Category Archives: Nature & Wildlife

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.

“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.”

-Sanjeev Sanyal

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 by clicking 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: 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 the Chembra peak 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 😊

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.

Itinerary:
Friday: Overnight journey from Bangalore
Saturday: Alight at Dandeli town, Drive to ‘Dandeli Jungle Camp’, Visit backwaters of Supa dam, Shop for some forest produces at the tribal shop, Visit Syntheri rocks, sunset hike at the homestay
Sunday: Birdwatching at timber depot, river rafting & coracle ride, (Visit Kavala caves or the Siddi tribal village if you have more time), Leave for Bangalore by evening (direct bus from Dandeli or by train from Hubli)

Details:

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 Kavala caves, A coracle ride in the ferocious rapids of the Kali river, a dip in the natural Jacuzzi, crocodile walk is 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 with a small hike into the jungle 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 to review a nature resort, I struck an opportunity 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 resort is situated in the buffer zone of Anshi National park and Dandeli Tiger reserve, and hence I could pamper myself with luxury in the wilderness.

Itinerary:

Friday: Overnight journey from Bangalore

Saturday: Alight at Dandeli town, Drive to ‘The Old Magazine house’. Depending on your interest, you can either indulge in birdwatching on their premises and enjoy the food or visit backwaters of Supa dam, Shop for some forest produces at the tribal shop with a visit to Syntheri rocks

Sunday: Go for a nature and Birdwatching walk by the inhouse naturalist, river rafting & coracle ride, relax and Leave for Bangalore by evening

Details:

The name of the property where I was supposed to stay at was as 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. This trip was part of an invitation to review a resort and a homestay at Dandeli, arranged by www.dandeli.com However, the reviews of the places are in separate posts and this one is something else, worth your reading time. Or so, I believe.

Apart from the cool and wonderful green cover that Dandeli has, I had a surprise awaiting me on the second day of my trip. It added yet another perspective to my travels- “Bird-watching”. If you have been following my blogs for a while, then you must already be aware that I have always been interested in wildlife and its conservation. But I neither did I have an opportunity to meet someone closely involved in such form of travel nor did I have any close acquaintances who was good at bird or animal tracking. Here, at Dandeli I met a person who has dedicated time and money in tracking and documenting the birds of the region. The entire experience of birdwatching with this person is something that I will cherish for long time.

As a part of the trip package by the homestay, 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 government schoolteacher 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!

Dandeli timber depot

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 of stay at Dandeli, an experience that cannot be explained but only be felt.

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.

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. She ensures she talks about them to her pupils at school as well. That’s a novel way to inculcate the habit and awareness about nature conservation among children from a very young age itself. 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.

Bonus tip for birdwatching at Dandeli: Watch the hornbills mud-bathing on the riverbank near Ganeshgudi (sometime around winter)

Visit my detailed posts below, for itineraries if you are planning your trip to Dandeli.
Option 1: With sightseeing and stay at ‘Old Magazine House’, a Jungle Lodges venture
Option 2: With sightseeing and stay at ‘Dandeli jungle camp’, an offbeat homestay.

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 Kaziranga last year, post monsoon.

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the places in a self-drive car hired at Guwahati. Our visit to Kaziranga had just one agenda, a safari in the Kaziranga National park and get a glimpse of at least one rhinocerous! Kazhiranga National Park is counted in the list of UNESCO’s world Heritage sites.

My Itinerary:

Day 1: Evening drive from Guwahati to Kaziranga (Kohora forest range)
Day 2: Early morning elephant safari & jeep safari in Kaziranga national park, Orchid research centre. Continue the journey onward to Jorhat.

The Details:

After a wonderful drive through the National highway from Guwahati, we reached Kaziranga on a night lit with Diwali lamps all around. Kaziranga 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. The park is closed during monsoon and we were lucky that the central zone at Kohora had opened just around our visit time. 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.

