July 11, 2017

MicroAdventure - August (Part1)

So this trip doesn't quite fit the definition of a micro-adventure. With over a couple months of planning, it definitely wasn't spontaneous. It wasn't that 'micro' either!

I finished my work with Nivasa at the end of July- a truly great place to work made it a very memorable year. I chose to trade in dust and cityscape for a week-long trip up to the mountains as a celebration. 

Location: Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand
Plan: Hike from Govindh Ghat to the Valley!

My Dad has been wanting to do this for ages. It didn't take much to convince the rest of us. Much reading up was done, itinerary making and ticket booking, new guide books, last minute Decathlon shopping and super light-weight packing and soon we were off- the four of us and Aunty Sonia. 

A 3 hour plane ride, half a day in Delhi and an overnight train ride to Haridwar before we began our long drive. Haridwar and Rishikesh are popular destinations for tourists and Hindu pilgrims. Rishikesh was quite beautiful- the Ganga in its full monsoon capacity widening as it hit the plains, temple spires sticking out over the roofs, the foothills of the Himalayas rising up in the background. 

We left the town far behind in no time as we started the ascent. Straight roads were traded in for winding hair pins and the views only improved with every hour. Our route followed the Alakananda (a tributary of the Ganga); a cementy-grey colour because of the clay content. The roads alternated between driving high above it to alongside the riverbed, sometimes crossing it over precarious rickety bridges! 

As we climbed, the rolling hills soon became steeper! August is not the most ideal time to travel in the Himalayan ranges. The rains have been pretty harsh and with each downpour have taken off big segments of the mountains blocking roads and flattening houses. A few times, we had to wait while the road ahead of us was cleared. After which we had to drive across the narrow junction between sheer faces of loose rock! 

Despite having a stomach that wasn't enjoying all the mountain roads, the dhaba we ate lunch at in Devprayag was worth every mouthful- simple and so satisfying. The second half of the day brought more changes to the landscape. The towns were less frequent, villages clung to the steep faces, mountains rose higher and the air became cooler. 

The last leg of the 10 hour drive took us down a narrow gorge from Joshimath to Govind Ghat. The small town sat at the confluence of the Alakananda and the Laxman Ganga. We were quite glad to be off the road. Our room overlooked the path that lay ahead of us and we fell asleep to the sound of cascading water! 

We set out early the next morning. Grateful to be off our butts and on our feet, we sent our bags off ahead with our trusty porter and began the 14km hike up, up and up towards Ghangaria. Mule carts carrying goods between the villages continuously interrupted the quiet landscape with their tinkling bells. Known as a popular Sikh pilgrimage up to the glacial lake Hemkund Sahib, the trail was paved with rock rubble and well marked. Besides a number of others like us headed to the valley, we shared the trail with many Sikh families on mule-back and many pilgrims making the journey barefoot. (It made it almost embarrassing to complain about achy feet in our sturdy trekking shoes)

The trail alternated between level pathways, steep uphills, and gradually climbing zig-zags, and sometimes even a rewarding downhill segment! The path went up through the large valley. Mountains towered over us on both sides with waterfalls a hundred feet from the rocky summits pouring into the lush valley; truly perfectly picturesque. There was no hurry complete this trail. We took time to smell the roses (quite literally), took pictures at every bend, followed every bird, took enough breaks to eat our snacks, and take in all the beauty around us. 

Being part of a flora and fauna loving family, meant that this trip with its rich biodiversity was quite a treat. Binoculars, bird and flower guide books, multiple lens cameras, sharp eyes and ears, and a lot of patience were necessary on this trail. So many varieties of wildflowers and we weren't even at the Valley of Flowers yet!

We passed villages and many stalls offering refreshments and hot aloo parathas. When lunchtime came, we reached our midpoint at the river crossing. We picked the lunch stall with the best view overlooking the river bed, the mountains and the glacier at the far end. Truly the view makes the food taste better (that and the butter of course!).

With full stomachs, the next uphill stretch was quite a strain. We persisted, the views continuing to reward us. A couple hours later, and 4000ft gained, we reached the opening in the valley. 

