Alive yet again

The blog has been silent yet again for the last two years . Not because of laziness but because of structural changes n the ingkn household.

The last two years saw two new additions to the family – one of the four legged variety and one of the two legged variety. Our son and daughter – Bruno and Kichu.  Together they have made our lives happier, days longer , nights shorter , tempers frayed and madness permeating into all conscious levels of being.

But now since the dust has settled and the house back to near normal , I hope to pick up the blog again and ofcourse shall be introducing them in due course .

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The South India Trip 2012- Part 5 Or Homeward Bound

” Country Roads , take me home  to the place I belong “- John Denver

Destinations:  Udupi Srikrishna Temple , Goa and home

Distance: Mangalore- Udupi 60 km, Udupi- Mobor beach 286 km and Mobor Beach- Mumbai 658 km

It was a  pity that Mangalore was just an overnight pit stop in our journey for we could not see the city.  But we did make two decent “finds” – Hotel Ocean Pearl ,Cafe Ideal – the birthplace of the “Gadbad” ice cream and that the city was heaven for rash drivers. We were also in for yet another surprise – bumping into a dear friend whom we had not seen since college days at the hotel lobby!! And that meeting did make our overnight stay a memorable one.

The next morning saw us get ready for our northward journey. This was to be a drive along coastal Karnataka and Goa before heading back to Mumbai. Coastal Karnataka invoked a sense of Deja Vu with its coconut groves, rivers, backwaters and the sea. A 100 km away from Mangalore city was the town of Udupi – the town that has lent its name to the friendly neighbourhood South Indian fast food joint.

Udupi is also a temple town with its most famous temple being the Krishna temple believed to have been erected by Madhavacharya, who founded the Dwaitha school of Vedanta. Its the big  kitchen and communal dining hall associated with this temple that has given rise to generation of cooks.  We leisurely explored the temple street and the market before heading to the Railway station where we were to drop off Mom and Dad.

We continued along the picturesque  NH 17 which hugged the coast all along. The lovely beach of Maravanthe where the road is flanked by the Arabian Sea on one side and the backwater on the other, the beach temple of Shiva at Murudeshwar , the “Om” beach of Gokarna, the Devbagh beach of Karwar all lies on this stretch .The roads though spoke a different story altogether. A narrow 2 lane highway it was full of potholes and slowed us to 30 km /hour.  The Baba had to catch up with office work meant yours truly was the primary driver all the way till Karwar, the Karnataka border where we bid adieu to the beaches and entered Goa.

It was near 9 pm when we pulled into the Leela Goa, our penultimate stop in the journey. The beautiful landscaped, tastefully done resort was the luxury I wanted to  end the trip with. Our idea was just to rest and rest our poor tired body before the drive back home. We played golf, swam in the pool and checked ourselves into the spa.

Rejuvenated after our two day holiday we headed northwards – this time our destination being Mumbai. We entered Maharashtra at sawantwadi and entered the Western ghats through a narrow winding country road. The roads were slippery and had landslide warnings throughout. But the scenery-  the scenery made the trip worthy of the perils. the roads wound through lush green mountainside interspersed with silvery strands of waterfalls . And near the summit we entered a thick mist which gave an eerie mystical effect to the scenery. We got out of the mists and the ghats to vasts stretches of grasslands all lush green after the monsoon.  This road joined the NH4 at Nipani from where we entered the now familiar route to Mumbai via Kolhapur and Satara.

We reached Mumbai after an 8 hour drive and clocking 2700km on our odometer.

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The South India Trip 2012- Part 4 or Into nature

“Somethings never change. Like your mom refusing to believe that you will not forget to eat  irrespective of your age” – Life experience

If the journey to Coorg was the thrill of the unknown, the idyllic days in Coorg and the drive through Kerala was about the feeling of being at Home away from home.

