Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Weekend at Mamanduru Forest Stay.

'The Moonstone' is a 19th Century novel widely considered to be the first detective novel. The protagonist of the book takes a walk whenever he is an agitated state of mind or whenever he needs to 'clear his thoughts'. This was Victorian England and this habit of taking long walks was something I have come across in  a number of 19th Century books and I have read many. In a perfect coincidence I was reading 'The Moonstone' when I was staying in the snug little cottage of Mamanduru, which is an excellent place for taking long peaceful walks.


Situated 15 kms north of Renigunta at the edge of the Sri Venketeswara National Park, Mamanduru is an ocean of quiet and solitude. Even better would be to visit it in off season like how we did. Very less information is available on the net about this underrated gem. The official website of the place called Vanadarshini is a mess. Outdated information coupled with wrong pictures of the place is enough to put off potential visitors. Add to that the cyclical errors in the website do not help at all. It was my persistence that I could manage to land on the page where I could book the hotel rooms.


Like most of my trips my friend Bhanu was joining me on this one too. Armed with nothing but the scarce information available on that pathetic website we reached the village of Mamanduru by taking a rural pallevelugu bus from Renigunta. The bus dropped us off near a gateway which had the words 'Mamanduru Forest Stay' written on it. Trees to the left. Trees to the right. Trees ahead, divided by a muddy road in the middle which vanished ahead as it took a left turn. We could see nothing else which suggested any signs of a forest stay. We decided to follow the path anyway. After a walk of around 1.5 kms we came across a crossroads. As we looked around, we spotted a speck of red in the sea of green to the right. It turned out to be the British cottage of Mamanduru, our destination. This had me all excited. True to what I have read about the British selecting the best locations for their forest cottages, the location here too was excellent. The road ahead of us lead to a small hillock atop which was perched this cottage with a gleaming red tiled roof. It was surrounded by thick cover of trees allowing only a small view of the cottage. The road ran around the hill enveloping it and gradually leading to the top. This was for vehicles. Since we were on foot we simply took a shortcut which climbed up straight ahead. To our left we spotted the cottages for tourist's stay.Climbing up we reached the British built cottage. From near, it looked even more beautiful. A man was standing in the porch who we assumed to be the caretaker.


Our guess was correct and soon all the entry formalities were completed. Meanwhile I sat on the sofa in the porch and looked around. The front of the cottage faced the south direction, with a south westerly path running in a straight line away from it to the village ahead. Beyond the village there is a railway line running from south-east to north-west.  The north, east and south were covered by forest. In this carpet of forest 5 'fire lines' cut across in different directions originating from the cottage. One of the reasons why I desperately wanted to visit this place was because in the 1930s the famous hunter Kenneth Anderson stayed in this very cottage and hunted down a man eating tiger nearby. His photo along with an excerpt from his best selling book 'Maneaters and Jungle killers' was prominently displayed in the porch. Around this cottage stood the whole complex which included around 5 cottages for tourists' stay and a little playground for kids.

Our stay
From here we were taken to our cottage which was called 'Harini'. We didn't know what to expect but the cottage turned out to be surprisingly good. The room was neat and clean. The AC was working. There was hot water in the bathroom. Overall much better than what is advertised in the website. We took some rest here and then decided to go for a walk. We circled around the hillock once taking in our surroundings and choose the northern fire line for a walk. There is a small gate here which leads out to the forest. The words 'Bavi line'were written on top in Telugu. 'Bavi' means well in Telugu.  Seeing this gate and the forest beyond reminded me of a scene from the famous Sherlock Holmes novel 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' where a character waits for another at a wicket gate beyond which lies the superbly described 'moor' and where much of the action takes place.
The Bawi line

We now crossed the gate and made our way into the jungle. To our left and right spread dense trees. A little bit ahead we came across the 'Bavi' . I peered inside the well but there wasn't much to see. Just trash and some water. This was perhaps the source of water in the bygone times. We passed this and continued on the path. This place was perfect for long walks. Bhanu and myself walked at a sedate pace, not in a rush to reach anywhere, just going where the path took us. We talked of office and our future plans. As I am about to soon leave abroad for studies this may perhaps be my last trip with Bhanu for some years. In all probability he will get married by the time I come back so we made the most of the opportunity and talked to our heart's content. Soon we reached a dry river bed. It was littered with pebbles and stones. The trees at the sides bent over the dry bed like water overflowing from a bucket. The stream stretched far away to the left and right but there was not a single drop of water in sight. 

