Bird’s eye view
The Masai Mara in Kenya is your second home. You’ve driven across the open grasslands in a 4x4, dined under the acacias, tracked a carnivore on a kill. But have you seen it from a balloon? Imagine floating silently over the savannah as the first rays of the sun cut through the sky, spotting a lone giraffe as it ambles through the tall grass, or a herd of elephants emerging from a swamp. Or even coming up close to a Kori bustard in its element. Though available round the year, we recommend that you time the hot-air balloon ride with the Great Migration (July-October): Witnessing hordes of wildebeest and zebras single-mindedly crossing the Masai river ranks high in any wildlife aficionado’s “Things to do before I die” list, and the bird’s-eye view is a definite clincher.
While several companies offer balloon rides over the Masai Mara, andBeyond’s Kichwa Tembo Tented Camp and the Bateleur Camp properties give you a few precious add-ons. It doesn’t run the balloon safari itself, but the tie-up with Sky Ship—the operators—gives its guests the first look-in on bookings. Its proximity to the balloon base also gives andBeyond guests a chance to sleep in a little longer than is normally doable: The balloon safari takes off at 6am and, if you’re the kind who appreciates a few extra winks, this is a definite plus. Each safari comprises two balloons with a maximum of 10 passengers. The hour-long flight ends with breakfast in the middle of the bush, and merges seamlessly with andBeyond’s programme for the day. Book ahead at www.andbeyond.com or at the camp for $435 per head, half price for children.
Ashish Gupta is on a three-month backpacking trip around India and he is logging every day of that trip on a travel blog called Myself Ashish. What makes his journey even more special is the fact that his accommodation and most of his local sightseeing on the trip is being provided free of cost by a bunch of volunteers from online travel community www.oktatabyebye.com (OKTTBB). We spoke to Gupta recently about his escapades. Edited excerpts:
What is Myself Ashish all about? It sounds like a travel experiment based on the OKTTBB community.
Open invitation: Gupta (with cap) with locals at a stopover in Rajasthan. Ashish Gupta
I like to think of it as more of a travel concept where most of the trip is based on making use of the online community of travellers. In this case I am being helped by the OKTTBB team, but I think any member of the community could do it. If I can do it, I really think other people should think of using the community to travel more.
How does it work? Do you have a travel plan and then reach out to community members in each city?
We’ve drawn up an itinerary that starts from Delhi and then returns to the Capital after a circuit around the whole country. We have a special section on the website where people living in these various places can send me invitations.
And then when I reach the spot, I have a bed waiting.
What happens once you confirm an invitation? Does the invitee provide you with accommodation?
Yes. But more than that, these invitees then take me around each city and give me the insider’s tour of places to visit and things to do. Most of the time it is completely off the usual tourist trail even if I am visiting popular hot spots. So you get a unique perspective on each of these places.
What motivated you to commit so much time to a project like this?
I’ve backpacked a lot outside India. But I always wondered why you never saw Indian backpackers in India.
The whole idea was to see if there was a different experience if you hit the road rather than just go with the usual group trips or high-end packages. With good local experts, the experience is drastically different.
What stage in your journey are you at right now?
I’ve done around 14 places so far across north India in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Shimla and now Rajasthan. Next I am off southwards to Gujarat, Diu, Maharashtra, looping around the coast, then off to the east before returning to Delhi. A grand total of three months worth of travel.
And what’s been your best location so far?
Jaipur. Especially a little-known spot nearby called Abhaneri. It was mind-blowing. You don’t see it on the usual tourist circuit.
Catch up with Gupta’s latest photos and blog entries at http://www.oktatabyebye.com/myselfblogger/MyStories.aspx
What will you do this summer? Aquaterra, recently listed among National Geographic’s top adventure outfitters, has just released its programme for April through July. Our picks for a memorable holiday:
Spiti-Pin Valley Expedition, 20 June - 2 July
Ups and downs: River-rafting in Spiti valley comes with both thrills and chills. Aquaterra
One of India’s starkest regions, the magic of the Spiti valley never fails to enchant the true-blue traveller. This holiday will test you on all fronts: It involves trekking, four days of intense rafting and lo...oong drives. Not to mention a visit to the Roerich Art Gallery and some fossil-hunting. Cost: Rs59,000.
Shitidhar Climb, 26 June-5 July
A great introduction to mountaineering, this 5,294m peak near Manali tests you without thwarting you. Acclimatization treks, equipment familiarization and overall watchfulness from the guys at Aquaterra ensure no previous experience is necessary to take on this summit. Cost: Rs33,340.
Kalindi Pass trek, 4-19 July
Sometimes described as the toughest trek in the Indian Himalayas, it stretches from Gaumukh to Badrinath over moraines and deep crevasses in freezing temperatures. It’s a tough one, but certainly an experience to cherish. Novices would be well-advised to give this a miss. Cost: Rs60,880.
Tsarap Chu trek, 10-27 July
This is an exploratory trek, so along with the excitement of new discoveries, you need to be prepared for just about anything. The actual walk is estimated at around nine days along the Tsarap river in Ladakh and will involve crossing rope bridges, negotiating narrow gorges and facing abrupt twists and turns. Not for the faint of heart. Cost: Rs88,000.
Add 3.09% service tax to the cost. Contact Aquaterra at 011-29212641, 29212760 or 41636101 or visit www.indianhimalayas.net for details.