As we stood on the first platform and viewed the sturdy cables strung across 10 platforms that seemed to sway in the misty distance, we were overwhelmed with fear and the thrill of anticipation. Our legs shook and our hands trembled as we were strapped into a secure harness and reached out to grasp the overhead cable. Soon we would jump into a bottomless void and perhaps the world, 4,500 ft below, would tilt to meet our knee caps!
We took a leap of faith and the whoosh of the wind in our ears was almost deafening as we glided across what has been dubbed Asia’s longest zig-zag zip line at Skyview Patnitop by Empyrean, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Jammu.
As we skimmed down the cable, humped hills and deep valleys seemingly gouged into the earth unspooled around us like a film. Were we being fast forwarded into the future? Another world inhabited by aliens? Another dimension? Other holiday makers revelling in the country’s newest adventure destination vanished in the misty depths below as we traversed 1,900 feet and landed triumphantly on the last platform!
A dream destination in the Shivaliks
Our sneak peek at the recently launched Skyview Patnitop by Empyrean happened in December 2019 and came with lashings of snow which added to the beauty of the landscape of pine-clad hills and 10 ft snow banks. Skyview Patnitop is a public-private partnership adventure destination spread over 11 acres with a state-of-the-art aerial ropeway, and dollops of adventure, entertainment and culinary hot spots thrown in. This multi-season multi-entertainment destination in the Shivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas, is now on the bucket list of tourists who are bored with the tried and tested tourist trails.
After our zip line odyssey, we hurtled down the country’s first dry tubing sledge, over a 780 ft artificial grass strip that seemed to slither, much like a serpent, down a mountain slope. We were assured at the start that the drying tubing sledge adheres to the highest safety standards and has an excellent braking system. We sat in the tube, a trifle awkwardly and pulled in our legs. The ride started with a gentle roll down the incline but soon gathered momentum. The tube seemed to acquire a life of its own and our screams of joy were laced with fear. After a while, the “speed demon” shuddered to a halt and we sprang out of the tube, a little shamefaced because of the ruckus that we had created with our fearful cries!
The snow-muffled hill resort of Patnitop beckoned and so we boarded the gondola, with its out-of-cellophane look, and it shimmied up from the Lower Terminal at Sanget to the barren beauty of the Upper Terminal which is the gateway to Patnitop. As we swayed upward, the landscape went into overdrive, a shiny moon scattered its pale beams on a snow-clad landscape and the dark green pines stood tall like pagan totem poles.
That night, we hunkered down under our blankets at a cosy little hotel even as snow buffeted the resort. The next day, we woke up to a deceptively clear morning. Black-as-night ravens streaked across blue skies and the world around us seemed to groan softly under its burden of immaculate white snow. But our plans to hike up to higher reaches had to be shelved as snowflakes again fluttered down like confetti and banks of packed ice made exploration impossible. We spent two days at Patnitop revelling in the sight of vast snow-scapes, unmarked by foot prints, and warmed our chilled fingers in front of a crackling fire place.
Days flew past in a blur of trudging down ice-slicked trails, building snow men with our gloved hands and hurling snow balls at each other. In spring and summer, hikers can trek to Madhatop (2,000m), Sanasar Lake or Nathatop (2,711m) or go river rafting on the Baglihar Dam where dew-spattered green slopes are interspersed with flower-spangled meadows.
An emerging adventure tourism hotspot
When we glided down in the gondola for the last time, we saw white tableaux – icicles hanging like swords from the sloping roofs of homes, where snow flakes drifted on the wind like flecks of cloud. At the Lower Terminal, we met the dapper Syed Junaid Altaf, the 34-year-old managing director of Empyrean Skyview Projects who described his pet project with the passion one reserves to describe the virtues of one’s children. The ropeway is one of the country’s highest (in terms of clearance) soaring 65 m above the ground, safest (CEN European standard certified), with the longest span of 849 metres between two of the eight towers.
And he has reason to be proud of what he and his team of young engineers, construction workers and other staff have achieved. They toiled despite inclement weather, high winds, rain and snow to give firm contours to what seemed like Altaf’s impossible dream. “This is the largest Indo-French collaboration in mountain infrastructure development,” he revealed, “and the gateway to developing a nascent destination – Patnitop.” The forbidding wall of the Shivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas into which much of the ropeway is carved did not deter them and they carved it without cutting a single tree though they had permission to fell 26. Dr Viqar Yousuf who ran a civil construction company was hired as the project head. Fondly called The Mad Man by his team because of his single-minded passion for the ropeway, Dr Yousuf’s magnificent obsession dovetailed nicely with Junaid’s visionary leadership.
The result was a project which, in the normal course, would have taken eight years to see light of the day, being completed in a record time of two years and four months and at a cost of Rs 180 crore!
Today, it all exudes a sleek and modern air – the Lower Terminal with its ticketing block, an area for food kiosks and restaurants that are in the pipeline and the more spartan Upper Terminal. The wood buildings (constructed from responsibly sourced timber) with pitched roofs, abundant use of glass and skylights that haul in wraparound views of a magical landscape of misty snow-whipped mountains and forests of cedar.
Labour and materials were sourced locally – traditional craftsmen hand-chiselled and dressed over a million stones for months for the retaining walls and a water reservoir created for construction was fed by a natural spring. Native indigenous plant species budded to life in the gardens.
But perhaps what makes this ropeway more than a form of transportation for those who wish to travel to Patnitop in comfort is the fact that Empyrean is aiming to make the site a culinary and adventure hot spot as well. Banana Leaf (vegetarian), Skyview Café, Pine View, etc., will cater to the palates of vacationers at Sanget while The Terrace, at the Upper Terminal, will cater to epicures in search of a more exquisite fine dining experience. Food Festivals will enable celebrity chefs to showcase their culinary skills.
Despite the magnitude and scale of the project, it did not seem to violate and ravage the land. There seemed to be an exquisite balance between the handiwork of man and nature; part of a promise to nurture and protect that Junaid and his team had made to the mountains into which they had carved their ropeway with such care.
As we gazed at the mountains looming above us, and the gondola swishing upward like a pirouetting prima donna, Altaf’s words rang in our ears: “If you take care of the mountains when building, the mountains will take care of you.”
Nearest airport is in Jammu from where Skyview Patnitop is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away and the nearest train station is Udhampur. Sanget, the Lower Terminal, is just 3 km away from the 9.2 km Chenani Nashri Tunnel (renamed Dr Syamma Prasad Mookerjee tunnel) on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. Skyview Patnitop is a pleasant diversion for pilgrims to Vaishnodevi who travel via Katra. Patnitop has a spectrum of accommodation. Visit: https://skyviewpatnitop.com/