Jungle Trails and Tales – Blood and “Gaur”

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It is about jungle life – raw, harsh, unforgiving. These are tales of the reality of Survival– not romantically embellished songs, like the Circle of Life. It is a story of Life and Death and Blood and Gore.  So if you find such scenes disturbing, please do not proceed.

In the last 4 years, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Resort has become my favourite getaway. I always find Jungle drives soothing and calming so that even when there’s no tiger activity predicted, I enjoy the peace and quiet. I decided to take my third trip of this year during the monsoon months, when normally, it is very unlikely you will see any animals.

There is water everywhere, so you cannot hang around waterholes or tracks that lead to water, in the hope of spotting a tiger.

The undergrowth and vegetation is so thick you can’t see even a few inches beyond the green curtains lining the road.

Many of the roads are waterlogged and impassable.

Maybe I’ll do another story about the charms of the Jungle in the rains, but right now I’m going to tell you about one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had!

After spending two months in the warm, humid, sticky city monsoon, driving in the jungle was refreshing and rejuvenating. Fresh air, earthy smell of wet mud, relaxed and de-stressed.

And then we got news that there had been a kill. All thoughts of peace and quiet and relaxation evaporated. We were alert and ready for adventure! We went in search of the carcass.

Luckily it was lying on the side of the dirt road. A few feet further into the jungle undergrowth and we would not have been able to see it in the tall grass and brush at the bottom of a slope.

 It was a full grown young Male gaur or Indian bison, must have weighed at least 700 kg (over 1500 lbs) if not more.  And it wasn’t even the largest specimen we had seen this trip.  

It’s very difficult for a tiger to bring down such a large creature.

Usually a solo tiger will bring down an animal by going for its neck, under the horns, to avoid being gored, hanging on and pulling it down until it dies. But in this case, there were no marks on the neck. And also, normally a tiger will start eating the carcass from the hind rump, but in this case it’s lower back had been opened along the spine.

We stayed quietly by the side of the road waiting.

Soon, a young cub appeared and got to work on the open cavity.

The cub meant this was Madhu’s territory and since no one had seen the actual kill, this was the story pieced together by the park’s guides and naturalists: that she and her 3 sub-adult cubs had brought down the Gaur together, and that’s why the unusual style of killing, without damage to the neck. Madhu herself must weigh around 150-170 kg (approx. 350 lbs) and a gaur this size would have been difficult for her, but maybe with the help of her3 cubs (each weighing about 150 kg ),  they had brought it down together – probably one off the invaluable hunting lessons that Madhu provided her cubs that would serve them well through their lives. They would be independent soon – in another 6 -9 months – and would need to learn whatever they could in the short while they would spend with their mother. In the future, these skills would determine whether they would survive or perish.

The cub ate his fill. Tearing chunks of flesh. Immersing his face into the carcass, round the gastrointestinal tracts, getting at the fresh meat. Gripping the flesh with his sharp claws, Emerging from time to time, face dripping with blood and body fluids.

It was all claws and blood and gore and gaur.

That afternoon we stayed with the carcass as long as we were allowed, hoping for a glimpse of Madhu and her other 2 cubs. We could see flashes of black and orange in the undergrowth, but they were well screened by the bushes and low brush.

I was thrilled to see her again. I have been visiting Tadoba for the last 4 years, and recently, I have seen Madhu with these cubs – when they were 6 months old and then again when they were a year old. They would now be a year and a half.

Next morning, we started early and made a dash for the site. On the way we got news of a male tiger that had entered this sector.

We arrived at the fly-covered carcass

By now it was beginning to smell strongly in the heavy, humid monsoon air. But that was not going to put anyone off. We settled in to wait, hoping we would see more of the cubs and Madhu herself.

And sure enough, one of the cubs emerged.

He wasn’t too happy about the jeeps nearby, but hunger got the better of him and he started with a few bites. But he didn’t settle down, the cars around made him a bit anxious, or he wasn’t really too hungry and returned to the undergrowth away from view.

A while later, the sun was getting warmer and it seemed less likely that Madhu and her cubs would make an appearance. Tigers spend the warm hours of the day napping, away from prying eyes, and are active only in the early dawn and dusk hours.

But we had almost forgotten the male tiger that had been spotted earlier. He must have got a whiff of the kill, and made his way towards it. Madhu too, must have got scent of him, and went looking for him, hoping to lure him away from her kill. And her cubs. A male tiger will kill the cubs, to ensure that only his progeny survive. The mother will not be ready to mate as long as her cubs are with her but if they are killed she will be ready to mate in a short while, even with the male who just killed her offspring. Survival of the fittest ensures only the best genes must be passed on. If Madhu’s cubs are to survive she must get rid of the intruder.

We heard crashing in the undergrowth nearby and lots of growls, snarls and thumps. Let me tell you, there is no sound more terrifying in the Indian jungle than the growl or roar of a tiger. Remember, we were in open jeeps with very little to protect us if 2 large tigers came hurtling out of the forest and crashed into us. That would be over 400 kgs (almost 900 lbs) of bristling fur, teeth, claws smashing into us. Not a pleasant thought. 

Suddenly, one of the cubs darted out, right in front of us and leapt over the road and ran deep into the bushes. He had got away just in time! The other two cubs also made good their escape before the adults appeared. Madhu had trained them well. To hide when another tiger appeared.

But out of the undergrowth came a huge male!

He sniffed at the carcass and staked his claim.

He stood, looked towards Madhu challengingly, as she sat down a short distance away. She was probably assessing her chances. But then she used her judgement and she moved off and he settled down with the carcass.

