Tag Archives: National parks

Tiger Census Part 2- The Aftermath

If you have not yet read my story of chasing a tiger trail, Please do! Because this story is the continuation of it. To give you a jist of Part 1: I was on a search mission to find tigers as part of a nationwide ‘Tiger Census’ activity. Another two of my friends too, had been allotted the same National park as me and hence, they were with me for company after the daily beat rounds and at the campsite. While at it, I was chased by wild elephants on three consecutive days, I climbed a tree, I got entangled between creepers and escaped a near miss casualty as I ran for life in the unknown territories of the elusive jungle. But even as a single tiger wasn’t spotted at the end of all the adventure, I was leaving the forest with a sense of accomplishment. But well.. the forest didn’t want to leave me, I guess! It followed me, home.. All the way to Bangalore.

Coming to the point, the forests had started to stick to me since one day before our departure from the forest. That evening, we were sitting at the portico of the guard’s kitchen and looking at the hundred lights glowing at a distance. They were the eyes of a hundred spotted deers glowing in moonlight, that congregate around the forest guest house every evening. We had gotten used to them during our stay, by now. It was nearing a week since we were living and walking in their habitat and we hadn’t been lucky to catch a glimpse of the Big-cat yet. Hence at times, my friends and I hoped that those eyes were of the tiger. While engrossed in our conversation, I had not realised that I had been subconsciously scratching various parts of my body. On noticing this, my friend asked me why I looked so uncomfortable.

Only after that, I realized that I had scratches and marks of my nails on almost every inch of my hands and legs. The irritation had gotten to the extent that my hands had to now reach into my shirt and trousers. I wondered if there was an allergic reaction due to some caterpillar or some plants that I had unknowingly touched. I borrowed a small bowl of oil from the kitchen and went inside our shelter to smear it all over (That’s the first self-medication / home remedy I use whenever I have an allergic reaction in my skin). But this time, it seemed to be getting worse. I had large rashes popping up on almost every inch of my skin. My body had turned red. Apart from a tribal family of Chikkanna who lived across the kitchen door and the cook himself, there was really no one else in the forest for my aid anyway. I assumed that I would be alright by morning and went to sleep that night.

The next morning was our last possible opportunity in the forest, to catch a glimpse of the striped beast. With all anxiety and excitement, I had woken up forgetting about the allergy. Anyway, even that day ended with a fruitless search for the big cat with no sighting. By late afternoon, my friends and I started our drive back, towards Bangalore. Half way through, I came to my real senses. My body was itching bad and it was itching everywhere. I was scratching my body uncontrollably. Initially, my friends found it weird and cracked crazy jokes at me. I too enjoyed their sense of humour and laughed along with them. There was a point when I was literally crying. Crying for two reasons: One, because the jokes were SO funny and I was laughing; two, because I couldn’t stop scratching myself so hard. It was insane. Only I knew what I was going through!

But why only Me..? God must have taken pity at my plight. The other friend in the car too slowly started to scratch herself. By the time we crossed Mysore, both of us were scratching ourselves. It was unbearably itchy! That’s when my friends realised the seriousness of the situation. For most of the road, we prayed that we reached home asap and got a good shower, hoping that would help us to get fresh and feel alright. But as we entered Bangalore borders, we saw the first clinic in our entire drive. we got desperate to do something about our situation and went inside this clinic at Kengeri Upanagara. The doctor took note of the backstory and injected both of us with anti-allergen shots. He assured us that we would be alright by next morning.

We reached our respective homes, took the best shower we had seen in the last 1 week, freshened up, applied some known home remedies and went to bed. The next day, the day after that, the week after that passed. Although the redness in the body had gone, the itching hadn’t stopped. At times, I felt like the itching had subsided. But yet again, I felt that it didn’t subside and I was getting used to it. I had scars all over my body due to the incessant scratching. Fifteen days later, my dad felt irritated at what I was going through and took me to a physician. He gave me a prescription with 4 different types of tablets and assured us that I would be alright within the next three days.

Three days exceeded a fortnight since the that visit to the doctor. It had been more than a month in total since I returned from the Tiger census and I was still scratching my body. That’s when my mom suggested me to go to a dermatology specialist at the KIMS hospital (Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences). I was ready to do ANYTHING, to get myself DONE with this. It had started to get embarrassing to go to office and public places by now. I had started to feel like people around me were distancing themselves because this seemed like a dirty habit to them!

I went inside the doctor’s cabin. He asked me what the problem was. No backstory, I only showed my hand and said that I had similar rashes all over my body. Straight to the point, he asked me: “Did you go to any beach?”. “No, I had been to a forest for a trek.”, I replied. He nodded (god knows what and why!) He handed over a prescription with tablets for two days and an ointment. Without really any hope if it would work this time around atleast, I walked out with yet another list of medicine in my hand.

