It was with indescribable relief that we climbed out of our tuk tuk to check in at Sloth Bear Resort, Hampi.
We'd survived our first overnight bus ride, been dumped at the side of the road in a nearby town at the ass crack of dawn, and driven the 16-odd kms to our accommodation, knowing that we wouldn't be able to check in until 12. Nevertheless, we were so happy to be there, we didn't care if we had to sit in the lobby all morning, as long as the lobby wasn't moving.
Checking in to Sloth Bear
We were greeted by one of the hotel staff members, who apologised that they weren't expecting us so early. We'd booked through an agent online, and I'd told them of our plans, but they'd told me that there was no way to arrange an early check in. The nice man assured us that that was incorrect, and we'd be able to go to our room as soon as the staff had checked that it was ready. We both breathed a huge, tired sigh of relief.
We sat, sipping chai as we took in our surroundings. Hampi was unlike anywhere we've ever been before. The closest comparison I could find was to the Grand Canyon. The landscape was otherworldly - most of the terrain was red, with huge granite boulders dotting the horizon. The vegetation was mostly low lying scrub, and the whole place had a haze that made it look like a painting. In other words, it felt like we'd arrived in Bedrock, the home of the Flintstones.
Shortly, we were whisked away to our room. Sloth Bear Resort was not our standard choice in accommodation, but we'd decided to use this as a belated wedding anniversary splurge, thanks in part to a very kind anniversary gift from my sister and her family - thanks Dan! Although it was a little pricier than our usual digs (~$160NZD per night), we'd booked an all inclusive 3 day/2 night package - looking forward to a reprieve from haggling for local transport and planning our own activities for a few days.
Our hut was incredible. We opened the door to a spacious bedroom with a huge bed plus another single bed, a table and chairs, and a wardrobe. We eyed the fan and AC gratefully after our overheated night on the bus. Attached was a large bathroom, and we even had our own veranda with a table and chairs looking out over the property. Did I mention there was a kettle? I was in heaven.
We settled in quickly, enjoying long, hot showers, before climbing back into bed to catch up on lost sleep from the night before.
Our programme wasn't planned to start until lunch at 1.30pm, so we spent the rest of the morning catching up on sleep, pottering around, doing laundry, unpacking, and generally raving about how happy we were to be at Sloth Bear.
We headed up to lunch and only saw another group of four people, so we weren't sure how many others were actually at the resort. They have 21 cottages, but it seemed pretty quiet while we were there. Lunch was a fairly average affair, but it was a buffet, so we made the most of it.
Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary
At 3.15pm, we made our way back to the reception area to report for our sloth bear safari. We ended up meeting the family of four we'd seen at lunch - Ravi and Michelle, and Ravi's parents. Ravi and Michelle live in the UAE, and were home for a visit. Ravi's parents had come up from Kerala to meet them. Since they were on the same schedule as us, we spent the next couple of days doing our activities with them, which was fun.
Our first activity was a trip to nearby Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary. Spread over 83km2, the sanctuary was created exclusively for the preservation of the Indian Sloth Bear. Sloth bears are live in open scrub forests with rocky outcrops, and consume a mostly vegetarian diet. snacking on fruit, tubers, honey, insects and termites. They're about 6 feet tall, and adult males weigh about 140kgs. It is estimated that 120 sloth bears live in the sanctuary.
As we drove through the property in our open sided jeep, spotting birds on the way to the viewing platform, I couldn't help but be distracted by the rugged beauty of the landscape. It was so stark and desolate, it was hard to believe anything could live here, let alone these huge mammals. It was impossible to believe that the rock formations were natural - rather it felt like driving through a movie set with a painted backdrop.
Eventually we reached the viewing tower, got out of the keep, and climbed the steps to the top, making sure to bring our binoculars. Our guide explained that the park rangers put honey and berries out on the rocks near the towers in the afternoons so that the bears come out. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that, but the bears were far enough away that I don't even think they'd know we were there, let alone be bothered by us.
