Friday, November 18, 2016

Len Deighton - The Bernard Samson series

Amongst the carton load of books that we bought at the ‘books by the kilo’ thingy in Bombay,  was a Len Deighton book.

My only encounter with Mr. Deighton before this has been in form of the Michael Caine movie based on Deighton’s book - “The Ipcress file”. The fantastic movie that launched Michael Caine as an actor and Deighton’s writing career.

The book that I had picked up to read, by pure chance, was “Berlin Game”. It was a lucky break, I did not know that this was the first book in his trilogy of trilogies a series containing 9 books.  I had picked it up just by chance from a pile of books.
The Berlin Game, narrated by the protagonist Bernard Samson and set in the cold war era, was just the kind of spy novel that I like to read, a far cry from the charismatic and unrealistic James Bond type of spy. More in the Le Carre universe than that of Fleming.

The book had everything, a super interesting protagonist. The beautiful Fiona, his wife, with ambiguous morals. A wonderful setting, Berlin and interspersed with characters who were very well defined.

I finished the first book and HAD to read the next one, which I hunted for all over Pune. Eventually I bought it on Amazon Kindle and read it on my iPad, “Mexico Set”. 

From there on, the 9 book series has been an addiction that has demanded my utmost attention. I got through the series in a month, a month that had me at work 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week. But I had the books to look forward to after a tiring day at work. 

There is a type of melancholy that descends upon you when you realise that you’ve finished reading everything that an author has to offer and that there will be no more of the same. I am sure there is a word somewhere in some language to describe that feeling.
I felt this first, when I had gotten through Colin Dexter’s novels, featuring Inspector Morse. When the 13th and the last book was done, I knew that I would never feel the joy of reading a brand new Inspector Morse book. 
This is the same feeling I get now, as I realise, that while there is a lot of Len Deighton that I haven’t read, I will never again read a Bernard Samson book.

However, better to have read the books, than not have discovered them at all!

It is a wonderful wonderful series, very well crafted, with wonderful characterisation. It has enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge and each book leaves you asking for more.

I strongly recommend this, and recommend that you read it in order - Game, Set, Match followed by Hook, Line, Sinker and ending with Faith, Hope and Charity.

Go read.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Chasing the world's best chocolate cake

Vienna is wonderful! Little did we know however, that Vienna is home to the "World's best chocolate cake"

Lovely Vienna from atop the cathedral
A major part of our euro trip was based off of google maps and general internet research, working out directions to good restaurants and cafes was done just in time for lunch or dinner. On our very first evening in Vienna google pointed us to a couple of restaurants that had two things going for them - They were in the vicinity of where we were loitering about, and they were super highly rated.

Unfortunately, we were in the city centre, the lovely lovely city centre, which meant that the restaurants were also super expensive and of the fine dining types. This we figured out from getting to these restaurants, peeping in and then looking at the menus put up outside. Not our type of dinner place, given that there were 8 of us and meals were a time for laughter, leg-pulling and general boisterousness.

Strolling around randomly, we accidentally came across Gösser Bierklinik, a lovely pub, that served excellent pub food and some great beer.

Plate full of meat 

Barely managing to decipher the menu, I ended up ordering the "Bauernschmaus" which was described as  garnished sauerkraut with roast pork, smoked pork, sausage, bacon, potatoes and bread dumpling

It was wonderful!

Lesson learned however was that it was pointless for each individual to order a dish for themselves, the portions were large and finishing this plate of delicious pork took some doing.

At some point in the evening, over dinner, one of us, I can't remember who, figured out that Vienna is home to the "World's Best Chocolate Cake".

It was too good to be true. Google told us that it was available at a cafe called Sacher, which was a brisk walk away from the restaurant we were at.

At this point, it is worth noting that we had spent the previous night on a train to Vienna from Venice, waited at the train station for about 4 hours until we got the keys to our AirBnB apartment (our check-in time was at noon), and then spent the rest of the day walking around Vienna in the rain.
We were dressed in, what can be best described as travel casuals and we were on a budget of sorts.

Yet, Sacher and the world's best chocolate cake was a temptation too great to resist, so off we went in search of the famed Sacher Torte, as the cake is called.

The internet had described it as a cafe and we were expecting one of those quaint cafes serving pastries and the like. However, we were in for a bit of surprise when we got to "Hotel" Sacher, for Sacher looked something like this...

