Saturday, 1 August 2015

Thadiyandamol Trek: the ground beneath my feet


An unedited version of my story published in the August 2015 edition of Outlook Traveller

A view of the summit of Thadiyandamol

“Oops, sorry!” was a phrase I found myself constantly repeating throughout that day, as I dodged people. All around me was the clackety-clack of trekking boots and poles, as trekkers marched past in twos, threes, or fours, nodding at our group in greeting. I almost felt guilty for not being purposeful enough - for not aiming to reach the peak quickly - unlike those walking on. A few broke their march-past to peer into whatever bush we were peering into. They’d see nothing, and walk away with an indulgent smile and a slow shake of their head. Some, seeing me sprawled on the ground, stopped to enquire if I was injured and needed help. 

Thadiyandamol, Coorg’s highest peak at 5724 ft (1748 mts), is a favourite; enjoying its beautiful vistas and summiting it is on most trekkers’ wish-lists. Timing the trek too is important to many. I, however, had decided to stop and smell the roses - or the Kurinjis, in this case. What if I didn’t look at the views around me, but at the ground beneath my feet, for a change?

The endangered Blue-eyed bush frog, also known locally as 'Neel-netra', endemic to the Western Ghats

An endemic snail - the colourful 'Indrella ampulla'.
I was in Coorg just on the heels of the monsoon, when an errant painter seemed to have run amok with his bucket of green. Life-forms were undergoing changes on Thadiyandamol, after the invigorating rain. Somewhere, a frog croaked to attract its mate. Yet elsewhere, a snail moved at, well, snail’s pace, glistening raindrops riding piggy-back on its shell. Picture-postcard streams emitted clich├ęd gurgles as they swooshed around egg-smooth pebbles and seeped into parched crevices. A plant that flowers once in twelve years awaited us, while a carnivorous plant lay waiting for its next prey.


A cold, damp morning found our group of five at the beginning of the trekking route, in an open clearing in the rainforest canopy, through which we locked eyes with an ominously cloudy sky. Surrounded as the clearing was by some of the tall primary forest trees which had survived human brutality, this area instantly became the object of our affections.  Rain the previous day had made the ground slushy, and the morning stillness now reverberated with sounds of the earth sucking our shoes in, followed by the curt popping of shoes being released. Alert leeches scanned for heat and blood, clinging tenaciously as we tried to prise them off.

The initial path of the trek

In a corner, a burst of purple perked up the forest floor – Impatiens nodding away in the gentle breeze. These bright flowers grow near water or in moist conditions, and are endemic to the Western Ghats, of which Thadiyandamol is a part. An iridescent damselfly and a sluggish snail later, our naturalist urged us to move ahead, only because we needed time at hand for completing the trek before either the rain appeared or the sun disappeared; at worst, both. If we made good time, we could be slower on our way back, he promised.

The bright Impatiens. The ferns seen in this photograph are also typical of rainforests.

The vistas along the trek route were undeniably captivating; as we moved first through rainforests and then through shola-grasslands, we were hard-pressed to look elsewhere. But then, a sudden flash of colour would catch our eye, or that very faint call would have us perk up our ears, and a search would ensue. The vegetation along the path varied – some stretches had trees and plants densely packed on either side, revealing spiders, grasshoppers, frogs or orchids, if we knew where to look. Other stretches opened up on the valley side, offering sweeping panoramas of the shola-grasslands, a characteristic forest type of the region, which lends the hills the appearance of being cloaked in patterned green velvet.


These grasslands brought us a variety of wildflowers and a surprise! Every twelve years, Kurinji plants flower en masse, draping the hills with a purple carpet, a phenomenon which currently relied solely on my imagination to visualise it. To help me along, however, a couple of stray Kurinji had decided to be the delinquents of their tribe, eliciting a jig out of me. 

Kurinjis, or Neelakurinjis, seen here in their habitat, with a dragonfly hovering over. These distinctive purple flowers led to the Nilgiris being named so – blue mountains. 

