Off the Road – Chikmagalur

Four days, each packing in a surprise. Every time we wondered what more this place could offer it had something to surprise us, every one of which we lapped up, be it with trembling legs working the car, aching backs and shaken bones or, adrenaline and frozen hands without feeling in them.

Day one saw us racing our way within one Km of the accommodation only to see the last Km being a 4X4 path requiring us to navigate with “lefts and rights” to plan out ways to avoid projecting rocks causing dings on the fender! Once that done, we tried to figure what would work best to keep the car there and not take it out. Turned out, we had to!

Day two saw us venturing out in the quest of the highest point in Karnataka – Mullainagiri. This trek is something I’ve had in mind for close to 8 years now, realized only now with mild disappointment. There were steps leading to the top from the parking lot taking only close to 20 minutes to get to the top! Getting to the parking lot involved driving up inclinations on single lane roads without any fencing on the side, with a steep drop if you get off the lane! Awesome, except that it was used for two-way traffic. The moment when you go up the inclination on first gear, just so that you don’t stop anywhere, only to see a Red Maruti Swift appear at the top and make his way down. Moments when you have to drive on the right side of the lane to pass that Swift coming downhill, so that the driver is closer to the edge and knows his bearings while Anush gets down to check about it tipping over, making it through inches from plunging down. Moments you can reflect on and laugh with relief later on, but faced with shaking legs that had to work the clutch, brake and the accelerator!

The return saw us having to negotiate 15 kms through Bhadra wildlife sanctuary area on non-existent roads, rattling on at 20 Kmph, wondering when the torture would end, only to have to go through that for the last 6 Kms in pitch darkness too, finally reaching the place and thanking our stars while cursing the guy who had suggested that path saying the roads were good!

Day three was when we hired a 4X4 to take us to Hebbe falls and the driver took us through roads which are just flatter paths with rocks and loose soil like all around. On inclinations you would think twice walking up and wonder how anyone could make it past the jeep rattles on and you see another lying by, having lost its axle or having the fuel pipe cut off. Vehicles coming in the opposite direction twist above you wheels turning in all directions possible, filled with people who somehow want to make it Hebbe with no clue what the journey held for them when they started. This ride is Chikmagalur’s best kept secret. All people tell you is “visit Hebbe falls”, not what it entails. “Why are there no roads?” we ask. “The forest department does not allow repairing, to discourage tourists” answers the driver. “Why don’t they ban tourists then!” you think. Only to wade through ankle deep water so cold that you can’t feel your legs for a while (making it easy to walk on the paths with stones pricking your legs) and then behold the water falling from that height in the midst of utter wilderness, and you regret ever thinking of that! And then as you get back, you see all the Kingfisher bottles and paper plates lying around, and wonder if we really deserve what we have, and maybe they should go ahead and ban all tourists.

Day three was also when we turned up late for the wildlife Safari at Bhadra Sanctuary and dropped by the Bhadra reservoir instead. Mild disappointment was replaced with awe as the Sun went down in a more than usual riot of colours behind the distant Western Ghats fencing the massive river Bhadra.

Day four was when we woke up 4 AM to make it to Bhadra sanctuary at 6 in the morning. The jeeps for the safari piled on the tenants of Jungle Lodges leaving only the three of us standing. We split up, Sharad with one group in the front with foreigners behind him and the spotter and driver next to him. Me and Anush in another with a family of 4 with us in a jeep which was more of a pickup with an open hold behind. We offered to stand there, only for them to turn it down as it was against Forest guidelines. 20 minutes into the safari, the jeep stopped to let us shoot (pics of) a serpent eagle, where I renewed the request, this time to be allowed. What followed was an exhilarating ride on the back of the jeep holding the railings in the cold morning(12 degs it was!) while doing spotting and shooting. Sensation in the fingers was gone. No tigers or leopards spotted. We saw only the usual deer(most of which were shy), some birds, a family of wild buffalo and the usual peacocks which flew away on approach. None of that mattered as we stood there on the back of the jeep in the middle of the jungle while the Sun came up, its rays sneaking in through the thick Evergreen forest canopy, the mist floating off the surface of the full and blue lakes.

As for Kemmannugundi, 20 minutes from there are just flat roads and villages. You enter and there are mountains with green grass tops and evergreen canopies below shielding all light all over them. The driver reels off big names – Khodays, Rajeev Chandrashekar, Coffee Day at every estate gate and enumerates the area of each to awe you. All you care about are the mountains rising all around you, shaped like rising waves at the top and layers of them stretching to eternity behind each other. And then you drive on for half an hour and you are back in State and National Highways. No signs of the magic land close by.



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