Pictures from the Hotel Sacher Website
What we had missed, was that Sacher is apparently amongst the foremost Luxury hotels in Europe. The doorman was dressed in all his finery and all the patrons of the restaurant were in the finest of suits and dresses.

We took a long look at the restaurant and we took a long look at each other, took a deep breath and headed right in!

After all, we had walked a couple of kilometres in the cold rain and the cake seemed within reach. This place was super posh. There was the customary coat-check - a place where, I am quite certain, the regular patrons deposited their Burberry Trench-coats. We, of course just had our travel weary jackets and some 5 Euro umbrellas to be deposited. To his credit, the man at the counter, took them without a word or a change in expression.

We went inside to be seated at a cramped table. The idea was that we would order a couple of slices of the cake between the 8 of us, enough for each one to taste and then scoot back to the safety of our apartment.
The waiter, who it is more apt to refer to as the maître d', broke this bubble. He had figured out that we were a misfit here and sternly but politely pointed out that each of us would have to order something from the menu.

The menu comes with a booklet on the History of Sacher

We had no choice but to sheepishly order some hot chocolate, apple pies and the prize of the evening - Sacher Torte.
"World's best chocolate cake!"

To say that it was a DISAPPOINTMENT would be an understatement. It was a piece of dry cake, that didn't go down well for the price that it demanded.
Maybe we were expecting too much, maybe we were too tired and overawed by the place, but we suspect that the truth is that the cake was far from the world's best.
When we were done, the maître d' stood hovering around expecting a tip. This far in our trip, we had tipped fairly generously and had never spared expense when it came to food or good wine. But tipping an arrogant, rude maître d' for a piece of dry cake was asking for a bit too much. So we left, only stopping to collect our umbrellas and jackets on the way out.

So, if you ever get a chance to go to wonderful Vienna, you know where not to eat cake. Unless of course you want to try the world's most over-rated chocolate cake.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

North East diaries - There and back

Day 1 | Day 2(morning) | Day 2(the rest) | Day 3 | Day 4 | Last couple of days...

I was heading back to Bangalore, the next day, to make it in time to attend a friend's wedding. So the challenge ahead of me was to try and pick the right thing to do on my penultimate day of vacation.

There are so many things to do in Meghalaya, that one is spoilt for choice. However having a constraint of keeping this to a day trip, limited my options.

I met Nanu, the super wonderful taxi guy, in Shillong and the original plan was to head to Mawlyonng, which, as I have mentioned before, is renowned for being one of Asia's cleanest villages and also boasts of it's own Living Root bridge.

However, as we set off for Mawlyonng, I again asked Nanu if it was really worth the visit. Fortunately he was honest and recommended I give it a skip, for two reasons - Firstly that I had already seen the root bridges near Cheerapunji and second, that the place was slightly more touristy and a little overrated.

So I asked him to turn the car around and we headed to the sacred forest - Mawphlang.

The sacred grove in comparison to the grassland around it

The sacred groves or forests are a fantastic concept. From ancient times various tracts of forests have been designated as sacred groves and saved from deforestation, thus leading to wonderful green patches with lots of trees. It is said that if one takes away anything from the forest without permission from the Gods then punishment awaits.

It was a very pleasant walk through the forest, despite having to be accompanied by a mandatory guide. So all in all I was glad I changed plans.
Leave everything as you find it

super day!
The rest of my day I spent going around the different view points near Shillong. I had only one demand of Nanu - Take me to only those places that aren't frequented by tourists, and he did not disappoint.

Nanu mentioned that there was a view point that very few people knew about, a dam he said. to be honest I was skeptical, but since I did not have any better ideas I asked him to lead the way.
After a quick drive, we got to what seemed like a parking lot of an official looking building, we parked the car and Nanu led me through a narrow pathway to right behind the building and that opened up this view!

View of the river as it approaches Mawphlang dam

This was followed by visits to places where I was literally the only person around, such as this wonderfully named waterfall.

Sweet falls - Happy valley

and the this view point that gave me a birds eye view of Shillong, though this was crowded

Shillong city seen from Laitkor peak

With such views ended my penultimate day at Shillong, on the last day I was supposed to take the taxi back to Guwahati airport, as the helicopter service was not functional that day. This would mean that I had to bear the entire cost of the taxi all by myself.

