Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Sagararani - Kochi's own sunset "cruise"

Kochi - Kerala's own metropolis - is a city that is surrounded by waterways all around. Kochi, Cochin, Ernakulam - as you like to call it - has a beautiful seashore along it. The core city areas do not have a seashore, though - since the city is on the banks of Vembanad lake & the River Periyar. One of the first things tourists visiting the city of Kochi do, is to take a boat cruise around Vembanad Lake and River Periyar - both comes together is what is called the Shipping Channel. There are a lot of boats that take tourists on a cruise through the waterbody. In addition to these private boats, there are some government run SWTD (State Water Transport Department) transport boats, which offer cheap and quick trips across the lake/river.

Since the port is located, more or less, within the city - the ships come fairly into the river/lake, and hence there exists a lot of restriction on the operation of boats. Most of the sunset cruises offered by these boats are nothing more than two hours of slow ride through the river will the sea opening - where the boats drift a bit to let the tourists watch the sun set, and then return back to the tourist boat jetties, located along marine drive in the city. Boating is an important item on every tourist's agenda. These boats cost quite some money - and you get very less for the 90-120 minutes they take you around for.
Sagararani.. as she prepares to head to the sea!
If you are visiting Kochi - please do not look at these boats unless you are only looking at spending good money on endlessly moving over waters. Head straight to the "High Court Jetty" - there stands the sleepy office of KSINC - or Kerala Shipping & Inland Navigation Corporation (A Government of Kerala organisation). They operate a great cruise - the Sagararani. They have two identical boats - Sagararani and Sagararani-II. Both were built by the Cochin Shipyard and are officially IRS registered vessels, certified to enter the seas. Sagararani offers evening sunset cruises every day (except during monsoons) - which leaves Kochi at 1730hrs and reaches back at 1930hrs. With tickets priced at Rs. 300 (on weekdays. Its Rs. 350 for weekends and holidays), they offer a memorable two hours ride to the seas to witness the sunset sans obstructions (except clouds, of course), a light snack, services of a knowledgeable guide and lots of entertainment.
This is Sagararani-II @ KSINC Jetty near High Court, Kochi
While the Sagararanis are operated by a government organisation, there is one private operator, Classic Cruises, who operates Classic Paradise for sunset cruises. So this could be an alternative if the Sagararani isn't available. Both the boats have their own advantages and disadvantages, to be honest - and I can vouch for that since I've been on both the boats. Both the boats charge around the same rates. The private boat is newer and has better sound systems - with lots and lots of lights. The lower deck has a good disco floor in Classic Paradise. The Sagararani, on the other hand, is more family friendly and has a conference hall styled lower deck - which is good for families to rest in, in airconditioned comfort, after the sun sets.
This is Classic Paradise - the only private cruise vessel..

April 14, 2016:
Heights of Festivities! A lazy evening! I rushed from the Airport towards the city - I was at the airport with another spotter friend to spot some aircraft. I dropped my friend near the High court and I rushed towards the jetty, where my entire family was waiting for me! We were taking Sagararani again - after almost 6 years! Being a holiday, tickets were priced at Rs. 350 each - we took 5 tickets and walked into Sagararani - the older among the Sagararanis. Sagararani can seat lesser passengers than Sagararani-II. They first filled Sagararani and then Sagararani-II. Both were operating on that day. We remained in the AC hall on the lower deck till the vessel started off. We backed out of the jetty exactly at 1730hrs - the other Sagararani (II) also left at the same time.
Starting off... 
Soon after we began the sightseeing, refreshments rolled out of the pantry. The neatly dished out kit had a vegetarian samosa, a piece of tea cake and a biscuit, followed by a cup of hot tea. The refreshment tasted fresh and the quantity was sufficient. The crew on board ensured that every body on board received their share - they kept enquiring again and again to confirm this. Bins to collect the refuse was aplenty on board - this ensured that the refuse wasn't dumped into water. Soon after showing the important show-worthy regions around, the vessel slowly headed towards the sea.
Refreshment on Sagararani..
The guide ensured that all passengers on board were told about what were seen around - this included the Marine drive, Bolghatty, Fort Kochi, the cruise terminal, etc etc. Since, this wasn't our first journey on Sagararani, me, and my family members, headed to the front. I headed straight to the deck - the serang in control was a very jovial guy. He was happy to see people talk to him and ask him about his job. It was a young guy at the front, who was aiming at driving a tug one day. We explained in detail about the training process and the examinations they need to clear before they get licenses to drive around these vessels.
The sun is already setting!
Thats Queen Mary -2 heading out of Kochi..
An SWTD Ferry vessel.. thats MV Lagoons in the background
As we neared the sea, the crew re-checked if all the passengers were wearing their life jackets and were seated. The enforcement of safety measures were ensured by the presence of marine police and coast guard officials who were patrolling the area. Once into the open seas, the continuous commentary stopped and got replaced by entertainment. Passengers in the vessel were encouraged to participate.

