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Long weekends are always pleasant surprises. And on one such upcoming long weekend, my family insisted ME to come up with a plan for a three-day trip, cause I work for an adventure travel company. So, that’s like the least expectation set. Mind you this trip involved Parents. So, all the sleazy-boozy-doozy gateway options were out of the picture. And a three-day trip seemed too short.

Having lived in Bangalore for 25 years and being fond travellers, my parents and I have toured around South a lot. Be it Ooty, Mysore, Kodaikanal, the entire Kerala and you name it, we have already checked it off our bucket list. Now, how do I unravel a new close by destination which is yet to be discovered by us?

Deciding on “THE PLACE”

Okay, so I pitched the idea to a friend at work who is a wildlife photographer, and after suggesting few treacherous jungles, he flung the idea of Dandeli (a forest again)- a road very, very less travelled as he says. I was not aware of Dandeli much, but I decided to keep my option open along with Pondicherry and Chikkamangaluru’s Serai Resort (Ah! luxury). Must surely talk about Serai in my next blog. It’s blissful!

I discussed the above options with my fiancée and turns out he has already been to Dandeli and bragged so much about this homestay and the activities around, hence half-heartedly I settled for the Dandeli plan. I was not entirely convinced of Dandeli and was very concerned as I was tagging along with a bunch of very critical people (that’s apart from my parents).

My travel chums included my parents, uncle, aunt, an annoying fussy teenage cousin (let’s call her missy) and another little cousin (let’s call him kiddo).

So, Good luck me.

Get set to Dandeli.

I gave a call to the homestay fella recommended by my fiancée- “The Amara Homestay”. The man seemed very nice, fluent in the local language of Kannada. His son is to your rescue if you do not follow the local language. After discussing various aspects, we booked a tent and a cottage. The guy was extremely friendly and requested us to show up at Alnavara or Londa Junction. (as we chose to travel by train)

The trip was scheduled on February 27th, 2015. It’s the best time to travel to Dandeli as weather ain’t too hot or cold. Crossing Hubballi during summers is killing and visiting Dandeli during the rain is no fun at all. Thus spring, winters and early summers are the best time to visit.

After racking my brains over several factors, I informed everybody to carry minimal luggage in a rucksack (cause Dandeli is no place to carry suitcase), super comfortable shoes, hiking shorts/ pants, comfy jacket and loads t-shirts. We need no fashion parade there, as we will be amidst a forest and the animals don’t care for your Gucci or Prada. I mean, don’t kill the sanctity of the place. (“when in Rome, do what Romans do” you know).

Not to forget sunscreen, hats, caps, sunglasses, binoculars, torch, mosquito repellents, necessary medications and toiletries. And its goes without saying that CAMERA is a must. And the most important item “BSNL” sim card (in case you just cannot survive without a phone)- cause once you enter the forest area, you can bid adieu to all your promising (yet deceiving) phone networks. The network won’t follow you here as they advertise (“What!” I know). FYI, there’s a provision of the one rupee coin box phone at the homestay.

Journey to Hubballi.

I and my parents travelled from Bangalore to Hubballi by train whereas my uncle, aunt, missy and kiddo joined us at Hubballi station from Hyderabad, an hour later that morning. We settled for some hot idlis at the Hubballi station for breakfast and then purchased local train tickets to Alnavar. Now here I wish, I did things differently. We could hire a taxi till Alnavar for a local train is not a very great option.

The trains are stuffed, and luckily if you find a seat- the wooden seats are a pain to sit on. And don’t forget all the luggage you are carrying along. God! And the train stops at every darn station. So much for an hour’s journey?? Hiring a taxi would turn out to be so much better. But if you are budget sensitive, then the train ride is highly recommended- as much as I recall each ticket cost around 25 bucks.

