Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unbiased review of the Duster - Part 3: Unfinished business in Anamudi Shola

This post should have come under Mango Musings but I've placed it here because it qualifies as Woodcrawling! To see the earlier post of the 'Unbiased review of the Duster' see the post in Mango Musings

A little more than three and a half months ago we had discovered a lovely little place during our trip to Munnar.  (Link here).

For two people who had been used to sitting in a safari jeep and going around the same tracks in the hope of catching the eye of a predator it was a new experience.Here was a scenario where we were in the wilderness we loved so much, but instead of getting driven we were driving ourselves. That meant we were in control of where we stopped, how long we stopped and what we could do. That evening we spent in Maryoor had left an indelible impression on both of us. We had be limited by our transport and the opinions of a few people who probably had some ulterior motives to prevent us from going ahead. Despite encouragement from some unexpected quarters we weren't sure of testing the terrain in a hatchback with less than ideal ground clearance.

1st, November 2012, I took delivery of our Duster. It was a vehicle that had appeared in the horizon earlier in the year and we had booked in July. It had been a long wait but we had to ourselves a gentle beast to carry us to place we had never been to before. I had tested it out in and around Palakkad (link here) but there was nothing here like the Anamudi shola.

So on the 18th, November we were off to see how the Duster would handle the shola. There was a full complement of five passengers and a boot full of photography gear and food. We left at 6.30 AM because we had to be back by nightfall. I hate driving after sunset these days, and since our route was to take us through an area I had not traveled in I could not really predict how long I had to be at the wheel.

The sun was still hiding when we crossed Pollachi (45 kms) onto Udumalapet (75 kms). The wind turbines stood like sentinels in the maize fields and the road was tempting. I'm a sedate driver normally but I succumbed to temptation and let the Renault K9 engine have some fun. The needle was nudging 130 kph when I ran out of road for speed test, besides I thought the people in the back seat were making noises, so I eased off. The memories of chasing a Santro on NH 47 weren't too pleasant. The Duster was rock steady at that speed. Absolutely no feeling of the wheels going out of control anytime or the engine straining.

We stopped for breakfast at the Chinnar checkpost (105 kms). The EDC canteen does not have breakfast unless you pre-order but they let you take your packed food and use their dining area. Of course, you won't believe if I told you they couldn't even provide a cup of tea! Please keep a fiver ready if you want to use the toilets; they rarely have change! (Fuel efficiency shown by the instrument panel FE calculator was 17.5 till this point)

If you want tea, stop at Karimutty (118kms). The little tea shop at the bridge serves nice tea.

The road to Anamudi shola splits off to the left at Marayoor (120kms), just after the petrol station as you up come up the last curve. The rocky slopes on either side of the road from Marayoor to Kanthaloor are dotted with 'muniyaras' or dolmens, the ancient tribal burial sites. These simple tombs are empty now and are worth a brief stopover if you have time to spare.

You can go up to the 'muniyaras' through the Goverment school that is situated on the upper curve of an S-bend as you reach Kovilkadavu. The other option, which is actually better, is to look for a board on your left about a kilometer after the turn off near the petrol station, (much before the school I mentioned). This small road takes you to the top of the hillock where the 'muniyaras' are. You can park at the bottom and walk up or drive up if you have a car with an attitude!

We didn't hang around too long exploring the tombs. We had a long drive before lunch and I wanted to soak in the atmosphere of the shola. The sugarcane fields of Kanthaloor were filled with cane ready to be harvested. We reached Kanthaloor (135 kms) just before 11 AM. If an old man waves you down at the forest check post you can ignore him. He only wants to take you on a guided tour of Kanthaloor's fruit farms! The board pointing to Anamudi Shola suddenly seemed very familiar even though I had been on this road only once earlier. Perhaps a gaur would be waiting for us!

Easwari's stall  (138 kms) signalled the entry to the Shola. This time she had a larger variety of fruits including custard apple, guavas and bananas but no pears! She told us there had been no rains so the road was not so tough to travel on. It was then we realized there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was extremely warm for a place in the hills. 

