Sunset at Death Valley

November 7, 2016

dsc_0664We made it to the Badwater Basin in time for sunset. We opted to drive up further from the parking lot and then walk across the salt flats, as suggested by pamphotography. Walking across the salt flats is tricky because you don’t want to break the ridges, at the same time there is something deeply satisfying about crunching salt underfoot. We’ve set up our cameras and we have nothing to do except wait. If you forget to bring a mat, like we did, you can take your shoes off and use them as a cushion. Getting up is harder as the crystals will hurt your hand as you try to lift off. The Basin is at a much lower altitude than the mountains that surround it. Therefore, the sun sets ten (10) minutes earlier here. The drama begins around ten (10) minutes after sunset. We see an orange-pink cloud starting to form. Slowing it grows bigger and starts moving. More clouds form. One shaped like a dragon too. When we turn around and look behind us, we see long pink fingers ripping the grey clouds to shreds. I have seen many spectacular sunsets with blood red skies, mixed with turmeric yellow, but this crazy pink and grey is a first. While the sunset is far from what we expected, it most certainly does not disappoint.

dsc_0679As the light starts to fade, we move towards the parking lot. The Badwater Basin is also a great place to stargaze, we stay there a little longer. There is a bottle of wine and two steel glasses in the car.  The clouds take over and we head back to our camp site.

file_001Tonight’s dinner is rice and pasta cooked in an open pan over coal. This really feels like camping. Despite his protests and reluctance, I can see that the husband is enjoying the experience. The skies have cleared and we can see the stars shining brightly overhead. After a few attempts to identify constellations we call it a night. We must be up early tomorrow to catch the sunrise.

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Cape Cod again

Aug 6, 2016

DSC_0593Our first big trip with the family, this year, is to Cape Cod. We get off to a bad start with a flat tire, followed by crazy traffic. It’s early evening by the time we reach. We have 4 items on our list – beach + lighthouse, sunset, whale watching and Martha’s Vineyard. We are too late to catch the last whale watching boat, so that gets pushed out to tomorrow. If we can make it to the first boat, we might still be able to do Martha’s Vineyard. When we reach the Race Point Lighthouse, there is a wedding ceremony in progress. The family is highly amused. We head to the beach, where we dip our feet in the ice cold waters. Seals froliking the ocean as we stroll along the shore.

Cape Cod 2016We arrive at the Rock Harbor beach twenty minutes before sunset. Dark clouds, low on the horizon have obscured the sun. We are disappointed, but wait it out all the same. Good things come to those who wait; we were rewarded with the most unexpected spectacle. The sun slowly slid out under the clouds and slipped into the ocean.For a moment it stood perfectly suspended between the cloudline and the horizon, like a dot of kumkum. The throat of the ocean shimmered as it swallowed the orange ball of fire. We waited till the last sliver of light had been consumed. As we walked away, the water greedily lapped up the leftover pink from the sky.

Aug 7, 2016

The first boat is too early for us. We miss the second because we got stuck in a cycle rally to Provincetown. Martha’s Vineyards is now off the cards. Trivia – the first family reached Martha’s Vineyard today for a sixteen day vacation. I did try suggesting, we switch whale watching with Obama spotting, but.. siigh!!

Cape Cod 20161Whale watching is a smashing success. Very soon, there are all kinds of whales, all around us. We get to witness some feeding behavior. The ocean is calm and the dramamine is really helping. I’m having  a whale of a time.

On the way back, we again get a truckload of traffic. Where is everyone going this weekend!

As crazy as it was, the family is happy and the weekend was well spent.

The Great Smoky Mountains – Day 2

September 14, 2015

Pigeonforge

Pigeonforge

We have a long list of things to do, and only so much time. We start the day with a late breakfast at Pigeonforge. To make the most of the day, we have decided to stay the night at Pigeonforge and drive back to Charlotte tomorrow morning. Even though I had read that Pigeonforge and Gatlinburg are unbelievably commercialized, I am not at all prepared for this. The husband is even more amazed. Gatlinburg is like a ski village on steroids, while Pigeonforge is a jamboree of roadside attractions and rides. As luck would have it, there is a car show in town too.

