September 24, 2012

The Wonder that is India - UTTAR KANNADA

Located in the northern part of the state of Karnataka, Uttar Kannada is one of the last remaining natural treasures of the country. A large expansive district, it is situated on the boundary Karnataka shares with Goa.
The primary and all encompassing feature of the district are the vast forests that abound here. Of the total land mass, more than 7000 sq. km. of the land is covered under various types of forests, ensuring that all interactions between man, animal and nature occur under the blanket of these ancient landscapes. This forest encompasses an exhilarating mosaic of habitats that support a bewildering variety of biological diversity with birds, insects, various flora and fauna enveloping the region under their ostentatious presence.
A walk amongst some of these untamed wilds and still protected forests provides us with an understanding and appreciation of the need to preserve and protect these resources, for where else would you find more than 1741 species of flowering plants, 419 species of birds, an amazing assortment of mammals, zoo planktons, reptiles, insects and a wide-ranging diversity of the forest family in a single composite zone of 10,291 km²!

Landscapes, likes of which are not found elsewhere, bounty of seas and Rivers abounding, the land that is Uttar Kannada is a paradise to use a simpler word for it. On a visit to this unique ‘forest district’ of India, one can see a panorama that ranges from the high hills of the Western Ghats to a network of crocodile - rich Rivers to the deep blue seas.
With towering hills and a long coastline of more than 120 km, the geography of the region is as abrupt as it is well spread out. The narrow coasts are home to some of the best beaches in the country, highly rugged in nature. As we drive eastward from the coast, the Western Ghats rise abruptly and give way to the elevated eastern portion that merges with the Deccan plateau. This provides the region with a character that is uniquely Uttar Kannada.

This is also the land of the Appiko, where common people shrug their complacency, fought through reams of apathy and struggled to protect their forests. This perhaps gave rise to the birth of the environmental movement of South India and from September 1983 when the first tree was hugged till date, the movement to conserve and preserve nature has progressed by several notches, not just in these parts but across the entire peninsula.

What we see today in Uttar Kannada is also perhaps the remnants of the once even more impressive forest ecosystems for the district had more than 81 % forest cover during the period of India’s independence. Though they have been exploited, these forests have survived and thrived.

Paper mills, plywood factories and a chain of hydroelectric projects had a drastic effect and the forest cover considerably reduced over the next three decades. It took Appiko and the corresponding interest of the common man combined with determined officials that decline of forests was reversed. This is the story of Uttar Kannada and its rich natural wealth.

The Wonders of Uttar Kannada

The huge district is unique for its natural wonders. Kali has the most prominent presence in the highland regions and is known for its churning rapids. The River cuts a swathe through the district, a thick fast flowing confluence with pristine water derived from a number of sources in the highlands.
Besides, the region has hidden wonders of nature located within the ghats. The Cavala cave stands out with a number of five feet high natural shivalingas. It takes a long and arduous trek through a beautiful forest patch to reach the caves. The final few hundred metres involve walking through steps that test the physical fitness of the visitor. Cavala Caves is not for the faint hearted and a visit here is worth a lot if one is willing to enjoy nature as it comes.

And it is here at the caves that I saw my first black panther, appearing softly as a ghost would and vanishing before we could even stop to admire its beauty. It was an unforgettable experience - spotting a black panther is not easy and there are very few recorded cases of the panther having been photographed.

The image felt more of an apparition as we walked back to the jeep. For a fleeting second, I thought that it was a sambar for I was the first to see it and was unsure about its identity. The silence that preceded those few exciting seconds before and after the leopard vanished into the bushes after rustling a few nerves and a lot many leaves was enthralling.

There are many more jewels in the forests and coasts of Uttar Kannada. Syntheri Rocks are a 500 feet high formation with cascading waterfalls that can be reached after climbing down 275 steep steps. Caves abound in the rock formations and there are several catfish who bide their time for a bite at someone’s food. Then there is the Vincholi rapid and the Sykes point - stunning landscapes located in rugged parts of the district.

Not very far from the Kali camp is a timber depot and if there is a paradise for birds within any town limit in the world, it must be here. Birds abound by the tens and on any given day, one is likely to see the hornbill, the jungle myna or a variety of other birds that add to the daily cacophony.

If we drive far and into the southern portion of the district, we will stumble upon the jagged rock formations of Yana. Located in Kumta taluk, the spires can be reached by driving through picturesque countryside. One needs to reach Sundholle and walk six kilometres from there. The walk is arduous but the verdant view of the rock from a distance more than makes up for it. The Mohini Shikhara, the Bhairava Shikhara and more such rock formations are a result of a geological action, but it is the dense forests and deep valleys that make the visit to Yana memorable.

Some distance away from Dandeli town is the famed Anshi National Park in the Western Ghats range. A remnant of the montane rain forests and moist deciduous forests ecoregions, the park is a beautiful kaleidoscope of the original habitat that Western Ghats comprised of, till deforestation came along.

There are several more places in the region, especially in the hilly forested zone. Some of them include Burude Falls near Siddapur, Unchalli Falls on the River Aghanashini, Magod Falls and Sathodi Falls near Yellapura. Then there are the dams. The 186 kilometre long Kali is dammed at various places. Though dams bring with them several ecological issues, there is little chance of any further development of dams in the region. Some of the major dams are Supa near Ganeshgudi, Bomanhalli, Kodasalli and Kadra.

