Tag Archives: Caves in India

Smitten by the Ajanta of the Himalayas- Tabo

So, have you read the story from my previous stop? (Click here to read) If yes, then this post is starting from Hurling, where I had alighted last. It was cold and I was the only non-localite at a small dhaba from where I was hoping to get a ride uphill to Tabo. The person making parathas at the dhaba instantly recognized me telling he had seen me at the wedding last evening. Although I found it very sweet of him, I felt embarrassed about not recognizing him and apologized to him telling that everyone looked same to me with their caps and mufflers. Not only did he refuse to take money from me for the cup of chai I had there, he ensured he got me a ride in the car of a fellow customer at his dhaba. This drive is indeed close to my heart, even today… So, what made it special?

Of course, the road beyond and the views as we drove further up was INCREDIBLE! And hey, there were unicorn farms enroute and we saw a few of them straying on the highway. But let me not deviate from my story… There were 3 occupants including the driver in this Alto car. The rear seat was reserved entirely for one of them. He had a plaster of Paris on his right leg which he rested on the seat. They were on the way back from Peo to their home in Kaza. The nearest hospital to get the guy’s broken leg fixed was at Peo. It took them a one-way travel of nearly 3 days, given the roadblocks on their way down the valley. Peo being THE one stop trading destination for the whole of Lahaul and Spiti region, all you can expect from anyone traveling there, is to have their vehicles stuffed with as many goods as possible. It was the same case with this car which spared no space other than the seats. So how did I manage my drive? The person driving shotgun made place for himself in the rear seat asking the patient to manage with his leg for a while. Not just that, he forcibly grabbed my big backpack so that I was comfortable in the front seat. He carried my bag on his lap all the way. I must tell you, it was a super cramped car already and they pushed themselves into great lengths just to ensure that I had a comfortable drive! I was an absolute stranger to them until that moment and I would have considered myself fortunate if I had just got myself dropped. But, just based on a localite’s (Dhabawala) recommendation, they ensured my safety and comfort till I had reached my destination. Before taking my leave, they also handed me their phone number to call them if I had any trouble finding a place to stay at Tabo. No, these are NOT the people one gets to see in the urban place where I call home.Bidding a warm bye to them, I walked down the road to the Tabo monastery. It was not too far as I reached the monastery and the old guest house run by the monastery. This is where I wanted to stay for all that I had heard about it. As I opened the main door leading to the staircase, I felt like I was climbing up a dreamland. The entire guesthouse is built in a traditional style with only mud and wood that is unique to Tabo. The staircase, walkways, balconies and the roof bars are all wood. And it is all naturally lit with glass sheets placed between the wooden beams through which I could see the mountains and the blue skies. The place had so much positivity. Since it was off season, I was the only traveler living in the guesthouse where it is usually very hard to get a room during the peak tourist season.

The corridor inside the Tabo monastery run guesthouse

After freshening up in my room, I was supposed to head out to the monastery’s lunch hall. Talk about a matter of few minutes… by the time I came out of the guesthouse, it was snowing outside. At first, I couldn’t understand what it was. within seconds, I started to scream with joy… It was least expected and right there, I was experiencing my first ever snowfall in ages. The last and the only other time I felt snow was atthe top of Kardungla, way back in 2014. The muddy walls and the red apples I saw in the orchard right in front of my door, just minutes ago were all disappearing behind a blanket of snow. I clapped hands, I didn’t know whom to share it with. Damn the network, damn me travelling solo, I felt. That was one moment I missed home, deeply. The kid in me was dancing like no one was watching…

The view in front of the guesthouse- Before and during snowfall

I watched the snowfall for a while before heading to the lunch hall. Believe me when I say, that was a simple meal, yet the most sumptuous ever! I spent the rest of the afternoon inside the old monastery. I was finally at where my entire backpack was set for, since the time I left home, almost 10 days ago. The oldest running Buddhist monastery in the world- ‘The Ajanta of the Himalayas!’ The old monastery has nine temples, each lit up naturally, depending on the sun’s position at different time of the day. The head priest took me around the central prayer hall and explained the story behind each of the painting that adorned the wall. As there was no one else dropping in, we both had a long conversation that involved everything ranging from religion, politics, art restoration, environmental conservation, sustainable travel et all. He asked me to return the next morning when the sun lit up a different portion of the hall. It was time for the last prayer of the day and I sat down there, sinking in the aura of another level. The Buddhist chants have always transported me to a different world (since the time I was a child who first visited the monastery that is closer back home in South Karnataka). In here, that infinite silence and soothing ambience that smelled of juniper within an enclosure of mud walls, the holy chants in a dimly lit room, I was clearly experiencing the vastness of outer space. After the priest got ready to close the doors, I headed towards the guesthouse to find my resting place, quite literally! Post dinner, I only remember sneaking inside and snuggling inside the warm quilts provided in my room until I woke up the next morning.

