Have you ever seen a toddler learning how to walk? A lot goes into taking that first step—wobbly beginnings, countless tumbles, encouragement from the audience, and so on. In many ways, slacklining is like learning how to walk all over again, albeit on a different surface. The sport requires you to balance and walk on a thin length of webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points, such as trees or pillars. When performed at a great height, like between two mountains, buildings or bridges, this activity gains a lot more thrill and a new name—highlining.
The first time I meet Rhea Antony, she is leading a team of young women to rig a highline at Duke’s Nose, Lonavala. She is calm and confident, answering questions and assuaging fears. “I find it more dangerous to cross the road in a city like Mumbai than to walk a highline,” she says, explaining that there are innumerable steps to ensure that you can safely perform the adventure sport.
Even though she had been introduced to it a decade ago in Singapore as a college student, highlining had remained in the background of her life until recently. As a climber, she was constantly surrounded by people in the Mumbai outdoors community who she would often slackline with. But without regular access to a highline, her experience remained limited to slacklining in the park. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, Antony got her chance to change that.
In 2020, when the world shut down, new doors opened for outdoors enthusiasts like her. Working remotely gave her a taste of what it would be like to travel while sustaining a job. “I had dreamt of having an outdoor lifestyle and living out of a van since I was a teenager, but I didn’t think it would be financially possible to achieve it before I was, like, 50,” she says. She moved to a small village near Duke’s Nose, Lonavala, which is known as the highlining hub of Maharashtra. “I was able to highline every morning before work and squeeze in a climbing session in the evening,” Antony recalls.
Eventually, she quit her job and decided to take up graphic designing and communications strategy as a freelancer, so she could travel more frequently and pursue her passions. The transition, however, was not without its hurdles. “Initially, my family were quite confused. They chalked it up to a phase, assuming that I would take up a new job or decide to study further after six months or so,” she shares, adding that over time, they have begun to accept her unconventional lifestyle and what it means for her future.
With the exception of an abandoned mall in Bangalore, highline spots are rarely found near mainstream civilisation. You typically have to camp in the middle of nowhere, without access to bathrooms or electricity, in order to experience the adventure sport. It’s no wonder, then, that female highliners in India are few and far between. Antony had a few athletes on her radar, and she decided to get them together for the country’s first Women’s Highline Gathering in November 2021.
“The idea for the event didn’t come from a place of activism. We just wanted to hang out with other women, support each other’s highlining journey, and make new friends,” she tells me, before adding, “I was one of the 15 women who showed up at Duke’s Nose from all over the country to rig and walk India’s first two female-led highlines. From carrying heavy gear up the hill and understanding how to rig it safely to climbing rocks to finish installing it, the team spent hours perfecting every step.”
Some of the women had highlined before, while others were complete beginners. Instead of aggressively encouraging the first-timers to go on the line and overcome their fears, Antony decided to go with a more compassionate approach. “It can be difficult to be vulnerable in the presence of strangers. We wanted to create a gentler space where you could cry on the highline if you were scared and no one would think you were weak for it,” she shares. The seven-day event enabled the women to break out of their mental barriers, take small steps and unlock tricks to acing the sport, and most importantly, form a sisterhood of sorts.
The Indian highlining community is growing rapidly, with slackliners organising weekly sessions in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, and Goa. Highline projects are also increasing in number, with lines being rigged at festivals such as The Great Indian Highline Gathering (2020), Grit Fest (annual), Suru Fest (annual), and The Rush Fest (2022). But even so, there is little awareness about the sport and as a result, barely any support from the city officials to conduct such events. There have been incidents of gear theft, slackliners being chased away, and permits being denied.
Antony, who has spent the last few months traveling and highlining in France and Germany, talks about how differently the sport is treated in Europe. “I recently got a chance to attend the Valloire Highline Festival in the Alps, which was at least three times the scale of anything I have witnessed in India. It was amazing to see the kind of resources, support, and access these guys have,” she says.
The experience has inspired her to take initiative for bigger highline projects back home. She is hoping to put together a team to rig a high-altitude highline in the Himalayas. “I acknowledge that the context is very different in India and it may take a lot more time and effort on our part, but I know we can make it happen,” she says.
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