Friday, 18 November 2016

A memorable Eco-tour down the Coastal highway!

The moment our trekkers' collective 'collectively' decided and agreed upon a coastal zone eco-tour for our ‘trip of the month’, spanning the coastal zone of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, we were promptly watsapped an extensive list of to-do’s by our 'concerned' tour coordinator Ms. Deepa that included packing good footwear – watershoes and sandals included - swimwear, sunscreen lotions, sunglasses and hats, with handy towels and of course some good snacks that can keep your appetite on check!.

Geared up thus, we were ‘on the go’ on a dawny morn this last Monday, mazing our way through a meandering and dazzling array of beautiful villages that gifted us all the way through with its rich, breezy and spotless air, that was therapeutic and invigorating in every way.

We meandered our way through beautiful bridges, bungalows and beaches, all along our coastal drive through hickety hedges, vulnerable ditches, bullock carts chugging away on the roads, cattle with sparrows perched regally on their backs grazing in the sylvan meadows and yes… added to all these was the charm of having a cuppa hot coffee and local delights from the village chaai wala who gave you the local taste in all its grandeur.

through the mangroves
After a four hour scenic drive with joyous pitstops at regular intervals, we finally reached our first eco-tourist locale – the delectable Pichavaram Mangrove forests of yore. These mangrove forests are - wonder of wonders – the second largest mangrove forests in the entire world, and in the backwaters that take in water from the ocean during the day and let out water during the evenings, watersports, rowing, canoeing are quite popular.

When you go on an Eco-tourism drive, especially to such an awesome locale, the most important thing you’ve got to look out for, is the guide – a person who could interact with you as a good long-time friend, giving you all the required information on the ecological marvels that are unique about the place, and the factors that have contributed to the preservation of the locale.

Lady luck was kind enough to smile on us - ‘ecotourists’ – and blessed us with such a wonderful guide in one Mr. Rajavel! He said that he would take us even into the depths of the mazy mangroves where the motor boats aren’t allowed, and we said yes quite enthusiastically. Yes, one word of advice to prospective ecotourists is – go for the row boats, and avoid at all costs the motor boats! The motor boats don’t take you into the deepest parts of the mangroves, to admire nature’s delight, places within the pristine mangroves where even sunlight can’t penetrate.

Our guide was patient enough to answer all our questions – childish ones included – and proceeded to tell us that, when the Tsunami waves engulfed the coastal regions of India with such enormous ferocity in December 2004, the mangrove forests were not at all affected by the tsunami onslaught – thanks to its ecological balancing! This natural saline backwater lake that covers around 6000 acres, has some of the richest biodiversities in the world, with a variety of bird species, insects, reptiles etc.

Once we were more than a ‘kilometre deep’ inside the mangroves, with just the stillness of the air and the twittery prattle of the birds and insects for company, we asked him to stop rowing our boat, and in ‘awesome wonder’ enjoyed the ‘awesomeness of God’s grandeur’ splattered across this wide spawny forest within the saline lake.

Actor Kamalhassan’s Dasavatharam and a host of other famous movies were also shot here, said our guide, and when one of us pointed out that the water was as clean as could be, without any filth or plastic water bottles or wrappers, or food left overs anywhere in sight, he said that, the locals with help from the government have taken this initiative to keep the mangroves as clean as could be, and even if some people carelessly threw away their pet water bottles, we take pains to collect them and thus do our part in keeping the mangroves, a rich ecological treasurehouse as pollution-free as possible!

At one point down the lake, he pointed towards the sea and said, from this location, it’s just a kilometre to the sea! We were quite thrilled and excited, and asked with curiosity,

‘Does that mean, we can row all the way down to the sea waters, in this self-same boat?

Oh no! these boats are meant only for the lakes, and only for rowing, not for fishing in the high seas!

Oh!

Yes! These boats do not have high pointed bows that are used to cut the waves when entering the sea!

That’s surprising anna! Could you tell us more on that?

