This is a small village in South Kodagu that is closer to Kerala borders than it is to Madikeri. This is where my maternal cousins originally hail from, and they went to school with me at some point while staying together at our maternal grandparents’ house. So, it was natural that I too would accompany them to their native village on several occasions when they went to their parent’s house at Theralu.
Apart from the expansive Tata tea estates and the Kerala borders some of the other popular landmarks that I enjoyed day tripping here were Irupu waterfalls, Mrithyunjaya temple and the Nagarhole National Park.
For all that I can remember from those visits were that there were people speaking and following different culture than I was familiar with. All the workers that worked in both my maternal and paternal hometowns were from the local tribal communities who spoke and ate quite same as what I did at home. But those working at my Uncle’s estate in Theralu spoke so many different languages. The larger group had almost created a mini-Assam in the site of their labourers quarters. They had built so many structures, equipment, tools out of bamboo (the most common site in all over Assam) and ate food that was made with ingredients that we in Kodagu didn’t know were edible until we saw them.
This is also where I was introduced to Tamil language and their movies. A large group of workers came to work in the farm at Theralu during the peak coffee harvest season and returned back to Tamil Nadu after the season ended. During evenings or on weekends, these workers often came to my cousins house to watch TV. Although I didn’t know their language and didn’t comprehend with most things they communicated, I picked up names of the stars whom they clapped hands in enjoyment or sounded a “Shhhhhh” to express disappointment while watching their favorite stars on the screen. In spite of not understanding a word of what the movie or tele-serial was about, it was an inevitable situation for me to sit and watch through whatever was being played 😀 Looking back at the days, those stars from the early 2000s are the only few whom I can associate with while talking about movies with a Tamilian!
With limited means of communication, the major exposure we had in this small hill-district was just limited to living in estates or serving the army. Here, I saw migrant workers coming from faraway places in search of ANY doable jobs, saved a portion of their limited income and sent it to their families back in their hometowns and still lived a life of modesty. I learnt that life was not all easy for people living in other parts of the earth. It always made me think and reflect how unequal and different life was for everyone. Theralu taught me lessons of gratitude for the life I am living!
If you have not yet read my story of chasing a tiger trail, Please do! Because this story is the continuation of it. To give you a jist of Part 1: I was on a search mission to find tigers as part of a nationwide ‘Tiger Census’ activity. Another two of my friends too, had been allotted the same National park as me and hence, they were with me for company after the daily beat rounds and at the campsite. While at it, I was chased by wild elephants on three consecutive days, I climbed a tree, I got entangled between creepers and escaped a near miss casualty as I ran for life in the unknown territories of the elusive jungle. But even as a single tiger wasn’t spotted at the end of all the adventure, I was leaving the forest with a sense of accomplishment. But well.. the forest didn’t want to leave me, I guess! It followed me, home.. All the way to Bangalore.
Coming to the point, the forests had started to stick to me since one day before our departure from the forest. That evening, we were sitting at the portico of the guard’s kitchen and looking at the hundred lights glowing at a distance. They were the eyes of a hundred spotted deers glowing in moonlight, that congregate around the forest guest house every evening. We had gotten used to them during our stay, by now. It was nearing a week since we were living and walking in their habitat and we hadn’t been lucky to catch a glimpse of the Big-cat yet. Hence at times, my friends and I hoped that those eyes were of the tiger. While engrossed in our conversation, I had not realised that I had been subconsciously scratching various parts of my body. On noticing this, my friend asked me why I looked so uncomfortable.
Only after that, I realized that I had scratches and marks of my nails on almost every inch of my hands and legs. The irritation had gotten to the extent that my hands had to now reach into my shirt and trousers. I wondered if there was an allergic reaction due to some caterpillar or some plants that I had unknowingly touched. I borrowed a small bowl of oil from the kitchen and went inside our shelter to smear it all over (That’s the first self-medication / home remedy I use whenever I have an allergic reaction in my skin). But this time, it seemed to be getting worse. I had large rashes popping up on almost every inch of my skin. My body had turned red. Apart from a tribal family of Chikkanna who lived across the kitchen door and the cook himself, there was really no one else in the forest for my aid anyway. I assumed that I would be alright by morning and went to sleep that night.
