Tag Archives: South Indian Trek

Finding a hidden gem of Wayanad- Aranamala waterfalls

I have discussed with you all why I volunteered to become a ‘Trek leader on weekends’ and how much I enjoy doing it with ‘Plan the Unplanned’ (PTU). With Covid19 lockdowns and safety precautions that followed, break from my weekends with PTU has been longer than I had thought. Although I have been travelling with a closed group of friends and family since few months now, the fear of socializing with a bunch of unknown people had kept me away from PTU. Finally, this January, I decided to get out and lead a group of trekkers. The destination assigned for this weekend was Sultan Bathery in Wayanad district of Kerala. And the task was to find a hidden gem in the Aranamala hills. We were going to hike along a stream to see a waterfall.

Itinerary:
Friday: Leave Bangalore by night
Saturday: Day hike to Aranamala waterfall, Visit sunset-point and night camping at Ambukutti hills
Sunday: Watch sunrise, visit Edakkal caves and explore Wayanad. Return to Bangalore by night.

The Aranmala waterfall trek

The Details:
It is a very hazy memory from the cold dark January morning of sitting inside our bus at the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary’s Sultan Bathery check post. We had arrived much before 06.00.a.m., when the forest gates would open for public entry. Since we were not allowed to make any noise or get out of the bus in the forest area, we all decided to get some sleep until the gates opened. At first, I was woken up by the cries of peacocks that seemed to be somewhere very near to the bus and some distant elephant trumpet. But then, the darkness around and the exhaustion from the previous workday got me back to fall asleep. I was woken up again in a while, by a sound that was very contrasting and disturbing as compared to what I had heard before falling asleep the last time. This time, the loud deafening sounds were of honking buses and trucks that had congregated at the check post. I opened my eyes to see the dawn of the day with a red sun rising over a mist laden green paddy field from my window. The fresh dung just outside the bus gave me a momentary fright at the thought of having had an elephant walk right past us, in the dark. All said and done, the entry formalities at the inter-state border was sorted and we were at a hotel in a bit. We freshened up, had a nice Kerala breakfast and got ready for the long day ahead.

The start of the hike, Thollayiram kandi in the backdrop

After arriving at Meppadi town, we met our local guide and shifted from our minibus to 4WD Jeeps. The initial stretch deceived me in thinking why a 4WD was needed to drive on a properly laid concrete road. Just then, the roads disappeared, and the real ride started… Although I was sitting in the rear end of the vehicle, I preferred not to sit on the seat and chose to hang on to the roof lest have all my joints and bones displaced. The long drive through the thick canopied forest trail culminated at the start point of our hike. We descended through the path that deviated from the main road towards a river. That’s the ‘Thollayiram Kandi’, our guide pointed out at a peak topped by the rolling clouds. “Kandi is a local unit of measurement”, he elaborated as we continued to walk. We walked through cardamom plantations and jumped over a few fallen tree trunks and creeping roots until we reached a stream.

The stream and the hiking trail at Aranamala

From there onwards, the hike was mainly upstream. While enjoying the absolute music of the gurgling waters of the stream, the croaking frogs and the shrilling cicadas, we slipped down a few large rocks and fell into the shallow waters a couple of times. In spite of trying hard not to get our shoes wet, we ended up soaking them up and picking out occasional leeches from our feet. We realized that given our pace of hiking up, we would not be able to return on time with sufficient daylight. Hence from there onwards, our guide made his own path, through the thick forest. He walked ahead by cutting the thick bushes that came across, all by keeping the stream in sight. We did slip and tumble down the steep a couple of times though. But the hanging vines and lianas came to our rescue. And suddenly, our first view of the waterfall emerged. It was beautiful and the water pool looked crystal clear, tempting to step inside. Apart from our group, there was no one else.

