The Nordic Adventure

The idea of travelling on a less-trodden path has always seemed attractive to me. I can count in one hand, the number of people I know who had been to Iceland. With almost no expectation, other than an absurd imagination of a landscape covered by ice, and an innate inability to pronounce any of their names, I booked my tickets to Reykjavik and was enthusiastically joined by Sahana and Irene, my partners-in-crime. We decided to go in September, which turned out to be a great idea because it’s the shoulder season during which you avoid the summer crowds but it’s not yet cold enough to freeze your butt off and at the same time, you get dark nights which give you a decent chance to observe the night sky (unlike the peak seasons, July and August when you have 24-hour daylight).

We landed at the extremely windy Keflavik airport and the first thing we noticed was how pristine the air was (we later found a store which was selling cans of “Fresh Icelandic Mountain Air” for $10 apiece!). After a bit of confusion we made it to the car rental place and got into our 4WD manual transmission Dacia Duster, which we had booked in expectation of some rough mountain roads we planned to drive on. Only towards the end of the trip did I discover a switch that engaged 4WD and I pretty much drove the entire trip in 2WD mode! We had a delicious breakfast at Bergsson Mathus in Reykjavik and set off on our road trip around the country along the Highway 1 a.k.a. Ring Road.

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Breakfast at Bergsson Mathus

Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park (the “Þ” is pronounced with a “th” sound). We visited Geysir, which, like most things in Iceland, was an aptly-named natural geyser, and Strokkur. We then visited Gulfoss (or the Golden Falls), first of the innumerable-yet-each-unique-in-their-own-way waterfalls we would be seeing in Iceland. We would be returning to Þingvellir National Park on our way back for something more exciting but for now we left the national park and drove towards our accommodation.

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Gulfoss

I need to make a special mention about our host on the first day. We stayed at a farm ranch called Beindalsholt, which was just off the Ring Road near Hella. The ranch was at a wonderful location, surrounded by rolling hills covered with lush green grass in all directions, with a view of the active-volcano Eyjafjallajökull (eyja-island, fjalla-mountain, jökull-glacier). Our host was really friendly, which was going to be the hallmark of any Icelander we would be meeting, and gave us useful information about our next day’s adventure. That night we also caught very faint traces of the Aurora Borealis but we hoped that it would be stronger in the coming days.

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Beindalsholt

The next day was my personal favorite day of the entire trip. We headed to a place called Landmannalaugar (meaning, the people’s pools). This place was a 200km diversion from the Ring Road, into the mountains. The drive was nothing like we had experienced in our life. It was an F-road which meant that we were glad for the high-clearance vehicle that we had. It was mostly a narrow dirt road winding through mountains and occasionally opening up to give us panoramic views of the valley in between. This region was formed by volcanic eruption so the entire landscape is black, sort of like you would see in a Sci-Fi movie depicting a different planet.

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The drive to Landmannalaugar
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The drive to Landmannalaugar

Occasionally we also had to cross rivers, which was pretty scary in the beginning but turned out to be quite a lot of fun if you were careful. I would wait for somebody else to cross the river and roughly follow the same route through the water since I knew it was not deep where the other car passed. Also it greatly helped to have a manual transmission in these situations.

Landmannalaugar itself turned out to be quite stunning. It is, in fact, a base camp to do the very popular Laugavegur trek, which is done over 3-5 days. We were visiting Iceland at a time when it was a little too cold to be camping outdoors so we had decided not to do this trek. Instead we did a day hike which turned out to be quite fantastic. The place, as it’s name suggests, is surrounded by natural hot springs, geysers and peculiar rocks formed as a result of volcanic eruptions.It was a pure visual delight walking around that area.

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Walking along the trail at Landmannalaugar reminded me of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam towards Mount Doom!
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Walking the trail at Landmannalaugar
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We capped off the hike by taking a dip in a natural hot spring

The next day we decided to drive to þórsmörk. This drive turned out to be one of the most scenic roads I have ever driven. The view on the right was the enormous Eyjafjallajökull with it’s stunning glacier. Ever so often, there would be a waterfall from the top of the glacier which would flow across the road we were driving, often in the form of a feisty river. There were several places on the road where we crossed these rivers and eventually we got to a point where it was no longer safe for us to cross it in our car, so we turned back. If you do end up going here, I would highly recommend renting the services of “super-jeeps” which take you all the way to þórsmörk.

That evening we were meant to stay at a farmhouse in Hofn but we somehow lost track of time and had to drive in pitch darkness along the highway during which we were constantly distracted by the dancing Auroras appearing above us. I was going at least 100kmph when I suddenly heard a sharp gasp from Sahana who was sitting next to me. The next instant I noticed a herd of black sheep sitting bang in the middle of the highway, calmly enjoying their meal. It was too late to brake so I swerved slightly so that I narrowly avoided running into them. It turns out that Icelandic sheep love hanging out on the highway as we discovered many times during the course of the trip. We finally reached the farmhouse at midnight and found that our room was right next to a sheep enclosure. The next morning Sahana complained that she could hardly sleep a wink with the sheep constantly bleating all night. I, on the other hand, had slept like a log.

