A rare glimpse of a rare animal – the Giant Grizzled Squirrel

I took this picture of a Giant Grizzled Squirrel yesterday. The photo was taken in the Palani HIlls of Tamil Nadu, but I won’t say exactly where as these animals are on the ‘at risk’ register and are protected. To find out more about these beautiful animals please see my earlier post here.

What a privilege to spend time observing this beautiful creature.

Great Grizzled Squirrel, Tamil Nadu, India

Giant Grizzled Squirrel, Tamil Nadu, India

The smallest temples in the world?

Somewhere in the jungle in the south of Karnataka are these tiny temples.

They have been here for centuries, if not millennia, used by the local tribal people as part of their animistic religion (believing that all things have a spirit or god in them and worshipping them).

I believe that there are three of these temples in all, one represents rounded hills, the second steep pointed hills and the third a squarer type of hill. The two that we saw are only around 40 – 50cm high and are within a few hundred feet of each other. The third is ‘lost’ as far as our guide knows, but the tribal people are likely to know where it is and still use it.

The small copper pot and stone-carved receptacle which you can see here are thought to be around 1,000 years old and are still used in worship. Our guide asked us not to disclose where these small temples are as the artefacts could be stolen by ‘antique hunters’ who would get a good price for them.

There is a sense of timelessness at these tiny temples, a feeling of being part of something ‘other-wordly’ and unique. People have risked the dangers of the jungle to come here; the wild elephant, leopard and tiger no deterent to their determination  to worship god in their own special way. Long may these places remain a hidden haven for the local people who see them as part of their past, present and future.

Why do Tamils paint their cows?

I’ve just been looking back over this blog and noticed the post about Pongal from 2012. If you want to know why Tamils paint their cows you will need to read this! Today is Day 1 of Pongal, so I would like to wish a happy festival to all of my friends who will be celebrating.

In the previous post I mention the beautiful green rice fields after the monsoon. Sadly, there is less rice in the fields this year after a poor monsoon so everyone is hoping that this year things will get back to normal.

Happy Pongal!

 

Mid-life crisis to successful business!

As I said in my last post, we recently had a visit from a young man who researches tours for Kuoni, the holiday tour company. We spent a very nice two days together, and he has now featured us in this months magazine which is sent to their business contacts and tour companies. It is really exciting to get a great recommendation from such a prestigious company.

If you want to see the newsletter please click here, choose your language, then click newsletter at the bottom left and choose current issue (for the month of December 2013).

In the meantime you may like to read another of the three articles about us here. I hope it encourages you to pay us a visit!

A Story of an Expat Couple Settled in India

Peter and Dorinda in Lakeside gardens

Peter and Dorinda in Lakeside gardens

Lakeside is hidden away in a remote valley just one hour’s drive from Madurai. It is unexpected to find a guest-house here. But even more surprising in this rural location is the fact that it is run by an English couple, Peter and Dorinda Balchin. Dorinda laughed when I asked her about this. “We’re just as surprised as anyone else!” she told me. “When we stayed at Lakeside during our first visit to India in 2007, we both had good jobs in the UK and had no intentions of running our own business, certainly not in India! But when the owner told us that the property was for sale, Peter asked me if I’d like to wake up here every morning or back in the UK? It was no contest, really. We returned to England and set the wheels in motion so that, by the end of 2008, and after spending less than twenty days in India, we left our old lives behind us and found ourselves the proud owners of what has now become this beautiful resort.”

The couple have enjoyed their first five years at Lakeside, finding the experience interesting and exciting, although they readily admit that moving to India has involved a steep learning curve for them both. Everything from finding the right staff to coping with bureaucracy has involved new ways of thinking and doing things – and endless patience!

They certainly seem to have adapted well to their new life, although some things have been more difficult to adjust to than others. Take shopping, for instance. “Visiting a whole range of shops when buying groceries, instead of one supermarket, took me back to my childhood days,” says Dorinda. “Although having one person scan the goods, paying another, and then a third checking and packaging my purchases was a whole new experience.” Peter agreed. He has a background in the building trade in the UK, and is responsible for renovations and maintenance. “The choices available for the task of upgrading Lakeside were limited when we first arrived. I suppose I had been spoilt by the range of items available in England. But it’s surprising how things have changed over the last five years. Many western items, from bathroom appliances to tools, are more readily available now, and more affordable. There are supermarkets and malls opening in Madurai as well, so that the shopping experience for both of us is much closer to that in the west. And the differences are getting smaller all the time.”

