The Euphoria of 40 Bends- Anamalai

We zoomed past the web of neatly stacked houses etched in green and blue, adorned with bright windows, that lined the narrow, criss-cross roads. Beneath the thatched roofs of their verandahs, a few aged eyes and wrinkled faces relaxed and chitchatted into the lazy afternoon. Amidst the pleasant scent of freshly smeared dung in its courtyard, sat a small temple of Lord Ganesha. A cow with almond shaped eyes and horns like perfect half moons grazed lazily in the shade of dried palm and coconut leaves. 40 kms to the south of Coimbatore, a quaint village called Pollachi calmly tiptoed towards dusk; the sublimeness of which was distinguishable to thousand other villages rapidly metamorphosing into meaningless urban jungles.

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The quaint village of Pollachi

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Every bit of the heritage home, ‘Shenbhaga Vilasam’ on the outskirts of Pollachi, was instantly appealing. Beyond a petite temple resting under a huge banyan tree, an aged fountain peeked curiously through the foliage of entwined creepers. An elegant wood chariot stood with pride adjacent to it. The intricate pattern of the mosaic floor tiles, gigantic metal vases, iron shields and swords in the squared corridor exuded sheer class and royalty. The dull yellow walls were the loyal secret keepers of the timeless era of this vintage chalet built by the Zamindars of Samathur 90 years ago. From the rear-view mirror, Shenbhaga looked like an angelic unicorn pacing back into time.

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Pollachi quietly rests at the fringes of the mighty Anaimalai range at the southern side of western ghats bordering Kerala and Tamlinadu. Anamalai, simply means Elephant Hill in the local dialect. Like a divine goddess, Anaimalai holds rich biodiversity in one hand and alluring tea estates of Valparai in the other.

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1st view of Anamalai range from Pollachi

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Golden rays of the melting sun creeped through an impressive tree-tunnel, displaying a mysterious play of occult. The Anamalai flashed breathtaking views of the backwaters of Aliyar Dam peeping through the alternating bends of the ghats. Monkey Falls, that might have once been a virgin Goddess with milky waterfall gushing from her breasts; now stood tarnished and ashamed, adorned with litter and noises, holding in her womb the weight of restless, junk-fed monkeys. Amidst the chaos, a few giant squirrels, unruffled by the mob of tourists merrily swung and fed on a fig tree.

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The occult of shadows-Tree tunnel on the way to Anamalai

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A Giant Squirrel feeding off a fig tree at Monkey Falls

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Not far away, the landscape transformed into a thick blanket of charcoal grey clouds gently pushed by a cool breeze and dew-like showers. Soon, we had our rendezvous with the first of the 40, stomach-churning, serpentine, hairpin bend. Each bend here on, was almost at a 40 degree elevation cutting through unending slopes of stunt hills with rolling carpets of tea plantations. Futile anticipation took its toll at the 13th bend that had a signboard with ‘Nilgiri Tahr crossing’ written on it. While a bald mountain peak was being gently kissed by the rays of the setting sun, a petite hut peeked from between the stunt eucalyptus trees. Dozens of Nilgiri Whistling Thrushes roamed carelessly; their hypnotising whistles making my curious eyes follow them. Conquering the 40th bend, when we finally reached Valparai,  we were greeted by countless crickets stridulating under the dark diamond studded sky.

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Sipping piping hot tea in the verandah of a tea estate, listening to the chirping birds while admiring the lazy bisons grazing on a gloomy morning is perhaps Valparai’s epitome of seduction. We swooshed past the tapered roads piercing the heart of the estates until we reached a village dotted with a few huts on the forest fringe. From the backyard of a hut, some 400 mtrs away, a much awaited drama was being unfolded by a herd of elephants. Two calves played under watchful eyes of mom. The trumpeting by the youngest calf was loud enough to send vibrations under my feet. Eventually when the herd disappeared into the jungle after what seemed like an era, I woke up from a trance and fell into a orchestra of melodious tunes of Red Whiskered Bulbuls, Yellow browed bulbuls, Vernal Hanging Parakeets, Oriental White Eyes, Green Leaf-Birds, Doves, Sunbirds, Minivets and Babblers bustling in the backyard!

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The tusker family

Bird species of Anamalai

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At the edge of the ticket counter, a Nilgiri Whistling Thrush fearlessly nested; a few grains of boiled rice were carefully placed by her side. The curious part of me was eager to decipher why Nallamudi Poonjolai was named “Seen God” by a random traveler who visited here ages ago. After trekking for a kilometer on gradual elevation amidst interesting debates on identifying poops of elephants, leopards and bears we found on our way, we reached the highest point of Nallamudi. From here, I could see spectacular views of the tallest peak of Tamilnadu called Anaimudi. Layers of lush, green mountains rolled all the way into the horizon. Deep into the heart of Anamalai, in the lap of dense forests, an enormous, milky, goddess-like waterfall flowed with tremendous force and vigour. Not sure why she was named ‘Idly’. Huts of the Mudhuvan tribes with small clearings and naked courtyards totally cut off from civilization were scattered deep into the valley, almost 1000 feet below, like tiny bits of paper flung into the air!

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A Nilgiri whistling thrush nesting at the ticket counter is fed grains by the locals

Views from Nallamudi Poonjolai

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On the winding roads of the Puduthottam Estate, two men were holding placards that read“ Lion Tailed Macaque(LTM) crossing, go slow”. With my failed attempts to spot this extremely shy mammal in the past, I pulled over with extreme hopelessness only to find myself 10 feet away from a dominant male LTM sitting on a lamp post trying to eat a guava whole. Soon we were amidst a group of 20 macaques, safely crossing from one end of the road to the other. Efforts put in by these men from Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) to ensure safety of these endemic creatures was noteworthy, rather surprising.

