Sunday, April 20, 2008

What you love, you won't destroy

We had a viewing of An Inconvenient Truth for the kids at the camp. Without the media overkill of Al Gore-George Bush-Florida fiasco and with just his movie to concentrate on, Al Gore proved very popular. For a change, the evening pre-dinner talks were not about what they had done for the day but on the deforestation that is evident in the mountains around Manali. And of the erratic weather and winds for this time of the year. They are all 15/16-year-olds and still have the confidence that they can and will change the world. Thank God for that!

Someone who checked out the images of the camp on the blog said that it is a good idea because what children love, they won't destroy. So true! Because as each set of kids come and go, we are doing more than just conducting 'programs'. We are showing them what is possible without destroying, how beautiful a life you can have if you know to conserve / appreciate and adventure as a lifestyle rather than a 15-day annual break. In turn, the camp is doing things to us too. All of us have turned nostalgic, remembering our first camps / treks, our first gilmpse of snow or the mist over the valley and our first tentative infatuation with nature that has now turned to solid love.

We hope that like how someone else introduced us to the greatest passion of our lives, we can introduce these kids. That atleast a few of the group will develop an everlasting bond that will make a difference to their lives and to the planet. It gives a sense of passing on the baton... hope we are not being too idealistic.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Camp 14000ft Finally!

Yes, the camp is up and running. All 6 bighas (an acre approximately) of it, complete with loos (that we made ourselves), a mess 50-person mess tent (that we made ourselves as well) and electricity (well, we didn't make it, but we strung the cable ourselves) and tents spread in between the oak and deodar trees.

The first group is here as well, a 27-strong group of school children from Nagpur. Thanks to the fabulous views from the campsite of the mountains on the entire left bank of the Beas and that we are close to the bazaar - barely 5 km - they are enjoying their stay. Also helps that we managed to get a piece of land adjoining the forest of Manali Wildlife Sanctuary and we get sightings of blackbirds, magpies, hoopoes and lots of other birds.

The current cook, from Nagpur has also been feeding us good, spicy Maharashtrian fare. Spicy food on chilly spring nights is an irresistible combination.

To do list for the next few days: Add the cosmetic touches like wooden sign boards, get a scrapbook in place for suggestions etc and of course, get more groups to come to the camp. It is ideal for those who don't want to trek but want a part of the outdoors...

Here are some images of the camp and of a fabulous sunset that we caught a few days ago from the camp:

The lake and a quirky Gypsy

Does high altitude sickness hit vehicles too? I wonder after my Gypsy behaved most peculiarly when we drove to Chandertal

There is something special about the first trip of the season. The snow has been cleared on the 13000ft Rohtang Pass and the Other Side is finally connected. The Other Side – Lahaul and Spiti are closed, inaccessible for nearly 7 months in a year from late October to late May or even June. The snow that is so popular with the tourists in Manali, isolates the two regions from the rest of the world, save for a helicopter or two every week that bring in essential supplies.

But the winter had passed and Rohtang was ready to let people venture beyond. We were headed to the most beautiful (at least in my opinion) lake in the Himalayas, Chandertal. It was an interesting prospect. The previous two times that I had been there, I had taken a local bus to windy Batal and hiked the 14 km to the lake. This time around, we would be breaking in our brand new Gypsy to the mountains. Well, it was new to us but was really a second hand 2002 model that we had fallen in love with, mostly for its massive alloys and jazzy headlights.

Unfortunately, like all vehicles that have stayed with one owner for too long, it had its quirks. It enjoyed throwing in a surprise at us atleast once a week – an oil leak here, a broken bearing there. It had just returned from the Maruti service station in Mandi where it had been for a good two-weeks. And we were confident that most of the faults had been fixed and it did seem eager to head out.

The idea was that three of us – two friends and me – would drive with my three dogs to Chattru, a “town” of tent-dhabas, populated only in seasons where we would pick up my husband. We stocked up the Gypsy with sleeping bags and tents and food. Winter had just passed and the lake, at 14000 ft would be much colder.