When we got to the top, we were rewarded with an immediate sighting of a sloth bear on the rocks, way in the distance. Without binoculars, it just looked like a black dot. Through the binoculars, you could see his cute furry little bear self, surrounded by monkeys and a peacock. He hung around for about 10 minutes after we arrived, then waddled off into a cave.
We stayed at the platform for about 15 more minutes, enjoying the stark landscape and the soft dusk lighting. Eventually, our guide told us it was time to leave, so we climbed back down to the van and bounced our way back to Sloth Bear Resort.
We arrived back to Sloth Bear just in time for tea and snacks. As we walked in to grab a cup of chai, a lady asked, 'Did you see any sloth bears?'. Little did we know, this simple question was about to change our experience of sloth bear resort, and indeed some of our time in India! We replied that we had, and the lady invited us to sit with her and her husband to tell them about it.
Delna and her husband Kersey are from Mumbai (or Bombay as they call it), and were staying at Sloth Bear for a week. Not long after we sat down and started chatting, she informed us that they'd met some other people who had just left, so they needed new friends, and we were going to fill the vacancy! She filled us in on her life as an artist, their travels (including a trip to New Zealand), and asked us lots of questions about our trip and our plans. Before we knew it, we were going to stay with Kersey and her when we arrived in Mumbai!
As a side note, this is very much our experience of India. Although often overwhelmed by the attention we receive, and occasionally frustrated by the intrusions into our privacy, the incredible overwhelming generosity of the people we've met has far exceed anything we've encountered elsewhere on our travels. Without tooting our own horn too much, the only hospitality I've found that has even come close to rivaling that of Indians is Kiwi hospitality! We make a real effort to ensure that we remember all of this kindness, and look forward to one day being in a position to extend the same courtesy to others when we're home.
Before dinner, we gathered to watch a very sweet documentary about a sloth bear living in Daroji, narrated by the sloth bear herself (they're pretty clever those bears). This was followed by dinner with Delna and Kersey, before we retired to bed to watch a movie and generally enjoy our luxurious room.
Exploring the ruins of Hampi
As per our schedule, we reported to reception at 8.15am after breakfast to head into Hampi to explore the ruins with Ravi, Michelle and their family. We climbed into our jeep, and started the long drive to town.
Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, and includes 4100 hectares (16 sq miles) of land, containing more than 1600 ruins. Once the ancient capital of a prosperous Vijanagara Empire, by 1500 it was the second largest city in the world, after Beijing. By 1565, the city had been conquered, pillaged and destroyed, leaving the ruins we see today.
On arrival at the Sacred Centre, we arranged a guide for the day with Ravi and his family. Our first stop was Sasivekalu Ganesha, a huge 2.4m high statue of Ganesha being embraced from behind by his mother, Pavarti. Our guide told us the story of how much Ganesha (the elephant god) loved food. Legend has it that Ganesha rode a mouse (makes sense when you're an elephant), which was actually a man who tried to kill the gods and was punished by being forced to remain a mouse forever, being ridden by Ganehsa. While travelling one night, his mouse saw a snake and became frightened, and Ganehsa fell off. He was so full of delicious sweet treats that his belly split open, spilling them onto the road. The moon apparently thought this was amusing and laughed, incurring a curse from Ganesha which caused the moon to wax and wane, rather than being full at all times. He then scooped all the food back into his belly, used the snake as a belt to hold himself together, jumped back on his mouse and rode off. I mean, hey, we've all been there.
Hemakuta Hill Monuments
From there, we climbed Hemakuta Hill to check out the monuments dotting it. The hill is covered in more than 30 small to medium sized temples in different styles, and has a stunning view over the Virupaksha Temple and Market complex. With the backdrop of mountains in the distance, the whole scene was pretty spectacular.
Virupaksha Temple and Market Complex
As we climbed down the hill, we caught our first sight of the huge Virupaksha Temple and Hampi Bazaar. The temple is still an active Hindu worship site, and on the day we visited, was bustling in preparation for a festival the following day.
The complex is filled with smaller structures decorated with ornate columns and painted ceilings. In one small space at the back of the temple, there is a small hole in the rock which allows a shadow from the temple to be projected on the wall, kind of like an ancient pinhole camera.
