Kali river chronicles – offbeat in Karnataka

Hanakon: I have very clear memory of articulating the word to the mini-bus conductor in Karwar before boarding the rattling mass of automobile that is somehow, clutching its life in its hands, speeding down the narrow main road. I see signboards for Canacon and not of Hanakon and I suddenly grow wary – is it Canacon the bus is heading to? The dreary youngster of a conductor proves fractious, maintaining a sullen expression as if to avoid conversation with strangers. It could be the heavy-eyed, foggy morning on which he is forced to work when the entire world is still wriggling inside its sheets.

mongrove walkway
mongrove walkway

I call Diwan, chief instructor at the Riveredge where I am headed and confirm my navigational orientation.  The bus drops me off at Hanakon, so infinitesimal a village wedged somewhere along the Karnataka – Goa – Maharashtra border, even Google maps chose to ignore it. As I try to make sense of my coordinates to reach the resort, I – a seemingly lost, lone stranger become a subject of curiosity for the villagers on that uneventful morning.

the cottage

But they are friendly, suggesting shortcuts. “Look for Rajesh’s house. He works for the resort, he will take you,” the shopkeeper says. Rajesh and his house prove elusive but I continue walking and increasingly meet with head bobbing and lip pouting signifying lack of information. A middle aged man working on his field helpfully hands me a staff warning of stray dog nuisance. After about fifteen minutes of ambling around, I stumble upon a neglected wooden pathway built across the mangrove bushes leading to what seemed like civilization.

I amble further along the thicket of mangroves, lined on either side with stilted cottages and Diwan appears from his quarters with a loud call of welcome. I was shown my cottage whose bedside window opens to the mangrove duplicating a tree-house effect while the front door to the backwaters. In the following nights, I would wake up listening to the nocturnal movements of the forest – a falling twig, scampering of some animal, a cat or a snake may be – but too cagey to peep out into the darkness. The distance to my cottage from the dining area and access to it in the night also ensured that I constantly fear of accidentally stepping over a snake earning its wrath and a resultant swipe – or worse – a mouthful meal for a python.

Kayaking by the kali
Kayaking by the kali

Now though Diwan insists I take a kayak ride. He also adds that the water is very deep in some places and thinks I should not carry my camera. I persist. I slip into the kayak, with the help of Avinash, an ex-manager at the property, who spiritedly agrees to kayak with me. The ebb and flow of Kali’s backwaters has created a smattering of habitable islands with fields of paddy and vegetables cultivation.

The heaviness of the sunless, hazy day weighs down on me and I fall back on my paddling. Avinash is a spot in the distance framed by the huddling peaks of Western Ghats and the low, sluice gates of the river. Tiny kingfishers, cormorants and terns dart across looking to catch the fish leaping out of the still water. I slowly tire myself out and let the kayak bob in the water. That hard slog is thankfully supplemented with a meal that constitutes of fish fry and spicy pepper chicken.

The horizontal depletion of my resources is only complemented by the vertical ones, just the next day. On an extended trek through dense forests, Diwan takes me rock climbing. He comes equipped with sturdy shoes but omits the crucial detail about the shoes to me – I am in my hiking sandals designed for flat surfaces. ‘It’s ok sir, I have taken women for rock climbing with children in hand,’ he tells me as a way of assuaging my concerns. ‘Yeah but I am sure they had their shoes on,’ I think in my head.

At the sight of the steep precipice that was once a waterfall, my heart falls skipping several beats. I tell him I am not very fond of heights, sugar coating my acrophobia. But he is not around to respond. Rubbing climbing chalk in his hands, he is free-climbing with the orange rope hanging from his waist that he drops to me as a climbing rope, scaling the rock and fastening the rope in a tree. I wear my harness on with the help of the assistant, hook myself to the rope and begin my ascent clumsily.

Kayaking in the Kali river (pic: Diwan Singh)
Kayaking in the Kali river (pic: Diwan Singh)

‘Don’t use your knee, hold on to the rock,’ I hear instructions from above and below. My sandals threaten to slip me up but I scramble, hold on to dear life and tiny rock faces. In this manner, after what seems like hours, I reach the summit amid much encouraging hoo-ha. I can only feign a smile. Cautious to not look down, I rapidly oblige to Diwan’s instructions on rappelling down.

rock climbing
rock climbing

Are you still scared of heights, sir? Diwan asks me after the entire process is over. I do not bother to explain that one threatening ascend is not enough to ward off my fear of heights. Despite its non-existence in my imaginary bucket list, rock climbing (or scrambling) becomes the one thing I can easily add and tick off in quick succession. Soon after though, as we trek back to the main road over stories of bear attacks amid cackling of hornbills and the whoosh of breeze that rips the forest’s hush, my mood shifts; I gamely listen on.

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