Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Retro Bangalore: a Sunday search for Bangalore’s quaint charm

Bangalore mean IT, young rich, double income single kid, 20-something entrepreneurs, premium flats, swanky malls, traffic congestion and lifestyle driven up-market illness. But behind the glitter, the old world Bangalore lives on. Tired of today's cosmetic Bangalore, thought to live a day the retro way; to discover its old world sights, smell and food. What better time than a May Sunday: kids were away at their grandparents place, giving me and Smitha a rare opportunity to be thoroughly lazy – no school, no school-assignments, no karate classes...
Woke up at 10am; time was ripe for a good brunch. It is a good 1 hr drive from Marathahalli, but the mind and stomach was yearning for a snack brunch at Koshy's bakery, off Residency Road (No 1, Wellington Road). With their well baked chicken patties, beef cutlets and doughnuts filling my gastronomic thoughts, it was an unusually easy drive. At 11.30am, the dream shattered as soon as we reached; they open only at 4pm on Sundays! Bad omen: the very first expedition turned to be a failure.
Koshy's Automatic Bakery @ Wellington Road
It only multiplied my hunger exponentially. Situation demanded emergency action to calm down the mind and stomach, we quickly moved to the near by Johnson Market (Hosur Road). This was where the Bangalore had its weekly shopping chorus when Malls were not part of their vocabulary. Now it is sort of a live museum (where stuff like “xerox” is still the buzz); a highly depleted version of its original self, but still a decent place to procure grocery, vegetables and meat.
When in Johnson Market, 3 things are must to be explored – mutton sheek roll from Hotel Fanoos, soda from Madeena Stores and sulaimani (lemon tea) from Makah Cafe. These were the places where shoppers used to hangout like in today's KFCs, McDs and Coffee Days. The lingering hunger might have had its influence: the sheek kabab of Fanoos was the softest mutton kabab my tongue had ever experienced. The roll made out of it was not any far behind. The beef shawarma, however, brought me back to the world. To push these down our pharynx, we had soda (orange-peach soda and nannari soda; the later being the better) from Madeena Stores just opposite Fanoos. Though it may not be a dietary prudence to top-up soda with lemon tea, we could not resist it when Makah beckoned us.
Madeena Stores: Soda menu billboard
Makkah Cafe's Sulaimani
Though Brigade Road is no more hep, we walked down its lanes with the sole objective of creating some stomach-space for our next stop – Wild Spice, tucked silently in the ground floor of Colonel Cariappa complex building right in Richmond-Hosur Road cross. The pain of managing the one-way and parking woes was more than compensated by its divine Coorgi cuisine. Though it offers a reasonable choice, the must try is pork dry fry, an authentic Coorgi fair with a tamarind tango. In first bite itself, I submitted to it completely. Had it with rice balls, the Coorgi way, and passion fruit juice to gulp it down.
Coorgi pork dry fry @ Wild Spice
It was only 2.30pm, we had a lot of time before the 6pm show at Sangeeth theater, Shivaji Nagar. One will not find it in “book my show”. There is no online booking or telephonic reservation. If one has to see movie from Sangeeth, one need to do it the old way – stand in queue well in advance, get the ticket and rush towards the hall to capture the best seat. Sangeeth was the first “talkies” in Bangalore dedicated to Malayalam movies; continuing its service for many decades.
Sangeet Theater: Very much in Kerala; the Kannada name board is somewhat out of place!
We passed through the archaic ham shop in MG Road (Since 1928. The fact that it is surviving even today, that too in MG Road, is more than a testimony of its fan following) and proceeded to Shivaji Nagar: the original market place. The timeless human quest for the “cheap & best” makes Shivaji Nagar and its Russel Market and Commercial Street still very much the places of significance for an average Bangalore shopper. After many unsuccessful years to woo shoppers away from it, the so called modern branded chains in fact had made truce with Commercial Street by playing along and making their presence in the Street.
Bangalore Ham Shop, MG Road is placed between Sony World and TAG Heuer Watch showrooms
A beaming Russel Market
From the street: Ear rings for sale
After a leisurely 1.5 hour walk across the various by-lanes of the Street, holding the temptation to buy something, we reached Khurshid saab's antique shop, close to the police station. This is arguably the oldest antique shop in Bangalore. It does not have a name and is just known by Khurshid saab who runs it – who at some 80, is himself antique than many of the antique stuff around him.
From Khurshid saab's shop
We had tango-mango-tomato bhel in front of the strikingly brick-red St. Paul's Church (1840), which has the left over of a middle-class British flavour, unlike the near-by higher breed Gothic St. Mary's Basilica (1803). It was time to head to Sangeet. By 5.30pm there were sufficient like minded Mallus gathered there for the show, “Mumbai Police”. Rs.80 for balcony was no comparison with the average rate of Rs.250 charged in any Mall anywhere in Bangalore for a Sunday 6pm show. There were no metal detectors or baggage checking. We had more than sufficient reserve of banana chips and fanta to see us through the show. After identifying an ideal seat close to the fans, I promptly spread my legs on the seat in front and had a comfortable movie watching experience, which I would rate a notch higher than the Imax dome of PVR in Forum Mall. With rats running around your legs below the seats and moving chairs, the experience at times bordered to 4-D. Only thing to take care in Sangeet – watch out for chairs with only back rest and no seat to sit. Nevertheless, the movie per se was rather forgettable.
Mango-Tomato bhel
A dry fruit vendor. The brick-red wall of St. Paul's church is behind
At 9pm we were at Millers46 steakhouse. The crowd was yet to set in. The cowboy settings were perfect down up to the menu card. We ordered the popular Oriental Spare Ribs and Twice Marinated Steak. While the former lived up to its reputation, the later was a disappointment.
Before we wound up the day, we had a quick round inside the Cantonment Railway station famous for its arched pillars between the railway lines of Platform 1 and 2. It may also probably the only railway station to have an in-built full fledged bake house & kitchen in its platform. On early mornings one can see through its glass panels, fresh bread being baked and being stacked up for its loyal customers. While returning back home, we bought some street mango – the choice was obvious, the cheap and best, Bangalore's own Bengarapalli.
Mango time: From near Cantonment railway station
We retired the day with a solace filled mind and a stomach bulged with satisfaction.
3 gastronomic cheers!!!


Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Tiger Trail @ Periyar


The Tiger Trail @ Periyar

After our successful chase of the jungle kings at their last abode in Asia at Gir, Gujarat in December 2012, came January 2013, it was time to hunt for the other majestic cat, tiger, in Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady. This time around we didn’t have any scope to take a leave, hence decided to do the trail on a Sunday and chose Jan 20th.
The trail was booked in no time. Still afresh the memories of our Wayanad bus trip imbroglio, we made sure that the bus tickets were in hand and checked and rechecked with the bus operator to ensure that the seats are indeed available. It was convenient timing as the night bus from Bangalore was scheduled to reach Kumily at 6.30am, just in time for the 7.30am trip. It was also a decent way of saving hotel expense, giving us a viable excuse of not having enough time for a formal fresh-up.

It was dark. In the faint moonlight, behind a bamboo cluster, I spotted a tigress with 2 cubs. I was leaning for my camera, when I heard someone screaming, “Kumili”, waking me up from an inviting dream. I looked at the watch it was just 4.30am. In no time we were dumped out and the bus was gone. In the light simmering lights of faraway spice shops I read: Welcome to Kerala. And behind me I saw another sign board which says Welcome to Tamilnadu – we were standing in no man’s land.

I could still not figure out why those spice shops were open at 4.30am, when even the push cart tea guys were busy asleep. With some 2.5 hrs in hand and lingering sleep hanging, we could not afford to spent time on road. We knocked in one hotel-like gate for some 10 min just to find no response. At around 5am, we managed a hotel guy to open his gate for us. After a quick negotiation he agreed for Rs.200 rent for a 2 hr room occupation.

At 7am, we were at the Eco Development Centre; we need to find Ambili, with whom we have arranged our tickets. At 7.45am, with no Ambili in sight, we were still waiting in front of the Cntre when someone opened its gate. Tickets in hand, we hurried to the boat landing station, some 3 Km away, from where the trip is about to start.

It was an 8am to 5pm trecking cum bamboo rafting round inside the Periyar Reserve in the banks of charming Mullaperiyar reservoir. By 8.10am we were provided with our package of fruit-bread breakfast and fruit-bread lunch. Our crew of 3 Forest Guards, 3 Forest Guides and 1 Forest Officer, fully equipped with gun and oars (for rafting), guided the group of 8 well-bread foreigners and 2 mean domestics – Ranjith and me – in to the forest.

Getting ready for the day: Water bottles and Kits with fruit breakfast and fruit lunch.  All waste to be deposited back in the base

The 9 hour-trip is organized as 2 hr trek – 2 hr of bamboo rafting – 0.5 hr trek – 0.5 hr rest – 2 hr return rafting – 2 hr return trek. The whole path has a mysterious allure with the Mullaperiyar most of the time alongside us.

The trail along side the Mullaperiyar river
Getting ready for the raft

With 48 tigers in about 300 sq Km, the tiger density of Periyar Reserve is reasonable. But being an extremely shy animal, one need to have exceptional luck to sight it, especially in the evergreen thick vegetation of the Reserve which offers ample cover. Our senior guard, Koshy in his career of 10 years with the Reserve has spotted it only 8 times. With about 250 trips a year, his statistical probability of sighting is just about 0.003 times a trip! We soon resigned from harboring even the faintest possibility of tiger sighting. But this was a true case of journey being more important that the goal itself. With so much to explore around, there were a lot of momentous excitements in offing.

