Bandipur & Kabini in the Western Ghats(2018)

Bandipur & Kabini in the Western Ghats(2018)

Time stood still. The setting sun sent slanting shafts of golden light onto the forest floor, strobe-lighting the dance of the dust mites.  Nary a ripple on the surface of the pond. Even the chirping birds seemed to have fallen silent, as if in deference to a primordial ritual that was about to be enacted in a moment.  As if on cue, our jeep had just drawn up on the other side of the pond. We watched in awed silence, voyeurs by serendipity.

He first stroked her back with his trunk.  She stiffened in anticipation. Next moment, he was upon her, mounting her, making love to her, gentle and nimble as only elephants can be, despite the bulk. His trunk was turned away from her torso to avoid poking her. This mesmerising mating dance of the pachyderms must have lasted no more than a few minutes.  He dismounted and both of them resumed their grazing, ignoring the gawking humans in jeeps and their comically protruding lenses. The silence was shattered by the rapid-fire click of dozens of voyeuristic cameras.

For more than three hours, we had been driving through rutted tracks in the Bandipur jungle which had yielded little – a lone bison, probably evicted from the herd by a rival male, a couple of peacocks, their feathers folded tight in this oppressive heat that foretold no rains, a porcupine scurrying into the bushes and a nilgai.  We did not even spot the ubiquitous deer most of which preferred to congregate near the ticket office of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, safe from the reach of the striped predator that prowls these jungles.

Delightful Drive

But we, like everyone else, were here mainly for the chance to glimpse the majestic predators – the striped and spotted variety. There are elephants aplenty, even on the road to Mudumalai although none as amorous as the pair we saw just now.  On my last visit, I had to wait for a black bear to cross the road, her weeks-old cub perched on her back.  No such luck this time though.

It is a delightful drive from Mysore to Ooty, smooth ribbon of tar slicing through thick jungles hugging the foothills of the Western Ghats. Christened Bandipur and Nagarhole in Karnataka and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu, it is essentially the same stretch of forest that spans three states, the third being Wayanad in Kerala.

Wildlife may be territorial, but it cares little for our man-made divisions and territories, frequently crossing from one to the other at will, unencumbered by ticket booths and probably amused by inter-state rivalries over tourist moolah.  Forest officials have plastered the road with warnings exhorting motorists to let wildlife cross first. But obviously, tourists cannot be trusted to do that, hence the number of really steep speed bumps to discipline the impatient motorists.

Sheer Bliss

The next morning, we pick our way in inky darkness to board yet another safari jeep in the hope of sighting the elusive one. Our lenses are fully extended, fingers ready on the button. The jeep meanders through the same rutted dust tracks, as silently as possible. Even the birds have not woken up yet.  Every now and then, Manjunath, the driver of our vehicle slows down, his head hanging out of the window, keenly observing the path for pug marks.

Even if you don’t spot any game, it is sheer bliss to be out in the silent wilderness in the intimate twilight hour before dawn, the cool breeze on your face and the promise of some denizen of wilderness just emerging out of the bushes.  Manjunath slows down, expertly reverses, takes a less travelled fork and drives around for a few minutes before coming to a slow halt.

Stripes, At Last!

There she is, majestically sprawled out in the clearing, her flank heaving ever-so-slightly, a flash of golden yellow in an otherwise dun forest.

We are just ten feet away from her, our itchy fingers furiously clicking away.  For a while, the tigress tries to ignore the boorish intrusion into her solitude. But then, Manjunath had called up other safari vehicles and they start drawing up one by one, almost encircling her. In a few minutes, there are as many as eight of them, skidding on the dirt as they try to get closer to her. The pristine silence of the forest is rent by the screeching tyres.

It gets a bit much for her. At first, she yawns, limbers up leisurely, moves a few feet away and settles down again, trying her best to ignore the intrusion. After a few minutes, when it is evident that this menace is not going to die down, she stands up, stretches her limbs and purposefully strides towards us.

The jeeps scatter helter-skelter, letting her on to the dirt track. Manjunath later explains to me that tigers prefer to walk on the safari track rather than on the forest floor which hurts their flat paws. This one is a pregnant female. She follows our jeep, majestically striding as we keep backing up, giving her way.

After about ten minutes of being stalked by eight jeeps, she has had enough. She leaves the comfortable dirt track to plough through the prickly forest floor and disappears into the lantana grasses. Much as we drive round and round afterwards, we do not catch another glimpse of her or any other of her tribe.


When you’re in Bandipur, it is almost a certainty that you will hear of better sightings in Mudumalai, Wayanad and Nagarhole.  Vice versa applies too. So, we drive straight from Bandipur to Nagarhole on the edge of Coorg district in Karnataka, in the hope of glimpsing more of the magnificent big cats. First you track back to Mysore for some hearty lunch and then drive to Hunsur through lush rural Karnataka.

From Hunsur, you’re again driving through a dense forest, only this time, it is virtually traffic-free unlike the forest road from Bandipur to Mudumalai and Masinagudi. Only residents of Kuta, the village on the other edge of the forest and visitors to Nagarhole National Park use this road. It winds delightfully through a forest of tall teak trees. Ours is the only vehicle, this entire stretch of thirty odd kilometers. We drive very slowly, sight a couple of elephants and deer, but nothing more. We have to take a safari the next day to go into all those forbidden forks to glimpse what we are looking for.

Kuta where we stay, is hidden behind bright white coffee blossoms, cloves, and pepper vines hugging the tall trees. This is not a silent forest, but a cacophonous spice estate. Birds of all hues are singing lustily. The flameback woodpecker takes charge of the percussion. Tanpura effect is provided by the plaintive cuckoo.

The next morning, we park outside the forest gates and board the safari vehicle that drives us into all the forbidden recesses in search of our quarry. Unlike Bandipur, this is dense lush jungle that provides ample thickets for the predator to guard her privacy from prying lenses.  But we are entertained by a pack of wild dogs gambolling on the road, a stray Nilgai or two and the ubiquitous langurs.  A helicopter seems to be flying overhead. We look up to see a pair of hornbills, their wings flapping furiously to carry their considerable bulk through the forest canopy. Stripes and spots studiously keep away from our prying our eyes and persistent cameras. Just as well, I console myself.


2 thoughts on “Bandipur & Kabini in the Western Ghats(2018)”

  • What a way to describe the journey..I could visualize the entire scene infront me as i read through..Also felt content to see someone who has put the right use of thoughtful words…Hats off to ur passion n travelling….

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