Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Trip to Kodai - Day 1

Once it was decided that we were going to Bison Wells, then came the job of arranging the logistics. How should we get to Kodai ? The place being accessible only by road, we had to decide if we would travel all the way there from Chennai by bus or if we should take a train to kodai road (the nearest rail head) and then proceed to Kodai by bus or jeep/car. In the event, we plumped for the former, for reasons of economy and convenience (so we thought!). Bison Wells was some 35kms away from town and we would definitely need to hire a vehicle from town to reach the place - about Rs.1000/ for a one-way trip. So, it made sense that we try to ensure that we reach Kodai in the simplest manner possible with the least number of changes. We booked ourselves on Parveen Travels (they provide online ticketing) about a couple of weeks before our intended journey, with each ticket costing about Rs.450/- Both KPN Travels as well as the State Express Transport Corporation were offering services but like a fool, I remained unaware of it until circumstances forced me to open my eyes.

Anu was working till the date of departure - in fact, she was on night duty the day previous to it. We decided to take a cab to the Koyambedu bus stand and in my usual style started off from home at about 1815hrs for the bus scheduled to leave at 1900hrs. Almost immediately we were swallowed by the traffic, crawling past. We were lucky to get there when we did - just in time. Only to find that the bus would not leave for quite sometime more !!! Confirming our tickets at the counter, imagine my surprise to find that there was already somebody else in the seats allotted to us. And this after I had telephonically confirmed our reservations twice !!! If this were the fate of online ticketing, i should not have been surprised by what followed. The chap in the office casually allotted us different seats and appeared surprised when I told him that we were not accustomed to travel sitting in the laps of strangers, as those seats were also full !!! He came to the bus, made an inspection, swore at the system (the computerised reservation system, that is) and at his subordinates and promptly asked us to occupy the two front seats - just behind the driver, the place that I normally dread travelling in !! He promised us that we would not have any trouble - apparently the misunderstanding was due to the fact that their server had crashed taking all its data with it - and left us to our fate !! Little did I know what was in store.

The bus took off at about 1945hrs - but then who was keeping time ? this is supposed to be a vacation, right ? - and pushed off through God knows which places. Try as I might, I could not identify the various roads through which he was taking us and finally I gave up trying !! We had a movie going and we had to stretch our necks gracefully like swans to catch a glimpse of the action. I don't remember what the movie was - and that must tell you a lot about what kind it was ! Anyway, the bus soon got onto the East Coast Road and the going was much smoother and pleasanter with a good sea-breeze blowing in. We stopped on the way at the Mamalla Annexe for dinner - pretty good it was too !! I must have dozed off after that, waking up only on the outskirts of Pondicherry around 2300hrs. We stopped at the offices of Praveen travels and that is when our nightmare started. Just imagine this situation - there you are, casually stretching yourself and your cramped muscles, generally reflecting on the fun you are going to have on this long-awaited holiday when in comes our hero, in the form of the local agent of Parveen travels, holding a checklist and pad in hand. He takes a look-around, taps you on the arm and asks you to step out - as you see in the old Westerns, just prior to a shootout at the OK Corral !! When you look askance at him, he informs that you are in the wrong seat and that you will have to vacate for the rightful owner. When you ask him to arrange for getting yours, he expresses his helplessness!!! He has his customers to please and we not his concern - not in the least. We have to look out for ourselves and I literally take him at his word, refusing to budge, unless my original seats are restored to me. He decides to help me out and orders the couple occupying our original seats to move out - and then all hell breaks loose !!! This new chap is a different kettle of fish altogether from me and the travel agent immediately finds himself in hot water, with solid abuse from all the passengers. His customers - a lady and her two small kids - are caught in the midst of it. The drivers add to confusion by saying that they needed to take off as they were already late and suddenly we find that the agent is nowhere to be found - he has done a neat disappearing trick, leaving his passengers to fend for themselves. With no other alternative, my chivalrous instincts kick in and I offer my seat to the lady - the driver's cabin it is going to be for me and the driver and cleaner are gracious enough to arrange a temporary seat there for the entire journey. I had a ringside view of the night transport on the road and suffice to say that if, like cats, humans also have nine lives, I have used my share and more, on that one single journey. If there was a single stretch of road where we were not on the wrong side, a single occasion when we dimmed our headlights for oncoming traffic, when we took a turn sticking to the correct side of the road or stuck to the traffic signals - I was not aware of it and that was not for lack of awareness,either !!! The driving was of such high quality that I sat petrified in my seat, as if screwed down there, with my heart, stomach and various other organs in my mouth, not even daring to breathe for fear of distracting the driver from the road as even a a fractional mistake on his part would have sent me to an early grave - I would have been the first to go !!! We had rest stops on the way with a change of driver at Trichy and this new guy was worse (if that were possible !!) than the first. We almost took on a lorry head-on at Trichy and after an eyeball to eyeball confrontation, continued on our merry way. Clearly, I am getting a bit too old for this kind of adrenaline rush !!!