The sudden calls of the Bright-headed Cisticola – a bird as tiny as its name is long – was all that was needed for our entire group to first break into a jig, and then a jog, as we tried in vain to keep up with the hyperactive bird. By then, the sun had reached its pinnacle, it had begun drizzling, and we had just reached past the mid-point, identifiable by a big boulder on a fairly level ground. A deliciously cold stream soothed our aching feet, as we energised ourselves with lunch and some well-deserved rest before the steep and rocky last leg of the trek.

A view from the latter part of the trek, where the sholas give way to grasslands. Trekkers, seen to the right, are a small blip in the vast landscape.

Nearing the summit, we stopped yet again. Sure, it helped us catch our breath from the climb, but, more importantly, it brought us face to face with our most prized sighting – the carnivorous plant, Drosera. Calling it a ‘sighting’ is probably a stretch – the species found here is smaller than blades of grass, barely discernible to the naked eye. The ingenuity of a plant this size is mind-boggling – rather than being easy prey, it is actually a predator.  Each ‘leaf’ has glandular tentacles which are topped with globules of sticky secretion. Assuming these to be dew, insects get stuck to the plant, ending up as its food.







We would have missed all this drama, had we just trekked past. Lying down on the ground had lent a new perspective – meeting Thadiyandamol’s inhabitants.  They hear the grasslands perform a synchronized sweep in that manic, midnight wind. They live under a sky which stars light up with different patterns each night. They witness Thadiyandamol disappearing into the morning mist, only to emerge slowly later, leaving early-bird trekkers sighing at the poetry of it all.


Robberflies, mating
Grasshoppers, mating

Back from the trek, lying supine on our guest-house’s terrace, we plucked leeches off our clothing – sometimes stomachs and necks too - with the nonchalance of seasoned ground crawlers. My energy now draining as fast as the setting sun, I succumbed to the evening breeze lulling me into a slumber.

In my mental map of the trek route now are numerous landmarks; what was at the beginning of the trek just an indistinct swathe of green, now has memories imprinted on it. To the people I meet, my conversations about ‘The bush where we saw the orange orchid’, ‘that puddle where the frog was half-submerged’ or ‘that rotten trunk where the sparkling fungus grew’ may sound like ramblings of an unhinged mind, but to me, they are indispensable parts of my Harry Potter-esque Pensieve, taking me back to Thadiyandamol. To that exact spot and that exact moment in time. To relive the trek, until I add new memories and markers from my next. 


Some trees at the base of Thadiyandamol yield surprising varieties of fungi, like this one
The area around Thadiyandamol is host to a variety of butterflies, and their colourful  caterpillars can often be spotted feeding on suitable plants.

For information about the trek and my tips, read this: 
http://nomadandabag-guides.blogspot.in/2015/08/thadiyandamol-trek-information-tips.html


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Celebrating Bangalore’s Trees


Written about a ficus tree at NGMA, Bangalore, to accompany a photograph by Kalyan Varma, displayed as the centrepiece at the 2nd edition of Neralu, Bangalore’s annual tree festival

Photo copyright: Raji Sunderkrishnan
















































I was different. I could sense it.

Each time my roots were clipped, I didn’t buckle and fall.
I moulded myself differently.
I sought the sky. My connection with the earth changed. 
But I found a way to stay.

It made me different.

I saw it in the eyes of the gardener who tended to me.
I heard it in the whispers of the people who saw me.
I felt it from looking at the trees around me.

I told myself - “So what if I’m different?”

So what if children don’t swing from my roots?
So what if people don’t worship under my canopy?

My heart is the same as any other.

I love it when you come seeking the patterns I make on the ground.
Shade, you call it. Neralu.
I love sheltering the nuts the tiny squirrels trust me with.
I love the feel of an aching back resting against my gnarled trunk.
I wish I could make your pain go away.

I am always back-lit, photographers say.

