Ratnagiri: an avian paradise

“I never meant to be a birder. But the birds didn’t give me any choice.”
Diane Stopyra 


Ratnagiri, as we all know, is famous for its mangoes, cashews and seafood. The landscape here is as varied and colorful as it’s produce and cuisine.We planned a Diwali family vacation here in the last week of October. A cozy overnight train journey was an exciting first time for my seven year old!!IMG-20191023-WA0021.jpgIMG-20191023-WA0027.jpegWe were expecting a lot of sunshine. To our dismay, we were completely engulfed by pre-cyclonic winds and clouds as the cyclonic storm namely ‘Kyarr’ over the east-central Arabian Sea for the 4 days that we were there. Gushing winds, rain showers and no sunshine at all. Well, we tried to not let that dampen our holiday spirits.IMG_20191026_141331.JPG
Our first stop was Ganeshghule, Oceano Pearl homestay, near Pawas. A warm red brick house overlooking the rice fields and a short walk from the beachIMG_20191024_092817.jpgIMG_20191024_083323.jpgComfortable rooms in a coconut grove, simply amazing lip-smacking home-cooked meal. Truly the best place to reinvent yourself and master the art of idling.IMG_20191024_083545.jpgWe were pleasantly surprised to discover the fabulous avifauna here. As the rain eased out a bit by afternoon, we ventured out with our cameras. Sunlight flittered through the branches, glinting against its plumage, I spotted the white-throated kingfisher.

IMG_0152.JPGA few steps ahead, another beauty! A Red-whiskered Bulbul against the thick foliage.IMG_0154.JPGNature won us over, one warbler at a time. We enthusiastically embarked on a trail through the rice fields to capture some more beauties. IMG_20191025_075541.jpgA Green Bee-eater perched high up on a branch, peering towards the rough sea, wondering maybe what’s in store next, in the eye of the storm?IMG_0194.JPGA couple of white egrets wading through puddlesIMG_0206 (1).JPGand some red-wattled lapwings in the grass.IMG_0273.JPGWe really didn’t know how to identify and distinguish all these birds, but just kept clicking pictures and our friend Dr Mita Gala, an avid birdwatcher helped us later with the names A sea eagle soared high in the sky, as we ventured towards the coastIMG_0229.JPGand some sea gulls at the edge of the water.IMG_0202.JPGThe next day we drove northbound, past Ratnagiri on the great coastal road of Aare and Ware beach to Ganpatipule temple.IMG_0240IMG_0266

The Blue Ocean Resort and Spa at Ganpatipule was our next halt, a perfect place if you are smitten by the “bird” bug. We were greeted at the reception with a poster of the birds we could encounter here.

IMG_20191025_152513.jpgIMG_20191026_131521.jpgWalking around in the drizzling rain, with the sea raging in the background, we spotted some more birds strutting around the ground. An amazing place to inspire the “bird nerd” in you A pond heron was walking majestically on the lawnsIMG_0351.JPGand is that a Munia in the shrubs….or a Magpie robinIMG_0353 There is a small hill within the property and a walk to the temple at the top, especially when sunrise is the perfect backdrop to spot more birds that dwell in the trees up there.

Spotted a spotted dove

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When I glanced up, I saw two beautiful birds perched on the low branch of a bare tree. I caught my breath. They were no more than four feet away and looking directly at me. We locked eyes for an instant, I clicked and then they were gone. A black drongo ..and maybe an eagle ?IMG_0307 (1).JPGThat’s the story of how I accidentally became a Birder !!!

IMG_20191025_095433_BokehPerfect capture of these two cuties in the trees, isn’t it ?

Inpite of the rain and clouds, we had an amazing holiday chasing all kinds of birds. Make hay while the sun shines they say. Well if it doesn’t, life is still beautiful !!!

 

A Bird nerd who says “I always tern up for bird watching !!!!

Muddy boots: 5 easy monsoon treks from Mumbai

If you live in a city like Mumbai where a new skyscraper seems to spring up each time you look out of your window, where the dream of having a Metro some day soon currently has tremendously increased your daily commute and where the monsoon showers bring a refreshing change from the sweltering summers.

That sweet earthy smell, the tiny droplets on to the window pane, the thundering sound of the rain, and the wind in your hair – everything about the monsoon is love at first sight! Some would like to be cuddled up in a warm blanket, sipping piping hot adrak waali chai and watching the drops fall from their window. While others like me would to get all soaked and muddy out there…especially in the hills all around.

