Tourism dept turns awesome Mekedatu into a death trap

There is a signboard at Sangama, the point where river Cauvery meets its tributary Arkavathy, that tells you how many people have died each year at this popular picnic spot.

How bizarre!  Firstly, it is bad tourism marketing. Secondly, it certainly does nothing to deter the reckless from stepping into a whirlpool, losing balance on a slippery boulder, or straying into crocodile-infested areas of the river.

A couple of other signboards do warn you of whirlpools and crocodiles in the river. You will find them if you are looking for them. Do you think all the teenagers who flock this spot will take the trouble to look for the unobtrusive boards, read and understand them and take safety precautions?

More likely, they will run across to a secluded place to prance around and away from the madding family crowds. Signboards apart, there is little evidence of the  authorities having done anything worthwhile to ensure the safety of visitors to this weekend getaway, less than 100 km away from Bangalore.

We were there recently on a Sunday and when we switched on the television after returning home in the evening, we were shocked to learn that three young students had died the same afternoon while trying to cross the river from one bank to the other at Sangama. To get to the simply exhilarating Mekedatu, you have to cross the river, and then reach the spot by traversing the 3 km distance by foot or by bus.

While we were not aware of the circumstances in which the youngsters died, it was shocking to see that the authorities – is it the forest department or the tourism department or both? – had done little to ensure public safety at Sangama.

 On a Sunday when visitors go there in thousands, we didn’t find anyone responsible to guide tourists on how and where to cross the river. Of course, we had done some research on the Internet and were aware that people either take a boat or cross over on foot. Yet, we saw no boats. Men, women and children were struggling forth on foot, some were already neck-deep in water and not even halfway across.

The only guidance we got was from vendors. We were told that you either have to wade across the 200 metres width of the river to reach the other bank or take the coracle. But no coracles were around. Some said the tendering process for this season was still on, some others told us the coracles could not venture across the boulder-ridden stretch with the summer waters being shallow. So wading across was the only option. It is not that the river is very deep here but there are boulders in some places –usually when you are already halfway across.

Neglect of road-worthiness

With some difficulty, compounded by the fact that there were two six-year-olds with us, we reached the other bank. Luckily we had our footwear on. Otherwise, we would have cut our feet on shattered beer bottles the moment we set foot on the bank. Two old and rickety buses take people from here three kilometers up to Mekedatu and back. If the road transport authorities know anything about a concept called road-worthiness, they wouldn’t give these buses a second look. You have no choice, you have to board them and shell out Rs 40 for a two-way ride.

And now for the actual spot: Mekedatu, awesome and nature at its stupefying best. Something that Karnataka can be proud of.  But what are the arrangements made for sight-seeing? There are two flights of stairs that take you to the gorge where the river gushes through the narrow rock formations. The stairs have no railings, and worse there is nothing between you and the edge of the gorge! One false step and you plunge to certain death several feet into the swirling waters which on this day sported the colour of fresh sugarcane juice.

There is a generally a great deal of excitement among visitors at this spot. The sheer power of water that has cut holes in the rocks, smoothened stone to its fancy, and continues in great force with a deafening roar is magnetic. People pose for photographs here, and in trying to get the correct angle, the photographer and the photographed expose themselves to extreme risk.

What a shame that we are not able to enjoy this beauty without the threat of death and pall of gloom tragedies bring with it. There are deaths every year at Mekedatu and at other places along the Cauvery. While safety is every individual’s responsibility, it is the government that should be doing more. The buses from Sangama to Mekedatu no doubt need to be replaced by new ones. There should be a manned information kiosk at the entrance to Sangama. Access to the river should be restricted at places which are considered dangerous. More warning signs should be put up. We did not spot any first aid post at this place, another indication of the authorities’ callous attitude to safety.

Just this past weekend, we were at Hebbe Falls, a popular spot in Chikmagalur district.

The 551 foot falls are a sight to behold. But you reach the falls only if you can brave the treacherous 11 km ‘road’ down the hill. 4X4 jeeps take you there, exposing the drivers and tourists to extreme risk. We are told that the falls are on private land, but that hasn’t stopped the Karnataka Tourism Department from promoting it on its official website. Road signs put up by the government also abound in the area.

Now that begs the question, “If you are promoting it, why is it that nothing has been done to make it tourist-safe?”

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