Tag Archives: Western Ghats

Get Lost: 15 Off-the-Grid Holidays

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Had enough of partying and want a quiet escape away from it all? Sit around a bonfire, watch the stars and get away from the crowds in these remote places that aren’t too difficult to reach. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY show a whole world out there to lose yourself in…

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Get some Soulitude in the Himalayas at Ramgarh (Uttarakhand)
‘I’m off to Ramgarh’ you can announce nonchalantly and let the world figure out which of the dozen Ramgarhs in India you have toodled off to. Thanks to its remote location, the village of Gagar near Ramgarh (35 km north east of Nainital) is free from tourist traffic. Tucked away in the slopes of a scenic hamlet at 7,000 ft, it commands a majestic view of the Kumaon Himalayas – Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli, Pindari Glacier, Nandakot, Nandaghunti and Kamet. Its ten rooms, named Nirvana, Bliss, Quietude, Awakening, Peace (you get the idea), offer ample ‘soulitude’ and inspiration. Hike to the local Ramgarh market and continue to scenic orchards and old dak bungalows of Ashok Vatika renovated by Neemrana into the Ramgarh Bungalows. Wake up to a magical sunrise in this quiet nook that served as Rabindranath Tagore’s literary retreat for six years – he even considered it as the location of his dream abode and university Shantiniketan! The renowned poetess Mahadevi Verma too lived in Ramgarh – her home is now a library of her works. You might consider reading a book here, if not writing one! Owner Manish Chandra also runs another quiet retreat called Soulitude by the River at Chanfi nearby.

Soulitude in the Himalayas
Gagar, Nainital-Mukteshwar Road, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Ph +91 99993 30379 http://www.soulitude.in
Tariff Rs.8,000-12,000

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Swing in a hammock by a gurgling river at Shanthi Kunnj (Karnataka)
Deep in the heart of Malnad on the banks of the gurgling Bhadra River, swing lazily in a hammock while staying in wood and bamboo thatched cottages overlooking the river and forest beyond. The Areca House, Log House, Glass House, Mud House, Tent House are all made of locally available timber, tucked away in a coffee, cardamom, areca and pepper plantation. Go on a tour of the Holy Cross Estate run by the Saldanhas or take an adventurous jeep ride to the river bank for a splash and barbecue picnic of fish baked in sand. The area was called Masigadde (Coal Field) as the forests were burned for producing charcoal to power the steam locomotives during the British era. Thankfully the forests are now protected as part of the Bhadra and Muthodi tiger reserves. Guests have reported rare tiger sightings just across the river though otters are aplenty.

Shanthi Kunnj Homestay
Devdhana Village, Honnekoppa, Sangameshwarpet, Near Kadabagere, Chikmagalur District, Karnataka Ph 0824-2485180 www.shanthikunnj.com
Tariff Rs.3,500/person, all-inclusive

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Have a wild time of a different kind in Chambal Safari Lodge (Uttar Pradesh)
The once notorious bandit terrain of India, the Chambal valley today offers exciting opportunities for wildlife tourism and eco conservation. Spearheading these efforts are Kunwar Ram Pratap (RP) and Anu Singh who run Chambal Safari Lodge in their ancestral property. Mela Kothi, the family’s field camp that once hosted a cattle mela (fair) has independent cottages on 35 acres of private farmland. Enjoy fireside dinners under the stars, go on bicycle jaunts, horse rides and camel safaris in the ravines or village and nature trails on foot. The signature experience is the jeep drive to the banks of the Chambal River for a guided boat ride. Spot gharials and muggers on the sandbanks and flocks of Indian skimmers besides other wildlife. Watch camels ford the river loaded with firewood on an excursion to Ater Fort (2km) across the Chambal. At Bateshwar (11km) view the riverside temples on the banks of the Yamuna from the riverside retreat The Kunj.

Chambal Safari Lodge
Mela Kothi, Village Jarar, Tehsil Bah, District Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Ph 9997066002, 9837415512, 9719501517
Email rpsjarar@chambalsafari.com www.chambalsafari.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-9,000, meals and excursions extra

Neemrana's Bungalow on the Beach IMG_8106_Anurag Mallick

Experience tranquility at Tranquebar at the Bungalow by the Beach (Tamil Nadu)
Imagine a red sun casting golden spangles on a sea with silhouettes of fishing boats dancing past the waves. Throw in an easy chair on a wraparound balcony that overlooks India’s most oxygen-rich beach in front, the 17th century Danish Fort Dansborg to the right and a Pandya temple to the left and you have the perfect do-nothing holiday. Tharangambadi, literally the ‘Land of the Dancing Waves’ became Tranquebar under the Danes. Neemrana’s Bungalow by the Beach offers privacy with a dollop of wistful colonial nostalgia and rooms quaintly named after old Danish ships – Christianus Septimus, Countess Moltke, Prince Christian, take your pick! Period décor, stewards in attendance, a blue pool by the beach and delicious cuisine; this is old world luxury redefined. Visit the Fort museum or take INTACH’s heritage walk to leisurely explore the last vestiges of Scandinavian heritage at the only Danish outpost in India. In this time warp, Tamil culture seamless blends into the town’s landscape though streets still bear names like Kongensgade (King’s Street), Borgan Street and the old gateway Landsporten, besides historic churches, homes of former Danish Governors and pastors, an old cemetery and India’s 1st printing press! Neemrana has also restored two other heritage houses – the Gate House and the Thanga House into their signature ‘non-hotel’ hotels.

Bungalow on the Beach
24 King Street, Tharangambadi, District Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu
Ph +91 11 4666 1666, 9310630386, 9786100461 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.5,000-7,000

Turiya Spa Canacona Goa_Amit Bhandare

Explore your fourth state of consciousness at Turiya Spa near Palolem (Goa)
Let’s face it, everyone has had their share of unconsciousness in Goa. But true to its name, Turiya explores the fourth state of consciousness. Set in a serene corner of Canacona, the 100-year old Portuguese villa and spa was renovated by architect and designer Sandesh Prabhu to help visitors to Goa find innermost peace. The 12,000 sq ft landscaped property has an inviting ambience, cheery colours and an intimate Eden-like garden with chikkoo, mango, avocado and frangipani trees. Get pampered with delicious home-style Konkani cuisine, bathe in open to sky baths or soak in a step-down bath, savour rejuvenative spa treatments based on Western methods and traditional Indian systems of Ayurveda. Uncover local culture with visits to a local market or farm or hire a bike to scenic Palolem (2km) and Agonda beaches (10 km north). Boat trips to Butterfly Island for dolphin sightings and day trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and Karwar are other activities.

Turiya Villa and Spa
House No 16, Chaudi, Canacona, Goa
Ph 0832-2644172, 2643077, 9821594004
www.turiyahotels.com
Tariff Rs.5,000-9,500

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Watch the stillness of Umiam Lake & enjoy Khasi hospitality at Ri Kynjai (Meghalaya)
Located on the outskirts of Shillong, Ri Kynjai is a boutique lakeside resort in Meghalaya really lives up to its tagline ‘Serenity by the Lake’. The resort reflects Khasi traditions in every aspect of hospitality and architecture. Stay in plush cottages and stylish thatched huts on stilts. Wrapped within its warm pine interiors and wooden floors, watch drifting clouds and watercolour beauty of the surroundings or sit in the balcony and contemplate on the stillness of Umiam Lake. Submerge yourself in high-end spa treatments at Khem Janai or indulge in gourmet fare at the restaurant Sao Aiom (Four Seasons) specializing in North Eastern delicacies like jadoh, smoked pork with bamboo shoot and the famous Cherrapunji Chicken. The 45 acre wooded estate and gardens are great for leisurely walks, though for more adventure visit the nearby village of Umiuh or hike around the Khasi Hills.

Ri Kynjai
Umniuh Khwan, UCC Road, Ri Bhoi District, Meghalaya
Ph +91 9862420300, 9862420301 www.rikynjai.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000

IMG_5885 Chalets Naldehra revolving restaurant_Anurag Priya

Find Alpine comfort in India at Chalets Naldehra (Himachal)
Undulating grassy meadows fringed by tall cedar trees, Naldehra (22 km north of Shimla), was so enchanting that Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905) renamed his youngest daughter Alexandra as Naldehra after his favourite haunt. The undulating golf course set up by Curzon – the oldest in India and one of the highest 18-hole golf links in the world – still ranks among the most challenging in the country. Not far from the course, beyond a manicured lawn and a pretty garden, Finnish log cabins stand at multiple levels, no two of which are alike. Set on a 2-acre patch owned by the enterprising father-son duo Yatish and Amish Sud, the personal holiday home strategically built close to the golf course soon transformed into a resort., a Every chalet, named after early explorers who mapped the hills, sports commemorative brass plaques – F Younghusband Chalet, Gerard Chalet, Captain Kennedy Chalet, Sir Henry Collet Chalet. The revolving restaurant, 360˚ Top of the World, is the first of its kind in Himachal Pradesh! The small octagonal restaurant seats 20 and is a great perch to unwind and enjoy a delicious meal with laser lights, sunset views and starry nights. Hike to the picturesque village of Kogi to see old Himachali temples and homes with slate roofs.

Chalets Naldehra
Naldehra, District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh
Ph 0177-2747715, 9816062007, 9816039162 www.chaletsnaldehra.com
Tariff Rs.14,990-22,990 (2n/3d package)

Deluxe Room --The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh-2

Fly to the roof of the world while enjoying plush comfort in Ladakh’s winter (J&K)
While thousands drive to Ladakh when the high Himalayan passes open in summer, the relatively quiet winter holds its own charm. Not just the air, the crowd too thins out as the temperature drops. The sheer joy of leaving fresh tracks in snow will make anyone feel like an adventurer. And what better way to do it than pamper yourself at Grand Dragon, the swankiest 5-star hotel in Ladakh? Stay in plush rooms that open out to a view of the snow-capped peaks of Stok Kangri, Khardung la pass, besides landmarks like Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa. Sip a hot cuppa and dine at the specialty restaurant Tusrabs, literally ‘from ancient times’ that serves a fusion of Ladakhi, Tibetan & Chinese cuisine. After acclimatizing to the 3500 m, take a day trip along the Indus river past Nimu where it meets the Zanskar to Chilling, the start point of the Chadar (Frozen River) Trek. Visit Ladakh’s oldest living monastery Alchi, the moonscapes of Lamayuru, Atishey village and attend local festivals like Gustor (Jan 7) at Spituk gompa or Losar and Dosmochey (Feb).

