Friday, October 24, 2014

​Wayanad Family Trip Travelogue

I had done a Wayand roadtrip in 2008, with friends and in a Hertz Scorpio. (Read travelogue Part 1, Part 2, and an Ergo article). That was a brand new scorpio Vls with its ribbon on the bonnet
This October, after about 6 years, went there again. This time also in a Scorpio, again from Hertz (Carzonrent) and a relatively new one with ribbon on its bonnet. But this time went with family.
 Above: 2014 Scorpio Vlx, Below: 2008 Scorpio Vls, both from Carzonrent

We left from Mysore very early in the morning, stopped at Nanjanagud for sometime, for I thought hotels in Gundlupete may not open before 7AM. While proceeding towards Gundlupete we came across a roadblock, caused by a Kallada Volvo which killed a villager during an overtaking attempt. Locals had gathered and the mother of the victim was seen crying. The driver of the bus had escaped fearing for his life while angry mob was seen throwing petrol on the bus. Not sure if they torched it. A villager advised us on an alternate route, which us and others in the convoy took. Though we learnt that police came and cleared way soon.

We drove through Bandipur and had to spend about 1 hour at Kerala border for permit. During Shabarimala season I am told it might take as much as half a day to get permit, due to very large lineup of tourist vehicles. Few states permit online payment of entry tax, but Kerala Government hasn’t gone tech savvy yet. So waiting in line for hours at a stretch is the only option if you’re arriving in tourist vehicle, including black board self-drive. Kerala Tourism: FYI and A.

To my surprise, for both 5 seater logan with repeat entry and 7 seater scorpio with first time entry, same amount was charged- Rs 200.

We first went to Edakal caves, which was a big mistake and disappointment. Huge traffic jam meant lots and lots of walking and on the top, ticket issue was halted because of crowd. So we had to abandon and come back- loosing few precious hours in the process. If only Kerala tourism can set up some display boards with real time status like “Ticket issue halted” or “Walking distance from closest available car park: 3 kms” or “todays visitors: 10 times the average” then tourists can plan their visit from a distance and probably come back later. It is probably too much to expect, but Kerala being tourism focused state, they should take initiatives like this to make visitor experience more pleasant.

It was afternoon, so we had lunch and went to our homestay to rest for a while. Evening we saw a board called Chethalayam falls and drove about 12 kms only to find it closed for tourists. Why display the boards to places that are closed and waste tourist’s time. But anyway, the road from Sultan Bathery to Chethalayam falls was brilliant- picture perfect trees, nice and empty roads and lots of curves. I enjoyed the drive and stopped a few times to click some photos. So no regrets on the closed waterfalls.
Then we drove to Phantom rock- the first successful visit of the day. Read more about Phantom rock here.

Next I thought of visiting Heart shaped lake or Hridaya Saras, which is on top of Chembra peak. Google maps took us to that place through some narrow and bad set of roads instead of highway and our Verito driver was very upset with this. Again I enjoyed steering the scoprio and as we approached our destination, it was getting dark. Some of us hit upon the idea of returning back. But with nothing else to explore for the day, I went further till the peak. We reached there after sunset and drove all the way back. Once again I managed to put 10 passengers to discomfort while I enjoyed negotiating sharp turns, deep pot holes and narrow roads. We should have planned better- everyone told me.
Drove back to Sultan Bathery via Kalpetta this time and ordered dinner at Udupi hotel. The verito driver offered to Xerox my foot if I had any plans of driving up on another hill next day.

Back to Herbal nest homestay and rest. End of Day 1.

Day 2: We cooked food ourselves in the homestay for breakfast. It was cheaper and convenient option. Not many homestays let you do that. We left at about 8.30, stopped for sometime at the Jain temple in Sultan Bathery. Then we headed to Kanthanpara waterfalls. This lesser known falls was totally worth the visit and compensated for other falls we didn’t/couldn’t visit- such as Meenmutty, Soochipara and Chethalayam.

Next we drove to Lakkidi view point, followed by Pookut lake. I had already seen this lake, hence opted to relax inside the car for a while.  Found a veg restaurant by the roadside and pulled over for lunch. Post lunch we took the same road to Banasura that I’d taken 6 years ago. We did take a diversion to check out Karlad lake.

