Category Archives: Adventure

Pedal On: India By Cycle

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY get their bums on the saddle to map out exciting cycling experiences across India

img_0387-pondy-cycle-tourThe location was perfect, the mellow morning set the right mood and our bicycles were the funkiest set of two wheels. Astride canary yellow and hot pink bicycles retrofitted by ‘My Vintage Bicyclette’, we set off at 7am on the ‘Wake Up Pondy Tour’. Our guide Manisha from SITA (South India Traditional Arts) led us through Puducherry’s less-explored Muslim Quarter – past Elliamman Koil temple, down Tippu Sahib, Mullah and Cazy Streets to the 19th century Kuthba Mosque, a blend of Mughal domes and French designs. Goubert Market, with its lively flower, vegetable and fish stalls, brought back memories of Life of Pi. After visiting the fishermen’s colony at the far end of the French Quarter, we ended at SITA’s garden cafeteria for a South Indian breakfast.

How Fiona Guerra and Idriss Madir, the duo behind My Vintage Bicyclette met in Aleppey and landed in Pondicherry, customizing bikes and creating cycle tours, is something even they cannot explain. They fell in love with India and the Atlas cycle on their first trip and decided to soup up vintage Indian cycles to brighten up mundane daily life. They revealed, “After settling in Pondicherry in 2012, such a creative and colorful city full of talented craftsmen and knowhow, we prototyped our first vintage custom hand-painted bikes for friends. It was difficult to ship the cycles to France and North India so we brainstormed to find a solution – ergo, the Pondy Cycle Tour!”

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With friend and partner Fleur Soumer, manager at SITA, a cultural center housed in the bright blue Villa Martine Marie Jacqueline, they crafted an authentic, local cycle tour. Since March 2014, they have welcomed over 1000 happy cyclists. Last November, a new afternoon tour was added to discover Pondy with ace photographer Gopinath Ram.

Fiona and Idriss admit, “For us, cycling is the perfect way to move around. Not too slow, not too fast, healthy, practical and eco-friendly. As urban cyclists, we don’t travel great distances by cycle in India, but do rent them in the cities we visit. We loved cycling in Hampi, Fort Kochi and Orchha. But we love it most in Pondicherry, a place we consider home. The city is human sized, to stroll along the Beach road is unique, as for the typical rides through the heritage streets and their bougainvillea…so cliché but unforgettable!”

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Cycling in India has taken off in leading metros with urban folk pedaling to work and weekday techies becoming rallyists over the weekend. Bengaluru is fast becoming India’s cycling capital. Till a few years ago, if someone flung terms like FTP and HRM, you knew he was referring to File Transfer Protocol and Human Resource Manager; today it could be Functional Threshold Power and Heart Rate Monitor!

Rohan Kini quit his IT job and founded Bums On The Saddle in 2006, a top-end bicycle service shop in Bengaluru where he’s the ‘Chief Wrench’. BOTS is the perfect place to geek out with Body Geometry Fit Specialists helping you find your unique riding position and intense training sessions to improve cadence, average speed and climb timings.

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It’s a busy calendar – from GMC (Great Malnad Challenge), BBC (Bengaluru Bicycle Challenge) to TFN (Tour of Nilgiris), the event that put India on the global cycling map. Started in 2008 by Bengaluru’s Ride a Cycle Foundation, TFN is India’s largest cycling event. Held between 16-23 December each year, the 7-day ride spans 800+ km, passing through three wildlife sanctuaries – Nagarahole (Karnataka), Wayanad (Kerala) and Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu).

Pankaj Mangal, founder of Bengaluru-based The Art of Bicycle Trips, says it all started when he and two friends went on a 100km bicycle ride to Cauvery Fishing Camp. After riding out 60km, they sat under a statue of Mahatma Gandhi when the penny dropped. This was it – being outdoors, getting out of comfort zones and enjoying the simple life of the countryside. In 2010, they launched their first tour the Bike & Hike day trip to Ramnagaram, the immortal setting for Sholay. Today, their wide repertoire stretches from Udaipur to Vietnam.

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The latest entrant on the scene is Bengaluru By Cycle, started by local boys Raghu and Nithya. Just a few months old, they offer a lovely Pete Tour in the heart of Bengaluru. Reporting early morning at Cubbonpet, it was uncanny to see the busy commercial quarter free from traffic. Raghu explained “Most tourists go to MG Road or Lalbagh, but this was where Bangalore started. We grew up here and know the backlanes inside out. Being fond of cycling and having done a DelhiByCycle tour in 2010, we thought of launching a cycling tour in Bengaluru. Unlike walking, you can cover a larger area on a cycle.”

Bengaluru Pete was established in 1537 around a mud fort built by Yelahanka chieftain Kempegowda. Originally spread over one square mile; today Bengaluru has expanded to 741 sq km! The 12km ride took us through the city’s oldest parts – a 250-year-old dargah linked to the local Karaga festival and Cubbonpet’s bylanes, where Bengaluru’s old culture thrived in garadimanes (wrestling akharas), temples and daily rituals.

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Sipping tea at the crossroads of Avenue Road, we smiled at the irony. At the spot where Kempegowda allegedly let loose four bullocks in the cardinal directions to mark his city’s boundaries, there was a ‘no entry’ sign for bullock carts! The highlight was Asia’s largest flower mart, set in the ground floor of KR Market. Established in 1928, it was formerly a water tank and a battlefield during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. We bit into crisp dosas at Udupi Krishna Bhavan as Raghu outlined plans for more tours in partnership with Jack Leenars of DelhiByCycle.

In 2009, while working as the South Asia correspondent for Dutch daily De Telegraaf, Jack was looking for a new challenge in life and began exploring Old Delhi on a bicycle. “It was a total blast! The best experience I ever had. So many impressions, colours, smells, beautiful faces, amazing architecture and great history. All clustered within the centuries-old city walls. After cycling for two months I finally designed the best possible route, gave up my journalism career and jumped into the deep called DelhiByCycle.”

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He started with the Shah Jahan Tour, a glimpse into the life and times of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his 1500-acre capital Shahjahanabad. Built in 17th century, it was regarded as the most prosperous and beautiful city in the world. Today, it is a 400-year-old web of alleys enmeshed with electric cables and infused with the smell of brewing tea and simmering curries. Pedalling past Chawri Bazar and Fatehpuri Masjid, the vibrant spice market, a chai break in Civil Lines, stops at Old Delhi railway station and Chandni Chowk, an outside darshan of Red Fort and Jama Masjid and you’ve truly earned your breakfast at Karim’s!

DBC has expanded operations with four other tours – the Haveli tour explores the lavish noblemen mansions or havelis in the 17th century metropolis of Shajahanabad, ‘a city of decadent Emirs, ruthless Persian invaders, woeful poets, mystical men, masterful artists and forgotten architects who wove dreams into the now crumbling contours of Old Delhi.’

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The Raj tour showcases the Imperial heart of New Delhi, taking in sights like Connaught Place, Parliament House, Presidential Palace, India Gate and Agrasen ki Baoli. The Sufi trail of Nizamuddin and the urban village of Kotla Mubarakpur took Jack the longest to develop (almost one year), integrating stunning rooftop views, Humayun’s Tomb and picnic on the Lodhi Garden lawns. But Jack’s favourite is the Yamuna tour, which includes a boat ride on the river! Recently, he designed cycle tours in Lucknow in partnership with UP Tourism.

Jack has inspired many to take up cycling as a hobby, if not a profession! After a cycling tour with him, Eleonore Gaspa and Ophélie Teyssandier returned to Jaipur to start their own company. Jaipur is packed with so many attractions, most tend to focus on the touristy sights. So the two French girls decided to create their own itinerary, showcasing lesser known aspects of this wonderful city. The thematic tours kick off early from Ramganj Chaupad leading guests through the City Palace district of the walled city, ending with a Rajasthani breakfast in Karnot Mahal, a 270-year-old heritage haveli.

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The Pink Inside Tour goes inside homes and workshops of marble carvers, jewellers and artisans, a wholesale vegetable and fruit market, cenotaphs, havelis, ancient temples, even the back kitchen of a sweetshop! The Pink Sensation tour covers everything from Ras Kapoor haveli (named after a courtesan, not the actor) to the local lassiwalla and a temple ceremony in an ancient Shiva shrine. On the Pink Royal tour see Jal Mahal, Gaitor cenotaphs, vegetable markets and a ceremony at the Govind Devji Royal Temple.

Jaipur-based Virasat Experiences, who started with walking tours in the walled city, also run an excellent Jaipur Cycle Tour. Ride through the streets and markets early morning, past Hawa Mahal to the city’s outskirts and 4km up the hill to Nahargarh Fort. Savour a panoramic view of the city from 700 m, before an exciting downhill journey. With local street food tasting and a Rajasthani breakfast in a heritage haveli, it’s a great way to get Jaipur’s local flavours. A more challenging excursion is the Nahargarh Cycling Expedition through the Aravalli forests to Nahargarh fort and stepwell, Man Sagar Lake, Nahargarh–Jaigarh tunnels and Jaigarh fort, built on a hill called Cheel Ka Teela (Mound of Eagles).