Destinations: Coorg , Parassinikadavu , Bekal Fort  and Mangalore

Distance: Total distance : 263 . Coorg- Parassinikadavu 125 km. Parassinikadavu -Bekal 71 km and Bekal to mangalore – 68 km

The co-travellers: Mom and Dad. Vicarious travellers in our trips so far . A bit of coaxing was  all it took to make them join us for the next 5 days as we meandered through Coorg, Northern Kerala , Mangalore and Udupi. The added  carrot was of course figuring out “how  these kids drive”.

The travel :  When we pulled into Madikeri bus stand a good 4 hours after our  expected arrival time the first sight we saw was my dad waiting anxiously. He and mom had arrived 3 hours before after an overnight train journey from Trivandrum to Mangalore and a bumpy bus ride from Mangalore to Madikkeri.  A man of extremely few words – “da you guys are really alright”? was the only statement he made  which showed a hint of anxiety. Mom  on the other hand was her chirpy self after her enforced rest. ” Well, you kids have a stellar track record for  being upto no good and hiding it . Eat something . You must be hungry and Saare ( well Mom and Dad call each other “Saar”- the Mallu version of Sir) get these two some coffee and then  we  will go to the homestay”. And with that statement the baton of the official -in-charge went to Mom.

Our halt in Coorg was to be at Suntikoppa a 10 minute drive away from Madikeri. While planning the trip we had decided that since we had three days to spend in Coorg we would try to absorb the local life as much as possible.  The region was dotted with a number of coffee estates some of which operate as homestays and that seemed to fit our idea. Our search for a  homestay ended the moment  we chanced upon Kedakkal Estate on Tripadvisor (http://www.kedakal.com/about.html ). The bungalow nestled within 25 acres of coffee plantation , owned by Diwakar uncle and Uma aunty had an old world charm of its own.

We drove into the coffee plantation just as  dusk was falling and were greeted warmly by our hosts who went out of their way to put us at ease.The bungalow tastefully decorated with curios was a relaxing retreat . We had a delightful evening recounting our travel tales to our hosts and parents till dinner time.

We started our next morning with a lazy breakfast and a walk around the plantation. we also finetuned our plans for the next two days. The Kabini sanctuary was vetoed for safaris were banned during monsoons, a trip to Talacauvery was discussed at length but Mom put her foot down. “Take rest guys- eat, rest  and be merry” was her byword. Also to explore stuff on a whim without taking too much effort- and so that was how it was to be. We decided to start by visiting the Iruppu falls- a lovely waterfall  which was in  full force and a regular tourist spot. From there our destination was Sidhapura – where the Dubare elephant camp was situated  by the banks of the Cauvery . The next day was  devoted for the Tibetan refugee area of Bylakuppe to see the Golden temple and  on cleaning up the car readying up for our next leg of the journey .

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The third day morning was what what we called the drive through day- where all our destinations were just brief halts on our way to Mangalore. We started our day at 6 am , bidding adieu to our hosts who had become our friends in such a short span of time . Uma aunty even got up at 5 am to make breakfast for us!!! We drove through interiors of Coorg through the picturesque Virajpet before entering the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary. We drove along the Kabini river through winding Ghat roads into Kerala. It just felt like entering home.

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This was a part of Kerala that we had never seen before – its northern corners. We drove through the town of Iritty towards Parassinikadavu , a town near the estuary of the Valapattanam river and known for the Muthappan temple . The temple , built it traditional Kerala architecture is situated on the banks of Valapattanam river. This temple is unique for its god is Muthappan, a hunter who is worshipped along with his faithful companion,  the dog. Hence dogs are allowed to wander at will inside the temple . The offering to Muthappan is also unique- fried fish and kallu (toddy).

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From Parassinikadavu we headed headed for Bekal Fort   through the heart of Malabar.We were  in Kerala on  Chingam 1st , the traditional new year of kerala- the month of Onam, when Kerala’s natural beauty is at its best. Heralding Onam were lush greenery, flowers and theyyam forms visiting houses and blessing people.   We reached Bekal by 3pm. The  Bekal Fort ,rebuilt in 1650 AD by Shivappa Nayak of Bednore, is the largest Fort in Kerala. It was originally built for naval defence by the Kolathiri rulers of 12th Cent AD a per a few historians.The Fort has no buildings / remnants of buildings other an observation tower and a magazine  . The Fort looked a carpet of green and stood majestically above the beach.