While largely unrecognisable, the area out the front of the temple was once the largest marketplace in Hampi, selling gold and precious jewels. While some of the original structures remain, most of the area is now filled with tents in a modern day bazaar selling bananas, coconuts, and plastic tots to tourists.
Achyutaraya Temple and Market Complex
Nearby, we visited Achyutaraya Temple and market complex. The market complex once sold more practical goods like food, but was now overgrown with grass. It still contained an impressive, if empty, pool, which we walked down to and sat in the shade to admire.
The temple itself is dedicated to Vishnu, and is unusual in that it faces North, rather than East.
Lakshmi Narasimha Statue
A short walk away, we visited the Lakshmi Narasimha Statue, a 6.7m high statue telling the story of Vishnu in his man-lion state (narasimha) defeating a demon. The statue has been extensively restored, but part way through, the British archaeologist in charge realised that they had many of the details (including the sitting position and facial expression of Vishnu) wrong, so they stopped restoring it to avoid creating more problems. The statue remains partly restored.
Zenana Enclosure and the Elephant Stables
The Zenana Enclosure was a walled complex built to house the royal women when the King and his men were away. It contains the stunning Lotus Mahal, a two-storeyed pavillion in a Mandala design, complete with an elaborate water system that allowed cool water to run down the walls as a kind of makeshift AC.
The rest of the buildings in the complex were made of wood, and were burned during the sacking of the city, so only the foundations remain.
Behind the Zenana Enclosure were the Elephant Stables, which thank god, no longer contain elephants. If I never have to see another tortured-looking elephant at a tourist attraction, it will be too soon.
The stables contain 11 enclosures with domed roofs, and were home to the King's most important elephants. Nearby was the home of the mahouts (the elephant handlers), with each mahout being given more space than the fully grown elephant they were in charge of...
Our final stop before lunch was the Queen's Bath, a stunningly elaborate structure housing - you guessed it - the Queen's bath. The bath itself is surrounded by an ornate, pillared bay, where the Queen's servants could pour perfumes and flowers out of the window to improve the smell of the water. That's the life!
From there, we headed back to Sloth Bear to take refuge from the now overpowering heat of the day, and to get some lunch and rest up before continuing our tour later in the afternoon
Vitthala Temple and Market Complex
After a significant respite from the sun, we returned to the ruins in the afternoon to see arguably the most famous site in Hampi - Vitthala Temple.
Due to the damage being caused by vehicles driving right up to the site, you now have to be dropped 1km away and catch an electric golf cart down to the site. It was here that I had my first experience with the world renowned sexual harassment of Indian men. I climbed into the only available seat on the golf cart, and ended up separated from Zev, sitting next to 2 Indian men. The one sitting closest to me immediately shifted over in his seat so that his thigh was rubbing against mine. I tried to move over myself, but the edge of the golf cart didn't leave me much room. After 30 seconds or so of taking photos of each other, the man next to me told me to look at the camera, and tried to snap a selfie with me. I said no, and turned to face the other way. I moved my legs over so that his thigh wasn't touching mine, and he immediately man-spreaded to fill the gap, intent on rubbing himself against me. Interestingly, while at home I probably would have made a scene, I just sat there desperately waiting for the ride to be over so I could get the fuck off the cart and do a runner. Gross.
Eventually we arrived and I did just that. We entered the temple complex to see the famous stone chariot in the courtyard. The chariot is itself a shrine, complete with wheels that are now locked but once rotated. Apparently the sanctum once contained a garuda (an eagle god), which was the chariot of Vishnu.
The main building in the temple complex is the Maha Mantapa, or the great hall, surrounded with monolithic carved stone pillars, which emit different toned musical notes when struck. To protect the structure, you're no longer allowed to touch or enter the hall, but a smaller structure to the side produces the same effect. Our guide entertained us playing some pretty funky tunes later in our tour.
We wandered the complex for a half hour or so, with our guide succinctly explaining the stories depicted in the murals and carvings. By this stage, we were suffering from information overload, so while they were fascinating, I struggle to remember them all now.
