Sunday, January 02, 2005

Coorg

I finally managed to get away from work and Bangalore and the surrounding noise, and drove to Coorg. During my first week here, I picked up the Outlook Traveler book called "52 Weekend Getaways from Bangalore." All in all, it has a wealth of information about the region around Bangalore and makes a lot of things seem easier to access than otherwise. In short, it was the perfect thing for an ignoramus like me. The book lists several options in Coorg as possibilities -- Dubare, Madikeri, Siddapur and so on. I made reservations at the last possible minute and though Kabini was my first choice, I opted to go for Dubare. It seemed equally nice, and -- more importantly -- had available accomodation not too far.

I tried booking something through the Jungle Lodges, but they didn't have anything around Dubare. They instead pointed me to homestays around Dubare, and hooked me up with Anoop, a guy who manages some of these. Anoop confirmed he had a place for me abou 20 km from Dubare. I had no idea what kind of a place it would be, but after having called dozens of numbers, I couldn't let it go. So, Saturday morning we were on our way to Coorg, with our cameras, minimal backpacks and anything else we needed for the five-hour drive. And yes, did I mention Dubare has an elephant camp where you get to interact with these huge mammals and even get to scrub and wash them in the river?

The drive itself was long. In general getting into and out of Bangalore (especially on Mysore Road) is a pain. We opted to take the South End road from Hosur Road and connect to Mysore Road close to Kangeri. BIG mistake. South End Road sounds pretty upscale and looks pretty nice on the map. We drove at aboud 20kph on probably one of the worst maintained roads of the city. Not to forget the crowds and the deadly traffic. But then, this is Bangalore. Mysore Road itself is under a lot of construction. So we had to drive for most part on single lane roads, with no shoulders. We ran into lots of diversions along the route. The traffic on the way was not too bad. Soon after Sri Rangapatna, we started seeing signs for Coorg. There is an obscure turn off the road that has a board saying Coorg to the right. We missed it initially, but we suspected so and confirmed it from someone down the wrong road.

The road to Coorg is one of those older highways (the newer ones are still being constructed) that have tall shady trees lining the roads and barely-in-shape roads interspersed with potholes and nasty speed-breakers. I loved the drive. There was hardly any traffic all through the route, the views were green and occasionally quite scenic, and all along the route we found small towns and villages. I wouldn't say all these villages were particularly charming, but within Coorg, these even smaller places are quite picturesque.

We met Anoop in Kushalnagar, picked up our vouchers for the stay and the elephant camp and were soon on our way. We were going to stay at a coffee estate, in a small cottage in a valley. It sounded great. It turned out to be quite like what Anoop described. About 5.5km before Madikeri, we turned onto the coffee estate's pebbled road. The cottage was indeed nesteld in the middle of the forest, about 200 meters from the main estate quarters. The estate quarters themselves had some 3-4 rooms that were occupied by some families visiting from Calicut. The place was quiet, clean and fairly spacious. In hindsight, I wish I had carried some simple stuff with me (a toilet paper roll, soap, nicer blanket or sleeping bag, slippers). But I really didn't miss them. In the evening, after dinner, the guys running the estate lit a small campfire for us. The electricity kept coming and going, and we were for most part in the dark except for the campfire. There were hardly any mosquitoes -- something a bit surprising to me -- and the weather was pleasant enough to enjoy the campfire and not feel cold at all.

The next day began early. We had to be at the Dubare camp by 8:45. We rushed through the not-so-great breakfast at the estate and drove back towards Kushalnagar. I always find driving in the hills a lot more pleasant in early morning than any other time. Not to get too poetic, but sunlight filtering through the trees, mildly cold air and soft colours almost naturally bring a smile...sigh.

Dubare itself was a beautiful place across the Cauvery river. There is a huge eddy and the current itself is pretty weak here. A boat ferried us across to the elephant camp. When we got there, there wasn't anyone around except for the manager for the Jungle Lodges resort, Mr Sivaram, who turned out was Anoop's dad. Soon, an elephant came down to the river and gladly lay down for us to scrub and wash him. These elephants seemed to drink in the water, urinate and shit there before lying down. Ugh. I enjoyed giving the thick-skinned tusker a scrub on the nose and back. She seemed to enjoy it too. I say she, because the other two elephants who came down were pretty evidently male. Maybe it was the mating season, or maybe it was just water. In any case, the elephants seemed to enjoy being bathed and scrubbed.

We spent a couple of hours more over there, hanging out, listening to interesting info-session about Asian elephants (very interesting stuff about how the elephant herds function). Usually I find this stuff somewhat boring, but for some reason the characteristics about Asian elephants -- like visiting the grave of a deceased ancestor, protecting the newbord and welcoming him with trumpeting noises -- were fascinating.

In the afternoon we drove up to Madikeri. I was trying to get to Orange County resort, a place I hd heard a lot about. I didn't have clear directions and decided to give up in the end. It turned out, it is closer to Siddapur, which in turn is very close to Dubare. We tried finding a place in Madikeri to get akki roti, but had to settle for some regular south indian fare at a hotel near the bus stand -- Capital Hotel. Bad food, poor service. We had stopped for a moment at the East End Hotel and the Raj Darshan, and those places looked much nicer.

On the way back, we took at detour at Bylkuppe to check out the Buddhist monasteries. It was almost surreal to find a huge Tibetan settlement in the middle of South India. Imagine seeing an old Tibetan woman herding sheep by the side of the road, and sprawling hills on both sides. It felt like we were somewhere in Himachal or Garhwal, not Karnataka. The "golden temple" monaastery itself was quite ornate and beautiful. We tried finding veg momos in the settlement, but no luck.

We started back around 4, and despite losing our way once and almost reaching Mysore we managed to hit the Bangalore city traffic by 9. Night driving in India, if you haven't had the joy of experiencing, is something only for the nasty. Avoid it if you can. It is not fun at all, and unnecessarily risky.

It then took us another hour to navigate the Bangalore traffic to get home. By the time I got home, Coorg already seemed very far. :(

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