Up in the air

This is the story of a hot air balloon ride I took in Drakensberg in South Africa, told in pictures. It was this whirlwind trip, where we had driven up from Durban the earlier day. I had completed the Canopy Tour (more on this coming up soon), much to my own amazement – and secret pride – and my nerves were shot to pieces. We were staying at the gorgeous Drakensberg Sun Resort but didn’t get to spend any time walking around the resort or sitting by the lake with a glass of wine. Back from the zip lining adventure, I could barely keep my eyes open – though I had a really disturbed sleep that night, where I kept dreaming off falling off cliffs.

The next morning, we were up and early. By early, I mean that we left the resort by 5.30 am to get to the hot air ballooning location in time for our ride. When we got there, everything in front was a thick, soupy fog. It was early winter in South Africa and in hot air ballooning, there is little control over anything (as I found out several times during my ride later).

Fog

So we spent a couple of hours drinking lukewarm coffee and stomping our feet against the cold, waiting for the mist to clear and the sun to come out. At the first signs of a hesitant sun, the team swung into action and soon, the first group went up for a 45 minute ride.

What I was saying earlier about having little control over anything – the pilot Davie had to coast with the wind and land in the middle of a corn field. Getting to the balloon through the thick, tall corn stalks was a mini adventure in itself.

Corn field

The flight was brilliant: deep blue sky, with the sun out in full force. No trace of the morning’s mist or cold remained as we went up. We were surrounded by the Drakensberg mountains on all sides, with fluffy blankets of clouds below us. I loved the way the shadow of the balloon stayed with us throughout – according to Davie, “angels flying with us.”

Balloon

Shadow

And our landing, much nicer in the middle of an open field (although we did get perilously close to more corn stalks), celebrated with a glass of champagne.

Trying to land

More corn

Tying down

Champagne

Easily one of the best hours I spent in any holiday ever…

To do it: Take a 45 minute ride with Drakensberg Ballooning.

Friday photo: South Bank

I am off next week to one of my favourite cities in the world – London. I am there on work for the first few days. And then… a quick weekend trip to Leeds, a couple of musicals, a morning food walk, lots of catching up with friends, revisiting old haunts…

This Friday, from a rainy-sunny summer afternoon (the kinds that only London can see) from South Bank:

London

Memories of London: The buskers are abusking
Also see: Friday photo series

Bye bye Bangalore, Hullo Haryana!

So it’s bye bye to Bangalore after five years. And a good five years it was. When I moved to Bangalore in 2009, this was my third stint in the city. I was not particularly fond of it, though I didn’t actively dislike it.

My husband and I were both fans of Bombay and suffered a massive Bombay hangover for close to two years. But I slowly fell into its languid rhythm and grew to like everything about Bangalore. Well, almost everything. And leaving has not been easy. Especially for a place like Gurgaon. Ah, well, the things we do for work…

I will definitely miss Bangalore. As I sit here sweltering in the north Indian summer, my thoughts ran to all the things I will miss about Bangalore:

~ The weather: This has to top any list about Bangalore – the lovely, cool, breezy days and the al fresco dinners that are possible almost through the year. I am so tempted to block all Bangalore friends on facebook because all they seem to talk about is how cool their city is. Grrrrrr.

~ Kharabhath and filter coffee breakfasts: Airlines was already shut by the time we left, but there is still MTR and Ballal and the dozens of small places that dish out lip smacking masala dosa and kharabhath. Sunday mornings will never be the same again.

<Also read: Breakfast in Bangalore 1, 2, 3, 4, 5>

Masala dosa

~ Cubbon Park blooms: This was one of my absolute favourite parts about living in Bangalore, the fact that we could drive through Cubbon Park and always see some trees in bright bloom through the year.

Cubbon Park

~ Summer evenings at Lalbagh: Although I didn’t do this as frequently as I would have liked – one of the things I took for granted – walking through Lalbagh was always a delightful experience. Apart from all that greenery, I loved the people watching opportunities that Lalbagh always offered.

<Also read: A summer evening at Lalbagh>

Summer

Lalbagh

~ Drives on Mysore Road: Another favourite weekend activity, long drives on Mysore Road, especially during the cooler months. Kishore Kumar or Gulzar on the speakers and the windows rolled down, the breeze caressing my cheeks, bisi bisi thatte idli within calling distance… need I say more?

