Category Archives: Travelogue

A memorable trip to Valparai

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valparai

A trip to Valparai was on the cards for sometime.   It happened this March, when my husband and I took a day off coupled with a weekend and headed to Coimbatore.  I had made reservations online at Briar Tea estate Srikundra Bungalow (incidentally, Valparai has limited options.  The best ones are the Briar tea estate or the Tata estate).

As per google intelligence I was led to believe, it would take max about 3.5 hours to reach from Coimbatore.  We landed at the airport at around 11.30, went to catch up with a friend and  left in a couple of hours.  Unfortunately, the vehicle had a minor issue with the door and the fixing took about half an hour or so more .  But turns out, Google timing was not right.  It takes a solid 6 hours to reach this place traversing atleast 40 hairpin bends.

Nature view Valparai

So by the time we reached, it was well past dinner time, dark and deserted.   Luckily the driver was well aware of the place.  This as we realised, was not just an absolute boon, but much a necessity to travel safe in this terrain.   We retired straight after a modest dinner only to be woken up by the estate guys to check out a bison in the vicinity of the cottage.

Next morning, we were up and early for a Nature walk in another of their property.  We were welcomed by the Naturalist there, Rahul Aradhya.   This location was pretty wild.  First stop, was at a beautiful swamp and a few clicks later, moved on to a whole territory of lion-tailed macaques, that’s endemic to the Western Ghats in South India.   Out there, we thought we saw a Hornbill.   Rahul confirmed there were  Great Horn Bills in that region.   We were to eager to pursue so he led us on through some trails following the bird’s sound.    While the walk was so wonderful, and the air fresh and crisp, the Hornbill evaded us. On the way back we spotted a family of Gaurs or the Indian

Gaur or Indian bison

bisons, at a safe distance and moved on.  But just around a curve was another of this beast barely a few metres away staring at us.   Rahul insisted we stood still until it turned away, which it did in a while.  But that was not all.  There was a whole family of bisons behind this one.  I was definitely scared.  With the Naturalist leading us slowly and carefully, I heaved a sigh of relief once away at a safe distance.   A sambar deer with its little one was our next spotting.

We then got back to the start point, spent some time over a cup of tea about the habitat, people, etc.  Leopards were apparently not uncommon in this area.  Turns out that Valparai was a complete forest, that was destroyed for human settlements a few centuries back. If Rahul’s tale is to be believed, Elephants which are known to carry memories from generation to generation is quite unforgiving in these lands for this reason.

Lion tailed macaques

We headed back to our cottage after the walk.  A few hours later we left to pick up Rahul and explore Valparai further.   Our driver Siva was a wild life enthusiast himself.  Rahul, Siva and us made a nice team looking forward to making the best of the day.   We picked up lunch at Krishna café, a decent joint for food in the town.

On our way, Rahul found the perfect picnic spot.  We stopped by a brook side , had lunch , washed up at the stream, enjoyed the place, some chit chats and moved on.  We then went to Neerar dam.  What seemed to be just a dam, turned out to be a surprise.   This had a tunnel ranging about 8 kms in length.  Once you enter the tunnel, you

Nature view – Valparai

could close your eyes to acclimatise to the darkness and then have a splendid view of the never ending tunnel .  Since the water level was not high then we were able to wade through.  This is not allowed during seasons when the water levels can go really high.    We spent a good few minutes, did some photo shoots and left.

Young Rahul turned out to be someone I would term as ‘a free spirited’

Sambar deer

soul.   A huge nature and animal enthusiast, he kept us enamoured by his experiential tales. He had been extensively involved in rescuing animals and is well trained in handling venomous snakes and the likes.   Quite inspiring.

