A trip to BR Hills & K Gudi Wilderness Camp - The spring/summer edition
We had visited BR Hills previously in 2013, during the monsoons. The beauty of the place had captivated us so much that we could not wait to pack our bags to make the trip again. This time, the husband decided to surprise me. He had quietly booked two nights at K Gudi Wilderness Camp, run by Jungle Lodges & Resorts. Did I tell you that one of my favourite pastimes is to read trip reports on jungles all across the country? That is how I had come upon K Gudi Wilderness Camp and had read rave reviews about its location. I had seen the camp from afar when I had gone to K Gudi the last time for the forest department’s jeep safari. Perhaps the husband had seen the look of longing in my eyes then…
So, on a very happy note, the three of us (husband, little brat and I) woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 4.30 am and was off to BR Hills at 5.30 am on a warm April morning. It was a long weekend owing to Easter Friday and I prayed with all my heart that we beat the rush of holiday makers moving out of Bangalore. Like the previous time, we decided to traverse the 200-odd kilometers to BR Hills from Bangalore via Kollegal. The landscape this time was in stark contrast to the jade green, flushed-with-monsoons scene of the last trip. The paddy fields were barren and most trees were shorn of their leaves. But oh the flaming gulmohur trees! How they brightened up the dull scenery. They were bleeding red in some, radiant orange and blazing yellow in others and mesmerizing purple in a few. I almost felt like Alice in Wonderland with the myriad colours zipping past me.
A number of birds were up and early, particularly grey francolins, hornbills and ibis, at that hour before dawn. Once, at an impromptu stop by the side of the road to take a wide angled shot of the hills looming ahead, we were startled by a rustling noise in the bushes. Much to our delight, it turned out to be a wild hare scurrying across the road.
We reached the gate of the tiger reserve and were not really surprised to see the road beyond it bordered with bare limbed trees and brittle, yellowed bushes. Yet, summer had a different charm of its own. It may not paint a pretty picture, but there was a ton of character in that dry, arid frame. The trees did not look vulnerable to me without their cover of green. Instead, they were a study in patience and strength. But as we delved deeper towards K Gudi the forests suddenly turned a shade of olive and once again we found ourselves driving through deep, dark shadows. All along, the loud song of crickets continued to assail our ear-drums, like an unknown adversary whom we could hear but not see. It somehow reminded me of my childhood days in Manas when the nights were quiet except for the noise made by the crickets. There was something so sinister in that incessant song…
Finally, we reached K Gudi Wilderness Camp at around 11.00 am and checked into our tent. I took a long look around and was a tad disappointed. From all accounts, I had taken it to be in the middle of a thick jungle without any sign of concrete civilization. To be fair, it was in the middle of the jungle, in the thick of it, too. But summer had robbed the trees of their canopies and there was a carpet of dry leaves on the ground. Plus, the camp looked quite full. Guests were trickling in and the quiet forest carried the chatter and laughter to higher decibels. Yes, I am quite the unsocial one, as you can see. I always expect a jungle resort to run only for me and no one else.
Our tent was surprisingly spacious inside with the attached bathroom almost as big as the tent itself. All the tents and log-huts were perched on the edge of a wooded hill-side. We realized this when we caught sight of the twinkling lights of the valley below us in the evening. Our tent was named Jungle Babbler and within moments of arriving, we were greeted by the noisy sisters. A couple of orange minivets flew around playfully while a greater goldenback tap-tap-tapped against the tree adjacent to our tent. Butterflies of many hues flitted around restlessly. I was delighted to find myself in the midst of such hectic activity.
There was a hammock tied in front of each tent and the husband decided to take a snooze in ours before lunch was laid out. Lunch was served in the Gol Ghar at 1 pm and it was absolutely delicious. While I tucked into the food, the husband busied himself with clicking pictures of jungle babblers taking bath in the naturally formed bird-bath amongst the rocks near the Gol Ghar. Post lunch and a siesta, we gathered around in the resort’s office at 3.30 pm to be briefed about the jungle before embarking on the jeep safari.
Jungle Babblers.."Go on, take a dip."
"Aah! Feels so nice!"
"What a relief!"
Since we were there for two nights, we went for 4 jeep safaris – 2 per day (morning and afternoon). Let me not bore you with separate accounts. It always started off with briefings imparted by Narayan, the head naturalist of the resort, and we came to know that there were some 600 elephants, 35 tigers (or was it 37?) and 70 leopards (not sure) in BRT Tiger Reserve. The forests ranged from scrub forests at lower elevations to the tall deciduous forests typical of the ecoregion, to stunted shola forests and montane grasslands at the highest elevations, which exceed 1800 meters. The region has been home for the semi-nomadic Soliga tribe and we came across a settlement just after leaving the camp. The naturalist accompanying us explained that their livelihood depended on small coffee plantations, bee-keeping and spices.
Indian Muntjac (Barking Deer)
Crested Hawk Eagle
It was mentioned on the board at the resort’s office that a tiger was sighted two days back, along with other birds and animals seen each day. Every time we boarded the jeep, I would send out silent prayers to see a tiger. Every time we came back from a safari, I would count the number of safaris left. Surely, there would be at least one tiger sighting. Well, that was not to be, but I am sure God is saving up for a big surprise. Maybe we will see a tiger while looking at the plumage of a bird. Something like, “The bird’s tail is really long, no? All yellow and black. Did the colours just move? Wait, is that a tiger?”
