10 Degrees Off, the perfect getaway in Bandipur!

For some its beaches, for some the mountains, most city weary traveller friends of mine have over the years found that one place which they call their true hideaway. A place where they can hear themselves think, a place of serenity and reflection. 10 Degrees Off is my special place.

Bandipur National Park, one of the most popular weekend destinations for the residents of Bangalore, is known for the incredible wildlife that it supports including magnificent tigers, leopards, Asiatic elephants, gaurs, dhole (wild dogs) and spotted deer. The park, covering a massive 874 square kilometers, is predominantly a dry deciduous forest.

The reserve forest that surrounds the main national park plays home to resorts like the Serai, Windflower, Dhole’s Den and a few others. Many of these are located about 4-5 kilometers off the main road that passes through the park. Most people who visit for weekends end up staying in one of these resorts and all of them assure you of a fantastic experience that includes a relaxed time, an unforgettable safari experience with the possibility of encountering the ever-so elusive tiger and comforts that set really high standards.

I have had the chance though to experience Bandipur, time and again, in a completely different way altogether. A friend of mine, Santosh, a known biker, traveller, an ex-river guide and founder of a few travel-based organizations like GetoffUrAss, PhotographyOnTheMove, Travellers Meet and the Motorcycle Travellers Meet, had built himself a dream getaway on a 3 acre site deep inside the Bandipur reserve forest. He named the property, 10 Degrees Off. A little after we met, in 2010, a few friends and I were invited by him to spend a weekend there.

I don’t know about the others, but the first visit itself had a profound influence on me. This was the first time that I had visited a place and had felt comfortable almost immediately. I knew this was going to be the first of many trysts that would gradually develop into a deep connection.

I have now visited the property many times over the past couple of years. Nestled in the shadow of a hill to its north-west and with the grand Nilgiris creating the perfect view to the south, the place has an energy that seems to wash all the weariness away and establishes a kind of therapeutic calm within me. Santosh, with great patience and perseverance, has spent many years carefully nurturing the property and I have been lucky enough to share the wonderful joy of seeing the place grow. Every time I visit, the trees seem to be taller and the house has slowly started merging with the beautiful landscape around it.

For company, you have chicken, birds splashing around in the bird baths, a few reptilian visitors and occasional sightings of elephant herds passing by on their way to the watering hole nearby. This beautiful place, also played home to Kencha, one of the friendliest and most affectionate dogs I have known and his beautiful girlfriend, Kenchi/Kaanchi. A dog with phenomenal personality, we lost Kencha recently to a suspected leopard attack recently. His presence most definitely added to the charm of the place and he will be missed.

Though in the words of Santosh, this place could only extend basic comfort, the caretaker Chandra and his family ensured that every need of mine was taken care of.  The food is simple but absolutely delicious and the house isn’t fancy but guarantees warmth that you might find missing in resorts. Every now and then, Santosh would put in a bit of extra effort and make things special. Whether it was taking his friends to EP, the viewing point overlooking the plains, to spend a quiet evening or making beetroot halwa for dessert, he is a great host to his friends who have visited 10 Degrees Off. Having known him for some time now, I know for sure that he genuinely wants others to feel the same joy that he experiences when he spends time here.

All in all, with the rustic stone house, the comforting fire place, the verandah that has played such a generous host to the interesting conversations that friends have shared over a drink looking out into the horizon where the earth reaches out to touch the sky, the ledge around the tree allowing for those magnificent evenings under the dramatic purple twilight sky, 10 Degrees Off is that one place where nature plans every moment and detail just to make you feel good.

Here are a few photographs from my last visit to 10 Degrees Off, my perfect getaway.

Dawn sky at 10 Degrees Off in Bandipur

Brilliant dawn sky.

The landscape towards east at 10 Degrees Off in Bandipur

The landscape towards the east.

Santosh, the man responsible for 10 Degrees Off, spending a relaxed afternoon there.

Santosh, the man responsible for 10 Degrees Off, spending a relaxed afternoon there.

Lazy afternoons are the norm at 10 Degrees Off.

Lazy afternoons are the norm.

Kids having a great time in the outdoors.