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The endemic Lion Tailed Macaques of Valparai

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A herd of 20-odd bisons grazed lazily in the estate, looking up at us intermittently with curiosity. One of them had horns curving inwards in the shape of a perfect heart, whom I referred to it as ‘the love bison’. The silence of a gloomy and drizzly morning was intermittently broken by the screams of a charming peacock pruning itself perched on a bare tree trunk. An elephant trumpeted somewhere deep inside the jungle. Puduthottam bestowed upon me the loveliest morning in years. Bulbuls and sunbirds chirped, parrots screeched and the whistles of the Malabar thrush continued while the climate flirted with us throughout our aimless drive through Sholayar Dam, Manamboli, Varattuparai and Mallakiparai stretches. When the dark mysterious serpent had swallowed the last of the golden ball of light, a pack of Dhols (wild dogs) briskly crossed the road without a sound, and disappeared under the blanket of stars.

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The pruning peacock

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An unexpected argument waited with an ugly face at the Topslip checkpost. The checkpost closed at 4pm and unfortunately we had missed it by ten minutes. But the outcome of an unexpectedly intelligent human mind multiplied with the luck factor can be amazing! In no time, we were on the rugged and bumpy road to Topslip. Soon after we reached the top, twilight creeped into darkness. Walking a few meters from the rest house to the canteen in pitch blackness in the middle of a thick forest was jittery. A pair of green eyes of a wild rabbit sitting still at close proximity shone in the gleam of our torch light. A pack of some 30 deer were in the vicinity, feeling safe in the company of two legged beasts. Thousands of crickets created a rhapsody together with croaking frogs and withered leaves that were being swept away by the chilly zephyr. This was the night of the forest- alive and bustling with sounds, yet so peaceful and immaculate! Wandering in pristine and humid Shola forests next morning, we couldn’t outwit the bloodsuckers! We sighted the rare and endemic Waynad laughing thrushes, streak throated babblers, grey hornbills, asian fairy bluebirds, and Malabar parakeets flying briskly in the thick of the bamboo hedges.

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The midday sun was hitting hard when we returned from a three hour trek into the Sholayar. We bid goodbye to the Nilgiris and head back to the blinding city lights and tearing noises. I slept that night with the incense of eucalyptus and freshly plucked tea leaves; the songs of the Whistling thrush and the mesmerising cry of the peacock. I dreamt of standing next to the milky waterfall-goddess; a hundred green watchful eyes staring anxiously through the dark under a faint moonlit sky.

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Birds of Singalila

Singalila is undoubtedly a paradise for birders. One can explore the ravines and forests by pitstopping at a small village called Dhotrey on the outskirts of the region or cover it while trekking to Sandakphu. It is also home for the endangered Red  Panda(though you need to be favoured by extreme good luck to spot one!). Below are 34 species of birds I found during my trek. My pics below also include record shots.

Do visit https://gauricosmos.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/of-ravines-wild-flowers-and-a-red-panda-sandakphu/ to experience Sandakphu through my pen and lens.

_MG_2157 Verditer Flycatcher

Verditer Flycatcher

_MG_2336 Grey headed Canary flycatcher

Grey headed Canary Flycatcher

Spotted Laughingthrush

Spotted Laughingthrush

Rufous Sibia

Rufous Sibia

_MG_2434 Green backed Tit

Green Backed Tit

_MG_2272 Plumbeous water redstart

Plumbeous Water Redstart

_MG_2267 Plumbeous water redstart- Juv

Plumbeous Water Redstart -Young

_MG_1928 Green tailed sunbird 2

Green Tailed Sunbird

_MG_1898 Green tailed sunbird

Green Tailed Sunbird

_MG_1737 Himalayan Griffon Vulture 3

Griffon Vulture

_MG_1720 Himalayan Griffon Vulture 1

Griffon Vulture-Juvenile

_MG_2285 Blue Whistling Thrush

Blue Whistling Thrush

_MG_2463 Red Billed leiothrix 2

Red Billed Leiothrix

_MG_2457 Red Billed leiothrix

Red Billed Leiothrix

_MG_1808 Golden naped Finch-Female

Golden Naped Finch

_MG_2039 Whistlers Warbler

Whistler’s Warbler

_MG_2071 Bush Warbler

Bush Warbler

_MG_2346 Black Headed Shrike Babler

Black Headed Shrike Babbler

_MG_2307 Black Bulbul

Black Bulbul

_MG_2162 Oriental turtle dove

Turtle Dove

_MG_2080 Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill

_MG_1867 Yellow Billed Blue Magpie

Yellow Billed Blue Magpie

_MG_1785 Olive Backed Pipit

Olive Backed Pipit

_MG_1882 White collared blackbird

White Collared Blackbird

_MG_1552 Great Barbet

Large Green Barbet

_MG_2387 Chestnut bellied rockthrush

Rufous Bellied Niltava (record shot only)

_MG_1843 Darjeeling woodpecker (f)

Darjeeling Woodpecker

_MG_1805 Stripe throated Yuhina

Stripe Throated Yuhina(record only)

_MG_2362 White thorated fantail

White Throated Fantail

_MG_1844 Rufous gorgetted flycatcher (f)

Rufous Gorgetted Flycatcher

_MG_2422 Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

_MG_2369 Black drongo

Black Drongo

_MG_1849 Rufous winged fulvetta

Rufous Winged Fulvetta

_MG_2132 Mrs Gould's sunbird

Mrs. Gould’s sunbird (record)

_MG_1708 Spotted Nutcracker

Spotted Nutcracker

_MG_2176 Shortwing- reconfirmation reqd

Identity Pending

_MG_1645Sapphire Flycatcher

Sapphire Flycatcher

_MG_2453 Fire capped Tit

Fire Capped Tit (validation reqd)

 

