Jodhpur: Drenched in blue

An intensely romantic city, filled with history and memories of a glorious past, Jodhpur rides high on every traveler’s mind. I had first set foot in this blue city more than a decade back as a child. A lot has changed now, yet the intensity of this place has somewhat remained the same. Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; it still entices with its charm. Everything was colourful, a typical trait of the city. There are things which have not changed; the traditional homes pained in pale indigo, locals wearing artistically designed multihued costumes, women dressed in wide gathered skirts and men with colourful turbans on their head. This regal city of Rajasthan still echoes with antiquity in the vacuum of the desert.

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Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; Jodhpur still entices with its charm.

While climbing the staircase to go out of the railway station, I caught sight of the formidable Mehrangarh fort looking down from its imposing height on the hillock. A 15 minutes drive, and I reached my hotel. ‘Khamma Gani, Ranbanka hotel’ welcomes the comely receptionist with a diaphanous cloth as garland. Khamma gani is a term used to greet the guests whereas Ranbanka attributes to ‘the invincible’ or ‘master of battles’. Continue reading

Hippest cafes in Hauz Khas

New Delhi’s Hauz Khas village is a bit scruffy, with its narrow, over-crowded alleys, but it is also the funkiest place in the capital for an eat-out or to enjoy the city vibes.

Activities in Hauz Khas hum around the deer park, the lake and the crumbling monuments. While the monuments provide it the old world charm and a hint of seclusion, the chic restaurants and cafes lined on both sides of the boulevard transport you to an entirely different inscape.

Over these years Hauz Khas has become the center-point of the alternative creativity. There is a sense of camaraderie here, a feel of liberty; a place where you can relax in a café, sit down for some great music, whet your creative instincts following the art-houses, designer showrooms or plain graffiti or hop over to soothe your taste buds.

Hauz Khas Imperfecto

Let’s save you from tromping around this place to discover the hideouts. Well, there is hardly anything that you can think of and not find here and predictability has literally no space in these vibrantly painted and lighted alleys. To save you from some tireless google search and pinging friends to know the places to go to, I have prepared a sweet list of the hippiest cafes in Huaz Khas – Continue reading

Jungle in my backyard: Mumbai

Yes, I am talking about a real jungle and not the clichéd concrete jungle, which has mostly become synonymous with our cities. Wherever you are in Mumbai, whichever suburbs, you are never too far away from a healthy, thriving National Park. Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a 40 sqaure miles of green life, in the middle of the burgeoning, sprawling grey metropolis of Mumbai. A sprawling neighbourhood with a line of tall apartment buildings stand just opposite the park border, making the boundaries between the wilderness and the city bleak and dangerous.

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A thriving Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the middle of the burgeoning, sprawling grey metropolis of Mumbai

The park living in the suburb of Borivali, is a home to over 40 leopards, more than 150 species of butterflies, around 40 types of mammals, different types of spiders, the ‘karvi’ shrub that blooms only once in 8 years and over 1000 types of plants. Continue reading

Grace in wood: Padmanabhapuram Palace

Austere aesthetics, monochrome design, wooded architecture and minimalism in interior décor are some qualities we don’t usually associate with Indian palaces. However, Padmanabhapuram palace of Travancore, stands as a testimony to this minimalism. Infact this minimalism is hard to miss in keralite architecture, which is more wood based than bricked.

Our entry to the Padmanabhapuram palace was quiet and unnoticed. I looked at the wide swathes of latticed wood, polished wooden flooring looking more like inky pools with shadows of history, and floral designs that followed no pattern; and wondered how could such humble structures be destined to get vanished from the tourist map and get clubbed in the ‘off the track’ places league. The palace has long been forgotten, yet the glory of this beautiful building, built about 300 years ago, remains. The structures are as strong as they were when built and the entire tour is as enticing as any palace tour in the country. Padmanabhapuram palace is one of the finest existing examples of traditional Keralite Architecture, a fine specimen of traditional architecture of Malabar replete with teak, granite and stone all combining in a symphony of elegance and simplicity.

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Padmanabhapuram palace is more wood based than brick

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Dine with Giraffes in the Manor

A loud screech of our car wheels and the scrunching of gravel beneath it announced our arrival. The sun settled on the manor draped with ivy. With a name like ‘Giraffe Manor’ you expect a more African décor, but it looked straight out of a Scottish folk tale, and only the red dust betrayed its Scottish charm and lent it an African touch. It has nothing of an African appeal, except for the name which it lives upto. Giraffes are not hard to find, looking at you with a friendly gaze. Giraffe Manor lives in the Langata area, a bit outskirts of Nairobi, amid an area of 12 acres, bringing the African safari experience live in surreal charm of English architecture. It is a perfect stop-over after a long flight, to lull the heart and prepare the mind for coming wildlife adventures in the country.