Kids explore their building skills in the outdoors.

Colourful flowers dot the landscape at the property.

Colourful flowers dot the landscape at the property.

When motorcycle travellers meet, discussions can be great fun.

When motorcycle travellers meet, discussions can be pretty intense.

Magical evening sky.

Magical evening sky.

The incredible view from EP with the Nilgiris in the background.

The incredible view overlooking the plains with the Nilgiris in the background.

Quiet evenings are spent viewing the vast plains of the Bandipur reserve forest.

Quiet evenings are spent viewing the vast plains of the Bandipur reserve forest.

The electric fence that stops wild animals from crossing into farmlands beyond the reserve forest boundary.

The electric fence that stops wild animals from crossing into farmlands that lie just outside the reserve forest boundary.

Trek to the Mukurthi Peak

The Mukurthi National Park covers an area of about 80 sq kms and is located in the state of Tamil Nadu. Created to protect the keystone species, Nilgiri Tahr, the park remains under the strict surveillance of the forest department and is probably one of the best maintained parks in the region.

Last year in June, we managed to get permission to trek to the Mukurthi Peak (2554 mts) and as expected, the trek was nothing short of a fantastic experience. The group of 8 boarded the Airavat Volvo bus at the Shantinagar Bus Station in Bangalore at around 11 pm and reached Ooty at the break of dawn the next morning after a comfortable 6 hour bus journey. The morning at the Ooty bus stand was a relief in more senses than one. We had finally gotten away from the unbearable heat of Bangalore city and the weather in the hills was beautiful. The piping hot cups of tea we had while waiting for our guide shook the sleepiness out of the group and we were all set to get on with our journey to the national park. As if on cue, Sarvanan, our guide for the next two days emerged out of the mist with the jeeps that were going to take us further. The distance from the Ooty bus stand to the fishing hut inside the national park was about 30 kms through some uneven rocky mountain routes.

The first sight of the fishing hut was all that was needed to send our excitement shooting sky high. The green coloured hut, nestled cozily within the Shola forests looked beautiful and welcoming. Meeting James, the affable caretaker and cook at the fishing hut only made the feeling better. After spending some time exploring the immediate surroundings of the fishing hut, we were treated to a simple but delicious dinner by James and his team. We had dinner around the camp fire and spent some time chatting under the stunning starry sky.  A little later, we decided to call it a night as we had an early morning  waiting for us. We planned to start the trek to the peak before sunrise so that we could beat some of the late morning heat during the trek up.

The Fishing Hut at Mukurthi National Park

The Fishing Hut at Mukurthi National Park

Early next morning, not before dawn, but early nevertheless, we were off on the trek. Sarvanan, our guide informed us that it would take us about 4 hours to get to the peak. James joined us for the initial part of the trek armed with a machete, he would help clear the route as and when there was a blockade. The entire first hour of the trek was on a trail through the dense Shola forest with short stretches riddled with low hanging tangled branches and if James hadn’t been clearing the way with his machete, we wouldn’t have been able to make our way through. The walk on this trail was not that difficult though as the low slung branches and the decently thick canopy directly above us created a shaded path. After the initial part, the trail opened into grasslands and then moved into a small patch of fir-tree forest. This stretch of the trek was made interesting by the fact that now we could see the mountains and the Mukurthi peak. The name ‘Mukurthi’ now seemed apt! The trail kept weaving in and out of the Shola forest patches that were now peppering the trail which predominantly went through grasslands.

The first part of the trail is through the Shola forest patch.

The first part of the trail is through the Shola forest patch.

Crossing a narrow tree branch bridge on the route

Crossing a narrow tree branch bridge on the route

The trail opens into a clearing before the grasslands begin

The trail opens into a clearing before the grasslands begin

Walking became easier as we entered the grasslands

Walking became easier as we entered the grasslands

The towering fir trees create a sudden change in landscape along the trail.

The towering fir trees create a sudden change in landscape along the trail.

A bright red mushroom seems to add much needed colour to the fir-tree forest.

A bright red mushroom seems to add much needed colour to the fir-tree forest.

The views of the mountains on the other side of the valley forced us to stop every now and then

The views of the mountains on the other side of the valley forced us to stop time and again.

