Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Kolleru Lake: A hidden nature's treasure

Well hello there! Do come and visit me if you get a chance!

Visited 18,19 Feb 2017.

It is not often one comes across an unexpected treasure of a place for which there is complete lack of publicity and not much information available on the internet either. Kolleru lake turned out to be one such amazingly beautiful spot for birding as well as general sight-seeing.

Let me first explain the logistics of getting to the lake and about the different birding spots nearby since this isn’t well documented anywhere.
Birding areas around Kolleru Lake -
  • Road from Eluru to Eco Tourism Resort (erstwhile Haritha Kolleru Resort)
  • Madhavapuram Bird Sanctuary
  • Kolleti Kota barrage
  • Atapaka, Kaikaluru - Kolleru Bird Sanctuary

About Kolleru and how to get there?

To reach Kolleru, you need to first get to Eluru which is a decent sized town 2-3 hours away from Vijayawada. All in all, it took around 7-8 hours from Hyderabad.

Kolleru Lake is a huge lake (20-25kms expanse) which can be visited from different sides. On one side you have the narrow road from Eluru to the erstwhile Haritha Kolleru resort and Kolleti Kota via the Madhavapuram Bird Sanctuary which has numerous resident birds to be seen enroute; the other side has Atapaka Bird Sanctuary which is a huge nesting ground for Pelicans and Painted Storks. 

The two different sides of the lake (Atapaka and Kolleti Kota) are also connected by a narrow privately-maintained bridge. This route, however is not visible on google maps and directions can be taken only after conversing with locals. One can reach Kolleti Kota after following the Eluru road towards Haritha resort and going further ahead. Some bad (kachha) road notwithstanding, and after crossing a famous temple (Peddintlamma temple),  you reach a small, narrow bridge which connects to reach the Bhimavaram side State Highway on which we have Atapaka. A reasonably sized car like Swift can cross that bridge, but an Innova might not be able to do the same. The other way to reach Atapaka is go around the lake (the route that is shown in google maps) and you may not lose much time that ways either.

All sign boards in this part of the city are in Telugu and I hope some of these images help identify the different places (as they are very easy to miss).

Google Maps link at bottom of this post.

Madhavapuram Bird Sanctuary.
On the Eluru - Gudivakalanka road

Atapaka - Kolleru Bird Sanctuary, Kaikaluru. On Bhimavaram Road NH165.
A small sign board, very easy to miss.
Truly a Pelican paradise.

Narrow bridge, connecting Kolleti Kota and Eluru Road

Where to stay?

This one is a difficult question. As far as towns are concerned, one can stay at either Eluru or Bhimavaram which are reasonably close by (within 20-30 kms).

Eluru is close to Madhavapuram or Kolleti Kota, while Bhimavaram is closer to Atapaka Bird Sanctuary.

Other than that, the only option (I am aware of, and where we stayed) near the birding spots (Madhavapuram) is Eco Tourism Resort which was originally Haritha Kolleru Resort but no longer maintained by Haritha. For bookings, I can share the contact number of the current owner on request.

While the resort is decent with Air Conditioning etc, there is a question mark on hygiene since it is built on static water, which while provides for a very pleasant landscape and good view of sunrise/sunset but also gives potential as breeding ground for mosquitoes. So if you stay there, make sure you don’t open windows during the evening.
Sunset from Kolleru Resort

Without further ado, let me highlight the beauty of this amazing lake!

We went towards Madhavapuram in the evening which was close by the resort (around 2-3 kms).

Sunset through the grass, at Madhavapuram Bird Sanctuary

Hordes of roosting birds - Pelicans and Painted Storks at Madhavapuram

Grey Heron at Madhavpuram

Black Ibis, Madhavapuram

Purple Moorhen, Madhavapuram
The next morning, we went to Atapaka, truly a Pelican paradise. You can also do boating there for Rs 300. Camera charges extra.

First view of Atapaka - designated location of Kolleru Bird Sanctuary.

Painted Stork
Family time! Resting mother with her children.
A lot of Pelicans and Painted Storks build nests and lay eggs at such places at the beginning of winter.
This is towards the end, when the offsprings are already out and growing up fast!

Reflections: a musing Pelican

Well, hello there!

Splash!!! A landing pelican.

Hey you! Don't you dare disturb me, even if you outnumber my species!