Oh Yes! long back, before rowing caught on in Pichavaram, I too was a fisherman! We used to set sail early in the afternoon, when the tide was low, in motor boats, fitted with an additional engine – and that’s for our safety reasons, packing the required food for our long haul deep into the sea! Thick into the night, farrr away from the land, where there’s no scope for any kind of direction, we spread our nylon fishing nets with floatlines attached to small fishing floats - as far as possible, because fishing gets better only as darkness creeps in!

Once you’ve got the feel of the line and sensed it, you have to pull the line back, and you’ll have all sizes of fishes up on your net.

Now, even as you drive back, you’ve got to simultaneously keep sorting out the fishes based on their sizes, and also make sure that the other aquatic species like the octopus, shellfish, squid, and other edible sea creatures that get caught in the net, are gently removed from the nets, and thrown back into the sea.

On your return from deep sea fishing, you might not land at the same place where you started, especially if there’s heavy mist or snow formation in the morning, when you can’t even see what lies just ahead of you. Many times we’ve even landed quite as far as fifteen kilometers away from our starting place and then make our way home from there!

Is it worth the adventure on the monetary front? we ask him, with curiosity intact!

Yes it is. Each of us nets around Rs.6000/- per fishing sojourn, which is a bargain for us! But considering the risk factors involved, if you’re game for the high seas, then it’s all yours, he said.

Now, we ask him about the eco-tourists and other holiday seekers who visit this mangrove forest, and he said that, all the fifty boats here are on contract with the government, and on weekends we have around 1000 tourists and that keeps us busy all day. But today being a Monday, a working day, your group is the first of the lot since this morning, he added.

We were delighted to see a few fisherman fishing in the saline lakes, and sensing our curiosity, he said, these nets are for the prawns and the little varieties of fish that you get in these waters!

When we were almost winding up on our gentle 'row drive' down the marvelous mangrove swamps, we asked him, why isn’t Pichavaram not on the Tourist radar as yet?

Now his joy turned to a deep sigh, and he added,

Brother, believe me, we have the best eco-tourism locale in the whole of India, unpolluted, and in harmony with nature. Many coastal zones have taken these mangrove saplings from here and started planting them along the length of their sea lines, after seeing the enormous ‘saving grace’ of these mangroves here! This haunt is better than many lake drives, but I feel the government could do more to popularize the aura of these mangroves! he said.

After a long labrynthine leg of a tour into the pure, pristine and serene mangrove forests, we had to bid adieu to our guide, and also to Pichavaram.

Our next destination on the coastal drive was Tharangambadi, in Karaikal, Puducherry. The name ‘tharangambadi’ literally means ‘place of the singing waves’, a Danish settlement, which has also housed the Danish governor’s palatial residence for over 150 years. As Poppies were to Calcutta, Pepper was the main hub of business, and the Danish Fort Museum that stands tall near the seashore, has quite a few interesting archives that date back to the seventeenth century where palm leaf manuscripts were popular, and copies of the treaties signed between the local rulers and the settlers were some of the other relics housed in this museum.

Coincidentally, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, the first protestant missionary had also landed in this place, and his memorial stands tall at this place. His memorabilia are all up for viewing at the Danish fort museum and in the churches that line the sea shore of this little coastal town.

After a wonderful day well spent in and round Tharangambadi, we headed straight to the coastal town of Nagore, which houses a wonderful monument – the Dargah built upon the tomb of the Sufi Saint Hazrath Nagore Shahul Hamid who is referred to as ‘Nagore Andavar’ or the ‘god of Nagore’. The five minarets that stand tall around the Dargah are an architectural marvel, with a sacred water tank which pilgrims frequent for a holy dip.

After a satisfying visit to the Sufi Saint’s Dargah, we drove on next to Vedaranyam. The place shot into international fame, during India's freedom struggle, when Shri C. Rajagopalachari, launched a salt march in Vedaranyam parallel to the Dandi March launched by Gandhi in 1930 to protest against the sales tax levied on salt extraction.

The Kodiyakkarai Wildlife Sanctuary, the renowned Ayurvedic Medicinal forest, and the lighthouse were some of the eco-delights for all of us. Also, if the southernmost tip of India would be Cape Comorin in Kanniya Kumari, the easternmost tip would be Point Calimere! After a refreshing day at the sandy shores all along, and as many pit stops as we could possibly revel in, we headed to Velankanni for our lodgings that we had marked days ahead! In the evening after visiting the Shrine Basilica and having a wonderful time shopping at the sandy shores, we had a therapeutic relaxing aqua-therapy in the swimming pools for hours, before plunging headlong into our dinner!

