Posted in European Trips, Forests, road trips, travel, UK Dairies

Scotland; The Highlands!

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Imagine your routine life in one of the cities of Northern England. Biting cold, uncanny rains, football fever and running and cycling in the country park are some of the most common experiences that you would live by. The other commonalities will include your frequent visits to the local grocery stores, spending the evenings by the river that flows through the city and enjoying an after work beer in the neighbourhood pub on Fridays. While some may be interested in digging deep into the local history and heritage, some others are keen on drowning into the night life and yet feeling high. Most of you would agree that this pretty much looks like the highlight reel of a common man’s life in any of the cities that they may be residing in. But what takes me particularly to the “Northern” part of England is its proximity to the Scottish landscapes.

Analogically speaking, it is like having an urban life in Delhi and dreaming of Himalayas almost every alternate weekend. In my opinion, it is the holiday destinations around the establishment that makes any location unique.

For a city like New Castle, towards the Northern coast of England, planning a holiday in Scotland is the most obvious thing to do. The summer of 2016 shaped some of my imaginations to reality. During my stay in New Castle, I spent a week amidst the gorgeous glens, lustrous lochs and the wanderous woodlands of Scotland. My ideal holiday was recreated, though very far from my own home and yet close to my home stay in Europe. I lost myself on the spectacular streets of a Scottish village, raged on the road to Fort William, the dream drive that should have never ended, posed for a ‘pretty’ and ‘touristy’ pictures on the banks of Loch Lomond and strolled onto some of the many nature-trails that attracts the explorers to Scotland.

Unlike the weather which always remains unpredictable, the enthusiasm to explore remains a constant here. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned traveller, whether you are a nature lover, adventure lover or culture lover, there is a bit of every taste on the platter. And though five days would never feel enough, I could gladly sweep through some of the popular spots in the centre of this coastal country. During my stay in Scotland I mostly belonged to the clan of nature lovers adding only a flavour of cultural and touristy activities.

Here are a few things that you may be keen on doing depending on the permit granted by the Weather Gods.

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is one of the most popular and easily accessible travel destinations in Scotland. We pre-decided the driving route, crossed the English-Scottish borders in style; received a musical welcome from a Scottish piper as we officially entered Scotland but it was miles to go before we reached our destination.

scot

After a six hours long drive, we reached at a holiday park in Rowardenann, where we had our cottage booked. A word of caution for the travellers, it is advisable to reach here before it gets dark as you would drive amidst a dense forest and the road tends to be tricky towards the end. No, it is not the lochness monster but the tipsy topsy roads, some of which lead nowhere. We ended up on one of these roads, it was nothing less than an adventure, with the water body on the left and a fierce forest on the right, we were almost frozen with fear inside the car. Dark is a dangerous hour to drive, yet somehow we managed to find ‘The Hoot’.

The Hoot, our home for the next five days, on the banks of Loch Lomond, was a wooden cottage owned by Fiona, a Scottish lady who we did not actually meet. Very similar to caravan holiday, this felt more like a complete home to ourselves. As I cuddled myself up in the blanket, I thought of the next five days, they were going to be exciting. I was at one end of the forest, there was a loch outside the cottage adjoining the hills, a broken internet connection, a pub outside the cottage that plays live music, a cute village at the other end of the forest and the zillion of walks that I could do to explore the greeny side. Not to forget, I was sitting at the foot of Ben Lomond, one of the most popular highland walks in the region. But here I was, engulfed inside the velvety blanket, two pegs down, still thinking of what all should I be doing. There was so much to do that I did not want to rush myself into everything. After all, I was on a holiday and the idea was also to chill along with exploring.

Day two, I lazily woke up to the view of a tall tree behind which was the loch widely spread. The wooden deck was wet but the Robins visited us quite often. As I stepped outside the glass door on the wooden deck, I was mesmerized with the dusky clouds that were settled onto the hills. The sun light made sure it pierced through the clouds making the hills even more noticeable. I was absorbed into the view for a while, a screenshot was placed before me and I did not want any icons on my screen.

It wasn’t very cold and windy, the weather prediction of the day was pretty much suitable for a day out. In a jiffy, we decided to hit the road towards Ben Navis, Fort William. Fort William is one of the very popular towns in the Scottish highlands, towards the western coast. The road to Fort William takes you through the Glen Coe mountain ranges, the ones that cast their spell on you. At first, they seem lonely and barren, as if untouched and uninhabited. But they are not soulless. They proliferate through the highlands, standing erect and uniformly shaped; they do not go out of sight. Some make way for the seasonal rivulets that come to life during the monsoons and traverse a long distance. Many are covered with long grasses that make it challenging to climb them on wet days, nevertheless hold the gravel on the slope. It was a delight to see people hiking in random directions for reaching to the top was something very attractive here.

Some of these mountains were desolate, as if they never needed a company. The sun shone brightly on them as well, and they stood tall with pride. All throughout the way, the clouds darted a dark shadow on these mountains, they were varied in shape and intensified by the sunrays.

As I absorbed this gorgeous beauty of the journey, I also immersed myself in the music; there was no chattering and these hills whispered slowly to us. They diverged and converged, making enough space to embrace us. The awestruck expression flashing on our faces and the glittering eyes admiring the nature were the proof that we were grateful for this day in our lives. As a token of thanks and as a way of hugging these mountains back, we stepped down from our car and climbed one of these hills. They greeted us with warmth and we became unstoppable as we stepped down. The trail went up as far as the eyes could see; we were glued to the trail for as long as there were no stones to block our way. Once the way blacked out, we turned around to witness what we had gained – view and peace. Certainly we were not on top of the world, nevertheless we were still standing at a spot from where the world was visible. We were on a highland.

The day came to an end too soon. We were still in awe of what we saw when we reached home. What tempted us now were some freshly baked pizzas and a bottle of scotch.

Day three came soon; a little drippy and drowsy. The clouds populated the sky so intensely that we couldn’t muster up the courage to explore around the loch. It was best to bring out the board and card games while still stealing a glimpse of the Loch Lomond. After repeated failures to take a walk outside, we finally settled down with a cup of coffee on Uno. We enjoyed the drizzle from within the closed doors, without cold and without wet. Only the sound splattered on the wooden deck and the drops trickled down the glass windows. The old hills exhibited new colours; in some places new waterfalls sprung out and the clouds started to dissolve as it poured.

Once the sky was clearer, we decided to explore a few natural trails around the loch. International Youth Hostel was just outside of our holiday park, on the foothills of Ben Lomond. It is as peaceful as a forest and yet very close to the road. On one side the view opens to a loch with a dock for ferry taxis, and on the other side was the path to Ben Lomond. Up and up it went, for a few miles, as if touching the clouds, like the beard of a man in his fifties, slightly white and slightly grey, entangled into each other with no definite proportions.

The more I looked towards Ben Lomond, the more I got intrigued. I wanted to climb it and see what was beyond the clouds. Probably there was another milestone to reach for it was a long long walk to the top of Ben Lomond. I surely was curious but I did not have the right gear. Soon it was going to rain and I would be not ready to face the harshness. I cuddled it through my eyes and decided to walk back. It was a bit sad walk while going back but not a long one. I opened up another Beer on the dining table, along with some Punjabi beats to uplift my mood again. As the sun set further down, I rolled back through the day in my head.  The Clansman bar must be full of Scotch lovers cosily sitting by the fireplace. The Rowardannan Hotel, by any chance do they serve Indian Food? I doubt them. How very exciting it would have been if I was in one of the caravan parks, along with a tent. It would have been perfect to pitch it under the stars now. But the clouds are being nasty again, so I guess Hoot is just perfectly warm for me. Besides, I have never stayed in a wooden lodge before. All the thoughts kept running through my mind like a fast speed bullet train. This is a place I would visit again in this life. Don’t know when but I am hopelessly optimistic about it. And what adds to my hope is the Youth Hostel in the vicinity.  They only cost 20 Pounds per night for a dormitory accommodation (and 23 pounds for non members). Sadly they do not rent out bikes but they compensate by being located on the foot of Ben Lomond. And around next time, I am not stepping out without the trek gear, I whispered to myself before slipping into my sleep mode.

