OFFBEAT BREAK FROM MUMBAI & PUNE: ROAD TRIP TO TURTLE FESTIVAL,VELAS !

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My friends at beach of Shrivardhan

Every year in March and April, the sleepy nondescript village of Velas becomes the center of attraction during the Turtle Festival. Every morning and evening, the turtle hatchlings are released by volunteers in to the sea at Velas beach. A temporary ramp is created on the sand by barricading it from 2 sides. The tourists and wildlife enthusiasts stand on either sides and witness this awe inspiring phenomenon, agape mouthed. The turtles are released in the sea just few hours after they emerge from the eggs. They have never seen the sea before nor even their mother. It’s surreal indeed to watch them instinctively crawl towards the sea, meeting their destiny.

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The little chap we bid adieu!

One weekend, me and my friends Rahul, Shishir and Vipul wanted to break away from the mundane destinations around Mumbai. After much thought a road trip to Velas was zeroed in on. It’s not easy to reach Velas via public transport and hence calls for a road trip. The presence of virgin beaches and fun activities around Velas make it an ideal destination to go to with friends.

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Yes, this ferry can carry all this and more!

It took us approximately 4 hours from Kharghar (Navi Mumbai) to reach Harihareshwar. Powered by CEAT tyres, our Maruti Baleno zoomed past rivers, forests, farmlands and villages making pit stops for chaha (tea) and Vada pao. As the car made its way up the hilly terrains, our hearts raced in anticipation of what was in store. It was exciting to know that we would be carrying our car in the ferry. This was the first time we were doing so.

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Me, Shishir and Rahul (in car) Pic credit – Vipul Sinha

As the 4 of us, all guys gang, waited for ferry, I wandered away intrigued by the women picking shells from the marsh land. Curious to see what they were up to, I walked towards the mangrove belt only to have my slippers swallowed by marsh beneath my foot. Needless to say, I broke my slippers as I pulled my legs up. What followed next is anybody’s guess! My friends were waiting for me on a dry patch to unleash their jibes and insults at me. Ah, the perils of traveling with friends! I washed my feet (and sins) from a tap nearby and geared up for the ferry ride.

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Me messing around (Pic credit : Vipul S.)

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It was exciting for us to load our car in the ferry. We waited for a truck (Yes, a truck!) to disembark. It’s a tricky process since the space is less in a ferry as compared to a regular curb. A co ordination amongst us led to smooth parking of car (in reverse gear) in the ferry. The ferry ride over the Savitri river was pleasant and quick. Bankot Fort 4 kilometres away, offers nice views of Savitri river merging into Arabian sea at Velas.

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You can break my slippers, but not my spirit (Pic : Vipul S.)

We drove on a road which ran parallel to the backwaters. Soaking in the breath taking views we headed to a villager’s home for a staple Maharashtrian meal. It comprised of varan (lentil preparation), valachi bhaji (field beans) and farasbee chi bhaji (French beans). There are many traditional homes near the beach meant for turtle festival. Many of them serve meals and offer accommodation. Though we did not stay but loved the simple and healthy food.

Pics above : My friends enjoying a Maharashtrian meal at a local’s home!

I regret not having stayed in one of the huts. Friends wanted a hotel with a pool! Traveling with friends always comes with some kind of compromise or the other. We lazed around the beach, some faked a trekking expedition. (He to me, “Can you please make it look like as if I am on some great trekking expedition!”) , some of us dozed off on the trees, some of us (well me) clicked it all.

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Friends dozing off! Monkey style,eh!

While sun started to bid adieu, we zoomed our car towards the Velas beach. As we reached the venue, the last song the car played was, “Ho Shubharam, haan shubharam, mangal bela aayi!” (It’s time for a great beginning now that the auspicious occasion is here!)   Eerily, those lines from Bollywood film Kai Po Che suited the turtle baby aptly who was soon going to take its first baby steps towards the sea, his/her new home.

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कासव बघायचे असेल तर वेळासला या

(Marathi Translation by Pradnya K)

Post sunset, we decided to drive to Shrivardhan. We checked into to a comfortable resort (Yes, with a pool) and wasted the night just relaxing on a hammock by the poolside. The next day, we headed to the beach some 2 kilometres away, goofed around for few hours and returned to the resort for a round of swimming in the pool. The beaches in this part of Maharashtra are clean, safe and virgin. It is a nice option if you want to spend a weekend away from the crowded beaches of Maharashtra.

