“Do you want to go…you know…down there?”
“I don’t know. Do I?”
“We could if you wanted to go deeper…”
Yeah, not what it sounds like. We were standing in half darkness, that was punctured at regular intervals by green, blue and pink lights, contemplating about going further down the Borra Caves. Having already climbed quite some flights of stairs and looked at more or less the same kind of stuff, I was in two minds.
“Is there anything different down there?” I asked Jasmine, who was a Vizag local and one of my travel companions for the day.
And in that moment, we both were taken aback by the sudden loud hooting, clapping and screaming sounds coming from that direction.
“Mostly the same things you see here….and quite a bit of the pointlessly enthusiastic college crowd that you just heard,” she answered.
“Bunk it. Let’s get out of here.”
When you’re in Vizag, visiting Araku Valley is a no-brainer. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations here, and for good reason. We set out early that day because it’s an approximately 3-hour drive to Araku from the city, and we wanted to have as much time on our hands as possible – since we were returning the same day. You’d obviously enjoy Araku more if you stayed for a night or two – but I didn’t have that luxury.
On the way to Araku (near that route i.e.) falls the Simachalam Temple – yet another famous pit stop for most tourists here in Vizag. I didn’t visit it because I have this personal policy of not visiting temples unless I’m traveling with my mother – in which case I do not have a choice. Till date, I haven’t regretted a single temple I didn’t visit – it has mostly been the other way around.
Anyway, our 3 hours plus drive to Araku took us through one of the most scenic areas I have ever laid my eyes on. The last lap of the way to Araku was an uphill road. You know, those winded ones bordered by greens on both sides and on one side you can see the distant hills.
The roads are fantastic, in true Vizag fashion. Except for the sound of the cars, and bikes with backpackers on them, zipping past, the entire area was wrapped in silence. We weren’t that silent in our car though. We were taking in the sights outside, while (loudly) singing along to Mere sapno ki raani kab ayegi tu, playing in the car audio system. Classic Bollywood tracks make everything better. Period.
Stop 1: Borra Caves
Easily the most well-known spot here, Diya (the friend I was living with) wasn’t too keen on visiting the Borra Caves.
“Well, it’s like the most famous thing here no…she must see it…I mean no one goes back from Araku without visiting Borra Caves!” Jasmine was reasoning with Diya.
“Ya, I know… but it’s not really a big deal…besides it strongly smells of piss inside…I couldn’t breathe the last time…” muttered Diya.
“Ya that it does…it’s pretty crowded and stinky down there,” said Jasmine, thinking about it.
“Well, it rained yesterday. Maybe that will help,” I offered.
“Let’s just get this over with,” said Diya and looked out of the window with a resigned sigh.
The cars don’t go all the way up to the entrance of the caves. You’re supposed to walk up a stretch of the path to reach there. We got our tickets and went in through the gate, and were soon faced by my greatest nemesis – stairs.
The sun was up and it felt hot AF. Panting, we reached a landing area from where we had to climb down to the cave’s entrance. For the uninitiated, Borra Caves is one of the largest and deepest caves in the country, standing at an elevation of 2313ft and going down a depth of 260 ft. It is made of limestone structures and is famous for the stalactites and stalagmites that are in it. The cave is an out and out nature’s marvel.
We entered the caves and were soon enveloped in its characteristic semi-darkness. I looked up and found a gaping hole up there, through which sunshine was streaming in and I could see a slice of the blue skies.
We went further in, through the stairs and I found various parts of the cave lit with green, pink, blue and yellow lights – the kind that keeps changing at regular intervals. The kind that makes every picture un-photogenic. As it is the lack of light were making the pictures hazy. Add to it the weird green or pink tint and you’d know what I mean. On the plus side, no smells of piss.
“It’s a lot better here today!” quipped Diya, after taking in a cautious breath.
“Ya. Mukto is lucky, haan!” laughed Jasmine.
“What’s that crowd there about?” I asked, looking at a throng of people heading towards the same direction.
“They’re going to catch a glimpse of a linga,” said Jasmine.
“Excuse me?” I arched my brows at her. She looked confused while Diya let out a snort. (If you didn’t get it either, you’re a pure soul. Rejoice.)
“At least spare the gods, yaar!” laughed Diya. “ There’s a Shiva Linga here in the caves, which people usually come to pay their respects to.”
According to legends, a cow, while grazing near the area, had fallen through the hole at the top of the caves. When the cowherd came searching for it, he found a stone which resembled a linga, which he took to represent Lord Shiva who had saved the cow (that was clearly hale and hearty, even after that mighty drop). Since then people come into these caves to see it.