We started out early, at 6 and climbed the 51 km to Rohtang. There was very little traffic with only the early trucks attempting to get to Ladakh. Past Kothi, as the climb got steep and the road got worse, it became impossible to shift into the third gear. I juggled between first and second and occasionally into the 4WD to negotiate the really bad patches. It was the first time in the Himalayas for my friends, so they were awed by the first sunrays touching the mountain tops. And even for someone who lives there, each day that you catch the sight, is special. So we stopped a couple of times to take in the sunrise, walk the dogs, grab a chai before we reached Rohtang.

The pass was still snowbound and bitterly cold but already the honeymooners were there. In their fur coats and gumboots, they were busy playing in the snow. The snow, thankfully was still a brilliant white, a colour that it would lose in two weeks once regular traffic started. Beyond the pass, the road got worse, but because we were descending, driving was easy. All the Gypsy’s minor problems seemed to be fixed and I was glad that it had not given up on us on the climb up.

The road was pretty much a dirt track with bits of long-ago-tarmac on the corners. Once we turned on the Spiti road from Gramphoo, surprisingly enough, the road got worse. We bumped along, crossing streams, leaving the road a couple of times to drive almost over the edge, passing shepherds with their flock on their way to summer pastures. It was an ideal day to be out in the mountains.

At Chattru, my husband got on and took over the wheel. Maybe the Gypsy particularly felt cheeky with him but barely 15 minutes out of Chattru, the engine was heating up and we had to stop at a stream to pour some cold water over it. The coolant was full and there didn’t seem to be any problems in its flow. We started again, but 10 mins later, we had to stop. We drove the remaining 40 odd km with breaks every 15 minutes or so to pour water from streams onto the engine. Going back wasn’t an option. The only thing we could do was drive to the lake and take a good look under the hood.

To make matters more interesting, one of the front tyres burst on the last 14 km stretch to Chandertal from Batal. Being a tubeless tyre, the huge rip it got meant that we would have to junk it once we got back to Manali. For now, the spare would do the job. When we finally reached a lake, the Gypsy seemed to be as relieved as us. It was late afternoon and we decided to give the engine heating a night’s rest. The blue waters of the lake were inviting and within half an hour had almost made us forget the problems we had had to get there.

Over the next two days, we idled on the lake shore, took long walks, even baked a cake. Occasionally other tourists joined us for a cup of tea. A trio from Mumbai who had driven up in their Ford Endeavour had had a tyre burst as well and joined us in venting over tubeless tyres. On the second day we took another look at the coolant, the tube and the engine and everything seemed in good order. We ran the vehicle for a while and it didn’t seem to be heating up. We figured that it might have been a temporary block – probably caused by an air bubble.

On the third day, we set out. After three days in pure mountain air with no one else for company, we were in great spirits and got into travel song mode. From Kishore to Rafi to Shankar Mahadevan, we sang all our favourite songs and before we knew it we were back in Chattru. And the most surprising bit, the Gypsy hadn’t heated up even once. Maybe it was happy to get back as well.

We were concerned on the climb to Rohtang Pass, but even there it was perfectly behaved. We got to Manali, called our mechanic and told him about the erratic behaviour of the Gypsy. But like how your computer miraculously starts working the minute you call the technician, the Gypsy refused to heat up for the mechanic. It purred contentedly, drove smoothly, cooled perfectly… Nearly a year later, we are still wondering what it was that made it heat up on the way to Chandertal. Maybe we have our own version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a mind of its own?

Rediscovering Central India

Nawegaon, Pachmarhi, Bhimbetka, Sanchi… Central India was a revelation

Day 1
We set out from Bangalore on the return journey to Manali. The plan was to stretch the 2500 km journey by at least another 1500 km and visit some national parks and explore the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh. We were sure of two things – that we wanted avoid the cities as far as possible and that we use the road trip to discover places that would be inaccessible otherwise. The rest – where we would halt, stay, food, internet access – were all pretty much open ended.

The Gypsy would be adapted as a mini caravan for the six of us – Kaushal, my husband, Deepika, my sister, our three dogs and me. The vehicle had been spruced up and thoroughly worked on by the Mandovi guys in Bangalore and it seemed rid of its perennial problems of overheating, leaking coolant and blank starts. We had loaded it up with food, water, warm wear, cassettes of Kishore and Mohd Rafi, doggie kit, tent, sleeping bags and even a paraglider (just incase Kaushal had an urge to glide enroute).