However, to my pleasant surprise, as I was settling the bill a couple of things happened. Firstly I met this Shibani. I had had briefly met her during the arduous trek to the root bridges, where we just gave each other one of those friendly nods that fellow trekkers give each other when each is traveling alone. Co-incidentally she was staying at Aerodene too and  we exchanged notes on places to see etc. Turns out that Shibani was out doing a recce for a travel company she runs, called "Wonderful World", tagged "Women on their own trip". She figured out offbeat places and then would offer holidays for women of all ages. I think this is a fantastic concept and if you are a woman who love to travel to unique places then here is the facebook page you may be interested in!

Second, my super hosts at Aerodene asked me if I would mind a fellow traveler to share the ride and the costs to Guwahati airport. This was a french tourist who was feeling quite ill and wanted to head back. She spoke no English and the hosts thought that going with Nanu would be the safest bet.

I was more than happy to have the costs shared. The only glitch was that I had planned to spend a couple of hours at the museum in Shillong, en route to Guwahati. Turned out that this was not an issue!
The lady was kind enough to wait patiently in the taxi, while I spent a good 2.5 hours at the wonderful museum going through the various exhibits on display. The best part of the musuem is it's terrace. Though I call it a terrace it was more a slanted roof of sorts that was accessible to visitors and it afforded me some beautiful views of the city around!

With that I was done with Meghalaya. It has been a super trip to the Northeast and definitely one of many more to come. Obviously if you need help planning your trip, catch hold of me, more than happy to help! :D

Monday, November 24, 2014

North East diaries - Meghalaya, you beauty!

Day 1 | Day 2(morning) | Day 2(the rest) | Day 3 | Day 4

Nov 6th, 2014. Cheerapunji, Nongriat, Meghalaya

Fortified by a quick breakfast at the cottage, I hired a taxi, thanks to help from the lovely owners of the cottage, and headed out to Cheerapunji.

A picture taken on my way back

Super solid breakfast earlier that day
While the "world's rainiest place" is supposed to be a fabulous visit during the monsoon, this time of the year also offered some fantastic sights.
My one single aim for the day however, was not to look at the view points and the sights, but to head to the living root bridges that are a trek away from Nongriat, a small village near Cheerapunji.

Some sights enroute to Cheerapunji
If you are traveling with family or unable to do the trek, you can still go see a living root bridge at Mawlynnong, which is supposed to be Asia's cleanest village. I however wanted to see the bridges right in the valley.

Now when I got to the village from where one begins the trek to the bridges, my understanding was as follows:

1. The difficulty of the trek was obviously overrated by wimpy tourists. It was sure to be a simple walk to the bridges.
2. Getting a guide may help me see some of the unexplored places in the forest. So I MUST get a guide.

I was WRONG on both counts. I did the mistake of taking a guide, who was fairly useless for anything other than to be a walking companion. He did not point out anything of interest, nor did he bother telling me any stories or anecdotes that these guides normally tend to recount (I love those!).
Also, the entire route to the bridges is paved with concrete and steps, so there is no chance of missing your way. My guide also did not let me wander off the pathway until I sternly told him that I needed to go down to a stream on the way. So hiring a guide here is a waste of money.

However, a guide in general is a great idea in most places. They make temples and other monuments come alive by pointing out some details which you would have otherwise missed. So we normally make it a point to hire a guide in most places. On this trek, though, the guide was a mistake.

On the way, I had stopped to look at a beautiful iridescent green beetle. "Cockroach!" my guide proclaimed. I was about to point out that it wasn't a cockroach. But then, he was the guide and I  was the visitor, so a "cockroach" I let it be. Point made I think, about this guide.

Secondly, the trek was quite strenuous. Though there is a walkway, the steps in the initial part of the trek are very steep and the walk isn't straightforward. 
Since I wanted to get there quick, we did the walk there with no breaks and were able to get there quick as planned.

Halfway through, the path forks, one leads to what is called the "double decker root bridge" and the other to a closer root bridge called the "Long root bridge". I decided we do the double decker one first as it was further away. 

Along the way we met some uncles and aunties who had taken the brave decision of risking the trek , and were now mid-way and seemed to be in a lot of trouble. I gave away my last bottle of water to one such couple who seemed on the verge of collapse.