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Like Rajasthan, another classic cycling destination is Kerala where the topography changes every day – beach, winding ghats, steep hills. Kerala Bicycle Trips has been crafting thematic cycle tours for years. Starting off from Mattancherry near Jew Town, the Sunrise Beach Route has fishmongers, toddy tappers, milkmen and school kids for company.

The Old Kochi Bike Route explores a 3km radius of large warehouses exporting spices and tea, dhobiwallas and Christian, Hindu, Gujarati and Jain settlements. On the day-long Spice Coast Route, head to rustic Alappuzha or take the Hornbills Route along a canal bund road past lush paddy fields and coconut groves to the forests of Edamalayar and Thattekad. There’s a whole world to explore, if you get your bums on the saddle…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Jaipur and Cochin.

SITA Puducherry
Ph 0413-4200718 www.pondicherry-arts.com
Timings: Mon-Sat 9am-12:30pm, 2pm-8pm
Cost: Rs.1200/person (Rs.400 children), incl. breakfast

Kerala Bicycle Trips
Ph 97420 19837 www.keralabicycletrips.com
Cost: Rs.1500-4200/person

Delhi By Cycle
Ph 011-64645906, 98117 23720 www.delhibycycle.com
Timings: 6:30-10am
Cost: Rs.1850/person, incl. breakfast

Bengaluru By Cycle
Ph 95138 86305 www.bengalurubycycle.com
Timings: 6:30–9:30am
Cost: Rs.1500/person, incl. breakfast

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Cyclin Jaipur
Ph 77280 60956, 77280 60651 www.cyclinjaipur.com
Timings: 6:45-10am
Cost: Rs.2000/person, incl. breakfast

Virasat Experiences
Ph 0141-5109090/95, 96672 00797 www.virasatexperiences.com
Cost: Rs.1650-3500/person incl. refreshments

Art of Bicycle Trips
Ph 78294 86953 http://www.artofbicycletrips.com
Cost: Rs.1450-2500/person (½ day tours), $1695-3495/person (multi-day) incl. stay & food

My Vintage Bicyclette
Ph 84898 97427 Email my.vintage.bicyclette@gmail.com

Bums on the Saddle
Ph 080-41143064, 41505583, 73497 83178 www.bumsonthesaddle.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the December 2016 issue of JetWings magazine.

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In search of new thrills: New travel experiences in 2016

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The new year brings the promise of touching new frontiers in travel – new destinations, novel experiences and newer ways to see places old and new. Not just the world, India too is opening up with unique travel experiences for the discerning traveler. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY dig out 10 exciting options.

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Hot Air Ballooning as you SkyWaltz in Rajasthan & Maharashtra
If you think you need to go as far as Cappadocia in Turkey, Bugun in Myanmar or Africa for ballooning, here’s a major breakthrough! SkyWaltz gives you a chance to become a SkyXplorer with Balloon Safari options at multiple locations in India. In Rajasthan, waft over forts, palaces and villages of the rugged Aravalis as you get a taste of Rajputana at Jaipur, Pushkar, Ranthambhore and Neemrana. After a great stint at the Pushkar Mela, SkyWaltz brings the adventure to Maharashtra. Soar above green hills, valleys and lakes of the evergreen Sahyadris at Lonavala, Pune and Mumbai. While the duration of the morning and evening flight is 60 minutes, no two flights are alike as you drift where the winds decide to take you. The season is open until Feb-March with a short break for summer.

Cost Rs.12,000 or USD $250/head
Ph +91 9560387222, 1800 103 8839 http://www.skywaltz.com

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Attend Asia’s longest beach festival
After charming everyone with their Isla de Calma (Isle of Calm) ad campaign, Diu now promises to tantalize tourists with the longest beach festival in Asia. A one-of-a-kind festival held across three months until February 15, 2016, Festa De Diu is a celebration of music, art and culture. Choose from 60 beachside luxury tented cottages, which give access to the cultural extravaganza. Heritage walks, workshops and theme weeks dedicated to wellness, laughter and the arts, besides a dedicated adventure zone for bungee jumping, ziplining between cliffs and hot air ballooning over the Arabian Sea, are added attractions. In your spare time, explore this erstwhile Portuguese enclave with stunning beaches, Baroque churches and historic citadels like Diu Fort and Fortim do Mar or Panikotha (Water Fort), which featured in films like Qayamat. After you’ve had your fill of local sights like Naida caves, the walled city of Jhampa and Nagoa Beach lined with hoka trees brought by the Portuguese from Africa, head to nearby tourist destinations like Gir National Park and Somnath Temple.

Cost Rs.8,099 upwards/day for 3 people, incl. breakfast
Ph 1800 103 9257 http://www.festadiu.com

Hampi by Sky

Hampi by Sky on a microlight 
With stunning architecture of the Vijayanagar Empire and a surreal landscape of boulders set amongst a quilted patchwork of banana and rice fields, Hampi is easily one of the most inspiring destinations in the country. As per local guidespeak, it would take a visitor ‘3 months, 3 days, 3 hours, 3 minutes’ on foot, to see all the ruins of this once glorious city. While one wonders just how they came upon this perplexing equation, you get a sense of Hampi’s vastness from the summit of Anjanadri or Malyavanta hill. Walk around the ruins in amazement or ride about on hired bicycles, or try a great new way to experience Hampi – on a microlight flight. Take off from a school playground for a 30-minute aerial tour of the ruins, soaring across the Tungabhadra and get a unique birds’ eye view of Hampi.

Cost 15 min Rs.3500, 30 min Rs.7000
Timings 6-8:30 am, 5-7 pm
Contact Manjunath +91 9448975862

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Ziplining in Rishikesh
A holy dip in the Ganga is passé; it’s time to upgrade to a holy zip on the Ganga. Flying Fox, India’s zipline pioneers, started South Asia’s first zipline at Neemrana in 2007 with five sections over the 15th century fort – named after a film theme, from Bond to Major Saheb. Flying Fox also runs zipline tours at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort flying over ridges, ramparts and two lakes before landing on the tip of a fortified tower. In Punjab, Flying Fox Kikar at an old hunting lodge is the longest zip-line tour in South Asia and the first forest-based zip-line adventure in India. Their latest addition is at Rishikesh – the only zip lines across the river Ganga. Run in partnership with Snow Leopard Adventures, the zip tour is located at Snow Leopard’s Camp Panther at Shivpuri, a 15-minute drive upstream of Tapovan. Two zip lines called High Times and White Water Flyer traverse 400m as you glide across the raging white water rapids 230 ft below, watching rafting crews bob past and unbelievable views unfold along the Himalayan foothills. The whole tour lasts 45-60 minutes and includes a safety briefing, trial zip, zip tour and a short forest walk. For the adventure enthusiast, the zipline tour is a great experience besides the rafting and bungee jump.

Cost Rs.1,399-2,299/person
Ph +91 9568943116, 011-66487678 http://www.flyingfox.asia

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Kitesurfing in Rameshwaram
Though most visitors to Rameshwaram head to the Ramanathaswamy temple to worship one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India and see the longest temple corridor in the country, the temple town is fast emerging as a pilgrimage spot for kite surfers. Steady wind speed, sparse rains and endless deep blue sea make it an ideal location for kite surfing or surf boarding powered by a kite. Quest Expeditions, fronted by petite Charmaine, India’s first female kite surfer, offers a certification course with wave-style riding, freestyle or jumps at numerous locations on the Coromandel Coast. Stay in rustic beach huts for a reasonable Rs.1,250 per person, including meals and transfers to kite spots like Swami’s Bay, Lands End lagoon and Fisherman’s Cove. Well connected by rail and road, Rameshwaram is a 3 hour drive from Chennai and Madurai airports. The activity is possible all year round, with winter north winds blowing between Oct–Mar and summer south winds between Apr–Sep.

Cost Rs.15-30,000 for private/shared lessons of 6-10 hours over 1-2 days.
Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409 http://www.thekitesurfingholiday.com

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Rickshaw Run from Jaisalmer to Shillong or Shillong to Cochin
When the joy of riding a tuk tuk didn’t seem exciting enough, maverick tour company The Adventurists decided to institute a 3500 km race across the Indian subcontinent for teams of three participants in custom-built auto rickshaws. Often described as a ‘pan-Indian adventure in a 7 horsepower glorified lawnmower’, the Rickshaw Run has no fixed route. Participants map their own way between the start and finish line. They also get to paint their rickshaw, customize and name it – Krazy Jalfrezi, Ganesha’s Goras, Curry on Tukkin’, Bananas in Pyjamas, Naan Point Five on Rickshaw Scale, you get the idea! Teams can choose a charity they support and raise funds for their adventure. This year’s edition offers three cross-country routes – Cochin to Jaisalmer in January, Jaisalmer to Shillong in April and Shillong to Cochin in August. If road trips aren’t your thing, perhaps you can try Adventure 9 in the Indian Ocean – crossing the Zanzibar Archipelago in a ngalawa (dugout canoe) powered by a bed sheet!