Next morning, late by the mountain standards, I came out of my room and looked out of the glass ceiling in the corridor. I felt like the mountains had suddenly moved closer to my room. It took me a few seconds to realize that it had snowed all night and the entire village was now painted white. When I stepped out, it was still snowing. I was silently enjoying my snow affair as I walked up the distance to the kitchen. After breakfast, I headed out for a walk to explore the snow laden streets of Tabo. The backyard of the monastery, the helipad and the famous apple trees of Tabo looked so alien and picturesque with snow all over them. I strolled across the by lanes, the apple mandi, through the farms and finally settled down by the bank of river Spiti.
After sometime, I hiked up the hill to see the meditating caves and grab a view of the entire village from the top. As I walked through the village, every random person whom I came across greeted me with an apple. Some wouldn’t know how to make a conversation with me and would simply handover an apple with a huge smile. Oh my god! Those apples were the juiciest in the entire universe and all the love from the mountain people added to its sweetness. By the time I reached back to my room, I had removed my jacket just so that I could hold all the collected apples in it. They would feel bad if I rejected what they gave me and my intention was never that. But yeah, I had no idea as to what to do with so many apples.

That said, I had lunch and went towards the monastery. A couple had lit up a bonfire on the monastery’s portico to warm themselves from the snow and I joined them for a warm conversation. The couple went home after a while and I walked into the monastery to have a look at the paintings which I couldn’t see the previous day. The priest then walked me through explaining more details on the history and art of this beautiful place. The monastery is home to probably the only manuscript that is written on gold. This monastery is a treasure vault!

The old monastery premises- Before and during snowfall

It is a daily custom to light a lamp in all the nine temples of the monastery and I got a rare opportunity to seem them all, which is otherwise closed for visitors. There is a statue of Buddha inside each temple, from small to large that I hadn’t expected in a small looking monastery like that. All the walls and roofs are adorned with various frescoes, Thangpa paintings, murals etc. depicting various events in the life of the Buddha. An earthquake in the late 90s has caused immense damage to the monastery and its clay walls making them lean on support. He handed me the prasad (read apples) from the main sanctum before he shut the final doors of the old monastery. He then walked me into the new monastery where he lit the last lamp of the day. I know my article doesn’t talk much about my day in the monastery today, but let me summarize it in one sentence. “I consider myself to be the most fortunate tourist ever to get a peek into so much art, so much tradition and history of Tabo.” I’m in no wonder when the 14th Dalai Llama declared that if only there was an option for him to retire from service, he would choose this UNESCO world heritage site!

I had started to fall in love with this place and wanted to stay here for the rest of my holidays that I had in hand. But It had been snowing without a break since last night and I had to ensure that I was heading out of this valley before I got stuck there for many more days. Yeah, my story does not end here though… If you want to read further, you will have to wait for my book 😉 I’m working on it….
Summary:

Must eat/drink:
• The sea buckthorn juice also is a must try (locally known as Drilbu or Chharma juice).
• The Tsirku tea made from the dried peels of sea buckthorn berries
• Don’t forget- A box full of handpicked Tabo apples for home!!

Must buy:
• A prayer Mandala can be bought from the souvenir shop at the monastery. This is to be hung at the entrance of your house that wards off evil
• Thangpa paintings and few other knick-knacks also can be bought from the monasteries for a more authentic gift.

Other things you should know:

  • Photography, torches and any other form of artificial lights are strictly prohibited inside d monastery. You need to deposit it before entering.
  • There is a library inside the guesthouse if you wish to stay and Tabo lake is nearby for a short trek or a drive.

