Royal Bengal Tiger in Bandipur

On the Ramanavami Day last week, we did what Lord Rama did: Go to the forest, that is.

But unlike Him, I guess we were better prepared for our sojourn in the jungles: We had confirmed reservations there.

We can only hazard guess as to how jungles might have been during Lord Rama’s times. But these days the forests are not exactly — how do I put it? —- forests. The hard fact is Bandipur-Mudumalai forest range on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border, which is where we went to last week, comes out on top in comparison to Chennai at least on two counts: 1) It has decidedly better roads 2) Lesser mosquitoes.

The wilds of Bandipur-Mudumalai were once notorious for being the turf of Veerappan, well known for poaching sandalwood, elephant tusks and, most notably, the word ‘brigand’.  I mean I am yet to see the media use the word on anyone else.  Today the area is a burgeoning vacation hotspot with plenty of high-profile resorts and organised safaris that Veerappan, if he were around, would have been forced to become a tourist guide. But I am afraid that some of the guides in operation today in these parts drive such a hard bargain that Veerappan’s approach, while demanding ransom from those whom he had kidnapped, might seem today as being benign.

The route

Before getting to Bandipur-Mudumalai range, the first question any serious tourist must ask is: How to get there?  From Chennai, one can reach the area via Coimbatore –Ooty route.  These days, getting to Ooty is problematic, as the toy-train (with only limited seats) is mostly booked out, and hence one has to drive up to the hills. But the traffic snarls on the ‘ghat section’ during vacation time are so bad that it is technically possible to acquire a full-formed jet lag while driving a car itself. Also, sooner or later Ooty and Mettupalayam may become one. The number of vehicles in this hilly town is so much that under their collective weight Ooty may soon sink into the plains.

So we chose the other available route, which is through Mysore. And, as we found out, there was one added advantage to this plan, because nothing prepares one for the daunting trek in the jungles than a simple journey in the Cauvery Express (Chenna to Mysore) whose coaches are basically one fully-functional warehouse of rowdy rats and creepy cockroaches.

From Mysore, which is mandated by the rules of TWI (Travel Writers Inc) to be described as ‘a quaint little sleepy town’, the drive to Bandipur is hardly one-and-a-half hours and will be uneventful, unless otherwise you opt to travel by a vehicle like the ‘Tavera’ we had hired which seemed to suffer from some kind of automobile version of erectile dysfunction unable as it was to maintain any amount of high speed for more than a few seconds.  At Nanjangud, which lies between Mysore and Bandipur, we encountered a huge herd of buffaloes, which seemed to happily make way for us, probably realising that ours was the only motorised vehicle in the entire planet against which they could have raced and won hands down, despite the fact they had no hands to begin with.

But once we entered the hilly-forest section, (which at our vehicle’s speed was roughly two days after we started in Mysore), we realised that even if we were driving a Lamborghini Aventador it wouldn’t have mattered as the authorities seem to have come to the conclusion that the best way to safeguard the endangered animals in the forest is to pave the vehicular roads with speed-breakers, roughly at every 200 metre. It is impossible for any vehicle to hit anything beyond 40 kms per hour in this section, and in our Tavera we were basically attaining the same speed as that of a caterpillar while on its way to becoming a pupa.

Since it was election time in Karnataka, there were plenty of impromptu check-posts, and we were singled out for extra scrutiny by the authorities because it is well established that those who vitiate poll process generally travel around in a group with a lot of kids thrown in.

Being a jungle area we kept our eyes fully peeled for sighting wild animals, and we were fully rewarded for our efforts as we managed to espy many signboards helpfully informing us that we were in a jungle area full of wild animals. At one stretch, we thought we heard some sound that was suspiciously close to some wild animal’s. But upon closer inspection, much to our horror, it turned to be much worse: It was from a group of drunken students from Kerala.

Beyond Bandipur, we drove down to the Tamil Nadu part of the forest range, Mudumalai, and though looking at the scenery it would be difficult to tell the two stretches apart, but upon closer watch we felt the Tamil Nadu area to be a more fertile and rich region for signboards in English.

