It is 6am. Bandipur has opened its gates to a torrent of bottled-up road rage. Wedged between a truck and a bus drag-racing at the head of the queue, I am momentarily asphyxiated by a dark belch of exhaust. The shortest — and busiest — link between Mysore and Ooty, this is not a road to cross blindfolded. Though punctuated by obligatory speed bumps, its smoothness is inviting. Day and night — save for an impatient curfew from 9pm to 6am — forest sounds are swallowed by the gnashing of gears and horns screaming at curves.
I remark on the traffic. The forest guard chuckles: “This is the killing hour.” At the interpretation centre, beside trophy prints of dust-bathing tuskers and tigresses reclining in sun-gilded reed beds, posters tell tales more sordid: the trucker’s haste that left one more elephant calf motherless; the sambar fawn that gagged on a packet of Lays; the bonnet macaque poorer by a limb after an encounter with a sapient higher primate.
This is the purgatory that patrons of The Serai must transit before they are delivered unto its tranquillity. Past the range forest office, we pause to allow passage to a wild sow and thirteen snorting piglets still wearing the faded streaks of their baby coats. The wayside is peppered with signboards for wilderness resorts — Dhole’s Den, Tusker Trails...
Mangala village unfolds, fields of sun-drenched millet and saffron marigold yielding reluctantly to scrub jungle. A signboard apprises us mirthlessly that we are traversing an elephant corridor. I admire a picturesque waterhole, its dark clay banks gouged by ungulate hooves. On the southwest horizon, the Nilgiris are a staunch mauve wall. The valley slopes gently toward the Moyar Gorge, which cleaves Karnataka’s Bandipur from Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai. The wildlife observes borders of its own. Electrified fences demarcate forest from banana plantations and crop fields, but here and there is evidence of elephants having tested these arbitrary lines of control and of humans having hastily redrawn them.
We are stopped in our tracks by a bovine stampede. Long-horned cattle are being led to pastures bordering the forest (they almost always encroach the prescribed limits and are known to transmit diseases to wild herbivores). I count two hundred pairs of horns, then give up.
In Kaniyanapura, a flamboyant peepal shades a painted bullock cart. Yards away, at the head of a gentle incline, looms the stately white wall of The Serai, literally the last frontier of habitation.
The landscaping mimics the scrub jungle, with some embellishments: thickets of bamboo interspersed with hose-fed flowering shrubs. Bulbuls and babblers splash in puddles of recent rain. Sunbirds swill nectar from yellow blossoms and flowerpeckers throng the Singapore Cherry canopies, the air electric with their clicking calls.
I am greeted with a cold towel and iced coffee, but the welcome is warm. At my own Mountain View Courtyard, white stucco walls exude a Mediterranean appeal. My room can engulf a volleyball court, not counting the verandah and the bathroom (in which you could park a limousine) with its ornate brass sink, a thoughtful skylight that invites the curiosity of a voyeuristic bulbul, sugar soaps and other luxuries from Forest Essentials. But my eco-tourist’s conscience pricks, so I turn off the air-conditioner, the geyser and every light switch, and part the heavy drapes. Sun pours from the skylights.
The walls are hung with monochromes of leopards and tigers. But I can’t shake off the impression that the decorator mixed up continents: the zebra-printed upholstery is evocative of the Masai Mara. But that’s the point, general manager Sabu Varghese impresses upon me over lunch, as I swirl a naan around a hunk of rogan josh.
The Sanctuary, the resort restaurant, overlooks a tree-shaded swimming pool at the jungle’s edge. Chef Shiva, all smiles, hovers attentively until distracted by a gaggle of six-year-olds bickering over their Kinder Joy surprises. Sagar, his deputy, urges me to sample the pumpkin halwa. It is slick with ghee, and excellent.
The sun is a blur in the cruddy sky and a quick breeze is afoot, so I volunteer to fend off a food coma with a walk. Sanjeev Kumar, the self-assured operations manager, is my guide.
Varghese’s point is well made. The Serai is built in the tradition of luxurious African gaming lodges — white-walled hutments with sloping roofs of dark matted reed. Sourced from Tamil Nadu, the thatch adds sylvan appeal and functions as a thermostat, so that I wonder why air-conditioners cannot be dispensed with. The birds love it. Sparrows are raising chicks in the eaves. Laughing doves are inspecting a honeymoon spot nearby as Sanjeev shows me one of the made-for-honeymoon Log Huts, with wood-panelled interiors, four-poster bed and separate shower and lavatory cubicles. The Superior Courtyards are similar to mine, plus a sitting room. Two palatial Residences, with thatched rooftop gazebos, promise a fine view of the hills. To my surprise, none of the rooms has solar panels or LED lighting.
