When our car turned into the dusty lane off the highway near Balehonnur into Honne Koppa, it was already 5:30 in the evening. The sky was slowly darkening and all of us were in a hurry to catch our first glimpse of the camp site before daylight faded further. Our initial plan had been to reach the place by three so that we could utilize the afternoon well – maybe do some swimming or even a little trekking. And for me, definitely some birding just before twilight - I had become fascinated right from the beginning, when I first read the description of a hornbill sipping rain with its head almost upside down to catch the water drops in its down-curved beak, when I visited the camp’s Website. Add to that lines that went “Tucked deep inside western ghats, the camp lies at the very epicenter of one of world's richest bio-diversity hot-spot…” Heaven couldn’t have been more welcoming for me – at least from the description!
The direction to the site is simple enough – just follow the single mud road on the right (after Aldur towards Sringeri) when you come across the first signboard of the camp because there is not another! As my husband struggled to keep the car running through the muddy up and down village road, I noticed the surrounding scenery – uh-uh, Coffee plantations. Is this going to be just another resort-types surrounded by cultivated albeit lush green lands? Please God, No! We need a break from civilization, I chanted to myself silently. Just then, we spotted an old man walking the other way and we just had to stop for directions being the city folks that we are. Just go straight and turn left near the huts and keep following the road was his advice. Thanks thatha, we could have figured it on our own given enough time, I muttered when I caught sight of the glowering glance my husband was trying to throw at me. Away from civilization does not mean becoming uncivilized he seemed to be saying. Hmm, if only!
Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes, our vehicles stuttered to a halt outside a rustic hut, made of Bamboos colored green, yellow and blue, with a board reading Bhadra Fishing Camp. This is it. Woo hooo! But wait, there seemed to be no one around! I frantically searched for my mobile to call my contact at the camping site… only to discover that there is no network. Hold on, I clearly remembered the Website mentioning that there is full coverage across the entire camp site. Then up popped another memory – but only BSNL and Airtel. Duh, mine had to be Vodafone! Now what? Fortunately one of the guys in our seven member gang had the Madhavan endorsed connection and I quickly dialed Mr.Vinod Desai, one of the partners of the Bhadra River Camp, a joint initiative between villagers, government and the private sector to bring revenue to the area.
“Come on right in, I will meet you guys half way” said Desai adding “Leave what you don’t want in the car, it’s a long walk”. But dude, I’m travelling with a two year old kid. I can’t leave a single thing in the car lest I may need it in the middle of the night. Imagine! I am the kind who organized fully charged emergency lamps because we had been asked to bring flash lights! So there I was, tearing my hair out trying to leave at least a handkerchief back in the car, when I saw two guys approaching our car. The one in the smart t-shirt and cargo shorts must be Vinod my mind deduced quickly and we exchanged the usual awkward hellos and welcomes of the first meeting. After another ten minutes of nerve-wrecking decisions on what to take and what not, our troupe finally proceeded towards the camp site.
We had to walk for five minutes or about on a two way walking lane (now don’t go hi-fi on me! think village walking paths please!) from the entrance to reach the river side. The first thing I noticed of course was the very civil cottage that was built on a natural rocky hill overlooking the forests around. It looked very welcoming with its portico looking towards the river below. Nice. Very nice. Look, there is our camp site pointed out one of the guys and my eyes widened in delight. Two tents had been hoisted right inside the river on a naturally formed small island that had been barred because of the low waters of summer. Wow. Are we going to stay there we asked. Vinod replied, “Oh yes, that’s your camp but if you want (meaning having a kid in tow), you can sleep here in the cottage as well.” No way, dude. I’m not passing the chance to sleep in a tent for the first time in my life under the open skies surrounded by clean sands and clear waters. Gosh, I’m turning poetic just recollecting the visuals :)
The next twenty hours or so was pure bliss. The Bhadra river which is usually known for its ferocity had turned calm on us, lounging like a content queen in her divan ready to welcome the visitors. The forests around the site (by now there was no sight of those ubiquitous coffee of the region) seemed mysterious, ripe with the promise of wildlife we all wanted to spot. Peter, our assigned guide for the trip, along with Vinod, enticed us with mentions of Malabar Squirrels, Hornbills, Langurs, Bisons, Snakes, Deers, and Otters. Supposedly a group of Otters, also called water dogs locally, had made their home a few kilometers down the river from our campsite. If we were lucky and had time, we could coracle down to spot them, Peter and Vinod promised.
