I sprang hurriedly as the alarm took off. It’s time, I said in my mind. Last night was terrible. The excitement and the cold waves that came through the bamboo slits were too much to get any sleep. It took me some minutes to adjust to the grappling cold of January. After a quick freshening up, we were on the trail.
It was still dark outside. Rolling mountains, covered with thick fog, looked uncanny and mystical under the waning moon. At this hour, the mountains become completely silent. Even crickets, constantly buzzing day and night remain silent. In the distance, I could only notice my trek mate Ozil’s headlamp moving along the trail. Through the mysterious fog the powerful LED, looked like a firefly was moving up and down. I was hypnotized by the whole setting.
Suddenly a horrifying call of an Indian Muntjack tore apart the silence. The sound completely awoke me. Suddenly I became aware of my surroundings. Now at this hour in the jungle, you don’t have the luxury to be reluctant. Maybe the little chap sensed some danger? Could it be a Clouded Leopard? Who knows!
The magical spell of nature was broken and I remembered everything- where I was and what I was doing amid a forest bordering Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, where three countries meet!
Back in 2009, I was only getting interested in our hill tracks. I came across a website banglatrek.org. It was an encyclopedia for trekking geeks like myself. It contained vast first-hand information on topological maps, peaks, trekking routes, trails, waterfalls, and caves of Bangladesh. It was open-sourced so anyone could add newly explored data.
There I saw an incomplete list of the highest mountains of Bangladesh. So I took a great interest in finishing the task. As no one had done that before, I guess a bit of showmanship might have influenced me in this regard. ‘One day I will complete the list’-Once that teenage mutter soon became my passion.
I spent countless nights surfing the internet. Google earth, Soviet topographical map, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) map, British era Great Trigonometrical Survey data, SRTM data from NASA satellites: I got completely hooked. On pen and paper, we had already listed all the points with more than 3000 feet elevation. By this time I have gotten acquainted with Travelers of Bangladesh (ToB) and D-way Expeditors, two of the big names who were conducting exploratory expeditions in CHT at that time. Soon I was surrounded by some extraordinary people and fortunate enough to be a part of an extraordinary team and by 2010, we had conducted exploratory expeditions one after another.
Pinpointing a probable high point on a map is one thing and to go there by oneself, and measure the required data is another. All of Bangladesh’s highest points fell in Chittagong hill tracts. The tales of hardship to explore this unknown land are beyond any description. Let’s just forget all the bureaucratic hassles, nature was not always friendly in this part of the world. Scorching Sun, torrential rain, ghastly wind, trapped in Remakri river due to flash flood, thirst, losing way in the green labyrinth, unexpected rendezvous with gunned extremists, being stuck in the ravine for two days, the list could go on.
I still remember the dire thirst for a sip of water; how we burnt wet bamboo slits throughout the night to fight hypothermia under torrential rain. And to finish the list of all the sufferings, I had to sacrifice some of my closest ones in those expeditions.
From day one of my adventures in CHT, I was constantly reminded of the dangers lurking in our green heaven. Death, they said, lies there in every step. But the mesmerizing beauty, hidden treasure troves in every corner, every single valley we entered made us confident, and more determined. Death, however, struck within two years of our exploration.
Our bus, returning from Thanchi fell in a 500 feet ditch. Most of the passengers, including Mugdha and Sujan Bhai, died that day. Mainul Bhai and I survived with grave injuries. Both of my legs and spine were crushed. Doctors were unsure whether I could ever walk again, let alone climbing and exploring untrodden mountainous terrain. After several operations, Mainul Bhai’s broken legs were fixed with titanium plates. The horrific trauma of this accident, losing two brothers broke me completely. Confinement in bed for a long time is good enough for someone to go mad. It took me many months to recover, to again stand on my heels. I resumed exploration, again!
Death struck again in 2015. We just came home from an expedition in Raikhyang valley. My teammate on that trip, and also my childhood friend Munir died from cerebral malaria in front of my eyes. Losing your best friend in this unfortunate way was never easy.
I thought I had enough. For a time I wasn’t any more interested in the mountains. But then again, it was Munir, Mugdha Bhai, and Sujan Bhai who dreamt with me to complete the list. It was their project too. They planned, executed, and sacrificed from this very project. How I could walk away from something we had dreamt together? I had to do it for them.
Several of my last expeditions were too hectic. Some close chances were missed. Dealing with PTSD, the fear of losing someone again, the fear of uncalled accidents; was very difficult for me.
After a decade-long journey, I was on the verge of finishing my task. We started from the Tri-border towards the north and finally scaled Mukhra Thuthai Haphong of Rang Tlang range on 16th January 2021. The list of all the 3000 feet plus mountains of Bangladesh is now complete.
At the last stage of the cretaceous epoch, Indian and Australian plates broke away towards the Southeast at a rate of 6cm/ year. After 1750 km, the Indian plate got separated towards North and Northeast. The story of Chittagong Hill Tracts begins there.
During the Pre-Oligocene period, Himalayas and Arakan Yoma mountain ranges were born due to the Indian plate creating pressure on the Asian South. The Western edge of Arakan Yoma falls inside Bangladesh and gradually comes down to sea level. 18 Mountain range dominated Bangladesh’s eastern border with Myanmar and India. Four of these ranges host 18 mountains with more than 3000 thousand feet in height.
Rang Tlang, the easternmost mountain range has 5 (Rang Tlang, Dumlong, Maithai Jama Haphong, Mukhra Thuthai Haphong, Laisra Haphong), Modok range hosts 6 (Sadra Haphong, Tawbaugh Haphong, Saka Haphong, Jogi Haphong, Haja Chora Haphong, Jow Tlang), Lombok Row hosts 3 (Sippi Arsuang, Thindawl Te Tlang, Kreikrug Taung) and Keokradang range has 4 (Keokradong, Taung May, Kopital, Lakhu Dong). Several of these mountaintops can’t be classified as peaks due to their prominence and isolation issues. So we will classify these 18 summits as our country High Point.
I lost much, physically and mentally, in this decade-long journey. The struggle to find the highest Points of Bangladesh has entirely changed me, my thoughts, and my view on life. I was lucky enough to meet some amazing persons. I learned the language of nature, I discovered a new self. I experienced the simple life of the mountain people, the ancient art of living happily, and the peace and tranquility that comes with it. I feel these intangibles are much precious, much admirable than our so-called civilized urban lifestyle.
I am in short of words to describe the warmth I received in those tiny huts dotting our green heaven. My presence among these people was for a short time, but it was enough to learn a new view on life: free of complexity and race of materialistic mambo jumbo. I express my heartiest gratitude to all the friends, guides, and guardians for their teachings, for their help, assistance, and coordination which made the project possible.
Regrettably, the sacred lifestyle championing the bond with nature is vanishing fast. It won’t take long before ‘Civilization’ will gobble up our last sacred ‘Paradise’.
The work has only begun to be honest. For the pioneers of the future, the focus should be given to conservation and preservation of this sacred land, its people and its culture, forests and its ecology, and last but not least its biodiversity, as very little information has been collected on these sectors. Our hill tracts also contain about 5 hundred high points, a hidden cache of information, and wonders waiting to be discovered for the next generation of explorers.