Saturday, 16 November 2013

Unforgettable Roopkund

I never believed in love at first sight till I actually felt it. The first trip to Himalayas ensured that I went back time and again and each time I came back dreamy eyed and more in love. No wonder people say once you go there, you will come back addicted.
This time the plan was to cover part of an ancient pilgrimage route up to a mystery lake. The lake is said to contain skeletons more that 500 years old which floats on water when the ice melts during the month of May.

After initial hiccups with Air India and the flights, finally the group had arrived at Kathgodam. A day long journey laid ahead of us. Not knowing what to expect I started off but was pleasantly surprised with the views I saw, pine forests/plantations covered in parthenium flowers, horse chesnut trees in bloom, the rainbows that appeared every time there was a light drizzle and sun, the small roadside restaurants over -looking the valley and the play of clouds on the mountains.

Every curve took my breath away but the snow capped mountains remained hidden. Finally just as the sun was going down we arrived at Lohajung our basecamp.  
Excited but tired from the day long journey I quickly managed to finish formalities and hit the bed, it felt damp and cold, sleep seemed far away. Much later in the trek I craved for this very same bed just so that I could get my 40 winks, but until then it wasn’t where I wanted to be.
The night seemed to have passed quickly and everyone was up before the morning bed tea call, finally Nanda Gunti was visible and as the sun rays changed colours the mountains followed the suit, the birds hopped around unmindful of the people watching them. A pair of Grey Tits hopped in the branched close by, a whistling thrush foraged at the garden. At a distance I could see warbler sized birds play. Given a choice, I would have stayed back just to keep watching them. But then time was at a premium and we had to leave.

The day one of the trek was to a village called Didina (8800 ft), it seemed far away when they pointed it out to us at Lohajung. The route to get there; simple down one hill and another hill and then climb up the next hill. So we started, the walk felt like my treks in Western Ghats, green trees everywhere, algae growing on them, waterfalls all along the way and leeches. 

The forest was alive with bird calls, not one I could identify, luckily some made brief appearances and I could catch a glimpse of them. The brown fronted woodpeckers seemed most common and kept company all along, Himalayan Griffon let us know he was there, some babbler played hide and seek in the bushes and birds similar to white eyes has me running around the trees. But rain ensured that cameras were all packed and I didn’t stop too many times to watch them. When I finally reached Didina, sitting inside a village home I was able to enjoy sights of these beauties again.  The peach trees were bearing fruits and the birds seem to have a feast there. It looked like it was the season for red millet, the farms all round had millet growing, they looked more like red flowers and for a long time I was wondering what they were. Inside the wooden walled house in Didina night passed rather slowly. While it was warm inside the house sleep evaded most of us for a long time, the pitter patter of rain outside did not give too much hope for the next day either. When I did manage to sleep it was time to trek again.

The next pit stop was at Ali Bugyal, the region is known for never ending meadows, but to get there one has to first climb a mountain. The rain forest feeling continue through most of the stretch, the mist ensure I could not see beyond 10 mtrs, the air had an eerie feeling, but for the chirping of birds at a distance the whole thing felt like scene from a horror movie.

Once in awhile when the God of winds decided to be kind we could see mountains around otherwise it was misty and wet. Some parts of the mountains had remnants of flowers that might have been in bloom few weeks back, I could only imagine how pretty it might have looked.

Since the route we were taking was not visible, the guides were constant asked how much further and they kept saying just after the next bend. After couple of bends we did final reach the camp.  The evening was spent exchanging stories from past treks and travels.

The walk to Patal Nachauni (12815ft) was one of the easier ones, while it was a long walk it was mostly walking through the meadows. Had it been a clear day it would have amazing to see miles and miles of green.

The highlight for the day was seeing the bearded vulture. As some of us walked in the mist we suddenly saw the bird fly past. After a short distance it turned and headed straight towards us, what a sight it was and what a pretty bird it was.

The excitement of seeing it kept me going for a long time. But for the weather this camp site would have been the most beautiful one.

When the clouds lifted for a brief moment it relieved rows and rows of mountains, and in the valleys one could see small hamlets.