~ The markets: Mangos at Gandhi Bazaar. Street side bargaining on Commercial Street. Fresh flowers at KR Market… Avenue Road. Malleswaram. The annual crafts mela at Chitra Kala Parishat.

KR Market

Commercial Street

So, bye bye Bangalore. I hope to be back. And for now, I will leave you with a collection of my posts from Bangalore. Regular programming to resume soon, from Gurgaon from now on.

Friday photo: Cliffs of Moher

Just returned from a short trip to the Republic of Ireland, where I visited Dublin, Galway and Limerick. I managed to go on a drive on part of the Wild Atlantic Way to the Cliffs of Moher.

In Ireland, they say “if you don’t like the weather, just wait for a minute; it will change.”

Although the day started off grey and gloomy, the rain stayed away and it actually turned sunny by the time I was ready to leave the cliffs. As I was walking down towards the car park, I ran into Tina singing and playing on the harp. A beautiful song for Ireland…

Cliffs of Moher

***
Also see: Friday photo series

Roos of the game

Lighthouse

I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and sea lions. He takes off from work every Wednesday to go sailing with friends. He stops the jeep every few miles to check on his beehives and coo lovingly over his pet bees. And he owns a home by the beachfront, where he watches the parade of the penguins every night.

Yeah, so I want that life. And the penguins; above all, I want a daily penguin adda in my backyard.

I know all this within an hour of being on Kangaroo Island. I have just got there after a terrifying half hour flight from Adelaide on a wobbly 34-seater. Tim, my tour guide from Exceptional Kangaroo Island, meets me at the tiny airport. Just as we drive out, two kangaroos cross the road in front of us. They look startled for a moment – just as startled as I feel – and then scamper into the bushes. Of course, when I say scamper, I mean they go hop, hop, hop like a couple of awkward but adorable kids on pogo sticks.

kids on pogo sticks

I can’t hope for a better welcome. And I am sold on Kangaroo Island. Or KI, as I have begun to think of it. Just like a local.

KI is Australia’s third largest island, spread over 4400 square kilometres, with 4500 residents (and according to unsubstantiated reports, over 70,000 kangaroos). Tim keeps up a steady commentary as we drive along deserted roads, pointing out wallabies hiding in the bushes and koalas dozing on tops of trees, young ones tightly tucked into their pockets. We also stop for the occasional kangaroo; marsupials have right of way on these roads.

KI roads

koala

One third of all land on KI is devoted to National and Conservation Parks. And Tim is taking me on a tour of some of them. First stop, Lathami Conservation Park. KI is home to over 250 avian species but they dedicate the Lathami Park towards the protection of one single subspecies: the Glossy Black Cockatoo, of which less than 250 remain. You cannot say Kangaroo Islanders don’t take their birds and animals seriously. Sadly, the Cockatoos are all in hiding but I spot my first echidna, the local “fast tongue” anteater, with its deceptively glossy blonde spines.

On to Seal Bay, where over 1000 Australian sea lions are working on their tan on the powder white sands. The gulls keep up a steady cacophony, descending and taking off in a big flock. But nothing disturbs the siesta of this colony of sea lions. If they were nearly hunted to extinction on the 19th century, today they are protected and admired from a distance. Although Tim takes me down to the beach, visitors are usually allowed to watch only from the viewing platforms on the boardwalk. A few pups are frolicking in the water in the manner of young ones everywhere. Watching them at play, I find it hard to believe that sea lions can get aggressive.

Seal Bay1

Sleeping seals

Sea lion

Later that evening, I sit with a drink at the Great Room of the Southern Ocean Lodge looking out at the giant waves crashing below. There are plenty of lounge chairs scattered around this large circular room with floor to ceiling glass windows, directly overlooking the Southern Ocean. And an open bar. I think life cannot get better than this.

Southern Ocean

Dinner at SOL

Ditto for my suite – not quite circular but think infinite sea views stretching all the way to Antarctica. And a minibar stocked with wine from local vineyards and champagne. Like the other 20 in the Lodge, this suite is named after a shipwreck that occurred on this once highly turbulent coast. Someone with a macabre sense of humour but also a classy sense of style has been at work here; along with the sophisticated music system and luxury spa products, there are books on these shipwrecks. Not ideal bedtime reading, so I fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.