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We left Bekkal at 5pm and headed for Mangalore which was to be our pitstop for the night before we started  our second innings with the state of Karnataka- this time exploring the coastal regions of the state.

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The South India Trip 2012 – Part 3 or Off the Beaten Path

“The most exciting journey is often the one you know the least about” – Yours Truly

The Known: The River Tern resort had requested us to check in by 1 pm so that we do not miss the safari.The few pictures of the resort perched at the edge of a reservoir.Google Maps informing us that we were 229 kms and 5 hours away  from the resort, our  midway point en-route to Coorg.

The Unknown:  The road to Bhadra and then onwards to Coorg  and its conditions.

This was in short  the Leg 2 of our trip!

Leg 2: Hospet- Kedakkal Estate (Suntikoppa, Coorg) via the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary

Distance : Hospet- Bhadra 229 km; Bhadra- Suntikoppa 231 km

Destinations:

1.The River Tern Lodge : Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary

Situated by the Bhadra Reservoir 80 kms northeast of Chikmagalur town ,the resort gets its name from the thousands of river terns that flock the islands of the reservoir. Nestled in the midst of the Western Ghats and Bababudangiri range of  Chikmagalur district, it  acts as the gateway to the Wildlife Reserve.  The Muthodi Wildlife Sanctuary popularly known as Bhadra Reserve after the river that flows through it, is a Project Tiger Reserve and a biodiversity hotspot for its sheer amount of flora and fauna .

2.Coorg:  Kodagu , as it is called locally in Karnataka , is nestled in the Western Ghats. It’s known  for its distinctive language,culture and food  as also for its coffee and spices .

The Journey:

The day began at 6 am.Baba, the hero of Leg 1 of the trip, was rendered out of action by a stiff back and cramped calf muscles  making yours truly in charge of the day. Packing was hurriedly done, the car cleaned and the hotel staff questioned closely on the route ahead. “Roads are narrow but good”  assured the desk clerk. He knew it only upto 100 kms though. “There are no towns on the way till Shimoga” chipped in his colleague , “but  then you won’t be entering it either “. “Please have a very heavy breakfast, you won’t be getting any on the way” they both added . And that, was the first piece of advice we acted upon.

 The journey started at 7 am on a sunny Sunday morning .This was to be a drive through the heartland of Karnataka , from the north eastern corners of the state to it south west, through state highways and forest roads into Coorg, via Bhadra Reserve. Our first visual treat was right at the outskirts of Hospet- the beautiful reservoir of the Tungabhadra dam. The  narrow road skirting the reservoir had heavy truck traffic (it was the road to Bellary mines!) so we could not stop to take any pictures.

 The state highways of Northern Karnataka were as promised – narrow,two-lane and well asphalted. There were villages at reasonable intervals. It was a joy to watch scenes from an unhurried way of life – goats and cattle being herded, the informal darbars at “tea stalls” , the over crowded autos  and  the colorful  plastic bucketwaala in his bike- the brilliant hues of his wares adding that extra splash of color to the landscape. 

En-route to Bhadra

En-route to Bhadra

Halfway en-route , was a  stunning sight- vast tracts of sunflower and marigold fields adding  hues of yellow and orange to the landscape!! Wanting to savour the scenery , we pulled over to the side and promptly got mobbed by a bunch of  little kids who seem to have accompanied their dad to the fields on a Sunday morning.

The kids and the fields of sunflowers  and marigolds

The kids and the fields of sunflowers and marigolds

A few photos and some broken conversations later, we hit the road again .Two hours and a short stretch of potholed roads later we reached the resort , perched on the edge of the Bhadra reservoir, looking every bit as it did on the pictures . The River Tern Lodge ,run by the Jungle Resorts and Lodges ( a partnership by the Government of Karnataka and Tiger Tops  http://www.junglelodges.com/river-tern-lodge), the best option to stay in the region did not disappoint. The cottages built to merge with nature offers stunning views of the reservoir and the forest. At 7500 INR a night per couple, the resort is a value for money proposition as it offers  3 star facilities , all meals included and 2 safaris for the price! This resort is indeed a classic example of what good a government agency  can do with a bit of will.