We woke up the next morning and headed towards the forest gates where the elephant ride was supposed to commence. The drive from the resort until the forest gate was so refreshing in itself. With the addictive smell of wet ground, kaccha roads passing through green paddy fields dotted with bamboo huts here and there, thick mist slowly clearing up with dew drops reflecting the rising sun: It was just wonderful all the way.

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Enroute to the forest gates

Kaziranga is synonymous with the one-horned rhinoceros. 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. Even before we started our ride, we spotted rhino families all around the watch tower we were standing at. We even found a few of them grazing in the fields on the sides of the highway. With that we realized, that Kaziranga was beyond rhinos. There are some other wild animals that are exclusive to the park and are collectively called as the ‘Big Five’, a must on the list of every wildlife enthusiast visiting the state of Assam.

Our elephant had arrived in a bit. We sat atop and started our ride into the haze of the misty green grasslands of Kazhiranga to track the ‘Big Five’ of the this land. The elephants that we were seated 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 at far distance.

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The elephants marching into the forest

First, it was a wild elephant with its calf. We were told that rhino and elephant conflicts were common and that 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. Swamp deer are handsome animals.

Just as we were photographing them, we saw a herd of Asiatic wild water buffaloes marching out of a slush pool. Until our guide told us, we had no idea that over 57% of the world’s water buffaloes too were accommodated in the woods here!

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

Another surprise information awaited us: Kazhiranga national park has the highest density of the Royal Bengal tigers in the world!!! Whoa!!!! That’s like……..something that was unknown to me, a person who hails from the land of Nagarhole, Bandipur & Bannerghatta. But as always, no luck with spotting the elusive beast. Seeing a tiger in the wild is a LONG dream, awaiting to be realised. (So much adventure to see a wild tiger, Click here to read more!)

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. Meanwhile, we realized that we still had time to make it for the morning batch of jeep ride. So, after enquiry and booking at the counter, we had a gypsy to take us into the forest again. Needless to mention, we were greeted by herds and herds of rhinos all along our path. Wild boars, barking deer etc. too were spotted in abundance. The highlight was however, the innumerable species of migratory birds that were spotted. Our driver cum guide mentioned several bird names, out of which only pelicans and spoon-billed storks were the ones that I have managed to remember.

On the other end of our drive into the forest, we were taken to a watch tower from where we could catch a very good view of hundreds of animals that had 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 and the image of the floating tiger’s carcass hovers around in my thoughts.

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Record of the flood water level of the Bramhaputra

The drive back to the resort, 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 seeing in the hills in down South. We stopped by to sip on some hot brew and bought some processed 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

Overall, our day was eventful at Kazhiranga with warm memories from the woods before heading to our next destination- Jorhat. Although a little disappointed for not being able to spot a tiger by the end of our safari ride, we were feeling content for having our long pending wish of visiting this heritage site come true!

Concluding remarks: For those of you planning to visit Kaziranga, 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 automobile will be able to enter deeper areas of the forest. 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.

Hiking up Assam’s highest point- Hapeo peak

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the places in a self-drive car hired at Guwahati. We had arrived at Haflong, the only hill station in the state of Assam following a mis-adventurous trip. (Click here to know the details)

This trek to the highest point in Assam happened by chance, as a backup after the original plan for the day had failed. We were told that the hill isn’t yet popular in a typical tourist’s circuit. Apart from the local tribal folk who like to party atop the hill, hardly 4 to 5 trekkers come here from outside the district and the state to climb this hill each year. Having said that, we wanted to reach Hapeo peak, the highest point in the state of Assam for sunrise. However, due to the clouds that had hovered that morning, we decided to snooze for a little longer before going ahead with the plan.

There are totally 13 native tribes in Dima Hasao district of Assam state and each tribe has its own village. A local NGO called spectrum is working towards the empowerment of the local tribal communities through promotion of tourism in the district. They helped us in getting this event organized. We were driven in their 4WD vehicle from Haflong to a village called N.Liekung. N.Liekung village belonged to the Kuki tribes and the required permits from the village head was arranged by Spectrum. A local guide was assigned to take us through this off-beat wilderness to scale the highest point in Assam. I would like to present my trek in essentially three parts.

