gargi.raychakraborty@gmail.com

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The best trip of the year gone by.....

I love rains - the incessant lashing against glass panes, the pitter–patter (literally) on tin roofs, the misty smell that rises from earth when drenched with a good shower, the pakodas and piping hot chai that accompanies rain as staple Indian snacks, the walks where your hair get plastered all over your face in a most unfashionable manner, jumping in the poodles on the roadside that reminds you of yourself when you were five years of age; basically the good time that rain brings along with it.
I also love jungles. The sunlight that filters through the leaves resulting in amazing patterns on leafy grounds, the smell of vegetation, the wide branches spreading out of a rain tree that makes you feel protected from elements when you stand underneath it, the chirping of known and unknown birds, the buzz of strange insects, the various shades of green and brown and yellow on the grass and on the leaves, the eerie silence during the night, the sudden cry of an animal that gives you goose bumps –all of it.
But I realized I totally dislike the combination – downpour in a jungle!
Yet another new thing I learnt about myself; travel does that to all of us, teaches something new, something different in every trip that one undertakes.

Let me get to the specifics, this is about the 3 day trip to Masinagudi which me and my husband, Sudipto, undertook the last weekend of 2009. Masinagudi is an exotic locale, 250 kms from Bangalore towards Tamil Nadu, on the foothills of Nilgiris. It is adjoining to the Mudumalai sanctuary; just after Bandipur forest on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border (this detail is purely to show off my great knowledge of geography!)
After much research (I so love Google) on a weekend getaway, we had zeroed in on a resort called Jungle Hut; located in Bokkapuram, Masinagudi. The reviews in various travel sites recommended this place and being within our budget, we promptly fell for it. The fall was worth every penny!

The journey from Bangalore to Mysore is always a tad bit boring. We were caught in relentless traffic which normally is the case if it is a long weekend and if one is unable to leave the city prior to dawn break. We were late; by the time we hit Mysore Road it was around 9.15ish. I took my job as a music spinner seriously post Sudipto’s stern instruction that no way is he going to put up with Bon Jovi screaming at the top of his voice first thing in the morning!
So, with melodious songs filling our car, we formed part of the back-to-back traffic; the same tiresome city traffic which we wanted to run away from. It hounded us till we reached outskirts of Mysore. It seemed as if every Bangalorean had decided to travel along with us to avoid the city bred stress; so much for trying to be ‘far from maddening crowds’.

Our first stop was at McDonald’s for a quick bite, since we missed breakfast. The highlight of our brief stopover was a cute golden retriever named Fenny who was wagging her tail happily while soaking the bright sun. Being a bit (actually it is a lot more than “bit”) obsessed with these four legged creatures; we spent some time with her. McDonald’s as usual was filled with bawling babies, harried young parents, irritated looking wives instructing indifferent looking husbands on various home related issues (phew - do they ever give up!) and smell of fries. Though the plain fillet-o-fish at Mcdies is a hot favourite of mine, I must admit, I do miss the ‘dhabas’ of north India, where you always manage to get awesome aloo paranthas accompanied by sexy nimbu pickles and spicy egg bhurji.

The traffic was so awesomely bad, that we had given up all hope of reaching Masinagudi by lunchtime; our main concern was whether we will be able to reach before sunset! Post Mysore, things did improve. The crowded Bangalore-Mysore road gave way to the empty village paths surrounded with trees and fields that stretched-till-horizon on both the sides and except a minor accident we witnessed on Mysore–Gundlupet road and the awesome fish curry-rice we had at Bandipur Plaza (a small joint located just before entering Bandipur from Bangalore side) nothing noteworthy happened in the rest of the trip.

Once we entered the Bandipur forest, we rolled our windows down and started enjoying the drive in the jungle. It was suddenly so very refreshing; starting with the air which smelt different. The polluted air of the city was suddenly replaced by fresh clean air of the hills. The atmosphere was serene and finally we started feeling charged up about our impending vacation. Not only was the transformation reliving but it also calmed our mind and senses.

Jungle Hut is easy to locate. Attached is the map for reference.

