Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Forest in My Eyes - Exploring Tadoba with My Toddler

In a typical year, we would travel once every quarter or more, mostly to the national parks in the country or sanctuaries and when not travelling we would be scouting the best properties and experiences for our next quarter, rearranging our travel gears and writing and chatting about the highlights of the last travel.

But this is not a typical year – and travelling has only been in the talks and the aftertalks!

The past four years, we have not traveled anywhere – no, it was not for lockdowns or covid blues, it was a natural call. We had our son – so when he was tiny, all we could manage was travelling to our native and back (and a touch me not trip to Goa). But all this while I would often lay down beside my little human, close my eyes and dream big – travelling far and wide with him and as a family of three. I was itching to be back in the forest, soak in the wild. Wildlife safaris in India has too shifted to digital booking - more systematized but coarser too in terms of experience if you yourself booking a safari and tatkal booking is a bother just like train reservations.

We did not book in advance, so here we were, after contemplating for months, finally trying to book our first safari in the span of two days online (yes, that’s tatkal) and ughh! We clearly could not get through! But did it stop us from hitting the road? Nahh. As they say, ‘A man can only resist so much before he gives in.’ We got our car serviced the day before. We packed our gears, lots of woolies and thermals, food, and medicines, inflatable car bed, travel pillow and blanket for Aronyok and some handy toys and books. No cosmetics and fragrances this time. We wanted to travel as light as possible. We started at 6 pm. Destination: Nagpur. Distance: 730 kms. Route: Pune -Ahmednagar- Aurangabad- Jalna- Chikli-Akola-Amravati route.

The roads are good without glitches with 2 and 4 lanes; you will find lots of local eateries, fueling stations with restrooms and tyre menders along the road. There is generally medium traffic, but we could dodge it because of the overnight drive.

Before a long drive, we usually have targets in mind, with multiple pitstops and ETAs. This helps in breaking the monotony and keeps the mind alert. This time we carried F&B as we had no plans to stop more than twice, and we were not eating out either. So, we took our first halt at a fuel station to fill up the tank and eat dinner. Second to freshen up at 4:30 pm. Aronyok slept fine at the back while we enjoyed the drive, the first night drive ever while sipping on our filter coffee every hour. We reached Nagpur at 7 am the next day and we found a decent hotel to stop over.

We always prefer to stay in a resort close to the forest, but this was the time around Christmas with people pouring in, so we had hard luck with Pench. Kanha was a little too far.  Hence, it was the easy bait Tadoba, we spoke to our old friend Munthang who is now the manager at Tadoba Jungle Camp – a one-year old resort, sister of Pench Jungle Camp – resort smaller in size, duplex cottages, impeccably designed, excellent food and of course the unforgettable warmth that will melt your heart and soul. We did not want to rough it out. So, when TJC offered a deal (a little expensive than the average tariff), we thought it was good, considering the accessibility to Moharli gate. The next morning, we ate our breakfast and packed some fruits and milk for the road. Destination: Tadoba Jungle Camp. Distance: 160 kms. Route: Chimur -Warora route.

The next day was relaxing, we did not get a safari, core was closed, the day after core and buffer both were full, so we again had a day without safari. We came here to introduce Aronyok to our first love – forest and wildlife. So, we focused on enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of the forest with all our senses. We also did a after-dinner drive onto the road from our resort to Agarzari gate. Sometimes stopped on the way. Turned our engine and headlights off. That thrill still gives me goosebumps. Aronyok was full of surprises on this trip. He did not scream, did not get scared, talked softly when we asked him to and listened carefully. He often would say, ‘Mumma, stop, birds chirping’. So yeah, he did not get bored for a second, for all good reasons. We spotted Sambars, spotted deers and wild boars out on the road – although left in a hurry the moment we turned the lights on. Aronyok himself could spot a family of spotted deer from the porch of the resort. There were deer alarm calls from time to time – we heard it at night as well from the backyard, but no big cat came out during our stay. Munthang told us that there was a tiger sighting only a week ago after 10 pm – but only for a fraction of second. They and some other guests saw right from where we had our dinner. It went into the thickets the moment they turned on the flashlight.