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

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

I wasn’t sure if solo-traveling would be safe in Chhattisgarh, the campsite wasn’t ready yet for a Gujarat trip, Rajasthan had the election around the corner albeit having the perfect weather, the public transportation system wasn’t convenient in Arunachal, Uttarakhand had unpredictable weather of late, Jammu was done just last year, Dharamshala stretch would be too mainstream, Lakshadweep was too short a trip for the time I had. Maybe I should just settle down with the Sahyadris in Maharashtra or sign up for a fortnight long yoga session at Rishikesh or a Yakshagana course at Mangalore perhaps! I had tele-travelled almost the whole of India to decide where I wanted to go. And then, this happened! Just 4 days before departure, the mountains beckoned and I had finally decided to visit the Kinnaur valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Nothing was clear to me apart from the to & fro flights to Delhi. People around me were busy and my vacations couldn’t wait, lest they be lapsed without pay or without use. Although not very keen on solo travelling, I think that’s how life threw itself upon me when I longed to go to the mountains! The mountains have always been kind to me and have had me meeting them regularly over the last 4 years. I don’t know the reason for this special bond I share with the mountains. May be because I come from a nature worshipping community, that my connection with them is so instant and strong. The mountains had me amidst them yet again. From being a shy kid at ice breaking in public gatherings to having done a complete solo backpacking in an off-season, to meeting and hanging out with strangers and making new friends from travels, my journeys have brought me a long way! The mountains have been kind and have protected me all the way…

Given that I would be alone and I get muscle cramps when the temperature drops, the one thing I had to make sure while planning my trip was to not push myself too hard to see too many places or do anything that could drain me out. Hence, I decided to do it one place at a time, plan my next destination only after reaching a place and move only when I felt like I had sunk in well in the current place. So that said and Kinnaur had me there! After I had reached Himachal, there was absolutely no fear of being a solo-women traveller and no worries over safety concerns at any point of time. The people were amazing who derive their strength from their deep values… From being stopped by random locals on the road and being offered the juiciest apples from the valley to eating local food and getting invited to houses for coffees, from befriending the locals and then to being invited to attend a traditional Kinnauri wedding, from waiting for the day’s only public bus or hitch a ride to having stuck in a place for 3 days without any electricity or transportation due to snowfall, from meditating in the millennium old monastery to confronting a mummified Llama in the mountains, from driving past a valley of green-rock-and-sand onward to having returned through the same valley painted white in snow, from being seen-off by a close friend at the trip start to I seeing-off a stranger at the end of the trip: Whoa! What a journey it was!

So, the route taken by me was: Delhi-Kalka-Shimla- Sangla-Rakchim-Chitkul-Sangla- Reckong Peo-Kalpa- Nako- Geu- Tabo- Rampur- Sarahan- Shimla- Delhi. Some of the key destinations enroute and things I did were:

• The trip started with the ‘Himalayan queen’ train from Delhi and then I connected to the mountain railways from Kalka to Shimla, a part of the UNESCO World heritage. Stopping at several stations enroute, a ride in the loco thugging along the narrow-gauge through in-numerous tunnels and winding pathways in between the green pine laden cliffs and verdant hills was worth an experience.

• The hustle of the desi music blasting at full volume had filled the atmosphere as the HPSRTC bus I boarded at Shimla cruised through thickets of sweet smelling Juniper and deodar. A solo snow laden peak emerged from amidst the green mountains. Call it layers of dew laden and mist covered hills, they sparkled as the sun’s early rays found their way forming several vibrant spectrums as the morning ride gave me the first glimpse of a horizon that had a never-ending line of snow-capped mountains.

• When the bus alighted at Sangla after making its way through steep gradient, blind corners and breath-takingly scary heights of the snaking roads, the sun was calling it a day. It had cast a golden red glow to the entire range of Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I couldn’t have asked for more as I stood there to be welcomed by this magnificent view right in front of the bus stand. The hike up the Kamru fort to catch the golden peaks up close was a cherry on the icing.

• The next day was an exhilarating bus ride through the Sangla valley, overlooked by the Kailash mountains on one side and the beloved untamed Baspa river flowing below. The ride was adventurous with waterfall and river crossing, cliff-hangers, landslides and occasional sightings of mountain goats or yaks. Quick stop-over at Batseri village painted in shades of crimson, chrome to ochre with the trees of apples, apricots and walnuts was a feast to the eyes. A walk down to the river at Rackcham helped me to connect with the Kinnauris with very warm conversations. They offered me a ride through apple orchards and buck wheat farms before meeting the sole Indian tricolour waving at Chitkul, a village bordering China & Tibet.