The first waterfall enroute

As we got ready to step into the pool, “This is not the main waterfall. We need to walk further ahead”, said our guide. If this waterfall was so calm and beautiful, we wondered how the main waterfall would be like. We were excited! But our excitement sought energy 😛 We had to climb up the same rock, on one end of which the water plunged down. Quite a tricky climb but worth every inch of it! A short walk further from there waaaaasssss the hidden gem that we had come in search of. Now, don’t ask me the name of the waterfall, it is completely off the map and mobile network. So, there is NO way you will find it on google. To make it simple, you can call it the Aranamala waterfall, the waterfall in the Aranamala hills.

The Aranamala waterfalls

That’s all folks, we’re off into the pool to enjoy our dip! But hey, it was not so easy…. The water was bloody cold, and I had cramps in my feet for the first few minutes. I meanwhile enjoyed my free fish-pedicure too, it sort of eased the cramps for me. And then with a dip, I was all set! A waterfall so secluded, a pool so clear and a feeling so divine, I couldn’t have asked for any better to make up for all the travels missed in nearly a year now. After spending some good time under the waterfall and with our soaking wet clothes on, we decided to return. It was already 03.30.p.m and hence decided to take an easy path instead of walking back through the same terrain of forest and the rocks. So, we were taken through a shorter but a beautiful path through cardamom plantation for our descent.

After a nice filling lunch at a campsite enroute, we boarded the jeeps back towards Meppadi. The original itinerary did include a short sunset ride, but the clouds didn’t seem to part for the entire day. From Meppadi, we reached the base of Ambukutti hills for the night. It took us yet another jeep ride to a homestay where we had our chai and conversations. And a fun time around the bonfire until dinner was served.

Post dinner, we carried our tents and sleeping bags up the hill and managed to pitch them atop. The winds were strong, and the rocky ground was tough. With the thick mist blinding all around and the instructions from our guide to not venture away from the tents, all that we could envisage was a deep valley below. The bonus of holding up in the cold until morning, u ask? ‘The view from the tent, of the sun rising above the clouds at 06.00a.m.’ But come morning, we had a surprise awaiting. There was so many clouds until 09.00.a.m that we got a glimpse of the sun for barely a few seconds. We walked up the hill a little further from our campsite, took in some clean air and good views of the range around. We then returned to pack our tents and freshen up for the day. Our breakfast and our ride back to Meppadi was awaiting us at the homestay.

Ambukutti hills as seen from our campsite

That was my story about offbeat Wayanad with ‘Plan the Unplanned’, of leading a group of weekenders and enjoying my weekend, both at the same time.

Other Travel recommendations:
Edakkal caves are located at a walkable distance from the campsite at Ambukutti hills
You can visit Tirunelli temple and Irupu waterfalls by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Tholpetta) and Nagarhole National park.
Alternately, you can explore Sultan Bathery, visit the ancient Jain temple and Banasura sagar dam that offers a good view of the surrounding hills.

Offbeat Things to do in Vishakhapatnam

My interest in pursuing a career related to the oceans goes a long way back into history. I intended to study oceanography while in school. Then, in spite of studying at an elite college in Bengaluru that offered the army wing of NCC (National Cadet Corps), I wanted to move out to get a ‘B & C’ certification in the Naval wing. After completing my graduation in mechanical engineering, I thought I could do well with a career in a refinery or a shipping harbor or something. A career in ‘Merchant navy’ never had an approval from my family! I did try to get into the ‘Indian Navy’ through the SSB as well. Anyways, all have been futile attempts as life always had other plans for me. But all the above interests have a deep connection with the port city of Visakhapatnam.

Apart from its strategically important port, Vizag had intrigued me as this city is geographically located between a sprawling beachfront and the eastern Ghats. I have been wanting to tick off Vizag, also called as Vishakhapatnam from my ‘to visit list’ from a really long time. Finally, my stint with Vizag materialized in January’2021. This visit is a part of my family’s road trip through Bengaluru– Telangana – Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra Pradesh – Bengaluru.