The walk to the root bridges is wonderful! While the Double decker was the destination, along the way we saw a couple of more root bridges and some metal and rope, man-made bridges over streams of bright blue water. These views themselves make up for the trek to the bridges.

One of the many waterfalls along the way
A panorama of one of the hanging bridges
A small root bridge we encountered on the way
So, it took us just under an hour to get to the double decker bridge. The bridge itself was nice, but there was a family who had somehow gotten there and they had decided to undress to their underwear , and were screaming and frolicking in the water.
There is something that attracts pot-bellied uncles to waterfalls in India. Rarely do you go to a waterfall without encountering some pot bellied uncles. So much so, that I give most waterfalls a miss, just to avoid the glorious sight of uncles bathing under the waterfalls like they have never bathed in water before. So much for the images that the Liril girl ad left us with.

So with the peace and calm of the forest shattered, I only spent about 45 minutes at these bridges before heading back.

The Double Decker Bridges
The Double Decker bridge apparently is the only one of its kind on the planet. Two bridges from a single tree one above one another at two levels!

On the way back, I headed to the Long root bridge and this was wonderful! Not because it was more beautiful, but because there was no one around and it was like finding a bridge all to myself in the middle of the forest.

These bridges have been made by shaping or encouraging roots to head to the opposite side of the stream and then having them take root there. Over the years, and these take decades to form, the bridges just become stronger and stronger. The ones I was on were super sturdy and seemed immovable. Fantastic!

The fantabulous Long Root Bridge

Here again I spent about 30 minutes, just going down all the way to the stream, sitting by it, feet immersed and thinking of nothing much :)

The climb back was tougher than the way down. Much tougher. I managed the entire trip in 3hours and 45Minutes, including the breaks I took at the bridges themselves. On the way up I needed a lot more breaks. My taxi guy was surprised to see me back sooner than he expected.

I would say if you trek and have a decent fitness level, then the entire thing should take you between 3-4hours for a single bridge. Including the long root bridge, it would take you an additional 45 minutes.

The red highlight marks where the double decker bridges are versus where I was
I pushed myself to finish faster, as I thought I would want to go see more things in Cheerapunji, but my recommendation is to try and focus only on this, when there.
As you can see from the picture above, which I clicked on the way back up, the Double decker bridge is right across the valley on another mountain. At this point I was still about 30minutes away from getting back.
I heard horror stories of some folks taking 6 hours and more to do the entire trek. But that would be an extreme I think. Still, be prepared for very tired calf muscles at the end of the day.

Other than this, Meghalaya is filled with caves and waterfalls. Some of the waterfalls that I saw in Cheerapunji and Shillong were breathtaking. I can only imagine how they must look in full glory during the monsoons.

The Sylhet plains of Bangladesh

Fairly well maintained and picturesque roads
 To my amazement, a full moon was up by 4:30pm and to the west  there was a beautiful sun melting into the mountians. These are times when I wish I have those snazzy cameras with wide angle lenses and the like which can take super pictures. But I had my Nexus5 mobile phone and it would have to do.
The Moon rises over the valley

The sunset and the many hues it cast over the evening sky
It was all very surreal. On the way back we did head to a cave, which was very touristy as it was lit up from inside. Interestingly enough, I met the same gang who was in Kaziranga on the elephant safari, inside the cave!

I promised to share pictures of the root bridges with them, but soon got bored and got out of there. As we were heading back, my cab guy was more than happy to stop at many places where I just wanted to stand to look at the sun set or the moon over the valley. At one point he himself stopped and led me walking by a couple of abandoned buildings(pictured below). While I was slightly unnerved by this, we were soon at the cliff's edge.
The moon provides surreal lighting
There by the moonlight we could see one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I have ever seen!
The entire scene reminded me just like the waterfall from "Up" the movie.  The towering cliff (at which we were level), the water falling all the way to the bottom in a single free falling stream. Again I did not have the camera that was good enough to capture this view. But it is imprinted in my head and that, to me is good enough, until I visit the next time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

North East diaries - Geared up to ride to Shillong on Day 3

Day 1 | Day 2(morning) | Day 2(the rest) | Day 3...