  1. Rufous Sibia
  2. Great Barbet
  3. Sapphire Flycatcher
  4. Spotted Laughingthrush
  5. Spotted Nutcracker
  6. Himalayan Griffon Vulture
  7. Olive Backed Pipit
  8. Stripe throated Yuhina
  9. Golden naped Finch
  10. Darjeeling Woodpecker
  11. Rufous gorgetted Flycatcher
  12. Rufous winged Fulvetta
  13. Yellow billed blue Magpie
  14. White collared Blackbird
  15. Green Tailed Sunbird
  16. Whistler’s Warbler
  17. Red billed Leiothrix
  18. Fire capped Tit
  19. Bush Warbler
  20. Red cross bill
  21. Mrs. Gould’s sunbird
  22. Verditer flycatcher
  23. Oriental Turtle Dove
  24. Long tailed Shrike
  25. Plumbeous water Redstart
  26. Blue Whistling thrush
  27. Black Bulbul
  28. Grey headed Canary Flycatcher
  29. Black Headed Shrike Babbler
  30. White Throated Fantail
  31. Black Drongo
  32. Rufous bellied Niltava
  33. Barn Swallow
  34. Green backed Tit

The beginning- 

Darjeeling(6700 ft)-Dhotrey(8500 ft)-Tonglu(10130 ft)-Tumling(9600 ft)

I stepped out of our jeep and breathed the fresh air of a small and quaint hamlet nestled amidst thick pine forests called Dhotrey. Delighted to have left the mad rush of Darjeeling way behind, I was impulsive to venture on what I was looking forward to be one of my most cherished treks. Every house, window sill, verandah and toilet in Dhotrey was lined with fresh and blooming wild flowers and intoxicating roses. Overlooking the houses was a thick green pine forest with a few brown pine trees peeping out. With a 7kg rucksack, a batch of 5, a cheerful Sherpa guide named Bheem, I began my expedition with YHAI. 54 kms of uphill and downhill trail passing through thick and beautiful forests and ravines of the Singalila National Park seemed thrilling. I couldn’t wait to witness the unrivalled panoramic view(also referred to as the sleeping Buddha) of the highest snow clad peaks of the world- Everest, Kanchendzonga and Lhotse from Sandakphu, the highest point of WestBengal, beholds; I was 4 days away from it!

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The quaint village, Dhotrey

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Pine forests, Dhotrey

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The small and happy team of 6 (YHAI) and our guide Bheem

The trek route passes through narrow pathway made of wood and stones, lined with wild strawberries and flowers in abundance, too tempting to be missed out! It was 6 kms of gradual elevation till Tonglu, our first pitstop on the Indo-Nepal border. The weather changed from sunny to cloudy with fast winds making our bodies shiver under our jackets and our teeth chatter. We reached a remote but cozy homestay at Tonglu. Two adorable calves and a thick-furred dog played in the courtyard. The interiors of the house were  made up of wood, the kitchen had a huge “Chulha” and was neatly stacked with utensils. Sizzling and delicious homely food that was served, disappeared instantaneously! Here on, potato became a loyal friend and stayed with us for every meal for the next 6 days! While bidding goodbye to the family, my eyes caught sight of a large size photo of a cute Red Panda hung on the wall. I closed my eyes and secretly made a wish. We continued for 2 kms on a straight and downward path till we reached Tumbling,which falls in Nepal, for a night halt at another beautiful homestay called Sidhartha Lodge. Piping hot Horlicks served after dinner was a perfect way to end the chilling and tiresome day.

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Tonglu to Tumling

The majestic wanderer-

Tumling(9660 ft)-Gairbas (8600 ft)

I woke up to a bright morning at 4.30 am. The sun was casting its rays on the rolling layers of valleys and ravines in front of me. Taking warmth from the hot cup of tea in my hands, I stood at the ridge of my side of the mountain, staring into infinity. My gaze stopped on a bird rising calmly from the valley below, flying in circles. I was undoubtedly looking at a Himalayan Griffon Vulture! I had last seen this majestic wanderer almost 10 years ago during my trek to the Valley of flowers in Uttarakhand and since then, have craved for another glimpse of this beautiful scavenger. Soon, a second one flew from the far end and circled right in front of me. With a wingspan of almost 7 to 9 feet, these Griffons are the most heaviest and oldest of the vulture family and are gorgeous beyond limits! One of them was a juvenile and merrily perched itself on a treetop for some sun-basking, while the other – attacked and annoyed by two crows finally went out of sight.

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Himalayan Griffon Vulture

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After an epic start to my day, it was time to now head to Gairibas, 7 kms of gradual downhill walk. I was eager for two reasons- one, I was told of possibilities of sighting a Red Panda in this zone and two, this was the start of the Singalila Ridge- a paradise for birds.  I requested Bheem, our guide, that we take the longer route through the forest and he happily agreed. The trek route is serpentine and the beauty of the surreal forest is indescribable. Birds were in abundance- sunbirds, thrushes, woodpeckers, flycatchers, finches to name a few.  A thick carpet of snow-white clouds had hugged the mountains not very far away from me, presenting magical views, forcing me to stop every once in a while and wonder in awe. An abandoned house stood on a hill, bravely facing the harsh winds of time, apparently one of the prettiest frames clicked during my trip!

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Gairibas

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Caress of the clouds, Gairibas

The unforgettable tryst-

Kaiyakatta(9000 ft)-Kalipokhri(10400 ft)

Leaving Gairibas behind, we reached a small home in Kayakatta for lunch after a steep elevated climb. This family had a small baby that resembled the one on the “Parle-G” wrapper and I instantly indulged in senseless, animated conversations with equal reciprocation! Story goes that a disloyal business man who once stayed here was beheaded by the locals here and hence the place got its name..Kaiya means ‘businessman’ and Katta means ‘behead’ when translated into Nepali. As we set to leave for the next lap, my eyes met another poster of the Red Panda hung here too. Somewhere I was dejected in my heart as I had crossed the Panda zone already and now the chances were bleak-almost non-exisitant.

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The Parle-G deja vu!

