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White water on the Black River ...


A camp on the canoe tour.

IT'S as peaceful as only a jungle can be at sunset. There's a soft orchestration of insects strumming in the high foliage. The irascible, squabbling, flying foxes have flown away in silent, leather-winged, formation. From the rustic food warmer in the Gol Ghar, the blue fragrance of charcoal smoke wafts nostalgically across to our tent. And, to add to our idyll, one of the techies from Bangalore is weaving a delicate refrain on a flute: a silver filigree of sound that curls like a strip of shimmering foil through the tall trees of the Kali Wilderness Camp.

After the last forest round, this evening, the bright young cyber-folk, in jeans and tees chattered like starlings in their yuppie lingua franca. They seem to be evolving into a distinctly eclectic sub-species, free of the burdens of caste, creed and community, intent only on becoming smoothly integrated citizens of the world wide web.

These are the people who yearn to get away from the shackles of the mouse and the motherboard. They come here seeking the stimulation that only physical challenges can give. And tomorrow we're going to join them in their quest for adrenalin highs!

* * *

They have their own diurnal cycles, pegged to alien time-frames. Some were awake the whole night, bleary eyed this morning. Others were limp by the afternoon. Many, however, seemed to be preternaturally bright-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to accept whatever adventure sports boss, John Pollard, threw at them. Two young women from Bangalore, who claimed to be in their 20s but looked as if they were teen-aged girls, had come in on the night bus, arrived early, and plunged into a jungle trek, mountain bike rides, and everything else that was on offer. And at the end of it all they were still as fresh and cheerful as if they had slept on mint leaves!

We didn't accompany them, but we did follow many of the other adventurous activities of some more of our newly discovered friends. Bangalorean Indu is slimmer than a reed with a steel-stemmed determination. She tackled the Climbing Wall in the Lodge after breakfast. This is an artificial cliff-face with oddly shaped hand and foot holds built to test climbers. Indu had never scaled a Wall before but she tackled it with determination while we, watching her from below, got a vicarious thrill as she crept up the wall like a real-life Spiderwoman.

It was the start of a day laced with thrills.

The Kali Wilderness Camp is at the edge of Dandeli wildlife sanctuary and on the banks of Karnataka's Kali river. The camp is run by a very creative subsidiary of the State's Forest Department, Jungle Lodges and Resorts: an exemplary body of forest, wildlife and ecologically sensitive professionals. Very astutely, they've engaged the services of Yorkshireman John Pollard who worked in rafting in Rishikesh. He, in turn, has built up a team of young men who have rafted and climbed in many other parts of the world, including Colorado.

The Climbing Wall, difficult though it appeared to us, is the least challenging of the adventures on the menu. Canyoning is at the other end of the spectrum. It involves descending down a steep rock face by using a doubled rope coiled round the body and fixed at a higher point. Not a sport for amateurs or those who don't have a head for heights or are not in top physical condition. As expected, not many techies opted for it.

The seemingly serene coracle ride.

Most of them did, however, take to the water. There's the deceptively mild activity of a coracle ride. These circular basket boats are like large, unsinkable, cane saucers covered in buffalo-hide or plastic. With a single oarsman, they're smooth and silent and gave us excellent views of the water-bird life on the banks. We paddled right under the canopy of trees overhanging the banks and got close encounters with egrets, herons, storks and some brilliant kingfishers. Every now and then, the West Coast Paper Mills hissed and exhaled a terrible smell and the effluent pipes discharged a frothy waste into the Kali River. But we took our coracle close to this pollution because crocodiles seem to love it. We saw them: knobbly black logs with yellow eyes and large mouths full of teeth. They have been known to grab drinking cattle off the banks but they have never attacked a coracle. At least, not as yet...

On a less carnivorous, more leisurely, note we joined John and his team for the start of a multi-day canoe tour to the uninhabited islands and shores of the Supa reservoir. The two-seater canoes carry everything needed for the trip, including water and a garbage drum. And the living experience in the camps offers ground-sheets below, blue nylon sheets on poles above, and the unpolluted silence of the great outdoors. As a techie put it: "I felt the happy ache of muscles I had forgotten I ever had!"

The ultimate adventure sport in Dandeli, and by far the most popular one, is southern India's first, professionally run, white water rafting. This is, undoubtedly, a dangerous activity. But then, so is crossing a crowded street anywhere in our land. But though the element of danger can never be entirely eliminated, a few basic precautions can make things much safer. And John, who has never had a major accident in all his years of organising rafting, took all the precautions necessary: firmly secured life jackets, crash helmets, rescue floats with unreeling nylon lines, detailed instructions to the rafters, and an attendant kayak for emergency assistance. We boarded the rafts in still water and began to paddle.

The many islanded Kali river is beautiful and, since it is much narrower than the rafting waters in northern India, the forests and their wildlife unreel past like a wide-screen film: orchids and a hornbill and a Malabar squirrel with its fluffy tail. We saw the place where a tusker had once crossed and another where a black leopard had been spotted. The forests fringing the Kali river are said to have a much higher density of these beautiful melanistic great cats than anywhere else in the world.

And then the river began to be ribbed with the muscles of its currents.

The rafts bucked under us, bobbing and tilting. The river snarled. Sharp black boulders appeared. John yelled commands leaning on the helm oar. White water roared and gushed in. We ducked, clung to the safety ropes. The raft roller-coastered, bounced through the rapids, slammed into turbulent water. We were shaken, drenched, thrilled. And the next turbulence hit us. And the next; and the next. And then, when we thought it was all over, John spun us back and we sped under the rapids, "surfing". It was like being slammed by a water-cannon. It was great.

Now when dusk has settled on the camp again we can hear starling chatter in the Gol Ghar. And an excited voice expresses it all in ringing yuppy patois: "It was a blast, yar! Can't wait to boot up again!" Clearly they'd got their adrenalin highs on the challenging white waters of the Black River.

For more information contact:

Ph: 91-08284-30266 (Dandeli)
Ph: 91-080-5597021/24/25 (Bangalore)
Fax: 91-080-5586163 (Bangalore)

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