Why you must trek in Kemmanagundi (even if you’re not the trekking types).

Our first view of Kemmanagundi.
Our first view of Kemmanagundi.

Remember my posts on Bhutan, in which I lamented my decision to trek to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery? Despite my earnest desire to go trekking more often since, my loathing for any activity that combines walking with breathlessness and increased heart rate overcame the enthusiasm.

View from near the Rose Garden.
View from near the Rose Garden.

And like all other times when life has made me eat my own words – especially when they involve ‘hate’, ‘don’t’ or ‘exercise’ – this time too, I had to down my loathing with a generous helping of humble sauce. Kemmanagundi is to be blamed for it. This popular-with-government-officials hill station of sorts in Chikkamangalur district cast its spell on a non-trekker like me as well. And my, what a spell it was – lush green hills as far as the eye can see, grassy pathways formed naturally over the hills, flowers in brilliant reds, pinks and blues, and a freshwater spring or two.

The trek to Z point, from where one can see the sun setting into the Arabian Sea.
The trek to Z point, from where one can see the sun setting into the Arabian Sea.

The trek isn’t for very long – at least, not if you take your vehicle up to the most accessible point. One can finish it in a couple of hours both ways. I ventured halfway out, and then decided against going any further because the path involved scaling down slippery patches of mountain and I had a big camera bag with me. (Let this be a lesson to everyone.) I am told, though, that the sun setting over the Arabian Sea makes for a magnificent sight.

Catching the sunset from regular terrain while the rest of them watch it disappear from Z point.
Catching the sunset from regular terrain while the rest of them watch it disappear from Z point.

The trek’s not the only attraction at Kemmanagundi – there are view points, water bodies, temples and more around the place. The most pleasurable bit, though, is the greenery and serenity that comes with it – winding mountain roads with an overarching canopy of giant trees swaying in the wind.

Blooms soaking up the mountain sun.
Blooms soaking up the mountain sun.
The local farmer's market in the compound of the jungle lodge we stayed at.
The local farmer’s market in the compound of the jungle lodge we stayed at.

And that sums up everything I have to say about the place – there wasn’t enough time to explore it more extensively, considering it was weekend trip with more time spent biking than exploring. I do say this, though – if a quiet getaway to connect with nature is your thing, Kemmanagundi is definitely a destination to consider.

The trees form natural filters, letting only wisps of sunlight through their canopy.
The trees form natural filters, letting only wisps of sunlight through their canopy.

Getting there: Drive down or bike it – it takes about 6 hours, with stops. The road closer to Kemmanagundi is quite bad, so that takes a chunk of time to get through. There are also overnight buses available. The nearest train station is Chikkamangalur and there are several trains that run every day.

Go if: You enjoy trekking, need some quiet time and want to feel one with nature.

P.S: There are plenty more pictures on my Instagram feed. Check them out to get a bigger picture of what the place is like.

Sometimes, they travel from faraway places to say hello.

Sometimes, I get exhausted with packing and unpacking my bags, exploring places and coming home and running again to explore some more. That’s when I prefer to lie spread-eagled on my bed and re-live my many journeys. When that happens, the universe conspires to bring interesting visitors to the eye-glass that is my room’s window and at times, the terrace of my home. Here are my top four acquaintances.

Little Monkey
Its favourite place is the tree outside my room, making it a regular morning visitor. Seeing as I’m not a morning person, this pint-sized acrobat does everything to replace a super-sized frown on my face with a laugh.

Madamoiselle Luna
The telephoto and I conduct a love affair with the moon once a month. Sometimes, she relents and poses for us beautifully, her radiant happiness setting her aglow. And sometimes, she likes to be shy and make us work for a mere glimpse of her well-rounded face.

I have no idea what it is that makes bees and birds flock to my room (they also generously fly smack into my face when I’m out riding my bike), but they do. And they adore my tube light. This delicate winged creature stuck to the light like its life depended on it and vanished before the break of dawn. Its kin have been paying me the odd visit since.

