MID AIR ADVENTURE
WAYFARER: Zip lining gives you a bird’s eye view of Neemrana and a thrill that’s hard to match, says Deepesh Das --TAKE A BREAK: Action is the new mantra if you want to jazz up your next vacation, say Deepesh Das. --
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I had some interesting winged friends for company as I secured the monster safety clip of my harness, tightened the waist belt and tugged at the loop of my pulley. It was time for a sub-orbital journey. 

         Here I was flying through the air at a height of 100ft, gliding down five steel cables called zip lines. The trip down was made in five stages, each one lasting approximately 60 seconds, and after the first one I even managed to open my eyes and gawk at the ridiculously beautiful Neemrana Fort nestled in a charming rustic landscape.

         Theres one rule here that you must remember: when you are zip lining, you cant see the landscape unless you are brave enough to keep your eyes open while holding on to your harness in a perfect James Bond impersonation (yes, 007 did zip down a cable car wire in Moonraker).

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         Well, I did turn brave for a few precious neon seconds as I zipped past an endless expanse of arid landscape, baked golden by the sun, punctuated by an 18th centaury step-well and spectacular watchtowers used by Rajput warriors to keep the enemy at bay.

Let’s rewind to the point where it all started. We were a mixed crowd of supremely fit adventure sport geeks and treadmill challenged journalists on the ramparts of Neemrana Fort, on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, which has become famous as a luxury weekend getaway for Delhiites. Its also the location where Flying Fox, an adventure tour outfit run by British entrepreneurs Richard McCallum and Jonathan Walter were introducing Indias first heritage zip tours or an aerial journey that involves whooshing down steel cables across hill forts and ridge tops.

 

         The double bill of luxury and adventure begins at the top of the fort from where we had to trek 1km to reach the first zipping platform. This takes approximately 20 minutes for gym geeks and a time not be disclosed for the fitness impaired. A word of encouragement – you have help at hand.

         A bevy of trained instructors follow you at every step. And while physically carrying you uphill might be asking for a bit too much, there are refreshments on offer along the way. Of course, you are fitted with a harness and administered an elaborate safety brief before you commence your journey in the skies.

         The most important briefing was, however, on the length of the entire zipping tour and the modus operandi. The tour actually consists of five zip lines or steel cables connecting one ridge top to another. After gliding down each zip line, which can vary in length from anything between 175m (574ft) to 390m (1279ft), there is a customary stop.

During that break, one has to trek to the next zipping station in order to continue the zipping tour. The fifth and final line concludes the zip tour by bringing you back to an elevated platform inside the fort. The entire duration of the zip tour along with the treks to reach the take-off platforms is approximately two to three hours.

         Interestingly, at the first zipping station, we found company in the British high commissioner who also happens to be a supremely fit sports enthusiast, who had taken time off to check out this aerial activity.

         It was a while before we could take in the startling scene at our first take-off point – people kicking and thrashing about in their harness in an effort to settle down. There were mock demonstrations sessions before we actually took off into thin air and instructions on safety precautions regarding take-offs and landings. We went for innumerable demonstrations stopping midway to ask what seemed like a thousand questions to patient instructors on anything from gravity to free-fall.

But we scared souls were gently reminded that the Flying Foxs Zip wires are constructed and installed by a Swiss adventure course manufacturer, using imported materials that meet the most stringent European safety standards. And to hold our hands, there are five trained European instructors to operate the course along with a team of Indian trainers. Anyone above the age of 10 and weighing less than 127kg can experience this aerial gliding.

         Fortified with all the information, I finally leapt on to the take-off platform but suspiciously enquired about the origin of a deafening sound that suddenly filled up the air. Pat came the reply from one of the instructors: That must be British high commissioners voice as he goes down the zip line”.

         Actually, it was the eardrum splitting noise those steel cables were making as they took participants from one point to the other. But whoever has ever heard of settling scores with the instructor on the verge of take-off?

         Once you are up in the air, the fort comes alive in all its glory. The property is spread over 10 hectares (its foundations were laid around 1464 AD) and is about a two-hour drive from Delhi. The place is believed to be one of the capitals of the descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan III and is named after a local chieftain called Nimola Meo.