After visiting Banasura dam, we drove little further to explore a waterfall.

That was the last attraction for the day. No time to visit Kuruva dweep, so we drove towards Karnataka via Mananthawadi. We managed to cross the border before the gates of Nagarahole reserve forest close for the day and reach Mysore by night. The road was much better this time. In 2008, we had some major offroading here because of extremely poor road.

It was good to revisit Wayanad. We could have planned better to manage our timing and visit places at right time to avoid some disappointments. I sort of underestimated the tourist inflow on a long weekend. Besides, we were typical tourists who wanted the car to go till the last step- no time to trek. Rainy weather meant no sunrise/sunset shot and less work for DSLR.

In summary,Kanthanpara falls, Phantom rock, Karnad lake, drive upto Chembra peak and Banasura falls were the new things I could explore this time. Banasura dam, Edakal and; Sultan Batthery were repeat visits

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zoomcar XUV500 video-Blr to Hogenakkal and back

Below is a short video I made out of Zoomcar's XUV500. For some strange reasons, this video has been extremely challenging, both to shoot and to process.

If you're interested to know more about the story behind the video, read further, else you may skip below content.

When I booked XUV500 from Zoom I had some clear ideas in my head as to how the video should appear. I made a huge list of various shots to be taken. But all through the day, ended up making lots of compromises, because of which I lost some possibly good video bytes. The GoPro suction mount from Amazon never came and partially spoiled my plans.

First I wanted to shoot XUV500 in motion from an external vehicle. Got my cousins to come in their two wheeler and made them shoot the video. But it was dark. If we waited for 30 more minutes we would have got more light, but then, we also had planned to visit Hogenakkal, so couldn't wait in city for long.

Professionals who make car videos spend days on it, working as a team and using multiple cameras and accessories. I was trying to multi task- we had to visit Hogenakkal, we had to come back to Blr by night and in between shoot some photos and videos too. I had passengers who had interests other than photo and video. They needed to get back to city asap and didn't fancy my too many stops for photos and videos. (Of course they were kind enough to co-operate).
I came back with loads of videos and had to find time to process them. Before leaving for Mysore-Wayanad early October, I almost finished editing but the project didn't compile as it kept showing one or the other file was corrupt. After several desperate attempts, I discarded the project. Had to start allover again.

GoPro studio at times have an annoying behavior- while I try to edit out a specific bit from a video, it extracts few seconds before/after my selection, probably because of not adequate hardware in my system, spoiling the video. Moviemaker is more precise. But it has its own problems. Half way through the compilation of video, I get a msg that there's not enough space. It won't tell how much space is needed or won't let me point a location which has space. Some other time it is issue with some source file- it won't tell which one... At times it fails after reaching 90% and output is nothing, doesn't even give me the 90% video that is done processing. A very frustrating situation with a limited capacity computer that can't handle heavy duty video editing.

Finally spent another few hours on Deepavali holiday to edit the videos again and here's the 4 min video on XUV500. GoPro alone was not adequate, have used both Nikon and GoPro for this. Srivatsa, Dhanajay and others have helped in making this video. Hope you like it. Will try processing a higher res version this weekend.

 Similar: Landrover Experience XUV500 W6 review * XUv500 w6 vs Fortuner 4x2  * Zoomcar review * My video channel on youtube

Stayzilla.com Booking Experience Update

Ever since I made my first booking with Stayzilla some 6 months ago [review here], I’ve been regularly using this website for my accommodation needs.

I made one booking at Girivihar Lonavala, another at Belgaum which I couldn’t use and one at Herbal Nest Wayanad. In this post I am sharing my recent experience with Stayzilla

Overall their service is satisfactory. No disappointments as such. But they do have scope for improvement.At times inventory on the website is not real time. I'd first booked at Wayanad Gate Hotel, I was later told it is sold out and then I had to rebook.
Feedback Spam:
After my Wayanad booking, I got back to back emails soliciting feedback. It was asking me to write  a review at tripadvisor.  I replied with my blog post as the feedback and also I’d reviewed the homestay on tripadvisor. Still I kept getting email. I had to reply angrily to stayzilla team to stop spamming me. Thankfully it stopped after that. I am hoping this is some bug in their application and they won't spam all their customers for feedback.