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Day four arrived with sunshine, accompanied with a lot of wind. We were yet to decide our plan of action for the day. It was a bright day to explore the vicinity; we could have taken a walk on one of the few natural trails in the forests. There was one besides the loch; another one was into the forest reserve and a few more circular trails which were long. I surely wanted to be in the jungle but I also longed to witness the city around. Since, there was no major town in our vicinity we decided to touch upon the local culture by driving to the nearest village. Drymen, a local town, twelve miles away from Rowardannan is a cute little thing that exists on the outskirts of the forest reserve. We parked our car in one of the local car parks and started to walk around. It was a weekday and so the children were busy at school. The walls of this primary school were not high, they were bricked to a level where the little ones could simply lean against and gaze at the outside world. Their smiles attracted us to them; we moved forward and exchanged greetings. Soon the lunch break got over and they had to run back to fall in queues. There is never an enough site of happy children, full of energy and freedom. While the kids were having a busy day at school, the nannies and the grannies were enjoying the sunlit day with their pets. It is one of the most common sights to see people walking with their pets, looks like a moment of de-stress in their lives. The happy heart is extended to the pets and also to the oldies of the town here. As I walked forward I came across the public community hall where there are held weekly meetings for fighting against dementia and depression. People are encouraged to spend time with the oldies by making it a part time profession. Young blood can bring the positive energies to the lives of the others, they feel.

On walking a little further down the road, I saw the cutest bicycle shop ever. It was a shop painted red, with some really groovy bicycles hanging around. There were merchandise too, like coffee mugs with bicycle handles on the sides, the dry fit jerseys and many other things. But it was mainly the bikes that were sturdy. Across the road there was a garden where we sat on the bench and ate our sandwiches. Suddenly we were in the picnic mode, but with a lot of quiet. We maintained the quiet ourselves and focussed just on our sandwiches and juice followed by the chocolates. No one seemed to take notice of us. There were hardly any humans seen around, most of them kept busy with their work. And then we saw a few backpackers walking around, giving a touristy feel to the place. At first, they seemed to have lost their way but soon they picked up bicycles from the red shop and made their way. I was astonished to see that the shop did anything and everything related to biking, even rent some of them. And when I took my eyes off this shop, suddenly my eyes fell upon the Drymen Village Shop. I took no time to see what was inside a village shop. It was quite clear to me by now that villages in India and villages in Europe have a totally different outlook. Inside the Drymen Village Shop, there were souvenirs and other cultural nuggets that reflected Scotland in every ounce. Scottish bread, scotch blends, picture postcards with yak on them, the red cheque hats; every little thing there said to us – Take home a little bit of Scotland, with you! And I could not resist buying the postcards from there. It was the best place to send memories home. And with a bag full of memories myself, we drove back to the Hoot. On the way back, we took a break in the Sallochy car park and fed bread to the ducks.

The energies of the forest and the whispering of the winds in my ears convinced me to enter the green tunnel. The trees were dancing to the tunes of the wind, the water of the loch was singing along with the wind, and I was the witness to this mesmerizing show of the nature. I along with my silence took that path, the one that was visible only for a mile. And the rest of it was a hunt for a treasure.  The hidden treasure that was glorious, the one that is found again and again and again, but only on these paths, in the fragrance of the loch, in the fall of the leaves, in the chirping of the birds and above all in the silence of the nature. I decided to get lost into the divine and fearlessly walked in. In no time, I had lost the network zone, any human sight or contact and was all by myself. There was some sort of curiosity as I climbed up, and slowly some fear also peeped in, what if this is not the way. The arrows helped but they were only a few. The sun was going down, adding more to my anxiety. The natural surroundings were calming me down but being alone was making me freak a bit. I took a deep breath and poured all my senses into what was around me. There came a moment, when it felt beautiful and in that very moment I knew there is nothing to be scared of. There were no assumptions, no hypothesis as to what would happen. I left myself on the mercy of nature and I know someone up there had a close watch on me. For the next two hours I walked on the path, a few drops of rain also fell on me. On one of the turns I found myself closer to the loch. I could see a larger part of loch from this edge and it was here that I took a sigh, Bingo! I was on the right path. But it was miles to go before I would be back to the human settlements. I crossed a bereft old hay factory, which was now a part of the forest. It belonged to old Mr Bill, he who did not seem to be bothered about it anymore. As I crossed it, I met an American couple hiking into the forest. We exchanged glances and for a moment wondered as to why are we the only ones here. It was quite a popular trail but none to be found here. That is probably the beauty of Scottish forests, there are people around but they do not bump into you so easily. There are enough routes and channels to get lost and then be found again. We never met again and yet reassured each other of the presence. Soon after I hit the main road and left the forest behind me. It was a long and tiresome walk, once I was back on the road, I took charge of my senses again to be careful on the road. Rowardannan was just around the corner, a few steps away from the exit. I gladly paved my way towards the Hoot and with a big smile on my face, entered in.

Day five, I woke up with the thought of soon saying good bye to this place. It has been going pretty well till now but as they say all good things have to come to an end. Nevertheless, today was not the end. Today was another unplanned day which we did not want to spend inside the lodge. The weather was unpredictable but still left some hope for us. Hope for no rains. By now, we had become well versed with the kitchen and breakfast skills came in like a quickie. The eggs and bacon were ready, all we had to do was toast some bread with butter. On the breakfast table, the discussion was all about the rest of the day.

The important question to ask was if we wanted a long drive or a shorter one would suffice. Some of us still wanted to walk more and explore on foot. Internet was reaching out to us in bits and pieces and we were making judicious use of it. A safari park nearby popped up on doing a closer research. The public reviews of it also seemed very positive. For us, it meant a perfect blend of driving and walking. Till the park, it wasn’t a very long drive, suited us aptly for the day and within the park we walked around quite a bit. Located in the Stirling area, it was a one hour drive from the Hoot. We didn’t pack much food along, except for the munchies. Rains distorted us for quite some time but as we purchased the tickets, the day gradually started to brighten up. I was astonished to see that they handed us the map of the park, it was the first time ever that I was going for a safari. To call it a zoo would definitely be an understatement. The natural stance was maintained here by a huge team, making it a grand show in itself. From Asian to African, all sorts of animals and birds, big or small are stationed here. There are wild animals, calm animals, never moving animals (rhino), always busy eating animals(elephants), show presenting animals(sea lion show), animals across the river(apes), free spirited animals, anything that you may think of, is found here. The only drawback is that each time you have to park the car to visit the bay. Though it was a good walk, it was a bit too tedious at times. It would have been a little bit more fun had it been possible to take the car a bit closer, we could just roll down the window and say hello.

But never mind the walking, I had not seen so many animals in one place before. The drive from Stirling to Rowardennan is a straight one. It feels like put your favourite music on and put the car on cruise control. Enjoy the view on the sides and munch your muffin while looking at the odd shapes of the clouds. As we reached back to our cottage, we were slightly tired and slightly sad. Tired from the day’s walking and sad about this being the last day of our holiday. Tomorrow will be the last sunrise that I will see over the loch, I said to myself. Without much a thought, I put myself to sleep, cuddled under the blanket.

As we started our journey on Saturday, some jolly good thoughts hovered over my mind. Past few days were really the days that I always dreamt of while sitting back in India. The Scottish hills are one of the firsts that I have seen, apart from Himalayas, though they are more comparable to the Western Ghats of India. They are stout and dry but the monsoonal rains fill them up. They do not hold any of the mythological or warrior stories within themselves but they do hold the spirit of climbers, walkers, lovers, and the tiny feet who would run to reach to the top. The feeling of being an achiever remains strong, irrespective of the continental plate that we stand upon. The mountain chest always welcomes the human feet. The color of the hay fields change every few miles. From light golden to dark brown their expanse is huge. But they are rolled up uniform, they are placed equidistant. They are sturdy, they are cute. The end of the field meets the blue end of the sky and they make for a perfect background for a portrait picture. Hence, we stopped the car and posed. With the glares and without the glares, with pouts and big eyes, of smiles and curiosity, candid and perfected, individual and family picture; everything happened on this trip. After all it was a holiday, the one with regular stuff made excited with our stories.