Suite at SOL

In the morning, I find it tough to drag myself out of the daybed on the terrace but Tim tells me that more roos await. And some Remarkable Rocks. These weirdly shaped enormous granite boulders are one of the main attractions at Flinders Chase National Park. Eroded by natural forces over five hundred million years, they now look like something designed by Salvador Dali specifically for the South Australia Tourism Department.

Remarkable Rocks

Down the road, at Cape du Couedic, Tim points to the lighthouse built over a century ago. “You can stay here at one of the keeper’s cottages, but chances are, you won’t see any shipwrecks these days,” he says with a straight face. However, naval disasters are not on the minds of modern day visitors to the Cape du Couedic. They come to see the Admiral’s Arch and the colony of New Zealand fur seals nestling on the rocks below. Admiral’s Arch is stunning, with stalactites hanging from the roof, framing the ocean for those perfect photo-ops.

To my untrained eye, the New Zealand fur seals, also native to Australia, look similar to the sea lions at Seal Bay. Tim says their fur is much finer and thicker, which made them the target for hunters till conservationists raised the alarm. Since I am not about the stroke their necks to verify this, I take his word for it. My other learning from this seal watching session is that during the summer months – peak breeding season – fierce territorial battles take place. But right now, there seem to be enough rocks to go around.

Fur seals

KI also prides itself on being the original land of milk and honey within Australia. Of the local population, most of those who are not directly engaged in the tourist trade are producers or traders of cheese, milk, honey, wine, meat and fish. At the Southern Ocean Lodge, every meal consists almost exclusively of local gourmet produce. At breakfast, I feel like I am in a scene out of a Wodehouse novel, as I tuck into “eggs laid by contended hens” à la Bertie Wooster.

I leave KI clutching a small bottle of Hooroo, a local Ligurian honey, a farewell gift from the Lodge. The accompanying note says that Hooroo! is Aussie-speak for goodbye, see you later. Oh well then, Hooroo to you too, Roo Island.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

Fly Qantas to Adelaide from Mumbai or Delhi (approx. Rs. 62,000) and connect to KI on Regional Express. Or take the cheaper 2½ hours drive and ferry option.

Visas

Tourist visas can be obtained from the Australia Visa Application Centre, managed by the VFS at various cities; visa fee Rs. 8600, allow two weeks for processing.

Explore

Exceptional Kangaroo Island offers a range of tours – including a food safari and a ‘KI for kids’ tour – on 4W drive vehicles with experienced guides. If you are out exploring on your own, look for Eat Local signs to enjoy the best of local food.

Where to stay

The Southern Ocean Lodge is undoubtedly KI’s most luxurious and exclusive option (suites from AUD 1050 per person per night, inclusive of all meals and beverages). If you are looking for a unique experience, stay at one of the cottages at the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse.

***
This was published in the special Australia issue of Outlook Traveller in May 2014.

Tso far tso good

Tso Moriri

When we reach Tso Moriri, it feels eerily quiet and desolate. No tourists, no locals. And then we hear a feeble sound from the distance. A group of children are playing cricket on the banks of the lake (‘tso’ in the local language). And we start walking towards them. There they are, engrossed in their game, each wearing only a thin sweater on top of cotton shirts and drainpipe pants. Me, I want to weep for the cold.

It is still early in the season and it appears that the camp has not yet been set up at Tso Moriri. We have driven for seven long hours from Leh through dry brown roads. True, the Indus had given us company for most of way, snaking along the road like a shiny green ribbon. But I cannot bear the thought of driving back to Leh now, a journey of 250 kilometres. That apart, this place deserves more than a fleeting visit.

Tso Moriri, at an altitude of over 15000 feet, is just stunning. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the lake stretches on for over 28 kilometres and at its broadest, spans eight kilometres. I stand on the shore and watch the water change colour with the sun every minute; now a pale grey, suddenly a deep cobalt blue and then aquamarine. Shades I had only heard of are now playing themselves out in front of my eyes and I am greedy for more.