The place

We had chosen a ‘resort’ somewhere near Masinagudi, a smallish town of two cross-streets filled with shops carrying out the traditional trade of hillish parts: selling water bottles and cool drinks at prices way higher than the marked up rates.

We had zeroed in on this resort for their specialty tree houses. The beauty of these tree houses is that they are enormously charming if you look at their pictures on the internet but barely livable when you actually encounter them. Tree houses, in general, helpfully provide indoors all the inconvenience that is otherwise on offer to only those stupid enough to have chosen to live in the open in the jungle.

In the tree house, we encountered, in the dead of a night, a jungle squirrel (Malabar squirrel) the size of an apprentice sumo wrestler. It is a different matter that we went looking for the same squirrel the next morning to capture it on our cameras so that we could tell our Facebook friends how wonderfully exciting our stay in the wilds was. Just to spite us, that wretched animal never turned up all day.

When we told the manager of the resort that a giant squirrel had strayed into our room, the middle-aged man, adjusting his rimless glasses, said ‘are you sure it was a squirrel? It could also have been a python, which is pretty regular around here. The thickset tail of the wild squirrel and the body of python are difficult to tell apart’. That day, for what it is worth, we checked with the local shops whether they sold handguns.

The safari

The jungle safari, on specialised tough-terrain vehicles, run by both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka forest officials, is one of the main attractions among all those looking for the adrenaline-pumping excitement of snapping lazy peacocks on high-end cameras. Of course, we managed to see many varieties of deer, wild bison, elephants and one ugly-looking hyena during our safari. The point is we also managed to see these animals when we were actually driving down on the main road near the forest.

Of course, we didn’t spot even a single tiger. We also didn’t sight any leopard or cheetah. But just as well. Because, personally speaking, I can’t tell the two apart.

I checked with the local officers, and they confirmed that a tiger was last sighted here a month or so back. Tiger-spotting, in these parts, is mostly like the other global sport — Fidel Castro-watching: Someone will say he saw him there. Some other would point out Castro was actually somewhere else. But nobody can ascertain what is true and what is not. And the bigger question, whether Castro is still around is valid for the tigers too.

We were also warned to stay clear of ‘rogue’ elephants, which, we were told, were usually found alone. ‘You can make out that an elephant is in bad temper if it its tail is curled up,’ our guide had told us. But he didn’t answer me when I asked him whether the elephant would become friendly if we managed to straighten up its curled tail.

The elephant safari is another of the attractions here. During peak summer time, elephant safari is mostly a rationed affair for an obvious reason: the mahout will be in a foul mood. The pachyderm, I suppose, would be glad to move around in the wilds rather than be just standing and be a subject for yet another tourist going, ‘look, it is so cute and chweet’.

An elephant safari, it must be must pointed out here, is decidedly underwhelming and more predictable and safe, if you are comparing with share auto rides in Chennai.

On the other hand, there is night safari, which offers you the exciting chance to spot in pitch darkness the wildest of wild animals that you generally have difficulty casting your eye even in full daylight. The night safari is strictly banned in this area, which, as every one knows, is a barely disguised euphemism for: night safari can be done provided you are ready to pay extra.

Apart from safari, there are also plenty of locations around offering what die-hard trekkers generally look for: Lots of dust and a barely walkable terrain. We were taken to a small hillock, as part of the trekking experience promised by our ‘resort’, and asked to climb all the way up on a sunny evening. The exercise was well worth it. As the sun was an alchemy of an impossible orange and gold, we reached the top and found amidst this surreal setting, a small but historic Murugan temple, which our guide confirmed to us, was built by the ancient king of disco, Mithun Chakraborthy.

Mithunda seems to be a well-known name around this place and he has several resorts and properties. My only fear, as we wound up our trip, was that upon seeing him here someone might sillily put out a story with the headline: ‘Royal Bengal Tiger in Bandipur’.