Camp on Krakatoa, a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere. Yes, please. Stroll into a cave filled with a million cockroaches and bats glaring at you in Borneo? Sounds wild. Break into a haunted house in Mussoorie in the dead of the night? Hey there, Casper.
While daredevil might be a bit of stretch, when it comes to doing something exciting (or life threatening, according to our parents), my answer is always yes. So, when I heard of eco-lodge Wild Brook Retreat, cut off from the power-grid, set in a wild-life infested jungle in Uttarakhand, prone to leopard and panther drop ins, I planned a weekend getaway just as winter was coming.
Set in the Nalani valley, in the foothills of the Himalayas, 35kms from Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun, the last 8km stretch is a dirt track, through dense jungles inhabited by wild elephants and other animals. Our rusty old Mahindra Bolero mini truck splashed through gushing water, bounced over stones and nudged into low-hanging branches with bravado and speed because we had been warned to reach the isolated cottages before sunset. En route, a strange group of apparent godmen lingered enroute the dirt track, with my skittish travel companion wondering aloud if they were con-artists waiting to trick vulnerable tourists.
Wild at heart
The glow of the evening sun and the diminishing heat washed over us as we pulled up to Wild Brook where stone cottages with pinewood beds, cobbled porches and a babbling brook welcomed us. And a strange, strange sound. Unfamiliar to us city dwellers, deafening in its intensity. It was absolute silence. Broken only by the two caretakers entrusted to ensure that the property and us, stayed safe. And over three days, we spent hours curled up in the sparse stone-walled rooms built using local ingredients, showering with buckets of warm water (an eco-lodge means there are no electric geysers, heaters or TV), savouring the simplest hot breakfast outside our rooms (made from organic, locally-grown and picked ingredients), endless cups of teas, home-made lunches and bonfire nights by the river, as the young caretaker Sandeep regaled us with tales of the supernatural and the natural (the former to scare us, the latter to warn us). I spent three days thinking about how important it is to travel sustainably– breathing in that clean air, eating that salubrious food and being coddled in that cosseted environment, I was at peace. I spent three days luxuriously – slowly – unapologetically.
On our second day, we went on safari to Rajaji National Park and came back having spotted elephants, deer, birds but missing the mighty predators. Upon returning, we were informed by Sandeep, that at 4pm whilst we were away, he watched a leopard lap up water at the brook, 200m from our rooms. He started with a nonchalant “he was here for the water”, but after a moment of silence, he quietly muttered, “he was here for the blood.” Sandeep, who’s from a nearby village, shared stories of cattle being picked up from around the area but that didn’t deter me from traipsing off on a trek behind our lodge the next day. A discernable growl had my companions flee the route and run to safety to the village below, where concerned residents tried to allay but instead alleviated their fears, “There are no tigers or lions around here, just leopards and panthers, and they only occasionally carry off our cattle.”
While the forests around Wild Brook are populated by hyena, leopards, tigers, elephants, barking deer, sambars and more, and wandering around the property on foot after nightfall is discouraged, regardless of leopard-sightings, growls or risks of getting lost in the woods, I never once felt fear or apprehension. I slept better than I have in months. I didn’t need the pre-bed chamomile tea or the stress-relieving mist I use back home in Bombay. The crippling paranoia and anxiety that grips me with no notice, whether I’m at work, or on holiday was non-existent. The stress of building a successful life that pushes me to do two jobs was worlds away, even as I knew I would have to recount my adventures for work. Millions travel to ‘find themselves’, and while it’s the most clichéd cause in history and usually involves finding out you can’t actually afford to ‘give up your job to travel the world’, it was the first time in 28 years that travel gave me a real answer. I haven’t been running away to the hills, or forests. I’ve been running away from my life, forgetting I’m carrying my baggage with me wherever I go, looking for a quick fix, and returning with none.
While companions worried about getting to Wild Brook safely, not getting eaten, lost or conned, those fears were alien to me even as I walked through an apparently wild-life infested, dense forest. The only things that scare me are humanity-driven and self-created. The weekend in the wild, forced me to see that my real life has become scarier than the apparently risky scenarios I throw myself in to. And it was in the middle of nowhere, inaccessible to humans, that I came face to face with the scariest things in my life— struggling to fit in, juggling a career(s), a relentless persuasion of my goals, living life on a society-mandated timeline and my guilt at not being where I should be. And I was forced to watch verdure, savour silence and in full circle fashion, face myself and my demons. I didn’t spot a tiger, or get eaten, but I learnt that if nature forces you to sit down and face its pace, inadvertently, you will be facing your own. It also teaches you an important lesson – to adopt this pace of nature – and as Emerson said, her secret is in fact, patience.
Location: Bhukhandi, Uttarakhand, India
Getting there: Easily accessible via road (229kms from Delhi), rail (closest railway station: Rishikesh) and air (closest airport: Jolly Grant Airport, Dehradun)
Best time to visit: April-May for wildlife sightings; November-March for weather
Things to do: Visit the Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, jungle safaris at Rajaji National Park (Open mid-November to mid-June); bird watching treks