On the third day we luckily got a buffer booking for an afternoon safari. Excitement and adrenaline kicked in. It was the first wildlife safari of Aronyok!

We knew there was no sighting in the morning due to fog, we feared we would not get a sighting either. We were waiting in the Gypsy on the tar road passing through the park, hoping that he/she might show up, as we started hearing deer alarm calls nearby. We then turned the vehicle and went inside and follow the call. The guide got a phone call that it may be the tigress Sonam – we drove faster this time, chasing the half information we had and half instinct! But luck was not on our side! Sonam was gone before we could reach, we saw fresh pugmarks.

It was getting duskier and wind getting crispier. I wrapped one blanket around my son who felt nothing like interested by this time. We left the setting sun behind and drove along the golden grasslands on one hand and the lake on the other. And then, an unexpected screech, we witnessed something we never did in the past – a sloth bear crossing the path, the light was not apt for a bright picture, but we took several shots of his passage and it was a delight.

While we were still in awe of what just happened, and the gypsy again yelped to a halt. We had a roadblock. A herd of bison was ahead of us, lounging around and not letting us go! We got them for a few minutes before they decided to move. No, they never looked back. Happy that our safari was not that bad without the tiger sighting, we were now going back. But here we were in for another surprise - the guide gave us a hint that we might want to wait down the road for sometime and it could be the last hope to spot the big cat. We were like, ‘Haanji, kyu nahi’ with a big molten smile on our grubby dusty faces. So, we did wait for a couple of minutes – yes – you heard me right – just a couple of minutes trying to spot him, no alarm calls to tell us which side, our guide took a chance at his usual territory and there he was sitting idly behind the bushes – the Ambe Utaara – a shy adult male tiger. He was pretty far, and light was bad. After a few scape shots, we put down our cameras and watched him till he got up and vanished into the thickets. It was probably the quickest sighting we got ever! My son did see his first tiger in the wild. And boy, what a lovely parting gift it was!

The next day we stayed in bed till 7:30 am. Had late breakfast. Spent some time cycling. We had a long drive ahead of us so it was necessary to renew our energy once more. At 6 pm, we again started for Pune. 

Friday, 10 April 2020

Silence speaks a thousand words - Hampi & Badami

Lately, not only have my words grown quiet, but also my thoughts on travel. After returning from our last road trip to Hampi and Badami, I was left hollow. No no, this particular road trip was incredible! We carefully planned it for 3 months to find out the best road network, the perfect unguided and well-marked trekking trails, and the short climbing (on foot) paths that we wanted to explore.


I still remember the early rainy morning hike to the caves of Badami – majestic in one word! The massive boulders that over-watched the Agastya Lake and abundant small hillocks all over - that place was a time-machine – the hypnotic charm that morning, those caves had was unforgettable!  

The Shivalaya temples are located on the hill opposite the Badami caves, across the Agastya lake. Once we entered the ASI complex, we took the steps leading up to the temples. The temples are far less crowded as compared to the caves, and we wandered like the last Samurais. The aerial view of the Badami town from the top of the hill is to die for. So a must visit. Enjoy the unpolluted breeze and open azure sky you would not have seen in a while. No guides are available here. So, do your homework and get on!

Have you seen the movie “Guru”? You saw where the marriage took place? It is the Bhoothnath temple portico. You must take long strides along the lake to reach there. Well, it’s worth every stride! Peaceful and less crowded. Just be aware that Agastya Lake is a part of community living with local residents using it for daily chores.

Travel tip: After my trip in August, I have a feeling that the rocks look alluring when the monsoon rain water drenches the caves and give them a different hues of brown and red! But winters must be the best season to witness the clouds over the lost kingdom making it look even more shadowy, just imagining!