(Me in my different avatars (Pic credit : Shishir Sahni & Vipul Sinha)

This is what road trips do. They cement a lasting bond amongst friends. It was the first time I had met Rahul and we had planned many road trips (Alibagh, Lonavala, Panchgani, Igatpuri, Nashik etc) after this maiden journey.

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I loved the drive on this road. So did my friends!

MY MORAL POLICING:

  1. Be responsible and don’t initiate a stampede in a bid to get a wow shot. The main aim here is conservation and not one upmanship game of who gets better picture.
  2. The turtles are tiny and in the stampede, they might crush under your feet.  Especially, don’t stand in the sea water while the turtle marches on the sand, because once the turtle is in the water, the chances are higher that it comes under someone’s feet, due to no visibility. Reason out to someone who’s doing it. Scold them if you have to.
  3. Choose a spot on sand before the turtle’s march begins and stick to it throughout the turtle’s journey.
  4. Very important: Once the turtle takes the final plunge in to the sea, MOVE AWAY FROM THE BEACH. Do not goof around in the sea for reasons stated above. If at all, you can’t stop entering the beach, do so at least 1 kilometer away from the release spot.
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The volunteers checking each basket for any new hatching!

How to reach by car: Once you reach Harihareshwar head to Baagmandla and board a ferry for Velas. Load your car on the ferry and reach the venue within minutes. There is a ferry every half an hour.

Buses are also available from Mumbai to Shrivardhana/Harihareshwara. You can start the car trip from Shrivardhana/Harihareshwara too.

When to go: Every year, the event is held every day from March beginning to April end. Morning time is 7 a.m. and Evening time is 6 p.m.

Equipment to carry:
A good 18-135mm lens or a 55-250mm telephoto lens in case you fail to manage a vantage point near the turtle.

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The Velas Beach!

Also keep an eye on:

  • Unique architecture of the village homes.
  • Village life, landscapes and people
  • The road running parallel to the beach, esp. at sunset.
  • Local food
  • Sea gulls at the beaches
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You can stay at a local’s home!

TOP TIP:

1) The best vantage point to click the Turtle’s march is at the middle of the barricading.  Stick to this point and strictly don’t run after the turtle once it moves past you. Chances are you will get the best possible shots.

2) It is very much possible that no egg hatches on the day you arrive. Keeping a buffer day is advised. Remember you have 2 chances in a day. When we visited, there was only one turtle which hatched.

3) One can visit these places in months other than March and April too. There’s a lot to do/see/eat here, turtle or no turtle!

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I would advise you to stay in one of the local’s home. I regret staying in a resort, mainly because I missed out on an immersive experience!

Enjoy:

  • The virgin beaches in this area are clean and secluded.
  • Binge on some authentic coastal food.
  • Stay at one of the many resorts in Harihareshwar or Srivardhana.
  • Alternatively, experience the village life by staying in the locals’ huts at Velas.
  • Take the breezy ferry ride, esp, at evening and night.
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You know what F.R.I.E.N.D.S are for?

ROAD SAFETY:

While road trips are fun, it is important to keep in mind basic road trip mandates:

  • Don’t drink and drive. No matter how much cool you think it is, what is wrong is wrong.
  • Never overspeed. Remember the joy of travel also lies in the journey than in the destination alone. Adjust the speed as per the road conditions. Keep an eye on your speed limit.
  • If you see a shepherd crossing the road with his cattle or wild and domestic animals crossing the road, allow them to pass first. Remember, you are in their territory.
  • Always carry a spare tyre and a jack so that you may change a punctured tyre by yourself. Our car was punctured en route and luckily we had a spare tyre. The friendly locals helped us changed it.
  • Many people ignore seat belt. Did you know it takes just few seconds to wear a seat belt? If you know what I mean?
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I have to do this, on the trips I remember to do this!

