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Break in the branches
TOI-Crest bunks down for a night in a hotel that is anything but down to earth.
The sunny beaches of Goa are three hours behind us. A few minutes ago, we lost sight of the scanty civilization along the sleepy village of Khanapur. We've driven so deep into the hinterlands of Belgaum district that I've accepted my phone's acute refusal to catch signal. Abruptly off the main highway, we turn into a narrow dirt road with neither a sign nor any lights, only a dense jungle on either side. Sensing my anxiety, my driver tries to lighten the mood with a story of how some visitors on this dirt road asked him to stop the car and ask for directions;the only beings you can find along this road for directions are jackals and bison! I smile as I glance out of the car window and see the glittery night sky;this adventure is just getting started, I think to myself.
The yellow glow of kerosene lamps breaks the monotony of the dark, and marks our arrival at The Hermitage, a forest lodge run by the Fernandez family in the wilderness of the Western Ghats. We have a homely dinner cooked with produce grown on a farm surrounding this little settlement, after which I'm handed a flashlight to manoeuvre my way up to a tree house which is to be my recluse for the night. In the dim light of a candle I've just lit, I can tell that resting on the barks of two trees with a sleeping area in the middle, my tree house looks beautiful.
I sit out on the steps a little longer, watching a million stars twinkle above me. I spot the Seven Sisters among other constellations, debate the bright reddish star to be Venus or Mars, and find myself mesmerized each time I spot a shooting star. As the night progresses, the forest starts to awaken with the sounds of howls and footsteps, some far away in the distance, and some disconcertingly close. In places like these, you can't be sure when the dark is playing tricks with your mind;the soft rustle of leaves could very well be a panther staring at you. I decide to call it a night, and let the wind gently swing me to sleep in my tree house.
I wake up to see that for the first time since my arrival, the forest is bathed in bright sunlight, and the menacing sounds have been replaced by the sweet chirping of birds. I make my way down the stilts to my open-rooftop bathroom, and sunbathe under the elements of nature as I pour icy cold water over myself. The tree above occasionally greets me with flowers and little leaves, as though felicitating me for peacefully sharing my bathing space with toads, spiders, and other little ones that I fail to identify.
I learn about the early adventures of the Fernandez' in the forest. When they first moved here 31 years ago, the dirt roads leading to their settlement would get flooded during the monsoon, leaving them to live off the forest for three months every year. The lady learnt to identify edible wild mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other forest plants with the help of young lads from a tribal village nearby. Many years later, they would drive to what they affectionately called Phone Hill, to establish connectivity with the world outside and welcome travellers into their humble abode.
I venture out towards the farm, where wild elephants from another forest had once showed up and destroyed all the crops. Past the farm lies the forest, now a lot less intimidating than the night before. I walk along a clearing with timid steps, and lighten my gait as I spot a stream with colourful birds playfully hopping around. As the sun starts to set, I hear heavy footsteps at the edge of the forest, presumably those of a bison, but I don't wait to find out. Spotting bats fly into the twilight from my tree house, I think about a traveller who claimed to have spotted a panther chasing a deer into the forest from this very spot.
It's close to 24 hours without a phone, electricity, Facebook or Twitter, and I feel accepted in the wild. The first stars have appeared, promising another night of forest adventure.
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