I have mentioned the distances below connecting major cities to Amara:

Bangalore: 500 km

Karwar: 115 km

Dharwad: 55 km

Hubli: 75 km

Goa: 130 km

Londa: 40 km

Belgaum: 95 km

Day 1

After the painful journey, we made it to Alnavar junction, where the driver assigned by Amara was already waiting for us. He drove us to the homestay in a Mahindra 4X4 camper, an open mesh jeep. It was almost a two-hour journey from Alnavar junction to Amara homestay. The journey from the train to midway to the homestay was very hot. The driver informed us to pick any necessary stuff as we wouldn’t travel to the city for the next 3 days. I was negligent about the environment ahead. I expected a few hotels and chemists around. Then we entered the woods, and slowly the bars on my phone network disappeared. It was lush green and turned nippy. We then grabbed over jackets to keep us warm. SO, this is what they say to be lost in the woods! (Ah!)

The kids and I bunked on the back of the jeep. Back of the jeep was open and covered with mesh. And as far as eyes could go, we could see a street and huge trees on both sides. The sunlight escaping from the space of the canopy to make it to us. It was thrilling. Not a soul street, leave alone a house or a shop. Nothing that I have experienced before. NOTHING!

The forests were thick, usually like the ones we witness from the train windows. It was quiet with just the rustling of the trees, a few chirping birds and an occasional howl. It felt that we were in the territory of the wildlings. And the very thought fuelled our excitement. The kids looked eagerly at the surroundings and jumped at every howl.

The driver took the small narrow muddy road amidst the woods leading us to our abode. We noticed a roof and then the trees unveiled a tiny old fashioned village themed timid home. (SO this is where we stay? This is what my fiancée talked me into?? Oh boy!). The small concrete structure was surrounded by cashew trees and various other flower plants. The flora was very impressive, I just hoped the homestay kept us secure of the fauna.

The owner of the homestay Mr Ramachandra Hegde welcomed us and offered us the welcome drink (no! it’s not what you are thinking it is). It was a medicinal ayurvedic buttermilk with herbs like tulsi, brahmi and what on jadibuttis (sounds *Yuck*); but surprisingly tasted refreshing. The expanse of his herby knowledge baffled us all. The drink was meant to build our immunity and pep us up from our upcoming adventures (desi energy drink).

We then secured our cottage and tent (let’s call it a “CAVE”). The cottage facilitated an attached bathroom. The people who choose a cave had bathrooms right behind. Must say, these bathrooms, tent and cottages were maintained spick and span. The cave comprised the neat beddings and was spacious. I assumed them to be very tiny but they could easily fit 2 in each of the 2-apportioned section and 5 in the front stretch. The cave was big enough to fit 8 fully grown adults.

After freshening up, we headed to lunch in. The homestay had a separate section for dining. The seating and table were carved out of black rock. The meal was entirely cooked by Mrs Mangala Hedge. Now, the kids and my uncle, aunt are originally from the north and haven’t travelled around much. And as we all know, there are a few compromises we need to make with food while travelling and they instead are typical Marwari ghee eaters. I hoped that food would not be an issue, as there was no option of another eatery unless they want to feed on grass (which was available in abundance).

The food was served, served and kept coming. We had a variety of cookeries laid out in front of us and none of what is served in restaurants. These dishes were local cuisines cooked by the blessed hands of Annapurna (Hindu Goddess of food) of Amara homestay. We had so many choices and if (if) we didn’t like a dish (which was very unlikely) we had so many more picks. My Northie folks dug in and devoured every bite and that’s how food became the most tempting part of our trip. We looked forward to every meal and Mrs Mangala satiated our bellies. And hospitality was such that as if we were the newly married son-in-law of an Indian household. Team Amara fed us like we were at our Gramma’s place.