With the impromptu itinerary looking so delightful so far,  I was more than looking forward to what was next.  We travelled back through off beat paths.  Siva was desperately looking forward to seeing elephants, which he had apparently never failed to see in Valaparai every time.   But that was not to be.  We however spotted  porcupines, giant malabar squirrel, bisons again, some more deers in the dark with their eyes gleaming  when struck with torch light and a kukri snake on the road. Rahul promptly got off and prodded the snake away with a stick, to avoid risk of being run over by vehicles.  The ride in all was super thrilling.   Through the day we spotted drongos, fantails, woodpeckers, whistling trush, peahens, bee eaters and some more birds.

The best was yet to come.  Rahul had a surprise laid out for us.

We stopped at a particular spot.  Completely engulfed in darkness, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  We obediently closed our eyes as instructed, until after a minute we were asked to open.  What I saw then was breathtaking.  There were stars as far as my eyes could see.  It was a splendid sight.  The whole territory was infested with fireflies.   In complete darkness the stars in the sky and the lights of these fireflies were just the same.  We took a few good minutes

Kukri snake

to breathe in this beautiful sight completely.  No camera possibly could capture that in a frame .  What an experience it was!  This was Rahul’s gift for us, as he claimed, for our Anniversary.  Thanking him for making this so memorable, we finally got back to our cottage.

Next morning, was uneventful. We left soon after breakfast.  So in all, it was one day well spent at Valparai with some beautiful memories  to look back forever.

“People don’t take trips.  Trips take people”

 

 

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My first Vipassana experience

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I have been contemplating on writing about my first vipassana experience for a while now. However with a subject so deep, I felt I wasn’t qualified enough (still do) and feared that I may possibly not do complete justice to what it really is. So, with this humble submission and with a prelude that this is subjective and based on my limited experience I wish to share this unique experience.

Doing a Vipassana course was always a ‘good to do’ and on the back of my mind for several years. But last year I was overcome with a feeling of ‘must do now’.  So, I had applied online for a 10 day course in December last year. My simple objective was ‘only’ to explore. I was not under any kind of stress at any levels at that point and personally feel that that frame of mind worked out perfectly to explore.

 

There are various precepts that one has to undertake during the tenure of the course like no telling lies, no stealing, no physical contact, no speaking to each other, no mobile phones, etc all of which did not seem like a big deal to me. But watching the mind factor was a challenge I was dreading.

 

The whole course is to learn the technique of vipassana meditation that was practiced by Gautama the Buddha eventually leading him to enlightenment. The technique as such is fairly simple but involves a lot of effort. Shri.Goenka’s voice booming through the hall is all that one really needs to tune into. The first few days were challenging. But it was the challenge that got me through. Meditation starts from 5 am upwards and there is about 10 hours of meditation one does in a day with breaks in between. For a starter, it seemed a lot in the beginning. Also the schedules (like practically finishing your last meal for the day by 12 am….though ofcourse there are tea sessions ‘only for the first timers’ at 5 pm) were a little rattling initially.   I informed our mentor, on the first day, that I was prone to acidity related issues if I do not eat in regular intervals, but she insisted that I do not preempt anything and go with the flow. The first day was tough but from the second day, I had nothing to complain on this aspect. Seriously it was amazing, for someone like me who had been facing chronic health issues on this ever since my first pregnancy, it was revelationary.   I guess it may have had to do with the energies or the vibes around.


Once I got into the grind there was no going back. Sitting for long hours for one, was a very tough bit.   But, the sheer challenge of watching myself , got me going.   I went through various physical and emotional changes as the days progressed. The energies, the flow, everything so different.

 

The first few days start with Anapana meditation and gradually shifts to the Vipassana technique. I benefitted much from the Anapana meditation. The vipassana technique was tough for me. I can only say I have somewhat scraped through the elementary schooling process and have a whole path ahead to master it. It involves immense dedication and serious discipline. At the end of the road, it is an experience that could only leave you for the better.

 

There were moments when I experienced a very clear understanding that I was beyond my body, my thoughts….and it was possible to just watch everything go by as if you were not a part of it.   The self goes beyond.   Similarly there were a few other scattered realizations…and as I say it, though it was only during certain moments, it was something to experience!  