The next morning was our last possible opportunity in the forest, to catch a glimpse of the striped beast. With all anxiety and excitement, I had woken up forgetting about the allergy. Anyway, even that day ended with a fruitless search for the big cat with no sighting. By late afternoon, my friends and I started our drive back, towards Bangalore. Half way through, I came to my real senses. My body was itching bad and it was itching everywhere. I was scratching my body uncontrollably. Initially, my friends found it weird and cracked crazy jokes at me. I too enjoyed their sense of humour and laughed along with them. There was a point when I was literally crying. Crying for two reasons: One, because the jokes were SO funny and I was laughing; two, because I couldn’t stop scratching myself so hard. It was insane. Only I knew what I was going through!
But why only Me..? God must have taken pity at my plight. The other friend in the car too slowly started to scratch herself. By the time we crossed Mysore, both of us were scratching ourselves. It was unbearably itchy! That’s when my friends realised the seriousness of the situation. For most of the road, we prayed that we reached home asap and got a good shower, hoping that would help us to get fresh and feel alright. But as we entered Bangalore borders, we saw the first clinic in our entire drive. we got desperate to do something about our situation and went inside this clinic at Kengeri Upanagara. The doctor took note of the backstory and injected both of us with anti-allergen shots. He assured us that we would be alright by next morning.
We reached our respective homes, took the best shower we had seen in the last 1 week, freshened up, applied some known home remedies and went to bed. The next day, the day after that, the week after that passed. Although the redness in the body had gone, the itching hadn’t stopped. At times, I felt like the itching had subsided. But yet again, I felt that it didn’t subside and I was getting used to it. I had scars all over my body due to the incessant scratching. Fifteen days later, my dad felt irritated at what I was going through and took me to a physician. He gave me a prescription with 4 different types of tablets and assured us that I would be alright within the next three days.
Three days exceeded a fortnight since the that visit to the doctor. It had been more than a month in total since I returned from the Tiger census and I was still scratching my body. That’s when my mom suggested me to go to a dermatology specialist at the KIMS hospital (Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences). I was ready to do ANYTHING, to get myself DONE with this. It had started to get embarrassing to go to office and public places by now. I had started to feel like people around me were distancing themselves because this seemed like a dirty habit to them!
I went inside the doctor’s cabin. He asked me what the problem was. No backstory, I only showed my hand and said that I had similar rashes all over my body. Straight to the point, he asked me: “Did you go to any beach?”. “No, I had been to a forest for a trek.”, I replied. He nodded (god knows what and why!) He handed over a prescription with tablets for two days and an ointment. Without really any hope if it would work this time around atleast, I walked out with yet another list of medicine in my hand.
I went home and popped the first pill from the latest prescription. It took me half an hour, THAT’S ALL….. I was relieved of all the mind-blowing (like LITERALLY!) struggle I was going through, since over a month. The itching STOPPED… like to ZERO! Like CRAZY…… Why hadn’t I gone to this doctor earlier!!! Why oh, WHY?? Anyway, I completed my medicine course and the ointment helped me to lighten the scars on my skin over the next 1 month. I suggested the same medicine to my friend as well and she too recovered.
Well apparently, My friend and I were bitten by tiny mites that live in the forests. These mites enter the blood stream through the skin and lay eggs inside the dermis. The doctor at KIMS got this absolutely right and hence, we were cured of our embarrassing situation.
Lesson: Always go to a doctor who is specialized in the related subject unless and until you are unaware of what is the source of the problem.
With an invitation to review a nature resort, I struck an opportunity to explore Dandeli. I packed my bag and hit the road in an overnight bus to reach Dandeli. I was excited with the much-anticipated trip that materialized after really long. I was received at the Dandeli bus stand the next morning and transferred to the resort located 20kms away at Ganeshgudi where I had the booking. The resort is situated in the buffer zone of Anshi National park and Dandeli Tiger reserve, and hence I could pamper myself with luxury in the wilderness.