• The following morning, I started early to Kalpa- a quaint tiny village with old traditional houses amid the Kinnaur apple farms. A solo hike through the suicidal roads to Roughi village turned out to be special when a random dog decided to accompany me all the way. Again, the setting crimson sun cast its magical spell over the manifestations of Shiva and Parvathi seated conveniently in the Kinnaur Kailash mountains overlooking the village. With the chants from the Buddhist monastery next door and swaying prayer flags as I looked out of my window the next morning, I couldn’t ask for a better start for my day.

• That day, I did a bit of shopping and grooving to traditional Kinnauri music with the locals at Reckong Peo, the ‘Gateway to Kinnaur valley’. It was the annual fair where people from all over the state had congregated to buy and sell local Agri-products and handicrafts apart from sipping the local apple brew. Packets of pine-nuts, dried apples and apricots along with the traditional Kinnauri hats were perfect souvenirs to take back before boarding the bus to my next destination.

• This road is when the landscape starts to surprise you. The green canopies make way to steep rocky cliff-hangers. The on-going construction of the Karcham Wangtoo dam only warns you to be aware of shooting stones where landslides are as common as confronting vehicles from the opposite direction on the single-track road. And then, the Rocky mountains disappears suddenly making way for barren landscapes with sand and loose rock laden cliffs. The blue Sutlej river snaked between the valley and the view of the treacherous roads winding around the steep gradient hills was indeed a sight to behold! It was pitch dark and biting cold when I alighted at Nako, to check into a homestay under the clearest star-studded night’s sky.

• Although the weather had gotten more colder, it was one of the finest mornings so far. A walk around the village of Nako, with mud-smeared walls of houses built of wood and clay is one of the highlights of my entire trip. While strolling through those narrow walkways of the village, I felt as if I was exploring a maze. With the early morning vibes of a typical village with cattle roaming around, children walking down to schools, chants and incense from the ancient monastery rising in the dew laden air, it was an altogether different world there. The view of the distant snow-capped mountains and the barren winding landscape around had me spellbound for the rest of the day.

Next destination was Geu, a village that can be reached only if luck be by one’s side. Having no direct connectivity through public transportation, I waited on the highway hoping to hitch a ride to a place that is often cut-off due to landslides. It was wedding bells chiming in this tiny hamlet that day… I was fortunate, to say the least! A large family heading towards Geu not only obliged to offer me a ride in the trailer of their crowded goods carrier, they also invited me to be part of the celebrations. From being treated with the finest Kinnauri delicacies to dancing with the baraathies in a traditional mountain wedding, I could not ask for more. It was an all day and all night affair!

• I woke up in the biting cold next morning to hike up the hill and pay a visit to the mummy of a Buddhist monk, believed to be over a 500yrs old. Strangely, it has been there in open atmosphere without any chemicals and among the only few mummies available in India. Quick breakfast at the wedding house and I was good to head out by hitching another ride until Hurling.

• The weather had gotten worse that day with a forecast of precipitation by day end. As I waited at Hurling for my next ride, the guy making rotis at a hotel offered me a cup of free chai and got me a free drive with his customer to my next destination. With a loaded car and a person with a broken leg hanging out of the rear seat, the people who agreed to drop me were more than sweet to accommodate me in the front seat and they carry my backpack on their lap all the way in the rear seat.

• So then… Tabo happened! This was the place I had been looking forward to all the way. Considered to be one of the holiest places for the Tibetan Buddhists, I sunk into meditation mode for good few hours with the soothing fragrance of the Juniper interiors of this millennium old monastery constructed out of clay. It was BLISS and I can’t explain it further. The millennium old paintings all over its inner walls and roofs, the golden manuscripts were something incredible. Since artificial light sources are believed to damage the organic colours, I eagerly waited for specific time of the day for the sun to light up specific rooms to see this wonder. It is called the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ for a reason, you see!