I had heard a lot of my acquaintances tell me how beautiful this city is. Also, blame it on me for being spoilt by what my home state has offered me in my upbringing. The beaches of karavali, the hills of western Ghats, the coffee plantations of my native district and the sumptuous spread of regional cuisines, similar things were spoken about at Vizag as well. But all the people who had suggested Vizag on my bucket list were the urban tourists who visited this place to either chill by the beachside or relax and rejuvenate at a resort. For those who know me well, I have always enjoyed the exploratory kind of travel. So, I did manage to find such places and things at Vizag to satiate the explorer in me. Here are my favorites:

The INS Kursura submarine museum: This is like “THE” thing that brought me to Vizag at the first place. The experience of the guided tour inside of this de-commissioned submarine is something that is priceless and cannot be quantified with a price of an entry ticket.

INS Kursura- Submarine museum

The TupoLev142M aircraft museum: This is one of its kind of what I have been before. The experience of walking through a real aircraft that once served in the ‘Indian Navy’ is a million-dollar worth if you are someone who has deep interest in the uniforms, technology, and scientific history.

Tupolev 142m at the aircraft museum at Vizag

The cable car ride: Kailasagiri hill is a favorite hangout among the locals. They choose to drive up there, walk around the park and hangout at the eateries there. But for me, this was an interesting place because I reached the top of this hill through a cable-car. For all the people drooling over the Singapore tourism’s photos, Vizag is your nearest bet. Once you reach the peak, another recommendation from me is to take a ride on the toy train that goes around the hill. The 360deg view of the city and its enchanting coastline is indeed worth a visit, while you are in Vizag.

View of the coastline from the Cable car in Kailasagiri

Borra caves: Situated amidst lush greenery, these caves are known to be the widest cave complex in the Indian sub-continent. If possible, time your visit into the caves when a train passes over the land above, you can experience the tremors inside. It is located on the outskirts of Vizag and can be combined as a day trip to Araku valley.

Glimpses of Borra caves

Araku valley: For someone hailing from a place that is called as the ‘Coffee land’ of India (Kodagu district in Karnataka), I found the small patches of the famed ‘Araku valley’ coffee estates overhyped. But still, a meal of ‘bamboo-chicken’ with the valley in the backdrop, a hundred small dotting waterfalls and the beautiful scenery all along the way that made me want to stop for a photo at every turn of the road, all score a definite recommendation from me for a day trip to this valley.

At Araku entrance (From Koraput side)

Sip some kallu by the beach: With its buzzing coastline and palm trees growing in abundance, it is highly likely that you will spot some toddy or Kallu tappers (palm sap collectors) walking past you near the beaches. You can buy the fresh Kallu and enjoy while you are chilling by the beach.

A toddy/ Kallu tapper selling Kallu at one of the shacks

Beach hopping & Ship spotting: Being a major port city on the east coast, it is very likely that you can see some mad-ass big ships that dock at the Tennessee park Beach from across the world. However, there’s ‘MV Maa’, a Bangladeshi cargo ship that’s abandoned after it got beached during the covid-19 lockdown. If you’ve never been so close to a ship before, this is your opportunity to literally walk over, touch and feel a ship. Bonus: News is that if everything goes well, the ship will be converted to a floating restaurant soon 😍

MV Maa- the beached cargo ship of Bangladesh

Have you been to Vishakhapatnam before? What did you like the most?

Making the journey count- to Kodachadri

For the weekend hikers, the ‘K’ in Karnataka represents the must-do three ‘K’ peaks in the state: Kumara Parvata, Kudremukha and Kodachadri. I was heading to the last of the three, for the second time. The first time I went to Kodachadri was over a decade ago, as a part of an industrial tour from college 😀 This time, I was leading a group of weekenders who had signed up for the trek with PTU- ‘Plan the Unplanned’.

The standard itinerary with PTU:
Day 1: Depart from Bangalore (Leave HSR layout) by 08.00.p.m.
Day 2: Reach homestay by 06.00.a.m., freshen up and start the hike by 09.00.a.m.; Return to the homestay by evening
Day 3: Visit Nagara fort enroute home, reach Bengaluru by evening.