The Grand Dragon Ladakh
Old Road, Sheynam, Leh, Ladakh
Ph +91 1982-255866/266, 9906986782, 9622997222 www.thegranddragonladakh.com
Tariff Rs.22,999-32,999/person (3n/4d Winter Offer)

IMG_6904 Samten Yongjhar Gompa prayer flags

Escape to Mechuka on the China border (Arunachal)
Mechuka is so remote, it’s closer to the Chinese border than to any Indian town. Named after the hot water springs found in the area (men means medicine, chu is water while kha literally means snow or mouth), the far flung town lies in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Reached after a circuitous drive from Aalo, the road deposts you at a wide plateau surrounded by an amphitheater of hills. The Siyom or Yargyap chu river snakes across the valley criss-crossed by bamboo bridges lined with prayer flags. Being an advanced airfield and staging post for the Indian Army, you wake up to the sound of bagpipes and military drills in the morning as wild horses graze in the fields. Base yourself at local guest houses and quaint homestays while visiting Tibetan monasteries like Samden Yongjhar gompa and Dorjeling gompa, besides the cave where Guru Nanak is supposed to have meditated 500 years ago on his trip to Tibet.

Department of Tourism, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh
Ph +91-360-2214745 www.arunachaltourism.com

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Gaze at the Aravalis as you listen to folk musicians at Dadhikar (Rajasthan)
Rajasthan is a land of forts and palaces, which is why it’s easy to miss out on some of the lesser known gems in the state. Dadhikar Fort, northwest of Alwar, is one such jewel. Wander into a world scented by 1000 years of history as you sip morning tea on the ramparts with unbeatable panoramic views. Choose from a bouquet of regal suites and stone clad rooms to curl up, with impeccable meals served in the courtyard and soul-stirring folk music under the stars. Balladeers sing ‘Saher Dadhikar Pargana, Alwar Garh ke paas, Basti Raja Chand ki, Abhaner nikas’ as they recount the legend of Raja Chand who camped here after his capital Abhaneri was flooded. The campsite (dera) came to be known as Derakar, which over time was corrupted to Dadhikar. Explore the hill fort, Sariska tiger sanctuary and nearby forts of Ajabgarh-Bhangarh besides Alwar’s hilltop bastion Bala Qila.

The Dadhikar Fort
Village Dadhikar, Alwar, Rajasthan
Ph +91 9871655431, 9950669900
www.dadhikarhotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,500-14,000

Tea Nest Coonoor offroad to Pakkasurankote IMG_2450

Enjoy high tea at Tea Nest in Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Rolling tea estates, cool wind perfumed with the freshness of eucalyptus and pine, gushing waterfalls and exotic flower gardens; the Nilgiris is a dream destination. If you wish to stay away from the rumpus of Ooty, check into Tea Nest – a tea-themed hideaway outside Coonoor surrounded by 1800 acres of tea plantations. Wake up to birdsong in this perch on a hillock as gaurs graze in the bushes nearby, walk or cycle around the plantations dotted with tea-pickers busily plucking away or relax in the patio admiring the Pakkasurankote hill range. The early 19th century colonial villa has rooms tagged after tea varieties and presents a splendid 7-course tea-inspired menu served by friendly attentive staff. The Tea Nest Annexe, a 2-room planter’s bungalow scarcely 1 km away from the main house offers more privacy in a romantic setting. Don’t miss the nature trail past Toda hamlets and Hill Grove railway station to the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort, the company’s flagship enterprise nestled in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road.

Tea Nest
Singara Estate, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
Ph +91-423-2234018, 9442147198 (Tea Nest), +91-423-2233030, 8903502763 (Tea Nest Annexe) www.natureresorts.in
Tariff Rs.2,500-4,000, incl. breakfast

Woodpecker Tree House- View from the Plantation

Perch in a tree house at Pepper Trail in Wayanad (Kerala)
In a recent survey, Wayanad ranked among the top 10 best accommodations in the world. Adding to the present mix of specialty hotels, nature resorts and boutique hotels is Pepper Trail. The highlight of the 200-acre coffee and spice plantation in Kerala’s hilly district is a charming 140-year-old colonial bungalow. The lovingly restored Pazhey Bungalaav (Old Bungalow) houses the Malabar and Mackenzie Suites with quaint four posters and antique furniture. Perched on giant jackfruit trees nearby, the tree houses are 40 feet off the ground. Just because you are at the treetop, doesn’t mean you scrimp on luxury. Named Hornbill and Woodpecker, each tree house comes with large bedrooms, outdoor living spaces and safari inspired furniture. There’s plenty to do in and around the estate – guided plantation walks, cycling, open jeep safaris and coracle rides or fishing on the estate reservoir.

Pepper Trail
Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode, Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad, Kerala
Ph +91 9562277000 www.peppertrail.in
Tariff Rs.4,700-18,000

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Stay in a house on stilts in Dibrugarh (Assam)
Head to Dibrugarh in Upper Assam to live the lazy life of a tea planter in a chang bungalow (traditional house on stilts). Rooms named after the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River look out to manicured lawns as fresh brewed tea is always available. Specially designed horse-riding tours take you around century old tea estates or cross-country along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Picnic on grassy banks, boat cruises and kayaking or extend your itinerary to visit the ancient Ahom capital of Sibsagar and the wildlife preserves of Kaziranga and Dibru Saikhowa. Purvi Discovery runs another lodge closer to town called Chowkidinghee Chang Bungalow and the new boutique property Wathai Heritage Bungalow at Limbuguri Tea Estate in Tinsukia, a good base to explore Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

Purvi Discovery
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035 Email purvidiscovery@gmail.com www.assamteatourism.com
Tariff Rs.3,500-9,000, incl. breakfast

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Maroon yourself on Neil Island (Andamans)
The boat jetty at Bharatpur on Neil Island juts out into the vast Andaman sea of electric blue. You can walk to it each day from your beach hut just to watch the daily boat from Havelock sail away. In this nook, it is easy to stay in self-imposed exile for as long as one wants, snorkeling around the reefs and eating fresh seafood. Spread over 18.9 sq km and only 5km at its widest point, Neil is a tiny speck in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands nearly 1400 km from the Indian mainland and 40 km east of Port Blair. Its five villages harbour 3000 fishing and agricultural families, which gives the island its popular name – ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. Neil is so small one can cover the whole island on foot in a day. The beaches (originally numbered for convenience) took on their present names after Hindu migrants were resettled here by the Indian Government after the 1971 Bangladesh War. Watch the sunrise at Sitapur or see it go down at Laxmanpur and marvel at the natural stone bridge and corals in shallow pools during low tide. Laze at Ramnagar or swim in Govindnagar, but whatever you do, don’t glug Neil down like a vodka shot; savour it like single malt…

Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Ph 03192-232694, 244091 www.andamans.gov.in

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Stay in an erstwhile hunting lodge at Kila Dalijoda (Odisha)
Once an exclusive hunting lodge of Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo, king of Panchakote Raj, Kila Dalijoda is a beautiful two storied stone house 22 km north of Cuttack in Odisha. The heritage homestay is named after its proximity to Dalijoda Forest Range, part of the newly declared Kapilas Elephant Sanctuary. The European style mansion, with arched windows and tinted glass was built in 1931-33, and at that time boasted tech advancements like self generating electricity, electrified fencing and water harvesting. Present hosts Debjit Prasad Singh Deo and his wife Namrata have kept its wild soul intact carrying out only minor renovation. With just three suites, it is the perfect hideaway where guests get a dose of rural lifestyle with visits to weekly village markets, tribal settlements and nature walks. Savour delicious home-cooked Odiya meals, with quail eggs available all year round (and duck eggs in winter), preferred over the plebeian chicken eggs due to traditional reasons.

Kila Dalijoda
Ph +91 9438667086 Email debjitsinghdeo@yahoo.co.in www.kiladalijoda.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-4,000

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 18 December, 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/off-the-grid-getaways-for-your-next-long-weekend/

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10 magical drives from Bengaluru

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From the Western Ghats to the Deccan Plateau and the Karavali Coast to Coromandel, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY hit the highways of South India to seek out ten scenic drives from Bangalore

Searching for some great drives around Bengaluru? Look no further than this handpicked list of destinations across regions, themes and geographic zones with everything you need to know – where to stay, what to eat, how to get there, distances, midway stops and what to see en route. Presented in increasing order of distance from Bangalore, take these scenic routes across Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa.