Feeling quite accomplished, we dragged our feet around the last few bends before reaching the little village of Ghangaria. The last village in the Bhyundar valley, this village gets buried under 12 feet of snow in the winter and is accessible for only 6 months of the year. The hotel owners make they way up here in June to replace all their pipe systems and repair the buildings to be ready for customers in May and at peak season the little hotels are full of travelers and pilgrims.

Nestled in the valley with waterfalls emptying into the basin, meadows with grazing mules, the bustling main street of Ghangaria, a satisfying dinner, warm duvets, and deep sleep- a happy end to the day.

July 13, 2016

MicroAdventure - July

Location: Elephant Valley, Kodaikanal
Plan: Spend two days at Kodai Camp

So June went by with no adventures (big or small). My conclusion is that it was a good month without monotony to get away from. 

I have friends whose family live up in the mountains of Kodaikanal. With the rolling ranges, sprawling forests, meandering streams- it makes it the perfect place to call home. Lucky for us city-folk, they've expanded their home into a campsite. Since a visit here last November, I've been dying to come back. 

After ten not-so-fun hours in a bus up the mountain roads, my stomach and I were glad to finally reach. Nestled in Elephant Valley, about an hour away from Kodai Town, the campsite is encompassed by pristine views. We (Nikita, Nuthan, my brother and I) set off for a late morning walk up the road from the site. Unfortunately the water levels in the stream were quite low in comparison to our last visit, but the rest of the walk was beautiful- with the clouds slowly uncovering the tops of the mountains. 

The walk included an exciting discovery. Just off the road, the earthy colours of the plants and stone walls was interrupted with a bright purple gate. Beyond the gate, a little stone house sat in the middle of an overgrown yard. The tiny cottage had a stucco wall on one side and steps leading up to a porch on the other. So much attention to colour- the alternating blue and white columns, the mustard door and window and the red flooring. 

A gap in the wall allowed us to wade through the knee-high grass for a closer look. The bushes of orange mallow flowers and the views beyond made it the quintessential cottage.

We headed out to Kodai town that afternoon. It had been about 18 years since my last visit to the town. My memories of cycling around the lake and horse rides were refreshed. Hiring cycles from one of the many vendors around the lake, we rode round the 9km circumference of the lake. The lake was dotted with peddle boats, the waterfront with stalls, cyclists, vacationing families and honeymooning couples. Beyond the lake, Kodai has a variety of cafes and bakeries, gardens and antique stores. 


But after the croissants and wood-fire pizzas, we found that the best food in Kodai was off a roadside cart. It seemed that every second stall around the lake served hot tea and bread omelette. Clearly, this was something special here. Laced with green chilies, the fluffy omelette sandwiched between white bread was the perfect end to our hill-station saunter.

A cozy night in the tent only improved when the rain started. To be lulled by pitter-patter would have sounded too fictional, if it wasn't true. Waking up in the mountains somehow never requires an alarm. We went for one more walk in the valley after breakfast. More pictures and one last look at my dream cottage, and the weekend suddenly came to an end. (Only another painful bus ride between then and a Monday morning back at the office) 

This trip veers away from the definition of adventure and towards that of relaxed getaway. A great trip, nonetheless. Hiking those ranges definitely looked inviting- another trip to be planned, I guess.

June 20, 2016

MicroAdventure - May

Location: Nandi Hills
Plan: Climb to the top!

This year has brought out a continuous resfeber in me. I suppose it's almost half the excitement of this project-  the anticipation of a trip about to happen but the whereabouts of which is still unknown. Same story every month.

My family has begun planning a macroadventure in August. With not much time to prepare for the four day trek in Uttarakhand, my dad suggested a climb up Nandi Hills to test the knees. I wasn't too pleased with the plan. Having visited Nandi Hills a dozen times before, it had transformed from a quiet family picnic spot to a pilgrimage of Bangalore's summer holidayers making their way up by the bus load. 

But (seems to have become a habit) it was already near the end of the month and my initial surfing plans had to be cancelled because of the onset of the monsoons and I didn't have a good enough back up. So, Nandi Hills it had to be.

