Category Archives: Nature & Wildlife

A sunrise hike to Kunti betta

As the lockdown is easing out and the Covid positive cases in India are on a rise, many people are opting DIY (Do it Yourself) day trips and hikes over organized group trips. Either with just family members or a closed knit of friends is what seems to be an option for some time more to come. Quite a few of them have been asking me to give them suggestions of where they can go for short drives or hikes. One such suggestion is ‘Kunti Betta’. Although I had done this hike with an organized itinerary by ‘Plan the Unplanned’, one can try this by themselves. However, a hike in daylight is suggested over our pre-dawn adventure.

We started from Bangalore at midnight as we wanted to reach the peak before sunrise. It was still dark, cold and windy when our minibus reached the parking lot of ‘Sri Shankarananda Bharati Vidyapeeth’ school at Kachenahalli village in Mandya district. We climbed a small flight of stairs, walked past a temple pond (we couldn’t see but only were told by our guide) and continued to walk in a single line following each other’s torchlights. While a couple of them tripped over small stones on their path, a few others got their shoes wet by stepping into water puddles in the dark. With torchlight, our guide navigated the path through thick shrubs, tall grasses and large boulders enroute. We reached the peak in a couple of hours.

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The view from the Kunti Betta peak: Before dawn, at dawn break and after sunrise

It was dark when we reached the top and it was unexpectedly cold. I hadn’t gone with enough warmers but that didn’t stop me from sleeping on the cold rock until dawn. I watched the stars in the clear sky and didn’t realise that I had surrendered to the sleep gods. I was awakened by a fellow hiker at dawn. The view of the distant lake and sugarcane farms looked nice from the top. Also, several other rocky hillocks dotted our view. The one we were standing at was named after Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. History has it that the hill was earlier called as the ‘French Rocks’, named by the French army in the pre-independence era. Although it was partially cloudy by the time the dawn broke, we still got lucky to get a glimpse of the sun that morning. After taking enough photos, we started our descent.

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The Kunti Betta hike route

Since there are lot of loose rocks, there were possibilities of slip. Only during descent, we got a sense of the terrain and the view which we had missed while climbing up. We soon reached the temple pond at the base beside which there is a large monolithic rock. The localites use this as a giant slide. I too climbed up this rock and the kid in me had fun sliding down from this version of the desi slide.

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The temple pond at the base of Kunti betta

Our stomachs were grumbling by that time and there was no food around. With permission, we could use the washroom at the school. We then commenced our return to Bangalore with a breakfast stop at ‘Maddur Tiffanys’ for their signature dish- Maddur vadas with Masala dosa and filter coffee. The landscape was beautiful with green sugarcane farms extending on both sides of the countryside roads before we hit the highway.

A word of advice though:

  • Since there are too many hillocks in a cluster, having a guide would be better to find the right peak.
  • Since we hiked before dawn, there was also the fear of confronting wild animals like bears and leopards. Although, we didn’t see any, this was told by someone in the group.

Although we did only the early morning hike, you can make it a full day activity. These are a few things you can include in your itinerary:

  • Since Mandya is the ‘Sugar Bowl’ of Karnataka, you can visit any of the small sugar/jaggery making setups on the farms enroute and savor freshly made jaggery.
  • A lot of people visit the Tonnur lake (about 10kms away) from Kunti Betta and take a dip there. Alternatively, you can visit Manchinabele dam or Kanva reservoir. We skipped it as we were told that the soil on the banks was marshy at the time we visited.
  • You can visit Ranganathittu Birds sanctuary and take a ferry ride in the river.
  • You can also visit ‘Janapada Loka’ to get an overview of the folk-culture from across Karnataka.

A quick getaway from Bangalore- Siddarabetta trek

Lockdown 5.0. simply put, was just another normal day in Karnataka, except that the educational institutions were still under lockdown. So, unwinding on a weekend after a long work week was normal too. With friends, I chose to hike on a Sunday morning to Madhugiri betta, the second highest monolithic hill in Asia. We started from Bangalore at 04.30.am. hoping to start the hike as soon as the gates were opened. While KSTDC has been abundantly promoting post-Covid tourism in the state, we had a surprise awaiting us at the trek base. Since Madhugiri fort comes under ASI’s protected monuments (controlled by the central government), we were told that trekking wasn’t permitted by the Central government. Hence, we were left with two options. Either return home or find another hill nearby where we could hike.

We chose the latter. So instant suggestions that came from someone in the group was Devarayanadurga and Siddarabetta. Then, we decided to give Devarayanadurga a miss as we all favoured a hike over a flight of stairs. We arrived at the base of Siddarabetta where we noticed a board that said, ‘climbing the hill with footwear was a sin’. Since many people use this path to visit a temple situated halfway, we didn’t want to hurt the local sentiments by wearing our shoes. Thinking that ‘a barefoot hike was definitely going to be an experience’ in our heads, we left our shoes back in our car.

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Below: The welcome arch at the base; Top: The initial climb

The initial part of the climb, until the Siddeshwara Swamy temple was steep but easy with well laid out steps and iron rods to hold onto. When we reached a small temple kind of a spot, the path split into two. The Siddeshwara Swamy temple was to the left, where too many people seemed to be as if there was no pandemic going on and there exists no concept called ‘Social distancing’. We decided to distance ourselves from the gathering and took the path to the right. With having to pass between too many boulders, it did seem a little confusing initially. The distant passing clouds now seemed as if they had come to meet and greet us. But after walking a little ahead, we reached an area that was a transition from dry rocky mountain to rain soaked green forests. The real challenge of walking barefoot started there, with unassumed ground with gravel and possible thorns from the shrubs.