Cost £1,595 entry fee for the trio, which includes a rickshaw with all paperwork, 2-days of test drive, launch and finish line parties, a blog and free travel insurance worth £210. www.theadventurists.com

 

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‘Life of Pi’ Rickshaw tour of Pondy & other filmy trails
The latest travel trend is thematic film trails, be it the Pataudi Palace that featured in Julia Roberts’ ‘Eat Pray Love’ or Ravla Khempur in Rajasthan where ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ was shot. However, Pondicherry offers a quirky rickshaw tour of the famous filming locations in Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’, besides Pondy’s other historic sights. Conceived by CGH Hotels, the tour commences at their flagship hotel Maison Perumal, winds past the 136-year-old Calve College to Foyer de Soldat, Joan of Arc statue and the tomb of Marquis de Bussy, dating back to 1785. Visit the 22-acre Botanical Gardens that served as the zoo run by Pi’s father. Instead of the motley bunch of animals, you’ll find 900 exotic plants collected by the French. Retrace the footsteps of Anandi and her friends through the bustle of Grand Bazaar at the junction of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Nehru Street into Goubert Market, where Pi peeped between the rows of garlands strung by flower sellers. Visit the trinity of faiths from Tamil temples, churches and the Kuthba Mosque, where Pi wrestled with spirituality. Or watch the surf at the old pier where Pi bid his final adieu to Anandi. End the rickshaw tour with a set Franco-Tamil meal at the nameless restaurant at Maison Perumal.

Cost Rs.600 for 1 hour, Rs.800 for 1 1/2 hour (For two)
Maison Perumal 58 Perumal Koil Street, Puducherry
Ph 0413-2227519, 9488009576 http://www.cghearth.com

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Retrace the Silk Route in the Thar
Thanks to China’s bid to revive the ancient trade route linking China, Central Asia to Europe, the Silk Route has again come into focus. The southern arm of the trade route skirted north of Rajputana touching places like Lodhurva, Ossian, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, which emerged as trading hubs. Suryagarh on the outskirts of Jaisalmer has crafted bespoke Desert Trails in the Thar, allowing guests to visit old forts, caravanserais and cenotaphs of local and foreign traders, recreating the old trade routes that once criss-crossed the desert. Your caravan takes you to Khaba Fort overlooking the ruins of the ancient village of Paliwal Brahmins and repaints the faded glory of yesteryears in the abandoned settlements of Kuldhara and Lakhmana before transporting you to the desert oasis of Joshida Talao for elaborate repast set on the banks of the scenic reservoir. Further on, sip the cool sweet water from the ancient wells of Mundhari. At Suryagarh, relish char-grilled meats and succulent kebabs in a range of dining settings, get a spa treatment at Rait Spa using sand or the newly launched Luni Salt Therapy and participate in celebrations like the White Nights of the Rajputs.

Cost Rs.18,000 upwards
Ph +91-7827151151, 02992-269269 http://www.suryagarh.com

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Glamping at India’s exclusive mobile luxury camp in Ladakh
The Ultimate Travelling Camp or TUTC is a unique concept in ‘Glamping’ or glamour camping introduced in India by Cox & Kings as part of their Bharat Deko brand. Past the white-washed stupas and fields of chorten, the Chamba Camp in Ladakh overlooking Thiksey monastery is set up when the passes open for summer and packs up before they close for winter. For a short period between June to September, it gives guests a taste of unrivalled indulgence. Each individually designed luxury tent comes with an en-suite bathroom, colonial furniture, private deck and your own personal butler. Experienced guides and travelogists accompany you on personalized cultural trips to monasteries and oracles and regale you with folk tales by the campfire. As part of the package, watch a game of polo in the high altitude cold desert, raft down the mighty Indus River and enjoy lavish picnic lunches. In 2015, it won Robb Report’s 27th Annual International Best of Best Awards, the connoisseur’s guide to the world’s finest things. They also run a similar luxury camp at Diskit in Ladakh’s Nubra Valley.

Cost 2,45,355/person for 6 days, 5 nights
Ph 1800 123 0508 http://www.coxandkings.com

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Kerala’s Jatayu Nature Park and Ramayana museum
While Kerala’s ambitious Muziris Heritage Project (the largest heritage conservation project in the country) is still underway around the ancient port of Muziris near present day Kodungalloor, the state is ready with its latest attraction – Jatayu Nature Park. It is believed that Jatayu, the legendary vulture from Ramayana tried to rescue Sita as she was being abducted by Ravana and perished on this rocky lair, which was called Jatayupara (Jatayu Rock). The dominating feature of the mythological cum adventure theme park is the 200 ft long sculpture of Jatayu sprawled atop the 1,000-ft high hillock at Chadayamangalam in Kollam district. One can also spot Lord Rama’s footprint on the hillock, set in stone. The 65-acre park is the brainchild of Malayalam filmmaker and sculptor Rajiv Anchal. Besides an adventure park, ropeway rides, viewing deck, Ayurveda themed cave resorts and a 1.5 km long walkway through the jungle, the theme park that will be unveiled in phases. It will also feature a Ramayana museum and a ‘6D theatre’ that recreates the aerial battle between Jatayu and Ravana.

Jatayu Nature Park, Jatayu Junction, Chadayamangalam
Ph: +91-474 2477077 http://www.jatayunaturepark.com, http://www.keralatourism.org

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 3 January, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

High on Adrenaline: Top adventures in India

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Surfing, diving, paragliding, zip lining to white water rafting, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY profile the top adventure hotspots in the country 

Until recently, if you said you were going to Goa for white water rafting and Rameshwaram for kite surfing people would think you were joking. Not any more. India’s fast changing adventure scene holds many surprises with diverse activities that go beyond terra firma…

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Paragliding in Kamshet & Bir-Billing
For the longest time, people were content with the thrill of parasailing or being tugged into the air by a parachute harnessed to a jeep or a boat. But ever since mountaineers figured it’s easier to fly off a mountain than descend on foot, things have never been the same again! Kamshet in Maharashtra is the best place to learn the ropes. Its mild altitude, dynamic wind, moderate weather, profusion of flying institutes and proximity to Mumbai and Pune, make it ideal for beginners. All year round access means you clock more air miles here. Basic and advanced courses like EP (Elementary Pilot) and CP (Club Pilot) are offered, but for more serious stuff like XC (Cross Country) flying, head to Bir-Billing in Himachal Pradesh. The 2400 m high meadow at Billing, 14 km north of Bir, is the launch site with the landing site and tourist accommodations in Chowgan. Manoj Roy, founder and president of Paragliding Association of India, explains that the sport is catching on at Panchgani, Sikkim, Vagamon and Varkala (Kerala), Yelagiri (Tamil Nadu) and Goa. Beaches with hillocks like Anjuna and Baga have soft laminar winds blowing continuously from the sea that let you fly the whole day. An annual paragliding tournament is conducted in Bir in Oct with the PG Fest to be held in the North East in Dec-Jan.

Getting there: Kamshet is 110 km from Mumbai and 45 km from Pune. Bir is 65 km from Dharamsala.

When to go: October to May (avoid rainy season and peak snowfall period in the Himalayas between Dec-Feb)

Cost: Around Rs.18,000 for 3-4 day course, includes stay, food, travel to the hill and equipment

Contact
Indus Paragliding, Karla
Ph +91 7798111000, 9869083838
http://www.indusparagliding.in
Run by Team India pilot Sanjay Pendurkar, the only Indian to take part in Himalayan Odyssey 2010.