The highlight of the entire day was the presence of the cruise ship Queen Mary 2. The vessel of mammoth proportions was leaving the port of Kochi after a quick visit - carrying over 2000 passengers! We were maintaining a safe distance with the vessel as we slowly moved towards the sea. Queen Mary 2 was under speed restrictions till they cleared the port limits. The serang of our vessel was talking about the special instructions all the vessels in the area were given - including the paths they were forbidden to take.

It was a cloudy day and hence we couldn't witness the sunset, as such. As we headed to the sea, another ship joined Queen Mary - this was MV Lagoons heading to the Lakshadweep. It was fun seeing these passenger vessels out in the sea. I also saw a Coast Guard patrol ship also for the first time - it was ICGS Abhinav, an Aadesh class patrol vessel. It moved quite fast. We moved a little more into the sea - we crossed another passenger vessel in the seas - that was MV Kavaratti, in bound from Lakshadweep. We turned around sometime around 1840hrs - and moved back to Kochi. I realised that the outbound was actually slow and the vessel moved faster on its way back. It got dark by now.
Returning to Kochi.. thats a Container vessel @ Vallarpadam Container Terminal. The floating lighthouse in Classic Paradise
All the three evening cruise vessels - ours (Sagararani), Sagararani-II and Classic Paradise moved together on the way back - we were leading the pack, though. As it got dark, the music on all the vessels got louder - the dance floors went berserk. The vessel had performers - a musician, and a few dancers - who put up their show. After a while of seeing the show, we headed to the lower deck and we rested in the cool confines of the conference hall below. We were finally dropped back at the KSINC Jetty near High Court around 1930hrs - ending an amazing trip to the sea. Although the intention was to witness the sun set - that didn't happen because it was too cloudy.

The trip was a handful of lovely memories - a ride through a sea without burning a hole in the pocket is always a great experience. I'd surely recommend this to all people visiting Kochi. I'd leave the choice of the vessel to you - but a sunset cruise to the sea is a must do in Kochi!

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Down the nilgiris on the Club Class

I had written about the circumstances that finally led to booking the Airavat Club Class for my trip from Ooty to Bengaluru in my earlier post (read here). It was a simple round trip booking with the routine discount they provide.

June 26, 2016:
Six awesome days had just ended - the ride on the Nilgiris Mountain Railway was an icing on the cake, and it happened perfectly on the last day (read here about that). I was in a confused state as the day began - a bit of sadness that I was leaving Ooty, and oodles of joy that I was returning home! I got up a little late - but then, that was regular in those six days. I hurried with my breakfast and asked the guys at my accomodation to get me a vehicle to travel to the bus station. It took some time to get the vehicle, and I left the place only by around 0945hrs - for a bus departing at 1000hrs. The place was just a couple of kilometres from the bus station and hence I made it there by 0955hrs.