Early next morning, we started as early as we could, on our next long sojourn - Rameswaram, where we had a lot of delights in store!

En route we had pitstops at places where prawns and fishes and the glimmering salt pans were being reared near the sea shores in huge hectares, a visual treat to all of us.

By 9.00 am we reached Ramanathapuram, where we had our breakfast, and then from there Rameswaram was just a one-hour drive away.

The roads were highly motorable, and that indeed added to the charm of a highway drive! We took care not to indulge in road rage (races) and that we will stop – when we find good coffee shops ahead! J And we followed this practice sincerely all through our ecodrive!

Rameswaram is an island! That houses the famous five icons!

The famous Ramanathaswamy Temple dedicated to the god Shiva,
The architectural marvel in the Pamban Bridge,
The delightful Rama-Sethu Bridge,
The Scenic Danushkodi Roadway,
The grand Memorial to a legend – Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

The Pamban Bridge is India’s first sea bridge, 106 years old, and an architectural marvel of sorts – that connects the Pamban Island with India. It really is a feat that stands monument to the engineering capabilities of Indians even centuries ago. We all were there at the adjacent road bridge that was constructed in 1973, admiring this marvel that was built right into the sea! It was 10.15 am by our watches, and the Highway Traffic police too were very obliging, and surprisingly very polite and dignified in their behavior. They politely asked us to park our cars at the fag corners for other vehicles to pass through – as many tourist buses, cars and taxis were standing the length of the bridge to watch the pamban bridge. One of the vendors there told us that a train is scheduled to pass at 10.30 am. What a stroke of luck for us! We’d been waiting for that! At 10.35 am we could hear from a distance, the faint honking from the engine of the Rameswaram Express which was chugging along at less than 10 km speed through the sea bridge, honking at regular intervals. A medium sized ship along with many huge boats were patiently waiting their call on either side of the sea bridge for the double-leaf bascule to open up after the trains pass through. Interestingly the small boats easily sneaked themselves underneath the sea bridge without much ado or any waiting whatsoever!

After being awestruck with amazement and admiration at the Pamban sea bridge, we made our way to the famous Ramanathaswamy Temple dedicated to the god Shiva. According to legend, Lord Rama worshipped Lord Shiva, here on return from Sri Lanka, to absolve the sins created during the Ramayana war at Sri Lanka. Reminds me of our Assam sojourn – a state known for its wonderful centuries old Shiva temples. You may want to read about it HERE.

The Ramanathasamy temple looked majestic with a new dazzling coat of golden yellow adorning its rich gopuram. The long corridors within the temple and the intricately done paved way to the Shrine resembles a uniquely patterned chessboard’s structure which is famously known as the Chokkattan Madapam.

From here, we ventured out on the third leg of our itinerary at Rameswaram – the newly laid Danushkodi Roadway – spawning around 14 kms that reaches out till land’s end – is a motorist’s delight by all means. Since the roadway was opened as recently as in October this year, we were doubly lucky to drive down this wonderful stretch to the tip of land, from where Sri Lanka is just around 20 miles away.

Since the shoreline here is way too deep, it becomes all the easier for the fishermen to get their boats to cut through the waves without much of a heave-ho! Coastguard helicopters were seen flying high above us at regular intervals, as this point happens to be the international sea border. Local tourism thrives there, and merry-go-rounds even touching the sealine by local hire vans was a delight for the tourists. Some drivers even took the tourists on a thrill by touching the waves on their merry-go-rounds that had the tourists shrieking out in a cry of joy-and-terror rolled in one!

to the tip of land... @ Danushkodi
After a wonderful time at Danushkodi, we drove down to yet another memorable place - the Memorial of Dr. Abdul Kalam that’s coming up at his resting place in Rameswaram. Although construction work is going on in full swing, one could see hundreds of youth raring to go and pay their obeisance at the memorial, and taking back with them memories in camera clicks. 

To be contd…

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