The drive was mostly monotonous, the weather changing every couple of hours from pleasant to hot. As we entered Andhra, the heat got intense. The minimal insulation in a Gypsy made the inertia of the afternoon heat worse. Thankfully, NH7 that we were on was relatively empty and we were doing good time. By evening we were about 70 km from Hyderabad but the heat had taken its toll and we decided to pull up on the side of the road and go to sleep.

Day 2
All of us awoke geared up to head to Hyderabad. But first, we stopped at one of the highly handy Reliance A1 outlets. Complete with shower stalls and excellent food, they would be our staple stops for the next two days. Then it was time to discover the magnificent Golconda fort. It was the first trip to Hyderabad for all of us and the fort was a great introduction. It numerous levels of architecture and history kept us enthralled for a good five hours. Thankfully, we were spared the famous Hyderabad heat with little spells of rain.

Post the best Andhra meal (in a small obscure restaurant in Old Hyderabad) that any of us had, we started out to the Salarjung Museum. If the weather had been kind to us, the city traffic definitely wasn’t. What was a 45 minute drive took a good three hours and when we reached the museum we had only a couple hours left. The Gypsy loves the open roads and felt awkward in the city traffic and almost reluctant. After rushing through the main gallery, we took our time in the Sculpture and Western sections. The only regret was we didn’t have more time or patience to appreciate the Salarjung.

We couldn’t wait to get back on the highway after the horrendous traffic in Hyderabad and once on it, we desperately wanted to put distance between us and the city. Pretty soon, we were driving past some forest stretches and about 200 km out of Hyderabad, we parked in yet another Reliance bunk for the night.

Day 3
Today we were to head to the cargo hub of the country, Nagpur. Visions of a hot bath and being able to sleep with our legs stretched out had us going without too many stops. We passed a longish ghat section that would tested the Gypsy in the afternoon heat, but Maruti had done the job well and we did not have to worry about overheating.

Nagpur was everything that we had heard – wide roads, lots of greenery and peak hour traffic like the early morning traffic in Delhi or Bangalore. The Gypsy finally felt like it could even adapt to city traffic if it was like Nagpur’s. But we were staying in the city but 30 km out on the banks of the Zipli lake. For the first time since we had set out, the four-wheel of the Gypsy came into play on the unmetalled road. After the incident of the broken shaft on our drive down to Bangalore (see the last issue), the one comfort was that this time around we were close to the city incase it gave problems again.

Day 4,5,6
Much-needed rest days for the next couple of days with walks around the lake and in the forest around the area. Thanks to the almost nonexistent pollution, we caught some excellent bird life – pied kingfishers, woolly-necked stork, wagtails, egrets, ibises. We caught up with work and civilized things like baths and washing, the Gypsy took a break from the daily run of 500 km and the dogs got to stretch their legs running after birds and other dogs.

On the couple of trips that we took into town, our jazzed up Gypsy with fog lights and massive alloys got looks and questions about mileage and how we manage to drive such long distances in a Gypsy.

One excursion from the campsite was interesting though. About an hour out of Nagpur on the Hyderabad road is a private farm of Nikhil Mundle whose family has been associated with community service and education in Nagpur. As a tribute to Shivaji, the Mundle family has constructed miniature models in stone of six of his best forts, accurate to the last detail. The forts are laid out around a 5-storey-high statue of Sant Gyaneshwar. Entry is free but only those who are genuinely interested are allowed inside.

Day 7,8,9
Precisely how remote can it get within a 100 km from a city? We discovered the answer when we decided to visit a national park that few people know about, Nawegaon National Park. To our luck, we were hosted and personally guided by the Patil father and son duo – Narayanrao and Bhimsen – who are singularly responsible for the pristine condition of the wildlife and forests there. The Patil family’s home is a huge old-style wadi with a courtyard complete with rare white palash trees, a peacock and guinea fowl. Compared to forests like Kanha where animals are used to human movement, the wildlife that we got to see at Nawegaon were shy and wary like how they are meant to be.

