Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Belfast: Day trip from Dublin

Travel date: 10th October, 2015

Clear waters, strong cold winds, thankfully sunny afternoon, and spectacular views of the rocks formations made our day out at the Antrim coast a wonderful treat. A day trip from Dublin in the zippy and powerful Ford Fiesta, we girls set off for a particularly long drive to view some rare rock formations at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, U.K. Although one would be diving into a different country altogether, but there are no border controls, hence this was deemed a very good getaway spot. My fancy for geology, doubled up with my friends’ sense of adventure (she has no permission of entry to the U.K!), got us started early in the day. Our stoppages included none but for a hearty Irish breakfast at the services, and after 4 hours of driving we reached Bushmills on a very clear, sunny and warm afternoon. The Antrim coast is extremely picturesque, the photos bear witness to that. But be mindful of that fact that this is also the windiest part of the country, so be adequately layered. The Giant’s Causeway is a World Heritage Site, and has an entry fee for £16 (approx 24 Euros), and provides an audio guide that details everything about the geology, geography, weather, culture and many more interesting facts about the Antrim county.

The columnar basalt rocks are something worth witnessing in a lifetime. They are extremely rare and found in only a few places in the world (St Mary’s Island in Malpe, Karnataka is one where you could witness this in India). There are many legends and folk lore’s around this place.

Legend goes that a giant named Finn McCool used to live here. Finn got into trouble with someone across the water. The Scottish giant Benandonner was threatening Ireland. An enraged Finn grabs chunks of the Antrim coast and throws them into the sea. The rock forms a path for Finn to follow and teach Benandonner a lesson. Now this was a very bad idea. Benandonner was terrifyingly massive. Realising this, Finn beat a hasty retreat, followed by the giant, only to be saved by our hero’s quick-thinking wife who disguised him as a baby. The angry Scot saw the baby and decided if the child was that big, the daddy must be really huge. So Mr Benandonner decided to give up and ran away, crushing down the causeway after him!

On the way back, we dropped in to view the Titanic Belfast which is an exhibit/ museum on the Titanic sinking. However, we were quite unfortunate to not make it in time, hence we could only savour the interesting architecture of the building.

The day involved some 570 kms of driving to and back, which has been my longest to date (and was manageable only for such excellent roads). I had an excellent travel companion so make sure you are in great company as well, as you can expect this to be a long day!

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Into the woods: Camping in Mukteshwar

Travel dates: 17-19th November, 2015

If you seek the thrill of camping in the Himalayan wild, but are too lazy or just can’t be bothered to carry your camping gear and accessories, your closest experience to real hiking camp experience is situated about 20 kms from the town of Mukteshwar.

Amidst the thick woods where this camp is located, there is no electricity, no mobile reception, no real infrastructure except for (thankfully) some toilets (I firmly stand for Swachh Bharat). So practically you are cut off from the rest of the world unless you walk around a kilometre across the woods to get close to any civilization or mobile phone reception. The camp is run by a group of 6-7 people from the hills of Kumaon who know the forest and the hills like the back of their hands, so you can be assured of your safety from adverse weather and wild animal visits into the camp, and get incredibly good ‘pahaadi’ food. But that’s about all the frill you can get.

This place, named Camp Vanvaas, is sheer beauty. Its name is apt as it brings you up close and personal to the forests of Kumaon. You can see the Milkyway on nights of clear skies, you hear no sounds from civilization, you may even experience occasional visit by a leopard (they like to keep away from humans, so that would be more of an accident rather than intended). The camp is situated on a somewhat clear patch amongst fairly thick woods and is not fenced or structured or landscaped. You are provided comfortable camp beds and as many blankets as you need (temperatures dropped to as low as 3 degrees in mid Nov when I visited, so you could need a few) as there is no heating either. You would want to be around the camp fire which they burn almost all day as that kept everyone from going into a state of limbo as it’s easy to go stiff from the cold.

Me and my little group reached there on a late midweek evening after nightfall. After what was quite a trying walk for non-hikers like us, we reached the camp and were welcomed and served dinner by the bonfire. Some pleasantries were exchanged, and the camp manager introduced us to the group who runs the camp, and spoke a little about this and that. Not having much energy left in us, we retired to our tents early and it took me some time to get adjusted to the darkness and the cold in the tent.

