Filmmakers Rajesh and Naresh Bedi criss-crossed the country on a hot air balloon to film India’s magnificent beasts in their habitat. A story of their adventures

Written by Neha Sinha | Published: January 18, 2009 11:37:34 am

Filmmakers Rajesh and Naresh Bedi criss-crossed the country on a hot air balloon to film India’s magnificent beasts in their habitat. A story of their adventures

IN FEBRUARY LAST YEAR,a hot air balloon lifted itself gently above the scrubby terrain of the Sariska tiger reserve carrying in it four men and a wild,wild ambition: filming the country’s wildlife—red pandas and tigers,wild asses and sloth bears—in desert,sub-tropical,scrub thorn,salt pan,river delta and mountainous wild habitat,without the camera bothering the animals as they went about their business. Many months,a deflated balloon,incredible sights and unexpected drops in villages later,wildlife filmmakers Rajesh and Naresh Bedi are ready with a 13-part documentary on Indian wildlife,called Wild Adventures: Ballooning with Bedi Brothers (The documentary is on air every Sunday at 11 am on DD National).

“We wanted to capture India’s wildlife in a different way. We thought combining filmmaking with the adventure of hot air ballooning would be great fun and a sort of dream come true,” says 60-year-old Naresh. The filmmakers,assisted by Naresh’s sons Ajay and Vijay,covered 18,000 km over eight states. Many areas were revisited and filming done from the ground.

The footage they gathered was breathtaking: from the sight of Gir’s lions to a tigress with cubs at the Corbett National Park,gharials and river dolphins in Chambal River Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh,tigers in Bandhavgarh,Madhya Pradesh,sloth bears in Marwahi and Barnawapara in Chhattisgarh,rhinos in Pobitora,Assam,and red pandas in Singalila,West Bengal.

“We knew there would be problems like the lack of steering,no brakes,and finding the right wind: it has to be neither too windy,nor too less windy,” he says. Yet,nothing had prepared them for a journey in a 425 kg hot air balloon,at altitudes ranging from 10-6,000 feet above sea level.

The Bedis decided on their mission at least a year before they actually floated up over Sariska. They soon ran up against a hurdle: India did not have the right kind of balloons or balloon drivers. Eight months were lost before they found British ballooning enthusiast Bill Mackinnon.

Mackinnon shared their spirit of adventure and was willing to risk the dangers of flying over inhospitable Indian terrain. But by then,they had already missed one winter. “Hot air ballooning is safe only in winters. In summers,with the heat,the balloon is likely to soar unmanageably high. So we could only resume the project the next winter,” says 29-year-old Vijay.

The adventures began on February 7. To get an indication of wind speed and direction,they released a tiny,red helium balloon before each flight. Two gas cylinders,one weighing 135 kg and the other 75 kg,went on the balloon. Though the balloon could carry six people,only four travelled on it to accommodate more fuel.
Five people,part of a support team,together carried the massive 140 kg balloon envelope made of a nylon-rubber complex to form a red-yellow-blue balloon that was susceptible to even a pinprick.

Strong winds meant that on the first day itself,the balloon reached a height of 6,450 feet above sea level,covering 13 nautical miles. Crashing into the hills of Sariska was a very real possibility. Landing into the Protected Area was not allowed.

“The wind was taking us towards the hills,or worse,towards a valley deep in the sanctuary,where landing was impossible. The only solution was to lower burner speed and drop distance,” says 58-year-old Rajesh Bedi. Hovering very low,the balloon finally landed,but smack into an agricultural field. “It was dark and the landing rudely woke up some people. First they were amazed; then they were angry. They asked us for Rs 10,000 in compensation. Thankfully,Bill couldn’t understand what was going on,” says Rajesh.

So what did they see from up above? What they had always suspected: that India’s protected areas are tiny islands,on pressure on all sides from people. “Sariska and Bandhavgarh are islands. On all sides,people are creeping up. If we have to save the wildlife,we have to mitigate man-animal conflict. We have to initiate dialogue with the local community,” he adds.

Watching a herd of wild asses gently making their way across Kutch from the balloon was a surreal experience,say the brothers. Even more so was the sight of motorcycles and trucks roaring into the animals’ path. As the Bedis watched the groups of endangered wild asses skittering in panic,they decided they had to speak up for the animals. “Why do you drive in this way and scare the asses?” Rajesh asked the local inhabitants.
“We have to live here,and the asses come in the way,” they said.
“What if the asses were to say the same thing? What if they thought people were asses?” Rajesh asked.

In the end,they were laughing. “Everywhere we went,people collected in droves. They wanted to know what this thing,the balloon,was. We used their awe and interest to spread awareness on wildlife. In Marwahi in Chhattisgarh,people came running up to the balloon,saying ‘Jai Hanuman’,” Rajesh says. That was a planned entry. For weeks,a 30-foot banner painted with the searing eyes of the tiger was pasted on the balloon.

Though the bright balloon made an impact on the people,the animals largely ignored it. In Gir,proud lions responded not to the bright blob in the sky but to the peculiar sound of the balloon burners. “Each time we would pull on the burner to accelerate our speed and height,a lion would roar. When we did it again to go higher,he would roar again. He wanted to show us who was boss,” says 29-year-old Ajay.

While Naresh and Rajesh filmed from atop the balloon,support teams followed in four cars. Naresh’s sons Ajay and Vijay,in turns,also filmed from the balloon. There were many tense moments. Strong winds near Gir,for example,were preventing a landing. Fuel was running out. The only way out was a crash-landing. “When you are landing from a hot air balloon,your arms are your seatbelts. You hold on for dear life. The pilot told me to put my camera aside and hold on. I kept filming,” Vijay says. He was flung from the balloon. Naresh lost his lens.

But despite the difficulties,ballooning came with distinct advantages. “Unlike a helicopter,a balloon doesn’t shake the camera. Also,we can get a 360 degree filming view and the whole process is largely noiseless,” Vijay says. “We managed to capture a lion-tailed macaque eating a bat in the Western Ghats,which has never been captured before. And rhinos and tigers let us film them without them exhibiting any disturbance,” Vijay says.

The grand vistas they filmed led the family to one conclusion. “The entire exercise is about education,awareness,and fun. But we have seen with our own eyes how protected areas are shrinking. The only way forward is to create forest corridors and engage with locals or man-animal conflict will ensue. Our films show the viewer this,” Naresh says.
For this journey of discovery,that’s a big landing.u

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