[An Episode From My Coorg Yarns]
I was enjoying Bill Bryson’s ‘In a Sunburned Country’ – a brilliantly chronicled humours account of an epic journey across Australia when my phone buzzed. I had just received a text message. It wasn’t unusual. In a country swarming with people having access to inexpensive mobile phones, free SIM cards and dirt-cheap call rates, everyday, everyone got a call or a SMS. But the content of this particular text message was certainly unusual. It said ‘I’m reaching Bangalore by 7.30 AM’. It was already past midnight. I thought either Jaya Krishna Reddy, JK for short, was high on Old Monk or he was just trying to mess with my mind. But the next moment he called, his delirious voice suggested that he was indeed gulping pints of Buddha Sadhu. But he was not trying to play any tricks. He had already booked a ticket and he was boarding an early morning flight from Hyderabad. Frantically, I called Shiva, our dear friend and key team member in every joyride. Even he had received the same text message. And that’s how we three friends started our own epic journey from Bangalore to an unknown destination on a frosty December morning in 2011. It turned out to be the most reckless trip of our life.
As agreed, by 7.30 AM on a Sunday Christmas day, Shiva had reached airport to receive JK. The flight was on time. But to get over the combined effects of sleepless night, weary journey and half a bottle of Whisky, JK had decided to get fresh inside the airport and by the time he came out, it was past 8.30 AM. Excited on reaching Bangalore and thrilled at the prospect of a carefree holiday, JK wanted to drive Shiva’s brand-new Swift and soon, he was racing on Bellary highway. Promptly, a vigilant cop on an Interceptor stopped the wildly drifting car and collected the obligatory over speeding fine. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to our trip.
They took an hour to reach my place and shortly afterwards, we were moving on Old Airport Road. So far we had no plans and this seemed like a right time to decide on some place that we could reach before evening. Shiva suggested driving to Coorg through Nagarahole National Park. We agreed and decided to stay at Pachi Bale Home Stay in Beeruga village near Irpu falls.
After passing Channapatanna, we pulled into a BP petrol bunk to fill gas and have breakfast at a neighbouring McDonald’s outlet.
We crossed Mysore at around 1.30PM and by now, Shiva was on the wheels. Past Ring Road junction on Madikeri Road, JK spotted an Axis Bank ATM and asked Shiva to stop the car. The road was narrow and there was no place to park. I suggested that he can withdraw cash in Hunsur, the next town at a distance of about 40 kilometres. Later as it turned out, this was the worst on-the-road suggestion I ever gave in my life. Even today when I think of it, I regret it badly.
Inside Hunsur town, Shiva parked the car in front of an ATM opposite KSRTC bus stand. JK went inside and after a minute, came out with a sigh. It was out of cash. We went past old bus stand in search of more ATMs and couldn’t find any. After crossing Lakshmantheertha Bridge, we decided to ask some random auto driver and he told us that there were two more ATMs on Madikere bypass. When we reached the first one, a State Bank of India unit, our hearts sank. A tiny cardboard with dreaded ‘Out of Cash’ scribble welcomed us. Some 200 meters down the road, we could see an ING Vysya Bank ATM. As Shiva stopped his car in front of the glass door, a clearly agitated guy came out of the air-conditioned booth and cursing his luck, told us that the machine was out of cash. There was a State Bank of Mysore ATM opposite Police Station on Silver Jubilee Road and even this turned out to be empty. With this, we had exhausted all our options of getting any cash in Hunsur.
Hunsur sits on the confluence of important roads connecting several tourist destinations including entire Coorg district, Nagarahole, Kabini, Mangalore and Wayanad in Kerala. On a weekend leading to Christmas, loads of tourists had driven through Hunsur and evidently, they had drained out every ATM in this small town.
This was a disaster waiting to happen and none of us were prepared to face it. Last night when JK called, I had no cash and so did Shiva. At least, he had some spare change, but my pockets were empty. JK had booked his ticket online and while leaving, he had little money. After spending it on taxi to reach airport, over speeding ticket and McDonald’s breakfast, he was left with a greasy one hundred rupee note. This was a trip planned in eager haste and before starting, all three of us had a similar thought – to withdraw cash somewhere on the road. In excited state, we had pushed it too far and collectively, we all had gone terribly wrong.
We were hungry, there was no drinking water and we had smoked our last stock of cigarettes. With the little cash left, we decided to buy a bottle of water and pack of ITC Kings; both of which could add slight liveliness to our worn-out mind. Now, to get any money we had only two choices – either to drive back and withdraw cash in Mysore or as I suggested, drive to Kutta where I was sure to find ATMs. After all, Coorg is a region of wealthy estate owners and Kutta is a key gateway to this rich land of Arabica and Robusta. So, with dreamy notions of savouring rich aromatic coffee, delicious Coorg cuisine and chilled beer, we pushed on from the land of empty ATM machines.
The 30 kilometre drive within Nagarahole National Park was an incredible experience. Narrow jungle road cutting through the mighty woods offered magnificent views of the immense terrain. The eerie silence inside the jungle was astounding. The foliage was thick, huge trees covered the skyline and at every turn, we expected encountering the unknown. With empty pockets, we feared illusory dangers of absurd proportions. We dreaded a car breakdown and anticipated a flat tyre. Even with fuel gauge showing half a tank of diesel, we anticipated a dead engine. We were on our nervy edge, we were starving and we wanted to reach Kutta at the earliest. That was our land of heavenly contentment.
As it turned out, there was no ATM in Kutta. We were devastated.
A shopkeeper directed us to the next ATM at Srimangala, a distance of about 14 kilometres. The roads were bad and as we approached our longing destination, towards our right, we saw a Union Bank of India ATM. To our utter disbelief, it was closed. The shutters were down and there was not a soul around. With that, the only hope of our salvation was gone.
I felt like a complete fool to have suggested driving to Kutta. I was entirely responsible for our miserable condition. None of us were in mood to talk, we didn’t know what to do next and there was nobody we could ask for any help. From here Pachi Bale Home Stay was 10 kilometres, but we decided to push on till Gonikoppal, the only alternative. In a gloomy silence, we went further and at T.Shettigeri junction, Shiva stopped his car. With whatever money was left with JK and Shiva, we bought 2 packs of biscuit and resumed our journey. At Ponnampet JK tried withdrawing cash at Canara Bank ATM next to bus stop and here the display didn’t work. It didn’t bother us anymore. Our appetite was dead. If ATMs were out of cash at Gonikoppal, we decided to drive back to Mysore.
Luckily, the State Bank of Mysore ATM on main road in Gonikoppal had money. When JK was withdrawing cash, a strange sense of liberty took over our mind.
It was too late to search for any home stay. So, we checked into Hotel Nandanavana near Gonikoppal bus stand. After getting fresh, we went to a restaurant on Ammathi Road and enjoyed chilled beer and spicy Coorg delicacies.
Suddenly, life felt blissful.
Next two days were spent at hotel, driving and Chelavara Falls. Also, we had a flat tyre, encountered a huge King Cobra and narrowly missed hitting a pack of wild boars.