I say I’m shielding you from the harsh sunlight.
The sun is always behind me. I have your back.
Come, enjoy a nap beneath me.
I promise you - you won’t need a photograph to remember me by.

Don’t judge me by my appearance.

I have the same love to give you.
I make you look up - at the sky beyond me.
A sky you sometimes forget to look at.

It’s been over 100 years.

I now see love in your eyes.
My difference no longer makes a difference.
You love me as you love any other tree.
For that, I love you even more.

I’ve learnt from my life. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

It’s okay to be different.
People will eventually love you for who you are.
Even if they don’t, keep standing tall and proud.
Be there for them when they need you.
Give them your love.
Don’t give up when your wings are clipped; find a way.
And reach for the skies.


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This over-100-year-old ficus tree at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore, is one of the many beautiful trees found in Bangalore. Whether you are a nature lover or are simply looking for a different experience in Bangalore, tree walks can be an enjoyable and off-beat addition to your itinerary. These are usually informally planned on weekends, by the city’s active naturalist community. However, planned tree walks can also be booked at:

or

Both agencies are highly recommended: for visitors to Bangalore, as well as locals looking to know their city better.

If you are visiting Bangalore in February, though, you can enjoy Neralu (meaning ‘shade’ in Kannada) – an annual citizen-funded and citizen-managed tree festival, one-of-its-kind in India. Do look up the festival’s website and join the celebrations: Neralu.in


Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Neralu: Bangalore’s Tree Festival


A short note about 'shade', written to accompany a large print of a photograph by Ganesh Shankar, displayed at the 2nd edition of Neralu, Bangalore’s annual tree festival

The shade of this tree at Halebidu, Karnataka, attracts a lot of afternoon visitors





















Shade is why Sonali chooses that large Gulmohar to stand under, preferring to run the short distance to the actual bus-stop once she spots her office bus rumbling down the dusty road each sweltering morning.

Neralu is what makes Basavaraja smile and take off his sunglasses, as he drives through a stretch of highway surprisingly lined with Tamarind trees, which embrace each other across the otherwise-barren route.

Chaaya from the colourful Semal tree is what tempts Bijoya into playing a few more rounds of hop-scotch, not heeding to the sternly clanging recess bell.

Tanal is why Kuttan relaxes under a cluster of Coconut trees when he returns from a hectic morning of fishing, sitting there to eat lunch, keeping an eye on his boat moored on the beach.

Savali helps complete Nitin’s summer afternoon fun, of stealing mangoes from Bhonsle kaka’s orchard and slurping the pulp out of them, seated under the very same tree.

Nida is what draws Gowramma to the Banyan tree for a spot of gossip with friends, after a tiring day walking around parts of Kakinada, selling home-made khajas.

Chaanv is what makes the Banbehi tigress at Bandhavgarh crawl into a Bamboo grove in the afternoon, to escape the unforgiving summer sun.

Nizhal is what momentarily cools down Senthil’s blistered feet, as he seeks refuge after hopping across the scorching stones at the Madurai Meenakshi Temple in the afternoon.

Saaya gently nudges Ismail’s eyelids shut, and he naps unawares, though he only meant to rest under that Neem tree for five minutes before he pushed his guava cart ahead.

Celebrate shade in all its forms. Celebrate Neralu.


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Neralu (meaning ‘shade’ in Kannada), is a citizen-funded and citizen-managed tree festival, one-of-its-kind in India. Festivals say a lot about a city and her people - Neralu reflects Bangaloreans’ passion for the trees that the city is so lucky to be endowed with.

The annual tree festival usually spans across a weekend or two, and has events for everyone – tree walks, storytelling under trees, audio walks through parks, music and dance about trees, art and craft sessions, yoga in parks, street plays, sketching workshops, games, talks by experts, and nature film screenings, to name a few.