We later learned that in the months of December and January this is a very pretty stream with clear transparent water flowing. With nothing much to do here we continued our walk beyond the stream. Here the jungle got thick and there was no wide trail like before. Now we were in the region where the Man eater I mentioned before had killed its first victim. The thought did not disturb us at all and on we continued. Slowly the trail was disappearing till we decided it was enough and turned back. By the time we retraced our steps and reached near the entry it was beginning to get dark. On the way we met a forest officer who asked us a number of questions initially but calmed down when we said we were staying in the cottages. Back in the complex he joined us in a conversation and some tea. From him we found out that the southern side, beyond the railway line, was closed to the tourists as a group of elephants were roaming there and it was quite a risky business disturbing them. This was disappointing news as the forest beyond the railway line was where the main attractions lie. Also the tiger was killed somewhere there, near the railway line. But there was nothing we could so we decided to take another walk the next day in the south eastern direction.  For now we needed some stuff from the village nearby so off we went to the village.
Nearby was the railway station of Mamanduru. We walked over to the tracks where an engine was idling. I peered inside but there was no one inside the engine. This was strange. Nobody leaves a train engine just like that.  Looking around I saw the loco pilot having a snack with his assistant. I was relieved. Leaving the man with his snacks off we went to one end of the station and sat down on one of the many empty chairs there. The sun was slowly setting turning the blue of the sky into an orange hue. Far away birds were singing. Nearby the engine was idling. The whole picture was one of peace and calm. We sat there in silence enjoying this peace. I have mentioned in one of my previous blog posts about Ib (in orissa), that rural Indian railway stations offers some of the best placed of calm and quiet. 
By the time we started back it was completely dark and we had to turn on our mobile phone torches to find our way back. It was pitch black outside the village and the road leading from the village to the complex is perfect setting for a horror movie. In the pitch darkness we turned off our torches and all we could see was the faint glow of light from the cottage ahead. The whole scene was surreal.
Our cottage in the night

We returned to our cottage and took some well deserved rest. At round 8 pm we had our dinner in the small dining shed. The food was homely and delicious. It consisted of steamed rice and Dal along with a curry of ladies finger. Made as per our orders. After this filling meal we decided there was nothing much to do so off we went our cottage and turned in for the night. 

The next day we woke up at 5am and were ready for our walk at 6 am. Like we planned the previous day we took the south east fire line and a guide accompanied us this time. Of course there is a separate fee for a guide but we took it anyway. There was nothing remarkable about this walk which was similar to the one we took the day before, the only difference being we came across some water this time. In the morning coolness, the small lake, if it can be called that, was refreshing.
The shikari line
We spent close to an hour here before we returned to the complex. Here we had some nice breakfast and then we had nothing much to do but pass the time and check out at 2 pm. But the previous day while going to the village we had passed by a dilapidated cottage on which was written 'Rangers Bungalow'. On peering inside I saw that it housed a library. I asked about this to our caretaker and told him I wanted to visit it. He replied that it was closed and not open to visitors.Not convinced, I called the forest officer we had met the previous day and he said I can visit it if I wanted to. But to my bad luck the key
to the cottage couldn't be found for a long time and even after finally it was found the lock refused to open. It was rusted from the inside. I had waited for 4 hours for this and finally when it did not open I was exasperated but again there was nothing I could do. So we checked out of the complex at around 3 pm and went to the village where we waited for a RTC bus to take us back to Tirupati, from where Bhanu was to take a bus to Bangalore and myself to Nellore. We waited close to an hour for a bus and when it finally arrived it was packed with people and we had to stand near the door the whole time. The trip ended on an irritating note but the stay was wonderful and I would definitely recommend it to people.