My bus was already parked there, on platform #14. Just as I walked in, the crew called me - I did not pickup the call, but waved my phone at the crew, who understood and disconnected the call. The conductor confirmed my destination while leaving my bag in the luggage bay. I was the last to board - I just got on board and reached my seat, and the bus got moving (1001hrs) - a minute before scheduled time (1002hrs). Soon after the bus started, the conductor came around to distribute water bottles and plastic bags (as vomit bags). He checked if anyone had a special requests and went back to the cabin. The initial run was very slow - thanks to the terrible Sunday morning traffic in Ooty.
As we commenced our descent.. look at the width of the road..
A little into the run, the bus picked up pace. This driver was also the typical BCD-4 styled - he shifts gears quickly to 4th - the bus then cries, struggles, and vibrates as the engine struggles to remain alive. Traffic came to a standstill at TR Bazar, near Naduvattam. The issue was an under-construction culvert - and reckless private cars who don't care for heavy vehicles. The culvert was followed by a fairly sharp left curve immediately afterwards - vehicles lined up here, leaving no space for the bus to take a turn. This made things tight, and we lost about 10 minutes negotiating this curve. A little later, I moved to the first row and sat on the seats meant for the crew - I had informed the conductor earlier about this, and he had permitted.
Eucalyptus plantations on the way..
Approaching a hair-pin bend..
By now, we were fast descending the ghats. The driver maintained fairly good pace through the run. The crew were indicating that multi-axles are tight for these routes - and it was evident. The curves were tight, and the crew had a tough time passing them. Another major problem our crew faced were the reckless TNSTC buses. While our driver was honking before each major curve, TNSTC crew neither honked nor do they slow down - they just enter curves at speed and end up right in front. Sometime around 1130, the conductor started receiving calls from passengers who were boarding at Gudalur - he said we'll be there in another 15 minutes. The roads got narrower as we neared Gudalur town. We reached Gudalur at 1155hrs - the pick-up point is right outside the bus station - three passengers got in, and we started moving by 1157hrs. The road from Gudalur towards Bandipur is quite narrow and has a lot of curves. We reached Thorappalli check-post - the entrance to the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, at 1208. The crew exchanged pleasantries with the check-post staff (forest staff) and entered the forest.
Entering Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary..
Running through the forest..
The driver was very cautious and slow inside the forest - unlike my inbound trip, we did not have any wildlife spottings this time. The run through the forest was uneventful. We crossed into Karnataka at 1234hrs - we also crossed an Ooty bound Club class at the border. Its always fun to see the hand-wave exchanges when they cross another of their ilk. The run inside the forest was eventless here as well. We exit the forest at around 1253hrs. I headed back to my seat now. We passed Gundlupet at 1308hrs, and finally pulled into the same Nijaguna Spa and Resort at 1311hrs for lunch. The crew announced a 15 minute break and disappeared. I did not like this place the last time as well - its expensive and the food is very very average.
Passing another ACC on the way.. and we enter Karnataka here..
I gobbled down what ever I bought and walked out of the hotel. It had been raining heavily when I was having my food - it was drizzling when I came out of the hotel. After clicking some photos, I waited for the crew to come back. We started from there at 1341hrs - exactly 30 minutes break. The driver headed to sleep, and the conductor took to the wheels now. I too pushed back my seat and dozed off. The sun was on my side and it was an hindrance - but I was very sleepy that I just dozed off. I slept fairly well, and woke up only as we were entering Mysore bus station - the conductor was shouting out Mysore Mysore from the driver seat - he parked the bus near the fuel station (1451hrs) and then called out for passengers getting down at Mysore.
The bus: KA-01-F-9148, when we stopped for lunch..
We started off soon from Mysore at 1456hrs. The crew did not waste time trying to attract passengers from there. We rushed out of the city and joined the highway soon. Traffic was on the higher side since it was a Sunday. I slept off for some more time. I woke up just as the bus pulled into the Maddur break point, at 1610hrs. I thought this break was unwanted. Majority of the passengers did not get off the bus - the crew went, had food and came back. We started off at 1621hrs - the driver took to the wheels now (the conductor drove till there). We moved fairly fast till Channapatna - traffic came to a standstill here. We some how managed to pass Channapatna by 1708hrs. The scene repeated again at Ramanagara and again at Bidadi. The ugly face of weekend traffic showed up really well. The driver sped up between the towns, reaching upto 95kmph at times.
The branding...
We reached Kengeri only at 1830hrs - almost 3:30hrs to cover a little over 120kms! I was expecting traffic to get worse after that - but that wasn't the case, thankfully. We passed Deepanjali Nagar depot by 1845 and made it to Satellite BS by 1847hrs. Passengers were dropped outside the bus station, at the traffic signal, and we continued towards Shantinagar. We dropped passengers at Mysore Circle (1853hrs) and Corporation Circle (1859hrs) on the way. We finally reached Shantinagar by 1908hrs - over 9 hours since we left from Ooty, and over 4h10m from Mysore!