 

There is a lot that Shri. Goenka during his discourses talks about DHAMMA – the law of nature. To me it seemed like the indisputable truth in life.   I enjoyed the evening video discourses by Shri. Goenkaji thoroughly. The thoughts completely struck a chord with me. It was like, I just had to hear it from him. There are some phrases and words which stuck like glue – like being equanimous, the sankaaras we create for ourselves, etc, etc. But these are things that one should feel and find for himself.

 

So here I stop , and if you wish to explore or learn more about this, do look up this site :

http://www.dhamma.org/

This experience is completely about you…an opportunity to explore your own self further. It has nothing to do with religions or laid down beliefs, but only the TRUTH as you see it for yourself.

Trek Days 3 & 4 : Back to destination Goshaini from GHNP

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Trek Day 3  – Shilt to Rolla Hut (Trek 8 kms/ 4 – 5 hrs)

Day 3 as planned originally, was supposed to be a rest day with minimal trek activities and more of exploration and bird watching around the place.  However, we were unsure about spending the day at Shilt, as we did not find much to do the earlier day and minimal water access did not seem inviting.  Also one of our team mates, was unwell and preferred to trek back to the cottage.    So we all decided to go back to Rolla Hut.

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The trek downwards was faster, as expected.  We took in the breathtaking landscapes all over again.    It was blissful to be surrounded  by wilderness … a feeling altogether different when the only sound you hear around you is that of your breath and of your footstep.

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The way back though faster, was tougher on rocky terrains.  It was especially telling on the knees .   My knees gave way about half a km before we reached Rolla and I almost fell inadvertently a few times just before we reached our tents.

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However, we made it back in good time and then chilled out by the Tirthan riverside.    I spent some time with our guide Karan from Rajus cottage, to understand more about the place.   Trekking at GHNP has just picked up over the last few years.   People around in the villages usually do agriculture.  They also serve as part time guides, porters and do all odd jobs during the peak vacation seasons.  Popular activities here are cycling, trekking, fishing and camping.

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One interesting thing we observed at Rolla was, occasionally we would spot  some folks running down with huge sacks on them.    Apparently there is a therapeutic root called “Nagchatri” that grows in these regions.  Though it is illegal to remove these herbs ,   some villagers do sneak in somehow  and stuff them into these sacks.  Its big money for them when they sell it.  So finding labour during peak seasons gets tough apparently as many of them indulge in this.

As for the habitat, musk deers, mountain goats and leopards are apparently spotted sometimes.  Its haven to many birds like the Monal, Western Tragopan, Koklas, Flycatchers, Blue Whistling Thrush, Pulumbus water red star and many more. Apricots, raspberries, apples and cherries are a delicious delight you find on the roadsides.

Trek Day 4 – Rolla Hut to Goshaini (Trek 11 kms/ 4 – 5 hours)

As per our revised plan, this was meant to be the rescheduled rest day.   But  then, we woke up to a rather chilly and misty morning.  By breakfast it started drizzling.   It certainly did not look like an inviting proposition to be stuck to your tents when its raining around you.  Also there was this scary prospect of a heavy rain ruining your tents.   So, we  took out the only piece of accessory that hadnt’ come to use so far….the rain gear. We headed out in batches, from Rolla Hut to Rajus Cottage, that is, to the starting point.  We also thanked our stars, for getting back to Rolla hut, the previous day as it would have been awfully tough to navigate from Shilt during rains.

It was certainly a slippery slithery experience.  I watched my every step with extra caution.  I did not mind being the last trekker.   My husband stayed by me and we thoroughly enjoyed this lovely trek on that rainy day.  The lush greens just looked much greener.  The gushing waters under the bridges were noisier than before.  Unfortunately, we could not capture camera shots of the beauty we witnessed.    There were moments, when I felt, ‘if you could feel God’s presence,  it is here’.  Strange for me, to feel that way, but it stuck to my mind.

