Tag Archives: Sky Waltz

A Slice of Adventure

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase the coolest adventure sports and the best places in India to experience an adrenaline rush

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Snowboarding, ziplining, surfing, caving, paragliding to hot air ballooning, India’s diverse terrain offers something to every adventure junkie. Push your limits with the coolest adventure sports on offer. Take on the elements as you ski down the slopes of Kufri, Auli and Gulmarg, go kiteboarding at Rameshwaram, zip down Neemrana fort, over the Ganga, at old hunting lodges and abandoned stone quarries, surf along the country’s west coast, glide across the skies in hot air balloons or scour the bowels of the earth with caving in the north east… this is a must-do guide for every adventure seeker!

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Skiing in the Himalayas
You don’t have to go all the way to St Moritz for some snowplay. Come winter and heavy snowfall transforms the Himalayas into vast outdoor playgrounds perfect for snow adventures across Uttarakhand, Himachal and Kashmir. Learn the basics at Auli (1917-3027m), with 3m snow carpeting the slopes, the longest cable car ride (4km to Rajju) and the backdrop of Nanda Devi, Kamet and Dunagiri peaks. At Manali, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports offers skiing courses and facilities at Solang Valley with lessons on offer at Himachal’s first advanced amusement park at Kufri.

In Kashmir, at 13,780 ft, Kongdoori on the shoulder of Mount Affarwat is the highest skiing point in the Himalayas. Little wonder CNN has ranked Gulmarg as the 7th best ski destination in Asia. The world’s highest ski lift whisks you to the upper slopes from where you ski or snowboard down freshly powdered slopes. The Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM) has certified instructors, quality skiing equipment, snow gear and modest shared rooms. For more luxury, stay at the plush Khyber, one of the few resorts where you can literally ‘ski-in, ski-out’!

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Srinagar, from where Gulmarg is a 45 min drive.
When to go: December to March
Cost: Around Rs.40,000/person (minimum group of 8), includes stay, food, training and equipment

Contact
Mercury Himalayan Explorations
Ph +91 11 4356 5425
http://www.mheadventures.com

Ski & Snowboard School
Auli, Garhwal Himalayas
Ph 9837937948, 9837685986
www.auliskiing.in

Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports
High Altitude Trekking & Skiing Center, Narkanda Ph: 01782-242406
Incharge, Skiing Center, Solang Nalla, PO Palhan, Manali Ph: 01902-256011
www.adventurehimalaya.org

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Kiteboarding near Rameshwaram
Kiteboarding is a surface water sport that harnesses the power of wind on water. Combining multiple disciplines like surfing, windsurfing, paragliding, wakeboarding and gymnastics into one extreme sport, the surfer is propelled on a kiteboard by a large controllable power kite. Southern Tamil Nadu, with a large stretch of sea, steady wind speed and dry weather, provides the perfect conditions for kiteboarding. India’s only female kitesurfer Charmaine and Govinda, who trained under the legendary Ines Correa, provide certification courses. Learn jumps and wave-style riding from IKO (International Kiteboarding Organisation) certified instructors at Fisherman’s Cove, Lands End lagoon and Swami’s Bay. Learn all about tea-bagging – popping in and out of water intermittently due to light or gusty wind, poor skills or twisted lines. Stay in rustic beach huts for around Rs.1,400 per person per night, inclusive of meals and transfers to kite spots. Also learn snorkelling, kayaking and stand up paddleboard while you’re at it.

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.
When to go: Oct–Mar (Winter North Winds), Apr–Sep (Summer South Winds)
Cost: Private or shared lessons of 6-10 hours between Rs.15,000-30,000 (1-2 days).  

Contact
Quest Expeditions
Ph +91 9820367412, 9930920409
Email booking@quest-asia.com
thekitesurfingholiday.com

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Surfing in South India
With a 7,000 km coastline, India is just discovering the thrills of surfing. At Mulki, Kaliya Mardana Krishna Ashram (or ‘Ashram Surf Retreat’ as it’s better known) is run by Krishna devotees who impart surfing lessons besides yoga and mantra meditation. With no smoking/alcohol allowed on the premises and healthy veg fare, 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.