Tailess rabbits (pika ), white wagtails, white capped redstart  and mountain pigeons kept me occupied in the evening. Music and camp fire kept the spirits high and we were just 2 days from the final destination.

The climb to Bagua Basa/ Bhagwabhasa  (14353 Ft) was a short one, but the gain of altitude and angle of climb makes it slightly tough.  We were advised to walk slowly as this was a sudden gain of altitude in a short time. The break at Kalu Vinayak (a small temple with Ganesh Idol made of Black stones) was a welcome one.

After a mandatory prayer to the deity the group set off to the campsite. At 14500 ft there were no trees or shrubs, but then I saw the famed Brahma Kamal. After all the years of hearing about it I finally saw it all along the path to Bagua Basa.

The other lifer for me was seeing a himalayan weasel, the fact that it was so well camouflaged made it difficult to spot initially. A highly active animal it navigated through the rocks and disappeared in 2 mins. At Bagua Basa the terrain was rockier and the weather changed within minutes. It was cloudy and suddenly there was a burst of hailstones and the next minute it was sunny and one could see rainbow.

At a distance layers of mist seemed to approach and in no time engulfed us. The play of wind and light had me spell bound, but changing weather also meant it got cold within minutes. It was the coldest I had ever felt. Thermal, gloves, thick jackets clothes layers were worn and still I was shivering in the night. When I woke up in the morning the ground was frozen, there were small ice formations on the plants and rocks.  
The day started early, the plan was to reach the lake and then return to the previous campsite on the same day. As I started to the climb to Roopkund (15750 ft) I could feel effect of high altitude, every step seemed like an effort especially at the last stretch, the 3 kms seemed like forever but finally I was there. A small walk on the snow and I had reached.

The sun god was kind it was a clear day.  The skeletons didn’t look as scary as I thought it would. While some of the fellow trekkers went ahead to a pass I stayed back.

Looking around I was surprised to find butterflies at 15750 ft. It had me wondering how they survived with all the snow/ice and heat.  Hot Maggie at the peak warmed my bones a bit and I was ready to head back. Descend was not as easy as I imagined it to be, I struggled through it. The stay at Patal Nachauni wasn’t pleasant, it rained through the night. By the end of it I was waiting to get back to base camp.
The trek back to basecamp was a long one, the plan was to walk till Wan (a small village) and then take the jeep back. While the walk downhill put pressure on the knees and toes I was happy to be leaving the meadows. At Bedni Kund, there was a small tea shop where I stopped for tea, first sign of civilization after days. After 5 kms of walking I was back in the woods, the birds were calling, I could hear water gushing and it lifted my spirit. 2 kms before Wan turned out to be a birder’s paradise. Babblers, warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, flinches didn’t seem to be bothered about human presence. They sometimes settled in bushes hardly 20 meters away.  While I cursed my luck for not having charge on my camera battery, I am still upset I didn’t have enough energy left to take noted of their features to identify them later.

Reaching Wan brought the trek to an end. Back at the base camp the mood was upbeat, a party was sponsored, promise to keep in touch were made and just like that the wonderful journey was over.
I did this trek with a group called Trek The Himalayas, it has been one of the best experiences so far with regards to organized treks. They ensured we were well looked after and all our needs were looked after. If ever I had to do a trek in this region again I would go back to them

Mythology and Folk Lore
The pilgrimage starts from a place called Nauti till Homekund and happens once in 12 years. The local folk lore has it that ages ago Goddess Parvati took this route to meet Lord Shiva. On the way she is said to have created the 4 vedas at Bedni Kund and then proceed further. The next stop for her is Patal Nachauni where is said to have left her dancing party. Since they insist on going with her, she makes them dance so much that they lose their sense and fall into a cave. She then closes the cave proceeds. Ganesh who was accompanying her felt tired and decided to stay put a Kalu Vinayak. At Bagua Basa she decides to leave her tiger and continue on foot hence the name.  At Roopkund she requests Lord Shiva to quench her thirst; Lord Shiva uses his Trishul to create Roopkund. When Parvati bends over to drink water she sees her reflection in the lake. Thus the name Roopkund is given. From here she proceeds to Homkund where the Rishi perform puja and then to Nanda Devi
The skeletal remains dating back to 12th Century. According to the locals the King of Kanuj was on his way to Homkund on a pilgrimage. In his trope along with his army and family he had dancers and entertainers.  Since it was pilgrimage, the fact that King didn’t follow the decorum made goddess Nanda Devi upset and she cursed the dancers to turn into stones. And when the king reached Roopkund there was a storm with huge hail stones that killed everyone.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Magic of Nandi

