“And it is very sexy as well: somebody says I’m taking you on a surprise date, you don’t know where you are going and you can’t see and then you put your hand out and there is a tiger. Amazing.”
The seas were rough prior to the days leading up to the birthday and the forecast did not have smooth sailing ahead. I am limited by words when it comes to describing the birthday surprise Vinod gave me this year. We set off on a road trip to what in my mind was to nowhere. He didn’t tell me where we were going and when we hit the fork in the road, he asked me to choose. “If” came back to my mind, and I pointed left; off we went toward the countryside. A narrow, supposedly two-way road with lush, green fields on both sides had us peering out the windows. The Baba Budangiri range of hills jutted out in the distant horizon and beckoned us into the valley of Lakavalli as we veered off the state high-way. Despite an empty road, we were halted for a few minutes on this tiny stretch by four-legged friends. A herd of goats decided to run loose from the goat-herd and spilt onto the road. Neil was ecstatic at the sight of goats running helter-skelter. After a 10 km. stretch from the state highway, comes the road
to the Rivertern Lodge, and it is picturesque and quaint. Large portions of this land is under the purview of the forest department as a reserve, and the rest of it is dotted by tiny hamlets. I remember growing-up around villages within the city limits as a child. Long gone are those days as Bangalore is burgeoning towards caving in on itself. The Jungle-Lodges and Resorts has boards every kilometer to alert of the progress you’ve made towards getting there. There is a giant bull and a christian cemetery that function as a round about to get to the road that eventually takes you the lodges.
The road is rather dilapidated, but the view so serene that the lack of it doesn’t even register in your mind. The lodge is set on an island overlooking the Bhadra Reservoir. Once inside the gates of the lodge, a canopy of trees camouflages its existence, and seamlessly interweaves itself into natural surroundings. The wooden bridge leading to the front desk is beautifully made and foreshadowed what was to come during our stay at the lodge. Everything here is tastefully done. The lodge is named after its natural inhabitants—the river terns. They flock here by the thousands—feeding, breeding, cackling and just being themselves.
Our cabin, fashioned with terracotta tiles and logs was situated a few feet from the lapping river. The sound of the rustling trees and the slushing of the waves against the shore was absolute music to the ears. We reached the lodge post noon, and were welcomed with a hot, delectable South-Indian fare with deep-fried Katla fish on the side. The staff at the lodge were very attentive to the guests; we truly were blown over by their hospitality. I’ve never associated a state-run enterprise with sophistication and finesse, but the River Tern lodge did surprise me, pleasantly.
After being satiated with a wonderful lunch, we went back to our room to get some shut-eye before we headed out for the jeep safari at 4:30. Neil had a hundred questions as we lay on our bed and listened to sounds around us—more slushing of the waves. In spite of ourselves, we all fell into a deep, deep slumber. The shrill beeping of the alarm woke us up for our adventure in the evening.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee and cookies titillated us and off we went to the restaurant to grab our evening snack. Coffee done and we boarded our jeep for the safari. I didn’t know what to expect here, so Neil sat squished between the two of us and began singing his songs. Once everybody was on board, the jeep began ambling along to the entrance of the wildlife sanctuary. Everything was hunky-dory at this point—a thick forest canopy; chirping of the birds; howling of the langoors, and eager expectations about spotting something absolutely wild like the panther or the tiger maybe. When the gates rolled open, things took a rather different turn. The four wheel drive was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I felt every little pebble, rock, ditch, bump, and whatever else we went over. It was heart thumping to say the least. I was petrified for Neil since they had no seat belts or kiddie seats.
As the safari progressed, the driver/guide asked us to look out for anything unusual. We were lucky to have Swayam, a new recruit on board the Jungle Lodges and Resorts with us. Swayam quit his job in the IT sector and decided to join the IFS, and now works with the resort as its Asst. manager. He knew every little detail in the forest. The calling of the langoor, a particular vine twisted on a tree, a distant bird perched on a distant tree. We were never left guessing about any animal in the wild.