The River Tern Resort!

The River Tern Resort!

After soaking in the ambiance of the resort and recharging ourselves  we proceeded for the boat safari. A Supreme Court ruling at that point had banned jeep safaris into core tiger areas , thus exponentially diminishing our chances of seeing tigers. Sadly,a light drizzle during the safari  nullified even the remote chances of tiger spotting. As a consolation  though, we did see a host of birds, deers, alligators and foxes!

The sights of Bhadra

The sights of Bhadra

Content with our share of wildlife sightings for the day we retired early, the sounds of the lake adding a soothing lullaby. The next morning was to be an early one too. This time we had to reach Madikeri by 1 pm to pick up my parents who were to join us for a part of the trip. Being curious, excited and anxious about our trip, they had mapped our itinerary on their Google maps, and were following us vicariously so far . Now they were to join us for the next five days as we explored  Coorg, Northern Kerala and Mangalore.

After discussions with the resort officials on the road ahead, we had to discard the google map recommended route for one through the jungle and tribal hamlets to Coorg. The Baba who by now had fully recovered from his ailments chose to drive this section.

An hour through the jungle road as the sole travelers on the stretch, we started our second tryst with Sahyan , who welcomed us back to its folds with a downpour. The ghat roads soon took us to the silver oaks and coffee plantations of Chikmagalur and to the first big town on our way since Hospet.  We were contemplating a “kaapi break” in honor of the coffee town when Dad called us to inform of their arrival in Mangalore and of their onward journey to Coorg. After ascertaining our coordinates and the weather he rounded of the call with the customary ” Eda nokkiyum kandum vandi odikkanum…. Illel adayakum ” ( Drive carefully else you guys will become flattened rice flakes on the roads!).

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Duly cautioned we drove through more flower fields , silver oaks and coffee plantations to  enter Belur – the town known for the Chennakesava temple dating back to the Hoysala Dynasty. Having been there once as a kid, I remembered the awe I felt looking at the carvings on the temple walls. The Baba was given a quick lesson in history about the Hoysala empire and its architectural marvels – the star shaped temples of Belur and Halebid. Thus by the time we reached the road towards the temple, all it took was using Baba’s signature “Trust me ” dialogue on him to take the 0.5 km detour to the temple.  The Baba was floored by the beauty and the intricacy of the stone carvings while I reacquainted myself with the temple.  An hour was spent  in enjoying the poetry in stone.

The splendour of Belur

The splendour of Belur

With just a 100 kms left for Madikeri, we were sure of reaching there on time. It was then we hit on the worst patch of our entire journey- a 40 km stretch where roads seem to be non existent.  Little did we know that this was our welcome to South Karnataka. We did just 15-20 km an hour for the next two hours  and by the time we entered the steeper parts of the Ghats it started to rain  slowing us further. Four hours  and with still no Madikeri in sight we stopped at a village tea stall to stretch our poor, tired legs and to enquire about the roads ahead. Thankful to hear assurances that the roads were better ahead we continued our way up the Ghats through  the coffee plantations of TATA  and the trading town of  Somwarpet to reach Madikeri a good 5 hours later than planned to pick up Mom and Dad from the bus stand.  The Kedakkal Estate at Suntikoppa which was to be our abode for the next four days was just ten minutes off Madikeri.  But then, that ‘s the story for the next post!

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The South India Trip 2012-Part 2 or Discovering Vijayanagara

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.”

Leisure – William Henry Davies

You could say the trip started the evening before.The excitement in the air was palpable. Printouts of routes taken, last minute shopping done and packing was on at full swing. Our cheerleaders for the trip, Mash and Pai,  landed late in the evening to wish us Bon Voyage and of course, to drink for our Health ( what holiday without obeisance to Bacchus!). We loaded the car with what we now recognize as our  road trip essentials-  the favourite duvet, the favourite  pillow and cushion, Games, CD’s, Food  and clothes , matching accessories and other sundry stuff to make us feel at home ( read it as half the house).

