Monday, August 11, 2014

Cycling in the Lush Green Countryside of Coorg - Monsoons of Karnataka, In Pictures!

Ever since I moved to Bangalore in 2008 I made it a point to visit Western Ghats in monsoons, year after year, without fail! This year, I made two back to back trips in a week. [Things I can do now that I'm jobless! ;)]. In July, I first visited the lush jungles of KGudi where I also managed to sight a Tiger in wild. 

Two days after I returned from KGudi, I went on a cycling trip with The Adventure Gypsies in Coorg, a fun adventure company started by my good friends. Except I didn't cycle. Still reeling from the cold I caught during KGudi jungle safaris, I didn't want to miss this trip but there was no way I could cycle with bad cold and fever. So instead I sat inside the support vehicle to bring you a glimpse of how awesome monsoons in Western Ghats are! :)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Over two days we saw as many vehicles as we count on fingers, no kidding! The route was through the lush green countryside of Kodava land. It rained on and off but when it rained it poured and it looked like those who cycled had the time of their lives.  

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
That's me doing my classic jump! I was trying hard not to get tempted to get into the mud and rain with my cold and fever. But who can resist a landscape like this? ;)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
My friends did a recce few weeks before to finalize the route and went through several tiny villages. The kids of this particular village remember my friend Rajesh here, and were quite excited to see him!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Between the dense forests, small patches of land were used for terrace cultivation. With it beautiful steps, red mud and lush green fields, it looked insanely beautiful when the clouds rolled in over from the mountains beyond.

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
That's Mallali Falls in full flow surrounded by dense jungles at the foothills of Pushpagiri Mountain range. We walked to this falls in pouring rain late in the evening on day one as part of the ride. 

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
And here's a selfie of a different kind! Me soaking in the freshness of an overflowing stream by the road side. Love the dash of red in my slippers. ;)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
We drove, many rode along lush rice fields like this. Flooded and looking beautiful under a monsoon sky!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Small streams and brooks were overflowing to the brim under the spell of a generous monsoon! Insane amount of greenery and awesomeness packed into two days.

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
The vast grassland was irresistible for many reasons, but the main reason was the amazing photo opportunities! Just look at this, who doesn't want a photo here? ;)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Pretty much shows how the ride over two days was - green, wet, misty and awesome!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
This is one of the many approaches to Harangi Backwaters. We walked along this muddy route to get to the waters but in reasonably dry season, makes for a good mountain biking route!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Coffee Plantation workers using their traditional raincoats which work like a charm. A Plastic cover that's pointed over the top and stays on top of their head while they work in the farms. A part of the route also goes through lush coffee plantations.

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
On the way, we encountered many such green and vast grasslands. These were fields that were yet to be sowed and were left empty till the rains subside for a while. But it was a great place to cycle and walk around!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Last time I cycled in the rain in Madikeri, I enjoyed it the core. It was around the same area with but we did climb up and down a lot. In this ride however, the route was nice with nominal gradient and perfect for beginners. Beautiful countryside routes passing through dense forests, lush fields and brimming backwaters. 

I could talk more about how much I love monsoons but by now, you all probably know and it doesn't make sense to repeat the same old again. So, how did you enjoy this Monsoon Odyssey? My friends at TAG, (The Adventure Gypsies) have many more events planned for the monsoon, do join if you like getting off the beaten path.

Have you done any monsoon trips so far? Let me know in the comments.

More Monsoon Magic Here :-
Monsoons of Rajasthan - Photos of Desert in the Rains!
Monsoons of Kerala - The Offbeat side of Mystical Munnar
Monsoons of Sikkim - Photos of Nature Extraordinaire
Monsoons of Maharashtra - A Photo Essay of 1800+km Weekend Journey!
Monsoons of Karnataka - Photos of Cycling in the Rain, Madikeri
Monsoons of Karnataka - A Wild Monsoon Outing to the Jungles of BR Hills!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Wild Monsoon Outing & My First Tiger Sighting - K Gudi Jungle Lodges at BR Hills

Last week I spent 3 days in the dense forests of Biligiri Rangaswamy Hills in Karnataka along with fellow travel blogger Anita Bora, on invitation from Jungle Lodges. BR Hills is where the Eastern Ghats meet Western Ghats and you can see the landscape change quickly from one side to the other. This little known Wildlife Sanctuary also happens to be a Tiger Reserve with 44 Tigers, 75 Leopards and 600 Elephants! Ever since my visit to Kanha & Bandhavgarh last year and Dandeli earlier this year, I have been slowly growing fond of wildlife and jungle safaris. This trip sealed the deal with the beautifully green, rain-soaked forests and my first ever Tiger sighting in the wild!