The story of my weekend:
A total of 16 people including two trek leaders were supposed to board the bus at various pickup points across Bangalore. While HSR layout was the first pickup point, the last and the biggest bunch of people were supposed to board at Mekhri circle. When the driver cranked the engine to leave HSR, the last member boarding the bus noticed that a rear tyre had a flat. So, it needed to be changed and the punctured tyre required to be fixed before proceeding for the long journey. After about an hour, the stepney was replaced and the bus arrived at the second stop.

People boarded and the Bus… did not start. This time, the battery had drained, completely! A mechanic arrived in a while and told that it could not be topped up and needed a replacement. Well, it was another good couple of hours until the bus finally left…. With an assurance from the ‘travels company’ assuring that there won’t be any more breakdowns.

Meanwhile, I had taken an autorickshaw to reach Mekhri circle to hold up all the people who had arrived there. The co-leader managed the people who had already boarded the PTU bus. Most of them being first timers on their solo travel, their growing anxiety with the extending delay in the tour was quite a challenge to clarify all their doubts and questions. It was 00.30.a.m. by the time the bus finally arrived at Mekhri circle instead of the scheduled 09.30.p.m. We quickly wrapped up the initial welcome and introduction that usually takes a while on normal trips. Everyone needed some sleep before climbing up the Kodachadri trail.

It was approximately 01.30~02.00. a.m. and the bus had reached somewhere around Sira town. Then suddenly, everyone in the bus woke up for a LOUUUD thud noise. The driver stopped the bus. I walked to his cabin and got down with the driver with a torch light to check what the issue was. The driver found a broken bolt under the bus, near the engine room. The radiator had started to leak profusely, and the engine belt had ripped off. The driver informed me that there was no way that the bus could move. Trying to find a mechanic in the middle of the night would only be futile. The options we had was to find one back in Nelamangala (this would take a good few hours) or wait in the bus until morning, find a mechanic in Sira, find spares, get the bus fixed and then proceed. Proceed further to Kodachadri or return to Bangalore. In either case, Saturday would be gone. We pushed the bus to the side of the highway and decided to take time to figure out the next POA (Plan of Action).

Hidlumane falls

I called up the PTU organizers and informed them of the situation. We were fortunate to find a chaiwala (petty Angadi), the ONLY place with light and people movement in the drop-dead night. The people in the bus got down and occupied themselves with their dose of mid-night chai and smokes until we figured out an alternative. None of them would settle for a full refund and wanted PTU to ensure that they got what they had signed up for.

It was a weekend. It wasn’t going to be easy to find an alternate bus or a TT (Tempo Traveler). While my co-lead was waving at every other bus that came on the highway (both KSRTC and private buses) to check if there were empty seats, I was calling up every random travel company listed on google and checking for availability of buses. Either they were all booked for the weekend or people would just abuse me for waking them up in the middle of the night and hang up. To add to it, I was the ONLY person in the entire bus who could speak Kannada. So yeah, I literally had to manage the show and all the translations, communications and co-ordinations.
Finally, one KSRTC bus stopped! They had sufficient seats to accommodate all of us as well. But we had a new challenge. The travellers with us had ganged up and would not agree to board a red bus (Karnataka Sarige bus). All requests to convince seemed futile and we let go off the KSRTC bus. After a total of about an hour, the chaiwala managed to find us a localite who had agreed to come with us for a per kilometer charge that was double the normal price. PTU organizers agreed. The TT arrived. Next challenge? It was a 12-seater TT, we were 16 in total. We, the leaders convinced ourselves to sit on the floor of the ramp between the two rows of seats and another 2 travelers volunteered to fill the already crammed space. Ensuring that everyone else got a comfortable space, the journey continued. Fortunately, we had no more surprises and we reached the homestay by 09.30.a.m.