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Sakleshpur
Swathed in plantations of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca, Sakleshpur is the scenic gateway to the Western Ghats. Straddling the passes on the town’s outskirts is Tipu Sultan’s strategic fort Manjarabad. Shaped like an eight-cornered star radiating around a central hillock, the climb is difficult, but offers superb views all around. The 56.8 km Green Route from Sakleshpur to Kukke Subrahmanya, dotted by 58 tunnels, 109 bridges and 25 waterfalls used to be a stunning trek along an abandoned railway track until it was recently converted into broad gauge. Now you can hop on to a train to soak in the natural beauty of Bisle Ghat, home to India’s most spectacular rainforests. From the scenic Bisle viewpoint one can see the mountain ranges of three districts – Kumara Parvatha (1319 m) in Dakshina Kannada, Puspha Giri (1712 m) and Dodda Betta (1119 m) in Coorg and Patta Betta (1112 m) in Hassan district. For a misty drive, head north to Chikmagalur and the Baba Budan Giri hills to climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullaiyanagiri.
Stay: The Radcliffe Bungalow at the 1000-acre Ossoor Estate 3 km before Sakleshpur off the highway is a charming colonial era plantation bungalow with 3 rooms, red oxide floors and open to sky bathrooms. Run by Plantation Escapes, they also have an 8-room property near Chikmagalur called Mist Valley. www.plantationescapes.com
Distance: 221 km (4 hrs)
Route: Take the Bengaluru-Mangaluru highway or NH-48 via Nelamangala, Kunigal, Hassan and Channarayapatna

Pitstop: Kamath Upchar after Channarayapatna
En route: Drowning church of Shettihalli, Gorur Dam, Hoysala temples at Mosale, Nuggehalli besides Belur-Halebid

Guided Jeep Drive Through Coffee Plantations

Pollibetta
As the winding road climbs the ghats of Coorg, the glossy green coffee bushes and pepper vines present a soothing sight. In monsoon, blankets of mist wrap the rainforest and waterfalls are at their torrential best – be it Abbi and Hattihole near Madikeri (Mercara), Chelavara near Kakkabe or Irpu near Srimangala. Go on a guided Bean to Cup plantation tour with Tata Coffee, enjoy a round of golf at the 9-hole course, grapple with rapids while whitewater rafting at Dubare and Upper Barapole rivers or hike to vantage points like Kotebetta, Mandalpatti and Kabbe Pass. Base yourself in any of the colonial-era bungalows around Pollibetta run by Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trails and feast on traditional Kodava cuisine like koli (chicken) and pandi (pork) curry and monsoon staples like kumme (mushrooms), bemble (bamboo shoots) and kemb (colocasia) curry.
Stay: Stay in premium heritage bungalows like the century old Cottabetta or Thaneerhulla, Woshully plantation bungalow or plantation cottages like Surgi, Thaneerhulla, Yemmengundi or Glenlorna, which offers the rare view of a tea estate in coffee county. They also run the Arabidacool heritage bungalow near Chikmagalur. www.plantationtrails.net
Distance: 230 km (5 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Srirangapatna, turn right onto the Mercara highway and after Hunsur, take the left deviation towards Gonicoppa (look out for the Plantation Trails sign), drive on to Thithimathi and turn right at another sign to Pollibetta, 9 km away.
Pitstop: Maddur vada at Maddur Tiffany’s or puliyogare, pongal, Kanchipuram idlis and Brahmin Iyengar snacks at Kadambam, Channapatna
En route: Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, KRS Dam (Brindavan Gardens) and Namdroling Golden Temple at the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe near Kushalnagar.

Vythiri Resort rope bridge IMG_1686_Anurag Priya

Lakkidi
Perched at an altitude of 700 m atop Thamarassery Ghat, Lakkidi squats on the western border of Kerala’s hilliest district Wayanad. Located just 5 km from the tourist hub of Vythiri, it is one of the highest locations in the district. The winding Thamarassery–Lakkidi Ghat road, often shrouded in mist and fog, is called the Cherrapunjee of Kerala. Stop by at the freshwater Pookot Lake and the Chain Tree, which pays tribute to the spirit of a tribal chieftain who showed the secret way through the passes to a British officer but was treacherously killed. Head to the district headquarters Kalpetta for Wayanad Splash, a monsoon carnival with mud football, crab hunting, offroad drives and other rain soaked adventures. Hike to the heart-shaped lake at Chembra, Wayanad’s highest peak or take part in cross country cycling, treks and other adventure trails with Muddy Boots.
Stay: Laze in rustic themed tree houses or pool villas at Vythiri Resort, an eco friendly rainforest hideaway landscaped around a gurgling mountain stream. Pamper yourself with rejuvenative Ayurveda therapies, delicious Kerala cuisine and leisurely forest walks. www.vythiriresort.com
Distance: 290 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru and NH-212 on the Kozhikode Road via Gundlupet, Muthanga, Sulthan Bathery and Kalpetta
Pitstop: Jowar roti, yenne badnekayi, neer dosa and North Karnataka delights at Kamat Madhuvan on the southern outskirts of Mysuru on the Kozhikode Road
En route: Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary and the Jain Temple at Sulthan Bathery that Tipu Sultan used an ammunition dump.

Coonoor offroad jeep ride to Pakkasurankote IMG_2450_Anurag Priya

Coonoor
Take a drive up the hairpin bends of the Nilgiris or Blue Mountains for a magical sight of tea plantations that stretch for miles. Escape the bustle of Ooty to quieter Coonoor for drives to stunning viewpoints like Dolphin’s Nose, Catherine Falls, Kodanad and Rangaswamy Pillar. For an offroad experience, drive to Red Hills and Avalanchi or take a 4-wheel jeep ride past Glendale and Nonsuch Estates to Pakkasuran Kote with ruins of Tipu Sultan’s fort. Stay in a plantation bungalow while trekking downhill past Toda hamlets and Hillgrove Railway station. For a lazy slideshow of the hills, hop on to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that covers the 26km uphill climb from Mettupalayam to Ooty in just under 5 hrs, crossing 16 tunnels and 250 bridges.
Stay: Tea Nest Coonoor on Singara Estate Road is a quiet nook overlooking tea plantations with rooms named after tea varieties, a seven-course tea-themed menu and the odd gaur among the bushes. They also run a private 2-room planter bungalow called Tea Nest Annexe 1 km down the road, besides the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road www.natureresorts.in
Distance: 285 km (7-8 hrs)
Route: SH-17 till Mysuru, NH-212 till Gundlupet and NH-67 till Theppakadu. The route via Gudalur (right of the Y junction) is 30 km longer with less hairpin bends, though the left route via Masinagudi is more scenic with 36 hairpin bends
Pitstop: JLR’s Bandipur Safari Lodge has decent buffet lunches or try South Indian fare at Indian Coffee House Hotel on NH-67 at Gudalur
En route: Wildlife at Mudumalai National Park, Bandipur Tiger Reserve or Kabini

Agumbe British milestone DSC04266_Anurag Priya

Agumbe
One of the rainiest places in Karnataka, Agumbe is significant for many reasons. With a mean annual rainfall of 7,620 mm (300 inches), it is often described as the Cherrapunjee of the South. The sleepy rain-soaked hamlet served as Malgudi in Shankar Nag’s TV adaptation of RK Narayan’s nostalgic tale of Swami and his childhood. It is home to Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) founded in 2005 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker dedicated to the Indian Cobra. One could visit Agumbe just to see the ‘Top of the Ghaut’ milestone erected by the British to mark the distance from ‘Shemoga’. Or marvel at the sunset from the viewpoint. But one of the biggest incentives is Mr. Nayak, the vada seller at Agumbe Forest checkpost who dispenses vadas with wisdom, stocking books of literary interest, for which regular patrons drive for miles.
Stay: Not too far from Agumbe near Thirthahalli is the quaint Kolavara Heritage homestay, a Chowkimane (traditional home) in a working plantation where you can enjoy Malnad cuisine and nature hikes www.kolavaraheritage.com
Distance: 357 km (8-9 hrs)
Route: NH-4 till Tumkur, NH-206 via Tiptur, Kadur, Tarikere, Bhadravati bypass, Shivamogga bypass, Thirthahalli
Pitstop: Chattambade and vadas at Mr. Nayak’s roadside stall at Agumbe Check-post and meenina oota (fish meals) at Mandagadde, midway between Shivamogga and Thirthahalli
En route: Sringeri temple, Mandagadde Bird Sanctuary and Kannada poet laureate Kuvempu’s birthplace Kavishaila

Pichavaram drive Gingee Fort 622_Anurag Priya

Pichavaram
Spread over 2800 acres off Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast; Pichavaram is one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. It first shot to fame with MGR’s 1975 film Idhaya Kanni and more recently served as a dramatic backdrop for Kamal Hassan’s Dashavataram. Navigable by boats that weave in and out of narrow canals lined by overgrown mangrove roots, it is a paradise for nature lovers. An early morning boat ride from the Arignar Anna Tourist Complex is ideal for birdwatching. And once you hit the ECR or East Coast Road, extend your itinerary by driving north to the erstwhile French enclave of Puducherry and the ancient maritime Pallava capital of Mamallapuram. Or head south to Tharamgambadi or Tranquebar, once a flourishing Danish outpost with stunning Scandinavian churches and a seaside fort.
Stay: Hotel Sardharam have a decent property in Chidambaram with great food and also run Pichavaram Eco Resort overlooking the boat jetty at Pichavaram backwaters, besides a Chola-themed heritage hotel Lakshmi Vilas near Veeranam Lake www.hotelsaradharam.co.in
Distance: 366 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Electronic City, Hosur to Krishnagiri, NH-66 to Tiruvannamalai and onward to Cuddalore
Pitstop:
Adyar Ananda Bhavan at BP petrol pump in Chinnar, between Hosur and Krishnagiri
En route: Arunachaleshwara temple and Sri Ramana Maharishi Ashram at Tiruvannamalai, Gingee Fort, Nataraja temple at Chidambaram

Vivanta by Taj Bekal Exterior

Bekal
Remember ‘Tu Hi Re’ from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and the rain drenched fort where it was shot? That’s Bekal, the largest and most well preserved fort in Kerala built by Shivappa Nayak in 1650. Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost district has the highest concentration of forts in the state, highlighting the importance of trade in the Malabar region. Follow the fort trail to Chandragiri and Hosadurg nearby, feast on local Moplah cuisine or take a houseboat ride in the Thejaswini river and the serene backwaters of Valiyaparamba.
Stay: BRDC (Bekal Resort Development Corporation) has facilitated a string of premium resorts like Nileshwaram Hermitage and The Lalit, though the pick of the lot is Vivanta by Taj Bekal. Spread over 26 acres near Kappil Beach, stay in laterite-lined villas inspired by kettuvallam (houseboat) motifs with private plunge pools, signature therapies at Jiva Grande Spa, besides honeymoon packages and vow renewal ceremonies. www.vivantabytaj.com
Distance: 368 km (9-10 hrs)
Route: SH-17 to Mysuru and the old Mysuru-Mangaluru highway or NH-275 via Madikeri, Sampaje, Sullia to Jaloor, and SH-55 via Adhur and Cherkala to Bekal
Pitstop: The renovated East End Hotel in Madikeri is a great place for keema parathas, meat ball curry, though for firewood roasted akki roti with pandi curry stop by at the dingy yet delicious West End Bar on the other end of town.
En route: Omkareshwar Temple, Raja’s Seat and Gaddige in Madikeri, Malik Dinar mosque at Kasaragod