Over the next few days, we came across plenty of waterfalls, each one lovelier than the previous.

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Skogafoss
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Seljalandsfoss
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Dettifoss – observe the tiny people on the left to understand the scale of this waterfall.
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Kirkjufell – one of the most photographed mountain in Iceland

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the beach area of Jökulsárlón (glacial river-lagoon). It was an out-of-the-world scene where we found hundreds of blocks of glacial ice, of all sizes, strewn on the beach and floating in the water. These glaciers were thousands of years old and formed the outer edge of the gigantic Vatnajökull glacier, which is one of the largest glaciers in Europe. We drank in this sight till our senses were satisfied and also took a boat ride through the glaciers.

Our destination that night was Borgarfjörður Eystri, on the eastern-most edge of Iceland. This turned out to be the best night of all the nights we stayed in Iceland because the Auroras made a grand appearance that night and we saw it right from the backyard of the lodge we were staying. It was truly an awesome sight and totally worth the difficult drive that led us here.

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The Auror invoking the Aurora!

The next few days we made our way through the northern part of Iceland. We travelled through the geothermally active Myvatn area which had some spectacular acid pools, geysers and dead volcanoes. The most prominent among these was the Hverfjall, which was a tephra cone. We hiked up to the top of this mountain, which had it’s top blown off during some past volcanic eruption, and managed to hike all along the rim of the crater. We stayed at Akureyi that night, the second biggest city in Iceland.

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Hverfjall tephra cone
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Myvatn Geothermal Area
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Delicious burger at the Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe in Myvatn

We spent the penultimate day of our stay in Iceland exploring the western edge of Iceland, a peninsula named Snæfellsjökull. Here we spent our time exploring the deep underground caves and the lava tubes formed during volcanic eruptions. The most prominent one we saw was the Vatnshellir caves which was about 35m deep and 200m long. We took a walk through the cave discovering a whole new world underneath filled with folklore about ogres and trolls. Somebody pointed out that one of the rock formations resembled Trump, more than a cave troll. We then, went to the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum which both Sahana and I had seen on the Iceland episode of “Departures” and wanted to visit ever since. We were given some shark meat to taste, which turned out to be an interesting experience.

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I even came across this not-so-harmless-yet-cute shark at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.

We again went back to Þingvellir National Park, but this time to try our hands at some snorkelling. The exciting part of this experience was that we would be snorkelling at a called Silfra which formed the fissure between the continental plates of North America and Eurasia. We were given dry-suits because the water at Silfra was going to be below 0 degrees at that time of the year. It was a truly unique experience for me since it was the first time I got to see the world under the surface and it blew my mind.

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Snorkelling at Silfra

We got back to Reykjavik with the feeling that comes towards the end of any great trip, knowing that we would be saying goodbye to this tiny, yet wonderfully diverse country. I would love to come back here to do some of the things which I missed out on this trip like, doing the Laugavegur trek, or drive to Askja, or hike in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, or travel all the way to Þorsmork in a better-equipped vehicle. I guess, you know that you have travelled to a truly amazing place when you come away with a feeling of unfinished business.

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The Andean Adventure

This has got to be the longest I have procrastinated in putting down my thoughts after any particular trip. But I know that I would definitely not regret forcing myself to make his effort because I love taking trips down the memory lane, reminiscing about all the places I visited and the wonderful people I connected with. What better way to do it than reading my own blog?

This trip was going to be the first time I would be travelling solo, backpacking in a country where my vocabulary of the local language was limited to a few nouns and verbs, trying to prove my mastery over sign language. I was also proud of ability to count till ten, and being able to respond with a blank stare for any number greater than that. Clearly, you can see that Spanish was not going to be my strongest suit, especially when I would be spending three weeks in Peru.

After flying around 20 hours, I was finally close to landing at Cusco, a beautiful city bang in the middle of the Andes mountain range which traverses the length of the entire South America and is the longest in the world. The landing strip at the Cusco airport made for a dramatic entrance, being surrounded by tall peaks and being located at an altitude of 3400m. The first thing I realised was how thin the air was and how strenuous it was to do the easiest of things, like, say, walking! Within a few minutes I was completely out of breath and gasping for air. Thankfully, I had a few days to acclimatize before my big adventure.

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Courtyard at the hostel

While at Cusco, I stayed at the lovely Ecopackers hostel which was basically a traditional Peruvian home with a beautiful courtyard converted into a hostel. It had a cosy bar which played classic rock pretty much all the time. Needless to say, I enjoyed my stay here. I also made some great friends here on the first day itself – Oliver, from the UK, Pinky Beaver and Sura, from Costa Rica. To my shock, it turned out that Oliver and Pinky were from UBC. Who’d’a thunk! We planned a trip to the Sacred Valley the next day, paying a visit to Pisac and Ollantaytambo. These are some spectacular Inca ruins found along the Urubamba river. The next day these guys were off to do the classical Inca Trail for 3 days so we said our goodbyes.