The entrance which leads to the parking lot was sans any “vow” factor. On entering, it looked like a sleepy and not very inviting place which put a small frown on my forehead. I wondered whether this was a good choice and hoped badly that it should NOT turn out to be a dampener; I was really looking forward to a great vacation at a great place! I must say that the initial apprehension waned away as we parked our car and walked towards our designated cottage (the security had promptly asked one of the boys who worked there to accompany us).
There is no fixed path; one has to walk over grass and in between trees with branches hanging low, to reach their respective cottage. The standard cottage that we had booked had two beds made out of bricks. Safe concept given that there is always a chance of something lurking underneath your bed at a jungle resort. The room was sparsely furnished; it had its basics right and comprised of a double bed, one additional single bed, few shelves, one dresser and a small cabinet. The attached bath was clean and had 24hrs hot water facility (which actually worked).
Once the luggage was dumped, we went for a leisurely stroll around the resort. And that’s when I started realizing that the place had the right balance between being causal yet well maintained. There was no over-the-top garden (apparently some landscape artists had actually suggested that; we came to know later), the surroundings had tranquility written all over them; we stopped next to a semi dried pond where a few geese were busy with their daily dose of water sports, to take deep breaths after the semi strenuous journey and soak in the silence.
We made our way to the reception (we had to fill up the visitor details) which had an old world feel to it. The walls were decorated with laminated family photographs and there was one entire wall cabinet dedicated to trophies from various rallies. Incidentally, the owner, Vikram is a huge rally enthusiast. There were some comfortable couches with ‘The Hindu’ lying for any guest who wants to stay in touch with mad world out there. Just adjacent to the reception, on one side is the main dining area and on the other side there is a corridor which has two huge cupboards lined with books. It’s the resort library and was stacked with an assortment of fiction, travelogues and classics.

I picked up a collection of short stories by Pearl S Buck. Incidentally, the last time I borrowed a book by the author was when I was in school, which seemed like a century ago!
The corridor from the reception past the wall library leads to the gazebo.
It was done up with lots of sprawling sofas, not the most exotic looking furniture, but cozy, comfortable ones where you don’t mind sitting with your feet tucked under. On the other side of the gazebo, was the inviting looking pool with clear blue water. It was child friendly and hence not very deep. There were a few deck chairs to lounge around and the view behind the pool was breathtaking. Beyond the pool, there was a stretch of grasslands where we saw a large herd of deer busy grazing, which excited us to no end. It was like being in a deer park, except this was not an enclosed park; the deer families roam around the property freely at their own wish probably because they feel safer staying in and around human habitation where there is less chance of them being attacked. I am not 100% sure about this theory, but it was shared by other wild life loving, experienced guests. The property does have enough grass to graze and enough water in adjoining ponds for the animals to prefer hanging around.

Behind the grassland, there was a mountain range; one of the offshoots of Nilgiris. It looked bluish grey in the afternoon glow and the whole atmosphere soothed our senses. The staff had also decked up the gazebo with a huge, brightly lit Christmas tree and there was a small straw manger in the garden in front of it. Having studied in a catholic school, it suddenly took me back to school days where each class would have a contest as to whose manger was the best!

The resort is owned by a couple – Vikram and Anushri Mathias who are totally hands-on types and one of the best hosts I have ever come across. Vikram has an awesome sense of humour besides his love for rallies and Anushri is someone who besides making mouth watering pickles is always ready with her own innovative one-liners!
And yes, she along with us thinks Ooty is totally overrated.

At 3000 feet above sea level, Jungle Hut is surrounded by a wealth of plant and animal life that thrives amidst sparkling streams and virgin jungle. The resort follows socially and ecologically conscious practices. Special attention is accorded for protection of habitat, water sources, natural salt licks etc, as a consequence of which, it is an excellent place for animals and birds to breed in their natural habitat. Animals such as malabar squirrel (also known as Indian giant squirrel and looks like a stuffed toy) and spotted deer are found in abundance.
Being a part of Masinagudi, it is lush green, peaceful and at the same time offers the adventurous souls with a lot of trekking and hiking options. There is enough study material (read 320 varieties of different varieties of birds- both migratory and sedentary) for orinithologists. A guide will accompany every party of trekkers, to provide information on the flora and fauna, as well as to see to your safety.
For lazy ones like us, it offers peace and quiet under a starry sky and meandering forest paths for casual strolls.

The resort has couple of standard cottages, two tents and few deluxe cottages. Each cottage has a great view. The property also rears sheep, breeds carp and has two dogs.

