Waterfalls delight

Sitting snugly between the Bay of Bengal and the highlands of Eastern Ghats, Visakhapatnam offers another side to India

Our guide, Mr Rao, yells: "Get ready," his voice barely audible above the thundering chug of the train engine.

In seconds, the people in our carriage scream at the top of their lungs - some daredevils even stick their heads out the cabin windows - as our train whizzes through a tunnel, emerging into a breathtaking landscape of lush valleys and hills of the Eastern Ghats.

The train runs along the popular Kottavalasa Kirandul line, specially built to transport iron ore to the city of Visakhapatnam's steel plants and port for export from the mineral reserves of Chhattisgarh state.

I sink my teeth into a piping hot samosa and a cup of chai. Strange custom, I think, for locals to scream whenever we pass through a tunnel. But do as the locals do, right?

The three-hour journey takes us on an 114km climb up the hills through about 80 tunnels and 54 bridges.

We are on our way to the Araku Valley, a hill station in the state of Andhra Pradesh, home to different tribes and one of the least commercialised tourist destinations in South India. Unlike Rajasthan's golden dunes and exotic camel safaris, or Kerala's dreamy backwaters, this is a refreshing side to the incredible India everyone's seen posters of.

The Eastern Ghats, a discontinuous range of mountains along India's eastern coast, runs across the states of West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, to Tamil Nadu in the south.

Araku Valley, sitting snug in a region rich with deciduous forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, is a jewel in the rough as the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation steps up ecotourism development in the area.

Driving across fields seemingly carpeted with bright yellow Valasa flowers, or mustard plantations, we soak in the picturesque valley, coloured a shade of sunshine through the months of November to January.

The cool air is a lovely treat. We make a pitstop at the Borra Caves, an extensive display of impressive limestone structures believed to be more than 150 million years old. Considered the deepest cave in India, it is often featured in popular legends from the tribes.

The Chaparai waterfalls is another quaint spot to relax and observe a slice of local life. As the evening glow casts its light on families bonding over picnics on the rocks, others content themselves With splashing about in the water amid a thriving forest.

Early the next morning, we begin the eight-hour drive to Jagdalpur, a city in Bastar district in Chhattisgarh state to see the Chitrakote Falls. Known as the Niagara Falls of India, it is a spectacular sight. We are told the water levels vary with the monsoon season and the best time to visit is between July and October.

Its less famous counterpart, the Tirathgarh Waterfalls, is a block type waterfall set in the Kanger Ghati National Park involving quite a hike and offers another rewarding experience altogether.

We spend the evening at the Kanker Palace, a colonial-styled residence with an old-world charm. Brothers Jolly and Jai, who are descendents of the Maharajas of Kanker, have converted part of their palace into a heritage hotel with modern facilities. They also host tours in the region that span tribal villages and boating safaris.

Sitting in the family's living room is like timetravelling to the era of the British Raj, with stuffed hunting trophies mounted on walls and framed photos of proud men with extravagant beards and moustaches.

The drive back to Vizag - as Visakhapatnam is nicknamed - is a scenic one, through fields of plantations, random stops of chai and even a farmers' market where we observe a cattle auction.

The coastal city of two million residents, well known for its steel-manufacturing and ship-building industries, sits by the Bay of Bengal and boasts scenic beaches yet untapped by big-name resorts.

Waking up early to catch the sunrise, we stroll along the Ramakrishna Beach, fondly referred to as R.K beach, bustling with active Vizagites of all ages stretching, brisk walking and chatting around little food stalls selling breakfast cereals and chai.

The beach boulevard, which is closed to cars every morning, encourages early risers and is the best way to get a sense of the city's affinity with the sea.

We stroll past a yoga university, wacky statues of dinosaurs and dragons, and even a submarine which houses a museum, the first of its kind in eastern Asia where one can learn about the Indian Navy.

On the ropeway cable up to the Kailasagirl Hill Top Park, where a glowing pair of Lord Shiva and Parvathi statues sits, we are treated to a divine panoramic view of the metropolis and the bay.

It grows on you, this "city of destiny", a term coined by a Dr C.R. Reddy, who relocated the Andhra University to Vizag in the 1930s and set the then-fisherman's village on the course of development to become the promising industrial centre it is today.

"The sea stands for dynamism, change and adventure and the mountain stands for permanence, tradition and values," Vizag's late legendary chief justice P.V. Rajamannar once said.

Speaking to locals, it is heartening how the city's people believe this potential and wear this promise on their sleeves. And although it remains to be seen when or how Vizag will take its place on the world stage, it has certainly charmed this traveller.


Jean Qingwen Loo is a freelance writer.

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on March 2, 2014.