Bangalore’s closest hills station holds a special place in my heart. While most of my memories are of early morning drives on the curvy roads and the mist, that is not the only reason for this.
During a trip with my friends I discovered that one could walk up a flight of steps to get to Nandi Hills. While I could not explore the path then I have since done couple of hikes here. As opposed to the crowded noisy Nandi Hills most of us know this route is scenic, lined with gulmohar, mango and jamun trees. During summer while the birds entertained me with their songs, I got to taste some wild mangoes and jamun while walking up.
On one occasion I spent time watching yellow browed bulbul drink water from a dripping tank, another time babblers kept me company for a long time. Closer to Tipu’s guest house I had my first close encounter with Tickle’s Blue Fly Catcher. But birds are not the only ones to look out for; the trail also has a fair share of butterflies, insects and wild flowers.

The only eye sore is the garbage that is thrown closer to Tipu’s Guest house. That brings you back to reality and the impact crowds can have.
Couple of pointers
There is not restaurant on this route till you reach the top so carry water and some eats.

Careful of monkeys that are on their way up, food seems to tempt them so please keep them inside your bags.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The amazing world of trees

I love the springs and summers of Bangalore, they bring out the best in Bangalore. It’s like the heavens have a special team lined up to shower flowers and leaves on me as I drive. It amazing how trees along the various roads burst into yellow, orange, purple and pink flowers, it’s truly a mesmerising sight.
While I loved watching them year after year and always wanted to be photographed sitting or standing under them I never really bothered to learn more about them. I would always be amazed by how people I knew name trees by just looking at them, while my knowledge didn't go beyond knowing 5 trees. After my first tree walk I could not recall more than 1 tree. I kept struggling for a while

One of the advise I was given was to try identify the trees that were in bloom or fruiting. Since the flowers and fruits look different it’s easier to identify them. Once you know the names then you just have to observe them more to know other details. This has been the best advice I have received and have started putting it to practise. It's amazing how much you can learn just by looking at the flowers. 
Cassia fistula/ Vishu Flower


Rain Tree
If a flower blooms during the night and the likely pollinators for the flowers are the bats. Older flowers on the same plant/tree might have different colour just so that pollinators (birds, bees and other insects) can differentiate and tell the flowers they have already visited and the ones that are fresh.
White Plumeria

Cannon Ball. Nagalinga tree , Couroupita guianensis

Copper Pod

I have started to realise that leaves differ as well. Not just in size but they have different patterns and structures. Botany was never my strong hold and I find understanding leaf patterns a little more difficult. When it comes to leaves you look at the stalk and identify the nodes (slightly swollen parts on the stalk). If there is single leaf emerging from there it’s a simple leaf otherwise compound. The vein patterns on the leaves can tell you the kind of tree/plant it belongs to.
Peepal Tree

pongamia leaf
The other thing to look for is the bark patterns, some might be smooth while others broken and jarred. For now I am still finding my way through the complex plant world but the journey so far has been interesting and I realise I have just about scratched the surface there is a long way to go.

My current bible for flowering tree in Bangalore:
And the next link has helped me to some extent to understand leaf patterns
For more hands on experience would suggest going for

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ant Walk with EcoEdu

As if birds and butterflies were not confusing enough to learn about, I decided to join a walk about ants. So far I had learnt to recognise weaver ants and stay away from their sting.

