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17 January 2017 / leggypeggy

Elephants galore this time in India

elephants grazing

We’ve visited India three times in three years—mostly in search of wildlife—but the elephants have often managed to elude us.

I have to admit that on our first two trips, we saw elephants in a couple of national parks, but they were almost always specks on the horizon or shrouded by jungle. Should I say I’ve seen an elephant in the wild if all I’ve seen is a grey rump or a waving trunk or a flicking tail? I think not.

Of course, I’m not counting the working elephants we saw. These weren’t tourist elephants, but part of India’s parks and forestry department. The first ones we saw were on a mission to guide a roaming tiger back into its national park. The bottom line was to save the tiger’s life and the lives of any citizens who might get in the way.

We also saw a lone tusker in the distance in Rajaji National Park on the same day we saw three leopards. He moved so quickly I couldn’t get a photo, but he was huge.

elephant family

Mother with young tusker and baby

elephant family on move

Time to go

While I think of it, I’ll mention that most of India’s national parks no longer offer elephant rides as a way to let tourists look for tigers. And even when such rides were offered, we didn’t take them.

So I was pleased that this trip delivered elephants, elephants and more elephants, and virtually all of them in the wild.

Frankly, it was to be expected. Elephants seem to be more common in the south, and this trip focused on the south—from Bhopal in the middle to Kanyakumari, on the country’s most southern tip.

Our first encounter was in Tadoba National Park, where we saw two adults and a baby. But that was only just the beginning because the farther south we travelled the more elephants we saw.

elephant between trees

Every sighting was reassuring, especially when we saw the babies. These amazing beasts are considered endangered. Surveys indicate there are 35,000–40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. About three-quarters of these are in India, with other populations spread across the many countries of southeast Asia and the subcontinent (although there aren’t any known to be in Pakistan).

Asian elephants are generally smaller than African elephants. They reach a shoulder height of 2 to 3.5 metres and weigh between 2000 to 5000 kilograms (up to 11,000 pounds). Females are usually smaller than males and have no or only small tusks.

elephant mother and baby

Grabbing a quick snack

Their appetites are huge. Adult elephants eat up to 150 kilograms of grasses, plants and trees per day. And they poop throughout the day. Anand always says the only way to know how old elephant dung is, is to stick your finger in. We didn’t need to know that much, but when we were walking, we saw what looked like a lot of fresh dung.

After Tadoba, our next elephant encounter was almost two weeks later in Nagarhole National Park. Then over the next two weeks we saw probably 50 elephants of all ages and in different settings. We saw an especially large herd in Periyar National Park, but I’ll write a separate post about all the wildlife there.

We even saw elephants on the side of the road (not in a national park) as we travelled from the state of Karnataka to Kerala. We stopped and watched them for quite some time and then some knuckleheads came up behind us and got out of their vehicle. Needless to say, the elephants skedaddled and the knuckleheads were lucky they weren’t attacked.

elephant road sign

Elephants have right of way.

I felt bad about a young French couple we later met at the state border. They had taken a taxi from their hotel in Kerala and hoped to cross into Karnataka, where elephants are quite common. Turned out their taxi driver didn’t have an all-India travel permit, so could not cross the state line, and no other taxis were around.

So if you’re ever travelling by road in India, be sure the vehicle is allowed to cross state borders (although there is a plan to scrap the border regulations).

Update on the guy illegally parking in a disabled space
You may remember my rant about the guy who was parking in a disabled space at the gym. Once I had photographic evidence (of him striding away) I called the city’s hotline to report him, but a few weeks later he was still parking there.

So I called the hotline again and said I’d be calling every time I saw him. Haven’t seen him again. 🙂 But if I do, I’ll get an elephant to sit on his car. Maybe one of the fellows below.

tusker elephant

A tusker with a resident bird on his head

large tusker

Notice how much longer the tusks are on this fellow than the tusker just above

1 January 2017 / leggypeggy

Fill your new year with colour—welcome to 2017

Pink and orange house, India

Pink and orange in overdrive

When I was a young teenager, I was desperate to decorate my bedroom in pink and orange, with a splash of white. My mother was not even slightly impressed or cooperative. Not a chance, she said, or something like that.

I can’t remember what my sister, with whom I shared a room, said. I also can’t remember whether I wanted to do the job by painting the walls or by seeking out fabric to make bedspreads and pillow cases. Maybe I had a combo in mind. I do remember feeling very hard done by because I wasn’t allowed to do it.

