David, how would Fiona like her eggs, over?”
I make my mind up in a jiffy, familiar by now with the unique style in which some sections of my daily meals were fixed at The Hermitage Guesthouse, tucked away in the Western Ghats. We’ll get to the secluded bit later.
“I’d like them scrambled, please. Thank you.”
David repeats my order to his wife, Morvarid (Morrie to all) in the kitchen, located a good 50 metres away, over a walkie-talkie.
“Got it. And you can tell Fiona that Roger Federer won last night’s game. Over and out.”
In five minutes, their daughter, Katrina, brings a plate filled of scrambled eggs dressed in bright yellow, to the table at the aesthetically-designed sit out area in the centre of the farm and guesthouse. I’m still trying to negotiate my oatmeal porridge and the freshly-squeezed muskmelon juice.
“Look at that minivet, perched on the tree branch, to the extreme left…” David Fernandez, visionary behind this 45-acre property in Karnataka’s northern Khanapur Taluka, alerts me. Our breakfast session has entered its second hour. But who’s keeping time?
Twenty-four hours earlier, after an engaging drive, courtesy the guesthouse’s dedicated driver, Abdul, I arrived at what was to be the staging area for my Jungle Book adventure. The three-hour drive from Goa’s Dabolim airport passed mud huts, calm rivers, backwaters, mining trucks, deciduous forests, sanctuaries and countless bends and curves on one-lane ‘highways’; bad news for the vertigo-afflicted.
At 720 metres above sea level, deep in the Londa Range of the Western Ghats, we are in evergreen and deciduous forest country. Morrie was pruning the potpourri, apologising for not having readied it in time for my arrival. I settled into my new home, the Machan — a sturdy wooden structure that rose to a height, with thatched, cozy, self-sufficient interiors, and here’s the catch — no electricity. There are two more stay options (Gota: built like a village home that runs on electricity and Kadamba: also village-styled).
After a sumptuous breakfast that would’ve put any five-star English breakfast to shame, I ambled around this newfound, isolated playground. The Hermitage is home to chickoo, pepper, tea, cocoa, guava, sunflower, silver oak, banana, mango, Bougainville, zucchini and coconut plantations. Built on a slope, the hostile topography didn’t act as a deterrent and has been transformed into a lush landscape. Around the fringes of this property, 12 acres have been left untouched for animals to graze on and thus, prevent them from breaking into the cultivated zones. When the time came to freshen up, I jumped at the prospect. As I cooled off with an open-air bucket bath in a stylishly done up bathroom cum loo, the sunlight played peek-a-boo thanks to a gentle breeze.
I couldn’t help but chuckle over the possibility of recalling this tale to my grandchildren, if an icebreaker was required. Lunch was a lavish affair while tea in the sit-out at the dot of five reminded me of a recreated scene from a picnic tea description in an Enid Blyton relic. “Young sloth bears, civet cats, and even jackal have been spotted here…” Katrina tells me matter-of-factly, as I inspect fresh pugmarks left behind by an Indian jackal during our evening walk through the forest nearby, adding, “Two of our helpers spotted a tiger there, but that was two years ago.” Gulp.
Of tails and tales
Bahadur, their five year-old Doberman welcomed us as we walked back to fading light. He, unlike Apache, their vagrant pet cat, who was never sighted in all my time at The Hermitage, wasn’t perturbed by human company on the farm. The other permanent residents included five geese whose daily tasks comprised charting between the open spaces and their water pond shelter.
Sundown at the farm was magical, almost mystical. Barking deer in the backdrop, 60 gas-lit lamps and a star-filled sky added drama to the light-and-sound show against a steady March breeze. An early dinner ensued over Morrie’s lip-smacking chicken roast and scotch, tales of destructive bison and realising the joys of living in the wild. The last bit, coming from the Bandra-bred David, had us marvel at the human spirit. If not David, either Morrie or Katrina (sometimes the entire family) would join me for my meals.
Back of beyond
Nightfall inside the Machan was heavenly. Okay, we’re steering from a few realities. The languid swaying of branches, backed by a lilting, almost lyrical tune emanating from the glass-beaded curtains drove my imagination wild, literally: aliens, vampires, headless horsemen, or menacing bears could be approaching this lonely, unskilled occupant at the guesthouse. Soon, the harmless buzz of a mosquito and the croak from the in-house toad made me smile at my urbane insanity; I relaxed and snuggled up with my book.
Up, fresh and early, I was invited for a visit to David’s banana plantations. Along the way, we steered past villages, cultivated lands and pebbled pathways. David was popular in these parts. “I’ve been here for three decades; they regard me as one of them despite being an outsider,” he says, not before I dropped a teaser that he should throw in his name for the next taluka elections. He talks shop with his tiny workforce, and takes me through a crash course in organic banana produce. The rest of the day was spent doing nothing. Silence, marred by the odd chirping of a Coppersmith Barbet or a Brahminy Kite didn’t deter the mind that was beginning to revel this slice of isolation.
A bear-y close call
The next day, we decided to head outdoors. Earlier that morning, I was regaled with Morrie’s tales of culinary prowess, her innovations in the kitchen and plans to publish a book on Parsi and Anglo-Indian delicacies imbibed from her mother and grandmother. The anchor behind the smooth functioning of the farm and guesthouse, she was a busybody whose time management skills would test the best of our corporate queens.
David suggested we visit the 1,000-ft high Pali Hill that would provide for a terrific vantage point. Joined by Katrina and Bahadur, we drove up to a point and trekked a few hundred feet. The terrain was Savannah-like, craggy and pockmarked. Along the climb, we spotted different kinds of moss, bear poop, rare flowers and the odd insect and butterfly. “Bears live in these parts...” David’s tone had the air of a soothsayer.
Once we reached our Everest, the sight was one to behold. Surrounded by the Western Ghats on three sides, with the source of the Mandovi flowing below, it was the high point of my retreat. Satisfied, we began our descent. While man and dog sped a good 100 metres ahead of us, we savoured the sights and sounds of the landscape with a bit of lens work. Shadows began to grow longer.
From where we were stationed, we noticed a black, furry animal approach David and Bahadur out of nowhere. The canine barked at this huge creature that suddenly stood up on its twos. We were witness to an Asian sloth bear encounter. Luckily for us, this species is nocturnal and hence suffers from partial blindness during twilight. Alarmed and disoriented by Bahadur’s relentless barking, it retreated towards the caves that were below the tableland plateau.
That night, over rava and prune dessert pudding (another Morrie creation), as shooting stars lit up the sky, Katrina, who was back in India after a six year-stint having studied geology, geography and biology in Tasmania, spoke of the challenges of making a living out of one’s love for nature in India. Until the cries of a Slender Primate (the world’s smallest primate) made us switch topics.
My last day was dotted by a memorable trip to the source of the Mandovi River (it’s called Mahadai in these parts). The gentle gurgle and tranquil surroundings was picture-postcard-like. Bahadur splashed around to his heart’s desire, Katrina attempted to scuba dive, and I brimmed with contentment in my temporary stone-lined, Jacuzzi corner. We were at our private pool party, in the lap of nature, chilling out with piped music from our feathered friends.
The sounds and smells of the jungle no longer tested this city slicker.