where the wild things really are

“Katrina and her cousin went on a short trek nearby, and by the end there were 60 or 70 leeches on her. Poor thing, she is a city girl, didn’t know what to do! When she came back we removed all the leeches, then I had to sweep the blood off the floor with a broom.” Morvarid said in a voice barren of the colour in her words. My reaction was a textbook jaw drop. I wasn’t sure what shocked me more: that there were so many leeches (and on one person) or Morvarid’s nonchalance. My action plan was simple — stay indoors and avoid the leeches. Morvarid shook her head, “There aren’t any now, only during the monsoons!” My heart moved from my sleeve back to its rightful place in my rib cavity. The world was at peace again, and yes, down with the leeches!

A farmstay in the jungles of Karnataka, the Hermitage is an easy 45km from Belgaum but the last few kilometres lead through a deserted dirt road with no mobile network. At one point, I was certain my husband and I were lost and that too, in a jungle. But since there was only one road, we went on till we drove right into a small clearing. Our hosts, David, Morvarid and their daughter Katrina walked out to welcome us and their geese strutted over to investigate. We ignored all of them and bent down to check if there was any damage to the underside of our car as the road had been rough and we’d hit the base of the car a few times. A short while later, after leaving out bags and road dirt in the cottage, Gota, which was once the cowshed, we made our way to the common dining area for some chai and conversation.

the gota - one of the three rooms for guests
the gota – one of the three rooms for guests

In the early 1980s, David and Morvarid wished to get away from the city. After a lot of searching they found this land, bang in the middle of the forest, and negotiated their way into owning it. The farm began as a clearing of trees with a small shed in the middle, and even though it has grown today, it still comes with its share of difficulties, mostly from being so remote. Their landline is temperamental, and they get a mobile network only in the middle of groundnut fields, where one of them shoos the monkeys away and the other balances the laptop and gets on with replying to emails. Come monsoon, the dirt road becomes a river of slush and the sun disappears for weeks. They laugh about the challenges but dread visits to the city as once they called this secluded piece of land their humble paradise and home, they cannot imagine urban living anymore.

There were four other guests and this motley group gathered every evening around the campfire swapping stories until Mori announced dinner. The clear night sky shimmered, the male crickets chirped loudly and I tuned into their monologue until I heard David say, “The bison is a regular visitor, comes by often, just plods through the bushes. There’s also a leopard. Keep a torch with you at night and don’t venture out.” Early risers could actually see the leopard as it was normally just around the treehouse he told us. Some months ago, the elderly house-help was returning home, and when she turned around the corner there was a tiger standing in her path. She yelled loudly till the tiger turned and walked away. One cannot prove or disprove this story, but it was enough to make me feel extremely grateful for the heavy wooden door to my cottage that I had cursed a few hours ago.

The Hermitage, definitely not true to its name, doesn’t expect you to meditate through your holiday, even though your mobile has no network. There are many things to keep you engaged — go for nature walks, visit the farms or villages, try your hands at pottery, farming or just relax with a swim at the neighbour’s farm. David and Mori may narrate scary stories but wildlife is restricted to huge lizards that share your room and large bugs, but you are in the middle of the forest after all. The food is eclectic, possibly a great intermingling of Mori’s Anglo-Parsi lineage, and she surprised us at every meal with delightful combinations of flavours and dishes. Also in another parallel universe Mori might just be the best stand-up comic; she kept cracking us up with her dry sense of humour, poking fun at David who shrugged it all away, while Katrina enjoyed winding them both up.

Two days later, after many laughs, bulging stomachs, a trek to the closed mine and a butterfly walk, and many stories, we drove away promising to be back soon, very soon.

Good to know

  • There are three rooms at the Hermitage. The cottage where I stayed, called the “Gota”, was once a cow-shed but today has cemented walls, handmade tiles and the biggest difference from the other rooms – electric lights. The “Kabada”, modelled on a traditional village home, and the “Machan” or treehouse which embraces nature, are both lit by solar power, so expect dim lights at night.
  • It is best to book in advance, as with only three rooms long weekends get sold out quickly.
  • If you are driving down and your car has low ground clearance ask David to pick you up from the forest ranger’s quarters which has place to park your car.
  • It is open through the year except during peak monsoon season. Each season has its charm and nature puts on a show. In summer, the temperatures rises to a maximum of 36º. March is windy, April has occasional showers, and in May, there might even be thunderstorms with hail.
  • There are many walks to choose from but I would suggest the trek to the closed mine. Also a nature walk with Katrina who is an otter researcher and is very good with all those small little creatures that tend to get pushed under the stone!
  • The rates are Rs2500 per person per night inclusive of all meals; all other activities are extra. For more details click here.

First published at Huffington Post India.

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