         The towering citadel with its intricate stonework detailing is positioned on a sloping plateau and is surrounded by the ancient Aravalli ranges in a horseshoe formation. Even the fort-palace, built over 10 levels is an architectural wonder, offering 360-degree views of the natural biodiversity of the plateau and its resident peacocks.

Well, glimpses of peacocks gamboling in the lushly landscaped plateau could be a pleasant activity while taking a swig of your favourite potion by the in-house vista pool. But serious exotica hunters can actually pick and choose in this spectacular heritage resort. There are quaint wooden carts upholstered with traditional furnishings that are pulled by camels dressed up in splendid finery outside the fort premises.

         The whole place reeks of old-style glamour and there are eight luxury suites with grand monikers like Deva Mahal, Candra Mahal (an upscale suit which Hollywood glamdoll Kate Winslet praised to the skies) and even Francisi Mahal thats named after one of the proprietors of the hotel.

         Well, the fort is a mesmerizing sight to behold once you are in the company of birds and the sun is slowly splashing buckets of colour on the skyline, which is almost too close for comfort. But then again, this is a sport thats definitely not just for the birds.

Ready reckoner

Pocket pinch: Tariffs for a luxury suite at the heritage resort are between Rs.10000 and Rs.21000 per day for triple occupancy excluding meals. For more, log on to www.neemranahotels.com. Additionally, the cost of the zip tour with Flying Fox (www.flyingfox.asia) is Rs.1490 per adult and Rs.1195 per child.

Travel trivia: Neemrana was the third capital of the descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan III. Raja Rajdeo built the fort-palace on a majestic plateau in the Aravallis in 1464 AD. Neemrana derived its name from a brave local chieftain Nimola Meo, who when defeated by the Chauhans, pleaded that his name be given to his lost kingdom.

 

            In pursuit of leisure

Would you like to head off for a painting holiday in the idyllic backwaters of Tuscany? Or would you rather plunge into the depths of the Pacific in search of great white sharks?

 

 

Heliskiers set to take on the slopes

tourists set up the tripod for a perfect hot;

         Did you think that holidays were just about lazing on the beach, or hanging out in a hilltop hideout, away from the madding crowd? Forget it. Holidays in our modern world have suddenly become a time for serious action – a time for adventure mixed with learning, a time to really get out and make those dreams come true. After all, life’s too short to let it pass by without living in to the full.

PICTURE PERFECT

Clambering down a rock face or nuzzling sharks is not everyone’s idea of a holiday. For gentler souls, a vacation with a difference may often be a time to bring out the artist within. Imagine putting up your easel and trying to recreate the medieval Italian town of San Quirico. Or, how about capturing through a lens the rolling sunflower fields in a little French village? Sit up and look at the world through new eyes – painting and photography holidays are here!

         Yes, that’s right! You can now plan your vacation around a painting or photography course that lets you pick up the skills from trained professionals. The tours are open to beginners and professionals alike, and you get enough free time to indulge in sightseeing.

TRIP PLANNER:

it’s easy painting that perfect picture in such stunning locales

·   Painting Photography France offers a weeklong tour in the beautiful Lot-et-Garonne in southwest France. This one is really special as they include on their itinerary the place where Claude Monet found his famous water lilies. For 685 euros (Rs.45602) per person on a double occupancy basis in a 350-year-old Gas-con farmhouse and a 30% discount for a non-painting/photography partner, the package includes accommodation, all meals, free drinks (within reason!), five days of tuition and surface transport. For details, contact peter.evans@painting-photography-france.com.

·   Andalucian Adventures have weeklong painting tours in Tuscany for $1389 (Rs.102442) per person on a double occupancy basis. It includes three star accommodations, all meals including a picnic lunch, five days of tuition, surface transfer and taxes. For details, contact info@andalucian-adventures.co.uk. Incidentally Andalucian Adventures is planning to launch painting tours in Kerala soon, one of the first of its kind in India.

UNRUFFLED FEATHERS

a yellow-crowned kakariki perched on the treetop

There are those who can identify a crow, a sparrow and a chicken and feel vindicated in their ornithological expertise when they spot a pigeon rising into the sky. And then there are those, who can hear half a second of a birdcall before they give you the entire fact file of the species.

         Bird watching vacations serve both groups. For the avid birdwatcher, such vacations throw up the chance to watch unfamiliar species, while for others; it’s an education in itself to watch the drama unfold as the winged ones take center stage. All you need is a pair of binoculars.