Tso Moriri1

Suddenly, there is some bustle behind us, as a couple of trucks pull up with tents and supplies. It turns out that the camp – the only one allowed here – is to open in a couple of days. I send our driver, Murub, to negotiate and soon we have a deal. They pitch one tent for us and get the kitchen going. Which is a good thing, since breakfast is long forgotten and it is way past lunchtime.

We go for a stroll while lunch gets ready. The husband is keen to join in a game of cricket but the high altitude makes it tough to even breath deep or walk steady. Some portions of the lake are still frozen, although the native Brahmni ducks make their way placidly through the water.

By early evening, it gets so cold that I begin to question the wisdom of our decision to stay on. But at dusk, the snow peaks gleam golden, catching the last rays of the sun. The lake is perfectly still, reflecting the thick white clouds like so many fluffy pillows. The silence is absolute. And as I sip on hot chai, I think I could get used to this after all.

Another day, another lake.

Unlike Tso Moriri, Pangong Tso is abuzz with noise and activity. And why not? It has recently shot to fame as the location of the blockbuster movie 3 Idiots. Murub says, with part amusement and part dismay, that this has now become almost a pilgrimage spot for large groups of tourists.

Pangong has always been the more popular lake in Ladakh, the item to be checked off every visitor’s list. For one, it is much closer to Leh than Tso Moriri. And the drive is through the spectacular Chang La pass, which at almost 18000 feet, is one of the highest motorable roads in the world.

Chang La

Chang La1

With plans to spend the night at Pangong, we start from Leh late in the morning, unlike peppy day-trippers who leave at 4 am. The mountains are covered with fresh snow, and we drive through a narrow road that is part earth, part slush. At Chang La, breathless and disoriented, we pose for the mandatory photographs with stilted smiles on our faces. The discomfort lingers long after we descend, but is forgotten at the first glimpse of Pangong, a sapphire band shimmering afar.

Pangong

At Pangong, there are several camps already in business and some local homes have opened their doors to curious visitors. By the side of the lake, a child plays with flat stones, in his own version of the Buddhist meditative practice of stacking stones. A group of young men dares each other to wade into the freezing water, till one of them finally does it. Predictably, he does not last very long and I notice that his lips look almost as blue as the water by the time he steps out.

Pangong2

As at Tso Moriri, I could spend all evening here just seeing the varied blues of the lake. Pangong is much much longer, at over 134 kilometres, of which only one third is in India and the rest in Tibet. Apart from the brown-headed gulls that clamour for pieces of bread or biscuit that tourists throw their way, large herds of Kiangs (Tibetan wild asses) are usually found grazing on its banks.

Ladakh has a way of holding on to you and never letting go. Long after I am back in my urban jungle, I keep playing it all back in my mind. I remember the time I spent in meditation at Thiksey monastery, as the monks went about their morning prayers. And the long walks and lively chats with the vendors at the street market in Leh. Above all, I think of that evening at Tso Moriri. Who knew solitude could be so soothing?

***
Published in New Indian Express on May 25, 2014 as The waters of life

Friday photo: Posing

I have just come back from a fun week long trip to South Africa, taking in the fabulous INDABA tourism conference in Durban and a quick tour in the beautiful Kwazulu Natal region. I explored street markets, went on a canopy tour, floated on a hot air balloon, spotted giraffe and zebras aplenty and spent hours at the luxurious spa at Karkloof.

More on all this soon. For now, my Friday photo on a bunch of curious children near Durban…

Curious

Also see: Friday photo series

Friday photo: Madurai

Malayadhwaja Pandiya must have been a sad king. Fate had played a cruel trick on him. After years of being childless and spending days and nights in prayer, and pouring countless kilos of pure ghee in the sacrificial fire, he had been blessed with a daughter. Alas! A daughter who was a freak; she was born with three breasts. Just as the royal couple was torn between joy and despair, a voice from the heavens informed them that her abnormality would disappear as soon as she met her consort. The girl Meenakshi — the fish-eyed one — grew up into a beautiful princess who was finally won over by Lord Shiva and married him.

