There’s a certain inexplicable energy to leaving a place and not knowing where you’re going. When I reached the bus stand in Tansen, my mind was still running over the possibilities ahead. A two bus switch and a 6 hour ride would take me to Pokhara. A three bus switch and 6 hour ride would take me to Chitwan. A quick toss of the coin put me on the way to Chitwan. The Royal Chitwan National Park was Nepal’s oldest national park, a densely forested region with a healthy population of tigers, rhinos, sloth bears, hundreds of species of birds and critically endangered crocs like the gharial. It is one of the handful of wildlife sanctuaries in the world that could be visited independently and relatively inexpensively.
An Italian backpacker I befriended in Tansen had highly recommended an allegedly quiet and beautiful place away from the touristic mayhem of the main town of Sauraha. So I called the place up on the way and booked a “deluxe” room for myself. I didn’t expect the world for 400 NR but even by the standards of slummy accommodations, it was a squalorous dump. GR, the owner, claimed he had to give away the “good” room that he had kept for me to a family of “foreigners” and requested me to “adjust” in a terrifyingly shabby room which was a filthy mud and bamboo shack that was infested with mosquitoes and spiders and had big holes in the mesh screens on the windows. He promised to get a “luxury” room ready the next day when the “foreigners” checked out. I took his word for it, plonked my luggage on the dank, muddy floors of the hut and went for a walk around Sauraha.
If you didn’t know Sauraha was the gateway to a UNESCO listed wildlife reserve, you probably would have thought it was a wild and hopping party town. The sandy banks of the river aka “the beach” were lined with back-to-back “beach” bars supplying an endless number of sun decks for people to chill and down a few beers. It was late evening when I took a stroll by the river and the innumerable copy-paste bars had turned up the volume of EDM and Bollywood dance numbers while flashing Happy Hours discounts to lure safari-weary tourists to their decadent pads. At sunset, I could spot a herd of spotted deer on the wilder side of the river walking back into the forest after quenching their thirst. Having come here to experience the wild, I found much of the blatant commercial enterprise terribly appalling. Like Lumbini, Sauraha existed only because of a UNESCO site and it seemed people came here less for the forests than for having a “good time”.
Back in the guest house, the longer I spent in the room, the worse it became. The mosquito net would rather not have been there at all because much of it had been pockmarked with cigarette butt-holes. The wicker chair in my room was broken in half. None of the electrical sockets were working. When I went to GR to discuss these issues, he looked drunk out of his mind. “The mosquitoes are harmless”, he slurred, “Most of the time I just finish 2 bottles of Vodka and sleep peacefully. If you want, I can give you one.” I was fuming with anger inside but being naturally nonconfrontational, chose not to take him on.
The next morning, the place had run out of water. So I packed my bags and left without having brushed my teeth or taken a dump. The property screamed squandered potential. It had a beautiful setting, very close to the buffer zone, set amidst green fields and organic gardens and came with an added bonus of a resident elephant in the neighbourhood. It seemed to attract primarily shoestring backpackers dressed in colourful pyjamas who probably wouldn’t mind living anywhere as long as it was cheap. I drew a line at the basic lack of running water and the swarm of mosquitoes indoors. With the uncomfortably distressing feeling that I was getting a bit too old for this sort of slumming, I lugged around Sauraha looking for a decent place to live.
Everybody in the town must have gone away for their safaris and forest walks because Sauraha looked like a ghost town at 10 in the morning. I cluelessly marched into a few decent-looking resort hotels that lined the main streets and walked out feeling like a penniless outcast. Thoroughly demoralized, I sat down for breakfast at a tiny road-side café run by a very talkative woman. She, like many people in Nepal, was a big fan of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi because of a speech he gave in the Nepali Parliament. And because of him, she was back in love with India. Her son was useless, she said, who spent all his evenings singing songs, playing guitar and getting drunk but now hopefully, he would be motivated to finish his studies and get a job in India. The son arrived on cue, all woozy and sluggish, ordering his mother to make some eggs. They got into a fight, she asking him to make them himself, he throwing a mad fit, she censuring him for being jobless and unmarried, he cursing her for being a nag. I sympathized with her predicament, paid for my breakfast and left quietly.