The first hour of the trek was rather passive with only worth-mention things being seeing wild black pepper vines and wild curry leaves. After a while from nowhere we found one Malabar Giant Squirrel glide past us. The canopy was thick, so we could not have a decent snap. Then we were negotiating a small hill-turn, suddenly we found clear signs of tiger presence – a bison skeleton. The guides explained that it was about a week old. The head and the few skeletal remains of its body found around a radius of about 10 meters were pretty well cleaned up. It was a beautiful reminder of the food chain at work – the remains of the tiger feast were consumed by lesser carnivores like bears, heynas and dingos, followed by rhodents and birds and lastly the ants and mites. And some distance ahead, in a small dried-up stream, still a bit wet, we found the chilly reminder of the killer – two pug marks from the left fore and back legs of a large male tiger. For experts, pug marks throw substantial details about the animal. The size of the pug mark along with the distances between the marks can give an idea about the length, size, age and gender of the animal. We knew this was the best we could come closer to the animal…

Tiger hunt: the cleaned up remains of a bison head

Pug mark of right hind legs of the large male tiger

At the end of the 2 hour trek, it was time for breakfast amidst the wide view of Mullaperiyar at the end of the long grasslands in front of us with thick forests on both sides. The over ripen banana and hard bun and large portions of Amul butter were unusually tasty, thanks to the walk.

Relishing the Mullaperiyar
The trade mark of Periyar Lake: tree stumps

*************************

From the start I got amused by the gunman with us, who seemed a little uninterested of the whole proceedings; he was carrying a nervous look as a default. With some initial resistance, I could cut a conversation with him. As I could make out, part of the reason for his aloofness was class division. The 7 guys accompanying the tourists are of 3 different levels. The gunman was a permanent employee of the forest department, hence formed the elite among them. While guards were part of the Eco Conservation initiative, the guides were poachers turned conservatives taken as forest guides by the Eco Conservation initiate as part of their rehabilitation program. The knowledge of the forest was inversely proportion to their class. The gunman was there as part of his job rotation and visibility exhibited his displeasure on his predicament of subjecting to labour so much out there. He had pretty much no knowledge of the forest – just like any of we tourists. Moreover, he seemed somewhat scared of a possible animal attack, particularly from bear. He later told that a couple of weeks back one of his colleagues was attacked to pulp by 3 bears in this area. I was more or less convinced that he was carrying the gun as a self-protection mechanism and has remotely to do anything with protecting the tourist. Nevertheless, there was nothing much to talk about the elderly gun itself, which was unlucky enough not to earn a deserving place in a children museum.

The guides were the real stars; they had immaculate knowledge of the forest, its ways and sounds, which had proven its worth later in spotting the King Cobra above our heads and a pair of Great Malabar Hornbills, camouflaged high in the canopy.


*************************

In our West-majority guest group, I could soon realise that the whites were not all of same colour. A group of 6 from England formed the elite amongst us, leaving Jane and Elisa seemingly closer to we two coloured natives. A natural friendship was formed amongst we 4 commons.

Both were globe trotters by their own rights. Jane, in some thirties, was in India for some 1 month by then, most of which spent on exploring Varkala beach, and was in her last few days of India trip. She was visibly concerned on two fronts: leaving India, which had by this time created an overwhelming feel in her and on her prospects of landing in London which was witnessing one of the coldest times in decades; I was not sure which among them weighed more. Elisa, a little older, seemed to be much contented. She had already spent about 3 months in Kerala and had another 1 month in hand, before which she would explore old temple architectures in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. She had spent some 1 month in Varkala, but found from Jane that she had missed some spots there, so planned to go back to Varkala as well. What was striking among them were the facts that though they were enjoying their lone back-pack trips across the globe, they are indeed concerned to travel alone, being females. They also derived great amount of pleasure out of the numerous unplanned trips they make within a country. Mostly, their trip plans are fairly simple: decide a country to visit and have a time frame; once they reach, the rest of the visit is just spontaneous – a luxury a family traveler can never dream of.

Our group: 1st from left is Elisa and 3rd from left is Jane

*************************

Elephants are gentle giants. The mother elephants are extremely caring for her calves. The two mothers which we saw from our bamboo raft, were fully aware of our presence and were guarding their two calves from two sides. Once they judged that we were not threat to them, they started moving more freely. We watched them for some 20-30 minutes, till they moved north, towards a small island nearby. Though the Periyar Tiger Reserve does not allow any human settlement inside, some tribes are given right for fishing in the waters. There were a few fishermen in the island and for some reasons, the mother elephants didn't want them there. It was an unexpected scene to see both the elephants charging towards them forcing the fishermen to jump into the relative safety of the river.

