It has been a long and boring haul from Chennai, and the final 40km of NH48 is one pothole after another, till you land in the last one and its Sakleshpur. When I finally drag myself into the Gypsy and head for Huli Vana deep in the hills, it’s well past seven in the evening and there’s a full moon rising. As are my spirits. It’s secretly quite a kick when you are in a place where nothing but a cliché will do. I roll my tongue satisfied around the words and say it aloud: “The hills are bathed in moonlight.” Wave upon wave of the Sahyadris is awash in a silvery light that has transformed the scene into a surreal moonscape.
When Huli Vana calls itself a jungle retreat, that’s exactly what it is. It’s not just a cute term for a luxury resort cuddled amid a tame patch of trees. After a last lonely temple, about 12km short of our destination, even the rough roadway gives up and we are bouncing over rocks and fording streams. We reach a clearing in the middle of the rainforest, park next to a brook and I am shown to my log cabin by torchlight and moonbeam.
Huli Vana is off the power grid. Actually, it’s pretty much off any grid and off the map as well. If Sunil, the owner, does not escort you there, it’s unlikely you will find it. The one CFC bulb in my room is powered by a 2kW hydro turbine, fed by a brook that throws itself off some rocks nearby. There’s hot water for baths, the cooking is all on firewood and there are kerosene lanterns for the common areas.
In many ways, Huli Vana is not just a place to stay, it’s an experience. It makes possible a certain way of escape that’s getting increasingly difficult for the average person. And by being brave enough to eschew all frills and yet ensure a certain modicum of comfort, it stays true to its mandate in a way that I find very comforting. No Internet, no phone, no electricity, a cell phone that works only at a certain spot under a certain tree... It’s an escape from the constant connectedness that is our twenty-first-century inheritance.
I trek, I read, I eat, I sleep, and I pick burrs off my clothes. Two peaks, Jenkal Betta (Karnataka’s second highest) and Digkal Betta, ask to be climbed. I turn down the former and accept the easier Digkal Betta. Breath-taking, in more ways than one, the way up is a long haul and my lungs beg for mercy. The next day, we venture into the rainforest, literally bush-whacking through the dense undergrowth. Luckily, it’s January and quite dry, so there’s no sign of a leech anywhere. Lots of elephant and sambar markings but we don’t sight anything. Actually, this is prime tiger and bear country (huli in Kannada means tiger), and the old guide has a hair-raising story (and scars) of his too-close encounter with a bear. And while we were trekking up Digkal, an elephant apparently came calling right up to the kitchen, making the cook very nervous. We see the evidence next day — heaps of fresh dung, giant footprints, branches and trees torn off and strewn casually. We follow in its wake and I soon find myself scrambling and struggling along the steepest and narrowest tracks that the huge creature has no business to have tackled so casually.
Huli Vana has only three ‘rooms’ to choose from — a log cabin (in which I’m placed) and two large rooms with huge French windows that open on to a stream running at the back. With a sitting room, fireplace and attached bathrooms, these are the ‘luxury rooms’. My own bathroom sits in a little hollow downhill and has a most marvellous earthen stove with hot water constantly bubbling away. It also has spider families, wandering slugs, small frogs and something that eats my soap each night. Since none of these go hiss, I do not get hysterical.
On the last night, Sunil gets a bonfire going next to a beautiful vantage point — a wooden platform built on high ground with fantastic views, especially for birders. We sit around the hypnotic flames, roasting potatoes and sharing stories. A perfect ending too.
Location Nearest airport: Mangalore (164km). Nearest railhead: Sakleshpur (33km). From Sakleshpur, take the Hanbal–Devaldekere–Margunda route. From Margunda, Huli Vana organises a guide.
Accommodation 2 stone villas (can sleep 6-7 people each) with attached bathrooms, 1 log cabin (twin bed) with bathroom outside. Dome tents (Oct-May), with mats and sleeping bags.
Tariff Rs 1,300 (tents), Rs 1,800 (log cabin), Rs 3,500 (stone villa)