Now that I had some food in my stomach and some conversation and drama to liven up my spirits, I was able to think more clearly and settled quickly for a room at the unimaginatively titled “Sauraha Guest House”. It looked brand new and quite desolate. But the rooms, that would have cost an arm and a leg elsewhere, were bright and clean and came with free wi-fi and a verandah that overlooked a little forested area twittering with birdsong with the Chitwan River gurgling in the distance. I learnt the real reason for the deserted look of the village when I spoke to the owner of the restaurant below. The Kathmandu airport had been shut for a week because a Turkish Airlines flight had moored itself on the runway. So there were too many people waiting anxiously to get out and nobody coming in. Much of the awfully new architecture in Sauraha had been built to accommodate hordes of tourists from abroad and the bullock carts and horse carts lumbering about the empty streets looked like period film props on the wrong day of shoot.
The forests in Chitwan were divine and offered an astounding array of options to explore them – by foot, by canoe, by elephants, by jeep. Like most National Parks, the access and entry inside the park were prohibitively expensive for a solo traveler. So I spent a lot of time wandering about the buffer zone all by myself. Every evening, I would watch the sun go down by the river sitting on one of its wilder unpopulated banks to look at a big herd of spotted deer on the other side. Kingfishers, pipits, robins, minivets, treepies and barbets would flutter around in the meadows. Muggers and critically endangered gharials basked in the sun on rocky patches in the river. Spotted eagles swooped down to catch a meal of fresh fish. A rhino or two slumbered across sending a shiver up my spine. It was everything I hoped for, a wild setting where I was free to roam independently for as long as I wished.
Some of the cafes away from the “beach” had local bands playing acoustic pop songs. One evening the “Acoustic Sheesha” café was particularly lively where a big group of young boys took off their shirts and sang and danced wildly to Nepali folk songs. I recognized the sluggish jobless boy, the son of the talkative woman who ran the breakfast café, among the stragglers. He looked significantly happier now and came up to my table to have beers and a chat. He, too, felt sorry for his mother but they had divergent ideas about his future. He wanted to play music for the rest of his life, a line of work his mother didn’t quite understand. Yes, it didn’t pay a lot of money now but he was confident that he would be able to make it big in the future. In any case, he had been a failure in everything else that he had attempted that far. It was music or nothing. He was 28 years old and his only source of income was gigging in the cafes of Sauraha. He felt his mother was more worried about the pretty girls he brought home frequently than his future. I wondered aloud if the lust for pretty girls was keeping him from building a more secure future for himself. He knew of my vagabonding life and retorted back saying I should probably worry about my lust for aimless travel instead. It was a valid point and there was no easy way to counter this. So we clinked beer mugs and toasted to living happily in the moment.
Despite the beautiful walks in the buffer areas of the forest, I quickly grew tired of the overbearing, vacuous touristiness of Sauraha. But I hadn’t been into the core forest areas and it would be a pity to get out before taking a peek inside. So I booked a seat for myself on a safari to the forest. I felt awkward being the only non-white single solo traveler in the 8-person jeep, my co-passengers being an old British couple, an American couple and a French couple. The British were cantankerous and complained throughout the journey. They’d spent a lot of time in Africa and vocally expressed their disappointments at not being able to “catch any tigers”. Like all my forays into forests, I was happy just being there amid the trees, the bushes and breathing the fresh air in the wide open landscape. It was a more open forest than I expected and the tall grasslands were being trimmed and burnt for them to rejuvenate later in the year. Many rhinos dutifully showed up, sparking some excitement among the Brits. Big herds of spotted deer hopped about and eagles, vultures, cormorants, darters, peacocks and kingfishers were seen in abundance.
Later, we were ejected at the Crocodile Breeding Center, where critically endangered gharials were being force-breeded to save the species from extinction. Gharials look far more photogenic in a more natural setting like a rocky outcrop on a wild river and here, in clusters of different age-groups in big cages, looked like they’d been punished for a crime they hadn’t commitedt. But I guess, when a species has only 120 individuals left on earth, these measures become more necessary than any romantic notions of freedom. And I suppose this was the only way one was ever going to see the young un’s that looked unbearably cute.
Throughout the safari, I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been far more worthwhile if I had just walked. But walking in the forest was both hazardous and expensive on my own. I would have to pay for a guide and a forest guard and since a day trip wouldn’t take one very far into the jungle, I would also have to walk fast enough to reach a village for an overnight stay. More than anything else, I was petrified at the thought of being gored to death by an angry rhino or sloth bear protecting a young one. These budget issues and paranoid fears meant I had a substantially inferior experience of the forest than I would have liked.