Kasav Mitra mandal is doing an amazing job of restoring turtle population. For routes, perfect road map, accommodation details, meals details and more information on turtles and the conservation program, please visit their website

The view from my #SoulWindow is full of variety!

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Road trips make for great photo ops, such as this one. Cars can be used in a creative way to take memorable shots. The kinds which will make you smile 5 years down the line. (Pic credit: Vipul Sinha)

Note: I’m chronicling my road trip adventure for CEAT Tyres in association with BlogAdda

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Me (Pic: Vipul Sinha)

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Flower Power : The Complete Guide to Kaas Plateau, Maharashtra!

The nondescript town of Satara suddenly witnesses an influx of tourists every year in September end. This post monsoon phenomenon turns the meadows of Kaas plateau into a carpet of tiny flowers in every direction one can see. Bold colors like Purple, white, red, blue, bright yellow highjack the green fields. For those who have no time or stamina to go through the strenuous trek of Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand, its counterpart in faraway Maharashtra is a cushy walk in open fields.

 

Not only is it easy to reach but also can be done in one day. Thanks to its height of 1200 metres, the cherry on the cake is the pleasant misty weather in the plateau which is also known locally as Kaas Pathar. The undulating meadows are speckled with flowers of all hues possible. Some are so small, you have to bend down to admire their true beauty.

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Lately, the authorities have rightfully put up barricades and ropes so that people don’t trample the natural heritage. The place does attract its share of unruly tourists who do not behave responsibly. However, you can stroll inside the protected areas, though under the watchful eyes of the security personnel.

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It should not be a surprise to know that it has been declared a Biodiversity World Heritage site by UNESCO owing to its visual grandeur and geographical uniqueness

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The walk through the ‘garden’ was surreal. The hills wore layers of different colors as if someone had made a rainbow of flowers on Earth. As if a grandmother forgot her carpet on the hills! I could identify species like Utricularia purpurascens (blue), Senecio graham (yellow) etc.

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I was accompanied by my friend Madhabendu Hensh from Kolkata. He is a photographer (par excellence) with whom I am friends thanks to a Nat Geo Traveler India Magazine travel photo contest we won together. We spent some quality time in the fields admiring what seemed like some other planet. Owing to the soothing weather, we decided to walk down the road for at least the first 11 kilometers.

 

Pic above (Top left, clockwise)- Me at Kaas , Me looking upon valley, Madhabendu Hensh on job. (My pic by Abhijit Shenolikar & Madhabendu Hensh)

Thankfully, it worked in our favor. We experienced what other tourists miss while visiting Kaas. For example, I was delighted to spot a unique mushroom species. It was so unusual that I stared at it and examined from all possible angles, even clicking more pictures than I should have.

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The unique species I discovered when I went off the beaten path!

Buffaloes filled the fresh mountain air with music from the bells tied carelessly to their neck. Young girls tended to herds of goats without a care in the world. Exotic butterflies and birds I had never seen before, whizzed by. They vanished so quickly as if they were in a hurry to complete household chores.

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A little detour to the narrow path down the hill took me to a point from where I soaked in the views of vast lakes surrounded by small villages. Famished after all the walk, we took a tea break at a makeshift tea stall. He made tea for us on his traditional Choolha (earthen oven). We walked a little further and when we could not take it any further, we took lift from a lorry and completed the next 11 kilometers to Satara. In the backseat of the lorry, sitting on hay and cardboards, that is! Rs. 20 only!

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Rain soaked views we saw en route!

The next morning was spent downing the melt-in-the-mouth kandi peda, a local sweet. On a previous trip I clubbed Thosegar waterfalls with other activities around Kaas. I along with 10 more whacky people headed to the famous waterfalls. It is some 20 kilometers away from Satara. It is towards the other direction from Kaas plateau.

Pic above (L to R) Kandi peda, Kaas, Thalipeeth

I passed by windmills on the hills and spine tingling views of the valley to arrive at the falls. I was worried to see it had ended up as a tourist magnet. Not much impressed with the mob jostling for best space in the viewing balcony, I moved on to a spot to peacefully soak in the beauty of waterfall. The fall was a tall one. Cascading violently from a height of 500 meters, it astonishes with its grandeur. The milky white water poured rapidly down the mountain. A bold sound of gushing water added to the background music.

