Thulasi Ram was cutting his first teeth in the family business in Bilaspur with his brother-in-law when I was posted there in the Railways. We became close family friends within a short time. My daughter, Maya, who was just over two years old then took a liking to Thulasi’s scooter and a ride on it became almost a daily ritual. I moved on from Bilaspur and so too did Thulasi. He married Nandini in 1991 and took up independent charge of the business in Cuttack. From there he moved to Visakapattinam in 1994. Vishnu, their son is in the 12th Standard and is an avid reader, like his mother. All three of them enjoy travel and a narration of some of their experiences makes me green with envy, in a pleasant way – if there can be one! Today breakfast was in their house and early to facilitate the Arakku Valley trip by day. The Dosas and the accompaniments, particularly the onion chutney, was a harbinger of the wonderful experiences that was to follow during the day.
The KK (Kottavalsa-Kirandul) Line of the East Coast Railway was made operational in 1967. It is one of the most difficult sections of the Indian Railways (made more difficult by restrictions imposed lately by the Maoists), but arguably one of the most important. This section of the railway transports iron ore primarily to the Visakapattinam Port. A senior railway colleague posted in ‘Waltair’ Division used to regularly attach his ‘saloon’ and take rest in Arakku and he called it the ‘Ooty of the East Coast’! Since then I was keen to make a trip there and today I did with Thulasi. En route to Arakku we made a short detour to visit the Borra Caves. The over 150 million year old Stalactite and Stalagmite caves were explored by a Britisher (reportedly discovered by local shepherds) in 1807. The Gosthani river flows beneath the Borra Caves. It is not known where the tunnel labyrinth inside the Borra Caves lead to – many speculate that they lead to Kashi, Kailas, etc. The KK Line passes over the Borra Caves and it is A leisurely trip through the treasures of the caves is best done with a guide, who can point out the ‘Mother and Child’, ‘The Elephant’, ‘Corn’, ‘Mushroom’, ‘Shiridi Baba’, ‘Shivan and Parvathi’, ‘The Sheesh Nag’, ‘Hanuman’s Gaddha’, ‘Hanuman’s footprint’ and many more.
The drive to Arrakku Valley is most scenic and with low hanging mists and the cool temperature it surely is the ‘Ooty of the East Coast’. AP Tourism offers good accommodation in ‘Mayuri’. The Integrated Tribal Development Program of the AP Government runs three month computer courses for tribals with free accommodation and food. They then find it easy to find jobs (most of them do not return to serve in their place of birth). Thulasi took me to the ITDP Horticulture Farm, where he had placed orders for a kilogram of ‘Bamboo Chicken’. I must tell you the recipe of this mouth watering preparation as told to me by Munga, who made it for us. The chicken is marinated in a paste of green chilly, ginger, garlic and a sprinkling of red chilly powder. A fresh section of green bamboo is opened at one end and the marinated chicken is stuffed into it. The opened end of the bamboo section is then closed with banana leaves and clay. The ‘Bamboo Chicken’ is put into hot coals and left to cook. Munga says she knows exactly when it is cooked – I guess it is the aroma that it gives off that signals when the chicken is ready to be served. The bamboo is almost fully burnt when it is brought before you to be served. The banana leaf and clay at that secured one end of the bamboo section are expertly removed and the cooked chicken is placed before you to feast on. And what a feast it is? Totally devoid of oil and slow cooked, it is a healthy meal. One kilogram of the ‘Bamboo Chicken’ sounded formidable initially. But the bones soon decorated the plates and Munga further treated us with Chicken curry (the preparation was too good) and Phulkas. Munga was assisted by Raju, Sr and Jr. The lunch break wound up with an impromptu dance by the inebriated Mungi.
The ITDP runs a Museum of tribal art and culture, where they are redaying a centre to showcase ‘Bamboo Chicken’. The Arakku Valley Coffee Centre is set up to popularize Arakku Valley Coffee – they sell coffee of various types as well as coffee chocolates. The Shimliguda railway station was till 2004 the highest railway station in the country at 996 meters. The record is now held by a station on the Udhampur-Quazigund section.
Mr. MK Ramachandran is arguably the most widely traveled Himalayan expert. The three books on his experiences of nearly 50 trips are immensely popular. I had the good fortune to speak to him over the phone, thanks to Thulasi. I wish that I am able to make a trip to the Himalayas with him some day. Dinner consisted of Pooris and Vermicelli Upma with Potato curry, washed down with three types of Indian sweets at the residence of a former railway colleague, GVL Sathya Kumar, who is now the Deputy Chairman of the Visakapattinam Port.