After a quick walk down to admire the view over the river, we piled back into the golf cart (this time with me safely wedged between Zev and Ravi, far from unknown wandering thighs), before jumping back in the jeep for a race across town to get to our last stop before the ruins closed. The ruins 'close' at 6pm, although there isn't really a gate or entry that can officially close. After dark, there's no lighting, and there are tales of people getting lost or robbed, or (somewhat unbelievably) attacked by sloth bears or leopards.
Mahanavami Platform and Public Square Complex
Our final destination was very reminiscent of our trip to Pompeii. Most of the area was reduced to ruins of foundations, and the reconstructed aqueduct running through the complex gave it a very Roman feel.
The Mahanavami Platform is the remaining base of a once huge wooden structure, no longer standing. After climbing the stairs to the top, we were rewarded with stunning views of the setting sun over the countryside.
Another highlight of this area was the stepped bath, or water tank, used as a public bath.
We wrapped up our tour shortly after, dropping our guide back off in town before returning to Sloth Bear for a chai catch up with Delna and Kersey, and later, dinner, before an early night after an action packed day.
Moving day and wildlife spotting
Our final morning at Sloth Bear started early. At 6.15am, we reported to reception for a morning of bird watching. I will freely admit I could have given this a big old miss, but I thought I better make the most of our remaining time living the life of luxury.
Back in the jeep with Ravi and co, we headed down the road on the hunt for some owls that Delna had told us the guides have no trouble spotting. Owls being among Zev's favourite animals, he was super keen to spot one. Within five minutes, we were peering through the binoculars at 2 well camouflaged but incredibly cute and fluffy adolescent owls. Two minutes later, we'd found another bigger owl.
As we bumped along the road, spotting lots of brightly coloured bee eaters and kingfishers, our guide slammed on the brakes, motioning for the binoculars. We all started scanning the horizon, looking for what he'd seen. We made out a small lump on a rock on a hill in the distance. 'That's a really big owl', I thought to myself. Then he said the magic words we had so longed to hear in Yala National Park, all those weeks ago. 'Leopard'. There was frantic scrambling as everyone grabbed for the binoculars. Sure enough, high on a rock, 500m away, was a leopard.
We spent about half an hour leopard watching. Just like a housecat, he chilled on the rock in the rising sun, soaking up the heat and occasionally sunning his belly. The guide explained that leopard sightings were pretty rare, so he called who local guide friends who arrived over the next little while, armed with binoculars and cameras.
Eventually we carried on, spotting few things of much interest after having seen a leopard, and when we returned, the leopard was gone.
We returned to Sloth Bear and had breakfast. We'd arranged a late check out in preparation for another dreaded night bus to Goa that night. We spent most of the rest of the day relaxing in our room, soaking in the last blissful hours in our little corner of paradise. Zev went to the bird bath on the property in the afternoon for some more bird spotting, and we headed up to reception to make our way to the bus at about 6pm.
Naturally, we were roped into an impromptu photoshoot. They were updating their website, and wanted photos of some people in the jeep at the entrance to the park. After a 5 minute awkward photoshoot, we were ready to head to Hampi to catch our bus.
It wasn't until we were looking up where to be dropped off that we realised we'd made a mistake. Our pick up point was in North Hampi, separated from us by a river. The nearest bridge to cross the river was 40kms away, and there was no way we would make it in time to catch our bus. The poor driver had to phone the bus company for us and arrange for us to be picked up at a different spot, where we'd been dropped off on our night bus 3 days earlier. Thank god for the amazing Sloth Bear staff saving our bacon!
30 or so minutes later, we were dropped off at the bus station, checked in for the bus, and eating dinner at a restaurant with the highest concentration of white faces we've seen in a while.
After much confusion regarding which bus was which (there were two buses going to Goa, one leaving half an hour after the other, neither of which seemed to match the times on anyone's tickets), our bags were loaded and we were anxiously awaiting our journey. This time, thankfully, the AC was working! We settled in for a bumpy night, remembered to set our alarms this time, and started the long journey to Goa.
Lots of love,
S & Z