A yawn, followed by a sneeze and a crack of the knuckles, all signs of immense boredom. A wildlife safari is the last thing you’d ever associate all this with. But here I was, slouching in the passenger seat of our jeep, repeating the pattern in a loop.
As blasphemous as it may sound, I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the great outdoors. But when you’re out in the wild and a Ruddy mongoose imitates these movements, you know you’re in for an experience of unpredictability and one of constant surprise and wonder. As the little beast lifted its leg to scent mark its territory, with its tail in a peculiar twist, I knew this one was a professional poser.
I had certain preconceived notions about what a safari would be like. It was that hakuna matata world that Disney had painted for me and those iconic pictures of that one tree in the distance with giraffes in silhouettes. I was almost disappointed that the forested landscape of Bandipur National Park wasn’t straight out of Lion King. But the lush jungles do put life back into perspective. Or rather, puts the perspective back into life.
Even the experienced drivers balk at the idea of driving in Bengaluru, and for a novice like me, it was even more of a nightmare. So for my maiden trip, I decided to weave my way out of the city. Situated at the confluence of the Western Ghats and the Nilgiri Hills, Bandipur lies in the heart of an extensive forest. There was something about the green foliage that instantly soothed my city-worn soul. Driving past the skyscrapers of Bengaluru into the verdant wildlife sanctuary, one could spend hours romanticising the glories of nature.
The 213-kilometre stretch unravels little towns, temples, cuisines and scenes that are some of the best in the state. As we navigated through the concrete jungle, dodging the seemingly endless traffic of the IT hub, the hunger pangs had started to kick in. Our first stop was at Renukamba Thatte Idli in Bidadi, a 60-year-old eatery that served absurdly soft, piping hot, oversized idli with some thick spicy coconut chutney.
In addition to a number of eateries, the Bangalore-Mysore Road features over a dozen stops worthy of your time and attention. This expressway that connects the two cities might not always make it to the list of ‘India’s Best Road Trips’, but the route is a real treat for those looking to explore the numerous facets of rural India including its art, tradition, culture and cuisine.
Unlike other cities that took their own sweet time to grow on me, Mysuru was a love at first sight. Its royal heritage and old colonial architecture have a lot of character that is easy to like. Over the past couple of years, Bengaluru and Mysuru have grown significantly. What used to be a relaxing three-hour drive is now a four-lane highway, mostly chock-a-block during peak hours. With hints of royalty, dents of the aristocracy, and dollops of majesty, the land of spices, silk and sandalwood leaves an indelible print of stately nature. As you cross city after city, the Ghat roads begin to look seemingly narrower and challenging. Try to avoid the stretch after sunset.
In the mighty jungle
Bandipur was now just a little over an hour’s drive away. Endowed with a variety of flora ranging from grassy woodlands to evergreen and deciduous forests, it’s surreal to see the landscape change from human- occupied land to more quiet, remote and untouched wilderness. The riches of Bandipur are an incredible area teeming with wildlife sightings. The deep greens of the national park were once the hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Mysuru. Covering an area of 90 sq kilometers, the sanctuary was set up in 1931. The forest was expanded as a reserve in 1974 under Project Tiger. Today, the park constitutes the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, sprawling over an area of nearly 875 sq kilometres and harbours one of the largest populations of endangered tigers in India. Although administered separately, Bandipur National Park and Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary are all part of a single ecological continuum that also takes Nagarhole National Park into its fold. Flanked by the River Kabini in the north and Moyar in the south, the region also has two minor streams cutting through it.
For the shutterbug
As we ventured into the denser parts of the jungle, the faint sunlight filtered through the murky clouds. Our jeep engine hummed to life and with hope in our hearts and curious eyes, we scanned the mud road for tiger pugmarks and the tree tops for evening birds. But call it bad luck or unfortunate timing, the royal predators eluded us. To make things worse, Basavraj, our guide, narrated a rather animated account of his first tiger sighting. “Footsteps rustled dead leaves, and the drivers switched on the high beams. There sat two tigers, larger than life. These were no cubs; they were male adolescents. Camera shutters clicked. Minutes later, the animals got up and disappeared into the darkness.” I’d had enough. If I couldn’t see it, I didn’t want to hear of it.
Interestingly though, Bandipur remains a stronghold of the large-tusked elephants. We spotted a family parading through the dense interiors, shying away from us. What at first seemed like a tiger’s roar turned out to be a mother elephant aiding the calf out of the bushes. I was told that the tusker was the park’s signature offering. The lone tusker is considered to be dangerous and has the prowess to topple over a fully loaded jeep. It’s easy to provoke this giant beast in the wild, so silence is recommended when you encounter one.
There is no dearth of camera-friendly wildlings in Bandipur National Park. We were brought to a halt by a herd of deer, seemingly accustomed to the whirring of clicks, shutters and the humming of engines. We were all lined up and ready for the beauty to unfold. While the young ones did stop in their tracks to evaluate the new company, the mother doe, unperturbed by our presence, moved around nonchalantly. Although it’s rare to find a gaur venturing out on its own, don’t be startled if you do chance upon an Indian bison in these jungles. The largest and tallest in the family of wild cattle, and even bigger than the water buffalo, these massive beasts are attracted to grounds impregnated with minerals and salts. Generally found grazing the erstwhile capital city of the Wodeyars, Mysuru is a treasure trove of culture and heritage. head to the Mysore Palace that still stands majestically in the heart of the city.
In the Western Ghats, and mainly in the foothills, you are most likely to encounter them during an early morning or a late evening safari. As we delved deeper into the woods, Basavraj reiterated, “first rule of the jungle? You hear any noise, you run!” By now I had trained my eyes and ears to shoot up at the faintest of sounds. He motioned towards a canopy of sandalwood trees, but before I could catch a glimpse of the creature he was pointing at, it was already one with the bushes. But looks like unfaltered perseverance does pay off. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the elegant peacock rose from behind the dense thicket, its curious eyes meeting our transfixed gaze. Eventually, it disappeared into the forest along with the last ray of light.
Our day in the wilderness was brought to a close as we headed back to our resort.
A bonfire, buffet dinner, and a quaint rustic charm awaited us. Bidding farewell has never come easily to me, and coming to terms with the fact that this journey was almost over required a little more than coercion. But I’m sure Bandipur will call me back in due time. Tigers, we aren’t done yet. Perhaps the second time’s the charm?
Nearest airport: Bengaluru (279kms, 5 hours 15 minutes)
Drive from Bengaluru to Bandipur National Park; stop by the town of Channapatna for its collection of wooden handicrafts
How to Reach
Several private as well as government buses run from major cities to Bandipur. The Bengaluru-Channapatna- Mandya-Mysuru-Bandipur route is the most opted one
Where to Stay
The Mangifera is a boutique stay spread over 7 acres of fruit orchard, just a few minutes away from the wildlife sanctuary
>> Bandipur Safari Lodges boasts of 6 special cottages. With well-appointed rooms, it can accommodate nearly 60 guests at a time
>> Windflower Tusker Trails is a premium jungle resort with comfortable cottages and ethnic huts
Drive further Along
>> Wayanad, 37kms walk through its sprawling spice plantations and prehistoric caves or relax at the comfortable homestays and resorts
>> Ooty, 41kms head to this hillock for its botanical gardens and the exquisite Emerald Lake, part of the Silent Valley National Park
>> Mysuru, 73kms the culture capital of Karnataka, do not miss its well-manicured gardens and heritage mansions
The Wild Cats
Bandipur is the finest habitat of endangered species like tigers. it was established as a tiger reserve in 1974. Head out for an early morning safari to spot them in the wild.