Upto now we had either traveled on highways or relatively narrow and winding ghat roads. The instrument panel's fuel efficiency calculator was now showing 15.6 kmpl. The next 7 or 8 kilometers were going to be a test for the Duster. 

There was no rain so it would be relatively easy. Absence of flowing water on the track would mean less chance of deeply eroded parts filled with slush or mud that could hide invisible dangers. I would know where my tire was going exactly. The last thing anyone would want is a tire burst! I had reached a bridge with a little cascade on my previous trip and that was my first destination.

A half hour break here enjoying the beautiful sounds and sights of nature we decide to move on. As we rolled over the loose cobbles on the track I could feel the Dusters power. No sudden jumps or slips. It just moved forward like the Nilgiri Tahr. I just had to point it in the direction I wanted it to go and it went forward where it was meant to go. I was mostly in second or first gears, and rarely in the third. The track gets more rough as we climb further.

The bright sun that had been with us till Easwari's shop was struggling to pentrate the canopy. The rough track was getting more narrower we progressed that I was left wondering where I'd go if a vehicle came from the opposite direction.

My fears were unfounded. The Duster was exhibiting its versatility and it seemed completely at ease in this environment. After about 8 kilometers of negotiating this rough track we reached the other end of the shola. It had taken us a hour (excluding the half hour spent at the little bridge) to cover this distance. There were no complaints of aches and pains after the constant bouncing. The car itself had not exhibited any strain. The fuel efficiency had come down to 13 kmpl after this stretch, which was not bad considering the fact that I had been driving in 1st or 2nd gear all through, with many stoppages.

There was no gaur or elephant waiting for us on the track but signs of their presence were all around.  We weren't disappointed though; the langur sentry fixed us with a glare that was filled with contempt. He knew the four adults and child below him were incapable of climbing his tree. He continued foraging without a second thought. 

The Malabar Giant Squirrel, whom we met near the watch tower on top of the shola, was even more  nonchalant in his expression. It seemed that we were invisible to him as gave a show for nearly 10 minutes at touching distance.

Outside the shola the landscape changes instantly. Within a few feet of the  forest check post the the vegetable farms and tea estates start. Though there is a fencing between them there was a distinct possibility of curious animals straying out of their territory.

Clear cloudless skies above us and winding roads under, our next stop was Kundala dam which we could see in the distance


There is a whole lot of Idukki district that will keep a Woodcrawler interested. I was constrained by the limitations imposed by my car. Now I have a vehicle that can take me anywhere without batting an eyelid (if it had one!) and without burning a deep hole in my pocket.

 Watch this space....... Mathikettan Shola and Pampadum Shola are on the radar now!

For the Duster Fans only
Total distance: 338  kms
Fuel consumed: (full tank to full tank): 22 liters (filled after 352 kms)
Fuel efficiency: Highway - 18 +/-, Hills - 15 +/-, Off road - 12 +/- (based on figures shown on the FE calculator in the instrument panel). Overall - 16 kmpl (based on topping up after 352 kms)
Ride quality: Excellent. There were two people with bad backs in the car. Despite the grueling drive in the Anamdi Shola, neither of us felt even a twinge of pain. On the highway there is no body roll even at high speeds and at no point do you get the feeling that you are losing control.
Engine noise: Barely audible even when negotiating tough roads in low gears, almost silent on highway
Gears: Easy shifting, no strain between 2000 to 3000 rpm, shift down if you run below 1500 rpm. I have found the clutch as easy as in my Punto. Drivers shifting from petrol engines might take a little time to get used to the heavier clutch and frequent need for down shifting.
Steering: Easy and ultra steady. It was only when the wheels slipped of loose rocks that I felt a wobble, which I think is natural. Again, people shiftin from a smaller or lighter car might find it a bit stiff.
Tires: Excellent on the highway. Minor slipping on loose gravel in the Shola. The OE MRF Wanderers seemed to be better suited to paved roads than off-roading. Have to test it out on rough terrain in the rains.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Trivandrum Zoo and the Genesis of Richard Parker

A little over a week ago, Ang Lee's 3D fantasy movie 'Life of Pi' released in theaters. I was in Trivandrum that morning and had half a mind to book myself for a late night show. After spending a little thought on it I realized it wouldn't really fit into my plans.