Okay. Thanks to the latest boom in travelling to historically rich places, Hampi tops everyone’s bucket list and everyone knows about it, something, if not everything! So, here it goes in my words – If you are done with the touristy and jam-packed Vithhal Temple, Stone Chariot, Queen’s palace, Durga Temple, you know you have seen it! I mean the body of Hampi - the famous architectural splendor, you know the history by now, as on the pages of any travel book etc. but if you wish to explore more about it after withstanding all the long walks, hikes, sweats and photobombing, come to the top of Matanga Hill – it takes an arduous 1 hour of hiking! Once up, feel. Feel your tiny existence amongst the huge boulders all around. You will have the company of the river Tungabhadra flowing behind, faint Karnataki classical music in the air, cool breeze tossing your hair like noodles, and in front of eyes, you will have nothing but the rocks, ruins and trees! That’s the soul of Hampi, if you ask me! We have spent our entire afternoon there, did not feel tired, hungry or anything. There was only one strong feeling – GRATITUDE! 

Travel tip: Hampi is gold – any season is worth to see this gold! Just be there from morning to evening to experience the ruins changing colors with the setting sun. Be an explorer. Avoid the crowd and find your own space. Take pictures. Hampi is a feeling, an experience to be lived for ages, way beyond what we already know, hear or imagine!

So, as you see, it wasn’t the trip that emptied me or left me bland. It was so intense that I could not express my feelings in writing just right after. I couldn’t see past this roadblock. Much like writer’s block, I battled traveler’s block for the longest time. I did not know where to travel next (not that I still know). I just wanted to keep looking at those pictures from the trip and relive the experience time and again.

Now after almost 2 years, I guess I know why. During our 5 days of trip then, I felt giddy the whole time. No appetite. No energy to write. After coming back home, the first thing I did was taking a blood test! And voila! My little Hampi was two and a half months old in my womb! The roadblock was eventually over! I was in my happiest zone ever, I was housing a baby inside! The father was even more excited and yes, we knew that very moment that we wanted to call him Hampi because now Hampi was literally an experience to live and relive as he entered this big beautiful world!

In the current covid-19 reality, when traveling is a far-flung dream, we have Hampi with us, and it’s such a joy to be traveling back and forth every time we call him or tell him stories of our travels and ask him to spell H-A-M-P-I! And he tries MA-MA-MUM! 

So yeah, when Hampi is here, can Badami be far behind? My parents keep asking.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Kotagiri - The Tiny Jewel!