Here are 5 easy getaway treks (in order of ease for beginners) that I did over weekends from July to September as time permitted:

1. SGNP

We are blessed to have Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a sprawling green forest within the city. In the past I have done many treks and trails from the Borivali gate, namely

  • Shilonda trail
  • Upper Kanheri Trek
  • Nagla Block

But instead of getting away from the maddening crowd, especially on a Sunday its packed and you may see more people than flora and fauna here.

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So maybe its time to discover some more pristine locations for trekking …..Hence this year I decided to try the Thane (Yeoor) gate side.

Yeoor: 

I wanted to take my 6 year old daughter Anushka on an outdoor expedition on the weekend so we signed up with Jack & Hill Adventures for The Yeoor Hills Forest Walk. This trek was guided by Wildlife Expert Mr Nikit Surve, who also happens to be the man responsible for Mumbai’s leopard Census conducted in both 2015 & 2019 within the national park. He made it very interesting with his detailed explanation about the wondrous wildlife specifically in the SGNP forest. Anushka was just learning about carnivores and herbivores in school and she had many questions for him.

We drove down in my car and met the others at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Tikuji ni Wadi gate) Thane Entrance at 7 am. After exploring & learning about the surroundings as we had a leisurely walk along the forest path upto Yeoor village and back for about 4 hours. There is also a beautiful butterfly garden that kids will love at the entrance.

2. Mhatarichi Khind:

This is not a hilly high incline trek but a long walk through a valley or pass between the hills (khind). I went with my all time favorite outdoor group Countryside India. They have may monsoon weekend treks you can choose from and I have been going with them since college. Great way to meet like-minded nature loving people.

They arrange for a bus that leaves from Dadar at 6 am, via Panvel to the the foot of  Matheran, at village Dhodani. From here we walked through the valley between Prabalgad fort & Matheran, crisscrossing through villages, forests, and waterfalls and rivulets. Our trek ended at Ambewadi, beneath One-Tree hill point, on the Chowk side of Morbe dam. Simply the best was to enjoy the rain in your raincoat and get all the Vitamin G your eyes can ! Its a great way to introduce kids to the outdoors, 8 years and above. This one was with few work colleagues and the rest strangers, fun nevertheless.

3. Ganpati Gadad Caves and Waterfall Trek:

Jump out of that comfort zone and do the unexpected! This time I went with a completely new trekking group that  I found on facebook and to a destination I had never heard of before. M3 Yatrik is a young and enthusiastic trekking group and I had was very happy to have joined them on this trek.

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Taking a local train from Dadar to Kalyan we went by a vehicle to the base village is called Palu, Sonawale near Murbad. We had a very tasty breakfast in a local villagers house watching the dense clouds engulf the hills beyond, hiding the caves completely. A valley full of flowers welcomed us ascended towards the caves.

Ganpati Gadad Caves is a series of 6 to 7 caves which are exceptionally beautiful during monsoon as many small waterfalls fall over them forming enchanting white veils. The path is gradual and the rocks are big, with easy stepping stones. Only at the top the path along cliff is a bit perilous, so embrace your inner Indian Jones! But its always good to go with a group where everyone offer a helping hand.If heights make you uncomfortable rethink this one.There were many rapeling groups here and thats something to enjoy as well!

The view from the top is totally breathtaking and just sitting in the serenity, with only the sound of the waterfall in the background is very soothing to the soul. ” We have to find time to stand and stare”

4. Sondai fort:

I have some friends who are regular trekkers so this was an easy one for them. A more intrepid experience and this one is not for the faint-hearted, as the trek involves steep rocks. The trail can be dangerous and slippery, especially if there is rainfall so it makes it a bit challenging for the beginners.

IMG_20190818_110643We drove to the base village Sondewadi, near Karjat which is situated at 1/4th height of this fort and then started climbing the rest of the way. Its better to reach early as many groups come later in the day on weekends.

The last part has a set of metal steps to climb till the watch tower.

We were completely embraced by the clouds and here are some amazing vistas from which to view the countryside around of the Morbe reservoir from the top IMG-20190818-WA0017

5. Sunset point, Matheran:

Although I’ve graded this the last in terms of intensity and duration as well, its was the most enjoyable of all as I went with my new found friends: the Yoga Girl Gang  of Chaitanya towers and also because the destination was a surprise for us. We were told by Nitin Sir that we were going on the trek to test our endurance levels but the rest was a secret!