I went home and popped the first pill from the latest prescription. It took me half an hour, THAT’S ALL….. I was relieved of all the mind-blowing (like LITERALLY!) struggle I was going through, since over a month. The itching STOPPED… like to ZERO! Like CRAZY…… Why hadn’t I gone to this doctor earlier!!! Why oh, WHY?? Anyway, I completed my medicine course and the ointment helped me to lighten the scars on my skin over the next 1 month. I suggested the same medicine to my friend as well and she too recovered.

Well apparently, My friend and I were bitten by tiny mites that live in the forests. These mites enter the blood stream through the skin and lay eggs inside the dermis. The doctor at KIMS got this absolutely right and hence, we were cured of our embarrassing situation.

Lesson: Always go to a doctor who is specialized in the related subject unless and until you are unaware of what is the source of the problem.

As the Neelakurinji blossoms, the Nilgiris spectacles

Heard of the blue hills? Does the name ‘Nilgiris’ strike any bell? For those who know less, it is a part of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World heritage site in the southern peninsula of India. The ‘Neel-giris’ literally translates to ‘Blue-Hills’ because these hills get their colour from a particular phenomenon. A particular species of the Strobilanthes kunthiana flowers, locally called the Neela-Kurinji bloom once in twelve years. When in full bloom, the entire hill range looks blue, thus giving the hills their name. The last mass-flowering of the neelakurinji flowers happened in 2018 and I left no leaf unturned to witness this spectacle. There were a couple of hotspots identified by the Kerala forest department where arrangements were made to allow visitors to see the flowers.
My friends and I decided to visit the Eravikulam National park, located close to Munnar. This stretch of the hills was where most of the blossoms were supposed to happen. After finalizing the visit dates in Sept’18, the Delhi friends had booked their flight tickets to fly down and the remaining of us booked our bus tickets from Bangalore to Munnar. I had got all the necessary entry permits from the forest authorities and booked accommodation in Munnar for all of us. All this was done months in advance to have a confirmed entry anticipating the tourist influx for such a spectacle, if we waited until later. We were all set and waiting for the travel to finally happen.

Come July’18, the rain gods had wreaked havoc in the western Ghats. The entire stretch of western Ghats in Karnataka and Kerala had been damaged by the heaviest rains in eight decades. The damage done was massive to geography, property and life along these areas. In the event of things, damage was done even to the neelakurinji plants and the blossoms were feared to be washed out. Once the rain gods had calmed down and the ground situation of floods seemed to have receded, we waited to see if there was any luck in waiting until September. We were in constant touch with a few locals who gave us the updates on the status of the blue hills. Come September and we decided to go ahead with our original plan. We all had finally arrived at Munnar and were heading towards Eravikulam National Park.

Once there, Yes, there were enough plants destroyed. The stronger few, had managed to bear flowers. We walked along the laden path, feeling grateful for at least so many of the plants had survived. Since these plants blossom only once every 12 years, it means that their reproduction cycle is longer than usual. This also means that, most of the Neelakurinji vegetation is lost in the 2018 monsoon and the next flowering cycle of the year 2030 may not happen at a mass-scale as it is usually supposed to happen at all!! Anyway, we enjoyed whatever we were witnessing.

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The Neelakurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

Also, Neelakurinji is only a sub-species of the larger group of flowers called the Kurinji. The Kurinji flowers come in several colors- white, peach, purple, etc. Here is a collection of the Kurinji flowers from Eravikulam National park that we saw during our visit.

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The various Kurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

So that said, I was back in my hometown the following week and visited our piece of farmland to check on its status after the monsoon. It used to be a spice plantation that remained unmaintained for a long time before we, siblings ventured into developing it. our farm is a short walk away from the main road. When we arrived there and decided to walk, the entire path was filled with what seemed like some weed that had overgrown during the monsoon. We used a machete to make way for ourselves to walk further. Just a few steps into the area, we were surrounded with pink/ maroon flowers all around us. ‘These weeds had flowered expansively’, we wondered. We took a lot of photos, made way for ourselves, finished our work and returned home. When we discussed about the weeds with the elders in the family, we were surprised to hear that these plants also belonged to the Kurinji family.