Life in many western countries, including the UK, can be very stressful. The opportunity to live a more relaxed lifestyle closer to nature was one of the things which helped Peter and Dorinda to make their decision to move to Tamil Nadu. Dorinda loves the early mornings, watching the sun rise and nature come to life. It is especially enjoyable if she is riding her horse down by the lakeside, with the chance of seeing deer or wild-boar, and with the ever present birdlife for company. For Peter, the best part of the day is sitting on the veranda in the early evening, watching the sun go down over the mountains. Sipping a cold beer as he watches the goats and water buffalo make their slow way homewards is something he would never have been able to do in his previous life.

The couple obviously love the seclusion at Lakeside, but have also taken the opportunity to explore further afield. “We have visited most of the tourist sites in south India,” explains Peter. “Each place has its own attractions but, for us, one of our favourite places is the remote area of Wayanad.  Here you can have a great wildlife experience, and are more or less guaranteed to see animals from small deer to huge gaur and elephants. The really lucky also get to see leopard, and the occasional tiger.”

“We’ve enjoyed travelling here in the south,” agrees Dorinda, “but India has so much more to offer. The next places on our ‘to visit’ list are all in the north – the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Darjeeling. We could spend a whole life-time in India and not see it all!”

One thing people love about a stay at Lakeside is the fund of stories that the owners are able to tell of their experiences. For example, the couple brought their pet Alaskan Malamute with them when they came to India; an enormous animal affectionately known by the locals as ‘the wolf dog’. He is, sadly, no longer with them, but the story of him travelling in the back of the car with his head out of the window still raises a smile – except with the motorbike riders who were so surprised by what they saw that they fell off of their bikes! Another memorable moment was during one conversation over dinner. Peter asked the question ‘if you could invite anyone from any period of history to dinner who would it be?’ and gave the example that President Obama has said that he would invite Nelson Mandela. You can imagine the surprise around the table when one of the guests said “I have had dinner with him, and Nelson phoned Queen Elizabeth II during our meal”. As you can imagine, no one could beat that!

The guests I met at Lakeside said that they enjoyed the peace and seclusion of the property. The buildings are spread out in the landscaped gardens in a way that offers space for people to ‘do their own thing’ whilst enjoying the fantastic views. The owner’s plans for the future are to keep that unique ambience. The property needed a lot of work doing to it when they bought it, and during the last five years they have fully renovated the buildings, and built a swimming pool. But no further building is planned. “What we want to do is continue to upgrade our facilities for our guests” Peter told me. “We aren’t looking to provide ultra-luxurious accommodation, but can guarantee a warm welcome and comfortable stay. What we do want to do is provide more unique experiences and opportunities, particularly for foreign guests to experience real life in rural Tamil Nadu, which is something they don’t find on the average tour. With my ‘hands on’ skills, and Dorinda’s focus on the needs of the guests we feel we have an ideal partnership to do this.”

Peter and Dorinda have two children, and a grandson, living in England. They readily admit that it is family and friends that they miss most in their new life, and so take the opportunity to return to England once a year.  Their family and friends have also visited Lakeside, and realized that the couple’s unexpected decision to move to India was not so crazy after-all!

“The phrase ‘Incredible India’ is so true, and we’ve certainly fallen in love with life here”, Dorinda told me. “The friendly people, the fantastic food, the scenery, the amazing temples, the colours, the wildlife – the list is endless. We feel privileged to live here. And privileged to be able to share our home with like-minded people who choose to stay with us during their Indian adventures.”

Distant Frontiers – great holiday ideas

We recently had a visit from a young man who researches tours for Kuoni, the holiday tour company. We spent a very nice two days together, and he has now featured us in this months magazine which is sent to their business contacts and tour companies. It is really exciting to get a great recommendation from such a prestigious company.

If you want to see the newsletter please click here, choose your language, then click newsletter at the bottom left and choose current issue (for the month of December 2013).

In the meantime you may like to read one of the three articles about us here.

6 things we liked about Lakeside

View at Lakeside, Tammil Nadu

1. Amazing View: Visit Lakeside and you realise what made Dorinda and Pete leave behind their old lives, to become the proud owners of this beautiful guesthouse. It is surprising to find a guest-house here, yet even more unexpected is the fact that it is run by an English couple. As soon as you check into the property, bougainvillea’s in full bloom greet you and beyond the periphery is a  beautiful lake surrounded by coconut plantations.

2. Wonderful hosts: The hands-on approach of Dorinda and Pete makes your stay memorable. Lakeside guarantees a warm welcome and comfortable stay with the couple working hard to provide unique experiences and opportunities, particularly for foreign guests to experience, real life in rural Tamil Nadu, which is something they don’t find on the average tour. Kennedy, the caretaker and the other locals who have been trained to look after the guests, always have a smile on their face and are helpful without being obtrusive.