Friday: Overnight journey from Bangalore
Saturday: Alight at Dandeli town, Drive to ‘The Old Magazine house’. Depending on your interest, you can either indulge in birdwatching on their premises and enjoy the food or visit backwaters of Supa dam, Shop for some forest produces at the tribal shop with a visit to Syntheri rocks
Sunday: Go for a nature and Birdwatching walk by the inhouse naturalist, river rafting & coracle ride, relax and Leave for Bangalore by evening
The name of the property where I was supposed to stay at was as enticing as the woods itself. The first thought that struck me when I heard ‘The Old Magazine house’ was an old rugged cottage painted on canvas straight out of a magazine cover. But that’s not what the fancy name beholds. Originally built by the British, it once served as a warehouse of gelatin and gunpowder (hence the name) during the construction of the Supa dam built across River Kali, the lifeline of the National Park. I was hosted at this renovated property, now run as a resort by the Karnataka Forest Department.
Their 3 categories of accommodation to suit all budget includes- the individual luxurious wooden cottages, the standard large rooms housed in the actual magazine house and the dormitories for large groups who want to stay together. I chose the second one and had a very comfortable stay. The Old magazine house is a simple place nestled in the midst of high rise thick canopy of trees with abundance of peace and calm in nature’s lap.
Water bowls have been placed with entwined twigs collected from the forest where the winged beauties come down to beat the heat. The set-up offers abundant opportunities to click the perfect postcard/wallpaper shots of these winged beauties. While most of the resort operators in the region keep food to attract more birds, “that makes the birds lazy and inactivity makes them vulnerable to prey. Hence, we only keep water bowls to help them quench their thirst and provide a more natural habitat for the birds” says one of the staff. Given their dedication to avian conservation and hospitability, no doubt the place is quite a hit among the bird photographers’ fraternity. I was surprised to meet so many enthusiasts who had made this place their home for over a week straight. All they did was eat the meals served at their place and wait patiently to get their perfect shot or spot that one bird they had come down for, all the way!
The early morning nature walk too offered some good birding opportunities with their very knowledgeable in-house naturalist. No doubt, the resort is a birder’s haven, but the place has lot more to offer like the flying lizards, the great Indian hornbill, sloth bears, the giant Malabar squirrel etc. which are easily spotted here than any other resort in Dandeli. Don’t be surprised if you drive past a leopard or a black panther post sunset, hence venturing out of the property after 6.00.p.m. is not advised and the guests are required to stay indoors post dinner at 10.00.p.m.
If you are more of an outdoor person always in action, their package does not disappoint you either- It includes a hike to the sunset point, coracle ride and bon-fire if the weather is friendly. While you are in a place known for its white water rafting, you can indulge in the water sports offered by the resort run Kali adventure camp. With a river seeming deadly with uncountable whirlpools, the coracle ride was sure an experience in itself. With the Kali river flowing as ferocious as her name sounds, I chose them over any other private property because all the permits for treks and adventure activities are legally obtained and conducted under the supervision of authorized and trained personnel from the forest department and hence, a safe bet. The neat spread of dishes for all 3 meals completed my stay into one memorable trip!
• Spot flying lizards that can be seen in abundance just outside your room window.
• Get lucky to come face-off with the black panthers.
Since the resort is secluded inside the Dandeli wildlife reserve, the accessibility to places is difficult through public transport. My entire trip was very well taken care by www.dandeli.com. From my bus-stand/railway station transfers, accommodation to local sightseeing, everything was perfectly handled with their efficient personnel Mr.Sanjay, Mr.Ramnath and Mr.Rajesh. Even if you are a solo-traveler or a bunch of friends or family, I would definitely recommend their services not just in Dandeli but other places as well.
Being one of the first hotspots of the elusive black panthers and a place known as the ‘Rishikesh of the South’ for its river rafting in the waters of River Kali weren’t reasons enough for me to grab-in when opportunity struck! A Solo trip that was long due, finally happened one weekend. I packed my backpack and hit the road in an overnight bus to reach Dandeli. This trip was part of an invitation to review a resort and a homestay at Dandeli, arranged by www.dandeli.com However, the reviews of the places are in separate posts and this one is something else, worth your reading time. Or so, I believe.