Read on for my story of Meenakshi and Madurai (from a long time ago) here

Meenakshi

I was in Madurai last weekend on week, when I stayed at the lovely Heritage (more on it soon), went on food walks and explored the streets around the temple. This was possibly my tenth visit to this city and I enjoyed it as much as I did my first. The only thing that has changed is the paranoia around the temple itself – the tight security and the cameras prohibited inside the temple. This photo is from an earlier, easier time.

Must read: The divine distractions of Madurai

Also see: Friday photo series

First time to Europe? 10 travel questions answered

It’s Europe time again (read: 5 reasons to visit Europe in spring) and for the next four months, all roads are going to be leading to Rome (or Paris or Barcelona or Amsterdam). Readers of this blog will know that I am an absolute Europe devotee. Vibrant cities, gorgeous countryside, picturesque villages, stunning churches, a cornucopia of museums, the food… what is not to like?

But while Europe is a great choice for a holiday for any kind of traveller – families with kids, couples seeking some together time, backpackers, groups of friends or solo travellers – planning a trip to Europe can be a daunting task. Especially if this is your first visit.

Schengen visa, flight deals, hotel bookings, strange languages, the quest for familiar food, constant Euro to Rupee mental conversion…

Here is my guide to getting the best out of Europe, all the way from planning your trip to seeing the sights.

1. How do I get a Schengen visa?

The Schengen visa covers a large number of countries in both Western and Eastern Europe, with new countries coming into the fold every year – the latest addition is Croatia in 2013. Once you have a Schengen visa, you can travel easily between Schengen countries without the hassle of border checks.

If you are travelling to more than 2-3 countries, be smart about the Schengen visa (but do check on the Consulate / VFS website with your travel agent since these rules keep changing all the time). Apply for a visa at the Consulate of the country which is your point of entry or exit. Or at the country where you intend to spend the maximum number of days. This will work in your favour since some embassies are super quick in processing your visa while some take up to 15 working days.

Apart from your bank and tax statements, you need to also submit flight tickets and hotel bookings. Make sure to make refundable bookings in case of your hotel; once you have the visa in hand, you can switch to your choice of accommodation.

2. What kind of flight fares will I get?

I constantly look for cheap fare deals on websites like kayak.com and have had some pleasant surprises. While looking for flights to Europe, don’t look for direct flights alone. Consider airlines like Turkish which often offer fares which are much cheaper than many of the usual suspects. Who knows, you may be able to squeeze in a couple of days at Istanbul on you way in. In general, the earlier you book your tickets, the better the fare.

3. Where should I stay?

While it feels the safest to book yourself into a hotel, consider other options when you go to Europe. I always prefer to stay in small B&Bs or family run guesthouses. Several reasons for this. They come much cheaper than the large hotels (and in Europe, even the small hotels can be expensive) and you usually end up with a sunny room with a large breakfast thrown in. Having stayed in cheerful B&Bs and guesthouses, now the thought of spending nights in a characterless hotel room feels depressing to me.

Salzburg

Then there is the fun of staying with locals – for me, the more important consideration. In my experience, B&B owners are a friendly bunch and willing to share with you secrets about their city. Ask for recommendations especially on shopping and eating.

Hostels are also a great way of saving money and meeting other travellers, a perfect choice if you are a solo traveller. And if you are travelling as a group of more than 3-4 people, think about renting an apartment

4. Where should I go?

While travelling to Europe, the temptation to cram in as many countries as possible is very high. And it is perfectly valid. After all, with the conversion rates and the hassle of all the travel arrangements, it is not a destination you can visit again and again in a short period, and so you would want to see it all and do it all.

Pick one absolute must-go country and build a smart itinerary around it, including one or two neighbours. In any trip, my advice is not not pack in more than three countries, since there is so much to explore in every destination you could choose. For instance, if you want to go to France, why not add in Belgium and Holland? Or Switzerland?

And why not consider Eastern Europe? Sure, if you have not seen Europe at all, then your heart is probably set on Paris and Rome. But here is my take on this – Paris and Rome will always be around, and just as expensive. Why not go to Ljubljana or Budapest, which are much cheaper than Western European cities and are equally enchanting?

Slovenia

Also, do step out of the big cities into the smaller towns and villages. You get to see the lush countryside this way and get a glimpse into life away from the noise and crowds (if you are lucky).