Part 1: The Ascent

After a small stop in front of the holy Cross at the prayer area of the Kukis, we began our ascent towards the peak. For the three of us, all seasoned trekkers doing this trip together, the climb to Hapeo peak wasn’t a very difficult one as compared to what we had done back in the Southern India. But what made it seem difficult was the high grass that had grown tall enough to cover the entire stretch. Since the trek is not frequented with people, the grass on the path is not worn out as much as in the popular trekking trails. Hence, the way up was something through which we had to FIND the trekking trail. Based on the ease of finding the trail, I would split the trail into three portions:

  • A well traceable path with steps laid. However, at some places, the stairs have been lost amid the thickets. We had to cut the grass and bushes in order to find our way. The stretch was full of high grass with occasionally placed animal traps which our guide who walked ahead, would carefully move aside and make way for us.
  • This was the only flat area with some grassland vegetation for a stretch of around 500mts.This was the only place apart from the highway, from where we could actually see the peak that we were apparently scaling up!
  • The last part passes through thick jungle, with a canopy of trees that allowed very less sunlight to penetrate. Varieties of innocent looking wild mushrooms had bloomed at several patches, but we were warned not to pick any of them as they could actually be lethal with allergens or venom. We were accompanied by strange sounds and cries of migratory birds around.
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The only grassland in Hapeo trek

As we climbed up while chatting up with our Kuki guide, he enlightened us with their tribal customs, culture and showed us a few videos on his phone of their traditional dances, festivals ceremonies and the like. Our guide jokingly told us how his fellow folks are named in the tribe. The names may not mean anything and just anything random that sounds nice goes as a name. He was thus randomly called after a ‘Song that was Sung’ (I’m sorry, I don’t want to give out his name). But the tradition is, that the maternal grandfather selects a name for the granddaughter and the paternal grandmother picks a name for the grandson and vice-versa. It is a patrilineal system of inheritance.

Part 2: Reaching the Top

Suddenly, the darkness of the jungle had turned into snow white of the clouds. Before we could realise, we had reached the top already and we had barely taken us two hours. We were told that one could see the entire district of Dima Hasao from up there. But, we were greeted with thick fog and clouds upon arrival. We spent some time soaking in nature’s beauty and waited for the clouds to clear so that we could catch a glimpse of the beautiful view.

For the benefit of potential trekkers, there is just one small shelter with a bench atop the hill and nothing apart from yourself there! Our guide mentioned to us about a patch of land measuring about 2×2 feet, right behind the bench where a natural and strong magnetic force is believed to exist, due to which none of the mobile phones work in that spot. Yes, we tested the phenomenon too. Although all our phones had FULL network, we were unable to place any calls. But none of us had any scientific reasoning for what he told.

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A view of Dima Hasao district from Hapeo peak

In the next fifteen minutes, the clouds had slowly started to clear. We spotted the railway bridge at Lumding onto the right side of the horizon. This rail line is the longest and highest in the Silchar route. Our guide pointed towards another hill onto our left, through which the longest railway tunnel (around 3.5kms long) in the North-east passes. The Silchar-Lumding railway route has been featured in several tourism websites and has been one of the scenic stretches in the country. As the weather slowly worsened and began to drizzle, we decided to start our descent.

Part 3: The Descent

When we had just started to climb down and we received a call from the NGO. We were told to return to the base of the hill ASAP as an alert for a cyclone had been issued by the meterological department and heavy rains were expected in this region in the next few hours. But, it had started to pour cats and dogs within no time. The fastest pace we could catch was by rolling down the hill. With all the rain, thick grass covered path and steep gradient, just a steady walk itself was a struggle as we descended on the slippery trail. There was nothing enroute to take shelter from the rain. But, waiting at any place made no sense because the pounding rains would continue for the entire day or even two. It made more sense to simply continue to walk down as we were already drenched till our bones.