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At times I looked at waterfalls, sometimes at the opportunist monkeys perched precariously on the trees and sometimes my eyes wandered at a row of windmills on mountains far away. The area is dotted with many smaller waterfalls, however this one clearly is the most impressive one.

जास्त नको विचार करूस , हे guide वापर आणि फिरून येय!

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Thosegar Waterfall!

A filling lunch of perfect monsoon foods kanda bhajji (fried onion fritters) and misal pao, we bid adieu to the paradise with fond memories. The allure of Kaas pulled me towards it 2 times! And I am the same person who never repeats his destinations. The previous trip was with my Mumbai friends Geet Hukerikar and Abhijeet Shenolikar.

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Me at the backside of a lorry. Rs. 20/- (I look so happy!) – Pic by Madhabendu Hensh

Top Tip:

 I suggest that one should get away and explore more in the areas near the main venue where all flock to view the spectacle. There are many hidden gems lurking in places around it. One needs to walk patiently and be a good observer to understand and appreciate the biodiversity of the region. If you are lucky, you can also spot many species of birds, butterflies and insects.

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The inhabitants of Kaas!

Best time to go:

September last week is the best time. I went two times. Details here –

24th September, 2011 – You can literally see the carpet of flowers of different colors. This was not visible in August. Weather was sunny and mountain air, crisp and fresh. Tourists were large in number. Go in weekdays, if possible.

31st August, 2015 – The flowers were there but not as much as I saw in September. Also the landscape was not as dramatic. It alternated between sunny and cloudy with little drizzling. There was no carpet of flower. Very few tourists.

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HOW TO REACH SATARA?

To reach Kaas, you need to reach Satara first.  Satara can be easily reached by Mumbai and Pune.

Mumbai to Satara distance – 4 hrs, 30 minutes ( 257 kms)

Pune to Satara distance – 2 hrs, 48 minutes (115 kms)

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HOW TO REACH KAAS FROM SATARA?

From Satara, one can take an autorickshaw for Rs. 500 (1 way)

Buses also ply the route but the frequency is low.

Ask the rickshaw wala to wait for you or else you might get stuck.

Stranded, we eventually walked for 11 kms and then took lift in a lorry. Though I enjoyed it but will not recommend the same. There are risks involved.

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Alternatively, you can drive from Mumbai or Pune on the smooth highway. One can also reach Satara by train. Book at least 2 months in advance on Irctc website. (The scenery you will pass through will keep you hooked throughout the journey). My favorite is – Sleeper class, side lower, window seat, emergency window preferred.

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The tranquil place sure induces sleep!

ऐ कास की अब होश में हम आने न पाएं !

Shop :

Buy packets of the ‘melt in mouth’ kandi peda, a local sweet. Take back loads of it!

Eat :

Since you are in rural Maharashtra, try the Maharastrian delicacies like Kanda Pohe, Misal pav, Vada pao etc. They taste different than what you get in urban spaces. The Thalipeeth I had on the way to Satara was the best I have ever had. I tried to find that taste again but failed. Sorry, I forgot the restaurant’s name. And yes, try tasting thecha if you can manage, very spicy chilly chutney.

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Respect Kaas Plateau:

  • You are in an ecologically sensitive zone. Don’t litter or even leave your cigarette butts in the meadows. I personally keep the butts in a cigarette box and dispose them off responsibly.
  • Don’t make noise. Many species of birds, reptiles and mammals live here. IT IS THEIR DOMAIN. Think how you will feel if a bunch of hooligans create nuisance at your ‘home sweet home’.
  • This is not the place where you should be drinking beer and dancing on ‘Why This Kolaveri Di? The flowers may ask you back in frustration, “Why This Kolaveri Di?’”
  • Don’t pluck flowers or trample on them. Again, it is much like a monkey pulling the hair on your head.Got the drift, eh?
  • No, it’s not a picnic ground where you can roll a mat and set up a food buffet! Carry light and handy food items though since there are no food shops nearby. Eat well before you head here.

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Me at Kaas, September 2011

Note : Marathi translation by Marathi mulgi Pradnya Kalindi

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WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Geet and Abhijit look so happy traveling with me in September, 2011