Sunday, June 10, 2012

Nights in Nagarahole - Part 5: The Day After

26th May, 2012. When I'm ensconed in the comforting embrace of the wilderness my whole being undergoes a change. A body that struggles to crawl out from under the sheets at 6.30 AM is up and about, all senses alert, by 5.00 AM in the wild. Nagarahole was no exception.

Ablutions over, I went over to window to welcome the morning. The sky was just brightening in the East and the last few stragglers of the chital herd that came in for the night were still under the gulmohar tree.

The morning begins quietly in Nagarahole. The park gates open at 6.00 AM but there were no speeding vehicles with blaring horns trying to outrun each other. This was Nagarahole, not Bandipur.

A hot cup of tea and we were out on the road by 7 AM because we had been told that a jeep had been arranged at the Nagarahole reception center for a morning trip into the jungle. We watched the last of the chital move off into the forest. It seemed to be a good day for the herbivores.

Kushalappa, the driver, was waiting at the office. "You should have been here at 6 AM", he told us. Unfortunately, the range officer had informed us that the vehicle would be ready only by 7.30 AM. Unlike many drivers I know Kushalappa was very well informed about the forest he was driving in and for his age he had a rather keen eye for spotting wildlife.

Not much could be expected at half past seven but the forest had it's own beauty. Large swathes of teak forests with trees that were between 30 - 60 years old arched over the track.

Placid waterholes at every turn but with nary a movement. Even the morning mist that floats over the water was gone. Summer showing its colours.

The lonely egret walked forward in slow motion, watching for breakfast to swim by in the murky water around its legs.....

 ..... the terrapins decorated the tips of the submerged tree trunks. Basking in the early morning sun, they looked like sculptures in the midst of the brown water.

The only activity in the morning were the chitals near a watch tower. Some grazing, some sparring and some just soaking the morning sun. Life was Beautiful in Nagarahole. The elephant census had just concluded and it would be a little unreasonable to expect a predator to just rush out of the bushes!

Just as we were about to conclude our morning round we heard the unmistakable clicking call of the Malabar Giant Squirrel. Sure enough, up in the canopy an eye appeared from behind a trunk.

After a minute of assessing us it decided that we were not competing for breakfast and came out in the open to pick its choice of fruit & nut.

There was a whole day ahead of us as we sat down to a leisurely breakfast of home made idlis. It didn't take much effort for us to polish off the entire container!

We were the only souls in the reception area that morning. Even the car looked lonely in the parking lot.

We had to find something to do for the morning and as we mulled over it as we collect some plastic litter and disposed it safely.

As we got into the car we saw why Kushalappa had chided us. Timings in Nagarahole were a little different. Here, the priority was for the wildlife, not humans. I remember once, in Bandipur, a loud mouthed 'wildlife photographer' from the North making more noise than a trumpeting elephant and complaining about the insufficient opportunities for his camera because of the time restrictions. Of course, his only interest was getting a tiger in his sights. The rest of the jungle could have well been invisible. I stopped short of telling him to go to the zoo! I hope our forest remains unchanged forever.

The lunch menu had been entrusted with Mahadeva so we had to kill time till he could place it on the table. Thirunelly wasn't too far away and we could get back in time. Besides, we had to pick up another feathered creature for our dinner table!

As we drove out of the park we discovered the reason for our powerless night. A snapped electric line with branch over it.

Mahadeva had assured us the the power would be restored when we got back but chances seemed remote. We were worried about the butter in the fridge! Our worries were unfounded. On our way back from Thirunelly the line had been repaired. The chicken in the back of the car would be alright after all!

(The Thirunelly leg of the trip is another story. Please watch for a link that I'll place here shortly. The full story will come in Mango Musings & other Seasonal stories)

Mahadeva had readied a sumptuous lunch. We were rolling like hippos after lunch and a siesta was in order. In any case, there were no definite plans for the evening.  The siesta was never destined to be completed, as we had a visitor. Mr Vijay Ranjan Singh, Conservator of Forests & Director of the Rajiv Gandhi National Park. We spent a good hour in conversation, of which I'll relate in a separate blog.

We did go on another round in the evening but Mr.F who doubled up as the driver was all at sea in Nagarahole. He was in charge of the Kallahalla range and was totally lost in Nagarahole. Even the tourism zone tracks were unfamiliar to him so we called it a day and returned to the rest house.

Mr. V.R Singh had told us about a tiger who had made the Karmadu junction his favourite evening resting spot so we got into the car and went for a drive. There was no tiger but the elephants were making their presence felt as the sun went down.