We were back at the base by 11.00.a.m. and thus ended our trek to the highest point in the state of Assam. We were invited over to our guide’s house to dry ourselves up and have a cup of hot tea. We thanked him much and bid adieu with a warm heart to this lesser known corner of the world!

Treading the living root bridges- Nongriat

As kids, we always imagined fairies with wings flying amidst colourful gardens, rope like creepers hanging across the forest thickets, rainbows emerging on the tranquil sky. Do you agree when I say this is how most of the animated movies depict fairy tales ? Nestled deep in the rich forests of Meghalaya; with NO exaggeration, that’s how I would describe this village called Nongriat!

This post is part of my fortnight long road trip across North-east India, specifically covering parts of Meghalaya – Assam – Arunachal Pradesh I had tagged along with two other travelers and drove around the state of Meghalaya visiting Shillong – Smit – Cherrapunjee – Mawlynnong – Dawki – Ribhoi- Shillong.

A pleasant drive through the breathtakingly beautiful valleys and naturally formed creepy high limestone walls brought us to a village called Tyrna in Cherrapunjee. That’s where the tarmac ends and our car had to be parked. Further, we trekked down to the Nongriat village: where the ‘Umshiang bridge’ or popularly called ‘the double decker root bridge’ exists. One needs to climb over 2500 steps each way, so that this piece of marvel can be seen at close quarters. Root bridges are created by inter-weaving the roots of the rubber tree by the tribal folks who live in the deep forests of Meghalaya for their local commute across the bloated rivers during monsoon. A bridge fit for usage can take a minimum of a couple of decades and it only gets stronger with age. There are several such living root bridges across Meghalaya and most of them continue to be untouched by the tourists due to their remoteness. We were here, to tread on some of the most popular living root-bridges of Meghalaya.

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The route to Tyrna village

Although, there is a well laid out path of stairs all the way, we thought it was wiser to have a localite who would enrich us with the facts and figures that we wouldn’t get to learn otherwise. At Tyrna, we met a Khasi villager from Nongriat who agreed upon to guide us through our trek. We passed through several sacred groves and areca farms belonging to the villagers. After decending about 1000 steps, a small deviation to the right indicated the way to Nongthymmai village. We took this deviation to reach the ‘Ritymmen root bridge’ a single bridge and another old one next to it which has taken its toll due to the negligence by the localites. Our hearts were jumping with joy at the first experience of treading on a living root bridge, that we had only read about until then… I decided to throw my shoes away for a while and enjoy the feeling of walking barefoot on the bridge.

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The Rythimmen bridge at Nongthymmai village

After spending some time, we decided to continue the trek and our new friend cum guide, continued to enlighten us about the rich traditions and culture of the Khasis. We stopped by for a quick breakfast at a straw hut selling 2-minute noodles and lemon tea. Further, a short climb of stairs continued only to be awestruck by the marvel of indigenous engineering: The double decker root bridge, the main motivation for us to trek this far. It was like fantasy out of a fairytale: creepers hanging across a little waterfall, fed by a pristine river in the middle of nowhere! It was tempting to get our feet wet as we watched a few tourists who had stayed in the Khasi homes around the root-bridge over the previous night and enjoying their swim in the cold waters. However, spending some time admiring this piece of absolute marvel, we decided to move ahead, towards our next mission: Rainbow falls!

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Entry bridge to Nongriat village

Nature’s best kept secrets are those which are untouched due to their remoteness. Rainbow waterfalls being one of those. The small number of tourists who make it till the double decker bridge seemed to have had disappeared there onwards. The tiring path ahead was going to be tiring, we were told. But, nothing comes easy.

I was doing this trip post monsoon (October to be precise) and that’s when the caterpillar larvae take wings! Like winged fairies, we were greeted and accompanied by butterflies of all colours, shapes and sizes all along the stretch from Umshiang bridge (the local name for the double-decker bridge) till the rainbow falls. We had to be extremely cautious while walking, clear the way for ourselves with a stick, lest accidentally step on these little winged beauties. The path was so full of butterflies, that it cannot be expressed with words and the joy can only be experienced. Truly, in every sense: I was Alice, walking in wonderland!