Chirping sparrow!

Pond Heron. Deadly eyes as always!

I have as much a right to be photographed, as birds!

We went back to Eluru via the Kolleti Kota road and narrow bridge to connect to Eluru. The marshy land also had a lot of different birds.

Yellow Wagtail

Black Drongo

Species spotted (overall)-
- White throated Kingfisher
- Pied Kingfisher
- Black Drongo
- Yellow Wagtail
- Purple Rumped Sunbird
- Myna
- Sparrow
- Purple Moorhen
- Red Wattled Lapwing
- Common Sandpiper
- Black winged Stilt
- Grey Heron
- Purple Heron
- Pond Heron
- Black Ibis
- Black headed White Ibis
- Spot billed Pelicans
- Painted Stork
- Black Shouldered Kite
- Eagle

(and many more, some of which I can't remember or couldn't identify.)

Link to Google Maps

Related / other posts you might be interested in -

Birds at Ameenpur Lake, Hyderabad
Birds at Lotus Pond, Hyderabad
Birds at Botanical Garden, Hyderabad
Birds, butterflies and nature at Microsoft Campus, Hyderabad
Visit to Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, Gurgaon
Visit to Bhindawas lake and wildlife sanctuary, Haryana
Birding at Leh, Ladakh

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Sandakphu trek

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ManeBhanjang – Jaubari – Tumling – Kalipokhri – Sandakphu – Sabarkum – Phalut – Gorkhey - Sepi
25th-31st December 2016

Prologue –

I stand tall. Unflinching, in the face of heavy snow and strong winds. I look down upon menacingly all around me. I miss nothing. There is none who can match me. There is none who dare conquer me. I am to be respected. I am the Khang-Chen-Dzog-Nga (Kangchenjunga).

Why would one spend a lot of flight money to go to a remote and less popular corner in the Himalayas and embark on a trek to a barely pronounceable mountain no one has ever heard of?

Day 0 – Jaubari (Mane Bhanjang)

I woke up in the middle of the night. 4.30am. It is cold! Chilly, biting cold and we haven’t started off from base camp yet. Slowly, with lots of effort, I convince myself to go back to sleep.

I woke up. 4.30am. I feel fresh from a full night of sleep and feel ready to embark on another journey. Yoo-hoo, the mountains are beckoning again!

Day 1 – Jaubari to Tumling

The backpack is heavy and the road is steep. A lethargic body is taken aback as it tries to get accustomed to new circumstances. It is chilly and cloudy. A stoppage for tea is very welcome and our numbed hands grab hold of that steaming tea cup. Ahh, simple pleasures indeed!
A bird chirping in the cloudy mist
Rhododendron buds. Will be in full bloom in April.
First sight of snow as we stop for lunch. Shivering, yet excited we run outside for selfies as the ground turns white. It snowed only for a brief while, but it left the mountainside with the impression of being covered in little balls of cotton or dove feathers. As it so happened, that was the only snowfall we experienced on the mountains.
Fresh snow on the trail!

We reach our tea house in the evening walking across India and Nepal at free will. We are welcomed with a wonderful hot soup. Absolutely, no idea what is it; but don’t care. Hot, to wrap your hands around – that’s all that matters.
We have dinner and a round of games. Our trek leader, Geet is very, very good in taking care, following up on medical issues and giving good sound advice. It feels warm in the tea hut with the soup and a great dinner – a simple serving of dal, sabji and rice, yet all the tastier in the hills.
The day ends early on the hills and we go to bed by 9-9.30pm.

I started to walk with a song on my lips and nary a worry. The mountains beckoned welcomingly as we climb. My fellow strugglers walk along carrying their ridiculously heavy backpacks. I encourage and cajole them to move forward.
We get through the day and reach Tumling. It is time to get to work. Amidst all the hullabaloo of more than three trek groups and hundred people; quickly, efficiently the four of us prepare a significant portion of soup, enough to keep our people warm. I watch with satisfaction as each of them grab a hot cup with shivering hands.
With not much time on my hands, I start to boil the water again as we get repeated requests for hot water. Its time for dinner and cold is the main hindrance. I continuously keep the fire running and prepare dinner. I eat to my heart’s fill once everyone is done. It’s time for gossip and preparation for the next day. I drop off by 10.30-11pm.

