Mesmerizing monsoons in Bandipur
(Warning! Long post and tons of images ahead!)
I was in the middle of a terribly strenuous office project in June-July (that had quite a toll on my health) and yet, all I could dream of when I hit the bed at unearthly hours were of a yellow-and-black striped creature – the tiger. Perhaps the jungles were calling me – the only place that offers me solace unconditionally.
And then, one day I learned that I was going to visit Bandipur Tiger Reserve. At times I really think there is someone taking pity on me from above.
So, here’s the basic outline of the Bandipur trip:
Dates of travel: 2nd-4th July, 2015
Distance from Bangalore: 240 kms (approx.)
Route taken: Bangalore – Mysore – Nanjanagudu - Gundlupet - Bandipur
Stay: Bandipur Safari Lodge (a JLR property)
Located in the southern state of Karnataka, Bandipur gained Project Tiger status in 1974. The park spans an area of 874 square kilometers and supports a wide variety of endangered flora and fauna. Bounded by the adjoining Nagarhole National Park, Mudumalai National Park and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, this erstwhile hunting ground of the Maharaja of Mysore is an integral part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. National Highway 766 cuts through the jungle, winding its way up towards the popular tourist destination Ooty.
We reached the resort fairly early at around 11 am. Unlike other JLR properties, this was located bang on the highway leading to the forest entry gate. Apparently this used to be a KSTDC property which was later handed over to JLR. The resort, that had borne a barren landscape then, completely flipped over a new page and is today a lush green resort with shaded avenues. Our tastefully appointed cottage was nestled in a quiet sun-dappled corner and we did not, for once, realize that we were lodged just off the busy highway.
Cottages at Bandipur Safari Lodge
Since we had time to spare before lunch, we lounged about in the verandah and carried on armchair birding. Literally. This became our daily routine for the next few days. A couple of scaly breasted munias were building their nest around the eaves of a cottage and it was interesting to follow their activities. Meanwhile, our armchair also periodically transformed into a precipitous, descending highway for the son’s cars.
Armchair birding :)
Dark clouds had accompanied us for most part of our journey and I was quite apprehensive about a downpour spoiling our safaris. As a matter of fact, in all the three days that we spent there, there would be light drizzles every afternoon, which the husband used to call beji boroxun (needle point rain) in Assamese.
It showered heavily on two safaris but I absolutely loved getting half-drenched in the rain (the other half was protected by the vehicle’s ‘curtains’). It was fun keeping out my palm out in the rain, a childish delight of yore, and collecting rain water which I proceeded to throw merrily over my son and husband. But the rains did not play spoilsport over our animal sightings and unlike the rains in the city, there was no urgency here, no running helter-skelter to take shelter. The herd of elephants that we would stop to observe carried on their meal nonchalantly, the flick of a tail or the flap of an ear now and then giving away their alertness.
Bandipur turned out to be quite a bundle of surprises. I realized that there was more to it than just sighting the big cats. Monsoons played the perfect foil to blaming our luck on not being able to see a tiger and head off towards the mountains in-between safaris. Just 25 kilometers away from the tiger reserve’s gates lay Himavad Gopalswamy Betta, the highest peak in Bandipur National Park. The peak is so called because of the ubiquitous fog that remains all-round the year and the temple of Venugopalaswamy (another name for Lord Krishna), a venerable pilgrimage spot.
Picturesque golden fields of sunflower greeted us as we drove towards the peak. While waiting for a group of stubborn sheep to budge from the road, we took the chance and sneaked in a few photographs. I am glad that we did that, because by the time we returned the sunflowers had thrown a tantrum and turned around their faces like fretting lovers.
According to a legend, sage Agastya performed intense penance and as a result lord Vishnu blessed this place and promised to reside here. Seated by the temple at the hilltop a heady otherworldliness hits you as prayers, chants and peals of bell ring through the misty air, lending a surreal touch to the atmosphere. Till you catch sight a herd of elephants foraging by the hill-side and realize that you are still in Bandipur National Park.
Atop Gopalswamy Betta
Later, driving through the expanse of the park, we came across a veritable treasure house of botany, comprising dry deciduous and moist deciduous woodlands as well as shrublands. Unfortunately, like most other jungles, Bandipur, too, had fallen prey to the proliferation of lantana and parthenium shrubs. I despaired to see a group of malnutrition-hit elephants with new born calves tugging at some barely-there green shoots while all around them the forest wore a cloak of jade green brought about by the thriving but grossly inedible lantana and parthenium shrubs – a picture that deceptively told its inhabitants that all was well while it was not so. A sad case of “Water, water everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink”. Perhaps other areas in the jungle had more food for them, I consoled myself.
The region has a typical tropical climate with the dry and hot period generally beginning in early March and lasting till the cool welcome showers arrived in June. It was unexpectedly cold when we were there. Cold wind would whip us mercilessly in our drives towards the park gate. Mornings in the forest would be misty and I would somehow be reminded of fairy tales and Harry Potter movies, where fantastic mythical creatures revealed themselves in shadowy nooks.