After an across-the-board road trip to Rajasthan, we wanted to scale down a bit this time, with less time on the road and more in rest. Two things were clear – mountains and woolies (tea gardens would be a bonus if we get by one on the way). Out of three options thrown at us by the Internet – Munnar, Ooty and Coonoor, we picked none – we rather decided to see coonoor and drive up to Kotagiri, a lesser known hilly town for our two days stay. It was the end of April and Kotagiri looked like the safest bet bar the traffic, tourists, early summer humidity and over-populated resorts. But here we were, never contented with just one place on our itinerary, Mysore and Wayanad were added under the wire. These two places were already on our been-there-done-that list but look, how much we love them – we were certain to explore more!
We took an early morning flight to Bangalore and rented a car. The same day we reached Mysore where we spent a couple of days relaxing, hogging on Mysore Pak, the ultimate sweet of the south and exploring the swarming markets around Maharaja Palace in search of the best nilgiri oil. 
From Mysore we headed off to Kotagiri. As we gradually approached the reserve area, the summer heat became bearable. All thanks to the thick foliage of the Bandipur reserve that we were spiraling through. The deer made its customary appearance every once in a while – the signpost “drive slow - give way to animals” kept us fixated to looking out and looking for more. We entered the Karnataka-Tamilnadu border checkpost just when Bandipur ended and Mudumalai forest reserve roads began - on this side the forest was greener, the road bumpier and the day darker. Happy and hungry both at the same time, we badly needed a pit stop. Finally after a few minutes’ break (only inside the car) munching on dry fruits and managing a handful of shots, we started off. Another hour of swirling right and swirling left through the forested road, we left behind the quaint surroundings and were in to the hill-station zone – overfull Ooty. We thanked our intuition and decision not to stay here – it was more of a Lonavala or a Mahabaleshwar with enormous traffic to combat. Kotagiri was hardly 40 kms from Ooty but it almost took 2 hours to reach there panting, disconcerted and drained – we just crossed 35 hair-pin bends and avoided a fatal accident with an overtaking truck and still breathing.
Our small homestay – Green Nest – was nestled prettily amidst a private tea garden. The day was overcast and absent the glimmering of the sun. I quickly took off my shoes and ran to the deck, and boy! it started sheeting down heavily – rains in a tea garden – I pinched myself, I wasn’t dreaming, it was real, all real. The cold crisp air brushing through my open hair raced against my heartbeat which was faster than usual. Time to take our pullovers out and order tea, I exclaimed in joy!
After two cups of tea each and snacks, we crashed out on the bed instantly and when we woke up, it was dinner time. We wore two layers of woolens as that’s all we had, and still trembling! The dinner spread here was limited but mouthwatering. Our mandatory after-dinner walk was long overdue since Kumbhalgarh. It was full moon and the expansive tea garden with giant trees every few meters away casting a monstrous shadow over the narrow moon-lit trail ahead of us looked surreal, almost eerie – straight out of some Ruskin Bond story. We walked two kilometers approximately down the road through shola forest on one side and cliff on the other with only few meters of torch-light visibility. Following a faint sound of beating of drums, we ended up on a muddy road from where a half-barrel shaped mud homestead was seen with a small number of people, including women (supposedly tribal and almost certainly drunk) who were singing and dancing around a fire. An infant incessantly cried just next to the fire but could not get attention from a single soul. Not sure how long we hid behind the bushes to watch them, but realizing it might be unsafe if they saw us, we dimmed our torchlight and cleared out. 
Later when asked, the homestay manager grimaced and said we saw kota tribe there and they were probably performing some full moon ritual and it seemed we should not have been there so close to their place and watched them performing – good God! Another time and still breathing!
The next morning we had the weather to our side – clear blue sky, lushings of the tea gardens as far as we could see and the sun rising just in front of our eyes over the emerald mountains. We were standing at a height of about 6500 feet - the Kodanad view point, precisely. The mountain town of Kotagiri is surrounded by hauntingly beautiful wilderness, misty meadows and several waterfalls. And you do get to soak it all in just right here. We are never a sightseer in a tourist dictionary. We are dreamers and we love to keep staring at all things beautiful from a distance, knowing the calmness of the nature, finding happiness in the most unassuming spaces, like this one. We took pictures, very few though, we just didn’t want to let go of this strange dreamlike moment, a feeling so simple yet so hypnotic! In city life we don't get lost – neither in thoughts, nor in imagination, we only observe our own species, and our behaviour. Boring! Here we had company of a chameleon for a change and observing it while changing color was so much more interesting. 
It was time again! The invigorating scent of the tea garden was irresistible! We went back to our homestay to have lunch and then take a leisurely stroll through the sprawling tea estate, laced with jacaranda trees in blossom and dewy grass sprinkled with wildflowers - an experience we were going to remember for a long, long time.
These two days at Kotagiri seemed like a lifetime to us – we could not have asked for more. The place, the well-appointed cottage with maple flooring, the tea garden from the french windows and the wooden deck! But all said and done, it would have been rather a fleeting hillstation holiday had there not been the splash of untimely rains getting us both drowned in love and bliss. I adore you Kotagiri, you have been the most spectacular find in our history of travels, stay real like you are!

Monday, 26 February 2018

Kumbhalgarh - Out of the Public Eye

This was our first 3000 kms road-trip in India and no points for guessing how thrilled we really were (like little babies, you know)! The roadmap was simple and mostly focused on tolled high-way for a clean Pune-Surat-Udaipur-Kumbhalgarh-Ranakpur-Baroda-Pune expedition. We had only 5 days in hand - it was the time when I quit my job and he had to exhaust his remaining leaves before it got exhausted. January cold and sunshine pulled the spark plug - our first trip of 2018 and third trip to Rajasthan was about to begin. We travelled super-light this time with only wollens to add up to one extra small bag, besides a suitcase and my handbag thick with on-road snacks, fruits, cookies, moisturiser, and emergency medicines.

