Walk to the secret lakes of Delhi

Free time is something Delhi’s elite (which calls itself middle class) normally spends at home with family, in restaurants, in malls, in homes of relatives, in bars, in more malls, in homes of friends, in cafés. You get the picture.

Usually unheard of: Sitting on a bicycle and ride to a jungle. Walk through the Aravalli hills just south of the city. Spend a day at the river Yamuna.

This has many reasons, but foremost people are not feeling safe out there. This is not some unsubstantiated fear, but very real. The chances to get raped, robbed, threatened, pushed around, asked for money, told to go away , or all at once, are very real.

So if people from Delhi do venture out into the wild, they only go in big groups. With someone, who has been there before. Who has talked to the village elders as a backup, and got someone along from the village as a guide.

I joined the group “Delhi by Foot” to explore five secret lakes in the Wild Life Sanctuary Asola Bhatti.

We found: sandy beaches, pristine blue water in the valleys that were rock quarries some 15 years ago, sun that made it through the less dense smog out there. Along the way, we met locals going about their everyday lives, which included the chopping of shrub, walking somewhere with camels, and tending cows.

It was more a stroll than a hike, as the elite in Delhi, even if they are interested in outdoor activities, is so not used to walk on unpaved surfaces. So any climb up a dirt trek with two roots sticking out, or a step higher than 15 centimeters takes it’s own sweet time.

 

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Illegal sand mining

sand mining

Illegal sand mining is rampant in India. And the problems arising from it are manifold: It causes erosion, groundwater tables are sinking, and even the Katlabodi tigress and her three  cubs are threatened through it.

In recent month, I had also read a lot about the sand mafia and its patrons – a powerful, corrupt, brazen and devious lot. They ruthlessly operate in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, cause bloodshed and turf wars in Bihar, and make huge profits in Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Odisha. Everybody wants to build houses out of concrete, so everybody needs sand.

But just how brazen the gangs operate, I only realized when I was laying at a beach in Goa. In the afternoon sun, a truck pulled up at the beach, ten men jumped down, and calmly started to carry sand away. No one said anything, no one seemed to be bothered.

I asked my hotel owner, a local and quite a number in the area, what was going on there. He said: “It’s only for playground of the local kindergarten, so that the children can play. So it’s okay.”

Escape the City!

Naukuchiatal

View from the “Soul Garden Stage” onto the lake

 

“Escape is an idea that promises to take you far away from the routine, … , the mundane, the expected, and the ordinary,” the makers of the Escape Festical promised us. And it was true: For a few days, Naukuchiatal at the foothills of the Himalayas became out escape.

Surrounded by like-minded souls and picturesque mountains, Franzi and I discovered all kind of expressions of art: live music (Reggae, Jazz, Ska, Rock from different corners of India), electronic dance music (at the aptly named “Magic Forest Stage”), short films, photographies, paintings, fashion designs, hairstyles and so on.

A festival wouldn’t be a real festival without tents no one understands how to set up, fellow campers who always have a beer at hand and some nature, this time represented by a group of bold geese and a cat that is everyone’s pet and loves to sneak into the tents and surprise the unaware.

As most of the Indian people we asked at the festival site couldn’t swim, Franzi and I set out alone in a pedal boat to explore the lake. A corner of the water body, with a lovely jetty, became our spot to sun bath and play backgammon.

Our relaxing point looked serene before we came – but when we took off our clothes and showed the bikinis, all of a sudden there were rowing boats and pedal boats everywhere. So we escaped again and took shelter under some low hanging trees.

hiding

Lotus Flowers

lotus

Falling for Mumbai

How could I not fall for this city when I first came here? Maybe I didn’t eat enough street food in Kalbadevi. Or it was because I forgot to spend the evenings at the seafront. Or perhaps I didn’t watch an adequate amount of movies. Or I missed the opportunites for just watching the busy citizens when they roam around the streets.  Well, this time I did.

A big Thank You

…to the person who – with only knowing me for one evening – gave me the keys to his flat so I could stay in Mumbai’s lovely Versova, meters away from the beach. I owe you one.