Munnar monsoon IMG_8985_Anurag Priya

Munnar
With most beaches out of bounds during monsoon, the beauty of Kerala in the rains is best experienced in the hills. And what better haunt than Munnar, located at the scenic tri-junction of moon aaru or ‘three rivers’ – Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala? Watch the mist roll over the mountains from your perch as you sip a steaming cup of Kannan Devan Hills chai. Drop by at the tea factory to trace the journey from leaf to cup as you explore the colonial summer hideout of the British through excellent short drives. Go via Mattupety Dam and Echo Point to Top Station or via the scenic lake of Devikulam to Bison Valley. Visit Eravikulam National Park to spot the Nilgiri Tahr or head to Anamudi Peak, at 2695m the highest point south of the Himalayas.
Stay: Tiled roof stone cottages built using rocks from the property, Mountain Club is a picture-postcard resort at Chinnakanal 21 km from town adjacent to Club Mahindra. It has an excellent multi-cuisine restaurant, coffee shop and an infinity pool overlooking Anayirankal Dam. www.mountainclub.co.in
Distance: 478km (11-12 hrs)
Route: NH-7 via Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri to Salem, via Avinashi and Udumalpet onto Munnar Road
Pitstop: Besides Adyar Ananda Bhavan midway between Dharmapuri and Thoppur, there’s all day dining and a great value lunch buffet at GRT Grand Estancia at Salem, besides Hotel Chinnis at Perundurai
En route: Mettur Dam, Bhavani temple,
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

Kundapura DSC04826_Anurag Priya

Toodhalli
Ever heard that thing about not eating fish in months that don’t have an ‘r’? May, June, July and August is the monsoon period when fish usually spawn, hence the old adage. But if you were to drive up the Karavali Coast to Karwar, there are several places to drop anchor. Kundapura, a town known for its legendary cuisine, boasts iconic dishes like Kundapur Chicken, Chicken Ghee Roast, Chicken sukka and neer dosa, with enough variety to keep one docked for days. Drive up further to Sai Vishram Beach Resort in Baindoor, perhaps the only non-alcoholic pure vegetarian resort on the coast. But for the best culinary and wellness experience drop by at Wild Woods Spa, which offers rare delights like jackfruit idli and dosa, wild mushroom curry, bamboo shoot curry, pathrode, spinach dosa and the signature dasola yele (Hibiscus leaf) idli.
Stay: Besides Blue Waters at Kundapura and Sai Vishram at Baindoor, Wild Woods Spa & Resort at Toodhalli, 7km from Shiroor checkpost, is a great place to enjoy the rains. A mountain stream encircles the botanical retreat that offers wood and stone cottages, exotic cuisine and spa treatments. www.wildwoodsspa.com
Distance: 496 km (12 hrs)
Route: NH-48 to Mangaluru via Shiradi Ghat and head north on NH-17 to Kundapura, Bhatkal and beyond. If closed for renovation or road repair, take NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Harihar and turn left via Siddapur and Jog Falls to reach the coast at Bhatkal. Or take NH-48 to Hassan and NH-234 via Belur and Mudigere to Charmadi Ghat, Belthangady, Karkala and Udupi.
Pitstop: Shetty Lunch Home in Kundapura is legendary for its sukkas, ghee roast and the eponymous Kundapur Chicken. Stop at Kwality on NH-17 for Bhatkal biryani (they serve only chicken)
En route: Stunning coastal views, waterfalls like Jog, Arshinagundi and Apsarakonda, coastal pilgrim trail from Udupi, Kukke Subramanya, Kollur Mookambika, Murudeshwar, Idagunji to Gokarna and Jain circuit of Moodbidri, Karkala, Varanga and Bhatkal.

Turiya Spa Canacona Goa_Amit Bhandare

Palolem
Driving through Goa in the rains, especially the rich hinterland, is the perfect foil to the frenetic beach activity of the high season. Away from the secluded coast and the sore sight of fishing boats shrouded with palm fronds and blue tarpaulin, the green of the lush countryside is so bright it hurts your eyes! Explore the quiet south with trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary on the Goa-Karnataka border, the stone cut temple of Tambdi Surla, a railway track hike or adventure bike ride to Doodhsagar waterfall or white water rafting on the Surla Mhadei river.
Stay: A tastefully renovated century old Portuguese villa in a quiet colony of Canacona, Turiya Villa & Spa is named after the fourth state of consciousness and is a great place to relax with lovely homestyle Konkani food and an in-house spa that offers Ayurveda, body and beauty treatments www.turiyahotels.com
Distance: 559 km (12-14 hrs)
Route: NH-4 via Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davangere to Haveri, via Yellapur to Karwar and up the coastal NH-17 to Canacona
Pitstop: Thatte idlis at Bidadi, Sri Kottureshwara or Old Sagar Hotel in Davangere for benne dosas and Amrut Restaurant and Shwetha Lunch Home in Karwar
En route: Chitradurga Fort, Yana Caves (Kumta-Sirsi route), Tagore Beach Karwar

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as a monsoon special on 15 July 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/10-magical-monsoon-drives-bengaluru

Wet Set Go: 10 Things to do this Monsoon

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If you thought the Indian monsoon is a good time to sit back and enjoy the rains, think again… discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Gone are the days when the onset of rains meant staying cooped up at home, curled with a blanket and book, eating hot pakodas. Today, the monsoons evoke images of adventure-seekers rappelling down waterfalls, chasing river rapids and trekking through the mountainous forests or playing football in slushy fields. We have begun to appreciate how the battering rain unleashes nature’s ferocious beauty and bursts open her bountiful secrets. With a host of outdoor adventure outfits mushrooming in big cities, it’s time to recognize that the monsoons are no longer a deterrent for holiday planners. We travel to a few places that have helped shape ‘monsoon tourism’ in the country.

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1. Make a Splash in Wayanad 
Play mud football and kabaddi in rice fields. Enjoy the thrills of river rafting in bamboo boats. Participate in offroad rallies over wild mountainous tracts. Try your hand at archery. Go on elephant safaris. Embark on a trek to Banasura Hill overlooking India’s largest earth dam. Or scale Chembra Peak, the highest mountain in Wayanad with a mist-covered heart-shaped lake! Rediscover Kerala in the rains with Wayanad Splash, a unique monsoon festival that celebrates Rain Tourism. Wayanad Tourism Organization organizes the weeklong event at Kalpetta (9-15 July, 2013) with rain-soaked adventures in the day and musical evenings and cultural programs by night. It’s a great opportunity to experience some of the best eco stays in the country.

Wayanad Tourism Organisation
www.wayanad.org

Jet Airways flies to Kozhikode International Airport at Karipur, from where Kalpetta is 84km

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2. Go white water rafting in Goa 
GTDC has teamed up with ‘Whitewater’ John Pollard (who pioneered rafting at Dandeli and KKR river in Coorg) to offer white water rafting in Goa. The scenic lower section of the Mhadei where it joins the Mandovi promises a real adrenaline rush with the season lasting till October. Tackle Grade III rapids like Big Daddy and Y-Fronts in a 10 km stretch from Ustem village to Sonal village in Sattari taluka (1½ hrs). The introductory offer of Rs.1500 includes 12.36% Govt. Service tax. For each ticket sold, GTDC shall contribute Rs.100 to the village panchayat for conservation activities like afforestation, water harvesting and nature education. The cost includes rafting equipment and light refreshments at the end of the trip. The base camp, located at Veluz, is 800 m from Valpoi bus stop in Sattari Taluka, about 45 km from Panaji. Post briefing, rafters will be taken to the start point and after running the river, dropped off at base camp by local transport operators (Rs.150/person for round trip).

Goa Rafting
The Earthen Pot Garden Restaurant, Next to Govt Hospital, Valpoi, Goa
Ph +91 7387238866, 8805727230
info@goarafting.com www.goarafting.com

Advance booking: Armando Duarte, Sr Manager GTDC Ph 9881465776
Spot booking: Ph 9763935295, 9527944661, 9527961785
Email reservations@goa-tourism.com

Jet Airways flies to Dabolim

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3. Rappel down a waterfall 
Maharashtra’s many waterfalls come alive only in the rains. But few offer the thrills of rappelling down them! While Bekare at Bhivpuri near Karjat, Dudhani near Panvel and Dudhiware near Lonavala have become popular for canyoning, it is Vihigaon that wins hands down. First explored in 2007-08, Vihigaon is Maharashtra’s premier canyoning site. The 100 ft drop is dizzying and the 30 ft wide rockface is large enough for three or four ropes to rappel down. A small check dam, smaller cascades and a scenic plateau make the 124km (2-3 hr drive) excursion from Mumbai all the more enjoyable. Being monsoon waterfalls, the season is short, lasting from mid-June to Sep end. Head on NH3 towards Igatpuri/Nasik and just before climbing Kasara Ghat, take the first diversion to the left. The road goes under a railway track towards Jawahar/Khodala to reach Vihigaon, 13km from Kasara.

Offbeat Sahyadri
Priti Patel 9987990300, Rajas Deshpande 9664782503 
Email offbeatsahyadri@gmail.com

Jet Airways flies to Mumbai.