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The Kurinji flowers from our farm in Kodagu

Further, an important month in the Kodava and the Tamil calendar is the month of Kakkada or Aadi. In Kodagu, on the 18th day of this month a special dish is prepared using a locally available herb. Its juice is believed to contain 18 medicinal values. It leaves a very deep blue/violet pigment when cooked and consumed only on this day. And what is this plant called? Don’t even guess… Locally called ‘Maddh thoppu’ or ‘Aadi soppu’, it is also a variety of Kurunji.
So, Kodagu primarily has three types of Kurinji; the flowering weed(Maley Kurinji(as in hill), Etth Kurinji(as in cattle) and Maddh Kurinji(as in medicine).
A little bit of googling allowed me learn that there are many sub-species of the Kurinji and each have their own flowering cycles. While some bloom annually, some bloom once in six years and some take a couple of decades. Neelakurinji was just one among them.

Lesson learnt: How often do we tend to ignore the little things from our own backyard? We think these are too trivial to spend time and look for things elsewhere. It is often that people associate that better things come only when money is spent and distances are travelled, but the truth may be that it is something that we have been conveniently ignoring in our own vicinity.
What is your take on this thought?

365 days around the state- Wild Karnataka

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

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

Click here for the official teaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to watch the Full movie

 

Land where Art is Divine- Pathanamthitta

Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in a typical tourist circuit in Kerala. I wanted to explore the land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form. I was heading towards Pathanamthitta.

My Itinerary:

Day 1: Leave from Bangalore to Kochi (by Flight); Drive from Kochi to Pathanamthitta. Visit Aranmula Parthasarthy temple (take a local foundry tour); Visit Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple (Watch a Kathakali performance in the temple);
Day 2: Gavi or Konni elephant camp, Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls, Kalloppara church, Paliakkara church and Niranam church. Return to Bengaluru.

The details:

First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.

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Enroute to the homestay

Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video).

This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.

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Left: moulded metal sheet before polishing; Right: Polished & finished mirror

A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.

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A traditional Kathakali setup at the Kochi international airport

An early morning drive to Gavi or Konni elephant camp is what I was recommended for finding a piece of nature. Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls are few of the other nearby places that tourists usually visit. But I decided against it all and while away some time exploring the neighbourhood of my homestay before checkout. It was as calm and peaceful as anywhere else. While sipping a cup of Kattan chai, I was reminded of my previous trip to Alleppey. Hundreds of wooden canoes measuring over 100 feet, long enough to be called snake boats, gather from across Kerala to compete for the coveted title. Each boat carries at least hundred oarsmen, all singing the Vanchipattu in chorus. Breathing the heavy air filled with anxiety of the spectators, it was a lifetime experience. Like Alleppey, Aranmula too hosts one of the largest boat races in Kerala. The Aranmula race is held on the last day of Onam as a celebration of Lord Krishna crossing river Pampa.

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The oarsmen ‘”Women” from Alleppey

I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.

I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.

(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)

Fact File:

  • How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
  • Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
  • Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
  • Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
  • Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.

Exploring Vidarbha on a Long Weekend

Vidarbha- the region consisting of Nagpur and Amravati derives its name from the epic city of Mahabharata. With several references made in Ramayana and Mahabharatha, it is not just historically important, but is also economically important as it is a mineral rich region in Central India. Vidarbha is a cultural melting pot with its strong influence in culture, history and geography of the country.

When opportunity knocks at your door, grab it! That’s what I did.. A friend was getting hitched at Amravati and the nearest airport for me to fly down was at Nagpur. So this time, it was an opportunity to explore the Vidarbha region. But that came with its set of challenges. It is one of the hottest places in India and the ceremonies were scheduled during the peak of the summer season. So, my colleagues and I decided to hire a self-drive car to ease the travel hassles of local transport. We wanted to visit the prominent landmarks around the region. There are a plenty of them. Hence, the itinerary was planned such that all major landmarks around Nagpur were covered on a single stretch before hitting the highway for the night’s stay at Amravati. Along with that, the region offers its own delectable cuisine. We wanted to include some of the popular dishes/snacks on our list as well.

So, I present my visit to Vidarbha in two parts. One, listing the landmarks visited and second, with a list of food to try in the region.

Part 1: Places to see in Nagpur and Amravati

  1. The geographical centre of India before partition: The ‘zero’ milestone is from where all distances were measured and highways originated in India, before Pakistan was formed. For all the hype around this place on social media, I was surmised to see that it was poorly maintained and is located in a corner of a busy main road. I had imagined it to be centrally located at some kind of a junction on a busy road.
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The zero milestone of undivided India

2. The DeekshaBhoomi meditation centre: This is where Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution is said to have given his first sermon after he converted to Buddhism.

3. The Swaminarayan temple was a beautiful place located within Nagpur city. The Dragon palace temple and Ramdham Park are some other places located within the city if you have more time in leisure. The lakes in the city can easily be given a miss. However, some heritage structures like churches, schools and the railway station lend an old-world charm to the city.