 

Posted in European Trips, Forests, road trips, south india, travel, UK Dairies

When I spent a weekend in Leeds

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A sunny day is a luxury here in England. Come what may, it must be celebrated. On observing closely, I saw numerous pedals, jogging tracks, dog walks, prams, wheel chairs, kids’ scooters and many other similar things. My favourites are the cyclists of all age groups (No wonder, Team GB had the highest number of gold medals for the cycling events at the Rio this year!). As I hit the road, I wasn’t very amazed to see the cars full of kids making merry, caravans tied to the rear and the open spaces outside McDonalds being crowded. This time I was exploring a new neighbouring town, Leeds. I happened to be there by random chance and had decided to stay there the previous night.

For all those, who love to experiment with food, the Leeds City Centre brings on to the plate some authentic South Indian food. Tharavadu, a super speciality in Kerala food, offering delectable and original recipes from the tiny tropical state of India, is highly recommended. They have a menu full of variety from different regions of Kerala, the taste of food travels straight to the brain and releases a good amount of endorphins for you. The ambience is synced with the aborigines of Tharavadu, you could easily notice the authenticity of the music and the brightly painted walls, Kerala style. Since it is catering to a large number of people in one go, the place is a bit noisy (That is how we Indians can be sometimes!), and the service tends to be a bit slower. But once the food arrives, you would forget the world and shift your focus to the food. Yummy, Mouth-watering, delicious, it was everything that they say about Indian food. With an edge towards keep the taste buds turned on, the south Indian delicacies make sure that the appetite is satisfied way beyond the capacity. Just when we ousted our limits of binging, we decided to get up and take a walk, on the lowly streets of Leeds.

The high street in the City Centre boasts of many big brands. By the time we reached here after our dinner, most of the showrooms had already closed. It was better this way for there was hardly any crowd and yet it was brightly lit. The winds took upon themselves to cut short our stroll; it was a long road, broadened for the walkers as well as hawkers. We let the winds gush past us, setting a bit of cold in us. It was a starry night, the winds were strong and the cars were racing on the empty roads. We were on the crossroads many a times, wondering whether to look at the stars or be alert on the sides. The street lamps made it a bit difficult to spot the stars, so we focussed on crossing the roads carefully. The walls on the sides were painted with graffiti, not the best ones, but still represented some old world charm.

Very soon we reached our hotel and crashed into our beds. It was the sunrise, the next morning that woke us up. The sunshine poked us quite a few times before we managed to leave the blanket for good. A good English breakfast was perfect to bid farewell to our hotel. We ate in abundance and carried the fruits along. The plan was to be picnicking at the Golden Acre Country Park.

Though initially we wanted to see the steam engines at the Middleton Railways, the badminton racquets in our boot convinced us to move towards the country park. If there was anybody who was the happiest about the sunny day, it was the pets of Leeds. They were everywhere in the park, with their masters who carried their throw balls. There were mothers who walked the prams too. While our badminton racquets kept us busy for a really long time, it was the never ending walk across the woods that made our day. There were trees that were magnificent; there were logs of wood that were never moved hinting towards the era when these would have actually been planted. These logs would date back to the grandmothers’ days, how the sapling would have grown to be a beast of a tree, serving beyond dead, the sturdy and the strong one, once deeply rooted and now lazily resting. What startled me was the density of the trees, there was only a thin line of difference between a forest and this country side, some part of it even opened up to a wide expanse of the fields that were actually golden in colour. Perhaps they were the reason, the park was so named.

The wooden bridges that led to the other side of the park were cute. Only one by one could we cross it, and the traffic of the pedestrians made little sense. One path from this bridge led to the lakeside, where were parked the prams and the wheelchairs. The grandparents and the grandkids together fed breads to the ducks. There were parents who could let loose their kids towards the railing of the lake, for the kids got too engrossed in looking at the ducks who were moaning for more bread. The joy of giving was clearly experienced. What we had was the joy of appreciating. We sat there for quite a bit, enjoying the sight, of the little ones handholding the elder ones and giving away something of their own to the needy ones. It was a happily perfected sight.

The next when I started to move, it was towards the ice cream bar that served tall scoops of vanilla. I was tempted to ask for a double scoop but I realized even one would serve me good. I wasted no time in asking for just the flavour I wanted, without exploring the other flavours that the healthy girl over the counter wanted me to buy. If vanilla is good, life is good. With that mantra, and trying to escape from the heat of the sun, we sat on the wooden benches that were lined under the line of coniferous trees. Licking the vanilla makes me forget the world around me. I was meditating upon my cone until the crackling of the biscuit in my mouth made me come back from my stage of nirvana. With a happy heart I walked towards the parking. It was a blissful day, these country parks are a way to enjoy the local spirit of a place. I wish there were some like these in India as well. Though there are large gardens and parks within my city as well but a little more intense like these would have been another level of fun. They are richer, greener and a little wilder.

I stepped out of Leeds with a great day to remember. It was a perfect chilling out day for me, without much a thought and close to nature. I was talking to the trees, smiling to the bridges and playing over the logs. The child in me didn’t want to go home but the adult in me could see the couch at home. So homeward bound I was.

Posted in Forests, Himalayan Getaways, road trips, travel, Unforgettable Himachal

Tirthan – for trout, trance and trek!

 

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Photo Credit on this post goes to my brother Vipul Bhagat who has an eye better than me!

I find it best to cover long journeys overnight. Though trains are much more comfortable, enrouting mountains you do not have much of a choice. In fact, sometimes I feel I have overdone the Delhi-NH1-Mandi-Kullu-Manali route until I figure out there is always an untouched detour that branches out to the lesser known regions of Himalayas from this highway that I would have not done before. In the socially super-active world that we are inevitably a part of, where every information travels and unravels at the speed of light. I feel glad to locate spots that are still claimed to be lesser known. Over time, I have also observed that there are certain periods when these places are lesser visited. Gushaini in the Tirthan Valley is one of them. Even though enough websites and blogs have sang the songs of praise for this hillock, it yet does not smell of tourism in its air.

Tirthan is an interesting detour on the Delhi-Manali route and is ideal for those who do not romanticize being on top of the mountain to savor its beauty. The beauty of Tirthan sinks deep into the mostly silent valley except for the monotonous sound of a fast and perennially flowing river in its lap. This monotonous sound you may also say is the lifeline of this valley. When you will reach this part of the valley in search of solace, you will find it only in the simple pleasures of life like the song of the river.

I reached here in search of rains, escaping from the otherwise hot and humid days in Delhi. While that took some time to happen, I relinquished my taste buds with the succulent and tempting trout fish freshly picked from the river. It is so soft and juicy that it melts in the mouth within no time but requires an effort to get rid of the sleekest of thorns. Worth the effort.

Fishing is a common activity here that anyone can indulge in, with the help of a guide and an official permit. There are also some unofficial yet authentic stuff to experiment upon in this valley. Found in abundance is the Marijuana plant here, which you may not even need to hunt for. Owing to the nature of this trip (annual family trip), I could not explore much of its variations. As a crazy family however, we did try “Bhang ka Pakodas”. Sad enough, it did not leave any impact on us.

There was something else apart from food that left an astounding impact on us. It was partly because of its grandeur and the rest because I had not seen one in a very long time. Chhoie Waterfall; a simple hiking trail on the way to Gushaini leads to this source of water falling straight from the heavens. The first part of this hike is straight forward and is mostly steps. It would take you to a tiny hamlet, which is surrounded by vegetable farms all around it. There are widespread and well organized farms ploughed with tomatoes, chilies and cabbage. Tomatoes were still unriped and in case you are lucky to spot a riped, juicy, shining red one, do not be tempted to pluck because the villagers take offence. A due offence for they are as protective about their crops as for their babies.