That’s how we rolled, in our TT (Faces intentionally blurred)

We took time to freshen up, have breakfast, get the forest permits for the trek and finally started our ascend by 11.00.a.m. All went fine, by god’s grace. This was my first PROPER trek in Kodachadri, the previous one was another adventure worth a read. We climbed up the Hidlumane waterfall, arrived at a local house enroute to have a surprise Majjige (buttermilk) stop, crossed paddy fields, areca and banana plantations, Mookambika temple and finally arrived at the peak marked by the Shankaracharya Mantapa. The landscape and the entire path were unrecognizable for me from what I had seen on my previous visit. It was now exploited and overdone by tourists. There were a few hikers who felt exhausted and wanted to give-up halfway. But as a trek leader, it was my personal obligation to ensure that EVERYONE completed what they had signed up for and no one stayed back without some safe company. Finally, everyone made it to the peak, and it was now mission accomplished. Well, only partially!

The real deal was in the descend. We had a 4×4 ride awaiting us for our return. It is one that is BEYOND explanation and you only hold on to the roof bars hoping that you don’t have a few broken bones or dislocated joints by the time it ends. There is NO road, only a slide down a ditchy/bumpy gradient path. This 4×4 jeep ride alone supports the livelihood of several people around the area. Hence, the localites aren’t letting a road happen even if the government wants to develop this important site of tourism (we were told so by one of them). So, if this ride is considered as an adventure and a source of employment, then you can imagine how memorable this experience must be, right?

The view after reaching the keep trail

Well, in spite of all the delays and breakdowns, it gave me a sense of achievement by the end of the day for having met the itinerary. Though we paid late exit fine at the gates, this was a PTU experience in its true sense. More adventures to come, until then- Keep tripping…. Plan the Unplanned!

Hiking to a massive natural arch- Bheemanakindi

With a closed group of family and friends, about 10 of us planned this weekend trek to this lesser known hill, a little away from Bangalore. We started from Bangalore at 05.00.a.m. with an intention to finish the hike back down before the sun goes up. It was dawn by the time we drove towards Kanakapura and reached a village called Kanchanahalli, in Malavalli Taluk of Ramanagara district. The Kaccha road thereafter till the base of the hike, passes through fine landscape and traditional village of ‘Mysore Karnataka’ region. The hill is a part of the ‘Kabbala Forest reserve’ area. The early morning rays added extra charm to the cloud kissed peak of the ‘BheemanaKindi hill’ at the distant end and the fog covered coconut groves and vibrant green farms on either side of the road. What else? Picture this: A dozen peacocks dancing in the middle of the road! Well, a pleasant welcome; I must say 😊

The Drive and trek to Bheemanakindi

We finally arrived at the base of the hill, parked our cars and started the ascend. It starts at a small godown sort of a structure from where, is a well laid out stone path through the forest, right till the destination. Well, let me clarify that unlike most of the common treks around the city that promise you a breathtaking view after a good climb, this one has a MASSIVE stone arch at the end. With this large arch, goes the legend from Ramayana. ‘Bheema’ hit the large rocky monolith with his ‘Gadhe’ and thus resulted this Natural arch, locally called as ‘Kindi’. The smaller pieces scattered are believed to be the ones which appear to have been arranged one on-top-of the other in the adjoining smaller hillocks by the consecutive civilizations, over a period of time.

The difficulty level of the climb is moderate, but the gradient is steep. Since I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous afternoon, acidity was taking a toll on me. I was feeling nauseous and tired and trailing everyone on this trek. (That’s also the reason I didn’t take many photos of our ascent and the video attached below includes more visuals from the descent). I somehow made it to the top, all worthwhile the effort. A small temple dedicated to Nandi sits in a corner underneath the massive rock arch overlooking the dense forest cover below. Apart from a few squawking peacocks and chirping birds, we thought we were the earliest mammals to arrive there. But not until we saw some freshly laid elephant poop at the peak…!