Rangers Bungalow

Peering inside a window I saw this

Notes
- Mamanduru is 15 kms from Renigunta on the road to Rajampet.
- Here is the website link - http://www.vanadarshani.in/index_new.php
- Charges for guide and food are separate. Rs 300 is the charge for booking a guide. 
- Food is good. Non Veg is available.(Halal meat is not)

More Pics 








Sunday, November 4, 2018

A boat ride through the Majestic Papikondalu Hills, Bhadrachalam.

My dad was intent on going. I was less enthusiastic. Dad insisted. I relented. So off we went to Papikondalu Hills one fine day.

I was visiting my hometown during the long weekend offered by the Oct 2 holiday. I had 4 days in hand so dad wanted to make the best use of it and go somewhere. We had many options but he was bent on going to Papikondalu hills. We had been there long back when dad took me and my brother along on an office picnic trip with this colleagues and their families. It was a memorable trip and I was awestruck with the whole experience. Going there again now, I was afraid that those warm and magical memories of the place from my childhood would be erased by the present. But seeing that dad wanted to go I agreed.

Papikondalu Hills are a series of hills running along the River Godavari spread over Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. There are motorized boats running along the length of the river. These start from a place called Kunavaram near Bhadrachalam and end around Rajamundary. There are 1 day boat ride packages available to get a glimpse of the river, the hills and the people living along the river. One can also opt for a journey to Rajamundary from Bhadrachalam or vice versa.
We started early morning in dad's car. The day was wonderful with bright sunshine and a clear blue sky. We reached Bhadrachalam where we bought our tickets(Rs 700 per person) from one of the many agencies running the boats on the river. They are all located near the entrance to the Main temple of Bhadrachalam.

From here we headed to a place called Pochavaram which is near Kunavaram. Pochavaram is the place from where all the boats leave for the trip. There is ample parking space near the entrance for the vehicles of tourists. As we descended the steps to the river, we could see around 15 boats anchored one after the other near the banks. All the agencies club their tickets and boats and fill up the boats on first come first serve basis. According to the line we were allotted a boat. We trudged across the sand towards our boat. The sun was shining a bit more harshly now forming drops of sweat on my forehead. We boarded our boat and choosing a good spot, sat down. I looked around at the other occupants. It was a fair mix of young couples, college students, families and some elderly couples. The boat had a capacity of around 70 people with two 'floors'. One could either sit below in the relative shade and cool or sit above which offered much better views.

One by one the boats ahead of us left and after a frustrating wait of 30 mins our boat too was on its way. The motors whirred and the boat slowly glided over the mud brown water. A voice over the PA announced that the tour had begun and a brief narration of the place started. Whoever was doing the announcements was doing a good job of it as people clearly enjoyed his witty remarks and hilarious one liners in between the more serious talk.

We glided past small hillocks with quaint villages perched on the top, past cows lazily grazing on the grass covered hillocks, and huge cliffs overhanging the muddy turbulent water. Now and then the staff played songs from the latest movies to keep the people entertained.

After an hour the boat meandered towards a grass covered hillock and anchored near the banks. Above was the village of Perantalapalli. There is a famous Ashram here and we had an hour to visit it. Some people opted for the visit while some decided to stay on the boat. My dad did the latter while I disembarked and strolled around on the hillock. The top offered a spectacular view of the river and the surroundings so I sat here under the cool shadow of a tree and took in the surroundings. Had it not been for the hot sun now, it would have been a wonderful place to take a nap. From where I sat the river stretched from my left to my right. Directly ahead the opposite bank was a grassy hillock like the one I sat on but shorter in height. Our boat was anchored directly below me, its green top in stark contrast to the brown of the water. Far away I could spot other boats making their way slowly along the river.

Our one hour was up soon and I made my way back to the boat where I saw my dad looking around with his Binoculars. No matter where he always carries two things with him, his binoculars and a radio.

Our next stop was the Kolleru village where we were to have our lunch. It was very hot now and the thought of having lunch on that hot sand below and hot sun above was not enticing. But we had no option so we made our way to the shabby tent raised on the shores and stood in the line for our turn.We had our lunch standing there in discomfort.