Similarly too many offer emails also have begun to annoy me. I can’t travel just because there’s an offer. I need leave, need to plan travel, need to team up friends etc, so I will book a room with or without offer when I want it. I won’t book rooms just because there’s an offer. Probably I should unsubscribe.

Rs 99 hotel rooms: Stayzilla advertised a Rs 99 a night hotel offer- found out that it is some sort of flash sale for some remote location and one specific hotel, for a very short duration. Not really practical. Even if I had got a room for Rs 99, I would have to spend a fortune reaching that place. Not sure how many managed to book rooms at Rs 99.I think they should avoid this kind of sales gimmicks and just focus on giving good service.

Still there’s no provision on the website for user reviews. If they can let their customers write a few lines about the hotel after their stay, it will help future customers a lot.

By and large their customer service has been very efficient. But a few practices sometime irritate me. For example, on the day of check-in, they keep calling to ask what time I will arrive, what time I will check in etc. Their intention is to call the hotel and keep the room ready when we arrive. Their intention is noble but most of the time I will be driving, visiting some places on the way and reach the hotel by evening and I can’t tell exact time of check-in. If I’ve selected check in at 12 noon, hotel should keep the room ready by 12 noon. I may check in at 12 noon or 4 PM that is my choice. Why should I be called again and again to ascertain my check-in time? Each time I get the call, I have to pullover, take the call, provide some estimated time, loose several minutes and few rupees of roaming charges in the process. I would appreciate some more liberty in this- less calls and rooms should be ready any time after pre-specified check-in time.

Getting some useful info from chat executives still continues to be a pain. They only seem to have information available in website, nothing more. During Dasara, all hotels in Wayanad were sold out. I tried to check with their chat representatives if there’re any rooms in Wayanad. Chat rep kept asking me for my name, email, phone number, check in date, number of rooms etc etc. Even after giving my entire bio data, I still didn’t get an answer from the chat rep if there’re any availability. So I’ve adjusted to reduce my expectation from chat representatives (this issue is same for all websites- chat guys are hired with primary objective of collecting some customer information, than answering their queries quickly)

Another thing I noticed that hotel owners/managers do have good respect for stayzilla.

I will continue to use stayzilla, but would appreciate if they can reduce spam, provide for customer feedback and make their chat guys little more well informed and responsive.

Offroad Obstacle3-Negotiating Narrow Bund

This is part 3 of the offroad for beginners series. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.

The 3rd obstacle was to negotiate a narrow tank bund. This challenge seemed very easy from the distance but was very tricky. So tricky that many drivers needed multiple attempts to clear it and in some instances, they had to be pulled out using external force.

Most of us can do one thing at a time- we can either speed up or we can make a turn. Some offroad obstacles demand a skill in which both of these need to be done together, in perfect coordination.

As usual Nischal gave the first demo. See in this picture how the front and rear wheels are in two extreme positions. Front wheel was touching its housing while rear had dropped low as much the suspension would allow.

First step was to climb up the bund and then turning to right. Though it sounds simple, if done wrongly, vehicle will enter a situation known as Cross-Axle. (In cross axle, who diagonally opposite wheels loose traction and spin in air- say front left and rear right wheel. The remaining two wheels, though powered, won't be able to move the vehicle forward)


In this particular instance, I feel it will be better to let the drivers try multiple times and get it right, than instructing to turn left, right, back etc. It is difficult for driver to visualize that the spotter has in mind when he gave that instruction. Instead, drivers can try a few times, fail and learn for themselves the right way of getting across. A driver should have the liberty to test his/her calculations/judgment at times..

Getting on the bund was first part, getting down on the other side was another. Several Thars got stuck and had to be pulled out using other jeeps. Spotters had to be extra cautious as there were risks of jeeps tripping over. Showroom Thars don't rave roller cages- participants were advised to add them.