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at the Laurel Falls; Photo Courtesy: Ganesh Sankaran

At the Smokies, we drop Mount Cammerer in favour of the easy Laurel Falls followed by a visit to the Cherokee Museum, the Cherokee village, Elk spotting and a view from the Clingman’s Dome. Laurel Falls hike is a very easy 4 mile round trip. This trail has markers all along that give you some sense of how much of the trail you have crossed and how much is left. When you cross marker eleven, you know you are close to the end. The day is the complete opposite of yesterday. It’s bright and sunny. Our path is dotted with wildflowers, beautiful blue tailed lizards and bees.

Ostenaco, Cunneshote, and Woyi ready to sail to London

Ostenaco, Cunneshote, and Woyi ready to sail to London

On our way to the Cherokee Museum, we stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center to ask for directions. Here we find out that the best place to spot elks is the grassy field next to the Visitor’s Center itself. We reach the museum an hour or so before it closes.  The Cherokee village closes at the same time, so we know we cannot cover both. The museum provides  very interesting insights into American and world history, as well as the culture of the Cherokees. I definitely recommend this place, as these pieces of history are seldom told. My only issue with the museum is that there are many voiceover exhibits and the sounds are not isolated. It is very confusing and distracting. If you try to read the plaques at the same time, it gives you a dull headache. The shopping district that surrounds the museum is just as colourful and exciting.

Elk SpottingWhen we get back to the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center, the elks are waiting for us. There is not enough time to drive all the way back to Cades Cove, but we might still be able to do Clingman’s Dome. On the way, we spot a great big elk by the side of the road. We stop to take pictures. “Guys, guys! Look there” , the girl in the car behind called out. We turned to see another elk, walking towards us on the road.

DSC_0824We are seriously short on time now. As we race the sun, we reach a spectacular vista point halfway up the slope to the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome and stop here to savour the sunset. The splendor of the sun resting its head on the strong shoulders of the mountains is simply sublime. When the last of the red sun disappears beyond the mountains, we continue our drive to  the parking lot. It is much too late to do even the half mile hike to the top. The light is receding rapidly and we don’t even have a torch to make our way down. Plus there are bears everywhere. The parking lot commands a wonderful view of the park and we enjoy what remains of the day from here.

Cape Cod – A Whale of a Tale

Labor Day Weekend, 2015

Summer is hurtling to an end and we are scrambling to make last minute plans for the Labor Day weekend. We throw caution to the winds and decide to drive down to Cape Cod.  Post card beaches, glorious waters and the last weekend of summer – a four to five hour drive on a regular weekend can easily turn into a nightmare on the road. The prospect of driving through New York City to get across seems daunting but we set forth valiantly on Friday evening, only to turn tail and return before we even hit the city.

DSC_1073Wine turns into sweet dreams and sweet dreams turn into coffee; we hit the road at 5 a.m. on Saturday. We beat the crazy traffic, but  by no means  are the only souls on the roads. The first thing we do as we drive into Cape Cod is donate clothing. What a blessed start! Why we have donation clothes in the back of our car is a diversion we won’t make. As soon as we check into our hotel, we book a whale watching trip. This will be my third attempt and I am determined. I want to bike the Provincetown trail, but we are simply starving so we head straight to Commercial Street. What a gay place it is! (In both the traditional and modern sense of the word).

DSC_1103Post burgers, we walk around and down to the Pilgrim Monument. Rising like a stately chess piece, this granite tower stands atop a little hillock. The Pilgrim Monument was built to commemorate the Mayflower Pilgrims’ first landing in the New World in Provincetown. There was a time where people thought that Africa, Europe and Asia were the whole world, so when the Americas were discovered by these worldly people, they promptly termed them as the New World.  Towards the end of 1620, a boat called Mayflower brought ashore a group of people who are now collectively known as the Pilgrims. These Pilgrims actually called themselves Saints, and were Separatists who did not want to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, which they believed was nearly as corrupt and idolatrous as the Catholic Church it had replaced. The Pilgrims are commonly accepted as the founding fathers of America, but the truth couldn’t be further. Apart from the Native Americans, several white colonies had sprouted across the continent before the Pilgrims arrived. After spending all of five weeks in Provincetown, the Pilgrims decided it was not suitable for settlement and sailed on to land at Plymouth Rock.