Nirvana Adventures, Kamshet
Sanjay Rao
Ph +91 93237 08809
http://www.flynirvana.com

Temple Pilots, Kamshet
Avi Malik
Ph +91 9970053359, 9920120243
http://www.templepilots.com

Hi Fly, Bir
Ph +91 9805208052
http://www.hi-fly.in
Run by Debu Choudhury from Manali, the only Indian pilot to be in the Top 50 of
Paragliding World Cup Association and India No.1 several times

Paragliding Guru, Bir
http://www.paragliding.guru
Run by Gurpreet Dhindsa, BHPA certified paragliding instructor

For more info, visit pgaoi.org, appifly.org and paraglidingforum.in

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Snorkelling & Scuba diving in the Andamans & Pondicherry
Nearly 1000 km from the Indian mainland, ringed by pristine forests, beaches and coral reefs, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands have the best diving and snorkelling prospects in the country. North Bay, a 10 min boat ride from the capital Port Blair, is a good curtain raiser. The 280 sq km Wandoor Marine National Park, a 40 min drive away, is a cluster of 15 islands like Jolly Buoy and Red Skin with decent diving opportunities. However, the best dive sites are found in Ritchie’s Archipelago accessible from Havelock Island, an hour’s boat ride from Port Blair. After introductory sessions at Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach divers head to remote dive locations like Barracuda City, Dugong Dungeon, Turtle Bay and Barren Island, India’s only active volcano. Numerous dive shops offer a range of PADI courses – from basic one day jaunts to more specialized programs. For some action closer home, Temple Adventures at Pondicherry is a good bet. Named after an artificial reef built 5km offshore resembling the Mahabalipuram Shore Temple, they offer basic training at their facility followed by open-sea dives – 50m at Temple Reef (20 min by boat) or the Wall, an inter continental drop (15km offshore, 45 min by boat).

Getting there: Pondicherry is 160 km south of Chennai. Port Blair, the capital of Andamans is 1000 km off India’s east coast. Regular flights operate from Chennai and Kolkata (2 hrs) besides passenger ships from Vizag, Chennai and Kolkata (56-66 hrs). Frequent ferries connect Port Blair to Havelock (4 hrs) though the Makruzz cruiser covers the 45 nautical miles in 90 min.

When to go: The best months for diving are September-November and February-April, with clear waters and good visibility.

Cost: Rs.6,800/person for a 1-day introductory Discover Scuba Diving program

Contact
Barefoot Scuba, Havelock

Ph 044 24341001, +91 95660 88560
Email dive@barefootindia.com
http://www.diveandamans.com, http://www.barefootindia.com

Dive India, Havelock
Ph +91 99320 82205, 99320 82204
Email vkalia@diveindia.com
http://www.diveindia.com

Andaman Bubbles, Havelock
Ph 03192 282140, 9531892216
Email andamanbubbles@gmail.com
http://www.andamanbubbles.com

Temple Adventures, Pondicherry
Ph +91 9940219449, 9003122231 www.templeadventures.com

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Surfing in South India
Despite a 7,000 km coastline, India has just woken up to the prospects of surfing. Kaliya Mardana Krishna Ashram (aka Ashram Surf Retreat) at Mulki, run by Krishna devotees, offers surfing lessons besides yoga, mantra meditation and healthy veg fare served as prasad. With no smoking/alcohol allowed, it’s the perfect place to detox and learn to ride the waves! Ride the Zodiac boat to local surf breaks like Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s and Water Tank. Ganpatipule near Ratnagiri is home to Maharashtra’s only surf school run by Ocean Adventures while Kallialay Surf Club at Mamallapuram south of Chennai provides surfing lessons with wakeboards and equipment on hire. For hardcore kite surfing head further south to the temple town of Rameshwaram. The steady wind speed, sparse rains and deep blue sea make it ideal for a certification course with wave-style riding, freestyle or jumps at Swami’s Bay, Lands End lagoon and Fisherman’s Cove.

Getting there: Mulki is 30 km north of Mangalore, Ganpatipule is 300 km south of Mumbai, Mamallapuram is 56 km south of Chennai and Rameshwaram is well connected by rail and road – 3 hr drive from Chennai and Madurai airport.

When to go: Good all year round, with Summer South Winds blowing between Apr–Sep and Winter North Winds between Oct–Mar

Contact
India Surf Club, Mulki
Ph +91 9880659130
Email gauranataraj@gmail.com http://www.surfingindia.net
Cost Rs.3,500-4,500 (double occupancy), surfing lessons Rs.1,500/p/day

Kallialay Surf Club, Mamallapuram
Ph +91 9442992874, 9787306376
Email kallialaysurfschool@hotmail.com

Ocean Adventures, Ganpatipule
Ph +91-99755 53617
http://www.oceanadventures.in
Cost: Rs.2,500 (4 hrs) or Rs.5,000 (3 days)

Quest Expeditions, Rameshwaram
Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409
Email booking@quest-asia.com
http://www.thekitesurfingholiday.com
Cost: Rs.15,000-30,000 for private or shared lessons of 6-10 hours over 1-2 days. Stay in beach huts for Rs.1,250/person, including meals and transfers to kite spots.

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White water rafting across India
Splashes of cold water, an untamed river and rapids with colourful names, what can be better than the thrills of white water rafting? Criss-crossed by rivers tumbling down mountainous tracts from the Western Ghats to the Himalayas, India is a rafter’s paradise, with each river posing different challenges to the adventure seeker. In Karnataka, grapple with Adi’s Beard or Stanley’s Squeeze on the Kali river at Dandeli or tackle Wicked Witch and Milky Churn on the tumultuous Barapole river in Coorg. At Kolad, Maharashtra’s only white water rafting site, a 14 km section on the Kundalika River boasts a dozen Class II-III rapids like Good Morning Buddha, Johnny Walker, Rajdhani Express and Boom Shankar. India’s latest rafting hub Goa offers a 10 km stretch on the Mhadei from July to September featuring Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Y-Fronts. Tilari River Gorge 10 km from Dodamarg on the Goa-Maharashtra border is open between October and May. South India rafting pioneer John Pollard describes Tilari as ‘the most advanced rapids south of the Himalayas’. However, nothing beats the rush of rafting in snow-fed Himalayan rivers. In Ladakh, raft down the Indus near Leh or take on the challenging 14-day Zanskar river expedition (July till September). In Spiti tackle a 25 km stretch from Rangrik (4km from Kaza) to Sichling. In Arunachal, raft on the Subansari or Siang from Tuting to Pasighat. Uttarakhand’s mighty rivers offer Class IV’s with expeditions on the Tons, Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. Rishikesh, India’s most popular rafting run has a 36 km rollercoaster ride from Kaudiyala via Marine Drive, Brahmpuri and Shivpuri to Lakshman Jhula as you go giddy with Three Blind Mice and Sweet Sixteen.

When to go: October-May is the usual rafting season in most places though dam-fed rivers are accessible all year round.

Cost: Rs.1,200-1,500/person

Contact
Red Chili Adventure, Rishikesh
Ph 0135-2434021 Email info@redchilliadventure.com http://www.redchilliadventure.com

Ibex Expeditions
Ph 011-26460244/46 Email ibex@ibexexpeditions.com
http://www.ibexexpeditions.com

Aquaterra Adventures
Ph 011-29212641, 29212760, 41636101 http://www.aquaterra.in

Goa Rafting
Ph +91 9545305734, 8805727230
Email info@goarafting.com http://www.goarafting.com

Coorg White Water Rafting
Ph 08276-2346289 http://www.coorgwhitewaterrafting.com

Wild River Adventure, Kolad
Ph +91-9819297760 www.koladrafting.com

Mercury Himalayan Explorations, Kolad
Ph +91-9272882874 http://www.kundalikarafting.in

Superb Jodhpur Zip Tour Photo Jan 2013_Flying Fox

Ziplining in North India
Ziplining in India promises aerial adventures over battle-scarred ramparts of medieval forts as you feel the heady rush of history and adrenaline. Flying Fox, India’s zipline pioneers, started South Asia’s first zipline at Neemrana in 2007. Story goes when Flying Fox founder Jono Walter met Neemrana Hotel’s Aman Nath, he remarked “I want to fly you over your fort like a vulture.” Aman retorted, “No, no. I don’t want to fly like a vulture, I want to fly like a god!” And so will you, as you zipline five sections over the 15th century fort and the Aravali countryside. From the 330m Qila Slammer launched from an old lookout to the 400m Where Eagles Dare or the Bond-themed Pussy Galore and Goodbye Mr Bond, ending at Big B, named as a tribute to Amitabh Bachhan who zipped from that very spot into the Fort-Palace in ‘Major Saheb’. At Jodhpur, launch from ridges and battlements of the historic Mehrangarh Fort accessed through secret tunnels as you tackle Chokelao Challenge, Ranisar Rollercoaster and Magnificent Marwar, a 300m flight over two lakes landing on the tip of a fortified tower. In Punjab, Flying Fox Kikar at an old hunting lodge is the longest zip-line tour in South Asia and the first forest-based zip-line adventure in India. Upstream of Rishikesh at Shivpuri, zipline from the Snow Leopard Adventure camp over forests in the Himalayan foothills and raging rapids 230 ft below as you span 400 m stretches of High Times and White Water Flyer.

Getting there: Neemrana and Kikar are 2 hr drives from Delhi and Chandigarh respectively, while Shivpuri is a 15 min drive upstream of Rishikesh. Jodhpur Airport is well connected by flights from Delhi and Jaipur.

When to go: All year round

Cost: Rs.1,399-2,299/person

Contact
Flying Fox

Ph +91 9810999390, 011-66487678
Email neha@flyingfox.asia http://www.flyingfox.asia

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the October-November 2015 issue of India Now magazine.