Kayakatta to Kalipokhri was a mix of straight paths and elevations. I continued on the trail with careless footsteps, engrossed in hearing bird calls, when I suddenly heard an excited voice asking me to follow it in hurry. My team member had a look on his face that was so evidently conveying something! He had seen a brown coloured creature disappear into the woods not far away. My heart pounded as I nervously followed him until we reached a spot from where he pointed towards the direction down below.  Our guide Bheem , skid himself on the wet soil covered with moss, grass and creepers; we followed. Five feet away, a timid, shy, fluffy bundle of extreme cuteness was staring right into my face.  It was impossible to believe that I was looking into the eyes of a Red Panda at such close proximity! It perched itself, absolutely motionless, looking at us from the gaps of the thick foliage. After almost ten minutes of being into this moment of sheer fantasy, I gently made my way back to the trek path, still trying to come in terms with reality, so fascinated that I had almost cried…

This was perhaps one of the most happiest moments of my life- seeing an endangered Red Panda in wilderness!  More so, because it had shown itself up when I had lost all hopes..The tryst soon spread like wild fire all the way to our base camp at Darjeeling and upto Sandakphu, to the other guides and batches that trekked before and after us and to the locals too, becoming the hottest topic of discussion!

Talking endlessly about the saga, when we finally reached Kalipohkri, the weather had changed again. Kalipohkri in Nepali means black pond, and the place does have one- considered to be sacred and worshipped by the locals as a granter of wishes. We stay put at Himchulee lodge. The long and adventurous day had finally ended and our chats faded in the sound of the heavy rains and wind that night.

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The granter of Wishes. Kalipokhari

The wait and the disappointment

Kalipohkri(10400 ft)-Bikheybhanjang(10761 ft)-Sandakphu(11929 ft)

Nothing had changed in an hour of wait inside the cubicle made of glass and wood. The clouds seemed to be making a mockery of my desperation. I closed my eyes, let out a deep sigh, my mind wandered into a flashback…

I recalled how the weather had drastically changed a little beyond Kalipokhri. Here on the entire route had been covered in a thick blanket of clouds and fog with intermittent showers. I had read a milestone when I reached Bikheybhanjang or the “Poison Valley” which read “Sandakphu-4 kms”, there on keeping a steady eye on each passing one.

When I had reached the milestone that read ‘Sandakphu 0 km’, I got caught in a heavy downpour. Standing at the lower end of an 80 degree elevation which was the last lap and the toughest one, I looked down at my drenched shoes. In my head, I carved a picture of myself-a heavy stone carved with a big question mark. The last lap had felt never-ending. My rucksack and camera had felt heavier than ever, my stops had got more frequent as I panted due to low oxygen levels. Each step had felt like a humungous task. I had taken 3 long hours to cover 4 kms and had  finally made it to the crown of Sandakphu. All of this just for one magical glimpse of the peaks! Apparently the weather had turned awful, draping Sandakphu in a thick blanket of fog and mad winds. I had felt an instant weightlessness the moment I had reached the top…it was a disaster !

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The mockery! Sandakphu soaked in clouds

Awakened by the chatter around me,  I looked outside the cubicle one more time, the cloud was denser and was moving like a witch on a broomstick. After almost an hour of shivering underneath my jacket and and listening to a long thread of interesting and near-death experiences shared by our camp leader,  we eventually gave up.  Darkness had creeped in, temperature had hit a low of 2 degrees and we retired into our rooms at Namo Buddha guest house after gulping our dinner of hot khichadi.  Well, I still had hopes of a miracle to happen at the wake of dawn.

Nothing much had changed the next day. It was still gloomy and drizzling with no trace of the sun. The disappointment on our faces were evident. The last batch which was here the previous day had got generous views of the peaks! Sandakphu had shown a cold shoulder to me. After an hour of wait, I finally left Sandakphu with a heavy heart and a shattered dream..

All’s well that ends well!

Sandakphu(11929 ft)-Gurdum(7150 ft)-Rimbik(6500 ft)

Sandakphu to Gurdum, a never-ending steep descend passing through ravines, dense pine and bamboo forests, was covered in no time, listening to the addictive Nepali song ” Resham Firiri” sung by our guide to entertain us on the way. The weather had cleared at Gurdum the next day and I was greeted by an amazing sunrise at 4.30 am through the window  of Sherpa Homestay.

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Sunrise through my Window @Sherpa Homestay,  Gurdum

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Framed thru Dew

Gurdum seemed to be a village decorated with wild flowers and roses in plentiful! We finished our breakfast of hot Aloo Parathas, listening to “Hamro pahado ki rani”, Nepali version of “Mere Sapno Ki Rani”. Though it brought back memories of the then heart throb Rajesh Khanna following Sharmila Tagore seated in the toy train in Darjeeling, the Nepali version made us laugh till our stomachs hurt! After the wholesome entertainment, we pushed off for Rimbik- here the trek route runs parallel to the virgin and merry Sirikhola river, playing hide and seek through the mountains and valleys. Sirikhola plainly means Godly River in the local Nepali dialect. Huge boulders manifest the river and are home for Plumbeous Water redstarts and thrushes. There is an old and beautiful hanging bridge over Sirikhola, which needs to be crossed beyond which, the path merges into a pucca road, however, it gifts a trekker with alternating and brilliant views of the mountain ranges adorned with clustered huts and dense forests with every snake bend.

Surpassing the serene forest and gloomy villages,  I finally reached my final camp at Hotel Green Hill at Rimbik at sunset.Having a bath after 6 days at a cost of INR 50 per bucket of hot water was an absolute luxury! Tucking myself under a cozy blanket that night, I dreamed of Sandakphu, with its gleaming peaks and the serene sleeping Buddha gently smiling..