DSC_1098The Pilgrims certainly didn’t spend those five weeks in Cape Cod building this 252 foot monument; this was built much later (in 1892) by the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association. A short climb took us to the foot of the tower, where we were informed that the only way to the top was to climb 116 steps and 60 ramps which would take only about ten minutes at a leisurely pace. Not wanting to risk our hearts, we pondered and concluded that we did not have the ten minutes. Turns out, we really did not have the ten minutes. We make it just about in time to our whale watching boat.

Love, Your friend, the Whale

Love,
Your friend, the Whale

This time I am taking no chances. I chew on this little miracle called Dramamine and find us seats at the back of the lower deck. As the boat cuts through the ocean, water behind it furls out like the fluke of a whale. I have never enjoyed the sea so much – the rise and fall of her ample bosom; the gentle swaying from side to side. A huge fountain erupts in the middle of the ocean and has people excitedly pointing. Another fountain erupts alongside the first. Each whale  is easily almost as long as the boat. Two of them can  easily take our boat down.Thankfully, that was not what these gentle giants have in mind. The whales are playful and curious. There is one that keeps sneaking up close to the boat, sending a spray of water through its blow hole and hiding.  Later,three of them swim straight at the side of the boat and under, sending everyone scrambling to the other side. They even give the boat an impish bump on its bottom. While I am fiddling around for the husband’s phone to take a selfie, I see something from the corner of my eye. I turn around just in time to see the most spectacular sight ever – a whale breaching.It doesn’t arch like Free Willy.  It  leaps straight up and for a second holds that pose, like Mount Meru emerging from the cosmic ocean, then it does a half flip and falls back.Our captain assures us, we saw three types of whales – humpbacks, finbacks and minkies, but all I can tell you is we saw around six to eight whales including a baby.

We are treated to a postcard sunset on the way back; complete with a little lighthouse glowing in the last rays of the sun. What a perfect way to end the day; yet not yet!

Bonus – whale watching video on our Instagram

More photos to follow on our FB page

Kutch; Day 2 – Salt Desert of the Great Rann of Kutch

February 4, 2015

Our humble able for the night. Don't be decieved, inside it is equiped with all sorts of modern conviniences.

Our humble abode for the night. Don’t be decieved, inside it is equiped with all sorts of modern conviniences.

Gujarat Tourism holds a cultural festival called the Rann Ustav at the salt desert, from December to the end of February  each year. As part of the festival offering, luxury tents are set up near the Rann at Dhordo. We wanted to check out the festival, but found the packages offered way over budget. Instead we opted to spend the night  in a  **bunga  at the Gateway to Rann Resort. The resort is right next to the festival area, a short drive from the white desert, and a great stay option.  Permits are required to visit the salt flats. These can be easily obtained at the Bhirandiyara village checkpoint. When in this village, do sample their famous *mawa. These permits are single entry only.

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tu mera hero!!

I very badly wanted to see the white rann sparkling on a full moon night. As luck would have it, our visit to Kutch coincided with the full moon. I planned and plotted, but it was just not going to be feasible for us to be there on the night of the full moon. We were going to be there the night after. I realized this would not be so bad because, the illumination would be just as bright, and we could escape the tourist hordes. During the day,the merciless bright light reflected from the stark white plains can be blinding, and the best time into the rann is either early morning or evening.