“Paras”,”Paras” whispered the drivers and guide. They had identified the intruder. I was thrilled! Two years ago, I had seen  Paras – a very young, small built tiger, shy and cautious, barely gave us a glimpse of himself before he slunk back into the forest. But now, here he was!  One of the most beautiful specimens ever.

Madhu moved further away. She took the decision to abandon the carcass to Paras and collect her cubs and leave the area with them. She would kill again and eat and feed them later. Paras was too big and strong. She couldn’t risk injuring herself in a fight or getting killed by him – that would mean death for her cubs.

Madhu leaves

And Paras settled down to eat amid sounds of crunching bones.

He was not too happy with an audience watching him, so he tried to pull the carcass into the brush. Moving 700 kg with your front teeth is no mean feat.

Reluctantly we left. There was no doubt that Paras,  or Taro as he is sometimes known, was no longer the shy young tiger we had met earlier – he was going to play a significant role in Tadoba’s future.

Life is tough and hard for the creatures and tribals who live in the jungle. And conditions keep getting worse – we’re responsible for their shrinking habitat, acquiring their territory, invading it for mining rights, poaching and desecration. If only we could respect these spaces which are vital for these magnificent creatures to survive.

I look forward to seeing a lot more of Paras. And hope to catch up with Madhu and her cubs in the future too.

 Tremendous excitement when all we were expecting were a few calm, relaxing drives. What a lucky break!

Jungle Trails and Tales – Blood and “Gaur”

Namibia – The Land of Vast Spaces

May/June 2022

Ever had a chance to live out a childhood dream? I did!

When the invitation to travel with a group to Namibia in May 2020 came, I didn’t think twice. When in school, a picture of the coastline – of sand dunes glowing in the sun and their steep cliffs towering over the Atlantic Ocean – had mesmerised me.  For some reason the blue sea and the waves crashing at the foot of the dunes fascinated me so much that after all these years I still remembered the name of the Desert, Namib, and the image had stayed hidden in my memory …. And now, here was a chance to realise that dream.

And of course… Africa – my favourite destination.  Another chance for plenty of wild life.

Well, had to wait a couple of years more before travel was allowed and I could finally visit in June 2022.

We started in Windhoek, the capital, very German sounding with distinctly European architecture. We set off early next morning. No hanging around in towns and cities with this group – we knew what we had come for – nature and wildlife – and we were not going to waste any time.  We had planned a 4500 km car journey, and we had 2 weeks to do it in.

What strikes you immediately is the expanse. Even the drive from airport to Windhoek is through wide open spaces, clean and sparsely populated.

First day on the road and you notice the horizons getting more distant and you’re still repeatedly remarking about “wide open spaces”. It’s only a day or 2 later that your Mumbai brain finally absorbs the reality of what space really means….

Empty spaces all around you – horizon to horizon– I am sure the whole island city of Mumbai would fit into any one of the plains.

Namibia can be divided into 3 main zones – the Central Plateau is wedged between the Kalahari Desert to the East (which unfortunately we didn’t visit), and the sandy Desert coast to the West with the Tropic of Capricorn cutting through the south of the country.

The Central Plateau is supposed to have the most arable land for agriculture in the country and it is home to the majority of the population. But, when you’ve been on the road for 2-3 hours and haven’t seen another soul in all that vastness, you realise your Mumbaikar perspectives are very different. The population of the whole country of Namibia (2.6 million) is 13 % of Mumbai’s 20 million teeming masses. There are around 3 people per sq km in Namibia, where as we pack 25,000 people into a Mumbai sq km. I can’t be blamed for marvelling at the sweeping miles of empty expanse!

Rainfall here is measured in millimetres, the average for the country being less than 300mm (i.e. 30 cms) with some places getting less than 50 mm (5 cms), every year. And of course absolutely no rainfall in the Namib Desert. So another great leap of imagination required from someone who sees 2400 mm of rain a year in Mumbai (or 240 cm – as compared to the Namibian 30cms) and see cars float down flooded city streets at least once or twice a year.

You pass through towns with names like Okahandja, Otjiworongo, Outjo… Local names

This reminds you that though you have some very European sounding destinations on your itinerary Luderitz, Palmwag, Swakopmund, the original indigenous tribes have been here for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

The San (Bushmen) have been here around 6000 years, along with other tribes.

Twyfelfontein (or Doubtful Springs is one of the oldest examples of the rock art which dates back many centuries before Germans and others arrived.

Some of the tribes like the Himba, still live like their ancestors did and maintain their pastoral customs – round single room huts, their livestock corralled nearby,

traditional hair and dress – the women wear skirts and leave their upper bodies bare and plaster their hair with fat and ochre to beat the dry heat. 

They eat their Traditional foods and practice traditional religions. It appears they have been unaffected by external world in any way. We had arranged through our guides to visit a village, and after negotiating with the headman we visited after making “gifts” of food items like wheat and grains and milk which is distributed among the village families. But, call it my urban scepticism – I’m not sure how much of this is still just a showcase for their culture or whether they still live these lives. Not too many men were present and I think some of the women started putting on shirts and less traditional clothes when they thought we were leaving.  A tourist attraction maybe, but also a glimpse into the past and a chance for city dwellers to see the harsh life people lead without even the most basic of amenities.

In the local market centre towns like Opuwo, the streets are colourful and vibrant. The various tribes have distinct and different styles of dress, hair and intermingle with the others wearing more modern outfits. Another easily distinguished tribe that catch your eye because their outfits stand out, are The Herero, with their and unusual hats and European dress and gowns that belong to the turn of the last century.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_people

It might look romantic or picturesque, but there is nothing quaint or charming about colonisation or rule by another people or country. The German missionaries first came to Namibia in 1840s. They were followed by traders and the sea ports helped them establish a presence here – the diamond mines made it more lucrative to establish a colony here, German South West Africa.  Genocide and brutal oppression that goes hand in hand with colonial invasion forms part of the tragic history, as with almost all African countries.