The district has the distinction of having various scenic places besides being home to one of the best rafting sites in the country. The 15 rafting zone kilometre stretches south of the Supa Dam leading to Dandeli is home to extensive forest stretches that are also a critical wildlife corridor between the neighbouring Anshi National Park and Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. Besides, the district has an elaborate coastline which houses some of the most scenic beaches in the entire western coastal region. Places such as Gokarna and Devbagh are on the list of the international traveller and much sought after.

Uttar Kannada is a paradise for the nature lover and for the avid bird watcher. It is also a popular destination for families who wish to spend time in the lap of nature. The place is a magnet for the adventure seeking who trek through some of the deepest forests of the Western Ghats, take part in the enthralling rafting experience on the River Kali and enjoy the magic of the fading sun on the beaches of Devbagh and Gokarna.

September 14, 2012

Kashmir Trip - Out and above

In the deepest recesses of every Indian is a desire to visit Kashmir, a desire that remains unfulfilled for most of us because of several notions and fears about the valley.

I managed to relive my childhood thrill and landed in Kashmir for an intensive trek. And what a time it was. Before the trek actually started, I roamed around Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam - all while being severely sick, cold, fever and perhaps reeling under the fact that the low atmospheric pressure was playing with my brain.

However, when the trek started, all worries seemed to end. The camp-site, the first camp-site was phenomenal and the first briefing was as good as it gets. Walking around, still unwell, the drink from a mountain spring enriched my inner senses. It was a grand start to something great that might happen. My observations on the next few days are as follows.

1. The trek on the first day to Shekdur was a learning session on birch trees, bhojpatras, deodars and endemic maple. Also the settings of the Gujjars will continue to haunt us for a long time to come.

2. The passes were never easy to climb, made more difficult by the slightest burst of rain, enough to chill and burn us simultaneously. Walking up, one step at a time, those moments of rest every few minutes were like bliss, when the oxygen came in heavy gasps. Who cared for the climb when the rest was more valued. It was learning to see everyone fighting his own inner demon, some losing their control, others walking like Captain Haddock 'full steam ahead', yet others stopping to take group photos, some hankering down the boulders for a fine view of the hill beyond, yet some praying for the torment to end, passes can teach us enough to last a lifetime. Zach pass, thou shall not test us more!!!

3. The lakes were themselves beyond words. Which was better, Vishnusar with the moon shining bright, Kishansar with us dipping our legs for as long as we could, Gadsar with the most beautiful location in the entire trek, Satsar for the lakeside walk we could do for so long or Gangabal with twin magic on the last night. Each one better than the other, inspiring awe that stole words from our mouths. I could just walk on that trek again and again for the the beauty was past compare.

4. Sometimes in the high Himalayas, meeting people can turn out to be a great experience. Meeting Kashmiris and hearing their story of the past twenty years, Gujjars and Bakarwals who maintain an independent relationships with their neighbours, the Indiahikes support staff, the faujis who could do with assimilating more of kashmir into them, other trekkers who were running from Israel to Malana and above all trekmates who were a group of wonderful people. The doc who took official care, the other five docs who helped along too, the gangs from all parts of the country, yellow raincoat walley, full high tech kit walley, no kit no prep walley, the legend of Dr. and his son, the knowledge gained through Sarath's presence, Arjun with his calmness - born out of lifetime spent in the hills, Man Singh's food - it was all too much of a cauldron of spirits without the alcohol.

5. One wishes that this beauty that evokes humility remains the way it is. Trekkers should remain responsible, garbage can kill this place and IH needs to get the credit for playing its part. The organisation almost seems philanthropic in the guise of a corporate venture. It looks like someone's desire to give back and make enough to break a few rotis at home every night, earn enough but never at a cost. I hope IH refines its waste collection to the point that it enters into every trekkers consciousness.

6. My thoughts on Kashmir have just got muddled and permanently at that. I was always for the right to self-determination of a people wronged. Justice needs to provided and not as a benevolent measure but because it is the right of the Kashmiri. Yet at the same time, I realised that there are several voices floating around in the valley and this excludes Ladakh and Jammu. Within the valley, there are Sikhs, hindus, Bakarwals, Gujjars, people living an isolated life such as in Gurez and we need to hear them. Most importantly, try as hard as possible to neglect it, but the presence of ancient ancient religions literally at every step in the valley makes it a confusing decision. Temples abound, lakes are all dripping with stories, talk of lineage and a lot of them trace back to old UP/Rajasthan links. Anthropological studies of the valley, if conducted and shared in earnest is going to create serious trouble for fervent nationalists on all sides. Though still unattached, Kashmir seems to have the panindian smell about it. India, it is time to reconcile, time to bring closure to injustices, time to ask for forgiveness and time to learn.

7. Lastly, few things that will stay on forever, not as a life-changer but as pleasant memories. Riaz's solidity and Mushtaq's ableness, Man Singh's great food, saving that horse when it could have died, the rainbow a thousand feet below us, seeing vistas after reaching the pass every day, the rain and our huddling in tents, Abhishek's lust for life, drinking out of spring water and with no lifestraw in hand, Indians helping each other, the mental toughness of the entire group that pulled us through, that view of Gurez sector afar and life lived in complete blankness for so many days. No fear, no concern, only pure Himalayan joy.

Hampi Uninterrupted