From cycling across mountains to exploring massive underground caverns, Abinaya Kalyanasundaram explores some immersive wilderness adventures you can indulge in to refresh your wild soul.
Photo: Vandit Kalia.
Leave land behind and immerse into the great vast blue. Time seems to slow down. Sounds of civilisation mute. Schools of vibrant fish swarm about. Coral reefs shine in pretty pastel hues, a magnificent contrast to the deep, bright blue. All you hear is your own breathing and the soft whoosh of currents as they tow you along their wake...
India’s expansive coastline offers bountiful dive sites to explore. On the east, dive off Chennai and Pondicherry to see untouched coral gardens, the occasional dolphins and explore ancient wrecks. In the west, Goa and Malvan are popular diving sites for beginners. For a more pristine experience, the islands off the main subcontinent are your best bet. Lakshadweep’s deep water mounds with reefs harbour plentiful fish, while the Andamans are a biodiverse haven.
“In every dive in the Andamans, you’ll witness at least 100-200 species – from manta rays, sharks and turtles, to schools of pelagic fish like tuna, myriad reef fish like angelfish, snappers, and plenty of macro life, including nudibranchs. And unlike terrestrial experiences, where you’re usually in a jeep watching animals from afar, under water you’re right in the middle of the action,” says Vandit Kalia, founder, DIVEIndia, the oldest dive centre in the Andamans.
The centre also engages visitors on shore walks to explore intertidal species like octopi or crabs, and has a conservation wing that works on marine data and research.
Photo courtesy: Terra Conscious.
Beyond the beaches of Goa, experience the wild wonders of its backwaters with Terra Conscious. Paddle through the interconnected ecosystems of the mangrove forests in the Nerul backwaters in North Goa. Spot tree crabs and birds such as the Black-headed Ibis, Red-wattled Lapwing, Common Redshanks, diverse species of kites, kingfishers, cormorants and more! If you are lucky, you may even spot an otter.
“Our aim through our work at Terra Conscious is to enable responsible wildlife and nature-based tourism in the marine and coastal space by supporting local operators as market linkage and knowledge partners. We also run conservation education and social impact programmes focused on marine conservation,” says Puja Mitra, Founder-Director, Terra Conscious.
Other places to paddle – the Havelock, Neil and Baratang islands of the Andamans offer beautiful mangrove forests to explore (there’s also a night kayaking option where you can spot bioluminescent phytoplankton in the seas); on the clear turquoise waters of the Dawki river in Meghalaya; the backwaters of Alleppey and Kumarakom, Kerala, have splendid birdwatching opportunities.
Photo: Abinaya Kalyanasundaram.
Exploring wildernesses on foot is perhaps the most intimate way of getting to know a place. And India’s diverse geography has no dearth of trails. The Himalayan ranges are a global trekking destination, each region with its own signature experience – Kashmir’s rolling meadows and snow-dusted peaks; Himachal’s meandering rivers and floral valleys; Uttarakhand’s lush trails peppered with pahadi villages; Sikkim’s tall peaks and stunning lakes; and Arunachal Pradesh’s untouched wildernesses.
In the Northeast, Nagaland’s and Meghalaya’s rainforests are a delight for those who love stunning biodiversity from birds and frogs to fungi and flora. Though peak monsoons may get slushy, immediately after is the best time to witness this rain-soaked region in all its glory.
Further down the peninsula, the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot is another haven for trekkers… the Sahyadris of Maharashtra have ample trails from one day to multi-day hikes, Karnataka’s peaks and valleys offer multiple trekking trails; the shola-forest mosaics with bryophyte-coated trees and undulating meadows of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are a unique experience with a mind-boggling variety of wildlife.
You can take it up a notch by heading on a rock or ice-climbing adventure.
“When you’re trekking, you’re limited to flatter gradients, but climbing increases your terrain to vertical gradients too! And it’s a more intimate experience with the landscape. This past winter, I had the chance to go climbing in Nubra valley, Ladakh. One morning as we were heading out looking for climbing locations, at -20°C temperature… we suddenly came face-to-face with a snow leopard on the road! It was just us and this wild animal, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Karn Kowshik, who has been climbing across India’s landscapes for over a dozen years.
