‘Take a trip to the emerald canopy of the Araku Valley to discover one of India’s longest caves and taste some of the best coffee in the Eastern Ghats with Sudipto De’
I feel as if I am in an Indiana Jones movie, sans a fedora hat and a whip, following the archaeologist in search of a long lost treasure! All around me are limestone formations – some massive, some abstractly- shaped and some in other-worldly formations. A guide tells me that a few of these date back to as far as 150 million years. Every few seconds the shapes change and so does the size of the damp pathways. Lights emanating from small halogen lamps reflect shadowy images on these formations – every prerequisite for a once-in-a-lifetime-adventure.
I am inside the famed Borra Caves, considered to be one of the longest and deepest of their kind in the country. Experiencing the cave is much like rock climbing but in reverse. Instead of hauling yourself up, you traverse several feet down while surrounded by walls slick with moisture. A series of karstic limestone rocks that form one of the most elaborate cave systems in the country, the Borra Caves are located about 90 km from Visakhapatnam or Vizag (an approximate three hour drive) and fall on their way to Araku Valley, where I am headed.Interiors of the Borra Caves lit by halogen lamps
After a two hour-long exploration of the caves, I set off for my destination, a little more than an hour away. I check into one of the many cottage accommodations here and rustle up a packed itinerary of travelling, exploring and savouring some local dishes. The first stop on my list is the Tribal Museum. A two-storeyed circular building, painted in brick red and boasting white window frames – the museum is quite a sight. Inside, I am transported to a whole new world; that of the tribes inhabiting the northern part of Andhra Pradesh. There are elaborate depictions of their homes along with dioramas that showcase their daily activities, utensils and, household and daily objects. But what leaves me spellbound here is the display that depicts the differences in how houses were designed to signify hierarchy. A highlight of the museum is that it offers a few activities you can try your hand at and I decide to give archery a shot. The bull’s eye keeps eluding me and after a few attempts, I give up and bow out gracefully.Tribal women of Araku valley
It is time for lunch. I step out only to be greeted by a light shower. My driver suggests that I stop by one of the roadside eateries to taste the famous chicken biryani. What makes this meat and rice delicacy so sought-after here are its cooking process and tantalising taste. It is cooked in a rustic style with spicemarinated chicken and plenty of pepper. The chicken, however, is cooked in a bamboo shoot, which gives it a smoky flavour and texture. I decide to combine this mouthwatering dish with a cup of coffee sourced from the local plantations. The buttery texture of the coffee combines like a dream with the sweet-smoky flavour of the chicken. I strike up a conversation with the shop owner who, on seeing my fondness for the beverage, suggests a visit to the nearby coffee museum.
‘Araku Valley’s famous chicken biryani is cooked in a rustic style with spice-marinated chicken and plenty of pepper. The chicken is cooked in a bamboo shoot, which gives it a smoky flavour.’
Turns out, the Araku Valley Coffee Museum, set up in 2006, is located a stone’s throw away from the Tribal Museum. Here I learn that the beverage was introduced to the state by an Englishman named NS Brodie during 1898 and that India holds a unique position in the world coffee sector, being the sixth-largest producer of coffee. At the entrance is a stunning colourful mural displaying the journey of coffee from the bean to the cup. If you are a coffee lover like me and don’t mind loosening your purse strings, try the Kopi Luwak here, said to be one of the world’s most expensive coffee!The red and white facade of the Tribal Museum
The valley’s other attractions include the Padmapuram Botanical Gardens which used to be a farm during the Second World War (1939-1945) but has now been converted into a biodiversity park with rare species of flowers and trees. The botanical gardens will make quite a few of your childhood bucket lists come true. Not only is there a toy train that offers a tour of the premises, but it also boasts a few treetop huts that you can book for a true nature experience. Another activity that is oft-ignored in the Eastern Ghats is birding. With lush green valleys punctuated with the low hills, it is a sanctuary for a host of birds. It is locally said that there are over a hundred species of birds that call this place home during certain times of the year. If you are lucky you might spot some of the area’s avian inhabitants, including such endangered ones as purple wood pigeon, greater spotted eagle, lesser kestrel falcon and pallid harrier.Exhibits at the Tribal Museum
For birding experiences, head to the Tyda Nature Camp where expert naturalists can lead you on a trail to catch a glimpse of magnificent birds. Alternatively, if you wish to go on a birding exploration on your own, the Tatipudi Reservoir (an hour-long drive from Araku Valley) is the place to be. Although the latter’s main job is to provide water for the city of Visakhapatnam, it also offers a calming boating experience, surrounded by the hills. Despite the fact that a road trip through the Eastern Ghats is quite similar to one taken through the Western Ghats, it is the simpler turns and twists that make this drive even more pleasurable. Interspersed with the Chaparai and the Sangda waterfalls, it allows you to get close to nature without working up a sweat.