“Here in the jungle you will find truth, you will find peace, bliss and happiness, you will find life itself. There is no room, no time at all, for hypocrisy, for make-believe, for that which is artificial and false. You are face to face with the primitive, with that which is real, with that which is most wonderful – which is God.”Kenneth Anderson
Cold morning air whips across our face as we wind our way through old woods, eyes wide open, waiting to see movement – a flash of orange or a hint of yellow or any color that belong to creatures wild and free. Like caged animals, we rattle around in our metal cart from one watering hole to another, in search of gods of the wild. With every twist and turn of the mud track, we follow patterns – of yellow grass waving in the breeze, of a branch in the tree rustling its leaves, of a flutter of black and yellow gently drifting along from flower to flower, of a streak of blue that perches on the dead tree in the watering hole.
We are but mere puppets in the hands of nature, following those little bread crumbs that have been laid down for us, trying to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, majestic and amazing creatures that are willing to share this space with us. As humans, we often forget the importance of light but all it takes is a little time in the woods to understand its importance. Bright golden morning light fills up even the darkest corner of the woods and makes it a beautiful place, which when visited in the evening can send a shiver down your spine. What I love the most about forests is the sudden cloud of silence that envelops you. It’s not the pregnant silence that is a prelude before an event, it’s not the devastating silence post an event, it’s just the calm silence of being alone with nature.
It rained all though the night and into the wee hours of the morning. As we head towards mud tracks that will take us deep into the forest, our fears of a foggy morning are put to rest. As our jeep churns its way through the slushy puddle ridden trail, our eyes lock onto the deep set pug marks that stretch away in front of us on the trail. A brief flutter of hope – anticipation – joy – fear that suddenly electrifies everyone awake, can only be experienced. “An adult male tiger has walked this way” says Basu, the naturalist who is accompanying us on the drive. Our eyes are drawn to those deep pug marks on the trail, but we know that it’s important to watch the lantana bushes that surround us and also the tree tops for some feathery friends who might stepping out for some sunlight. As we continue to follow the pug marks, the sun breaks through the clouds and the entire landscape is bathed in golden morning light. A little further away, we can see the marching ranks of Nilgiris hills, grey blue in the morning mist, wearing a cloak of white clouds that stream past the lower reaches of the hills. The beauty that surrounds us is registered somewhere in the back of our minds, a few photos are clicked for posterity but our eyes are still glued to the beautiful imprints of paws on mud. And just like that, the pugmarks vanish into the thickets of lantana and we are suddenly left in the lurch, wondering what happened.
Basu decides to circle around the thicket, hoping that we find the trail again. Golden morning light bathes the lush green grass on either sides of the trail. The section of the forest that we drive through is not very densely populated with trees and we see herds of cheetal deer grazing and listen to the chirping of multitudes of birds. We drive through in almost silent contemplation and companionship, thoroughly enjoying the beauty of our surroundings. We visit a couple of waterholes on our away and we see no evidence of recent visits from any of our feline friends. We continue our journey through the forest, our eyes darting every which way, hoping against hope. As we drive up the trail and turn a corner, once again we see pug marks littering the path ahead of us. That flutter of excitement energizes us but we realize that there is something wrong. We can clearly see one set of pug marks walking away from us on the trail, but we also see pug marks walking towards us. Confused, we turn towards basu who has a wry grin on this face. “Mother and 2 cubs” says basu and its pandemonium!
We are literally buzzing with excitement and ready to rush forward! A quick consult and we decide to follow the mother and cubs, who take us on another journey through the muddy trails of Bandipur. We encounter elephants, cheetal, a ruddy mongoose, couple of striped mongoose and plethora of birds while the sun slowly rises up in the sky and spreads its warmth. We reach the animal highway, an intersection of 4 trails where the mud is littered with all varieties of foot markings. Cleaved hooves of the indian gaur, cheetal and sambar deer overlaid with pug marks of multiple tigers. The deep depressions that mark the trail of elephants inlaid with smaller foot prints of other animals.
Over the next couple of hours, we stop at multiple waterholes, circle back, second guess and follow the trail of the mother and her cubs. As the sun climbs further up the sky, we realize that our chances of catching a feline today are very bleak. We sit back and decide to enjoy the view around us as we wind our way through the muddy trails of bandipur forest, but deep down in our hearts, there is still a small flame of hope. Hope that is kept alive because of our experience from yesterday evening.