I decided to do the Salkantay trail, instead of the classical Inca trail since i prefer to go off the beaten path and also because I heard that it was much more beautiful and tougher than the Inca trail. I still had a couple of days to kill before my Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. So I decided to explore Cusco in more detail. The hostel I was staying at was right next to the Plaza-de-Armas or the “arm’s square”. You could spend hours at the plaza, just people-watching and building-watching and not get bored at all. Initially, it’s a bit intimidating how many people approach you, trying to get your business, right from various tour operators to tens of masseuses carrying restaurant-like menus of all kinds of services that they offer, looking to give you “a good time”. We were even offered free Pisco sour, a Peruvian cocktail, by a restaurant so that we went there instead of the one next door!

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Ollantaytambo
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Plaza-de-Armas at Cusco
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Cusco seen from Sacsayhuaman. It’s probably easier to try and pronounce it as “sexy-woman” 😛

We were transported by bus from Cusco to Soraypampa, which was going to be the starting point for the Salkantay trek. We stopped for a traditional Peruvian breakfast at Soraypampa village where I got a chance to meet the rest of  our trekking group. We were 9 in number – Kris and Emma from Sweden, Steve, Karen, Caleb and Nadia from the States, Peerasin from Thailand, Eva from Argentina, and myself –  coming from 4 different continents, along with our guide, the extremely moody Miguel and the mules. Needless to say, we were a very diverse group, united by the fact that we all loved being outdoors. Over the course of the next 4 days, we got to know one another pretty well and I feel that I made a personal connection with many people in the group.

The first day’s hike was more like a leisurely walk to the campsite. There was hot tea and dinner waiting for us at the campsite. We chose to hike to the nearby Humantay Lake in the evening, which turned out to be quite a steep trail, but well worth the efforts once we got there – we got to see a beautiful glacier and a turquoise-colored lake. While returning we were hit by a hailstorm and we had to make our way back to the campsite in haste.

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Humantay Lake.

The second day was going to be the toughest day of the trek as we would be reaching the highest point in our trek, the Salkantay pass at an altitude of 4600m above sea level. Many of us were suffering from headaches due to the altitude and we were given “coca tea” in the morning and coca leaves to chew on while hiking, which would be considered highly illegal in the western world, was surprisingly effective in providing relief. It was a relentless climb up all the way to the pass with spectacular panoramic views all around.

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The gorgeous Salkantay peak.
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Crossing the icefield, with the Humantay peak on the background.
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Tired during the stretch just before the Salkantay Pass.
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Finally made it to Salkantay Pass. Elevation: 4600m.

That night we camped at Collpapampa, in the valley. It was New Year’s eve and bottles of wine and rum miraculously arrived from nowhere and we chatted late into the night although we were exhausted from walking at such a high altitude for more than 20km. The next day was a beautiful trek alongside a river, which some times gave way to stunning waterfalls along the way and reached we Santa Teresa. Here we tried our hands at some ziplining. It was truly spectacular as we whooshed from one mountain peak to another at 80kmph with the valley thousands of feet below us. We then hiked along the railway tracks which led to Aguas Calientes from where we would be going up to Machu Picchu the next day. Machu Picchu, as expected, was mind-blowing and completely untouched by the devastation caused by the Spanish Conquistadors in the other parts of Peru. We spent the entire morning admiring the site and then hiked up the Machu Picchu “Montana”.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was time to say goodbye to everybody in the group that evening, and surprisingly we had all come to know quite a bit about one another. So we parted, promising to keep in touch. I spent a few more days, relaxing in Cusco and got myself a luxurious massage to soothe my leg muscles. Then I took the night bus to Arequipa, where I would be the next couple of days. Arequipa has an active volcanic mountain, El Misti, spouting fumes right outside the city. I visited the Colca Canyon, which is actually twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We hiked down to the bottom of the canyon and camped by an oasis. This area, with a very dry, desert-like climate was in such stark contrast to the lush green forests near Cusco. We managed to spot a few of the mighty, though elusive, Andean Condors  and some ‘vicuna’ while at Colca Canyon.

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Colca Canyon
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Colca Canyon – the tiny speck of an oasis can be seen here.

I would have loved to see more of this beautiful country – places like Puno or Lake Titicaca – but I would rather visit a few places and enjoy everything they have to offer than rush through, trying to visit all places. With this thought in mind, it was time for me to head back to Canada. I had a day-long layover at Mexico City, during which I spent most of my time at the Museum of Anthropology. Stay tuned for my Nordic adventure coming up in just a couple of months 😉

Adventures on the Pacific Coast

After a long hiatus, I finally decided that I should get back to writing about my travel stories. Although I have traveled a fair bit after shifting base to North America, I have just been really lazy to write about any of them. But this one has been too good to resist and I had to write about it. This is the one time where I came oh-so-close to dying that it gives me shivers thinking about it.