A portion of the Stone arch and temple at Bheemanakindi

I had some biscuits and relaxed there for a bit until I felt fine. From a few known localites, we had heard that there exists a perennial pond somewhere close by. We walked behind the boulders that overlooks the millet farms beneath. We climbed up the hill further and we ventured out in pursuit of the pond. Mind you, the trek path ends at the temple and we were venturing out beyond, into the forest (Do not try this adventure). The sloppy path didn’t have a proper trail and we followed each other and stayed together so that we wouldn’t get lost. We walked further, a few broken trees (Bamboo, Indian Gooseberry, hog-plums etc.) perhaps warned us from going further, the pachyderms had just crossed the path. From there, we arrived at a small opening in the green cover- a large boulder. As the mist had engulfed the entire view, we sat there for a while hoping for it to clear out and get some good view of the valley below. But no luck and we decided to walk back.

Our stomachs were grumbling for food by the time we reached back to the base by 10.00.a.m. One of the members in our group had a relative in Kanchanahalli and hence, we were invited for brunch at their house. We drove to their house, passing through my FAVOURITE views of Karnataka: The rural hamlets of ‘Mysore Karnataka’ region. Traditional houses with wide porticos on raised platforms, red-oxide floors, clay tiled roofs supported by wooden pillars are a delight, I tell you!! Sometimes, cattle sheds on one side and a bicycle on the porch too is a common sight, so very typical to this region and so warm and old world. I have always gaped at those tiny streets in awe. So, today was my first opportunity to see the interiors of one such house, all that I had only seen in Kannada movies till date. Picture this: they are locally called ‘Thotti mane’ and the central living room has a central area which opens to the sky. Talk about natural ventilation and lighting, it has been part of our ancestral architecture from time immemorial. It also serves as an area to wash our feet and hands when we enter home, before we touch anything else. (Connect it with self-sanitizing during Covid times, after you come home from outside??)

A street at Kanchanahalli, overlooking the Bheemanakindi hill

Well, a pleasant happy day for me and a nice, happy, simple, warm meal for the tummy 😊 We head back to the city…. Hoping for another warm weekend to arrive soon….

A sunrise hike to Kunti betta

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

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

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

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

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The Kunti Betta hike route

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

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The temple pond at the base of Kunti betta

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

A word of advice though:

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

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

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

A quick getaway from Bangalore- Siddarabetta trek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view at from the peak

Summary:

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?

My First as a Trek lead- Gokarna

When you feel things are not going right, life has its own ways to heal its kids, you see? While I was feeling morally weak, an unexpected trip to Gokarna was awaiting my way. This time, I was going to lead a group of people, or at least assist a leader with ‘Plan The Unplanned’. With many firsts of experiences in its kitty, I was looking forward for this weekend trip.

So, after braving the outbound traffic on a Friday evening, the group of 25 of us left Bangalore and alighted at Gokarna the next morning. Blame it on the bus driver or the roads, 11.30.a.m. was late by all standards to reach Gokarna for the team that left GGpalya at 11.00.p.m. on the previous night. Anyway, that’s where the leadership aspects began to be tested. Considering that we were 3+hrs behind schedule and all 25 in the group were first time hikers, controlling the overall time to cover all that was mentioned in the itinerary was crucial.

That said, we checked-in to the campsite where our tents were pitched by the seashore. Without wasting much time, the team freshened up and started the hike quickly after a filling breakfast. A minibus took us to the start point of our hike- the Belekan beach. From there, the actual weekend started to unfold. Since the internet is filled with itineraries for a Gokarna trip, I will not add another one to them. Unlike my usual style of writing long detailed posts, I’d like to keep this short and to the point.

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The beachfront campsite at Gokarna

For the experienced trekkers, this was merely a walk along the coastline. But even for them, the small stretches of forests opening to amazing views of the blue sea now and then made the walk worthwhile.

Despite being late, we caught up with the schedule and spent ample time to take a swim in each of the beaches along the trail. Paradise beach for a snack break (fresh tender-coconut water and cut-pineapple with masala are a mandate on any Indian beach), Half-moon beach for a filling lunch (The beachside shacks serve an array of cuisines catering to its large visitors’ base from across the globe), Om beach for chasing the most mesmerizing sunset of the year, Kudle beach for a sumptuous dinner and finally walking along the Gokarna main beach to reach our campsite on a moonlit night… We spotted dolphins from the rock of peace, something that I had been wanting to see for the longest time. And then, I got that long pending hair braid done by a beachside vendor (Click here to read about it in detail). These were the highlights of my beach walk. Until then, I thought my day was GREAT!