The rains sort of expedited the entire trek back.  In a way, it was best that way.  We were all focused on reaching the cottage as soon as possible, than to get stuck in the tracks.   It was also getting obvious that many of the trek trails can get completely washed away after a reasonably good rain.

We made it to the Cottage by lunchtime.   From then on, it was all about unwinding, drying some wet clothes and generally chilling out.  Raju’s cottage incidentally is a family owned place.  With just a handful of people, they manage the entire activities.   It is not like a hotel, so one   cannot expect things like room service.  Food is good.  However, you need to get to the dining area during the specific breakfast, lunch and dinner times.   The place is beautiful and adorned by a lot of butterflies, birds, trees and flowers.  Adequate spaces available for bonfires too.   They do have cycles for biking and conduct trek camps.  Most popular and sought out camps are the one day camps or a one night, two days trek camps.  Serious trekkers camp for 7 to 10 days where they go further up from Shilt to the source of the River Tirthan.

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So, all is well that ends well and our trekking expedition at GHNP ended thus.

Trek Day 2 : From Rolla Hut to Shilt

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Trek day 2 : Route – Rolla Hut – Shilt (3100 Mts)  [Trek 8 Kms / 4 to 5  Hrs]

On day 2, the trek team, left course from Rolla Hut at GHNP, by around 8 am, after breakfast. The plan was to reach our destination, Shilt by lunchtime. The original plan was to do a place called Korli Poi which is apparently a good place for bird watching and a less strenuous option with the kids. But apparently Korli Poi was recently closed for public. So, we took the alternate trek option to Shilt, which is a rocky, mountainous and a near vertical climb. We carried some snacks along.

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Personally, this was the toughest trek day for me. By one fourth of this journey I felt I was all done. I was almost breathless and the rocky terrain was really telling on me. I have always lived in tropical plains and altitudes were somewhat a problem .  Everyone else including the kids were holding up despite the discomfitures.

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It is quite something to be in the middle of nowhere and wonder about your next step ….especially when all available options are equally trying. The logical question is, what should you do now! The only logical answer is to ‘get up and get going’ till you get somewhere. I realized in a trek like this, you just got to move on no matter what unless you wish to be in the middle of nowhere. Now, despite all this conversation within myself, my feet just refused to get up and the breathlessness was weighing me down.

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Everyone around tried to motivate me and that’s the best part of being in a team. Then something wonderful happened. Lakshman one of our pals , turned out to be a great coach for me and promised to stay by me, till we make it. I got moving . Lakshman kept gently prodding and guiding. In retrospect that was the most wonderful thing that happened then. Now the learnings were – never to try to catch up with anybody else’s pace, walk at your own pace even if it means one small step a time, take deep breaths and at all costs breathe only through your nose. The journey from then on was like meditation to me…just the next step and nothing else was in focus. I started enjoying walking at my pace. After a particular altitude I was neither choking nor breathless but was enjoying the cold air on my face and the absolutely breathtaking view. The transformation was amazing to my own self. Every now and then we would stop and take in the breathtaking view and that got us going. The snow capped Himalayan mountains were glaring right at us and that was worth every damn thing in the world.

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As for the others, the kids drew motivation from each other. Sometimes whining, sometimes giving up but always picking themselves back. The 3 year old had to be on sling for all of the trek due to the steep terrain…thank God for folks who could handle this extra load ! We reached Shilt by noon, as chartered. Well one highlight is , these kids could proudly claim to be the first to trek to Shilt, of their age apparently – (aged 3,5,6,7,8 & 9)as per our GHNP Guide.

Unfortunately this time, the porters had not arrived before us and we were real hungry. (Much later, we got to know that the porters had discussed amongst themselves and were skeptical about the kids making this and had hence positioned themselves in strategic locations, with an intention to get back in case of an issue!).