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4. Monsoon Trek in the Sahyadris 
The monsoon is a great time to savour the lush mountains of the Sahyadris. Trekking is an exciting way to discover the rain-drenched forests, waterfalls, dams, forts and caves that abound in this region. A number of adventure groups like Offbeat Sahyadri, Trek Mates India, Nature Knights and Aberrant Wanderers organize trips out of Mumbai and Pune, be it 1-day hikes or 2-3 day treks. The monsoon calendar is packed with quick getaways around Karjat, Matheran, Lonavala, Bhandardara and Malshej Ghat. Scale Kalsubai (5400 ft), the highest peak in Maharashtra. See Buddhist sculptures and meditation lairs carved out of rock at Kanheri caves (inside Borivali National Park), Karla and Bhaja caves (near Lonavala) or Bedse Caves (near Pune). Walk in the footsteps of Shivaji or uncover older legacies at various hill forts like Lohagad, Visapur, Tung, Tikona, Gorakhgad, Prabalgad, Avchitgad, Asherigad, Korigad, Sagargad and Kalavantin Durg. Marvel at unusual rock formations like Eye of the Needle at Ratangad or the submerged linga inside Kedareshwar Cave at Harishchandragad. Legend has it that when the lone surviving pillar falls, it shall mark the end of Kaliyug! For more excitement, go on an overnight trek…

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5. Attend the Saputara monsoon festival
Nestled at 1000m in the beautiful Dang District, Saputara is Gujarat’s only mountainous region and the northern-most tip of the Western Ghats. The region is at its best during the month-long Saputara monsoon festival between 4 August-1 September 2013. Chase legends at Sitavan and Pandav Gufa. Visit the Saputara Tribal museum to understand the lifestyle, costumes, heritage and ecology of local tribes. Take a ropeway ride to sunset point over a lush green valley. Admire nature at an eco campsite in the Mahal Bardipura forest. Or drive 52km to Waghai to watch the Ambica river plummet from 30m as the spectacular Gira waterfall.

Photo Credit: narendramodi.in
Toll Free Helpline 1800 233 7951
www.gujarattourism.com

Jet Airways flies to Surat, from where Saputara is 172 km.

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6. Pillion ride adventure to Dudhsagar 
At 310 m Dudhsagar is India’s fifth highest waterfall. Located beyond the dense Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary on the Goa-Karnataka border, the Khandepar River cascades off a cliff like an ‘Ocean of milk’. During the monsoons, two mountain streams flood the jeep track till October, leaving a narrow mud-track open. Ace local bikers offer visitors a pillion-ride adventure from Collem (6 km off Mollem, 57 km from Panaji) navigating a 14 km obstacle course – railway tracks, ballast, slush, culverts and gushing streams. A short trek over slippery rocks leads near the base for a fairytale view – a railway track and bridge cutting across the torrential waterfall. The Vasco-Madgao-Londa railway line slicing across the falls is accessible from Collem (12 km trek along the railway track) or Castle Rock (near Tinai Ghat in Karnataka). At Rs.300/head for a return trip, you’d be mad not to do it and mad if you do! 

Dudhsagar Spa Resort
Near Mollem Checkpost
Ph 0832-2612319, 2612238 
Email dm@dudhsagarresort.in
www.dudhsagarsparesort.com 

Jet Airways flies to Dabolim Airport, Goa from where Kullem/Collem is about 65 km (6 km from Mollem off NH-4A/Goa-Belgaum highway).

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7. Settle the debate about India’s wettest place 
If Dennis P Rayen of Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort is to be believed, Cherrapunjee may not be the wettest place in India anymore, but it still holds the record for having received the highest recorded rainfall in the world. While Mawsynram may be become India’s rainiest place (a matter of debate), the record still rests with Meghalaya. And what better season to visit the Abode of the Clouds than the rains? Walk on a double-decker living root bridge, explore Laitkynsew village, enjoy the 1100 ft plunge of Nohkalikai falls ending in an emerald pool or track the monsoon on the southern slopes of the East Khasi Hills. The walls of the no-frills resort are filled not with pretty photos but comparative statistical data and info panels on everything from the story of a raindrop to oceanic currents and the movement of the monsoon!         

Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort
Ph 9436115925, 9615338500, 9863079856
www.cherrapunjee.com

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, from where Cherrapunjee is 152 km by road. 

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8. Escape to the roof of the world 
Getting too wet for comfort? Seek sanctuary in high altitude deserts of Ladakh and Spiti. Do the Spiti Left Bank Trek along Himalayan villages like Langza, Demul, Lhalung, Komic and Dhankar with Spiti Ecosphere while staying at rustic homestays. Track the Himalayan Wolf or follow the trail of the Snow Leopard at Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and Pin Valley National Park. Visit ancient monasteries like Key Gompa and Tabo for an insight into Tibetan Buddhism. And if you do want to get wet, try some of the most challenging white-water rafting on the Pin and Spiti rivers.

Spiti Ecosphere
Ph 01906-222652, 98994 92417, 94182 07750
Email info@spitiecosphere.com
www.www.spitiecosphere.com  

Jet Airways flies to Delhi and Chandigarh.

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9. Get an Ayurveda treatment
According to the tenets of Ayurveda, monsoon is the best time to get an Ayurveda treatment as the atmosphere is cool and dust-free. The rains usher in a mood of meditative calm and the moisture in the air keeps the body tissue soft and supple. This makes it ideal for receiving poorva karma or preparatory phase of Pancha Karma like snehanam (oil application) and swedhanam (steam treatment). Whichever corner of Kerala you visit, there are several good Ayurveda centres to choose from. There’s Ayurveda Yoga Villa in Wayanad, Hari Vihar in Kozhikode, the famous Kottakkal Aryavaidyashala in Malappuram district and Rajah Island Ayurvedic Hospital in Thrissur district, but it’s Palakkad that teems with options. Besides Spartan traditional centres like Keraleeya Ayurveda Samajam, Vaidyamadham Vaidyasala and CNS Ayurveda Chikitsalayam, experience rejuvenation in tharavad homes and heritage properties like CGH Group’s Kalari Kovilakom and Poomully Aramthampuran’s Ayurveda Mana.

www.kalarikovilakom.com 
www.ayurvedamana.com

Jet Airways flies to Kozhikode and Coimbatore, from where Palakkad is 52 km

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10. Experience a rainforest in Coorg
Though Karnataka Tourism’s concept of Jalapatothsava is still to take off, nothing prevents tourists from flocking to the many cataracts in the state. The concept of a Waterfall festival was tried out for the first time at Barachukki Falls in Kollegal taluk of Chamarajnagar district. In Karnataka 11 major waterfalls tumble down from their perch in the Western Ghats. Besides the famous Shivanasamudra and Jog, there’s Gokak, Unchalli, Magod, Kalahatti, Hebbe, Sathodi and Lalgudi and easily accessible ones like Abbey and Irpu in Coorg. Blessed with lesser-known falls like Chelavara, Mallali, Mukkodlu and Sarthabbi, the tiny coffee district is drawing nature enthusiasts to enjoy Coorg’s unique mix of homestays, Kodava cuisine, adventure trails and pristine rainforests.

Karnataka Tourism
Ph 080 2235 2828
www.karnatakatourism.org

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was the cover story for the July 2013 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary: Nature’s Own Abode

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ANURAG MALLICK visits the valley between Tamil Nadu’s Anamalai Hills and Kerala’s Nelliyampathy Hills to spot the Parambikulam Frog, Asia’s largest teak tree and other natural wonders

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The dime-sized frog with bloodshot eyes stood still as it contemplated its next move while two pairs of eyes peered at it intently. My guide held up his palm animatedly, as if he had just been asked by a child to freeze momentarily. Then very slowly in a thick Malayali accent, he mouthed the words ‘Pa-ram-bi-kul-am Fro…g’ and twitched his eyes in that direction. It was enough to send the tiny amphibian scurrying into the foliage, but not before a few photographs had been clicked.

We were deep within Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary at a forest camp at Kuriarkutty on the banks of the Parambiar River. Here Dr. Salim Ali had spent 3 years (1936-39) watching hornbills. In commemoration, a bird’s gallery and audiovisual programs marked the Salim Ali Bird Interpretation Centre. It was on hallowed ground we had seen the Parambikulam Frog (Tomopterna parambikulamana), a creature so range specific, it was endemic to the sanctuary.

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There was good reason why Parambikulam made it as one India’s 39 claimants to the UNESCO World Heritage tag. Located just south of the Palakkad Gap in the Western Ghats, it has been the scene of many scientific rediscoveries. Koori (Haplothismia exanulata), a saprophytic plant occurs only in heavy monsoons during the ‘climatic climax’, when weather conditions are ideal for its growth, yet its dependence on ideal conditions makes its life span tragically short. After a long gap, it was found here in 1951.

The park boasts 285 such rare, endemic and endangered plants, 1438 flowering species and 81 species of orchids. The rivers teem with 47 fish species, including the endangered Mahseer and Garra surendranathanii, a ray-finned suckerfish endemic to the Chalakudy River. After seeing the park’s namesake species we retired to our Treetop Hut overlooking Thunakadavu reservoir with a great sense of achievement.

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The next morning we set off on a wildlife safari to Sungam range, the forest track leading us 6.8 km to the Pride of Parambikulam – the Kannimara Teak. Literally, the ‘first tree’, the lone 450-year-old specimen dated back to a time when natural teak forests covered the entire area. Rising up to 48.5 m with a girth of 6.57 m, it took five people with arms outstretched to encircle it completely. One of the oldest and largest ‘natural’ living teak trees in the world and the largest in Asia, the tree was awarded the ‘Mahavriksha Puraskar’ by the Indian Government in 1994.

During the 19th century the British had felled most of the original teak forests for timber by exploiting local tribal labour. Massive tree trunks were taken to the ‘top’ of the mountain slope and allowed to ‘slip’ down into the river, the practice eventually giving the place its name. Top Slip currently forms the tourism zone of Tamil Nadu’s Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary on the eastern slope of the Western Ghats. In 1905, a more efficient system was devised. The Cochin Forest Tramway directly transported teak from Parambikulam to Chalakudy before shipping it to the rest of the world from Cochin Harbour as Cochin Teak. Ironically, it was the revenue generated from Parambikulam teak that led to the development of present day Cochin Port.