News flash: My roommate/sister, Susan, has replied to this post. She said exactly what I hoped she’d say. Namely, that she’d have been happy with a pink and orange colour scheme in our bedroom. She’s a champ—as always. Thanks Suse.

Pink, orange, purple sari

A great colour combo for a sari—just saying

Sadly, Poor John is a fan of off-white paint, so most of the colour in our house is provided by furniture, curtains, rugs and artworks.

But when Libby wanted to paint her room blu-ple (blue purple), I said sure. I also said okay to her request for lemon yellow curtains, and then I bought her a doona cover that had both colours, plus a bit of green and white. The room looks great.

Funnily enough, this whole colour history came to mind this year as we travelled south through India.

Colourful India

Plenty of colours, including pink and orange

India has colour in overdrive. Your eyes are assaulted by colour. It’s in the clothes (especially the saris), the shoes, the jewellery, the billboards, the vehicles, the temples, the paint jobs on houses, and more.

And I have to say that the combination of pink and orange is everywhere.

I started to seek out pictures of this colour scheme about five days before the end of our seven-week trip. And while I have a sizeable collection of photos, I’m still cross with myself for all the pics I missed.

That said, I’m sharing some of the compelling evidence here that my mother should have seen so that she would caved in and said, of course, you can have a pink and orange room!

So which one is your favourite pic? And do you have a different favourite colour combination?

If you’re a fan of orange, you might also be a fan of carrots. Here’s a tasty roast carrot recipe on my cooking blog.

Clouds in India

Mother Nature seems to like the colour combination

Pink and orange sunset

Mother Nature’s handiwork

29 December 2016 / leggypeggy

A little levity in a sad week

fairy floss, cotton candy

So what do you call this sweet sugary treat?

Geez, this has been a rough week with too many tragic deaths. In just a few days, we’ve said sad farewells to George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. They’ve all been a big part of my life.

This year has been cruel. Some of you will have lost a special person in 2016 or perhaps a loved one’s life is still touch-and-go. They may not be famous, but their loss can be no less devastating. I send my condolences.

We can only hope that 2017 will be kinder to all of us. The other day, our local newspaper, The Canberra Times, had an appropriate editorial cartoon that summed up the year. It showed Santa and the Grim Reaper in the locker room. Santa is saying something along the lines of ‘You’ve had a busy year. Plan on taking any time off?’

With all this sadness, I thought a little levity might be in order before we say good riddance to 2016.

In India, it is common to see street vendors selling cotton candy or fairy floss—the name depends on where you live in the English-speaking world.

But I was delighted to learn that this sugary sweet has more interesting names in other cultures. In French, it’s called Father’s Beard. India goes one better and calls it Old Lady’s Hair. If you’ve seen a recent photo of me, you’ll agree the Indian name is the most accurate.

Do you know yet another clever name for this treat?

18 December 2016 / leggypeggy

The incredible Ellora Caves, especially cave 16

Kailasha Temple, Ellora Caves

Kailasha Temple carved from a single piece of basalt

Inside Kailasha Temple

Ground level at Kailasha Temple. Note the overhang of rock

Shrines at Kailasha Temple

Two shrines at Kailasha, still carved from that single piece of rock

As we approached Aurangabad in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Anand and Deepti reminded us that one of the highlights of our stay would be a visit to the nearby Ellora Caves.

The Ellora Caves? They sounded familiar, but I had to admit I didn’t know much about them. I’d looked them up briefly when we first received the trip itinerary, but the scope of these amazing caves didn’t sink in then.

But this collection of remarkable caves is gobsmackingly impressive. The UN thinks so too because the caves, which showcase monuments, temples, reliefs and sculptures from three religions, are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kailasha Temple at Ellora Caves

Near the entrance, more carved from that single piece of rock

So let me tell you about them.

The caves were excavated out of vertical basalt cliffs in the Charanandri hills. No one is completely sure which caves were carved first (or in what order), but the work occurred between 600–1000 AD (the Early Middle Ages).

There are more than 100 caves, but only 34 of them are open to the public. They are beside one another and are numbered 1 to 34 from right to left, as you look at them.

The caves open to the public are grouped by religion. Caves 1 to 12 are Buddhist, caves 13 to 29 are Hindu, and caves 30 to 34 are Jain. We visited them all (it took us most of the day), and were surprised to learn that most people visit only one or two. I think they are grouped simply because they were built at (or around) the same time. No idea where all the other caves are.

