Our own Garden

A little different write up for this blog. Nature is there, yes, but the ramble is much easier. Just around the house garden!

Couple of years back we got an opportunity to build our own house. When the architect asked us to list our requirements, garden space was at the top. So, in a 2400 sq feet plot, we managed to end up with about 900 sq feet of garden space, most of which were filled with soil, and 300 sq feet of car porch area tiled with stones where grass could grow in between them.

OK, we had the garden space, now what? We did not want the garden to be artificially landscaped and preferred a practical organic one with no pesticides. So, we approached Urban Mali whose mantra was in line with ours. They got us started with a lot of native plants. Now we have a small lawn with a pond housing guppies and other visitors in it. A flower patch with colorful Hibiscus plants, Kanakambaram (Crossandra infundibuliformis), Spatika (Barleria), Parijatha (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis), among others. No, I am not a botanist. Names thanks to google and wikipedia! They also made a vegetable patch, and planted fruit trees like Guava and Sapota. Its been about a year and the garden has done fairly well with much hand holding from Urban Mali via maintenance as well as advice. Many lessons learnt and many more yet to learn and implement which I will try to list below.
Lily Pond with a Frog

Ashy Prinia
First, a big bonus for me has been the nature in the form of birds, animals and insects the garden has attracted. As an avid birder, Ashy Prinia's which we would enjoy only during our outings, became a regular guest to our kitchen garden, for few weeks with its sweet calls delighting all. Other bird who have graced the garden are Purple-rumped Sunbird, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Oriental White eye and Tailor Bird. We had a snake visit us too, frogs hopping around all the time, insects, a garden lizard which camped in our garden for few days until food ran out and snails galore. Variety of butterflies have placed our house on their regular daily route. Overall, it has been a pleasure each and every time we spot any of them.

As for my gardening effort and success, it has been a mix of results so far. The hard work of cleaning, planting and weeding is done by the Urban Mali gardeners who visit once a month. I mostly water it, do some weeding and harvest the produce! Success has been in most of the greens we planted (Spinach, Basil, Lemon grass, etc,), Guava fruits, and the native flowers. Lily pond, though small, has sustained itself very well with a lily blooming almost all the time.

Lily Moth Caterpillar

Some lessons I have learnt. Watering with a proper schedule is important. We lost a lot of the nursery plants we tried to nurture. Manure is key. Without proper nutrition yield is very low or none. Still learning this. I don't have a in-house compost setup. It appears this is a must if we are hoping for good produce as the cost of store bought manure is too expensive. Managing pests such as army ants, aphids is an ongoing struggle. The lily moth caterpillar pretty much chomped away all our lilies. I am told they will grow back. Still waiting. I guess with the organic approach we do share our garden with the rest of the nature. Neem oil as a deterrent helps but its a struggle to keep away some of the pests.

Garlic Vine
Regardless of the struggles we are enjoying our garden so far as it embodies nature at its best with variety of plants, animals, insects, pests and all! Looking forward to many more visitors and bountiful harvests in the future!

Makkalidurga: Trek for the views

First views of the formidable Makalidurga hill
Location: Makalidurga or Makkalidurga, Doddaballapura, Near Bangalore
Date: Dec 27th, 2015
To get there: [Click here for Google Map]. Go on Hebbal Road and take the exit to Doddaballapura a few kms after Hebbal Lake. Go through Doddaballapura towards Makalidurga. Trail head is  few kms after the Makallidurga Railway Station. You need to take a left on a dirt road just before a village(Gunjur) and go on that for about a km. Parking is next to the railway tracks.
Distance: 60km from Bangalore
Trail type: Rocky. Few places may need a bit of scrambling for the inexperienced trekkers.  Trail is marked with a white arrow painted on rocks in few places. At the top, there is a temple and fort which one can explore. We had kids aged 10 who did the trek quite easily. Still I would suggest to be careful as it was quite slippery in many spots due to small mountain streams. Also, younger kids can find it a bit strenuous.
Facilities: Doddaballapura is close by. Shops selling drinks and snacks are there on the main road near the trail head.

It had been a while since we had gone on any family trek close by. When a few friends also expressed interest to just go out and get relief from the City's chaos for a day at least, it seemed like our trek drought will end. After some internet research, we settled on Makalidurga near Doddaballapura even though it is on the other side of the city, as most reviews seemed to suggest that it a nice 1/2 day trek which is what we wanted.