Giraffe Manor_Safari Collection

With a name like ‘Giraffe Manor’ you expect a more African décor, but it looked straight out of a Scottish folk tale.

I was greeted by the punctual warthogs, who had arrived at dot five’ O clock for their share of free snacks, scurrying past me with their tails held straight, like lightning conductors. Continue reading

A wild charm – Lewa Safari Camp

I descended from the ‘green capital of the sun’ as Nairobi is fondly called to the lush greens of the Lewa wildlife conservancy, Kenya’s largest private wildlife conservancy, and the canvass of this place was enough to transport me to a different world. The safari started before I could unpack. As the land rower bumped among the half an hour drive from the conservancy gate to the Lewa safari camp, the animal spotting began. And even before reaching ‘the other paradise’ in this paradise land, I had clocked a family of elephants, herds of bachelors’ impala, Masaai ostriches and many reticulated giraffes.

Lewa Safari Camp - Triple Tent

Lewa Safari Camp – triple tents

I breathed in the moment as I reached the Lewa Safari Camp. Both stories of conservation and royal romance followed by a fairytale engagement of Prince Richard brought me to this place. Situated against the dramatic backdrop of the imposing, snow-covered Mt Kenya, in the midst of the rolling grasslands interrupted by occasional acacias and thorny bushes, Lewa embraces you in its wramth as you enter.

Lewa Safari Camp is a busy place. A main lounge constructed of cedarwood, houses the dining area, and the hidden shacks and wooden columns double up as playgrounds for its avian visitors. I say your mini game drive starts here, with weaver birds, spotted doves, skinks, large mongoose and even dik-diks, coming out from some corner to say ‘hi’ to you.

Weaver bird@Lewa conservancy

A main lounge constructed of cedarwood, housing the dining area, is busy and frequently visited by avian visitors. Here’s a weaver bird weaving a nest to impress female.

The recipient of several awards, Camp has on offer twelve en-suite safari tents, accommodating up to 27 guests at a time. Each thatch-covered tent is well equipped with modern amenities, embellished with impeccable décor, roll-up canvas walls to maximize game viewing and has ensuite bathrooms with power showers. The designing adds to the natural charm of these luxury tents. My tent faced east to make an album of moments of memorable sunrises and sunsets for me. And add the fervour of seeing the green and flat tableland.

Such a view and the serenity that wraps you, turns you a dreamer. I pictured myself on a hot air balloon that could take me over these lands, looking at families of reticulated giraffes making a move, their graceful limbs moving in slow motion or herds of grant’s gazelle chased by the ultimate chase machine of Africa, families of elephants and rhinos and the big cats – keeping an eye on their activities from above. Every little detail, amplified. Oh! The thought.

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A family tent (photo credits – Lewa Safari Camp)

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By the swimming pool (photo credits – Lewa Safari Camp)

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Lewa: Handpicked Africa…(Part II)

In the next morning safari, I was shamelessly focused on spotting the big cats. Tom wasn’t enthused, he knew cats are elusive, but out in early morning meant more chances. We hadn’t gone much, when we came across a small herd of elephants and in Africa, you couldn’t help but stop when you come across elephants. There is nothing ‘enough of it’ for elephants. As we looked, a young male started walking towards us. He raised his trunk up in the air to familiarize itself with our scent, walked towards an acacia tree, knocked it down to show his prowess and looked at us with intense gaze. It wasn’t giving any signs of a charge, but his actions, by that time, had scared me. He walked closer and was soon within a meter of distance from us. We literally shared glances, like first time lovers on a valentine’s day. I don’t know if elephants smile, but I would still prefer calling that a smiling gesture: or rather a welcoming one. He raised its trunk again, blew a low trumpet to which Tom responded, he jerked his trunk and flapped his ears and the next moment was running his trunk on my face. No issue that my face was covered with elephant’s mucous (being an ardent hindu, I would take that as a blessing of Lord Ganesha). He moved around the car with his usual gesture, seemingly enjoying our company. It was a too close, too personal moment for me.

Elephant@Lewa conservancy

He raised his trunk up in the air to familiarize itself with our scent, walked towards an acacia tree, knocked it down to show his prowess and looked at us with intense gaze.

