Safari Number 2

We were going on another safari with Sanjay today and after the success of yesterday we were both pretty excited. We enjoyed the beautiful facilities of the hotel in the morning and then safari in the afternoon. This time we were entering through the same gate but driving further into the park into the next section which was going to be more enclosed with less grassy plains. 

Sanjay picked us up in his trusty Suzuki Jeep but with an extra passenger being his son who was about 3. We both looked at each other imagining all the ways this could go wrong considering we don’t know too many 3 year olds if any that could sit very quietly in a car for 4 hours staking out animals. 

But we thought maybe we are going to be dropping him off before we head out. We did stop off on the way but that was to pick up the mother as well. So instead of an extra spotter we got a wife and child. To make matters worse we were half an hour late in arriving at the gate which meant less time in the park. The next hour or so we drove around the park not really spotting much and just stopping at a watering hole or two, none were very fruitful.

Saying that as we were driving along Tim spotted two sloth bears coming out of the hills and we got to watch them for a while crossing the road to a cooler area of the forest. Apparently this was a very rare sighting. They were pretty amazing with there ridiculously long claws and beautiful long snouts.

We saw lots of deer and a few paw prints of tigers, lots of scratches up trees from the sloth bears climbing up but the elusive Tiger or Leopard was not to be. We drove out of our gate and had a spare fifty or so minutes so we stopped off at the waterhole where all the elephants were yesterday. Apparently one of the Tigers has been frequenting the watering hole late afternoon. Towards the end we heard some warning calls but far into the forest. No big cat sightings for us. 

As we drove back to the hotel we were still a little disappointed in the day but being out in the open in the beautiful surrounds still made for a pretty good adventure. S

Monitor lizard enjoying the coolness of a hole dug by sloth bears getting at termites.

One of the watering holes. As you can see the park is desperate for the monsoon to come.

The sloth bears coming out of the hills.

Crossing the road into more lush forest. Check out the size of their claws!

A beautiful spotted stag.

A lone tusker making his way to the watering hole.


Sunset on the plains.

Corbett National Park

We left Haridwar this morning to travel the 200km to Ramnagar in the usual 40 degree heat. Unfortunately there were no air conditioned busses available and we couldn’t use the “fearing for our lives” excuse and hiring a taxi. The thing is once the bus gets going the wind is slightly cooling, the only irritating thing is that we are actually getting used to a 200km long trip taking over 5 hours!

When we arrived at Ramnagar we had a short taxi trip and walked straight into luxury! We paid the same as you would for the cheapest hotel in Brisbane and had arrived at a wonderful resort. It consisted of a group of separate houses set in an amazing garden next to a river. We felt we had transported ourselves to another world.

We couldn’t believe how nice it was and headed straight to the pool for a cooling swim. We spent the rest of the first afternoon lounging by the pool reading our books and watching the Indians trying to swim. Certainly not a national pastime.

The reason we were here was to go on safari and we had managed to navigate the overly complicated and useless booking system and had arranged two trips with a local guide who was highly recommended. We were very excited at the prospect of potentially seeing a tiger but had asked not to race around a park desperately searching for one rather we would prefer to relax and observe everything the park had to offer.

Luckily our requests were heard and we were picked up by Sanjay our driver/guide and another spotter and headed off into the Corbett Tiger Reserve. We hadn’t been in the park long when we came across our first group of elephants. They are a wonderfully majestic animal and we were able to spend some quality time sat in the jeep watching them casually eating their way through the forest. While we were content our guides had more planned for us and took us out of the dense forested area towards the open plains.

Here in the distance we saw a larger herd of elephants with a “Tusker” or male elephant. He was much larger than the females but certainly not part of the family group and we sat once again watching while he wandered off and then returned to the group of females and young. I don’t know how long we sat watching but it was a breathtakingly beautiful scene.  

In the centre of the plain was a raised viewing platform and we drove over to take our turn in viewing the whole area. The group in front was just getting ready to depart in their jeep when one of the men casually dropped his empty water bottle onto the floor. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes! Simultaneously Sarah and I jumped up and screamed “pick that up!” He was obviously shocked and while the driver of his jeep ran around to pick up the bottle he made such excuses as to the fact he hadn’t been told not to litter. What a complete idiot. Still I can kind of see his point, why indeed have one small part of India not covered in rubbish? He probably felt strange driving about all day without seeing rubbish strewn everywhere. 