Leg 1: Mumbai- Hospet

Distance :740 km

The Destination: Hampi

A small village on the banks of the Tungabhadra, filled with relics of a glorious past and a UNESCO heritage site since 1986.

This was once Vijayanagara, the capital of the  Vijayanagara empire (1336-1646) established  by Harihara and Bukka Raya of Sangama Dynasty  . The empire reached its zenith under Krishnadeva Raya and his minister Tenali Rama ,whose tales of wit are still popular today.  At its pinnacle, the bazaars of the kingdom were said to overflow with gold and diamonds attracting  traders from as far as  China, Mongolia and the Middle east .

The Journey:

We set out from Worli at 530 am , Aug 10th on what was promising to turn out to be a  rainy day with near zero visibility. Baba volunteered to be driver on the first leg of the journey while I lazily curled up on the side . We inched along the Eastern express way and just as we entered the highly overrated Mumbai- Pune Expressway ( a terrible drive with slow and fast moving vehicles indiscriminately occupying all the available lanes, not to speak of daredevils who weave in left and right)  the rain Gods decided to gift us a rain free day. We happily sped along the Ghats, which seemed to have a charm of their own during the  monsoons with the hills looking like a carpet of green and impromptu waterfalls on the side of the road . The Ghats soon gave way to the  chaos of Pune where there seemed to be no traffic rules!.We continued along the NH4 to reach Satara by 11 am which was our first pit stop for breakfast and to change drivers.

The NH4 which runs from Mumbai to Bangalore  is a broad road bypassing all major towns on the way. The Maharashtra side of the road though broad was an uneven stretch (with astronomical toll rates for the quality of roads) .At around 1pm we reached Nipani, the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, from where the drive and the road acquired a magical quality. Being a working day, with very few long distance drivers on the road , we  soon fell into a predictable rhythm of changing leads with others , just like migratory birds on a sojourn.

The Ghats IMG_0412

By 3 pm we reached Hubli, where at the tool booth ,we were requested to maintain a speed limit of 30kmph within the town.  Buses, cars and bikes in that small town were all following traffic rules and speed limits to the “T” which surprised us !! It showed us what a bit of will can do in reining the chaotic traffic in our towns and cities.

From Hubli, the road became an undivided two lane passing through villages and  fields.  By 630 pm we reached Hospet, the nearest railway head and where most of the tourists stay for Hampi has food restrictions on travelers- consumption of alcohol and meat is prohibited within the village . It was our destination too for the day and we were ever so happy to see our temporary abode- The Royal Orchid Hospet.

The next morning  after resting our tired muscles, we proceeded to Hampi, with its impressive golden brown boulders and temples which can be seen from far.We started our tour with the ruins of the  majestic Vithala Temple. The walls of the temple are a poetry in stone with intricate carvings of myths, puranas, geometrical shapes, animals, humans … The  outer walls of the temple even features  Persian and Mongol Traders! The mandapam by the side of the temple boasts of  hollow pillars which when struck emits the notes of an octave.The iconic rathas(chariots) of Hampi too are in this temple.

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The Tungabhadra river is just a small walk away from the temple.  We ambled along leisurely to the banks of the river where the ruins of the ancient stone bridge still exists.  The “anna shaala” and the mandapam where the famous Carnatic music composer Purandaradasa used to conduct his poojas and classes are also on the banks of the river.

The stone bridge

The Hazara Rama temple, believed to be the private temple of the Vijayanagara royals was our next destination. The temple is so named for the multitude of  panels  depicting events from the Ramayana  carved on its walls. The  compound  walls of the temple  depict arrays of cavalry, dancing girls and elelphants all reflective of the Navarathri procession of the empire.pillars

We took a break for lunch at the Mango Tree Cafe which is extremely popular among tourists – both domestic and international . The cafe which overlooks the river is an old house which you enter through a shady banana grove . The seating is traditional – diners sit on floor mats and food is served on brass plates placed on low tables. The cool, breezy interiors of the cafe was indeed a welcome break from the hot, blazing sun!