When the Germans lost the First World War to the British, they surrendered the country to those governing neighbouring South Africa and the country was renamed South-West Africa.  We were on holiday, so these issues were lightly touched on but one can read further if interested in the long years of harsh apartheid and segregation which followed South African rule and continued until as late as 1990, when this country realised self-rule and Independence, and finally got a name, Namibia,  with its own identity. 

The other original inhabitants are of course the Wildlife and one feels the whole country is one vast National Park with giraffe, elephants, ostrich, springbok and oryx strolling in the distance , sometimes grazing by the side of the road . 

They seem to be an extension of the large Game Reserves.  Many of the National Parks and Game Reserves are in The North and North East.

Our travels took us to one of the most famous Parks in the North, ‘Great White Place’, in the local language – Etosha. It was formerly part of a huge lake that has long since dried up.

Today, the Etosha Salt Pan is a dusty, white colour due to its saline nature.  Dry, but dotted with waterholes, which fill up when it rains, approx 14 inches, between January and March.  Mainly  vast open spaces with shrubs and grassland, and some trees in a few places. But it still supports plenty of life– grazers and ungulates: giraffe, zebra, wilderbeest, elephants, springbok, rhinos, birds: large owls, Goshawks, plenty of flamingo . Unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to see any big cats : lions, cheetahs or leopards.

Namibia’s climate has created its own ecosystem with the giraffe, zebra and elephant evolving slightly different from most places.

not just black and white, but grey shades as well

differently patterned

As we travelled Westward, through Damaraland,  you can’t help but notice the landscape changing every few hundred miles. Never gets tedious.  Steep mountain passes,  flat baking stone deserts, compacted salt roads, sandy yellow sands, gravelly black sand, low flat mountains, rock formations – many subtle shifts in colour as you drive through – Fields and fields of yellow grass, miles of scrubby brush, acacia, strange looking plants and vegetation, some truly amazing.  

Unique, rugged, serene, stark, beautiful – and all wilderness .

The road is the only way to see this country.

You will drive many hours and km before you see a single human, but you will be pleasantly surprised by wildlife along the road – ostrich, Oryx (or Gemsbok as they’re also known), springbok, sometimes wildebeest, giraffe and elephant.

Oryx.  A truly graceful animal, but a popular meat because it’s truly delicious. Might make some people uncomfortable and there are many arguments for and against eating game meat. (But the Namibians love it and so did I).

We went in search of the famed Desert Elephants. And were lucky to find them. They’re actually the same as most African elephants, except that they’ve adjusted to this dry, sandy, barren environment. They’re shorter and more compact too and have adapted their behaviour and eating habits. They’re very careful not to destroy the plants and bushes that are in such short supply in the area and have learnt to survive on very little water, sometimes going without for days. Their feet are larger to make it easier to walk on soft sandy dunes and dry, shallow riverbeds . They look lighter coloured but that’s only because of the fine dust and sand that covers them, probably protecting them from the sun and heat and insects.

Continuing West, you join the coastal road at Torra Bay – the sandy desert of Skeleton Coast Park begins.

Abutting the Atlantic Ocean, as you drive South, with the sea on your right, the waves crashing on the sand and white surf flying in the wind, another amazing landscape.

I suggest a dip if you can find a safe spot – exhilarating! Again, miles and miles of beaches, and not a sole in sight.

The winds originate inland, so unlike the monsoon winds they bring no moisture, and rainfall rarely exceeds 10 millimetres (0.39 in) annually and the climate is highly inhospitable.  But the plant life here receives life giving moisture from the dense fogs that roll in. But, it’s not the only reason it is inhospitable – rough seas and many shipwrecks have ensured that it lives up to its name of Skeleton Coast.

The coastline continues into Dorob National Park and there is a large colony of seals at Cape Cross – you know you’ve arrived when the smell of fish and poo overwhelms you. Large numbers of noisy creatures, swimming in the huge swell, returning from the sea, going out to sea, honking and mewling, huddling together, babies ready to latch on to any female for a quick drink- and being rebuffed, so much activity and commotion! After days of empty spaces, silence, very few living things and the smell of fresh air – this is an assault on the senses – even for a Mumbaikar…

The seals of Cape Cross huddled together at the water’s edge.

Though occasionally a bit of peace and quiet is necessary!

One has heard of the rough seas in this area, combined with fog and treacherous currents. Proof is the rusty shipwreck Zeila which is now home to hundreds of Cormorants.

Named after a port city in Somali, The Zeila was sold as scrap metal and it was on its way to its final destination – Mumbai, when it ran aground and made its final resting place here, eerily riding the waves, going nowhere.

Further South and The Dorob merges with the Namib Naukluft  National Park, one of Namibia’s largest conservation areas and its principal region.  The name Namib in the local Nama language means vast spaces – and Namibia, the Land of Vast Spaces, was the name selected for the new country at the time of Independence.

Rainfall here is non-existent but the fog from the sea brings moisture, in the air and droplets that it forms, on and under plants. All living creatures of this area depend on the fog and it sustains most of the plant life.

The 2 main tourist cities in this stretch are Swakopmund and Luderitz.

The lagoons and estuaries around the bay of Swakopmund have plenty of birdlife, and the flamingos are a big draw.