• The morning when I woke up, the mountains had moved closer to me with a heavy overnight snowfall. This was a sight to which the heart of a snow-deprived-south-Indian-city girl in me had skipped a beat. I had to extend my stay at this monastery due to heavy snowfall for next 2 days and with no electricity, phone connectivity and no plumbing that worked whatsoever, it was ‘THE” time! Amid all this, I had the rare opportunity to relish the Tabo apples (one of the best in the world) every day of what was being offered to the deity at the monastery.

• Finally, after getting my drive back to Shimla- I had plans to stop by at Rampur Bussahr to see the erstwhile palace and stay at Sarahan, one of the Shakthi peethas in the foothills of the Himalayas. But, the mountains had an altogether different itinerary for me for the last 3 days! So, thus was my sojourn in the Himalayas, the mighty incredible Himalayas!

Since Rohtang pass had closed by end of monsoon, I did only Kinnaur and half Spiti and returned the same way back (Although a little hectic with 3 days required only for travel, on the same route). If you are traveling in the summers, then you can start from Shimla and complete Spiti & Lahaul via Kaza and exit from Manali, thereby not repeating your route.

Summary: With the changing landscape throwing surprises at the wink of an eye, each mile was magic. The valleys were overwhelmingly beautiful! When the mountains beckon, just pack your junk and head out! The destination doesn’t count, the journey is worthwhile!

This article is featured in Deccan Herald’s Travel supplement: ‘DH Travel’ on 25-May-2019

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.

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.

Marvel at Caves and Crannies- Kurnool

A trip that was pending since over two years finally took wings last weekend. The places covered were an unusual combination of natural and contrived elements that created beauty. Had the both not been there, the existence of these places would have a lesser value than what it is today. An overnight drive was aimed at starting our trip from Bethamcherla- a town in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. A couple of articles on the internet had caught our interest to visit this place which is a treasure trove for archaeological studies. Invaluable Pleistocene remains have been excavated from several caves that are scattered around this region. We wanted to explore the Yerrajala & Billa Surgam caves in particular after being impressed by the photos online. However, even after talking to several localites, we failed miserably to get anywhere close to the places we were looking for. Language was a BIG concern there and for any small enquiries too, the curious people would throng in large numbers and stare at us while we were trying to communicate with our hand signs. Luckily, we had a Telugu-ite in our group who would do most of the talking throughout the trip. So, the day started somewhat on a low note.

As per the plan, the first day was a long one with target being to reach Gandikota for sunset. We had already spent 3 hours doing nothing and we decided to skip Yerrajala and proceed with the rest of the itinerary. The winding roads of Tadipatri are carved out of the rocky hills that are rich sources of the infamous Kadapa stones used in constructions. The sedimentary rocks that have formed over years can be seen in layers which make driving along this stretch a delight! We stopped at several spots to photograph the beautiful landscape as we drove through to reach our next destination- Yaganti. This is an ancient cave temple patronized by the rulers of the Sangam dynasty. Keep left is the rule one needs to bear in mind in order to cover all the caves located around, where each one has a special story to tell. Just keep taking the stairs whenever & wherever you spot them so that you don’t miss out on any caves. A flight of steep stairs takes you to Agastya Cave where Lord Shiva is worshipped. And yet another chamber leads you to Lord Venkateshwara. Although, the lord is otherwise known for all the wealth, the minimal deco and the dimly lit chamber has some positive energy that emanates out of the place. We needed a little more time than what we had thought of to observe this place where the art, history & mythology co-existed.

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The temple pond at Yaganti- amidst a backdrop of several caves

On our return, we halted at Banaganapally village, in front of a mansion that stands magnificently atop a small hillock by the road side. An old rusted name board read- ‘Nawab’s bungalow’. Though the exteriors have stood the ravages of time, the interiors of this imposing structure built of wood and rock is crumbling. Inspite of being featured in several movies, nobody really knows who the Nawab who owns this bungalow is. Further into the drive, we stopped by for a quick group photo at the Owk reservoir. We were stopped quite literally while we were trying to capture a photo with the serene backdrop of the dam. The wind blew so hard that we were struggling to move against the strong currents and felt stationary most of the times. It was my first time experience of fighting the wind. I really wonder how strong a storm could be..!!