Around 0530 hrs in the morning, we reached Dindigul and that was when I got a seat - on one of the last rows and that is the last I remember for the next couple of hours till Batalagundu on the Ghat Road when I woke up to find ourselves in the midst of a traffic block, with every Tom, Dick and Harry from the plains wanting to travel to Kodai on this day. I shifted seats back to Anu's side as the lady had dropped off somewhere in between - Anu tells me that she is the wife of the manager of one of Hindustan lever's estates. Too bad that we were not able to cadge an invitation from her !! - and that was the end of whatever sleep I had manged to get. Thankfully, the weather was noticeably cooler and less sticky - we were already climbing and I could see the long line of vehicles waiting to make the ascent. The roads were in pretty good condition and by about 9.30, we were in town, after a couple of blocks at the Silver Cascade and some other place, turning into Hotel Sivapriya where apparently these guys are allowed to park.

As soon as we got down, I took off for the Travels office as I did not want a repeat of last night's journey on the return. Managed to convince the long-haired, hippy manning the office that I had legitimately booked the return ticket that I was showing him and that he should not sell off those seats to anybody else !! That done, we could now think about more mundane matters like freshening up, breakfast and the like. Anu made use of the toilet facilities at the restaurant of Hotel Sivapriya while I - made of sterner stuff - decided to wait until we reached George's place. Feeling a bit guilty about it, we decided to honour the hotel with our custom, though the cost of a breakfast of idli, sambar and vada was announced to be Rs.75/-, but fortunately it was not to be - our transport was already on its way and there was no way that we could ask the jeep driver to wait for us until we finished a leisurely breakfast.

Getting out with our luggage before the restaurant manager could get wise, we waited for a couple of minutes on the road outside. The place looks much cleaner than OOty - maybe it is too early in the day to comment !! For eighty bucks, the jeep took us to George's place - Camp George - on the road past the Observatory. The road was dug up for a bit and hence we had to take a diversion through somebody else's estate !! On reaching Camp George, we found our host waiting for us - his long beard and bald head as well as the grey attire made him stand out. He took us to his new guest house - the Alamo - which was a new concept that he was promoting, that of a Mexican Cantina with Tex-Mex cuisine, complete with riding stables and the works.
The building consists of two bedrooms with a separate dining room -all done with local wood. Looks out upon the stables and grasslands - felt really good. Had our bath and got ready to leave for Bison Wells in George's army truck - which is as much a part of the Bison Wells story as George himself.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Trip to Kodai

Well, this was a trip that was a long time in the making - if there is any sort of award for the trip that has been planned the longest and expectantly waited for, then this one to Kodaikanal would certainly win it hands down. Anu and myself started dreaming about it, then discussing about it and finally deciding on the place and time - all this was done about six months back in December during our last trip home. Once we had decided that we would be going, came the task of deciding on the kind of trip, which again was pretty easy - one which would allow us to test our hiking leg and also allow us to get up close with the wildlife.

Once we had fixed on Kodai - Ooty we rejected as being too commercialised and dirty and moreover, Kodai was a place that Anu had only vague memories of - came the task of getting the right kind of accommodation at the right place and at the right rate, the last being very important !! We were pretty clear in our minds that we did not want any place in town - as far away from the holidaying crowd the better, one which could give us ample opportunities for trekking and seeing wildlife and nature at its best and one which was also affordable. We went through various travel magazines and articles - the Outlook traveller Magazine as well as their handbook of 75 short breaks from Bangalore - as well as that ever-reliable source of modern-day information, the Net. We finally shortlisted it to the Cinnabar Farm , Elephant Valley and Bison Wells. Unfortunately, we had to scratch the first two as being way too far out of our financial range but then as it turned out, it was not so unfortunate after all. But that is like putting the cart before the horse - I am getting way ahead of my story.

We fixed on Bison Wells, not only because of the information that we got from their website and from the travel magazines but also from the photographs that Binu had put up on his Blog, from his honeymoon there. His photos helped clinch the decision - Bison wells, it was going to be. Since Anu had very few days of leave left, we had to club our vacation with one or more the rare holidays that she has and so we thought of the week of May 1st. We started off our correspondence with George Roshan, the proprietor of Bison Wells and were pleasantly surprised by the prompt and courteous response. He must have been shocked by the mail - somebody enquiring about availability and reservation in May, right at the beginning of the year !! Anyway, the offer sounded too good to be true and we did not want to lose it at any cost - we blocked the dates and George very graciously told us that he would hold it without payment until there was another enquiry for those dates. the procedure is to transfer the entire cost of the stay ( food is included in the tariff) as confirmation of your plans. You lose the entire amount if you cancel within five days of your proposed date of occupancy and 40% if it is before. Fair enough, I suppose, looking at the logistics involved. Having an account with SBI helped - a couple of clicks of the mouse and the deed was done. ha !! The comforts of modern day technology.

We traded e-mails about the travel from Kodai to Bison Wells - about 30km and 90minutes drive away from town - and finally decided that he would get a jeep to pick us up from the bus stand in the morning to his place in town and then on to Bison Wells by his truck ( and that is some vehicle, mind you !). We decided against going by train - in any case, we would have to get down at Kodai Road at some vague hour in the morning and catch a transport up the Ghats to reach the town. This was where I made my first mistake - I plumped for travelling from Chennai to Kodai on Parveen travels, thinking that they were the only operators with a direct service. I learnt to my cost later that SETC as well as KPN Travels operate on the same route and apparently with better service - which would not have been difficult at all. Booked our bus tickets also online - proudly congratulating myself on my tech-savvy aproach to the whole thing. Little did I realise then, that pride definitely goes before a fall and mine was pretty imminent !!!