The forest itself is one of the best, untouched mixed forests of central India. There are no large teak or sal plantations and almost no human intervention in the core areas. We caught a glimpse of a leopard, peafowl and some rare birds – changeable hawk eagle, sarus cranes and steppe eagle. The one drawback of the area is that it is high on the naxal movement map, though in the three days we were in the forest, we didn’t come across one. Like all national parks, only petrol 4x4 vehicles were allowed inside the forest and thankfully our Gypsy was just what was needed. At the end of three days of near isolation from civilsation, we were reluctant to leave, but we had to make our way to Delhi over many more places.

Day 10, 11
Easily the most scenic route till date, over the next two days we drove through some remote tribal settlements, continuous stretches of forests and the unique Satpura table-top hills on our way to the hill station of Pachmarhi and the Satpura National Park. Interestingly, these are areas where we got to see old Rajdoot bikes in sizeable numbers. Some had been tinkered with by the local mechanics that they were hardly recognizable, but most were beautifully maintained. For those who complain that big, old bikes aren’t to be found anywhere must visit the area.

The Pench National Park that is enroute is one of those gaining recent publicity for tiger sighting. As the number of tigers dwindle, there are few forests where their sighting is guaranteed and Pench is one of them. Driving through, you are reminded of what Captain Forsyth, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written about Central India:

Day 12, 13, 14
Pachmarhi was lazy, like it was meant to be. An ideal hill town, it has been made better by the government ban on any new construction. So all you see are old Raj buildings that transport you a century earlier. Having your morning cuppa, soaking in the sun in the garden you cannot be blamed if you feel like an erstwhile gora sahib or memsahib.

We did the customary visits to the caves, but it is really the canyons that are the stars of Pachmarhi. Knowing that some of them are more than a kilometer deep and there are parts where the sun has never penetrated, we wanted to try our hand at canyoneering. Unfortunately, the three days that we had were just not enough.

The Gypsy chose Pachmarhi to have its first and only breakdown – the wiring of the fog lamps had loosened. But to our surprise, Pachmarhi is a Gypsy paradise where it was easily fixed. From ‘95 to ’04, you find Gypsies of all models, colours and modifications. For a change, our Gypsy didn’t stand out like a Jeep on steroids among the sedans and small cars. For that reason alone, Pachmarhi is a must-visit for Gypsy owners.

Day 15
A four hour drive took us back 12,000 years. We visited the amazing Bhimbetika caves, 40 km short of Bhopal. The amazing rock formations with their perfectly preserved early paintings testify man’s transformation from 10,000 BC to 3,000 BC – from a cave-dweller to a civilized being with communal and religious conscious. Later in the day, we headed to another world heritage monument, the Sanchi Stupa.

Built around the time when the last of the Bhimbetka paintings were executed, the Stupa proved the contrast between the two places beautifully. While one had stick figures and horses made of two conjoined triangles, the other had intricate carvings and interlocked blocks that are still an architectural wonder.

Day 16
The Gypsy is happy on two kinds of roads – really good ones like the 4-lane North-South Corridor or the muddy, slushy off-roads. It’s hard suspensions are really evident only on roads that are in between the two, which make up most of our roads. The next day we subjected our spines to some jarring when we drove out very early in the morning to the Udaygiri caves that date back to the Gupta period.

An entire hill with caves where fabulous figures have been chiseled in the rock. Visiting the place at sunrise, it turned out was a great idea since many of the caves are designed such that the first rays of the sun hit the statues. On the downside, we were horrified to see that the village at the base of the hill uses the hill as a community toilet. Men walking with mugs of water in between such magnificent carvings was the worst that we had seen. Is the otherwise vigilant Madhya Pradesh Tourism aware of this, one wonders.

Day 17, 18
After a fortnight of traveling to the most unlikely places, our holiday was coming to an end. We still had 1500 km to go before we reached Manali, but we would be on the main highway leading to Delhi now and there was nothing more to expect other than the Madhav National Park at Shivpuri which, we had heard was a great place for Chinkaras.

We had missed out on Chattisgarh, Kanha and Badhavgarh from our original list but Pachmarhi’s canyons, Bhimbetka’s caves and the virgin forests of Nawegaon had more than made up for it. The Gypsy that had seemed like such a bad idea on our way to Bangalore had been thoroughly well-behaved on our way up. Encouraged, we are now planning our next road trip to Arunach Pradesh.