Mister Crawley
He’s the one-man mafia, striking fear in the dead of night. A rare visitor (because I pay my dues on time), he comes over to let me know that he exists and to remind me of how afraid I am of his kind.

Tell me, do you get uncommon visitors as well?

Spending time in the company of the Ganges.

The river banks of Ganga, our temporary home.

“Ganga’s very forgiving”, Vikram, our raft guide from Aquaterra, proclaimed as we paddled vigorously down the river, out of breath and watching in horror as our fellow paddlers from other rafts were carried past us by the currents. She didn’t seem very forgiving at that point, I can tell you that much, but as we continued to raft down the rapids of the Ganges, I could understand what he meant. The waters and the 15-foot rapids might scare the living daylights out of you, but they won’t kill you. (Not unless you do something stupid like panic, or disregard the instructions of the pros.) Instead, they’ll take you along on a joy ride – a very cold, liquidy, watery kind – injecting you with an instant adrenalin rush, and then let you drift gently in calm waters. The river has many moods: persistent, with waves gushing, rushing past and over each other constantly – one can almost hear them go ‘move, move, move, move, make way, make way, make way’; passionate, as the water rushes furiously over eddies and currents to form its famous rapids; and quiet, as it softly rolls to the river bank and slinks back slowly, riding the crest of the oncoming lap of water.

A neighbouring camp on the sand banks.

Rafting on the river – getting high on hormones

Rafting on the Ganges is an experience one must have in one’s lifetime. We covered 36 kilometers in two days, complete with many rafts toppling over, many paddlers washed away in the river, and many, many stories of horror and awe from our instructor. Resisting the water’s force to draw us into its depths, seven people paddling as one to catch the crests of the rapids, almost losing my balance (and my sanity) as the raft leaned dangerously to one side and nearly gave in to peer pressure from the water, taking me with it – these are memories I will savour for a long, long time. In those moments, I felt alive. What an adrenaline rush!

I shared a quiet moment with my feathered friend here, who derived vicarious pleasure from alternately posing for, flitting away from and flying back to tease me.

But the one thing I will cherish the most is the quiet evening I spent with just the river for company. Ganga and I said nothing to each other. She went about her routine quietly, flowing calmly while I sat on the banks with folded legs and watched her. There was only the tinkling sound of water, occasionally interrupted by the chirps of a flying bird or two. I must have sat that way for hours, I think, because when I dragged my eyes away from the river, it was dusk. I have now found my happy place to go to in my head when things around me get chaotic.

The Adventure Journey Nature Camp at Gujjar Dera.

Nature/eco camping – going back to the basics

Eco camping is not for the faint of heart or for those who love their luxuries. The camps are set up along the sand banks of the river and are miles away from Rishikesh town. The first time our jaws dropped when we saw the camp – three leaps away from the holy river, and without floating bodies too! – and the tents that would be our home for three nights. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. Our jaws dropped a second time when we saw the bathrooms – longish tents, the kinds you find illustrated in Asterix and Obelix comics to show Roman camp settlements, with a deep hole dug into the sand for a toilet and a bucket of sand-limestone mixture for a flush. It. Was. Traumatic. Our expectations from the nature camp weren’t fully calibrated, so despite our ‘make-the-most-of-what-there-is’ attitude eventually, the first few hours were a total shocker. But let me be a good soul and set the dial of expectations to ‘Real’ for you. Here’s what you’ll find at nature camps in Rishikesh:

  • No electricity
  • No hot water
  • No ‘modern’ toilet facilities
  • Giant spiders, and very venomous-looking at that
  • Great food
  • Great views
  • Absolute peace and solitude
  • An opportunity to be one with nature
Evening aarthi at Parmarth Ashram.