Anyway, while they all looked at us in disbelief as to why we cared we scooted up the platform to gaze out over the plains and enjoy watching 3 jackals making their way furtively from one side to the other. I think I could spend some serious time sitting and watching wildlife.

Our guides then took us back into the forest all the time stopping to point out various types of birds or animal and it was pretty clear that with all these spotted deer and various other prey around any tiger we saw was going to be well fed. Alas though we had no luck with the tiger spotting and returned to the plains where we were able to relax and enjoy the sun going down while watching elephants crossing the road in front of us and then grazing in the grasslands.

At one point though our relaxing day got a little bit too exciting when a mother elephant started crossing the road a little too close to the car for her (and our comfort). Her body language changed in an instant and our driver started to try to slam the jeep into reverse. Now the Indians are quite rightly renown for their terrible driving ability and at this point we were both a little concerned when we stalled! Luckily the elephant decided not to charge and retreated back into the forest with her baby.

I feel I have to mention that safari in India is different to safari elsewhere…obviously. I have already mentioned the littering and while it’s not nearly as bad as elsewhere in the country you still see water bottles and crisp packets dotted about the place. Also the noise factor. Indians don’t seem to do anything quietly and while we were content to sit and quietly wait for an animal the Indian vehicles would pull up right next to us with a screech of brakes and shout over asking what we were waiting for/looking at. Nothing anymore.

The concept of waiting patiently for an animal to appear unharmed by one’s presence is also lost. They would drive the vehicles right up next to the animal and you could almost see them wonder as to why the animal had fled back into the forest.

Still we were lucky with our guides and even though a few times we were part of the noisiest tiger stalking operation known to man we also spent most of our time away from the crowds. One of the many highlights for me was when we were sitting in the middle of the forest having just heard a tiger’s roar with my eyes closed listening for more sounds. While we didn’t hear the tiger again we enjoyed all the wonderful sounds of the birds of the jungle. Truly it was a fantastic day and once we got home we were very excited and looking forward to more fun tomorrow! T

Relaxing in our fabulous resort.

The female elephants on the plains minding the young ones.

While the locals weren’t impressed by the monkeys we still found them fascinating to watch.


After waiting for a little while we were rewarded by his family crossing the road right in front of us.

With big daddy bringing up the rear.

Haridwar

After our lovely few days relaxing in the hills we decided to go check out Haridwar which is supposedly one of five holiest cites in India. Situated on the Ganges just 30kms downriver from Rishikesh we had a pretty uneventful bus journey out of the mountains until we hit the outskirts of Hardiwar and came to a complete standstill. As we have come to expect with the Indians, the traffic jam became a complete free for all which of course only made the situation worse. Sigh.After another hour and a half we finally made it to our accommodation. 

We had come to Haridwar to witness the sacred ganga aarti ceremony at the Har-Ki-Pairi Ghat. It is where the god Vishnu is said to have dropped some divine nectar and left behind a footprint. We had been told that the one in Rishikesh was for the tourists but this was the one you had to see. On the bus into the city the sheer number of people we glimpsed bathing in the Ganges made us think tonight was going to be pretty special.

The river has been diverted to create more manageable flows where steps have been built down into the river to accommodate so many people. Even with the diversions the inlets are still fast flowing and I shudder at how many lives must be lost with so many people entering the water and how poor at swimming they are.

In the afternoon we headed out towards the ghat where the ceremony would take place. The town itself was manic! The streets were filled with shops and cars and people. Back to the hectic India for us! Now I don’t know if it was because we had a break from it all in the mountains for a few days or because we were expecting it but although extremely busy we enjoyed the streets far more than Rishikesh. It definitely didn’t have as many western tourists. A guy who was riding a bicycle was too busy goggling at us that he ran into the car in front of him. It was acutely quite funny.

We headed towards the river and walked the last kilometer along the Ganges watching everyone enjoy bathing in the river. The crowds got thicker and thicker as we got closer to the Ghat and the atmosphere certainly felt reverent. There were holy men walking around offering blessings, for a fee of course.