As you cross these farms, the mountain becomes a little sharp on its edges. You would not mind being extra cautious and taking some support with your hands as well. Keep walking for another twenty minutes and just when you start putting your mind into the effort that you have put already in the last one hour and yet not be able to see or hear anything, you would turn around a really sharp edge and see without quite believing your eyes, the great fall. It is white, it is tall, it is exclusive for there were no visitors except us. It is thatched with the wild shades of green all around. It is in every sense, a spectacular sight. You would wish to run towards it but instead you will be forced to take firm hold on your steps as the freshly unrooted trees, now a giant log of wood, would block your way. With tippy toes and wading through the wild bushes, we reached at the basin of the fall. As I let go of my socks into my shoes, I hurriedly put my right big toe into the water, it did not seem to be very cold. So I moved to settle myself onto a big rock and dip both my feet comfortably. For a good one minute I could not breathe. The water was bitterly cold. Now it was futile to even pull them out, I was too comfortable sitting on that rock. Gradually we moved closer to the point under the fall. Like those mist fans in the Garden or Roof top Restaurants, some of the water here was splashing all over like the mist. The rest was sprinting straight towards the ground. Somewhere in between was our head feeling crushed by the thrust that it was exerting due to the gravitational pull. It was loud and hence the only sound in our vicinity. It coordinated with the hubbub of the breeze and dominated all through the surroundings. These surreal moments lasted for no more than an hour. After dipping, drowning, sinking and singing, we decided to move back. The sun was atop us when we walked back towards our rest house.

A good hike and a great dip always results in lousy afternoons. I soaked myself into my Neil Gaiman book which talked of deep oceans while I sat on a roadside rock overlooking a tall standing mountain. The sound of the river accompanied me every moment. It asked what if this was the ocean that I was wondering about? Thankfully, it wasn’t. It was pure and undiluted; silvered by the sunshine, so sincere and soothing and yet ready to be submerged at its destination. It is not the destination, it is the journey. The journey so long and yet untiring, that carries within a tremendous hidden power.

That rock on which I sat was the ideal place to reach to the conclusion of my book. I continued sitting there for a long time until my mother announced the Maggi Moments for all of us. Meanwhile, the rain drops also started to spatter upon us. We did not intend to move inside our rooms; Maggi is best enjoyed with a view. Our dog Nandu, also seemed happy, even though we did not offer any Maggi to him. He had a broken front left foot but he was still playful and mostly obedient.

Before we could get any sad that very soon we have to say goodbye to Nandu and bid farewell to the mountains, some very exciting conversations kicked off. It was the discussion of dilemma on the return route that we would be taking to reach Delhi. While we had come from Mandi, Simla was not far from where we were then. If we decided to take the Simla route, we would gain even more altitude and cross the Jalori Pass at an altitude of 10,280 feet. That figure to me was thrilling. Besides, I was roused to fully encircle the mountain. In all our excitement we took that call.

The journey started at 7 in the morning. Instead of going straight from the Banjar intersection, we took the left turn and entered into the Banjar town. Gradual upwards, hairpin bends like turns reduced the speed of our vehicle. The valley had started to become deeper. As the valley was now deeper, the clouds were nearer and the deodars were taller. Taller than the tall standing mountains. We were slowly approaching the doors of heaven. Though it was scary as hell if we looked down into the valley or if the driver suddenly broke the momentum of his vehicle, it still comprised of the countless WOW moments at every blinding turn that drew us closer to the heavens.

The route to the highest point of the heaven, Jalori was led through a series of gateways:

Banjar → Jibhi → Sojha → Jalori → Aani →Sainj → Narkanda → Loohri → Simla

It is not at all surprising to know that there were hardly any human habitations visible in this area. The road was not concrete in all the places, while at some places they were not wide enough but surely these hamlets had a view. Each and every window opened to a carpet of blue sky teared over some areas and the cotton like clouds bulging out softly.

As we reached Jalori, we stopped for a cup of hot chai. Jalori Pass is also a popular route for mountain bikers. From here, we can hike towards the Serlousar Lake, at a distance of 5 kilometers from the Jalori temple. Another amazing moment worth the attention was a Mahindra Scorpio that was driven till the Himalayas all the way from Ahmedabad. They had hit the road five days ago and were mesmerized by the Himalayan beauty.

By the time we reached Simla, it was heavily pouring, which further slowed down our sped. Thank goodness, we had enough music and the flawless views that made our 18 hours in the bus worthwhile. 18 hours! Yes! The alternate route to NH1 is not long in terms of distance but in gaining the altitude, we do lose the speed.

By the time, we reached Delhi, we were drained, but in our mind, we had yet not come back. We were probably hiking somewhere amidst the clouds of Jalori Pass and plucking apples from the orchard belt of Himachal that was full of flavors, so juicy and rich and red and are meant to be eaten without using the knife.

Posted in Beaches, Forests, HoHo, Karnataka, shiva, south india, travel

HoHo Stop Five – Gokarna

Gokarna, a beach town on the Goa Karnataka border is a must go if you are a beach lover, the kind who loves secluded beaches, searching for solace accompanied with only the sound of sea. Do not expect the hustle and bustle of beach parties here, especially if you plan to visit during the off season. Here is a write up of what the four of us did…

For more HoHo stops, visit HoHo trip

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On the state border between Goa and Karnataka, a secluded piece of land, a temple town dedicated to Lord Shiva, Gokarna (literally meaning cow’s ears) started gaining the momentum of tourism a few years ago.  It was primarily the foreign tourists who discovered the tranquility and serenity of this coastline.

We set a three hour train journey from Udupi to reach Gokarna. Though bus journeys are more popular and in fact the bus stand is more central inside the town, we preferred hopping here by train. It is a lone, single platform station amidst the fields, even away from the village, which may remind you of the Bollywood scenes from the 90s era, shot on a barren platform. It was a bit expensive but a great idea to arrive by train for the auto journey till the beach was beautiful. The country roads smelled only of emptiness, by the face of it; it looked shriveled and uncared for, keeping the primitive spirit alive. The houses were old, at some places the walls were cracking up, there was no particular scent in the air, and the city looked unresponsive. It was a different kind of vibe, neither positive nor negative. I kept alert all this while and didn’t want to trust the rickshaw guy immediately. Gradually we entered the main city and we rushed past a series of temples. Leaving everything behind, he took us to the beach straight away.  From this point on unfurled the real magic of Gokarna.

Gokarna in its present avatar is all about beaches. What is quirky about these beaches is that they are all separated from each other and from the main city by hillocks. In order to walk along the coastline, from one beach to another, one would have to hike through these mounds. The hike is an easy one and in fact the sea accompanies all along. Because of these hills, these beaches are disconnected from the main city, making them a private setup for the tourists. Away from the world, this is a peace-realm, a quiet abode, to be restful and enter the halcyon state of mind. The stillness prevails for miles and pertains to the sea. Only a handful of tourists invade into the sea and safely conquer the tides.

There are five popular beaches in Gokarna, where the tourists slip, slide and saunter – Om, Kudle, Paradise, Half Moon and Nirvana. Our gang found its base on the Kudle beach. Though Om beach is the most popular one, Kudle feels a bit more personal and undisturbed due to its small size. We walked down from the main road; the steps pass through a narrow gorge of hills on both sides and suddenly open our sight to the sea. It is amazing how the compressed pathway leads to a vast expanse of land or rather sea. With this sight, the pupils widen up and so does the smile.

Because of the off season, most of the guest houses were not open to the tourists, so we found shelter in one of the shacks on Kudle. Most accommodations here are compact and shady, there are no maintained standards of hygiene, and they are pretty friendly to the pocket as they are often bargained upon.  Ours followed the suite. But surprisingly, the food options on the beach are wide and so are the booze options that one can experiment for days. And so we did, not only at our shack but also at the neighboring ones.

One of the mornings, we hiked from Kudle till the Om beach. It was a simple one; we did it without the trekking shoes, but carried water along. Within thirty minutes we were on the other side of the hill. Mornings are a perfect time to leave the laziness behind and get a perfect reddish tan on the skin. Om beach is much wider and longer than Kudle, the number of tourists are also more here. We walked till the next hillock, crossing it would have led to the Paradise beach, but it was a longer walk. During the season, beach hopping sounds like a cool idea but as the sun rose higher we decided to sit for breakfast at the popular Namaste Café.

As we stepped down to the beach, we stood at a point and glanced towards the next hillock; from this very spot we understood the moniker OM. The beach is in the shape of the sanskrit word OM. The sand and the rocks are arranged naturally to give it a divine shape. During the afternoon, as the brain started to drowse, we picked up our portable music system and the playing cards and moved ourselves till the next shack to try something new on the menu. In two hours, I lost about 35 games of rammi, and won about 12 games of dirty 7.