We saw the Indian Langoor, wild boars, herd of elephants, a lone tusker bathing,dancing peacocks, Sambar and spotted deer, and bison. This wasn’t just a little boys dream come true, but ours as well. There is the reading about wildlife and then there is the seeing. When a herd of wild elephants look you straight in the eye, every single hair, from the top of your spine until the very bottom of it, will raise itself up. The feeling of awe and absolute fear is indescribable. All of us, including Ramu, the driver, sat there for a few minutes sinking in that feeling. Ramu says he doesn’t know when something exciting will come his way. “Each day is brand new here.”
An overcast day, gentle drizzle, and a rumble in the jungle was not what I thought V would plan, but I am so glad he did. As we turned around to head back, the sun began his journey to wake another part of the world. His goodbye on this day was dazzling. The sun was out to get out undivided attention and it did just that. I asked the driver to stop for a few minutes, so we could all soak in the sun. He was very courteous and pulled over to the edge of the lake slowly. As we did, we also caught a lone tusker lolling in the water. That is when it got me thinking about how easily perfection comes to the natural world. What will it take for my quest of perfection to end? Still stunned by the magnificence of it all, we headed back toward the lodge, when Swayam recognized the call of a langoor warning the wild of the beasts approach. In hindsight, it may not have been the best move, but stop we did. The entire platoon of amateur wildlife enthusiasts, save but for one, could feel the tension rising. Listening to that langoor and hoping to spot a leopard or a tiger was all thrilling, but it was nerve wrecking as hell. I began wondering if sanity began to elude us since nobody seemed to be worried.
By this point, I was palpitating and was ready to go. After what seemed like an eternity, we slowly ambled towards the exit gate. I can recollect with precise detail how my body had knotted itself up in various places, and my sweat glands had opened up like never before. By the time we got off the jeep, my clothes were drenched in sweat and my muscles were taut despite a crisp, chilly evening. The events around River tern flow from one to the other in a very seamless fashion. When we went back to the restaurant, the projector was setup for a movie and the logs for the bonfire were being prepped. I’ve watched over a hundred wildlife documentaries on various channels, but watching the wild on a screen while sitting in the middle of it all was a very different experience. Some beer to wash down the barbequed chicken and a documentary from 80s was what we all needed :-). No fancy, smanshy digitally manipulated movies. It was simple and heart warming. While the movie was being screened, we were served a wonderful, hot dinner with some great tasting soup.
The night here has no chapters; it doesn’t fade into darkness. It plummets into darkness and there isn’t a thing to do, but let your mind rest. After a quiet bonfire with nobody talking or socializing, we decided to call it a night. Since we had an early morning the next day, we tucked ourselves in early. We were woken up by two alarms-one inside the room and the other from the staff calling on us. We set out at 6:30 in the morning for a boat safari on choppy waters and heavy rainfall. Again, I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, but I was pleasantly surprised. The rain and the wind ceased, and the sun rose gloriously to welcome us again. The low, overhanging clouds rose up and made way for the sun to shine through. As the skies parted, a Brahmini kite swooshed past us and settled on a bare stump. That is when the bare stumps suddenly made themselves starkly present. I had not until then noticed rows and rows of stumps sticking out of the water. It then occurred to us that the forest department had to let go of hundreds of trees and forest land to the reservoir. They were felled and then submerged as a deluge rushed forth.
As we progressed along in the hope of seeing something magnificent, another lone tusker majestically walked towards the shores. I don’t know what it is about the wild that commands so much respect, but your will stand in awe in spite of yourself. I am very sure that the elephant knew we were there. The slow humming of the motor boat is unmistakable. But the elephant did not seem perturbed. He sunk himself into the water a little each time. Through some strange, miraculous connection, just when we were ready to leave, the elephant turned and looked in our direction. He raised his sunken trunk out of the water, and showered himself with a great spray. Oh! I still have goose pimples when I think about it. What a grand way to bid goodbye. The boat retreated, and we were headed back to our lodge when the same set of kites came back and perched themselves on another stump. Leaving that sanctuary and heading back home helped me trace my steps back to what I thought remained missing in mine. I’m glad we went here and not some fancy resort. Nature helps heal in a way that nothing or nobody can. I will always remember this holiday very fondly.
“If you desire truly to live you will cease trying to find magic tricks and short-cuts to life and learn the simple laws of being, and order your life in conformity with these. Realign your life with the laws of nature—this and this alone constitutes living to live.”
― Herbert M. Shelton, Getting Well