My good friend Pooja, and I were the only ones around in Vancouver during December last year since everyone else was either vacationing in India or busy getting married. We thought it would be a shame to waste our holidays doing nothing. We decided to drive from Vancouver to San Francisco and back, all along the beautiful Pacific coast. We wanted this to be a really relaxed vacation and set aside 15 days for the entire trip. Little idea did we have about the things that were going to happen during the latter part of the trip. We planned the route, booked accommodations on airbnb, got my car nicely oiled tire-pressure checked and we were really excited to go.

We drove to Seattle and stayed with Ramya and Sanjay, who were nice enough to let us stay for a night. The next day, we started early but we were immediately hit by heavy rains. After a couple of hours we hit the US 101 which was going to be our route till we reached California. Our first stop was Tillamook Bay on the Oregon coast. It was dark before we reached our destination and this is when we had our first signs of trouble. It had rained all day and we were caught unawares by a giant puddle on the highway. Inevitably, I drove through it at full speed and soon started hearing a loud grating noise from the bottom of the car. We stopped to check and realized that the plastic which protects the underside of the car had partially got ripped out due to the puddle and was scraping the road. With no other choice but to get it fixed the next day, we continued and soon reached our accommodation. It turned out that our hosts had a sudden emergency and they had left the entire house unlocked for us with handwritten notes all over the place to help us find our way. I was amazed that someone could trust 2 random strangers so completely just so that they don’t inconvenience us.

The next day, we started out in search of a car mechanic. To our misfortune it turned out to be a Sunday with not a single mechanic available in that village. To add to our worries, the entire village was flooded by previous day’s rains and we were redirected through a longer route to bypass the village. But my most immediate concern was the really loud noise emanating from the bottom of my car, so I drove to a auto-parts store to see if I could get some help there. Fortunately, the manager of the store was quite adept at minor repairs. He simply went under my car and completely tore out the plastic and now, at least there was no noise. Our moods immediately went up and we thanked the kind manager and were off on our way to Crescent City, which was to be our stop on day 2. The US 101 hugs the Pacific coast all along and it was a fantastic drive with overcast skies. When we reached Florence though, the road was closed due to landslides and we got turned back. The only way to reach Crescent city was to take a huge detour to join the I-5, travel south and then get back to US 101. This cost us an extra 6 hours of driving time and the rain decided to come back in it’s full fury. We reached our accommodation late at night, tired and ravenous.

Oregon Coast, US101
Oregon Coast, US101

We were up early the next morning, with our spirits soaring because we realized we had entered California and it promised to be a bright sunny day. Our drive took us through Redwood Forests, the highlight being one particular stretch called “The Avenue of the Giants”. The sheer height of these trees was intimidating and we stopped at the “Trees of Mystery” to admire their beauty. We soon took a diversion to reach the long-awaited CA1 which offered some of the most spectacular views of the ocean. We stayed at Fort Bragg with an interesting host, who seemed to be an expert on growing mushrooms and an eager conversationalist.

Avenue of the Giants
Avenue of the Giants

Our drive the next day was a short one with a stop at San Francisco for lunch at Burma Superstar (recommended by Rahul) and then reaching Vikrant’s place at Mountain View. The next few days were a blur, from meeting long lost friends who live in the Bay to shopping at the Union Square to trips to Monterey and Napa Valley and eating yummy ice cream at Ghirardelli. The highlight of this part of the trip was the 18K feet skydive at Monterey. For our return journey we decided to take the more straight-forward I-5. Our first stop was a fantastic lodge at the foot of Mount Shasta, in the funky, hippy city of Shasta City. The snow-covered mountain was a sight to behold at night, with it’s eerie white glow.

The next day, we woke up to a bright and sunny morning. We decided to take the highway parallel to I-5 which goes through Crater Lake. This was our first mistake. As we drove towards Crater Lake, it started to snow lightly but not enough to cause any problems. Doggedly, we push on towards the lake but the last few miles to the lake was completely covered in snow, so we decided to turn back.