Apart from the cool and wonderful green cover that Dandeli has, I had a surprise awaiting me on the second day of my trip. It added yet another perspective to my travels- “Bird-watching”. If you have been following my blogs for a while, then you must already be aware that I have always been interested in wildlife and its conservation. But I neither did I have an opportunity to meet someone closely involved in such form of travel nor did I have any close acquaintances who was good at bird or animal tracking. Here, at Dandeli I met a person who has dedicated time and money in tracking and documenting the birds of the region. The entire experience of birdwatching with this person is something that I will cherish for long time.
As a part of the trip package by the homestay, I was asked to be ready by 6.00.a.m. and was taken to the Dandeli timber depot. I was introduced to Ms. Rajani, a government schoolteacher by profession and an avid nature keeper by passion. She was assigned to take me on a bird watching tour around the depot where over 150 bird species could be spotted on any given day- A true haven for the bird watchers!
Among several species that she went on showing me around and shedding light on facts about them, the one that opened my eyes to an all new perspective of seeing avian life were the ‘Hornbills’. The hornbill is one species that is referred to Lord Ram and Sita for the couple bonding that they share. These birds have a very unique way of finding their mates and if ever happened that one bird dies anytime, the other remains single all life without finding another mate which is unique to hornbills. The reproduction cycle of these birds is once in 5 years and hence, the male bird is extremely protective about the female and the chick. The male bestows his beloved with berries of her choice from faraway places during this period. While it carries around 40-50 berries in its beak to feed its family, a few fruits may fall down during its flight, thus contributing to afforestation- The hornbills are the farmers of the forests in true sense and live a life of awe and inspiration to mankind. Another interesting fact is among the 54 species of hornbill across the world, 9 are found in India. Out of these, the world’s largest species- The great Indian hornbill and world’s smallest- the Malabar Grey hornbill with Malabar pied and Indian Grey, 4 species can be found in Dandeli alone. And I was fortunate to see all 4 of these during my 3 days of stay at Dandeli, an experience that cannot be explained but only be felt.
Another unique sighting was of the jungle babbler or the ‘seven sister birds’. With enormous untold stories, the tour ended rather quickly as we both lost track of time.
My enthusiastic guide visits this place every morning and evening which she describes as her day being incomplete without talking to the woods and strengthening her nature connect. She ensures she talks about them to her pupils at school as well. That’s a novel way to inculcate the habit and awareness about nature conservation among children from a very young age itself. I gave her a tight hug for the wonderful ways of teaching her students in school about conservation of natural resources and I bid farewell.
Bonus tip for birdwatching at Dandeli: Watch the hornbills mud-bathing on the riverbank near Ganeshgudi (sometime around winter)
Tiger Census is a week long quadrennial event conducted all over India at the same time. A total of 5,00,000 sq.kms area – 17 states- 40,000 forest beats to be covered with 2000 personnel pulled in to count an estimated 1700 tigers nationwide. The event was scheduled from 16-Dec-13 to 23-Dec-13. With 2 days of training, the census will be done in 2 parts. The 1st 3days will mainly concentrate on tracking the carnivore population(including tigers, leopards etc) through critical carnivore trails and the next 3 days will be through specified transact lines identified to count the herbivores and evaluate the healthiness of the carnivore habitat.