A heavy lunch and some rest later we headed back to the main streets of Hampi – this time to view the famous Ugra Narasimha statue ( the largest statue in Hampi) and the Mustard Ganesha( named after the mustard merchants who contributed to make the idol) .The  next place in our itinerary was the palace of Krishnadeva Raya.  Most of the palace in now in ruins with just the foundation stones visible though the elephant stables, the Rani’s palace and the palace pond are still intact giving one a glimpse of the pomp and splendor of the palace !

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A paucity of time resulted in us having to miss some of the other major landmarks- the Virupaksha and the Achutaraya temples being the notable two of the lot. A whole day sadly, is just not enough to do justice to the majesty of Hampi, though that was all we had…. and then we were off to Bhadra and into the lap of Nature…..

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The South India Trip 2012 – Part 1 or The Curtain Raiser

It all started as a typical Holiday discussion in the Ingkn household:

Me: Baba,  the hills…

Baba: No… Beach…

Me: No beach , you lazy bum!

Baba: I am one!! Maybe some history then?

Me: Now we are speaking, and a safari too !!

Baba: Make up your mind bacchi… fix one destination and do it…

Me:  It’s tough!

Baba: Hmm… Hey,we can do the hills, the sea, history and safari this year!

Me: Er… what do you mean?

Baba: Just make it a road trip!

In one sentence the Baba delivered a master stroke, one with far reaching consequences all of which were unknown then. As many of you know by now, the Baba and his car are inseparable. The hints and pleas for a road trip had been buzzing in the household for many a day by then, all put down by yours truly. Now an attack has been made on my weakest point, one which he knew would surely fall for the ploy. And it well, worked!The temptation was too overwhelming for my saner side to resist.

Now that we decided to do a road trip covering the above mentioned ideas , where do we go and when were the first questions that hit us. After much thought and deliberation we decided to do an approx. 3000 km road trip in a span of 10-12 days during August 2012. It was just May .  The Baba , an incarnation of the God of last minute, was even willing to plan a trip in May for August!! Hallelujah!

Google Maps and http://www.teambhp.com instantly became our best friends in the quest for our destination. A week’s search bickering research revealed the three possible itineraries that fit the bill.

1. Mumbai- Gir-Kutch-Jaisalmer-Jodhpur- Ranthambore- Agra- Delhi-Mumbai (rejected – too hot in Aug)

2. Fly to Bangalore , rent a car and drive

Madras –  Pondy – Chidambaram –  Kodai – Munnar  -some sea shore in Kerala – Wayanad – Mangalore -Coorg – Bangalore (rejected by Baba – Because his beloved car  was not a part of the trip)

3. Mumbai- Hampi-Coorg-Parassinikadavu-Bekal-Mangalore-Udipi-Goa -Mumbai -unanimously agreed.

the route

Total distance : 2700 km door to door

Days in hand: 11

The planning began immediately at an excited, frenzied pace. Our new friends – Google Maps and  Team BHP and  my old ally TripAdvisor all converged to become our core consultants for the trip , with Google and our “roadly-wise” friends acting as external advisors.

Having never ever done a road trip of this scale before, we planned to the minutest possible details. The number of days/hours to be spent at every place, the night halts and the distance to be driven on any given day were all debated for hours at a stretch. Road conditions were read, re read and rechecked  along with the do’s and don’ts for the car for every leg of the journey. Plans were slowly taking shape with just one niggling worry – the 407 km drive to Coorg from Hampi . Road conditions were virtually unknown for this leg of the trip which passes through a host of villages, small towns and the Ghats. It was  then that the Baba came up with a stunner which eventually saved our skin while on the road trip – The Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Located midway between Hampi and Coorg , the picturesque reserve promised to be the ideal break on that unknown stretch of State Highways. At last the route was finalized! Time taken – three weeks. We were in the second  week of June .