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Left: The rocky path to the temple; Right: The forest path to the view point

A little further, we reached an open rocky area where the view in front of us was playing hide and seek with each passing cloud. Apart from the drizzle and gusty winds that made it difficult for us to stand, we were mind-blown by the view we saw each time the clouds cleared out. There exists a small rain fed pond, a couple of meditating chambers that house Shiva Lingas (history unknown) and dilapidated remains of an old fortress. There was nobody else other than us in this entire stretch. We walked further and crossed two more hills before deciding to return, or else we would lose our way back.

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Top: The dilapidated fortress wall; Bottom left: A large rock; Bottom right: One of the meditating chambers

It started to rain on our return, and we were quite drenched by the time we made it to the car that was parked just at the base point. The small eateries and stalls were slowly opening by that time which we chose not to visit, in order to avoid any social contacts with anyone else outside the group that we had gone in. We ate a few biscuits as a substitute for breakfast that we had carried from home and decided to stop the car next, only at home. It was a much-needed break and a pleasant little hike.

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The view at from the peak

Summary:

A valley frozen in time- Dzukou

Rolling hills that has many faces to call it BEST described… Every description depends on who saw it during which time of the year. I was heading to this valley in early winter, 1st week of December to be precise. That’s when the days are warm and nights are cold, but there is no snowfall.

So, as planned my friend and I set foot to see a valley that borders the states of Nagaland and Manipur. ‘It’s a magical place’ is the only thing we had heard. I had done enough research about getting there from Nagaland side and learnt that there are two routes with different difficulty levels. One starts from Jakhama village and the other is through Vishema village. Since we had hired a trek guide, we decided to take the route recommended by her. Initially, not knowing what terrain we would be trekking through, we had carried our large backpacks with all the stuff for our fortnight long trip in Nagaland. But then, our guide asked us to carry just thermals and enough water. “Food and blankets can be bought at the peak” we were told. Anyway, additionally we carried our sleeping bags and some food since we had to utilize what we had carried all the way from Bangalore 😛 We left our luggage at our guide’s house in Jakhama and took a short taxi ride to the start point of the trek. (Watch the video below)

We started to climb up from Jakhama by around 11.30.a.m. and the path was unassumingly steep. The entire trail was encompassed in a thick canopy of trees through which the sun rays could hardly penetrate. Although we were climbing at peak noon, it felt as if it was post sunset. The heat generated by the body while burning the calories seemed insufficient to warm us up. The trail only got steeper at almost 80deg gradient and we kept thanking our guide for telling us to leave our excess luggage at the base. Then suddenly, the forests opened to the blue skies… Before our eyes could adjust to the bright light, we were staring at our first glimpse of the valley. I was at a loss of breath. Not because of the tiring climb or the cold winds that was making it difficult for me stand on my feet, but because I was transported to a different world by the setting sun which had engulfed the green valley. I don’t know if I can express that feeling rightly with words, to simply put it: I was SPELLBOUND!

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The first view of the valley

It was a short walk further from there. The trail along the cliff with the green hills appearing one after the other and the sky changing its shade with every second, kept us going until we had finally made it to the guest house for the night’s stay. At 4.30.p.m., when we reached there, it just got dark with the last ray of white light. But the sky continued to mesmerize us as it turned from red to black, in between illuminating the silhouettes of the surrounding hills. I had started to freeze and shiver by this time as the temperatures dropped to single digits. But I did not want to move from there as I stared at what was the clearest night’s sky I had seen in a long while. So many stars twinkled over the Dzukou valley! As reality started to hit me hard, I had started to get cramps in my feet and had to hurriedly go and warm myself with the thermals and the firewood that was lit to cook food in the kitchen.

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As the night passed, the temperatures dropped further. Our thermals and sleeping bags didn’t seem enough and we borrowed additional blankets to help ourselves in the large hall which had just walls, a roof and a wooden floor to sleep on. I could barely sleep through the cold night. Although awake, I was waiting for the alarm to ring at 05.00.a.m. We were supposed to head out to see the Dzukou valley…

At 05.00.am. I was the first one to get up and step out for the hike down to the valley. The morning light was still dim, and I felt the earth below my feet crackle. It did not take me too long to realize that all the grass on which I was walking and the entire valley that surrounded me was frozen. The temperatures had dropped below zero and the frozen valley at a distance looked splendid! Soon, the others joined me, and we walked down the valley to witness what is supposed to be the main reason for our trek to Dzukou. The sunrise! We walked past what the locals call as the cave and walked over a frozen stream. We clenched bits of frozen waterfalls along the way too… And when the sun rose above and shone over the valley- It looked surreal. It seemed like the phrase ‘Frozen in time’ was framed after someone saw this place. The frozen dew drops reflected the lights of the rising sun and the sight was beyond my ability to describe. What I was experiencing from within was a sense of emptiness, accomplishment, happiness- well a medley of emotions. There has been NO place I had been to more beautiful than this, no I’m not exaggerating.

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A frozen pond in Dzukou at Sunrise

The entire valley has a peculiar kind of bamboo grass which gives it its green color. The same valley looks as if it is covered in red/ pink during monsoon. That’s when the lilies, endemic to Dzukou valley bloom. And come during the peak of winter: The entire valley is painted white in snow. This is a photo my guide had shared with me of how the valley looked just 10 days after we returned. The valley does not fail to mesmerize people irrespective of the season they come. Well, after spending a good amount of time, we returned to the guest house, packed up to head back to Kohima, for the hornbill festival.

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The sky on our way to Vishema

By now, we were a big team of trekkers and backpackers who had all bonded over at the guest house and together we decided to take the Vishema route for our return. It was a brilliant decision, I guess! Had we taken the same route for our return; we would have missed the magical sky behind the forest canopy. The sky seemed surreal with every turn in the trail. The valley too looked magical at every corner. It was flat land that we were walking on mostly, apart from a short trail of very steep rocks to slide down from, until we finally arrived at the base. A pre-booked Sumo was waiting to pick us back to Kohima. I want to bluntly end this post because this place is something better experienced than written about.

