My eyes feast on the forest scene as we manoeuvre our jeep on the kuchcha tracks of the Bandipur National Park. There are trees with light barks, rolling hills and streams gurgling past rocks. There are chattering mynas, drongos and babblers. A herd of cheetal graze in a grassy patch and, above them, in the trees, a langur troop munches on something. Our guide and driver for the day, Ganga Singh, points to the dirt track and says, “Look, tiger tracks! No wonder there aren’t too many cheetal here this morning.” A bit further on we see more signs of animals: porcupines, sambar and elephants, all have walked this same dusty path a few hours ago.
Our guide suddenly stops the jeep. I notice some movement between the pillar-like trunks of teak trees. A brownish-black mass is the source of our attention. An elephant? But as the massive animal emerges from cover, I discover that it’s a handsome gaur. Sinewy and standing tall at 6 ft, the beast sports a glistening coat, white stocking-ed legs and an impressive set of horns. It is said that the gaur are the largest wild oxen in the world — and having seen this huge bull, I cannot doubt it! We spot the rest of the herd, which has over a dozen members, mostly females.
The forest seems to be full of gaur and we spot many during the drive. We encounter a herd comprising at least a hundred animals, all of them having congregated to graze on the flush of fresh grass triggered by the monsoon. There’s more gaur action as two bulls lock their horns, and the sound of their clashing horns echo through the valley.
Ganga Singh brings the jeep to a stop near the Moyar Gorge. We walk down a small track to the viewpoint. It’s windy, but the day has been clear so far. The viewpoint offers a panoramic view of the gorge and surrounding forests. In the background are the Nilgiri Hills, or the Blue Mountains, appearing in a series of successive rows. The gorge cuts through these hills, and at some places is nearly a thousand feet deep. Through this gorge, the Moyar River, now in its rain-filled rush, thunders away.
Stunned by the view into silence, we sit absorbing the surroundings. The hills are now green, but that’s the colour of the monsoon. In other months, they are usually clothed in brown, with kaleidoscopic splashes of green and bright hues, the patterns and colours decided by the plants in bloom — it’s red in January and February, white and yellow in March and April, and multi-coloured outfits for post-monsoon months.
In the evening, we go for a safari in the Mudumalai National Park, which adjoins Bandipur. The safari bus, operated by the Forest Department, winds through the forest and comes to a halt in front of a tall stone watchtower. Our present run-through-the-jungle was not so rewarding in terms of wildlife sightings, but when the bus comes to a halt at the Moyar Watchtower, all complaints are forgotten.
The tower, built like a lighthouse, stands deep inside the forest on the very edge of a cliff overlooking the Moyar Gorge. The gorge is so deep that I can barely see the river but as I follow my gaze upstream, the view suddenly takes my breath away. The Moyar River, swollen with monsoon water, plummets down hundreds of feet into the gorge, disappearing in its own spray. On the other side, I see the forest canopy spreading like a green carpet, on which flit orioles, cuckoos and bulbuls. A pair of giant squirrels adds a bit of rufous to the predominantly green landscape.
During the following day’s safari, we see a magnificent young male elephant with tusks that almost reach up to his toes. He stands in a bamboo clump just beside the road. Lifting his head and trunk to reach the tender bamboo tips, he continues to eat, unmindful of our presence. Since elephants occur in transient populations, there is some chance that tourists might have to return without seeing any pachyderms, even in this high-density elephant zone. Even in the places where elephants live, tuskers, the prime targets of ivory poachers, are very rare. I am fortunate to see this magnificent tusker, and that too at such a close range!
My lucky run continues that evening. As the bus negotiates a curve, we catch sight of one of the most accomplished hunters of the forest — wild dogs. We spot four of them relaxing after perhaps a successful pack hunt.
On my third and final day, I decide to skip the safaris and instead go for a trek (discontinued since then) inside Bandipur. I choose to explore some promising birding areas over a long trek to a hilltop. Even as my seasoned guide, a local hailing from the indigenous Kuruba tribe, leads me on the trail, deep resonant whoops of langurs announce our presence to everyone for miles around. Though we don’t see too many mammals on the trek, the birds don’t seem too bothered by our declared presence. Partridges, peacocks, hoopoes, bulbuls, babblers, bee-eaters, doves, noisy parakeets and mynas — all are busy courting and calling. The forest pulsates with the activity of breeding birds in the monsoon. Peacocks strut around with their brilliant, long trains of tail feathers, trying to impress peahens. Parakeets fight vociferously over possession of nest holes. Hornbills attend to their incubating mates tucked in tree holes. A hardworking pair of swallows makes endless trips back and forth with food to feed their hungry chicks. The forest is alive! A few hours, a few days spent here are far too few to imbibe its essence. But the city drill beckons and, with a heavy heart, I head back to my cottage to pack my bags. I know I will return, soon.
ABOUT BANDIPUR-MUDUMALAI PARKS
Along the Mysore-Ooty Highway, at the foothills of the Nilgiri mountains, lies some of India’s best elephant country. Administered separately, the Bandipur National Park (Karnataka) and the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu) are but components of a single spectacular ecological continuum that also includes Nagarhole (in Karnataka) and Wayanad (in Kerala). Bandipur and Mudumalai are located in the lower reaches of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which is part of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. This area was once the hunting ground of the Wodeyar royals.
The Mudumalai Sanctuary was set up in 1940, becoming the first sanctuary in Southern India. Covering a stretch of 60 sq km initially, the sanctuary was expanded to 295 sq km by 1956 and thereafter to its present size of 321 sq km. Today both Bandipur and Mudumalai see a huge influx of tourists. Villages located around these protected areas add to the pressure on the forests.
This area receives two monsoons: the south-west (Jun-Sep) and the north-east (Oct-Nov). A brief, cool dry season (Dec-Jan) is followed by summer (Feb-May). This region has a moderate climate all year round and can be visited in any season. Wildlife sightings are fewer in summer compared to other seasons. Unlike temperate forests, these tropical deciduous forests are leafless in summer.
The Reception Range Forest Office at Theppakadu (Tel: 0423-2526235), the entry point into Mudumalai WLS has an Information Centre. No trekking is permitted in Mudumalai; neither does the department offer any jeep safaris. Private vehicles are prohibited from entering the Park. Instead, the Forest Department arranges mini-bus safaris into the Park, which can be booked at the Theppakadu Reception Range Office. Several Forest Rest Houses are scattered across the park. Tour operators in nearby Masinagudi Town arrange birdwatching and treks in the reserve forest.
Park entry fee Indians Rs 35 Cameras Still Rs 25, video Rs 150 Park timings 7-9 am, 3-6 pm