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Contiguous with Anamalai Sanctuary, the undulating park spread around seven major valleys and three river systems, dammed at Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripallam under the Par-Alayar Project in the 1950s. The 20.6 sq km reservoir harboured several aquatic fauna, including muggers, which often looked like sun-dried logs peeping through the water. Besides rowboats and bamboo rafting on the reservoirs, the active Forest Department organized a daylong Parambi Cruise in a Tribal Bamboo Houseboat, with on-board snacks and packed lunch.

The forest road climbed up the hillside to Dam View, a scenic vantage over the deep blue waters of Thunakadavu bracketed by Pandaravarai (1290 m) and Kuchimudi peaks. Valley View offered a sweeping glimpse of the picturesque Parambiar Valley, marked by the peaks of Kalynathy (1385 m) and Karimala (1439 m), the park’s highest point. We took an exhilarating boat ride in the reservoir to Veetikunnu Island, a cane forest bungalow located on a hilly islet (kunnu) of veeti (Sisam or Dalbergia latifolia).

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For the true wildlife enthusiast, there was no dearth of things to do at Parambikulam with eco-tourism packages like overnight camping inside the forest, Full Moon Census or hiking 8km to an old Inspection Bungalow for Thellikal Nights. Guided treks included the Kariyanshola Trail, Hornbill Watching, Pugmark Trail and the scenic Cochin Forest Tramway Trek to Muthuvarachal.

Driving around Parambikulam was always rife with the possibility of a gaur, the park’s mascot, crashing through the undergrowth or a chance leopard sighting. Home to an impressive faunal array, Parambikulam harboured 39 mammalian species, including tiger, leopard, jungle cat, fox, bear, elephant, gaur, Nilgiri tahr, pangolin, loris and primates like bonnet macaque, Nilgiri langur and lion-tailed macaque. Of the 274 birds, Black-capped kingfisher, Broad-billed roller, Black woodpecker, Ceylon frogmouth, Malabar pied hornbill and Small pranticole were notable species. 

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The park was home to four adivasi communities – Kadar, Malasar, Muduvar and Malamalasar, who had been resettled in six colonies. Their indigenous knowledge made them critical partners in the eight EDCs (Eco-Development Committees) at Parambikulam. Even today, the scattered dolmens (flat memorial stones) of the tribal headmen still stand testimony to a time when man and beast lived in harmony in these forests.

Where to Stay

The Forest Department at Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary offers a wide range of accommodation options (Rs.2,500-5,000/day for 2-5 people). The two scenic Treetop Huts with double beds and attached baths in the reserve forest area overlooking the reservoir at Thunakadavu and Parambikulam are much sought after and have to be booked in advance. Elephant Valley Lodge at Thunakadavu and Bison Valley Lodge at Parambikulam have three double rooms each. Tented Niche, seven Swiss-style tents lie in a shady grove at Anappady. Anappady also has a Mahseer Dormitory for 40 people while Tiger Hall at Parambikulam can lodge 20; ideal for backpackers.

Birdwatchers can stay at the Salim Ali Centre at Kuriarkutty, which has a hall for 10 people. For a little privacy try Vettikunnu Island Nest on Parambikulam reservoir, a secluded island accessible by boat with stay in a renovated wireless station (6 people). Bay Owl Shed at Bagapallam, Tahr Shed at Vengoli and Cane Turtle Shed at Thuthanpara accommodate five people each. Overnight camping is possible at Sambar Machan at Kuriarkutty, Peacock Machan at Vengoli and Cheetal Machan at Anakal Vayal with five beds each. Two guides accompany the group and arrange packed food for a fee.

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Bookings

Ecocare Centre, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Anappady, Thunakadavu (PO), Via Pollachi, Palakkad, Kerala 678 661. Ph 04253 – 245025, 245005 Email bookings@parambikulam.org www.parambikulam.org

Entry Fees & Charges

Gate timings 7am – 6 pm (entry closes at 4pm)
Vehicle Fee Rs.50 (Light), Rs.150 (Heavy)
Entry Fee Rs.10 Indians, Rs.100 Foreigners, Camera Rs.25, Video Rs.150

Where to Eat

Being a wildlife preserve in an isolated pocket, eating options are few and basic. Parambikulam, the last settlement where the road ends, has a few eateries and Hotel Everest (Ph 04253-277 235) is the pick of the lot. South Indian staple like idli and dosa are on offer for breakfast while meals with fish fry and chicken curry are popular for lunch and dinner. It’s best to order food in advance. Sree Hotel (Ph 04253-277 217) and Sri Lakshmi Hotel (Ph 04253-277 234) are other options.

What to Buy

The Eco-Care Centre at Anappady sells park memorabilia like T-shirts, caps, picture postcards and stickers as well as bottles of honey and jam.

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FACT FILE

Location: Situated in South East Palakkad, Parambikulam lies in the valley between the Anamalai ranges of Tamil Nadu and Kerala’s Nelliyampathy ranges of the Western Ghats.

Area: 643.66 sq km: 390.89 sq km Core Area (Critical Tiger Habitat), 252.77 sq km Buffer Zone

Altitude: 600 m to 1438 m above sea level

Climate: Mostly cool and damp interspersed with light to heavy drizzles around the year. Heavy rains lash the sanctuary between June-August. Eastern areas get more rain during Oct-Nov. Temperature ranges from 15 C to 32 C and drops substantially at dawn and dusk.

When to go: Unlike other parks, in the rains, the Forest Department also organizes Monsoon Tourism from June-August, though the best time to visit is September to March.

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Getting There

By Air: The nearest airport is Coimbatore, 100 km away, also an important rail link.

By Rail: The nearest railway station is at Pollachi, 39 km away

By Road: Parambikulam is 98 km from Palakkad. There is regular bus service from Pollachi (6 am, 3 pm) to Parambikulam via Anamalai (2 hrs) and Top Slip (11:20 am). From Palakkad, drive south to Kollengode, get on to Pollachi road and turn right from Ambrampalayam towards Anamalai, Sethumadai, Top Slip, Thunakadavu and Parambikulam, each place 12 km from each other. The Parambikulam Office Headquarters at Anappady is 4 km from Top Slip. The nearest petrol pump and ATM outlet are at Vettaikaranpudur, 23 km from Anappady.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the Sep-Oct 2012 issue of Saevus Wildlife magazine.

The Hills are Alive: Top 10 escapes of the Western Ghats

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From waterfalls, peaks, wildlife parks to plantation escapes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY choose their Top 10 spots in India’s Western Ghats across five states

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UNESCO recently recognized the Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site due to its great biological diversity and exceptional natural beauty. Running parallel to India’s western coast 30-50 km inland, the Ghats are spread over 1,40,000 sq km in a 1,600 km long chain of mountains interrupted only by the 30 km wide Palghat Gap. 39 sites across Kerala (20), Karnataka (10), Tamil Nadu (5) and Maharashtra (4) covering 7,953 sq km have been chosen in seven wildlife sub-clusters – Periyar, Anamalai, Agasthyamalai, Nilgiri, Talacauvery, Kudremukh and Sahyadri. Here’s a selection of waterfalls, wildlife parks and exotic hill escapes…

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Dudhsagar
The milky waters of the Khandepar River, a tributary of the Mandovi, plummet 310 m from a lofty ridge bisected by a railway track and a fairytale bridge. Straddling the Goa-Karnataka border deep within Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary (Mollem National Park), Dudhsagar (Ocean of Milk) is India’s fifth highest waterfall. The Vasco-Madgao-Londa railway line runs right near the falls, accessible from Castle Rock (near Tinai Ghat in Karnataka) or Collem (6 km off Mollem, 57 km from Panaji). The 12 km trek from Collem follows the railway track but the cross-country dirt track ride cuts across streams. Local bikes charge Rs.300/head for a return trip in monsoon (Jul-Sep), while jeeps ply in November. Stay at Dudhsagar Resort near Mollem checkpost.

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Amboli Ghat
In the dense mist, crystal water gurgles from Shiva’s ancient cave shrine of Hiranyakeshi, a source of the Krishna River. Perched at 690 m in the Sahyadris off the Konkan coast, this eco hotspot turns magical in the monsoon with seasonal waterfalls and incredibly high rainfall. Teeming with over 300 species of rare plants like basket karvi or aakara (Marathi for eleven) which flowers once in 11 years, Amboli became a British outpost on the road from Vengurla port to Belgaum for garrisons in Central and South India. It is believed that a dhangar (shepherd) who guided the British along the treacherous pass was killed after revealing his secret. Today, he is worshipped as the village guardian at a small shrine on Amboli Road near Sawantwadi (28 km). Stay at Whistling Woods Amboli with naturalist and reptile expert Hemant Ogale for a rewarding experience.

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Baba Budan Giri
The highest mountain range between Himalayas and Nilgiris, Baba Budan Giri is the birthplace of coffee in India. Worshipped by Hindus as Chandradrona Parvatha, where Dattatreya, Sage Atri and Anusuyya performed penance in a cave, it is also revered by Muslims as the grave of a mystic and his disciples. In 17 century Baba Budan went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was captivated by the tantalizing aroma of coffee in Yemen. As the story goes, in 1670 he smuggled seven coffee seeds in his robes and planted them in this corner of Karnataka. From here the coffee plant, a closely guarded Arab secret, spread across India. Trace the journey from berry to cup at Chikmagalur’s Coffee Museum, climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullayyanagiri (6,314 ft) or trek from Baba Budan Giri to Kemmannagundi via Galikere. Stay amidst nature at plantation estates like Nature Nirvana, Hunkal Woods and Villa Urvinkhan.