After lunch we resumed our trip. From this point we were to head back to the starting point. Now started the entertainment routine of the staff. First three of them danced, then slowly they picked people from the tourists to come up and dance. They chose people randomly but in pairs like old couples, young couples, college students etc. It was good, the staff put in a lot of effort in that sweltering heat and the people loved it. Personally I would rather look around the natural beauty than watch a dance with the latest movies songs blaring in the background. Another 2 hours and we reached the starting point. It was around 4 pm now and we walked back leisurely to our car. My dad was happy with the trip and so was I.

Lunch on the Kolluru banks

Me and my dad

Notes
- Tickets are available at the number of counters near the main temple complex in Bhadrachalam
- There are two options to reach Pochavaram, the starting point. If you have your own vehicle the ticket price is around Rs 700 to 800. If you need transportation till Pochavaram the price is around Rs 900 to Rs 1000.
- You need to be in Pochavaram by 9 30 am. The trip ends around 4 pm in Pochavaram.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Trek to Udayagiri Fort, Nellore Dist. Andhra Pradesh

What is the connection between the once magnificent city Hampi in Karnataka and a remote fort called Udayagiri in Andhra Pradesh?

Udayagiri was the scene of a number of violent battles between the Mighty Vijayanagar Kings of Hampi and the equally strong Gajapati Kings of Orissa. Finally King Krishnadevaraya, the most able of the Vijayanagara Kings managed to defeat the Gajapatis and drive out them out from Udayagiri. To mark this victory Krishnadevaraya took a sculpture of Lord Krishna from Udayagiri and took it with him back to Hampi and had it installed in a new temple he had constructed. Presently this sculpture lies in the Chennai Museum in Tamil Nadu.

Udayagiri lies just 100 km from Nellore so a couple of weekends back I decided to check it out. The Fort lies at the top of a hill so I heard its quite a climb to the top. This made me doubly excited. Hills plus a fort. Its a combo on offer and I couldn't resist.
Our target was reaching that speck at the top 
My colleague from work, Dwarka joined me on this trek. We reached Udaygiri by 8am and after a good breakfast started looking for an auto to take us to the starting point of the trek.

After much searching and some dead ends we finally reached the starting point of the trek. There were stone steps rising away, which disappeared into the thick forest after some distance. These were engulfed by shrubs and trees all around. I stopped here and noted the altitude. It was 300 MSL. Time 1100 Hrs. We started the climb aiming to go as high as possible. We had been warned that going in twos was quite risky as there was the danger of wild animals attacking. The villagers had told us that a group of 4 or more is the safest. Keeping this in mind we decided that we will stop whenever we feel its not safe to proceed further.

The day was cool and the sky was covered by a carpet of clouds torn here and there revealing the clear blue of the sky. The sun was peeking between the clouds now and then. Overall it was an excellent day for a hike.  So on we went on the stone steps. As we gained some height on the towering cliffs of the hills came into proper view. We were surrounded by the hills on three sides leaving one side offering views of the surrounding plains.The sides of the hills were red in colour, characteristic of the soil in these areas. After about 20 minutes we met another group of hikers resting under a tree. They were a bunch of middle aged guys who looked as if they lost steam and had settled down to have a rest. They inquired about our target and we said we were aiming for the top even though we know it was quite late to do that. Inspired by our intent they decided to join us. They offered us some snacks to eat which proved heaven sent to me later in the day.

So with the middle aged guys joining in were now a team of seven. The trees around us kept getting dense and the top of the hill still looked far away.The stone steps ended near a small water stream. It cannot be called a water stream exactly as it was just a sheet of water flowing over a huge overhanging rock and narrowing down to a trickle of water. The middle aged guys were saying that during the rainy season there is much more water. A couple of them had done this climb before hence the information. Here we rested for a while before moving on. We still had a lot of climbing to do so there wasn't much time to indulge in long rests. The next stop came at a spot where there was a long fortification running along the side of the hill. There was a gateway through which we entered and found ourselves surrounded by the stone walls on two sides, one wall running along the right and one in the front like two adjacent sides of a square. Here the views of the surrounding plains were stunning. As we stood at the corner of the square I mentioned before, in front us, to the right, was the side of a hill on which stood a lone watchtower jutting out from the undergrowth. On the opposite side, to the left was the gentle slope of another hill making a rough V in the middle offering views of the plains ahead. The sky and the land merged into each other far away. 

