Cheetahs and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 1)

The concept of an all day safari was mouth watering. We were supposed to leave at 7:30 AM and return by 4:30 PM. That was  hours of wildlife. Technically, that’s 8 hours of wildlife, as the road from the lodge to the gate is pretty bad and takes a good half hour one way with no sighting except cattle and sheep! The lodge had packed our lunch boxes which were to be eaten in the forest, and we had an early breakfast.

The drive goes on till the Mara river where you can see the famous crossing by Wildebeest. And if you are lucky, you might chance upon a crocodile or two attempting a hunt on crossing herds. The river is so far away that it takes a few hours to drive up there, and then the same amount back. Along the way you take a few digressions to catch more wildlife. It’s a lot of fun.

We started off with an elephant herd, a lot of Wildebeest herds running, or hanging around.
Elephant herd, calf shows up
Wildebeest traffic Continue reading “Cheetahs and Vultures (Maasai Mara stories – 1)”

A vacation that actually happened

A vacation happened, to Kenya. And am sitting here writing about it. After a lot of scuppered vacation plans – thrice to the same destination, costing me Rs. 50000, once to a local one costing Rs. 6600, and one halfway aborted trip which didn’t cost anything in money – this came as a major relief.

When it comes to vacations I worry about a lot of things – all that documentation that needs to be carried to either get a visa or arrange a visa (if you’re going to a Schengen country it becomes even worse – you need to submit your documents just a week before the trip and expect the passport to arrive in time!), all the bookings that need to be done before the trip – flights, hotels,  about things being OK at home – no one falling sick at the last minute, about your not falling sick – which was a sore point this trip, international issues – Trump and North Korea threatening each other wasn’t helping.

In this case the visa was easier, we opted to go the eVisa way and save carrying some cash. We had to get Yellow Fever shots and Polio drops, and this was done 3 weeks before the trip. Never mind that absolutely no one was interested in seeing them when getting back to India. The accommodation and vehicle were arranged stress free, but with a lot of emailing. Some money needed to be wired and that took some time and stress, but it was done. More people should use PayPal!

I started the week before the trip with some mild stomach irritation. A visit to a nearby elderly doctor and it was supposedly an infection, and I was on antibiotics for a couple of days. Once I realised that they were not working, I dropped by my Mother’s more expensive doctor. He raised an eyebrow at the antibiotics, said it was a case of dyspepsia, or just bad indigestion, asked me to watch what I eat, and prescribed some meds. This came less than 2 days before I was to be off.

How does one manage indigestion in a foreign country, that too when one is a vegetarian? Surprisingly, things became ok pretty fast. The food turned out to be mild, and well done. The hotel for the night we arrived turned out to be owned by an Indian with an Indian restaurant at the top. Thankfully, no hunting for different food before you crash. In the lodges in the forests,  the African vegetarian versions included some Maize cakes, called Ugali, with some “Kenyan Greens” which turned out to be our own Dantu soppu steamed with some onions and salt. Tasty as hell, and mild on the stomach too. Along with some carrots or “potatoes with herbs”. The main course was usually some Indian curry with some roti/chapathi and rice. Given that the guests were predominantly European/American, the food was done mildly and again, easy on the stomach.

The surprising thing, in fact a logical thing, was how they were getting their vegetables. Being hours away from a major city poses logistical problems. All these camps/lodges got around that by setting out a plot of land to grow their own vegetables. With the Masai nearby, cattle is aplenty and takes care of their dairy and meat needs.

So it was that after 5 days of a lot of fun, and the most amazing wildlife experience ever, we got back, and once back, the placated stomach started acting up all over again. Be thankful for small mercies I guess.

Will post stories and pictures next post.

Dhole packs and bathing elephants at BR Hills

We had been looking forward to this trip for a while now. Divorced from the pressure of big cat sightings, the BRT Tiger Reserve in the BR Hills offers up a wide array of wildlife – from a wide variety of bird species to elephants and tree shrews. The trees here are greener unlike the bare bones trees of the deciduous forests in Bandipur or Nagarahole. The guide said that there were four varieties of forests in those hills – from shrubs and deciduous to moist evergreen and evergreen.

