Underground adventure

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By It isn't a sun 'n' surf vacation, but Srinidhi Raghavendra goes deeper for a different kind of holiday Shrabonti Bagchi on the most popular cruise routes for this season in Bahamas
  • Published 29.10.05
(From above): Tourists ready themselves for the long trip into the depths of the earth; a view of one of the caves complete with walkways and lighting

It isn’t everyone’s idea of a great way to spend the weekend. But we’ve criss-crossed India on motorcycles, vrrooming all the way to the Himalayas and back. So, why not spend a few hours exploring one of the longest underground cave systems in the sub-continent?

Did I hear a shudder? Cold, clammy caves, deep under the earth. Bats and other nasty creatures of the night. Yes, all that, but there’s also a touch of adventure and the thrill of exploring something new. So, after a few arguments and counter-arguments we decided to hit the road and visit the Belum caves in Andhra Pradesh ? India’s second longest underground cave system after the 21.5 km long Krem Um Lawan cave in Meghalaya.

We left our bikes at home this time and took a bus from Bangalore on a Friday morning. The bus raced along the highway through towns like Devanahalli, the proposed site for the Bangalore international airport. Then came Chikkaballapur and the border town Penukonda.

Amazingly, you can feel the weather change perceptibly as you approach the border. It was cool and pleasant when we left Bangalore and it slowly became hotter after Penukonda. The roads were wider and smoother but we were perspiring inside the supposedly air-conditioned bus. The dry and deserted landscape made us feel as if we were on another planet and it was a relief to see an occasional patch of grass.

We hopped off the bus at Lepakshi to do a spot of temple tourism. The sprawling Veerabhadra temple, on a small hillock, has some of the best murals and stone sculptures of the Vijayanagar era. We took in the intricately carved monolithic idols of Ganesha and Shiva Linga inside the temple. The 30 ft tall Nandi statue nearby is another impressive sight.

From Lepakshi, we proceeded towards Belum and reached there in the late afternoon. Located in a limestone area in the Kolimigundla village, in the Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh, the 3.5km long Belum Caves gets its name from the Sanskrit word Bilum (meaning cave). These underground caves, located amidst flat agricultural land, have three well-like cavities/sinkholes, of which the central one has been converted into the main entrance with a neat flight of steps for people to enter.

After buying the tickets (Rs 25 per head) a group of visitors lined up in front of the cave’s main entrance. Our guide, Srikanth took us down a concrete staircase into a sinkhole, about 30ft below ground level. If the outside was hot, inside it was like a furnace, despite the fresh air coming from blowers installed by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (APTDC).

But we quickly forgot about the heat and found ourselves admiring the caves and the way they’ve been looked after by the APTDC. The passages are well-lit and neatly maintained with fountains and strategically placed lighting, which gives the natural formations an eerie glow and makes walking through the vast subterranean passages an exciting experience.

Marvelling at nature’s wonderful formations we quickly made our way through the different pathways in the cave. Srikanth who knew the caves like the back of his hand took us through the high and low, thick and thin passages showing us the different landmarks in the cave system.

In places, we had to crawl, squeeze and ease ourselves slowly through some of the really narrow passages. As we got lower we were awestruck by the beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations. The stalactites hang from the ceiling of the cave like icicles while the stalagmites are found in myriad formations on the cave floors. Our guide who kept up an unceasing patter, explained that some of these formations were over 4,000 years old.

I felt that APTDC has done a wonderful job in restoring the caves and opening them to the public. The well-planned illumination rids the caves of its claustrophobic feel and creates a brightness that enhances their splendour. What’s more, the state government has declared the entire area protected and banned all construction in the precincts of the cave.

The silence inside the cave was unbroken except for the quiet gurgle of water in some passages. As Srikanth took us through the caves, he explained that although a length of 3.5km has been successfully explored, only 1.5km is open to tourists. As we went deeper and deeper into the depths of the earth, we admired the spacious chambers, passages, fresh water galleries and siphons.

After taking us through a maze of underground passages, Srikanth took us through the Simhadwaram (a natural arch-like formation where the stalactites look like the head of a lion) into a narrow passage that leads into a large chamber known as the Kotilingam Chamber AKA Kotilingalu, so called because it has thousands of stalagmite and stalactites that look like lingams. Hence the name as Koti means crore and Lingalu means lingas).

From here, a further passage going down took us to Patalaganga, the deepest part of the cave where there is a perennial spring of water. Above this is a stalagmite resembling a shivalingam. The water flows from the south-east to north-west, disappearing into the earth. Srikanth said that the water flows towards a well in Belum village, about 2km away. The fluctuation in the well’s water level is linked to the level in the caves as the invisible spring formed due to percolation of water is said to feed the well too.

On the way back, we enjoyed making music at the Saptasvarala Guha (musical chamber). The unique feature here is the metallic sounds the stalactites make when hit with a wooden stick or one’s knuckles.

The Belum Caves are thought to have been discovered in 1884 by a European surveyor Robert Bruce Foote. Later between 1982-84, a team of German speleologists headed by H. Daniel Gebauer conducted a detailed exploration of the caves. In 1988 the state government decided that the caves were of archaeological and geological importance and declared them protected. Later from 1999-2002, APTDC developed the caves as a tourist attraction. Development work including clearing up the slush inside, illuminating and creating walking paths, constructing and oxygen shafts were commissioned and the caves were first thrown open to visitors in February 2002.