By the evening, when we could not sit on the chairs anymore, Nikita picked her camera and we climbed the hillock on the other side. We went up those narrow steps and took a left turn opposite to Café 1987. We did not have to walk till the edge of those rocks to witness the enormity of the sea, its gigantic spread and mammoth expansion caught our eye, heart and soul.  We lost our pace of walking within seconds and yet tried to grasp our breath. As I rolled my eyes from the sea to the sky, not much of a distance to be covered there, the shades changed constantly. It was like a multilayered cake lying on the table of the sea. Starting from the light blue horizon, on top of which were the unorganized dark grey clouds, giving a smoky effect to the landscape. There was also some foam of cream formed by the white clouds. But what all of us were looking for was the orange crunchy ball eclipsed under the dark grey layer. From within the swirl of these dark grey layers, the orange-yellow light penetrated and fell as a spotlight on the table of the sea; you could perceive, imagine and visualize the life of a human being rising from the lower energies to higher energies. From a normal body, the soul will rise to the divine, and the divine has sent his spiritual spotlight to liberate him from this life. This was by far the most overwhelming sunset that I had ever seen, my thoughts in my mind lost their ground and were floating over the sea. Looking at the sea from an altitude, for me, it was the first time ever when the sun, sand and sea were edged by a hill, setting in a sense of completion.

Gokarna not just promises a spectacular natural beauty but also an array of cool travel experiences which make it an ideal hippie junction. We met travelers from different walks of life, there were books on philosophy around us and when some of them played guitar and the rest prayed to Shiva, café 1987 turned into the coolest place ever. Our last evening in Gokarna was lovely.

Fifteen days passed by and filled us with gratitude, towards mother earth, our country and our culture. A happy kind of sadness overtook us, as it was almost time to part ways with these travelers. We finally hopped off at the Bangalore station the next morning and cheered over our last filter coffee together.

From Majestic, we boarded our respective buses and moved on to our next goal. While for the rest, the travel ended, but for me it was to continue for one more week. The HOHO chapter of our life rested here for the time being and I stretched my time for a few more places to visit in the south before I finally headed north.

Posted in Forests, HoHo, Karnataka, south india, travel

HoHo Stop Four – Agumbe

Agumbe, the stop that I had personally insisted on, while planning for this epic south India trip, was also my favorite for the unique experiences that it offered us. Its miniscule size and unnoticed presence amongst travelers is what makes it so appealing. Read on, to know why!

For more HoHo stops, visit HoHo Trip

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I heard the name Agumbe for the first time from a close cousin who expressed his desire to visit this place. I happened to check the images on the internet but quickly forgot about it. It was not so much on my priority list of travel for varied reasons but the place did look surreal to me. So now that the place fell on my travel route, and wasn’t out of the way, I decided to give it a shot.

The ‘Did You Know’ fact about Agumbe is that it receives the second highest rainfall in India. Clearly, we were visiting the place at the wrong time of the year. But with hope for some showers and knowing that the forests are never disappointing we included it in our itinerary.

We deboarded our night train from Kochi at Udupi which is the nearest railhead to Agumbe. Though private taxis are available from this city, the best way to set this journey of 55 kilometers is through frequently run private buses.

At about this point another friend Vivek, from Mumbai, joined us for the rest of the excursion and a new wave of excitement bounced at us. Our introduction to each other over breakfast was sufficient to assume that the rest of the trip was going to be even more epic. Four Ruskin Bond fans from four different cities, four writers, and four travelers in spirit; I could see the enlightenment that awaited us in the next four days.

The journey from Udupi to Agumbe was full of anxiety. It was a hot sunny day but the wind was cool. I was wondering about my decision to make it to Agumbe while I was imagining the place in my head. As we crossed Manipal, another town adjacent to Udupi, the landscape started to entice us.

A thicket of eucalyptus, a thirsty forest, a lonely sad road leading to a desolate town was my first sight of Agumbe. At first, it did not appear to be the most scenic spots, the kind that we usually put on our wish list. But as we drew closer, we realized that we had opened up a wild package for ourselves in one of the remotest towns of India.

We were looking forward to our accommodation with great expectations for that was also one of the major attractions of this town. As we were researching about the stay options we came across a rare example of Indian hospitality that comes alive in this settlement.  Dodda Mane, an ancient ancestral house was our haven for our time in Agumbe. Literally meaning Big House, it is a 150 years old house preserved in its original form by the members of the family. What is even more fascinating are certain facts that make the history of this house, a must know.

  • A few episodes of the popular Indian TV series, Malgudi Days were shot here. Just when you hear this and then look at the walls of the house, and the water that would start dripping from the roof during the monsoons, the imagination runs back to those days when Doordarshan (National TV) used to be the most sought after entertainment channel.
  • Kasturi Akka, the main care taker of the house is also the daughter in law of the house. The house originally belonged to her husband, who was the only Mathematics teacher in the village in the 70s era. Unfortunately, he died 30 years ago but she along with the rest of the family fondly takes care of the house and the frequent guests that arrive every now and then. It is a huge family that occupies most of the house and are most of the times dedicated to the variety of tasks at home.
  • Kasturi Akka can speak five different languages and confidently communicates with her guests, making them feel at home. She converses in English, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Kannada and tells us about her life in Agumbe, especially during the monsoons.
  • Now comes the most interesting fact about Dodda Mane. Kasturi Akka lets you stay in her house for no fixed cost. She welcomes everyone with an open heart, serves some mouth watering south Indian dishes on the banana leaf and lets the traveler decide on the amount they are willing to pay. There is no amount that she has pre decided, all you have to do is confirm your arrival few days in advance.

The charm of Agumbe and especially Dodda Mane lies in the fact that it is yet not commercialized and converted itself into money minting business. Its development is raw and connects well with the recent history that we have left behind since the technological revolution. It is in fact ironic as well as funny how this area is almost a no network zone and yet you can access your mails on the Wi-Fi installed in the house.  Kasturi Akka was not only our guardian mother during our stay there but was also our guide. We who were ready to spend the next two days doing nothing and only relaxing in that house were now motivated to take a walk in the jungle.

The forest is dense and full of life. It welcomed us to walk on the dry twigs, under the shades of giant logs that held the bestrewed branches. Some of the branches aimed for the sky and never bowed down. As we browsed deeper, our way was occasionally blocked by the spider webs that shone like pearls hanging in the air tied from one limb of a tree to another. Unperturbed and undisturbed, the forest brimmed with living organisms and seemed to be in a fixed state since forever. It appears unchanged and untamed, and yet life goes on in its very soul.

We really wondered if the lustrous intensity of the woods would increase once the rains start to pour, as they were already plush green. They are the ones who are capable of seducing the rains. We decided to take another tour of the jungle the very next day. Agumbe is home to some of the most copious reptiles which are groomed in these rainforest. Cobras and crocodiles are commonly seen during the monsoon season. Providing a natural exposure for herpetology, the rainforest research station is an ideal spot for many students in the middle of the forest. As we took a tour of the jungle, finding our way to the research station, we felt lost many a times. Silence was accompanying us constantly and so we could not control our whistling in the woods. While Nikita wanted to capture all those trees that leaned onto each other, hugging and forming a tunnel, I wanted to stand in those tunnels and pose a bit. After walking for about two miles into the jungle, the trees made way for a tiny setup, an accommodation for the students and a common kitchen. We interacted with the field director for a while who apprised with the highly specialized researches that have been going on for years. As hunger struck, we made our way back to Dodda Mane where Kasturi Akka was waiting for us.

The best way to enjoy Agumbe is to while away the time at this family house, settle yourself on the pavement outside, and enjoy looking at the vehicles pass once in a while. Let the days pass with absolute nothingness, and all you do is sip on your tea and munch on the dry poha. Though it was a random call to visit Agumbe in my HOHO itinerary I was glad to have done it but all I wished for was a little bit of drizzle. The evening gets pretty cold here but the breeze stays in the hair and sluggishly moves out.  Though we missed the rainy season, we were lucky to be in the forest on a full moon night. From our guest house, we only had to walk a few meters to be at the tip of the forest. The moon had not risen completely and from there it seemed to be entangled somewhere in the bushes. We sat on the steps for a bit and saw the fireflies resting on the leaves, not one but many of them. They had a spark which was terrific and uncommon.