Hollow tusk, as I chose to call him was there with his wife.

His right tusk was broken, perhaps in a fight, or maybe just rotted off, but he was still a handsome bull. The pair seemed inseparable. It was something I wasn't familiar with. An elephant couple without the rest of the herd anywhere in sight! I had seen them together earlier in the morning on the way to the reception center. Since the cow was in a belligerent mood we rushed past without slowing for a good picture.

Hollow tusk was probably older than King Elephant, and so more wily when it came to getting the attention of the ladies!  He was more keen on looking good and applying what is suspect is the equivalent of the fairness creams our Bollywood heroes promote. Slowing down near him had no effect on his composure.

 Even his lady love seemed calmer than she was in the morning. Despite four cars full of gawking humans on the road beside her, she ambled off without paying any attention.

A few hundred meters further down the road I spied something lying in the middle of the road. I slowed down to see what it was and before I could get a hand to my camera it skimmed across into the grass. I was a spectacled cobra. 

Karmadu junction did not have the tiger waiting. There was this guy in his car having a leisurely conversation on his cell phone. I was wondering about parking vehicles within the national park. Driving down the road was like going through a bamboo thicket. Dried and broken bamboo were lying on the road and on either side of it. It was an after effect of bamboo flowering after a few decades.

They were a potential fire hazard as it had been proven in March- April. Nagarahole has its share of horror stories. Forest fires that have been deliberate more than accidental. The conservator of forests had told us his story (which I will record separately). We were just wondering about the consequences

... and the TV news link is here.

While the Forest Department and NGO's point fingers at each other, the fact remains that it is the wildlife & forest that suffers.

As darkness settled a hesitant little animal came onto the road. "Camera", I hissed but I needn't have asked. Barking deer are too shy to wait and pose like the chital or gaur. We returned to the rest house to wash off the days dust and grime.

Power did not fail and Mahadeva's prediction of power being available for the night seemed true.The heaters in the bathrooms and fridge were working. A nice hot bath washed away the weariness from the body. We were ready for Mahadeva's dinner.

Kallahalla was settling for the night and so were we. Sitting in the the darkness in the lounge we awaited the arrival of the 'resident' leopard. According to Mr.F, it would appear around 8 PM most evenings to pick out a well fed chital from the herd that gathers in front of the lodge.

Not wanting to disturb the creatures we shone our flash light to take these pictures. Flash would spook them and in any case the on board flash was grossly inadequate. The herd were peaceful. No signs of alarm till well past 10 PM. Our eyelids were drooping to and we decided that the leopard had already fed and probably was not going to hunt again this night.

An hour after we hit the bed I heard, through the darkness and haze in my head, the sound of a chital's alarm call. Something was happening. We scrambled out of bed and peered out of our windows. The chitals had disappeared. A couple of them were standing under the gulmohar tree looking in the direction of the road. Perhaps the leopard had come after all. 

It was not our night but the experience was unparalleled. Nagarahole is a memory that won't fade away too quickly.

Watch this space.......

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Nights in Nagarahole - Part 4: Creatures of the Night

 The previuos part of this blog is here

6.45 PM, 25th May 2012. We were back at the rest house which, for some reason my son kept calling as 'the resort'. Mahadeva was waiting for the vegetables and chicken. Any more delay, he'd have been in a tizzy. He'd been instructed that his guests were some important people and he wanted to be sure that he did his job well. That meant he had to get his hands on the stuff we carried to turn it into some exotic dish! Nearly 7 PM, he had to use his rather underrated skills to create magic on the dining table.

Having nothing better to do we went back to the waterhole hoping to catch the sight of some thirsty creature slaking its thirst. No luck there though we waited for a while.

 It was nearly dark. The moon was just a thin sliver in the sky and the stars were just waking up from their sleep as we walked back to the rest house. The heat of the day had dissipated and a chill was settling on the forest. Park gates had closed at 6 PM and so the noise of vehicles had died out. Now we were enveloped in the noise of the night creatures of the forests.

When we reached the rest house Mahadeva was nowhere in sight. He was in his kitchen trying to get our food ready in time. He was probably used to having to cook something simple but today was not his day. His guests, it seemed, were here to test his expertise in the kitchen. He had little time in which he had to concoct something to keep everybody happy.

To compound his woes the electricity kept failing. The lights would come on for a minute and the we'd be plunged in darkness for another five. Eventually, it gave up altogether. We were sitting in the darkness on the steps outside when Mr. F came up. He was the officer in charge of the range and he was already aware of some important guests in his custody. He saw our plight and suggested we go for a drive along the road instead of offering the mosquitos a chance to get intoxicated on us and he also offered to come along to guide us. The only problem was that our car could not take everyone.