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Another root bridge enroute to Rainbow falls

It was a walk of nearly 2hours through the thickets of the sacred forests and crossing at least 5 other root bridges and a couple of metal rope bridges that were laid across the deep river that flowed down with its seductive clear blue waters. After the brisk climb, we had finally arrived at the place where a hidden jewel of nature unfolded itself, from amid the greens…

We stood there in AWE….. the green trees and bushes had opened up to display a canvas with milky white waters gracefully tumbling down into a pool of turquoise blue and a hundred fairies flying around us. A dozen spectrums added to this heavenly scenery! On a clear sunny day, there could be 50-100 spectrums around the waterfall, giving the place its name: Rainbow falls! We enjoyed a couple of hours in calm just by sitting beside the naturally formed swimming pool as we were the only people in this fairyland and restoring our lost bond with nature that was shared long ago.

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The Rainbow falls

As described by our guide, camping at the Mawsmai caves (2hours trek further) and climbing up the hill to be greeted by the Nohkalikai waterfalls, the highest waterfall in India would have been a complete story! Unfortunately, we hadn’t known much about the enchanting beauty of this trek before embarking on it and had no preparations now, to have it extended further. So now, it was well past afternoon and distance that required to be walked back was long. The sun sets early in this part of India and that meant that we had very less time of daylight left. During our return, we stopped by at another hut near the Umshiang bridge for a late lunch where we relished a simple Khasi meal of rice and bitter lime curry.

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A metal rope bridge near Rainbow falls

The walk back from there onwards was taxing and it is a very steep climb up the 2500 odd stairs.. I stopped several times at the little homes and stalls put up by the villagers on the way to keep myself hydrated with the local energy drinks and fruit juices. I cannot forget the way our guide cum friend Denzil kept motivating me to complete the stretch. He kept reducing the count of steps by hundreds so that I would climb faster with the intention of reaching the top ASAP. Finally, I was back at Tyrna, even while there was sufficient sunlight for us to drive back to Cherrapunjee.

A small deviation from Tyrna will lead one to ‘Ummunoi root bridge’ in the Laitkynsew village, one of the oldest bridges in the viscinity. It has been truly a very refreshing way to explore ‘the abode of the clouds- Meghalaya’.

Conclusion remarks:

  • For all trekking enthusiasts, a two day trek covering Laitkynsew, Nongriat, Mawsmai and Nohkalikai is highly recommended.
  • Although, we missed to trek up to the Nohkalikai falls, we made sure that we camped overnight at a spot facing this waterfall and caught the view of the sun rising over the Nohkalikai waterfalls!

Tracing the abode of celestial congregation- Kollur

While I was flipping through old photos of my college days, I was taken back in time to this so-called ‘Industrial trip’. This class trip consisted of trekking, pilgrimage, beaching and lastly, not to forget our industrial visit (only If time permitted, that was!). Basically, it was less of industries and more of place hopping. So here goes the first part of the so called ‘Not-so-Industrial-Trip’.

Although I had walked for miles to reach places during my school days, this was my first ‘Official’ trek! A trek in the ‘Kodachadri hills’ in Malnad region of the western ghats.. After a really long bus journey, we alighted at the Nittoor forest checkpost late in the evening. We got the permits at the forest checkpost for the night’s camping ahead, at the old forest guesthouse. We parked our bus there and got into the 4WD jeeps that were waiting for us since early evening. There is NO road from Nittor to the guest house and is only a muddy pathway. And in monsoon, it makes way for a deep trench kinda massive slush pool. This stretch can be covered by various modes based on each person’s interest. You can walk up or drive or ride.. The more adventurous people choose the latter; cycling comes with the greatest challenge. We chose the safest- The 4WD. But, driving through such terrain calls for great skill of steering control, lest have at least 7-8 people thrown off the road. That said, it was a crazy drive up the hill, until we reached the guesthouse in the darkness of 10~11.00.p.m.