Life doesn’t seem to be moving at all in Agumbe but we had to get going to reach at our next goal. We boarded our train from Udupi to hop to our next destination in Karnataka. The backwaters were tasted and so were the forests, now it was time to turn to the sea and take a sip of sand and sun and mix them into the memories.

Posted in Forests, HoHo, Kerala, Life Travel, road trips, south india, travel

HoHo Stop Two – Alappuzha

After exploring the tea estates of Munnar and deep forests of Wayanad, in my third visit to Kerala, I decided to spend my time in the backwaters of Alleppey. While tea gardens and forests can be found in many parts of India, it is the backwaters that add a flavor of uniqueness to Kerala.

For more HoHo stops, visit HoHo Trip

 

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From Trivandrum, Nikita and I boarded the Hapa Express, a superfast express train that runs on the Konkan railway route. Though the sight of backwaters was visible from the train window itself, we were absolutely in awe of the canals and streams of water that were spread across the city. A main canal flows through the center of the city, not only dividing the city into two but also serving as one of the major means of transport in the city. There are government run ferries that stop over at the jetties carrying the people from the remote hidden villages along the banks of the Vembanad backwaters to the central part of the city.

Vembanad Lake, the largest lake in India, through its main water body seeps out numerous streams and rivulets, stretching into the hinterlands. Holding onto the banks of these streams are the coconut and mango trees, which bear plentiful of fruits throughout the year. Within a measurable distance, the villagers have also utilized the part of their lands for growing paddy that extend till the highway roads. Many different shades of green would catch your attention but it is the tint of cloudy blue sky amidst the green that will make your heart wonder and wander at the same time.

As Alleppey is quite popular on the global tourist map, Nikita and I decided to explore the city in the touristy way. In the three days that we spent there, we flitted between some of the well known tourist spots and some untouched routes into the wild. Our close friend Deepu, a localite from the Kottayam district of Kerala joined us and subtly enriched our interaction with the minute cultural nuances of this place.

Here are a few experiences that we enrolled ourselves in and elated our travel-itched souls.

Visit the Punnamuda Lake:

This lake happened to be the first spot visited by us due to the location of our resort. Ramada Resort is situated on the edge of this lake, sharing boundaries with the Nehru Trophy boat race finishing point. For those of us who might not know this, Nehru Trophy is for one of the largest boat race events in India, which happens annually in these backwaters. We spent our first evening admiring the widely spread water body and wondered how it was only the baby of the Vembanad lake. Though many options regarding the houseboats and shikaras were available in this lake, we decided to take a bigger shot by witnessing what is known to be the largest lake in India.

Canoeing in the Vembanad Backwaters:

One of the major attractions in Alleppey that tourists enjoy is taking a boat tour in the backwaters and tasting a slice of aquatic life on their plates. Shikaras and house boats are easily available and can be pre-booked for any given amount of time.  If you are traveling in big groups like a family holiday or a friends’ get together, then house boats can set a perfect tone for a floating private party. However, we tweaked our plan to experience something more traditional. Instead of a huge houseboat, we hopped into a four seater canoe. Nikita contacted Tony, a local tour guide who arranges day trips into the backwaters, inclusive of authentic Kerala meals along with the rowing. Canoe is a traditional wooden boat that can even be rowed through the narrow channels of backwaters, thus reaching into the interiors, where there is found a life of imagination coming to reality – peace, peace and only peace. There is stillness in the water and slowness in the air in these areas which can only be touched for a while. We rowed in a canoe that belonged to Satchidanand, a resident of Kainakari village who was also our host of the day. While his wife prepared sumptuous south Indian meals for us, he took us into the by lanes of Vembanad. This way we were able to chit chat with a lot of people around us, getting to know the whereabouts of a tropical lifestyle.

Must Know:  Try and book the canoe one day in advance. Off Season rates vary somewhere between INR 800 – 1000 per head for an 8 hour journey, and is inclusive of food and ferry charges. Tony can be contacted @ +91 9387812427

Good to Know:  Kainakari village offers some extremely scenic views of the lesser visited streams of the backwaters, gives an extra edge to your mission of exploration.

Visit the Alleppey Beach:

We returned to the main part of the city from the ferry and deboarded at the fishing point jetty. It is a 15 minutes ride in the auto rickshaw till the Alleppey beach. An evening hangout spot for the locals, what first caught my eye was an ancient and a rotten pier, unrestored and uncared for and yet complementing the view of the sunset. Though there are hardly any eateries on the beach and you may also find difficulty in finding a bottle of Coke, you would see that the locals are busy picnicking with their families. The water is clean but there are hardly any tourists on this beach. People were busy flying kites in the backdrop of dark grey clouds, on the other side of the sea the sun went down without much intimation, under the cover of these clouds. Getting a glimpse of the sunset is all a game of good luck, especially during this time of the year.

Good to Know: Do not expect a lot of eating joints in this place, but expect a lot of family crowd enjoying the evening breeze along with sea water. 

Visit the RKK Private Museum:

Located on the main road of the city, on the way to Alleppey beach, Ravi Karuna Karan Museum is one of the very few private museums in India. Dedicated to her husband, Betty put on display an enormous variety of collectibles that she received from some of the eminent personalities around the globe. The couple comes from a family pretty well known and well established in the coir making business in this area. Ravi during his glorious days expanded the trails of his business outside India and was one of the major exporters of coir. During his travels to many other countries he was able to collect the souvenirs gifted to him by the presidents and other important personnel. Betty, who now lives with her daughter in Alleppey, is the mastermind behind this enormous collection of art. From the wooden carvings to paintings, sharp cut crystal pieces to scintillating Swarovski work, shining silver to metallic stone work, there are craftworks collected from many different art forms. There is also a magnificent collection of ivory, ebony and tusk in the form of single piece designs. If you are an art lover then you could easily spend at least a few hours admiring not only the collectibles but also the far and wide travel that the couple must have done.

Must Know:  Photography inside the house is prohibited. It is closed on Mondays.  The entry ticket is INR 150, but totally worth it.

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Take a Drive on AC Road:

If you are one of those who love taking a shot at driving at new places, then Alleppey – Changanaserry road is your kind of thing. Bordered with backwaters on the both sides, this road is ideal for a scenic long drive especially during the monsoons. The locals here are skilled in growing paddy fields a little below the sea level which may receive irrigation from the backwaters before the onset of monsoons. So if the paddy has gained enough length and it is not the busy hour of the day and the rain drops are falling on the windshield, you can imagine what it would be like. If you wish to continue the journey, the road further leads to Thekkady, the spice town of Kerala. For us, even though the monsoons had not hit and the paddy was still very nascent, our drive was a fantabulous one, thanks to our dear friend Deepu, his car and his music that made it just the right thing to do that afternoon. What was even more exciting was the detour into one of the pocket roads that led to Thiruvalla city. An insignificant looking lane took us to a village where there were white churches, white eagrets binging on the paddy, a huge lotus pond and backwaters in the hindsight to complete the background for our selfie sessions.

Good to Know:  You can try the local Kerala meals at Avees. They serve some authentic fish preparations like Karimeen (a sea water fish prepared by spicing it up and steaming it while wrapped in a banana leaf).  Average spends – INR 1000 for 3 for a heavily loaded Kerala Meal.

Visit the Mararikulam Beach:

Mararikulam town is located on the Alleppey- Ernakulam highway 11 kilometres away from the Alapuzzha main city. We decided to spend an evening on the Marari beach, quite popular for its Hammocks. We took an internal road to this town instead of the main highway, thanks to the Google maps; it was indeed the right choice made. On the way we saw quite a few home stay options to pick from. The town seems to be popular with the foreign tourists as many were biking and enjoying getting tanned. As we found our way to the Marari beach, we were amazed to see the green cover just before the beach. Tall coconut trees and the stout grasslands holding them looked even more glorious when the divine sun shone behind them turning the green into gold. The beach is a pulling and compelling one. The waves are sluggish which would calm down an ever sprinting mind. The sand was smooth near the water; it looked like a dark brown smoothie; compelled us to take a long stroll while letting our feet dip into the waves time and again. Some real good laughter echoed in the air and we absorbed all the goodness of nature into us that evening getting extremely high on the happy hormones. Though we could not see many hammocks on the beach we were delighted to see the sun making its way through the clouds into the sea.