Despite the short distance between Bandipur and here, the elevation gain changes a lot. There are no peacocks, which are so ubiquitous everywhere in Bandipur. The Langurs are also fewer. And despite being a drought year, there was a surprising lot of water in the waterholes. The elevation helps.

The camp itself is set in the middle of the forest, unlike JLR’s properties in Bandipur and Nagarahole. This means that there is no external power connection. What they had last year was a diesel generator running for 3 hours in the morning and 3.5 hours in the evening. This time, they had installed solar panels which promised power all the way till 3 or 4 AM. It lasted till 1 AM one night, and I slept like a log the second to notice.

Being in the middle of the forest also means that you can be woken up by deer calls in the middle of the night, sounding the alarm over a passing leopard. You can stand around the camp and see spotted deer, wild pigs, and even one barking deer passing by. The birding in the camp is itself amazing, and we spotted both types of barbets, Jerdon’s leafbirds, a yellow-crowned woodpecker among others.

But the surprising thing this time was the safari. Unlike with the big two reserves where you drive around for a long time not seeing anything, and suddenly something big turns up, BR Hills has a lot more to offer. You are constantly noticing something every 5-10 minutes. The forests are noisy with birdsong – whistling thrushes, Indian and Hawk cuckoos compete to be heard above the din of horseflies. And of course, Crested Serpent Eagles!
Crested Serpent Eagle

Although we hardly seemed to have seen much the first evening, we came away happy. There was a lone elephant cow grazing on the side of a hill, and she looked very weak and bony. This being summer, and right at the fringe of the monsoons, this was expected. Hopefully, the monsoons will be good and there’ll be good fodder for everyone soon.

Elephant
Elephant

Continue reading “Dhole packs and bathing elephants at BR Hills”

The Bazookas of Kabini

Visits to Kabini began in May 2012, initially as a one-off visit. Yesterday we returned from our 6th visit to that place. So much of it is the same, and yet so much different. We now know many of the naturalists, and they recognise us. Even then, every year it’s a different experience, bringing its own set of birds and animals. And even humans in the form of other guests. Sometimes even that trend is bucked and we start noticing people who had been seen in earlier trips, and their idiosyncrasies. And usually hoping we don’t end up with them in the same jeep.

Given its high density of Tigers and leopards, and that prized catch – the solitary Black Panther, Kabini sees a high density of ‘Bazookas’. A Bazooka is anyone, usually male, who has a camera attached to a large lens. The camera is usually a single digit Canon, or equivalent Nikon, and the lenses would be in 600mm usually. Despite the differences in brand, model or lenses, all Bazookas are united in one thing – they want to see big cats, and only big cats. They would be doing regular trips on forest safaris, but they always want big cats, and in different variations – a big cat sitting, or a big cat marking, a big cat posing with forelimbs on a mound, big cat in water, big cat drinking water, big cat resting on the ground looking at the camera with mouth open.

Continue reading “The Bazookas of Kabini”

Day Ride – Lepakshi

After much “being on the radar”, the Lepakshi ride was finally agreed on. Anand had already been there some months back and knew the way. There really isn’t much knowing the way required, though. You head straight North on the Airport Road from Bangalore, avoid getting into the Airport, and keep going North. Cross the border into Andhra, and take left where a board with an arrow left says “Lepakshi”. Go on for 16 km on that road, and you see the Nandi on the right. Go on a bit further, turn left where everyone else does, and you have the Veerabhadraswamy Temple.

Well, this is pretty much what we did. We left from my place at 7:45 AM, me on my Bullet Electra, and A on his Classic 500. I expected an arrival at Lepakshi at 10:30 AM with a half hour for breakfast. The Goraguntepalya railway overbridge is now ready, so timings should be predictable. The breakfast stop was at the fancily named “The Indian Paratha Company”, which was reached at around 8:45 AM. The place was crowded, and seating was in the morning sun. The Paratha came on time, but we spent 20 minutes waiting for tea. What was expected to be a 30 minute stop, took 1 hour. Really good food, but service needs to go a long way!