Extreme India: Offbeat Adventures

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Before you make a mad dash to New Zealand or the USA for your next adrenaline fix, there’s some serious adventure on offer right here at home if you just look in the right places. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY tell you where to go.

Caving in Meghalaya-Mawsmai Caves DSC01373

If you thought adventure in India was just about trekking and white water rafting, buckle up for these truly offbeat outdoor activities across the country. Push the envelope with this handy list of activities, seasons, how to get there, costs, interesting jargon and who to do it with.

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Canyoning or Waterfall Rappelling in Maharashtra
Had enough of staring at waterfalls? Get ready for the thrill of rappelling down them! Maharashtra, with its many waterfalls tumbling down the Western Ghats, is fast emerging as a premier canyoning site. And there’s no better spot than Vihigaon, 13 km from Kasara Ghat near Igatpuri. First explored in 2007-08, the 120 ft dizzying drop has a 30 ft wide rockface, large enough for four ropes to rappel down. A check dam, smaller cascades nearby and a scenic plateau have boosted Vihigaon’s popularity. Bekare at Bhivpuri near Karjat, Dudhani near Panvel and Dudhiware near Lonavala are other good sites.

Tips: Carry a waterproof backpack with change of clothes and knee guard or protective cap to avoid scraping your knees against cliffs.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Pune. From Mumbai, Vihigaon is 124 km (2-3 hr drive) on NH-3 or the Nashik highway.

Season: July to October

Cost: Around Rs.1,000/person, includes transport, breakfast, waterfall rappelling & mountaineering basics

Who to do it with: Offbeat Sahyadri Ph +91 9987990300, 9664782503 Email offbeatsahyadri@gmail.com
Nature Knights Ph +91 9821081566 www.natureknights.net

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Spelunking or Caving in Meghalaya
Put hills of limestone and high precipitation together and you get caves – miles and miles of it! Limestone deposits in Meghalaya’s southern slopes, coupled with high rainfall, humidity and elevations over 1000 m, are ideal conditions for cave formation. With 1350 caves stretching over nearly 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and the largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent and ranks among the world’s Top 10 caving destinations. Spelunking or caving gives people a chance to see a rarely explored realm of stalagmites, stalactites, candles, cave curtains and cave pearls, formed over thousands of years. For tourists, Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills, is a good introduction. For more serious explorations, head to Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills, riddled with cave passages like Krem Tynghen, Krem Umthloo, Krem Chympe and Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

Adventure Jargon: Cave networks that have a river running through, which can be explored by swimming or wading through waist deep water are termed ‘live’.

Tips: Caving is not advisable for those who suffer from claustrophobia or those afraid of tight spaces, heights, darkness, bugs and bats.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Guwahati from where Shillong is a 2.5 hr drive.

Season: November to March

Who to do it with: Kipepeo Ph +91 9930002412 www.kipepeo.in
For more on Meghalaya’s caves, http://megtourism.gov.in/caves.html

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Bouldering in Hampi
The art of freehand climbing boulders without any ropes or harness is called bouldering. Pioneer John Sherman quips that “The only gear really needed to go bouldering is boulders.” Thanks to India’s landscape, the adventure sport is gaining ground. Places around Bengaluru like Ramanagram, Antargange near Kolar, Turhalli Forest and Badami have firmly placed Karnataka on the global bouldering map. But few sites can compete with Hampi for the profusion of boulders, monuments, monkeys and oddballs for a dramatic climb! At first, locals couldn’t fathom the sight of half-naked hippies armed with chalk powder climbing Hampi’s boulders. But Chris Sharma’s movie ‘Pilgrimage’, shot by renowned climbing moviemaker Josh Lowell, brought respectability to the sport. There’s even a Geoquest Bouldering Guidebook on Hampi called Golden Boulders based on the knowledge of two old time Hampi climbers Pil Lockey and Harald Vierroth (Hari). Carry your own chalkbag and climbing shoes, though guesthouses like Baba Café and Begum’s Place rent out crash pads.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Bengaluru

Adventure Jargon: The route a climber must take up a boulder is called a ‘problem’, which is unique to each location.

Did you know: Must-do sites at Hampi include Dali Boulder, Rishyamuk Rock, Ek-Number Boulderfield and Jungli Plateau.

Season: Nov-Dec is ideal. Avoid the rainy season and peak summer.

Who to do it with: GETHNAA (General Thimmaiah National Academy of Adventure)
Ph +91 80 22211246 Email info@gethnaa.com http://gethnaa.org

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Kiteboarding near Rameshwaram
Kiteboarding is a surface water sport that combines aspects of wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding and gymnastics into one extreme sport. The power of the wind is harnessed with a large controllable power kite which propels the surfer across the water on a kiteboard. Southern Tamil Nadu off India’s east coast provides the perfect conditions of steady wind speed, scanty rains and a large stretch of deep blue sea. Learn the ropes with Charmaine, India’s only female kitesurfer and Govinda, who trained under the legendary Ines Correa at a Redbull Kitesurfing event in 2013. Do a certification course with an IKO (International Kiteboarding Organisation) instructor and learn wave-style riding, freestyle or jumps at Swami’s Bay, Lands End lagoon and Fisherman’s Cove. Snorkelling, Kayaking and Stand up Paddleboard are also offered.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Chennai and Madurai, a 3 hr drive away. Or take an overnight bus or train to Rameshwaram, with Rs.400 auto fare to the location.

Adventure Jargon: Popping in and out of water intermittently due to light or gusty wind, poor flying skills or twisted lines is called Tea-bagging. And a serious accident while kiteboarding is known as a Kitemare!

Season: Summer South Winds (Apr–Sep), Winter North Winds (Oct–Mar)

Cost: Private or shared lessons of 6-10 hours between Rs.15,000-30,000 (1-2 days). Stay in rustic beach huts for Rs.1,250 per person per night, inclusive of meals and transfers to kite spots.

Who to do it with: Quest Expeditions Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409
Email booking@quest-asia.com http://www.thekitesurfingholiday.com

Skiing in Gulmarg - snowboarder

Skiing in Gulmarg
CNN ranks Gulmarg as the 7th best ski destination in Asia. And there’s good reason for it. At 13,780 ft, Kongdoori on the shoulder of Mount Affarwat is the highest skiing point in the Himalayas. The world’s highest ski lift whisks adventure seekers to the upper slopes from where they ski or snowboard down freshly powdered slopes. The Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM), a snowball’s throw away from Khyber Resort, has certified instructors, quality skiing equipment and snow gear for those interested in learning. Stay in modest but clean, shared rooms of IISM or base yourself at the plush Khyber, perhaps Gulmarg’s only ‘ski-in, ski-out’ resort.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Srinagar, from where Gulmarg is a 45 min drive away.

Adventure Jargon: Pisté (derived from French pistare or trample) is a marked ski run or path down a mountain for skiing, snowboarding or other mountain sports.

Season: December to March

Cost: Around Rs.40,000/person (minimum group of 8), includes stay, food, training and equipment

Who to do it with: Mercury Himalayan Explorations Ph +91 11 4356 5425 www.mheadventures.com

Rickshaw Run-Road Rajah on Muzhappilangad Beach IMG_0073

Take on the Rickshaw Run
Rickshaw Run, a 3500km race across the subcontinent organized by the irreverent tour company The Adventurists is described as a ‘pan-Indian adventure in a 7 horsepower glorified lawnmower’. Teams of three take part in custom-built autorickshaws often espousing a social cause with no fixed route. There’s a start line and a finish line; everything in between is up to you. Try Cochin to Jaisalmer in Jan 2016, Jaisalmer to Shillong in April 2016 or Shillong to Cochin in August 2016. Despite the flippant tone, the website warns ‘Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. These are not holidays. These are adventures. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.’

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Kochi, Jodhpur and Guwahati.

Season: All year round

Did you know: The Adventurists organize other outrageous activities include Mongol Rally, Ice Run and Adventure 9 – crossing the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean in a ngalawa (dugout canoe), powered by a bed sheet!

Cost: Entry fee of £1595 for the trio, which includes a rickshaw with all paperwork, 2-days of test drive, launch and finish line parties, a blog and free travel insurance worth £210.

Who to do it with: The Adventurists www.theadventurists.com

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Sportfishing in the Andamans
Though the Andamans is synonymous with deep sea diving and snorkelling, there’s more marine adventure to be found. For a taste of saltwater sportfishing, hit the high seas in the Andamans for Giant Trevally, Barracuda, Barramundi, Yellow Fin Tuna, King Mackerel, Wahoo and Sail Fish. Fishing is as per catch and release and operators run day trips for first timers or 7-day all-inclusive adventures that include acco and transfers covering Ritchie’s Archipelago and the South Andaman Islands. Day trips to Invisible Banks and Barren Island are also organized.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Port Blair. Havelock Island and most of the reefs and fishing haunts are in Ritchie’s Archipelago, a boat ride away.