This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the safaris. Because I did enjoy them a lot. So much so that a silly, happy grin would be constantly plastered on my face from the moment I sat on the jeep to the moment we came back to the resort. Many a times my grin would lead other guests to believe that we had seen a tiger! I would be so glad to immerse myself amid nature that it didn’t matter after sometime whether we saw a tiger or not. On our second day, our safari was an almost washout due to the rains but that sudden rain turned the jungle into a refreshing avatar with the fragrance of wet earth assailing our senses. Bliss! My only concern was the expansive proliferation of the lantana plant in BRT Tiger Reserve. It was evident everywhere, obstructing the growth of other vegetation. I hope firm steps are taken towards eradicating this pestilential plant from the forests.
Crested Serpent Eagle
Our co-passengers on the jeep were a newly married couple and two guys who I guess were bunking office. None of them had cameras or binocs. I feared that they would get bored if we stopped the vehicle to take pictures of birds. After all, they must be after sighting tigers and elephants. Then again, maybe the naturalist-cum-driver would not want to stop for us to look at birds. All these apprehensions played on my mind when we started off our safari. To my utter surprise, I was proved quite wrong. Our naturalist stopped every now and then to show us the commonest of birds with as much enthusiasm as he would on seeing an animal. The other guests, too, were a revelation as they looked at everything with genuine interest and bombarded the naturalist with queries on wildlife. On the last day of our stay, we had a family who were visiting jungles for the first time and were super excited to see a kingfisher. I was happy to know that there were people who did not have a firm background of jungles and yet enjoyed a safari so much more than strolling in glitzy malls.
Tufted Gray Langur
Maybe because of our enthusiastic crowd, we did manage to see more number of birds and animals on our safari than the other jeeps. The best part was when my long cherished dream of seeing a brown fish owl was fulfilled. I had told the naturalists in K Gudi that they had to find me one and in the next safari, we were taken towards a water pool where a pair of fish owls resided. There was a big colony of bee-hives on a tree nearby and while taking in the sweet aroma of honey I saw my first brown fish owl, perched on a tree bough above the water, its eyes shut tight. We clicked its pictures for record purpose but I had got my wish.
Brown Fish Owl
Malabar Giant Squirrel
Another highlight of BR Hills was the sighting of a sloth bear. We were almost nearing the end of our first safari that the couple sitting behind us shouted for the vehicle to stop. And there it was, our Baloo lumbering into the woods below. Although we relayed this information to the other safari jeeps, none were able to see it again. Our naturalist proudly wrote about the bear sighting on the board that day. In all the 4 safaris, one sighting remained constant. The Indian rock python. It lay coiled around the base of a tree in the middle of a water body and hardly moved. Perhaps it had a good meal and was taking time to digest it. It lay so satiated that the presence of Indian pond terrapins sunning themselves hardly bothered it. One of these terrapin fellows almost came under the wheels of our vehicles in the failing light and it is a miracle that the naturalist managed to spot it just in time.
Indian Sloth Bear
Indian Rock Python and Indian Pond Terrapin
We came across elephants on two occasions. The second time, it was a loner and for a moment it looked like it would charge at us but changed its mind at the last second. Deer and wild boar, they were aplenty – both in the jungle and in the resort. For the first time I came across such bold barking deer, roaming around us in the resort rather than skulking about in the forest. We were warned by the resort guys against a resident blackbuck which we found to be really cute. While at breakfast we were joined by a rather demanding spotted deer fellow who wanted to share our food with him. There were monkeys, too, but surprisingly well behaved. Wild boars with their huge extended family would raid the grounds after every meal, and our brat would squeal out “Pig, pig!” with glee.
Guess who is around the corner?
We were given oil lamps in the evenings as power would be cut after 10.30 pm. The sight of the lamps brought back memories of my grandparents place in Assam. While the first night we slept like logs owing to our exhaustion, on the second night we could hear alarm calls given out by the barking deer, thrilling us to bits. Too bad, we could not go out to investigate.
Finally, it was with a very heavy heart that we bade adieu to K Gudi Wilderness Camp and BRT Tiger Reserve. Neither the husband nor I wanted the stay to come to an end. I had been dreaming of this trip for a long time and now that it actually happened, it feels like a dream even more. BR Hills is a birder’s paradise and it is there amongst the thick shady forests that I feel the presence of the tiger most. Even though I might not have seen it.
Maybe I will be back to K Gudi Wilderness Camp again, this time in winter and record the change in seasons. The heading? BR Hills, the fall edition!
List of wildlife sighted in BRT Tiger Reserve:
Spotted Deer, Barking Deer, Sambar, Tufted Gray Langur, Wild Boar, Madras Tree Shrew, Asiatic Elephant, Indian Gaur, Indian Rock Python, Indian Pond Terrapin, Indian Sloth Bear, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Palm-striped Squirrel
List of birds sighted in BRT Tiger Reserve (forgot some and could not identify many):
Malabar Whistling Thrush, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Indian Pitta, Red Spurfowl, Grey Junglefowl, Orange-headed Thrush, Jungle Owlet, Brown Fish Owl, Ashy Woodswallow, Blue Bearded Bee-eater, Green Bee-eater, Shikra, Indian Blackbird, Jungle Mynah, Lesser Hill Mynah, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Orange Minivet, Black-hooded Oriole, Lesser Goldenback, Greater Goldenback, Pygmy Woodpecker, Square-tailed Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Malabar Parakeet, Jungle Babbler, Rufous Babbler, Large Grey Babbler, Rufous Treepie, White-cheeked Barbet, Unidentified Warblers, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Common Hawk Cuckoo, White-breasted Kingfisher, Oriental Magpie Robin, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Spotted Dove, Laughing Dove, Indian Grey Hornbill, White-bellied Drongo, Black Drongo, Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Southern Coucal, Grey Wagtail