Getting there: Mulki is 30 km north of Mangalore, Ganpatipule is 300 km south of Mumbai, Mamallapuram is 56 km south of Chennai.
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)

Caving in Meghalaya Kipepo

Caving in the North East
Call it spelunking (American) or potholing (British version), caving is the hot new adventure trend. It’s dark and grimy, but the descent into the subterranean realm offers a chance to see the beautiful world of stalagmites, stalactites, candles, cave curtains and cave pearls, formed over thousands of years. The presence of limestone hills, heavy rains and high humidity are ideal conditions for cave formation, best exhibited in India’s North East. With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and the largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Little wonder it ranks among the world’s Top 10 caving destinations.

For tourists, Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills is a decent primer, though for less touristy stuff, 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. In neighbouring Manipur, Khangkhui Mangsor (cave system) near Ukhrul is a top draw with the village’s Tangkhul Naga inhabitants doubling up as guides. Each of the pits and caves has interesting legends of kings and demons attached to them.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Guwahati from where Shillong is a 3 hr drive.
When to go: November to March

Contact
Kipepeo
Ph +91 9930002412
http://www.kipepeo.in

For more on Meghalaya’s caves, http://megtourism.gov.in/caves.html

Bir Billing Paragliding

Paragliding in Kamshet & Bir-Billing
A good place to get initiated into paragliding is Kamshet in Maharashtra. 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 serious stuff like XC (Cross Country), 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.

There are a host of paragliding schools like Paragliding Guru run by BHPA certified paragliding instructor Gurpreet Dhindsa or Hi-Fly 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. 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. An annual paragliding tournament is conducted in Bir in Oct.

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
Hi Fly, Bir
Ph +91 9805208052
http://www.hi-fly.in

Paragliding Guru, Bir
http://www.paragliding.guru

Indus Paragliding, Karla
Ph +91 7798111000, 9869083838
http://www.indusparagliding.in

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

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

For more info, visit http://www.pgaoi.org, http://www.appifly.org and http://www.paraglidingforum.in

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Ziplining in North India & Coorg
Ziplining in the country started when Flying Fox founder Jono Walter met Neemrana Hotel’s Aman Nath and remarked “I want to fly you over your fort like a vulture.” Aman retorted, “No, no. I want to fly like a god!” And thus Flying Fox, India’s zipline pioneers, started South Asia’s first zipline in 2007. Ziplining at Neemrana promises a heady buzz of history and adrenaline as you zip over battle-scarred ramparts of a 15th century fort. Zipline five sections over the Aravali countryside – from the 330m Qila Slammer launched from an old lookout to the 400m ‘Where Eagles Dare’ or the Bond-inspired Pussy Galore and Goodbye Mr Bond, ending at Big B, named after Amitabh Bachhan who zipped from that very spot into the fort in the movie ‘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 set up the longest zip-line tour in South Asia and the first forest-based zip-line adventure in India at an old hunting lodge. Upstream of Rishikesh at Shivpuri, zipline 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.

Down south, Siddhartha Somana (Sidd) repurposed a 35-year-old abandoned stone quarry near Madikeri into an offbeat adventure spot. Set in an 18-acre patch at Madenad in a 250m long horseshoe arc, take a guided Rainforest Walk, go rock climbing, rappel down a 50 ft natural rock wall and try 5 Treetop Adventures above the forest floor, eventually flopping into a Giant Hammock. The ziplining is done in two stretches – 400 ft and 600 ft, about 100-150 ft high. The all-inclusive ‘Full Dosage’ costs 1,999/person for all activities with food arranged on request.

Getting there: Neemrana and Kikar are 2 hr drives from Delhi while Shivpuri is a 15 min drive upstream of Rishikesh. Jodhpur Airport is well connected by flights from Delhi and Jaipur. Quarry Adventures is 8km from Madikeri.
When to go: All year round
Cost: Rs.1,399-2,299/person 

Contact
Flying Fox

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

Quarry Adventures
Ph 9880651619, 9482575820
http://www.thequarryadventures.com
Timings: 9am-6pm

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Hot Air Ballooning across India
A hot air balloon is indeed a strange aerial vehicle that has no brakes or steering wheel with only the fair winds to guide you! Commercial hot air ballooning in India finally took off on 1 Jan 2009 with pioneers SkyWaltz waltzing into the skies. The tourism hub of Rajasthan, with its forts, palaces and rugged Aravallis was the perfect place to start. Headquartered in Jaipur, the action spread to Ranthambhore, Pushkar camel fair, a permanent operation at Lonavala, besides tethered flights at festivals like Taj Mahotsav, Hampi Festival, Amaravati Festival and Araku Balloon Festival. SkyWaltz has flown over 35,000 happy customers in the last nine years. With the trend catching on, the fifth edition of the Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival is back this January with tethered flights and night glow at Chennai and Pollachi.