Nov 5th 2014, Kaziranga, Shillong

I had traveled to Kaziranga like a king, alone by taxi. It had cost me a whopping 3700Rs. Not the amount of money that I had planned on spending, when I was traveling alone with a rucksack and a backpack. I had planned on heading to Shillong, since I did not have enough time to get to Arunachal. A taxi from Kaziranga to Shillong would have cost me about 7000Rs.

I had to make amends, and thus decided that I would try and take a cheaper form of transport to Shillong.

Now, on the way back towards Guwahati, the road forks at a place called Jorabat. One to head straight into the city (which is a few kilometers away) and the left turn takes you to Shillong.

Here is a hand-drawn map by yours truly to help depict, the general geography.

On the previous day, that is the day of the jeep safari, I had gone to a souvenir store near the park gates, that sold bus tickets and reserved a seat for myself on the earliest bus that went towards Shillong.
They got me a reservation from a place called Jorahat, which is where the bus started from. I was to get onto the bus at Kaziranga at 7:30am sharp.

This bus would take me to Jorabat, from where I was told I could get a shared taxi to Shillong.

Having learned not to underestimate the punctuality in Assam, I was at the bus stand at 7:15am. The drop off to the busstand from the resort cost be 200rs. which was expensive when compared to the bus ticket that had cost me 350Rs only!

The bus arrived at 7:25am and we were already on our way by 7:30. It was a superb ride. The weather was cool and pleasant, and the bus was quick. It got me to Jorabat as promised at 11am.

A short walk from where the bus dropped me, took me to the junction which lead to Shillong and there were a lot of Tata Sumo's waiting here. I got into one of them. They charged me 150Rs to take me to Shillong! Super cheap!

Then I realised, why it was this cheap. These folks regularly shuttle between Shillong and Guwahati, loading the vehicle to the brim. My taxi had 10 of us including the driver and to top it a couple of kids! The luggage went on top.

I got an interesting place to sit. I was straddling the gear box, with the gear right in between my legs!

This 92 odd kilometre journey is a climb into Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya and the trip took us about 3.5 hours. Trust me, the 2nd gear is the one I feared the most. The driver would reach out and with a crunch shift to 2nd. Eventually, I took up the pose that the footballers take, when they are defending against the free kick. I think I should have offered to change gears, rather than risk him doing the shifting. Maybe next time if I ever put myself in such a precarious position, I may do just that.
Not the most comfortable position to be in, but the journey was not too bad. We stopped once since the engine had overheated, due to the climb and once for lunch.

While a part of the road is well maintained, there is currently work underway to construct a 4 lane expressway between Shillong and Jorabat. So there are parts of the journey that are super bumpy and dusty.
There is a truck right in front of us that you cannot see, thanks to the dust
The large Umiam lake, as one gets closer to Shillong.

Once we got into Shillong (it had cost me just 500Rs.), I realised that Shillong is not the quaint little hill station I had imagined it to be. It was jam packed with traffic, from entering the city, to the Civil hospital, where I was supposed to get dropped off, took us about 30minutes.

I had spoken to one Ms.Sharlene who owned a place called the Aerodene cottage in Shillong about getting a place to stay, so I had to head there. Initially I had planned to take a local taxi to take me to the cottage. But having looked at the traffic, I decided to walk it. It was about 1.5 kms from where I had been dropped off, and the walk to the cottage, with the help of google maps and directions given over sms by Sharlene, helped me find the place easily and quicker than if I had taken a cab.

When I turned the narrow lane, that took me to the cottage I was refreshed again!

The place was beautiful, full of flowers and away from the hustle bustle of the main road, despite being close to the main road.

Aerodene cottage
The rooms

The walk had also helped, after a cramped ride to Shillong. I checked-in, had a quick shower and headed out to check out some place to have some coffee.

Having looked at  the traffic, I had decided to see shillong by walk. I love walking and I think the best place to explore any city is by walking.
I headed to Cafe Shillong, a nice coffee place on Laitumkhrah main road. This place was about 1.5 kms from the cottage. I snacked on chicken hot dog and washed it down with cups of Hot Chocolate.

Laitumkhrah road, had a lot of eating joints and also is home to "Caramel", apparently a very good pastry shop. I made a mental note to come back and get some pastries from here as had been recommended by a friend from Shillong. But I never got around to doing that. Maybe next time.