I was there for a conference and booked into the Mascot Hotel where the food quality of food ( for a hotel of it's repute) was abysmal. Trivandrum's hotels, including KFC, were famous for all the wrong reasons. People were falling ill and even dying after eating in hotels there so  I wasn't sure it was always like that or only because a bunch of ophthalmologists were going to be swarming the premises for a three day conference. Whatever the reason, the breakfast and lunch we got that day had us searching for more palatable stuff outside it's walls!

We had an evening to kill and the 'Life of Pi' was ruled out because we felt it had nothing in it for a 10 year old and his priority seemed to be the dinner rather than a movie. I would have to wait for the movie to hit theaters in my town, whenever that would be. Meanwhile, I thought it would be appropriate to show my son the Zoo that told a story.

Yann Martel says that "most books come from the same mix of three elements: influence, inspiration and hard work".

You can read the essay he wrote on 'How I wrote the Life of Pi' here. 

While he was researching for his book he spent time in South India scouring the various zoos for six months in 1996. Richard Parker actually changed avatar from a elephant to a rhino and finally to the tiger. So, to understand a tiger's life he spent 15 days at the Trivandrum Zoo observing them! I'm just wondering, if 15 days at a zoo watching caged tiger can inspire a book, I should have material for many!  Perhaps, I should signup for a refresher course in English to polish up my writing skills!

Anyway, I wanted to see what was the inspiring thing about tigers he saw in the Trivandrum Zoo so I thought I'd go. Besides, it would keep my son busy till dinner!

There is a rather unflattering report of the Zoo and it's visitors from the Guardian by Luke Harding after Yann Martel was awarded the Booker Prize. Of course it would be too much to expect anything else from the Guardian. After all anything that is not British is not proper!

Read the Guardian article here

A Bit of History:
The Trivandrum Zoo, considered the oldest in the country, took shape during the time of Swathi Thirunal (1813 - 1847)  a King and composer. He had a collection of animals in the royal stables that were caught and caged from the forests in and around Travancore. The Zoo itself, in it's present form, was created in 1859 under the rule of Uthram Thirunal Maharaja. The carnivore house was apparently designed on the model of cages in the Zoological Gardens in London. The zoo today is more animal friendly and most of the animals roam in open enclosures.

Entry into the Zoo is by tickets and no plastic is allowed inside. You can deposit your bags and plastics at the entrance. There are kiosks and water coolers inside in case you want a bite or quench your thirst.

The last time I went there was many years ago and I could see things had changed. Unfortunately, we were constrained by time on this visit because it was a rather impromptu trip to the zoo.

The lion tailed macaques are the first creatures you encounter and they look bored. I was wondering how these simians never felt like climbing over the wall of their enclosure. There was no netting to prevent their exit and the trees in their enclosure had branches that reached out to the trees outside! Even a bunch of bananas failed to enthuse some of them.

Across the macaque's enclosure is a traditional Kerala building that could pass off as a house. House it is, but belongs to the King Cobras.

You cross a few monkey cages to reach this ancient building that house a few raptors and owls. Photography in most of these cages is very difficult. They have bars and meshes in multiple layers,  not only to prevent the creatures from escaping but also to stop annoying tourists from disturbing them.

The rhino was not in a mood and neither was the lion. Both of them were in another world perhaps like Africa!

The black bear wouldn't even lift up its nose from the ground it was digging into. The hippos were the happiest lot; wallowing in the pool, occasionally lifting up their heads and snorting in bliss.

The big cats are all above and beside the hippo enlosure. You can hear them growl long before you see them. All of them look well looked after, though most of them have that vacant look of a prisoner who has been watching the world go by monotonously.

This guy was pacing his cage and growling. A magnificent specimen that could be Richard Parker.

