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Coorg
Chillies and the blues in Coorg
By : Pablo Chaterji | Published : February 17, 2007 | Photos : Pablo Chaterji
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I love pineapples. They make my teeth go all funny (almost as bad as biting down on stainless steel), but I relish them anyway. They make for an excellent glass of juice, go well with cheese and ham as hors d’ouvres, are quaint additions to pizzas and are bursting with vitamins B1 and C, anti-tumour and cancer agents, immunity boosters, digestive aids, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants and manganese. As you can see, there isn’t much about pineapples I don’t know, except for one rather key fact – I have no idea how they’re grown. Or at least I didn’t, until I stumbled upon a patch of them in front of my cottage at the Mojo Rainforest Retreat in Coorg. There they were, in little clusters, looking like so many organic hand grenades sprouting cheerfully out of the ground. I know this will sound slightly childish, but I felt a buzz of excitement at having discovered something new. I crouched among them and lingered just long enough to satisfy my curiosity, but not quite enough for everyone else around to think of me as slightly barmy. ‘Hey look, pineapples grow out of the ground!’ I said, pointing enthusiastically at them. ‘Er, yes, heh heh, of course’ said a fellow resident, smiling in a manner which indicated he thought I was barmy anyway.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t overly concerned about other people’s opinions about my sanity. I had driven up to this remote part of Coorg to get away from it all for a while, so they could think what they liked. I was here to kick back, relax, sleep late, conspicuously overeat and, most importantly, listen to the blues – but more about that last bit later. The Mojo Rainforest Retreat, a sprawling 25-acre property up in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, is quite the perfect place to do all of the above. For this you have to thank Anurag ‘Doc’ Goel and his charming wife Sujata, who decided that the rat race wasn’t an especially tempting race to be in. PhDs both, they set up Mojo in 1999 in order to raise awareness about their environmental NGO, WAPRED (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity – and mind you don’t mix up the ‘P’ and ‘R’). 

Coorg is one of India’s biodiversity hotspots, with a wide and varied mix of flora and fauna. It’s internationally renowned as such, and the need for its preservation is paramount. However, in an area where virtually everyone owns a gun, this is a more difficult task than it seems. This is not to say that the average Coorgi runs amok with a rifle and guns down some wildlife every day – on the contrary, the Kodavas are an ancient martial people, with a fine tradition of honour and chivalry. They do, however, like the occasional hunt. The region’s ecosystem has taken a further hit through the indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, leading to a fall in the output of local crops. Doc and Sujata, in their own small way, are doing their bit to change all this.

It’s all too evident from the moment you step into one of the three cottages they have on the property. All the building material is locally sourced and the end-result is completely in keeping with the surroundings – and what surroundings! An almost stereotypical babbling brook running alongside, the aforementioned pineapple patch, all manner of other fruit trees and a technicolour explosion of flowers – these are what you’ll see if you decide to stretch out on your cottage’s porch, a book in one hand and a beverage of your choice in the other. The bathroom is a work of art in itself, with a turquoise-tile bathtub and a translucent roof that lends a nice al fresco atmosphere when you’re working up the suds. All the lights are solar-powered, rounding out the eco-friendly experience rather nicely.

Having had a hearty home-cooked lunch with a motley bunch of fellow guests (and two very persistent cats), I decided to skip a siesta and explore Madikeri town a bit. Formerly known as Mercara, it’s the capital (for lack of a better description) of Coorg, and I may as well tell you at the outset that it’s not wildly interesting. It hasn’t been ravaged in the way other southern hill stations have (been to Ooty lately?), but there’s an air of sameness about it. I suppose it’s not entirely the town’s fault. I mean, just how ‘different’ can you make a hill town? There’s trees, there’s hills, there’s reasonably fresh air and... er, that’s about all. What Madikeri does have is a fort, which is something of a hill-station rarity. It started out as a mud fort and was later re-done in stone by Tipu Sultan, and it’s a pleasant enough place to while away some time. Most of the structures inside have been converted into government offices, including the somewhat austere palace. The ramparts offer nice views over town and into the hills, so I walked around them for a bit before heading to the church I spotted from up there. It doubled up as a museum, with odds and ends such as Tipu-era weaponry and standard issue statues and figurines. To be perfectly honest, I was beginning to feel somewhat bored. An hour in Madikeri and I had already run out of things to do – this wasn’t looking good. I went and had a look at Raja’s Seat, a vantage point from where the old kings used to sit and take in sunsets and the like, but it wasn’t exactly the life of the party either. Abandoning any further plans of finding entertainment, I drove straight back to Mojo, about 9 km outside of town.