At the Ghats there were several bridges criss crossing the river and on either side hundreds and hundreds of people were swimming. We didn’t quite know where to stand so we just wandered around watching in awe what was going on around us. We found a good vantage point on a bridge and were approached by a lovely family to have our photo taken and were told that we had a good spot to view the ceremony. 

Soon enough the chanting started and on either side people joined in. The crowd had swelled to thousands now and the atmosphere was amazing. Looking around at all the people in and about the water, flower offerings flowing down the river we realised why people told us to come here instead of the far more sedate ceremony in Rishikesh. 

There was a break in the chanting and then small fires and candles were lit all along the river. This just added to the magic of the place. Soon it was all over and then as people dispersed plates of the fire were passed around and people would touch their hands through the fire and then to their head. From what we could garner from our family, these fires were now holy and you were blessing yourself with the fire. 

We waited a little while for the crowd to disperse but were inundated for requests for photos. My mouth was actually sore from all the smiling we had to do. So we got out of there with the crowds and had a lovely walk back along the river to our hotel. Along the way we came across lots people setting up as if to sleep out along the river. I don’t know if they were there permanently or there just for the night because they made their pilgrimage here to bath in the Ganges. I hope it was the later as there were a lot of them. Haridwar was definitely worth the stop. S

The streets of Haridwar.

There were little shops everywhere selling plastic bottles to collect your own sacred Ganges water. Some people were leaving with buckets of it. We couldn’t figure out if they drank it or just put in on the mantle as a keepsake.

On the other side of the river the buildings all went right up to the river and had their own private ghats. Notice the little boy fishing for metal with his magnet.

People were bathing for kilometres all along the river edge and special barriers had been but in place so people could hold on and not get washed away.

Getting closer to the Har-Ki-Pairi Ghat. As you can see the river has been diverted into a smaller and shallower channel.

Waiting for the ceremony to start.

The sheer number of people in attendance was mind blowing. This happens every night, though the crowds are the busiest between May and July.

The fires being lit and people floating their offerings down the river. There didn’t seem to be a specific time you had to do this so all afternoon offerings were floating by.

The holy fires.


The Ganges by night.

Relaxing in Faku

The plan had been to spend most of our last week enjoying yoga, meditating, relaxing and reflecting on our wonderful time in India. Unfortunately our chosen destination of Rishikesh, although advertised as being perfect for this, was not worth staying in for more than five minutes. So backup plans were hastily drawn up and we were on our way to a small hotel in the hills near Rishikesh.

As we ascended into the hills the temperature dropped and we were soon sat outside our room enjoying a wonderful view over the valley below. To be honest we then spent the next two days sat around a table enjoying the peace and quiet. Problems solved and future adventures planned.

The place was great and our host, Anil was incredibly helpful and we enjoyed plenty of great conversations with him. The rest of the staff couldn’t speak much English but taught us how to play Carom which is a game we will definitely be buying when we return.

We were lucky that our first two nights were during the week and the place was very quiet and peaceful. On our last night the families from Delhi arrived. I am sure that they believe they are being quiet but the noise level went through the roof. There was plenty of shouting and then even more ordering around of staff. We sat and watched in amazement while Anil pumped up the music and they all sat around enjoying their version of a quiet visit to the hills!  

Deciding not to book another night we left on a bus to head towards Haridwar and some more authentic Ganges experiences. T

Pretty great spot for a relax.

Our bungalows.

The view down the valley.


Us waiting for our bus at the end.  It must be noted that there can’t be any advertising regulations in India as not one of the claims made on this sign were true (well maybe you could count toast as a different cuisine)

Rishikesh 

We should have learnt our lesson from McLeod Ganj when it comes to spiritual places in India but we had both set the bar high for our next spiritual encounter. Set on the banks of the Ganges, Rishikesh is a very holy place for Indians with hundreds of thousands coming each year to swim in the Ganges and or lay their loved ones’ ashes or bones to rest in the river. It’s also the yoga capital of the world.

We arrived late afternoon after an uneventful 9 hour drive from Shimla and dropped off our bags and went for a walk for some food. The tourist town is situated on both sides of the river with two pedestrian bridges, one in the north and one in the south. We started walking from the hotel and past several yoga schools and then hit the main hustle near the river. It was nothing like we expected. I don’t want to be rude but Rishikesh was the most disgustingly dirty place we have visited. It was gross and so busy!