Along the coast line, Sandwich Harbour and a childhood wish comes true. I was actually photographing what I had wishfully hoped I could see one day, so many years ago. It had happened! A whole day in the dunes after waiting so many years, and a champagne picnic lunch at the edge of the sea. A day to remember for the rest of my life!

Unique and dramatic – gigantic, soft yellow sand dunes run straight into the ocean. Waves break at the foot of the dunes at high tide, froth flying,  awe-inspiring and breath-taking .

Further inland, the dunes continue to Sossusvlei. Sossus (No return or dead end in Nama) and Vlei (marsh in Aafrikaans), is where the river Tsauchab flows for short periods of time, drying up when it reaches here leaving behind white salt pans. This river doesn’t have a fixed bed and can change its course often – leaving behind a line of dead camel thorn trees that sprang to life along the river and then were abandoned when the river changed its course.

Very occasionally one even sees water between the dunes. Which will dry up soon enough

The area has the highest dunes in the world and the different hues of pink, orange, red are caused by oxidisation of the iron content in the sand – the redder depicts the older ones, some 5 million years old like Dune 45.

Anyone who has seen pictures of Namibia has seen the iconic photographs of DeadVlei (Dead as in English, Marsh as in Afrikaans). This pan was created when the Tsauchab river formed a pool and when camelthorn trees grew in the basin. During a drought 600-700 years ago when the water dried up the trees dried out. Though black, they are not petrified, but as is common in low or no humidity, they do not decay, just dry out and get preserved. The basin is surrounded by dunes, Big Daddy is the tallest at over 300 meters and the ebony black of the trees emerging from the white bed of sand against the surrounding reds, oranges and yellows of the dunes make for the haunting images, especially at sunrise.

Overnight, the winds continue to sweep over the sands, filling in the footprints and indentations that the tourists have made during the day.

The early risers are rewarded with the sight of a fresh, untouched landscape, just as it was before men and their machines intruded, clean, windswept dunes, ridges and crests. Definitely worth waking up early for.

 The Sesriem canyon has been carved by the Tsauchab river and runs deep through the rocks (around a 100 ft) for about 1 km. There are some portions in the canyon that always have a small pool of water for the thirsty animals and birds in the region.

The beautiful Oryx is one of the few large animals that survives here

A helicopter ride over the region puts the geography in perspective .. From West to East, the golden dunes along the ocean get darker in colour until you finally get the orange landscape of Sossusvlei

Another stop in the desert that is a must-see is Kolmanskop. A historic ghost town.

During a sandstorm, Johnny Coleman had to abandon his oxcart near the small mining village, and for some reason, the settlement was named after him (Kolman) and his head (kop).

In 1908, while building the German railway line through the desert, a worker found a diamond and showed it to his supervisor. Legend goes that originally no one believed it was a real diamond, but when the workers got it appraised, it was verified, so they laid claim to the land and the settlement got rich exploiting the diamond field. In due course, many buildings came up – a school, a hospital, a power station and even an ice factory and the first x-ray station in the Southern Hemisphere!

But as the diamond field started to deplete in the 1920’s, the richest diamond-bearing deposits were discovered 270 kms away, many of Kolmanskop, rushed there abandoning their homes and possessions. The town was completely abandoned by the 1950s.

Nothing really decays and the arid desert air preserves everything.

Which goes to show, Nature reclaims its own, and it’s possible, given the chance, that the damage and toxic footprints we leave behind can be undone. If… given a chance…

This region has evolved over millions of years, well before man probably, but its ecosystem is so finely-tuned and delicately balanced, that even small changes in temperature or humidity that Climate Change will bring in a short span of time, will tip it over the edge and could lead to large scale destruction of its animal and plant life.  Desert ecosystems are extremely fragile and vulnerable and cannot endure alteration in rainfall – plants and animals survive on a few drops of water or by absorbing humidity from the fog. Hotter temperatures would also be disastrous   – life has managed to evolve and survive even in these extreme conditions but might not be able to survive higher temperatures. It is thought that the annual temperature in Namibia could increase by 2.7 degrees Celsius in the next two decades, and that annual rainfall could decrease by 7 percent. This would cause more frequent and longer droughts, more heat waves, and even increased flooding as rain patterns change. Any form of variation, in this region, would prove disastrous and devastating to agriculture and wild life and natural vegetation.

There is so much that is unique to Namibia. One of the plants that will be lost is the Welwitschia. Though it’s not much to look at, all you see are 2 very long tough leaves at ground level, it is technically a tree.  The leaves harvest moisture from the dew that forms at night and runs down to the stalk. It is considered a keystone species, which holds the whole ecosystem together. It provides shelter and food and water to many animals, reptiles and insects in this desert.

These two leaves will keep growing for the entire life of the plant. Carbon dating has found that most of them are very old, some over 1500 years.

Even a minor shift in temperature would spell doom for this plant which has survived so many years only to perish because of we did not realise the consequences of our actions of the last 50 years. So, we need to find solutions to slow the disaster

A big shout out to SafariAdventures and our 3 guides and many thanks for their patience and for looking after us so well over all the miles we travelled and providing us with so much information. (Including a demonstration of how local kids have a oryx dung pellet-spitting competition or how old the elephant dung is by sticking your finger in the centre and tasting it).

 I know I’ll return for the number of things I missed, the lush green Caprivi strip, the Parks and Reserves to the North East, The Kalahari desert, the street food and more that I will discover along the way. And to revisit the desert.

Namibia – the Land of Vast Spaces – I will be back


Namibia – The Land of Vast Spaces

Expedition to the Antarctica – NOT A CRUISE!

Antarctica 2019

Would you imagine a tiny translucent pink creature, less than 2 inches long, is the most important creature in the Antarctica?