A lesson well learnt

I was gripped with a sinking feeling of failure, of a mission unaccomplished, of a dream unfulfilled. When I imagined the sleeping Buddha and the Everest drifting away into eternity, the pain was unacceptable. On my way down from the magical Sandakphu, I realised a hidden meaning, a lesson learnt. Sandakphu had taught me that life cannot be  a sum of mere success or failure, after all its the journey that matters, and the journey surely had been a splendid one! Life need not be fair at all times and one need not accomplish everything one desires. Sandakphu had gifted me with the most memorable episode- my tryst with the Red Panda, I couldn’t have been more thankful. For the spectacular views of the “sleeping Buddha”.. there can always be a ‘next time’!

Sandakphu will be cherished always, as a beautiful tale.. Of  ravines, wild flowers and a Red Panda! 

 

Information guide

What :- At 11929 feet above sea level, Sandakphu is the highest point of West Bengal and Singalila Ridge at the Indo-Nepal border. Considered as a trekker’s and birder’s paradise, the trek usually takes 5 to 8 days depending on the length one may choose, the least being 54 kms combining uphill and downhill trek. The last lap comprises of a steep climb of upto 80 degrees vertically and the trek level is considered as difficult.

When :- Sandakphu can be visited during different months depending on ones area of interest.

March-April :- Millions of red and pink rhododendrons bloom and the entire trek becomes a visual treat.

May-June : Blooming season ceases but a few of these flowers can still be seen on higher altitudes. Weather swings from pleasant to chilly clubbed with unpredictable overcast, thick fog and showers.  Not a great season for panoramic views from the top.

Oct-Nov: Probably the best season to get crisp and clear panoramic views of the peaks with brilliant sunrise and sunsets

Dec-Jan:- With temperatures hitting as low as -20 degrees celsius, ideal for a snow trek- definitely not for the faint hearted!

IMP : One day acclimatisation necessary at Darjeeling to curb altitude sickness.

What to expect:-

  1. Spectacle : Sandakphu offers a 180 degree panoramic and breathtaking view of 3 of the highest mountain ranges in the world- Mount Everest, Kanchendzonga and Lhotse in a row, including Makalu and 3 sisters. The entire range, due to its appearance, is also referred to as “the sleeping Buddha” or “ Kumbhkarna”. On a bright and clear day, the spectacular views of the snow clad peaks during sunrise and sunset along with dense clouds covering the valleys can drive a nature lover insane.
  2. Birdlife and flora : Being the foothills of Himalayas, there is ample birdlife, especially in Singalila  Forest. It also embraces countless wildflowers which are visually captivating. In April-May, the entire forest blooms with bright red and pink rhododendrons!
  3. Red Panda:- Singalila is home to the endangered, shy and extremely adorable Red Panda. Indeed a very difficult sight to catch, but if you do- consider yourself one heck of a lucky soul!

How :-

Trek : This is certainly the strongly recommended approach. One can team up with YHAI ( Youth Hostels Assoc of India) for a budget plan, however, their itenaries and date slots are fixed. Other options as below:

Long route: Maneybhanjang-Chitrey-Megma-Tonglu-Tumling(Nepal)-Gairibas-Kalipokhri-Bikheybhanjang-Sandakphu-Phalut-Ramman-Rimbik (approx 84 kms- 8 to 10 days)

Short route: Dhotrey-Tonglu-Tumling-Gairibas-Kalipokhri-Bikheybhanjang-Sandakphu-Gurdum-Sirikhola-Rimbik(approx 54 kms- 5 days)

Motorable :  4×4 Land rovers ply from Maneybanjang/Dhotrey right upto Sandakphu and back

Do Visit https://gauricosmos.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/birds-of-singalila/ for  exclusive info and pics of the birds I found at Singalila.

From Mathura…with love

“Radhey Radhey!” an excited voice sweetly uttered. The next moment, my palms felt the fine dust of the pink gulal that was smeared on my cheek by a pair of gentle hands. My lips gave a flash of smile and instantly reciprocated, “Radhey Radhey!” to the unknown face. I had finally landed!

Surpassing the apprehensions and stereotyped inputs about woman safety; going solo to Mathura sounded pretty exciting. But then being a first timer to an affair like this, there was every possibility of missing out on important timings and locations; so I teamed  up with DCP Expeditions, along with a group of fellow photographers. I can now claim that Mathura is just as safe as any other city for a lone woman traveler. Though the element of exercising caution and alertness always goes as a mandate, nothing should hold you back!

Within a few minutes of belting myself to the seat of my early morning flight to Delhi from Bangalore, I floated away into a faint slumber. My mind rattled through all the pre-trip chaos I had sailed through the previous day- mild food poisoning, an unforeseen storm, a never ending power cut, half charged batteries and a sleepless night with a bunch of mosquitoes for company. A loud alarm rang, waking me up with a jerk. As I looked through the window of my plane, my face lit up with the faint rays of a tranquil sunrise that was  just taking birth from the womb of the earth. The sky resembled a rainbow layered in bright orange, chrome, yellow and white, mildly transforming into shades of blue. Within seconds, the blues vanished and a tiny tinge of bright light emerged at the horizon and rapidly grew into a molten ball of fire. All of this happened within minutes and I had no clue of how and why I had woken up just in time to witness such an ecstatic dawn! Somewhere in my heart I knew that my trip had begun on a good note..

The real fun of travel is when you become a local. Dumping the thought of a lame taxi, I decided to take a 6 seater rickshaw ( which I refer to as “Tum-Tum) to reach Govardhan, where I was to join the rest of the gang. After enjoying forty mins of a bumpy ride through crowded markets, narrow roads with endlessly honking vehicles and streets exuding strong and undivided devotion to their favourite Lord, I finally reached Govardhan! Exhausted and hungry, I hogged on the simple but lip smacking lunch that was served. That evening, we set out for some street photography in the lanes and markets of Govardhan. From fancy dressed street kids to saffron clad Sadhus, from local pandits to civilised monkeys, from colourful shops to men and women doing parikramas, the streets were filled with action! (Parikrama or Pradakshina means circumambulation of sacred places, mostly used in context to religious deities. Doing a parikrama as a symbol of prayer is an integral part of Hindu Worship and is done in a meditative mood).