We found out that the weekend we arrived was a festival weekend so the crowds were bigger than normal. We found a restaurant overlooking the river and decided to have some food and then head back to our hotel to start the experience of Rishikesh anew after a good nights sleep. 

I had researched some ashrams further along the river for me to do some yoga and had visions of peace and quiet and lush gardens and forest walks. So we headed out in the morning to go and check them out. As we eased closer towards the “spiritual center” things didn’t improve cleanliness wise, in fact I think it got dirtier. By this stage my vision of spending the next week in yoga bliss was being quickly dashed. We arrived at the ashram and it was nothing like we expected. It was packed full of people walking in and out and the rooms were more like a boarding school than a retreat. But we pushed on to the reception to see if we could have a look at the place to see if we wanted to stay. Before we even got that far we were told that there was no availability for weeks so that quashed that idea.

Thoroughly dejected by this stage we walked back to our accommodation along the river, stopping off at other ashrams that quite frankly were shitholes. I even asked a group of western girls along the way where they were doing their yoga and were told they also hadn’t found a suitable place. There was a definite feeling of disappointment from everyone.

Late afternoon we headed back towards the ashram to view the Ganga aarti which is a ceremony where offerings of flowers are floated down the river. The ceremony itself was very busy and we were viewing it from a balcony above. After about 45 mins we got so sick of Indians pushing into us to get a better view that we decided we had seen enough and headed further upstream to send off our flower offering we had purchased. 

We found a relatively calm space to sit with our feet in the Ganges and for the first time we felt the real magic of Rishikesh. There was a cool breeze blowing and across the river a ceremony with drums and chanting was taking place. As we sat watching the river, flower offerings were floating past and the people around us where performing their own little ceremonies and prayers. It was really quite wonderful. The family beside us asked us if we were on a holy holiday and we looked a little confused and told them we had been in India for a while and we wanted to see the Ganges. We found out he and his wife come here for 10 days every year for their holy holiday to pay their respects to the gods. After spending sometime down by the river we headed back to our accommodation feeling we had slightly glimpsed the spirituality of the Ganges. S

The Lakshmi Jhula hanging bridge. Slightly busier than we expected.

No matter how hot and bothered you are, you still need to put on a smile when they come and ask for photos. Especially when they’re kids.

Footbridge you say. Surely that means it’s okay for scooters and cows.

The mighty Ganges!

All along the river there were stairs leading down for people to bathe.

Holy men.

The Ashram. In the photo it looks a lot more tranquil that it actually was.

More scenes of people washing in the Ganges. We knew the Indians had cast iron stomachs but when you see them drink the Ganges water you really know they do, or the reason why they have cast iron stomachs.

Ram Jhula footbridge.

Tim tentatively taking a dip. The temp was freezing! Which we should of realised considering it comes from the Himalayas but when your sweating in 40 degrees you automaticly think the water will be bath water.  

Ladies selling some fruit I couldn’t place. Very similar to a fig I think.

The streets of Rishikesh. 

The Ganga aarti ceremony.

Ready to launch our offering.


Watching the offerings flow past with the locals.

Shimla

Stretching and winding along a ridge the 12 km sprawl of Shimla was created by the British as a place to escape the summer heat. Our guest house was about 4km out of the centre and had superb views from the balcony (from the bed really) back across the valley to the town itself.

Our room in the guest house backed onto a communal living room in which, unfortunately, our neighbours decided to have dinner at midnight and then we were awoken at 7am by an overly keen waiter wanting to serve us breakfast. I am sure the sight of me half awake and half dressed asking what he wanted has probably scarred him for life.

Shimla as a town was very busy and full of hustle and bustle. The accommodation was very expensive too so we decided to cut our time here short and try and see everything in the one day. We caught a taxi into the centre of town and started our explorations.

The Main Street in Shimla is called the Mall and is pedestrianised which in India was a fantastic change. The street ran along the ridge of Shimla and in between the buildings we were able to enjoy wonderful views down over the green valleys below. Even though there were loads of people it was actually quite relaxing and pleasant and we were able to enjoy a couple of hours walking up and down the ridge.

