BY DAVID STOTT
India has a wealth of opportunities for adventure sports. Such thrills can be combined with more conventional sightseeing. Apart from the activities listed here, you can also try ballooning, heli-skiing, hang-gliding, mountain or rock climbing and even motor rallying. There are even ski resorts in Himachal Pradesh.
The country’s diverse and rich natural habitats harbour over 1200 species of bird of which around 150 are endemic. Visitors to all parts of the country can enjoy spotting oriental species whether it is in towns and cities, in the countryside or more abundantly in the national parks and sanctuaries. On the plains, the cooler months (November-March) are the most comfortable for a chance to see migratory birds from the hills, but the highlands themselves are ideal between May and June and again after the monsoons when visibility improves in October and November. Water bodies large and small draw visiting waterfowl from other continents during the winter. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp (published by Helm, 2014), is the best field guide. Some prime spots include: Chilika Lake in Odisha; Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Rajasthan; Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary in Gujarat; Pulicat Lake in Andhra Pradesh; Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary in Karnataka; Saharanpur Bird Sanctuary in Delhi; Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra; and Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu.
Today’s camel safaris try to recreate something of the atmosphere of the early camel trains. The guides are expert navigators and the villages that are passed through along the way add colour to an unforgettable experience, if you are prepared to sit out the somewhat uncomfortable ride.
Cycling offers a peaceful and healthy alternative to cars, buses or trains. Touring on locally hired bicycles is possible along country roads – ideal if you want to see village life in India and the lesser-known wildlife parks. Consult a good Indian agent for advice. For example, a week’s cycling trip could cover about 250 km in the Garhwal foothills, starting in Rishikesh, passing through the Corbett and Rajaji national parks over easy gradients, to finish in Ramnagar. Expert guides, cycles and support vehicle, accommodation in simple rest houses or tents, are included.
Gaining in popularity, the conditions are similar to camel safaris with grooms (and often the horse owner) accompanying. The best months are November to March when it is cooler in the day (and often cold at night). The trails chosen usually enable you to visit small villages, old forts and temples, and take you through a variety of terrain and vegetation from scrub-covered arid plains to forested hills. The charges can be a lot higher than for a camel safari but the night stays are often in comfortable palaces, forts or havelis.
The Himalaya offers unlimited opportunities to view the natural beauty of mountains, unique flora and fauna and the diverse groups of people who live in the ranges and valleys, many of whom have retained cultural identities because of their isolation.
There are some outstandingly beautiful treks and they are often not through the icy wilderness that ‘trekking in the Himalaya’ conjures up. Nevertheless, trekking alone is not recommended as you may not be able to communicate with the local people and if injured help may not be at hand. Independent trekkers should get a specialist publication with detailed up-to-date route descriptions and a good map. Seek advice from someone who knows the area well and has recently been trekking to the places you intend to visit. Hundreds of people arrive each year with a pack and some personal equipment, buy some food and set off trekking, carrying their own gear and choosing their own campsites or places to stay. Supplies of fuel wood are scarce and flat ground suitable for camping rare. It is not always easy to find isolated and ‘private’ campsites.
Trekking without a tent
Although common in Nepal, only a few trails in India offer the ease and comfort of this option. Examples are the Singalila Ridge trail in the Darjeeling area, the Sikkim Khangchendzonga trek, the Markha Valley trek in Ladakh and some lower-elevation trails around Shimla, Almora and Manali. On these, it is often possible to stay in trekking huts or in simple village homes. Food is simple, usually vegetable curry, rice and dhal. This approach brings you into closer contact with the local population, the limiting factor being the routes where accommodation is available.
Porters can usually be hired through an agent in the town or village at the start of a trek. They will help carry your baggage, sometimes cook for you, and communicate with the local people.
In remote areas, tracks may be indistinct and a sardar (mountain guide) is recommended. This is more expensive but worthwhile since they will speak some English, take care of engaging porters and cooks, arrange for provisions and sort out all logistical problems. Make sure your sardar is experienced in the area you will be travelling in and can provide references which are their own and not borrowed.
Snorkelling, surfing, parasailing, windsurfing and waterskiing are popular along the touristy stretches of India’s coast. Scuba-diving centres include Bogmalo beach in Goa (though visibility is typically poor), Malvan in Maharashtra, Netrani Island off Murudeshwar in Karnataka and, above all, Havelock Island and the Marine National Park in the Andamans. Coastal resorts in Kerala and Goa also offer fishing trips and dolphin viewing.
The snow-fed rivers that flow through regions such as Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh offer excellent whitewater rafting. The popular waters range from Grades II-III for amateurs (Zanskar, Indus) to the greater challenges of Grades IV-VI for the experienced (eg Chenab, Beas, Sutlej, Rangit, Tons). Trips range from a half day to several days and allow a chance to see scenery, places and people off the beaten track. The trips are organized and managed by professional teams who have trained abroad.