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The view point from the guest house. Top: After snowfall; Below: before snowfall

About the trek in short:

  • I believe what one calls difficult or easy largely depends on individual’s fitness level and trekking experience. According to me, the distance to the peak is short and could be done in 1-1.5hrs if it was me alone. But it was the first hike EVER for my friend and it took us around 4hours to reach the guest house at the peak.
  • Although people feel Vishema route is easier onwards, in my opinion- we made a good decision by walking the Jakhama route while going up. Since it is steep, climbing would be slow but the distance is shorter. In contrary, if we took Jakhama route to climb down, the gradient would put enormous strain on our knees which is why I suggest taking the Vishema route for the descent.
  • Cooked (basic & hygienic) food and potable running water is available at the top, so apart from energy bars for your walk, avoid carrying unwanted luggage.

365 days around the state- Wild Karnataka

03-Mar-19: I was extremely sad that I had missed the premiere screening of this much anticipated documentary. All I knew was it was a project based on wildlife and had no much idea about what to expect apart from the Tigers which grab the limelight in almost every other content made on conservation. ‘Even then, it was the first time a government organization had come forward with an ambitious project as this, that too pioneered by my home state’ I thought. I was excited! Luck came knocking at my door again when British council, Bengaluru center decided to screen it in their premises on 08-Jun-19. It was a Saturday, a workday for me. I registered, took leave and finally, there I was… I was going to watch a movie, solo 😀

Buckle up my dear readers, I’m taking you on a new journey through my ‘TRAVEL’ article. You can call it a movie review if you wish to. But for me, it is a journey across my home state, through the eyes of a wildlife enthusiast. Yeah, I thanked my previous travels for I was able to travel with the ‘team Wild Karnataka’ exactly the way they wanted its audience to travel along the storyline of its documentary. It is the story of the monsoons… It is the story of one year… It is the story of traveling from South to the north and then coming back along the coastline to where it all begins, in my home state- Wild Karnataka: It is a Travel movie! (Click here for the trailer)

The movie opened with aerial shots of the western Ghats, the breathtaking greenery and the mighty waterfalls these hills hold in them. And then, the story pierced right through these dense evergreen forests of the western Ghats. Welcome to South Karnataka! Location undisclosed, I assumed it was my hometown at the southern tip of the state. Somewhere, his majesty wandered with his family on their familiar trail in search of a watering hole. His familiar face with probably the longest tusks in India reminded me that he is an Instagram celebrity from the woods of Kabini. Not before the first drops of the monsoon reached his skin, his highness, the Royal Bengal tiger roared in a distant deciduous forest probably at Bandipur or Nagarhole. Karnataka has the largest population of the Asiatic elephants and the Royal Bengal tigers in the world! No, they didn’t grab the limelight and they silently disappeared into the mysterious jungle making way for the newer celebrities to grab their screen space.

The camera then traveled slightly north, with the langurs who were joyfully jumping across the rocky outcrops of the deccan plateau. A hundred times that I have travelled through this rocky terrain, I had never given it a thought that these scattered lifeless rocks could hold up so much life in them. Be it the peacocks who fought each other to woo their potential mate or the playful sloth bear cubs that were piggy backing on their mother at the Daroji sanctuary, they stole my heartbeats. As if these thieves weren’t enough, there was more awaiting in the grasslands of Koppala. The jungle cat mother was teaching her kittens to hone up their life skills in confronting a venomous spectacled cobra- and my heart was taken!

Giving due credits to the wolves and the blackbucks along the way, the familiar voice of the narrator visually transported me further north over to the western Ghats again, this time in Uttara Kannada. It was the season of love making and the great Indian hornbills had gathered for their mud bathing ritual with each one trying to win their mate. These high canopy forests are perhaps the only place where all 4 main species of the hornbills are found. Meanwhile in a nearby farm, there was another superhero marking his territory by gliding across tree trunks. Draco or the gliding lizards are like feathers on the crown of the wild heritage of Karnataka.

While the winter was over and the forests had bloomed in spring, the voice guided the audience under the water. The corals spawned and schools of fishes swam around freely along the 320kms long coastline of the state. Not many know that the Netrani island is one of the best dive spots in the country. By swimming through the Karavali, I didn’t realize that I had reached back safely to where I had begun. The elephant family joyfully welcomed the first rain of the next cycle!

As the evergreen watering hole of the Kabini began to revive with the monsoon showers, the plot went around the western ghats again, giving the Dholes their share of the screen space along the way. A yawning baby King Cobra emerging from its nest and the frog stretching its limbs to grab the attention of its mate were clearly the stars ruling the rainforests of the second wettest place in the country, Agumbe. A family of the smooth-coated otters somewhere along the riverbanks didn’t fail me to wonder where they had been hiding until then. The river terns from the Bhadra backwaters came in with a fresh breeze of air from across the borders.

After the unspoken celebrities of wildlife ruled the screen for the 52 minutes, it was as if god himself appeared before the audience in the end. Sir David Attenborough greeted the audience in Kannada. None of us present there could have asked for a better finish! A first for any Indian film, he has lent his voice for this movie accompanied with a heart thumping music score by Grammy award winning composer, Ricky Kej.

While justice is done with the team attempting to throw light to as many permanent residents of the state as possible, hopefully the dwindling numbers of Vultures at Ramnagara and Great Indian Bustard of Siruguppa along with the innumerable visitors who cross borders like flamingoes of Raichur, the pelicans and the spoonbills from Srirangapatna and so many others from the woods too find their screen space someday! A wildlife documentary, as the team may wish to call it, it is perhaps one of the best travel movies I have ever watched. It is that one which got closer to my heart because it took me time travelling around my home state with a new perspective and is all documented with a talented bunch of home bred filmmakers.