A Periyar tribal fisherman in his canoe

The two babies between their moms

*************************

Elephants are gentle giants. The mother elephants are extremely caring for her calves. The two mothers which we saw from our bamboo raft, were fully aware of our presence and were guarding their two calves from two sides. Once they judged that we were not threat to them, they started moving more freely. We watched them for some 20-30 minutes, till they moved north, towards a small island nearby. Though the Periyar Tiger Reserve does not allow any human settlement inside, some tribes are given right for fishing in the waters. There were a few fishermen in the island and for some reasons, the mother elephants didn't want them there. It was an unexpected scene to see both the elephants charging towards them forcing the fishermen to jump into the relative safety of the river.


*************************

While walking towards our lunch spot, one of our guides, aptly named Daivom (i.e., God) spotted a full grown King Cobra, up in an overhead branch, just some 5 meters away. The cobra blessed us with a lazy look, giving us enough time for all our cameras to relish.

King Cobra: As close as it can get

While walking towards our lunch spot, one of our guides, aptly named Daivom (i.e., God) spotted a full grown King Cobra, up in an overhead branch, just some 5 meters away. The cobra blessed us with a lazy look, giving us enough time for all our cameras to relish.


*************************

By this time we had seen the endangered Nilgiri Langur, palm sized super tadpoles of Large Wrinkled Frog endemic to Western Ghats, a host of birds, etc. But the most cherished catch was the Great Malabar Hornbill couple. While walking back one of our guides quickly identified the unique rough-call of the Hornbills. We walked some half a kilometer inside the forest following the call before we spotted the two hornbills up in the last branches of the canopy at least some 100 meters above us. It was perfectly camouflaged that, only after some 10 minutes of viewing we realised that there were two birds.

The large tadpoles of wrinkled frog

Pitch black Nilgiri Langur

The hornbill couple in the canopy

*************************

Back in Kumily town by 6pm, it was bustling. The air was filled with thick penetrating smell of various spices, mixed with sweet flavours of jams and chocolates. All those fruits we had for breakfast and lunch had by this time evaporated. Before we board the 7.45 return bus, we filled ourselves with lots of rubbery Kerala porottas and beef fry, prepared in local Christian stlye, with generous dose of pepper.

I had a deep peaceful sleep while returning, momentarily obviating the  busy work load awaiting back in office due to the last quarter rush before the financial year closure in March.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A Little Run of Gujarat (Part 2)



Pink Rann, Savanna and 4000 years past


The night train off-loaded 3 of us in Viramgam at about 2 am while Nahar proceeded to Ahmedabad as he had some work in office next day. The resort (Desert Courses) where Nahar made us an arrangement for early morning safari in Little Rann of Kutch was about an hour away. He also had arranged for a cab to take us there, but it came at 5 am. This must have been one of the longest 3 hours recently. Tired, we badly wanted a place to lie down and stretch. As there was no retiring room in the station, we knocked the door of the Jain Dharmasala nearby only to find that entry is restricted to pure bred Jains. Out casted, while I decided to be contented with the cold discomforts of Viramgam railway station, Ganesh and Renjith wanted to try their luck exploring hotels nearby. Later they shared me their horror stories of stinky sheds (which they called hotels) and dirty nightlifes they encountered. Scared and tired, they were back in station by 3.30 am to share with me its unassuaging comforts.

We started at 6 am along with driver cum naturalist Ashraf Bhai. We went straight to the chota thalab. With a wonderful sun rise in the backdrop all those pink lesser flamingos flocks appeared godly. Timing and settings being perfect photographers in us got into action. The thalab was nothing but a large swamp with shallow waters in the middle. The fact that one could not walk close to the waters due to impossible sticky mud did not deter Ganesh who was literally wallowing in the mud for that perfect shot. After almost 1.5 hours of non-stop photography, we set out for the dessertier parts. It supports sizeable fauna – wild bores, dessert foxes, etc. Wild asses are a real beauty; birds are countless. A determined and knowledgeable Raju ensured that we don’t miss a part of Little Rann – the normal 3 hour safari, extended for about 6 hours. By this time, we had lost 2 nights sleep, 1 lunch and 2 breakfasts. Desert Courses offered us very good food which we consumed in tones. We also managed to get a room for free to freshen up. The Rs.500 we paid per head for the safari+food was paltry compared to what we got.