Season: November to April is the peak season, until the onset of monsoon.

Cost: On request

Who to do it with: Gamefishing India Ph +91-3192-241610, 9900568091, 9434280117
Email gamefishingindia@gmail.com www.gamefishingindia.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of the Adventure cover story in the October 2015 issue of JetWings magazine.

Enter the Dragon: The Drukpa Trail in Ladakh

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY follow Drukpa’s Dragon Trail from Hemis to Shey and uncover Ladakh’s tryst with movies at Rancho’s School & Pangong Tso

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Every precious spot of shade and vantage point at Hemis gompa (monastery) was taken while the not so lucky sat patiently in the sun. Whenever a masked performer came too close, old women touched their foreheads in reverence while wide-eyed kids cowered in terror. A large thangka of the Drukpa sect’s founder Tsangpa Gyare unfurled on a wall loomed over the proceedings. We were at the annual Hemis Festival in Ladakh on invitation by the Drukpas for the birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism to the Tibetan region. Crowds milled about for a glimpse of his large statue in an antechamber.

For 350 years, the courtyard of the largest monastery in Ladakh has resonated with the clang and drone of gongs, horns, pipes and drums. We watched an endless procession of 400 monks twirl and dance wearing centuries-old costumes. The masked chham dances were based on the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava – wrathful, benign, feminine, royal, saintly, leonine – that he assumed at different times for the benefit of mankind. His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, spiritual son of present monastic head HH Gyalwang Drukpa, along with learned scholar Khanchan Tsewang Rigzin traced the origins of their sect.

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The Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in western Tibet by Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211). On a pilgrimage, he and his disciples witnessed nine dragons roar out of the earth into the skies as flowers rained from the heavens. They named their sect Drukpa (druk in Tibetan means dragon) after this divine incident. To be honest, the only time we had heard of Druk was while devouring Druk jam as kids and Druk Air, both originating in Bhutan, where the sect prospered and Mahayana Buddhism continues to be the state religion.

Lynne Chain, a donor-volunteer from Malaysia known by her adopted name Deepam, outlined Drukpa’s big plans for next year. Every 12 years a four-storeyed thangka of Padmasambhava is unfurled at Hemis. Next year, the event coincides with the millennial anniversary of Buddhist maha-siddha Naropa. A disciple of Tilopa, Naropa was the gatekeeper of Nalanda University and posed questions on theology and philosophy to people who came for admission and decided whether they were fit to enter or not. Later, he came to Ladakh and meditated in caves near Lamayuru and Zanskar.

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Naropa 2016, a month-long event slated for 1-31 July will take place on a 300-acre tented zone near Hemis. Besides the Hemis Festival, the relics of Naropa (six bone ornaments) will be displayed for a few days, with teachings by masters, Himalayan cultural performances, free eye camps and tree planting. With half a million visitors expected to attend, it is billed as the ‘Maha Kumbh of the Himalayas’. Drukpa’s charity organization Live to Love will attempt to break its own Guinness record of a million trees planted simultaneously. HH Gyalwang Drukpa will address the audience seated at the centre of a giant mandala shaped like the 9th century Borobodur temple complex in Java. After the event a statue of Naropa would be installed and consecrated as a monument.

Kargyud Homestay, a new family-run hotel in the quieter part of Leh overlooking the Tsemo Gompa, Leh Palace and the Stok range, served as the perfect base. The owner Phuntsog Wangchuk Goba also ran the famous restaurant Tibetan Kitchen, so food was delicious. Our next stop was the old summer capital Shey on the Leh-Thikse road lined with poplar and Ladakhi willow trees. Located in the lofty palace complex next to the Namgyal Victory Stupa was a chamber with a 39 ft high copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha gilded in 5 kg gold. The seated statue towered above us, spanning three storeys. From the citadel, a stupendous view fanned out of the Indus valley dotted by Stok, Stakna and Leh in the distance. A 4km trekking path connects Shey to Thikse Monastery, past the largest chorten fields in Ladakh with hundreds of whitewashed stupas strewn across a lunar landscape.

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Signboards along the way announced ‘Rancho’s School’ or the Druk Padma Karpo (White Lotus) School, propelled to fame by Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots. Before the movie released in 2009, the school had no visitors; today it averages 200 a day! They had to set up Rancho’s Cafeteria and gift shop to cater to the rush. The dynamic principal Stanzin Kunzang and His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, the school’s guiding light, took us around the campus.

It wasn’t just the dramatic backdrop and its philanthropic mission that made the school special; the institution itself was unique. Designed by London-based Arup Associates, its award-winning eco-friendly architecture used passive solar heating, ventilated pit toilets that didn’t require water and interlocking timber frames to withstand earthquakes! The dorms, named after Ladakh’s high passes, housed local and underprivileged kids who learnt Bothi (the Ladakhi script), art, music, martial training besides regular subjects. Nearly half of the 726 students came from remote areas like Dah Hanu and Zanskar and were sponsored.

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In August 2010, after Ladakh was struck by cloudbursts and mudslides, the school suffered serious damage. Aamir visited Ladakh for disaster relief and the following month, gracefully accepted the appointment as ‘Live to Love’ Global Ambassador at a convention in London along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh. After her recent relief work during the devastating Nepal earthquake, Michelle visited Ladakh for the first time this July and spent an evening at the school. “This is the most beautiful place on earth and the most beautiful school. We pledge our commitment that we will make your school bigger, better and stronger,” she exclaimed, floored by the entertainment program and enthusiasm of the students.

Speaking on her association, she mentioned that she first met HH Gyalwang Drukpa in New York and learnt about his Himalayan trek with 700 Live to Love volunteers for ecological awareness. Roped in as Executive Producer for Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, Michelle chronicled the epic journey with producer-director Wendy Lee. The Himalayas, a fragile glacial region being devastated by global warming, was described as the planet’s ‘3rd Pole’. Michelle elaborated, “One of the things I love about the pad yatra is that you connect with Mother Nature… Your feet always have to be on the ground. The environment issue is very close to my heart. It is about being responsible – making people living in this region believe that they are custodians of the natural resources and how we have to be good tourists when we visit.”

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She had joined the Peace Pad Yatra in Sri Lanka at the tail end and hoped to do a complete journey. Being an outdoors person who liked to trek and camp, she wished to join the upcoming Eco Pad Yatra to Myanmar in December… In Ladakh, she looked forward to visiting Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake. Seeing the ‘Rancho’ name plastered everywhere she reiterated the impact of movies. “Well, if it helps tourism, why not?”

It was local tour operator George Odpal who put Ladakh on the Bollywood map. Far from the chaos of Leh, we met him at his beautiful resort in Saboo 7km away, a lovely showcase of Ladakhi architecture and cuisine. George recalls, “It all started with LOC Kargil in 2001. JP Dutta was planning to shoot in Ladakh and all enterprising locals were aflutter about how to get in touch with him. I had just started my company Himalayan Safaris. I had no idea about Bollywood so I just Googled him and caught the next train to Mumbai! I bumped into a friend on his production team and my knowledge of the region and tour expertise got me the project. LOC was shot around Leh besides the army area at Karu. At that point, it was the toughest thing we ever pulled off.”

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As queries trickled in, George expanded from location hunts to logistics, transportation, stay, permissions, recce and even equipment for film shoots. He has co-ordinated the filming of over 20 movies in Ladakh, including Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero and critically acclaimed Hollywood docu-film Samsara, featuring monks of Thikse Monastery making mandalas. Shot in 25 countries, it was the only location chosen from India. However, it was 3 Idiots that spurred the tourism boom in Ladakh. Interestingly, the original location for the movie’s climax was not Pangong Lake but Tso Mo Riri, but wildlife permissions and snowfall made the production team look for an alternative in Europe, until they finally returned to Ladakh for Pangong. The rest is screen history. Today, tented camps dot the lake at Spangmik with carloads of tourists and biker groups stopping at the ‘3 Idiots’ restaurant and shooting point.

After featuring Nubra Valley in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra recently returned to Ladakh to shoot his next film Mirziya, based on Mirza-Sahiban, a classic love story from Punjab. Shot in Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, the movie will feature Ladakh on a dramatic scale. Few days later, as we cooled our heels in the blue waters of Pangong, we spied ‘three idiots’ mimicking the famous ‘bum scratch’ on the banks. We wondered what Bollywood poses would make it to people’s selfies in a few years. Sigh… Cut!

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Fact File

Getting there
It’s a linear route down Leh-Manali highway to Mahabodhi Society at Choglamsar 9km away, Shey Palace 6km further and another 4km to Thikse Gompa. The road continues to Karu check-post, 35km from Leh, where it forks – a diversion on the right crosses the bridge over the Indus River and goes to Hemis 7km away while the left turn goes via Chang La to Spangmik (125 km) on Pangong Tso.