Post lunch, our first halt for the day was to Syntheri Rocks which was 5km away from the homestay. We paid an entry fee was ₹30 and hiked for a kilometre or half and reached this well-hidden serene spot. In the midst of huge rock piles flows a stream of water, crafting it to be a perfect place to kindle passion or picnic with kids. It was like, one of our desktop wallpaper just came to life. There were a variety of rocks on the way to this haven and the place was laden with bee hives and many bees hovering over our heads. We could not sate the photographer in us to capture this piece of heaven. As tempting the water seemed, we were cautioned on to step in it as it is too slippery and there are hollow spaces created in the rocks due to the running stream.

Contended with the perfect start to the trip, the troop’s next expedition was trekking to the cryptic caves in the woods. The driver was an expert and had permission from forest departments to take us to the said cave visit. The adventure of trekking in the woods, rustling noise of the trees and crunching the dry leave beneath our feet was so overwhelming and made us feel so alive. Every moment and slight were vigilant, cause we knew this is isn’t our terrain. Kiddo and missy were so exhilarated and petrified at the same time. I scared them off couples of times (they were so easy). Then came the cave, which hardly looked like what we expected.

It was deep, underground, the terrain was unlevelled and to top it all, it was pitch dark (one wrong step could be fatal) and this was around 3ish in the noon. The sun hardly could screen across those tall mighty trees.

Thrilled as we were, my chubby momma heroically initiated to go in first after our driver cum guide (let’s call him Bond) who held a torch and guided us the way. She made it inside and goaded us to step up. The terrain was full of uneven spiky rocks and we all made it inside holding each other’s hand and sometimes crawled our way in, on all four. The cave was so small, it’s astounding that we all fit in.

Bond then focussed the torch on these stone structures, there were numerous linga (phallus structured object representing a mighty Hindu deity “Shiva”). The lingams were profuse in different sizes and shades of rocks, the moment was so swamping pious. Bond then narrated the story of how a great hermit resided in these caves in solace and prayed to Lord Shiva. The wild cats obeyed him and sat by him as he performed his religious rituals in the cave.

We went ahead and discovered another 3 caves around which also entailed similar lingas. One such linga was so gigantic that covered the entire cave, one could not go around to give a Pradakshina (circumambulation). These caves are so confined and not suggested for claustrophobic individuals. We trekked back to our jeep while capturing memories on our camera.

On the way, Kiddo questioned Bond if he ever witnessed a big Cat in person, Bond smugly mentioned his multiple encounters with the wildlings and one special moment when a black panther and he crossed paths while driving (of course Bond was the one driving). Bond had a new fan, and from then on kiddo and Bond were inseparable. And our eyes transfixed on the road henceforth looking for a strolling beast. (you never know)

We were further escorted to the glorious Ulavi temple which is a prime pilgrimage for the Hindus of Lingayath faith, as it houses the samadhi (final resting place) of Channabasavanna- one of the most esteemed saints of the time. Post darshan and soulful prasad we headed back to our momentary home.

Hot piping tea and refreshments awaited us at the homestay. We hogged the scrumptious dinner while Mr Ramachandra depicted us the chronicles of the next morning and called it a day. Worn out of the long day, we slept like babies in the cave without comprehending the newness of everything around.

Day 2

In cities, it’s unimaginable to wake up to the sound of tweeting birds and misty air. All that chirps there is the annoying morning alarm. The air here was so fresh and foggy, that I couldn’t resist taking a walk. I and my dad were touring around and Mr Ramachandra bumped into us. He offered us to show around the farm later that evening.

Mrs Hegde surprised us again with some wonderful soft idlis traditionally steamed in banana leaves and served with honey. Sounds weird??? Your taste buds will thank you once you take a bite. We over-ate as usual and headed out for our biggest adventure.

Today’s mission was white water rafting in the Kali river. Bond drove us into the internal remote forests of the Dandeli around 8 am to the rafting office. The tariff per person was around ₹1500 for a long river rafting (app 9 km), it did sound a little steep but we couldn’t put a price to the experience we had later. We were then led to the rafting site: Ganeshgudi in open jeeps. On arrival, the instructors briefed us on how to use the rafting paddle, when to duck and to jump when the rapids pass by.

