Friday, September 12, 2014

Up Close and Personal with Kumaragiri Estate

 


Words and  Pics by Barry Greville-Eyres


After a long trip on Kerala State roads (en route from Wayanad to Perinthalmanna) characterized by trying monsoon induced conditions; suppressed road rage and frustration; harangued by incessantly sounding horns the beckoning estate gates were an absolute heaven-sent. The ascent to the hilltop homestead, through skirted rubber trees pirouetting in the swirling mists, was therapeutic in itself as Kumaragiri began working its magic on senses awry and knotted tension. Swimming in a soundless sea of solitude, the estate’s island nature has the ability to ‘transport’ one, for the briefest time, to another ethereal place and time.
 
 
Skirted rubber trees pirouetting in the swirling mists of Kumararigi
 
 
Enter the larger than life character and the man at the center of Kumaragiri - Mr CA Kumar. In another lifetime and career (both highly successful) Ashok Kumar went by the name and professional designation of CA - Chartered Accountant Kumar (Bangalore). Years later in semi-retirement and as part of a significant, self-imposed sea change the designation has taken on new and equally impressive meaning - challenger and champion in the face of adversity. In short, Ashok together with some incredibly valuable 'assets' at his disposal including the bejeweled Kumaragiri Estate and some exceptional staff, has re-invented himself as an eco-tourism entrepreneur of note.
 
Kumaragiri Estate accommodation
 
 
 
 
The A-team (L-R) CA Ashok Kumar, Kunjapa, John Johnson and Anu Johnson
 
 
 
The communal dining and recreation area adjoining the estate accommodation
 
 
 
 
Comfortably appointed accommodation
 
 

At our first fortuitous meeting (courtesy of Lotus Destinations Pvt Ltd - a reputable, efficient and highly recommended Cochin-based tourism enterprise www.lotusdmc.com) described by Ashok as one destined and 'fated' to happen, I was particularly taken by his vision and determination to not only ‘reinvent’ himself but to also succeed at it. Tack onto that his passion for the environment and nature, at times, assuming eco-warrior proportions. His quest for sustainable stewardship for ‘God's given’ Kumaragiri burns brightly as does Ashok's humility, especially to learn more about this new industry, hospitality and his hands-on approach to most things. The estate, over 1000 acres in land area and nestling near the hills of the Western Ghats, has been in the Kumar family for half a century and nostalgia is rich and heavy in his narrative of those adventure-filled and carefree days spent with his siblings on the estate.
 
 
Peppered profusion - one of the estate's agro-forestry crops
 
 
 
It's not all plain sailing though as Ashok relates the countless challenges associated with running a ‘marginal’ agro-forestry business (rubber and coconut plantations together with pepper vines) on a parcel of land that is not exactly economically viable in this day and age. Throw in bureaucratic and contentious land ownership/management issues imposed by government and siblings alike; contract labor peculiarities; the constant summertime threat posed by potentially catastrophic wildfires; dangers of over-capitalization in an emerging enterprise with little or slow return on investment and its clear that Ashok’s vision and niche tourism product – low key and low impact eco-tourism for discerning nature lovers, is a diversified lifeline for Kumaragiri. Guests are accommodated in four comfortably appointed double rooms with an adjoining dining and recreational area. Surrounding verdant canopy views, of planted plantations or natural forest, catch the eye especially when teased by errant tendrils of twirling mist.  
 
 
Kumaragiri Estate - an island swimming in a sea of solitude
 
 
 
 
Ashok, a large than life character,  together with Kunjapa at the cafeteria preparing pre-dinner snacks
  

Whereas Ashok refers to our chance meeting as ‘predestined’, serendipitous is perhaps a better coined phrase also encapsulating the romance, beauty and mystique of Kerala state - God's Own Country - as portrayed in the global branding of this southern Indian state as a premier tourism destination. Kumaragiri, with its natural beauty, is every bit of that and boasts some interesting recreational and educational opportunities including birding, hiking, herping (for budding or seasoned herpetologists), mountain biking, outdoor camping, working rubber and coconut plantations, swimming and lazing around at the estate’s centerpiece water feature. A stroll around the area reveals countless, unexpected monsoon watered falls and streams – sights to behold and symphonies to the ears. 
 