After reaching the guesthouse, we could barely stand because of the strong winds. So, you can only imagine our next task of pitching tents.. We called off the idea of camping under the moonlight as we struggled to even hold the tents firmly in our hands. The winds were so strong. That’s when we had to camp indoors, at the guesthouse 😛 We had only a roof above us and no mats or sleeping bags. So we decided to pitch the tents inside the guesthouse hall for the rest of the night.

We woke up early next morning and started our hike up the Kodachadri hill. Our hike mainly consisted of two target activities- one was to reach the Shankaracharya mantapa at the peak, for sunrise and the second was to take a shower in the Hidlumane waterfall. We did not hire a guide as the organisers claimed their familiarity with the route. The sight all the way till the mantapa was beautiful and the sunrise and the Arabian Sea at the distant horizon just added up to the view! The climb was great, giving us an eyeful of the valley that was in all bloom with colourful wild flowers. After a brief walk, we reached the Mantapa. After spending some time at the peak, we readied ourselves for the descent.

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The Kodachadri hills- Overlooking the Arabian sea

The descend was towards the waterfall. With the descending gradient, we slipped, jumped down, clung onto wild creepers in the event of finding our way to the waterfall amidst the thicket of the forest. Somewhere, we had already started to realize that we were lost in the forest. The thumb rule of finding the way out of a forest is to follow a flowing water body. The organisers followed the sound of flowing water and we followed the organisers. We stopped by at a small cave like structure enroute, where someone had installed an idol of Lord Ganesha and offered some flowers. We prayed for our safe exit out of the forest and continued with our pursuit of the waterfall. So we finally reached at the source of the flowing water!

Sure it was a waterfall.. But ain’t the mighty one that we had thought it would be. It was a stream that was directed to a storage tank by the localites and the tank was overflowing forming a waterfall!! Neither the organisers nor the others knew how to react at our misadventurous pursuit. But we were all happy that we had found some pure water where we could fill our water bottles and ease ourselves out of the tiring hike that we had been through so far! We were now sure that the tank was there for a purpose and the pipe attached would lead us back to base point. And the descent continued, along the same stream to the base.

There is a small temple dedicated to Mookambika Devi at the base. It is believed to be the original temple that is tagged to the legend of Shankaracharya’s installation of the idol at Kollur. We reached the priest’s house near the temple where we had a simple-wholesome breakfast. After packing our stuffs from the guesthouse, it was time for us to head out to our next destination: Kollur.

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A view of the Arabian sea from the Kodachadri peak

People who prefer to trek further, can cover the Agnitheertham waterfalls enroute to Kollur Mookambika temple. But, having had enough in the quest of a waterfall, we decided to take the bus route. The bumpy drive continued until we reached Kollur, the small temple town known for the Mookambika temple, one of the Shakti peethas. This temple is said to have been developed by the Keladi rulers later in time so that pilgrims don’t have to trek up the overlooking Kodachadri hills to worship the goddess. Another legend has it that Lord Shiva appeared before Sage Kola and agreed to be present there in the form of Linga with his consort Devi. Along with Shiva and Parvathi, all other gods and goddesses are believed to be residing in a non-form in the Linga. Hence, Kollur is referred as ‘an abode of the entire celestial congregation’. We took a little time to offer our prayers and admire this beautiful little temple built in the typical Kerala style of architecture. Post that, we proceeded to the forest guest house where we had our stay booked for the night.

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The forest guesthouse

The forest guest house is located in a serene location in the middle of the ‘Mookambika wildlife sanctuary’ and on the banks of river Sowparnika. With banks I mean, just a couple of steps lie in between the guesthouse and the river. This river is frequented by spotted deers & leopards to drink water. And we were told that just the previous morning, a tiger was spotted on the same steps that we were standing on, at that time! The river flowed gracefully with the crystal clear water and the school of fishes enjoying their swim in between the tree roots that grew beneath. It was a SPECIAL place to go back again indeed! We cherished every moment of our stay there while being in harmony with nature in its purest form.