Unlike the early hours required for birding the day started at a comfortable time. As in the case of most nature walks in Bangalore, this one started in Lalbagh as well.
The walk started with us being asked to draw an ant. That was when it dawned on most of us that we had seen one, but never observed one.
Much like other insects ants have 3 pairs of legs, a head, thorax and an abdomen. Between the thorax and abdomen they have the petiole which may contain nodes and spine.
Armed with this initial knowledge we started to look for ants. We took one step and lo! behold we found 2 species scurrying away.Our expert for the walk was Sunil Kumar, (Author of ‘On a trail with Ants’), he quickly picked an ant up, and while he got bitten he showed us example of what he had explained in theory.

Ants were turning out to be very interesting creatures, while I knew they lived in colonies and it was controlled by the Queen, I didn't know the extent of control the queen had.
The Queen mates once in a life time and stores the sperms, she then lays eggs in batches. For the first batch she finds an ideal spot and lays eggs, tends to them and feeds the larva. These are then the first set of workers who takes on the work of tunnelling,  foraging, nursing etc. Normally older ants are sent out to forage and fight, this way even if they die the loss is minimal. Queen also decides when the off-spring will be male and when it will be female or a queen. The male and queen ants are born with wings, so that they can fly away and mate.
Each nest has its own defence mechanism and pattern. You will find fiery ants disperse a lot of sand/ mud around their nest. Godzilla ants will have decorations (flowers, feathers) around its nest. Weaver ants weave leaves together to make nests.

In some sense ants are like humans, just like we are divided by caste they are divided by the work they do.Ants also have varied diet  some are vegetarians and feed on seeds and grains. Some love fruits and nectars  While some are non vegetarians feeding on other insects and ants.In some case size of the ants vary according to the task they do. Like in the case of Godzilla Ant the bigger ants are soldiers, medium ants foliages and smaller ants tend to the nests.

While we soaked all this information, people in Lalbagh found it amusing that kids and adults alike were on their fours crawling and looking at the ground. They stopped by at the tree we were starring at trying to figure what we were looking at. I think we provided a lot of free amusement to a lot of people that day.
Finally when it was announced that the 2 hours were up I was shocked. It didn't feel like 2 hours and we had hardly walked more than few meters.
As I walked towards the breakfast joint I couldn't help think how I was lucky to have found EcoEdu group and be part of this amazing walk.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Kashmir Great Lakes Trek (Aug 12 to 18, 2012)

Tell someone you are headed to Kashmir and the first thing they will ask you – “Is it safe?”
A trip here last year convinced me it was and when a friend mentioned The Great Lakes Trek, I went ahead and registered.
As the trek dates came closer, I started to worry about my fitness level, my preparation was really bad and I was not sure if I would complete the trek. I was constantly motivated and encouraged by friends. Finally when the DAY arrived I decided to give it a shot. The worst that could happen would be that I might have to return without completing the trek.I was going with five of my friends and all through the flight I kept warning them about the possibility of them carrying me back.

After a day’s stop over at Srinagar, the group reported at the camp set up 3 kms before Sonamarg. Since the tents were already set up all I had to do was choose one, sit back wait for others to join. Small hilllock was explored in the meantime. Other than the fantastic view of snow capped mountains and distant valleys, we also got to watch some birds in action. The stream close to our camp site worked as a bird bath, it was amusing to watch yellow-breasted greenfinch enjoy a dip in the water every now and then, russet sparrow juvenile would chirp not stop till the parent returned with feed. 

A lone stone chat appeared from no where, allowed me a record click and disappeared the way it came.
As trekkers trickled in, hot pokodas were served and thus began the journey to paradise.  The night was spent star gazing as a meteoroid shower was expected. Spirits and energy were high, conversations continued till late night.
The next day was supposed to be a 2 hours climb to Shekdur, followed by descent. I was dreading this part, after all it would tell me how fit I was.
Huffing and puffing I made it through the first 30 mins realised that it wasn't so bad. The climb was steep initially, after a while it was a gradual ascent. The high altitude made its presence felt; even a simple walk felt like an uphill. The views were breath taking.