Lesser flamingos, more photographers


Lesser flamingos: Spot one albino among the pinkies



About to fly, in chorus


Beautiful wild asses


Black-shouldered Kite

By evening in Ahmedabad, it was time to charge up. Sabarmati ashram offered a perfect setting. Surprisingly, the river looked rejuvenated (when I saw it some years back, it was not better than a drain). Nahar joined by his wife and little Ishan keep pampering us with their hospitality, so dinner and sleep was well take care.


Ellis bridge across Sabarmati: View from the ashram


In the wee hours, we started for Velavadar black buck sanctuary in Bhavnagar district to reach there for the morning safari (some 6 hour drive). We went with no expectations, but it turned out to be yet another wonderful experience. I didn’t know that there are pure savannas in India. The view just blown us – the feel was as if we are in some Masai Mara for an African safari. Black bucks aptly enhanced the overall beauty of the park. It was exciting to learn that it is the world’s largest natural breeding spot for Harriers, a migratory bird. All the 6 varieties are found here. Here again, the birding experts with us ensured that we are fully engaged. While we were busy with birding, we were blessed with the awe-inspiring view of a flock of large common cranes, religiously following the “V” regiment, landing at the little water body nearby. After inspecting for some 10 minutes, they decided to continue their flight, again in a “V”. May be the less remarkable we are not up to their mark. Incidentally, Velavadar also blessed me with an opportunity to stumble on SP Singh – my IRMA batch mate and bellowed guide during our mandatory village stay in Kutch some 12 years back – and family.


Picturesque savanna


Nilgai


Black bucks

While returning, we had sufficient enough time to peek into our past, 4500 years back, in Lothal. The way things are kept and managed now in Lothal is nothing less than heart breaking. It seemed like even the archeological guys around doesn’t realize the significance of what is being preserved. But the very thought that at a time when half of the world was yet to be discovered by man and when many part of the developed world today still led a hunter gatherer life, here were a group of people making fine micro beads and jewellery for export to other civilizations like Mesopotamia, was mind blogging. It was also interesting to learn that Lothal was not a residential settlement but an industrial area, more closer to modern day SEZ(!).


Lothal, 2500 BC: very contemporary


Bead factory: see the sloping drains, well-burnt bricks and large jar


We had one evening left in Gujarat which we spend judiciously to buy some essentials to placate spouse and kid flocks back home. I also managed to catch up my old IRMA friends, Abhishek & Vaibhav who are now IIM professors. Abhishek was at his generous best; he made me 2 doses of his patented coffee – painstakingly made with Nescafe, sugar, care, love and a lot of other ingredients. He, Richa and their cute intelligent kid, Shubhi, fed me a sumptuous dinner before packing me loads of snacks and sweets, of which I liked mohandal the best (not because it sounded similar to my favourite actor, Mohanlal).

Next day morning 9 am: I’m back in office, straight from airport. Those 3 days felt like 3 weeks - too many things in too little time. In office, it was Dec quarter end with some urgent loan proposals to process; but I could see only wild asses in the balance sheets.

*************************************************************


Tail piece: One thing Gujarat can be proud of – fantastic roads, wow. It was a stark difference for someone used to Kerala & Bangalore roads. Good road is a barometer of economic well being of any place. Going by that, Gujarat indeed has a good economy. All the more, seeing those beaming bullet-jhakadas plying on those beautiful village roads was a view in itself.

A Little Run of Gujarat (Part 1)




A Little Run of Gujarat


It started with a casual call from Renjith one lazy afternoon last November – “How about a Nature trip to Gujarat? Just 4 of us – Nahar, Ganesh, you and me”

Saying yes was instantaneous; booking ticket was immaterial; but the task was to fix the dates for the trip. It was a major balancing act. We wanted to cover maximum places and maximise experiences with a clear focus on Nature. But at the same time want least possible pinch to the wallet, least possible days away from home (to limit question marks from wife) and take least possible leaves at office (to limit question marks from boss). What resulted was a tight-budgeted, thick-packed, well-timed itinerary covering the best of Nature Gujarat: Over 1100 kms of criss-crossing Gujarat, morning & evening Safaris at Gir, 6 hours of quality time in Little Rann of Kutch, early morning safari at Velavadar black buck sanctuary, understanding Lothal, a slice of Ahmedabad, a peaceful evening at Sabarmati and a bit of catching up with old friends – all in 3 days flat! Even more delightful – we could manage the cost to about ~Rs.6000 per head, excluding flight.