Breakfast with a view!
Parking near the railway line
So, bright and early on the last Sunday of year 2015, 27th December, 4 adults, 2 kids and one teen set out in 2 cars northwards. We had packed sandwiches, fruits and snacks for our breakfast on the trek, some of which disappeared during the drive! Reached the trail head around 9, a bit late but not too bad. The Makalidurga hill towers over the railway line and the trail curves around a temple and them upwards. We met a few brave souls who had camped out at the top in the night.
White arrows to guide you in tricky places
Slippery slopes had to be maneuvered carefully

Truly scenic trails
View of the fort as we approached the top
Shortly after we started and as soon as we found a nice spot with some view, we settled down for a relaxed and pleasant breakfast. The trail from here goes around the hill and steadily up. It is clearly marked in few places with a white arrow. However, it is a bit of a scramble at some points and care should be taken to avoid an incident. I would suggest ensuring you have shoes with good soles to make it easier.
Fort walls

Fort ruins
At the top there are ruins of a fort and a small temple. Many paths and trails exist but no clear signs on where one should go or information boards about the fort. One can just explore the area as they see fit. We did one walk around and settled down on a boulder which gave a wide vista of the plains including the railway line near where we had parked our cars.

Black-shouldered Kite hovering over our lunch spot looking for its own lunch!
While relaxing there, we were treated to close up views of the hovering ability of the Black-shouldered Kite.There were also numerous Barn Swallows and Swifts putting on a nice aerobic display.

We finished up the rest of our food and started back. The trail back was somewhat easier. Or so we thought. By the time we reached our car though it was close to 2 pm and lunch was on everyone's minds. So, we stopped in Yelahanka on the way which had some good eateries. By evening we were back in our house after the much needed break from city pollution!

Hope to do the next one without such a long break!

If you do get to visit this or similar place around Bangalore, please ensure that you do not litter *anything* there to keep the place as pristine as possible for others.

Spotted a Common Kestrel as we were climbing down.
Trudging through some tall grass

Rose-ringed Parakeets

View of the railway line

Trekking to Dzongri La

At the viewpoint with Kanchenjunga in the background.

Location: Kanchenjunga National Park, Sikkim
Date:May 4th to 8th 2015
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
From Bangalore, flight to Bagdogra or train to Siliguri and then drive.
Trail type: Wide trail paved with stones and logs. Some places are steep but scrambling not really required. I trekked whole time except the last part with camera and binoculars in hand
 Facilities: We had a full support group with 4 horses, cook, 3 helpers and guide all through the trek. 3-4 campsites are well established along the way where we can pitch our tents, get water and use toilet facilities. Couple of those places even had a small shop, selling most of the stuff that we may require suddenly like snacks, drinks, batteries, toilet paper and even feviqwik! which I needed as the sole of my shoes came off. 
You need the guides and local help though. Independent planning and trekking will be very difficult.
Misc Links:

After getting great views of the Himalayas during a family trip to Manali few years back and hearing about the wonderful Himalayan treks from a friend we had been keen to do one ourselves. The opportunity presented itself when we had to drop our kid in Delhi and as we were wondering if we could add on a vacation along with it, a friends family suggested a trek in Sikkim. Suddenly everything fell into place and we had booked our flights, guide etc for the popular Dzongri Trek in early May.

Early planning was quite exciting for all, adults and kids. Hidden Paradise Adventures, who were our local guide and support team, sent us a list of things to get and be prepared for. Fact that we had to be ready for hot sun as well as snow and rain meant that we were in for an adventure. Kids of course were more interested in what snacks were going to be packed for the trip!

We joined with the second family in Yuksom after a few days stay at Gangtok, a wonderful city to visit. An overnight stay at Yuksom is recommended to acclimatize to the altitude at close to 2000mtrs. We met our guide Bhutia or Yuti for short, who briefed us on what to pack for our backpacks and what to put in our travel bags which would come with the Horses (or cross-bred yaks for some groups) to be used only at campsites.

Day 1: We started late around 10am as it was to be a fairly flat 8km hike to reach Sachen. This also helped us to get used to the altitude a bit. Within a short time of leaving Yuksom the views were fantastic. The lush forest, call of the birds, sounds of the many mountain streams, the bridges had us going without really feeling much of the effort we were putting. Highlight was sighting of Himalayan bears having a swim in a stream far away. Reached Sachen around 2 for lunch and then we just explored around the area until dinner around 7 (it becomes dark here by 6pm) and retired early at the tents set up by our support group.