Sari weaving as a cottage industry

3. Village Tour: One of the highlights of my Tamil Nadu trip was the Village Tour I did at the Lakeside Guesthouse.  I have done a lot of tours like this before. But the tour with Dorinda was excellent. I could see that a lot of time had gone into planning the tour and identifying the experiences that would interest clients. While on the tour, you visit a local brick making factory, a village school, a weaver’s family, a potter, a coconut de-husking unit and few other interesting people. Since the local community also benefits from these tours, everyone is very happy to see us. It is an unhurried experience where you decide how much you want to spend interacting at the various places. At the school the children recited poems for us that they had been learning which was wonderful. Dorinda and Kennedy, both accompany the guests on the tour and are excellent at explaining all that we see. The tour starts around nine o’clock in the morning and it is almost lunch time by the time we come back.

4. Accessibility:  Lakeside is hidden away in a remote valley, just a two hour drive from Madurai and around a three hour drive from Chettinad. Its excellent location makes it an ideal way to end a hectic Tamil Nadu itinerary or rest for a few days before entering Kerala.

Brahminy kite with turtle for breakfast

Brahminy kite with turtle for breakfast

5. Peace and Relaxation: To mirror Dorinda’s words, Lakeside provides you the opportunity to unwind close to nature. You will love the early mornings, watching the sunrise and nature come to life. It is especially enjoyable to do a morning walk down by the lakeside, with the chance of seeing deer or wild-boar and with the ever present birdlife for company. Or sitting on the veranda in the early evening, watching the sun go down over the mountains, sipping a cold beer as you watch the goats and water buffalo make their slow way homewards. The well-stocked library entices you to pick up a book that you have been meaning to read, but never got around to because of all the distraction of everyday life.

Guests enjoying a dip in our pool!6. The Room and Pool:  Lakeside does not provide ultra-luxurious accommodation, but you can be sure of a very comfortable stay. The main bungalow has four rooms (2 air-conditioned) with magnificent views of the lake. The rooms are ample in size although smaller than those of the individual cottages. The six individual cottages are spread around the property and are very spacious with an extra bed for the third person (2 air-conditioned). You also have the option to choose air-conditioning just for the night ( 8pm to 8am) – Ideal if you are a budget traveller but still want your comfort. The buildings are spread out in the landscaped gardens in a way that offers space for people to ‘do their own thing’ whilst enjoying the fantastic views. I don’t know why, but I was not accepting to find a pool here. But the presence of a beautiful clean pool was like the icing on the cake.

I hope you enjoyed reading – and maybe it has whet your appetite for a visit to Lakeside.

Sunrise at Lakeside

Jumbo holidays!

Everyone needs a break sometimes – including temple elephants in India!

Every year the temple elephants got to a ‘rejuvenation camp’ for a 48 day holiday, as a ‘thank you’ for all their hard work during the year. Lot’s of elephants get together in their version of a summer camp and a good time is had by all! You may want to read this article in the Hindu newspaper to find out more.

The first year they did this the people missed the elephants so much that they planned big celebrations and processions to welcome them back to their homes after the camp. The elephants were to be unloaded from their transport on the outskirts of the towns. The streets from there to the temples were lined with people, but the elephants had missed the temple so much that they didn’t wait for the procession, but just ran back to the temple and took up position once again to bless the worshippers!

I’m sure the temple elephant I met with some guests in Dindigul is having a great time!

temple elephant in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu

Lift off to Mars – India’s space programme

Lift off of Indias Mars Mission

Lift off of Indias Mars Mission

Over the last few days I have read a number of comments about the Indian ‘Mission to Mars’.  Many people argue that India should take its gaze from the stars and focus on the dirt beneath its feet.  Comments such as:

India is a poor country and should not be wasting money.

Other countries give aid to India which obviously isn’t needed if it can send a rocket to Mars.

India obviously doesn’t care about its poor.

So, what are the facts of the matter?  Here is a little perspective:

The cost of the Mars mission is approximately £50 million.

There are approximately 1.27 billion people in India.  If you divide the cost of the mission between them all they would be paying just £0.39 per person.

Statistics show that around 70% of the population earn or live on about £1.25 per day.  How much would they get each if India had not launched this space project?  Approximately £0.40 per person; put another way, approx. 1/3 of a day’s wage for the poorest in India.