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Coorg
With one of the country’s best-maintained national parks at Nagarahole, the highest density of devarakadus (sacred groves) in the world and the source of South India’s holiest river Cauvery, Coorg is indeed special. It is the largest producer of coffee and honey in India, besides spices like cardamom and pepper. Scenic plantations, charming estate bungalows, and riverside resorts coupled with irresistible Kodava hospitality and cuisine make it a favoured holiday spot. Trek through wild tracts in Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri and Talacauvery wildlife sanctuaries, scale Coorg’s tallest peak Thadiyendamol, visit waterfalls like Irpu, Abbey, Chelavara and Mallali or go white water rafting with Southern River Adventures on the Upper Barapole River. For other adventure sports, contact Crimson Eye and Jungle Mount Adventures.

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Wayanad
Tilt the Rainmaker and its cascading seeds emit the sound of water. Swing the Binsi, a reed instrument for a whistling note. These astonishing bamboo products from Uravu near Kalpetta capture the tribal legacy of Wayanad. Trek past the Stone Age engravings of Edakkal Caves to the top of Ambukuthy Range, watch dholes chasing deer at Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary or search for the Wayanad Laughing Thrush at Muthanga. Scale Banasura Hill overlooking India’s largest earth dam from Banasura Island Retreat or Silver Woods. Spot gaur in the hikes around Fringe Ford, a wild 500-acre plantation at Makkimala or DTPC’s Tea County near Mananthavady. Climb Chembra Peak (2100m) and get pampered at Sunrise Valley and Meenmutty Heights while exploring waterfalls like Meenmutty and Soochipara.

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Nilgiris
Home of ancient hill tribes, the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) transformed into the summer retreat of the British in South India by 1827. The 46 km ride from Mettupalayam to Ooty in the heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway presents stunning views. Studded with churches, lakes, botanical gardens, tea estates and viewpoints, Ooty’s elite clubs laid down the rules of snooker. Climb Dodda Betta (8650 ft) or drive from Ooty to the stunning lakes of Emerald, Avalanche, Upper Bhavani, Parson’s Valley and Porthimund into Mukurthi National Park. Explore the joys of farm life at Destiny Farm and Acres Wild, an organic cheese-making farm. Wallwood Garden, Kluney Manor, Regency Villas and Savoy (Ooty), La Maison and Sunshine Bungalow (Kotagiri), boutique luxury stays at O’land Estate and De Rock (Coonoor) and bungalows run by Serendipity and Glendale are ideal colonial-style getaways. For wild honey, beeswax balms, Kurumba paintings, Toda shawls and agro products hop over to Green Shop (www.lastforest.in).

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Athirapally
Famous as the locale where Aishwarya Rai cavorted under a 42m high waterfall in Guru and Ravana, Athirapally’s adjoining Vazhachal Forest is the second most bio-diverse area in Kerala. As the only place in the Western Ghats where four endangered hornbill species can be seen, the International Bird Association declared it an Important Bird Area. The forest harbours the Lion-tailed macaque, Malabar squirrel, Malabar Giant turtle and Cochin Forest Cane turtle, among other endangered species while the Chalakudy River supports an enviable count of 104 species of fish. Besides Charpa (3 km) and Vazhachal Falls (5 km), drop by at the Forest Information Centre, museum and showcase of rare medicinal plants. Stay at Rainforest Athirapally where each room offers an undisputed view of the 220m wide cascade and visit a tribal settlement at Pokalappara for wildlife sighting and tapioca-fish meals smoked in bamboo.

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Silent Valley National Park
One of the best-preserved tropical evergreen rainforests in the world, the 90 sq km park forms the core of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Named after the absence of cicadas, Silent Valley’s geographic isolation allowed it to evolve into an ecological island. Topping the list of 960 flora is the giant tree fern Dinosaur pulpan dubbed as a ’50 million-year-old living fossil’. The park’s flagship species, the lion tailed macaque lives in the towering Culinea trees. After a long crusade against a hydroelectric project, the fragile zone was declared a National Park in 1985. Mukkali, the park’s entrance, is unique as all three species of Crow butterflies can be found here – common crow, double branded crow and brown king crow. A 23 km jeep ride takes visitors up to Sairandhri where a 30 m high tower offers panoramic views. A 1½ km walk leads to a rusty steel bridge on the Kuntipuzha River. Stay at the Mukkali Forest Rest House or thatched tribal huts at Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge, named after the peak that dominates the park.

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Nelliyampathy
The majesty of Nelliyampathy Hills (3,500 ft) slowly unfolds along the mountain road from Nemmara, winding past 10 hairpin bends towards Kaikatty. It was the Maharaja of Cochin who leased vast tracts of dense jungle to the British for tea cultivation. Soon Nelliyampathy oranges were being exported to Buckingham Palace. Today, the derelict Victoria Church stands on a lonely cliff surrounded by forests and tea estates. A short walk from AV Thomas tea factory is Kesavanpara, a rocky escarpment overlooking Poothundy Dam. But the ultimate adventure is the 18 km jeep ride from Pulayampara to Manpara (Deer Rock). If you survive the bone-breaking drive over boulders, visit Suicide Point near Seethargundu, Katlapara Waterfalls, Karapara Dam and Karassuri viewpoint. Stay at Ciscilia Heritage and Whistling Thrush Bungalow while chasing butterflies and endemic birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher, Broad-tailed Grassbird and Nilgiri Pipit.

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Parambikulam
The 450-year-old Kannimara Teak, believed to be the largest in Asia, rises up 48.5 m. With a girth of 6.57 m, it takes five men to encircle the giant. Not all of the park’s treasures are easy to see – the tiny Parambikulam Frog, the endemic fish Garra surendranathanii to the saprophytic plant Haplothismia exanulata. Wrapped around three dams that create a 20.6 sq km reservoir with Karimala Peak (1439 m) as the park’s highest point, Parambikulam is a scenic park. Eco-tourism packages range from jeep safaris, bamboo rafting, birdwatching and guided walks to overnight camping inside the forest. Trekkers will enjoy the Kariyanshola Trail while the Cochin Forest Tramway Trek showcases relics of the British timber trade. Stay in treetop huts overlooking the reservoir, Swiss-style tents or a bamboo hut on Vettikunnu Island, accessible only by boat.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of JetWings magazine. 

Coorg: Coffee Blossoms in My Hair

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PRIYA GANAPATHY shares her socio-geo-apolitical-eco-cultural Kodava guide, with a whiff of coffee-scented nostalgia

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It’s hard to remain unbiased while writing about something that defines your identity (a distinct one at that). Though Coorg forms part of Karnataka, its people have a culture that bears little resemblance to the surrounding areas. Tomes have been written on the origins of Coorgs. We can argue about whether we are natives of the land, children of Goddess Cauvery,descendents of Greeks or Aryans, an Indo-Scythian race, Arab traders who got acculturised or Georgian gypsies who danced right into India! We can draw connections based on sharp features, language, religious practices, costumes or accessories and piece jigsaws till we’re blue in the face. Befuddling as it may seem, there is nothing to confirm where exactly, this warrior community with a legacy of distinguished soldiers, came from.

Being a Coorg is a reality I’m reminded of with every sip of morning coffee. Going by the volume consumed, I should have caffeine in my veins and wear coffee blossoms in my hair! And coffee isn’t the only brew we enjoy. It’s no secret that the majority of Kodavas love to knock-back the ol’ firewater and have a voracious appetite for meat – especially the ones that oink. Be it birth, marriage or death – meat, alcohol and music are a must. Some swear that our wildlife got eliminated thanks to our forefathers’ love for game. So don’t be alarmed when men, women and twenty-somethings quaff together at ceremonial gatherings. In fact, elders mock at the recent trend of youngsters becoming teetotalling grass-eaters! However, there are other things synonymous with Coorgs – good looks, loyalty and an innate pride that forbids a Coorg to curry favour with anyone are characteristics that exude from the entire clan, so excuse us if we preen.

A love for creature comforts is another. No matter how much elbow grease goes into running an estate, visiting a planter’s home gives the impression of a life of luxury in a ruggedly romantic county. The omnipresent wicker-backed planter’s chair in the verandah is testimony to that. Though the style harks back to the British years, the props remind me of an Old Western flick – khaki-hued jungle hats and P-caps on horned hat-racks, knee-length boots stashed in a corner, hunting trophies adorning the walls – heads and skins of big cats killed by great-great grandfathers, beautifully varnished deer antlers, glinting criss-crossing swords, rifles, guns and daggers. Phew. You’d think some cool cowboy gunslinger would slam out that double-door and swing into action!

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Despite a flamboyant and broadminded façade, Coorgs are fiercely traditional. Discipline, respect for elders and adherence to customs is a given. Kodavas don’t hesitate to touch the feet of elders anytime, anywhere. They do it with alacrity… thrice. Another habit, supposedly like the Greeks, is to offer food and drink to ancestors before wetting your whistle. We don’t forget to dip a finger into our grog and tap out three drops for them. Also, the ritual of althith porrduva (sitting before leaving the house) is a pause that spells success in any venture. Ok, maybe we are superstitious.

Although most Coorgs migrated to prove their worth in all walks of life, the defense services, agriculture and sports remain pet choices. Hockey is to Coorg what cricket is to India, so the ubiquitous hockey stick exists in every home. Strangely, I’ve never seen an untidy Coorg dwelling. Even the most humble traditional cottage is clean and inviting. Lush lawns with colourful flowerbeds and pots brimming with fuschia, exotic anthuriums, poinsettia or bougainvillae greet you. Architecturally, homes blend Kerala and colonial styles with sloping red-roofed tiles and monkey tops. Often, gleaming thookbolchas (hanging lamps) dangle from wooden ceilings.

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Most Kodava names end predictably with ‘aiah’, ‘appa’, ‘anna’, ‘amma’ or ‘avva’. All Coorgs are identified by family names, so the first thing you ask another Coorg after preliminary introductions is “Daada?” or ‘which family?’ This instant password unlocks the matrix… Immediately thereafter, the person computes your identity and you realise how you’re closely related to a virtual stranger!

