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Sunday, December 28, 2008

My favorite place to be - Part 1

It's been a while since I blogged. Personal projects have kept me busy through the last few weeks and I returned home every evening, exhausted and worried.

This post is in three parts since I'm putting in large excerpts from my son's diary/trip report and I realized as I was going along that it was going to become a very long post.

I spent three glorious days at the Biligiriragan Hills in Karnataka in between my personal projects just trying to relax and let the world outside do whatever it willed. The B.R. Hills, as they are popularly called, are beautiful, green and teeming with life. If one just cared to look.

It was October when we drove there. Driving is among my favorite things to do. Along with wildlife, photography, reading, and music. There's no order as in all things that you love, is there? Unfortunately, owing to the fact that we had tied up with another family, we decided to hire a large car to transport us all and all I could do was to merely sit there offering silly jokes and occasionally nodding off to sleep.

BRT Camp, run by Jungle Lodges and Resorts, is nestled in the high hills. A series of tents, a few log huts, the gol ghar, and the old Maharaja's hunting lodge make up this camp. Just outside is the Forest Department's office, some huts where the foresters live and then the jungle. The jungle is all around you. Stepping out of the tent, one can see the highest peak in the distance, dwarfing all others by sheer height and bulk. Elephants roam in these hills and it is dangerous to wander around on foot with or without a guide. Trees abound with birds and birdsong is rampant. The sun shines down benignly, and the forest tolerates the massed tourists demanding their food and drink, their wildlife sightings and their souvenirs. Just being in close proximity to nature is not on their list. Monkeys - the bonnet macaques - share scraps, brawling, sounding off, or just scratching themselves. And there's Kyatha, the lovable, but absolutely unpredictable elephant calf.
Sadly, some weeks ago, Kyatha killed a mahout who was feeding him jaggery (unrefined sugar) lumps and was transported to the elephant camp at Nagarhole to be disciplined and reschooled. Where he will be sent after this is known only to the Forest Department.
We had rolled in early in the afternoon and having dropped all our belongings off at the tents, were content to lie in the beds, indolently contemplating lunch. The two Narayans were there too. These two men, along with Nahar, the manager, ran the camp competently. They are the ones who ensure that tourists don't step out of line, that they have a pleasant jungle experience and that they get to see as much wildlife as wildlife will permit.

Excerpt from Adu's diary: We got past some houses and then there was a board that said (I'm telling the truth) "B.R. Hills, 0 kms." I got out and daddy jumped out and hugged the two Narayans who were waiting behind the car. "Which Narayan do you remember?" he asked. I pointed to the one I did remember. We left the heavy luggage in the car, (it would come later to the tent), and went to the tent. End excerpt.

Adu, my 10-year-old son, revels in the jungles. He knows the rules and his limits and loves spending time observing, watching, and learning. The two Narayans, of course, loved him.

The mountains beckoned and we looked forward to the evening safari. BRT Camp organizes two safaris a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Each jeep is supposed to have a naturalist but the drivers double as naturalists since Narayan and Narayan are the only two naturalists here. The drivers themselves have considerable knowledge of the fauna and flora of the place and are a delight to be with simply because they try to the best of their abilities to make your stay worthwhile. It is a lot more worth my while.
Excerpt from Adu's diary: Unhappily, I was put in the back, for the simple reason that Yash and Krusha wanted to be up there and I was supposed to be with them because I was small and belonged to that category. I had half a mind to object but then decided that they might be offended and went quietly with the air of one, I like to think, who is prepared for the sacrifice of seeing nothing at all.

Before we went into the true and proper jungle, we had to pass a gate and before that gate, there was something like real jungle. I looked around forgetting that I was in the back seat. There were always some good birds around here, and there were always some mutjack (sic) and sambur and chital were anyway all over the place.... But there were none. So I looked forward and saw the gate. There was a little brick walled tile-roofed hut by the gate. At one time, it probably had a door and shutters, but they had long since fallen away. A Soliga tribal moved up, took the slip from the Forest Department (we needed one) and opened the gate and stumped back to the village. Many meters away from the Soliga village, we saw a herd of chital. They were common fry but this was the first day in the jungle and we were going to stop for every little thing.

We had a jeep all to ourselves and I stared at the stag's antlers. I drew them on my thigh with my finger. We passed three different chital herds that day. We stopped for all of them. After the first herd, we went on for sometime without seeing anything, and then "Muntjac!" called one of the Narayans. I never saw it. There was a long silence in which Yash mumblingly complained that there was nothing here. End excerpt.
Muntjac are barking deer. Also called Kakar in the north, they are small deer about the size of a large dog and extremely wary of humans. This one is a male as can be seen from the short horns or antlers.

Excerpt from Adu's Diary: Then we saw lesser flame-backed or golden backed woodpecker (Dinopium benghalense). I also saw another species of woodpecker, one that was cmopletely new to me: the little scaly bellied woodpecker (Picus myrmecophoneus).

We heard a hill myna too. Daddy had photographed it only once, and that miserable wretch of a bird was calling tantalizingly and not showing itself. It was a quaint little bird with vivid yellow patch shaped like a fat wave slamming against a thinner wave to which it was connected by a little line. The same line connected these two to another wave, fattest of all, facing downward. Then it dwindled weakly away to follow the same pattern on the other side of its pitch black head.

I also saw a crested serpent eagle. It got its name from the fact that it had a little crest, black, like its head which it could lift at will and also that it ate almost only snakes and lizards. Its chest was the colour of half-dried clay, the vague central line extending from the breasts was the colour of melted Cadburys Milky bar, and there were minute little blacktopped white spots all over the stomach. Its black clawed feet were yellow and its black tipped beak was yellow ochre. End excerpt.
I'm going to leave you with the sketches of the birds, Adu made in his diary. They have all been drawn with The Book of Indian Birds by Dr. Salim Ali as a reference but the written descriptions are all from his own observations in the wild.

Still to come: The bonfire, Adarsh, a wild tusker, and the fish owl.