If you are visiting Bangalore in February, do look up the festival’s website and join the celebrations: neralu.in


Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 Travel Calendar


I’d discovered the pleasures of road-trips last year, despite being an anxious road traveller. This year, my romance with asphalt, dust and gravel continued. However, 2014 also led to newer discoveries and experiences - surprise, surprise – solo travel!

I know what you’re thinking: solo travel isn’t very unusual or path-breaking for many travellers. So, why the hullabaloo? For starters, despite being in my thirties, I’ve never taken a holiday without company. Let alone holiday, I’m the kind of person who is uncomfortable eating alone at a restaurant. And though I love my moments of solitude on holidays, I enjoy having just the right company in that solitude, to chat with or share experiences with. Now, having overcome my misgivings and travelled solo, I would happily do it all over again.

On the whole, travel has been very sparse in 2014. I miss those years when I travelled almost every other month. However, this break from travel was probably a blessing in disguise – it allowed me to process my backlog of images from last year, as well as write many stories.
                                                                                                          
Sri Lanka
This was a long-awaited trip to celebrate a momentous milestone. The date for this was hence set in stone – Jan 2014. After a lot of discussions based on our interest, weather suitability in Jan, ease of getting a visa etc, hubby and I zeroed in on Sri Lanka. This misleadingly tiny island effortlessly sustained our interest for 3 weeks, during which we explored west, south and central Sri Lanka. Lovely weather, incredibly friendly locals, scenic landscapes, fiery local cuisine and lots of outdoorsy activities left us with lingering memories. Hiring a car and driving around Sri Lanka was one of the best decisions we made; it was a great way to experience local culture and make serendipitous discoveries at nondescript little villages and towns.



USA
An emotional brother. A benevolent visa officer. Generous parents. Timely summer break in the college I teach at - these sudden turn of events gave me 5 weeks of a much-unexpected holiday, beginning with my brother's graduation. To be frank, USA was nowhere in the top half of my travel wish-list. However, after crisscrossing the country solo, visiting Atlanta, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Chicago, Philadelphia, the Poconos, New York, Boston, New Jersey, Atlantic City and New Hope, I ate humble pie – I thoroughly enjoyed the country! I napped in parks, fought pizza wars in Chicago, star-gazed in Yosemite at midnight, stood through the sun-roof of a speeding car, fought over that last cronut, got drenched in fog in SF, pub-hopped in Boston on a weeknight, lived on a couch in New York, and made jam using berries I plucked – a few of the varied experiences I had. Travelling by intercity trains and buses allowed me to strike up interesting conversations. I walked for an average of 8 hours every day, exploring each city. This, I think, is the primary reason I enjoyed this trip – the experience on foot is unlike any other.



Dubare, Coorg
This was my umpteenth visit to the region of Coorg. I didn’t have high expectations from this trip, based on glimpses I’d had of Dubare. Staying by the river Cauvery, I sought out the lesser-known experiences Coorg had to offer. And, Dubare proved to be a pleasant surprise – a little bit of river, some wildlife, a few dilapidated monuments, and lots of lore and coffee.




Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A River Runs Through It


Published in the Dec 1st edition of www.jlrexplore.com, a nature and wildlife-specific website


Nanjaraja, the king of Nanjarayapatna, had many enemies. In a dream, he was told that his troubles would vanish if he built a temple in a day. The task seemed impossible, but if anybody had a chance of doing it, it was the masterful Chola architects. They were pressed into service and set about achieving the deadline, working through the night. An errant rooster crowed earlier than usual, and the Chola builders left, assuming it was daybreak. A bridge - presumably across the river Cauvery - remained unfinished. Nobody knows if Nanjaraja’s fortunes reversed.

Fast forward five hundred years - Tipu Sultan’s pillaging army found neither gold nor gems in that temple, known as Veerabhadreshwara temple. Uninterested, they left it half-destroyed, saying “We’ll return another time to do this”, or, “We’ll come dubara”, giving Dubare forest its name.