Shoes off at Kailasha Temple

Shoes off at some parts of the temple

The biggest, most popular and most impressive is cave 16, which has been carved out of a single piece of rock. Known as the Kailasha Temple, it is the biggest single monolithic rock excavation in the world.

I have to admit that I was gobsmacked a few years back when we saw the excavated churches at Lalibela in northern Ethiopia (more about them one day), but nothing prepared me for the sheer size and detail of cave 16 at Ellora.

It is huge, exquisite and breathtaking.

I am not alone. Kailasha Temple is considered to be one of the most remarkable cave temples in India (probably the world) because of its size, architecture and having been entirely carved out of a single hill of rock.

We spent at least an hour (maybe it was two) wandering around the courtyards, assembly hall, shrines and many galleries that make up cave 16.

We were not alone. There were heaps of other tourists (the vast majority were from India), including several school groups. I think it’s great that Indian children are actually getting out and seeing the important monuments in their own country.

Confession: I admit that I would have followed along behind any one of the school groups but the teachers were speaking a language I didn’t know.

That didn’t keep me from being photographed with many groups, and probably a lot of sly pics taken without my knowledge. Indians love have foreigners in their pictures. Deepti says that some people will make up elaborate stories about how they met/entertained the foreigners in the pictures. I wonder how many dinners and overnights I had with people I don’t know! 🙂

But I digress. Given that the Kailasha Temple is so magnificent (and because I took 100 photos of it), I’m going to devote this entire post to it. We’ll drop by the other caves in another post.

A gallery at Kailasha Temple

A gallery at the temple. Good grief, it’s bigger than my house

The Kailasha Temple is dedicated to Shiva, one of Hinduism’s major deities, and is modelled like other Hindu temples. It is a freestanding, multi-storeyed complex that covers an area almost twice as large at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I’m guessing it covers close to two acres.

It is estimated that the carvers removed three million cubic feet of stone to create and shape the temple, or about 200,000 tonnes of basalt rock.

Walking around Kailasha Temple,

Walking around Kailasha Temple,

It’s designed so that you can/should walk around it.

That gave us of plenty of chance to look at the shrines dedicated to deities such as Vishnu, Ganesha, Annapurna, Durga, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Indra, Agni, Vayu, Surya, Usha and many more.

I have to admit that my head gets lost when in comes to Hindu deities. There are thousands of them, and people can choose which ones they want to worship. My pick would probably be Ganesha. He is the god of travel. He has an elephant face, is very fat and loves to eat. My kind of deity.

No one is sure when the Kailasha Temple was built, but it is often attributed to the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna I, who reigned in the 700s. It’s estimated that it took 100 years to complete. At one time, it was painted and plastered, and some signs of that still remain. It’s hard to imagine how impressive it would have been fully decorated.

Kailasha Temple once painted and plastered

Remnants of the paint and plastering job at Kailasha Temple

In researching for this, I read a blog that said Kailasha Temple was blocky, crude, and just a little boring. I was pleased to read on and find that on closer inspection, the blogger decided it was a Wonder of the World. I’d have to agree.

Kailasha Temple, carved from a single rock

Three levels of the temple all carved from a single (and very large) rock. See how small the people are

8 December 2016 / leggypeggy

Messing around in a houseboat

Kerala houseboat with palms

A picturesque view of a Kerala houseboat

Houseboats in Kerala

A group of houseboats anchored at the bank

If you’ve read Kenneth Grahame’s delightful book, The Wind in the Willows, you might remember Water Rat’s comment to Mole. ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’

I can’t argue with his words, especially after several fantastic boat rides we’ve had on this trip in India.

We kayaked twice in Thattekad Bird Sanctuary (didn’t see many birds, but didn’t capsize either), had three boat cruises in the Periyar National Park (more soon about the animals we saw), and lazed away most of a day on a houseboat on Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha (Alleppey) in Kerala.

From the time we started this trip back in October, Deepti said we might be able to spend a day (or even a night) on a houseboat in Alappuzha.

Little did we know that houseboats (and boats in general) are a big industry in the community.

In the past, large boats plied the backwaters of Kerala, carrying people and cargo. They played an important part in trade, making a three-day journey to take rice and spices to the port of Cochin. But as road, rail and air transport improved, the boats, known as kettuvallams, fell into disuse.

Fetching water from Punnamada Lake

Everyone is after some water

Then about 25 years ago, the community realised the boats could be used for tourism. Today the houseboats and allied occupations provide one of Alappuzha’s main sources of employment. About 10,000 families benefit directly from the houseboats, and another 100,000 are indirectly dependent on it.