There were three or four hills around the town and they each seemed to have a temple on top. The most famous temple was Jakhu Temple or Monkey Temple as it was more commonly known and obviously we decided to hike up and have a look. I had read that on the way up to Monkey Temple the local monkeys were pretty fearless in their robberies of tourists. We were not to carry food or have loose clothing and our sunglasses had to be hidden away.

At the bottom of the path up there was a man renting out sticks so I decided to rent one. He was very professional. He had a bucket of sticks and I could hire one for 10 rupees but had to leave a 40 rupee deposit! Would you believe it I actually got a receipt! Next to the man with the sticks was a sign stating how long it should take you to hike up the mountain to the temple. There were various times listed and next to them how fit you were if you achieved said time. Most people would casually ignore such a sign, avoid glancing at a watch and carry on at a leisurely pace up the path.

Not for us though, I had hoped Sarah hadn’t seen it but alas no. We checked the time and set off up the path. We were both pretty exhausted by the time we got to the top but luckily we made it in the best time listed so we were both happy. At the top the monkeys circled around looking for their chance to pounce but they avoided us no doubt due to my rented monkey thrashing device. The Monkey temple was dominated by a huge 40ft high pink monkey figurine. However the surrounding trees meant that the views weren’t actually that spectacular but we enjoyed the cool breeze and rested a while before our descent.

Our plan had been to do some hiking around the surrounds of Shimla but it was all a bit too busy and expensive so we decided against it. The reason it’s so busy and expensive is that it is school holiday time in Delhi so everyone traipses up into the hills to escape the heat and enjoy some peace and quiet. It’s amusing as the constant honking of horns and chatter of people is still very prevalent here and neither of us thought it much of a reprieve noise wise. But certainly the cooling temperatures and the brisk breezes up in the mountains are, even for us, a most welcome change from the stifling heat further south.

It has been fun visiting Shimla but it wasn’t the relaxing place we were looking for to stop and spend some time reflecting on our Indian experiences…the search continues. T

The view of Shimla from our balcony was spectacular to say the least.

The top of the ridge in the middle of town.  

The ladies carrying concrete with the backdrop of Shimla town.  

The roads winded there way around the hills.

Ready for some monkey thrashing.

The gigantic Monkey at the top of Jakhu Temple.

Some shots of the streets of Shimla.  It was really nice wandering around without the constant threat of being run over.

Glimpses of the valleys around Shimla.  All in all a very beautiful area.


The view from our balcony was pretty amazing in the evening too!

Scared and Scarred by Car over the Himalayas

This morning we said our goodbyes to Raju and his family. We felt we could have stayed a lot longer but he had other guests arriving and we still had a few more places we wanted to see. So we trudged down the steps to the taxi which had been arranged for us.

Our destination was Shimla which was about 80 km away as the crow flies. This being mountain country though meant that we weren’t going to be able to go direct. There were two ways we could have gone to Shimla from where we were. One down the valley and taking a huge circuitous route of 250km to get back to Shimla on a paved road and the other a more direct route over a pass.

We had opted for the circuitous route as even though it was longer it was going to get us there in 7 hours. Our taxi driver though argued that the road for the direct route was fine and that it would be a much shorter route. Mistake number 1 for us…trusting an Indian Man who is full of confidences and assurances.

Raju, our host took advantage of us driving past the larger village of Banjar nearby by joining us with an empty gas bottle and a shopping list (including fishing rods so he could provide them for hire for future guests). We dropped him off at the village and began our ascent.

The road wasn’t paved but it was dry and although the going was slow we made our way up the side of the valley. The smell of pine trees was wonderful and we settled back ready to enjoy the scenery of our drive. We reached the top of the valley and started our way along and I thought I would check where we were on the map. Our main goal was crossing the Jalori Pass (3223m) and I presumed we must be getting close. 

For some unknown reason though our driver had decided to take us on an 18km detour up and down the side of a mountain. Why he decided to do this we still have no idea but at the end of the detour he turned to us and smiled as to how clever he was. The alarm bells really started to ring a few kilometres further down the road when we started to climb again but this time the road was terrible. It was dirt and only wide enough for a small car and the rocks where huge! The car was a Suzuki Alto 1lt and the tires kept spinning in the dirt. We were both terrified and honestly were thinking of turning back but the road wasn’t wide enough for us to turn around so on we went.