The bus, KA-01-F-9148, had clocked over 9.3 Lakh kms. This particular bus was earlier operated on the Bangalore-Ernakulam route, and then on the Bangalore-Thrissur route, before being moved to the Ooty route. The bus did show its age - there were some audible squeaks. The exteriors were in good shape and the interiors were fairly well maintained. The rear LCD panels were missing. The seats were quite tired as well. The crew were the typical BCD-4 styled - lugging experts. The vibration levels were terrible. I somehow don't appreciate this attitude of not keeping time to get fuel efficiency. The crew behaviour was awesome - both of them spoke soft and we really well behaved. Another good journey with the Airavat Crawler Class!

Blanket: No
Water: Yes - 500ml bottles.
Snacks: No
Charging Point: No
Entertainment: Available - Not used

Maintenance: 4/5 [Audible squeaks]
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4/5 [Too much of lugging, terrible gearing]
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 4/5 [Quite delayed]

Overall: 4.5/5 [Value for money]

Will I take this service again? You don't have better options!

Sunday, July 03, 2016

The star of the blue hills! The Nilgiri Mountain Railways!

The Nilgiri Mountain Railways is, perhaps, the sole surviving metre-gauge railway line in India. India once had a large network of metre-gauge lines - but, probably, only this 46km line now survives. Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) is famous for more than this trivial reason - it is also a UNESCO Heritage site. The origin of the NMR dates back to 1908. It was originally laid by the British, and is now under the Salem Division of Southern Railway. NMR is also famous for being the sole section with regular scheduled steam powered trains.

I had last traveled in this section back in 2011 (read here). Back then, I couldn't enjoy much of the Coonoor-Ooty ride. I was in Ooty recently for a six-day long training program. On the closing day of the program, I and another participant who was at the venue decided to have a quick ride on the NMR. We initially thought of traveling from Ooty to Coonoor, but later reversed the stretch and decided to ride up the hills from Coonoor to Ooty.