The ride along NH7 is plain boring. There is no other term for it. You get your speedometer to 80-90 Kmph, and stay there on the four lane road and keep watching the odometer ticking. There are neither trees nor curves to keep you interested. We reached the turn-off from NH7 by 10:40 and the Nandi before 11 AM.

The Nandi is carved out of a monolith and thankfully we got a few shots before the crowds streamed in. I figured it might be smaller than the one at Bull Temple road or the one at Chamundi hill. Turned out, I was wrong on all counts. This is the second largest Nandi in India, after one in Aimury, Kerala.(Not completely verified accounts I believe. Some claim it’s the largest.)

Monolithic Nandi - Second largest in India!

Nandi from the back

Apart from size, the carvings showed a garland of bells, and what looked like two ghosts on the body.

Bhoothas...

Continue reading “Day Ride – Lepakshi”

Langurs and Birds (Bandipur Stories – 3)

As we drove along on the mud-paths inside the forest, we noticed Langurs on the sides. There are very few stops for them. Only those who are new to the forests get excited about them. The only time we stop is when they sit on the road and stage a rasta roko. The cameras then come out and a few snaps are shot. They make for good photos when they are like that. Other times they tend to jump up trees and you only see silhouettes.

This time, I noticed something strange. There were no Langur kids. There were only adults and sub-adults clinging to trees. Any langur group usually has a kid or two clinging to its mother. We passed group after group, with no sign of a recent birth. Was it the drought? Or was it timing? Did Langurs not have children during the Winter? The driver had no clue, but he felt it was less to do with the drought than the Winter.

The first morning though, as we drove through empty forest roads, on what was the most eventless safari of the four, we finally came across a group which had a young one. The sun had just come out and it was warming the air and dispensing the fog. The child was sitting by itself, saw the jeep standing below and ran up to its mother’s outstretched arms.
Langurs - mother and child

Continue reading “Langurs and Birds (Bandipur Stories – 3)”

Sloth Bears and a Tusker (Bandipur Stories – 2)

We saw a couple of sloth bears from far away in fading light the first evening. The second morning, we heard that that pair had been spotted again around the same spot again. So, when we headed out on the second evening, we were hopeful of seeing sloth bears. This would be the first time we’d be seeing any bears in the wild. They tend to be nocturnal venturing out only at the fag end of the day around the time the jeeps are returning from their beats.

Again, like the previous day, we went around the jeep tracks not encountering anything. The tank where they had been spotted the previous day was visited and they were not to be found anywhere. Around this time, another vehicle passed by and said that the bears were right on the highway and were bringing traffic to a halt!

So off we went to the highway, encountering more vehicles who said confirmed the same news. Initially, there were just the bears. Then there was a Tusker that was also hanging around the highway. By the time we were close to the highway, it was back to just the bears. The Tusker seemed to have gone into the forest.

We found the bears alright. There were two of them, and were grazing peacefully. They were digging the sand, and sucking out termites from there.
Sloth bears emerging

Sloth bear Continue reading “Sloth Bears and a Tusker (Bandipur Stories – 2)”

The Gibbons of Hoollongapar

It was an early start. We were ready to leave by 5:30 AM. It was already bright, this being the North East where the sun rises by 5 AM and it gets dark by 5 PM. The driver saw us in shorts and slippers and raised his eyebrows. There’ll be leeches he warned us. We couldn’t conjure up shoes, having not carried them, so I packed a deo spray and changed to fuller pants. We left by 5:40 AM, the driver warning us that it’ll take more than 2.5 hours to do the 110 Kms to the Gibbon sanctuary.

He suggested Golaghat and then Marriani, but instead drove through Jorhat which was just waking up as we drove past empty streets at 7 AM. By 7:30 AM we were there and greeted by forest officials in khakis. A fee of Rs. 200 was paid for cameras. A tip of Rs. 200 each for the guide and the guard was also collected. And we set out to watch some Gibbons.