The path started as meadows dotted with nomad huts , grazing horses and sheep, it then gave way for Chinar trees whose leaves looked like that of maple, and then we walked along the Nachnai River crossing small streams along the way. While some of us hopped on rocks to avoid getting wet, some took a direct dip in the streams.
The camp for the day was along Nachnai river, since we reached by 2 pm we had plenty of time to explore and relax. The pass that we had to conquer the next day looked like a tiny dot at a distance.  
While some entertained themselves by playing Antakshari, Prasad and I walked around trying to find birds. The white capped water redstart  didn't think we had enough exercise for the day and made us walk around quite a lot just to get a good look at it. Finally when we managed to identify its territory, we found a spot to sit and watched it feed and sing. And when that disappeared behind the rocks, we noticed a tiny brown bird camouflaged beautifully, walking daintily along the edges. Slightest of movement would send it hiding behind a rock. We later figured that it was a brown dipper. The other interesting sighting was a falcon, though it was very brief it was exciting enough to keep us occupied.
We started early the next day (at least by my standards). While it was cold when we started, layers of warm clothes were discarded with a short time. The start was not pretty as we walked past sheep pen we covered our nose, tried as much as possible to avoid stepping on sheep droppings. Of course when none of that helped we just cursed and moved on.
 Once we got past the Nachnai pass the walk turned out to be like a stroll in the gardens. 
The valley was a carpet if flowers; one could see pink, yellow, blue, red, white flowers in bloom everywhere. The guide pointed out the ones that could be eaten. Multiple breaks were taken to spend time admiring them and the view.
Other than the valley of flowers, the highlight for the day was seeing Vishnusar Lake. 

Crystal clear water, slight reflection of the glacier and mountains, sound of flowing water, of course a little bit of sunshine would have made it wonderful. I am not sure if it was the altitude of the proximity to humans, we hardly got to see birds. The only lucky sighting was marmot which ventured out every time there was slight sunshine. Our guide managed to strike a deal with the Shepard and procure Himalayas trout. Aditi spent time in cooking it for the team who ate it with relished.
As we sat around the bonfire that night, Sachin mentioned the trek was good but he didn’t have any major event/happening to report on Facebook. I think God heard him. As the next day turned out to be a day designed just to answer his prayer and it matched scenes from my nightmare.
All along the guide kept warning us about day 3, it was supposed to be the hardest and longest. Assuming it will be a steep climb and continuous walking, we had stocked snacks and water. What we didn’t expect was heavy rains. Just as we crossed Vishnursar it started to drizzle and from then on it just got heavy. The non stop rains ensured that cameras stayed in and as we passed Krishnasar lake we didn't bother to stop, but continued towards Gadsar Pass. The rains had made the track slushy and as more people passed the track it got slippery  People tried scrambling up where possible. This meant most of us were going up in wrong directions. After a couple of slips I was starting to get worried. Every two step I took I went back 5 steps. Then like angels Subbu and one of the guides were next to me, they ensured I made it to the top. While we waited next to the glacier for the other to join, the temperature kept dropping. I could feel my fingers go numb. When we could not bear it any longer some us convinced the guide to let us keep walking as it would keep us warm. View from Gadsar Pass was beautiful. One could see 3 lakes from up there. Gadsar Lake itself was among the best we saw, with chunks of ice floating in it, the shore surrounded by yellow flowers. We constantly wished the rain would stop and we could enjoy the views a bit more. While the walk was among the most beautiful tracks, wet, cold and hungry the scenery could not be enjoyed. The downpour continued through the night forcing us to eat dinner under the umbrella  While I kept praying for it to be dry the next day, Aditi kept reassuring me saying that in Himalayas if it rains through the night the next day is sure to be a sunny day.
The next morning the rains had stopped, the mist hung low. 
Chirping birds welcomed the day. I got to make a picture Rose Finch for the first time and managed to get really close to Fire Fronted Serin. 
While we traced the path we had to take I noticed a raptor circling and landing along the path. On closer observation I could see a lot of crows doing the same. My sixth sense told me there could be a carcass there. I was hoping that we would go as close as possible to it.
We started quite late and it gave us time to access weather conditions. After waking through a small stretch of narrow and slippery path things started to look better. 
Clear sky, green grass and horses grazing made the setting look like scenes from an English movie. Since there were no rains one could stop often to smell the flowers and eat wild strawberries.
As we got closer to the spot where I had seen the raptor land, I noticed a bunch of them. Since the group was slightly noisy, as soon as we approached they started to hop away. It was surprising that they didn’t fly away, but choose to hop to a higher point. Even when the guide followed them except for one that flew, the rest just hopped higher. After watching them for sometime we moved on.
When we crossed the Indian Army camp close to Satsar Lake, we were greeted with chocolates, biscuits and hot water. For people walking for hours that seemed like heaven. The 7 lakes of Satsar were not very impressive as the earlier ones but were still beautiful. As I walked past the lake the terrain changed and became rockier. One had to jump boulders to get across. The camping site was beautiful. It was in a valley next to a stream. The day was extremely cold and I chose to spend most of the day inside the tent. When I did manage to step out I joined the group playing a game called Mafia.
Day 5 started with me chasing a falcon for a shot. The closer I tried to get further away it went. I finally gave up and headed but. We started the trek with some boulder crossing and soon were on the path towards Zach. Since the top of Zach pass was not visible we had no clue about the distance that needed to be covered. When we could finally see the pass, people on top of the Zach Pass looked like ants, it seemed like there was lot of walking to do. But in reality it was not that bad. Finally when the pass is conquered the view of 2 lakes at the base of Mt Harmukh is spectacular. 