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Swaminarayan Mandir

4. Adasa Ganesh temple: This visit can be done by taking a small deviation before hitting back the same highway.

5. Mansar: This is an archaeologically important site, believed to be of Pravarapura, an erstwhile capital of the Vakataka kingdom that ruled the Vidarbha region.

6. Ramtek: Located at about 5kms from Mansar, this is considered to be a holy hill to people of all faiths. ‘Gad Mandir’, an old beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Ram is situated atop a hillock. Solitude is available in abundance here with a great view of the entire area. The Ramtek hills is also believed to be a place where the mythological King, Kalidas wrote his epic poem- ‘Meghdoot’. There are several places that are significant among the Jains and Buddhists too that are located in the vicinity.

7. The Ambala Lake: The ghats of the lake located at the base of the Ramtek hills are lined with beautiful ancient structures and was my favourite place of the trip.

8. Khindsi Lake: Get yourself cooled with some water sports (recommended if you have leisure time at your disposal.)

9. Nagerdhan fort: Soak in history at the erstwhile capital town of the Vakataka dynasty. (Recommended only if you have some more time for leisure.) It is a further 10kms drive from Ramtek.

10. Pench National park: Don’t miss an opportunity to stay over and do some tiger sighting in the land of ‘The Jungle Book’. It is the same forest where the story of Mowgli and Bhageera is based at, that we have all grown up watching and listening to.

There are a lot of scenic places around Pench that I can help you with if you are planning to stay over at one of the jungle lodges. We did not have the luxury of time as we had to drive back all the way as our stay was booked at Amravati. The Amravati region is home to several wildlife sanctuaries and temples that can be accommodated if you’re traveling on a luxury of time and an own vehicle, which we had to give a miss.

11. Chikaldhara: The highest point of Vidarbha region and the only hill station is located in Amravati. For a person like me hailing from the coffee hills, it was quite exciting to know that Amravati is the only coffee growing region in Maharashtra state.

Part 2: Food and Sweets to try in Nagpur

Talking about the highlight of this trip, it was definitely the FOOD!! The Varadi and Saoji are the two popular cuisines of the Vidarbha region. So, it was a culinary treat for our taste buds to experiment on something fiercely spicy and so rustic in taste. While our day started with delicious plates of ‘Poha with Tarri’ and ‘Samosa Tarri’ for breakfast at one of the several roadside tapris, lunch was a simple delectable Varadi thali at the ‘Gad Mandir Bhojanalay’. We managed to find space in our tummies for street food with several pit stops along the way that tasted heavenly and ended our day with a grand non-veg varadi menu for supper at a star hotel where we were put up for the night.

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The Varadi food that kept us going!

Nagpur is synonymous with oranges and the brand ‘Haldirams’. So, the visit would have been incomplete without trying the ‘Orange Burfi’ at one of the Haldirams outlets spread across the city. Do pick up a box of ‘Mango soan rolls’ from Heera sweets to please your sweet tooth along your return trip!

With the short time of a weekend that we had, this was the best we could accommodate in our schedule. Tell me what other things would you recommend to do, see and experience in Nagpur and Amravathi?

Tiger Census Part 1- The Chase

Tiger Census is a week long quadrennial event conducted all over India at the same time. A total of 5,00,000 sq.kms area – 17 states- 40,000 forest beats to be covered with 2000 personnel pulled in to count an estimated 1700 tigers nationwide. The event was scheduled from 16-Dec-13 to 23-Dec-13. With 2 days of training, the census will be done in 2 parts. The 1st 3days will mainly concentrate on tracking the carnivore population(including tigers, leopards etc) through critical carnivore trails and the next 3 days will be through specified transact lines identified to count the herbivores and evaluate the healthiness of the carnivore habitat.

The public can participate based on an online application and selection procedure. It is purely voluntary wherein, 1 volunteer will be accompanied by 2 forest guards and allocated a specific beat inorder to spot the mighty one with the stripes..!! The forest department would provide bare minimum logistics (read it food) However, beddings need to be carried by the volunteers themselves 🙂

So all said and done, I was shortlisted as a volunteer for Kallahalla Wildlife Range in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. Last minute preparations, arguments with folks for permission, hunt for a notary for getting the indemnity bond attested.. I was all done and all set for the LONG week ahead 🙂

Day 1: After getting misguided by google maps a couple of times, I had arrived at the forest office in Kallahalla by noon. After the enrollment formalities were done, there was a small briefing for the volunteers about the do’s and don’ts in the forest. We were not in a luxury campsite, we had to remember and be alert always. We were then directed to the camp to grab some rest before the hectic week ahead 🙂