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The Idol of Mookambika being taken out as a part of the daily ritual

Soon, the dawn broke the next morning awakening us to another day reminding us of our journey to the next destination- Bhadravathi. It was the last day of our tour and that meant we had to do the most important part of this trip ‘Our Industrial visit’! That’s for another story altogether…

The silent whine of a valley at Khas Pattar

“Thank you very much for online registration to Visit Kas Plateau.” Read the auto-response mail from the Satara divison forest office. Our slot for the much anticipated trip to the South India’s very own valley of flowers was confirmed.

We reached Khas plateau by hiring a cab from Satara town as early as sunrise. One reason was to get good shots of the valley with different hues of sunrise; second was to enjoy the oneness with nature, undisturbed by the senseless, rather ruthless people who would pour in later during the day in the name of tourism. Recognised among the world’s 39 natural heritage sites by the UNESCO in 2012, Khas has over 350 flower species including orchids, insectivorous plants and other herbaceous plants. There are plants whose flowers change their sex each year too..!! Atleast 20 species of plants are endemic to the Khas valley alone. Someone rightly called it the “Nature’s very own laboratory”. Since Khas is a part of the Koyna Sanctuary, the place is often frequented by animals like the barking deers, bears etc. in search of water. It is nature’s treasure in every sense.

The flowers of Khas plateau- Part 1

Life is not a bed of roses, but at Khas- it is a bed of balsams.. Oops.. Bad one, I know..!! But that’s what came into my mind when I was finally there..!! The complete valley looked as if painted in pink with an endless stretch of balsam flowers, dotted here and there with small ponds like a bindi on a beautiful lass’s forehead that would complete her looks. These ponds dual as watering holes to the wild animals that visit here occasionally. A narrow stream flows silently on the other side over black basalt rocks until it plummets down into the Khas lake. Beauty of the Western ghats is beyond expression when one stands here at the edge of the Sahyadri ranges overlooking the Sajjangad fort and the Kanher dam.

The Pink balsam carpet at Khas valley

It is a pitiful plight of the place when several plants are smashed under the reckless visitors who pour in there in thousands during the peak months of blossom. A well laid asphalt road cuts right through this protected land until the Khas lake. No entry tolls, no parking fees, no written commitments to gain entry- but just a nominal registration fee of 10Rs. per head is all it takes to get to this colourful patch of nature. It is just a place to hangout for the majority without actually knowing the ecological importance of the place. NO… It doesn’t have any restaurants, playgrounds, toy-trains for you to lunch over with your family and kids. And definitely, NOT a photo studio for you have NO rights to sleep over the flower bed to get those sexy hot babe-kinda photoshoots done. Be educated before heading there that this place is ONLY for the people who respect nature’s gifts. Infact, none-of us even have the rights to walk through the laid walkpaths for there is always a possibility that one can step on an endangered plant and therefore kill it. So think about visiting there ONLY if you’re genuinely into research or in quest of knowledge- NOT for anything else.

The flowers of Khas plateau- Part 2

Be reminded, the acknowledgement mail from the forest dept. also read the following:

Please note that, Kas a plateau of flowers is a divine gift. Please observe carefully, enjoy the beauty of these tiny tots and convey others also but not to hurt.”

Here’s a request to the authorities: Taking a cue from a protected island called ‘Kurusudai’ in Tamil Nadu, It is really the need of the hour to treat Khas at such level. My suggestions are:

  • Do-NOT make the valley accessible to public and make the entry STRICTLY based on requirement from education/research institutions.
  • Please increase the entry fees. A HEFTY fee (possibly in thousands) will make it possible to filter out only genuinely interested people visiting there for whom money does not matter against knowledge.

My visit to the Panchgani tableland also reflected a similar letdown. The vegetation at the tableland is very fragile & similar to that of the Khas. However, onslaught of exploitative tourism has left it in a state of pity. If the flow of tourists continues the same way at Khas, it won’t take more than just a couple of years to lose this treasure FOREVER.