[2] It All Starts Here

It All Starts Here 

(Original date of completion: March 2012)

It was back in 2000 when I first visited a forest – The Nagarhole National Park - and immediately fell in love with it. The Nagarhole National Park, also known as the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, is located in the Kodagu district of Karnataka. Mysore, the heritage city of Karnataka where once the Wodeyars reigned and which is even now known world over for its celebration of the festival of Dussehra, is just 100 Km from here. Adjacent to this park is the hill station of Coorg, a favourite among wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. The trip I write of took place during the month of May in 2000. I was just 11 years old and it was during this trip that I realized how much I liked being in the jungle surrounded by the lush green cover, the multitude of sounds from unimaginable sources (not all sounds in the forests are those made by animals), the clean surroundings, the inexplicable feeling of breathing in the purest of air… the list could just go on. 

It was peak summer, and April and May are, with a few exceptions, months of summer vacation throughout India. My father returned from work one day and announced we will leave for Nagarhole the coming weekend, with that coming weekend just 2 days away! We all got very excited as this would be a welcome break from the heat and would be just in time before our school was scheduled to reopen in a few days for the new academic year; Also, we hadn’t been to any place during this summer, but then again, this might have been the very reason for Dad to have come up with the plan. In any case, we started looking forward to it and coordinating with the cousins (nine of us were to go on this trip – my family, i.e. my parents, myself andmy brothers Aashish and Anand; and Kapil uncle’s family. Kapil uncle is my father’s first cousin and has 2 children-a son named Amogh and a daughter named Dhwani- then 9 and 5 years old respectively). The next day was spent in packing, and this being my first jungle trip, I had no idea what purpose the torches (flashlights) my dad had packed would serve. Of course, the candles and matches were presumably a precaution against power cuts, and I later found this to be not entirely without reason, as we barely had power for a few hours at our lodge in the jungle. 

Friday finally came, with dad waking us up around 4:30 AM, as we were to leave at 6 O’clock. The Van (A Maruti Omni we owned at the time) had been fueled up and “serviced” the previous day so that it wouldn’t cause problems and unnecessary breakdowns. All packing had been done by Thursday night, except for the few items such as toiletries and footwear which are almost invariably packed in the end, for obvious reasons. We left around 7 however, and were an hour late, as is usually the case with a self-driven journey when one need not fear missing a train or flight and so can afford to take longer making sure every single item that might be needed, has been packed, and nothing forgotten. Half past seven saw us all in the Van (we had picked Kapil uncle and family from their place in Jayanagar on our way) hitting the Bangalore-Mysore Highway. The journey that would bring me in contact with jungles and wildlife for the very first time, and make me discover my passion for wildlife, had begun! At the time, of course, I was unaware of this, and was content with the fact that we had begun our “holiday”. We breakfasted at Kamath’s Lokaruchi Restaurant. Kamath is a very old and cherished chain of restaurants throughout Karnataka. The branch I mention here is approximately midway between Bangalore and Mysore, and is very popular among Bangaloreans and Mysoreans alike; On holidays and weekends people come here - often having to cover a large distance to get here - for the sole purpose having breakfast/lunch and then get back home. I explain these things in detail here by way of introduction, so that when I mention names that are bound to occur in my subsequent narrations, I don’t have to explain about these and can stick to the central theme. 

There are 2 diversions from Mysore – one towards Hunsur, which then leads to Nagarhole, and another towards Bandipur, both these forests being approximately a hundred Kilometres from here. It was this former one that we took, and a few hours later entered the national park. A few kilometers before entrance to this park, one can start noticing changes in the surroundings. To name a few, there are fewer and less dense settlements and more open, vast grass country and fields. The breeze is slightly cooler than a few minutes earlier through the villages and on the highway. Right from the entrance to the national park one can see signs and boards put up, warning visitors against littering, drinking, making noise, sounding of the car horn and playing music while inside the forest. It was while reading one of these signs that dad hit the breaks and the car came to a stop. This was totally new to me! I didn’t understand what had caused him to stop the car, as there was no other vehicle on the road in front of us and no speed-breaker or pot-hole that would explain his action. Even as I was wondering and was about to ask, with a swift action of his hand he indicated that we remain quiet… and then whispered “deer” … “wahaan dekho…” (“look there”). It was the most amazing feeling when I looked at the direction indicated, and saw a herd of spotted deer, that froze in the same pose looking back in our direction - the sound of the car giving us away – for just a fraction of a second as though out of curiosity, and then having identified us they leapt into the bushes and could no longer be seen. I was left with a feeling I cannot explain, taking a moment for it to sink in. It was then that I realized, that for that brief moment when dad had motioned us to silence and asked us to look in the direction of the deer, I was filled not with fear but with excitement, and when I saw them I was amazed, and when the deer had gone into the bushes away from any danger from us, I felt a pang of disappointment that I couldn’t see them for longer. Dad drove on as I started looking out of the window hoping to spot something myself. 

