Stargazing In Ladakh
Outlook Traveller|October 2021
Cleaning the dust off the DSLR was all worth it. This ride to go stargazing in Ladakh had many inspirational and joyous moments
Rishad Sam Mehta

I am gripped my camera passionately after three years of ignoring it in favor of my iPhone. Travels in these three years took me to beautiful places that have generated a plethora of photographs, all with the convenience of a device that sits in my pocket and fits in my palm.

But today, I needed the talents of my trusty old Nikon D700. Its 3.5 kg weight and brick-like size felt familiar even after a separation of three years. Even in pitch darkness, my fingers could easily find buttons and dials, and more importantly, I had muscle memory about the combinations of these two to pull up menus and adjust parameters. It is a good thing because at that moment of time light is the polluting evil.

This evening definitely cannot be titled ‘the sound of silence’, because there is excited chatter around me in a multitude of languages. But the mantra of the evening is certainly the first line from the said song, “Hello darkness, my old friend”.

Ten of us from places as varying as Ludhiana to Poona to Chitradurga are stood in darkness, bent over our tripod-mounted cameras in the midst of the Zanskar Himalayas waiting for the star of the show to make an appearance. The time of year chosen is perfect with the moon setting soon after the sun and the clouds have obliged by staying away. Soon from behind the crest of high mountains she makes an appearance — that celestial diva; the Milky Way.

I say that darkness is the old friend tonight because to capture the Milky Way on camera the shutter needs to remain open for more time than it would take to blister papad in a microwave. And when the shutter is staying open for over 30 seconds, even a flash of light sullies the scene like a drop of motor oil in a ship’s drinking water supply.

NAVNEETH Unnikrishnan the leader of this masterclass in astrophotography — is an amateur astronomer and astro-landscape photographer from Kerala. He walks down our line of tripods giving out tips, tricks, and techniques. He came to my camera and asked me to manually set focus using Saturn as a reference because that is the brightest object in the sky over the Shapath campsite, which is our base for the night. I did the same and then set my aperture to f/3.5 — the widest my archaic 28-300mm lens can go down to and my shutter at 30 seconds. “Set your white balance to tungsten,” he told me before walking off to show Amit Nigam how to set the shutter release timer to reduce initial vibrations on the camera.

I got a spectacular shot of the Milky Way in all her dense and sparkling beauty. Something that reaffirms my belief that a phone can never completely replace the conventional camera.

We were all there in the cold and windy Shapath somewhere about 10km before Rangdum, in the Zanskar region, bonded together by the trio of travel, photography and motorcycles.

The trip is Royal Enfield’s AstralRide 2021 which is an effort to use the Royal Enfield Himalayan as a means to ride to places to practice your passion. What had made this trip attractive enough for me to sign up was the fact that I would be riding over newly cut dirt roads in Zanskar, learning how to shoot the Milky Way and have the backup support that would transport my luggage or handle punctures or breakdown — in short a stress and load free photography and motorcycling adventure!

LIKE MOST OF MY TRAVEL Companions

I had flown into Leh two nights before the ride was to begin so that we could acclimatise well, since we’d be eventually riding in the realm of 16,500 feet.

The first day’s ride — 224km — from Leh to Kargil was a blacktop delight. The Border Roads Organization (BRO) has tamed the topography between these two cities well and the tarmac is flawless with sweeping corners kerned with cambers. This meant that I could really put the Himalayan down into a corner. In fact, so much so that the sides of shoe soles often scraped the road.

On that day when the needle often swept past 80 km/h we were all getting accustomed to our motorcycles and gear. It was the perfect ride to check out how the luggage — such as cameras — loaded on the bike affected its balance, or whether riding jackets and pants scuffed at a certain place.

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