As we are driving back towards the highway, it really starts to snow now. At some point we took a wrong turn and ended up on a logging road which started going up a mountain. It was hard to initially say that we were off-track because it was a complete white-out and everything looked the same. After driving about 10km on the logging road we realized that we hadn’t seen a single vehicle for a while. At this point, the car decided to get stuck in the snow and we knew that we were in deep trouble. The car would not budge in spite of our best efforts to scrape the snow from underneath the tires and the temperature was somewhere around -10 degrees. It was soon going to be dark and we made a quick decision. We decided to abandon the car and hike back the 10km to the point where we knew we made the wrong turn, where we could at least stop a passing car. We started hiking down the logging road, trying our best to make normal conversation so that we don’t dwell on the dangerous situation we were in. After a while Pooja pointed at a number of four-legged paw-prints all over our path. It had snowed afresh, so the paw-prints could have only been very recent, plus, there were no accompanying human footprints, so it could not have been that of a dog. With a shiver we walked faster. Later somebody told us that there are a lot of Puma (Mountain Lion) in the vicinity…. Anyway, we managed to hike down by which time it was completely dark and freezing cold. We managed to hail a passing car; the lady driving the car was shocked to see us and exclaimed what the hell we were doing out in the cold. We explained the situation to her and she immediately let us into her car and drove us to a nearby motel from where I called a tow-truck. The tow-truck arrived and the driver was a extremely angry at me for having blindly trusted my GPS and not using my common sense. We drove up the mountain in his truck and pulled my car out of the snow. He furiously described how people had frozen to death in that place before. We got the car back to the motel and had hot chocolate to get some kind of warmth into the system. We thought that the worse was behind us. We were wrong. The next day, the roads were completely icy because of the previous night’s snowfall and driving on it was treacherous. It took all my driving experience to just hold the car on the road. It was a single lane highway and every few minutes we would skid on the ice and spin out of control. This was a scarier experience than the previous night because we had to drive in such conditions for at least 150km, which easily took us 5 hours. We were able to breathe deeply only after we crossed the last bit of snow and reached the safety of I-5 again.  I cannot believe how I underestimated the power of nature and stupidly decided to go to Crater Lake without chains in spite of knowing beforehand that Crater Lake receives some of the highest snowfall on the West coast. But it was definitely a lesson which made me wiser for the future and strengthened my belief in the quote “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger”

Napa Valley
Napa Valley
The 18k feet jump at Monterey
The 18k feet jump at Monterey
The road leading to Crater Lake
The road leading to Crater Lake
The Golden Gate
The Golden Gate

 

Trek to the Lug Valley, HP

The abundant mountainous beauty of Himachal Pradesh has always enchanted me. It was no wonder when I decided to go back there for the third time in the past two years. We were a small group consisting of Varun, Gowri, Sneha, Archana and myself, decided to put all our work aside for two peaceful weeks and head for the mountains away from hustle of city-life and enjoy an overdose of fresh air. We chanced to come across Kaushal, a trek organizer of above14000ft and a few phone calls later we were all set to go. We chose to go to the Lug Valley in Kullu district. This was going to be a low altitude trek, reaching a peak altitude of 3000M. Since we chose to go during the last week of November, at the onset of winter, we chose this route because it had minimum chances of snowfall. The route was mostly going to be a walk along the mountain ridge which would offer us spectacular views of the deep valleys.

We reached Delhi on November 19th, from where we were to catch our Volvo bus to Manali. As we waited for our bus to arrive, Archana was excited by all the pot-smoking, pony-tailed hippies, also waiting for the bus and tried to flirt with them, who hardly batted an eyelid at her. By the time the bus arrived, we were beginning to shiver in the cold Delhi-night. At midnight, the bus halted at a hi-fi looking restaurant. Being on a tight budget, since organizing our trek had already cost us a bomb, we decided to ditch the restaurant and head for the shady looking punjabi dhaba nearby where we had our stomach’s fill of parantha and dahi, with truck drivers for company. The next morning, we were greeted by the beautiful sight of snow-capped mountains all around and our bus going through the narrow winding road. We could see deep valley on one side with Beas river flowing deep down in the valley.

First sight of snow

We arrived at Manali to be greeted by a horde of taxi drivers wanting to take us on ‘sight-seeing’. After successfully evading all of them, we drank piping hot tea, which was perfect to get some heat into our bodies, we checked-in to a cozy-looking lodge. We spent the day roaming around Manali, shopping for woolen stuff, eating tasty junk food, visiting Hidimbadevi Temple, hiking up to Kaushal’s home (which is a couple of kilometers from Manali) and clicking a lot of pictures. At Kaushal’s home we were greeted enthusiastically by Maggi (a Bhutia dog) and Bikki (a cross between a fox and a dog). Later we came to know that the reason we got such an excited welcome was because both the dogs were in ‘heat’ 😉 The view from Kaushal’s balcony was amazing. Imagine waking up to such a scene everyday! We settled down in his warm room with another round of chai and listened to his stories of past treks. Finally, after making plans for the next day, the first day of our trek, we headed back to the lodge.

View from Kaushal’s Balcomy

We got dropped off at Telang near Kullu the next morning. This was the starting point of our trek. We were introduced to Rinku-ji (who would later turn out to be an amazing cook and spoil us all with his culinary skills), Happy-ji, Ratan, and a couple of other helpers who would be accompanying us for the trek and the half-dozen mules which would be carrying all our camping equipment, stoves, backpacks etc. The first day’s destination was a place called Dak Bungalow, which was a short 5km trek from the starting point. We camped on the slopes for the evening. We enjoyed a nice camp fire since it was a chilly night, ate an amazing 3-course meal (which would be a norm during the entire trek!) and retired into our respective tents and sleeping bags early.