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Lewa: Handpicked Africa…

The knee high dry grass glistened like burnished gold as first light stretched across the hills. The sky exploded into brilliant shades of oranges and yellows and a cold tension hung in the air. I pulled over my hood and shimmered in the anticipation of heat. It can get unbearably hot in the afternoons and dead cold in the nights here. I had set off for an early morning safari to watch the big cats’ play. We paused, as we moved, to scan the forests, peering hopefully through our binoculars.

The vehicle paused. I looked around unwary of the pause but certain that it was justified. Tom, my safari guide, must have seen, heard or smelled something. And while he tried making out the source of sound or sight, I breathed in the moments; the raw appeal of a rugged mountainous landscape, the rolling meadow like savannah grassland, with acacias playfully interspersed; culminating into basalt hills, with a stunning Mt. Kenya standing as a royal guard. Ah! With every breath I took in the charm of Laikipia: central Kenya is so different from southern. Occasionally, I would ask – “Did you see something?” and then survey around to see that myself.

Bully Ruby@Lewa conservancy

Together with its neighbors like Ol Pajeta, Borana and Laisaba, Lewa Conservancy has been on the frontline of Rhino conservation.


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Khonoma: The land out there…

This historic Angami – Naga village was the site of two ferocious Anglo – Naga war in 1879 – 80 and Indo-Naga war in 1956. Fondly tucked between towering mountain ridges, with emerald paddy fields carpeting the valley, Khonoma looks artistically traditional.

Ever heard of a village that twice, brought the British army juggernaut in the North East to a halt and forced the Indian Army to suspend its military operations (though for some time) in the 1950s, at the height of battle against insurgency in the state. This is Khonoma, some 20 Kms off Kohima, with a population of 3000, and a past dating back to centuries. Fondly tucked between two mountain ridges, with a liberating view of terraced paddy fields, forming a sea of yellow tufts in the valleys between the crotches of the mountain ranges.

 

Khonoma_Nagaland

Battle lines are still drawn in Khonoma, but this time between sustainability and long held traditions. This story began two decades ago, with the slaughter of around 300 Blyth’s tragophan, a pheasant with stunning plumage and the state bird of Nagaland. This massacre made the village elders cognizant of impending eco-war and Khanoma’s conservation movement was born. Today, it is India’s only eco-village. Logging and hunting stands banned today, a herculean task considering hunting is a cultural right of the Nagas. In 1998, Khanoma village council reserved an area of 20 sq. Km as Tragophan Sanctuary, India’s one of the first community led sanctuary. Soon, the forests which had gone silent, was alive with the calls of Tragophan and other birds. But a ban on hunting in Nagaland, is a rich affair. There is increasing pressure from the youth to revive the hunting culture. They forced the council to open a hunting window in the last years. Hunting has revived but is limited and only to maintain the carrying capacity of the forests.

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Majuli: A disappearing island

Fondly tucked between the sister rivers Subansiri and Kherketia and nursed by the mighty Brahmaputra, lies a landscape of Majuli, simply inescapable from the eyes of intrepid travelers. It is an island of pristine sublimity, offering vistas of freedom wrapped in nature’s warm embrace, unlocking the hidden mysteries, exciting imaginations, swaying as the river swells, breathing in its vast openness and smiling at every bell that chimes in the satras. An expanse of land shaped by fortunes and fury of Brahmaputra, Majuli’s story is as sublime as the river it stands on. Several stories innocence, optimism and disenchantment, knitted as one, are played out on this land every day. A day is lived in the rituals and songs in satras, in the paddy fields, in the colourful tapestry of Assamese silk and breathes through the fisherman’s mesh. Life is quite simple here, yet elusive as the island is slowly disappearing, some inches every year, losing itself to the river that nurtures it, living its full circle of life. Already reduced to a third of its original size, it is predicted that Majuli will disappear within twenty years.

To get to this largest river island, a huge ferry is boarded from Jorhat in Upper Assam. A slow boat ride of two hours, is spent in breathing in the freshness and the rawness of the riverine landscape created by the mightiest of Indian rivers. And when you are in Majuli, ditch the vehicle or a guide to explore the island, hire a bicycle and cycle your way through the cultural ambiance of the island. Majuli is the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism. Since 15th century, followers of Saint Srimanta Sankardeva have been building monasteries or satras here. Twenty satras stand today, with almost twice of the number lost to the river. These ancient buildings pulsate with dance, drama and songs and have to a great extent defined the lifestyle in Majuli. Houses in Majuli have a central space in their house, called Namghar (taken from the satras), where people gather, sing, dance and pray. That’s how most of the Majuli lives, draped in spirituality.

