So it was that me and a colleague decided to do the 5 hour drive to Bandipur for 2 out of 5 days of the long weekend between Oct 24th and 28th. The drive was pleasant and quiet thanks to my deciding to dump Mysore Road entirely and drive along Kanakapura-Malavalli-Kollegal-Chamarajnagar-Gundlupet to Bandipur. It added some 12Km but gave us quiet, peaceful roads with barely any other vehicles around and, most importantly, absolutely nil trucks encountered until Chamarajnagar! Leaving at 7:45 AM with some excellent Masala Dosas at Vasu Hotel in Kanakapura for breakfast on the way and with a brief stopover at Shivanasamudram we ended up at MC Resort, bang near the entrance to the Tiger reserve at 1 PM. They had initially asked us to take the Govt Safari, the 45 mins one, but at the last moment said they were running their own Safari and it would be the 2.5 hours one for Rs. 1250 each. All this last-minute confusion owing to the SC order banning and then revoking the ban on tourist activity inside tiger reserves.
We were picked up from the resort at 3:30 PM, 15 minutes earlier than the time they had told us. There were three others already waiting in the van, whom we guessed were Wildlife photographers. The cameras had big-ass lenses and they even wore dulled out camouflage or light brown clothes. You can always make out the more experienced guys on a safari from the newbies. I myself stick to the recommended green and brown to blend in. I used to find it amusing, considering that all mammals except for primates are colour-blind, but later came to know that bright colours like red, yellow etc have their grey counterparts which still stand out in the surroundings, while green and brown blend in better and don’t disturb wildlife as much. The safari jeeps and vans are always dull-green/brown for that reason.
Some more guests – a naturalist from Jungle Lodges, a kid with a huge camcorder and tripod which he wanted to set up, a couple of elderly European women, a man with a big camera wearing a Safari suit, a couple of Telugu speaking tourists – were also picked up near the forest office. Considering the confusion around the SC orders, tourism had dropped and the Safari tourists from different resorts were all being combined to reduce the number of vehicles going in. Just as we moved off the road the naturalist had the vehicle stop and gave us a solemn speech on the sacredness of wildlife and asked everyone to maintain silence during the journey and respect the surroundings.
We started off with the usual sightings of spotted deer and common birds like the hoopoe which cause their dose of excitement among the newbies. However, within half an hour the spirits had started sagging. There was not a single sighting of interest to anyone. There was a passing Indian Gaur which got its two-shots worth before heading elsewhere. I even shot a bee-hive saying that when there’s nothing, you try to salvage as much as you can. Even the hoopoes didn’t let any photographs be taken. Most of the people had started feeling disappointed when someone spotted another Gaur lying around. The van had gone on further and had to roll back down the slope. While some were shooting it (it was behind some bushes and I wasn’t interested as I knew it would be a nothing-shot and would get deleted later), the naturalist told us that there was an elephant herd up the slope.
The van went up the slope and soon there was a mid-size elephant grazing on the right and another on the left. Up ahead there were a couple more. While taking pics of the ones on both sides, more of the herd came out, and a calf could be seen.
The path for the vehicle would pass right near the herd and I was wondering how we would make it and if they’d let us pass easily. Around this time, one of the herd, which had come out with the calf charged at us. One of the photographers had now taken a more dominant charge of the group, as he was standing, and asked everyone to stay silent. The elephant charged at us and stopped just in front of the van, shaking its head repeatedly. “It’s a mock charge. There’ll be four of them” he warned us as the elephant went back to its herd. Somehow, having watched so many Nat Geo programs I knew the Matriarch would have to lead a proper charge and this elephant did not look like a Matriarch of any herd.
The elephant charged again thrice more, as predicted, running in fast, standing close and making threatening movements. Each time it came nearby we were asked to stop shooting pics and maintain absolute silence. All this while, the Matriarch, whom the naturalist and the photographers identified among the herd stood there with the calf looking at us warily. After the fourth mock-charge the elephant went back and the herd was led by the Matriarch across the path of the vehicle to the left of the path.
Having had enough shooting we made our move. The trumpeting started as we passed close by. There were two big ones, and I was on the left side of the van and within a few feet of the trumpeting and no longer benign herd. The Matriarch stood with another tusker, and the mock-charging elephant.
As we passed, they began their charge, first slowly, then gradually picking up the pace, as they ran behind us. The photographer asked us to stay silent. The naturalist was looking backwards taking pics! I managed only one. The silence inside was absolute while the tension continued peaking to a crescendo. And then, one of the Telugu guys snapped and started panicking. “Drive fast! Are you mad! They’ll gain on us!” he started shouting. Suddenly, the van picked up speed and left the herd behind.
Then began the barrage from the naturalist. “When we ask you to be silent, you have to be silent! These drivers face such charges almost all the time, and he knows how to handle one. We will not let you come to any risk. We knew what we were doing and the amount of risk you were in. Your shouting is what could have caused us danger! The elephants see a green vehicle their size. Not humans. Only when you shout or make noise they know there are humans inside. That charge was to scare that big green thing of their size away, not to attack it. Humans inside would be a different thing and they’d gladly attack us!”
I was completely surprised by my own reaction and the lack of it. Scared, yes! But somehow the presence of mind to notice the more experienced guys, follow their instructions and learn from their reactions did not desert me and I was glad for that. We headed on further with the naturalist telling stories of previous encounters with the more dangerous lone tusker bulls in musk.
There was supposedly a water-hole frequented by a tiger. The engine was killed as we rolled down closer to it. There were deer there which kind of meant no tiger around. We got a few pics of a juvenile changeable hawk-eagle on the way though. This however ended the whole safari for us and the return journey had nothing more to report.
More pics here: