A Tryst With Naxalites!

15th Nov 2016

Kayaking in the middle of nowhere!

Photo of A Tryst With Naxalites! by Anusha Nakshathra

One day, my group of girl friends and I decided to travel and do something completely different. We were checking out activities to do on Cleartrip and I found an activity labelled "Camping at Jog Falls". I looked at the details and it involved pitching tents under the night sky by the side of Jog falls itself.

They also included trekking and other water activities as part of the agenda. I have some relatives who stay at Shimoga and we decided to stop there for a night before making our way by local transport to Sagar. The location of the camp was inside the forest and only the locals could help us get there effectively. Our plan was to get to Shimoga by train, to Sagar by bus from Shimoga, and then to the camp by getting into a taxi.

Photo of A Tryst With Naxalites! 1/1 by Anusha Nakshathra
Planning the trip with my friends.

We instantly booked the activity on Cleartrip and booked our train tickets to go to Shimoga. Having visited Shimoga several times since my relatives stay there, I knew very well of how the surrounding areas would be. My uncle in Shimoga was an SI of police in Shimoga and we were going to be staying at his place.He warned me since it was just five girls going into a forest and so I managed to rope in one of my guy friends - who also a photographer for added benefit.

Day 1

Finally, all of us got onto the early morning train and headed towards Shimoga. We were slated to reach late in the evening and we had my uncle waiting for all of us. It took roughly 5-6 hours to get to Shimoga from Bangalore. We went laughing and singing the entire way and even made friends with a small kid and his family on the way.

My uncle met us at the station and we went to his place to spend the night. After eating a homely and filling dinner, we went to bed on the balcony under the stars.

Day 2

We woke up early the next morning and had an auto waiting for us to drive us to the bus stand. 15 minutes later, we were in the bus and on our way to Sagar. It took about 90 minutes to reach Sagar from Shimoga and upon reaching, we had a quick breakfast. As we stepped out of the tiny restaurant where we'd eaten, a person approached us and asked if we needed a cab. Since we needed one, we agreed, and we told him where we had to go. He said he knew the organizers of the activity very well and said that they were very good at the quality of services they provided.

Talking merrily to him, it took us another hour to reach. We got to one dense forest and after calling the guy when we reached, he suddenly said that the location had to be changed last minute. The taxi driver suddenly threw a fit about the pricing of our trip and after a bit of arguing, we agreed and decided to go for it anyway.

Can you spot me?

Photo of Sagara, Karnataka, India by Anusha Nakshathra

Another hour of driving and we were deep inside the forest with no signal on any of our phones - not even BSNL. There was a lone building in the middle of a small clearing between the trees and two locals came out to greet us. Expecting a tent of some sort, I looked around for the sound of the waterfall at least and I couldn't hear a thing.

I asked them, "When are we going to Jog Falls?"

He said, "Um, that can be arranged."

Confused, I assumed he meant that they would take us later and let it go. We carried our bags and they walked us past an amazing sight.

The sight that awaited us as we walked past the forest.

Photo of Muppane, Karnataka, India by Anusha Nakshathra

The taxi came and he agreed to take us to Jog Falls. Hoping that this drive would change the way we felt, we hopped into the Maruti Omni and drove to Jog Falls. About 40 minutes away, we literally did what any tourist would do at Jog Falls. We headed to the normal entry gate, paid an entry fee - it wasn't much, but I thought everything was already paid for in advance - and took photos of the almost dried up water falls. It wasn't the rainy season and so the water levels were low.

I was pissed off. We got into the cab in silent anger and the cab driver suddenly said, "Why are all you people staying at this camp?"

"We found this activity online and we booked it," said one the girls.

"It's not safe at all. That camp is famous for all illegal activity. They bring guys there, get drunk, and from what I know, even rapes have happened there. If it was only guys, I wouldn't have said anything. You all look young, I feel it was right for me to inform you," he said.

You can imagine what our mindset was. He also went ahead and told us that even his cab ride wasn't paid for and that we had to pay. I felt like an idiot and that we were being taken for fools. It was growing dark very quickly and we had to make a choice. Thinking about the fact that our only guy companion was also leaving in a few hours, we decided that it wasn't safe. It would be safer to even spend time in Shimoga.

When we reached the camp, it was completely dark. We told the driver to drive straight to our dormitory building and wait for a few minutes while we packed our stuff and jump back into the van. In literally five minutes, we packed all our stuff in the darkness of the building, and got back into the van.

The van then drove towards the main gates and the camp guys realized we were heading back. They stopped us and we told them we wanted to talk to the owner of the camp. They said that they couldn't get him on the line. We said we'd drive all the way to the main road where one could get signal and then we'd talk to the owner. They followed us down and we got him on our phones directly. His name is Sampath Kumar.

We girls initially started off by complaining about our issues and we did it politely. We told him that we hadn't even looked at a tent yet even though we had paid for it. He retorted saying, "I haven't even received payment from Cleartrip, how can I provide you with any services?"

This response fuelled our anger and we soon found out that they didn't even have a permit to conduct any kind of water activities. When I said, "How can you take payment online knowing fully well you don't have a permit?" he said, "It doesn't concern you if we don't have a permit." He began abusing us girls verbally and my photographer - who had been sitting quiet all along - suddenly lost his cool, grabbed the phone, and exploded into a mouthful rant for about ten minutes. Sampath Kumar fell silent and my friend cut the call. I instantly called my uncle since he was a police and told him the entire issue. He said that they would immediately take action.

Our current issue was then to get home! We were in the middle of a lonely road in a forest and it was past 930 PM. We asked the cab driver to take us to the nearest town where we could catch the last bus to Bangalore or Shimoga. The driver drove as fast as he could - at 40 kmph - and we reached the town only to find out that the last bus had left.

The nearest town was 15 km away and it was already 10 PM. The last bus to Sagar would leave by 1030 PM from the town and we had to make it fast. We urged him to take us there quickly. About 20 minutes later, we reached, paid him what we could, caught a seater public bus heading to Bangalore, got off at Sagar, ran across the road and reached the bus stand. We ran into SRS's office, booked the last sleeper buses for ourselves and boarded the bus literally 5 minutes before it departed to Bangalore.

This wasn't the falls, obviously. But, the view was unexpected. It looked like a movie shooting location for some fancy song. By the side of this water body, there was a single building which had dormitory style beds in it. I looked around and spotted absolutely no one and while it did seem odd that there was absolutely nobody else but us at the location, I assumed that they probably had gone out on a trek or something.

We dropped off our bags and headed to get freshened up. The camp guys said that they would make something to eat while we freshened up. Half an hour later, as we ate, we regretted not buying some food on the way. They made idlis and some rice and I felt like we were eating stale stuff.

After lunch, one of the guys then said that he would take us towards the water activities. We trudged through dense forest areas for a while and by the side of a large stagnant water body. It looked more like backwaters of some kind. After 15 minutes of walking, he stopped, pushed some plants aside, and pulled out two kayaks.

The forest we crawled through.

Photo of A Tryst With Naxalites! by Anusha Nakshathra

Curious, I asked, "Why did you hide them?"

He said, "Some people have stolen kayaks from us, so we hide it by default."

Photo of A Tryst With Naxalites! by Anusha Nakshathra

We then dragged the kayaks for a few more meters and he pushed into one of the water bodies by our side. He asked us how many of us can swim. Most of us couldn't. He gave us all life jackets and asked us to jump into the water body first to get used to the water and the temperature. We swam around for a while, laughing and getting used to the water. Some of my friends were freaking out even though they were floating.

Photo of A Tryst With Naxalites! by Anusha Nakshathra
Photo of A Tryst With Naxalites! by Anusha Nakshathra

After about 30 minutes of swimming, he showed us how to steer kayak and we took turns to try it out since there were only two. While my photographer friend went around clicking photos, he asked the guy, "When are we going to Jog Falls?"

The guy said, "Why Jog Falls?"

He said, "That's what this is supposed to be about, right? We were supposed to camp at Jog Falls and spend time there right?"

He said, "No, I don't know. That may not be possible. I wasn't told about it."

I got angry at this point and said, "We've come here after paying all this. And you're saying there's no camping."

He instantly excused himself and said he would check with the main organizer and owner of the camp. He got back a good 20 minutes later and said, "I've arranged transport to Jog Falls, don't worry. But, permission to camp there isn't provided."

"Camping is what we came for. Can you not set up tents here at least?" I asked.

"I can try. It looks like it might rain; if it doesn't, I'll set it up," he said. We said okay, got out of our kayaks and walked back to our dormitory to shower and clean ourselves. The guy said that by the time we were ready, transport would be arranged to take us to Jog Falls.

My photographer friend - being the only guy - had to get back home the same day since he had a prior commitment. The moment all these confusions happened, all us girls began to get bad vibes about the place. The only guy in the group was going to go and we began to feel unsafe.

Day 3

Needless to say, we slept almost instantly. We woke up the next day in Bangalore, relieved beyond belief that we had reached safely. We got off at our localities and I quickly realized what I had left behind in that horrible camp: my Polaroid camera. To this day, I regret leaving it behind in the dark.

I then checked with my uncle about what happened and he said that they had been arrested. They were in ties with Naxalites and were using that camp as a front for several illegal activities. I quickly googled sampath kumar nature camp and you won't believe what I found to verify what he said. Go on, try it yourselves!

While it was a scary moment getting out of those moments especially when they refused to let us leave because they hadn't received payment, it was pretty amazing how we ran and got ourselves to safety and lived to tell the tale. I hate to think what would have happened if I had gone alone like so many of my solo trips.

I called Cleartrip, told them of the entire issue, and they refused to take it seriously initially. At the time, I was working for NDTV, and I sent them an official email from my work ID and that's when it got things rolling. They instantly removed the activity from their app, refunded the cash we spent and left double of what we had spent in my Cleartrip account.

While I never filed any charges because Cleartrip tried to rectify their mistake, I felt it was important to let people know that even verified trip aggregators like Cleartrip could screw up and it could lead to something far more serious that my experience.

But, this was definitely an experience of a lifetime!