 
 
Fractured granite domes provide courses for countless monsoon watered falls
   

The pièce de résistance is the Malabar cuisine prepared by the estate cooks, not forgetting some of Ashok’s own inspired signature snacks including freshly roasted cashew nuts and a spicy cassava-sambal. Guaranteed to create an olfactory and gastronomic sensation - coconut oil is gently heated on a hot plate (infusing the evening air with its wonderfully exotic, silky and fragrant scent) before fresh, local raw cashews seasoned liberally with chili powder, turmeric and black pepper are slow roasted over an open flame. Grown in Kerala, cashews are a high value, labor intensive cash crop yet the state is acclaimed, internationally, for being the leading importer and exporter of the nut. Cashews are processed and finished before being exported around the world. This delightfully fresh and sumptuous snack is best enjoyed with black tea, ever-so slightly sweetened and flavored with a sprig of bruised lemon grass. Another culinary revelation was simple, boiled cassava served and spiced up with a sambal consisting of coconut oil, finely chopped Kerala green chili, red onion and seasoned with salt.
 
Savory snacks - freshly roasted cashew nuts
 

A must-do, for adventure-junkies and hard core environmentalists, is a visit to the not so proximate (a full day road and jeep track excursion) UNESCO listed Western Ghats World Heritage site and IUCN category Silent Valley National Park (SVNP). With a mosaic of vegetation types and associated habitats for all manner of life forms; landscapes be it riverine or montane and steeped in anthropological history a trip to SVNP can prove to be highly rewarding and educational.
 
 
 
Listed by UNESCO as Western Ghats World Heritage site and IUCN as a protected national park 
 

 
 
The pristine Kunthipuhza River, once the center of a fierce controversy to dam the system for hydro-electric power in the 1970s,  but saved as a result of intense environmental lobbying via the 'Save Silent Valley' campaign
 


Jeep transportation into the hinterland of the SVNP




Snapped per chance and unexpectedly - the stunning Pompadour Green Pigeon!



Back at Kumaragiri and at the end of a long yet satisfying day, one has wonderful option of regrouping and reflecting, on the entire experience, at Ashok’s amazing water feature – a natural rock pool with cascading waterfalls designed to soothe, cleanse and rejuvenate. Located in a natural rock amphitheater, that offers commanding and breathtaking views of the valley below, the feature provides an ideal setting complete with nature-surround sounds for any number of trademark Kerala Ayurveda treatments. The highlight, like no other, to an enchanting visit to the Kumaragiri Estate  Website: www.kumaragiri.co.in  Email: kumaragiri@gmail.com
 

Cascading waterfalls that feed into the natural rock pool at Kumaragiri's centerpiece water feature and recreational area
 



 
Kerala Ayurveda available, upon request, to the sound of water cascading into the natural rock pool below

 

 

Located in a natural amphitheater the Kumaragiri water feature and cafeteria area overlook the green valley below providing spectacular surrounding views

 

 

Take the plunge - visit the Kumaragiri Estate for a decidedly different, eco-tourism experience!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Namaste Kathmandu! Namaste Pokhara!

 

Pictures and text by Barry Greville-Eyres

 
 


 

Nepal’s national flag is the only one in the world that is not rectangular in shape and is also considered to be the most mathematical flag ever hoisted. The red represents victory in war or courage/aggression, and is also the color of the rhododendron, the country’s national flower. The flag's blue border signifies peace. The curved moon on the flag is a symbol of the peaceful and calm nature of Nepalese, while the sun represents the aggressiveness of Nepalese Gurkha warriors.
 
 
 

The pride and national flower of Nepal - the exquisite rhododendron or tree rose depicted graphically on the flag above
 
 
 
 
A composite picture of a rhododendron crown with lichen covered branches, old and emerging foliage and late flowering blooms
 
 
Fast Facts  
 


·       Nepal has a population of approximately 27 million with nearly 2 million absentee or migrant workers living abroad;
·       In 2013, Nepal ranked the 157th place on the Human Development Index (HDI) and is one of the least developed nations in the entire world;
·       Nepal is located in the heart of the Himalayas and bordered to the north by the People’s Republic of China, and to the south, east, and west by the Republic of India;
·       The mountainous north of Nepal has eight of the world's ten tallest mountains, including the highest point on Earth; Mount Everest called Sagarmatha (Mountain of Snows) in Nepali. It contains more than 240 peaks over 20,000 ft (6,096 m) above sea level;
 
