took place following Independence in 1947. Millions of people fled, escaping violence and persecution as Hindu ruled East Punjab and Muslim ruled West Punjab were divided.
Most nights I stayed with families which gave me the opportunity to hear elders recounting their experience of that traumatic period of history; I found myself wincing at their accounts of the brutality, the stories of families fleeing their homes never to return, or of fathers giving their children daggers to use on themselves to avoid being subjected to violence and abuse. I was very moved by their descriptions, something I had not anticipated hearing, but that was reality for them.
I followed the railway line south, it being more direct as well as keeping me off the roads and away from the dangerous traffic and pollution. I passed through Delhi and onto Rajasthan where I continued to hear similarly tragic stories about Partition, but on occasion was pleasantly surprised to come across a few positive stories from people who had been able to change their financial situation having set up successful businesses. Food flavours were now changing every 100 kilometres or so as the agriculture influenced the dishes I was eating. By now I’d been on the road for almost 4 months but I was loving rural India.
I’d been looking forward to the Salt March, the inspiration for my journey, since the start. Today the route has become somewhat a heritage route making it far easier to navigate, yet the difficulty came in each village when trying to find various plaques or statues commemorating Gandhi’s walk in 1930. Fortunately, the locals knew it well and took great pleasure in showing me around their community, regaling historical stories to boot. I reached Dandi where Gandhi broke the salt law, realising that I was now over half way through my journey. It was an emotional moment.
Back on the road I worked my way down to the busting city of Mumbai. India is well set up for constant refills of your own bottle in the hot climate, whether it be a hand pump or well in a village, a tap on a railway platform or from the increasing number of reverse osmosis stations set up in villages to provide clean water to the communities. My Water-to-Go bottle provided me with consistently good quality and safe water from whatever source I found.
By now I was beginning to get increasingly frustrated with life on the road – the hooting, incessant demands for selfies and that spicy food. Couldn’t I just have cereal for breakfast?! I’d been walking for 6 months, but it was only when I worked my way uphill to Pune that I realised I had spent the best part of three months in the flat plains of India. There had been no texture in the landscape, nothing on the horizon to aim for. I’d been missing the hills, so I made it my mission to find a place to camp next to a lake, and soon enough I found the perfect spot!
I continued south, meeting some freedom fighters that had fought alongside Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for freedom, many of whom were over 90 years old. As I neared Mysore I was confident with my progress until one day someone asked me how I would avoid being attacked by a tiger. Tigers?! They’d not even crossed my mind this far south. I carried on, getting increasingly worried as I went, trying to figure out alternative routes. I spent half a day with all senses on edge as I walked steadily through a tiger reserve, completely petrified.
That night I resolved to find a driver who could shadow me for the next stretch of forest. The following morning, he arrived and I set off, safe in the knowledge that there was an extra pair of eyes on the lookout. Relief ran through my veins as I reached the end of the forest and the safety of a temple that night.
Kanyakumari was in my sights, but there was one final obstacle I had to overcome – Cyclone Ockhi with her devastating wind and rain. Having already walked through monsoon rains I was determined not to be put off by some adverse weather and ploughed on, reaching the very southern tip of India on 6th December. After seven and a half months on foot, I’d made it! What an incredible way to experience real India!
Olie is currently working on a documentary of his journey.