As the alarm took off, I sprang hurriedly knowing it was time. The night before was terrible. The cold waves flowing in through bamboo slits coupled with the excitement made it very hard to get any sleep.
It took a few minutes to adjust to the gripping cold of January. After freshening up, we set out on the trail.
It was still dark outside; rolling mountains, covered with thick fog, looked unnerving and mystical under the waning moon. The mountains, at that hour, become completely silent. Even crickets, constantly buzzing day and night, remain silent.
I could only see my trek mate Ozil's headlamp at a distance moving along the trail. The powerful LED, through the mysterious fog, looked like a firefly moving up and down. I was hypnotised by the whole setting.
Suddenly, a horrifying call of an Indian Muntjac tore the silence apart. The sound shook me completely and I instantly became aware of my surroundings. Now, at this hour in the jungle, you do not have the luxury to be reluctant.
Maybe the little chap sensed some danger? Could it be a clouded leopard? Who knows!
As nature's magical spell broke, 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 interested in our hill tracks. I came across a website banglatrek.org - an encyclopaedia for trekking geeks like myself. It contained vast amounts of first-hand information on Bangladesh's topological maps, peaks, trekking routes, trails, waterfalls, and caves. The website was open-sourced; anyone could add newly explored data.
I came across an incomplete list of Bangladesh's highest mountains on the website. 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.
I spent countless nights surfing the internet; Google Earth, Soviet topographical map, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) map, British era's Great Trigonometrical Survey data, SRTM data from NASA satellites: I got completely hooked.
On pen and paper, I had already listed all the points exceeding an elevation of 3,000 feet. By this time, I had gotten acquainted with "Travellers of Bangladesh" and "D-way Expeditors", two of the big names that were conducting exploratory expeditions in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) at that time.
Soon, I was surrounded by some extraordinary people and fortunate enough to be a part of an extraordinary team. 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 under CHT. The tales of hardship to explore this unknown land are beyond any description.
Keeping aside 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 gun-toting 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. However, the mesmerising beauty, hidden treasure troves in every corner, and every single valley we entered made us more confident, and 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. Being confined to bed for a long time is enough for someone to go mad. It took me many months to recover and stand on my heels. Eventually, I resumed exploration, again!
Death struck again in 2015. We had just returned 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 my best friend in this unfortunate way was never easy.
I thought I had enough. For a time, I was not interested in the mountains any more. 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 a lot for this very project. How could I walk away from something we had dreamt together? I had to do it for them.
A lot of my last expeditions were too hectic. I missed a few close chances. Dealing with PTSD, the fear of losing someone again and uncalled accidents was very difficult for me.
After a decade-long journey, I was on the verge of finishing my task. On January 16, 2021, we started exploring from the tri-border towards the north and finally scaled Mukhra Thuthai Haphong of Rang Tlang range. The list of all the 3,000 feet plus mountains of Bangladesh is now complete.
At the cretaceous epoch's last stage, Indian and Australian plates broke away towards the Southeast at a rate of 6cm per year. After 1,750KM, the Indian plate got separated towards North and Northeast. The story of CHT begins there.
During the pre-Oligocene period, Himalayas and Arakan Yoma mountain ranges were born due to the pressure created by Indian plate on the Asian South. The Arakan Yoma's Western edge falls inside Bangladesh and gradually comes down to sea level.
Bangladesh's easter border with Myanmar and India is dominated by 18 mountain ranges. Four of these ranges host 18 mountains that exceed an elevation of 3,000 feet. Several of these mountaintops cannot be classified as peaks due to their prominence and isolation issues. Therefore, we have classified these 18 summits as our country's highest points.
In this decade-long journey, I have lost a lot physically and mentally. The struggle to find Bangladesh's highest points has entirely changed me, my thoughts, and views on life. I was lucky enough to meet some amazing people along the way.
I learned the language of nature, discovered a new self. I experienced the simple life of mountain people, the ancient art of living happily, and the peace and tranquillity that comes with it. I feel these intangibles are much more precious and admirable than our so-called civilised urban lifestyle.
I am 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 develop a new view of life: free of complexity and race of materialistic mumbo jumbo.
I express my heartiest gratitude to all the friends, guides, and guardians for their teachings, help, assistance, and coordination, which made the project possible.
Regrettably, the sacred lifestyle championing the bond with nature is vanishing fast. It will not be long before 'civilisation' gobbles up our last sacred paradise.
To be honest, the work has only begun.
Future pioneers should focus on the conservation and preservation of this sacred land, its people and culture, forests and ecology, and last but not least, its biodiversity, as very little information has been collected on these sectors.
Our hill tracts also contain about 500 high points, a hidden cache of information, and wonders waiting to be discovered for the next generation of explorers.