I was stunned to read that the city reckons 1600 tourists arrive everyday to go cruising on one of the 1200 houseboats on the water.

Not surprisingly, we were keen to be among the cruisers. We had a choice of going for five hours in the afternoon, including lunch, or an overnight stay, with meals and a comfy bedroom.

The backwaters are very calm and there’s not much in the way of birdlife. Plus houseboats are obliged to anchor at a bank overnight and only cruise for an additional hour in the morning. So we opted for the afternoon excursion.

It was amazing to see all the houseboats set out about noon. Every direction we looked, we could see scores of boats chugging along with waving tourists, the vast majority from India.

It tickled me to see that our three crew seemed to juggle interchangeable jobs. They took turns cooking, serving and steering. And they kindly let me invade the kitchen for a few pictures.

It was also fun to see village life being played out on the water and the banks.

Along the banks of the Punnamada Lake

Along the shore of Punnamada Lake

About the boats
As we cruised along we saw a couple of boats being built. Our crew explained that all the houseboats are constructed using ancient principles and techniques, and take about six months to complete.

The materials are eco-friendly, including bamboo poles and mats, ropes and thatch. The hull is made of wooden planks (they use a timber called Anjili) that are cut long and carved. These are tied together using coir, with coconut fibres packed in between. The framework is coated in a black resin extracted from boiled cashew kernels.

Tourist boats are fully furnished and typically include a sitting–dining room, an outdoor deck (sometimes on the roof), one to four guest bedrooms with modern toilets and a kitchen. We even saw a couple of two-storey ones.

Once completed, a boat lasts for several generations. I was interested to learn that no one is allowed to live on their houseboat.

A tragedy
With all these boats in one place, there’s bound to be a disaster. In early 2013, four people died when a houseboat capsized as passengers were being transferred from one boat to another. The boat tipped as the whole group of passengers moved to one side. Those who died were trapped in a room. Another 60 were rescued.

As far as I can determine, measures to increase safety have been recommended, but not implemented.

Oberoi houseboat

Our captain said a bedroom for two on this boat is almost A$4000 a night! Most normal boats cost under A$200 a night for two. We paid A$50 each for an afternoon. Bargain!


27 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Getting juiced up in India

sugar cane juice

Pouring sugar cane juice

Street food is common across India, especially in the north, and so are street drinks.

The two most common drinks are fresh crushed sugar cane and fresh lime soda and, of course, we’ve had both.

Our first one this trip was in a restaurant in Khan Market in New Delhi. Poor John noticed a sign that said 100 rupees for a fresh lime soda. It was blisteringly hot, so we went in and ordered two sweet–salted sodas, which were delicious. But imagine our surprise when the bill was for 333 rupees (almost A$7) instead of 200!

Turns out the posted price applies only to takeaway. The same drink inside the restaurant is 120 rupees and then there are all sorts of taxes in the big city. Sure reminded us that Khan Market is very upmarket!

Last week in Munnar we had lunch at Rapsy, a family-style restaurant, with one of the best sweet–salted fresh lime sodas we’ve ever had. Cost: 40 rupees each.

So what’s this sweet–salted business?

Your drink can be made just sweet, with several tablespoons of sugar syrup, or just salted, with a teaspoon or so of salt. Or you can order what we do, and have a combination of the two.

Our other best sweet–salted sodas were in Malvan near Tarkarli Beach. A woman had a tent set up on the sand and was making sodas to order. I noticed her when we were on our way to the island fort, and suggested we get drinks on the way back.

Making fresh lime soda

Adding pre-made sugar syrup

old ice chest

Derelict chest freezers keep the ice cold

We did exactly that, and I watched her process. First she shook salt into the base of the glass, then she squeezed in the juice of a lime, then she added sugar syrup and chunks of ice, and finally topped up the glass with soda water.

She stored huge ice blocks in two derelict chest freezers that most likely hadn’t worked for many years, and chipped off bits as she needed them.

I no longer remember the exact price but I think each drink was no more than 20 rupees (or about 40 Australian cents). Bargain!

Crushing sugar cane

Crushing sugar cane

We had similar luck with crushed sugar cane drinks.

We bought those the next from a small shop in Malvan.

The fellow ran the sugar cane stalks through a crusher about eight times—each time squeezing out more juice. Geez, that was nerve-wracking to watch, because his fingers often came dangerously close to the crushing teeth.