We sat down outside our room talking about the exhilarating evening and enjoying CSKs stories, drawn from his experience in the jungles of India. Soft rain continued to drip down the trees and branches, surrounding us in a cocoon of soft sounds. Honk, Honk (think geese, not cars) – a grating sound of distress that breaks through the calm of the night. An alarm call from a sambar deer, warning everyone around that there is a predator on the prowl. We hear the sambar alarm call so clearly that CSK thinks that the sambar is just across the road from us. The sambar alarm call is quickly followed by cheetal deer alarm calls and between the two, they quickly setup a regular burst of sound that lets everyone know that there is cat afoot. CSK is jumping up and down “Tiger on the prowl, there is a tiger on the prowl and its right across the road!”, but its dark outside and there is not much we can do. I sit back and let the alarm calls flow over my conscious self, while I replay the memory from earlier in the evening, that beautiful little leopard cub jumping out of that small depression – one, two, three!
We reached Bandipur earlier than expected as we covered the 100 odd kms in 90 minutes. After checking in, CSK talks to the manager and many other JLR staff who he knows personally from his prior visits and questions them on animal sightings over the last few days. The news we hear is encouraging, over the last couple of days, guests have seen 1 adult tiger, a tigress and 2 cubs, a leopardess and her cub.
At 4 PM we enter through the gates of Bandipur and make our way towards the trails, we wonder what the evening has in store for us. As we turn towards the forest on the first trail, I can’t help but wonder how different the landscape is from Nagarhole. There is a lot of open grasslands that is sparsely populated with trees and clusters of lantana. We see cheetal deer enjoying their evening snack and as we turn away from a watering hole, SJT( CSK’s son) spots a raptor hidden amongst the branches of a tree. Basu lets us know that it’s a Spotted eagle, but there isn’t enough light and I am unable to see much of the eagle apart from its shape and its yellow beak.
For the next few hours, we wander down the trails of bandipur, hoping that we might catch sight of a friendly feline. We did manage to a) watch a lesser flameback woodpecker go about his business of cleaning trees, b) be amazed by the speed of a crested hawk eagle as it flew from its perch and tried to latch onto an egret that barely swerved away from razor sharp talons c) stare into the deep yellow eyes of a brown fish owl as it searched for it next meal d) stand ground to the mock charge of a mother elephant that was protecting its calf.
All this time, light continued to leech away at an alarming rate as rain clouds swept in from the east and threated to drown out our time in the jungle. It was almost time to wrap up this safari and as a last ditch attempt, we park ourselves in front of a small rocky outcrop, within sight of the forest department lodge in bandipur. Basu tells us that there is a possibility that the leopardess and her cub might be around, as forest officials had spotted her crossing the main highway. We spend a few minutes waiting and with a heavy heart, we drive onto the main Bandipur highway. Camera and binoculars go back into the bags as dark clouds threaten rain.
A few meters ahead of us, we see the other JLR jeep parked on the road. Our driver speeds up and Basu is standing up with his binoculars, looking to his right. “Leopard!”, he says and I whip my head right but cannot see anything. After a few seconds I see her, just a couple of steps away from the wall of lantana bushes that easily hides away elephants, waiting for something. “the cub is in that small depression to her right” shouts Basu and I see a small head popping out of the ground, half hidden by grass, its ears flicking in all directions but its head still. One, two, three – small leaps and Its quickly out of the small depression and reaches its mother. Paaaaaaammmmmmmm – a loud blast of a truck horn and the steel container of a trailer truck robs us of the last few seconds with this beautiful creature. The truck drives away and there is no trace of the leopardess or the cub!
I probably had watched the leopardess and her cub for about 2 minutes at the most, but it feels like a long time. My first leopard sighting and every time I think about it, there is this indelible image of that little cub taking those 3 short leaps to reach its mother. My wife asks me, “which of the two was better? Spending an hour watching that tiger today morning or these few minutes with the leopardess?”, my answer was ” why do I have to choose? Both these memories are mine to cherish”.
Spotting a tiger day before yesterday morning and evening, even though it was the same one, had made us arrogant. We told byra, our jeep driver, to take us down tracks that we hadn’t driven on yesterday. In the cold morning light, we entered Veeranahosahalli gate of Nagarhole at 6 am and we are zipping through the reserve forest areas to reach the tourism trails. As we slow down near a speed breaker, the cheetal deer herd standing right next to us give out an alarm call. A predator is on the move! Engines off, we wait and the deer stand alert, looking into the thickets that leads into the forest and a langur in the trees lets out an alarm call. A nervous energy ripples through our jeep and we wait with baited breath. Langur and cheetal continue to let out warning calls for about 10 minutes before they settle down and go about their business. We realize that the predator has walked away or settled down and we decide to continue our journey towards the trails of Nagarhole.