 

Natural wonders of South India – My favourites

India has intrigued the world with its history, geography and culture- each individually dating back to several ages ago. I have been no different from the rest of the world. The LostLander has begun to embrace her landings after getting lost at random places in her incredible country. The more she is exploring her country, the more she has been discovering about its descendance and getting mind blown with new discoveries each time. Author Sanjeev Sanyal writes, “The history of India’s physical geography is older than that of its civilization or even that of the human race. The subcontinent has been a distinct geological entity for millions of years. Therefore, to understand India, we must go back to the very beginning.”

The fact that it is called as a subcontinent is associated to a larger theory of it being separated out of a supercontinent called ‘Rodinia’ and drifting apart from Africa, Antarctica and then Madagascar before it struck with the Asian continent. No, I’m not time traveling that far for now! It was just to put an exclamation to how amazing this country’s geography has evolved to be and what the natural bounty as we called it, has to offer in this beautiful country to an explorer… To take my article forward and with no biases, I divide the geography of this subcontinent into North and the South, just by drawing an imaginary line passing through its center, Seoni in Madhya Pradesh. Here is a humble attempt to take my readers through some of the beautiful destinations I have been to enjoy the natural marvels of Southern India. They are in random order and listed as and when I recollected them. For more details, you need to read my individual posts on them just by clinking on their respective tags!

1. Kurusudai islands: Nestled off the coast of Rameswaram in the Gulf of Mannar, it is the only place in the world where the oldest and the last surviving living fossil is found in the world.

2. The table tops of Maharashtra: Be it the beautifully painted pink valleys of the Khas plateau, valleys of Matheran, Mahabaleshwar or any place thought of for a scenic drive for the Mumbaikars- have all formed out of large volcanic eruptions as the subcontinent merged with Asia. Not just that, these geographical features were strategically used by Shivaji to stop the invasion by the Mughals and hence called the Deccan traps.

3. Limestone caves of Andhra Pradesh:(Click to read article) Belum caves, a part of a larger cave complex in the Erramalai region is the largest and longest cave system that is open to public. Similarly, the Borra caves is the deepest in the country. The speleothem formations are worth a visit which have formed due to continuous flowing of water over a thousand years, easily dating back to the Archaean age.

4. Gandikota: People call it as the ‘Grand Canyon of India. It is a beautiful gorge formed by the Pennar river as it squeezes from between the rock formation that has played witness to several kingdoms in history.

5. Eastern Ghats: Although I use a very generic term that specifies an entire region, they are older and mineral rich than their popular counterparts on the western side. All, again a resultant of several tectonic activities in the event of formation of the Indian mass.

6. Dhanushkodi: This abandoned town has more than just history of a cyclone. The revered ‘RamaSethu’ or the Adam’s bridge was formerly considered to be the largest Tombolo in the world and is believed to have formed due to the drifting of India and the Lankan land masses several thousand years ago..

Well… If all these have been the outcomes of several tectonic activities of the earth over a million years, there are yet several other amazing things that nature has to offer in the Southern peninsula.

7. Have you been to Wayanad in Northern Kerala? There is a heart shaped lake after a good climb up in the western Ghats. It’s the nature’s way of telling ‘I Love You’!

8. Heard of the Barren island? It is the only active volcano in India, with the most recent eruption being in 2017. The sea area around it is considered to be one of the best dive sites in the world!

9. And then there is Baratang islands– It is the only mud volcano in India, situated in the Andaman group of islands.

10. Have you seen the Purple hills? Where do you think the Nilgiri hills in the western Ghats derive their name from? They’re so called because these green verdant hills are painted blue/purple (Neela in Hindi) by the Neelakurinji flowers, something that blooms only once in twelve years. The latest mass-blossoming being in 2018.

11. Cruised through the canals of Kuttanad? Mostly popular among the honeymooners and families alike for its backwaters and houseboats, what many don’t know about this region is that it is the only region in the world where paddy farming is done below sea level.

12. How about a boat ride in the Mangrove forests of the Bay of Bengal? The Sundarbans and Pichavaram forests are the first and the second largest mangrove marshlands in the world. A world heritage site that they are, an extremely important part of the ecology.

13. What happens when a meteor hits the earth? A massive crater is formed giving form to Lonar lake in Maharashtra. This Geo-heritage monument saline soda lake is the only high velocity impact crater lake on earth.

14. Seen the waterfalls of the Deccan plateau? Be it the Chitrakoot falls in Chhattisgarh, Gokak falls in Karnataka, Athirapally in Kerala or Hogeynakal in Tamil Nadu… They’re all so good they can give a good competition to the Niagara!

15. Heard of the Sentinelese tribesmen in the Andaman sea? They’ve long avoided contact with the outside world and their gene pool is believed to be one of the crucial links to early man and the evolution of mankind on the planet.

What India has to offer is abundant! And these are only a few places that I have been to in the southern India. Do you have any recommendations? Have I missed out on anything? I would LOVE to know… Please drop n your suggestions, recommendations, feedback in the comments section below 😊

Click here for places to visit on weekends for bengaluru

Camping in the Indian forests of the African tribes- Dandeli Jungle Camp

Being abundantly blessed with natural beauty, Anshi National park and Dandeli Tiger reserve is one of the first hotspots of the elusive black panthers in India. Apart from its paper mills, Dandeli is also known as the ‘Rishikesh of the South’ for its river rafting in the waters of River Kali. As if these weren’t reasons enough for me to backpack, I got invited to stay at the ‘Dandeli Jungle Camp’. What better way to reconnect the lost bond with nature than camping in the woods? I jumped to grab-in when opportunity struck! This was a Solo-trip that was long due and I had alighted for sunrise at the Dandeli bus stand on a Saturday morning.