Day one campsite – Dak Bungalow
Looking down into the valley of Jhingbhan

The next day, we continued trekking along the same hill to reach the top of this hill in about 3 hours. This was going to be the topmost point in our trek, where we saw what little remained from the previous year’s snowfall. The view on the other side of the peak was breathtaking. After enjoying this scenery for a long time, we started to descend on the other side to reach Jhingbhan, which was going to be our camping site on day two. Night comes early in the mountains, it was pitch dark by 6PM. Post dinner, after warming our hands and backsides by the campfire for a while, all of us laid siege to the girls’ tent where we sat listening to entertaining stories by Varun, which had us in splits the whole time and apparently the girls were screeching so loudly that the next day Rinku-ji complained to us that he could hardly sleep with all that racket.

The next few days of the trek took us through Dentbhial (day three), Mulling (day four), Barot (day five). The campsite at Dentbhial was probably the most scenic, add to the fact that we reached here after a tough 70degree-inclined climb most part of the way. Dentbhial comes very close to the imagination of Switzerland that I have in my mind. At Mulling campsite we could see a small settlement a little distance from our camp. We hiked up to this place in the evening to talk to the locals. People here were shy at first but opened up later and talked to us for a long time. Although it was hard for us to catch their Pahadi-Hindi, Sneha and Archana did a good job ‘interviewing’ them.

The route from Barot through Mute (not sure about the spelling!) and Rulling was very very beautiful. We came across small settlements and it was interesting to interact with local people on our way. One particular old man, who was eating his lunch offered ‘Rotti khaiylo’ in a very sweet way, which really touched us. We kept recalling this moment throughout the trip. That night we camped at a place between Rulling and Rajgunda deep inside a valley.

A village school en route Rulling

We were in anticipation of the next day for a long time. It had finally arrived. We would be trekking to Billing, where we would be trying our hands at tandem Paragliding. The route to Billing was again, extremely beautiful, walking all along the mountain ridge to reach there. When we reached there, we were introduced to our respective pilots who would be flying with us. We would be jumping off at Billing and landing at Bir. It was an exhilarating experience, jumping off with nothing but a parachute was enough to give me an adrenaline rush. We landed at Bir, shaky but all in one piece.

Billing – Paragliding take off site
Off we go!

Our trek officially ended at Bir. We bid goodbyes to Kaushal, Rinku-ji and others. We spent the day roaming around the lazy town of Bir. We still had a couple of days to spare before returning to Delhi. So the next day, we decided to visit a small remote village close-by. After a lot of inquiring and browsing-the-net, we decided to go to this village called Thathi, which required a hard one hour trek up into the mountains. We realized that our legs were not obeying our orders loyally anymore. This village was a really interesting experience. We first chatted up with an old lady in her eighties who told us stories about her sons, grandsons and great-grandsons! Then we roamed about the village and observed all the ladies preparing for a festival of some kind. When we decided to leave, a big bunch of kids followed us. When we asked them to sing songs for us, though shy at first, they entertained us for a good half hour with their songs and then performed some kind of a dance which lasted more than half an hour!

The cozy village Thathi
Eighty year old lady complaining that her grandson doesn’t work in the fields but goes to the city instead!
Shy kids

We came back to Bir for the night and travelled to Dharamsala next day from where we would be boarding our bus to Delhi. The girls had a field day at McLeodganj shopping for ‘precious stones’. We killed a day in Delhi with some more shopping and then watching a movie. Finally back to Bangalore with the heavy feeling that comes along with the end of vacation every time. I had a great trip with an entertaining bunch of people. Cheers!

Savandurga

Savandurga is a huge monolith about 60 km from Bangalore. Here are some of the pictures from my Sunday trip to Savandurga.

Savandurga from a distance
Hard work climbing up
View of river Arkavathi at a distance
Gradient

Snake Handling Camp – Hunsur

Another weekend. Another great trip.
This is a write up about my experience at the snake handling camp that I recently attended at Hunsur. The camp was conducted by the Gerry Martin Project, which is quite famous in India for its research on reptiles, especially crocodiles and snakes. The camp was conducted by Soham from the Madras Croc Bank. We were a small group consisting of Varun, Sharada, Neerav, Asha, Blair, Dinesh, Chaitanya, Soham and myself. We were accompanied by Suresh, a member of the Irula tribe, very experienced in snake tracking and handling. The objective of the camp was to learn more about the behavior of this creature which has always been surrounded by a lot of myth and mystery, learn about the snakes present in India, and a hands-on workshop on handling non-venomous and venomous snakes.

Some of the snakes that we handled during the camp:
Colubrids: This is family of snakes which comprises of most non-venomous snakes like rat-snakes, corn-snakes, wolf-snakes etc. Or, so we thought that these were non-venomous. A recent study has shown that these snakes are in fact as venomous as a cobra or a viper. Its just that the fangs of say, a rat-snake is situated so far behind in its mouth that a normal bite would not be sufficient to inject venom. These are more useful when the snake has got a firm grip on the prey in its mouth, to envenomate the victim .