Did you know? Unlike other National Parks in the country, Wildlife Sanctuaries in Karnataka do not close down during monsoons. Meaning, you get a chance to witness the beauty of the forests in full monsoon glory!

KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
The generous monsoons have turned the forests of BR Hills into a magical green paradise! We went on the safaris with constant drizzle and heavy downpour for company. It was so cold in the open jeeps that I caught cold right away but it was totally worth it.   

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
Our first sighting was handsome Changeable Hawk Eagle. I am usually not that fond of birds but look at the beauty of this majestic bird!

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
One afternoon, we went to the centuries old Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple on the hill top. We walked up the stairs and I walked around the temple to find this breathtaking view of what looks like Eastern Ghats to me.  

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
If you go towards West, this is the kind of forest you encounter which is very typical of Western Ghats. The forest was green beyond imagination, drenched in fresh rain and full of misty views. 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
Look who's behind the bushes! My first Tiger sighting in the wild, it was as exciting as I had always imagined. The sighting lasted less than 5 seconds but we could hear the pair moving around us and grunting loudly for more than 10 minutes. It is extremely difficult to sight tigers in the monsoons and even more difficult to sight them in BR Hills with its dense forest. But I guess, my time had finally come to witness the magnificence of this creature.

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
All the ponds inside the forest was full and brimming. We saw Stripe Necked Mongoose next to one pond, several deers and sambars next to others. It was so nice to see the forest lush and thriving! 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
We went on a total of 4 safaris - in the morning and in the evening. We saw many birds, Indian Gaur, Wild Boars, Barking Deers, Serpent Eagles, Jungle Owlet, Wild Mynas and many more birds whose names I do not know. For such a dense forest, it was surprisingly easy to spot wildlife. Loved all the safaris. 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
Stunning view of the dense, layered and forest-covered mountain slopes from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple. Dark clouds moved swiftly across the sky pouring down like crazy one moment and disappearing the next. Being in the Western Ghats in monsoons is an unparalleled experience!

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
A Crested Serpent Eagle gracefully sitting on top of a dried up tree. It sat there quietly as we drove towards it. It was very curious and from what I could make out of its head movements, it was checking us out too! 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
A nightjar, which apparently is quite rare to see in the daytime this being a nocturnal bird, stopped us in our tracks as you can see. This particular safari was even more enjoyable as we were in company of avid birders and a knowledgeable Naturalist. 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
A Barking Deer wondering when is the right time to run away into the bushes to escape the incessant clicking noises! Shortly after we, the photographers, started clicking, it ran back into the dense forest.

Where to Stay? - KGudi Jungle Lodges at BR Hills

This camp is one of the very few resorts in India which is located inside a wildlife sanctuary and offers a truly wild experience. Since it is located inside the forest, there is no power supply. Generator is used for electricity needs through the day only for few hours and it is shut down strictly by 10PM leaving the camp in absolute darkness. There are no fences to keep the wildlife out and wild animals freely walk into camp after dark and many times during the day as well. There are 8 well appointed tented cottages and 3 wonderful log huts(stayed in one of these). The camp overlooks densely forested hills and is surrounded by tall trees that sway like mad on windy days. There is absolutely no noise pollution apart from the sound of screeching insects and wild winds.

Location - 86km from Mysore and 225km from Bangalore
Reservations and Details here -

KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
The comfortable Log Hut we stayed at. (Left) The interiors of the Log Hut - 3 beds, attached Bathroom, and a beautiful balcony to see the mist rolling on the hills opposite to the hut. (Right)

So this was my first monsoon foray in this season and I couldn't have asked for a better start!
Where have you escaped/planning to escape this monsoon? Let me know in the comments.

{P.S - I was about to leave to BR Hills with just an Ultra Wide Angle but in the last minute I rented an 18-200mm Canon Lens from Tapprs - my gear partner, just in case I saw a tiger! Highly unlikely scenario but so glad I borrowed it. :)}

Friday, July 11, 2014

Surreal Beauty of Sikkim, In Pictures - Goecha La Trek

Goecha La is a high altitude trek in West Sikkim famous for grand views of Mt Kanchenjunga. Over a week, we climbed to 5000m and were suitably rewarded with surreal views. Here's a quick story of what happened and what we saw, in pictures!