Photographs by Srinidhi Raghavendra

Sailing through

Cruising in New Zealand and (top) a ship sails the waters of the Bahamas

Last week, we took you on a trip aboard India’s first cruise ship, the Super Star Libra. But, it’s the season to think global, so here’s a look at some of the best cruise destinations in the world that come alive in the winter months and play host to cruise lovers descending in droves to warmer climes.

The Bahamas:

The Bahamas are ideal for short cruises, the most common duration being three nights. The islands are just 100 miles off the coast of Florida in the US so you could combine a cruise and trip to the US. Some cruise lines also offer 7-night cruises that start from New York. The shorter ones start from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral.

This is the place to be for real watersport enthusiasts. Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, offers excellent opportunities for soft adventure sports (like diving, water-skiing, water-scooters and snorkelling). On the short cruises, Nassau and Freeport are the two main ports of call, and both are ideal holiday islands with white sand beaches, great shopping and food, historical tours on foot and horse-drawn carriages and casinos for those looking for higher thrills. Some cruise lines also offer stopovers at private islands.

Check with Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International and Disney Cruise Line for cruises to the Bahamas. Three-night cruises sail over the weekends, generally departing on Thursdays and Fridays, and four-night cruises sail during the weekdays. Prices begin from as low as $180.

Australia and New Zealand:

Cruising has become an important part of vacations in Australia and New Zealand. Australia’s most popular ports of call are on its East coast, and both The Outback and The Great Barrier Reef are easily accessible from this side of the country. No short trips here, as most of the cruises are 10 to 14-night ones. Shore excursions generally take in cities such as Auckland, Bay of Islands, Christchurch, Dunedin Wellington, Melbourne, Sydney, and Cairns.

Most cruises in Australia and New Zealand operate one-way between Auckland and Sydney, or the reverse. Between December and March is the best time to go into cruise control in Australian waters. A great mix of the ancient and the cosmopolitan, Australia and New Zealand present a vibrant mix of the old Aboriginal traditions and culture and thriving modern cities with amazing shopping and night-life. Many ports of call also include trips to adventure sports facilities that throw up thrills such as bungee jumping.

Princess Cruises has some of the best itineraries to offer for Australia and New Zealand. The prices start from $ 1,200.

Asia cruises:

The peak time for cruising in Asia through the Indian and Pacific oceans is from October to April and there are three kinds of vessels that undertake these cruises. The smaller ones base themselves in the area for the season while the larger ones, like the Queen Elizabeth II, pass through as part of an annual round-the-world trip. The third kind is the passenger-carrying container ships that have taken over from the steamers of old.

There are countless places in Asia that lend themselves to cruising. Ports of call range all the way from Dubai to Colombo, Seychelles to Bali, Tokyo and Hong Kong and most of the world’s best cruise lines operate here. Among the bigger liners, there are super-luxury ones like the Scottish Hebridean Spirit with only 50 suites to the more affordable Super Star Virgo from the Star Cruises stable that runs round-trips from Singapore and back. Then there are longer cruises offered by the Seven Seas Mariner that starts from Tokyo and takes in Beijing, Shanghai, Ishigaki and Keelung in a 14-night trip, ending in Hong Kong. Or check out the cruise offered by Seabourn’s Voyager that runs a 22-night cruise that begins in Sydney in early February and visits Bali, Sandakan, Kota Kinabalu and Manila and ends in Hong Kong.

My favourite holiday

Falguni Peacock,
fashion designer

In our line of work, Shane and I can’t take extended vacations and can only take three to four days off at a time. The one place, though, that I love visiting is Dubai as it’s so happening.

We’re so used to the hustle and bustle of Mumbai that we can’t go to a quiet place. Unlike London, where we get involved in work and which is too cold in winter, Dubai is ideal as it has some great shopping, and nightlife. Also, it’s just two hours away. We go there almost every six months. But I stay away during the shopping festival since it’s so crowded and you feel you’re getting a good deal but you’re actually not. As for the nightlife, there’s a new Buddha bar that we frequent besides the other well-known ones. November-December is a good time to visit.

Route map

China Airlines offers Indians one of the quickest routes to the US west coast. But it is also trying to persuade them that there are other reasons for flying the airline — like seeing Taiwan. The airline has put together a ‘Dynasty Package’ that offers excursions to the more exciting parts of the island. The airline also throws in a free ticket to Hong Kong in some cases.

While you can expect to pay anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per person for any of the package options, the price includes airfare, accommodation, sightseeing and airport transfers.

Here’s what you can choose from under the Dynasty Package: Taipei City Pack (3 days-2 nights), Taipei Trade Show Pack (3 days-2 nights with a night tour included), Taipei Outskirts Heritage & Culture pack (3 days-2 nights), Taipei and Round Island Tour (6 days-5 nights), Taipei and Lake & Mountain Natural Wonders (5 days-4 nights) and Kaohsiung City Pack (3 days-2 nights) among a host of other options. For bookings, contact a travel agent or China Airlines office, Delhi: 011 23327131.

Calling all Malaysia junkies. There’s good news for you if you’re considering a trip to the land that is, as they say, ‘Truly Asia’. Vensimal Travels is throwing in a free return ticket to Langkawi or Penang worth about Rs 5,000, if you opt for their Kuala Lumpur (KL) package. The package itself covers 3 nights-4 days in KL in a three-star hotel. Daily breakfasts, airport-hotel transfers and sightseeing is included as is the airfare, though taxes are extra. All this for Rs 12,999 per head but you need a minimum of two people to avail of the package. The offer will continue till March 31, 2006 except for the period between December 20 to January 5 next year. For more, contact: 2225 3232.