Getting there: Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam.
When to go: All year round except peak summer and rains. Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival takes place 4-6 Jan 2019 in Chennai and 13-15 Jan at Pollachi.

Contact
Tamil Nadu International Balloon Festival
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Email tnballoonfestival@gmail.com
http://www.tnibf.com

SkyWaltz/E-Factor
Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222
Email goballooning@skywaltz.com
http://www.skywaltz.com

Pushkar Fair
Ph +91 8130925252
http://www.pushkarmela.org

Araku Balloon Festival
http://www.arakuballoonfestival.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in the January 2019 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

 

Up, Up & Away: Ballooning on the Horizon

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY attend the inaugural Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh, turning the spotlight on India’s latest trend 

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As the fourth edition of the Tamil Nadu Balloon festival took off this January at Pollachi with an international focus, all of a sudden hot air ballooning seems to be the hot new trend in travel. Besides trial runs in Amaravati, Agra and the Rann Utsav, the annual calendar now seems full with regular ballooning events at Pushkar Mela and Rajasthan thanks to SkyWaltz, one of the pioneers in the field.

Be it a balloon safari over the lush Sahyadri range at Lonavala and the rugged Aravalis above Jaipur or flights on request at Neemrana, Manesar, Udaipur and Ranthambhore, the main safari season (Dec-March and Sep-Nov) is busy with morning and evening fights. It seemed like the stuff adventures are made of, as we discovered for ourselves at Araku Valley.

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“A hot air balloon is the only vehicle in the world without a steering wheel, motor and brakes. It’s crazy, meant for crazy people…” laughed Johan Vander Meiren from Belgium. We were in conversation with the world’s top balloonists at the international Araku Balloon Festival in Andhra Pradesh. 16 balloons from 13 countries were participating and all their heavy equipment had been air freighted and transported to Araku Valley. The added attractions were the special shaped balloons – Iwi the Kiwi from New Zealand, the sea horse shaped Neptuno from Brazil and Bee, manned by Luc de Wulf from Belgium.

After a press launch at The Park Hotel in Vizag and two nights of music ‘Sounds On Sand’ at RK Beach (where Luc gained notoriety as the ‘dancing balloonist’ for his antics on stage), we drove into misty Araku Valley in the Eastern Ghats. To host the international pilots and media, a specially designed camp with 40 luxury tents was set up at Bosubeda in a clearing amidst green paddy fields, bright yellow flowers and colourful flags fluttering in the breeze.

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Organizer Samit Garg from SkyWaltz and E-Factor says: “Araku Balloon Fest is a unique tool to promote Araku Valley as a tourism destination and highlight its lush landscapes and waterfalls, fields and valleys, eco-friendly environment and friendly people. We came here three weeks ago scouting for a campsite. A farmer, who was about to harvest his crops, agreed to lease this patch. The whole camp was set up in days! We hope after this event ‘Araku’ will find a place in the minds of travellers.”

Johan had clocked a thousand flights in Europe and has been flying over the historic cityscape of Bruges for the past 12 years. During winter, day temperatures are constant, allowing longer flights over the Alps. “In today’s age, everything is programmable or as per a schedule. Hot air ballooning is not. You float on nature. That’s the reason I still enjoy it.” His hometown Beselare or ‘Village of the Witch’ has a witch festival and he’s currently developing a balloon shaped like a sorceress!

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Luc confided he found inspiration from his grandfather who often talked of flying. “I made my first balloon when I was 10 by heating a piece of plastic with a hairdryer.” Luc has ballooned in Israel, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico and Dubai. “When you land, the people are so friendly, we’re treated like kings. A balloon ride is something special and often booked for a birthday or anniversary.