It rained almost through the night and was still drizzling when we left home. Around 7, when we reached the base it began raining again, so we drove around for a while. Empty roads, sleepy villages and the clouds made quite a lovely Sunday morning. The loveliest sight was seeing the Skandagiri peak over the clouds. That was a night full of adventures a few years ago. Every time I see it, it brings back a flood of memories. 

We waited almost an hour for the rain to stop, then found our way to the end of the road near the Silver Oaks farm, parked the car, and started the climb. On the map, you can see where the trail starts from the farm which is on the opposite side of Nandi Hills where the road is. 

The weather was absolutely perfect. The coolness of the breeze, the low clouds moving past us, the dampness under the trees, the overcast sky hiding the sun- we really couldn't have asked for a better day. The rainy weather added another bonus- the lack of people! Just a few other early risers and some friendly chit-chat on the way.  

The trail was mostly steps that wound their way through the trees. At every bend, we could see the the fields below and other surrounding hills. Considering that that the trail is called Tipu's Steps, it wasn't a surprise to find some ruins of mantapas from the eighteenth century- the stone camouflaged between the branches, and the steps leading us under them.

It's Nandi Hills! What new things could I possibly see on a hill that I had been to countless times. But this trip was hugely different to the usual trips here. The climb was pretty easy and the effort usually spent in hauling myself up and focusing on the top, I could spend noticing little things. The rains brought a variety of creatures out of the shrub and onto the steps. I've always been fascinated with tightly curled up millipedes and snails with their sensitive feelers.

It took us about 80 minutes to get to the top with many many breaks along the way. Once at the top, we spent no more than ten minutes before turning around and heading back down. A couple thousands steps later we were back down at the car- a bit sweaty, jelly-legged, but quite refreshed. 

Looking forward to a change from Bangalore hills to Himalayan foothills soon :) 

P.S. Most of the pictures are my Dad's. Although I took the camera card on this trip, the battery was super low and died right in the beginning. Silly me. 

May 05, 2016

MicroAdventure - April

Location: Makalidurga
Plan: Night Trek and Camping

A heat wave hit Bangalore this month. Unfortunately a large portion of work this month has been outdoors on site monitoring construction. What's left of the week, I've been choosing to spend in listless slumber in an air conditioned room. Some feeble attempts at a mircroadventure were made, but the idea of venturing out anywhere except to the Himalayas didn't seem worth the effort. 

I have some great friends who decided to help me out! With only April 30 left as an option to do anything this month, there had to be some frantic planning. It took a couple of days to find a doable option and another day of extensive packing discussions. Finally, on Saturday afternoon Sanjana, Kaushik, Joel, Vivek, Rohit and I were all packed up and headed to City Station.

There was nothing seamless about our experience buying tickets and getting onto the train. From the ticket lady who didn't know whether the train even existed, having to run over to the opposite end of the station to platform 9, obstacle course running when we saw the train already moving, to the annoying train guard laughing while we struggled to clamber on (he told us later, that he knew that we were going on some trek and wanted us to practice running :P) we barely made it onto the train.

Two hours later after the sun had set and city lights were replaced by darkness and the occasional clustered village lights, we got off at Makalidurga station. Our trail began with 3km along the railway tracks. Armed with torches, and a dog from the station who appointed himself as our trail guide, we set off into the night. We started off with a fairly decent pace, having to stop just once to let a train whiz by. The real adventure began once we got off the tracks and had to find a trail that passed between the hills. Every clearing between the trees could pass off as a path. But thanks to someone who had generously mapped out a rough outline of the trail on Google maps, we were somewhat confident. 

Trekking at night is quite the experience. Darkness, the shadows, sounds in the bushes, the brilliance of the nights sky, the vague outlines of the Makalidurga hill looming over on our right, and some sort of glistening patchy-ness in front of us that was probably the lake. 