The camp itself was in the middle of the national park that boasts of the highest density of tigers in India. The shelter we had to look upto during our next few days was an old abandoned 3 BHK house which once served as a forest staff quarters. Now, there laid only the walls and a thatched roof with no doors, no electricity and no phone connectivity. We would have the privilege of being greeted by wild animals at our door step every morning and reptiles creeping in to the living room every now and then. We did not have to be surprised even if one fine morning, the tiger himself waved a ‘Hai’ at us while sitting on the porch.. The only things that we had with us to protect ourselves were our sleeping bags, camouflage clothing, trekking boots, torches and some insect repellents. That evening, we opted to sit out in the open, under the clear starry sky until the biting cold of the December night froze us. It was just a day past full moon 🙂

Day 2: We all assembled by 6.00.a.m in front of our camp where I was introduced to Mr.Swamy & Chikkanna. They were the guards who would accompany me through the due days ahead. Chikkanna was a ‘Kaadu Kuruba’ tribal person. He could recognize the forest with just it’s sounds and smell. He knew every grain and twig in the forest. Swamy was a Bachelor’s in Biology. Chikkanna’s role was to manage the team with the survival skills for the deep jungle and help identify things with their local names. Swamy would then document everything with the local and their scientific names. And me? I was a general public, getting aware of various aspects of forestry and the habitat census procedure itself.

Mr.Swamy saved the camp as the reference point in his GPS and the three of us marched towards our beat. We stopped by every now and then to make a note of the different animal scats that we found along our way. Also, the forest grass cover, vegetation, commercial trees, medicinal plants, herbs, shrubs, every thing were recorded. The scat samples that we collected in small sachets included those of wild cat, barking deer, rabbits, sambars, spotted deers, bears etc. along with that of the tiger as well.. Further ahead, as we marched a few kilometres into the thicket, we reached a small bit of moist land. We spotted aleast a dozen of jungle fowls around there. We walked around the place and noted fresh pug marks of a tiger mother & a cub who had just dropped by, to quench their thirst. We proceeded further and the sight I encountered next needs a special mention. Atleast 50 parakeets emerged out of a small bush when I walked by. It was truly Awesome 🙂 I cursed myself several times for not being able to identify the innumerable bird species I came across all the way. We saw a tree-full of langurs, Malabar giant squirrels and sambars. We encountered a pack of wild dogs(dholes) who surely were upto a well laid strategy. However, the day soon ended without any major direct sighting of the tiger.

Day 3: Another day, filled with anxiety began at 6.00.a.m. We were greeted at the entrance of the transact line by some wild hogs. The 2km stretch of the transact was covered without any sightings apart from elephant dung all the way. Further downhill, we saw fresh tiger scat and I had already started to crib about having missed a glimpse of the striped beast by a few minutes 😦 Peacocks, barking deers peeked into our way at times. We then grabbed some wild berries from one of the trees along our way. We consumed it only after it was okayed as ‘Safe for consumption’ by Chikkanna.

When we continued our walk further, Chikkanna stopped us suddenly and asked us to stay still for a while. He pointed- “Elephant..!!” He concentrated on the sound and again said- “There are 2..!!” Within moments, we heard the thumping sound of the elephants moving towards us.. 100mts.. 50mts.. 10 mts.. SHIT.. We saw them both right there.. “RUN…”Chikkanna commanded.!! The three of us just ran… and the elephant mother & calf duo followed us… We ran.. they ran.. We ran further. “TREE..” Chikkanna pointed. And we three climbed and reached the top of the tree within seconds. (It is unbeleivable how you end up doing things that you have never done before, when it is for life.. I had never climbed a tree before. Atleast not one this high..!!) The duo continued towards us. Swamy grabbed a few crackers from his bag and lit them one by one. After bursting 5-6 crackers, the elephant duo decided to spare us. Although petrified a little bit at my first near death adventure, I descended the tree and continued our walk further.

We passed by something that looked like a tiger’s den with few bones stranded here and there. We reached Kiggere- the tropical moist deciduous part of the forest. It is a grassland, where we saw herds of spotted deers grazing all around. We rested there for a while and feasted on the fruits that we had collected along our way. The second leg of the day continued here on, towards Kebbekatte.

Climbers, creepers, bushes, thorns- we waded them all.. and suddenly pug marks appeared from nowhere. “The tiger has just walked down to the watering hole-200mts down the line(Kebbekatte), we might be lucky“- Chikku said. “Shh..” followed an alarming sound. “It’s a tusker.!! He is close..” We looked around and couldn’t find any trees this time. We real7sed that we were stranded between an elephant chase. Swamy reached out to his supervisor over the walkie-talkie to inform him of our status. He was informed that we were stuck midway and it was not possible for help to reach us from either ends of the beat. Without an option, Swamy lit a couple of crackers this time. And, we were all releived for getting lucky again, for the 2nd time.. We then walked towards Kebbekatte. It was an unfortunate day for us as we had just scared the tiger away which was spotted by the other beat who had arrived there before us.

