The Great Outdoors

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By Get out into the open on a camping holiday, with luxury tents and mobile camps taking the rough edges off the agenda, says Aarti Dua
  • Published 3.04.10
(From top) Countryside Adventure Holidays’ Ladakh tours include stays at deluxe camps in the midst of nowhere, Photograph by Vilas Lende, Courtesy Countryside Adventure Holidays; the Spiti valley is a popular camping destination, Pic courtesy Mohan Borwankar; The Wanderers’ Manali-Kaza-Manali safari includes camping at the Chandratal Lake, Pic courtesy The Wanderers; the Anaerangal Camp is set on a mountain-top overlooking Anaerangal Lake near Munnar, Pic courtesy Lemon Grass Adventure Lodges & Resorts

Imagine pitching tent on a massive plain ringed by mountains in the middle of nowhere. Having breakfast beside a stream with multi-hued red-and-green-and-purple mountains on one side and a lush green landscape on the other. That’s exactly what Poonam and Rajeev Sharma and their two sons did when they camped at Dadarpul en route from Manali to Spiti, courtesy The Wanderers travel agency.

Theirs was a camping holiday with a difference. The Sharmas travelled in a 4WD vehicle. But they had support all the way — the travel agency organised for camping and kitchen staff to travel with the necessary camping equipment in a support vehicle along with the Sharmas.

Or take architect Snehal Patel and his wife Falguni’s vacation in Ladakh last July. While in Leh, their group of 22 — they did the Manali-Leh-Srinagar circuit by road with Countryside Adventure Holidays — visited the stunning 14,270-ft Pangong Lake. They even saw the gorgeous Tsomoriri Lake, made famous later by 3 Idiots.

But the Patels weren’t content with day trips to these “celestial” lakes. No, they stayed in stunning campsites here. In Pangong, for instance, their luxurious tent was on the lakefront. “It was amazing to just sit on the deck outside our tent. We were in a big group but none of us uttered a word. We just wanted to absorb the beauty,” says Snehal.

As they set out in search of untrodden paths, savvy Indian travellers like the Sharmas and Patels are discovering the joys — and travails — of camping holidays. Undoubtedly, camping is hardly new and avid trekkers have been-there-done-that. Luxurious tents in wildlife sanctuaries like Ranthambore or in Rajasthan aren’t new either. But a host of offbeat camping destinations are emerging across India.

You can pick from basic campsites introducing you to the real thing like The Route Purple’s Nature Weekend at Binsar, Uttarakhand. Or you can opt for a luxurious experience like in the Sangla Valley in Himachal Pradesh. You can choose a camping destination in Kerala or head to the Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. And you can travel with a mobile luxury camp or stay at a permanent campsite.

“More and more people want to experiment today. They like to go to places that are accessible but are surrounded by nature. And they want unusual trips like, say, camping at Pangong,” says Milind Bhide, co-founder, Countryside Adventure Holidays.

On the go

How about travelling with a mobile luxury camp and pitching tent wherever you like? Travel companies like The Wanderers and Countryside Adventure are offering just that. Says Abhik Dutta, director, The Wanderers: “People want to explore remote regions but they want to do it in comfort. That’s why we came up with luxury camping.”

So, the vacationers travel in one vehicle, while the Wanderers’ crew travels with the camping equipment in a support vehicle. This includes walk-in luxury tents with cots, a separate dining tent with table and chairs, kitchen tent and chemical toilet tents too.

“Only the starting and ending dates and points are fixed. The rest is flexible. So if you chance upon a meadow you like, you just have to give our team an hour and they’ll set up camp for you,” says Dutta.

The Wanderers currently offers luxury mobile camping trips in Himachal Pradesh but plans to extend this to other places in the north. Take its six-day Manali-Kaza-Manali safari, similar to the Sharmas’ trip.