Approaching the valley midway through the trek.

Approaching the valley midway through the trek.

We had comfortably completed the first half of the trek in good time and had now reached the stream that eased through the valley between the mountains. Deciding to spend some time at the stream on our way back, we chugged along, onto the slightly tougher uphill climb that would cover most of the remaining trek to the peak. Though slightly more difficult as the trail now consisted of slippery mud and loose stones, every step seemed to grant us a grander view of the park. The tougher the climb, the better the view from the top.

The quiet stream that ran along the valley clearly marking the two halves of the trek.

The quiet stream that ran along the valley clearly marking the two halves of the trek.

The start of the second half of the trek to the peak.

The start of the second half of the trek to the peak.

Mukurthi National Park

Mukurthi National Park

The first slightly tricky part of the ascent begins.

The first slightly tricky part of the ascent begins.

The views just seem to be getting better.

The views just seem to be getting better.

13

And the climb gets steeper!

What probably was the most exciting part of the uphill climb for the three of us who were leading the group was the sudden sighting of three Sambar deer who seemed to have been surprised by our presence deep inside their territory. On a normal day, the sight of these commonly seen deer wouldn’t have surprised us but we hadn’t expected to see these three large animals jump out of what seemed like a small clump of bushes on the adjacent hill. And we had been quiet enough (or so we thought) to make sure that we did not disturb the inhabitants of this beautiful region. The sighting was so sudden and unexpected that we couldn’t gather our wits and capture what might have been a beautiful frame on a camera. Once the Sambar had bolted and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, we moved on, now craving for more sightings. The three of us kept exceptionally quiet for the rest of the climb secretly hoping to see the extremely elusive but majestic Nilgiri Tahr which called these mountains home.

A tiny shaded stream with an idol of Ganesha next to it , midway through to the peak, came as a lifeline giving us that slight nudge that helped us move on. We continued to a point about a couple of hundred feet short of the peak where Sarvanan decided to let us take a short 10 minute break. Even though we weren’t at the peak yet, the view from this high pit stop was breathtaking. The valley and the path that we had taken to get here were now like thin lines on a map well below us. The final stretch of the trek to the peak looked steep but Sarvanan led the group this time by climbing this without too much of a fuss. We followed and after a little struggle, the entire group had made it to the top! We were at 2554 metres, at the Mukurti peak, the fourth highest summit in the Nilgiris!

The idol of Ganesha at the stream midway through the second half of the ascent.

The idol of Ganesha at the stream midway through the second half of the ascent.

Filling up mountain stream water.

Filling up mountain stream water.

The slippery grass-covered trail made the climb  a little tricky.

The slippery grass-covered trail made the climb a little tricky.

A shot of the Mukurthi peak.

A shot of the Mukurthi peak.

Almost there, 20 odd feet from the peak.

Almost there, 20 odd feet from the peak.

Once on the top, no one uttered a word. The silence was forced by the stunning panoramic views that the point afforded. We could see the valley and the Shola forests on one side and the deep and dense Silent Valley National Park on the other. Clouds floated in and out between the hills before completely engulfing all but the adjacent peaks. This was what dreams were made of. We spent a good 45 minutes at the peak breathing in the strangely fragrant mountain air and knowing well that we had just made it in time to watch the spontaneous but amazingly graceful performance of the clouds below us.

The view towards Silent Valley National Park, from the top of Mukurthi Peak.

The view towards Silent Valley National Park, from the top of Mukurthi Peak.

The rolling hills of the Nilgiris range sprawled below us.

The rolling hills of the Nilgiris range sprawled below us.

Taking in the panoramic views.

Taking in the panoramic views.

The clouds blanketing everything but the high peaks.

The clouds blanketing everything but the high peaks.

We were then coerced by Sarvanan to start our trek back to the fishing camp as there was a possibility of the rain coming down in a few hours time. The trek down to the fishing camp was uneventful for the most but we did manage to keep the promise we had made to ourselves and spent about 15 minutes soaking our feet in the cool water of the stream down in the valley. Managing to reach the fishing camp just about five minutes after it began to drizzle, we had successfully managed to finish the trek to the Mukurti peak and back in about 10 hours.