As we went deeper inside the forest we came across more sign-boards strictly prohibiting feeding any animals, leaving the vehicle at any time, walking on foot through the forest, making a fire for any purpose, smoking and drinking, and so on. It is through enforcement of such rules that the wildlife protection agencies have managed to preserve what is left of this once-abundant heritage. I personally encourage everyone to observe these rules (and more) while in any jungle, and play a part in their preservation. Once you reach the reception office and information centre - a large cottage not very different from the other cottages used for visitors - you are welcomed, briefed about the rules again, and shown to your cottage. The ground-floor unit of a cottage named “Gangothri” was allocated to us. This cottage was a duplex structure, with each floor consisting of a central hall and kitchen, and two rooms with attached baths. It had a very homely feeling about it, and Shiv Shetty (the person who showed us to the cottage and was to be our “room attendant” during our stay) assured us that it was very comfortable and he would try his best to cater to us in case we needed anything. After a quick wash, we fell asleep as the setting was so serene and soothing– with absolutely no noise or pollution, the forest so quiet, save for the pleasant rustling of the tree-branches due to the breeze and the chirpings of birds. When I woke up a half hour later I was so refreshed, it felt I had slept a lot longer than that, and started walking around, looking at other cottages and enjoying this surrounding new to me and yet so peaceful and calming. A few minutes later Shiv Shetty served tea and biscuits and we also had the snacks we had brought from home – buttered buns, mixture, chips and the like… it was around four in the evening and we got very excited when Shiv Shetty informed us that the safari is at 5 PM, for which dad had already made reservations while we were taking the afternoon nap. I was nervous at first, not knowing how it’s going to turn out, and at the same time excited about the prospect of seeing animals in the wild for the first time, as prior to this I had only seen them at the zoo. We went on the safari in the forest department’s “safari bus”, a Swaraj Mazda that can accommodate around 20 people. At first the bus was on the same road we had taken while getting there, and when it reached the check-post, the bus took a turn onto a narrow mud-path and into denser jungle. Everyone in the bus was quiet and the slow chugging of the bus made the silence almost tense. The first spotting was a jungle fowl. The driver sighted it and pointed in the direction while bringing the bus to a stop. It was to our right in the bushes, strange looking for a fowl, what with the different shape and the much bulkier body than their more common cousins. I will not use as an excuse the fact that I did not want to waste film on a jungle fowl, as true as that might be – for at the time digital cameras were unheard of and both photographic films and their subsequent development and printing were a costly affair – I will confess, however, that it was all over so quickly that I did not have the time to take the picture, nor the presence of mind to take the camera out and keep it ready beforehand. The bus moved on, with a few people grumbling about it being just a jungle fowl and wanting something bigger and more attractive to the eye. A little further on, I, along with several others, exclaimed “Stop” and again the driver stopped the bus and looked around. We all had seen it clearly enough – on the ground by the bushes was a peacock trotting along, with its long feathers forming a tail looking very beautiful. This time I had the camera ready in hand and took a snap immediately. While everyone was busy looking at the peacock, a person from behind said “aane”(Kannada for “elephant”) and all of us turned. We saw a herd of elephants not very far away, tugging on the leaves of trees. This was a moment of immense excitement for me. Never before had I seen elephants in the wild, and the sheer size of these creatures is enough to intimidate anyone. I easily spent a few clicks on them, zooming in to the maximum extent possible. Dad pointed out by way of teaching me of the ways of the forest, that we had all seen the peacock but had missed the huge elephants that we had just passed. This fact was simply amazing, sounding so fantastic and yet so true. The herd consisted of around five to seven elephants and not a single one of us had seen them until we stopped for the peacock and the person in the back seat noticed them, perhaps just looking around as it might have been difficult for him to see the peacock through so many people in front of him– all standing to have a look as the peacock was along the side of the road but ahead of the bus. On many occasions after this, I have spotted animals that, upon seeing, my friends have wondered how I manage to do it. But as I mentioned, this is the way of the forest, and there have also been occasions when others have had sightings that I have entirely missed. 