Good to Know: Much less crowded than the Alleppey Beach, very few eateries. Still holds the feeling of a non commercial, not so touched beach on the western coastline of India. Water is clear and safe to be in.

Visit the Pathiramanal Island:

Pathiramanal in its literal sense means “Sands of the Midnight”. I wonder how it would be like to be on this uninhabited island during the midnight. Belongs to the magnificent Vembanad Kol, this island is a paradise for bird watchers. We were welcomed by the chirping sounds in an otherwise bereft piece of land.  At first, we felt we were about to enter the Forests of Fangorns (Lord of The Rings) which may be guarded by the evil spirits against the holy spirits or vice versa. From the very beginning, the island embraces you and introduces you to a thick forest cover, with trees hugging each other at many different heights. The entangled green makes it dense and yet the sun forces to beam its rays through the natural net. Though a stone trail takes us into the intense wilderness, very soon we find ourselves walking on the dry leaves. The sound of crushing them made us believe in the rawness of this island.  Leaving the concrete behind we were experiencing the vibe of a natural habitat and what life would have been when development was not a daily affair. In these routes, we tried searching for our roots and it so appeared that men with great adventurous spirit have always walked and conquered the unknown. With our minds sunk into deep thoughts, we decided to spend our afternoon under the shades of these spectacular trees. In my illusions, I felt these trees were the close cousins of Onodrims from the ‘Lord of the Ring’ series. How I wished they carried us onto them and had some real historic stories to tell us. Nevertheless we had our own little history there with “We Were Here” selfies. Nikita and Deepu experimented a lot with their cameras as it is a photographers’ paradise too. Only because we were hungry, we decided to take the walk back; else this island would also make for a great camping spot. Though not sure, if they let you stay there for the night.

Must Know:  The place is more enjoyable in small groups. Carry your water bottles along as the place is absolutely uninhabited, you may find a few more tourists though. There are various ways to reach the island; we decided to take the speed boat from Kayyipuram Jetty Road.

Speedboat charges: INR 600 for a to and fro service.  Can take a max of 4 people in one round.

Good to Know: Visit www.pathiramanal.com for a detailed history about the place.

Visit the Thanneermukkam Bund:

To know and enjoy your time in a place like this, it either has to be extremely popular or you need a local guidance to bring enough light on it. For us the latter worked out, and the three of us whiled away our last evening in Alleppey relishing a local mango ice cream sitting on an embankment and discussing some very interesting differences between the three Indian cultures that each of us represented. We never lost the sight of our beloved Pathiramanal Island from here, keeping the smile up on our faces for the rest of the evening.

Good to Know: A tiny hut restaurant called Tharivadu in the Kumarakom city is worth betting your taste buds on.  You may try the mucles, clams, kappa and the meen curry. A great company to this sumptuous meal is the local Toddy, available in this hut.

This pretty much sums up our 3 days in Alleppey. Alleppey also has a popular spice bazaar and a few temples which we could not visit due to paucity of time. Who knows these may become our reasons to return to this alluring city. However, what may really bring me back would be the season of the snake boat races and the enduring monsoons.

Posted in Forests, Life Travel, Sahayadris, south india, travel, YHAI

First Mountain Biking Expedition at Ooty

Another wish from the list was ticked off this January. I celebrated my 26th birthday biking in the tea estates of Udagmandalam. The mountains and the bike did not just mean a perfect combination for birthday ideas but also the adventure spirit that stays alive even as we grow old.  This piece goes on to detail out what to expect from your first ever mountain biking experience. Know the challenges and the achievements before you set out on your own journey.

Suited for – Beginners

Difficulty Level – Moderate

Prior Preparation – Advisable

Feel free to contact, if you are planning on taking one such route in India.

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“Life is better on a mountain bike!” said someone who literally lives off the two wheels. I questioned it in my head again and again until I got my own bum on the saddle to test it out.

Biking is fun, too much of it. For many, including me, it clearly points towards a happy childhood that once was. It doesn’t matter what is your ride but once upon a time, those two wheels hooked through a greasy chain were everyone’s ride. Once we grew up, the wheels changed, the chains disappeared but the nostalgia stayed back. Nostalgic enough, one day I decided to give it a shot once again. It was some sort of second innings with the bike but with a twist of adventure this time. The twist was in the form of my first mountain biking expedition on the hills of Ooty.

I chose my hills very carefully keeping in mind the altitude, the good roads and the good weather. The hills of Udagmandalam, though a part of Sahayadris are very unlike them but in fact similar to the hills of the North. The altitude is challenging enough but doable for a first timer. The roads are concrete, well maintained and sufficiently curvaceous bringing to us the most gorgeous scenic views of the hills.

In this week long expedition, we explored Ooty like none other. From impenetrable forests to the local tea culture, from the hidden villages to the distant spots visible only from a height, we were seeing it all. The first day was relatively relaxed where I reported at the base camp of YHAI, Ooty. The YHAI Campus is within the main city, and is situated on the top of a hillock, which feels closer to the stars at night. On a January night, this place does become cold and by the morning you may see the frost frozen on the grass.

Not an ideal spot for sunrise, you may choose to stay in the bunk bed, at least until the bed tea arrives. The second day started on a yummy note with a sumptuous breakfast of idlis and vadas and a quick briefing from our group leader Sarvesh about how the coming week is going to be like. There were two thoughts constantly playing on the mind – thrill and fear. While the ups seemed thrilling, the downs seemed scary. Suddenly the nostalgia disappeared and biking didn’t seem to be too much fun. Fortunately this feeling didn’t stay for long.

As the bikes appeared in front of us and the organizing team handed over the necessary gears to us, the excitement and enthusiasm returned in full swing. Aluminum frame, 21 gears, Firefox MTB, covered with dust and yet shining under the sun was going to be our priced possession for one week. Back home, I was practicing on a non geared Kross bike, so Firefox didn’t seem to be a bad ride at all, though some disagreed because of the better brands available in the market. But for beginners, brands do not matter, the will power does.

With a high dose of will power, we set off for the practice ride on the other side of the same hill. To start off, we were required to go down the hill, take a U-turn and then make an ascent towards the other side. This was the first ever mountainous ascent that I was going to make on my wheels and I clearly didn’t think through it thoroughly. Probably it was a good idea to not have thought too much about it because had I done that, most likely I would have just given it a pass. Now that I was here, making my first attempt worthwhile, I realized within no time that I was constantly losing breath. Like a dog, I was huffing and puffing. I was touching the ground more frequently than the paddle. But, was I the only one who was graciously failing all the time? I had to keep moving forward to yet figure that out. The light weight of the cycle was definitely bliss but I did take my time to excel in the art of balancing on a mountain. Moving forward, my fears were withdrawn to a large extent when I saw a few more groupies equally failing. Heavily panting, it wasn’t a good sight at all but at least I felt I was in the right group. These dynamics have the potential to bring back the lost confidence and what prevails is a feeling of belonging. While most of us made it to the top, and it did feel good but it definitely got me thinking for the days to come. My doubts deep down were now floating on the surface. I was determined nonetheless. Each day was going to be different and I said to myself, aloud – Life is only better with the mountain bike!

As it turned out, the coming days were indeed better. The faith in the mountains and the numerous ways to explore them were restored soon as arrived the first day of moving to the first higher camp.

The third day of the expedition, coincidentally my 26th birthday, was much easier than the practice day. We biked through a variety of landscapes, many of them exclusive to Ooty’s weather. There were lush green tea gardens on both sides of the road, sometimes they were too close, other times they were up there, visible at a distance. It all seemed to be in the vicinity, unless we pedaled a bit more and scaled that height. There were villages on the way and the villagers seemed familiar of the fact that bikers pass on these roads, recognized from their yellow reflectors and blue helmets. They waived at us with bright eyes wishing us good luck through their good byes. Perhaps, the little ones were inspired and the mothers were in awe. These are some rare sights in their otherwise simple life. These hamlets making a sudden appearance at times when we took turns never failed to amaze us. The tea gardens grow beautifully under the sensuous foreplay of the sun and its shade. We took our first break of the day at the Chamraj Tea Center, sipped on the local flavors of the tea and slid under the sky before moving any further. The shades of the sky were multiple, it wasn’t absorbing the greens of the gardens but it certainly was influenced.