The next step of course was to fix the various night halts. TripAdvisor was consulted in earnest. Resorts shortlisted. While I fretted about resort locations, sleep quality and food ( the last two most essential ) the Baba fretted about the availability of swimming pools ( speaking of priorities!).  Travelling slightly before the season began gave us an unexpected bonanza – we got 30%- 50% off on the best hotel/resort in most locations.  Accommodation finalized and booked . The trip now looked like this:

Day 1- Mumbai- Hospet (740 km,The Royal Orchid Hospet)

Day 2- Hampi ( 12 km from Hospet)

Day 3- Hospet- Bhadra Tiger Reserve ( 227 km,River Tern Lodge)

Day 4- Bhadra – Suntikoppa,Coorg (240 km, Kedakkal estate)

Day 5,6- Coorg

Day 7- Coorg- Parassinikadavu-Bekkal Fort- Mangalore (259 km, The Ocean Pearl Mangalore)

Day 8- Mangalore – Udupi- Goa ( 358 km,The Leela Goa)

Day 9- Goa

Day 10- Goa- Mumbai (635km)

Day 11- Spare

Time taken- 2 weeks. We were in July.

With just 4 weekends  left for the trip the attention was now focused on the car and travelling gear . The car was taken to the service centre for an  extra inspection. Steering Lock, Tow Ropes, extra Coolants , Car chargers for mobiles were all bought. And so were travelling pillows, extra powerful torches, Swiss Army Knife, Food etc. Having deemed that the existing camera was incapable of capturing the momentous occasion celebrating the bond between the man and the machine, the Baba got himself a new SLR too !And we were in August! All we needed to do was just pack our bags and drive!

p.s . To be continued…

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In Quest of the White Rann

It all started with a glimpse of this Gujarat Tourism Ad …

One look and I was hooked! To see the White Rann on a full moon night became #1 on the ” 100,000 places to see before I die ” list. So Messrs Google and Wiki guruji were consulted on a war footing along with their able  assistants Google maps and Trip Advisor  to figure out accommodation and  food (first priorities of life ), travel options, and full moon dates. Turned out  that the full moon was just three weeks  away(gasp!!)  and if it was missed you had to wait a year ( reasons later).

The task was to convert the Baba , a staunch believer of Newton’s First Law, to  a consenting partner in  crime .A bit of drama  strategic planning – recurring hints and extremely sweet puppy faces made whenever the ad went on air were all met with limited success till an added carrot of a prospective road trip in the offing was dangled. Now the Baba is a car addict. The kind who the moment you give him a prospect of say travelling  6000 km will turn around and say “We can drive down . Its gonna be fun, trust me”.  Two weeks left . Plans began in earnest.

The Place: Dhordo  (distance 950 km door to door from Mumbai) approximately 86km from Bhuj is the gateway to the White Desert. From here the White desert is just 3 km away.The mud flats gets submerged under water on the onset of monsoon and starts drying up by October. The best window to visit :Nov-Feb beginning on full moon nights.The Rann Utsav is held here mid Dec-mid Jan. Its cold during winters so heavy woolens are a must. Mar-May is unbearably hot. Permits are required to visit the Banni and the white desert and are issued at a village 30 km before Dhordo ( Throughout the week from 9am-6pm.)

The Travel:Flights- inconvenient timings and costly. Cancelled. Trains :- With just two weeks left  for the Republic day weekend, no chance! So road trip it was. Google maps was checked. And rechecked. And re-rechecked. Road conditions  googled out .

Accommodation : The trickiest part. There are  very few options. Three resorts in the whole region (Two in Dhordo- the last village before the White desert and one in Hodka 27 km before Dhordo. And during the Rann Utsav- the tents put up by Gujarat tourism).   Called the Rann Utsav guys- no go. Called up the resort in Hodka- same story. Called up the first resort in Dhordo- repeat. With no hope left called up  ” Gateway to Rann ” and was surprised. We managed the last suite in the place.

Packing and stocking: Past road trips had taught us the necessity of  feeling at home while travelling.  The stuff other than the usual: enough footwear to match all clothes taken;  the favorite pillow;  the favorite duvet;the favorite cushion; books; Food as if to stock for a famine (you never know when the lowly cup’o’noodles becomes manna); laptops; music cd’s;  tripod and the camera ; car chargers for all electronic appliances.