Think Antarctica, and you probably imagine penguins, seals and whales. Maybe a few birds too. But you’ve likely never heard of the mighty Krill.

It turns out, that all life out there depends on this tiny shrimp like creature, who in turn feeds on algae, plankton and invisible, microscopic organisms.

Though I was to learn, it was one of the most important living things there, I definitely hadn’t planned a trip to the Antarctica Continent to see a mini shrimp.

But, let’s start at the beginning…My cousin casually asked  “Wouldn’t it be great to go to Antarctica?”, and my sister, niece and I jumped all over the idea. And before you could say “Penguin!”,  the four of us  were planning a trip.

As we went about making enquiries and getting pricings, my enthusiasm started waning. Was I ready for this kind of expense?  But in the end, I figured, with global warming and an increasing environmental threat, tourism to the region might be curtailed once deterioration speeded up. As I got older, would I be fit enough to do a trip? Would there be any ice left?

I must admit, though it was on my wish list, I hadn’t imagined I’d be planning a trip so soon.

But as I read more, and thought, about it, – a new continent , it’s unique landscape – endless snow covered mountains, active volcanoes, glaciers and icebergs, a land natural and uninhabited, the Midnight Sun, miles of white desert.  And a leisurely cruise to spoil myself. Excitement grew – I made up my mind – I had to experience this. And as I spoke about it with friends, another factor emerged- the Bragging rights!

Getting there is not as simple as booking a flight and getting a visa. It has to be planned well in advance.

For one, it has to be between November and March, the southern summer.

And don’t be fooled by the word “Summer”. Though it is the season of the Midnight Sun, it can also be windy and cold.  So pack plenty of thermals and warm clothes – inners and “outers”.  (Check the website of your tour operator. It will tell you what to pack, and what equipment they will provide.)

Your flights and port of departure will determine your visa requirements.

A lot of prep and planning ….But it’s amazing to think of a place in this modern world governed by the principle , “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for  peaceful  purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”! This is actually laid down in  the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in Washington on December 1, 1959.

To honour this, various guidelines and protocols have been put in place to protect this remarkable Continent. There are a number of tour operators who are members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO). They are supposed to follow safe and environmentally responsible practices. So, when planning, it’s important to select a tour operator which is IAATO certified, because  after all, you want to prevent any damage to this fragile environment and it’s  unique ecosystem. And of course, it’s wildlife.

Book early! And don’t forget your camera.

Since we were taking long flights, we decided to take a 2 day break in Buenos Aires. It would give us a chance to see a new city and also provide a buffer in case of any long delays in our flight plan.

Buenos Aires was delightful. As you know ,or probably guessed, the name means  “Good Airs” or “Fair Winds” in Spanish. This was the first time I was visiting South America, so it was all new and exciting.. But this story is about the Antarctica, so I’m not getting into that here…

Buenos Aires was delightful. As you know ,or probably guessed, the name means  “Good Airs” or “Fair Winds” in Spanish. This was the first time I was visiting South America, so it was all new and exciting.. But this story is about the Antarctica, so I’m not getting into that here…

We were to board the ship at Ushuaia. A 3 hour flight from Buenos Aires and we were in the Southern Most City in the World. As you arrive at the Ushuaia airport, the excitement starts. You are surrounded by snow capped mountains wherever you go. It’s cold and you can see the bay and your ship and you know you’ll be on your way soon. You can book  a day’s pre-cruise tour to see the sights of the last port of South America.

Its location on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, has given it the nickname, the “End of the World.”

The name “Ushuaia” itself comes from the language of the native Yámana Indians and means “bay that penetrates westward.”

After  we boarded the ship, post dinner, we assembled in the auditorium. We had known this was not a normal cruise liner with deck games  and casinos. The briefing explained that this was an expedition – that our days would be filled with landings, zodiac cruises, lectures and briefings. “This is NOT a cruise” …. we were warned…. And true to their word the next day’s programme started with us getting kitted in the iconic red wind jacket, getting fitted for the heavy rubber boots they would loan us for the duration of our trip, and more lectures and talks.

To get to Antarctica, you have to sail through one of the roughest  seas in the world – The Drake Passage. We had prepared for weeks, stocking up on all kinds of sea sickness pills. Ones that made you drowsy, those that didn’t… ones that were quick acting, those that weren’t… ones that required a prescription, those that didn’t. Between the four of us we had a pharmacy of sorts. And then we hit the dreaded passage and the ship rolled slightly.  And we all held our breath. They say there are 2 types of crossings – The  Drake Lake and  the Drake Shake. And we heaved a sigh of relief – we were lucky to have The Drake Lake and sailed smoothly on the way out, as well as the way back. (And now we have plenty of travel sickness tablets to last a lifetime – or till their expiry). But I have heard many tales of the Drake Shake and I suggest you prepare for the worst. One of the distractions I would recommend is spending time on the deck. The air is clean and cold, and windy -so bundle up. But it is exhilarating to get away from land. Sea as far as the eye can see. And if you have a good camera, you might capture some birds.

During breakfast on the second day, an excited shout – ICEBERG!    We all rushed on to the deck . And there was what we were all waiting to see! Our first!

And then a few hours later we were in a Magical Land of White! And blue! Ice everywhere!

What struck me most was the silence. And absolutely no trace of humans! Throughout the trip, I spent a lot of time on the deck. It seemed such a waste to go inside when you had this view outside.

We soon settled into a routine. Meals of course were important – with terrific food. (But if you’re a vegetarian on a Norwegian ship, I feel a bit sorry for you if you don’t like salads!)

