BR Hills...Romp In The Wild

Akber Ayub

© Copyright 2004 by Akber Ayub

The lights dimmed-out at 10 P.M. Soon the distant hum of the generator died and almost instantly the forest re-claimed the night. An amber halo from the hurricane lamp strung from a pole in front of my log hut struggled to penetrate the gloom but only succeeded in spreading an eerie glow. Beyond, two other huts, perched on stilts and unoccupied, looked forlorn in the pale light of a half moon. Farther away, a string of military style tents sat on elevated platforms along a winding path that led to the old colonial building hidden out of sight. Flashing like fireflies hurricane lamps did sentry duty in front of each tent.

Amid whispering leaves and crackling branches, insects and other creatures of the night seemed to come alive, renewed as it were in the sudden pervading darkness. Over the sharp tap-tap-tap of possibly an overworking woodpecker, an owl hooted intermittently. The piercing, raucous cry of a barking deer rang out next, while overhead, sleepless simians leaping across branches created a brief ruckus.

For an intimate acquaintance with the forest, Jungle Lodges & Resorts provides an ideal getaway deep inside the 525 sq. kms BR Hills wildlife sanctuary, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Run jointly with the forest department, the BR hills wilderness resort combines creature comforts with a true taste of the wild. Just 190 kms from Bangalore, India via Kollegal and Yellandur on the Kanakapura road, or a little longer - 225 kms - if you take the more motorable Mysore road via Nanjangud and Chamrajnagar, you'll be amazed to find this extensive, lush forest not all that far from a bustling city.

Intrusion into nature is kept to a minimum here - in keeping with eco-friendly norms. There is no electricity, save for a generator that lights up the camp between six and ten P.M. and runs a TV showing, what else, wildlife movies and clips. Rain water is harvested in a large pond, and then passed through a filtration plant to provide the water supply. Bath water is heated the forgotten way - a centrally installed hot water boiler fired by forest refuse supplies piped hot water. There is no room service - breakfast, lunch and dinner is served in a Golghar, a round, thatched cabin open on all sides where instead of hot cases or microwave ovens burning embers under pots and pans keep your food warm. For the day's menu the cook draws chicken not from a deep freezer, but from a pen holding live birds. Yet, for all that, the living quarters are pretty comfy.

An evening bonfire where one can laze under a canopy of stars on a clear night provides a meeting point while barbeque and beer help to keep the spirits high-if the forest and its denizens don't give you a high that is.

Perhaps the antiquity of the place might give you a zing too. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1908, forest officials of the erstwhile maharaja of Mysore set up a camp here. Soon a more solid structure was added-a row of ample rooms fronted by a long open veranda with wooden balustrades and fluted pillars. Having withstood the test of time and the vagaries of nature, this structure has now been renovated and is maintained by the present day wildlife department. Rooms can be booked here from the department offices at Kollegal (Ph: 08224-252027) and Chamrajnagar (Ph: 222059). A double room can be had for Rs.750 a night-graphic images from its hoary past you might conjure up come free. For more solid sustenance though, you'll have to carry provisions with you and use the services of the attached cook who will be happy to turn out hot meals for you for a very nominal charge. You'll have to pay separately for the outdoor activities.

In 1945 the maharaja added a hunting lodge here-a sprawling, twin-storied bungalow-on a cleared terrace midway on a gently sloping wooded hillside. Half a century later Jungle Lodges & Resorts took over the property, refurbished it and gave it a makeover. Tents and log huts were added and by 1997 the camp was fully operational. You can stay in this former royal abode or, if you fancy something more rustic, opt for the log hut-either of these would cost Rs.1400 a night. The tents come a little cheaper at Rs.1200. The tariffs however include all meals, safaris and elephant rides. During the peak season however, between October and June, there is a premium of 20 percent on the rates. But these summer months offer the best chances for wildlife sightings since the more elusive creatures, especially the big cats, venture out of the woods more often to the dwindling water holes. The strategically placed watch towers around these provide vantage points to watch dramatic scenes of predatory skills or social behaviour, especially during dawn and dusk.

The twilight hours are also ideal for safaris. You get a wake-up call at 6 A.M. followed by tea and biscuits. Half-an- hour later, open jeeps depart with their load of guests to the inner core of the forest. Gangaswamy, the resort manager - a post graduate in environmental sciences - and I set out in a four-wheel-drive Gypsy, rattling over the dirt track leading off from the camp.

"When was the last time a big cat was sighted here?" I asked my companion.

"Two months back, inside the camp. In fact it was a foreigner, a Britisher, who sighted it first, a full-grown leopard sauntering between the log huts. It was early evening, around seven. The Britisher had come for a day but stayed on for a week."

As the Gypsy lurched over the rutted trail, I kept my fingers crossed hoping for a similar luck. Herds of spotted deer grazed desultorily on lush emerald grass aglow in the oblique rays of the early sun. The grass was wet and the air, cool and bracing after night showers.

Gangaswamy continued with nuggets of info: "Elephants and deer are social animals, while the diminutive barking deer is solitary and the Sambhars, larger than a spotted deer, are shy and found in pairs." As if to validate this, a solitary, tan coloured creature, half the size of a sheep, bounded out into a clearing, stared at the approaching vehicle, and just as quickly vanished into the underbrush.

"Barking deer." Said Gangaswamy.

A small herd of elephants accompanied by a half grown male, its tusks already a couple of feet long, stood around a small pond of muddy water. A baby elephant gambolled in the pool. "Salt pits," said Swamy. "To provide minerals to the animals, the forest guards dump around 200 kgs of salt into these pits every two months."

Herds of wild bison, majestic and muscular, and pairs of the fawn coloured Sambhars made occasional appearances half hidden behind the tangle of undergrowth. Varieties of birds flitted across or glided from tree to tree hooting and whistling as if to register their presence.

I wondered if anyone took a head count of the animals. "What about animal census?"

"As per the last count, tigers number around 40 and leopards close to 120. Elephants are estimated to be around 500 while there are close to 100 bears. Bisons have by far the biggest population…nearly 1800."

Two-and-a-half hours later we returned to camp, in time for breakfast. After spending the rest of the day lazing around - spending quiet moments in the woods or stretching out in a hammock with a book - by evening, around five, I accompanied Bomma, a mahout from the native Soliga tribe, for a jaunt into the forest once again - this time on elephant back.

Unlike the parallel tire tracks of the jeep, the narrow, winding elephant trail took me into uncharted areas - thickly wooded forest, tree-laden hills, across narrow gorges and through tall underbrush and to the edge of waterholes - offering an intimate connection with the primitive and the pristine. As I ducked under overhanging foliage - at times so thick it formed a seemingly impenetrable green canopy overhead - or glided past massive trees so close that I could peer into bird nests buried in the many cavities in their trunks, or beheld the denizens of the forest up close,
I began to gradually sense the spirit of the place and felt an inner rapport with my surroundings.

Then I felt I needed this…this connection with nature, for it seemed to link to my own inner core somewhere… Uplifting in a way, this romp in the wild.

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