On many cross roads we stopped and reassured ourselves of the direction that we were moving in. From the Chamraj Tea Center, we biked towards Bikketti, a hamlet that leads to Manjoor. On the way somewhere, we also passed through the Lovedale Crossing of the Nilgiri Railways. By the time we reached our first camp at Manjoor, we had mustered enough courage to keep going. The spirits were lifted high and so was the confidence. In these high spirits, my newly formed friends got a birthday cake for me and the party went on for quite some time. No matter how tiring is the day, camp fires are a must because some of the best stories remembered later are created in these moments. For us, it was the game of Mafia that is most fondly remembered even today. We played and played it to death. Until the city really dropped dead, the God went on and on. Deepu mastered and won everytime and Thakur learnt it way too quickly. And then there was no stopping. But then there was the thought of the next morning and its expectations, which used to show us the way to our bed.

The next day we pushed off towards the higher camp; it was a long day of pedaling. With a fresh start and minimized panting, we were gaining altitude. We were first transported to Yedakaddu via jeep, on the way we crossed a magnificent building of the Good Shepherd Boarding School and finally had our lunch at the Fernhill point. With each passing day, we were getting one step closer to the challenge. In my head, I was drawing comparisons between hiking and biking on a mountain. Personally, I was finding biking to be the trickier one, especially when came the stretch of downhill. Hairpin bends, as they are known in the south, the sharp U turns, they demanded absolute control on both the speed and the direction. They were the epitome of adventure during the expedition. A stretch of 36 odd hairpin bends, one after the other, with only a short straight distance between the two, led our way into the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. From the 16th hairpin bend, we had entered into the tiger reserve.  Even though we were managing to apply the brakes with full force, the descent was so steep that the bike was still moving at the pace of at least 20 kilometers per hour. I wondered where the friction was! There was thick forest around us and a few vehicles plying on the roads, as if playing around the probability of collision. An alert mind and a control on the direction was the answer to everything at that very moment. The art of lane driving also helps here. The turn should be taken in such a way that the bike does not move forward diagonally, if that happens correctly, we have sorted most of the challenge there itself. It was wrongly perceived by many that downhill will be more fun, in fact it was a lot of extra effort and energy, somewhere compromising on the fun element. I was constantly concentrating on these bends for about one and a half hour. True, I wasn’t pedaling, but my arm strength on which I was thriving, was giving up.  Many bridges were crossed before we hit the straight road in Masinagudi, the plane side of the forest. By this time we had bypassed Ooty and were now in Masinagudi.

As we reached the town of Masinagudi, we were once again transported via Jeep to the Kargudi forest guest house. Sitting in the jeep, we covered about 15 kilometers inside the forest and saw that the forest houses tuskers, baby elephants, peacocks and peahens and not to forget, the tigers who complete the family. We were happy to see that the bikes were also loaded in another jeep coming along with us. It was till now the most tiresome night that we spent in the middle of a forest at the guest house. The beds creaked and the night was nervously dark, tall trees that were playing Chinese whispers with the air were bringing alive the ghost stories from the childhood. But it was no child’s play; it was a reality that we were breathing in. The silence and the calm tends to scare the city inhabitants so much that they do not agree to believe in the simplicity of the darkness, the darkness that is simply empty and nothing else.

A few good men, the care takers of the forest guest house, prepared a sumptuous South Indian meal for us. Even while relishing the food, the thought of next day kept us occupied. In all our tiredness and a head that was still taking virtual turns on those bends, we retired.

The third day and the longest of all comprised an interesting route. From Kargudi, we set the journey towards Gudalur in the same jeep, and from there set forth an uphill journey of 26 kilometers on our bikes. Soon it turned out; the third day was like a test; a test of patience, a different kind of patience, the one that emphasized on not giving up. While the previous day was all about taking control, this day was solely about pushing the limits. The mantra of the day was “Do not stop, keep moving”. Most of the times, the mantra worked. Many a times I found myself cursing the one who designed the route. Why did it have to be all uphill? Is it only me who thinks this road is straight while actually it is not?

Well the road did have an angle, which was only invisible because the buses were passing so swiftly. It was an angle of contemplation which took me back to the day when I decided to put my bum on the saddle. The fortunate part of the day was that nobody gave up. Everyone took to the challenge, some fast, some slow and some very slow. We pedaled, and supported each other on the way, cracked some of the silliest jokes to keep the momentum on but we never gained speed. We moved but slowly. In two words, we were bike crawling on a mountain bike. Not just one, but everyone. The best thing to do was enjoy the shade of eucalyptus trees while passing underneath them. The highlight of these forests was the birds of the Nilgiris who were chirping and chatting continuously. We were fortunate to have a few bird watchers in our group who were able to make the distinction between the birds’ songs. The other big thing to notice was the hopping black monkeys who were restless and unsettled throughout the day. There jumps from one tree to another were huge and always emerged from a green background and grabbing something vegetarian to eat. It was either the carrots or some leaves around it. In fact, we also relished carrots which were being sold in all the tiny markets that we passed by on the way.

We broke our heroic voyage at Tan Tea, for the lunch. We had merely covered a distance of 15 kilometers in about 3 hours. Post the lunch break we were drooling on the front of our bikes, it was only getting harder, until came a quick breather. A miniscule stretch that for once was going straight. The heart beat fastened, the pupils widened, the ray of hope had emerged. Before I could grasp and enjoy, the moment had passed. Within a single pulse of joy, we were back to our uphill regime for the day. Another 6 kilometers to go before more such pulses of joy. Someone at the base camp had told me that the last phase of day 3 would be worth the effort. Well, clearly, the last phase was far from reality. I was only wishing to stay alive to witness it. Today, I wonder what was it that was making me take that push, why wasn’t I giving up. I guess it is the feeling of accomplishment that we all grow fond of. Surely, the tea at the next Chai shop was helping.

It took me thirty minutes to hit the road again. Biking towards Pykara falls via Naduvattam, I was happy to see the sign boards. In approximately an hour or so, I had hit the straight road. Between the forest and the hill, the view of the road was fantastic. I was screaming, I was laughing, I was weaving, I was singing. I was living. I did not want to stop for anyone. As a matter of fact, I did not even want to be with anyone. In my solitude, I wanted to stand while biking, be loud, be swift, be carefree that I once used to be. Even as I write about it, I recollect the memories of the butterflies that were dancing inside my belly, shaking my breath. The air talked to me while I was having my fun ride. An element of fun ride in the mountains is like a reward. Finally, we were at the last higher camp, the one by the Pykara Falls. The forest behind us was both, dense and intense, making it extremely cold in the night. The fall however did not have much water due to no monsoons since a few months now. The landscape however was nothing short of a web shot image.  The tall trees were reflected in the stagnant black water. There was a pond somewhere far, the eagles floated over it. There were rocks orange in color which seemed to be painted into the picture. It was surreal. Serene.

The last day of the biking happened to be a Saturday; perfect day of the week to party. And today, the reason was going strong. There were enough reasons to celebrate. The last day was a little more than a joy ride. We rode freely. This was going to be one of the last sights of the tea gardens. There were white shining stallions on the way as if coming down from the sky to greet us. The magic was rolling. There were endless stops that we all took. Once we stopped to click funniest of the selfies at the shooting point, another time it was in the background of a lake only because all of us wanted to sing a song in our vernacular languages; the Indianness never runs short, and then some pointed at the coconut cart on the way and so it was declared as time for some coco water; in fact once it was merely out of nostalgia of the past one week.  The driver of the support vehicle was almost irritated for he could not wait to reach the base camp and we did not want to be back yet. It was 25 kilometers of pure joy, showering happiness. The whole group stuck together on the last day for they knew that this time is not going to return and is definitely irreplaceable. All 25 of us, on the two wheels, in a forest, this company and this view will not coexist ever again.

From new accolades to new resolutions, new milestones to new stories, everything was shining brightly in front of us. We all had our experiences to share, to spread the vibe of two wheels; we were now the victims of two wheels that rolled up and down the hills.

 P.S. The photographs put up on this page are contributed by dear friends Saurabh Patil and Davneet Singh. Special Thanks goes out to them 🙂