Day 4: My heart kept thumping a little harder than usual. I felt a bit nervous while I was heading towards the jungle. My fingers were crossed all the way hoping to have no more adventures. I felt it was okay even if I did not spot a tiger, but wanted to reach back alive and kicking. I kept walking blindly behind Chikkanna who lead Swamy and me. We had to literally find our way out of the bushes which had overgrown all of us, blinding our way further. We could not even see if a tiger sat by, snarling at us. I heaved a sigh of releif when I got the 1st glance of the Kiggere grassland. the 1st part of the beat was accomplished, peacefully..!! Chikkanna moved into the bushes to answer the nature’s call. And so did Swamy, behind another one. I was trying to pacify my thumping heart standing all alone in the meadow. Tigers are mostly spotted in open grasslands, I had read. Then, on hearing the trumpet of an elephant, Chikkanna emerged out of the bush. He signaled Swamy to join us asap. He explained to us that the tusker was calling for a fight and is moving towards Baalekatte(our route further). We walked ahead slowly along the same route. Suddenly, Swamy pointed out to our right and screamed- “Run Run… its a Herd.. Herd..

It took few seconds for Chikkanna & me to believe our eyes. We had forgotten to look out in other directions while we were concentrating on the lone tusker. About 10-12 gigantic pachyderms were marching towards us, at a distance of barely 20mts from us… We three started to run… Chikkanna shouted- “The tusker & the herd, both are heading towards Baalekere, let us run towards Doddkere“. We three ran..

Tadan…. Another tusker stood right infront of us…. We three were surrounded by these pachyderms from 3 sides.. Chikkanna and Swamy ran.. I followed them.. While the two were running much ahead of me, I got entangled in between a thick bunch of creepers. “F**K… This is it..!!” I thought. But, I saw god in disguise running towards me with a dagger in his hand and free me out of the tangle. It was Chikkanna. After running for a distance, he had turned back to check on me. On noticing that I wasn’t there, he had come back.

The monsters were close, we continued to run.. I again tripped over a snake that crossed my leg.. I leaped over and continued to run. Meanwhile, Swamy had lit a few crackers and planted them along the way. Out of 6 odd something crackers, only one bursted. The sound was good enough to shoo the tuskers away.. We continued to run and reached the safe confines of a tree trunk on the otherside of Kebbekatte lake.

After a short while, we met the group from the other beat and headed towards Sulekere along with them. This was the last option we had, to catch a glimpse of the striped monster. We waited there for a long while hoping for him to come there to drink some water. We saw bisons and other animals walking in there, but hard luck- we could not spot a TIGER 😦

And thus ended our tryst with the wild.. The pug marks were all accounted which will be matched with the camera images captured by NCTA and a compiled report will be out in a few months’ time 🙂

Whether it was my chase of the ‘Tiger trail’ or if it was ‘Me getting chased for being in the elephant trail’, I don’t know. But what I’m certain was ‘The Chase’ was over..

Well wait, did I say the chase ended? No wait, our adventure followed us all the way to Bangalore and stayed with me for atleast another month. You’d be excited to know…. Click here to read Part TWO!

Up, close and personal with wildlife at Bannerghatta

I believe that we develop interests based on the environment and the social circles that we are exposed to. Born in a small hill-dwelling community whose lineage takes pride in hunting games, it once got me to think where my interests towards nature and wildlife conservation came from. Although I couldn’t join too many dots, one significant period was my high-school days where I would have long conversations with a friend, about animals’ health, their behavior, their habitat etc. Her father worked in the Karnataka forest department. I thus chanced upon once, to stay for a couple of days along with her, in the official quarters located inside the Bannerghatta Biological park.

A stay dating back to June 2007: Five friends and I embarked on this memorable trip (yeah, I can call it life changing too.. It probably changed my perspective about zoo keeping and keeping animals in captivity).

Day 1:
After bracing through long traffic jams and burping on our pre-booked lunch at the Jungle resorts within the park, it was Safari time for us. Even though I’ve been to Bannerghatta innumerous number of times in the past, this was a nice experience. On my previous visits as a normal visitor in the zoo, I would have to buy separate passes for each section. But this time, I was exploring the place with special privileges. The herbivores safari, tiger safari, lion safari, bear safari all done by sunset time and we unwound at the quarters.. You have 6 chatter-box girls in one house and what do you expect? A lot of gossip 😛 The evening thus passed by. The cook served our dinner and post that, we all geared up for one of the most memorable nights of our lives.