The starting point was Dodhani village and the waterfalls were overflowing. The warm aroma of wada being fried on a rainy day can be the most tantalizing !!! We just couldn’t help devour as many as we could of the most delicious wadas and spicy chutney ( we had a lot of calories to burn ahead !!!) and started to follow the guide.

Its a fairly long trek, mildly strenuous day hike. It wouldn’t be a cake walk,gradual in the beginning, through rice fields and farms, then ascends a bit through a thick forest and the final part as you get closer to Matheran gets steeper and steeper. We did encounter a few steep drop-offs. Yet as the mist engulfs you, your adrenaline surges and you want to conquer it and get above.

It’s the journey that counts not the destination, they say. And its also the people who trek with you. Overcoming difficulties, coaxing and encouraging each other, we trudged on the mission impossible …that was not so impossible after all!

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The “V” sign, whether you make it with your arms or legs signifies pure glee once you make it to the top and eases away all the the aches and pains.

Its ain’t called the “Magic of the monsoons” for nothing

Until the next summit !!!

Where butterflies lead the way……Waichin valley

This valley tucked away beyond Malana in Himachal Pradesh is also popularly known as Magic valley and the name needs no explanation. Magic here is in the air, in the emerald waters of the Malana river, in the towering snow-capped mountains and the in the clouds and blue skies above. In all you see, breathe and hear around you, there is only magic.

The magic begins from the Dam and Malana reservoir. As there are no motorable roads beyond, the rest of the journey is on foot. But for the next 3 hours or so your legs wont falter as walking through paradise is a very enjoyable experience here.

A scrumptious breakfast and refreshing cup of coffee at AYOYA Malana Resort – Shiva Cafe where we stayed in Malana, 4 km away, is just what you need to get you going on this wonderful trek. Its easy and the beauty of nature is so invigorating, perfect for a beginner. You could go as a day-trip but I would definitely recommend and overnight stay if the weather permits in the log huts.

One can walk through the coniferous forests or along the river, both routes behold mesmerizing beauty of the wonders of nature. The butterflies frolicking along the wildflowers led us through the forest path to Atodang village, a few wooden houses that are surrounded by fields.

Rest your weary feet, basking in the unfiltered rays of the sun in peaceful solitude. The dancing butterflies, the humming bees and chirping birds paint a pretty picture here and you wonder if you really need to go ahead ..or anywhere else in the world !

The people here live a very simple life, farming and rearing sheep. They hold on to their traditions and will not share any food or allow outsiders to come into their homes.

As the mountainous path ascends further, gurgling brooks greet you along the way with all the freshness and energy of the melted snow. A few sips of this delicious water and all the fatigue has melted away!

Here is Magic valley, where misty clouds float around.There are a few log huts and campsites for overnight stay.

The best place is undoubtedly the Monk Hut In Bela Moon. A hot plate of Maggi noodles, cozy hammock with warm blankets to cuddle in and enjoy the view till sunset.

As Jerome K. Jerome said…“Seek out some retired and old-world spot, far from the madding crowd, and dream away a sunny week among its drowsy lanes – some half-forgotten nook, hidden away by the fairies, out of reach of the noisy world – some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.”

 

The nights are also very magical here. Sitting by the warm campfire I saw my first moon rise..another magical moment. Simple pleasures we miss in the city. Making new friends with other guests from different parts of the world underneath the clear skies with twinkling stars, over a plate of warm rajma chawal. These memories will last a lifetime.

The butterflies all along the way left such an indelible impression on my heart and soul that once we were back to AYOYA Malana Resort – Shiva Cafe by the next afternoon, I got down to painting my heart out ..and lo behold are the motley crew on a pillar ! AYOYA Malana Resort – Shiva Cafe is a place you can really chill out in the lap of nature, unwind and rediscover your soul!

 

Umkar Living Root Bridge: Marvel of Meghalaya

What a natural wonder it truly is ! Bridges made by the local tribes in Meghalaya by entwining the strong secondary roots of the Ficus elastica tree. Whenever and wherever the need arose, they simply grew their bridges. Helping the tribals to get past rivers and streams, these trees helped sustain life yet again.

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The most famous one is the Double Root Tree Bridge of Umshiang located in the village of Nongriat. But its quite and arduous trek, 2500 steps to reach Nongriat and this takes about 1.5 – 2 hours each way easily (maybe bit more depending on your fitness).So thats more than half a day gone. My friends who have been here say its definitely worth the visit. Don’t forget, you need a lot of energy to get there.