From here we resumed our climb in earnest,our spirits boosted by the wonderful views. We passed by a number of ruins of other structures scattered here and there. The sky was getting a shade darker and now and then a gust of wind was blowing. Seeing this the middle aged guys were getting a bit agitated. The top was still out of sight and they worried that if they push for the top they wont be able to return to the bottom before dusk. So they had a discussion and decided to call off and head back. Dwarka and myself decided to push on regardless. Luckily for us just as were there standing there another group of three appeared and after a brief talk with them we joined them. Finally after going through another stretch of thick forest, the object of our trek came into view far away. As we emerged from the forest cover into an open land,in front us, there lay a structure exuding a mystical and dark appearance. It was a greyish decaying building rising above the growth surrounding it. At the two front corners stood the sturdy bases of towers. It looked like an English castle and reminded me of the Tintin Comics I used to read when I was a kid. Climbing over the rocks which littered its approach we finally reached it. The time was 1330Hrs. Altitude 856 MSL.

This stucture was a mosque. It stood at the edge of the hill with its front facing the edge. It was a small mosque with one arch in the middle clubbed in between the two towers, the tops of which were destroyed and only the bases remained. The location was breathtaking. We stood here, near the crumbling mosque at the edge of the hill at 856 MSL and took in the views. Directly below us lay the town of Udayagiri. Above, the clouds shone bright white against the clear blue sky. A hazy air hung around the horizon merging the sky and the land indistinctly. Here and there a low hill rose above the haze and revealed itself. The whole land was spread with square cuts of agricultural fields. In all, the view was magnificent. The mosque had a spiral staircase going around one of its towers which I attempted to climb but the dilapidated nature of it made it risky and I stopped midway. After taking some videos from here I climbed down.

We still had the 2 hour climb down and there were chances of us getting lost so without much delay we started our return. It was imperative that we reach the base before it got dark. So we retraced our steps to the best of our abilities as the path had no markers to guide us. By 1530 Hrs we reached the base without any incident and we were relieved. Just as we were going back we spotted the middle aged guys having lunch. They invited us to join and we accepted the offer gratefully. To our tired and hungry bodies this was heaven sent. The lunch comprised rice and dal with mutton fry. It was lip smacking. And a perfect finish to our grueling trek of 6 hrs. 
The Chota Masjid as its called
View from the steps of the Masjid



Here's a short video I made of the trek. Enjoy! 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Chennai Port Heritage Walk

Heritage walks always interest me. So when I saw a post on a Fb page announcing a heritage walk in the Chennai Port, my eyes lit up with excitement. Its not everday that you can gain entry to the port. This was a good chance to do so and I made up my mind not to miss it.

On the appointed day I trudged up the starting point near the Reserve Bank of India Building(Near Fort St George). As always I was very early to the place. Dawn was just beginning to break and the streetlights of the desolate roads glowed yellowish against the blue of the morning sky. I passed the time aimlessly walking around. Slowly people started gathering at the point and I joined them. By the scheduled time of start a sizable group was gathered but our host from the Chennai Sailing club was nowhere to be seen. He arrived a full hour later apologizing profusely as he got stuck in some blockades due to a marathon that was scheduled that day. Later I found out a lot of the people who joined later were stuck in the same jam.


Our star guide for the walk was Mr K R A Narsiah, a historian and a Marine Engineer. The walk started off with a long and detailed summary of the history of the area. Later we moved on the Chennai Port Trust Building.Here there was a small talk about the foundation stones laid out. Next, inside the building was a bust of the famous Mathematician Ramanujan. I was perplexed. What is Ramanujan doing in Chennai port, I thought. Narsiah sir cleared things up. Ramanujan, I was fascinated to find out once worked in Chennai Port Trust as 'Class III, Grade IV accounting clerk, making 30 rupees per month'. A short talk about Ramanujan later we moved further ahead to finally do the thing I was eagerly waiting all this time. Enter the Port.