There is a spa by Blossom Kocchar (yes the same lady whose name is synonymous with aromatherapy) which has 4 in-house staff (2 male and 2 female who stay in the resort) and is open from 9 am – 9 pm; timings are extremely convenient for the guests. We were too relaxed during our stay to experiment the massages offered, but I will take Anushri’s word for it- she recommends them highly. The rates are not that steep and you have the option of getting a massage next to the pool and not just indoors!
We soon learnt that near the dining area there is a coffee / tea maker wherein one can avail as many cups of coffee / tea they want and it is normally accompanied by a steady supply of cookies / cakes. And no, they DO NOT charge you for those extra cups. These small things made Jungle Hut different from the other resorts I have visited; it made us feel at home.

The afternoon on the first day of our arrival was spent relaxing on the lounge chairs next to the pool. We were famished, since lunch happened quite some time back and gorged on the lovely plum cakes along with our afternoon tea. Being Christmas, plum cakes were available in abundance by default! The evening was spent in the gazebo, listening to lovely retro tracks and chatting with Vikram, Anushri and few of their friends who were visiting. This in fact became a ritual for all the three evenings we spent there; we both would eventually land up at the gazebo with our drinks and would be chatting away with new found friends amidst other guests who would either be forming their group in the gazebo or soaking in warmth next to the bonfire (during the night there is a slight chill). The overall atmosphere in the evenings was one of relaxation mingled with fun and laughter filling the chilly air.
FYI: It is advisable to carry your own drinks as the resort does not have a liquor license and hence does not offer drinks as part of their package.

The next two days were complete bliss. We would wake up by 10 am; have our breakfast leisurely either in the verandah attached to the cottage or in the main dining area. There was always a choice of Indian and continental spread and the bread was awesomely fresh. I normally eat breakfast in a huge rush hence having breakfast in a relaxed manner while soaking in the sunshine and soothing atmosphere around me was a definitely new experience. And it was minus newspapers which I ALWAYS scan while having post breakfast coffee. I just did not want to know what was happening to the rest of the world. Nothing else mattered except hearing the sheep bleat, the birds chirp accompanied by the mild breeze that caressed my skin while I sat in the cozy bamboo chairs with a coffee cup next to me, and a book open in my lap.

Sudipto roamed around with the camera trying to catch squirrels and deer and butterflies in action; he did manage to get some nice shots. I felt too lazy to even move my limbs, mostly. It felt as if my body, mind and soul needed this tranquility and I was so cocooned by it the warmth of it that I actually spent hours sitting outside either on the verandah or on the grass, doing simply nothing! I honestly cannot remember the last time I did ‘nothing’ and felt at peace.
The book in my lap did get attention now and then. My penchant for short stories comes second to novels. However, it was refreshing to read Pearl S buck after ages. Her language is fluid; she describes characters and life in general in an engrossing manner which keeps her readers hooked and the stories stay etched in your mind forever.
We did take a few short strolls in and around the property during day time and played with the in house dogs; there are two of them-mother-son duo. The mother is a mix between a German shepherd and a Doberman and while no one knows about the son’s father, he seemed to have retriever blood in him. The mom was an efficient soul, she took her job as managing the sheep reared in the property pretty seriously and would be busy guiding them if they strayed or scolding them in they were found chewing flower plants! The son on the other hand believed in being lazy; he loved lying on the sands and being petted by guests.

Lunch and dinner were mouth watering spread which I went totally gaga over. There would be an assortment of vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes; the fish and mutton gravies especially were finger licking good. They were a bit spicy for my taste, but awesome nevertheless. I forgot to compliment the cook which I plan to rectify on my next visit. My so-called diet plan went for a toss (I told myself I will be stick to it with a vengeance in 2010) and I gorged like there is no tomorrow!