Incidentally, even an avalanche and snow-blocked roads couldn’t stop the Sharmas, who drove from Manali through the Rohtang Pass and arranged for another vehicle to come from the Shimla end. And they walked the 3km stretch in between the two points through a tunnel of 25-ft walls of snow.

“It was the most beautiful walk through virgin snow. There was no sight of humanity except the workers clearing the road,” recalls Chinmaya Sharma, 20, who travelled with his parents.

The Sharmas travelled through Kunzum Pass to Kaza to high-altitude villages like Kibber. “I never believed that Spiti had multi-coloured mountains till I saw them myself. There was one range of five mountains each of which was a different colour from red to dark blue to purple to green,” recounts Chinmaya.

While they camped just two nights, with the Wanderers’ Manali safari, you camp out every night. On day two, for instance, you drive through Chandra valley to camp at Chandratal, a stunning lake ringed with meadows. The six-day trip costs Rs 30,000 per person plus taxes.

Pitching in

Now, if you want a taste of real camping, there are options too. Take The Route Purple’s Nature Weekend in Binsar. “Summer camping has caught the fancy of people living in metros,” says Parvez Imam, co-founder, The Route Purple.

Imam, who’s a filmmaker too, is a trekker at heart. So he believes in introducing travellers to the true joys of nature. “I don’t like the connotation behind adventure sports. You can’t conquer nature. That’s why we believe in doing a two-hour trek in four hours,” he says.

The three-day Nature Weekend is at its 5,000-ft campsite in Ayarpani Village in Binsar. Don’t expect luxury here. You’ll pitch your own tent, which is basic, though there are fixed toilets. But you’ll discover the fun of camping with easy treks through the Binsar reserve forest, panoramic views of the Himalayas and bonfire evenings.

Like Sangeeta Saikia and her doctor friends did. “I’d never been camping so I was apprehensive. But we trekked at an easy pace and the experience of staying in tents was something else,” she says.

Adds Rakesh Sharma, a director at Hewlett-Packard and Route Purple regular: “The best thing is that it’s a participative adventure with the local people. And you get to eat wonderful local food too.”

The Nature Weekend costs Rs 5,900 ex-Delhi. If you’re more adventurous, you can try Route Purple’s four-day trek from Binsar to Jageshwar, like Hyderabad-based Sireesha Surabathula did.

Surabathula hasn’t forgotten the exhilaration of climbing to Jwalabanj to watch the sunrise over the Kumaoni range. “Escaping into the wild is a welcome break from our city lives,” she says.

Meanwhile, another company Big Red Tent is also introducing people to American-style camping at its drive-in campground at Shahpur, three hours from Mumbai. “We’ve had a great response since we opened in November,” says Raahil Mehta, who co-founded Big Red with graphic designer Janki Shah and horticulturist Milind Mokashi, on whose land the campground is located.

Their model involves offering a place near metros where people can sample “do-it-yourself” camping. So once you enter the two-acre campground, you’re allotted a campsite with a barbeque grill and a tent, which you must pitch. There are proper toilets but the tents are basic. The Big Red Tent charges Rs 1,200 per person per day.

Southern sojourn

Now Kerala may be an unlikely camping destination but Lemon Grass Adventure Lodges & Resorts is offering just that at its Hornbill and Anaerangal camps here. These are fairly luxurious camps with African safari lodge-style tent houses with canvas walls and thatched roofs. There’s an attached bathroom and deck too.

The Anaerangal camp overlooks Anaerangal Lake near Munnar, and you can trek in the mountains here. The Hornbill Camp, located next to the Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Thattekad, is set on the banks of the Periyar. It’s a birder’s paradise as Prabha and Dexter Bob discovered recently.

“It’s very scenic. And the whole atmosphere is very tranquil,” says Prabha, who spotted birds like the baza and Malabar tree pie. If you’re not a birder, you can still enjoy the natural beauty and even go kayaking in the Periyar.