P. S. a child under the age of 12 is not allowed to river raft.

All went well till it was virtual, but our blood ran cold when we saw the river and rapids. It looked all too dangerous now. But the instructors assured us of the safety and it was too late to turn back. Bravely, we put on our helmets and life jackets; and stepped into the rubber boats while the instructor startled us by pushing us into the shallow waters, just so that we get a hang of it. We were now soaked and petrified.

With our heart in our mouth, we paddled the boat while our instructor stood tall (behind), grinning his way as we saw our first rapid. “ALL DUCK” he yelled, we gripped out fingers on the flimsy mesh around the boat and let out a loud shriek. It happened all so quickly, the boat jumped in mid-air and landed in the water with a thump. We were drenched but we survived. And thereafter, there were shrieks of victory for every rapid that came along. Adrenaline rushed through us and believe it or not my 45-year-old Mum enjoyed it the most and thanked me for forcing her to do it.

A few buffs flung out of the boat deliberately while rafting. They floated on the river top while the Instructor Hercules pulled them into the boat. The entire process till be reached the rafting office took us good 4 hours. Exhausted and gratified by the experience we were picked by Bond and headed back to Amara.

There are other options of kayaking, natural river jacuzzi, coracle ride and zorbing ball, in case you are under age, heart conditioned or merely lack the guts to try such extreme adventure. The prices for each of these activities vary from ₹100 to ₹400. Also, my fiancée had the opportunity to do rappelling, regrettably this activity was closed during our visit.

“How was it?”, Mr Ramachandra queried as Bond parked the jeep. Our beaming faces answered his question. The lunch was a treat to our soul after the draining raft. We ate till our bellies ached and dozed off for a while.

Well rested as we were, we took a quick bite of the snacks while Mr Ramachandra ushered us to the promised detour of his vast farm. His farm was extensive with betel nut trees standing tall, the rays of the sun could hardly penetrate through the trees, which was perfect to grow spices like cardamom, pepper, cloves underneath. We had to hop over the puddles and walk on a tree trunk to let the water creeks pass under. It was a scene from the movies where the plane breaks down on an unknown island and how the person makes his way through.

Mr Ramachandra continued sharing his experiences of how he inherited the property from his folks, how he employed labourers from a nearby village who peeled the betel nuts out, how his wife is an integral part of the business he runs and we were dumbstruck to learn that he grossed in this heaven better than a VP in an MNC.

The sun had set and we climbed our way back to the homestay, the camp was ready after the dinner. We sat by the fire in the chilly weather relishing the moment of peace. But kiddo and missy got us all grooving to Honey Singh and the chatter was endless. Then swiftly we heard a very frail call of an animal, Mr Ramachandra informed that it was a call from a deer to its herd sensing danger. We had goose bumps all over. Could it be true that we are just a few miles away from the wild ones?

The very thought didn’t let me, kiddo and missy sleep. We tossed and turned in our tent, questioning the safety of the tent in a fatal encounter with the big cats (OH!! OH!!). Later all the 3 of us bundled up and held each other as we drifted to sleep hearing the poor deer’s call.

Day 3

Mr Ramachandra woke up us as early as 4.30 am to get set for our 6 am Safari. It was pitch dark outside, we freshen up and as he offered us tea to get out of our slumber. The drive to the jungle safari spot was very scary, as it was pitch dark, nippy weather and we were in an open jeep. And amidst all this, on our way, 2 green eyes on corner of the road met mine. I couldn’t figure out what animal was it as our jeep passed in a flash, but sure as hell I believe it was a black panther (at least, that’s the consolation I give myself). My folks laughed and said perhaps it was a dog! Possibly. But I’ll stick to the idea of a black panther. I still remember those haunting eyes (Don’t you mock me).