Austria

5. What do I carry?

First time travellers from India to Europe always end up making the mistake of carrying an oversized suitcase. Be warned: most buildings in Europe are very old and even large hotels sometimes do not have lifts. Railway stations do not have porters and at many airports, you will have to pay to use a luggage trolley (only 1-2 Euros, but why pay that?).

You will end up lugging your stuff up and down several flights of stairs everywhere. And dragging it on cobblestone lanes that look oh, so pretty but are a killer on the back and knees when you have a massive suitcase with you.

Having said that, be absolutely sure to pack these: a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a light jacket that is rainproof and your personal cosmetics. All European hotels are not generous with their soaps and shampoos as we are used to in India and most parts of Asia.

6. How do I get around?

The best way to explore Europe thoroughly is use every means to travel – think trains, trams, metro, buses. Get the appropriate travel card as soon as you reach the city – they go from a few hours all the way to a week and allow you travel on most local transport means. Some of them also come with bargains and discounts stacked on, so look out for those.

Don’t rush out to buy a Eurail pass as soon as you decide on a holiday in Europe. Spend some time on the internet to evaluate single ticket options. I have found them almost always cheaper, unless you plan to travel between cities on every day of your holiday.

Antwerp

Also consider self drive holidays. There are great deals on rental cars available on the internet. The European countryside is a joy to drive through and this gives you the flexibility to turn off the beaten track and explore those tiny places which look inviting. A valid Indian driver’s licence is enough for most countries that you are likely to visit on a Schengen visa.

There is a lot of walking to be done, wherever you are. So be ready for that and pack accordingly.

7. Where do I get information?

As soon as you step into a European city, hit the local tourist information kiosk – they are present at railway stations, airports and at several key places inside the city. These kiosks are the best way to arm yourself with a map and a list of things to see and do in your time there. Even if you have done a lot of research prior to your trip, you get the latest event listings, restaurant and shopping options here.

Another strong recommendation is to join a walking tour on your first day in any new city – there are plenty of options to suit all kinds of interests, from a general overview tour to specialist history or food tours. These give you a good orientation of the city and you can mark out places which seem interesting, where you want to go back and explore at leisure.

Milan

Ask for suggestions from your hotel staff or your host at the guesthouse, chat with locals and fellow travellers at pubs and browse through local markets for a real feel of the place you are in.

Amsterdam

I have got to experience some lovely local food and music just by chatting with cafe owners over a meal or with other travellers at my place of stay (read: thoughts on being a tourist).

8. What should I see?

In Europe, you will be spoilt for choice on things to see, do and experience. Churches and museums top the list for those culturally oriented but even if you are not the “museum types” try spending an hour at one of them to just be awed by how efficiently and reverently Europeans treat their history and heritage.

Paris

In peak season, the line for entry into popular museums can be quite a bit, so see if you can book them in advance over the internet. That way, you save the time of standing in line for tickets and some places also have separate (shorter) queues for those with advance passes.

9. What can I eat?

Most of Europe (especially the West and increasingly the East too) has enough familiar and comfortable options for the Indian traveller – from the ever-dependable pizza and pasta to drippingly yummy falafels to exotic meats and grills. If you are vegetarian, it will help to learn to say “no meat or fish” in the local language or at least say “I am vegetarian” – although some people may not even understand the concept (get more tips in A vegetarian’s guide to Prague).

pasta

If you are open to experimentation, there is enough to make sure you will not go hungry – even though Scandinavian countries, Spain, Germany and some far Eastern European countries may pose a problem you will always find soups, salads and sandwiches to get by on.

Mushroom soup

10. How do I stay safe?

Finally, the question of safety. Some European countries are notorious for pickpockets and petty thieves and everyone we know has a story of how someone they know lost their bag containing their passport and all their money while in Spain or Italy. In most places, it is not necessary for you to carry your passport around, as long as you have a copy of it with you and some valid form of identification.

Keep your money, credit cards and important documents (if you happen to be carrying them around) close to your person and don’t let that bag out of sight even if you are seated at a cafe or a seemingly safe place.

Europe is otherwise safe, even for solo women travellers. Stay close to the main areas after dark and always keep someone informed about your plans.

That’s my Europe planning guide in a nutshell for you. Go forth and enjoy!