He then strained the juice through a fine sieve and poured the result into glasses. This was another bargain at about 15 rupees a serving.

We’ll be heading home to Australia soon, and I’ll definitely start trying to perfect the fresh lime soda (hope limes aren’t too expensive) but I have no idea when the next sugar cane juice might come our way.

If you love juices, check out my cooking blog for a recipe for a Brazilian berry juice—colourful and delicious.

25 November 2016 / leggypeggy

Thankful for amazing wildlife sightings

Sri Lanka frogmouths

Sri Lanka frogmouths—the female is on the right

Today was Thanksgiving in the United States (wishing everyone a happy one) and we certainly had a lot to be thankful for in terms of our activities, food and wildlife sightings in India.

It began with our second kayaking trip on the Periyar River in Kerala, followed by a splendid breakfast at our lodge, the Soma Birds Lagoon Resort. The rest of the morning gave us time to get caught up on photos and emails (this was one of the best internet connections we’d had in a month, even though it kept dropping out regularly).

Lunch was another feast (and the lodge staff didn’t even know it was Thanksgiving in the US).

But the best was still to come, and it had nothing to do with food.

Anand and Deepti arranged an afternoon bird-watching tour in the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary. We arrived about 3:30pm and paid the entry fee. Then Deepti inquired about getting a guide.

Yes, yes, a guide is available for 1000 rupees (or $20 across five people). So the guide, Vinod, was booked.

Malabar trogon, male

A Malabar trogon shows off his colourful back

As soon as Vinod arrived, we set out on foot and he pointed out various kingfishers and cormorants. Marian wisely interrupted and explained that we’d seen plenty of both species. What we really want to see is the Sir Lanka frogmouth and Malabar trogon, she said.

Vinod eyes brightened and he said We need to go in your van. These species aren’t here. We need to travel to the other side of the sanctuary.

So we hopped in the van and raced (as much as you can race on narrow and bumpy roads) the 8 kilometres to the other side of the sanctuary.

We paid a second admission to the place and set out on foot.

Within 15 minutes, Vinod had led us to a roosting pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths.

Turns out it wasn’t quite as challenging a search as we thought. He’d been in the area earlier in the morning and had spotted the pair (and had also been confronted by a baby and mother elephant at the same time!).

According to Vinod, if these frogmouths are not unduly disturbed (especially by humans) they will nest in the same place/area for months at a time. so he pretty much knew where to look.

The Malabar trogons were a different matter. These birds are not endangered, per se, but they are extremely elusive. They live in dense forests and are hard, if not impossible, to spot.

Vinod wandered along the path and, from time to time, disappeared into the dense scrub. All the while he was mimicking the trogon’s cry or playing it on his phone.

Suddenly he motioned us to follow him. Then with whispering, pointing and waving, he managed to show us one trogon perched high on a limb.

So two magnificent sightings within an hour. What a gift of thanksgiving.

pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths

I can see you, but I’ll ignore you—Sri Lanka frogmouths

How clever science is helping frogmouths survive and multiply
According to Vinod, almost 20 years ago, the park rangers in Thattekkad saw frogmouth numbers declining. In the late 1990s, they reckoned only four to six breeding pairs still existed.

Research showed that the women who were collecting wood for cooking were using the bark from a certain branch to tie up their bundles of twigs. These happened to be the branches that frogmouths liked to sit on. This major disturbance affected roosting, mating and more.

So the rangers went to work explaining the situation and handing out strings to women gathering wood. It worked—sort of—but the best solution is that no most people cook with gas (so no need for wood). Frogmouths pairs in the area now number about 80.

A bit more about frogmouths and trogons
The Sri Lanka frogmouth occurs in Sri Lanka (obviously) and the Western Ghats of southern India. They usually live in pairs and grow to about 9 inches in height. They have great camouflage and resemble a bunch of dried leaves, which makes them extremely difficult to spot in the wild.

The Malabar trogons are more widespread in that they occur in Sri Lanka and Western Ghats, as well as parts of central India and the Eastern Ghats. They are brightly coloured, although their front is more colourful than their back (which is all that I managed to photograph). Their populations are declining because of forest fragmentation.

Malabar giant squirrel

Malabar giant squirrel

Other beasties
We saw quite a few other wild things, including kingfishers, cormorants, Malabar giant squirrels (and one being approached by a macaque monkey), interesting mushrooms, a millipede, a scorpion being consumed by ants and a green imperial pigeon.