Day 2 – Tumling to Kalipokhri

The first sight of Kanchenjunga on a clear cold morning brought with it a whiff of fresh excitement. The quaint thought that entered my mind as I looked at gigantic Sleeping Buddha with the towering Kachenjunga in its belly – what if the Buddha woke up?
The famous Sleeping Buddha! Kanchenjunga is the belly and the topmost peak in this picture.
The Buddha stayed with us all throughout the trek visible on almost every day.

It is a beautiful sight, one that you never tire of; even though we saw the same on subsequent days. The first ray of sunlight, as it falls on the Buddha with its silhouette – half in the shade whilst the snow-clad peaks glisten is a sight that needs to be seen to be believed.
We walk through the dense forest that is Singalila National Park. We hear stories of the dwindling red panda and search for one but in vain.

The sunset at Kalapokhri at the end of second day was surreal. Layers of clouds and mountains mingling with each other with nary a difference. A mixture of warm colors on a canvas!
Sunset at Kaliphokhri

 Kanchenjunga! I have been seeing her since the age of five. As far as I can remember, it was omnipresent as I grew up. I remember telling her about my troubles, about my fight with my father, about the girl I liked in school and what-nots. Kanchenjunga was my diary. She never said anything, but just listened. That’s what I liked about her.
Now, with an aging beard, I still gazed at her with respect. I looked around at everyone clicking pictures and smiled. I walked on.

Day 3 – Kalipokhri to Sandakphu

Everest –
No comments! Just that – Everest! The greatest of them all!
Mysterious, shrouded in cloud, flanked by her army of peaks on all sides; she had an aura of invincibility! At the back, yet indifferent of attention, knowing no one else can steal her thunder!
Everest is the third peak from the right (in the background)
Flanked in Makalu, Lhotse and Nutse in front, and Chomling on the left.

Everest! Mysterious and almost always covered by clouds. This was one rare moment when it wasn't.
The two giant ranges. The face and partial belly of Sleeping Buddha on the right; and the Everest range on the left.

Makalu and Lhotse – mountains we normally are not aware of. But when spotted, we see the trio of peaks in the distance. It feels unbelievable to be even looking at the highest mountain peaks in the world.
We summit today. Everything feels comfortable as long as the days are warm. The climb was steep but we managed. It feels like we have accomplished something.
I stand atop the tallest peak in West Bengal! Sandakphu!
We learn to pitch tents and attempt to do so. Bumbling and stumbling, we manage to pitch something. The trek guide and co-guides come by and correct our mistakes. We make something of a home and try and snuggle inside it.
Tents in the morning sun at Sandakphu

Outside the tent, it is cold. It is very cold. Mind-numbing, freezing cold. The chilly wind not only tingles my spine but the entire body. I can’t feel my hands inside woolen gloves. I can’t feel my feet inside woolen socks. We walk around like zombies. We rush for warm soup and a lovely dinner which has now become routine and something we have now come to expect.
The tent is shaking. The wind is roaring and screaming in its frigid, shrieking voice. It brutally tears into the tents as though it would turn us over. But the tents stay strong. We survive. Once can only visualize how cold it would be without shelter.
I get up in the middle of the night. I want to pee. But I can’t. I can’t sleep but I won’t dare to go outside. Even the thought of that night of biting, screeching wind like a wild beast tangled in a net gives me the shivers.
The tents were warm enough, truth be said; but the wind was scary. And we were at 12000 feet. I can’t even imagine what happens in winters at higher altitudes without shelter. Of course, it gets colder, but try explaining that to someone who stays in Hyderabad at 30 degrees for most of the year.

As routine, I wake up at 4.30am. All trekkers are fast asleep. This is my time to reflect and think. It dawns again. And we begin to hear the twittering trekkers.
Everest! I bow to Everest. The mountains are to be respected. I scan over the entire range of towering mountains and wonder for the umpteenth time, about the beauty of these giants.
We summit today.
And then we pitch tents. Fix zips that are not working, correct mistakes by trekkers pitching a tent for the first time, do a little bit of here and there everywhere as the trekkers huddle in the cold. I smile. The tents are pitched and everyone can now sleep peacefully.

Day 4 – Sandakphu to Sabarkum

Another cold day. We get up in our tents shivering and are served a cup of tea in the tent. Five-star hotel service can’t beat this. The water bottle which had a little water and was kept outside the tent has frozen overnight. The sunrise is beautiful (again) as we click photos and then scamper off for breakfast and hot water in a jiffy. 
I am taller than Everest!!