Note : The beautiful zoomed in pictures of the mountains was possible only because of the super steady Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens I rented from Tapprs - A Bangalore Based Photography Gear Rental Company. It was really really hard to stay still in that cold! :)

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
I'm not going to make you wait to show you what the trek was all about! Here's a grand view of the 8586m high mammoth of a mountain, the mighty Kanchenjunga, third highest mountain in the whole world. We trudged up to a height of 5000m, walked for a whole week, in the night, in the morning, in the evening for this. For this view, we hiked from 1AM till 3PM the next day, worth it? Totally!

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
Sikkim is famous for two things, unobstructed view of Mt. Kanchenjunga and the stunning rhododendron bloom that paints the landscape in all shades in April/May. We didn't miss the glory, we saw flowers of all colors - pink, yellow, red, white! This was on the second day of the trek, we gained a height of whopping 5000ft in a single day. It was crazy as hell. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The treks starts from Yuksom in West Sikkim. The first day we entered Kanchenjunga National Park and walked through dense forests with nasty little flying insects and abundant yaks for company.  We started from Yuksom and camped at Bakhim(9000ft) for the night. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The next day was a long day. We started from Bakhim towards Dzongri at 14000ft high. The climb was long and endless but this view at the Devrali Top made up for it. For the first time, we saw the clouds clear up to show the mountains hiding behind them. It was a glorious day, two things Sikkim's known for were right in front of us - the mountains and the flowers.

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The third morning, we woke up at the ungodly hour of 3AM and climbed to up to a sunrise point, Dzongri Top at 15000ft. Because sunrise happens here at 4.30AM. It was so damn cold that it was impossible to stand still, we had to keep moving to generate body warmth. Taking pictures was next to impossible for me as I tend to get very cold very easily. But having a good lens helped! Early morning glory shining on the mountain tops. This looks like Mt. Kabru but need confirmation.

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
Same morning, same place, another view. Turning back from Dzongri Top I saw clouds fill up the valleys, ready to leave. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
On the fourth day, we marched towards Lamuney, the camp before Goecha La. The terrain was flat, felt like high altitude with little vegetation and stark landscapes. We walked on the pleasant terrain for a while before the altitude dropped like crazy. We went down to Kokhchurung all the way down to the river and walked up again to our campsite. From 14500ft we lost the altitude just like that. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
So it turned out the campsite at Lamuney was full, so we stopped at Thansing. But the catch was on the summit day, we'll have to cover that extra distance and climb to the pass and walk back extra to reach back to Thansing. So we did, woke up at 1AM and climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed. It was a long climb to 5000m/16000ft and back! But we did it, for the sake of mountains. Seen here is Mt. Pandim glowing in the moonlight. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
We reached Goecha La View Point 1 by sunrise time, it was a very difficult climb for me considering I hadn't exercised at all in 2 years but I made it. Barely so, but I reached. We got a small glimpse of might Kanchenjunga, the same picture you saw at the beginning of the post. But then we proceeded towards Goecha La View Point ahead for a close up view of Kanchenjunga. That was the longest hike ever, at least if felt like that. We crossed a desert, a barren rocky field and a huge mountain slope covered in scree. Only I know how I crawled through the landscape, and thanks to few other friends who were equally tired but wanted to reach the viewpoint2, I managed to reach the second viewpoint. But what a disappointment because Kanchenjunga was right in front of us, completely shrouded in clouds! No view, zilch! But the silver lining was this gorgeous glacial lake, Goecha Lake. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
This is the view of Kanchenjunga from Dzongri Top, since we didn't see anything from Goecha La View point 2, I'm showing you this. :) My friends went ahead on another hour long hike to the original Goecha La while me and a friend embarked on the impossibly long hike back to campsite.

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The hike back to the campsite, Thansing was so long it felt like an eternity. We we were so spent with the climb up that walking back felt impossible. We slept on the desert, stopped by the moraines, sat by the lake side and yet the campsite was nowhere near. We walked all afternoon and finally reached 14 hours after we started. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The sparkling blue Samiti Lake just below Goecha La Viewpoint 1. The sun sparkled for few minutes to reveal its colors. It was cloudy for most of the trek, I didn't see blue skies, gorgeous sunsets or glorious mornings. It was cold and cloudy all the time but at least we got view of Kanchenjunga when it mattered!

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
The surreal landscape of high altitudes in Sikkim. The land was barren but stubborn vegetation dotted the landscape.  A clear water stream ran through the valley and somewhere between this is Lamuney campsite. We walked past it to the next campsite. 