Photos of wildlife taken at Bannerghatta National park
Deep inside the jungle

We were all set for “The Night Safari”. The forest guards would go on their regular night beats in the forest and this time, we would accompany them. Apart from being the first experience for all of us out at night in deep jungle, what was more exciting was that we were going in an open pick-up vehicle. As the eeriness of the deep dark wild started to excite us more and more, we got a better understanding of such places at night. While we were being attentive and soaking in all the sensuousness of mother nature, we spotted some wild animal that crossed our path.. and then came back and stood infront of our vehicle. I thought it was some sort of a wild cat and my jaws dropped in awe. I shouted in excitement, “Cat, Cat!”. Then noticing the weird glances I received and the silence of others, I realized I had to shut up. A friend was quick to realise what it was. She shouted “Leopard, Leopard!”. Imagine a LEOPARD, totally untamed and WILD.. right infront of us…!!! The driver halted the vehicle. Another friend yelled out, “Don’t stop, don’t stop.. Move move..”. But the driver took the jeep in reverse and closer to the cat. The leopard had now walked past our jeep and come to the rear side. At a distance of less than 10meters or so.. Instead of pouncing on us and grabbing one of us, strangely the leopard ran away within a few seconds. PHEWWW… still feels like I just woke up from a dream..!!

We were then told that the leopard had littered cubs somewhere in the vicinity and hence, ran away. The forest guards know their forests and its inhabitants. The leopard was frightened about a threat to its babies and hence ran away to protect them. They are usually in defensive mode during these time unless attacking is an absolute necessary. The Safari continued.. We spotted bisons, antelopes, spotted deers, neelghais, wild cat, black bucks, mongoose, rabbits, so on and so forth… The nigh safari was indeed an experience in itself!

Day 2:
Next morning we all woke up before sunrise and again, headed towards the jungle. This time, it was a morning ride with a hope of spotting a few wild elephants. As we travelled deep, deeper and deepest into the forest, the terrain got more bumpier and rocky. The painful ride however, did not yield any good sightings apart from fresh elephant dung everywhere. But, some wonders of the jungles that we had missed in the darkness of the previous night, made up for the disappointment of our morning ride. Picture these little scenes: hundreds of butterflies flying out of a bush, all at once; the glittering clear waters of the lakes lost in the deep jungle; many more.

After reaching back to the quarters, we immediately headed to a pond located behind the quarters. It was bathing time for the pachyderms at the zoo… Two majestic sweethearts walked past us, with a calf: Vanaraja, Darshan & Baby Nisarga (Those are the names of the elephants at Bannerghatta). We too stretched ourselves to give them a scrub and in the process, got all wet with the ever playfull little Nisarga.

Photos of elephants taken at Bannerghatta National park

It was our zoo time post breakfast. In a separate area, an elephant calf named Geetha was in deep slumber. The calf who was barely as old as a month-and-a-half was guarded by her mother. We accompanied the mahout to feed them and spent. During this, the little one woke up and we got lucky to spend some time playing around with her. She would nod her head and playfully chase us. We would run around the tree until both of us got tired, and then start the cycle again. While at this, the vetinerary doctors of the zoo welcomed us to the backyard of the Vet-hospital. Under their supervision, we got an opportunity to touch, carry and care for wounded or sick animals that were being treated there. Among them were an alligator, civet cat, guinea pigs, rabbits etc.

Later in the afternoon, we visted the SOS centre. I didn’t even know such a place existed within the premises despite coming to the zoo several times in the past Special privileges! This is a rehabilitation center for wounded lions, tigers, bears etc. These animals are mostly rescued from circuses, bear charmers etc. treated here before letting them into the actual zoo area. This is a public prohibited zone. The handsome Siberian tigers were my favourite.

Sloth bears at the SOS center in Bannerghatta National Park
At the SOS centre

Next was the drive uphill- to Udige bande. We got a nice view of the ‘Bannerghatta National Park’ from here. You can find innumerous dolmens here, believed to be the place where the local tribes once laid their dead ancestors to sleep. There is also another large rock, called as the Barber’s stone which is believed to have been featured in Dr.Rajkumar’s ‘Gandhada Gudi’ movie.

Views of the forest cover at Bannerghatta National park
From Top left: 1.The view from Udige Bande, 2. The Barber’s stone, 3.The Dolmens atop Udige Bande, 4.View of a small check dam constructed by the forest department as a watering hole for the wild animals.