On the descent.

On the descent.

Taking the much-needed break at the stream.

Taking the much-needed break at the stream.

Back at the fishing hut just as the rains begin.

Back at the fishing hut just as the rains begin.

We had just finished the trek but it wouldn’t be wrong if I said that most of us had already started dreaming of our next trip to this beautiful untouched part of the Western Ghats.

Dreaming about the next trip to Mukurthi even before this one ended!

Dreaming about the next trip to Mukurthi even before this one ended!

All photos courtesy: Reena Chengappa, Jyotirmoy Talukdar and Gayatri Hazarika

Belonging to God’s Own Country…

The Beautiful Side

Distinct memories of the summer breaks during my childhood are full off beautiful moments spent with my brothers and cousins in our beautiful, more than a century old, ancestral home in Kalliasseri, Kerala. Having been born in Gujarat, these vacations came as a welcome break from the dust and noise that the city brought with it. But then those were times when one didn’t really put too much thought to the spell-binding rustic charm that Kerala was all about.

Now, many years after those joyous summer vacations, every new visit to this beautiful place I call home brings with it a deluge of thoughts which tell me how, for years, I’ve taken so much for granted. It’s now the time to pause and thank my lucky stars for having been born into a house that gave me the right to call one of the world’s most alluring scenic destinations, home. Yes, I belong to Kalliasseri, a small town in the district of Kannur which is beautifully placed on the very scenic northern part of Kerala, God’s Own Country.

When I visited Kalliasseri the last time, it was a little after the monsoons and the place was like a dream with myriad shades of green and the most beautiful music being played by an orchestra of insects and birds. It always amazes me how the place hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades and has yet managed to deliver all the basic creature comforts that most of its residents have become used to after having had stints of employment in foreign lands. Most of the locals, including my parents, have lived a large part of their lives chasing a dream in either some other part of India or in some foreign country (mostly the Arab nations!). But then, every one of them has always harboured a hidden dream of returning home and settling down amidst the beautiful trees and with clean air for company.

Kalliasseri, Kannur, Kerala

Home in Kerala

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that though this place is aptly called God’s Own Country, a lot of credit must also be given to the people who have doggedly worked at keeping their home as green as it is today. It has always been thought that Malayalis, as the people of Kerala are known, have always taken great pride in the resources that they have been gifted with.

The Ugly Side

But then these last few days have shown the world a side of Kerala that most outsiders wouldn’t believe existed. In a recent well-documented incident, a tiger that had strayed into human territory in Wayanad district was shot dead by forest officials, under pressure from a frenzied mob. As per reports, the tiger which had strayed into a coffee plantation was ‘murdered’ after attempts to tranquilize it ‘failed’. This bit shows the absolute inability of the forest officials to execute a task that they should’ve been good at!

The tiger, shot dead by forest officials in Wayanad, Kerala. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

The tiger, shot dead by forest officials in Wayanad, Kerala. Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

What is even more appalling though is the fact that investigations into the incident have revealed that the tiger had been captured as a cattle-lifter less than a month ago but was released back into the wild the same day. The fact that it was a ten year old tiger in an emaciated condition and with serious injuries meant that it should have been kept in permanent captivity or should have been euthanized professionally. This is not amateurish opinion but the reaction of Ullas Karanth, arguably India’s most respected expert on tigers. (Read Article here)

The fact that the forest officials reacted in the manner that they did clearly displays the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities towards attempts at tiger conservation.

It is also shameful that the mob, comprising of residents of the area, pressurized the officials and demanded that the tiger be eliminated. According to reports, the dead tiger was kept on display for hours after it had been killed and the locals celebrated the occasion. This kind of behaviour is not only disturbing but also serves as a warning to everyone who believes that are an integral part of the forest ecosystem have a safe home in Kerala. The land that the world loves to call God’s Own Country belongs to people who have little respect or regard for one of nature’s most magnificent creations!

As much as I would like to believe that my affection for my land and the people has only grown in the years that have passed, today my head hangs low in shame as I read about the lack of intelligence and compassion that this so-called most-literate state of India has displayed!