Apart from the few interactions I had with the lady at the little breakfast place, her son and a couple of backpackers, Sauraha had been depressing. It was a purely functional place where one came to do a few touristy things and left. The forest walks had been the only attraction to make me linger here longer than I would have liked but once I was back from the walks, it was dispiriting to always be eating alone in a restaurant covering up my alienation with a book in my hand. My mind was numbed into ennui by my loneliness and I knew only one way to cure it. I booked a bus ticket, packed my bags and took the Greenline bus to Pokhara the next morning. There was a girl from Czech Republic sitting next to me. I started talking to her immediately and the sense of motion and the conversation drove my blues away.
“Now we’re going to show you a very rare bird. It’s roosting here but the sight of people staring at it for long durations could be disturbing. So we’ll go 2 at a time, stay quiet, take a picture or two and move ahead so others can see it too.”
I was a bit groggy after a long day’s exhausting walk and travel but the moment I saw the Ceylon Frogmouth, perfectly camouflaged on the tree, giving me the cutesily grumpy “yeah, whatever” look, I could have done somersaults. The Ceylon Frogmouth is a nocturnal bird and prefers to stay put during the day, the camouflage being an effective defence mechanism allowing it to catch up on sleep without worrying about being eaten by a predator.
The Wildernest property that the Frogmouth had chosen to roost in is spectacularly located within the Swapnagandha valley close to the tri-junction of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It’s surrounded by thick forests and gives away views of the waterfalls in one direction and the Anjunem lake ringed by forested hills on the other. It’s a wonder that the place even exists today because many of the hills around were marked for iron ore mining but a group of passionate nature lovers and conservationists came together and bought the massive chunk of land in an endeavour to keep at least a section of the forest alive and undisturbed. The rooms are immaculately well-designed. They’re comfortable and blend with the foliage around. None of the people who work here have hospitality experience and I wouldn’t have known this if Nirmal Kulkarni (a conservationist and one of the directors) hadn’t pointed it out in his talk. They’re all local men and women, trained in both grass-roots conservation and the nitty-gritties of running a resort. I never found anything lacking in my time here (except maybe a sighting of the Hornbill!) There’s an infinity pool for the more luxury-seeking kind that I tenaciously avoided after hearing a big, loud group splashing and hooting in it all day long.
It’s a wonder that I even made the trip as I had happily drunk a few beers while chatting with Roy at his beautiful heritage guest house, Hospedaria Abrigo De Botelho in Panjim the previous evening and eaten a rather bloated dinner of Pav Bhaji at Bhaiyya’s. My room at Roy’s place was so comfortable that despite my alarm going off at 7.30 in the morning, I woke up at 9 and walked lazily down to breakfast. There I got talking to an old American couple, also career vagabonders. They asked me what my plans were for the day which was the cue for me to scream, “Holy shit!” and rush upstairs to go pack my bags. My plan for the day was to join the BNHS group at Thivim Railway Station at 10.30, the very reason I had come to Goa in the first place. Well, it was 10.30 NOW and I made a frantic phone call to PG, who was the group leader, saying I would certainly be late. Fortunately for me, the Indian Railways happens to be just as sluggish as I am. The train was late by over an hour and I could comfortably switch buses quickly enough to meet them in time to leave for the wildernesses of Goa.
Although I’m a dyed-in-the-wool solo traveller, I chose to go with the BNHS for this trip because after my underwhelming tour of Mudumalai and Wayanad, I thought it would be a good thing to go with people who knew their plants and birds and animals. Both PG and PS knew about much of the flora and fauna we saw on the way and my eyes (and I’m sure many other eyes in the group) were being opened to a new world that was both fascinating and easy-to-miss.
Every now and then, one of the members would yell, “Leech! Leech! Leech!” and instead of helping her get rid of it, everyone else would frantically start looking at their feet to make sure they didn’t get one. Goa’s forests crawl with leeches and this being the monsoon, it was a veritable feast for the little blood suckers. I somehow escaped despite the malfunctioning “leech proof socks” and a couple of trips made with chappals. In the midst of all the leechy chaos, we saw Malabar Trogons, insectivorous plants, habenarias, bio-luminous fungii, countless sunbirds, the Malabar Giant Squirrel, Gaur, green vine snakes, dracos, slugs, blister beetles, the daath fada (teeth tearing) plant which is apparently used in dentistry to take your teeth off, an astounding view of the Anjunem lake ringed by forested mountains everywhere, the mist enveloping the entire Mhadei plateau, the Chorla Falls, pill millipedes, centipedes, bronze toads, picture-wings, green barbets, the Tambdi Surla Temple and, well, tigers at the Bondla Zoo. Okay, the last one I could have lived without. But the sheer amount of bio-diversity in the region boggled my mind.