The food and overall atmosphere relaxed me so much that one day, I actually dozed off while reading next to the lily pond. Thank god, my chair was far enough from where I did not tumble onto the small pond; I don’t even know how to swim! There are three ponds on the property, one is a small lily pond which dries up in summer and comes back to life every monsoon and stays through the winter. An assortment of lilies in the shades of red, pink and white blooms there; it’s a breathtaking sight. There is also a large pond whose water reflects the greenery around and which looks like an oil painting. The third one is home to few pristine white cackling geese.
The resort along with the National Park, organizes van safaris into the unspoiled sanctuary areas twice daily – one early morning (5.30 am) and one in the afternoon (3.30 pm) for wild life enthusiasts. The cost for a jeep safari is Rs 3500, and it gets divided amongst the passengers. The jeep can accommodate 6 people besides the driver. We wanted to go for an early morning safari and did book two seats for the same; in fact we even managed to get four more co-passengers making the proposition financially viable. However, we got carried away the evening prior to our safari and got very late wrapping our drinks/ dinner/ yapping session. We obviously failed to make it in the morning. Well, so much for trying to be an early riser at least one day in a year! To add to our misery of losing out on the safari, the guests came back and informed us at breakfast that they spotted tuskers, bison, leopards and hold your breath.……a TIGER, which they trailed for five whole minutes!!

We did feel a bit bad that we missed such a good opportunity but the entire place was too nice for bad mood to linger long. We decided that we will try the next day. Unfortunately, it started raining that evening; rains that refused to stop. And that is when I realized that I do take a strong dislike to rain and jungle combo. Suddenly there were no deer to gaze at (they would roam right in front of to our cottage with total disregard to my strong personality that I presume even frightens lions), the narrow paths turned muddy, there was absolutely no way one could take a walk and suddenly everyone who was present at the resort poured in to the gazebo for entertainment; the tranquility was gone in a jiffy and there was so much noise all around that I felt I am in a crowded pub.

Vikram did try to ensure if we can go for the safari, the next day, but unfortunately it did not work out.
We spent the evening chatting and discussing tourism and issues that the industry faces. We also heard that the government is planning to shut down private resorts because they feel it is hampering elephant movement in the elephant corridors, which saddened us. Government plans to allow only government run resorts and is not too keen on forest tourism. From my interactions, I deduced that most of the owners are people who love the wilderness, it is very difficult to run a business successfully if your heart is not into it and they take enough measures to be in tune with the environment. Besides, there are only a few of them in the entire jungle, so obviously the elephants have enough space to roam around. It also provides the locals and tribals with employment opportunity and gives boost to eco tourism to India. A whole lot of eco friendly tourists would prefer a private resort to a government run one any day; a measure like this did not seem very logical, to me.

The next day, we were supposed to leave post breakfast. Both of us had a strong urge to stay back! The prospect of going back home and attending office and the daily travails of domestic life suddenly seemed very low on appeal. We took one last round of photographs, the happily-smiling-onto-the-camera-couple ones; looked around for one last time as we bade goodbye to our new friends – the place and the people and started our journey back to Bangalore.

The return journey was quite non descript; we drove slowly as there was no rush to get back, stopped at Mysore for lunch and then again at some place for coffee and then was stuck in famous Bangalore traffic as soon as were in the outskirts of Bangalore for three quarter of an hour. The signal near Bangalore University was not working and there was no cop to manage it either. It was so typical. Four and two wheelers were chock-a-block, congesting every path possible! I did the Good Samaritan act by calling the traffic control room and after 15 minutes of struggle did manage to wiggle our way out of that mess; hopefully the traffic cops did reach to prevent further clogging.
Out went peace of mind; you have a great vacation and the return journey is always with an already heavy heart and by the time you hit the city roads you are cursing the traffic, the lack of civic sense amongst fellow commuters; in short you let urban paranoia catch up with you. Phew!

We reached home tired and sulky (the thought of office next day was so very saddening) and while I diligently copied pictures in my laptop (as we all know, its maha important to upload them in Orkut and Facebook asap post vacation) snippets of the entire vacation kept flashing in my mind. It was one of our best vacations in 2009. I will definitely urge people to visit Masinagudi and Jungle Hut, in particular!
Official website of Jungle hut is: http://www.junglehut.in/. It is truly worth it!!
PS: The following sites helped me gather information about Masinagudi, while I was doing my search:

· The first one has a list of all phone numbers of all resorts and can be of immense help.
· The second one….errr, it actually suggests wearing thin attire during summer especially month of May and actually refers to Baywatch as an example! Gosh imagine parading down the forest in a bikini, am sure the animals will get too impressed and not attack you. Ever!

http://www.nilgiris.com/hotels/otherplaces.htm