Plenty to do. Remember, “This is NOT a cruise!”. One landing a day, which one had to gear up for – innerwear, outerwear, jackets, windcheater, lifevest, boots (insist on the correct size and fit  or you’re going to hobble along the treks – advice from painful firsthand experience). It took a lot of time to get ready for an outing. A short ride in the zodiac, and then – the thrill of standing on the Ice Continent!  For the fit there was a short trek. Though there were very few youngsters, most people were in good shape and completed the trek.  What we soon learnt was that if there is no wind, it can get surprisingly hot and sweaty under the wind jacket, so layer and be prepared to shed!

Landing locations with penguin nesting sites were selected, so we had a lot of entertainment. Penguins are funny, noisy and constantly on the move – either going down to the water, or roaming around the colony stealing stones from others’ to bring back to their nesting lady, constantly bickering and complaining about the theft.  They create a path, or penguin highway ,  through the snow from the nesting grounds  to the sea. Also, you can smell these colonies from afar. Penguin poo is powerful and red! And you see red everywhere a penguin has been – the colony, the highways, on themselves, everywhere. And that’s where  we come to learn the importance, and the power, of Krill! The penguin diet consists of these little pink creatures and that evidence is seen everywhere. And smelt! I’ve been told you can see the red krill poo from space….

A section of the Gentoo penguin nesting colony. The 2 other types we saw were the Adelie and Chinstrap.

Which brings us back to the Krill – a small creature that makes a giant size contribution to the South seas and the fragile ecosystem and wildlife of the Antarctica.

Here, the entire food chain is dependent  on Krill. Either it is eaten directly. Or indirectly – by creatures that eat the krill-eaters!

Every year, over half of the krill in the Antarctic is consumed by whales, seals, penguins and birds.  They are essential for all life here. Now, imagine for a moment that the most substantial food source disappeared!

Those who depend on krill cannot always move to another area. Penguins in particular cannot travel too far from their nests in search of food when raising chicks. Also, some species like the Chinstrap and Adelie, consist on a diet solely made up of krill.

Krill themselves feed on phytoplankton and are found  in swarms of millions or even billions. Krill also like to feed on the algae that accumulates under sea ice. The waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica are ideal, since they are exceptionally rich sources of phytoplankton and algae.

However, sea ice cover is not constant around Antarctica, leading to fluctuations in krill populations. The West Antarctic Peninsula, which is one of the most rapidly warming areas in the world, has experienced a measurable loss of sea ice over the past few years. And studies show that there has been a drop in krill stocks.

Industrial fishing of krill, has also played its part in this decline.  Further North, harvesting them in the millions for omega-3 pills, pet food, fish bait, and the latest cosmetic fad –  anti-ageing Krill oil.

Fortunately, there are now  initiatives to protect them. Each creature on its own is tiny, but their presence is massively important to this region. It is crucial that we protect the Krill to save the future generations of wildlife in the Antarctic.

Blue and humpback whales migrate to the Antarctic from warmer waters every year just to feast on krill. Blue whales can eat up to 4 tons of krill per day, and other baleen whales can also consume thousands of pounds of krill daily. Another dependant of krill are the Minke whales.

We were lucky to see some Humpback whales. Unfortunately we didn’t get a full show of whales breaching, but even the brief glimpse of fin while they glided gracefully, blowing  and the fluke tail rising before the dive was thrilling.

The Orcas made a brief appearance one evening, but only on the horizon. We did see some seals that had injuries – probably from Orca attacks.

One of the landing sites was Deception Island at Whalers bay. A ring-shaped island was formed when the volcano had collapsed into itself forming the caldera (or cauldron), leaving a circular ridge above the sea .  This is an active volcano and there are hot springs on the beach. In the steaming waters we saw some boiled krill, which must have provided a break from the regular diet of raw krill, and the skuas and penguins were having a feast.

There were always a lot of birds near the penguin sites, since the birds, usually swooping  skuas, try and get to the eggs

  Standing on the lava of a live volcano should have been thrilling, but we were surrounded by the  grim reminder of what happened during the early years when blubber was much sought after. The abandoned  storage tanks stand testament to the carnage that must have taken place, when these huge vats were filled with seal and whale fat.

The whaling industry might have lit many street lights and homes and also oiled the wheels of the Industrial revolution, which kickstarted large scale technical advancements around the world, but we still haven’t recovered from the damage we did to the population of whales. And unfortunately, there are still countries that continue to hunt them.

As always, the Expedition Team  members accompanying us, apart from making sure we got in and out of the zodiac safely, were a wealth of information. They also ensured that we left the place as we found it – free of signs of human intrusion.

Most afternoons were spent Cruising , which was delightful. The zodiacs would scoot around the bay, taking us up close to fantastical icebergs and caves carved in the ice.

It felt like you’d fallen into a giant blue Curacao cocktail, surrounded by crushed ice and ice cubes

The other optional activities on offer was camping on the ice for the night. One of the campers told me how disconcerting it was to pee in a bucket with a couple of penguins eyeing you curiously!



Arctic plunge for the brave

As we tracked our path on the map, we come across many new and unusual sounding names that we’d never heard before  – Gerlache , Danco, Lemaire, Skotorp, and more. One usually hears of  South Pole expeditions led by the English Naval Officer Scott and the Norwegian explorer Amundsen, but one knew very little about all these other intrepid, brave men (unfortunately no women mentioned) who set out to find the Pole and in the harshest and cruellest conditions. Many lost their lives, but for them adventure and exploration were above everything.

