Chickamagalur is one of those nice, cozy places tucked away in the hills northwest of Bangalore – tough to reach but once you get there, certainly gives you your money’s worth. Its claim to fame is the coffee estates located in the hills surrounding the town. Uma and I were headed for a home stay in one such coffee estate.
The journey did not start on a great note. With multiple changes from Chennai to Bangalore to Bidur, Uma finally threw up on the last legs of the hot and bumpy ride. She brooded the rest of the journey and I wondered if a trip in the summer was such a great idea. All these doubts however disappeared when we reached the estate.
The home stay, aptly titled ‘Nature Nirvana’ was located in the heart of the coffee estate and as such was very far away from city noise and pollution. Magnificent hills with rows upon rows of coffee plants and tall trees met your eyes wherever you looked. The place we were to stay in was an old house. There were five moderately sized rooms. The erstwhile porch was converted into an open-air dining room serving scrumptious meals every day. There was a common room on the first floor with a library, fireplace, stacks of board games and comfortable armchairs. There was also a large cemented ground where you could play outdoor games or just sit and enjoy the barbecue. It definitely looked promising.
Chickamagalur was a dusty little town till the 1600s when a Muslim Saint, Baba Budan planted coffee seeds smuggled from the Middle East and changed the local economy. There is a temple in his honour even today at Baba Budanagiri hills. The temple also has a statue of the Hindu god Dattatreya and is held as an example of communal harmony where both communities go and pray. Except for this remarkable background, the temple per se is nothing but a claustrophobic cave. Chickamagalur’s second shot at fame came in 1978 when Indira Gandhi successfully contested from this Congress stronghold in the elections held following the National Emergency.
I spent sometime recovering from the long ride and then began to explore the estate. The first stop was down a path that said ‘Waterfall’. An endless row of uneven steps cut into the mud track led to a quiet brown pool. There was a small but gushing waterfall nearby. After landing from a concrete jungle, the site of the 2 feet deep muddy water was strangely scary. Eventually it was only when Uma came down with me that we both managed to cross the little segments of water and find comfortable places to dip our feet. Bathing in the waterfall had been advertised as a major highlight of the estate. However given the number of spiders spinning their webs across the waterfall that did not sound like a good idea unless I was serious about an alternative career as Spiderwoman.
The next day we were supposed to go on our big trek, the ostensible reason for the trip. The preferred trek in this area is to Mullayanagiri hills but that is best tackled in cooler months. The estate’s caretaker, Mr Kutty, told us we could do a three-hour trek on a barren hill littered with glowing embers from the previous week’s forest fires. Or we could do a one-hour trek through the cool coffee estate. Mr Kutty’s preference was obvious and we allowed him to go ahead. Enthusiastic, he began to lead us through short cuts. We would plunge into a path among the coffee bushes and after a good ten minutes of non-stop climbing upwards, we would emerge onto the main route. Only to plunge into the next path. I was scrambling up quickly if only in an effort to have more time and leisure to pant. Uma trudged behind with Mr Kutty following up in the rear. The third time, I had gone ahead as usual and after a longish time, the bushes finally parted. The short, balding and bespectaled Mr Kutty was dragging a perspiring and panting Uma uphill. Uma got on to the road and with a quiet finality announced that from now on there would be no short cuts. We would take the road well traveled even if it meant extra time. With the pace set, we all relaxed and slowly made our way uphill. The trees were prettier in close up and we could make out that the place was packed with birds. We got to the ‘sunset point’ on the top and rested.
Mr Kutty turned out to be very talkative and kept up a continuous narrative of his tale of woes. Uma and I tuned out but we both agreed that the place deserved another visit when it would be quieter. We went up again in the evening, examining the traces of iron ore in the soil, keeping an eye out for the gnarled roots exposed on the eroding slopes, photographing the blossoming coffee flowers from various angles and managing to distinguish atleast three bird calls. When we finally reached the top, the clouds were beginning to descend upon the mountains nearby. We lay on the benches there and quietly watched nature at work. After a long time, we walked back down, feeling light hearted.
On the way back we decided to check out the ‘lake’. After a pleasant walk through pretty shrubbery, my heart was thumping with anticipation. I was planning to try out my newly acquired swimming skills, not to mention indulge in my favourite water activity of boating. We finally emerged into a clearing. There was no lake. There was however a pond of water about 5 feet deep, thirty feet wide and half a kilometer long. Clearly great imagination had gone into coining this place a lake and even worse, placing two coracles for boat rides. The only way boat rides were possible was if you decided to do a straight half a km dash across the length of the pond sticking to the middle. Any other variations and the oars would bang into the sides of the ‘lake’. All is not lost; I told myself and began contemplating swimming there when a crab the size of my hand crawled out of the water. Without further ado, Uma and I rushed back and spent the rest of the evening wading through the nearby stream, sitting on various rocks, peering at all the insects building homes in the water and listening to the mesmerizing sound of water on rocks. By the time we got back to our seven p.m. barbecue, both of us were starving and tired and had just enough energy left to fantasize about owning an estate.
Uma slept in the next day and I explored the remaining parts of the estate. There was a signboard saying ‘gorge’ and wondering if this would be another disappointment like the ‘lake’, I went down the path. The route had thicker foliage and was darker. Raindrops from the previous night still occasionally fell when I brushed away the branches. I finally reached the gorge which was a dark and cool place. On one side was a huge flat rock extending till the eye could see. The stream was in the middle, hardly ten feet wide. On the other side was the tiny bank. There were tall trees full of singing birds blocking out most of the sunlight. Gingerly searching for signs of leeches after the rains, I sat on the bank till the dark and chill finally snapped me out of my reverie. Stepping into brighter regions, I walked around the estate for a long time basking in the sun and chasing the sound of an elusive woodpecker till it was time to pack and leave.
Uma managed not to throw up on the journey to the bus stand. Surprisingly she also showed no signs of her usual road sicknesses in the bus journey to Bangalore. The air conditioned Airavath bus began to show a promised Rajkumar movie. I watched fascinated as the heroine’s journey from a village belle to a revolutionary was marked by a costume change from skirt, blouse and saree to trendy leather pants and jacket. Sadly the video player conked off after the promising start and I had to plug into my IPod.
The trip had given me plenty of time to read, breathe in fresh air, walk and introspect. As I looked out onto the approaching bright lights of the city the last cobwebs lifted from my thoughts. Life was clearer and calmer.