Ohh, you wish!!
The trek starts as we descent and then ascent again.
We meet army outposts along the way. They welcome any change in scenery and are willing to talk. What do we ask them? When do you see your families next? Or what kind of nutritious food do you get?
We camp at Sabarkum. Another peaceful little village with chilly cold winds.
We pitch tents again, with little more proficiency than yesterday. Post dinner, we look at the amazingly clear starry sky and enjoy identifying the different constellations (and spot shooting stars). We do this every evening, but not for too long, only till the cold gets to us.
Sleep tight, huddle inside the warm sleeping bag, and drop off!
Milky way on the backdrop of trekkers hut at Sandakphu. Pic credit: Hrishikesh Baruah
Starry sky! The milky way is faintly visible.
This pic was taken at Gorkhey. Sandakphu and Sabarkum skies were even clearer.

4.30am. I enjoy getting up under the stars. It is lovely weather. A little wind but that’s ok. We start our routine again. Heat the water (it takes more time at this altitude) and get breakfast ready. Serve tea in the tents something which brought a smile on the trekkers’ faces. I love to see people smile.
They run off shivering for breakfast to the tea-hut without unpitching their tents so we do that. It takes time, but we get it done anyway.
Everyone, by now is used to the trek. They walk briskly and do well. They also pitch the tents better with lesser help.

Day 5 and 6 – Sabarkum to Gorkhey via Phalut. Gorkhey to Sepi.

Phalut! Another peak and another climb. This is the closest we ever get to Kanchenjunga and Everest and we soak in those peaks with our eyes and cameras for one last time.
Sleeping Buddha again! I never get tired of seeing it!

One of the many trails visible as we look back at what we accomplished!

It is much more pleasant now. We descend through forest. Sometimes it is difficult to slow down while descending. The knees begin to ache and the toes hit the shoes every time we take a step. The double socks and walking with heel first - tips from our trek guide help a lot.
The forest is dense with deep cover. Some of these trees have not seen sunlight for ages. We search for red pandas and leopards and instead encounter a wild yak on a narrow path. We reached Gorkhey, our last camp site right at the end of the forest.
Gorkhey is the prettiest little village right in a valley amidst tall mountains covered with dense forest cover and running river. Exactly that picture which we used to draw in our childhoods.
The beauty of this little pristine village is preserved since it has no motorable roads and one needs to trek a few kms to reach this place.
Gorkhey. Pic credit: Hrishikesh Baruah
We had a good time there with exotic dishes like pasta. And a much more comfortable time with the cold.
The last day is always about getting back to town. It is a bitter-sweet feeling; as we run and prance about like excited puppies, excited about seeing back civilization; yet at the same time feeling like we are leaving a part of ourselves behind, with the hills.
We completed our trek by 2pm and bade a fond farewell to our trek guide and co-guides! Adiey, till we meet again!

The last day is always about goodbyes. I feel sad to bid farewell once more to so many new friendships created over the last seven days. I hope they continue to visit the mountains. I hope they tell all their friends about mountains and their beauty. I hope they remember me once in a while. I smile, hug and wish everyone farewell as I stand where I belong – with my old friend, the Khang-Chen-Dzog-Nga.


Why do we trek?
To meet new people and make new friends? Maybe. To get away from our helter-skelter daily routine and madness? Probably! (Yes, indeed the mountains slow time.) To boast about stories like “you know I went to the highest peak of West Bengal and saw Kanchenjunga and Everest from up close”. Definitely!

This post is a dedication to all trek guides and co-guides. They work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that every trek goes smooth for all of us. As one of my fellow trekkers rightly put, “it is a humbling experience to watch them go about their tasks every day and there is so much that we can learn from them”.

Thanks to Indiahikes for organizing this trek flawlessly making sure that all of us trekkers had a good time along the way.

From left to right ->
Geet, our fantastic, knowledgeable and amazing trek guide,
Sanghey ji, as we all came to fondly call him, brought up the front in our trek,
Gopal, brought up the rear,
Chirrin, the ever-smiling horse man,
Subhash (or Subba dadu), the one who stayed in the middle of the group 

The trekkers. Pic credit: Hrishikesh Baruah