This one was growling without lifting it's head. Maybe annoyed by the ruckus the two males on either side of her were creating!
 The other big guy too was pacing his cage looking across at the other male. Perhaps the lady was the cause of their impatience!

The lone jaguar was nowhere to be seen. It is a creature of the night and was likely sleeping off the daylight as were the lioness'.

The most majestic of them all, who could have been Richard Parker, had a larger enclosure. His attitude seemed to suggest that us lesser mortals were not worth even a passing glance. A mongoose had got into his space and was taking quick bites off his meat (see to the left of the tiger), but he chose not to react except for turning his ears backward occasionally.

The tigers of Trivandrum Zoo were all in excellent condition. It speaks of the care that the keepers give them. Perhaps they would have a personality disorder, being confined to the barred enclosures.  They should be more adventurous, like Marty the lion from Madgascar (the movie)!

It still leaves me wondering what Yann Martel could have learnt about the behaviour of tigers from a zoo in 15 days. He'd have learnt more if he could have spent time with a person like Ullas Karanth in the field or reading Kenneth Anderson or Jim Corbett!!

I'm still waiting for the movie to release in a theater near me. Maybe I'll change my opinion about Martel after that!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Padmanabhapuram palace - A Masterpiece in Wood

Time and again, over the last few months, I've preached about measuring distances in time. Sometimes, it is better to take the advice of someone in the know of things than make foolish decisions about places you don't know.

I was in Trivandrum for a conference and I had to keep a 10 year old engaged. I had promised him a trip to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) so the second day of conference was set aside for it. 87 kilometers from Trivandrum to me was a 2 hour drive logically and since I wasn't going to be at the wheel I thought it would be faster!

I wanted to go to Kanyakumari do the usual trip to the Vivekananda rock and also see if I could do Padmanabhapuram palace, Suchindram and a couple of other temples and a waterfall. The total distance would not be more than 250 kilometers and I was sure a leisurely start after an early breakfast would see us back in Trivandrum for the Banquet in the evening to be hosted by the organizers of the conference.

The taxi driver called up to tell that if we were to do the entire program, we'd have to start at 6.00 AM and would only be back by 10.00 PM! I did not go to Trivandrum to get hauled out of bed at 4.30 AM. Hey! I find even 5.30 AM unearthly! I told him we'd leave after breakfast and do what ever we could in 12 hours.

I have maintained that NH-47 is a nightmare and my feeling were reinforced on that day. The taxi driver had told us it would be an endless traffic jam all the way to Kanyakumari and he wasn't wrong. There was a KSRTC bus with a punctured front tyre on the railway overbrigde near the Trivandrum station. Five minutes into the trip and we were caught in a seemingly impossible situation. It took some 20 minutes to get past the jam and I was getting a bit annoyed. My driver said that there was a route through Kovalam and Poovar that could help us avoid the traffic at least part of the way so we took the road he suggested. I consented grudgingly because I was responsible for the immediate situation.

That route was only slightly better; winding and narrow, overtaking was nearly impossible so we were part of a long line of vehicles that crawled like a toy snake. Every now and then a vehicle would pop out of the line like  the toy snake's section, only to quickly return to it's rightful place, as an oncoming vehicle would ensure it could not jump the queue!

Three hours into the journey, at 11.45 AM we had reached Thuckalay, some 50 odd kilometers from Kanyakumari. The Padmanabhapuram Palace, the home to the rulers of the erstwhile Travancore was located here. After the reorganization of the states in 1956, Padmanabhapuram became part of the Kanyakumari district of Tamilnadu. Perhaps, politicians those days were more magnanimous; the administration of the palace was retained by the Government of Kerala. However, the income and expenditure are shared equally by the two states. Amazing cooperation!

Since walking through the Palace does not qualify as Woodcrawling I am posting a blog on the Padmanabhapuram palace in Mango Musings as a series.

You can read it here.

What will come here next is a contemporary post with a link to the past. Everyone is talking about 'The Life of Pi', Ang Lee's latest movie in 3D. Few know that the author of the book it is based on, Yann Martel actually did research for his book in the Trivandrum Zoo. I'll tell you about it shortly.....