Tag Archives: Trekking in India

Natural wonders of South India – My favourites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for places to visit on weekends for bengaluru

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to plan a weekend trip from bengaluru

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

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

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

Syntheri rocks
Syntheri rocks, Photo by: Gowtham Shastry

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

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

dsc05439-1720115372.jpg
A coracle ride in the Kali River, Photo by: Gowtham Shastry

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

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

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.

IMG_20171216_141757_HDR
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!

IMG_20171216_150524_HDR
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.

IMG_20171216_154525
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!

A mind numbing experience of winter in Ladakh

What was supposed to be an once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- ‘The chadar trek’, rather turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. If incase this natural dam collapsed due to the built up pressure, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. Hence, citing safety reasons, the goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah, before I forget to mention- None of our phones were working(No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections. Only postpaid connections work in this part of the country due to security reasons (given its proximity to disputed border areas). Thus started our lifetime experience of the mind-numbing winters in Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20minutes after take off, a small but prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In just few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map in the TV infront of our seats. A never-ending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldn’t contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. It was the first time we were seeing snow! Click click click…. The cameras went on and on… It was as if we were in an enclosure which was floating up in heaven.. It was absolute FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero degrees when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, it was necessary to get acclimatized to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature(It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time when an Indian airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me to visit Ladakh more than a year ago.. We later headed to the monastery where the day long festivities and mask dance was going on.. We walked up the stairs to the holy abode of Kali(which is open for public viewing only during Gustor festival) before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs down which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed towards Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of it and experience the chadar partially 😛 If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and camp there overnight before returning to Leh. But, we took back the same route so we could cover the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldn’t ask for more when it began to snow just when we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- a drive through Sham valley. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. The next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experience though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of it being an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a few more hours and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border. We wanted to drive back through Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I would have loved to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I would love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days, I would want to do the Markha valley trek andand experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

During winters, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, some form of connectivity of phone or internet could have helped us to cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we had woken up with that day, early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountainthat said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!

Mission accomplished.. Kumara Parvatha..!!

This trek was planned to celebrate the 1st anniversary of Sam’s farewell trek.. on the same day, exactly a year ago.. Let me get you going directly from where it is actually supposed to start.

We reached Kukke Sri kshetra and checked into the lodge(a meagre 100Rs. Per day) run by the temple trust, freshened up and feasted on some sumptuous Mangalorean food for breakfast. Without wasting much time, we put our trekking foot forward. We started the much hyped- one of the toughest treks in South India.. to the Kumara parvatha peak in the Pushpagiri wildlife zone.

The original plan was to start from the base by 7.00.a.m and camp at Bhatru mane. Leave Batru mane by 3.00.a.m the next morning and reach the peak to witness the sunrise what is supposedly one of the best.

As per plan, we entered the trekking trail.. It starts of with thick forest around and steep climbs uphill.. NO water sources anywhere and a possibility of an occasional encounter with elephants. We took frequent stops to hydrate ouselves.. We stopped over at Bhima’s rock and had some fruits that we had carried. This stretch of 6km oozes the fluid out of you..

 A view from Bhima's rock
A view from Bhima’s rock

Once you cover this 6kms, you get a good view of the Kukke town.. We saw the grasslands after walking 1km from there.. It was well past noon and the sun shined at his hottest.. We were running out of water already.. We started to wonder where was Bhatru mane.. We were literally pulling ourselves or rather- Pushing ourselves to the extreme to walk further to scale the small distance from there which seemed never ending.. Finally… we were overjoyed at the first glimpse of Bhatru mane…

The first glance of Bhatru mane
The first glance of Bhatru mane

We ran down to his nestle amid a small piece of green land.. I find NO words to express the joy of finding water.. That too clear and cold water from the stream that ran through his farm.. We had a simple, yet a tasty lunch served by Bhatru and rested under the shades of the arecanut trees..

We made a small change in the plan and decided to continue the trek until dark fearing the pace at which we were doing it.. We halted at a view point few metres further for some photographs before reaching the forest checkpost where we had to register our names.. We then continued..

DSC03527

We stopped again at yet another view point.. The climb further was interesting with good views of the valley around.. The sun was coming down and so we decided to pitch our tent near the stream that ran by..

The sunset from our tent
The sunset from our tent

I don’t remember which sane person in the group chose the place.. I agree that we got a place which became every other trekker’s envy.. The place was top rated spot for sunset viewing.. But we girls who stayed inside the tent know what we went through that night.. The tent was pitched on a slope on the edge of a rocky cliff which seemed like the place where the earth ended.. It was soon dark and we ate the little food that we had carried and hit the bed(Read hit the rocks).. The boys comforted themselves inside their sleeping bags and threw the poor girls inside the tent.. The entire night (Wait… Half of the night) went by while we would all slide down inside the tent with our bags.. again push back everything and move up.. Slide down.. Slide up.. Phew..!! And a while into midnight.. The intensity of the wind also increased.. The cover of the tent started to fly.. we were hoping for it to be 3.00.a.m soon so that we all could start our ascend.. But another surprise was awaiting us.. Madhu heard the cracking sound of the tent support and scared all the inmates to vacate the tent. We carried our luggage and jumped out one by one.. The last girl just came out and the tent crashed down to a flat.. The guys woke up and one of them attempted to slowly remove one of the pegs.. And then… The tent flew.. away from our reach.. off the cliff.. down the valley.. Everyone woke up and sat wondering why this had to happen.. We all sat up and the wind blew ruthlessly.. It was still dark at 4.00.a.m. and with the winds, it seemed impossible to ascend.. We stayed back till sunrise..:( (One of the main agendas not being met) Arun, dared to go down the cliff, have a thrilling feat with adventure and managed to bring back the tent that had settled on a boulder in the middle of a water body down below in the valley.. We were all celebrating his safe return than getting excited on finding the tent.. around 7.00.a.m, we started our ascend..