But if you are pressed for time, like us and yet didn’t want to leave Meghalaya without witnessing this marvelous phenomenon, here is another easy but lesser-known option: Umkar Living Root Bridge. I had a been in my bonnet to see any bridge in the short span of 4 hours that I had (6am to 10 am to be precise after which we had to leave Cherrapunjee for Guwahati airport for our flight). The local drivers and Hotel guys surprisingly didn’t have much information to offer. But extensive Google searches revealed bits of information that I put together to set off on our quest of Umkar Living Root Bridge.

A morning cup of tea in the clouds with a view of the sunrise and Bangladesh border like this from our room at The Polo Orchid Resort really gives a new meaning to life! It energizes you to get out and seize the day.

Our group of enthusiastic doctors boarded the jeep and it was a beautiful downhill drive from our resort to Siej village though thick tropical rainforest on either side. The wettest place is also definitely blessed with nature’s bounty. Just before Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, it’s another 3km drive by taking a left turn. Its not well sign-posted so one has to ask for directions to Umkar Living Root Bridge.

Once you see this sign, walk through the Betel grove for about 10 minutes, past gushing waterfalls to reach the bridge. This 40 year old bridge is now considered to be “under construction” as it was washed away due to massive floods. Hence the the villagers are actually now rebuilding it.

The roots are light brown and green compared to older bridges and Umkar Living Root Bridge is a perfect example to learn the process of building living root bridges.

The bridge was strong enough for us to walk across it already. See how the floor has been formed with entwining branches around the scaffolding of the hollow betel nut tree trunks. Since this region gets heavy rainfall which results in innumerable streams and flowing rivers, the trees are well adapted to the soil erosion and the roots grow down towards the water. This one will take maybe another 15 years to be ready.

We were back in time to shower, have a delicious breakfast and check out of the Polo Orchid Resort with a heavy heart. A final “Adieu” to the Seven sisters waterfall, unmistakable seen from the resort all day. The next 5 hour we drove back to the airport through mountains and waterfalls, and it was such a pleasurable drive. We echoed the words of E.E. Cummings in our hearts “I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”

Mesmerising Meghalaya: Beyond Shillong

More unchartered destinations get added to our travel map on a wondrous discovery of our country that has unsurpassed beauty as we travelled to Shillong in September 2018. I haven’t yet seen the famed rainforests of South America, but the more I’ve travelled in the North east of India, I’m convinced we can give them a run for their money. And so the journey to the wettest place in the world begins…

You can’t take your eyes off the ubiquitous rain-washed terrain from Guwahati airport towards Umiam lake. As we ascended up the green Khasi hills, overcast grey skies above and the serenity of the lake imbues a new energy that only culminates into pure bliss when we reached “Ri Kynjai” for lunch.

The resort and especially the restaurant with its unique location offering majestic views of the lake and should be the place to stay, instead of Shillong city, for that perfect getaway. Placid and tranquil as its name implies.

The delectable local food, rustic cottages and ambiance in the midst of nature really took my heart away. But we were headed to Shillong for the night and had to move on.

Shillong really has nothing exciting to offer, especially the traffic can be a huge nuisance. Living in Mumbai and waiting in bumper to bumper traffic-borne misery is not something I enjoyed on a holiday.

Tripura Castle hotel built in the early 1920’s by the then Maharaja of Tripura boasts of the grandiosity of the Colonial era. It houses such an amazing collection of historical memorabilia, prompting a journey to a by-gone era.

What adds to the uniqueness of this a hotel is the room Rabindranath Tagore used to spend his time while visiting Shillong and one can be in unison with the thoughts behind why the the state Meghalaya was named “the abode of clouds” 

A morning walk along the flowering blossoms was followed by a flavourful breakfast in the garden. We then jostled through narrow lanes to get out of the city towards Laitlum gorge.

It was not the ideal day to visit the gorge for the views, but definitely to frolic with the clouds and in the rain.

We got some sun on our was back as we headed south towards Cherrapunjee. The landscape has a distinct resemblance to the Tuscan countryside, don’t you agree?

Pit stop for a local lunch thali ….food coma again !

 

We reached Cherrapunjee by tea time, just enough time to explore the underground world of caves. The hills of Garo, Khasi, and Jaintia have a labyrinth of more than 750 caves in Meghalaya, out of which only 150 have been explored. The Mawsmai Cave is open to visitors and the lime and sandstone patterns and formations due to erosion by water will leave you awestruck.

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We reached our resort the Polo Orchid , just in time to catch last rays of the sun and unwind. The rooms are pleasantly decorated in wood, with a distressed blue finish.