 
Rooftop views of capital city Kathmandu that is virtually bursting at the seams as a consequence of urbanization, improved safety and security in recent years, a thriving remittance economy and large foreign investment
 
 
 
Kathmandu has grown exponentially in recent years and public utilities including electricity and water provision have lagged behind considerably frustrating native residents and small businesses 
 
 
 
Contrary to expectations and public perception, quality water remains a relatively scarce and invaluable resource particularly in a city like Kathmandu
 
 
More Fast Facts 
 
·       The southern Terai region is fertile and humid. Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha, is located in this region. It is one of the holiest places of one of the world's great religions, and its remains contain important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centres from as early as the 3rd century BC;
·       Hinduism is practiced by about 81.3% of Nepalis, making it the country with the highest percentage of Hindus. Buddhism is linked historically with Nepal and is practiced by 16%, Kirat 5.1%, Islam by 4.4%, Christianity 1.4%, and animism 0.4%. A large section of the population, especially in hill region, even though they follow Hindu customs, may identify themselves as both Hindu as well as Buddhists which can be attributed to syncretic nature of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal;
·       A monarchy throughout most of its history, Nepal was ruled by the Shah dynasty of kings from 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah unified its many small kingdoms;
·       Nepal's exports of mainly carpets, clothing, hemp natural fibre, leather goods, jute goods and grain total $822 million. Import commodities of mainly gold, machinery and equipment, petroleum products and fertilizer total US$2 bn. EU (46.1%), the US (17.4%), and Germany (7.1%) are its main export partners. Recently, the European Union has become the largest buyer of Nepali ready made garments (RMG). Exports to the EU accounted for 46% of the country’s total garment exports. Nepal's import partners include India (47.5%), the United Arab Emirates (11.2%), China (10.7%), Saudi Arabia (4.9%), and Singapore (4%);
·       Remittances are estimated to be equivalent to 25–30 percent of GDP;
 
 
 
 
The Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu steeped in history and a highly significant spiritual site for Hinduism in Nepal. The real time cremations, in full public view, can be very confronting for most.
  
 
Beauty and the Beast captured at the Pashupatinath Temple  
 
  
Smoke from a funeral pyre wafts over the grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple  as the departed are prepared for their final send off. 
 
 
The entrance/exit façade to the magnificent Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu


 

Most certainly my type of guesthouse!


 
A superb tourist precinct within the grounds of the Boudhanath Stupa where one can soak up the atmosphere, while away the time by browsing around or enjoy a relaxing and refreshing Tuborg at one of the many strategically placed, rooftop restaurants


 
  
The ancient stupa with its massive mandala makes it one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal and in the world in fact. The Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath dominates the skyline and Tibetan merchants have rested and offered prayers here for many centuries 

 
 
 
The Great Stupa is 36 m in height and is a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site and by far one of the most popular tourist sites in Kathmandu

 
 
The outer perimeter of the Great Stupa has been painstakingly and loving restored to the delight and pleasure of countless tourists 


 
·       In 2012 the number of international tourists visiting Nepal was 598,204, a 10% increase on the previous year. The tourism sector contributed nearly 3% of national GDP in 2012 and is the second biggest foreign income earner after remittances;
·       The rate of unemployment and underemployment approaches half of the working-age population. Thus many Nepali citizens move to other countries in search of work. Top destinations include India, Qatar, the United States, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Brunei Darussalam, Australia, and Canada;
·       A long-standing economic agreement underpins a close relationship with India. The country receives foreign aid from India, Japan, the UK, the US, the EU, China, Switzerland, and Scandinavian countries;
·       Agriculture employs 76% of the workforce, services 18% and manufacturing/craft-based industry 6%. Industry mainly involves the processing of agricultural produce, including jute, sugarcane, tobacco, and grain. Its workforce of about 10 million suffers from a severe shortage of skilled labor;
 
  

The ancient city of Bhaktapur, a short drive from Kathmandu is the 3rd largest city in the Kathmandu Valley dating back several centuries and currently has a population of approximately 300,000 inhabitants
 
 
The living and working ancient city of Bhaktapur has the best preserved Palace courtyards and old city center in Nepal and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its rich culture, temples and wood, metal and stone artwork
 
