Some of India’s most stunningly beautiful places are on tribal terrain. It is home to stunningly beautiful waterfalls, caves, water bodies and lush forests teeming with flora and fauna. There is a reason for this. These places are in remote, inaccessible places far away from the onslaught of civilisation, the main cause of environmental degradation. They are the habitat of India’s tribals, the Adivasis or first inhabitants, who were driven away from the plains by wave upon wave of invaders. Their eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyle has ensured that the pristine natural beauty of their environs has been well preserved and protected. In recent times, Maoists have infiltrated into the tribal areas and are wreaking havoc in that paradise. This could be the probable reason why these amazing places do not get the volume of tourism they deserve. Come to think of it, maybe it is a blessing in disguise.
Araku is a picturesque tribal settlement in the Eastern Ghats, about 120 km to the north of the port city of Visakhapatnam a.k.a. Vizag, which also happens to be my hometown. For me, the drive is an end in itself, a mind-blowing experience as one navigates through umpteen hair-pin bends on a steep mountain road which snakes its way up the Eastern Ghats to an altitude of some 1200 metres above sea level. This is one of those road trips on which one does not feel like driving fast but prefer to gently cruise along the serpentine path, inhaling the pristine air and feasting on the visual candy being proffered so generously by Mother Nature.
For those who suffer from motion-sickness, one can go by rail too. Built for exporting Iron ore to Japan, the railway track is an engineering marvel involving the construction of hundred of bridges across massive gorges and lengthy tunnels. There is a train which leaves Vizag Railway Station daily at 06:00 Hours and goes to Chhattisgarh via Araku. En route, there is Shimliguda, which till recently, hosted the highest broad guage railway station in the world. The Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (APTDC) runs attractively priced rail-cum-road tour packages from Vizag.
As we leave the plains behind us and start ascending the Ghats, the change in the landscape and the climate, not to mention the demography, is dramatic. Suddenly there are no people to be seen around, and the road becomes steep and curvy, flanked by tall trees and there is silence all around but for the chirping of birds. Occasionally, one can spot a group of langurs scampering alongside. One can also spot terraced farms and coffee plants growing under the shade of mango and jackfruit trees. At several places, one feels like stopping and enjoying the bracing climate and spectacular visuals.
The Padmapuram Botanical Gardens is a great place to relax in a green ambience. It has lovely, landscaped gardens and beautiful statues of Gods, tribals and mermaids, even a couple of dinosaurs. There are the quirkily named hanging cottages, which are actually tree houses with running water. For a unique experience, one cant rent a cottage for just Rs.500. One can also go around the gardens on a toy train.
Next, we went to the Tribal Museum which has a lovely compund wall tastefully decorated with tribal art. The building is shaped like a tribal hut and houses a number of tableaux depicting the tribal lifestyle which has not changed much over the centuries. Araku is home to as many as 19 tribes, such as the Valmikis, the Kondadora, the Nookadora, the Porja and the Jatapu.
The valley has a climate that is conducive for growing coffee and it accounts for 15 % of India’s coffee output. Belonging to the Arabica family of coffees, it is organically cultivated by Tribals. Marketed as Araku Emerald coffee, its aroma and taste has won for it the Fine Cup award from the Coffee Board of India for seven straight years since 2004. Most of it is exported to the US and Europe. The Araku Valley Coffee house is located opposite the Tribal Museum where you can relax with a Mocha or a Capuccino or whatever you suits your taste. You can also buy freshly ground Araku coffee and coffee flavoured chocolates, which are simply scrumptious.
The caves are well-lit and have stairs and paved walkways making the caves easily accessible.
A visual delight we were treated to on our return drive
What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare
No time to stand beneath the boughs, and stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass, where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight, streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, and watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can, enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.