During the British days, this whole region used to be called the Goa Gap, which is to say that the hills here were never officially acknowledged to exist on paper. The region was under the Portuguese who never took cartography too seriously. As a result, much of the vegetation and bio-diversity here went unexplored until recently. Large-scale mining is possibly the most burning issue in Goa but what conservationists like Nirmal fear is that, in the rush to exploit resources, we’re probably condemning species that are both undiscovered and endemic to this region, to extinction.
Many dedicated naturalists now love to hang out at Wildernest because there is such an abundance of life here that you never know what you’re going to find. My afternoons were spent talking to KS and LV, who love coming to the place. They spent much of their time around the dining area, always hunting for the tiniest of insects on the walls and grounds of the property and showed off their discoveries with glee. The tinier the insects, the more fearsome, strange and colourful their bodies were. KS had been an ornithologist and now worked with the extremely well-run Jungle Lodges properties in Karnataka and LV had been to “places on my bucket list that I’m sure I’ll never visit” (which is to say, places like Antarctica and Alaska) and was now doing a play with children in Bangalore. They made what would have been otherwise boring afternoons, very worthwhile.
In many ways, this trip was like a perfect storm that one would love to be caught up in. The 2 P’s from BNHS made the trip immensely enjoyable and so did the well-trained guides from the Wildernest who knew the forests and the plants and animals that live in it very intimately. It lasted just for 3 days but I felt strange returning back to Panjim. Spending time in the wild and with people who love the wilderness changes you, even if just temporarily. On the train back to Mumbai, as I was reading my copy of Nirmal Kulkarni’s lovingly compiled “Goan Jungle Book”, I swore that the next time I come to Goa, I would spend more time in its forests than its beaches. And, yes, I’ll do more BNHS camps!
After walking up and down the steep Nilgiris for a month and a half, my legs were ecstatic at finding themselves trotting on the flat roads of Mysore. My hub here has always been Hotel Dasaprakash, that sprawling old hotel, whose standards haven’t changed in the decades it has been in operation. It provides everything a budget traveller needs, a bed, a clean bathroom, a balcony and an excellent restaurant. It carries a whiff of the pre-1991 days, with a reception desk that looks more like a government office. It’s as old school as it gets and I was happy that I was meeting SS here as few people like “old school” more than SS.
There was more old schoolery in store for us as we chose to skip the 9 a.m. bus to Kutta and have the legendary saagu masala dosas at Vinayaka Mylari instead. After a sumptuous feast and gallons of coffee, we embarked on the journey to Kutta in Coorg. SS unwittingly entrusted me with the task of finding a bus that goes there but no one seemed to have heard of the place I was asking for until a bus conductor angrily (yet helpfully) pointed out that I was spelling it all wrong. We also learnt that, thanks to our laziness and gluttony, we had missed all the direct buses and now had to take the longer route via Gonikappal and switch there.
SS sat in the bus melancholically singing an old Hindi film song that only he, with his inexhaustible knowledge of Hindi cinema (up to the 90s as he corrected me later), would have known. I gave him a look that said “WTF” and asked him to pipe it down a bit. Maybe I shouldn’t have. SS was on one of his extremely rare holidays from a government job and should have been allowed to dance on the roof of the bus if he wished to. In fact, he should have been in the Himalayas, trekking up the Valley of Flowers with a group he had signed up with. But since that got cancelled and he had bought a fresh pair of trekking boots just for the trek, he felt a dire need to do something with them. I had just finished my Nilgiri sojourn and was headed to Coorg and he agreed to join me probably expecting adventurous walks in mountainous and jungly terrain.
The Spice Gardens Homestay is nested deep within hundreds of acres of coffee plantations in the Nellore Estate in Kutta. After the long journey that caused considerable butt-hurt, it felt great to get a warm welcome from NC and RC, who owned the place. If we were happy with our small, clean and cozy room on the first day, we became ecstatic when we saw the room NC offered us on the second day. It was massive with multiple rooms, a porch, a dining area and a verandah on the back-side. NC used to come for a chat every morning and evening and entertain us passionately with his bottomless reservoir of Coorgi stories, adventures and happenings. So we came to learn of the time he had to rescue a man accused of mowing down a chital with his car while it was being hunted by a leopard, of the wild boars that create havoc in his plantations justifying the ownership of guns, of his participation in the tiger and elephant censuses with the Forest Department in the Nagarhole National Park (he’s seen more than 70 tiger up till now), of the people who come to his place and spend days sitting on the tree-top machan and bird-watching, of how he hated the fact that there were so many “unregistered” homestays in the region while people like him had to run from pillar to post to get themselves registered, of how this was absolutely the wrong time to travel to Coorg, of the prevalence of heart disease among Coorgis thanks to eating all the cholesterol heavy pork etc. etc. Thankfully, the prevalence of heart disease didn’t affect our breakfasts and dinners as they were sumptuous feasts with all manner of Coorgi delicacies like pandhi curries, Coorgi egg curries, akki rotis and Coorg scotch on offer.