Evening aarthi at Parmarth Ashram – a sea of yellow by a river of grey

As I left my footwear and walked past the arch, I was greeted by innumerable devotees donned in yellow. A little beyond was the Ganga, above whom loomed a large statue of Lord Shiva. Notes from the bhajans swirled around me as I took my seat behind a family who were wrapping up a special pooja. Non-Indians sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Indians, all of them clapping in sync to the tune. Disciples of all ages, dressed in yellow dhotis and kurtas with stoles of the same colour, closed their eyes and chanted away. Some others offered flowers and incense to the river, hoping for a blessing in return. Brass lamps took centre stage, waiting to be lit. As the evening progressed, the bhajans increased in fervour, reaching a crescendo as the lamps were lit and passed around for people to do the aarthi. The heady combination of the fire, the bhajans, the riverside, the rush of people and the feeling of godliness made for a mesmerising experience.

The crescendo.

Rishikesh was full of adventures, the likes of which I’ve never had before. The camping was different and memorable – despite the bathroom bit, the rafting was brilliant and the trip to town for the aarthi was just as good. In the three days that I spent there, I was more me than I have been in a while. If you’re interested in that sort of discovery, you should go too.

Ram Jhula caught in the sunset.

Getting there: Rishikesh is a six-seven hour drive from Delhi. There are no direct flights to the town. There are also day trains from Delhi to Haridwar, from where you’ll have to hire a cab and ride for about an hour.

Go if: You seek adventure, peace and yogic knowledge, want a tete-a-tete with the Ganges, love rafting, wants to see what stillness and silence feel like, want to do high rope courses, like nature camping and are a sucker for cultural experiences.

A long weekend with Dandeli.

An early morning drive through the adjacent forest. All was quiet with the world.

…And so a Thursday arrives with the promise of a long weekend ahead. You feel a primitive restlessness stirring in your bones; itchy feet that demand that you carry them away from the city. After several hours of your eyes playing tennis between pictures of His Royal Highness Mysore and Pondicherry the Sea Nymph, you decide whom you want to pay a visit: that beautiful, curvaceous mistress of Nature, Dandeli.

Take a moment to unwind by the river-poolside. The Kali runs parallel to Hornbill Resort. With pool bars going straight into the water, the river possibly becomes the biggest swimming pool in the world!

Make no mistake, Nature might own her but that doesn’t make Dandeli any less flirtatious with you. She’ll beguile you with her lush greenery, the million glittering forest eyes that come alive in the dark, the velvety fabric of night woven with stars and the fauna that she keeps for pets. For your tired soul, she’ll let you choose between two adrenalin-fuelled activities: a midnight trek through the wilderness or a long, long rafting trip down the Kali river. And should you reciprocate her feelings, she’ll be able to swing a night safari in your favour. (A lucky friend went on one.)

The tree house overlooking River Kali.

Be warned, though – if she figures that you’re only being nice to her because you want something in return, she’ll let loose a thousand chirping cicadas, snakes and frogs that will slither and croak through the night. Hell, she’ll probably even deny you the rare pleasure of sighting Hornbills. My advice to you? Be good to her, because sleeping in her lap and spotting a Hornbill are two of the best things that will happen to you. (I must have done something only partially right, because I never got to see a Hornbill even once.)

Waiting to raft.

If you’re in the mood for an adventure, then with a sharp snap of her fingers, she’ll get a couple of homeboys to take you to the natural Jacuzzi – a gurgling waterfall that feels like a million dollars worth of spa therapy. Maybe she’ll even let you stay in the tree house, part of which projects out onto the river.  If you’re just plain lazy, she’ll lull you to peace with bonfires and sumptuous food.

The perfect wake-up call involves the rustling of the wind against the fabric of the tent and a level voice saying “Madam, chai” outside your door.

By the end of the days spent in her company, you’ll long to extend your stay. You’ll turn doleful eyes towards her, beseeching her to understand how you feel. She’ll smile a kindly smile at you and you’ll know then that the decision is entirely yours. And that’s when you’ll feel the burden of the real world, that monster waiting to yank the chain around your ankles the minute it smells your escape. You’ll sigh heavily and just cling on to the memory of the lovely days with Dandeli. As you drive away from her, you’ll look at her, a silent question in your eyes, wanting to know if she’ll be your mistress as well, your escape from reality. And she’ll smile again, that Mona Lisa smile. She’ll look away because what do you know, there’s another car driving right into her arms.