The best part came in the morning, when I stepped out of my tent and saw the sunlight shimmering atop the trees, too slanted to reach the ground, and clouds of smoke gathered up in between the trees above the kitchen tent. It would remind one of a Disney tale. As we gathered around the bonfire to be able to warm up and flex ourselves, we had two rounds of tea, a fantastic breakfast and a very interesting discussion on the life and works of Jim Corbett. As a part of the camping activities, we headed off to Chauli Ki Jaali which is about 15 kms from the camp in our cars. This place has some spectacular views of the valleys and the Nanda Devi mountain range in the distance. We were given a demo of rock climbing and rappelling by the camp folks, and within 30 seconds of my Rock climbing attempt, I dislocated my knee and gave up any attempt and sat quietly trying to adjust to the pain while the rest of the group completed their activities. Our rest of the day, was considerately modified, as the camp managers understood I wouldn’t be able to exercise my knee much. So instead of the biking activity, they arranged archery, and later in the night they took us out for a night trek (where I slowed down the group but everyone was very kind and understanding), and climbed atop a nearby hill where we could see the entire valley and the night skies. I could say that this was perhaps the best experience from the trip.

That night we had leopards in our camp! So blessed we were not to have the desire to have a trip to the toilets else we could have had the shock of our lives! I did hear footsteps of an animal nearby but it’s the hill folks who can distinguish breathing and footsteps to say which animal and how many and how close.

For the better part of the second morning, we spent a lot of time just interacting with the folks from the camp just because we realised that would be the part we would miss the most. Their hospitality was heartfelt, their smiles touched their eyes and their request to have you back was genuine. However, our schedule did not allow us to extend our stay, so all of them walked up to the village with us to say their bye’s.

Camp Vanvaas is about a 5 year initiative, and they have minimal presence on the internet so you may skip the trouble of Googling up for photos and reviews. We got to find out from a friend, who in turn found out from another, and the word-of-mouth model is what they have stuck to for this while. It doesn’t make much sense, but when you visit the camp you would know why one would want it that way. Not every now and then does it occur to you that you visit a place for its pristine natural beauty, and end up falling in love with the people. The camp manager called us almost every 2 hrs to check on us and direct us on the day of our drive from Gurgaon, and also called us on the last day of our trip to check if we got back safe to Gurgaon. They are lovely people who teach you leave you happy and moved by their simplicity, and you know you want to come back again.

To get there, it took us about 10 hrs from Gurgaon, although we had taken a wrong route and faced a fairly bad patch of road. We were told you could make it from Delhi in 7-8 hours time. By train, you would have to reach Kathgodam, from where Dhanachuli is about 65 kms and take about 2 to 2.5hrs on road. You could either hire a private taxi, or get a shared taxi which is available without much difficulty. The peak tourist season is between March to June, and off peak season is Oct-Nov. If you request to visit any other time of the year, you may not be able to experience the camp, but instead you could have a Homestay experience in one of their residences, and suggested seasons are Monsoon (July-Sep) and winter (Dec-Jan).

For enquiries and bookings you can contact them on the numbers provided on their Facebook page, . And if they ask you how you knew about them, please do mention my name, as I would love it if they remembered me from time to time as I do!!

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Into the lush greens of Coorg

It all happened rather impromptu, when I was determined to get away somewhere for the weekend and didn’t have too much money to spare. I and my much like minded friend thought over this, and decided to take a road trip. And sometime recently, we had a recommendation for a homestay in Coorg. That was it. No more time to waste!

After having done the basic necessary checks for the car and booking the stay, we started quite early on a Saturday morning, without kind of any itinerary. 7 am in the morning and we had already hit Mysore road from Bangalore, and by 9 am we were driving across the ORR Mysore. Having stopped for a breakfast, and driven on the wrong route and back for about 12 kms, we were back on the road to Kushalnagar.

By 11.30, we reached the Namdroling Monastery at Kushalnagar, and found the place surprisingly less crowded for a Saturday. We spent our time in peace, relaxing in the majestic hall of the monastery, and the additional temples. We also took a walk around the premises, spent some time watching little monk in robes playing football in the overgrown grassfields just outside the monastery walls. I have always wondered, what the lives of these little monks would be. And just as much as I would’ve loved to pull one for a chat, I resisted the temptation as I was aware it wouldn’t be very easy to communicate as they are taught very little English or Hindi, and they might find the episode rather intimidating.

Whilst leaving the monastery, we indulged in a little shopping, wherein I embarrassed myself having confused chopsticks with hair bun sticks (they looked so ornamental!). We got onto the main road Kushalnagar, and stopped for a hearty South Indian meal, before setting off for Nisargadhama.