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It was scorching hot at the Shilt and water was not an easy access from here. So completely worn out, we waited for the lunch to arrive. The plants were cleared and tents placed very close to each other to accommodate within the given space (flat surfaces for pitching tents were not much).

By the evening, it was getting a bit cold and then little rain drops were trickling down. We had noodles and soups served in our tents. Well, that was heavenly. After a quick dinner in sometime from then, we retired back to our tents to get some rest.

My next blog will be on the following 2 days concluding treks at GHNP. 

Trekking experience – at the Great Himalayan National Park

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Well, this is my first ever travelogue, largely inspired by my recent trekking experience at GHNP, Himachal Pradesh.    I havent really trekked much in the past and a trekking cum vacation plan at the Himalayan valley was more out of a  sheer irresistible temptation when I looked at the photographs of the place.  It turned out to be one of my best ever vacations .

On the 23rd of May we (2 adults and 2 children aged 3 and 7) boarded a flight to Chandigarh.   We reached Chandigarh by around noon.  We were warmly welcomed by Brighu (runs a travel setup Himalayan Adventures), who drove us down to Gushaini our next destination.  Our drive took around 8 hours approximately including the mouthwatering lunch at the roadside dhaba and several chai breaks.

We had booked in at Raju’s cottage at Gushaini for accommodation and for all the trekking arrangements.   It was quite dark when we reached and all one could hear was the only sound of the gushing river Tirthan.  We were quite amused to find out  that the way to reach the cottage was through a pulley over the river. It was a nerve tickling experience for the first time. This pulley is manually operated, meaning someone on the other side actually pulls you in, while someone on your side ensures you are seated.  (Perhaps the idea is to ensure prevention of riff raffs. )  We walked in straight into dinner where we met up with our pal Usha and family and her friend Gita and family, whom we were to join in for this trek.

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Trek day 1 : Route – Gushaini to Rolla Hut – (2100 Mts)  [Trek 11 Kms / 4 – 5 Hrs]

Next day around 8 am after breakfast, the trekking team comprising 5 adults and 6 children along with Karan (from Rajus cottage)  who had volunteered to be our guide for the entire trek, left Gushaini.   Apparently as per Karan, this is the first time a trek team of this size with families were taking the 5 day trek route from Rajus cottage.   The porters, carried our stuff like clothes for 5 days, tents, sleeping bags, stuff for cooking, etc and went either ahead or came later but never accompanied us.

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We carried backpacks comprising the lunch, some essential medicines, water (atleast 3 litres per family), some snacks, caps, kids jackets, camera and the rain gear.    This trek was a combination of hills, valleys and plains.  The picture absolutely scenic.  The kids did pretty well all on this trek .      Like treks go, you are definitely ready to crash, as your legs twitch and body aches (atleast mine did) before reaching the goalpost.    Just before the GHNP gate, we stopped for lunch at Hippo falls.  A sheer delight it was, to see the falls and  to put our feet in the ice cold glacier water. Refreshing ourselves, having lunch and stretching and turning, we took nearly an hour’s break as the kids played.    Then we headed to the Rolla Hut.

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The GHNP entrance is about half km from Hippo falls.  The entrance is apparently another spot where camping happens too.  But we proceeded to Rolla hut.  The path  to the hut is nearly a one man’s lane for most part.    Some of the inner routes required a  certain amount of navigation skills.

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After a 2.5 km walk from the entrance (again up, down & plain) we reached our destination, Rolla hut.  4 tents were pitched in.  Then there was also this “Toilet tent” that was kept at a strategic location – a high-tech (not really, yet a piece of ingenious conception) contraption.  Came in pretty useful too.

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The Tirthan river is quite accessible at Rolla.  We spent a good amount of time relaxing there.  By around 5.30 pm the bon fire was lit and by 7.30 we were done with dinner and made our way to our tents and got snug in our sleeping bags.  The only light by now was that of our torches.

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That concluded Day 1.  My next blog would be on day 2 Rolla Hut to Shilt, a tough trekking day for me.