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The hiking trail between paradise and Om beach

But wait, my co-leads took it up a notch higher. It was late into the night by the time the team had settled down in their tents. And I too was settling down to call it a day. By that time, my co-leads asked me to ditch my tent for the night and join them with my sleeping bag on the beach. The beaches of Gokarna are infamously known only next to Goa for having some badass drunken hippies strolling around. I did not want any misadventures on my first assignment as a lead. Although I was a little hesitant to do something wacky, I soon hit the sands with my co-leads and a fellow traveler.

Just in a bit and even before I realized it, I was sleeping under a clear sky, watching the stars. Well… watching a meteor shower! It was that night when the Geminids meteor shower was at its peak. We laid on the beach counting the number of shooting stars. When only one of us saw the meteor, the others would pull her leg telling that she was hallucinating. When all of us saw it together, we would shout in unison scaring away a few drunken people loitering around the beach. They would wonder who was drunk 😀

Eight… Nine… Ten… We counted the number of stars until we fell asleep to the lullaby sound of the waves. When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on the beach and seeing the white lights from the distant ships disappear into the light of the breaking dawn. This beach experience is something that killed it for the mountain girl in me!!! Only because I could strike a similar chord of interests with an awesome pair of co-leads and I can’t thank them enough for the night!

Yeah, managing a large group comes with its own set of challenges. Managing medical emergencies in the middle of the trail, accommodating quick changes in the itineraries and finding alternate destinations when abnormality struck were the unexpected things which I believe we handled with diligence. All said and done, the trip has been a memorable one in more than one way and a thumbs up to my new journey with Plan The Unplanned 😊

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Traveling to Tirupati? Make it an interesting roadtrip

Well… Heading to seek blessings from Lord Venkateshwara at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam? I’m not a religious person and I’m someone who seeks variety in my travels… The same route and same destination- I have sometimes felt myself being forced into a pilgrimage sort… No doubt, I have loved my general hike up the stairs to the venkateshwara hill, more for the beautiful views, stopover points like deer park, waterfalls and so many eateries all the way up. I have even tried the not-so-pious option of the quick VIP entry for the darshan. But, over time when the route becomes so predictable, even the journey kinda starts to hit you when everyone is sleeping on family vacations that are occasional and are spent on familiar roads!!! So that’s when I started to explore alternate routes and make family road trips more interesting!

While travelling to Tirupati, the usual route one tends to drive through, is the

Bangalore-KGF-Chittoor-Tirupati highway.

But the nice, straight, adventure less route has sometimes made my brother to doze off at the steering. So, the last time we planned to go, we tried taking a slightly longer but interesting route via

Bangalore-Madanapally-Horsley hills- Talakona- Tirupati.

Although this national highway was a single lane, it was absolutely scenic and had so many elements in the travelling. From barren flatlands to lush green hill stations, rustic countryside huts to erstwhile forts, scattered rocky hills to tempting mango orchards and horticultural farms, the route took us through several hues of the deccan plateau. To make it more interesting, we saw milestones with Karnataka’s Kannada and Andhra’s Telugu on either side of the same road marking the boundary of the two states. For the thought of knowing absolutely no words of the language on the other side of this state border, it felt like I was crossing an international border without a passport 😀

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The border crossing from Karnataka to Andhra Pradesh through papaya farms

So our itinerary was something like this:

  • Start from Bangalore by early morning (To avoid the traffic choc-o-bloc at KR Puram)
  • Reach Horsley hills for a late breakfast or a brunch (before the day trippers, riders and families pour in for lunch)- It is a short ride up but the view up there is worth it.
  • As we descended the hill, the drive further from there was gorgeous forcing us to take several photo stops.
  • Drive up to Talakona, the highest waterfall in Andhra. You can book your meal at the forest run jungle resort there before heading out to indulge yourself in some fun activities or getting drenched in the waterfall depending on the water level there. It is also wiser to leave from there before it is dark as it is a national park area and the wild animals get on the road post sunset (Click here for a detailed post on Talakona).
  • Reach Tirupati and take rest for the night.
  • Plan your darshan of the deity based on your convenience- a quick visit or a hike up to the temple and return to the room to rest.