Finding no one about to enthrall with stories of my thrilling trip to town, I set out on a self-guided (i.e. hopelessly lost) tour of the plantation. I’m usually not much of a walking/hiking person, but even I have to admit that I enjoyed myself. It was almost unreally peaceful in the middle of the plantation; I could hear myself breathe, a luxury not often experienced. As part of their efforts, the Goels grow their crops in the shade of rainforest trees, using biological pest control methods, and I managed to recognise coffee, orange, banana and pepper plants (I may know my pineapples, but I don’t know much else). They also grow vanilla, which is the world’s second-most expensive spice after saffron, and the explosive Habanero chilli which, after the murderous Nagahari chilli of the north-east, is the second-hottest chilli in the world. How do they measure all this hotness, as it were? There’s a measurement unit called the Scolville scale, and our very own Defense Research Laboratory has carried out tests with it. It’s perfectly true, look it up if you don’t believe me. I’m inclined to think they simply stuff unfortunate volunteers with lots of different chillies and see whose head explodes first, but of course I could be wrong. Apart from all these exotic and potentially dangerous crops, there were myriad orchids and medicinal plants; essentially, if you’re the sort who’s interested in botany, you’ll swoon with delight if you come here.

While I’m not a botanist (among many other things), I most certainly am a blues fanatic and, if I do say so myself, a bit of an authority on the genre – and the blues was pretty much the only reason I had gone to Mojo. You see, Doc Goel lived in Toronto for a long time, and during that period he saw virtually every major blues artiste live on stage, apart from building up a staggering collection of tapes and CDs.
It was this collection (or at least a tiny fraction of it) that I hoped to sample during my short stay, and Doc set the ball rolling by very kindly inviting me to dinner. I landed up at his house in anticipation of a great evening, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such a perfect evening. The company was great (Doc had also invited his German friend Ludwig, who kept me regaled with stories about hyper-tuning and blowing up NSU 1000 engines), the food (pasta and grilled chicken with just a touch of habanero thrown in) was simply outstanding and the music was predictably brilliant. As I furiously played air guitar and imagined myself performing in a smoky dive-bar, I thought about what BB King once said – ‘when you’re sad, the blues make you feel good, and when you’re happy, the blues make you feel even better.’ Amen.

TRAVEL LOG

Coorg is often referred to as the Scotland of India, and with good reason. It's a beautiful, often beguiling, region. Hills, forests, plantations, rivers, streams... if these sound good to you, plan a trip here some time. Like I said earlier, Madikeri is nothing to shout about, but there are plenty of other places to see and things to do. Trekking is of course one of the options, as are other activites like angling and white water rafting in the Cauvery. You can make trips to Talacauvery (where the river originates), Bhagamandala (where there's a very nice temple), Bylekuppe ( a Tibetan town and monastery in the middle of nowhere) and Nagarhole, although Nagarhole deserves a couple of days to itself. If you still want to look around Madikeri, there's the fort and Raja's Seat. You could also go to Abbi Falls, a lovely waterfall inside a privately-owned estate, although since it's a tourist magnet you might find yourself jostling for a good view. In my opinion, however, the best way to 'do' Coorg is to head over to Mojo. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Mojo Plantation (Ph: 08272-265636/38, wapred.india@vsnl.com,
Rs 1,250 per person onwards) is an absolutely delightful place to stay. You could also consider Alath-Cad Holiday Home (Ph: 08272-452190, Rs 1,100 onwards). Orange County Resort (Ph: 08272-458481, Rs 5,500 onwards) is the place to go if you're in the mood for a splurge.

MOTOR LOG
Hyundai Elantra CRDi
Total Distance Covered: 420 km
Kpl: 13

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