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Having found NO hotels for breakfast, it was a hungry drive down to the Belum village. After wandering around, we settled down to have lunch at the only A/C- restaurant in the region (with no electricity for A/C service) on a recommendation by a localite. Not like we had an option either..!! After a quick lunch, we drove over to Belum caves. As expected, the weekend crowd was insane but the weather was in our favour on that breezy afternoon! On a flat/potent fertile land that seemed fit for cultivation, there appears a deep well like opening in the land. A steep flight of stairs takes one by surprise as he enters the infamous caves. The magnificent stalactites & stalagmites formations of limestone make Belum caves the longest and the 2nd largest complex in the country. Several ancient remnants of pre-historic human dwellings and relics of the Buddhist era have been discovered marking the caves on the map of archaeological and culturally important places. Due to the crowd, high humidity levels and low level of oxygen inside, most of us had a severe headache by the time we walked out of the place to sunlight. But, whatever the hardship, it was totally worth every drop of sweat.

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Inside the Belum caves

We were running behind schedule and we had to zip, zap, zoom… to reach to the sunset point… After a 2-3 hrs drive, we were excited as we spotted the windmills dotting the distant horizon and the long wall of the Jammalamadagu fortress spread across bordering the land’s end. It was an indication that we were approaching our destination- Gandikota. But the sunset..??? Hell yeah! We did make it in time, but the clouds played spoilt sport! Never mind, we still had chores to accomplish before it was dark. We wanted to go where the road took us and that’s the reason we hadn’t booked our stay. We were carrying tents and sleeping bags as backup with us. The trip had been good so far and we hoped that all went fine till the end.. As expected, the rooms were all occupied at Haritha- The only stay option around for miles (A resort run by the AP tourism). We negotiated with the caretakers to let us use the washrooms and dining facility. After striking a deal with a couple of villagers, we hiked down the steep gorge to pitch our tents for the night. It was really dark and well past 9.00.p.m. when we started our descent down to the river ridge. The descent seemed longer than expected with the luggage and the total darkness adding to our woes even while a few loose stones rolled down our feet as we paved our way down carefully. Once we reached the bottom, it was immense silence that had engulfed the calm environment and our cubicle bred minds. The fresh cool air filled our souls. It had been a windy day throughout and the river side could’nt be left apart. We managed to pitch one tent with great difficulty and the rest decided to just cuddle inside their sleeping bags. The weather wasn’t harsh and the cool temperature remained pleasant right till dawn. Only thing we were hoping for was that no water was let from the nearby dam and we all don’t get washed away in the dark 😉

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That’s the view from our tent- from the Pennar river bed

We all were awakened by the first rays of dawn and opened our eyes to a dream… We all knew we were camping on the ridge of river Pennar but only with sunlight, we realized that we were actually sleeping on the river bed!! No wonder that the soil felt moist and loose while we were struggling to pitch our tents last night!! With the mighty gorge standing all around us, our hearts skipped more than a few beats at the splendid view of the painterly beauty. We strolled across the river bed till both ends of the fort wall taking in sufficient clean air into our lungs through the billowing winds and the burnt yellow-green grass. We cooked maggi and ate bread-jam for breakfast and soon, we had to call it ‘Pack-up’ un-desiring lest face the brunt of the burning sun while we climbed back with the entire load. Once on top, we explored the view point, the old mosque, the fort remnants, the granary and the temples in the village. The entire village exists within the fort walls. It was a beautiful place to bid good bye!

The Pennar gorge at Gandikota Photo credits: Arun Kumar B.R.
The Pennar gorge at Gandikota Photo credits: Arun Kumar B.R.

For a pious traveler, a visit to the Lakshminarayanaswamy temple in Kadiri town and the Madhvarayaswamy temple at Gorantla, both from the Vijayanagara era would complete their trip. Half a day could be well spent at the Lepakshi complex too if opted for which lies on the way. The drive back to Bangalore through the bypass road was another highlight where we travelled mostly through protected forest reserve area. The Rollapadu bird sanctuary- the only habitat for the largest flying bird in the world, the endangered – ‘Great Indian Bustard’ in Andhra lies just a small deviation away. The mighty rocks balancing on each other and the greenery all along just made every bit of the trip so joyful. We had to reach Bangalore to drop a friend at the airport for her late evening flight! Thus ended a quick weekend… like zip, zap zoom…!!!