Many people had raised eyebrows when I had told them that I would be visiting Bandipur in July. What would you find in a jungle in the monsoons, I had been asked. The tigers will not lounge by the water holes in the rains, and the foliage will hide the leopards and all other animals in their midst. And yet, this trip turned out to be one of the most memorable and successful trips amongst all my jungle jaunts. I never knew I would be privy to such beautiful moments in the jungle when the heavens spilled over.
Brown Fish Owl
Crested Serpent Eagle
Two sightings will remain particularly special in my memory. On our first evening, we were shown a documentary on wild dogs or the Indian Dhole. I sat absolutely mesmerized by the beautiful tale – that of a researcher following a group of dholes which had a pragmatic alpha female that he had named Kamani. I had never seen a wild dog till then. The next morning, we stumbled onto a pair of dholes and my excitement knew no bounds. On the next safari we came across a large pack of 13 dogs, comprising several pups. I felt as if the pack was the one on which the movie was filmed. We observed them for a long time and the dholes kept up a nice show for us – gamboling around, mock fights, et al, before they disappeared amongst the bushes.
Indian Wild dogs or Dholes
The second sighting was that of a lone tusker. We had heard frenetic warning calls near a water body and on reaching the spot, saw a herd of nervous elephants with calves, the matriarch trumpeting loudly. Excitement pulsed through us in anticipation of a predator and we waited with bated breath. And waited and waited. And waited some more, till we gave up hope and decided to explore another path. (Later we learned that a tiger had indeed been present there.)
No sooner had we embarked on that narrow pathway than we came face to face with a huge tusker. While its tusks were not intimidating, the pachyderm certainly was. It saw the vehicle and yet kept on striding towards us, its pace unbroken. The driver assured us that the elephant will sidle off the road once it was at a little distance away from us. But he was proved wrong. It kept up its steady gait, coming dangerously closer by the minute, leading the driver to reverse the vehicle. After all, the jungle is the tusker’s domain and it has every right of traffic. Later, when I spoke to my dad in Guwahati, he said lonely tuskers are not to be trusted as you can never gauge what its mood would be.
Too close for comfort!
Road blocks are a-plenty in Bandipur. If it is not a tusker then it would definitely be a herd of Indian Gaur obstructing your path. We saw these formidable creatures several times on our safaris and each time I marveled at their hunky build I would be coldly reminded of a video I had seen on Youtube where a tiger had brought down a gaur with one single strike. Size does not matter in the jungle, is the harsh adage.
Peering through the rain, I spied scarlet flashes of ‘flame of the forest’, embellishing the lush green of the forest. Small pools of water dotted the landscape here and there, tiny frogs diving into them the instant our vehicle approached. Peacocks ambled about without their iridescent long tails, some holding on to their last few strands of tail feather with pride. Scores of spotted deer grazed peacefully on the fresh shoots of green, the males sporting their newly acquired antlers, the velvety sheen still intact.
Spotted Deer herd
Spotted Deer (male)
But the most number of deer I witnessed was outside the forest, near the forest office. Apparently, the deer were a clever bunch. Come evening and they would gather in hundreds near the office, or human settlement to be precise, so that the big cats would not dare to hunt them down there. Although we did see a couple of wild dogs one morning quite close to the office. Expect the unexpected in a jungle – I remember reading that sign somewhere.
My luck with the big cats in South India stands where it was previously – zilch. But frankly, I am not disheartened. Bandipur offered so many delightful vistas that I cannot complain. One evening, just as we were about to exit the park, our naturalist shushed us up. He quietly pointed towards a bush and asked us to keep our eyes on it. After a few minutes, a head shot up, looked at us with curiosity, and went down again. We had just seen a shy Baloo – a sloth bear. We came across another Baloo the next day, but unlike the previous one, he was so close to us that he didn’t fit in to the camera frame!
I could go on and on about several other moments in Bandipur – the time we followed a pair of jungle bush quails, or when a juvenile serpent eagle had skillfully caught his breakfast, or the squabbling stripe-necked mongooses, the scrambling monitor lizard and the shrewd black-naped hare. Like I said, I could go on.
JUngle Bush Quail
Crested Serpent Eagle (Juvenile) with kill
But what touched me most was the way these speechless creatures tried to protect their young ones. It just tore me up to see the way a mother elephant shielded her young one, aided by others in the group. They would huddle around the baby till our vehicle left. It was as if their whole life had only one purpose – to see the little calf survive. Perhaps they had seen too many adversities and atrocities in their world. I saw the same story among the gaurs.
Perhaps a single visit is not enough to comprehend the beauty of Bandipur. Monsoons has shown me a few hundred facets, maybe the dry season will show me a few thousand more. And who knows, in my next visit, Bandipur might just ink itself as the place where I would finally see a tiger and lend closure to one story at least.
PS: This trip was possible owing to Jungle Lodges Resort. To my utter delight, they have carried my article on Bandipur (with different images) in their website jlrexplore. Here is the link! Go and take a look :)