“Do you want to see it?” asked Jasmine, and I couldn’t help but let out a snort at how that question sounded.
“What?” Jasmine asked, bewildered.
“Nothing…nothing. No, it’s okay, it’s too crowded in there, and I have seen enough lingas before. Let’s go out.”
Overall, the Borra Caves were fine – apart from the fact that it is completely nature made, there really was nothing extraordinary in there. A visit here is recommended since one simply doesn’t come to Araku and not visit these caves. But a short visit here should suffice – there are a lot more scenic stuff to see in and around the rest of the valley.
Stop 2 – Katiki Falls
There were two falls here that we wanted to visit – Katiki and Chaparai, but we weren’t sure if we could make it to both of them on the same day. Jasmine suggested we go to Katiki, Diya wanted to go to Chaparai, and I stood there, waiting for them to make up their minds. Ultimately, we asked our driver, who suggested we go to Katiki since Chaparai required a longer hike and will take up way more time. Also, Katiki was conveniently in our way, right after Borra. So, Katiki it was.
We stopped at Gatevalsa, which is around 1 km from the Borra Caves (on the way back, that is), from where we had to go the rest of the way via a jeep. The way to Katiki comprises a narrow muddy and rocky road through a jungle, which would require a rugged vehicle like the jeeps. The jeeps drives you to the railways track point, which is nearly 6 kms from Gatevalsa, from where you’d have to trek for around 2km to reach the base of the Falls.
If you have a group, then it makes sense to hire an entire jeep, since going by sharing entails waiting for the jeep to fill up before you leave and it stops only for a limited time at the Falls, within which you have to come back or the jeep leaves. Which is too much pressure, if you ask me.
We hired a jeep and the moment it hit the road to Katiki, I was reminded of a yet another wonderful Rover ride I’d had during my trek to Sandakphu. The unpleasant bouncing on the seats, arms hitting the side frames of the jeep, the earnest desire yet the inability to actually see the scenic nature outside in peace, and the nagging concern about the state of my spine – it was all too familiar. And the sigh of relief on reaching the point where the jeeps stopped was too real.
And then began the trek. For the first few kms, it didn’t feel that tiring. I have to say, we were trekking through some of the most picturesque spots here. The grounds were rocky and slightly dusty, and on every side, there were trees, lush streaks of green and tiny creeks with streams of water gently running over the rocks in its bed. And when you looked up, you saw the pristine blue skies speckled with white clouds, the distant, gray outlines of the hills on the horizon, along with the undulating greens of the valley itself. I loved it.
And then we progressed on to the latter half of the trek, where the way was a lot steeper, and our breaths had become a lot more laboured. There were tiny shops at intervals, where you could have the famous Bamboo Chicken, sweet corn and most importantly, water (if you aren’t carrying any – we weren’t). The closer we got to the Falls, the steeper and more slippery the road became and the more our willpower dwindled. Jasmine was the first to crack.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she declared in a near hysteric voice. “I think we’ve seen enough. What’s the big deal? It’ll just be water falling from a height. No point in killing ourselves for it.”
Diya, being the non-reactive person she is, kept moving ahead and glared at the trees instead, her jaw almost twitching with annoyance at Jasmine’s rants.
I offered Jasmine some water and what I believe was a motivating smile – because I was too out of breath to speak.
Finally, we reached the Falls, and it was quite crowded, mostly with people who were way less dressed than I would have liked them to be.
“Is…is that guy wearing just briefs? In water? Really?”
“What…oh…eww…yes! Why would you make me see that?” exclaimed Diya.
“Why should I be the only one to suffer the sight of his barely veiled family jewels?”
“Stop. Please, stop.”
Turned out, Katiki Falls is also a popular bathing spot, with the visitors there frolicking right under the rushing waterfall (cascading down from a height of more than 60 ft) and the pond at the bottom of it. The falls are formed by the Gosthani river and people usually trek up to here with the intention of bathing under the waterfall.
And I must say, it looked pretty tempting too. We hadn’t carried any change of clothes, or I would have jumped right in. But then, it was mostly the men who were in there; the ones who looked quite drunk, didn’t know the difference between underwear and swimming trunks and were scandalizing almost every female out there by posing high up on the rocks, in ways that left little to the imagination.