It was a smooth climb for most of the part.. We stopped by for a spectacular view- The post sunrise period.

Post sunrise
Post sunrise

We continued our walk.. The beautiful view of the ranges continued to enchant us all the way up..it was around 11.00.a.m; before we realised, we had conquered our destination- Kumara Parvatha..!!

_MG_5596

But, we decided to continue our journey.. We climbed down the steep rock and waded through super cool thick jungles.. And then, we had to climb up a steep rock with bare hands and legs which reminded me of our ancestors- monkeys.!! A small walk further took us to the actual end of the earth. We had conquered the Pushpagiri hill too..

Shiva temple atop Pushpagiri hill
Shiva temple atop Pushpagiri hill

Thanking the diety with a small bow in the temple on the peak, we set our return journey.. The climb down the rock was a rather tricky one with Bhu ending it with a torn trousers on his butt 😉 The climb down further was no easy task. We stopped by so many times to aid the numerous cramps the fellow trekkers were going through.. It was 4.00.p.m by the time we reached Bhatru mane.. We realised we had covered only half the distance and had very less time left with sunlight.. We had a quick lunch and grabbed some rest in fast forward mode and started by 5.00.p.m..

We knew we had very less time in hand and a LONG way to go..  And one of the toughest stretch ahead to do after the sun is down.. We walked as fast as we could.. We walked and walked… Our legs had given up already.. I was preparing my mind to stay back in the forest and make a feast of myself to some wild animal at night.. But Arun motivated me to walk.. Walk.. Walk…I ran down the slope at times.. My knees seemed like they would part away from my thighs.. We walked… We saw the sun coming down.. We walked as fast as we could.. Cuz we had to make the most of the sunlight.. We saw him go down the horizon.. We paced up.. Suddenly we all halted.. Pin drop silence.. We realised that some wild animal(mostly elephant) was somewhere around.. It took us few minutes to feel the sound move away from us.. Then, we again continued to walk fast.. We saw the bright day fade into darkness and every shade in this process. The toughest & the last stretch was almost coming to an end.. We reached the KP gate… And the last ray of light too waned into darkness..

We still had time for a quick bath at the same lodge and a quick visit to the Kukke temple….

Thus comes to an end- a mission….. accomplished..!!

Tracking the Endangered – Tiger Census 2013

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.

Participation is 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 volunteer 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.. All done..!! And all set for the LONG weekend 🙂

Day 1: After the enrollment formalities were done, there was a small briefing for the volunteers before we were all directed to the camp to grab some rest before the hectic week ahead 🙂 The camp itself was in the middle of the national forest. 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 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 in the porch.. The only things that we had with us to protect ourselves were our sleeping bags, camouflage clothing, trekking shoes, torches and some insect repellents. We opted to sit in the open under the clear starry sky until the biting cold of the night froze us and 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 who would accompany me through the due days to come. Mr.Swamy saved the camp as the reference in his GPS and we marched towards our beat. We stopped by now and then to make a note of the different animal scats that we found. Also, the forest grass cover, vegetation, commercial trees, medicinal plants, herbs, shrubs every thing was noted with their local and scientific nomenclature. Scat samples collected included those of wild cat, barking deer, rabbits, sambars, spotted deers, bear etc. with that of the tiger as well..Further ahead, few kms 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 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. 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, sambars. We encountered a pack of wild dogs who surely were upto a well laid strategy. However, the day soon ended without any major direct sighting.

 Day 3: A 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 2 km 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 man by a few minutes 😦 Peacocks, barking deers peeked into our way at times. We grabbed some wild berries from one of the trees that was tagged edible by the guard. 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.!! We just ran… and the mother & calf duo followed us… We ran.. they ran.. We ran further. “TREE..” He pointed. And we three climbed the tree and reached the top 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 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 duo decided to leave our way.. Hmm.. and then our walk continued. 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 on the 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 couldnt find any trees this time. Swamy immmediately lit a couple crackers this time. And, we were all releived for getting lucky for the 2nd time.. We 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 leaded the trio. 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 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 for 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. About 10-12 gigantic creatures where marching towards us… barely 20mts from us… We had forgotten to look out in other directions while we were concentrating on the lone tusker. 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.. They ran.. I followed them.. I was caught 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. 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 same confines of a tree trunk on the otherside of Kebbekatte lake. After a short while, we met the other beat guys and headed towards Sulekere. 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 🙂