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Tales from a headhunters’ land

Conversing with a nonagenarian is like collecting some pages off the calendar or redrawing some history from a person who barely remembers what he had in the morning for breakfast. Indeed a tedious task. But, the moment you ask of his good old fighting days, the geriatric time machine turns a raconteur; the years dissolve and clarity returns and tales of old fights pour as if it was all yesterday. What a dilemma to see a person, who barely remembers his age or for that matter his name, but is eager to give an account of his fighting days, tales from his youth and all with exacting clarity.

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A headhunter – old but turned a raconteur when asked of his old, fighting days.

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Camping with lions in Masai Mara– II

From the beginning, I was sure, day 2 was going to be as exciting as day 1. We had by now, tick marked three of the #bigfive of Africa and we prefixed our agenda to first lookout for the remaining two of the big five and then try our chances on the migration yet again. And to a certain degree both looked achievable. We soon added a third wish to this list – spotting a Cheetah. And James smiled, the sort of smile only Gods or elves are allowed to have.

Confession: Two of our wish were fulfilled.

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So we filled our tummies to the extent possible with left-over fruits and sandwiches and every variety of edible thing available with us and set off to second round of our incredible journey. With full day in hand, we were pretty confident of having all our boxes tick marked.

James wanted to start the morning with Rhino spotting or else we would miss the habitat. We spent almost an hour in the morning to spot a rhino but we weren’t just getting lucky. We however, spotted a big herd of hundreds of buffaloes; the day before we had mostly spotted lone buffaloes. Driving through the grass as they stand mooing was a sight.

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Camping with the lions – I

From our camp we could watch baby hippos splash and swill in the waters, while the adults watched us with suspicion. This was my first experience of camping in the wild, and we started with choosing the wrong place. It was only when Leena said “What if hippos come this way to graze?” that we realized, we were way too near the mighty hippos. And in Africa, you don’t mess with the hippos. So we shifted, to a safer place, near the Serena hotels, with the researchers of Hyena Research Center as our neighbors; and practically in the territory of the hyenas. We again smiled at our choice, but our experienced Masai guide James was convinced.

And then setting up of camps begun. Candidly for the first time campers it’s an experience and especially when you are not given enough tools to set up your camp and you have to manage with twigs ‘that can easily bend’ to use instead of iron rods to set your camp. Anyways you don’t learn to manage, you get infected with this art, as you are hit by safari-bug.

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The great migration of the animals was in place, and it was a treat time for the Mara lions.

And once we were done with setting our camp, we were off to the thing we were there for – game drive. Continue reading

Sandsational Zanzibar

A ramshackle fishing village, now sidelined by an ever increasing number of hotels, bars, guesthouses and bikini clad backpackers; drawn by pristine white sand beaches, turquoise sea, sparkling sunshine and an ever-lasting sense of liberation; Nungwi village is among the biggest draws in Zanzibar. By day, the sunbathing tourist slumber, indulge in lemongrass massage or join the locals for some reef fishing when the tides are low or passively cycle through the old fishing village to soak in some rustic freshness of this beach village, perhaps the largest in Zanzibar Island. And as sun sets, this sleepy village buzzes with party spirit. Beach bonfires, music and cocktails blaze the village till dawn. Aging couples, honeymooners, gap year students, cool dude and backpackers from across the globe are drawn to this beautiful beach village.

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An hour long drive (costing upto USD 30) brings you from stone town to Nungwi village. Check in one of the numerous hotels (of all sizes and prices) and set off for an exotic holiday romancing with cool sea breeze and sparkling white sand beach. Continue reading

A loud roar to #saveourtigers

I still remember my safari drive in Ranthambore National Park which ended with a happy note of seeing the most documented tigress and oft referred to as the face of tiger conservation, Machali. Our tryst had ended with the words of our safari guide – “These animals are so magnificently beautiful that it seems a tragedy that they should be left to vanish.” I have taken many safari drives from then, but these words still resonate in my mind. And a disturbing news, in tiger conservation is no more new or rare. And what could be more disturbing than the fact that the largest population of tigers today, exists not in wild but in captivity. With an estimated 5,000 tigers, the U.S. captive tiger population exceeds the approximately 3,200 tigers in the wild. For any tiger lover, who has spent hours and often days in the wild, to get one shot of this magnificent creature, this is a disturbing news and a sign that we are fast losing our tigers.

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Since tiger is a keystone species in its habitat, its survival ensures survival of many other species. Every attempt of saving our tigers go a long way in saving forests and hundreds of other species that ironically never make to any media articles. An adult tiger needs about 50 cow sized animals in a year to lead a healthy life. Sometimes I wonder, do we even have this much of prey base in our forests? Can our forests, which are facing threats of degradation and thus depleting prey base, support the remaining or more tigers?
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