Imagine, it’s sunset… a nice landing place – we set up a pop-up café with champagne, cheese, and cheekily ask our passengers ‘Didn’t you do this yesterday evening?’ They wail ‘No’! ‘Exactly!’ Everything isn’t commercial. We spend a whole fun evening together. Why go to a café or bar when I meet so many people through ballooning?”

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After dinner, we retired early for our morning tryst. By dawn, the camp was abuzz with pilots getting their gas cylinders filled with nitrogen. Karimulla Syed from Guntur, the only balloon pilot from Andhra Pradesh, was overseeing the fuelling operations. “We don’t have propane in India, so commercial LPG cylinders are used and pressurized with nitrogen,” he explained. Though non-motorized, the balloon is still an aircraft, so requires registration, licenses and permissions from the DGCA, Airport Authority of India and local Air Traffic Control. Karim started ballooning as a hobby and has flown 800 hours across 15 countries.

It was a short drive to the launch site and the atmosphere was electric. Numbered jeeps rolled onto a grassy clearing and each passenger was given a boarding card with the number of the allocated balloon. We caught up with other participants while they were unloading baskets, setting up equipment and inflating the colourful balloons.

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Paolo Bonanno from Italy has 37 years of ballooning experience and is the leading authority on burners. He chugged at his trademark pipe and looked up ruefully at the grey sky. “By rule, the maximum permitted wind speed is 10 knots. The perfect condition is no wind on the ground and soft wind in the air. The landing is most important. We fly for pleasure and avoid taking risks”. His partner Nicole added, “There’s a popular saying – ‘Better to be on the ground and say I wish was in the air rather than to be in the air and say I wish was on the ground!” Their words seemed as dark and foreboding as the low hanging clouds but we laughed.

Paolo originally made automatic machines for industrial textiles and created a balloon just to win a challenge. Back in 1980, there was no concept of ballooning. For 2 years, cops followed him around to confiscate his balloon! Now 73, he planned to continue flying for the next 30 years, Paolo said with a twinkle. He had flown in Sri Lanka and Philippines, but this was his first time in India. At Albuquerque, the organizers said he couldn’t smoke in the fields, so he lit up the moment they were off the ground. “No Pipe, No Fly,” he tapped his badge and chuckled.

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Spaniard Josep Llado from Ultramagic started 30 years ago with a balloon trip across Africa. Be it Albuquerque in USA, the world’s biggest ballooning event with 650 balloons, or a small event like this, each has its own charm, he explained. “It’s freedom – you forget about terrestrial problems”, he laughed. “We’re in an era where we like to control everything. With ballooning it’s very difficult, but you can adapt. There are different wind directions at various altitudes so you can change levels. Early morning or evening is better for flying, as the wind is calm and the temperature cool, without any thermals, making it easier to control the balloon.”

Ballooning as a sport started in the late 60s and grew in the early 70s in the UK and US before spreading to other places. Josep had flown over Kilimanjaro, India Gate in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra, besides Jaipur, Pushkar and Ranthambhore. “Flying in India is incredible and very colourful. As you fly over a city, people throng the roofs and there’s always a big crowd when you land. In Africa, there are photographic safaris over lions or elephants. In Burma, you fly over temples. In Capadoccia, Turkey, ballooning started in 1992 and today is a big business catering to hundreds of tourists. India is huge, like a continent, and I’m sure there will be fantastic panoramic places for ballooning. We hope Araku will be our favourite!”

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“There are so few moving parts, what could possibly go wrong” – piped in Peter Dutneall with characteristic humour from Down Under. His balloon was called Zoz. “Not ‘coz it’s from Oz, it’s my registration number!” he said. “What I love about ballooning is that it puts smiles on people’s faces”. The wind had stopped and the smiles were coming back on. Huge industrial fans had inflated the balloons and burners fired them up with hot air. Last minute instructions were handed out – clutch the ropes inside the basket, bend the knee when landing, hope for a soft touchdown!