A couple of kilometers later we began the ascent. With our heavily stuffed backpacks of tents, bedding and lots of food, pulling ourselves over the rocks was not easy. Our dog (by now named Lieutenant Worf) stuck with us and seemed to be quite the faithful companion. Keeping to the trail wasn't as easy as we hoped. Often finding ourselves in the thicket of brambles at dead-ends, we had to back track quite a few times until we found one of those slightly inconspicuous white arrows painted on a rock. 

By this time, our water supply had already crossed the half way point. We had hoped to buy water on the way, but unfortunately didn't find any places once we were on the train. Having packed everything else, but missing out on essential water was quite a silly move. Once we were down to just two remaining bottles, we had to make a new plan. We could complete the remaining kilometer, finish the water and have nothing more for the descent, or camp out where we were and miss out on the summit with some water for the next morning. We chose wisely, and were lucky to find a fairly level patch of ground just off the trail. 

Once the tents were up, we each had a nightcap of two sips of water. The stars were beautiful and the breeze refreshing. We managed a couple hours of sleep despite some disturbances in the night. Lieutenant proved to be the ultimate watch dog, but at some point early in the morning decided that he had served his time and left us for another group of trekkers. 

We were up before sunrise while the moon was still bright. We set out quite quickly downhill with one goal in mind- water. With replenished stomachs from a house on the way, a ten minute wade in the lake (would have definitely jumped in, if we didn't have a train to catch), we completed the last few kilometers of the trail and the railway line and were at the station in time for the train back to Bangalore.

Sleepy, achy, hungry, relieved. But mostly quite thrilled with all the adventure that came with the 15 hour trip. :)  

Photo credits: Everyone, except me. I lugged my camera all the way without the memory card. :/ 

April 03, 2016

MicroAdventure - March

Location: Coorg
Plan: Night Trek and Camping, Find a waterfall and sit under it, Go to Coorg and find an accessible natural water source! 

This summer weather has made me quite grumpy. I've been spending a large percentage of each day complaining and sulking about (and blaming everything on) the weather. To make things worse, I did not have an escape plan and somehow the days went by so fast and it was already the last week of March. I had some random ideas towards the end of the week, but sadly they didn't materialise into actual plans. I sulked more on Saturday, knowing that Sunday was my only day to go somewhere. Anywhere.

Aditi, who somehow tolerates most of my complaining all day at work came to my rescue. She messaged me Saturday evening telling me that she'd come along if I had any trip plans. Exactly 2 hours later, we were at the bus stop! We spent 7 hours on a bus with hard non-reclining seats and slightly squished next to a lady who didn't have much regard for personal space. It was still worth the cheap tickets though! At 5:30 in the morning, we found ourselves in the chilly Madikeri bus stop up in the Coorg hills waiting for daybreak. 

Sunday is a slow day for the already slow-paced town. With the exception of a few morning walkers, life unfurled gradually over the course of our town exploration. We watched gardens being swept, cars being washed, newspaper rounds, and milk being put to boil in the coffee shops. We nosily peeked through gates and over walls as we walked and within two hours, we had covered most of the little streets and even scaled the ramparts of the Madikeri fort.

Post breakfast, the town seemed to be a little more awake and we inquired about waterfall options in the area and then headed out to the closest one from the town. It was quite a disappointing waste of a couple of hours, I should say. The trickle of water that formed a greenish frothy pool at the bottom of the rock face was not what I had in mind. The pathway at the edge of the water was filled with selfie-stick tourists who somehow still felt the need to take a gazillion pictures. Ugh. The ride there and back through forests and coffee estates was quite pretty though. 

Our borderline desperation attempts to find some water to jump into put us on a local bus shortly afterwards for an hours ride to the Cauvery river. The conductor had to wake us up at our stop and we jumped off the bus in a daze only to find ourselves still another ride away from any water. 

We reached the river at Dubare Forest and much to our dismay, found the place teaming with picnickers and squealing rafters. We walked along the river banks until we were far from all of that. The summer had brought down the water levels baring many rocks that divided the span of the river. 

This space was our own and the water was so inviting! I cannot tell you how the next few hours passed. With barely any energy to do any proper swimming, we let the gentle current rock us into bliss. The surface of the water was warmed by the sun but deeper down, a refreshing coolness. We found perfectly shaped rocks to wedge ourselves between, and with just our faces out of the water surface, we could easily be mistaken as lifeless. 