After 3 obstacles, we hit lunch time. Standby for few more

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Read before buying GoPro Camera!

Top post on IndiBlogger.in, the community of Indian Bloggers
In past few months I’ve seen lots of interest in GoPro, with many friends contemplating buying one. Earlier it was available only on Amazon.in or on GoPro.com global website with international courier charges [My Experience and Comparison here]. But of late, GoPro models can be seen listed on Snapdeal and Flipkart as well. If you are also thinking of buying one, you should be aware of below aspects

1 No service centres or sales office for GoPro in India: GoPro has no support centres in India. Should the camera stop working, there aren’t any shops who can fix it. Some elements like lens kit etc can be bought online and you can replace them watching DIY videos on youtube, but beyond that, if it fails it fails. Go get a new one. (Technically you can claim warranty, but with GoPro not having any presence in India, the cost and effort involved in coordinating the warranty replacement with their US office over email might make it unviable. There is a company called Steriovision, who seem to be running a facebookpage called GoPro India, I don't know if they are authorized franchise or how credible they are. Their MRP is similar to what it cost me to get from US- Price in USD+ shipment expense+Customs duty, apparently their distributors take care of shipping it back to US in case of warranty- haven't tried or verified this.)

Below: GoPro India MRP list, taken from a facebook page, GoPro India

2.  Default battery is not enough. You should budget another 6000 Rs to buy a second battery and charger. Else it won’t last even half a day and you’ll be disappointed. With 2 batteries and heavily rationed usage, I manage to use it from morning to evening.

3. You will shoot GBs and GBs of videos, but you will not have time to process all of that. Soon you will run out of space in hard disc to store and run out of patience to process all the videos. Before investing 40k, ensure that you have a decent configuration computer that can handle heavy duty video processing, as well as time and patience to work on video editing.

4 Gopro is NOT a replacement for DSLR. GoPro’s colour compensation is poor, there is a small lag in video capture, doesn’t have any settings that come in a DSLR. Only when there’s enough sunlight, GoPro photo quality is at par with DSLR. In the evening, early morning, indoors, under clouds or in night, the quality of GoPro photo/video is not at its best. So most of the times you will need regular DSLR to take decent pictures. GoPro is useful when your hands are not free for clicking, or when you want to insert camera in water or to get some wide angle photos and videos in addition to what you've shot using DSLR. Check the photo of Mysore palace at night- first one clicked in Nikon 5100, second one with GoPro Hero3 Black edition.


5. Default set of mounts are almost useless. Accessories are equally expensive: I had bought a 3 way mount along with the camera- one of its hinges has broken now, within 3 months of usage. If one more hinge breaks, this mount will be rendered useless. The fate of USD70+shipping+customs 3 way mount now depends on INR 5 FeviKwik. Other accessories like Suction Mount etc are not easily available in India. I've written a mail to GoPro support on this, waiting for a response.

6. One GoPro camera may not be enough: Most of the awesome photos that we see online are often shot with multiple goPros. Shooting everything from just one perspective will be boring, so many use two or more action cameras to get multiple views, which are mixed to create videos from different perspective. At times additional devices like drones are used for aerial shots (drones cost 50k onwards on their own) or a support vehicle/team helps getting additional shots. We ordinary travelers may not be able to afford all of these, so our output will be limited to what we can shoot in one GoPro.

The GoPro craze will die out soon. As of now only few people own it, hence there’s some curiosity and excitement around this. Another year down the line, expect every other person to own an action camera. Then you won’t get any status hike for having a GoPro. Don’t buy it because you feel it is cool. Buy it if you have enough usage for it. You can rent it from agencies like Tapprs for a day and check if it works out for you.
SJ4000 (left) vs GoPro Hero3
As the idea of small action cameras is gaining popularity, you might also wish to wait and watch few more months for more options. Already there’re some cheap rivals like SJ4000 (read comparison here), HTC has tried its version of action camera called RE and as demand increases, expect more manufacturers to try their hands on these kind of cameras.[Read more on Techpp.com]

Deepak Majipatil has suggested another option: Shimano

I am not saying Don't buy a GoPro. I am just advising that you factor the above before making final decision.

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