We were so scared that we told the driver to stop to ask some questions about where we were going and why on earth we were going this way. He told us not to worry. Not helpful. There is one thing driving with an Indian when you are going 30kph in a town it’s a completely different level of fear when you are up the side of a mountain on a dirt track with certain death looming on one side. We thought we had been scared in South America but this was far worse.

Just as we thought the situation couldn’t get much worse we had to slow for a group up ahead who were busy collecting their things from around their Ute which had rolled onto its side! Thankfully everyone seemed okay but a foot the other way and they would have all been down the side of the cliff.

Once again we stopped our driver who once again assured us not to worry and that it was only 1 more kilometre then the road would be much better and safer. Mistake number 2…trusting an Indian Man who is full of confidences and assurances.

There was no chatter between us as we were both sat in a state of petrified fear but eventually made the summit with some pretty superb views. Most people would relish this arrival by stopping and taking a picture. We asked to stop but our driver shook his head and took us down the other side of the mountain a few hundred meters until we were in a dense forest where upon he stopped and asked if we wanted to take a picture. If you hadn’t already guessed this guy was a complete idiot.

A check of the map revealed that in 3 hours we had traveled about 15km as the crow flies and spent most of that time avoiding having a heart attack. The assurance that the road would improve had still turned out to be a bare faced lie and we still had a long way to go. On we went.

It was difficult to enjoy the views when we were both clutching the doors ready to jump as soon as we felt we needed to but the glimpses we got were spectacular. Thankfully the sun was shining and the rains held off because we would have been forced to stop if it started raining. 

This fear carried on for another 50 kms and we were both thankful when the tires finally touched tarmac. This feeling was pretty ridiculous as it wasn’t exactly a smooth two lane wide bit of road, no it was one lane at most with dirt either side and still a huge straight drop on one side. To ensure that our hearts kept thumping a few minutes down the road we saw our second vehicle on its side with four of its passengers ominously drinking whiskey in a group. It has to be said that Indians are without doubt the worst drivers in the world. It’s a lethal combination of terrible roads, terribly built cars (Mahindra and Tara haven’t exactly dominated the export market), awful driving ability, a seeming absence of road rules and a complete disregard for the welfare of anyone else. Put all of this in the Himalayas and you have possibly the scariest life experience.

We were very thankful when we approached Shimla and realised that we were only 15kms away. It was by now 3:30pm and we had been on the road and terrified for 6 hours (we would have been there already if we had gone the other way). We weren’t finished though. The traffic ground to a halt and we got out of the car to find out that there were roadworks and we were going to be delayed for a while. In the west we call it a counter flow where one lane of traffic is closed so vehicles have to stop and either a light system or people with flags organise the traffic so they take turns passing the obstacle. It’s slow going but does eventually work.

India does things its own way. Yes they have an obstacle and yes they have men with flags but that is where the similarities end. What happens is that the traffic stops and all the drivers get out of their cars to have a look. Then the traffic up ahead starts moving so everyone sprints to their cars to start them and get going. Obviously no one waits for each other so there is some frantic overtaking. Not only all this but the on coming lane is free of traffic at this point so many people dart down only to be halted by the oncoming traffic. Now Indians aren’t very good at driving forwards let alone reversing so it is a very slow process to clear the blockage. Eventually the road is cleared and the oncoming traffic is allowed to move so we in turn can move forwards…a little. You would have thought that people would have realised the folly of their ways but no the same people try and dart up the other lane only for the whole process to start again. It was painful and took us another hour and a half to get into town.

Obviously at this stage it would have been nice to have booked a hotel which was easy to find so we drove around getting lost, of course I wasn’t to be believed with my directions, what would a foreigner with the internet know. Anyway after 10 hours door to door we arrived at our hotel and to be fair were treated with a pretty spectacular view back over the valley towards the glittering lights of the town of Shimla. Double whiskeys all round! T

Our beast of a Suzuki Alto.  Just not what you want to be in when driving around the mountains.  It’s only redeeming feature was that it was narrow!

Now this was a good road!  At this point we were enjoying the view.

This road wasn’t too bad either…when the road got worse I was too tired to take photos.  Also when we passed the overturned vehicles I was more worried that someone was hurt than being ready to take photos.


Some of the views though were spectacular!