The public can participate based on an online application and selection procedure. It is purely voluntary wherein, 1 volunteer will be accompanied by 2 forest guards and allocated a specific beat inorder to spot the mighty one with the stripes..!! The forest department would provide bare minimum logistics (read it food) However, beddings need to be carried by the volunteers themselves 🙂
So all said and done, I was shortlisted as a volunteer for Kallahalla Wildlife Range in the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. Last minute preparations, arguments with folks for permission, hunt for a notary for getting the indemnity bond attested.. I was all done and all set for the LONG week ahead 🙂
Day 1: After getting misguided by google maps a couple of times, I had arrived at the forest office in Kallahalla by noon. After the enrollment formalities were done, there was a small briefing for the volunteers about the do’s and don’ts in the forest. We were not in a luxury campsite, we had to remember and be alert always. We were then directed to the camp to grab some rest before the hectic week ahead 🙂
The camp itself was in the middle of the national park that boasts of the highest density of tigers in India. The shelter we had to look upto during our next few days was an old abandoned 3 BHK house which once served as a forest staff quarters. Now, there laid only the walls and a thatched roof with no doors, no electricity and no phone connectivity. We would have the privilege of being greeted by wild animals at our door step every morning and reptiles creeping in to the living room every now and then. We did not have to be surprised even if one fine morning, the tiger himself waved a ‘Hai’ at us while sitting on the porch.. The only things that we had with us to protect ourselves were our sleeping bags, camouflage clothing, trekking boots, torches and some insect repellents. That evening, we opted to sit out in the open, under the clear starry sky until the biting cold of the December night froze us. It was just a day past full moon 🙂
Day 2:We all assembled by 6.00.a.m in front of our camp where I was introduced to Mr.Swamy & Chikkanna. They were the guards who would accompany me through the due days ahead. Chikkanna was a ‘Kaadu Kuruba’ tribal person. He could recognize the forest with just it’s sounds and smell. He knew every grain and twig in the forest. Swamy was a Bachelor’s in Biology. Chikkanna’s role was to manage the team with the survival skills for the deep jungle and help identify things with their local names. Swamy would then document everything with the local and their scientific names. And me? I was a general public, getting aware of various aspects of forestry and the habitat census procedure itself.
Mr.Swamy saved the camp as the reference point in his GPS and the three of us marched towards our beat. We stopped by every now and then to make a note of the different animal scats that we found along our way. Also, the forest grass cover, vegetation, commercial trees, medicinal plants, herbs, shrubs, every thing were recorded. The scat samples that we collected in small sachets included those of wild cat, barking deer, rabbits, sambars, spotted deers, bears etc. along with that of the tiger as well.. Further ahead, as we marched a few kilometres into the thicket, we reached a small bit of moist land. We spotted aleast a dozen of jungle fowls around there. We walked around the place and noted fresh pug marks of a tiger mother & a cub who had just dropped by, to quench their thirst. We proceeded further and the sight I encountered next needs a special mention. Atleast 50 parakeets emerged out of a small bush when I walked by. It was truly Awesome 🙂 I cursed myself several times for not being able to identify the innumerable bird species I came across all the way. We saw a tree-full of langurs, Malabar giant squirrels and sambars. We encountered a pack of wild dogs(dholes) who surely were upto a well laid strategy. However, the day soon ended without any major direct sighting of the tiger.
Day 3:Another day, filled with anxiety began at 6.00.a.m. We were greeted at the entrance of the transact line by some wild hogs. The 2km stretch of the transact was covered without any sightings apart from elephant dung all the way. Further downhill, we saw fresh tiger scat and I had already started to crib about having missed a glimpse of the striped beast by a few minutes 😦 Peacocks, barking deers peeked into our way at times. We then grabbed some wild berries from one of the trees along our way. We consumed it only after it was okayed as ‘Safe for consumption’ by Chikkanna.
When we continued our walk further, Chikkanna stopped us suddenly and asked us to stay still for a while. He pointed- “Elephant..!!” He concentrated on the sound and again said- “There are 2..!!” Within moments, we heard the thumping sound of the elephants moving towards us.. 100mts.. 50mts.. 10 mts.. SHIT.. We saw them both right there.. “RUN…”Chikkanna commanded.!! The three of us just ran… and the elephant mother & calf duo followed us… We ran.. they ran.. We ran further. “TREE..” Chikkanna pointed. And we three climbed and reached the top of the tree within seconds. (It is unbeleivable how you end up doing things that you have never done before, when it is for life.. I had never climbed a tree before. Atleast not one this high..!!) The duo continued towards us. Swamy grabbed a few crackers from his bag and lit them one by one. After bursting 5-6 crackers, the elephant duo decided to spare us. Although petrified a little bit at my first near death adventure, I descended the tree and continued our walk further.