On a clear day one can see 4 lakes from here. Due to the cloud cover I didn’t get to see all 4 at the same time. The camp was supposed to be at one of the lakes. The decent to camp site looked scary. It was almost like a vertical drop. Since it was a rocky terrain one could not just run down. By the time I reached the camp my knees were wobbly and I could not wait to rest them.
Being one of the first to arrive meant that I had the lake all to myself.  I used the opportunity to take a quick dip.  The water felt refreshing, especially when one has not had a bath for 5 days. The only uncomfortable bit was realising that the place had locals fishing close by. 
Later in the evening when the rest of the group took a dip, some of us decided to explore Gangabal Lake. From Zach pass it looked twice the size of the lake we had camped next to (Nundkul). Walk up to Gangabal provide us with some impressive view of Nundkul and a nice walk along the stream. It was hard to see the complete Gangabal Lake from the side we were on, but it still looked very beautiful.
Back at the camp it was time to cook, someone had suggested we cook for the porters and cooks who had travelled with us. Brilliant idea but most of us were not used to cooking for a large number. Though all the girls put in a lot of effort, I would not for sure say this was a great success. Note to self: never get roped into such idea.
What made up for dinner experience was the performance by the locals (helpers, mule owners). They sang a lot of Kashmiri songs, danced to some and had all of us tapping our feet. While some were sad about the trek ending, I was looking forward to a proper bath and a soft bed.
Before the trek, I had read that the descent on the last day was steep and tiring. So when the trek started I expected the descent to start almost immediately. But that was not the case. There were hours of gradual climb to complete before the descent. The view continued to be stunning but there were lot more people doing short treks. At one point where we stopped for a break our guide dislocated his elbow while trying some photography stunts.  Luckily Ankur and Nanditha managed to do first aid and we continue walking.

Soon the meadows that we trek on gave way to pine trees. 

The fragrance of pine was captivating. I spent some time trying to figure which part of the tree emitted it but could not identify it. There were a lot of butterflies puddling on horse dropping. Constant stream of horses and trekker didn't allow me enough time to capture the fluttering beauties.
The decent was gruelling, my heel and toes had started to blister, and walking had started to get painful. While I could see the end point of the trek, it seemed to really far away. Finally after asking multiple people walking by I was overjoyed to hear that I was almost there. It was a relief to reach Naranag and sit. Felt like heaven to take off the shoes. After a plate of Maggie noodles, reality hit me. The trek was over, while I had spent the previous night hoping for it to end quickly now I wished I didn't have to head back. I wanted to walk in the flower filled meadows again. But like all good things it had ending and with a heavy heart I had to accept it.
The hope that I will go back there again continues to live on.