Click here to plan a weekend trip from bengaluru

After a 30mins drive through the forests to Pradhani, a further off-roading of 2kms from the main road lead me to this simple homestay and camp run in the lap of nature amid the woods. The eerie silence of the elusive woods and the stridulations of the crickets instantly calmed my soul by responding to the deep calls of nature. A basic cottage with all the essential and neat amenities was awaiting me in the midst of the jungle overlooking a farm of areca and mangoes. I couldn’t ask for a better place to be, to feed the wanderlust and nomad in me for the weekend. I was excited to be greeted by Malabar giant squirrels and sambar deer at my doorstep to say the least. One can also avail their tenting facilities with bon-fire if it’s a bunch of friends traveling together. Mr.Dharmesh, the ever smiling owner of the property says that the camp was started by a French lady 3 decades ago from whom he has taken over so that he could settle down in the woods after he quit his well paying job at one of the top-star hotels in Bangalore. He had planned a detailed itinerary for me and I can’t thank him enough for his warm hospitality. After dumping my luggage and a nice lunch, I set out for some exploration.

View from the Supa dam backwaters
View from the Supa dam backwaters

A stroll along the dwindling lonely road on the backwaters of Supa dam offered a panoramic view of the distant hills, only if there was good rainfall- it would have been a gorgeous sight. After a quick stop-over at the tribal shop to relish a glass of kokum juice and buy some jackfruit chips and papads to take back home, I was taken to Syntheri rocks. This is a very beautiful little place located deep in the woods and formed by rich mineral ores that have formed beautiful rock patterns by standing the test of time. A drive to the Kavla caves, A coracle ride in the ferocious rapids of the Kali river, a dip in the natural Jacuzzi, crocodile walk are some of the other activities included in the package that kept me busy through the day. An evening walk in the woods around the property with a personal guide was a memorable time spent identifying the calls of various birds and inhabitants of the forest. The large number of hornbills that fly into their nests in this forest at sunset or catching the sunrise from my window are only some of the fancy things that my stay offered to me.

Syntheri rocks
Syntheri rocks, Photo by: Gowtham Shastry

The next day, Mr.Dharmesh personally dropped me off for the early morning bird watching walk that was arranged at the Dandeli timber depot. This first time experience of birding is something that I will cherish for a long time and is written about as a separate post. A bird watching tour around the depot where over 150 bird species could be spotted on any given day- was the highlight of my trip to Dandeli!

So, the next big agenda was meeting the Siddhis- The tribal community endemic to the Kali reserve region who are believed to be of the African origin. Be it chilling with them over some rustic music or trying their favourite delicacy- the red ant/ termite chutney, the experience is sure to leave one amused and feel time travelled.

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A coracle ride in the Kali River, Photo by: Gowtham Shastry

With so many activities included in the package that kept me on toes through the 2 days I stayed at this property, it is a high recommendation from me. If you wish to extend your stay by another day, you have no dearth of things to do- from river rafting, to a canopy walk and visit to Dudhsagar falls, all can be arranged by the camp guys themselves. After freshening up at the camp, I started my journey back to Bangalore. I took a KSRTC bus from Dandeli to Hubli from where I had booked my train. Whoa! Such a wonderful trip!

Dandeli Jungle Camp’ is an offbeat stay which does not have its own webpage or have direction boards to keep commercialization at check. From the time I alighted at the bus stand till the time I boarded for return, my entire trip was managed by www.dandeli.com through whom my package was booked. The connectivity of public transport within the reserve area is scarce and being a solo traveler, all my travel hassles were taken care by these wonderful organizers.

Luxury in Wilderness of Dandeli- Old magazine house

With an invitation from a friend to explore Dandeli, I packed my bag and hit the road in an overnight bus to reach Dandeli. I was excited with the much anticipated trip that materialized after really long. I was received at the Dandeli bus stand the next morning and transferred to the resort located 20kms away at Ganeshgudi where I had the booking. The name of the property where I was supposed to stay at was equally enticing as the woods itself. The first thought that struck me when I heard ‘The Old Magazine house’ was an old rugged cottage painted on canvas straight out of a magazine cover. But, that’s not what the fancy name beholds. Originally built by the British, it once served as a warehouse of gelatin and gunpowder (hence the name) during the construction of the Supa dam built across River Kali, the lifeline of the National Park. I was hosted at this renovated property, now run as a resort by the Karnataka Forest Department.

The road leading to the Old magazine house
The road leading to the Old magazine house

Their 3 categories of accommodation to suit all budget includes- the individual luxurious wooden cottages, the standard large rooms housed in the actual magazine house and the dormitories for large groups who want to stay together. I chose the second one and had a very comfortable stay. The Old magazine house is a simple place nestled in the midst of high rise thick canopy of trees with abundance of peace and calm in nature’s lap. Water bowls have been placed with entwined twigs collected from the forest where the winged beauties come down to beat the heat. The set-up offers abundant opportunities to click the perfect postcard/wallpaper shots of these winged beauties. While most of the resort operators in the region keep food to attract more birds, “that makes the birds lazy and inactivity makes them vulnerable to prey. Hence, we only keep water bowls to help them quench their thirst and provide a more natural habitat for the birds” says one of the staff. Given their dedication to avian conservation and hospitability, no doubt the place is quite a hit among the bird photographers’ fraternity. I was surprised to meet so many enthusiasts who had made this place their home for over a week straight. All they did was eat the meals served at their place and wait patiently to get their perfect shot or spot that one bird they had come down for, all the way!