India considers its space programme to be important for a number of reasons, including the development of new technologies and the ability to put their own weather and communication satellites into space (at a much lower cost than having another country do it for them).  The continued development of this programme could see India becoming the preferred country for other Third World nations to put their satellites into space and therefor bring more income to India.

Justin Rowlett of the BBC reports on the role of India’s Mission to Mars and the positive influence it can have on Indians, both rich and poor.  It is worth a read.

And my view?  There is a great deal of poverty in India which needs to be addressed.  The question is – how do you move so many people forward to a better way of life?  Just giving hand-outs isn’t enough, you need to empower and inspire people, provide hope and jobs.  Maybe India’s space programme is just one small cog in a very large wheel which is striving to achieve this.

Birdwatching in South India

Painted Stork

Painted Stork

Travel and Tour World have had a great article this week about migratory birds in Tamil Nadu, but there is one mistake in it – they seem to have missed out Lakeside!

Seriously though, although our valley may not be a bird sanctuary and does not have the huge flocks of birds that you will see elsewhere, what we do have is variety.

A few years ago students from the nearby Gandhigram University came to the valley each weekend for a whole year to catalogue the species which they could see.  Some birds were obviously local residents and here all the time, whilst others were migratory and changed with the changing seasons.  All in all, they identified over 200 species!

What makes our valley so unique is the variety of habitats within a small area.  Behind our property are steeply rising hills which create perfect thermals for raptors.  The hills are Reserve Forest which means that they are protected and so we have many forest birds in the area.  Moving down we have more open brush/woodland; then there are our gardens which attract even more species.  There is, of course, the lake with the types of birds that attracts, and as water levels fall we get the waders which like a more marshy environment.  To add to that there are the cultivated areas of coconut, mango, paddy fields etc.  If that is not enough we can take a short drive up into the hills and see more birds which like a slightly higher altitude and cooler environment.

If you are thinking of doing a ‘birdwatching’ holiday in South India then you must visit the sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu, but don’t forget the unique environment of Lakeside as well!

And if you are not a confirmed birdwatcher?  The majority of our guests say that they enjoy seeing the amazing variety, colours and sounds of the local birdlife, creating many memories to take home at the end of a relaxing stay in a unique, secluded rural environment.

Why not come and stay to see for yourself!

A hunter on the prowl – the praying mantis

Hunting bugs on the wall of the main house.

Hunting bugs on the wall of the main house.

I have written a few posts on the birds and animals you might see at Lakeside, but there are also some fascinating insects. Both of the photos in this post were taken on the veranda of the main house fairly early in the morning. It is obvious from their colour which one lives in a verdant bush and which one makes it’s home in dry or dead leaves!

The praying mantis (or mantid) gets it’s name from the way it holds it’s front legs like a person praying.  These insects are carnivorous hunters, well adapted to their way of life. They have a triangular head on a long “neck,” (part of an elongated thorax) and can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan their surroundings with their two large compound eyes and three other simple eyes which are located between them.

Mantids are usually green or brown which provides excellent camouflaged as they live on plants where they lie in ambush, waiting for their prey to come to them, or slowly and patiently stalking it. They use their front legs to reach out and grab their prey with reflexes which are so quick that they are difficult to see with the naked eye. Once they have a hold of their dinner the spikes on the legs dig in to prevent the meal escaping.

The praying mantis will eat moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies, and other insects; they are also cannibals and are not averse to eating their own kind. The most famous example of this is the mating behavior of the adult female, who sometimes eats her mate just after — or even during — mating. Strangely, the male doesn’t seem to be put off by this!

Is this a dead leaf?  No, it's a hunter on the prowl!

Is this a dead leaf? No, it’s a hunter on the prowl!

Life-saving camouflage for ground-nesting birds

I recently read an article in The Hindu newspaper about threats to ground nesting birds from a variety of causes ranging from shrinking habitat to feral dogs and grazing animals. Over the last few years we have had red-wattled lapwing and Indian nightjar nesting at Lakeside so I found the article very interesting. I agree with the article that we need to plan how to preserve the habitat of such birds whilst also fulfilling the needs of the human population – not an easy task!

If you would like to read the article you can find it here.

The following photos of ground nesting birds were all taken at Lakeside.

red-wattled lapwing eggs

red-wattled lapwing eggs

Young red-wattled lapwing

Young red-wattled lapwing

Indian Nightjar eggs

Indian Nightjar eggs

Indian Nightjar on nest - great camouflage!

Indian Nightjar on nest – great camouflage!

Indian nightjar chick within minutes of hatching

Indian nightjar chick within minutes of hatching