Of course, the ones who first came to this Frozen Continent, came for the more material reason – Profit. These were the whalers and sealers who came for the blubber for fuel (Remember those horrid vats on Deception Island?), whalebone for corsets, fur for clothing . But the explorers that followed,  undertook these expeditions in attempts to penetrate further into the interior of the continent , to find the South Pole.

We had many interesting lectures on board, but by far the ones  enjoyed most were about the explorers and their stories. Dr. Carol, the expedition historian,  through her skilled storytelling shared some fascinating accounts  of these men and brought their adventures to life . The story that stayed with us was the one about 2 very young men (boys really) who wintered on the Continent on their own.  After attending her lectures, my niece and I were hooked and Carol helped us with a bibliography so we can continue our exploration of the Antarctica and it’s heroes for many years to come, from home.

Here I must add, all the members of the expedition team were fantastic. Their lectures were informative. And they themselves were helpful, friendly and enthusiastic. Not just in their guest relation skills, but their passion for their work and areas of research – be it telling the history of the Continent, or be it dog handling, or studying the wildlife and marine plants, or the effects of global warming, and of course, the Krill. I feel that I could go so far as to say these men and women  were actually following in the footsteps of the 20th Century explorers – except that this time it was not to discover the continent, but to save it.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet extends almost 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles), roughly the area of the contiguous United States and Mexico combined. It contains 30 million cubic kilometers (7.2 million cubic miles) of ice.

https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/quickfacts/icesheets.html (for those of you interested in figures)

The Ice sheet is formed when snow, which never melts, compacts under fresh snow every winter, creating dense layers.

These are constantly in motion, moving downwards towards the sea, where they form a shelf, or break off, calve, to float away as icebergs and smaller flows.

How is Global Warming going to impact this region? Warm winds blowing on the surface, melt more snow which doesn’t get a chance to re-freeze, and warm currents cutting into the ice shelf also melt more ice than ever before. The slowly shrinking sheet is now a victim of climate change. And it’s important to study the impact on this area and find ways to prevent wide spread damage and destruction before we lose it altogether.

Back home now, what I remember most about this driest and coldest Continent on earth, is the spectacular scenes of ice, sea and mountains, a landscape few have had the opportunity to enjoy. So isolated and splendid. And definitely worth fighting to save.

The Midnight Sun lights up a distant peak
Expedition to the Antarctica – NOT A CRUISE!

How to Tell A Story –  It’s all in the Detail

Version 1:

They were driving through the jungle hoping to get to Bangalore in 5 hours.

The curves were dangerous.

And then suddenly the driver braked sharply. There stood a huge Elephant.

There was no time to react so they continued driving past.

They were scared out of their wits. They didn’t stop for the next few km.s

Audience reaction: “Really?” “Yah, there are elephants on that road. “ “Whats the road like – last time it was full of potholes”

Version 2:

They were driving through the jungle hoping to get to Bangalore in 5 hours.

The night was dark. The curves were dangerous.

And then suddenly the driver braked sharply. Everyone was thrown forward. There in all his majesty stood a huge Elephant.

The driver sat frozen next to him. He had to save his family.

The driver took off like a bat out of hell.

They got to Bangalore .

Audience reaction: “Wow!” “Glad everyone’s safe.” “How long did the whole drive take?”


Version 3:

They were driving through the jungle hoping to get to Bangalore in 5 hours.

The night was dark. The moon was covered by thick clouds. The headlights lit up only a few metres on the narrow winding road.  The curves were dangerous.

And then suddenly the driver braked sharply. Everyone was thrown forward. There in all his majesty stood a huge Elephant. His tusks glowing in the headlights. He stood tall, threatening, glowering down at the car. He was obviously a rogue elephant. The telltale dark lines running down the sides of his face showing he was in must.

He raised a foot and dropped it – hard- the tarmac cracked. The earth shook. The tiger stalking his prey, froze. And then he raised his trunk and trumpeted loud and long. The monkeys in the trees woke chattering loudly and the birds drew their heads out of from under their wings and rustled in the branches above.

The children in the car stared horrified, snivelling and howling. The women wailing, praying for all their worth. The driver sat frozen next to him. Our hero was the only one who was thinking…. his mind racing to finds a way out of this death trap. He had to save his family.

He shook the driver, until he aroused him from his paralysis. He needed the driver to help. He looked into his eyes and said in a cool, steady voice “ Just listen to what I say. You have to pay attention.” The driver calmed by his confident voice, said “Yes sir, I trust you”. He told him that he would give him a signal at which the driver was to step on the pedal and drive straight past the animal and wait half a  km. down the road. Keep the motor running.

He jumped out of the car slammed the door and shouted “Go”. The driver took off like a bat out of hell.

He was now standing facing the rogue Tusker. It’s must-ridden state caused it’s eyes to glow in the dark. He stripped of his red shirt and waved it in front of the animal – just in case it decided to chase the car. He wasn’t sure whether it would react like a bull, but it worked! With a loud squeal the huge mammoth raced towards him like a tank, the earth quaking. He had to time this perfectly. A second too early and he’d be plucked into the air like a blade of grass and smashed to the ground. A second too late and they wouldn’t be able to scrape him off the ground after being trampled.

He raised the shirt above his ahead, twirled it around and judging the right moment let it fly. Perfect! It landed squarely across it’s eyes and blinded the animal. It ploughed forward while he jumped aside out of the way of the Juggernaut intent on struggling to get the flapping shirt of it’s face.

He ran to the car and jumped in and the driver sped away. “Good man, this Driver “ he thought. “Must give him a good reference”

Audience reaction: GobSmacked.

