By T S Sudhir
“If you have any phone calls to make, please make them now. Once we cross this place, there will be no mobile connectivity,” advised Vijay Kumar, our driver. I don’t know if it was panic or relief that we felt at the thought of being `disconnected’ from the world.
We were passing the Boddavaram forest checkpost on our way from Visakhapatnam to Ananthagiri and Araku. It was a drive through north coastal Andhra Pradesh’s rural and semi-rural landscape, replete with the crowded weekly fairs and posters of Rajinikanth’s `Robot’, Mahesh Babu’s `Khaleja’ and NTR’s `Brindavanam’ competing for space on every wall.
The jungle took over soon after. The Eastern ghats beckoned you to the queen of the hills, Araku, as the sun played hide and seek casting huge shadows over the mountain slopes.
A short prayer for a safe journey to Goddess Kothammathalli, at the beginning of the Ghat section at Kasipatnam, and it was time to head to Tyda, a small village 75 km from Vizag, that now is home to Jungle Bells, a quaint eco-tourism facility. You could spend a day here, soaking in the sounds and sights of nature, minus TV and mobile phones. Special ecotourism packages, including a jungle walk and trek, are on offer here.
Half hour from Tyda is Ananthagiri, nestled in the cradle of several mountains. It is also home to waterfalls that are a treat to watch in the monsoon. You can also chance upon rare medicinal plants and herbs. The state tourism resort here has cottages that offer spectacular views of the mountains and jungles around and makes for an economic stay option.
My first encounter with snails hopping around the lawns happened here. They seemed pretty camera-savvy. Instead of retreating into their shell when we closed in for a shot, they seemed rather eager to raise their head up to pose !!
But what makes Ananthagiri truly an `anant’ experience are its coffee plantations. Tall trees on both sides of the road, daintily embraced by pepper climbers and basking in the cool, dark shadows below, the coffee shrubs. You can stop by the roadside to explore the coffee berries and the plantations upclose.
A row of stalls selling hot coffee, locally picked wild gooseberries, organically grown soya, coriander, cinnamon, poppyseeds, shikakai pods and other forest produce greet us on our way from Ananthagiri to Araku. It is fun shopping here for forest exotica, specially because the entire area is by default organic, and the prices are easy on the pocket.
Would have certainly made for an interesting and educative experience if only the visit to the coffee plantations and the picking and processing of the beans, all grown organically, had been packaged for tourists, for a cost. At the end of the guided tour could be the pleasure of savouring the aromatic high of locally brewn, fresh organic coffee from the same plantation.
One recalled a recent visit to the US where a visit to a corn field was being marketed at $ 30 for an afternoon out, exploring the place, for the city denizens! An tourist opportunity worth exploiting here !
Rajkumar, who is pursuing a diploma course in computer science, is among those selling organic coffee grown on land allotted to his family under the ITDA scheme.
Tourist arrivals have gone up in the last five years, and during peak season, which begins in October, he says business is good. But he feels the organic USP of the place is not adequately showcased or marketed.
At Araku, also called Andhra’s Ooty, don’t miss visiting the tribal museum, where the costumes, way of living, food habits of the 23-odd tribes of Visakhapatnam and East and West Godavari districts are showcased.
Items produced by them are also sold at this museum. And if you want to turn into a tribal archer, there is also a bow and arrows that you can try your hand at, for a nominal fee.
The Padmapuram Gardens in Araku markets as its USP, three tree-huts, which are huts made of logs propped up by more than a dozen trees each.
Renting the place here for a nominal tariff of 500 rupees can be quite an experience, except that curious visitors to the park, as we discovered, have a tendency to walk up the wooden staircase to check out the rooms, without realising they are occupied ! So a quiet afternoon may just be a remote possibility.
The jewel in the Araku experience, is the Borra Caves, 90 km from Vizag. Before you enter the caves, you marvel at the twists and turns and swirls of the Gosthani river that provides drinking water to Vizag. The river takes its birth in Borra caves.
At the entrance, bands of monkeys, encouraged by the eatables being carried and strewn around, entertain visitors with their antics.
Discovered by British geologist William King in 1807, Borra means `hole’ in Oriya. These naturally formed stalactite and stalagmite formations take your breath away. It is like being transported into another world altogether.
Ever since the tourism department lit up parts of the cave in 1992 and subsequently created pathways so tourists can get access to the interiors, the experience of discovering nature’s hand at work has become that much more enchanting and arrivals have shot up dramatically.
Guides carrying torches show you around the caves. The majestic and awe-inspiring natural formations have inspired many a creative and religiously inclined mind to see divinity all over. So the guide will point to formations that look like the Shivalinga, Shivaparvati, Shiva’s vehicle Nandi, Subramanya Swamy and even the Ganesha. A strong shaivite influence here.
If you are not so religiously inclined, you could use your imagination and find inspiration for any form that your mind would want to see.
A railway track runs right atop the Borra caves, at a height of 176 feet and inside you could climb a steep flight of treacherous stairs to get a darshan of a natural formation shaped like the shivling where priest Appala Swamy sits in almost total darkness, the object of reverance mystically lit up by a couple of lamps and regular offerings of burning camphor. Droplets of water from the roof of the cave are your blessings from the Nature God.
You will be advised to reach Borra early to avoid the serpentine queues, particularly in holiday season. Some 2000 tourists on a minimum visit Borra everyday, eager to be transported to a past 150 million years old.
In the present, to know the different ways of tribal life, you could visit Madagada village to take a look at their pottery. Or Chompi that specialises in manufacturing lac products. And Mushirguda where bamboo products are prepared. All these habitations are within a 5-10 km radius of Araku.
You can also reach Araku by train. The four hour long journey starts at Vizag at 7 in the morning and passes through 46 tunnels.
Araku at over 3000 feet above sea level, is now also a favourite film shooting spot and several Telugu filmmakers head to these cool climes to capture the beauty of this hilly terrain.
In fact, the day the Dada Saheb Phalke award was announced for producer D Rama Naidu last month, he was shooting for a film in Araku. And it was next to impossible to convey to him the good news, with no mobile phone connectivity.
AP Tourism owns picturesque properties in Tyda, Ananthagiri and Araku and the best time to visit is anytime between October and February.
It was when the mobile phone beeped after a 48-hour break that we realised we had returned to the madness of the everyday world we had left behind.
For those looking to unwind and escape the incessant phone calls and stress of daily life, my suggestion would be to look east. Because Araku is calling !
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