Shillong was cold and lovely to walk in. I got back in time for dinner at the cottage. Good food.

While I had no exact plans about what to do in Shillong, I knew I wanted to see the root bridges, which required a trek from a village near Cherrapunji. So that is what I planned for day 4.

To the root bridges!

Monday, November 10, 2014

North East diaries - Charge of the rhino brigade, How far can Fou and Stefan go?, and other stories

Day 1 | Day 2(morning) | Day 2(the rest)...

Nov 4 2014, The rest of the day

At 2:00 in the afternoon, having had a filling lunch we were off again. Now the Eastern gate is a little more far away when compared to the Central section. So it took us about 20 minutes to get there. Pushkar had to get his permit, which again we got without further ado and we were ready for the jeep safari.

A slight digression to provide some information regarding the park, which I had not bothered to check-up on before I got to Kaziranga, but may be of use to any of you planning to head there.

Kaziranga is mostly a grassland, which is flooded during the rainy season and this means that the park has to be closed to tourists. Depending on when the rains begin, the park may close as early as mid-April, only to reopen on the 1st of November. (I was just in time!)

This, however means that not the entire jeep trail is open in November. That is because, a lot of the roads and bridges along the trail would be in need of repair after being underwater for most part of the rainy season and a major section of the trail is closed off for these repairs. So we had only a limited trail available to us, that day. 

Despite this, November is a great time to visit the park, because the poor animals have been used to months of privacy and tend to venture out on the trails, unaware that us tourists will be out there gawking at them. So more the chance to see animals from close-up.

What happens to the animals when the park is submerged in water? I hear you ask.
The Elephants, I believe, tend to travel long distances, so they get away. The Rhinos move in a relatively smaller radius. In order to provide shelter and dry land to the animals, the National park with the help of the Indian army has created "islands" using large tracts of land, these are higher than the rest of the grassland and come the rains, the Rhinos and other animals get onto these areas. So all good.

Okay, back to the Jeep safari, so I wasn't expecting anything spectacular, but as mentioned, I was hoping Pushkar would point out certain bird and animal behaviour that would enlighten me.

However, within 10 minutes of entering the park this happened 

"This" was a Rhino charging right at us! Now,there were 3 of us in the jeep. The driver at the steering wheel(fairly obvious), Pushkar was in the section behind the driver's seat and I was in the third section of seats on the jeep.

We had stopped by a lake to look at a flock of migratory birds, when we heard a call, and a thundering sound. When we looked back, we saw this rhino charging right at us. It was like being on a railway track and an engine coming right at you!

Just when we were wondering what we do next, the rhino veered off to its right, only to be followed by another rhino!
Which is when we realised, that the first one was being chased by this rival and had decided to make a run for it, rather than stay and fight.

Though Pushkar has done a fantastic job of capturing the moment in the picture above, it still does not do justice to situation. There is NOTHING like experiencing first hand a rhino running at you.

Now, the second rhino saw us, and decided that we were slightly more interesting than chasing the other rhino. I think he was just tired of all the running and wanted a break. He spent that break time, standing and staring us down. As if challenging us to try and pick a fight. So for the next 17 hours we kept staring at each other. Okay, that is not true. It was not 17hours, this staring bout lasted a few minutes, but felt like hours and we weren't complaining. This was a rare thing to happen and we were transfixed.

Eventually, the rhino decided that we were, after all, not that interesting as to occupy the rest of his evening. So, he marked his territory (on the trail, not on the jeep) and rhino, exit stage left.
Though there were many safari jeeps ahead of us, they had all missed this, as they had not stopped to look at birds in a pond. We were the only spectators around.

Each of these safari's last for about an hour and half to two hours. It depends on how much you want to stop and observe. But the gates close at 5pm and you have to get out, before that.

On this safari, we saw a lot of rhinos up close. Maybe, it was the eastern section. Maybe, it was the time of the day. I did not bother clicking any pictures of these rhinos. We were still overcome by what we had just witnessed.

The landscape is fascinating
The trail
Our last stop in the safari was a view point by a river. All the jeeps congregated there and it soon got fairly noisy. We were allowed to alight from our jeeps here and use the restrooms if need be. Now, these restrooms were a thatched hut kind of affair. Simple, basic and serving the purpose.