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Some of the visitors at the property from over 50 species, photos by: Gowtham Shastry

The early morning nature walk too offered some good birding opportunities with their very knowledgeable in-house naturalist. No doubt, the resort is a birder’s haven, but the place has lot more to offer like the flying lizards, the great Indian hornbill, sloth bears, the giant Malabar squirrel etc. which are easily spotted here than any other resort in Dandeli. Don’t be surprised if you drive past a leopard or a black panther post sunset, hence venturing out of the property after 6.00.p.m. is not advised and the guests are required to stay indoors post dinner at 10.00.p.m.

The Dining area at breakfast and Supper
The Dining area at breakfast and Supper

If you are more of an outdoor person always in action, their package does not disappoint you either- It includes a hike to the sunset point, coracle ride and bon-fire if the weather is friendly. While you are in a place known for its white water rafting, you can indulge in the water sports offered by the resort run Kali adventure camp. With a river seeming deadly with uncountable whirlpools, the coracle ride was sure an experience in itself. With the Kali river flowing as ferocious as her name sounds, I chose them over any other private property because all the permits for treks and adventure activities are legally obtained and conducted under the supervision of authorized and trained personnel from the forest department and hence, a safe bet. The neat spread of dishes for all 3 meals completed my stay into one memorable trip!

The Ganeshgudi bridge as seen from the coracle in the Kali River
The Ganeshgudi bridge as seen from the coracle in the Kali River

Summary:

Must dos:

Watch the hornbills mud-bathing on the river bank near Ganeshgudi bridge

• Spot flying lizards that can be seen in abundance just outside your room window.

• Get lucky to come face-off with the black panthers.

Since the resort is secluded inside the Dandeli wildlife reserve, the accessibility to places is difficult through public transport. My entire trip was very well taken care by www.dandeli.com. From my bus-stand/railway station transfers, accommodation to local sightseeing, everything was perfectly handled with their efficient personnel Mr.Sanjay, Mr.Ramnath and Mr.Rajesh. Even if you are a solo-traveler or a bunch of friends or family, I would definitely recommend their services not just in Dandeli but other places as well.

Meeting the farmers of the forests at Dandeli

Being one of the first hotspots of the elusive black panthers and a place known as the ‘Rishikesh of the South’ for its river rafting in the waters of River Kali weren’t reasons enough for me to grab-in when opportunity struck! A Solo-trip that was long due, finally happened one weekend. I packed my backpack and hit the road in an overnight bus to reach Dandeli.

Since I was travelling solo, I had booked my trip through the packages offered by the resorts in the buffer zone of Anshi National park and Dandeli Tiger reserve. For a change and a reason, I had opted to stay at 2 different properties during my trip. The first day was at a resort to pamper myself with luxury in the wilderness and the second night was at a homestay to feed the wanderlust and nomad in me with the various activities included in their package. Firstly, I stayed at the ‘Old Magazine House’, a resort run by the Karnataka Forest Department’s Jungle lodges and Resorts wing. It’s a renovated old house where the gelatin stocks were stored (hence the name- Magazine) during the construction of the Supa dam. It is a simple place nestled in the midst of high rise thick canopy of trees. The nature lover in me enjoyed the eerie silence of these elusive woods and calmed my soul by responding to the deep calls of nature.

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The highlight of the stay was that of having large number of flying lizards around and an ideal set-up for bird photography in their natural habitat. A hike to the sunset point and coracle ride in the ferocious river Kali was included in the package. With a river seeming deadly with uncountable whirlpools, the coracle ride was sure an experience in itself. I chose to do these activities with them over any other private property because all the permits for treks and adventure activities are legally obtained and conducted under the supervision of authorized personnel from the forest department and hence, a safe bet. I took an evening walk before sunset to the Ganeshgudi Bridge from where flocks of hornbills can be seen flying or mud-bathing in the winters.

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The coracle ride

The next day, after a short bird spotting walk in the woods and finishing it with a neat breakfast, I headed towards my next destination- Dandeli jungle camp located at Pradhani. An offbeat drive of about 2kms from the main road leads to this simple homestay and camp run in the lap of nature amid the woods, that’s filled with rare flora and fauna. Be sure to be greeted by Malabar giant squirrels and sambar deer at your doorstep to say the least. Since it’s a camp, basic but neat amenities can be availed with either rooms or tenting facilities. We were taken to Syntheri rocks, a very beautiful little place located deep in the woods and formed by rich mineral ores that have formed beautiful rock patterns by standing the test of time. An evening walk in the woods just around the property or catching the sunrise from my window were just a few beautiful moments among others.

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Syntheri rocks

Photo courtesy: Gowtham Shastry

The experience I had the next morning is something that I will cherish for long time. As a part of the package, I was asked to be ready by 6.00.a.m. and was taken to the Dandeli timber depot. I was introduced to Ms.Rajani, a high school teacher by profession and an avid nature keeper by passion. She was assigned to take me on a bird watching tour around the depot where over 150 bird species could be spotted on any given day- A true haven for the bird watchers! My enthusiastic guide visits this place every morning and evening which she describes as her day being incomplete without talking to the woods and strengthening her nature connect.

Among several species that she went on showing me around and shedding light on facts about them, the one that opened my eyes to an all new perspective of seeing avian life were the Hornbills. The hornbill is one species that is referred to Lord Ram and Sita for the couple bonding that they share. These birds have a very unique way of finding their mates and if ever happened that one bird dies anytime, the other remains single all life without finding another mate which is unique to hornbills. The reproduction cycle of these birds is once in 5 years and hence, the male bird is extremely protective about the female and the chick. The male bestows his beloved with berries of her choice from faraway places during this period. While it carries around 40-50 berries in its beak to feed its family, a few fruits may fall down during its flight, thus contributing to afforestation- The hornbills are the farmers of the forests in true sense and live a life of awe and inspiration to mankind. Another interesting fact is among the 54 species of hornbill across the world, 9 are found in India. Out of these, the world’s largest species- The great Indian hornbill and world’s smallest- the Malabar Grey hornbill with Malabar pied and Indian Grey, 4 species can be found in Dandeli alone. And I was fortunate to see all 4 of these during my 3 days stay here, an experience that cannot be explained but only be witnessed. Another unique sighting was of the jungle babbler or the ‘seven sister birds’. With enormous untold stories, the tour ended rather quickly as we both lost track of time. I gave her a tight hug for the wonderful ways of teaching her students in school about conservation of natural resources and I bid farewell.