He thought it over and when he realized we really had a problem he offered to take us in his jeep on his 'night patrol'. Mahadeva was going to take a little while anyway. He'd have the dinner ready only by 8.30 so we thought a half hour drive up the road to Murkal seemed a good idea.

The five of us, with Mr. F and a forest guard got into a jeep and drove off. Nothing exciting happened for a while and the suddenly, out of the darkness two glowing orbs appeared followed by more, on both sides of the road. Gaur, in a large herd of cows and calves feeding on the grass on the sides of the road. I was struggling with my camera. Flash photography is unethical and against the rules so I had to open up the aperture and shoot in the dark. I failed miserably the first few times.

By the time we reached the Murkal camp I got the hang of it. My son or brother-in-law would shine the flashlight and I adjust the camera setting to that light and shoot. With the help of the flashlight & headlight I managed a few shots but none that seemed worth preserving.

This herd was crossing the road at the Murkal camp as we took a U-turn inside the camp.

As we returned back to Kallahalla, we were accosted by a herd of elephants at the Karmadu junction. It seemed Mr. F was not the foolhardy type so he swiftly turned right onto the Karmadu road because the elephants were not in the mood to give way.

Two orbs appeared again, this time on one side and staying still. It was a large bull relaxing on the road side. Turning the jeep to light it up had no effect on the creature. It probably knew we were no threat.

Further down, in the middle of the road there was a gray mound with four glowing eyes. Now what could that be? Before I could set my camera the 'creature' became 'creatures' and waddled off the road noisily. Sloth bears. A mother and two cubs. One cub was sitting atop the mother and that was the reason we saw four eyes! 

When came back to the junction the elephants were nowhere to be seen. The glowing hands on my watch showed 9.25PM.  No wonder our tummies were making strange noises. Back at the rest house, a worried Mahadeva was waiting. He was past his bedtime and sitting in the dark with no sign of his guests, he was rattled. He hovered around us silently while we wolfed down some chapattis and chicken, overlaid by some rice and curds.Since there wasn't much else to do we retired for the night.

Sleep welcomed me with open arms. I had been up and about since 5 AM and on the road with my son from 6.45 AM. The absence of electricity was a new experience. The night was cold in marked contrast to a warm day. The sounds of the jungle kept ebbing and flowing with the breeze as I fell into a dreamless sleep.

Tomorrow would be another adventure. 

Watch this space......

Friday, June 01, 2012

Nights in Nagarahole - Part:3 - King Elephant

 The previous part of this blog is here

4.30 PM, 25th May 2012. Safari over we decided to go shopping with Mahedeva's list to Kutta, otherwise there would be two cranky children to handle.

On the way out of the park there is swampy area just about two kilometers from the park gates. Through the bamboo and trees we could see lush grass growing.Then, as we crossed a clump of bamboo he appeared in our sights. The most magnificent bull elephant I've seen in any forest anywhere. Perfect build, perfect ears, perfect tusks and perfect location. Even more magnificent than my CLAY Elephant in Guruvayur.

He was gently twisting the long grass and feeding on it. He had a supremely content look that said, "I'm the King here." There is no creature more majestic than a tiger in our jungles but the elephant is the King. He is the only animal that does not have to look backward while eating or drinking. No one messes with him.
We reached Kutta, stocked up and drove back with the boot full of veggies and chicken! On the way back the King Elephant was still there, preparing to go off elsewhere. We halted hoping he'd cross the road ahead of us but he was smart, like all elephants. He sensed us and lifted his trunk to sniff the air.
Obviously disgusted, he changed direction and ambled off in a along the edge of the grass, parallel to us. Kings don't give audience to lesser mortals like us. We weren't worth wasting a trumpet on, leave alone a mock charge.

There were a few gaur lying around peacefully. Even they didn't seem unduly affected by our interfering presence. Perhaps they knew we were the strangers in their paradise.

We drove off disappointed that the King refused to make another appearance but not before nearly running into predator. Well. Nearly!!

There were a herd of chital waiting to cross the road but something had spooked them. There were alarm calls flying all around and we waited expecting a predator to appear. Nothing happened and the chital went back to the grazing. Another no show again.
 Darkness was falling and we had to get back with the chicken for Mahadeva to cook. Otherwise we'd have a mutiny in our hands!

Keep watching this space.......