         The Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur has a huge avian population and is one of the best bird parks in the world. Watch out for cranes, pelicans, geese, ducks, eagles, hawks, shanks, stints, wagtails, warblers, wheatears, buntings, larks, pipits and more.

         And if you’re keen on heading out to more unexplored terrain, head to the Kahurangi National Park in South Island, New Zealand. You’ll be bowled over by the astounding variety of the winged population – the kea (the local parrot), kaka, robin, bellbird, rifleman, kakariki, tui, harrier hawk, pukeko, godwits and wry-bills to name only a few.

TRIP PLANNER:

·   Treks ‘n’ Rapids have a three-night package in Bharatpur for Rs.2500 per person per night on a double occupancy basis. Recommended for those on a slender budget, the package includes accommodation in a hotel with all modern amenities, all meals and a guided bird watching tour. Check out www.treksnrapids.com.

·   Responsible Travel has a weeklong trip in the Kahurangi National Park. Geologically the most complex area of New Zealand, the region has rock formations that are estimated to be 350 million to 500 million years old. It’s also the second largest national park in New Zealand. For NZ$1495 (Rs.43014 till June and NZ$1595 or Rs.45920 after that) per person on a double occupancy basis, the package includes dormitory accommodation, all meals, surface transfer and guided tours. Check out www.responsibletravel.com.

FIN FACTOR

Feeling out of your depth isn’t always a bad thing. Especially, if you have a passion for watching marine life living it up under the bright blue sea. Reef diving (diving down to coral reefs), wreck diving (diving to explore ship wrecks, sharks diving (diving for non-predator sharks in the open) or just the fun sort of diving are among the different opportunities open to all-comers beneath the waves.

                           a thrill-seeker on a shark cage dive

         Vandit Kalia, managing director, DIVE India, which in partnership with Island Vinnie’s Tropical Beach Cabanas and Dive Center, runs its operations on Havelock Island in the Andaman’s, is adamant that there’s no need to get intimidated at the mention of shark diving. According to Kalia, it’s an extremely safe sport, with lower accident rates than snorkeling or swimming. Dive India provides both basic and professional training with certification from Scuba Schools International (SSI) and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).

         All you need to do is to be generally fit and above 10 years of age. Of course, you need to know how to swim.

         For that added rush of adrenaline, you can seek out the action with a bit of cage diving, usually done for the great white shark, also termed ‘white death’! Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, remember, this is a $200 million industry globally.

         Divers descend underwater in an aluminium cage to do the shark spotting. The bars form a protective barrier. You see the sharks in their natural habitat, without putting your safety at risk. It requires no training. Luke Tipple, director of operations for Shark Divers, a San Diego-based cage diving tour operator, says, “We cater to people from eight to over 88 years old, all we require is that you are medically fit to be away from shore for five days at a time”.

TRIP PLANNER:

·   DIVE India, the only SSI dive center in the Andaman’s and the only one to run diving operations both on Havelock and Neil Islands – the company is exploring the less popular North Andaman’s as well – lets you chalk up your own package for reef diving, wreck diving, shark diving etc. For untrained enthusiasts we recommend their ‘Learn to Dive’ special package, valid yearlong.

         This includes six nights’ accommodation, all meals and SSI Open Water certification course for entry-level scuba diving. The price per person on single occupancy is Rs.27000 for tented cabanas and Rs.22000 for standard huts. There is an additional peak season surcharge and a charge of Rs.1500 for all transfers. Log on to www.diveindia.com.

·   Shark Divers offers a five-day package for cage diving, priced at $3100 (Rs.150979), which includes all shark diving permits, unlimited beer and wine, soft drinks, wet suits, weight systems, accommodation on board the diving vessel, meals and airport transfers. Email staff@sharkdiver.com or log on to www.sharkdiver.com for details. Shark Divers guarantees successful dives so you get up, closed and personal with the predators on a single trip and has had a record of 100% safe and successful operations.

WET ‘N’ WILD

If you’ve grown up on the tales of Horatio Horn blower or other braves of the ocean, who battle the roughest of seas, read on. We don’t have stormy seas. But we have the option of rafting through some of the world’s most spectacular gorges and lunging over some of the most challenging rapids. And just perhaps being towed behind a boat to go skimming the surface of a lake and do some daring wakeboarding flips in the air.