 
Another Bhaktapur perfectly restored Palace courtyard with ancient clay brick/stone and wood work
 
 
More Fast Facts
 
·       Erosion of the Himalayas is a very important source of sediment, which flows via several great rivers (the Indus to the Indian Ocean, and the Ganges and Brahmaputra river system) to the Bay of Bengal;  
·       Nepal is one of the few countries in Asia to abolish the death penalty and the first country in Asia to rule in favor of same-sex marriage. Nepal's Supreme Court in 2007 granted full rights for LGBT individuals, including the right to marry and now can get citizenship as a third gender rather than male or female;
·       Human trafficking is a major problem in Nepal. Nepali victims are trafficked within Nepal, to India, the Middle East, and other areas such as Malaysia and forced to become prostitutes, domestic servants, beggars, factory workers, mine workers, circus performers, child soldiers, and others. Sex trafficking is particularly rampant within Nepal and to India, with as many as 5,000 to 10,000 women and girls trafficked to India alone each year;
·       The dramatic differences in elevation found in Nepal result in a variety of biomes, from tropical savannas along the Indian border, to subtropical broadleaf and coniferous forests in the Hill Region, to temperate broadleaf and coniferous forests on the slopes of the Himalaya, to montane grasslands and shrublands and rock and ice at the highest elevations;
·       Energy needs are primarily met by fuel wood (68%) agricultural waste (15%), animal dung (8%), and imported fossil fuel (8%). Except for some lignite deposits, Nepal has no known oil, gas or coal deposits. All commercial fossil fuels (oil and coal) are either imported from India or from international markets routed through India and China. Fuel imports absorb over one-fourth of Nepal's foreign exchange earnings. Only about 1% energy need is fulfilled by electricity.
·       Paradoxically, the perennial nature of Nepali rivers and the steep gradient of the country's topography provide ideal conditions for the development of some of the world's largest hydroelectric projects;
·       Only about 40% of Nepal's population has access to electricity. The electrification rate in urban areas is 90%, whereas the rate for rural areas is only 5%. Power cuts of up to 22 hours a day takes place in peak demand periods of winter and the peak electricity demand is almost double the capability or dependable capacity;
·       Disease prevalence is higher in Nepal than it is in other South Asian countries, especially in rural areas. Leading diseases and illnesses include diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, goiter, intestinal parasites, leprosy, visceral leishmaniasis (black or Dumdum fever and is the second-largest parasitic killer in the world after malaria) and tuberculosis;







Bhaktapur boasts guesthouses and restaurants in an out of this - old world, medieval setting

 



Old world meets new - Bhaktapur City


Patan Durbar Square - Kathmandu
 
 
  
Pokhara is arguably the second largest Nepalese city with a population of 300,000 inhabitants, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the country. The city is located approximately 200 km west of the country's capital, Kathmandu and is the most popular tourist destination in Nepal. Three out of ten highest mountains in the world - Dhaulagiri, Annapurna I and Manaslu are within 30 miles (linear distance) of the city, so that the northern skyline of the city offers a very close view of the Himalayas. Due to its proximity to the Annapurna mountain range, the city is also a base for trekkers undertaking the Annapurna Circuit through the ACAP region of the Annapurna ranges and the Himalayas; Pokhara is the largest tourist city in the country, home to great Himalayan treks, residence of a large number of British and Indian Gurkha soldiers. This makes Pokhara the most expensive city in the country.

 
 
Pokhara with its signature Lake is a must see, must visit for every tourist visiting Nepal
 

Centre Point - the main Pokhara thoroughfare where human development and nature appear to co-exist beside one another in a rather bizarre fashion


 
 
The environment takes priority Lakeside Pokhara
 
 
 
Adventure tourism central - where it all begins!
 





 
Pokhara has countless accommodation options ranging from budget to top of the range - upmarket accommodation in a laid back and relatively uncongested, lakeside environment ideal for both hiking and trekking.




 
Bargains galore!
 
 
Nepalese Graffiti - Pokhara
 
 
 
Lakeside leisure - Pokhara
 


 
 
 
 

Local garments on offer - Pokhara



Hiking and trekking accoutrements


 
 
Nepalese Legends - 3 Salutes and 3 Cheers!





 


 Light Shed on Pokhara, Kathmandu and Nepal!