We stayed in their until our fingers and toes resembled raisins and we had started smelling of the river. The only other people we saw were a group of stark naked village kids who jumped between the rocks in and out of the pools fishing with one piece of cloth. They were fully immersed in their afternoon fun oblivious to the hot rocks, the sun and us. 

It was seriously difficult to pull ourselves out from the water. After drying ourselves in the sun we headed back on the bus to the town. Aditi wanted to try some local Coorg cuisine, so we managed to find one restaurant that was open for an early dinner. We were ravenous and gobbled up the food despite it being a below average meal. We were asleep before the bus even left Madikeri and woke up back in Bangalore at 4 in the morning and we were back at work a few hours after that. 

So much post-trip depression to add to Monday blues. I found myself dreaming about floating in the river so many times through the day. Until next time. 

March 04, 2016

MicroAdventure - February

Location: Jayamangali Black Buck Reserve, Tumkur
Plan: Spot some black buck and (hopefully) camp in the reserve. 

I had made two other plans for February's microadventure, and both completely flopped. One Sunday, my brother and Dad went out birding to Jayamangali and much to my delight, found out that with permission from the forest reserve, you can camp there.

The day before the trip, we got a reply from the forest department rejecting our request. I was quite grumpy at the thought of failing my yearly plan in month 2. Nevertheless, my optimistic family packed up the car with tents, sleeping bags, pillows, cameras, binoculars, 16 litres of water and plenty of food, and we left home at 3 in the morning.

We were in the park at dawn. We spent about 3 hours driving through the reserve in our not-a-four-wheel-drive car. The bird enthusiasts were quite enthralled by their sightings and even saw a few lifers (first sighting in their life). I learned a few new bird names which I've already forgotten. Most exciting of all were the black buck. Despite the open grasslands, they weren't easy to find. Camouflaged against the grass and with their ability to disappear behind bushes and rocks, it was quite a treat when we spotted them. We usually saw them in pairs or groups of females, a male and an immature male. They always saw us before we saw them and they watched us as intently.  

Black buck are not found in many regions of India. Being a near threatened species, Jaymangali is one reserve where they are found in abundance (about 150 of them). The males have stunning markings- the dark browns and whites, their curly antlers, eyes and ears. Even their butts are quite pretty! The females are quite plain in comparison and the immature males are sort of a cross between the two - female colours with the antlers (after some argument on the subject, we came to an agreement!)

Another bonus of the day was that, besides the forest ranger and some of the villagers passing through, we were the only people in the reserve. We found a lovely watch tower where we spent the hot hours of the day sleeping, eating, and watching the birds and more black buck from the higher vantage point. The best time for animal spotting in the wild is sunrise and sunset, so we spent the last hours of the daylight driving through the park again. 

Towards the end of the day, we went back and met the forest watchman to ask if we could stay. After a few phone calls to the forest range officer and lots of begging, we were given permission to camp there! 

The reserve had a few tent platforms and we had only a short time left before nightfall to pitch our tents. Before long, we were engulfed by darkness, lots of noisy crickets and cicadas, but thankfully no mosquitos. We relied on phone torches and starlight as we ate dinner since we forgot to bring the torches. We also only packed 2 spoons, so we had to take turns eating! The forest house had nice toilets, so our camping night didn't have to be completely wild. :) 

I sat out in the chair for a while on my own after the others went to sleep watching the stars and listening to some unidentifiable noises from trees and bushes. There were some lights on the hills in the horizon from the villages, so the night wasn't as dark as I had presumed it would be. The rest of the night went by with no wild visitors. 

We had an early start the next morning. After packing up and eating, we drove around a little more. Spotted more birds and more buck, and then it was back on the road and back to the city. All in all, it was such a restful trip (for me at least). A perfect way to spend the Sabbath. I caught up on all the lost sleep from the week, the fresh air cleared my lungs of all the city dust and smoke that I breath in on my commutes and the quiet time with family and wildlife was certainly rejuvenating.