Barring those human eyesores, Katiki Falls was a sight to behold. It was really chilly up there, and the waterfall looked beautiful under the slightly cloudy skies. I can still remember the feeling of the cold and crystal clear water rushing over feet and the wet breeze on my skin. But the place is not maintained well, and I could see a few potato chip packets floating here and there, and a diaper lodged between rocks and looking at those men and their red eyes – I wouldn’t be surprised to find beer bottles in that pond either. So, be careful once you’re there.
The trek down was easier, and it was a pleasure to see groups of people heading up, knowing what we knew now about the climb. It was getting cloudier by the minute, and I was relieved that we were heading back because trekking up that route in the rains would have been really tricky. Katiki Falls remains dry in the summer, so plan your trip accordingly.
By the time our jeep reached Gatevalsa, it was raining cats and dogs. And then, within a few minutes of driving towards our next destination, the rain was gone. This place had the moodiest weather.
Stop 3 – Coffee Museum, Seasonal Flower Field
By now, we were ravenous. It was near lunchtime. We crossed the Galiconda Point, which is famous for its scenic view and stalls of bamboo chicken and sweet corn. Diya suggested we stop there and have some food, but the driver drove on, saying we’ll stop here on our way back. Jasmine told the driver to take us where we can eat something. He nodded his head and brought us to the Coffee Museum. Bang opposite to the Coffee Museum was the Tribal Museum.
“Are you sure there’s food in here?” Jasmine asked the driver again.
He nodded, enthusiastically.
We got down and the driver drove off to have lunch himself. We bought our tickets, got into the place, and I instantly got the feeling that we won’t be getting any lunch in here.
“Where’s the food?” Diya asked, impatient due to her hunger and slightly pissed for having passed up Bamboo Chicken for this.
“I guess somewhere inside…I see people sitting at tables and drinking coffee…” said Jasmine and went ahead.
We followed her into a fairly big room, which was stacked with various kinds of coffee and handmade chocolates – for sale. We looked at each other, then walked around for a while, only to find more coffee for sale. This was basically a glorified coffee buying destination, with hardly anything in it that could do justice to the term ‘museum’. On realizing that there’s no food to be found here, we were absolutely livid. We came out and looked around for the driver – who still hadn’t returned. We walked around for a while, looking for something to eat, and finally had some dosa chutney in this almost empty restaurant. We walked back to the coffee museum. Jasmine asked if I wanted to visit the Tribal Museum.
“What’s in it?”
“Same as this one. Shops selling artifacts instead,” said Diya.
“Naah. Bunk it.”
Finally, the driver arrived and Jasmine spent the next few minutes simply glaring at him. We were on our way back now, towards Galiconda. And on the way, we spotted a field full of bright yellow flowers and people taking pictures in it.
It almost looked like the DDLJ-esque sarson da khet [mustard fields]. And in the golden glow of the afternoon sun with the muted hilly backdrop, the place looked surreal! We HAD to get down there. And take loads of pictures. The lady managing the field told us that these flowers were seasonal, and we were lucky to have come here at the right time. Indeed.
This flower field made up for the disappointing trip to that museum. Unless you specifically want to buy something, I’d suggest giving the coffee and tribal museums a miss. There are better places here to spend your time in.
Stop 4 – Galiconda Point
This was our last stop for the day. The skies had become greyer and foggier. There was enough light for us to view the stunning beauty of nature at the point, but that light was rapidly fading. We went looking for bamboo chicken in the stalls, but it was all over [at this point I was cursing the driver for not having stopped here before]. We opted for the chicken kebabs – small juicy pieces of chicken on a stick, marinated in spice and grilled over coals. In the chilly evening air, those hot pieces of chicken tasted heavenly. We followed it up with a sweet corn, boiled and rubbed with lemon and salt. Each of us spent a while in silence, biting on the warm corn, the sweet and saltiness of it exploding in our mouth, and gazing at the serenity outside.
The Galiconda Point is basically a viewing point, from where you get amazing views of the Araku Valley. Had the light been right that day, the pictures would have come out even better. Every part of that place was a sight to behold.
It was rapidly getting darker, and our driver suggested we leave soon. We drove down those winding roads again, and I looked back at the outline of the hills, gradually disappearing in the darkness. And I knew, I’d be back here for sure, someday.
Araku Valley is worth each minute you spend in there. Nature is at its most photogenic here, and the tranquility of this place will be a soothing change for your city battered ears [and mind]. I’d, however, recommend you stay here at least for a night in order to enjoy this place at a leisurely pace. Some experiences simply shouldn’t be rushed!