Foursome: Nahar, Ajith, Renjith and Ganesh (at Velavadar)

We decided on 23-25th Dec 2013 which means only 1 day of leave. To and fro air tickets were immediately booked at the cheapest possible rates. It was time to put our heads together on the itinerary. Nature was what we wanted and Gir was our pivot. Gujarat is a large state with a variety of biospheres. We brainstormed on lots of locations before pinning in for Gir (dry deciduous forest), Little Rann of Kutch (salt-marsh; dessert lands) and Velavadar (savanna grasslands). Lothal (Indus valley civilization) was enroute and thought of covering Nal Sarovar and Thol for bird watching if possible. A bit of Ahmedabad and a taste of Gandhi was also decided. Shoolpaneswar (sloth bear) and Marine National Park in Gulf of Kutch, were dropped with heart burn. Nevertheless, the itinerary promised us an exciting range of experience.

PART 1 – Gir: imbroglio & more

The plan was to tie up Gir safaris first so that other things can be planned around it. True to the typical Govt way of functioning, Gir safari booking is an unadulterated bureaucratic affair. It is run by the forest department, with daily passes limited to 150 vehicles equally divided between 3 trips a day (6.30 am, 9.30 am, 3.30 pm). Further, we were told safaris are not allowed for a few months every year. It is good that the passes are issued under strict monitoring and no external influences are known to work. While these restrictions are fair enough, the processes kills. On the face of it there is advance booking facility; but getting it is equally or even more difficult than cracking Civil Service exams. Since the department still lives in a hard-bound-Register world, there is no online booking or anything similar. No where any information is available on how to make advance booking. Determined, we called a few hotels nearby to understand how the booking is done and to check our luck whether we can get this done through them. Everyone said the same thing: There are NO advance passes available for Gir safaris! What we could gather is as follows: Since no one knew how advance booking is done, most of the passes are available on the spot. One needs to stand in queue to get the pass. Only a small glitch, the queue for 6.30 am starts at 10 pm the day before!! Further, locals are not allowed to stand in queue (weird!)! Even to get a chance for the safari, one needs to keep aside 2 days. We wanted to do the 6.30 am safari to get the best possibilities of sightings; now having one safari itself is a question mark!

In a nutshell: India Govt’s passport issuance process is simpler than issuance of Gir safari passes.

We discussed amongst us and Nahar suggested giving a try. He is already a known birding expert with some exciting works under his belt and he is functioning as an external consultant to Gujarat tourism department. After much effort, we understood the Govt ways – tourism department is tourism department and forest department is forest department. Then he cautiously suggested giving a try to his old acquaintance near Gir – panchayat member Imran Bhai. As soon as he heard out our requirement, Imran Bhai readily agreed and confirmed us: “nothing to worry, no advance booking is required; you just pack and come to Gir, rest I will take care!”. Imran Bhai has become our guardian angel in Gir.

All set for Gir, we worked our ways on the other items in the itinerary, which was fairly easy. On Dec 22nd, we spoke to Imran Bhai just to say, “hello, we’ll meet you the day after”. Our jaws dropped; he said – rules have changed, forest officials have changed, there is big rush, it seems difficult, let me still try… It is clear – we do not have passes for Gir safari.

All the excitement gave way to utter dilemma. We can’t even cancel our trip (cheap air ticket also means non-cancellable). Following the air timings (to reach Ahmedabad by 8 pm on Dec 23rd) we had already booked train tickets to Junagad (closest rail head to Gir; Ahmedabad 10 pm – Junagad 4.30 am next day) and from there to Viramgam (for Little Rann) next day. Spending 2 days in Gir with no surety of safari pass will jeopardize our whole schedule.

Dec 23rd 2012, 4pm (on our way to airport): As a last valiant attempt to do something about the Gir safari we kept calling all the phone numbers of Gir forest department office we could gather from Google. Finally we could get connected to someone who speaks only Gujarati, he gave another number to contact. After a chain of 6 calls, we stumbled on Ramesh Bhai. He simply said – “Being a Sunday of X’mas week, to get pass for safari any time tomorrow, you need to be in queue today”. We pleaded him as if our lives are depended on this. Did I hear Renjith saying that he is a chronic heart patient and it is his last wish to have an early morning Gir safari?? I’m sure he said something very similar! After Renjith’s conversation with him, he said “let me try”. We wanted to take it as a ray of hope. But we knew for sure that he wanted to escape from our pleading. But we could somehow manage to get his mobile number.

Flight was on time. Our connection train from Ahmendabad was on time. We reached Junagad as per schedule and reached Gir at 6 am to see a loooong queue as expected. We could easily count more than 150 in the queue so it was almost sure, we have to return from Gir empty. Nothing to lose, we called Ramesh Bhai in his mobile. What happened next was dream – a short middle-aged man came out of the forest office, straight to us, introduced himself as Ramesh Bhai and handed over pass for the safari, not just one but for 6.30 am and 3.30 pm safaris. We knew God has incarnated as Ramesh Bhai. He said he has never done this before and took just the sufficient enough money for the tickets. Even now, we don’t know why should someone do this. Renjith’s conversation might have worked!