(A South Indian producer bought the story rights and the film is to star a well know actor. The film is to be named “Elephants Cant Jump, But RajniCan”

How to Tell A Story –  It’s all in the Detail

Who Moved Our Cheese Part 2

Our cheese had been moved. And we went to Khetwadi to find it.

  It was a beautiful heritage building.  Suddenly, we had too much space.  There were so few of us. We had 3 laaaarge rooms. Barely any furniture. Or computers.


Walking to the station knowing you were close to the red light area made some of the men uncomfortable!   The Ground and First floors were vacant so it felt spooky walking into this old, empty building. Some even claimed they saw an old bawaji ghost in the evening! Not enough restaurants around.  The streets were really crowded and noisy and one had to dodge hand carts.  And trucks.  And cows. And rushing pattiwallas.


One couldn’t take a break and stroll around outside. It was always an obstacle race. 

But, we started settling in. We were lucky to have someone donate chairs, conference tables, and other stuff. Til we got enough furniture, we had plenty of mats on the floor. 


We built some furniture (whenever our eccentric carpenter Chottubhai  turned up) and/or  we got more donations….. Cupboards, a fridge. Whenever a wellwisher moved house or died we’d get stuff.  Beds we turned into diwans and coffee tables were low storage  and cutlery and large serving dishes came in handy when hosting large meetings or workshops.

After a few years; the municipality agreed to give us one more room and the huge hall that was on the floor. That was a relief because, apart from extra space, it was used as storage for the old school’s science lab stuff and the skeleton hanging there facing us that could be seen through the windows made some people uncomfortable in the evenings. So we cleared everything out and had a beautiful hall for ourselves. We’ve hosted large numbers, sometimes over 40 students and their professors, and had many other events and participants attending workshops and exchange programmes in our hall. 


We soon grew used to the change in commuting arrangements.  We started appreciating the old buildings around. 


 Other NGOs moved in and it was always fun with the little children running all over the place when we came in or left . But the quiet was nice too when they took an afternoon nap.


We got used to the flooding in the monsoon.  Water dripping from the ceiling in the rains And  the baking heat in the summer.  And the overpowering smell of coffee (yes. There is something like too much of a good thing).  We enjoyed having a terrace where we could fly kites during Sankrant.


And having the whole floor to ourselves, space was never a problem. We even used the staircases for smoking areas and  setup a small office in the stairwell!


Over the years we’ve collected a lot of clutter.  Having so much space meant we never had to throw anything away, “Keep it just in case. ….”!

And our staff has grown too.    The original staff who caee here from Fountain are now senior staff and head their own teams of 3 to 4 people each. We have a “Program and Documentation Team.”  And between SPARC And Nirman  we now have approxnately 25 full time staff at Khetwadi.


And now the time has come to clear out. 
When we were first told we had to vacate. We didn’t really believe it. It didn’t seem possible ….. Where could we go.?
We started contacting brokers and checking out new places. But deep down we kept hoping that maybe we could convince them to let us stay.  But finally we got word. ….

We had to vacate.

Our cheese had been moved. Again.

Missed  Part 1? Click here

Who Moved Our Cheese Part 2

Who Moved Our Cheese Part 1

Moving to Khetwadi. 
Some years ago I read a book that  I still think about occasionally.  Who Moved My Cheese.  About  2 mice. One morning they woke up and found their stockpile of cheese had been moved and they had to decide whether to hang around waiting for more cheese to appear or go off in search of some cheese .  Basically they learned to adapt to different circumstances and survive, while the 2 humans with them sat about moaning about And querying who moved their cheese and waiting for the old status quo to return.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. A long time ago, we at Sparc had to move out of a tiny little room in an old building in the Fountain area.


So cramped we sometimes had to ask people to get up so we could climb over their chair to get to our seat!   We started working in shifts …. some would come really early in the morning and leave early and some would arrive later and stay late. but there’d still be a few hours where we’d all be there together. And have to “adjust” (as they say in the local trains).  Sheela, Murthy, Sutapa, Mohammed, Sunita, Mahendra,Medha, only 7 full timers but they could barely manage. Occassionally Celine,Panchali,Indu and I would add to the numbers and we’d all squash  in. Our office room itself was actually just a section of a larger  dark and dingy room with ceilings over 20 ft high and we were separated from the other offices  by a wooden partition 7ft high.  There was a guy  next door who could really yell his  head off and we’d all have to stop work and listen to his ranting till he felt that he had made his point.  No privacy at all ….we knew what they were eating for lunch…. we could smell, we know what they thougt of it  because we could hear,  and we knew how well it was being digested.. we could  hear that too.   We were on the 4th floor which in those old buildings in Fountain felt like 7. And i was there as a volunteer 3 to 4 times a week for 5 years the lift worked intermittently, I probably  got to use it  less than 4 or 5 times . Now I realise what kept me in shape.
 But it was a real convenient location …all 3 rail commuters were happy. .. central, western and harbour. So many eating places we were spoiled for choice. And there was a shop that had great snacks in the next building so I could stock up on munchies on my way up. ..I needed sustenance after that 7 floor hike.
 And  then we were told to vacate.
 An NGO with few resources has very limited choices.  Fortunately the municipality was merging 2 schools in Khetwadi and decided to lease some rooms in the vacant school to NGOs. More importantly, at a very reasonable rent.  Oh dear. .. one had heard of Khetwadi, but  exactly where was it? Somewhere in the red light area or near the Gol deval temple.  Where were the closest stations? Can’t we find something in Fountain? It’s so convenient. But we had no choice. 
Our cheese had been moved .
And 18 years ago we moved here


Marathi Municipal School, 1st. Khetwadi Lane

Who Moved Our Cheese Part 1