  • Wolf-snake: A very small snake which can fit into the palm of your hand. Has a flat head and bands starting right from its neck going all the way down to the tip of its tail. It is often mistaken for a common krait, which is highly venomous. But kraits have paired bands which doesn’t start right from the neck. These are expert climbers.
  • Rat-snake: A very common snake which has a distinctive zebra-shaped pattern below its mouth. It is usually confused for a cobra because of its size and colour, but it neither has a hood, nor the spectacled mark which the cobra has. Initially it thrashed around when we held it in our hands, but after a bit of gentle handling it calmed down.
  • Bronze-back tree snake: This is a hyper-active arboreal snake. It disappeared from sight in a flash when we released him!
  • Banded racer: Another very active snake, but it is not as quick as the bronze-back. Adults lose their bands.

After this, it was time for some real snakes!
Elapids: It includes venomous snakes like King Cobra, Spectacled Cobra, Monocled Cobra etc, which are mostly oviparous. They have short fangs situated on their upper jaw and these gangs are grooved, through which the venom (neurotoxic) flows. The amount of venom injected is controlled by a muscle and most of the time, when a cobra is trying to defend itself, it does not inject venom because producing venom takes up a LOT of the snake’s energy.

  • Spectacled Cobra: This was by far the most awe-inspiring snake that we experienced in the camp. This snake is a part of the Big4- 4 medicinally important snakes of India which also includes Russel’s Viper, Saw-scaled Viper and the Common Krait. The Big4 is known to cause the most number of deaths due to snake bites in India and the only cure to their bite is the polyvalent anti-venom, which has anti-bodies for venom of all 4 snakes. The Spectacled Cobra is a short snake. It usually makes a coil from its body and raises a spectacular hood when threatened. It has loads of attitude and looks you right in the eye! And, it strikes with lightening speed at anything which is within striking distance. In other words, it can make you piss your pants. New respect. We were given a long hook to handle the cobra. We had to gently prise away its tail from its body and hold its tail, while using the hook to balance the hood with the other hand, and staying out of reach at all times. This exercise was meant to teach us to remove a cobra to a safe place in case we encounter such a situation. We had many attempts at this and by the end we got a hang of how it is to be done, although I am no way confident of handling it alone.
  • Kraits: These are nocturnal snakes, which are cannibalistic in nature and their venom is highly toxic, possessing neurotoxic (affects the CNS) venom. We had a Common Krait at the camp but we did not handle it, as it was considered too dangerous for us.

Vipers: These are highly venomous snakes with huge fangs which can inject much more venom than a cobra, whose venom is hematoxic (attacks RBC) and cytotoxic (destroys the cells). They have hollow fangs which is filled with venom before striking.
It is divided into Pit Vipers and True Vipers. Pit Vipers have a pit between their nostril and eye on either sides of their head, which help in sensing heat. Malabar Pit Viper is a very common snake of this species, whereas Russel’s Viper is a True Viper. We had a Russel’s Viper at the camp, but it was considered too dangerous to let us handle it simply because they are much more faster than a cobra and you need superior reflexes to be able to handle them.

We learnt how to identify the species of a particular snake. This was done by observing the scalation of the snake, especially on its head, tail, dorsal and ventral sides. Each species has a specific arrangement of scales which is unique to that species. Also we learnt how to ‘sex’ a snake – identifying the gender. We had to insert a steel probe into the cloaca (anal opening) of the snake, depending on how deep the probe travels inside we could decide the sex of the snake. In case of a male, it has well developed hemipenes (reproductory organ) and hence the probe would travel deeper inside, while in case of a female it is underdeveloped and the probe would not travel as deep.

Apart from all this, the camp was also a very nice opportunity to indulge in a bit of ornithology, as it was situated right next to a beautiful lake. I have practically zero knowledge about birds, but spending time with Soham, Chaitanya and Sharada was very educative as they could identify almost every bird which flew in to the lake. It was fun, observing birds through binoculars and comparing them with the ‘Book of Indian Birds’ which we had with us. We also had a drive-through visit to Nagarhole and were pretty lucky to spot a lone Tusker, a mongoose, a wild boar, a lot of malabar squirrels and many more birds.

A few more pictures from the camp can be seen here and here

Bhadra Calling

I am back, fresh from a trip to Bhadra Reserve Forest, which is located in Chikmaglur district of Karnataka. I was part of the Elephant Census, conducted between May 15th and 17th. Let me first throw some light on the general methodology used for an animal census and then I will talk about some amazing experiences that I had during the census.

Bhadra is divided into 4 ranges – Muthodi, Thanigebylu, Hebbe and Lakkavalli. We were 4 in number – Prashanth, Ananth, Varun and myself. We reached Muthodi Forest Office on 14th morning for an orientation program. We were to be joined by Ajith, Prashanth and Rajni later that evening. We had a good session by Deputy Conservator of Forest, Vijay Mohanraj. He spoke well about what to do and more importantly what not to do in the forest, in the presence of wild animals. He explained how the census was to be carried out. The elephant census was to be divided into 3 parts:

  • Counting by direct sight – we note down direct sightings of elephants, simple as that.
  • Line transect dung count – there would be a previously identified elephant-activity-line. We note down the perpendicular distance of any elephant dung from this line. This would be used to calculate elephant dung decay using some crazy formula to arrive at a number for the elephant density in that area.
  • Water hole count – we sit at a water hole from 6AM to 6PM and note down the number of elephant sightings.

