For weeks afterwards, whenever I got a phone call, our three-year-old would wander over. “Appa,” she would say softly, looking up at me, head tilted way way back, “Please tell them, monkey ‘cratched’ me.” Gotta obey the lady, so I would tell the bemused person on the other end of the line how a monkey—yes, a great handsome langur with a swishing long tail—“cratched” my daughter.
For her, it was simultaneously the scariest and the most memorable moment in Dandeli, Karnataka.
The setting, first. We arrived at our small hotel in Dandeli one evening after an unnecessarily long drive from Goa, and the low gold of the sun kissed the soft hills all around. It was one of those scenes you read about and see photographs of, but never quite think you’ll experience for yourself: Trees everywhere, skeins of egrets going home, the evening so quiet you can hear twittering birdsong, enormous hornbills flapping from one tree to another.
Part of the landscape: The family stands near the spot where the two rivers, Kali and Barshi, meet.
Below the balcony, a pomelo tree laden with ripe fruit. Beyond that, a tiny pool—the kind you look at on an evening like this, feeling like this, weary from driving, and you shiver in anticipation. Because you know in your bones just how cool the water will be, how tingly you’ll feel when you emerge.
That evening and over the next few days, it was exactly that, deliciously cool. But as dips in water go, not quite as cool as white water rafting in the Kali river.
On a raft barrelling through the rapids with a fit Nepali guide called Yuvraj, there’s my eight-year-old and me, plus three confident engineering students from Pune. Two of whom, the show-offs, keep toppling backwards off the raft at every pause in our downstream progress, to swim. So do we, but not every time, not backwards, and with nowhere near their insouciant elan. Partly because I keep wondering about the river bottom which, in my limited encounter with it as we got into the raft, grabbed a little too hard at my feet.
Treading water, I remember the writer Emily Hiestand. In her gorgeous The Very Rich Hours, she writes of a languorous cruise through Florida’s Everglades, when her rented houseboat runs “hard into a deep shoal of silty marl”. The smell is putrid, help is out of radio range, and walking miles to safety through the mangroves is no option. So what does Emily do? Naturally, she ruminates about the poets’ use of “marl” to symbolize hell (“burning marl of perdition”, George Eliot); admires a heron’s hypnotic hunting dance and a lizard devouring a reluctant moth (“beautiful throat bulges with metamorphosis”); dreams up stories about a mythical magical land.
If I am stuck in the mud, here in Dandeli, will I be as sanguine, as able to focus on herons? I even spy a heron at water’s edge, not dancing but still and watchful under curved branches. And later, I weave small stories in my mind about why a particular stretch of Kali white water is called “Leopard Rapid”. Yuvraj says it is because one group of rafters saw a leopard sitting on these rocks, but that’s not nearly romantic enough for me.
Nevertheless, as I clamber clumsily, urgently, back into the raft, my heart thumping inside my chest, I know: I’m no unruffled Emily Hiestand.
Further downstream from where we raft, the Kali meets the swift Barshi river. That lovely confluence is about a 20-minute walk through the trees at three-year-old speed, hornbills and swallows our overhead companions. As she paddles happily, I sit on the grass at water’s edge, catching my breath because three-year-old speed is faster than mine.
Notice a large black shape— roughly 6ft x 3ft rectangular—just a couple of feet out from the edge like an oil slick, except it is underwater. Idly, I wonder what it is, then forget about it. Later, stepping about with her in the shallows, a few black tadpoles jump away if we get close. A sudden thought, and we walk the few steps to where the oil slick is, now morphed into a rough fish shape. With a closer look, my suspicion is confirmed. It’s no slick, it’s tadpoles. Thousands of tadpoles clumped together. Just sitting there, drifting with the current, leaping about in consternation when we stick a hand in to catch one (we don’t).
Hey, I’m falling in love with this place. Something in the air here encourages long walks, swimming, losing your breath, besides tadpole-watching and thought trains about herons and favourite writers.
Then again... On our last morning, a whole party of guests that arrived late at night is taking a morning constitutional. Taking any of the paths radiating from the hotel would be a good workout, given the several long ups and downs. Plus, there are bonus sightings on offer everywhere you turn—tiny touch-me-not mimosa plants and hornbills, copperpods and gulmohurs aflame in orange.
But these guests are not taking the paths. They are down at the pool. But these guests are not swimming either. They have formed a line and are walking around the pool. It takes about 30 seconds to circumnavigate the little body of water, and these seven or eight good people do it over and over, round and round. One even jogs slowly. Then they troop in for breakfast.
I’m really, really falling in love with this place.
And, oh yes, the monkey. One afternoon, three-year-old played on the balcony while her mother lay in the shade, reading. Eight-year-old and I were in the room, watching The Sound of Music on my laptop for the 847th time. Suddenly, little girl began screaming in terror. As, looking up, did her mother. A long lithe langur sat nonchalant on the railing, inches behind our little girl. It had apparently reached out and touched her scalp (the “cratch”). Late on the scene as ever, I burst through the door, bumped into yelling wife holding bawling little one trying to enter the room, caught a glimpse of monkey bounding over the railing and up on to the roof.
When he stopped and looked back, I shook a fist at him and flexed a bicep. Seemed the least I could do. Show him who’s boss once he had left.
No damage done, luckily. Perhaps the langur was just being friendly. But I am now heartily sick of telling people on the phone that a monkey “cratched” my daughter in Dandeli. As, I imagine, are they.
How to get there:
From Panaji, there are two routes (if you look at Eicher’s map of India, there seem to be three, but the middle one peters out in the minefields of eastern Goa). The northern route goes straight east on NH-4A past Ponda. But cross into Karnataka and hit Anmod, and the highway turns into pure hell: red mud and potholes that SUVs comfortably sink into, where trucks rumbled along unmindful of minor annoyances such as our Tata Indica. Fortunately, it is only 2km of hell, after which there is a turn to the right, and then a partly-good, partly dirt-track trail past egrets and through villages to Jagalpet and on to Dandeli.
The southern route is easier, though much longer. Go south on NH-17, through Canacona into Karnataka. Turn left well before Karwar and drive up into the hills on a scenic, only occasionally bad, road. Takes you through Anshi straight to Dandeli.
There are overnight buses from Bangalore to Dandeli, a distance of 470km. Or take a flight to Hubli (Air Deccan flies from Mumbai, fares range between Rs674 and Rs1,274, plus taxes) and the 90km road from there.
Where to stay:
Many choices. We stayed at Dandeli HomeStay, inside a once-operational mining operation (Dandeli Ferro Pvt. Ltd); www.dandelihomestay.com(Note: the two photos on the page www.dandelihomestay.com/abouthomestay.htmlare of the room and balcony mentioned in the article). Tariffs range from Rs2,500-3,000 per person per night, inclusive of three meals.
Also Dandeli Jungle Camp, Kali Camp Resort, HP Resort, Kali Wilderness Camp (http://junglelodges.com/resort_overview.asp?resort=Kali). Rates of Rs2,200 per person per night on a twin-sharing basis include three meals, jeep safari, coracle (small round fishing boat) ride, etc. Check www.dandeli.com for more options.
Where to eat:
Dandeli HomeStay food was so good that we felt no need to explore outside.
What to do:
Morning tour through the Dandeli sanctuary; white water rafting; ride in a coracle, go kayaking, for long walks, or mountain biking—plenty of birds to interest even the casual birdwatcher.
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