Gir is huge with about 1500 sq km; the open safari jeeps are allotted one of the 7 routes. It is 8.30 am, about 2 hours into the safari and just half an hour left. Forget lions, we didn’t see any animals other than a couple of spotted deer, which we get to see in umpteen even outside Bannerghatta, back in Bangalore. Where are all those animals gone? Is it that our luck got over by getting the safari pass? We have counted about 15-20 jeeps crossing us all with gloomy faced travelers like us. Our naturalist (one each will be with each jeep, else we can easily get lost in the forest), Raju looked very restless and somehow seemed determined to show us lions. He has already got impressed with all our photography gears. Serious photographers earn respect and there are a couple with us in Ganesh and Nahar. Raju was seen talking to forest guards (many of them posted inside the forest) at length in local Gujarati slang and some code language. At 8.45 am he took us to a particular water hole and switched off the jeep. We could see so many jeeps rushing past us, returning as the safari time was about to get over. After 5 minutes, we heard a loud roar!! Very close!! Renjith’s telescopic lens fell from his hands.

From behind the thick green growth, entered a beautiful lioness into the golden rays of morning sun, as if a heroine introduced in a bollywood flick. She was promptly followed by His Majesty. He was massive, elegant and was in his elements. Our pain and wait has been for this moment. I could hear only clicks around me; just then I saw a mesmerized Ganesh, trying to figure out how to click a photo. Otherwise, one who uses only manual mode and manual focusing, he has to resort to auto mode! The impact of those dreamy images of the beasts has been such profound, he forgot his trade!


Lady beauty

His Highness

Private moments...

Man in making – an adolescent male cub of 2 years
We have already overshot our time by half an hour. On our return, we heard a sudden alarm call from the spotted deer herd just by our right hand side. Just in front of us – on the left – was a leopard eloping from a tree. It disappeared in the bushes even before we could gather ourselves, let alone clicking pictures. We were back at 10 am, almost 1 hour late and promptly got the flakes from the forest officials for the delay.


In our evening safari, we got to see a lioness with her 3 adolescent kids, one male and 2 female. It was a satisfying day with sightings of so many lions, 1 leopard, a variety of birds, sambars, nilgais, langoors, etc. Gir has excellent birding opportunities, which we have made use between the safaris, thanks to Nahar and Ganesh.

Interestingly, Sasan Gir has a few negro villages near by where an African-origin community called Siddis live. They are believed to be descendents of African slaves brought by Arab traders during the time of Nawab of Junagadh. They now follow Islam and have completely adopted local cultural. They eat, dress and speak Gujarati. A few of them like Iqbal are working as guides in Gir national park.


Iqbal is a guide in Sasan Gir park

Day 1, 9 pm: We had a much needed sumptuous Gujarati thali from Geeta Lodge at Junagad. We had to catch the 9.30 pm train to Viramgam.



Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Chembra Peak – among the clouds

It has been over an year since we trekked Pakshipathalam in Waynad. Chembra peak has been under scanner for a climb since then. At about 2100 meters, it is the second highest peak in South India after Anamudi. Now that the timing got right, on Nov 30, 2012 night, we (Renjith Vijayan, self) packed off for the peak.

The idea was to reach Waynad next day morning, barge into my cousin Shinu's house, force ourselves with a lunch (he don't have an option), generally lazy around till evening then abduct him to Chembra, stay overnight in the foothills where he has a small shed and start the climb early morning.

Since we are the variety of common homosapiens of mallu sub-species, being “fit” comes only after a few drinks. So we thought, if not fit by body, we should be fresh by mind; hence should have at least a good sleep before the climb. Someone suggested catching a sleeper bus from Bangalore to Kalpeta and hence tickets were booked for an 8.30pm sleeper bus. Rushing out from the office and negotiating the Friday evening Bangalore traffic, we reached unusually on-time to the travel's office at Kalashipalaya. After keeping us wait for about 45 min and a lot of hush-hush over phone and between themselves, we were rather unceremoniously informed that the same berths were booked by someone else and the bus has gone!! As if doing a great favour, after a search for about 2 hrs, we were asked to board a 1940's-looking bus-like vehicle. It was nevertheless a sleeper coach and we tried to settle down on our upper berths, as expected, at the farthest end of bus. At around 11.30pm we started; bus was going at a decent speed and for first couple of hours things were ok. I might have just caught the sleep, the bus crossed over a hump; even when we realize what was happening, we were lifted up, kissed the roof and were back in bed with a sore head. Thereon, we were on a permanent state of float with an occasional kiss of the roof and sudden fall to the bed. Even in such bad road, the bus was going at a steady speed. After sometime we got our self accepted that it is a sleepless night ahead. At 8am next day, we both literally escaped out of the bus at Kalpetta.