Because NC had to run the house, send their boy to school and take care of many acres of plantations, they didn’t serve lunch. So, all our trips were made on the pretext of going somewhere to eat. We chose to head to Wayanad first. Nestled deep within the Brahmagiri hills (and history and mythology), the Thirunelli temple in Wayanad, known for its great antiquity and isolation, should have been awesome. But we had no way of knowing because it was raining so heavily that all we could see were clumps of dark clouds blocking the views of the surrounding hills and some vague bits of rock resembling ancient sculptures being splashed with big drops of water from the sky. After a quick round of the temple and some grumblings and mumblings from SS about the pathetic state of archaeological conservation in this country, we scurried back to the restaurant nearby to have lunch.
Disappointed by the temple experience yet undeterred, we decided to head to the Wayanad Sanctuary next. At the Tholpetty gate, we quickly and painlessly managed to get a jeep into the forest. The ranger who accompanied us was very enthusiastic initially, showing us some chital here, some gaur there, a tusker lurking behind the bushes but lost interest quickly and began gossiping with the driver in Malayalam. Every once in a while, one of us would see a bird flying or an interesting looking tree but our pleas to stop fell on deaf ears. The driver too, who went slowly at the beginning, was now in a hurry to finish the ride. In the end, it was a cheap joy-ride (torture-ride if you don’t like bumpy roads) into the jungle more than an actual “safari” and the few animals and birds we did see were a bonus and worth the money we paid for it.
I chose not to do “anything” the next day and just relax and enjoy the green surrounds of the estate. SS woke up at his usual unearthly hour of 7 a.m. and went for a walk. He had already finished drinking a cauldron of coffee by the time I woke up. After another spectacularly filling breakfast, we made the usual noises about not needing any food for the rest of the day. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Come 2 p.m. and hunger struck and we called NC and the whole town’s favourite rickshaw guy, J, for a round to the market, so we could grab something to eat. He dropped us near some dingy local restaurants that SS didn’t approve of. He said, with a beaming smile, “Why don’t we walk to Café Robusta?”
We’d been hearing a lot about Café Robusta since the time we got here. NC wouldn’t stop raving about the place and to him, a trip to Kutta was incomplete without a gastronomic tour of Café Robusta. It probably had something to do with the fact that he doesn’t serve lunch and that was the only place in and around the town that served edible food come lunch hour. So off we walked. And walked. It started raining and the road was never-ending. There were no helpful signboards to be found and we increasingly started suspecting that we were on the wrong road but since it was the only “road”, that probably wasn’t true. Calling J wasn’t an option because neither of us had signal on our phones. Turning back wasn’t an option because we had already walked too far. Being two guys with their heads up in the clouds most of the time, we gave each other angry glances and kept walking, with the rain coming down on our umbrellas. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw a hundred signboards directing us to “CAFÉ ROBUSTA”, a mere 10 meters away. Basically, all the signboards the café had invested in and there were many, were clustered together like a little road-side museum of signboards right next to the destination they were pointing to.
We were the only people there but if the owner is to be believed, it’s jam-packed during weekends and in the high-season, there’s a long queue to get in. SS had some more coffee, I had some dal and chapatti. We called J using the owner’s phone, bought some cheapo rain-gear at the market and went back to our room. We couldn’t take a tour of NC’s sprawling estate because of the incessant rains but regardless, a fun yet peaceful time was had. SS couldn’t use his boots to do any of the things he had envisioned for it, but that’s life. He most certainly won’t be using them in Kabini, where we were headed next.
While every other gypsy had gone looking for tigers, I managed to persuade Arun, who was my gypsy driver, to take it easy and show me some birds instead. He looked surprised and unhappy initially but gave me a wide smile when I showed him this picture of a couple of bee-eaters perched on a branch.
One of the true delights of traveling alone is that you can do whatever the hell you want. I could have saved money and shared my gypsy with other people but since most people go to tiger reserves like Pench to see tigers, I would have been trapped in their narrow-mindedness and ended up missing truly beautiful moments like this one. I wish more people would go to wild places to see birds, animals, even insects and be pleasantly surprised when they see a big cat.