While the rest of my gang wanted to plunge right into the river for a refreshing swim in the night, all these mentions of wildlife had made me anxious for a quick trek around the region. But the whining of five grown men acting like kids with their candies can be quiet off putting. So off we went for our first activity at the camp site – swimming at night.
Accompanied by Peter and another guard we set off to the swimming spot some distance away hiking across the forest. It involved going a little uphill and coming back down again into a small clearing at the banks of the river upstream. Surprisingly, this part of the river was completely free of any protruding rocks and was flowing very gently – in other words, perfect for a swim even without light. The men quickly stripped to their undies (yuck! the sight of grown men in their undies strutting around showing off hairy chests, pot bellies, and what not can be a gruesome sight!) and ran into the river. Splash, splash, splash, splash, splash….Bhadra must have displaced so much of her water elsewhere! Who knows, some poor Otter might even have got shocked at the sudden influx of water from upstream!
For the next half an hour, the rest of three ladies (including my baby) watched enviously the frolicking acts of the men in water. Ha, if only we could swim we thought. Unfortunately, none of us knew how to! Peter must have guessed how we felt for he quickly organized a coracle to take us across to a small clearing in the middle of the gentle river where we could sit with our feet dangling in the cool waters. This is true chilling out you Bangalore folks, Bhadra seemed to whisper. Aye, aye, I agreed.
Before we knew it, it has become ten in the night and we had to haul ourselves reluctantly back to the camp site. After freshening up a little in the newly constructed rest room in the main cottage, we lumbered down the rocks towards our tents. A camp fire had already prepared thoughtfully and we all collected around it to discuss how we would spend the night. I was sure of one thing – no antaksharis and absolutely no games where we would have to sit. For heaven’s sake, this is the only chance we get to run around in open spaces without bumping into a parked car or potted plants I told my gang.
All of us quickly agreed to play Lock and Key (a game where participants who are not able to escape the catcher admit defeat and sit locked to be released (by key!) by other participants who are still free). It was so much fun – to play again, to be so carefree, to act like a kid again – so liberating. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and stopped only after the fatsos decided to call it quits. After a sumptuous dinner, prepared by the village folks and served by Peter and others, we retired for the night quietly, rounding up around the camp fire again.
The night was totally dark. Clouds had formed a curtain around the almost full moon, probably jealous of our hedonistic pass time. The fire kept burning fuelled by the woods gathered from the forest. Occasional strange sounds of the night were heard coming from far from the other side of the river bank – perhaps a bird roused from slumber or an animal caught by a Tiger (the other side of the river touches the periphery of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve). And there was absolute silence. And yet, we felt completely safe - far from the madness of the city, far from the psycho killers, far from the desires of the ego…. Bliss indeed.
Slowly, the blowing winds of the Western Ghats chased away the begrudging cumulus and revealed the moon in all her splendor – to bath the entire camp sight in soft white light. We put off the camp fire and enjoyed the natural light for sometime talking aimlessly. Before long, the aura of the night made some of us get up and wander away from the others – seeking solitude, privacy, and for two, a place where they could relieve their bladders and hoist flags!
That night, we slept in the two big tents provided by the camp organizers – complete with new beddings, pillows and blankets. Comfort in the middle of the wild night. Ha! What more could one ask for? I couldn’t wait to see what the next day would bring.