Fields of green on the way back.

Getting there: Dandeli’s accessible by road and rail. You can drive down – it’s about 8 hours from Bangalore – or take an overnight bus. By rail, you can take a train to Hubli or Belgaum and hire a taxi from there.

Go if: You love nature, wildlife, birds, rafting, seek tranquility and maybe even a holiday romance with the place.

P.S: I’m a big, big fan of Hornbill Resort and recommend that if you’re going to Dandeli, you must stay there. It’s slightly expensive, but the experience is worth it.

Postcards from Ooty.

The Toy Train, Ketti. Like the train, the station’s also a miniature of sorts with one bench, one room and one flowering creeper kissing its rooftop. 

I spent last weekend in Wellington, twenty minutes away from central Ooty. And it has without effort replaced Kodaikanal as the greenest, most charming hill stations in my book. Sure, main Ooty is commercial and a large population of tourists is concentrated there (especially couples with paws all over each other. Ugh!), but move away a little bit and it’s an entirely different world. Because it’s nestled among the Nilgiri range of hills, there’s lush plant life everywhere. Colourful houses dot the hills like a fine garnish over a carpet of varying greens, flanked by abundant rows of cabbages, carrots and tea plantations. Picture perfect in every way, it’s mostly clean, quiet and the ideal place to get away from city life to enjoy a quiet, inactive holiday.

I stayed at the army guest house, thanks to my mother’s friend from work, whose son is a Major recently posted in Ooty. She was kind enough to invite us on the trip, and i’m so glad i decided to go because I’ve seen such beauty there that it sort of overwhelms me.

And that’s all I have to say. I’ll let the picture postcards do all the talking from here on.