Now, at Nisargadhama, we missed the main entrance and instead, took our car in to the adjacent car park, from where it is very difficult to figure out what lies inside, or whether at all the place led to somewhere. However, I would suggest this spot for every tourist. It is very well kept, untainted. Across the pedestrian walk route through the vegetation, we saw a spotted deer enclosure, a tree house which swung precariously with a strong bout of wind, a spot where tourists were zip-lining in between trees. The little island is surrounded by the Cauvery and all the time you can hear the gurgling sound of the river waters. We spent some time walking around the little island, and the hanging bridge at the entrance, before making our way out.

I had wanted to visit the Dubare elephant camp for a long time, but prior to this trip I had read some horrific Google reviews on how the elephants in captivity are treated, and I realised I didn’t have the heart to witness the horror. So we skipped the part and made our way straight to the village of Hoskeri, off the route to Madikeri and on the highway to Siddapura. We had to reach Chilli Pili Homestay, and in to time we realised that we were deep into the coffee plantations amidst thick vegetation, with no mobile reception, and muted by the overwhelming buzzing of the crickets. This was, our abode for the night, and so welcome it looked. Amidst a coffee estate with a pretty manicured garden, the homestay owners welcomed us to our cottage which was adequately furnished with a kingsize bed, and an additional single bed to rest our foot on! We were promised a true Kodava style dinner, that included the traditional Pandhi Curry (Coorg style Pork).

It was still early evening, and we took a walk across the road, where the only sound were from the crickets, and an occasional vehicle passing by. The purity of the air, the peace and tranquility were almost tangible. A little deserted bus shelter somewhere down the road, an old rustic building with its doors closed, it all looked to so aged and alone. As we strolled through the deserted road we took some pictures, spent sometime talking and not-talking. It was all so serene, so absorbing.

As the dark fell, we got back to our cottage and were served home-made non-alcohol wine (I know, non-alcoholic was a turn off, but the stuff was surprisingly tasteful). And then came along the dinner, and what a serving it was. The caretaker brought in containers after containers – vegetables, sambar, chicken, pork, chappati, rice, nool puttu,  custard! At first we were a little shocked at the quantity (it could feed an army) and then sent back everything expect the non veg (oh we couldn’t give up on that!).

We let the night set in, having our drinks, munching on the delectable food. And later into the night when most lights were out, and us pretty tipsy, we walked into the estate, and stood soaking in the moonlight under the outlines of the tall trees, in the chilly air. The end of a day well lived.

Next morning, a huge serving of breakfast that included dosa, paputtu, sambar, chutney, toast and fruits, with the pet geese of the estate walking around us right outside the cottage balcony. A delightful sight, and a delightful breakfast, and we set off for Madikeri after exchange of thank you’s and acknowledgments with the owners.

Madikeri was about an hour’s drive from Hoskeri, and much thankfully, even this day we had less traffic on the roads. Throughout the uphill climb on the meandering roads leading to Madikeri, it would be difficult for one to figure out the ascent as the slope is quite gentle. But I could tell, as my ears would block every now and then! It was a very short visit to the city, as we spent sometime in the Raja’s seat gardens, took a toy train ride adjacent to the park (my friend was a first time-er on a toy train), and stopped by the mall to buy some spices, coffee and honey. We then lunched at restaurant which was miserable on service but the food was authentic kodava..Chicken curry in a cocunut gravy, fried pork with tender bamboo shoots cooked in fiery spices, and nool puttu, which watching it pour outside.

By the time the rain stopped, the roads were deserted and wet, and reflected the dark blue of the skies. We left the place, setting off for our return to Bangalore. And as I bid goodbye to the mountain roads, I already knew I would be back soon.


A place I call Home

The dreamy yellow glow cast upon the roads by the halogen lights, the shabby little shanty tea stall encroached a pedestrian walk burning out its last fire before closure for the night, pavement dwellers crowded on the pavements on a misty winter night, endless banners of crunchy milk biscuits, and real life heroes in movies, and ‘brigade chalo’ announcements for political march, spread across everywhere. There is a perfect blend of shabby yet organised, of old yet thriving new, of immensely crowded and throbbing with life. Anyone who has given their heart to this city of warmth, heritage, belonging, would know. Something magically intoxicating, that lets you unwind you and although you complain, yet feel like you never want to leave. She casts her charm on everyone, with the serene and silent Ganges, the horse-drawn tourist carts shuttling across the road circumfereing the majestic Victoria memorial, the ringing of the tram bells, and the sound of the revving of the engines of the several hundreds of rickety yellow taxis and public buses. There is some magnet, which draws the lovers of heritage, of food, of warmth, and of celebrations of festivities to this city.

I love to be proud to call her my home. A city of charm, heritage, and never ending enigma. This City of Joy, Kolkata.