When to go
Ladakh is accessible all year round with direct flights from Delhi though road access from Manali or Srinagar is generally between May-October. The 2-day Hemis Festival takes place in June-July. Next year, it kicks off the mega-event Naropa 2016, held between 1-31 July. www.naropa2016.com

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Where to Stay
Kargyud Homestay, Chubi, Leh
Ph +91 9419178630

The Grand Dragon Hotel, Leh
Ph +91-1982-255266 www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Saboo Resort, Saboo
Ph +91 94191 79742, 94192 31374 www.sabooresorts.com

Camp Redstart, Spangmik, Pangong Tso
Ph +91 94191 77245 www.campredstart.com

Contacts
Hemis Monastery www.drukpa.org
Drukpa White Lotus School, Shey www.dwls.org
Live to Love International www.livetolove.org
For more info, visit www.padyatra.org or www.padyatrathefilm.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 August 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Andamans: Walking down the Isle

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With secluded beaches, stunning sunsets and dazzling marine life, the Andaman Islands are a great place for couples, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Scuba diving Andamans_Discover India

A pair of Powder Blue Tang circled each other giddily before disappearing into a rocky crevice. Green Staghorn corals bore a velvety sheen as if marine antelopes were rutting on the seabed. The underwater realm of gently swaying ferns, sea fans, iridescent fish and strange marine forms was painted in colours we had never seen before – so dazzling, they were permanently seared in our brains. In a matter of hours we had gone from dropping a week’s supply of fish food in our aquarium in Bangalore at dawn to snorkeling in the Andaman Sea by late afternoon. As we discovered a new world, hand in hand, it was a lot like being in a giant aquarium ourselves…

After flying over the seemingly endless Indian Ocean, the first sight of lush green islands from the air brought us to the edge of our seats. The moment we got off at Veer Savarkar Airport in Port Blair, we inhaled the tropical air and a tempestuous sea breeze tousled our hair with wild abandon in rousing welcome. Andamans was going to be great, we felt and trooped off with the enthusiasm of explorers on the verge of a discovery. A short drive to the hotel and a quick change later, we were on a boat to North Bay, the closest dive site around town. Local boat operators offer a 3-island boat tour including Ross and Viper Islands. At North Bay, tourists are transferred onto smaller glass bottom boats through which they peer at the shaky distorted seabed and squeal in delight. But we were happier snorkeling. North Bay, with its seven coral sites, was merely an appetizer for the main course that lay ahead…

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The best prospects were at the diving hub of Havelock, but we had a few days to explore the mainland. After our introductory session at North Bay, we were off to Ross, the smallest of the 572 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar group. It was hard to imagine that this little blip of a 0.8 sq km island with crumbling edifices choked by roots and vines was once a buzzing hub of colonial high life. The ruins of a bakery, church, bungalows and boiler rooms once echoed with laughter and animated chatter. At its peak, Ross was dubbed as ‘Paris of the East’ because of its grand soirees.

Ironically, just a mile away, Indian freedom fighters languished in one of the most notorious prisons in Indian history. In a searing dichotomy, the Andamans had experienced so much pain and suffering – torn between British colonial rule and Japanese occupation to being battered by the tsunami in 2004 – yet it showered on every visitor so much joy and peace, like a soothing balm over frayed nerves. We walked to the far side of Ross to the forlorn Ferrar Beach lined with rocks and overhanging trees.

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Partially under the army’s command, the island was dotted with World War II bunkers. Chugging to a dramatic shot of the setting sun, the boat docked at Viper Island where the red gallows at the summit was the site of several grisly hangings. The surviving wooden beam served as a chilling reminder. Many people had perished here, including Sher Khan who stabbed Indian Viceroy Lord Mayo in 1872. It was dark by the time we got back to base.

There’s a lot to do around town and a couple can spend more than a couple of days exploring Port Blair and its getaways. With its lazy undulations and tropical air, it is often described as India’s only warm hill station. We checked out the marine museums, relived the sadness and heroism trapped inside Cellular Jail, witnessed the poignant Sound and Light Show, gawked at North Bay’s palm fringed lighthouse captured on the reverse of a Rs.20 note, browsed for shell, coconut and driftwood souvenirs around Aberdeen Bazaar, drove south for a sunset at Chidiya Tapu and enjoyed a nature trail to Kala Patthar at Mount Harriet National Park beyond Hope Town.

Andamans North Bay view on Indian 20 Rupee note_Anurag Mallick

A great escape from the bustle of the capital, the quiet hilltop hideaway had a lovely old Forest Rest House with watchtowers and gun mounts scattered on the hillside. We were honoured to meet the Andaman Blue Nawab, a haughty butterfly that fed on only one species of plant and chose to starve to death if it wasn’t available! Thankfully, we weren’t as fussy and happily chomped on the wide choice of fish and seafood, sipping cold beer at Marina Park and the town’s only beach, Corbyn’s Cove.

Keep half a day aside for Wandoor Marine National Park, an hour’s drive west of town. The 280 sq km park spread over a cluster of 15 islands is the best dive site near Port Blair. Take a boat to Jolly Buoy, Red Skin or Mahuadera to explore its rich marine life that includes four turtle species – Green Sea turtle, Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridley turtle and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. We saw everything from large leatherbacks and giant clams to little Anthias and Fusiliers darting around.

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From Port Blair the Great Andaman Trunk Road darts north to Baratang with its limestone caves and mud volcanoes blubbing like a thick curry on slow boil. For something more mesmeric, a 45 min boat ride from Havelock to Barren Island, gives the adventurous a chance to see India’s only active volcano as it spews ash and dust. The northbound road from Baratang, broken up by ferry crossings and straits, continues further to Mayabunder and Diglipur. But our tryst with the mainland was over as we were taking the swanky Makruzz to Havelock Island.

We stood on the deck, hypnotized by the wake left by the twin hulled luxury catamaran before returning to our plush seats to enjoy the cruise at 24 nautical miles an hour. The jetty was abuzz with fishing boats unloading bananas and fish while little crafts ferried adventure buffs to remote dive sites in Ritchie’s Archipelago. We caught a cab to the Government-run Dolphin Resort that had a superb location and view, before upgrading ourselves to the luxurious yet eco-friendly Barefoot Resort at Radhanagar (Beach No.7).

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Tucked away on the island’s western side, the beach ranked among the best in Asia and we could see why. The wide shallow crescent was ringed with tall Andaman Bullet Wood trees on the seashore as a handful of tourists enjoyed sunbathing, leisurely walks or watched the sun go down. All the nightlife was on the eastern side at Govindnagar (Beach No.3) where most of the beachside restaurants, cafes, resorts and dive shops were located. Understandably, Havelock was fast becoming a honeymooner’s paradise.

The next morning we took a boat past the Lighthouse to Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach where trees uprooted during the devastating cyclone provided a striking backdrop. Boats bobbed by the edge as tourists in inflatable tubes waddled around the corals, led by their snorkeling instructors. Like the tiny polyps that secreted these vast colonies of coral, the feathery white sand too had a fascinating origin.

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The multi-coloured Bumphead Parrotfish break off chunks of coral and rocky substrates by ramming its head against it, resulting in a flat bump on the forehead. It grinds the coral rock, feeds on it and excretes fine sand which over thousands of years has shaped some of the most sublime sandy beaches in the world. One Parrotfish can produce up to 90 kg of sand each year. The Blue Streaked Cleaner Wrasse or ‘Doctor Wrasse’ nibble off wound tissue and parasites from larger fish, giving them a manicure, pedicure and facial in the bargain. We were suitably inspired to follow suit and pampered ourselves with relaxing detox and rejuvenation programs in the evening.

On a whim, we took off to Neil Island nearby, an hour’s ride by boat. For those who might find high profile Havelock too touristy, unobtrusive Neil is the perfect answer. We disembarked at the stunningly blue jetty, checked into a beach shack and sampled the day’s catch at a garden café. Neil Island gave us a glimpse of how the Andamans would have been before being discovered by tourism. We explored the caves at Sitapur (Beach No.5) to the south and took a guided Coral Walk during low tide at Laxmanpur (Beach No.2). By the edge of the sea mirrored in pools of saline water was a natural rock bridge – ironically, it was ‘Howrah Bridge’ to the island’s Bengali settlers rehabilitated after the Bangladesh War. We drifted in warm currents and swam with the prospect of seeing dugongs amid grassy shallows and secretly wished that the lone boat that would take us back to Port Blair would forget to arrive…

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Air: Located in the Bay of Bengal about 1000 km from India’s east coast, the Andamans is connected by regular flights from Chennai and Kolkata (2 hrs) to Port Blair, the capital.

By Sea: Shipping Corporation of India operates Passenger ships between Port Blair and Vizag (56 hrs), Chennai (60 hrs) and Kolkata (66 hrs).