Campsite at Tsokha
Day 2: Early morning and I mean early...it is bright by 5am! I was up for some great bird watching. Laughingthrushes, blackbirds and finches were all around the campsite. We washed up a bit using water piped in from a mountain stream. Icy cold! Breakfast was egg, oat meal and bread. All through this trip we were fed lots of carbs(mostly potatoes) as they kept reminding us to eat well because we needed that extra bit of energy for the trek, especially at this altitude. Soups were spiced with garlic and popcorn was added on as I believe they are good for higher altitudes. Today was a fairly hard climb to Tsokha which is at 3000mtrs. There was a brief rest stop at Bakim with great views. Here my shoes soles which was peeling off was fixed with feviqwik. Thankfully it sustained for the rest of the trek. From Bakim to Tsokha, the forest changed a bit to more decidous and spread out. Rhododendrons started appearing too. We also got to try out some wild strawberries, smaller but just as juicy. Reached Tsokha in time for lunch at 2pm or so.

Food can never taste as good as it does after a strenuous hike at high altitude. I mean we were devouring noodle soup as if it was made by the worlds greatest chef at the fanciest french restaurant all while sitting on a wooden bench (or ground sometimes) in a ramshackle hut!

Typical trails
Day 3: This was to be our hardest trek, Tsokha to Dzongri-La. By the way, La means Hill and Kan means Mountain. Steep trails, slippery ground supported by wooden logs, trekking at 3000+ mtrs. There was an abundance of Rhododendrons on this trail to keep our spirits up. We had lunch on the way at Phedang where our support staff had a hot lunch ready with temperature now dropping to below 10 c. We had one more steep climb here to reach close to 4000mtrs, where we were surrounded by thick mist, ie we were literally in the middle of clouds! After this the trail was fairly flat but with ups and downs. To test us further, there was rain with hailstorms during this part. We reached exhausted around 3pm at our campsite in Dzongri. One kid got a taste of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness). She took a nap which helped her recover. It was cloudy and dark here and we received a fair bit of snow in the evening to the children's delight. A wet and tired group, groped in the dark with torchlight for our beddings and retired for the night with Yuti promising to wake us up at 4am next morning provided the weather was clear for the final hike up to the Kanchenjunga View point. The prospect of a successful final climb looked bleak at this point.

Trek to Dzongri view point
Day 4: Yuti gave the early morning rooster call at 4am that the weather was indeed clear and we should set out asap. Miraculously, the exhaustion and depressive feeling of the previous night was gone from everyone! All of us set out in high spirits in pre-dawn light with the kids setting the pace up ahead. As the light started getting brighter, we were greeted with different spectacular views of the mountains. We could truly see and enjoy the majestic Himalayas up close. The trail was made even more beautiful with the fresh snow from previous day. The trail itself is very steep in the start and then flattens out to ridge trail to the view point. There were other groups already there to witness the dawn and sunrise from the view point. We made it in time for Sunrise and it was indeed all worth it. After rounds of group shots, selfies and enjoying the presence of Kanchenjunga, we scrambled down fairly quickly to be back at our campsite by 7am. A relaxed couple of hours allowed us to do some bird watching and take in a good picnic breakfast with pancakes. It was a much easier trek back to Tsokha where we camped at a different place for the last time on our trip. On the way we got some amazing sightings of the very beautiful and exotic Fire-tailed Sunbird.
Fire-tailed Sunbird

Day 5: Though it was going to be mostly downhill we were in for a strenuous hike as we had to do 16kms in a single day to reach Yuksom by 2pm. It was going to be 14kms from breakfast to lunch at 1am! So, start was early and progress was to be steady. But we still managed to stop by for a dip (of our legs!) in a mountain stream, eat some wild berries, get a sighting of the aptly named Scarlet Finch.

We were late by about an hour but enjoyed a relaxed lunch next to a mountain stream. Sore but happy, we washed up at Yuti's house, had some nice tea and set off on the long ride to Darjeeling our night stop, with our legs not required to do any work.

Final thoughts. Trekking in the Himalayas is wonderful. The mountain air and the views makes it spectacular. The altitude, weather and climb makes it challenging. So, its the whole package and definitely worthwhile if you can put up with some discomforts of living outdoors for a few nights. The flip side is it makes you appreciate what we have in our urban setting! :)

As always, when you are on the trail in these pristine environments, please take only photographs and leave only footprints. Avoid all littering and preserve the habitats.

More photos below. Do the slide show for my caption commentary!

Asian Black Bear sighting from far. (you can see it move in the last 10 seconds)

GPS capture of some parts of our trek. With google earth plug-in you can experience a fly-by.
1. Yuksom to Sachen

2. Sachen to Tsokha

3. Tsokha to Dzongri

4. Climb to Dzongri view point (check the elevation gain graph on this)

5. Tsokha to Yuksom