It now grew dark and we returned to the cottages. On our way back we did see more deer, and this was a very different experience than one we had had till a few minutes earlier while it was still day. I did not know how we were to see anything, and had put the camera back in its case, when I saw shining spots along the road, a few hundred feet in front of the bus. The driver slowed the bus, and approached very slowly, and as by now we knew the routine, all remained quiet while we got nearer. I was just about to take the camera back out when dad said it would be useless in the dark, in spite of it having a flash. A few more feet and we saw these were deer, their eyes reflecting in the headlights of the vehicle. The thrill that comes out of not knowing what it is that you’re approaching is inexplicable, your mind trying to size up the animal from the height at which the eyes are and so trying to infer what animal it might be. As you get closer, you eliminate possibilities on account of the eyes being too small or too big, too close to the ground or too high, thus indicating what the overall size of the animal might be. This again has come to me over the years, and at the time that I am writing of, the only question in my mind was “what is it” and not “is it a deer, an elephant, a bison perhaps?”... When we were a few feet from them and the bus had almost come to a stop, the deer jumped and crossed the path. In the beam of the headlight the entire bodies of the deer could now be seen, although for just those few seconds that it took them to cross. They looked beautiful, and quite different against the dark background than when you see them in the bushes in a more or less green setting during the day. The males look simply magnificent and it is once you have seen them that you will agree the name “Royal Stag” has not been coined without reason. When they had gone the bus moved forward, and it stopped next when we had reached the information and reception centre. As we got off the bus the driver informed us that dinner would be served at 8PM, and we were not to walk to the dining hall without a torch. In the event we didn’t have one, he said, we were to call our respective room attendants on the telephone, who would then escort us to the dining hall. The “telephone” here, though an actual telephone device, was more by way of an inter-communication line that connected only the cottages and the office (the information centre/ reception), and had no contact whatsoever with anyone outside the forest. The extra precaution about not leaving the cottage without a torch, calling our room attendant to escort us, and so on might seem an exaggerated effort, but once I narrate the happenings of that evening you will realize this was not so. Also, the forest rules state that one is not to leave the cottage for any reason after six in the evening, and since the dining hall was a hall behind the office, and so required us to walk to it, we were asked to observe these precautions. 