He adds that there are several opportunities across the country, which offer different grades of difficulty. From Hampi, which is an international climbing destination, to places in Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee.
Rootbridges and rainforests are the quintessence of Northeast India, but beneath these rugged mountains and forests lay a hardly explored secret – a network of winding limestone and sandstone caves. Meghalaya’s Jaintia, Khasi and Garo hill ranges have over 1,500 known caves of which less than a fifth have been explored, including the Krem Liat Prah (krem means cave in the local Khasi language) – the longest natural cave in India at 30 km.
The Krem Mawmluh cave is one of the most popular one-day tours, open to the public. A 45-minute walk takes you to the entrance of this seven kilometre-long limestone cave. The air gets cooler with every step down. You’ll spot intriguing shapes of stalactites, stalagmites, and candle formations. Wade waist-deep in waters, where you might spot species of fish that have adapted to the dark conditions by evolving into semi-blindness. Bats and spiders flee just out of reach of your torch beams. The air is cool, damp and thick with the mystery of years of isolation.
“It’s a world like no other. At some points, we switch off our torchlights to completely immerse into the darkness and silence of the cave... It is such a thrill,” says Piran Elavia, founder of Kipepeo, a socially responsible travel company offering unique experiences to Northeast India and Bhutan.
There are multi-day caving tours in Krem Umthaloo and Krem Chympe (requires swimming) too, that involve camping inside these cavernous underground marvels. All caves can be accessed only with tour operators who will provide gear and technical guidance.
Photo courtesy: Unventured Expeditions.
There’s nothing quite like the silent reverence for our wildernesses that pedalling through them inspires. Wind in your hair. Soft sun on your face. And beautiful birdsong unhindered by the rude noise of engines.
With cycles, you can truly ditch the crowded highways and explore narrow, offbeat trails… all at your own pace. “You get a constant 360 degree view at all times, and get to appreciate nature more intimately. India’s diversity of landscapes offer an abundance of cycling opportunities,” says Gurudeep Ramakrishna, founder of Unventured, who has explored and curated several cycle trails across the country since 2012.
If you’re just starting out, he suggests considering short day breaks and morning rides, and then graduating to multiway rides.
“You can take a ride from coast-to-coast – Pondicherry to Kochi. You’ll pedal through flatlands along coasts, then along the banks of the Cauvery for a stretch, gradually climb up the hills of Thekkady, with its forests and plantations, where you can wake up to the call of the Malabar Whistling Thrush and other birds. Then continue through to Munnar or Vagamon, then down into the backwaters of Alleppey, with its bountiful avian life, and then along the coastline to Kochi,” says Gurudeep.
There are many more! Cycle and hike through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, spotting birds like the Malabar Trogon, chase waterfalls, island hop through canals on the Mandovi river; ‘Chase the monsoon’ across Karnataka’s Malenadu area, pedalling towards the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, where, at night, you can hear and perhaps spot the Malabar gliding frogs mate; pedal through the Bishnoi community villages in Rajasthan and learn how they have lived thousands of years in harmony with nature, and even spot a few blackbucks, Dalmatian Pelicans, or a desert fox.
If you’d like a challenge, head up further to the Himalaya for crossmountain biking. Manali to Leh is a popular route, crossing about five passes in nine days! Sikkim too has gorgeous trails to explore. Do keep in mind the extraordinary views will be equally demanding on your knees! “Most trails can be done by anyone with some practice and preparation. It’s not a race, but a slow fun ride with many breaks to admire nature’s bounty. With accompanying support vehicles, cycling holidays can be a great way to explore a lesser-known part of India through its backroads,” Gurudeep quips.
Abinaya Kalyanasundaram is a writer, editor and photographer who loves creating narratives about the natural world. She is Assistant Editor at Sanctuary.