Cosmos against the sky, army mess, Wellington. Ooty itself is a really green place (as you’ll see from the rest of the picture post cards), but the fauna within the army area is maintained with much love and attention.
Oriental Magpie Robin, army mess, Wellington. The army property is huge and full of bushes and wild flora. On Sunday morning, I decided to do a bit of exploring on my own and stumbled upon many, many birds. This was one of them.
Dandelions by the road, Wellington. Having never seen one before in my life (or maybe never having really noticed one till I heard Madcon’s namesake song), I pretty much went insane at the sight of these fragile beauties on the roadside. I had to take a picture, and of course, live up to the legends of the dandelions. So i made a wish and blew out the flowers like a birthday candle, watching the wind carry away the delicate little fragments that were my dreams and desires.
Mobile operator-sponsored homes, Ooty. It isn’t an uncommon sight to see homes built on the hillocks, but it is an eye-stopper to see rows of red and yellow houses next to each other. In an epic non-urban battle, Idea and Vodacom have gone neck-and-neck in branding these homes. I believe they actually paid the owners of the homes to do it. Now that’s an idea that follows you wherever you go!
Aged 54 Hillman Minx, Willow Hill Hotel, Ooty. There it stood, the stalwart black beauty, holding pride of place. Everyone who entered the gates of the hotel blatantly ogled, while those seated in the greenhouse-converted-dining area were taken back to the old, old days with grace.
Morning Glory on a tree, army mess, Wellington. For me, this image paints a picture in my head of an old man  – all wrinkly and counting the days to his end. And there’s this vibrant youngling, full of life and endearing, who renews hope in the old man and brings him some happiness in his oldage.
Botanical Gardens, Ooty. Like there isn’t enough greenery in Ooty already, they’ve also got acres of land just for it. Nevertheless, a place with many opportunities for photography.
Wild flower, army mess, Wellington. These pint-sized blooms are everywhere, mushrooming in clusters and especially beautiful when dew-drenched in the early morning hours. 
Moutain rappeling, on the way to Lovedale. Enough said.
The Willow Hill Hotel, Ooty. It’s an old colonial bungalow dating back to the 1800s. You’ll see many framed old photographs from its life as a home and its reincarnated form as a hotel. There’s even a framed tariff card from the 1900s that shows the costs of renting a single room as six rupees. The food is just as fantastic as the views.
The Oriental White-eye, army mess, Wellington. This bird’s a tough one to photograph. It’s small enough to fit into the palm of one’s hand and zips across bushes at lightning speed. I managed to get it only thanks to my 70-300mm zoom lens.
A view of Nilgiri Hills. On the second day, we went on a picnic near a dam – i’m not sure what the name is. A few army guys were angling in the water and even managed to catch a few fish. Meanwhile, some of us went exploring, following trails well-worn by jungle cats and other wild animals till we reached a perch and this view greeted us on the other side.
Cabbage fields, Ooty. This one was right next to the Wax Museum (go there only if you want to be encouraging of the efforts of average wax sculptors) and was ripe for the picking. Fortunately, we went at a time when most crops were being harvested. We even saw carrots being washed in a very cool-looking manufacturing-line kind of machine, but i wasn’t able to take good pictures of it. The spots of yellow you see between the cabbage are weeds.
Fern Hill Hotel, Ooty. An opulent Wodeyar palace converted into an equally opulent hotel, this property is at least five times more vast than what you see in the picture. With its red facade and exquisite craftsmanship, it’s quite a sight to behold. If you’re contemplating spending a night there, though, make sure you have at least 20,000 in your wallet. And that doesn’t include the meals. This one’s definitely on my luxury hotel lust list.
Gravestone at C.S.I Thomas Church, Ooty. There are many colonial churches dating back to the British Raj, and the same goes for the graves too. In the sea of crosses, this one stood out and I just had to capture it. As an aside, do you ever get the feeling that you’re invading the private space of the dead when you walk across a cemetery? I know I do, but there’s such peace there that I cannot help but go.
Angry Rooster, Ooty. My mother’s friend’s daughter and I took off on a walk to nowhere in paricular and stumbled across a cluster of homes overlooking railway tracks on one side, a quaint Christian graveyard on another and a temple on the third side. This rooster was tied to a rope and gave me such piercing stares when i tried taking its picture that I felt my life slipping away from me momentarily.
Pink Daisies, commercial street, Ooty. If the movie Bees were based in India, then this is where the flowers during the climax of the movie would have come from. Ooty is full of blooms no matter where you look. And a row of these fresh daisies is just what one needs to rest sore eyes on while shopping for tons of chocolates.
Otter in the wotter, near Ooty. A stagnant pool of water near the dam is home to at least four playful little Otters. We observed these guys forever, and they weren’t still for a moment. Constantly diving, swimming, taking a breather on the rock nearby and always ready to hide at the hint of the slightest sound or movement. Taken with the 70-300mm zoom lens and cropped vertically.
A cemetery life, C.S.I Thomas Church, Ooty. Look at how pretty the place looks with all the greenery! Proof that there is life after death.
Common Kingfisher, Ooty. This one was another really difficult bird to photograph. It kept flitting from one point to another, occasionally swooping into the waters of the dam to plonk a fish in its mouth. Eventually I figured out its favourite spots and managed to get some shots.
Tea plantation, Ooty. Always, always reminds me of Bollywood. I’ve never seen a tea plant in bloom, and this time I managed to see it and smell it. No, it doesn’t smell like tea.

Getting there: Ooty’s easily accessible by road and train. KSRTC buses ply to Ooty in the nights and i would highly recommend them because they go through the Bandipur forest in the night and there are many nocturnal delights to witness. Besides, government buses are the only ones allowed into the forest at night, don’t ask why. By car, Ooty’s a 6-7 hour drive from Bangalore.

Go if: You love nature, are a wildlife enthusiast, love photography, an avid bird watcher, need some peace and quiet, love hills and mountains, like exploring on your own. Oh, and also go if you love chocolates.