When Coorg women are on the phone, notice how often they use the word oui. It’s not French for ‘yes’. Here it’s an ever-changing exclamation form, which means different things as conversation progresses. The stress and duration of ouuiii determines whether it’s a question, shock, chuckle or cautionary cry. And another Kodava stereotype: a Coorg guy is usually a handsome hunk who rides a noisy Yezdi or drives a jeep. His fashion statement includes blue jeans, a thick moustache and RayBan sunglasses (he’s been the unofficial brand ambassador for decades).

On a nostalgic note, for urban gypsies like me, holidays in Coorg meant a return to innocence. We hunted for bulbul and weaverbird nests in thickets, and shinned up trees laden with juicy oranges, mangoes, jackfruit, papaya, mulberries and guavas waiting to be plucked. We helped to milk the cows each morning, led cattle to grazing fields, fed the chickens and pranced to nearby streams with baskets and thin towels to catch schools of tiny fish and crabs. We skipped into the woods to pop wild berries and went mushroom picking in meadows carpeted by fungi. We knew our aalandi, koday and nuchchi-kummh (edible mushrooms) from our puchchi-kummh (toxic variety causing hallucinations). Tribal labourers would bring wild honey, venison, vannak yerachi (smoked meat) and bemble (bamboo-shoot) and we’d watch them transform into lipsmacking delicacies.

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Our aunts served up dishes we’d only read about in Enid Blyton books: bakes and homemade preserves of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. The pantry was a virtual lab with bottled jellies of guava and banana, jars of pickled mangoes, bitter lemon, dates, pork and fish. Perhaps, Coorg women believe anything can be pickled or fermented into wine! Check out the wine-list at any ethnic wedding. Grape is passé. For us, it has to be passion fruit, ginger, pineapple, mulberry, rice, jamun, orange, betel-leaf, flower extracts or coffee liqueurs. Meanwhile, our uncles created targets to hone our sharp-shooting skills and drummed out sounds of kodava-aat as we danced under starlight. Those wild days and bonfire nights seemed to go on forever.

Perhaps, things have changed, but traces of a life of Riley and a fancy for the finer things still remain. And every time I step on Coorg soil, rain-drenched and leech-ridden, I know this is the only place where I stop to smell the roses. My home, my land, my secret garden.

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This piece appeared in Impressions, a celebrity column in Bengaluru & Karnataka (2nd Edition) a guide book by Stark World Publishing, Bangalore

Rainforest Retreat Coorg: Life on an organic farm

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If man learnt the blues pickin’ cotton, he shall rediscover it learning how to grow coffee. And no any ordinary coffee, mind you, but organic gourmet robusta. The upper echelons of Coorg’s rain-slopes resonate not with the hum of mountain maidens, but Big Mama Thornton belting away the blues. Welcome to Mojo Rainforest Retreat, a 25-acre organic farm perched at 1100m in the lush Western Ghats of Karnataka. Mojo is as famous for its unimaginable shades of green as for its collection of blues, believed to be the largest in the country. If Robert Johnson’s wandering soul were to reincarnate as a farmhand, this is where it would come to rest.

Take it from Doc. That’s Doctor Anurag Goel, who claims to have seen every big blues act while doing his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Toronto. His wife Sujata, a Ph.D. from the Department of Botany (Delhi University), is a walking encyclopedia of natural remedies. Along with their ‘nature child’ Maya, the Goels have accomplished what most people only dream of in their dreams. They quit the rat race of urban drudgery to pursue a more harmonious existence with nature. After extensive travel through this vast country, they chose to settle in the rainforests of Coorg. The retreat was set up in 1999 to raise awareness about their environmental NGO. Initially, they intended to name it Worldwide Association for Restoration and Preservation of Ecological Diversity but realized that a name like WARPED would find little credibility. And so, after a little juggling of alphabets and a National Geographic grant later, they settled for WAPRED Research Foundation in 1996. Today, the idea has blossomed into a heady mix of eco-tourism, offbeat adventure travel and the blues. 

Coorg’s rich flora and fauna have earned it international recognition as one of the most important hotspots of biodiversity that need to be preserved. To say that it’s a challenge is an understatement. This here is Wild West Country, where every house boasts of a licensed rifle and most of the region’s wildlife can be found on the walls of living rooms in Coorg. Some of course, like the wild boar, have met a more honourable end. The transformation from a vile burrowing creature to a bowl of delectable pandi-curry can only be attributed to the genius of a people who have understood the very soul of the animal. Sadly, the importance of nature’s treasures has been lost on them. The heavy use of toxic pesticides has seriously endangered the region’s fragile eco-system. The falling prices of coffee have spurred the use of chemical fertilizers and a mysterious disease has wiped out the orange from ‘Orange County’. However, there’s one bastion that seems to be holding out – Mojo.

The farm is a perfect example of how to live in harmony with nature without necessarily exploiting it. The Goels use solar panels for their basic power supply. Crops are grown under the shade of rainforest trees using biological methods of pest control. A medicinal plant garden nurtures the wealth of traditional knowledge. Coffee berries are handpicked, hand-processed and specially roasted to obtain a special blend without using chemicals or chicory. The cuisine – mostly locally grown organic produce – is a delicious blend of continental and Indian dishes, homemade bread, cottage cheese, pastas, roasts, preserves and gourmet organic coffee.

Even the accommodation at the Rainforest Retreat is an unforgettable experience. A beautiful brook-side bungalow, set in a picture-postcard thicket of bamboo, banana, orange and pineapple, conforms to international standards of style and comfort. It has two bedrooms, a spacious living room, sit-out and perhaps the best rainforest loo any side of the equator. A second, more rustic shelter is the Yin Yang Cottage inside the plantation. A thin wisp of smoke rising from the bathroom chimney indicates that Muttu Pandey (the farmhand) has already heated the water. Before the stimulating bath can lull me to sleep, there’s a Doc on my door. It’s time for a first-hand learning experience at the farm.

Mojo is home to the Habanero, the world’s second hottest chili. The Red Savina Habanero used to be the hottest until it was deposed by our own Nagahari chili from Tezpur, Assam. Another brilliant flash – this time at the treetop – catches my eye and I wonder if it’s a bird, a plane or Superman. Doc angrily shakes his head and says it’s the Southern Birdwing, India’s largest butterfly. There’s Dendrobium Nutantiflorum, he motions to an orchid clump and that’s the raucous call of a Green Barbet. Stupefied, I try to keep pace with one new discovery a minute and forget more than I can remember. Doc plays the razor-sharp schoolmaster to my stupid boy from Botany class. A walk through the dense cardamom under-hang leads to a clearing where Doc comes to a halt in front of a tree. 

He has the reverence one would show to an Inca shrine. With all the compassion of a shaman consecrating a totem, he caresses the thick leaves of a creeper. “After saffron, vanilla happens to be the most expensive spice in the world”, he chuckles. “One kilo of cured, processed vanilla extract fetches as much as Rs.11,000 in the international market.” But before this article can trigger off rampant cultivation of vanilla in any available garden patch, let me add that it takes 5 kg of beans to process 1 kg vanillin extract. A lucky farmer may get about Rs.700 for a kilo of beans. What’s more, in the absence of its natural pollinator the Melipone bee, the orchid’s flowers have to be hand-pollinated. The flower opens in the morning and closes in the afternoon, never to open again. If left pollinated, the flower will drop the very next day.

Oddly content that I was not a vanilla farmer, I pick up samples of the local produce. Habanero extract, cardamom, pepper (which are indigenous), coffee (which was introduced), Garcinia (aka Kokum, used as a refreshing drink and a souring agent in curries) and a lovely set of picture postcards, all of which fund WAPRED. Back at the main house, Sujata thrusts into my hand what she calls a ‘hibiscus suspension’. I admire the glass like a potential Nobel Prize winning entry, when a patient feminine voice explains, “It’s a coolant; you are supposed to drink it”. “And next time, use kerosene on your boots. It’ll keep the leeches away”. This region gets so much rainfall it would make Mawsynram blush. The rains get so severe that leeches give up their positions on the ground and cling to overhanging branches to throw themselves like kamikaze warriors on to passing targets. If you’re into pain, I highly recommend Mojo in the monsoons.

Among the other denizens of the farm are the dogs – Jupiter, Janis (named after Janis Joplin), UB (Ugly Bastard – a deformed puppy who has grown up into a stocky watchdog) and Pigpen (from a character in Animal Farm), who died recently. It’s advisable to be overtly good to them as it is they who accompany you from the main house to the Yin-Yang Cottage at night. A solitary jaunt is not exactly spooky, but jungle walks have never been the same after The Blair Witch Project. Everything at Mojo – including Aki the Calf and Maya Hill – has been named by 4-year-old Maya. If she has finished partying with McDuff, John Barleycorn (who has a drinking problem) and her imaginary friends, maybe she’ll show you her ‘panoramic view’ and tell you about her philosophy. Meanwhile, a Golden Oriole lands on the tree near the verandah. While I gape open-mouthed at it like a 4-year-old kid, an oblivious Maya is content watching UB play with a ball-beetle.

Mojo is the sort of place where you’d hate to blink. It tends to leave you with a strange feeling that can best be described as a mixture of envy, awe, respect, rejuvenation and rage when the honeymoon is over. However, for those few precious moments, it gives people a chance to experience an inner peace that only nature can provide. Doc has also designed several escorted road tours that take you to interesting places nearby. There are excursions to other plantations like Ludwig Mahal, a nature walk to Galibeedu Ridge, a visit to the Dubare Elephant Training Camp and an insane drive to the Cauvery for swimming and mahseer fishing. What makes Mojo even more special is that it’s a Mecca for bird-watchers, insect-lovers, soul-trippers and blues-brothers. The misty mountains and dense foliage of this section of the Western Ghats make it one of the best places to get lost. In fact, Mojo adds up to such a wild weekend you might even be tempted to call it a ‘Doc Holiday’…

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.