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A Walk On The Wild Side

If you donít run into wildlife at Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, donít fret... the beauty of the forest and thrilling white water rafting more than makes up for it, says Achal Dhruva

Usually, there is nothing wildly exciting about a group of black-faced langoors making obscene gestures. Unless, of course, it is the only wildlife on the horizon. For a successful sojourn into any wildlife sanctuary, luck is a key factor.

Unfortunately for my photographer friend, Sherwin and me, lady luck was not smiling during our time in Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in north Karnataka, Dandeli was an anti-climax of sorts after all the interesting stories we had heard about its wildlife plus a rather dramatic narrative by Deepak, accountant of Indian Adventures Wildlife Resorts, on almost breaking the 100 metre Olympic record after being chased by a sloth bear on one of his early morning jogs. All Sherwin and I managed to spot was a lone female barking deer, a few chitals, a Malabar giant squirrel and loads of piped Malabar hornbills.

But it didn’t really matter because the beauty of the forest, intertwined by perennial rivers like Kali and Kaneri, was overwhelming. The concept of rich sightings in the summer due to animals congregating at watering holes is a non-starter in this almost impregnable forest. Instead, the winter months are more promising with groups of bison and elephants on view.

The huge and majestic bison is the most famous resident of the sanctuary. Our disappointment was acute at not being able to capture the beast on frame. To make up for the absence of wildlife sightings, Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary has a number of interesting places to break the monotony of the safari. At the top of the must-see list are Cavala Caves and Syntheri Rocks.

Cavala, at a descent of 300 steps into the valley, is a large cave with a huge natural rock formation in the shape of a Shivling deep in its recesses. The view of the Yalla Range with its thick forested slopes and the Kaneri river snaking through the valley is worth the arduous trek back and forth from the cave. A lush green canopy dotted with hills stretches as far as the eye can see. The forest guard says it extends right into Goa, believe it or not.

Syntheri Rocks, situated outside the sanctuary, is yet another wonderful quirk of nature. An imposing limestone cliff-face with hundreds of beehives, it has dark mysterious caves at its base. Surrounded by thick jungle, it’s a spot designed by nature to make you sit and stare for hours. Kulgi Point, an observation post off the road, three kilometres from the sanctuary gates just before the forest department office at Kulgi, is another place from where you get a breathtaking view of the valley.

For us, the highlight of our short trip last summer was the river Kali. Enchanting, exciting and enticing, the meandering Kali is the first and only river in South India offering the thrills of White Water River Rafting (WWRR).

A run on the Kali is memorable for the surrounding beauty rather than the rapids. Addi’s Beard, the first rapid, classified as grade III, is the biggest. Your adrenaline starts pumping and your heart starts thumping as the raft approaches the rapid. And then it is over in a blink as our raft went down headlong into the fuming frothy waters, getting buffeted a couple of times by the river and then getting flushed out.

Shaken and stirred, flush with excitement, a little tingle running down my spine, I wanted more. Unfortunately, though there is a rapid roughly every kilometre on the eight-kilometre short run and the 14 kilometre long run, none matches the thrill of the first.

Local Hut in Dandeli Forest

Body surfing is equally exciting. The feeling of diving into the cold water after sweating your guts out paddling and to emerge looking at the clear blue sky dotted with cotton puff clouds is incredible. Floating gently downstream, mesmerised by the flight of the crested serpent eagle above and lulled by the deafening silence of the thick jungle on both sides, I felt as if suspended in time and space.

Then reality hit back with a vengeance. “There are crocodiles further downstream in the calmer stretches,” the words of Rajesh, our guide, suddenly echoed in my mind. Floating in the river, far from the raft, I suddenly found tree stumps near the shore beginning to assume sinister shapes. Though there had been the hint of a smile on Rajesh’s lips as he had shared this information, I was in no mood to find out if he was joking. I waved frantically to be picked up.

The Kali cuts through thick forest and it’s easy to believe stories of wildlife sightings right on the banks including the famous sighting of a black panther by a rafter a few years ago. It’s a wet and wild world out there, one that is sure to leave you infused with the feeling of being an explorer journeying through the unknown.

It was his search for a virgin river that first brought Englishman John Pollard to the Kali after trial runs on Kaveri and Sita, both in Karnataka. With 10 years of rafting experience, including a stint as head guide for Fazinatour Adventure Company, InnsValley, Austria, Pollard came to India in 1993 for rafting on the Ganges. He liked the country so much that he stayed back doing runs on rivers like Alakhnanda, Bhagirathi and Beas. He later explored the South Indian rivers for their rafting potential.

Room with a view: Cottage overlooking the Kali river at Bison River Resort

“I like to do runs on virgin rivers, it’s a wonderful challenge,” says Pollard. He has rafted on rivers in Australia, Switzerland, Italy and Nepal. According to him, South Indian rivers are more technical and require greater amount of skill. This is especially true for Kali. “It being a perennial river due to construction of dams, rafting conditions depend much on the water level,” revealed Pollard. In 1999, he set up Kalio2 (attached to Jungle Lodges), an adventure and rafting company. “January and February are ideal due to high water levels, right temperature and no vacation rush,” he opined. A stay at the Bison River Resort (property of Indian Adventures Wildlife Resorts), spread over three acres right on the river bank overlooking the first rapid, Addi’s Beard, makes the Kali experience complete. The resort, located on the outskirts of Ganeshguddi, a small village 25 kms from Dandeli, comprises neat stone cottages under a canopy of towering trees with a panoramic view of the river.

So, if you have planned a run of the mill holidays on Goan beaches this Diwali, for a change take a break and enjoy a wet-n-wild experience on the Kali.

Fast Facts
Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary: A typical moist deciduous forest with pockets of semi and evergreen, the 475 sq km sanctuary is generally undulating with steep slopes, deep river valleys and hilly forest terrain. It houses animals like elephant, tiger, leopard, gaur, sloth bear, wild boar, civet cat, barking deer, chital, sambar, wild dog, giant squirrel, flying squirrel, jackal, common langoor and bison. The main bird species include magpie, robin, crested serpent eagle, blue headed ground thrush, Malabar pied hornbill, woodpecker etc.
Closest Airport: Dabolim-Goa (140 km)
Closest Railhead: Londa (32 km)
Road: By road there are direct buses from Mumbai to Dandeli (548 kms) via Belgaum. Panjim is just a two-and-a-half hour drive through Phonda Ghat, Ramnagar and on to Dandeli.
Best Time: Park is open from October to June. Winter months are best for sightings.
For more information contact: Indian Adventures Wildlife Resorts (Mumbai): 6408742/6406399/6428244, Website: www.indianadventures.com
Itís a jungle out there
Pics: Achal Dhruva