But before that, a Fun Fact - What's the connection between Yale University and Chennai ?
Answer - The first British Fortress in India was founded in Chennai(then Madras) in 1644. Its first president was a person called Elihu Yale. This guy Yale amassed a fortune while here in India and later donated a huge amount for the setting up of a college in Connecticut,US. Initially called The Collegiate School, it later changed its name to Yale.

Outside a bus was waiting for us to take us inside the port. After a short ride of 5 mins and a thorough check by the security at the gate we were dropped off at the Passenger Terminal Area. We got down from the bus and looked around. One one side was the Jawahar Dock and on the other side was the Passenger terminal shed. A ship, MV Akbar was docked. It was the first time I was looking at a passenger vessel from such close range. I could practically touch it. Though it was towering over us it didn't make for a pretty sight.Because it was rusting everywhere. At first I felt like does this thing even move. Later I found out it does. Its a famous ship actually. Serves the Chennai - Port Blair Route. 
MV Akbar in all its rusty glory


After a short talk here by Narsiah Sir, we left the rusty ship and moved on to our next stop, the Royal Madras Yacht Club,the guys who were hosting this walk for us. On the way we stopped near a submarine. I was surprised to see a submarine just floating there in the water. Again Narsiah Sir came to our rescue. He explained that this particular submarine was bought here for the sole purpose of making it into a Museum along the lines of the Submarine Museum in Vishakapatnam. But due to some space constraints and other reasons the plan was held up and the Submarine called INS Vagli lies there just rotting away. The Hindu dated July 23 2017 states ''INS Vagli was commissioned into the Indian Navy at Riga in Latvia, which was part of the erstwhile Soviet Russia in 1974, and was decommissioned at Visakhapatnam in December 2010''.


INS Vagli

Next and last stop was the club itself. Here again there were some small talks by the club members and a Coastal Security Chief. After breakfast here, we were offered 45 minutes of sailing activity which I enjoyed immensely.



All of this nicely was organised by the Royal Madras Yacht Club. 
Shout out to you guys!!

Bonus- A video

For further reading
About our esteemed guide - https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-seafarers-story/article3527800.ece
About INS Vagli - https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/decommissioned-submarine-languishes-in-chennai/article19337125.ece

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu.

Mahabalipuram is a small town situated on the southeastern coast of India, 6okm south of Chennai.It used to be a busy port around 1000 AD. These days it is famous for the World Heritage Site of a group of Temples built by the pallavas in the 7th century.


It was dawn as Kishore sir, my colleague at office and myself arrived in Mahabalipuram. The sky was a mosaic of different shades of blue mixed with red. As we walked the long stretch from where our bus dropped us to the main town the colour of the sky changed from the reddish blue to a clear blue. We searched for a good hotel and finally after a 1 hour search we found one. After taking some rest we made off for the World famous Shore Temple.

The snow white clouds were spread over the blue sky like the wild growth of moss on a moist concrete slab. The sun was shining gently, peeking over the clouds now and then. We entered the fenced and ticketed complex of the famous Mahabalipuram. The neat paved road ran along the boundary at the left while at the right a green and well maintained lawn glowed in the sun. Beyond that a section of sea could be seen.

Right ahead of us we could see the outline of the famous shore temple against the bright blue sky. Built around 700 AD this temple is almost 1300 years old. It was built during the reign of Narasimhavarman II of the Pallava Dynasty. The actual temple complex is rectangular with the main temple in at one end. We sauntered around the structure marveling at its beauty. The passage of time had done its work blunting the features of the sculptures on it.

The lawn around it was enticing us to come and sit and we promptly did so. After spending some time we left and headed over to the Lighthouse nearby. We first made our way to the maritime/lighthouse museum. This was the second lighthouse I was visiting after the one in Allepey. Interesting objects on display here were a 5000W Bulb, a lamp changer, a Morse code repeater and a number of models of ancient boats. There was also a huge buoy.



Next we moved onto the hill nearby. There is an ancient structure on top of the hill which was used as a lighthouse in ancient times. We climbed up and marveled at the spectacular views it offered. Far ahead we could spot the Nuclear Plant of Kalpakkam. The place was milling with people. Seeing the crowds we dropped the idea of climbing up the lighthouse.


We left the place and went on a stroll to the other attractions.


The short trip ended with a sumptuous Crab Masala in dinner.