The light is fading when Sanjeev escorts me to the border that the resort shares with the tiger reserve. Thorn shrubs jostle with Mysore fig trees in which small minivets, like smoky orange puffs of flame, are snapping up insects in a gloaming feeding frenzy. A heron guards a shallow puddle, all that’s left of an abandoned rainwater harvesting project.
Bandipur sits in the lee of the Western Ghats. Any rain percolates quickly into the porous soil and drains into the Moyar Gorge. From our vantage point, about 15km away, the gorge is a luminous strip of green. But here at The Serai, the water table is practically absent. Varghese tells me that of the fifteen bore wells sunk on the premises, only two yield water — only in the rainy season. The resort relies on tankers trundling in several times a day. As I digest this sobering nugget, the sounds of splashing from the pool seem ironic.
Still, bee-eaters flit like winged emeralds. Lapwings, nesting in the open, scream murder at our approach. But it is creatures unseen that inspire our conversation. Over the next two days, I shall hear multiple versions involving the same dramatis personae: the wild dogs that came stalking sloth bears, the leopard that slunk by at twilight, the tiger they hear but never see. Only the chital show themselves, watching edgily and sprinting off only to stop ahead and repeat the charade. Great pagodas of elephant dung are heaped on the low boundary wall. Sanjeev assures me they are many weeks old.
At dinner, the Sanctuary is abuzz with weekend guests. A steward, Rechappa, engages me in conversation. He grew up in the hamlet outside the resort and is thankful he doesn’t have to go to work in Gundlupet or Mysore. A third of the 90-strong staff, Varghese informs me, is from the nearby villages.
By night, the lights of Ooty glower in the hills. In the inky darkness beyond the fence, the chitals’ eyes are molten sapphires. Guards with flashlights man the gate, watchful for intruders on both sides. Inside, lights flicker as the diesel generators kick in, humming.
At dawn I am driven out for a forest safari with Imran, the Serai’s naturalist. He has been here all of two weeks and is already full of fables. A powdery rain is falling. A garrulous family of nine has claimed the choice seats in the jeep. Safaris are the monopoly of the government-owned jungle lodges and resorts; other resorts must share their vehicles.
The forest is alive with junglefowl, sambar and enough boar to summon up Obelix. A peacock shudders away raindrops. Large stripe-necked mongooses in coppery coats dig for grubs while their small grey cousins snuffle for other surprises. Treetops explode into clouds of parakeets. Inches above my head, a serpent eagle glares down.
Unmoved by this cornucopia, my fellow tourists are glum. “We’re unlucky today,” the woman beside me grumbles, searing me with an accusing look. “Yesterday we followed a leopard for fifteen minutes.” Her teenage daughter is watching the canopy for toucans. I inform her avuncularly that she should really be looking for hornbills (only because toucans inhabit the Amazon). As I crane my neck after emerald doves and racket-tailed drongos to which the driver is bat-blind, the group lethargically debates last night’s dinner and real-estate investments, until the driver halts suddenly and points to enormous pugmarks in the soft dust track. Hopes are up again. The teenager and her mother chant a prayer — to Hanuman, none less — for the tiger to show up. For better or for worse, it is the Lord’s day off.
Back at the park reception, Imran follows my gaze to a violet-blue nuthatch foraging belly-up under a bough. Nearby, a barbet is excavating a new nest hole. A monitor lizard, its blood up in the sun, flicks its tongue.
I arrive ten minutes late for my appointment at the Oma Spa. Mary, the Manipuri masseuse, wrings out a year’s worth of repetitive stress injury from my shoulders and arms. The massage oils are redolent of coffee. By the end, I feel like a chunk of tiramisu, if slightly hirsute and potbellied.
After a postprandial siesta, I am whisked off to Himavad Gopalaswamy Betta, a half-hour drive away. At 1,450m, this hill shrine to the presiding deity of the forest crowns the highest peak in Bandipur. It is skirted by evergreen forest and gentle rolling meadows where herds of sambar and a sorority of elephants are grazing. The temple takes its name (himavad is Kannada for ‘misty’) from the fog swirling about its carved stone façade, which exuberant decorators have recently painted an unsightly ochre.
At the resort, a guest back from the evening safari is bragging about a tiger sighting. “Forty-five minutes,” he avows smugly.
Early next morning, I roam the forested perimeter for a last communion with the wilderness and bag no trophies, save an intimate audience with a white-browed fantail flycatcher. Its tinkling song is a poignant send-off.
The weekend is here. The parking lot is full. The jungle prepares for its ritual violation. And I’m not looking forward to getting back on that highway.
Location Kaniyanapura Village, Chamrajanagar District. 240km from Bengaluru International Airport; Mysore (78km) is the nearest railhead.
Accommodation 12 Mountain View Courtyards, 6 Mountain View Superior Courtyards, 4 Log Huts, 2 Residences
Contact 080-41152200, theserai.in