Now, activities in these camps may be curtailed in May-June. But as in other Kerala resorts, you can take advantage of off-season rates. Hornbill Camp charges Rs 3,500 and Anaerangal Camp Rs 3,000 per person per night in the off season.

“We’re seeing a growing interest from domestic tourists as people are looking for something out of the ordinary,” says Sapna James, head, reservations and operations, Lemon Grass.

Climb every mountain

Would you like to camp in the Himalayas without roughing it out? Well, how about visiting a luxurious permanent campsite like the Banjara Camps & Retreat’s famous Sangla Valley Camp in Himachal Pradesh?

The charming Sangla Valley in Kinnaur District is just 30km from the Tibetan border. “When we started, only a particular profile was interested in camping. Now, soft adventure family holidays have become popular,” says Rajesh Ojha, director and co-founder, Banjara Camps, the first to enter Sangla when it opened for tourists in the 1990s.

The 9,000-ft Sangla camp is set on the Baspa River. There are 13 luxurious Swiss-style tents with attached bathrooms. The stay costs Rs 5,500 a night per couple including all meals.

There’s enough to do here as Mohan Borwankar and his family discovered when they pitched tent here en route from Chandigarh to Lahaul and back with Countryside Adventure last year. “It was a completely offbeat trip and the landscape was ever-changing,” says Borwankar, who enjoyed treks at the Sangla camp.

Meanwhile, Moumita Deb and her family discovered the thrill of camping in the jungle on their visit to Sangla. They enjoyed their stay so much that they extended it. Since all the tents were booked, they camped out in the jungle — accompanied by Banjara’s staff, of course, who even cooked for them there. “Initially the kids were scared but it was an amazing experience to be in the middle of the forest at night. We didn’t know camping could be so exciting,” says Deb.

Neither did the Patels till they did their Manali-Leh-Srinagar trip. In fact, they first camped at Sarchu in Lahaul. “It was a huge surprise to see these tents because there’s just no habitation nearby. And it was a superb experience although the night got too cold,” says Falguni.

Eastward ho

If you prefer camping nearer home, how about trying out Help Tourism’s Dibang Valley Camp in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. You start at Dibrugarh, cross the Lohit River at Sadiya Ghat before driving to the campsite in the river valley.

Help Tourism offers a five-day camping holiday here, which costs Rs 7,850 per person ex-Dibrugarh. “Family camps have become popular now where the parents can do their own thing and there are adventure activities for kids too,” says Raj Basu, director, Help Tourism.

The Dibang Valley Camp has two timber cottages but you can stay in tents too. “It’s one of the best places to see many endangered birds,” says Rahul Rao of Pune-based travel agency Foliage Outdoors, who’s just returned from there.

And if you want to venture further afield, Help Tourism is launching camping trips to Bhutan this summer too. The six-day trip to Lamperi will cost Rs 10,450 a head.

Clearly, then, there’s enough new terrain to explore and pitch your tent on out there.

The vacation must-haves

Now, if you’re taking a camping vacation with a travel company or visiting a permanent campground, you don’t really have to worry about carrying your own tent or sleeping bag et al. But there are still a few things that you must take when you vacation far from the madding crowd.

Step up
A sturdy pair of trekking or sports shoes are a must on any camp — and make sure you’ve broken them in before the trek. Tour operators also recommend that you take cotton socks for trekking and woollen socks for those cold nights.

Essential stuff
Apart from warm clothing like thermals, a warm jacket, muffler and cap, remember also to take a raincoat and cap.

Bag it
You’re sure to go on short treks and day trips from your camp. So carry a knapsack to put your water bottle, camera etc.

Light source
Be sure to take that torch even if you only use it to light your way to that toilet tent at night.

Ultra protection
You need protection from strong ultraviolet rays at high altitudes so carry UV-protected sunglasses and loads of sunscreen lotion.

Pill box
Most camps carry basic first aid kits but it’s best to carry your own and all your medicines too.