We passed by something that looked like a tiger’s den with few bones stranded here and there. We reached Kiggere- the tropical moist deciduous part of the forest. It is a grassland, where we saw herds of spotted deers grazing all around. We rested there for a while and feasted on the fruits that we had collected along our way. The second leg of the day continued here on, towards Kebbekatte.
Climbers, creepers, bushes, thorns- we waded them all.. and suddenly pug marks appeared from nowhere. “The tiger has just walked down to the watering hole-200mts down the line(Kebbekatte), we might be lucky“- Chikku said. “Shh..” followed an alarming sound. “It’s a tusker.!! He is close..” We looked around and couldn’t find any trees this time. We real7sed that we were stranded between an elephant chase. Swamy reached out to his supervisor over the walkie-talkie to inform him of our status. He was informed that we were stuck midway and it was not possible for help to reach us from either ends of the beat. Without an option, Swamy lit a couple of crackers this time. And, we were all releived for getting lucky again, for the 2nd time.. We then walked towards Kebbekatte. It was an unfortunate day for us as we had just scared the tiger away which was spotted by the other beat who had arrived there before us.
Day 4: My heart kept thumping a little harder than usual. I felt a bit nervous while I was heading towards the jungle. My fingers were crossed all the way hoping to have no more adventures. I felt it was okay even if I did not spot a tiger, but wanted to reach back alive and kicking. I kept walking blindly behind Chikkanna who lead Swamy and me. We had to literally find our way out of the bushes which had overgrown all of us, blinding our way further. We could not even see if a tiger sat by, snarling at us. I heaved a sigh of releif when I got the 1st glance of the Kiggere grassland. the 1st part of the beat was accomplished, peacefully..!! Chikkanna moved into the bushes to answer the nature’s call. And so did Swamy, behind another one. I was trying to pacify my thumping heart standing all alone in the meadow. Tigers are mostly spotted in open grasslands, I had read. Then, on hearing the trumpet of an elephant, Chikkanna emerged out of the bush. He signaled Swamy to join us asap. He explained to us that the tusker was calling for a fight and is moving towards Baalekatte(our route further). We walked ahead slowly along the same route. Suddenly, Swamy pointed out to our right and screamed- “Run Run… its a Herd.. Herd..
It took few seconds for Chikkanna & me to believe our eyes. We had forgotten to look out in other directions while we were concentrating on the lone tusker. About 10-12 gigantic pachyderms were marching towards us, at a distance of barely 20mts from us… We three started to run… Chikkanna shouted- “The tusker & the herd, both are heading towards Baalekere, let us run towards Doddkere“. We three ran..
Tadan…. Another tusker stood right infront of us…. We three were surrounded by these pachyderms from 3 sides.. Chikkanna and Swamy ran.. I followed them.. While the two were running much ahead of me, I got entangled in between a thick bunch of creepers. “F**K… This is it..!!” I thought. But, I saw god in disguise running towards me with a dagger in his hand and free me out of the tangle. It was Chikkanna. After running for a distance, he had turned back to check on me. On noticing that I wasn’t there, he had come back.
The monsters were close, we continued to run.. I again tripped over a snake that crossed my leg.. I leaped over and continued to run. Meanwhile, Swamy had lit a few crackers and planted them along the way. Out of 6 odd something crackers, only one bursted. The sound was good enough to shoo the tuskers away.. We continued to run and reached the safe confines of a tree trunk on the otherside of Kebbekatte lake.
After a short while, we met the group from the other beat and headed towards Sulekere along with them. This was the last option we had, to catch a glimpse of the striped monster. We waited there for a long while hoping for him to come there to drink some water. We saw bisons and other animals walking in there, but hard luck- we could not spot a TIGER 😦
And thus ended our tryst with the wild.. The pug marks were all accounted which will be matched with the camera images captured by NCTA and a compiled report will be out in a few months’ time 🙂
Whether it was my chase of the ‘Tiger trail’ or if it was ‘Me getting chased for being in the elephant trail’, I don’t know. But what I’m certain was ‘The Chase’ was over..