We reached the starting point of our Safari, the entry fee was ₹400 per person, and there were Government authorised jeeps which took us 14kms around the lush interiors of the dense Dandeli forests. Unfortunately, it started pouring and we couldn’t spot the big cat, but we sure did spot a herd of deer, bison and a giant squirrel.

On our way back to the homestay, Bond pulled over to show us the exotic bird: The Horn Bill. Thankful for kiddo’s binoculars, we seized the beautiful bird in our memory. Dandeli is a habitat for 300 exotic species of birds. Bond continued describing how wildlife photographers wait patiently hours together to capture this magnificent bird in their camera.

After a delightful breakfast and followed by lunch, we packed our bags to bid farewell to the Amara. Mr and Mrs Hegde were kind enough to pack our dinner for the train. After settling our bills, our expedition continued, Mr Hegde arranged for a visit to a private island near Supa Dam.

Mind you, there is no road trail to lead us into this private island, and we needed an exclusive 4x4 jeep to make it to the island. The car moved on rocks and mushy mud to make it to the spot. Dandeli has a knack for presentation, like how we unwrap a gift, the woods unveil these beautiful marvels. We gazed at the beauty, a few steps ahead off the woods there was an extended clearing, all we could see from there on was water and tiny islands in between them.

The place was completely secluded, we were the only souls and had all this nature to ourselves to laud. Bond introduced us to the person who took us on a private boat ride on these islands. The ride was long and intriguing, the boat captain turned off the motor boat as he spotted a bison grazing far off. He did not want to scare them away, and slowly paddled the boat manually to get us a closer look at this muscular mighty creature!

We were spellbound at the sight. Taking it all in and bummed, how the journey is coming to an end in a matter of hours. We tipped the captain around ₹500 to show us around. The 4x4 jeep was stuck in mud holes on our way back from the woods. We were anxious to miss our train but luckily Bond and captain sailed us through. This was no fancy trip each drive had its adventures.

We continued to head and visit the last spot, Supa Dam. After picturing the wonders of God, man-made Supa Dam didn’t appeal to us as much. We proceeded and reached Londa Junction, tipped Bond and bid goodbye to Dandeli with a very heavy heart and a life time of memories to revere.

Cost of the trip

We paid a sum of ₹25000 for 6 adults and a child to Amara Homestay. This sum included food, accommodation, sight-seeing and taxes. The other expenses like entrance fees, river rafting, jungle safari, private tour to the island and tips were not inclusive in Amara’s cost. I have provided tariffs for the above expenses in the blog as and when I speak about it.

P. S: the prices mentioned are from 2015 and might be subject to hike (thanks to inflation)

All in All

This trip was so much more than what I had expected out of it. It was nothing like the other travelling we have done. No Kashmir or Euro trip is comparable to the adventures we sought here. We were high here. High on nature and spoilt by Amara.

The kids were charmed and took tons of spooky stories for their friends, while aunt and Mom did try the zest of wanderlust. The warmth and care from Amara cannot be equated to any 5-star hotel. Mrs Hegde ensured we had a good meal, checked if the kids wanted anything else, Mr Ramachandra tended on us if anything bothered us. This level of personalisation is only provided by Mom or really loving relatives.

Considering the isolated location, feeble networks and new circumstances, we were completely in the hands of Mr Hedge and team in Dandeli and they made us feel at home, like one of their own without cashing on the opportunity.

Dandeli is a disguised treasure which is discovered by a very few, perhaps that’s the reason why its beauty is still intact. We as humans tend to destroy beautiful things. I am so glad we chose Dandeli (or did Dandeli choose us!), the memories from here will be special cause it is like no other. We have never felt thrilled this way. It had to offer us peace and ecstasy both at once (ironic huh?).

If you have never taken up any big adventures and have travelled by a suit case, Dandeli is the right place to start with. Dandeli was not a holiday or break from our schedules, it was an experience that enriched our hearts and gave us retirement goals.

Travel and reboot.

High on nature. Happy Adventures 😊