We drive off the tarmac and head straight into densely wooded area where there are rows of teak trees marching along the trail. CSK informs us that these trees were planted by the Mysore Maharaja about 100 years ago. It was a cloudy morning and there was a hint of rain in the air, the smell of wet mud and clean crisp air had kept me awake as I scanned the track ahead for paw prints. We wound our way through small sections of grasslands, rolling through dips and climbs, following the contours of the forestland. We spend close to an hour searching for any signs of feline company and in the process, manage to spot a) beautiful crested hawk eagle searching for its prey b) painted stork searching for it morning grub c) many white throated kingfishers, shattering the silence of forest with its high pitched kirr-kirr-kirr cry. After an hour we circle back to the main road and decide to head towards the other side of the forest.
We cross paths with another jeep, who lets us know that a tigress and her cub were seen near the Kunthoor watering hole where we spotted the tiger yesterday. Byra gives us an “I told you so” look and we speed off towards the watering hole. While the tigress and her cub were long gone, our little tiger was still there, stretching out under a tree and relaxing. This time around he was very close to us, just about 15-20 feet away from our jeep. Byra and a couple of other jeep drivers theorized that he might cross the road and walk towards the other watering hole in search of prey, and all vehicles back up about 500 meters to give our little tiger some space. After about 10 minutes of waiting, he decided to walk out of the thickets, cross the track and head towards the other watering hole. We had managed to spend almost an hour with this sub adult tiger, watching him laze around, stretch himself, hide in the bush when we got too close, suddenly become very alert and focused etc. This experience was absolutely fantastic!
As the sub adult disappeared into the bushes, we headed back to JLR Kings Sanctuary literally shaking with joy, as we had managed to spend a significant portion of our time in nagarhole forest with this sub adult male tiger. While the joy of watching this beautiful beast over an hour cannot be dismissed, the thrill of spotting him for the first time, day before yesterday was a very different feeling.
Day before yesterday – Morning & Evening
CSK had managed to get us a spot on the 6 am safari at Nagarhole and we decided to leave home at 2.45 am so as to be there on time. A quick dash of 200 kms and we managed to reach JLR Kings sanctuary at 6 am sharp. Restroom, coffee and off we went into the forest. This was my first visit to Nagerhole and while we drove the 24 odd kms from the entry gate to the forest trails, CSK talked about wildlife he had seen in Nagarhole over the last few years. We enter the trail and immediately we see pug marks that lead in the opposite direction, we take a U-turn, cross the main road and head into the other section of the forest. Byra drives us patiently from one waterhole to another, looping back and forth, twisting and turning as we try to catch a glimpse of the majestic creature that walked down the trail. We come across a) a sloth bear who quickly wanders back into the shrubs b) A baby elephant and its mother c) a cormorant drying itself d) many white throated kingfishers e) a white bellied woodpecker f) crested serpent eagle in flight.
As we cross the road again and head towards another section of the forest, a canter drivers lets us know that a tiger is sitting near Kunthoor lake. Byra asks us to hang on to the railings and we speed off down the trail, towards kunthoor watering hole. We reach the spot and lo and behold, a sub adult male is sitting near the road in rapt attention, watching and listening to something. As we edge closer, he decides to walk away from us and sits by the banks of the watering hole, sunning himself and lazing around. We are unable to contain the nervous energy that is flowing around us and every single movement of his is greeted with hushed oohs and aahs. After about 20 minutes of watching us stare at him, he walks away into the jungles without a backward glance. We slowly head back to the resort, happy to have spotted this majestic creature.
Our evening safari was threated by dark clouds and rain but we did manage to spend 2 hours driving around the varied tracks and trails of Nagarhole. While we did run into a Makhna (A male elephant without tusks) in the throes of musth, we did not manage to spot any other creature in the wild. We slowly made our way to kunthoor watering hole, hoping that we might see that beautiful sub adult male tiger again. When we got there, all we could see was brown grass ruslting in with the wind. Byra was convinced that he could see the tiger sitting in the bush but none of us in the jeep could find anything to prove him right. A few minutes later, the little beast walked out into the open and sat by the water. I couldn’t believe my luck as we got to spend another 30 minutes watching this beautiful creature lazily walk around the watering hole. This was such a wonderful experience and little did I know that there would be more in store over the next 24 hours.
There is something about forests that scares me but also makes me want to explore them, over and over again. Cats, dogs, bears, bulls or birds, doesn’t matter what I see or don’t see, but just the experience of driving through a path flanked by old trees and green grass makes me want to plan my next trip into the jungle. That calm silence that descends over you is a beautiful experience that I yearn for every day. As I close my eyes and wander down those beautiful mud tracks, I cannot stop thinking about that small little leopard cub taking that leap – one, two, three and gone!