The journey :  Started at 3 am on 24th Jan. The Baba chose to drive the first leg. The best part of starting at 3 am is that Mumbai actually sleeps at that hour! Needless to say in an hour and half we were in Gujarat. The first thing that struck us- The roads!! After driving through lunar surface (a.k.a Mumbai Roads) the broad, evenly surfaced  and smooth Gujarat roads seemed heavenly! And the by passes helped us avoid all cities/towns other than Ahmedabad and Bhuj .

Barring Bharuch/Ankleshwar ( a traffic nightmare even by Mumbai standards ) the going was smooth . We switched places just before we entered the Baroda -Ahmedabad expressway which is really a driver’s delight. People give you right of way if you are a fast-moving vehicle! We zipped through the highway and in an hour and half reached Ahmedabad (11 am) where we took our first break for an early lunch.

The next leg – the Ahmedabad- Malya route through the little Rann. The landscape changed after Ahmedabad and we were entering the grass lands which started becoming barren n more barren as we progressed further. On the way, a small ” mistake” took us to a  small town called Dharangdhra where time seemed to stand still. The pretty quaint little town looked as if it was still left intact from the 1930’s with its old bungalows  and stained glass windows. (sadly we took no pictures). It was from here that we started seeing the Gujarat Special “tuktuk” as we named it .

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At Malya (3 pm), we shifted drivers yet again. The going continued to be smooth till  the Bhachau- Bhuj stretch which was being widened. The ensuing traffic jam was nightmarish and by the time we reached Bhuj we just had slightly more than an hour to reach the Check post for our permits.

Thankfully the Road Gods smiled on us  and we zipped through two lane roads with an eye on the clock every second. We made it to the check post with just 5 minutes to spare! What a  relief to just stand and stretch!! And somewhere en route to the check post from Bhuj we saw this! Oh and the air was biting cold!

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A leisurely half an hour later we reached Dhordo village and our resort which was right next to the Rann Utsav Site.  The three star resort run by the Dhordo gram Panchayat was built in the style of a typical village in the Banni (grassland) with Bhungas (round mud huts ) for rooms. With the mud acting as a lovely insulator we found that the room was warm and cosy. The food was simple and essentially home cooked affair- kichdi, rotlas , vegetable curry and a sweet dish for lunch/dinner  (yup all vegetarian, and we relished it for 3 days surprisingly ). The other surprise was despite it being one of the last Indian villages before the border we had surprisingly good phone and internet connectivity!

The BhungasThe next day we started exploring the surroundings. The resort in charge told us about a temple in Kala Dungar (50 km away) where jackals were fed food at lunch time! Our curiosity aroused, we set out.The first thing that we noticed was that the population of the region was even sparser than the vegetation. You could go miles without seeing a soul on those roads though we did see wild asses  and some migratory birds on the way.

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Kala Dungar(literally the Black hill) is the highest point of the Rann and offers an unhindered view of the horizon and we got our first glimpse of the White Rann.We missed the jackal feeding for we reached late ( poor souls were tired)

IMG_3665A hearty lunch and a quick nap later we set out to the white desert. Whoa..

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Miles and miles of salt desert spread out in front of us and sparkling in the sun.The air was that of a carnival with folk music and people dancing all around. We hung around for a bit enjoying the crisp air and the unhindered view of the horizon. In the bargain we also got to watch the most beautiful sunset of our lives!

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We returned to the resort to recharge our batteries (both our’s and the camera’s) and to wrap ourselves in heavier woolens before we ventured into the desert again after dinner (11pm). This time under a full Moon and to the most surreal experience of our life. The desert bathed in the diffused glow of the moon light – a huge expanse of white! We soaked in the atmosphere of calm and peace, feeling one with nature. We were there for quite some time till the biting cold made us retreat to the cozy comfort of our mud huts.

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Mission accomplished !!!! A good night’s sleep and a good breakfast later we were ready for the road back to Mumbai , back to the hustle and bustle again!

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