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All the three hotels described in this blog are truly unique in their location, decor and ambience and we would recommend none other if you visit this part of the world.

” We are all travellers in a way” – George Whitman

Exploring Georgia: Borjomi, Uplistsikhe,Mtskheta

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The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is a treasure trove of nature’s bounty. Astoundingly beautiful in this month as the foliage changes color, the coniferous park is also famous for its mineral water from springs in the Borjomi Gorge. 

I was particularly mesmerised by the charms of the autumn season as various shades of red, yellow, orange and brown could be appreciated here
CAble car ride to the top

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An
“What a joy it is to feel the soft, springy earth under my feet once more,
to follow grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks….” Helen Keller

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.  Kahlil Gibran

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes  e.e. cummings

Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.  Edna Jaques

 

 

I am in love with this world . . . I have climbed its mountains, roamed its forests, sailed its waters, crossed its deserts, felt the sting of its frosts, the oppression of its heats, the drench of its rains, the fury of its winds, and always have beauty and joy waited upon my goings and comings.  John Burroughs

Exploring Georgia: Kazbegi, Gergeti, Ananuri

“I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.” Anne Frank

DAY 2

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The next morning from the room with a view, we were sipping a cup of tea, watching the golden fingers of the sun caressing the top of the snow-covered Kazbegi mountain and shrubs of red qubi berries all around.

Needless to say, a leisurely holiday it was! No hectic timetables. We had all the time to stand and stare as we set off on a stroll through the meadows of grazing horses and sheep to the village down the hill, admiring the ever-enticing beauty all around.

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Enjoying the best of the fall colors in all its glory as the sun shone brighter.

A hot shower, scrumptious breakfast and we were ready to bid adieu to the ever-smiling mumma at our Guest house Qubi. We drove to the city center to transfer to a four wheel drive vehicle for the rugged ride up to the Gergheti church.

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The jaunt to the top was exhilarating, with some breathtaking vistas at every turn. The 14th century Gergeti Trinity Church features sixth in the The British Newspaper The Telegraph’s list of the world’s most stunning churches and that’s undoubtedly because of its location. It is also now a symbol for Georgia.

The spectacular view surpasses your expectations here. Its a great place to capture the ethereal beauty of the mountains on your camera. Although it was extremely windy at the top and we were almost blown away a few times, it energizes every fibre of your being and makes you feel so alive !

The arduous trudge up the hill had got our appetites raging and we couldn’t wait to wolf down what Ana had in store for lunch at Sharona’s Bar Cafe in the city center. The aroma of warm Georgian bread wafts through the kitchen door and when served with wedges of Georgian cheese, Sulguni, that’s sour and a bit salty too (nicknamed “pickle cheese”) makes it a perfect start to a heavenly meal. Some Georgian pilaf and Lobio (Kidney beans stew in a pot) and that’s the best vegetarian lunch combination!

My first wine tasting experience in Georgia…Saperavi (made it quickly to my favourites list and soon Ana was calling me Ms. Saperavi!) is Georgia’s most popular variety of red grape. It has an intense color, high acidicity and a potent flavor. In comparison the Kindzmarauli is a naturally semi-sweet wine made from the same grape variety.

Well, we didn’t have time for more extensive viticulture lessons this afternoon as we were now headed south west towards Borjomi, after exchanging warm greetings with the chef and hosts. The language of smiles and laughter knows no barriers!

If you were not a poet, artist or photographer before you came here, you would certainly become one, surrounded by these breathtaking landscapes.

We drove past the ski resort town of Gudauri to stop at the Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument for some beautiful photo opportunities.

Blue skies have a new meaning when viewed from the ancient Ananuri fortress. It is a medieval monument en route where a legend unfolds. Named after Ana of Nuri, it serves as a mark of respect to the woman who had sacrificed her life to protect its people.

There are two churches with carvings and frescoes from the 17th Century. The unmistakable old world charm here of the Methodists churches transports you to the days of yore.

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We climbed the tall towers and walls for fine views of the turquoise waters and spell-binding landscape as it is built in a valley of two rivers.Some souvenir shopping and we were the back in the car to reach our next destination, Borjomi.

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What’s for dinner ? Lobiani, the Georgian bean bread with Jonjoli, an appetizers made from pickled sprouts from a local bush. Relish on some smoked cheese and sausages and of course Saperavi wine (It just naturally becomes a habit!).When you are with Ana you can expect the best and really experience the country in its true sense !!!