Both of us refugees were at Shinu’s door steps. Till evening, things rolled out as planned – good hot bath, good lunch, good sleep… At 3.30pm we were off, first to the local market to pick some food & grocery for the overnight stay (i.e., 1.5 Kg of beef, 2 Kg of tapioca, some puttu powder and all other paraphernalia to make them palatable; disappointment was since it was 1st of the month, all liquor shops were closed – bad planning) and then to the shed at the foothills of Chembra. Also we had to buy the entry pass of Rs.500 (for group up to 10 Nos) from the forest office enroute after Mepadi

We reached around 5.30pm; sun was low and light was great for a few shots. We went around for some time. Shinu keep feeding us with his encounter stories with leopards, wild elephants, pythons and ensured we are sufficiently scared. He even showed us fresh leopard droppings with skin and bone remains in it.


Chembra foothills 01/12/12 evening: Grasslands beyond the thick green forest, glowing in sun's golden rays

Chembra foothills: Sun slowly settling behind the grass

Chembra foothills: Night setting in

Leopard dropping: skin and bone remains

With Omanakuttan Pillai chettan, Shinu’s friend at the shed, the no-drink worry was over. Omanakuttan Pillai chettan is one among the cleverer mallu lot, who keeps sufficient stock. Shinu prepared the tapioca which turned out perfect. I took charge of the beef, leaving the other three concerned. At dinner, their concerns proved right. With gastronomic dissatisfaction we were off to the bed at around 10pm. The night was not that cold.

Shinu made puttu early in the morning. I’ve reworked on the left over beef and it came out surprisingly well this time. Had a good breakfast and with sufficient water bottles, we started the climb at 7.30am. Chembra peak is a succession of 7 hills one after another. The first one is the longest one to climb; it has thick growth with larger trees. After the first hill, the terrain changes with trees giving way to elephant-grass. Once the second hill is crossed comes a small pond. It was more or less dry and has a sole tree standing on its head. The next landmark is after the next hill, the trademark symbol of Chempra hills – a heart-shaped lake. Since it was a Sunday, there was sizeable crowd, mostly IT crowd from Bangalore. It seemed like there is more crowd here than in the Mepadi town below. The usual crowd climbs up to here and returns.



Chembra peak: It is a succession of 7 hills one after another. View from the 2nd hill


Heart-shaped lake after the 3rd hill. After the lake is a cliff 
The heart lake is a sole source of water for the wild life of the nearby area. As informed by the forest official, there is a group of 7 elephants which is regular in this area. There is a shola forest nearby. At such heights large trees cannot grow due to heavy winds, hence most of the tree growth will be clustered in the mountain folds and the rest of the land will have just grass growth. These are very short trees with a flexible body which is a natural adaptation against wind. We spend some time inside the forest; saw a lot of deer-hoof holes in its muddy floor. While Shinu and I were still inside the forest, Renjith was exploring the lake and the cliff below, when he spotted a Great Indian Hornbill graciously gliding from one of the hills below.

After about half a Km of flat land, the 4th to 7th hills are in quick succession. There is only grass growth and wind velocities are high. We started climbing the 4th hill by around 9.30am. Usually wild animals are not seen upward of the 4th hill. The trail is through the top edge of the hills with depth on both sides. The wind velocity was considerable, which made the climb even more exciting. The sun was fully up, but the cool winds flew away the tiredness. With only one more hill to climb, huge boulders appeared. There is no ground for grip, but only the vertical rocks. These areas could be really dangerous to negotiate had there been rain or even drizzle. The thought that a silly slip can take one about 2000 meters below, sent down a shiver. Even scarier was the thought of climbing down this stretch. Nevertheless, foot forward is foot forward. By around 11am we were at the top. It is a table top with just sufficient space for 5-6 people. We have negotiated a two side cliff area to reach an all side cliff. I could barely stand up due to the winds; so I just lied for some time before I gathered myself to get up for a look around. Wow, what a sight it was; we were among the cloud, on top of the world. It was only green and blue and mist and freshness till the eyes can reach. No amount of photo snapping can capture the view and the feel. We had some crisp mountain air and reveled for some time on the top.

Shinu crossing the 6th peak
On the peak
On the peak; among the clouds
From the peak; the path we passed. See the heart-shaped lake and the shola forest by the side

Down climb was tough, but the feel of triumph was always exciting. After spending some time at the lake, we reached back in the foothills at around 3.30pm. We had the leftover puttu and beef curry – which was tasting heaven by this time – and had a quick nap to buffer up the possible night-out in the bus, back to Bangalore.

Next day we were back in to the pollution of Bangalore.