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Street Photography at Govardhan

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Amidst hot chai and chit chats later that evening, we indulged in the most important task of wrapping our cameras and lenses in plastic as a prep for the next day. This is the first thumb rule to follow before venturing out for Holi Photography. Well, no matter how carefully you’ve done your job, be ready to spend on post usage servicing. Your equipment WILL go for a toss and there is no way out!

Holi in Mathura lasts for 10 days or more, but the “do not miss” events can be narrowed down to “Lathmar Holi” at Barsana, and the “Samaaj” at Nandgaon. Phoolon ki Holi, Laddu ki Holi, and celebrations at Banke Bihari Temple, Iskon temple and Gulal Kund are most admired and can make their way into your list if time permits!

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Street photography at Govardhan

Amidst hot chai and chit chats later that evening, we indulged in the most important task of wrapping our cameras and lenses in plastic as a prep for the next day. This is the first thumb rule to follow before venturing out for Holi Photography. Well, no matter how carefully you’ve done your job, be ready to spend on post usage servicing. Your equipment WILL go for a toss and there is no way out!

Holi in Mathura lasts for 10 days or more, but the “do not miss” events can be narrowed down to “Lathmar Holi” at Barsana, and the “Samaaj” at Nandgaon. Phoolon ki Holi, Laddu ki Holi, and celebrations at Banke Bihari Temple, Iskon temple and Gulal Kund are most admired and can make their way into your list if time permits!

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The incredible faces of Barsana

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Amidst hot chai and chit chats later that evening, we indulged in the most important task of wrapping our cameras and lenses in plastic as a prep for the next day. This is the first thumb rule to follow before venturing out for Holi Photography. Well, no matter how carefully you’ve done your job, be ready to spend on post usage servicing. Your equipment WILL go for a toss and there is no way out!

Holi in Mathura lasts for 10 days or more, but the “do not miss” events can be narrowed down to “Lathmar Holi” at Barsana, and the “Samaaj” at Nandgaon. Phoolon ki Holi, Laddu ki Holi, and celebrations at Banke Bihari Temple, Iskon temple and Gulal Kund are most admired and can make their way into your list if time permits!

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The Sadhus of Barsana

 

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Disappointed with the bad sync and miss out, we headed to the lanes of Barsana to witness “Lathmar Holi”. The best panoramic view of Lather can be captured by perching on the roof of one of the hundred houses, clearing one’s sight off the numerous wires hanging around. These houses charge a nominal fee of INR 50 or so and let you take possession of their rooftops! The house we chose was painted green, was made of stone and proved to be an instant coolant. Towards the left was a cow-shed made of dung; with a buffalo merrily grazing inside it- totally cut-off from the madness! Towards the right was a hand pump that tempted us to taste its sweet and refreshing water. Adjacent to it was a steep stairway which led to the roof- so steep that I could have rappelled! Securing our places, we patiently waited for the ceremony to begin.

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Mobs of men and women were swarming the lane below. From the rear end of the house, I could see the Radharani temple at a distance with blobs of orange, pink and red gulal being thrown into the air. A helicopter that circled above, shoved loads of flowers into the temple. Beneath the cloud of colors, I caught sight of the first “Radha” who came out of her house, clad in Zari and jewellery. With a ghoonghat pulled right till her chest, she held a 5 foot long and heavy cane or “Lathi” in her hand. Soon, many more “Radhas” were out on the street. As the belief goes, Lord Krishna, with his comrades, visited Barsana to tease Radha and her friends, “The Gopis” by throwing colors. In retaliation, the Gopis used to playfully beat them up with Lathis to chase them away. Barsana has kept this tradition alive since then. The men from Nandgaon come to Barsana and sing provocative songs to attract the attention of the Gopis and in turn get hit by Lathi clad women. These men carry huge shields to defend themselves in the act and offer money and bow with respect to them before they leave. The same act is repeated the next day where men from Barsana visit the women of Nandgaon to play Lathmar.

Moments later, a procession of a few men beating an enormous Dhol cruised by. Lathmaar gained momentum and suddenly the whole of Barsana looked like a painting of colors coming alive with the symphony of the ‘thuds’ of lathers, the songs and the animations. Such a treat to watch! Time rolled and the sun began to set behind the temple. A cool breeze blew, the halo of colors settled and the madness lessened. Amidst all this action, hunger took its toll and I found myself feasting on some mouth watering Kachoris and Samosas with patches of green and pink gulal on them! Looking at my raised brow and indecisiveness, the vendor uttered ” Bura na mano..holi hai!!” Hygiene felt like a lost word in my dictionary.

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_MG_1472My alarm rang at 6am and I sprang up with an achy body and droopy eyes, but with the thrill to kick off the day! Nandgaon, considered to be the place where Lord Krishna spent his years from childhood upto his teens, is 20 odd kms from Govardhan! Action had already started when we arrived. Chants of “Radhey Radhey” and the Gulal throwing ceremony continued here too, though I felt it to be much more vibrant and prettier than Barsana. The beauty of the village is captivating. Narrow lanes were patrolled by kids and teenage boys in their white dhotis and turbans, armed with pichkaris and Gulal, who ensured not a single devotee or tourist was spared! The distance from the main road to the Krishna temple is hardly a kilometre, however, we became a victim of continuous attack of colors and water! Pushing my cam into my sack and covering it up with a poncho, I decided to soak in this glory and it turned out to be an absolutely delight!

“Aaj Biraj me Holi re Rasiya ( Today its Holi in Braj, my sweetheart!) echoed from different corners of the temple; so addictive that I was subconsciously humming it over and over again! After lingering in the courtyard and enjoying my dance with one of the Sakhis, I decided to secure my place on the terrace to capture the highlight of Nandgaon- “the Samaaj”. Soon, people started pouring in dozens and the entire temple transformed into a drama of voices and faces.