As we were walking about stretching our legs, we noticed a HUGE mother rhino with her calf right behind the restrooms, merely meters away from where we all stood!

This is extremely dangerous and if the rhino had decided that we were a threat, she would have definitely charged. The result of which would have been fairly tragic. 

There was a bit of scare when the rhinos looked at us, and the forest guards had their guns ready (to fire in the air). But nothing much happened, luckily.
I was surprised that the guards actually let these camera toting folks so close to the animals in the first place. But well, I guess everyone deserves a bit of excitement.

When I got back to the parked jeep, I saw that our driver was perched on its top. He said "I have seen a rogue rhino bring an elephant down with its mahout, I am taking no chances with a rhino".

Well played, I think.

Driving back through the jungle as the sun set on the landscape around us was an experience in itself. Everything seemed so serene and calm. Beautiful.

Crossing a river at dusk

Kaziranga, is one of the places, where the Indian Rhino made its last stand. Today there are over 3000 Rhinos in Kaziranga alone.

The situation was not so great 90 years ago. As this report on wikipedia tells us.

source: wikipedia
However, you will notice that the population shows an upward trend, right around 1972. Wikipedia tells me that this is close to when Kaziranga was designated as a National Park (1968). In fact it was as early as 1905, when it was declared a reserve forest, thereby giving the Rhinos some respite from being hunted for sport. In 1910 all rhino hunting was banned in India. Just in time, as you can see from the numbers.

While the numbers today are nowhere compared to where they could have been, Kaziranga, and other national parks have played a vital role in the conservation of this magnificent creature. Even to this day the Rhino is hunted down by poachers for its horn(which is believed to have great medicinal properties).
One of the suggested approaches to deter poaching, is to dehorn rhinos. That is, to remove Rhino horns. This apparently has worked in Namibia, but I think that it is a stupid suggestion. But then, that's just my opinion. Maybe, there is more to it than meets the eye. A report with the decision is to come out sometime this year. 

Anyway, that was some random gyan about the Indian Rhino. Back at the resort, we caught up with Fou and Stephan for tea.

How far can Fou and Stephan go?
I had met Fou and Stephan during lunch, they were in biking gear and were looking for a place to stay. They had come on their motorbikes all the way from Germany! This had taken them 5 months.

It was fascinating to hear their stories, and experiences across all the countries they had been too, I had to time and again pick my jaw from the ground and put it back in place, only for it to drop again, with the next story they recounted.

They decided to just quit their jobs and motorbike across the world. They say, that time is not a constraint. Money is. Super!
Their plan is to get as far as Australia and then depending on how the situation is get a job there before heading back home.

We spoke at length and swapped notes. I gave them what little info I had on Kaziranga and they gave me info on Germany and things to do there.

They have blog regularly so that you can follow their travel > Howfarcanwego, I strongly recommend you read it now! If this does not inspire you to pack your bags and travel, then nothing else will.

A walk in the woods at night!
Another bonus from the trip was, getting to meet Mr. Manoj Gogoi and his team, a small group of naturalists who work on rehabilitation of snakes and birds. Pushkar had made their acquaintance earlier that morning and he had been invited to the rented farm from where they operated. The idea was to try and foray into the forest at night. Pushkar asked me if I wanted to tag along and I was more than happy to!

Manoj, is a simple guy, who has a deep passion for animal rescue and rehabilitation. So much so that he puts in almost his entire salary into this activity!

You can read up about their work on their website -

We reached the place (about 3 kms from our resort) at around 9 and then headed to the edge of the forest. Just that evening a group of elephants had crossed into the farms that border the forest to dine on the paddy.
We were hoping to encounter some elephants, in the dark. It was a scary thought, but the excitement of it all, made me tag along.

Due to this man and animal conflict that arises from the fields being close to the jungle, the farmers have to stay up at night in their little machans , with tiny kerosene lit lanterns. 

If an elephant or a group of elephants do come along, their duty is to protect the fields, by chasing away the intruders. I would not sign up for such a job. But they have no choice but to resort to this to protect their livelihood. 
They use a sharp implement tied onto a bamboo stick, much like a spear. However, near the business end of this spear, they wrap a ball of cloth, dipped in a flammable liquid such as kerosene. If the elephants have to be driven out, they light this on fire and then prod the elephants away. The fire provides a little safety to the farmers, as the animals aren't too keen on facing a flaming spear.