Versova beach

Cooling off

Unfortunately Delhi doesn’t have public swimming pools. And so far I didn’t befriend the people with the big farmhouses on the outskirts of the city, who’s water areas I always see from the plane. But the expat community knows a trick: we ask the five star hotels, if we could stay for a day at the pool.

pool

White Beaches in the Mountains

Sleeping in a tent at the waterfront, sunbathing while reading a book, fun in the water – sounds like a coastal holiday? Well, it wasn’t. In fact Sachin, Pradeep, Nikoleta and I drove in the opposite direction: into the Himalayas.

We stayed in a camp on the riverbank some 30 kilometers behind Rishikesh. Under our feet, one of the finest sands I have ever felt, above us, forested steep slopes, in front of us, the mighty Ganga in its (at this point still) glacier-turquoise colour.

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We set out for rafting. First we had to paddle crazy figures, then we travelled standing on the rim of the boat, in between we screamed of joy and cold when waves swashed into the boat, every now and then we jumped into the water and floated at amazing speed downstream and eventually we had to carry the boat on our shoulders up the bank.

As always when some fun sports is involved, I couldn’t restrain and enjoyed jumping into the water over and over again. My laughter must have been so fetching, that a guy from another boat called: “You are beautiful!” Thanks!

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Obviously the weekend was over too soon. And while we were driving down the winding road back to Delhi, I wondered why not more people have holidays on rivers. The scenery is far better, it is quieter, more exclusive, the tent (or hotel) is closer to the water, climate is more pleasant (at least in India). Whatever, I won’t promote it. You can also leave the Ganges to us.

Or maybe it is so undiscovered by foreigners because it takes Indian nerves to get there. Eight hours of reckless driving for a mere 280 kilometers from the capital. Over bumpy roads and through countless situations that course cardiac arrests.

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“Some are more ready, some are less ready.”

“Everything is spitited here. What you can touch here, what you can smell here, what you can eat here,” a very enlightened Deva Rupa (her spiritual name) told me at the Maha Kumbh Mela. “All my sins are washed away,” she went on. “I feel joy, happiness.”

Like Diana (that’s her former name) around 100 million people (no one knows for sure) at the moment make their way to the world’s largest religious festival (that seems to be for sure) at the Sangam. That’s the place where three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and for the Hindus also the mythical Saraswati – come together at Allahabad in North India.

I strolled among them and heard reawakened, puryfied, excited, energeticised, amazed, cured, relaxed and holyfied voices. And saw many amazing things. But I didn’t feel like having a holy dip in the Ganges. Well, as Diana alias Deva Rupa told me: “Some are more ready, some are less ready.”

Balaenoptera musculus

After my encounters with the reef sharks, I was longing for more underwater creatures. But to find the biggest ones of them all, snorkeling gear was clearly not enough. Even a full diving equipment wouldn’t help much. So I hopped onto a whale watching boat in Mirissa.

the first boat out

And yes, the captain found them. Blue Whales, Balaenoptera musculus, according to the leaflet we got 150 to 170 metric tons in weight and 23 to 30 meters long. Only the tongue weights 2,7 metric tons and the heart is the size of a small car. But clearly we didn’t see any of these organs – we were happy with the fins and tails.

big guy

They have a very tall narrow blow up to ten meters high. Typically the whales we saw were moving just underneath the surface, blowing every couple of seconds, and then, at some point, bending, coming out further, in order to start diving. Only then one could see the tail flukes.

blowing

 

 

waving

When I travelled to New Zealand ten years ago, I missed my chance to see whales, so I’m very glad I finally managed to. Actually the operators claim the seas off Sri Lanka are the best spot in the world to see blue and sperm whales. Their success rate in season is 90 percent. I don’t know if that is true – it worked for me.

tail fluke

It was only in 2006 that people in Sri Lanka discovered something big was lurking in the waters off the southern coast. The blue whales are migrating between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, passing by the Sri Lankan coast. So since 2008, almost everyone with a boat in Mirissa goes out for whale-watching safaris, they say. But we still managed to see some fishing boats.

fishermen

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