The ruins of Veerabhadreshwara temple on the road leading to Dubare

A couple of centuries after Tipu Sultan, I packed my suitcase with equal disinterest; I threw in a few long-pending books, confident of finishing them that weekend. Being a seasoned, four-prior-holidays-in-Coorg veteran was reason enough for me to have my nose up in the air - I’d already had a ‘stay in a home-stay’ holiday; I was also done with my ‘pamper yourself in one of Coorg’s resorts’ holiday; I’d also had the rather rare ‘stay with your coffee plantation owner friend’ weekend. All the famous sights had already been seen – Bylakuppe, Abbey falls, Raja’s seat, Omkareshwara temple, elephant bathing at Dubare, Talacauvery. Why, I’d been on a trekking holiday to Thadiyandamol too. I sighed, kicking myself for not planning to go to a new destination.

Of course, lying around reading books with an endless supply of coffee can never be too bad, I consoled myself. My other-half (henceforth OH) had no such motivations for returning to Coorg; he staunchly refused to join me. I unabashedly lied to him, promising we’d spend all three days exploring facets of Coorg we’d never seen before. As we waited by the Cauvery on the bank opposite the Dubare Elephant Camp, for the Jungle Lodges’ boat to pick us up, I wondered how much time I had before my deception was exposed.

The landing dock at JLR Dubare, by the Cauvery

Three days later, OH gently steers our car over a bad stretch of road, to prevent the cheap liquor bottles filled to the brim with luscious Coorgi honey from clanging into each other and breaking. I glance at him for a ‘holiday indicator’ expression that is usually writ large at the end of each trip - a broad grin is plastered over his face.



Me: Enjoyed breakfast today, huh? You’re smiling.

OH: Yeah, the neer dosas were melt-in-your-mouth. And, I’m going to miss this coffee! (glaring at a honking car and frowning) Well, we better get used to our return to the urban jungle.

Me: So you’re glad you tagged along? You almost didn’t!

OH: I frankly didn’t expect the cottages at the JLR property to be set by a peaceful side of the river. I was half-expecting screaming crowds - bathing elephants or boating - right outside my room.

Me: I agree; this was a pleasant surprise. And who knew the forest began in their backyard! I was more thrilled with our morning walks than the jeep safaris, though. Once Putta Naik reassured me about being on foot in elephant territory, the plants, spiders, damselflies and other critters had my undivided attention. I’ve never spent ten minutes watching a spider spin its web!

A nature walk in Dubare, with the river for company

OH: (braking suddenly) We’re almost at the turnoff to Chiklihole…are you sure you don’t want to check if the view today is better?

Chiklihole, a reservoir, is one of Dubare’s little-known secrets. When we’d visited the day before, the weather had been moody. The water was a still, lacklustre sheet, with a mist-covered backdrop. The grey monotone of both the sky and the reservoir offset the vivid colours of the fishing coracles - not your quintessential picture-postcard vista, but, dramatic enough to command attention. The clouds, unfortunately, decided to deny us the spectacular sunset the locals had raved about. I could have spent many hours shooting the breeze, seated on the coarse stones of the humongous embankment, except, OH had dragged me away. For a good cause, though; I would have missed the fish auction if he hadn’t. Grown men running at break-neck speed, all for snapping up some fish, is not an everyday sight. At one point, two men almost got into blows over a beauty; egged on by their respective friends, they persisted for many minutes, until the fishermen intervened to seal the deal.

Fishermen and their fishing coracles, at Chiklihole reservoir



OH: (recollecting the fish-war) The locals sure seem to love their fish!

Me: Fish, and spices! Remember, Harsha showed us those deceptively small Gandhari chillies in his plantation? He was horrified when I said I wanted to taste one; he quietly steered me away from those bushes.

OH: (laughing) You would have been blinded like Gandhari, had you eaten one. I’m glad you forced me to visit a plantation – I feel like a pro, being able to tell the difference between Arabica and Robusta.