DSC_0814As we waited for the sun to set, we walked out into the desert as far as we could. The Rann Utsav has its own entrance to the desert, even so there were several others where we were. In recent years, the festival has become increasingly commercialized. Its popularity has, unfortunately, resulted in dirtying and polluting the area.ATV tracks crisscross the rann like salt routes once crisscrossed the globe.  Camel dung and paan stains mar the beauty of the glittering crystals. I wonder if there could not be a good way to control this. People could be asked to wear shoe covers before stepping on to the salt. The shoe covers could be made mandatory and supplied at a reasonable cost. I quickly see the flaw in this plan. The area is too vast to control entry and ensure compliance. All is not lost though. There is a concrete ramp extending far out. It didn’t strike us until much later, when we were sitting at the end of the ramp waiting for the sun to set that we could have simply walked down the ramp, instead of trampling all over the  place with our dirty shoes. Thankfully, we were more sensitive and sensible on our way back.  If you plan to visit, I strongly suggest that you use the ramp. Also, people seemed to be allowed only on one side of the ramp. There was no one on the  other side, either for ecological reasons or out of safety concerns.  The Rann of Kutch extends into the Sindh province of Pakistan.

DSC_0859As the day drew to a close, the fair earth blushed and turned rose pink as the sleepy sun kissed her goodnight. The last rays of light lingered on, like a lover unwilling to part. When the moon finally made an appearance it was small and yellow, like a round of pockmarked Emmental, but as it rose it got bigger and brighter.  Looking at it, the capricious earth started to preen and smile again.

* mawa – a sweet made by reducing and thickening milk

**bunga – rooms  built to look like traditional huts

Kutch; Day 1 – Chhari Dhand

March 4, 2015

Here I am, sitting in NYC’s legendary landmark the Waldorf Astoria Hotel typing out my post about our trip to the Rann of Kutch. The original Waldorf-Astoria stood where the Empire State Building stands today. The hotel moved to its current location in the 1930s and became an official New York City landmark in 1993. With its two tiny horns, this is quite the devil of a building.

February, 2015;Kutch.

Travelling first class a/c for the first time was an experience in itself

travelling first class a/c for the first time was an experience in itself

I have always longed to go the Rann of Kutch. Each year, thousands of flamingos migrate here to breed. February is touted to be the best time to see these bashful beauties, pink as your cheeks on a windy day. Thankfully good sense prevailed. I decided to be more eco sensitive and let the birds have their privacy. Even so, our short trip to Kutch was deeply satisfying.

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While I was still planning, I had written to Kalyan Verma and he had suggested that I get in touch with CEDO for birding. I am so glad I took his suggestion. CEDO is the most eco-friendly place I have stayed at. Not only do they use solar energy for heating water, their flushes are most unique too. They have taps that allow you to control how much water you use as opposed to the conventional arrangement which uses a *fixed quantity of water each time you flush, whether you need it or not.

At lunch hour you can enjoy the sight of dozens of sparrows flocking to the bird feeders set up in the front pavilion. If you get here close to noon, this is probably the best way to start your birding. We had an air-conditioned room, but even the afternoon it was so pleasant inside that we never turned it on.

Indian Eagle Owl in flight

Indian Eagle Owl in flight

Since Jugalji, the extremely knowledgeable man who runs this wonderful place was busy with another group, we were accompanied by his brother-in-law and associate Vibhav Mishra. Vaibhavji is also very well versed with his birds and just as passionate about them. We left for our evening safari at around 3:30 in the afternoon, so that we could be at our destination at sundown. After a while, Vaibhavji asked the driver to pull over and stepped out. He told us eagle owls had been spotted in the vicinity. The Eurasian Eagle Owls are among the world’s largest owls and most powerful raptors. Pumpkin orange eyes and horn like feathery ear tufts make them one of the most striking owls in the world.The Indian Eagle Owl is considered a subspecies of the Eurasian eagle-owl and is very similar in appearance. Despite their size and ferocity, these birds are shy and elusive and are seldom seen in broad daylight. Vaibhavji knew where the owls were most likely to be seen and we scrambled after him. At first it was hard to spot the owl, but once you spot it, it is hard to miss.  Vaibhavji had trained his tripod mounted binoculars on the bird, and even though we were looking straight at it we couldn’t tell till Vaibhavji said, “Don’t you see the wing?” and described the exactly what I had mistaken to be a rock.