Kumbhalgarh was our last-minute detour, we ditched jodhpur for this. The reason was simple: Kumbhalgarh was greener, remoter and less popular.
About 85 kms from Udaipur, Kumbhalgarh is situated on the top of the Aravalli Hills in the middle of a forest turned into a wildlife sanctuary – Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. We had a day stop-over in Udaipur and started driving to Kumbhalgarh early in the morning. We had booked Kumbhalgarh Forest Retreat on the way for a night. 
The Udaipur-Kumbhalgarh drive was neat. The super smooth highway would have been a champion if not for the last 10 kms of extremely bumpy and terribly dusty towpath. But you just can’t ignore the beauty of these locales, this kind of experiences make for great stories to share and you become more of a traveller than just a tourist, right!
Built by Rana Kumbha to protect Mewar against the Mughal invaders, the Kumbhalgarh Fortress wall extends to the massive length of 36 kilometres later on acknowledged to be “the Great Wall of India”. A fortress embraced by the rocky Aravalli range from all sides, it is also the birthplace of Mewar’s legendary King Maharana Pratap. In 2013, this, being the second largest fortress in Rajasthan after Chittorgarh fort, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And on our day two, we were right in front of it admiring the grandeur. 
It was so enormously high and stocky that we thought a day trip was not enough to explore – we thought we were wrong to have only half-a-day in hand for this massive piece of architecture. Being one of the thousands of vehicles lined up along the narrow road waiting for parking, we finally, after a good 30 minutes of first gear (read: exasperating) drive, found a place. The entrance fee of Rs. 20 per person was unbelievably low with no charges for camera. It certainly kept us wondering why ain’t all the forts and palaces of Rajasthan are this economical - why some have to be like Udaipur City Palace – overhyped and overpriced!

We started climbing up crossing several gates starting with Ram Pol, the main entrance gate. At the top of the fortress was Kumbha Palace. You get a breathtakingly gorgeous aerial view of the entire fortress and its scenic surroundings from here. Something not to miss!
Near Pagda Pol, along the Kumbha Palace, there is another palace known as Jhalia ka Malia. This is the place where Maharana Pratap was born. This is mostly in ruins but is great for taking highly dramatic pictures.
Badal Mahal is at the highest point of the fort. Roof of this palace offers a first-rate view of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary spreading over the Aravalli Hills. The winter sun painted an auburn horizon in front of us. The cold winter breeze brushed softly against our face – after all that running-around, we sat down to soak in everything about that mighty sundown behind the great wall of India - life’s little joys and us! 
There were about 300 temples strewn across the expanse - Ganesha Temple, Swami Narayan Temple, Neelkanth Mahadeva Temple, Parsvanath Temple etc. Of these, most of them belong to Jain deities and some belong to Hindu Gods and Goddesses as well. Just in case, you have time left in hand (unlike us), do pay a visit to atleast a few and then the magnificent light and sound show in the evening to see your time travel come a full circle, quite literally.
Kumbhalgarh trip is incomplete without a safari in the sanctuary. No, don’t expect a grand Ranthambore experience here as this is more like a fun-ride to explore the wilderness while having the fortress in the background (for a quick couple picture) - you may come across a good variety of birds, sambhar and nilgai, short of anything else more wilder or exquisite.
Kumbhalgarh is for people who appreciate the unknown, the unpopular – the exquisiteness is in the backwoods, the raw wilderness, the leap into the song unsung – some of these you might not even have heard from your friends or seen in the movies and yet when you go back to the grind, you have a tale to tell to everyone you know or you want to know, something that will live forever beyond your selfies and self-love. 
Happy trails to you all !! Keep exploring the unexplored !!