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Dandeli timber depot

After freshening up back at the camp after breakfast, I started my journey back to Bangalore. I took a KSRTC bus from Dandeli to Hubli from where I had booked my train. Whoa! Such a wonderful trip!

Summary:

Must dos:

• Watch the hornbills mud-bathing on the river bank near Ganeshgudi

• Spot flying lizards and the black panthers.

Dandeli Jungle Camp is an offbeat stay which does not have its own webpage or have direction boards to keep commercialization at check. You can get in touch with them if you wish to, through www.dandeli.com

The connectivity of local transport is not reliable. Although, it would be a great idea to have an own vehicle to go around the place, the property that you stay at can arrange it for you and hence, traveling alone shouldn’t be much of a hassle.

Climbing the highest waterfall in Andhra Pradesh- Talakona

It is needless to elaborate on the names Tirumala and Tirupathi! Famous as the richest temple in the world, the seat of Swamy Venkateshwara- the lord of seven hills. What goes beyond just this RICH temple is its geographical location. For someone who has been there and used the 11km long stairs to get to the top, I’m sure he must have enjoyed the multiple pit stops and deviations off the course to see the ‘Papavinasanam’ and ‘Akasha Ganga’ waterfalls enroute. And then there is the magnificent Silathoranam, the natural arch bridge formed due to volcanic erosions several million years ago… As if these pit stops weren’t enough, one is bound to get enchanted by the stunning view of the entire range of hills surrounding the temple with the Nagari quartzite formations… Ever since I had been there, exploring these hills has always been on my bucket-list… And when I chanced upon an opportunity to do it over a weekend, I jumped in with excitement. Taking cue from a random couch-surfing meet-up, we had decided to hit the roads to explore the hill ranges of Eastern Ghats. So on a Saturday morning, we started from Bangalore before sunrise to see the highest waterfall in the state of Andhra Pradesh, nestled in the Venkateshwara National Park. While I slept for most of the way, I was awakened to a blurred view of a fiery-red sunrise seen through the dew-laden window glass of our car, cruising through misty roads with hazy paddy fields around. We stopped by at one of the several restaurants on the way for a nice south-Indian breakfast and coffee.

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With good asphalted road all the way, we arrived at the forest check-post at Talakona. While our friend was getting the required permits / entry tickets into the national park, we got chatting with a fruit vendor who let us try the variety of fruits in his cane basket which all tasted as sweet as nectar. He then told us that he could be our guide (at a small cost) and show us some offbeat corners of the forest. We agreed upon the idea and promised to buy more fruits from him on our return to make up for his business. We then reached the eco-lodge, managed by the forest department and ordered for food which would be kept ready by the time we returned from our trek from the woods. We then drove up, till the Siddeshwara Swamy temple and parked our vehicle near the foothills of the waterfalls. Our guide took us off the course from there on through stone-laid stairs that seemed like we were walking into oblivion in the jungle that is notoriously famous for red-sandalwood smugglers and the elusive beasts- the Royal Bengal tigers. Our first stop was at this view point from where most of the green and brown stretch of alternating forest and quartzite was seen. After a short climb thereon, our guide made us cross a stream of water and took us to the edge of the rocky path. The stream now seemed like it was jumping down in a mad rush from the cliff we were standing upon, and we could hear the screaming of several tourists down beneath. That’s when our guide burst the bubble for us- We were standing right on top of the highest waterfall of the state. It was a nerve wracking experience to stand atop there and watch the water gush down under our feet and have a post-monsoon gorgeous view of the green ranges.

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The view of the ranges atop the waterfall

We were then guided through a canopy of lush green trees and hanging branches along the flowing water, at the end of where our feet stopped! Stopped in amusement… Amusement at what our eyes were seeing… A thick moss laden semi-circular rocky wall due to the flowing water over ages across whom several creepers hung and the water dropped down with all grace. This entire set-up of nature reflected in the mirror-like crystal clear water of the pond formed beneath where the golden fishes were enjoying their undisturbed swim. The rocks inside the pool made it appear rather shallow and was enticing us for a quick swim! With absolutely nobody else in the place- No exaggeration, it felt like we had found our long lost connection with nature right there! All unprepared for a swim, we put our legs into the freezing cold water to get a nice fish pedicure that de-stressed the city souls in us!

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The pool atop the Talakona waterfall

After getting our natural fish pedicure done, we headed back towards the base of the Talakona waterfall. But, it was a different route this time… It was a beautiful path with a canopy of trees, a deep gorge to our left and the massive rocky caves to our right accompanied by an eerie silence of the jungle… At the end was another waterfall. It was one of the levels of this multi-tiered waterfall which we had to cross through. For a look from the distance, we could not gauge the level of difficulty until we actually got on the rocky path to cross it. While each one of us mocked and took fun in laughing at why the other person couldn’t cross it with ease, we dreaded our own feat of the waterfall-crossing when we slipped, slid and even glided across the super slippery rock over which the algae had settled making it an armed to the teeth adventure. We had a friend who slid and landed right at the edge of the cliff, just an inch further would have taken him rolling down the multiple tiers of the highest waterfall of the state 😛 All said and done, with we being drenched to our bones, our jaws chattering with cold and an unexplainable feeling of accomplishment, we had reached the last part of our hike.