Day 3:
We were taken to the tiger and lion conservation area. The pictures taken here are something that I would be flaunting for the rest of my life. Not all get a chance to touch and play around with tiger cubs 😉 The big cats that are ready for their breeding / mating are brought here. After the cubs are born, the parents and the cubs are nurtured here until the cubs are of a suitable age to go back to the wild. Here, there is no wild as such. They are let in the safari area to mingle with the other cats in a controlled space, which is also another form of captivity.

A tiger cub at the animal breeding center at Bannerghatta National park
Playing with a tiger cub at Bannerghatta lion and tiger conservation area

We took a walk around the museum and got a few insights into preservation and conservation of our natural heritage. We then headed to the last part of our long weekend. The butterfly park was newly set back then and it was a good crowd puller among the public.

To my experiences of going on wildlife safaris and what I had watched on discovery & Nat-geo, I guess this trip gave me a new insight into wildlife conservation. Until now I had only been hearing and watching it. This trip gave me an opportunity to EXPERIENCE it. You cannot connect with nature unless, you get up, close and personal with wildlife.

Studying ‘Bachelor of Cycle-logy’ at IIT-Madras

This trip to Chennai is going to be a memorable one. Because, this was my first solo business trip. Apart from traveling alone in a land that spoke a language I barely understood, I managed to pretty decently pull-off the audit at a vendor company, all by myself. Some small little personal milestones! So, here’s a peek into my first solo business day, without business :p

I landed at the Meenambakkam international airport at around 8.00.a.m. and hired a taxi to the vendor’s place. This is when my tryst with Tamil started. The driver did not know my language and I did not know his. But, one thing I learnt quite fast was, being a Kodava really helps while roaming around in South India. I could mix up bits of Malayalam and a little more of Kodava thakk and make it sound pretty much like Tamil. The driver managed to understand the basic instructions. And the rest, sign language it was. But yeah, it was a lucky start for a solo stint.

But imagine finishing work ahead of schedule and having a late night flight to return! Especially when you don’t have a backup plan in hand and do not know the local language. Even if I googled for some place to hang around, I was not able to communicate it to my driver.. The sign language wouldn’t be of much help if I had to spend a longer unplanned day. Hell! I felt stranded in my own country.

That’s when a friend studying at IIT-Madras came to my rescue. I rang him up and he guided the driver in Tamil to reach his campus. The plan was that he would show me around the campus and then drop me back to the airport. Fair! So that’s what I did..

What if I did not crash the GATE (The toughest entrance exam in India) ?? That did not stop me from learning at the prestigious IIT-M..!! Thanks to my friend pursuing research at IIT-M, this was where I completed my “Bachelor of Cycle-logy” which I had left unfinished way back in primary school. He suggested that cycling around the vast campus was the easiest way of getting around and I agreed to his suggestion. He got his bicycle out and borrowed one for me from one of his classmates. Then, we had gotten pedalling on the roads of the vast 600+ acres of lush greenery on the campus of IIT-Madras.

IIT madras campus
Top: Gajanan circle at IIT-M premises; Below: Bonn avenue at IIT-M

IIT-Madras is located adjacent to Guindy national park(the 8th smallest in India)- the last bit of the tropical dry evergreen forest in India. There is so much greenery in the entire canyons, that our cycling stint was indeed refreshing. This allowed me to witness the harmonious co-existence of man and the wild, in an urban setting. While the Black bucks, spotted deers etc. walked around fearlessly on the campus, the humans went about their businesses without coming on the ways of these wild animals.

Wildlife at IIT Madras campus
Wild animals walking around freely inside the IIT-Madras campus

After we had pedalled around almost all corners of the campus, we checked in to the ‘cafe coffee day’ on their campus. Since restaurants are heavily subsidized in such institutions, this was the “Cheapest” CCD I had been till date. It was 5.00.p.m. something and we still had so much time left. So, we decided to hit the “Elliot Beach” in Besant nagar about 6.kms from IIT-M.

We had some corn, I bought a Rajnikanth mask, flew a kite etc. on the sea shore. We did all that which helped us to kill time. The beach was a wee bit dirtier than the ones I had seen all my life (in Mangalore and Kerala). Meanwhile, I waited patiently to see the sunset. I waited and waited… and it was dark already. Only then did I realize that the sun only rises in the East coast 😛

Besantnagar beach in Chennai
Top:The Karl Schmidt memorial; Below: A corn vendor at Elliot’s/ Besantnagar beach

It was going to be 6.30.p.m and we thought it would be wiser to leave, because we had to brave through the Chennai traffic so that we made it on time to the airport.

All in all, a day well spent. Looking forward for many more business trips 😛