Our little trek to the edge of the forest across the fields, was lit by the moon. We avoided switching on the torches so as to ensure we do not startle any animal that we may suddenly come across. Nothing eventful happened. No elephant, boar or rhino made a foray into the fields when we were around. 
We did encounter a couple of nightjars and this little frog, that had made it's way into a shoe :) 

Just hitching a ride, yo
It was past 11:30pm when we got back to the resort and I had an early morning bus to catch, to make it to Shillong the next day. I had had a fabulous day and crashed for the night.

More on my journey to Shillong in my next post. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

North East diaries - Kaziranga Day 2, The Morning.

| Day 1 | Day 2(morning)...

(I have divided day 2 into a couple of posts, as there is so much that happened that day.)

Nov 4 2014, Before Lunch

The daylight is gone by 5pm here, I am writing part of this at 6:30pm and it feels like it is past dinnertime. I was wondering why, and then realized that we are quite far east relative to Bangalore and maybe India should have different time-zones.

The other thing is, everyone seems to be very punctual. I was asked to be ready for the Elephant Safari at 4:45am sharp. Now in another place this easily means 5:15am is when people will gather and 5:30 is when one would leave.

Not here!

Though I got up at 4:30am (for the second day in a row! Is this really a vacation?) I only reached the lobby at 5am (thinking I would be one of the first to get there). Only to realize, that one vehicle had already left and the other was just about to. I barely managed to stop the last one and clambered onto the rooftop, for a chilly morning ride to the park gates, that woke me up sufficiently enough.

Now the elephant safari is difficult to get onto, there are limited seats and loads of people who want to be on them. I got in at first attempt, but some folks from my resort, were not as lucky.
The key is to give the resort folks advance notice abut your intentions of going to the safari.
Valet service for the elephants
The safari was great. Wading through the tall elephant grass, getting front row seats to the Rhino.
The mahouts had a fair amount of knowledge, but the chief entertainment came from the group of tourists that was on another elephant, within earshot.
The sunrise magically lit up proceedings

Lot of Rhino sightings
The lady was keen to know if the Rhino was “vegetarian”. The uncle was more interested in knowing who would win if an Elephant fought with a Rhino. The best of the day however was another uncle who made the genius observation that “The elephant is one of the only animals that looks the same from the front and the back”. If I had the chance, I would have liked to point the uncle to some of those walking carpets that pass off as dogs, which look the same no matter what angle you look at them from.
An adorable baby elephant tags along
I was done with the 40 minute Elephant Safari by 6:30am and headed back to the resort for breakfast. Someone passing by asked me if I wanted to go on a jeep safari. Since I had nothing better to do, I said "Of course yes! Let's go"
One thing you need to get onto the jeep safari is a permit to the park. Remember, this permit, costing about 450Rs., lasts the entire day, so you should plan to get it once in the morning and do all your safaris on the same day. The Forest dept. officials who gave out these permits were extremely polite and nice to talk to. Which was pleasantly surprising!
Kaziranga has many sections (Eastern, Central, Western), and I was to cover the central section by the first Jeep safari. This is highly recommended if you are a bird enthusiast.  Though I did not see much, other than some more Rhinos, Swamp deer, hog deer and wild boars from a distance, it was a good ride. I had the jeep to myself, which was a little expensive.
I was done by about 10:30am

This image features many species of animals in it, all in the distance

Back at the hotel I met Pushkar. Pushkar is a photography and wildlife enthusiast, and was playing nature guide to a group of Austrians.

We got talking and decided that we could head out to the Eastern section of Kaziranga on a jeep right after lunch. All this while he helped catch a Copper headed trinket snake that had wandered into the resort and release it into the forest nearby, amidst a flurry of excitement among the rest of us.

A copper headed trinket snake with a mouse on the lunch menu

Now I am super looking forward to this safari in the afternoon. Never give up on the chance to accompany someone who is a nature enthusiast. I am sure that Pushkar is going to point out things that I would otherwise miss out. There is so much to animal behaviour, that makes any trip into the jungle interesting, if only one were to be able to observe and understand it. 

Here is to hoping that the afternoon is as interesting as the morning!