We were assigned to the Lakkavalli range and we would be staying at an anti-poaching camp at Jenu-Halla (translates to honey-pit).  Jenu-Halla camp is deep within the reserve forest, at least 20 km from any regular human habitation, The anti-poaching camp was covered by dense deciduous forest on three sides and the backwaters of Bhadra river on one side. The view of Bhadra backwaters from the camp was spectacular. The travel to this camp from Lakkavalli in the jeep is worth mentioning here. Due to heavy winds and rains over the last week, thousands of trees had been uprooted in the forest. A good number of them were strewn across the jeep track at many places. But the forest guards sawed them off patiently and cleared the trail without complaining. Ajith asked one of them ‘We software engineers don’t work after 5PM, how is it that you are sawing off trees at 1AM in the night?’ to which the prompt reply was ‘You work for personal treasure, while we work for national treasure!’. Wow!

Day 1

I set out with 2 forest guards for the ‘counting by direct sighting’ method. It was a hard and an extremely tiring day with hardly any luck. The terrain was tough and the foliage was very dense. We had to hack through it and i was completely covered with scratches and bruises. Once we were walking around a small hill, we suddenly heard a lot of bamboo-breaking noise. We immediately climbed the hill and waited silently.  We saw the head and the tusks of what would have been a huge tusker. We were scared and thrilled at the same time. I think he sensed us too and stood completely still for a few minutes and then moved away from us. It is a totally new experience encountering an elephant on foot. It is the most feared animal in the forest by the forest guards. I developed new respect for this magnificent beast. We came back to the camp in the evening, tired and slightly disappointed. I jumped into the water and lay there lazily and the water seemed to soothe my aching muscles.

Day 2

We woke up to some heavy rain and thunder. We set out to do the ‘counting by line transect dung count’ method in very wet conditions. It was an extremely boring job and we did not have any animal sighting on this day, although we got news from a neighboring camp that they saw a king cobra attack and kill a monitor lizard! Wow, that must have been some sight. Also we heard that Rajni and Prashanth spotted a Russel’s Viper, a Python and a Sloth Bear and Varun, a Black Viper. We were transferred to the Sukhal-Hatti Inspection Bungalow. That night we had a ride in the jeep, hoping to spot some animals. We saw a herd of shy Gaurs, which had 2 huge bull males, a dozen females and a few calves.

Day 3

This was by far the most exciting day of our trip. We were driven in a jeep to Mavina-Halla Cove and from there we took a ferry. The forest guards in the ferry had powerful binoculars and we could see some amazing sights on the distant shores. One sight which stuck to my memory was, a herd of 100-odd deer running and a dancing peacock in the foreground with all his feathers spread, as though showing off to the deer. We also saw a herd of wild boars through the binoculars. Varun and myself, along with the forest guard Malleshi were dropped off at Hosalli Cove. This was a beautiful place with savanna-like grassland extending upto 1km from the water and dense forest from there on. We settled ourselves at the edge of the forest, facing the water, waiting expectantly for the elephants to arrive.

Soon, we heard a small noise from a distance and we were greeted by the sight of a fully grown male tusker! He happily shook his trunk and slowly walked from the forest cover towards the water. We drank in this sight for nearly an hour and clicked away with the cameras.It was an out of the world experience. He walked away after a while and then we spent the whole afternoon without any luck and soon i fell asleep. I woke up to find that both Varun and Malleshi were nowhere in sight. I decided to refill my water bottle and walked towards the water. In the far distance I spotted a herd of Gaur. Wanting to get closer to take a few good pictures, I started walking towards the herd. Then I saw Varun and Malleshi walking towards me gesticulating excitedly. All i could make out was ‘elephants’. So I dragged them back in the direction which they came from. I was met with the most wonderful sight – a full family of around 25-30 elephants! At a distance of less than 100 meters from us. We enjoyed this beautiful sight till the family moved away.


We started walking back, when we heard a rustle of bushes very close by. Malleshi guessed it might be some deer and we walked on. Suddenly, a huge elephant head with tusks and everything popped out. We turned and ran for our lives! The tusker, on seeing us, hurried back into the bushes. We had almost collided with him in our excitement of having seen a whole family of elephants! We then made our way towards the ferry, which had arrived by then to pick us up. We were dropped off at Lakkavalli Inspection Bungalow, where we had a nice get together of the volunteers from various camps followed by a sumptuous dinner.

It was an amazing trip, the highlights being, a forest which is absolutely untouched by commercialization, great forest staff whose dedication is touching and the magnificent animals we managed to see.