Coffee beans, in various stages of drying

Not only was OH happy, spurred by Harsha (our guide), he had even plucked fresh pepper, vowing to make some pickle once home. Harsha and his family invest a lot of time and energy looking after their coffee plantation, like many Kodavas do.  It isn’t easy, despite having sprinklers for watering the plants. Keeping them pest-free and harvesting the beans when just right is hard work. Not all creatures are pests, though; their plantation is home to a host of critters which are welcome – we spotted giant wood-spiders and well-camouflaged toads too.

Camouflaged toad in the coffee plantation

Me: Until Harsha told me, I didn’t know that spiders were such an integral part of coffee plantations.

OH: For that matter, wildlife seems so inseparable from Coorg. Even if you are not looking for wildlife, it finds you. Like when you saw an Indrella ampulla on the compound wall of a devara kadu.

Me: Or when I narrowly missed stepping over the bracket fungi in the devara kadu at Chettalli. I’m so happy we could see a few of these sacred groves.

I hadn’t known about devara kadus until I read an article some months ago. These forest patches have survived the onslaught of development, as sacred groves. Some remain in their primal form under trees, while others are being ‘developed’, with small temple-like structures being built. This trip had allowed me to peek into this spiritual side of life in Coorg.

Bracket fungi and a stream, in a devara kadu by the road, at Chettalli

OH: The next time we visit, we must time it to witness ritual dances at these devara kadus.  Or probably visit in March, when the grand puja is conducted at the Veerabhadreshwara temple - with priests coming from all over Karnataka, it promises to be festive.

Me: I wouldn’t mind another visit. I still need to experiment with photographing star trails. I am unhappy with the results this time, but we should get clear skies once this monsoon passes. You really missed experiencing midnight by the river!

I had spent many hours at night waiting by the river, hoping for the skies to clear. The riverside took on a different character, as the cobalt blue of dusk slowly turned inky. With people tucked away in their homes and hotels, a permeating silence descended on the Cauvery - one that allowed me to hear the gentle sloshing of the currents. Curious to see how the transformation progressed, I awoke at 2 am, only to find the landscape mist-covered and eerily beautiful, bathed in bluish-white moonlight. Though it felt too spooky for a walk, the cottage’s balcony had been perfect to lounge in, at that time.


River-side cottages at JLR Dubare

OH: (smiling) I may have had the energy to wake up in the middle of the night, if I hadn’t spent all evening chasing you around Madikeri’s buildings. You architects are magnetically attracted to buildings, aren’t you?

Me: (embarrassed and defensive) You enjoyed those monuments as much as I did! The Madikeri fort’s upkeep is a little disappointing, but walking on the moss-covered ramparts, taking in the town’s views, made up for it. Very few visitors seem to enjoy it, though.

OH: And even fewer visit Gaddige. The tombs may be decrepit, but their location is beautiful. So is some of the architectural detailing.

Moss-covered Madikeri Fort

Kings’ tombs, called ‘Gaddige’, set on an elevated patch of land in the middle of bustling Madikeri

Me: (laughing) Spoken like an architect’s husband! If only I were born a century ago, we could have lived in a gorgeous ‘Ain Mane’. We were lucky to even stumble upon one of these ancestral houses – most have been demolished to make way for newer homes.

A typical Kodava ‘Ain Mane’

Unlike Tipu’s demolishing soldiers who never returned, OH sheepishly agrees that Coorg definitely merits repeat visits. He still needs to ride down the Cauvery in a coracle. And, Putta Naik, our naturalist, has promised to show us many more critters and interesting insect-behaviour within the Jungle Lodges property.

A leaf-hopper, seen during a nature walk

I, however, had ended my holiday floating in a coracle amidst cheery, bright water lilies, past the resort’s gol-ghar, waving to OH, who had opted for a head start on breakfast. There, in that coracle, I reminded myself - even as a by-now-five-holiday veteran, I have more to seek out in Coorg, if I do come, ‘dubare’.

P.S: My books did not see the outside of my suitcase. Coorg had had the last laugh.

Water lilies and a dragonfly