                     A wake boarder performs a daring stunt;

         If it’s excitement you want, look no further than white water rafting. It’s no mean deal to negotiate rough rivers perched on a raft. “Some degree of swimming ability is important,” insists Hamish Mc master, the owner of Water By Nature, which runs rafting expeditions around the world.

         Wakeboarding is another extreme sport that combines surfing, water-skiing and snowboarding. The sport makes use of a speedboat that creates a wake (wave formed by the kickback from the boat) behind it. Then, the wakeboard is ridden through it. The rider, towed by the boat, has his feet secured to the wakeboard with special bindings that allow him to perform aerial tricks without losing the board.

         Says Debbie Southam of Extreme-Gene, which organizes wakeboard and water-ski camps in Andalucia, Span, “you start with learning to get up onto the wakeboard out of the water and crossing the wakes from side to side. Then you progress to learning tricks behind the boat including jumping the wakes, spinning tricks and a whole array of inverted tricks such as flips and rolls, with crazy names like ‘Tantrum’, ‘Scarecrow’, ‘Hoochie glide’ – to name but a few”! People with history of cardiac or lung diseases and high blood pressure are discouraged.

TRIP PLANNER:

·   If you’ve always wanted to head Down Under, this rafting package is just for you. Water by Nature takes you on the Franklin River, deep in Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage area – a must-see site. For $1300 (Rs.95963) per person on a double occupancy basis, the package includes accommodation and camping by the river, meals, rafting and camp equipment, and a trained guide. Check out www.waterbynature.com or mail to rivers@waterbynature.com.

·   The past has its own attraction, as does adventure. And if you want to combine the two, make the best of a weeklong wakeboarding camp with Extreme-Gene in Spain. Their camp is conducted by the beautiful Em-balse de la Brena Lake near the town of Almodovar Del Rio just 15 minutes away from the historic city of Cordoba. For 745 Euros (Rs.49685) per person on a double occupancy basis, it includes accommodation in log cabins, meals as per itinerary, wakeboard and camp equipment and five days of professional training in the water. Check out www.xtreme-gene.com.

FREEZE FRAME

It’s a whole new bag of thrills that people are going after, what with sports like heliskiing or snowmobile spawning a growing body of enthusiasts.

         Heliskiing, which is gaining popularity in the sub-continent, involves skiing high up in the mountains after being taken to new heights in a helicopter. You need to be an accomplished skier to be able to ski under all snow conditions. The fitness factor is more stringent here, due to the elevation, and you must be in good shape. Also, it’s recommended only for adults.

         it’s a different thrill behind the wheels on a snowmobile;

         Snowmobiles provide a different kind of thrill behind the wheels, where you steer the motorized vehicle with the help of a set of skis in front. For a snowmobile journey, you don’t need any defined roads and you take it out into the snow-covered forests or mountains. Fitness hardly matters here, unless you’re going up to great heights or under extreme weather conditions. “But you need to be over 21 or above the valid age to hold an international driving license,” says Wesley, Chief Executive, Scott Calvin Vacations.

TRIP PLANNER:

·   Scott Calvin Vacation is a premium travel outfit that has won accolades from The New York Times and travel magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler. They have a five-day The Rocky Mountain Snowmobile Tour in Western Canada. Priced at $2025 (or Rs.149721 for twin-sharing), the package includes services of a snowmobile guide, a 2009 model, 550cc snowmobile for five days (fuel included), extreme snow-suit, boots, helmet, accident insurance for snowmobile, airport transfers, accommodation and all meals in a mountain lodge that features a 60ft indoor pool, a sauna, massage treatments, hot tubs, a 4-star restaurant, a pub with entertainment and much more. If that’s not enough, a hot spring visit, one barbecue and a welcome cocktail are also on the cards. Log on to www.scottcalvinvacations.com for details.

From top: Heliskiers set to take on the slopes; tourists set up the tripod for a perfect hot; it’s a different thrill behind the wheels on a snowmobile; a yellow-crowned kakariki perched on the treetop; a thrill-seeker on a shark cage dive

A wake boarder performs a daring stunt; (above) it’s easy painting that perfect picture in such stunning locales

Photographs courtesy: Himalayan Heliski Guides; Painting Photography France; Responsible Travel; Shark Divers; Extreme-Gene; Andalucian Adventures; Vandit Kalia

 
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