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
On the fifth day, we were back to greenery. We walked along the river for a long time before entering dense forest where no yak has littered the path. It was extremely long again, but beautiful nonetheless. Our guide, Basant enjoying the view or rather waiting for the laggard, me! ;)

Sikkim, Goecha La Trek
Yaks are used as the pack animals in Sikkim. And the thing with yaks is they carry little, are quite stubborn and they shit a lot! So you can imagine the trail with the rains, slush and abundant yak shit. The trail was the dirtiest I've ever walked upon and I wondered at my own decision of hiking with yaks. Sometime in future I'd like to do away with pack animals and hike alpine style. But for now, I had to live with the guilt. This trail from Kokhchurung to Dzongri however was only for hikers, yaks go through another route. This day was again very long but also extremely beautiful. We climbed through narrow trails amidst dense misty forest and full of rhododendron bloom. The next day, another long walk later we were back in Yuksom.

Goecha La is a trek unlike any other I have been on so far. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful in terms of views but the route is a little bit tricky. You climb almost every day, even when you are returning back. But there are trekkers huts everywhere making the trek a little but comfortable. The views were worth the effort however, Sikkim is very very beautiful. I was convinced of this again. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

7 Interesting things about Bhutan you probably didn't know!

Bhutan, the last Shangri-La and a beautiful Himalayan Kingdom, was once reclusive but now charms visitors with its unique culture, history and a whole lot of natural beauty. Earlier this month I spent a week in this magical land and was quite taken by this country and its many fascinating peculiarities. Here are 7 things you probably didn’t know about Bhutan.

1. A flower was so rare, it was thought to be a myth, like the Yeti!

Rare Himalayan Blue Poppy
One cold morning, I was languidly walking on a trail at Chele La(3700m). Prayer flags fluttered ferociously as the mountain gust forced its way over the pass. Yet I walked absentmindedly, when a brilliant blue flower suddenly stopped me in my tracks. The petals of the clearest blue were gently hanging from a yellow center and a long stem. It was mesmerising.

That afternoon, I came to know that the gorgeous flower was Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis) and that it is the national flower of Bhutan! Perfectly makes sense, a beautiful national flower for a beautiful country. But what I didn’t know was that this is a super rare flower, thought to be a Himalayan myth like the Yeti for several years because only a handful had ever reported seeing it. And if you are batman fan, you know that rare blue flower that grows on eastern slopes that Ra’s-al-ghul wanted Bruce Wayne to find so he can join the Shadow of the Leagues? Yup, this is the one! But that’s not all; this plant grows only in the barren high altitudes from 3000m to 5000m for several years before blooming only once and then dies. Oh if that’s not exclusive enough, it blooms only during a short window during early monsoons (Late May to July).

Talk about luck, that I walk about on some random hilltop and find the exotic rarity, the iconic Blue Poppy! (P.S - Still can’t wrap my head around it, that I saw something so rare)

2. A Capital City with no traffic lights!

Thimphu, A Capital City with no Traffic Lights
The glowing capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu. 
Thimphu is one of the only two capital cities in the world to not have a single traffic light. They had one installed at one intersection but had it removed and got back the traffic police upon popular demand! The residents felt traffic light was too impersonal. Now that’s a thought. If the country’s busiest city doesn’t have a traffic light, I think it is safe to extrapolate the whole country doesn’t! I’m not sure but it seems like a good possibility.

Anyhow, having seen the way people drive in Bhutan I guess they’ll do just fine without traffic lights. They easily give way to other vehicles and do not mind waiting to let other’s pass before them and when someone gives way, the driver always thanks them in return. Turns out Bhutan got the roads, motor vehicles, electricity etc only after the 60s, I wonder how long before they give in to the ways of the rest of the “developed” world like incessant honking and such. But for now, it is still the last Shangri-La.

3. Is it a goat? Is it a cow? It’s both, it’s a Takin!

Takin, Bhutan's National Animal
And giving the national flower tough competition in the exotic category is the national animal, Takin! It’s a weird cross between goat and cow, both the face and the height falls somewhere between these two animals. It’s found only in Bhutan and parts of China and northeastern India.

The legend goes something like this; there was once a “Divine Madman” who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. He was asked to perform a miracle during one of his lectures, to which he obliged but only if he was provided lunch – a full cow and goat. After his sumptuous meal, he rearranged the left out bones of the cow and goat, goat’s head on a cow’s body. With a click, the strange chimera was bought to life and it started grazing the pastures. Since this animal had many references in Bhutan’s folklore, the king deemed it fit to be a national animal. It was declared so in 1995.

Also, the National Bird is a raven!
Three eyed raven anyone?

