Monday, May 9, 2011

Caution! Elephants Crossing!

As our taxi headed from Bangalore to Mysore, we fell asleep at a crucial junction and missed the road to Kabini – the wildlife sanctuary abutting the Kabini river in Karnataka. Thus it was that we awoke to see not a forest, but the large, glimmering Kabini dam on our right and the green foothills of Coorg in the distance. Tempting as it was to continue straight on, we turned around and found our way to the narrow bumpy lane that led, through a small village, to Jungle Lodges, where we were staying.

It was no surprise that we had dozed off in our taxi. The previous night had been rather eventful after I absentmindedly locked my husband out of the house and fell soundly asleep. He eventually managed to waken me by climbing on the terrace and tapping at the window with a large stick! By the time everything was sorted out, it was around midnight. We rose early, spent a short time on breakfast and considerably longer on locating my husband’s glasses, then shot out of the house and were on our way.

Jungle Lodges, a private company that functions in association with the Karnataka government, is remarkably well organized and efficient. It was set up in 1980 by the wildlife conservationist (and pioneer of wildlife tourism in Karnataka), Col. John Wakefield, in an area that originally belonged to the Maharaja of Mysore. Col. Wakefield envisioned (and built) a beautiful camp for tourists around this place, next to the Kabini river. He stayed here until his death (at the age of 95) in 2010. Since then the place has seen a few changes – a little modernization (fortunately the colonial buildings where the Maharaja entertained the Viceroy and other guests are still in use) but the spirit of the place remains unchanged.

We stayed in a small cottage, with windows on three sides; it felt like a small spaceship that had landed at the river’s edge! The wind blew straight into the room, a clump of bamboo and a large banyan tree creaked close by and the river made happy swishing sounds that we could hear all the time.

We were taken into the forest early mornings and evenings, by jeep or boat. Each experience was different – though many people prefered the action oriented jeep trips, we equally enjoyed our boat journey which allowed us to see a couple of elephants swimming from one bank to the other, a bit of river-life (birds, insects, a baby crocodile, a water snake) and, at a distance, animals on the river banks. These animals seemed undisturbed by our speck of a boat and continued with their activities, ignoring us completely. Thus we could see herds of herbivores grazing, a peacock trying to attract a peahen (which looked uninterested and very bored), a small mongoose trying to lift a long log and other sights.

The jeeps took us deep into the forest, but they also more easily disturbed the animals. Much depended on the sensitivity and training of the accompanying guide and driver. We were lucky to have with us experienced and enthusiastic guides on several occasions and we saw some incredible sights. In the forest, the action often lasts just for a few seconds – or minutes, then everything is as before.

On our first evening, our guide insisted on waiting (while other jeeps sped past) at a place which was an elephant crossing (as he had spotted an elephant lurking in the bush). After a few minutes a large tusker suddenly emerged and cautiously made its way past our jeep, just a few feet from us. The guide told us that this particular animal had migrated from Coorg the previous year and had been attacking all the jeeps for many months. It had now settled down (fortunately for us!) and had gotten used to seeing vehicles.

We saw a stripe necked mongoose, digging busily at the base of a tree. Near a watering hole were several wild boar, one with crows clinging to it, feeding off the insects on its skin. We saw an eagle with a snake in its beak, a blue jay frenetically chasing a langur off its territory, a male woodpecker peering into a hole from which a female suddenly emerged and flew out! The male then popped into the hole and soon after, popped out and resumed its pecking.

We saw herds of deer – spotted deer, sambar and a lone, shy barking deer- grazing unconcernedly or leaping in a startled fashion or just looking at us, mesmerized. We stared back, equally mesmerized. There were herds of gaur (Indian wild buffalo) and we came face to face with a large solitary male- it was hard to say who was more startled at the encounter! It was a beautiful, powerful creature and it stomped off into the brush after seeing us.

There were small groups of elephants on the river banks, in the forest and on the distant hills. Often quiet, very graceful, one forgets their immense strength and majesty until one sees a large lone tusker or hears one of them trumpeting. Yet at times, like all animals, they can be amazingly still and silent and vanish like a shadow on the grass.

The vegetation was incredibly beautiful and I often missed the forest for the trees! There were many other wonders along the way - a brightly coloured feather, moss growing on fallen logs, the changing jungle smell, golden orange light shed by a setting sun, wind blowing through the trees...

We had our moments of action and adventure. The last morning we came upon some fresh pug marks and heard some warning calls – a tiger in the vicinity! A radio call alerted us of a tiger close to the river and before we knew it, the jeep roared in action and we raced off. I was flung violently about for ten minutes before I managed to find a more stable part of the jeep. An air of expectancy and tension filled all of us. Spotting a tiger here is a big deal for many people and somehow just the sound of the word brings a shiver of excitement and apprehension. We didn’t get to see it, but another jeep on the opposite bank did. Anyhow, we did get a thrilling ride!

Finally after a large and delicious breakfast (like all the other meals served) we left for Bangalore with our hearts content and our minds happy and full of the forest.


Jungle Lodges

A beautiful film on the tiger

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