June 25, 2016:
We hurried out of the venue sometime around 1430hrs. Luckily, we got an auto soon after we came out of the venue, which dropped us at the Ooty bus station some 5 minutes later. We had to be in Coonoor before 1600 to comfortably make it to the 56138 Coonoor-Udhagamandalam Passenger, than leaves at 1630hrs. We decided not to take an ordinary bus, but looked for a long distance bus, which could take us to Coonoor faster. We got a bus heading to Tiruppur - the conductor first didn't entertain us, but called us in as the bus started from the bus station. We were dropped at Coonoor by around 1550hrs. We rushed to the railway station to get our tickets. A notice at the ticket counter announced that only 140 tickets will be sold - Each coach had seating for about 57 passengers.
YDM4 #6730 with the rake.. @Coonoor.. 
The LP doing pre-departure checks..
The 56138 Udhagamandalam passenger had 5 coaches - including two-and-a-half unreserved second class sitting coaches, one-and-a-half reserved second class sitting and a half first class sitting coaches. A YDM4 (#6730) of Ponmalai (Golden Rock) Diesel Locomotive Shed was to work the consist up the hills. The loco was shut down at that time. The loco pilots came around at 1615hrs and turned on the engine. The familiar phur phur sounds from the loco began. The LPs were seen doing pre-departure checks on the engine. A bell was rung at 1625 announcing that the train would depart shortly, and one more at 1630hrs, followed by a series of whistles and green flags being waved by brakesmen in each coach. A long horn from the loco, and we slowly powered forward.
Starting off from Coonoor...
Based on my previous experience, I knew that the engine would be at the rear when the train heads to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) - Me and my friend selected seats based on this direction of movement, while majority of the passengers guessed the direction wrong and selected seats facing the engine. The train slowly crawled out of the station and moved towards Mettupalayam for some time. Soon all the brakesmen waved a red flag - a rarity on Indian Railways, and the train came to a complete halt. We stopped for a couple of minutes. Soon the semaphore lifted , the guard at the, now leading end, blew a long whistle, all the brakesmen waved the green flag, the loco blew a long horn and began pushing the train forward. The train makes a very sharp climb out of Coonoor, with a gradient of 1 in 27. Soon after the climb is a left curve and then the section more or less levels out.
The rare scene.. Red flags..
As the semaphore raises, the flags go green and we move forward..
The sharp climb out of Coonoor..
A little after we climbed up, the train came to a complete halt. I initially thought it could be some technical halt - but the loco honked a lot. It was not the usual emergency chain pull signal. A little later I understood what was the scene - cattle were blocking the permanent way! There was continuous honking from the loco for sometime. We slowly inched forward at the speed of the cattle, which was moving along the tracks. After a lot of attempts by the crew, the cattle moved off the track and we picked up speed. Speed - I am not talking of great speeds - we moved in the range of about 25-30kmph. There were some gradients around, and a total of three tunnels - all of them around 400~500m long. The first halt was at Wellington. My coach got fully crowded here - atleast 10-12 standing passengers in addition to 57 seated passengers.
Cattle slowing us down..
Gangmen on the way...
Crowded coach..
The section generally passes through sparsely inhabited areas - the tracks were lined on both sides with eucalyptus plantations. The valley got visible on the left side in some places. The smell of eucalyptus gave company through the journey. The air was chilling and my fingers got numb often. I did not note down the timings at each station. There were 4 stops, excluding the origin and destination, on the route - Wellington, Aravankadu, Ketti and Lovedale. Except Lovedale, the other stations were on the left side. There were some areas where I really wished I was on the ground than the train - lovely photogenic curves with awesome picturesque locales! From the looks of it, majority of the passengers were tourists who were travelling just to experience the train. The locals seem to prefer buses!
One of the three tunnels en route..
I saw a token exchange at Lovedale - but since the train moves are extremely slow speeds, and the train halts there, the token exchange was nothing spectacular. The train stopped, the pointsman handed over the token and collected the old token. A highway ran parallel to the tracks after Lovedale, and a lot of vehicle drivers stopped to see the train - feels very good. There is one ghost station - more of a halt station - at Fernhill. The train fully slowed, honked and picked pace again. We pulled into Udhagamandalam a little before the scheduled time. People jostled to get off the train so that they could click selfies with the train. The coach has only one exit, which is terribly narrow as well. There is another door, that opens to the platform outside the coach, which is used by the brakesman. They used this door as well to let passengers out. While I did not click selfies, but I did spend some time clicking the train.
After we reached Udhagamandalam...
This was another awesome trip on the NMR. The last time, I slept through this section (Coonoor to Udhagamandalam) - so this trip was an awesome chance to experience the section fully. The seats in this coach was terrible - hardly any legroom, and the seats were narrow. The seats were good for this 1 hour ride, but certainly not for a longer ride to Mettupalayam. That is not a deal breaker - you are becoming part of a heritage ride anyways! The ticket counter at Coonoor issued the normal computer printed tickets using the Unreserved ticketing system - the good ol' Edmundson tickets would have helped keep the heritage feel. Another railway journey that I enjoyed - and perhaps the sole metreguage and steam section that the future generations in India would witness [I did not travel in the steam section as part of this journey].