Depi Chaudhry fell in love when he was in class XI. And as often happens in teenage romance, he went from being a bright student at The Lawrence School in Sanawar, Himachal Pradesh, to a below-average one.
“My father had a perfect cure for that,” says the 41-year-old, nearly two-and-a-half decades later. “He decided that I should study engineering—that too in some far-flung obscure town in southern India, so that I would get back on track.”
The author of Collins’ Trekking Guide to the Western Himalayas, who also runs an adventure travel firm called Real Adventures, reminisces about his boyhood exile with a brooding matter-of-fact manner.
Trailblazer: Depi Chaudhry finds that today, more than ever before, Indians are keen on trekking. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
His father picked him up from Sanawar, and the two travelled around southern India for the next 20 days in search of a school. “We would be in remote towns during the day, and in the train at night. Finally, my dad paid a capitation fee of about Rs50,000 at Davangere and that was the end of the matter.”
He was admitted for a BTech in industrial production at the Bapuji Institute of Engineering and Technology, Davangere, Karnataka. Chaudhry says he ran away from the college four times in the first year, just to impress upon his parents that he desperately wanted to be away from the town, and engineering.
But that didn’t happen, and he figured out the quickest way to leave Davangere was to get his degree. “In capitation colleges, not all students graduate in four years. But I was so desperate to get out from that town that I studied hard and even topped Mysore University in industrial production in 1990,” he says.
The years were not entirely wasted. Chaudhry says he started motorbiking around the countryside during his stay at Davangere. He used to trek with other schoolboys even in Sanawar; but it was in Davangere that he got interested in adventure tourism. It eventually became his passion, and his career.
In January 1991, Chaudhry started working with Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. He later did a diploma in business finance from the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (Icfai), Hyderabad, and an MBA from IBS, Hyderabad, and joined the Aditya Birla Group.
It took him nearly 11 years to quit the corporate world and set up Real Adventures, in 2002. The company initially focused on trekking. “I decided to convert my hobby (trekking) into a full-time profession,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to my grave thinking I did not do what I like doing best.”
The first attempt didn’t work out, and Chaudhry was forced to go back to work as a corporate consultant. But two years later he decided to relaunch his company, and include rafting, motorcycle safaris and cycling adventures among the services it would offer. The gamble paid off.
Chaudhry believes more Indians will start trekking in the coming years. “I think the timing is right because people are getting interested in the environment and want to spend more time outdoors,” he says.
Now, Chaudhry is also working to develop Ashraya, a three-cottage eco-camp 38km from Rishikesh. His training as an engineer is coming in handy. He initially tried using solar energy to run the camp, but it proved too expensive. So he is developing a turbine which, he says, will harness power from natural springs and use it to generate electricity.
“I always wanted to move beyond conventional resorts,” he adds, “and create a space where we build everything using resources available in that area, using techniques the local people did.”
Still bigger adventures lie in store. Next year, Chaudhry and a group of trekkers will embark on a first-of-its-kind Great Himalayan Trail—the highest possible trek across the Himalayas from Nepal to India.
“We propose to cover about 4,500km and trek from Nepal into India, up to Ladakh,” he says. “Robin (Boustead, who covered the Nepal leg some years ago) will be doing the Nepal leg once again. Once he reaches the Indian border, I will pick up the trail.”
The group wouldn’t mind taking the trek all the way into Pakistan. “But that is not confirmed,” says Chaudhry.