A few Pandits from the temple brought 3 huge barrels to the roof. Loads of flowers were dropped in the water, mixed for a while and then squeezed out of the drums and thrown on the devotees below. This water was then sprayed on people through huge pichkaris from above as the crowd basked in the frenzy.

                                                   The beautiful Sakhees of Mathura

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My alarm rang at 6am and I sprang up with an achy body and droopy eyes, but with the thrill to kick off the day! Nandgaon, considered to be the place where Lord Krishna spent his years from childhood upto his teens, is 20 odd kms from Govardhan! Action had already started when we arrived. Chants of “Radhey Radhey” and the Gulal throwing ceremony continued here too, though I felt it to be much more vibrant and prettier than Barsana. The beauty of the village is captivating. Narrow lanes were patrolled by kids and teenage boys in their white dhotis and turbans, armed with pichkaris and Gulal, who ensured not a single devotee or tourist was spared! The distance from the main road to the Krishna temple is hardly a kilometre, however, we became a victim of continuous attack of colors and water! Pushing my cam into my sack and covering it up with a poncho, I decided to soak in this glory and it turned out to be an absolutely delight!

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The temple courtyard was covered with water, flowers and colors, making it way too slippery. A few devotees enjoyed being pushed on the wet floor and being dragged by their legs to form a disk of colors. The Sakhis were engrossed in playing “Phugdi” (art form involving brisk circular rotations at a gradual and fast pace by criss-crossing hands with a partner). Adding to the action, one of the Sakhis ended up slapping a tourist who tried to act smart, ensuring that guy was finally out of sight! The Sakhis in their flared attire looked like brilliant yellow and red butterflies fluttering their wings, careless and free in the midday sun!

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Just as the sun began casting its shadows on the temple, two clans decked up in vibrant costumes and turbans entered and the long awaited “Samaaj” kicked off! The temple transformed into an amphitheater orchestrated with songs, dances and animated conversations; continuously bombarded by thick fog of pinks, reds, yellow and greens and a perpetual spray of water! I stood there, awed and dumbstruck, devouring as much possible of this spectacle in the middle of a perfect chaos that did not really matter. For once I let my camera hang itself carelessly around my neck, and let my soul drench in the magic of this unmatched act of colors, devotion and spirituality. After an hour of  unbeatable dramaturgy, the music and sounds gradually faded and the “Samaaj” finally concluded. We made our way back through the shrunken and cosy streets of Nandgaon- our naked feet drenched in colors and our hearts glowing in the warmth of love that Nandgaon had showered upon us.

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Nandgaon had pulled me into a state of pure trance. I could visualise an immensely beautiful Radha running swiftly into the woods, her Chunar flowing carelessly in the wind; being teased and chased by her dusky and charming beloved Krishna, who then smears her with a handful of bright red Gulal, and the couple dancing their way into the blissful “Raas Leela” under the eternal fountain of love! Looking like a drenched rainbow, I walked my way back from the narrow lanes of Nandgaon, and found myself inevitably throwing both my hands in the air and chanting “Radhey Radhey!!

A few snippets for first timers :

  1. Don’t just go for photography, bask in the glory of Nandgaon. Your cam could rest a bit!
  2. Confusion and frustration is normal. Don’t expect miraculous photos at the first attempt.
  3. Camera and lens proofing is a mandate, your equipment is still prone to dust and water, there is no escape.
  4. Leave your ‘high society attitude” behind. The more you resist, the more you are attacked ! enjoy instead
  5. People are generally not cheap and do not misbehave. If you are touched inappropriately -revolt!!
  6. People in Mathura are beautiful and helpful. Treat them with respect.
  7. Avoid slippers, watch your step inside the temple.
  8. Ignore hygiene. You missed it if you haven’t tasted the lip smacking Kachoris, samosas, puris and pedhas. Mathura does not have non-veg food.
  9. Colors used are harmless and ecofriendly and will wear out in a day, so do not worry.
  10. There are good security arrangements in the entire vicinity, do not panic!
  11. Though its safe to travel solo, first timers could be part of a group to ensure important events and timings are not missed. Groups are fun!
  12. Dance with a Sakhi. Strike a conversation. Brush someones face gently with Gulal and chant Radhey Radhey! See what it does to you!
  13. REVISIT!

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Samaaj in full swing

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The Shores Less Traveled..

When a thousand feet set out to Goa to bum with the crowd; eyes eager for shacks and sunburn, I change course to seek company of the untrodden shores nestled far away from the mad rush. A beach for me is an imagery of clear untouched sands washed by a boundless ocean that gently amalgamates with the sky soaked in brilliant shades by the melting sun drifting away into the horizon; the sound of endless waves creating a rhythmic rhapsody.

Mangalore in Uttara Kannada has been at the back of my mind for long, the intent was to explore it’s hidden beach treasures. It was November and Bangalore was refusing to bid farewell to the rains. Acknowledging the fact that it was not the best time for photography, me and Mihir  decided to hit the road at noon. Though the drive from Bangalore to Mangalore was mostly smooth, we reached when the stars were out. My excitement had to wait till the break of dawn.

Uttara Kannada offers a spectacular coast line from Mangalore  right upto Karwar, but we decided to cut off a little before Murudeshwar due to time constraints. I have derived my Beach Quotient for the trip ranging from 1 to 10, 10 being the best. My scores are purely basis the immaculateness and uniqueness; inversely proportional to crowd and commercialization.

TANNIR BAVI :There was no trace of sunrise when we reached Tannir Bavi beach which is around 20 kms from Mangalore the next morning. There was nothing extraordinary about the beach, but yes, it was soothingly calm with just 2 tourists lurking around. My eyes caught sight of rock-like structures into the sea a few meters away. We found out from a few fishermen that they were the remains of a huge abandoned ship that had sunk a long time ago. Some fishermen with their kids and a few boats had ventured into the sea for the morning catch. It was pleasurable to watch the kids enthusiastically helping their family in untangling the nets and sorting the catch that contained loads of swordfish, crabs and prawns apart from other fish of varied sizes. A snake that was caught in the net was thrown back into the sea. Tannir Bavi gave a tranquil start to my trip weaving a small story in itself.

