This summer, we took our family vacation in the southern part of Karnataka, a region famed for the biodiversity of the western ghats and of course the world renowned national parks at Bandipur and Nagarhole. Our first halt was at Madikeri (formerly Mercara), the district headquarters of Coorg. Coorg is India’s coffee country – characterized by sprawling coffee estates set amidst rolling hills.
Our two night stay was booked at the Rainforest Retreat located about 5-6 kms beyond Madikeri town. In their website the retreat claims to be an ecological hotspot run by two former scientists (husband and wife) of the Forestry Institute. The property is basically a 25 acre organic farm growing coffee and spices – cardamom, pepper, vanilla etc with a few cottages and couple of tents being allotted to the Retreat for tourists.
Directions from Madikeri were simple – follow the Club Mahindra sign boards and once you pass Club Mahindra, turn off at a school and drive the 3.5 kms to the Retreat. This last 3.5 km was through a winding country road hemmed in on both sides by thick rain forest interspersed with a few farms. Lantana in various hues – purple, orange –yellow, red overhung the road and the air was heavy with humid scents. We met but a single auto winding up in the opposite direction during this journey of 15 minutes and finally reached the gate.
Ingrid, the manager welcomed us and one of the plantation workers doubling up as bell boy showed us to our room in the Cottage. Our two day stay here was a real eye opening experience in what eco tourism should really be about. Having read about other so called high profile eco lodges and having actually stayed in a couple of them – the simplicity in design and approach at Rainforest Retreat won our hearts and minds. Firstly some salient features about the rooms.
No electric power; there are no power lines to this place. How does one survive then?
Firstly, its location nestled in a small cusp surrounded by hills and under the huge canopy of rainforest trees makes modern amenities like air conditioning and even fans irrelevant even in height of summer. The rooms are designed for cross ventilation – open the windows in the daytime and the door and a delightful breeze will caress your skin. The temperature as in any forest drops at night, and one needs to shut the windows unless you want to share your bed with some of the creepy crawlies unique to the rainforest – snails, centipedes, the atlas moth (world’s largest winged moth), beetles and snakes are some of the neighbours here. In mid day, one can also relax or take a nap in the hammocks hanging next to the stream in front of the cottage, swaying in the strong breeze.
Light is required for reading or seeing ones way around the room and bathroom. The sloping slate roof of the room has two eyes – skylights cut out near the centre through which natural sunlight filters in. Additional light from the open windows is actually a bonus. There are CFLs in the room and bathroom. Power for these comes in after dark. The Retreat operates on solar power generated through their own panels. The cells get charged through the day and the stored power is used at night.
The bathroom has a translucent corrugated roofing of some form of plexi-glass which allows sunlight to fill up the entire area while at the same time making it impossible for anyone to see inside. Even our clothes could be washed and dried within the day time by hanging it in the bathroom itself.
Since nights are pretty cool, having the morning bath in hot water would seem a necessity. This is also beautifully taken care of. A large earthen cistern is part of the bathroom. The cistern can be filled by a tap above it. Every morning, a bunch of firewood is lit under the cistern – a cavity under it accessed from outside the cottage is used by the staff for this purpose. Firewood comprises of the dead or fallen twigs and small branches which are available in plenty on the premises and the trees regenerate quickly in the monsoon rains. A chimney is provided to take the smoke out and the water remains hot for at least a couple of hours after heating.
Natural soap (ayurvedic) is provided. Any water other than from the toilet is channelled out of the bathroom directly into the garden outside thereby ensuring even this water is used productively. Drainage is provided only for the toilet.
Food is simple and wholesome. Dishes are a mix of Coorgi, south Indian, north Indian and international cuisines – made with mostly organic vegetables, pulses and spices some of which are grown in the plantation and the rest sourced from other organic farms in the area. A simple hut open on the sides and supported by a conical roof on pillars is the dining area. Food is placed in casseroles on a side table of granite stone. Simple stainless steel plates and tumblers are used for eating and are placed in a bin afterwards. This is then washed by a couple of the women staff.
Nature is the only entertainment here and there is plenty of it. No TV. No signal for the cell phone or internet. No music ,loud or otherwise. One can read. Walk around the 25 acre plantation observing the varied plant, insect and bird life. Early mornings are filled with music of a different kind – the sing song bird calls of the rainforest. A couple of good bird watching spots are available a short walk away. The Retreat staff (mr.Ravi) is well informed and takes you on a 3 hour trek through the surrounding countryside and plantations upto the Galibeedu ridge. You can also do the 3 km wlak down to the river below (in the evening); be prepared for the steep and continuous climb back up to the Retreat.
All in all this is what eco tourim really should be all about. It allows one to be alone with nature, soak into nature and really observe and understand God’s scheme of things on earth. It ensures that whatever we do whether it is eat, sleep, bathe or read is done without disturbing nature. And while making our stay so comfortable, ensures that resources consumed are regenerated.
The simple underlying message is
Do not waste whatever you have and give back to nature whatever you take
By doing this you take care of the environment and it takes care of you.
As we left after our 2 day stay I felt a lot healthier both in body and mind than I have been in a long time. If two days can do this, wonder what living all the time in such an environment would be like!