4. That’s right! It’s an erect penis you saw painted on the house.

Phallic Paintings on houses in Bhutan
Phalluses can be seen painted on the walls of many houses in Bhutan.
Apart from Takin, another oddity that can be attributed to the “Divine Madman”, the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley, is the ubiquitous phallus! Known for his crazy ways of enlightening others, legend has it that he subdued evil spirits and turned them into protective deities by hitting them with his erect member, which by the way is also referred to as “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom”. He is known as the fertility saint and the site blessed by him is home to the famous Temple of Fertility, Chimi Lakhang. Women from all over the country come here seeking blessings to conceive a child, and you ask how is one blessed? By being struck with a wooden phallus, of course!

This belief that Kunley’s “thunderbolt” can ward off evil spirits led to the tradition of painting giant phalluses on the walls of houses and hanging little wooden replicas on the four corners of the roof. Thankfully, we skipped visiting Chimi Lakhang, otherwise it would’ve been quite awkward with family in tow. But I did see houses with phallic paintings and shops selling wooden phallic souvenirs in plenty.

5. Money doesn’t buy happiness and they know it!

Tiger's Nest Monastery or Taktsang Monastery
The iconic Tiger's Nest or Taktsang Monastery at Paro, Bhutan
Which is why Bhutan measures the country’s growth in terms of Gross National Happiness as opposed to the Gross Domestic Product as followed by the rest of the world. I don’t know how they measure the intangibles - sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance but these four pillars form the basis of GNH measurements. As part of this they have taken several noteworthy measures like it is mandatory to maintain at least 60% Forest cover! To deal with the cultural obliteration and environmental degradation that unchecked tourism can bring in, they work with a concept of “high value, low impact” tourism where visitors are charged $250 per day as visa fees. But this includes accommodation, transport, guide charges. Locals are given a yearlong training in Bhutanese culture, history and hospitality before they can officially guide tourists. At the outset, people do seem quite happy as we expect them to be in a Shangri-La!

Reportedly, a local once told a NatGeo Reporter “In our most beautiful places, we build temples and monasteries, and everybody goes there. In your most beautiful places, you build five-star resorts, and only the very rich go there.” With that attitude it's no surprise Bhutan's one of the happiest nations in the world!

6. Indian Army has a huge base in Bhutan!

Indian Military Training Team Base, Bhutan
Indian Army Training Mission in Bhutan
One afternoon, we were driving towards Haa Valley in eastern Bhutan when a faintly familiar sight of green rooftops greeted us. Few winding curves later, we saw a group of women walking by. They were looking very much Indian. While we were wondering out aloud, quickly our driver quipped, “They are Indian wives!”
“Wives of whom?”
“Of the Indian Army men stationed below” he said pointing to the green rooftops below.

What I thought to be Haa Village turned out to be the Indian Army’s training mission in Bhutan. No wonder the rooftops looked so familiar, just like the ones we see in Ladakh. The Indian Military Training Team is responsible for training and equipping Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and Royal Bodyguards (RBG) personnel. The RBA was formed in 1950s, one of the reasons being the pressure from India because the country saw Bhutan as its weakest link in its defense against China.

Roads and Telecom came to Bhutan only in 1960s, but do you who built those 1500kms of roads in the crazy mountain territory? None other than our very own experts at Border Roads Organizations! No wonder our two countries are so friendly!

7. Only 8 pilots are qualified to fly into this airport!

Paro Airport, Bhutan
Landing and Taking Off from here is a tricky business, Paro Airport. 
Rumour has it only 8 pilots can land on this narrow strip between mountains as high as 18000ft that surround the city of Paro. When was the last time you saw a landing strip with so many obstructions in every direction? The pilots are required to navigate the valley through a series of sharp turns before landing or taking off. As you can see in the picture here, the airport is surrounded by mountains on all direction except for the narrow valley to the right, the plane will take several sharp turns during take off and landing.

Looking at the videos posted online, it’s scary how close the plane gets to the mountains. At places like this, there’s no room for error. No wonder only 8 pilots are skilled to nail the landing and take offs. In the video featured in the link below, we can see the pilot is taking sharp left and right turns at 1000ft, 500ft and even 100ft before landing! So basically we need skills like Baloo Bear from Talespin minus the crash landings. It is one airport where equal importance is given and should be given to visual judgment than relying on instruments.

So what do you think? Shocked or intrigued by any of these?

Photography Equipment:
The images were shot with my trusty Canon EOS 500D, Tokina 11-16mm F2.8 and a Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens rented from Tapprs - A Bangalore Based Photography Gear Rental Company.

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