A wide river met the road at right angles and stopped us. A shopkeeper at that unusual T junction asked us to turn right. ‘The Tourist Lodge is a few hundred metres ahead ….’
After less than half a kilometre, our taxi stopped again as that road too ended. This time, a forest blocked our way. There was thick foliage in front and on our right, and on the left, the Kavery flowed on indifferently. No sign of any tourist lodge …. It was past lunch time, and after a five-hour drive from Bengaluru, we were not in a frame of mind to appreciate the shopkeeper’s practical joke. But before we could curse him, a young man in a jungle-print shirt and khakis greeted us with a broad smile.
Meet Sattar, a tourism department employee, a boatman who would take us to the other side of the river, as all boatmen do. The Elephant Camp Tourist Resort across the river is new, but the “elephant camp” is old. Elephants were trained and kept here by the Forest Department for logging. The animals lost their jobs when the government banned using elephants for manual labour. At that point, some brilliant mind thought of setting up a tourist resort at the place with a unique selling point: tourists would have the novel experience of “interacting with elephants”, like bathing and feeding them.
Despite our protests, Sattar helped us with our luggage and put us on a motor boat that had been hidden behind a tree. The place is not far off from Talakaveri, where the river begins its 765 kilometre journey. Thanks to good rains, the Kavery was full to the brim at Dubare.
On the other side, Sattar handed us over to another smiling young man in jungle-print, Uday. The resort had ten cottages beside the river, not built on a line, but scattered randomly, just as trees grow in a forest.
Given the backdrop, the cottages were surprisingly well appointed. Although there was no electricity, the rooms had AC machines. A generator supplied electricity after sunset.
|Uday in our room|
The dining hall begins on the river bank and goes almost into the river, standing on concrete stilts. Its thatched roof stands on beautifully carved wooden pillars. There are also a few tall trees in the dining hall, coming in through the floor and leaving out through the roof. The underside of the roof too has intricate wooden rafters. This architecture is typical in Coorg or Kodagu district of North Karnataka. The hall has no walls on the riverside and the two adjoining sides – only banisters. As we had a late lunch of lovely Kodagu food, we felt we were floating on the river.
It was raining when we boarded a jeep for a guided micro safari, which was a bit of a let down because the only wild animal that we came across during the one-hour drive in the jungle was a stray dog; we saw many elephants, foraging, accompanied by their mahouts. There were three couples and two children in the jeep besides us. Two of the women talked continuously. One of them narrated to the children how a certain uncle, when he had been a child, had peed in a bottle of coke and offered it to a particularly difficult teacher.
In the evening, as we watched a film on Karnataka wildlife in the dark dining hall, a waiter asked if we would like to have beer. Of course, we would .... He produced some chilled beer. My daughter took a few sips more to make a political statement; I enjoyed the rest. Outside, a magical darkness filled in every corner of the planet ... millions of fireflies glimmered in the bushes and in the sky. The place would have been absolutely still but for the orchestra by crickets and cicadas.
Pachyderm - a type of animal with a very thick skin, for example, an elephant.
The next morning, we understood what this really meant when the mahouts brought the elephants to the river bank one after the other. Their mahouts too were supposed to be government employees. But unlike the nattily dressed employees of the tourist lodge, they were in dirty clothes, with unkempt hair. They were tribal men who traditionally tended elephants. They laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy their work. The elephants too laughed and joked with the tourists.
The elephant skin is surprisingly tough and coarse. And the huge animals are surprisingly gentle and tolerant. They took the hundred odd overenthusiastic tourists in their stride. We had a once-in-a-life-time experience of scrubbing the elephants as they were being bathed. Each one of them had a fifteen minute bath after which they walked up to a designated place for their breakfast consisting of a ball of jaggery. An elephant needs two hundred kilograms of food every day. They were given about two by their keepers. They rest they would have to forage.