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The view from Horsley hills

It is quite usual that a lot of people extend their pilgrimage until Srikalahasti. They combine the Vaishnavism faith (Lord Venkateshwara at Tirupati) and Shaivism faith (Lord Shiva at Srikalahasti) in the same trip since both are located not far from each other (More details on Srikalahasti in a separate post).

  • On the way to Kalahasti with a small deviation, is what I figured out was, that there is a 11th century fort at Chandragiri, the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagar dynasty. It is beautiful and you will not regret the deviation.
  • Reach Kalahasti for the evening prayers and find an accommodation there.

So, are you done with the pilgrimage? Is your family feeling all blessed and happy now?

Good morning! Save your sleep for some other day and Buckle up. For I’m going to take you through a different route as you return home. You can thank me later 😉

  • Drive through eucalyptus and teak groves on a scenic off-road to reach Sullurpeta, Your only place to find decent food before you embark on a long day ahead.
  • Your next destination is 20kms away- thank me later. Drive through a straight dead road, cutting through what is the second largest Salt Lake in India- the Pulicat lake. You will love the drive and the destination.
  • Welcome, you have arrived at SHAR, Sriharikota island. India’s Large Rockets’ launching station (Click here to read my struggle to finally get there!). The space museum located on its premises is open to public with online registration. You can witness a rocket launch too if you time your trip well.
  • Coming back to the drive, on either side of this straight road you see is this never-ending stretch of salt. Depending on what season you are traveling, you will be warmly greeted by bright white dried salt flats or brackish molten salt. Spend some time at the watch tower there and you will not be disappointed by the variety of migratory birds you encounter. The entire area is declared as the Pulicat birds’ sanctuary.

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Top: Lake Pulicat enroute to SHAR in winter; Lake in Summer

Got fuel? Drive another 60 kms. to a tiny fishing hamlet called Pulicat located towards Chennai. The Pulicat lake is situated between two states, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Flamingoes and Pelicans are a highlight here along with several other migratory birds that flock the swampy lake every season. Get yourself a boat ride with the local fisherman there and he will take you around the swamy waters. Watching the sunset at the beach will be a perfect way to wind up your day!

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The birds at Lake Pulicat

From Pulicat, you can take one of the below three highways to head back home:

  1. Drive through Tada and follow google maps to reach the Chittoor highway. Tada has a waterfall to visit and some decent places to stay overnight. It is a village/ township created for the tribes who were relocated from the Sriharikota island when the space station was established and human settlements had to be cordoned off in that island.
  2. Drive further bit to Chennai and take the highway with a pilgrimage / shopping stop at Kanchipuram (Click here to read about places to visit in Kanchipuram)
  3. Take the Vellore route with a stop at the Vellore fort and the Golden temple of Lakshmi. Yelagiri is a popular hill station among the urbanites and is just a short drive away from Vellore. I will personally not recommend it as I did not find worth in taking the effort to deviate from the highway.

If you wish to choose option 2 or 3 to reach Bangalore, do not forget to stuff yourself with some good Biriyani at Ambur, Bon appetite!

Ok, I know this is quite an elaborate itinerary which I usually don’t write about. But I did so, thinking it might help a lot of you out there who text me asking trip ideas from Bangalore. You can skip the temples if you are looking only for an offbeat drive route and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

Or do you want me to customize the itinerary based on fewer or more days you have at your disposal? Drop in your requests, doubts and comments below. I will be glad to help you 😊

Climbing the highest waterfall in Andhra Pradesh- Talakona

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

Click here for more weekend trip ideas

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

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The view of the ranges atop the waterfall

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

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The pool atop the Talakona waterfall

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

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The path across the caves

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