Getting Around: There are regular ferries from Port Blair to Havelock (4 hrs), besides Neil and Rangat. Makruzz covers the 45 km distance in 90 min. Local cabs are available in all tourism zones.

What to do Together Checklist
Snorkeling or deep sea diving at Wandoor or Ritchie’s Archipelago
Candle-lit gourmet dinner by the surf at Havelock
Long romantic beach walk at Radhanagar or Neil Island
Shopping for souvenirs at Aberdeen Bazaar in Port Blair
Bird & butterfly nature trail to Kala Patthar
Enjoy a sunset at Chidiya Tapu or Mount Harriet
Rejuvenative massage and spa treatment for couples

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What to Eat 

Port Blair has several eating out options like Corbyn’s Delight and Mandalay, though New Lighthouse Restaurant close to the water park and museum is a good no-frills eatery. Singhotel’s Pink Fly Lounge Bar is a trendy nightspot. Havelock is dotted with resorts that run charming cafes and restaurants like Island Vinnie’s Full Moon, The Wild Orchid’s Red Snapper or Emerald Gecko’s Blackbeard’s Bistro besides little shacks like Anju Coco that serve anything from pizzas and pancakes to great seafood. Barefoot Bar & Brasserie overlooking the jetty is a good vantage point while Barefoot’s Dakshin restaurant close by serves great South Indian.

Where to Stay

Peerless Sarovar Portico
Port Blair’s only beach resort overlooking Corbyn’s Cove
Ph 03192-229311 http://www.sarovarhotels.com

Fortune Resort Bay Island
One of the most luxurious hotels in Port Blair, atop Marine Hill
Ph 03192 234101 http://www.fortunehotels.in

Barefoot at Havelock
Havelock’s swankiest resort blending luxury and eco-friendly charm overlooking Radhanagar Beach
Ph 044 42316376, 9840238042 http://www.barefoot-andaman.com

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Contact
For tourism info
Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Directorate of Information, Publicity & Tourism, Port Blair
Ph 03192-238473, 232694 E-mail ipt@and.nic.in http://www.tourism.andaman.nic.in

For Mt Harriet & Wandoor National Parks
Chief Wildlife Warden P.O. Haddo, Port Blair 744 102
Ph 03192-233321 Email cwlw@andaman.tc.nic.in

For Diving
Barefoot Scuba
Ph 044 24341001, 9566088560
Email: dive@barefootindia.com http://www.diveandamans.com

Dive India
Ph 03192 214247, 8001122205
Email: info@diveindia.com http://www.diveindia.com

Andaman Bubbles
Ph 03192 282140, 9531892216
Email: andamanbubbles@gmail.com http://www.andamanbubbles.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Discover India magazine.

Starry Bedouin Nights: Sharqiya Sands, Oman

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The largely untouched desert region of Sharqiya Sands in the Sultanate of Oman is a perfect spot for camping and experiencing the nomadic way of life, discover nomads ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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A gentle wind rippled through the desert, displacing its fine grains of sand. Like an artful shape-shifter, the landscape was always changing. Behind us, the 12,500 sq km expanse of the Sharqiya Sands stretched till infinity. Measuring 180 km from north to south and 80 km east to west, this desolate tract in Oman’s Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern region), was also called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe who populated the region.

The area has been home to several tribes like the al-Amr, al-Bu-Isa, Hikman, Hishm, Janaba and larger clans like the Bani Khalid, who claim descent from Khaled ibn Al-Waleed, a companion of the prophet Mohammad. Each year, between June and September the Bedouins congregate at Al Huyawah, an oasis near the desert border, to gather dates. For centuries the geographical isolation ensured that their lives remained out of bounds to visitors, until an expedition by the Royal Geographical Society in 1986 drew the world’s attention to this remote yet, stunningly beautiful land.

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As the sun sank over the crest of the hill, it bathed the dunes in a golden hue. Our guide Mohammad bin Dawood bin Khamees al Zidjali from Khimji Travels remarked, ‘You get seven coloured sands in Ash Sharqiyah – golden, yellow, red, pink, brown…’ as we saw the changing hues at sunset. Reluctantly, the tourists scattered across the dunes got down from their perch and drove down the sandy tracts back to their camps.

We decided to slip and slide down the dunes to our base Desert Nights Camp, whose lights twinkled against the seeping darkness as if stars had fallen from the sky. In this vast wilderness, the luxurious tents seemed like a mirage. This was glamping (glamour camping) at its best and easily, the place to stay at Sharqiya Sands.

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We drew towards the strains of the oud and darbouka (goblet drum) that emanated from the open-to-sky camp. The soulful tune of the stringed oud held a tragic story. According to a Biblical reference, Adam’s sixth grandson Lamech invented the oud. The legend tells that a grieving Lamech hung the body of his dead son from a tree and the shape of his son’s bleached skeleton inspired the creation of the instrument!

The bedouins played well into the night as we helped ourselves to a lavish Arabic platter of barbeques, rice, shuwa (meats), Zatar bread seasoned with sumac (tangy spice) and washed it down with a choice of drinks – labneh (salty buttermilk), date milk and camel milk.

Dining in Luxury Desert Nights Camp_Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

The next morning we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride within the campus and exhilarating 4X4 Dune Bashing and Quad Bike adventures. The expert drivers displayed amazing control as the tyres churned out sand waves and swooped us down the slopes. Negotiating the dunes is tricky business and even four-wheel drive vehicles get stuck in soft sand. Weather, wind, location and skill of the driver become paramount in this sport. Serious adventurists can go sand boarding, trekking on dunes or camel safaris at sunset.

We barely had time to visit to the local souq (shopping area) for exotic souvenirs or try the unique Ladies Souq on Wednesday at Ibra (literally ‘many wells’) or the weekly souq every Tuesday at al Mintrib, which has an old fort. Visitors can absorb Omani culture at a Bedouin family house where they can watch them rear goat, camel, donkeys and weave carpets from the sheared wool of their sheep. Mintrib is also an ideal base for longer forays across the desert.

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As our vehicle left a swirl of fine dust behind, we rushed past Al Wasil and screeched to a halt near a tyre shop. We had deflated the tyres to reduce air pressure before heading into the desert but had to fill up again to zoom across the tarmac towards Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi in the Ash Sharqiyah region. Locals flock to its aquamarine waters for a relaxing swim and barbeque picnics in an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains gleaming with rich copper deposits.

Wadi Bani Khalid forms part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains which soar up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there were no roads, so people got here on donkeys or by foot. As Sultan Qaboos slowly developed the country, an offroad access was created. Today, one can get here in a small car, like the crowds who flock here on weekends.

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Young kids deftly maneuvered little wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels. Natural springs with crystal clear water emerged from the mountain, which were channeled for farming through an extensive network of falaj (canals). The short walk past date palms and green vegetation contrasted against the stark landscape as we reached a series of clear green pools with depths ranging from 1 to 10 meters.

Some pools are considerably safe for swimming. People bobbed ensconced in inflatable tubes while others set up picnic tables by the water edge and dangled their legs in the pool. The tantalizing aroma of smoked meat emanated from the shaded groves of palm trees where families clustered around barbecues.

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Thankfully, a small restaurant overlooking the largest pool served grilled meat and biryanis for hungry visitors like us. After a bite, we hiked to the entrance of Muqal Cave, a 20 min walk over the rocky landscape. The cave narrowed steadily and one had to enter it crawling like a baby, swim a bit, and take a short walk before finally entering a large cavern. Time and a torch are all that you need here.

There are many wadis in the region, like Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi on the Sur-Muscat coastal route. Between January and March, Europeans come here in droves for treks and the 14 hr hike from Wadi Bani Khalid to Wadi Tiwi is a popular route.

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We had to resist the intangible lure of these aquamarine pools and turn back as our guide Mohammad explained ‘When you see the water a little foggy, you know it has rained here. And when it rains, you have to be very careful. It might only be a light drizzle here, but in the mountains it might be a heavy downpour. There can be a sudden flash flood and you don’t want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.’

As if on cue, we spotted road signs warning travellers about sudden changes in water levels and danger prone areas, and gulped nervously. Mohammad caught our expressions in the rearview mirror and smiled, ‘Don’t worry my friends, right now you’re in the right place at the right time!’ as we drove off to discover another gem in the Sultanate of Oman.

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Fact File

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Oman’s capital Muscat, from where Sharqiya Sands is 203 km by road. Take the M23 or Muscat-Sur highway towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. Just 500 m after the village sign, turn right at the small sand coloured mosque and follow the dirt road for 11km to Sharqiya Sands.

Where to Stay: Desert Nights Camp, Ph (968) 92818388, 99477266 http://www.desertnightscamp.com

Tip: Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed so it’s polite and respectful to ask before clicking.

For more info, visit http://www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of JetWings International magazine.