There are some forests that look old. Unlike the Southern forests that are dealing with the Lantana crisis, these were full. They were old growth. And evergreen. There was life everywhere, even in death. Mushrooms and smaller plants spring out of dead logs. Earthworms excrete 4 inch long towers all over the forest floor. Spiders spin their webs in the gaps. The trees reach out high in a vertical arms race. Creepers go straight up trying to capture any sun that can manage to get in. Ferns grow out of trees, living off them. This was a Tropical Evergreen forest at its most pristine. With, sadly, a railway line cutting right inside it.
Hollong tree

Evergreen forest Continue reading “The Gibbons of Hoollongapar”

Day ride: Bhoga Nandeeshwara

Being a long weekend and all, a ride was always on the cards. I had had my eyes on Bhoga Nandeeshwara temple for a while now, thanks to ZenRainman‘s pics on Twitter. I pinged S who had only recently got his RE and was keen on doing a ride. A was a doubtful starter, and pulled out in the morning. I started out from home at 8:30 AM, and S left from his place at the same time. The plan was to meet up near Hebbal opposite the notorious Esteem Mall. I reached there at 9 as there was hardly any traffic on the way. S reached there in a few minutes too! Talk about timing!

We hit the Hyderabad highway and after passing the turnoff for the airport, we reached a Sri Krishna Garden at 9:30 AM. The breakfast was just about decent, and we back on  the road by 10 AM. The route was to avoid the Nandi hills turnout, take left on a service road somewhere further up, and then take left onto the road leading to Nandi town. As expected with such turns when on bikes, we missed it and came upon the Chikkaballapur turnoff. We doubled back and got on to the road. Very soon we came across our first sign that we were on the right track. (:P)

Glorious Promised Land

Not sure what this place is. The board said it’s a religious place. But a Google search did not reveal anything interesting about it. Either way, we rode along and reached the temple pretty soon.

The very first structure is the main temple complex itself. The rest of the structures are on its left (on your right as you enter). We were greeted by a pillared hall with pillars that looked like they had been plucked out from Hampi. The temple itself is very old, built around 800 AD. Various dynasties and Kings have added their own structures, and you can see a temple evolving across different architectures from different periods.

Pillars

If this reminds you of Hampi, not too surprising. Those pillars inside with 3 sculptures are also similar.

Pillars

Continue reading “Day ride: Bhoga Nandeeshwara”

Bhadra – a sky full of stars

The last time we stumbled on Bhadra Tiger Reserve was in 2011 where we did a lone safari through the forests, after paying one of their staff Rs. 500 each to accommodate 3 non-lodgers in their jeeps. It was fun. We saw Eagles, Gaurs and barking deer, and a fellow-guest told us about stranglers and showed us some in the forest. It was winter and the mist lifting off ponds in the early morning Sun was a sight to behold.

The last attempt to visit was to experience the Monsoons in 2015, and it got spectacularly screwed as every one of us or a parent of one of us was down with some health issue. This time, only S managed to not make it because of health issues at home.(I sometimes wonder if there’s a lurking non-serious health epidemic in our cities which no one is talking about. Far too many people keep falling sick the moment the Monsoons hit, or if they fail.)

This time, me and A drove down to JLR’s River Tern Lodge located on the banks of the Bhadra river. We had a choice between cottages and loghuts. We chose the latter, as the former was supposedly too far from the dining area. Having suffered a lot at K-Gudi, we decided to stay close to the main area for a change. It helped to not have to walk 300m after every round for a refill.

There was one jeep safari and one boat safari. The jeep was just about OK. We wanted to see a Malabar Pied Hornbill and we spotted one within seconds of entering the gate!
Malabar pied hornbill
One Crested Serpent Eagle graced us with her presence, this too within 5 minutes of the start.
Crested Serpent Eagle
And that was it. Barring one monitor lizard, there was absolutely nothing much to see. Of course, we kept ourselves entertained spotting spiders and all kinds of birds. A forest can never bore you as such. All you need to do is keep your eyes, ears and brains open. Continue reading “Bhadra – a sky full of stars”