WORDS: SHARMEEN HUSSAIN
PHOTOGRAPHS: VINOBHA NATHAN
It’s a curious feeling to have a cicada as a bedfellow, its beady black eyes peering at you as it rests on your pillow, alarmingly close to your face. But if the occasional creepy-crawly (and a civet with an affinity for soap) is the price to pay for a secluded, rustic cottage overlooking a gurgling stream where deer sometimes come to drink, so be it.
Eleven kilometres from any human habitation and on the border of the Kabin Hulla Reserve Forest, Huli Vana Rainforest Retreat (meaning ‘the place where tigers congregate’) is an escapist’s dream come true. Margunda Village is your last contact with civilisation – you’ll soon find yourself bumping down a (very) rough, barely-there road to get to the retreat. Once there, you’re cut off from everything, and it feels pretty darn good.
Owner Sunil Roy is happy to show visitors around. What started out as an experimental project to help environmental researchers get closer to their subject matter has slowly evolved into a cocooned getaway. This means no wi-fi, no phone signal, and no other pesky people.
With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the region’s endemic flora, fauna and insect life, Sunil makes for a great guide to the surrounding sholas – the unique landscape, which resembles lumps of broccoli, sitting next to smooth, rolling Teletubby-esque hills. “Have you ever heard of zombie caterpillars?” he asks, casually holding up a green vine snake he’s just picked up off the ground. “Their brains get taken over by wasp larvae, who then make the caterpillar do their bidding.” He will regale you with charming stories like these on the multiple treks you can do around Huli Vana. Like the half-day one to Jenukallu, one of the highest peaks in Hassan. Or a stream walk that will take you by forest streams with water pure enough to drink, or even the short sunset hike to Halsingudda from where you can see Chikmagalur, Hassan and Sakleshpur all in one sweeping glance.
But, apart from treks and bird-watching walks, the camp offers a bunch of other activities, too, like mountain biking or kite-flying. The more specialised ones include lepidoptera – that’s butterflies for laymen, herp-watching to scout for endemic reptiles and amphibians, and bee-keeping in the property’s very own apiary. In the past, he has also made arrangements for canopy researchers, who camp out in suspended tents to observe all things arboreal. The retreat also hosts workshops on various topics related to the natural world, and anyone who’s interested can sign up.
If you haven’t already figured it out, this place is all about nature (reinforced by the bugs in your room, the late-night critter visits and the all-round simplicity of the place). But that doesn’t mean you have to make a wild adventure out of it. The great thing about Huli Vana is that it’s also the perfect place at which to unwind. If trekking and poking about bushes for snakes doesn’t interest you, you can lie in a hammock with a book from the library, get a massage by a stream from a certified masseur, gorge on snacks by the evening bonfire or stargaze in the impossibly clear night sky. Mother Nature is quite forgiving, that way.