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The path across the caves

We then walked down to get a good look of the mighty Talakona waterfall from its base right-up, to understand where we had just arrived from… We then drove to the eco-lodge to dry ourselves, get some food and to call it a wrap for an eventful day that we concluded at twilight!

Tracking the Big Five at Kaziranga

The monsoon has caused the mighty Brahmaputra to take a toll on the North-eastern part of India causing innumerable and irreplaceable losses. I saw this one particular photo of a floating carcass of the striped beast- the National animal of India in the newspaper this morning and I was taken back in time when I visited Kazhiranga last year, post monsoon. After a wonderful drive through the National highway from Guwahati, we reached Kazhiranga on a night lit with Diwali lamps all around. Kazhiranga national park is divided into four main areas: The Central range at Kohora, Western range at Bagori, Eastern range at Agaratoli and the Burapahar range at Ghorakhati. Here, the tourists can enjoy the elephant and jeep rides into the forest that are organized by either government or private parties. It is closed during monsoon and we were lucky that the Central zone at Kohora had just opened. We had a nice meal and settled down at one of the numerous resorts that exist on the boundary of the National park in the Kohora range. Meanwhile, our resort guys helped us to get tickets for a safari ride scheduled for early next morning.

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Enroute to the forest gates

We woke up the next morning and headed towards the gates where the elephant ride was supposed to commence. The drive itself was so refreshing… With the addictive smell of wet ground, Mud roads with green paddy fields dotted with bamboo huts here and there; Thick mist slowly clearing up with dew drops reflecting the rising sun- It was a wonderful drive all the way till the tourist tower inside the forest gates. Kazhiranga is synonymous with the one-horned rhinoceros. Even before we started our ride, we spotted rhino families all around the tower we were standing at. With about 2/3rd of the world’s population of these beauties found in just this area, it was no surprise that we began to spot them one after the other. We even found a few of them grazing by the roadside fields on our way back. With that we realized, that Kaziranga was something beyond rhinos. Our elephant had arrived, we sat atop and started our ride into the haze of the misty green grasslands of the Kazhiranga.

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The elephants marching into the forest

The elephants that we were sitting on were walking through dense thickets of elephant grass- The grass that was taller even for elephants to walk through. Slowly, the mahout started to point out and show us the animal sightings. First, it was a wild elephant with its calf. We were told that Rhino and elephant conflicts were common and that particular mother elephant was wounded just that morning in a bid to protect its new born calf. So, that meant we were not safe sitting on one either! We slowly moved out of tall grass to another area where a couple of rhinos were finishing their morning chores. It was very surprising for us to know that large rhino groups identify space where each rhino marks its own spot (making a private toilet space for itself) and does not let any other rhino enter the area. Wow! We slowly passed that place and spotted herds of swamp deer. World’s largest population of these herbivores too is concentrated in these forests. They are handsome animals. Just as we were photographing them, we saw a herd of Asiatic wild water buffaloes marching out of a slush pool. We had no idea that over 57% of the world’s water buffaloes too were accommodated in the woods here! Another surprise awaited us- Kazhiranga national park has the highest density of the Royal Bengal tigers in the world!!! Whoa!!!! That’s like……..!!! So we had checked off 4 out of the big 5 of the Kazhiranga before heading towards the exit gates- The One horned rhinos, Asiatic elephants, swamp deer and wild water buffaloes… We need real luck to find the last one- the elusive beast: The Royal Bengal tiger…

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Clockwise: The Single horned Rhino, Swamp deer, Wild water buffaloes and the Asiatic elephants

We realized that we still had time to make it for the morning batch of jeep ride. I strongly recommend to try both ways of exploring the woods- on elephant back and by a four wheel drive. Both are different experiences and the type of terrain and sightings are different. While an elephant will be able to take you through the tall grass, a 4-wheel will be able to enter deeper areas of the forest. So, we had a gypsy to take us in… Needless to mention- Herds and herds of rhinos greeted us all along our way. Wild boars, barking deer etc. were spotted in abundance. The highlight was however- the innumerable varieties of migratory birds that we spotted. Our driver mentioned several names, out of which only pelicans and spoon-billed storks were the prominent ones that I have managed to remember. At the end of the drive one way, the guards took us to a watch tower from where we could catch a very good view of hundreds of animals that come to drink water from the flowing river. It was a very calm and a serene place to spend a while with nature… What caught our curiosity was some random years mentioned on the wall of the watch tower. So, here is a picture that may give an idea of the monsoon fury and severity of floods that affect this area year after year. The tower itself is located at an elevation from the river. My friend in the below picture is a 6-footer. The water level of 2016 is marked above him… Can you imagine how impossible it is for the animals to escape out of the area??? It’s insane to think of…

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Record of the flood water level of the Bramhaputra

Although a little disappointed for not being able to spot a tiger, we were feeling content for having our long pending wish of visiting this heritage site come true! We then headed back to the resort for breakfast. The drive back on the highway was an extremely nice one which had gone unnoticed during the hurried drive through misty roads in the morning… Tea plantations flanked the roads on both sides. The famous Assam tea grows in flat lands and under shade, totally contrary to what I had seen and grown up with, in down South. We stopped by to sip on some hot brew and bought some procedded tea leaves for our caffeine addicts back home. A quick visit to the Orchid research centre was an interesting place to drop by too…

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The Assam tea estate

So, that was an eventful day at Kazhiranga with warm memories from the woods before heading to our next destination- Jorhat. If you wish to spend more time with nature, I recommend you all to explore all the 4 ranges of the national park. Don’t go by recommendations of people of which range to go in… Each area is distinct with different types of vegetation, landscape, flora and fauna concentrations.