My Beach Quotient (B.Q) for Tannir Bavi : 4/10

The tranquil Tannir Bavi

The tranquil Tannir Bavi

 

A day in the life of a fisherman.. Fishing at Tannir Bavi

A day in the life of a fisherman.. Fishing at Tannir Bavi

 

The Catch, Tannir Bavi

The Catch, Tannir Bavi

KAPU :Humidity was already rising when we left for Kapu Beach (Kaup), 40 kms ahead on the same coastline. This beach had a parking fee and was spic and span. A black and white lighthouse guards the sea atop a huge rock. One can have two completely diverse landscape views from the lighthouse on either sides. Kapu unfolds some enticing panoramic glimpses of the green sea collared with white sands and coconut groves. Its strange that the other side of Kapu with an amazing landscape is completely secluded. I strongly recommend getting to the opposite end of the lighthouse and taking a stroll on the white sands to bask in the gorgeousness of Kapu, all to yourself!

My B.Q for Kapu : 7/10

Lighthouse at Kapu

Lighthouse at Kapu

 

Contrasting view from other side of the lighthouse, Kapu

Contrasting view from other side of the lighthouse, Kapu

 

The turquoise sea, Kapu

The secluded end of Kapu

MALPE AND ST. MARY’S ISLANDS :Continuing our journey, I expected something stupendous at Malpe since I had read some really good reviews in a few blogs.  To my utter disappointment, Malpe looked like a disaster. In the scorching sun, Malpe felt like a commercialised bazar; tonnes of people, chaos and litter around. Without wasting any time, we headed to St. Marys Island via a ferry from Malpe. The ferry charges INR 120 per person for a to and fro trip with a one hour halt to explore the island. A set of 4 islands in the Arabian sea off the coast of Malpe, namely North Island, South Island, Coconut Island and Thonsepar jointly comprise St. Marys. The island looked stunning from a distance with coconut trees skirting it. But as I got down from the ferry and set my feet on the shore, I gasped and uttered “disgust!” Tourists have made a joke of this abode by littering recklessly.. I climbed and perched on one of the high rocks, the view from here blew some instant life into me. White sands, turquoise waters, blue skies, unending bed of shells and peculiar hexagonal basalt rock formations is what the island is gifted with. Surprisingly, the water is clean enough to dive in! We circumvented the island soaking up a part of it which was still so stunning and headed back to Malpe.

My B.Q of Malpe : 2/10. St. Marys Island: 5/10

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The gorgeous St. Mary's Island

The gorgeous St. Mary’s Island

 

Hexagonal basalt rocks of St. Mary's

Hexagonal basalt rocks of St. Mary’s

 

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Basalt rocks on the bed of fine shells

OTTINENE :The heat and sweat had taken its toll as we continued our journey to our next pit stop- Ottinene, 73 kms ahead. We planned to reach there to savor the sunset, but the sun was already on its way down. Ottinene can be viewed from atop a hill too and I had started to love the views already. The sun was turning molten pink behind a belt of thin clouds and the air was cool and surreal. We made our way back down to hit the beach. Ottinene has by far been the cleanest of beaches I have seen in the west coast of India. We stood on sands that felt like velvet while the lucent waves gently kissed our feet. I was witnessing a serene twilight that was unfolding shades of golden, orange, magenta, purple and blue with each passing minute. I could hear nothing but the sound of the ocean waves that the cool breeze was bringing to my ears.  The sun had melted and was casting the last of its rays when my eyes shifted to a silhouette of two boats returning to the shore after the last bait. Ottinene felt like a world in itself. We headed 20 kms backwards to Marvanthe to wind up the day.

My B.Q of Ottinene : 8/10

Twilight at Ottinene

Twilight at Ottinene

 

Silhouette at Ottinene

Silhouette at Ottinene

 

Walking into infinity, Ottinene

Walking into infinity, Ottinene

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MARVANTHE : Caution 1 :There are no beach touch cottages here and a sparing few of them that you can choose from. So be prepared to shell out some handsome cash at Turtle bay or make do with something very basic as Sagar Kinara. Caution 2 : Marvanthe is underdeveloped, in the sense that you have to go at least 10 kms on either side to find yourself a decent place to eat. There are no restaurants or dhabas except for a few stalls selling tea, coconuts and a few snacks on the rocky shore. Marvanthe is a splendid beach with an almost endless shoreline and man made rocks lining its periphery.  A spectacular thing about Marvanthe is the scenic view of the Arabian sea on one side and the lazy river Sowparnika on the other side parallel to each other cut by a highway in between. Not sure of why the govt is building an additional bridge at the very spot where the confluence is at its best! Marvanthe is vast and one of the most splendid beaches I’ve seen, though it is considered to be rough and  dangerous too.

My B.Q of Marvanthe : 8/10

Life is a beach! The unparalleled Marvanthe

Life is a beach! The unparalleled Marvanthe

 

Low shutter capture of splashing waves, Marvanthe

Low shutter capture of splashing waves, Marvanthe

 

Blue at its best at Marvanthe

Blue at its best at Marvanthe

 

A fisherman at Marvanthe

A fisherman at Marvanthe

 

One of a kind.. Sowpernika to the left and Arabian See to the right at Marvanthe

One of a kind.. Sowpernika to the left and Arabian See to the right at Marvanthe

We spent 2 hours soaking to our heart’s content in the Arabian Sea at Marvanthe. With hardly any tourists around during the mornings, Marvanthe should definately not be missed.

My quest to the shores less traveled had ended. One journey ceases. Another begins ..

 

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