The sensory power of birds and animals never ceases to amaze me. Even at that distance, across the water, with its face hidden under its wing, the bird knew we were there and it made it uncomfortable. When the disturbed bird took flight, it became apparent why it was called an eagle owl. Much to our surprise and absolute delight, moments later a second owl flew out of the thicket.

A Common Babbler decides to take a good look at us

A Common Babbler decides to take a good look at us

The Banni grasslands are home to a number of avian species. A large number of migratory birds and passing migratory birds are annual visitors. Bird spotting here is always great, though which birds you see depends on the season. During monsoon the plains are frequently flooded. In the period after monsoon, they are covered with lush green grass and passage migrant birds, like the blue cheeked bee-eater  and European rollers make  pitstops here. When winter comes, the grass dries out leaving the earth caked and brown. This is a great time spot migratory birds as they return after spending summer elsewhere. Listen to them trill about wonderful foreign lands as they go about building their nests and raising their young.  As we drove through settlements and the dry dusty plains Vaibhavji pointed out kingfishers, bee-eaters, thrushes, bulbuls, wheatears, drongos and other common and uncommon birds, their beauty enhanced by the golden evening light. Another remarkable sighting was the common rock thrush. Despite the nomenclature, this bird is very rare in these parts and had been spotted here after more than a decade.

getting a better look at all that's silently observing us -at Chhari Dhand Photo Courtesy Vaibhav Mishra

getting a better look at all that’s silently observing us
-at Chhari Dhand
Photo Courtesy Vaibhav Mishra

Our last sightings for the day were a desert cat sunning itself outside its den and the red tailed wheatear at the dry for the season Chhari  Dhand wetlands. We stayed on the empty plain and sipped on chai as the setting sun cast a rosy glow over the rocks. As the regal sun was setting on one hand, the moon, glorious and full, was rising on the other, determined not to allow the sky to dissolve into inky blackness. Tomorrow we would try to spot the seasonal heroes – the Grey **Hypocolius.

*varies from building code to building code. In the USA, I believe it is 1.6 gallons.

**I’m not sure what the plural of Hypocolius would be – Hypocolius or  Hypocoliuses or Hypocolii? Can somebody help?

P.S – more pictures coming soon on our FB page

The Roadtrip from Phoenix to San Diego- Night 2

Day 2 – Horseshoe Bend

The drive to the Horseshoe bend is around 15 minutes from the Canyons and the Marina. Most attractions in Page do not have GPS addresses, and AT&T has terrible service around here so you better brush up on your skills at following an old fashioned map.

To get to the viewpoint from the parking lot at the Horseshoe bend, you have to walk around 3 quarters of a mile on sandy soil. It is not a hard walk, although it may seem slightly harder on the way back, and the  striated rocks form small natural stairs.

A panograph of the horseshoe bend

A panograph of the horseshoe bend

The horseshoe bend on the Colorado river  was as breathtaking as the pictures we had seen. We managed to time this perfectly. Getting there too early would have meant having to brave the late afternoon heat and you also need to beat the crowd to get good seats. We made the mistake of carrying our fixed lenses (50mm and 35mm). The scene is so wide, that it would be best to carry a wide angle lens or a lens that zooms out. Since the place is so dusty it is not advisable to change lenses there. The sun sets right behind the rock in the bend, creating a stunning visual. The picturesque sunset was followed by glamorous  flashes of lightening.

Pictures courtesy Ganesh Sankaran aka the husband

Pictures courtesy Ganesh Sankaran aka the husband

Word of caution, you need to put yourself out on the edge to get a view of the whole bend and there are no safety railings.

Night 2 – The night I fell off the bed

I fell off the bed that night and hurt my head very badly. I bumped my head so hard on the carpeted floor that I could feel it at the base of my neck. The skin of my forehead was so badly scraped that it needed a band-aid. The next day the Husband was subjected to some pretty amazed  and very curious looks when I told people who asked about it that I fell off the bed.