Josep was the first to fly out, followed by Marc Blazer from Switzerland, Izzati and Atiqah Khairudin, the intrepid ballooning sisters from Malaysia who run the annual Putrajaya International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Kevin Chassa from France (whose mom was the first female balloon pilot in France) and Rick Astral and John who fly Iwi the Kiwi. Rick, who relocated from New Zealand to Santiago, is candid. “There’s so much stress in life, ballooning is all about enjoyment. I’ve flown the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, even landed in an airbase to shoot against some F-16s. I was a Cheeky Kiwi who just wanted photos of balloons in dramatic places!”

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As our pilots fired up with a loud whoosh and hiss of fire, we clambered into our baskets and were off, waving at the screaming crowds below. We rose above the mesmeric patchwork of green and gold fields, noticing streams and grey blue hills that ringed the valley and other vibrant balloons mid-air. Now and then, a paramotorist swooped around us in hypnotic curves. Farmers stopped their work and children waved agog!

Ballooning was as much about the flight as a foolproof exit plan. One had to watch out for low hanging powerlines, forests and hilltops. The most important thing was a flat patch of land and proximity to a road for the crew to easily recover the equipment. Our smooth landing could put an Airbus to shame as we headed back to the camp for breakfast, jabbering about our experience.

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The day was free to visit the Tribal Museum and Coffee Museum in town, Araku’s coffee plantations and tribal hamlets. Near waterfalls like Chaprai, local women sold barbecued chicken and fish on wooden skewers. That evening thousands of locals and tourists converged at a large ground to witness the Tethered Flights and Night Glow balloon spectacle. Later, the party continued at the camp, with lilting folk tunes and an energetic Dhimsa dance, performed by women of the Nookadora tribe.

Kaushik Mukherji, consultant for AP Tourism, explained that Araku was one of the many wonders in Andhra Pradesh. “There are temples with floating pillars, ancient Buddhist sites and 500-year-old Dutch cemeteries. We’re creating different holiday experiences for different customer segments and an event calendar from October-March. There’s horseracing on the beaches at the Vizag Stud Million while the Yacht Pentagonal in mid-Feb will be one of its kind in Asia.”

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On our return, we stopped by at the fascinating Borra Caves, discovered by British geologist William King in 1807. Deep in the bowels of the Ananthagiri Hills, we encountered the most incredible stalactites and stalagmites besides formations, created by the subterranean Gosthani river. Roadside stalls sold ‘Bamboo Chicken’, cooked in hollow stems “without oil or water”. At Vizag, the brand new Fairfield by Marriott, just off the Araku highway and near the airport, was the perfect base for our local explorations. We also got our fix of local Andhra cuisine – Nellore chepala pulusu (fish curry), Gongura Mamsa and desserts like pootharekelu.

A befitting tribute to Vizag’s maritime history, the INS Kursura is a fascinating museum inside a retired Russian submarine. We drove north to Rushikonda Beach, the Buddhist sites of Thotlakonda and Bavikonda and the port town of Bheemli. Not far from the ancient Dutch cemetery, it was startling to see the same Gosthani river descend from the Araku hills and flow into the sea. Life had come full circle, like a giant hot air balloon…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Araku is 112km/3 hr drive from Vizag via Simhachalam and Srungavarapu Kota. Borra Caves is a 6km diversion off the main road to Araku and 30km before it. Bheemli is 30km north of RK Beach in Vizag.

Where to Stay
Fairfield by Marriott
KSR Prime, R&B Junction, Marripalem, Vizag
Ph 0891-668 8999 http://www.marriott.com

The Park
Beach Road, Vizag
Ph 0891-304 5678 http://www.theparkhotels.com

APTDC/AP Tourism
Hotels at Vizag, Rushikonda, Araku, Ananthagiri, Tyda
Ph 0891-2788820, 1800 42545454
http://www.aptdc.gov.in

Balloons Only

Hot Air Ballooning Festivals

Tamil Nadu Balloon Festival (10-16 Jan)
Ph +91 95000 90850, 94882 54204
Email tnballoonfestival@gmail.com
http://www.tnibf.com

Pushkar Fair (28 Oct-4 Nov)
Ph +91 8130925252
http://www.pushkarmela.org

Araku Balloon Festival (14-16 Nov)
http://www.arakuballoonfestival.com

SkyWaltz/E-Factor
Ph +91 9560387222, 9560397222
Email goballooning@skywaltz.com
http://www.skywaltz.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 12 January, 2018 as the cover story in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.