In the jungle, the dark has a sense of mystical yet magical beauty. Where a few minutes ago, when the sun was setting, you could hear birds voicing their good-byes before retiring for the day, you can now hear the crickets chirping, a constant metal-like high pitched sound, alternating and synchronized with others crickets, coming to you from different directions. This sends you in a trance-like state, interrupted only by the calling of the peacocks… a distant but clear “aaauuuun” (sounds like the meow of a cat, except is much louder and the second syllable is more emphasized on than the first). Aashish, Anand and I were enjoying these happenings from within the cottage and a few minutes later joined Dad and Kapil uncle who were seated at the doorstep, when we saw a torch light coming towards us from the direction of the office room. As it came closer we recognized the person with the torch to be Shiv Shetty. He asked about our safari and listened with great interest to our account of the ride. This was followed by a warning by him, asking us not to venture out as it was past 6 PM. The same warning coming time and again from everyone made me curious, and I suppose this was the case with Dad too, for he immediately asked Shiv Shetty whether a rogue elephant was in the area. He said there wasn’t, but that elephants, bison and boar do come near the lodge. He narrated some incidents of bears and elephants attacking humans. By this time all of us were out of the cottage, listening to what he was saying, or at least to mum’s translation of it - for most of it was in Kannada -  interspersed with expressions of surprise, shock and fear on her face. He left us thus in fear, asking Kapil uncle to call him around 7:30 to check about dinner. When he was gone Dad went in, got the torch out of the bag, and took us out to the doorstep. He asked us to sit here and remain very quiet. We were there for what felt like 15 minutes, when he turned the torch on and swung the beam around, scanning the wide area in front of us. A few hundred feet ahead we saw shining spots similar to the ones we had seen on the safari! There must’ve been more than a hundred eyes, some frozen while others moving about. All 5 of us – kids – asked him for the torch at once, wanting to try  for ourselves. He had one extra torch, and Kapil uncle had brought one too. That made 3 torches and 5 kids, and we took turns holding the torch and panning it around. I have already mentioned that cameras are next to useless in the jungles at night, except for objects near at hand which the flash will illuminate. When it comes to capturing animals in the dark, even the modern cameras we now have are only slightly better than ones existent at the time I write of, these animals often being more than a few tens of feet away and thus out of range of the flash. Moreover, you wouldn’t want to use the flash when capturing animals, for fear of scaring away the smaller ones like the deer or peacock or angering the larger ones, such as the elephant. So we were content in enjoying what we saw, rather than worrying ourselves about taking a picture, knowing it would be a futile attempt. Kapil uncle pointed to something and we saw a small glowing, flickering light in the tree. No sooner had we seen this than there was another – and another, and we realized these were all over the tree. These were fireflies. I didn’t need an explanation, as I had seen these at “Vidhana Souda” (the lower house of the state legislative assembly) in Bangalore back when its gardens were open to public and was a popular spot for families who spent time here in the evenings. Fireflies are a kind of beetles, their abdomen emitting light due to bio-chemical reactions (this phenomenon is called bioluminescence). I wanted to catch one but the tree was around 30 feet away, and admittedly the setting was scary. It was now 7:30 and Kapil uncle went inside the cottage to call Shiv Shetty on the phone. There was no answer, and this was strange, as we could clearly hear the phone ringing in the office room, just a hundred feet away. There was apparently nobody at the office, as someone would’ve answered the phone in his absence. He called a second time. This time the phone rang, was answered, but nobody on the other side spoke. It appeared the receiver was picked, but hadn’t been spoken into. We thought they were probably busy with the dinner preparation and that maybe the phone line was faulty and left it at that, getting back to admiring fireflies and deer. In a few minutes the phone at the office rang again, unanswered. This call must’ve been made from another cottage. The failure of anyone at the office to answer the phone made us curious, and had it been any other occasion dad would’ve investigated by going over and seeing what’s wrong, but owing to the increased precautions the staff were taking since morning, we decided otherwise, and this turned out to be a wise decision, as we later realized. At 8.15 Dad called the office again. This time Shiv Shetty answered the phone, and without waiting for dad to speak or shoot questions at him, informed him that dinner was ready but that he would come to escort us to the dining hall. Upon telling him that we had torches and so would come by ourselves, he immediately protested, sounding strict and tense at the same time, and said we weren’t to venture out by ourselves. We obeyed, and just the next minute Shiv Shetty was with us, asking us all to move very quietly to the dining hall with him, leading with torch in hand and swinging the torch around several times during the short walk to the dining hall. We then saw that other room attendants too were accompanying their guests in a similar fashion. When all had reached and were seated at the single, long table, the food was laid on it, in pots and hot-cases. While we ate the sumptuous meal and expressed surprise over the extremely delicious food and the variety of items cooked, we noticed there was uneasiness among the attendants and staff. They seemed to be discussing something, almost arguing over it, and it was when a few guests asked what the matter was that one of them started speaking. He said that a leopard arrived at the office’s doorstep around 7:30, perhaps wandering about or deliberately closing in for the dogs, and sat there for a full half hour (dogs are a favourite delicacy among leopards, and often tribals are warned against keeping dogs as pets, for want of avoiding encounters with the wild cat). All conversation ceased as everyone turned towards him, as though under the impression they had misheard what he had said. We were shocked to hear this, as we were right outside our own cottage and the office, as previously mentioned, was just a hundred feet away. We didn’t see the leopard probably because the entrance to the office is on the other side of the building. He was still speaking as these thoughts rushed to my mind, so I decided to first listen to what he had to say before wandering off, and I continued to listen… He said that everyone at the office froze where they were, while a couple of them slipped out from the back exit to check if any guests were on foot and to warn them. This was the reason that the call went unanswered, and Shiv Shetty explained that the second time the phone rang he picked the receiver and kept it aside, with the intention of avoiding unnecessary noise. After a half hour the leopard went away, as casually as it had strolled to the office. So this was why Shiv Shetty had insisted on escorting us himself, despite us having torches, which would otherwise be safe, as the safari driver had earlier told us!

I do not exactly remember whether it was upon hearing this that my love for the Jungle (which had begun just the same afternoon) deepened, or whether by this time I was already neck deep in it. What I do remember however, is the mixed expressions of shock, fear and excitement that came from everyone present. 

The rest of the meal was eaten in neither silence nor praises for the food, but in excited discussions on the piece of information that had just been divulged to us. After dinner, people seemed hesitant to head back to their cottages, which was understandable given that the leopard that had been so dangerously close to us an hour ago, could still be in the vicinity. It was after much convincing on the part of the forest officials that people agreed to get back, led by their respective attendants in the same manner in which they were escorted to the hall. 

Reluctant to go to sleep early, Aashish and I stayed up well into the night, engrossed in discussing the evening’s events. There was a pause in our conversation when one of us noticed that the sounds outside, which seemed so pleasant and calming in the evening, had now an unknown, almost scary element about them. No birds chirping now, and no peacocks around. What you can hear, though, is the constant chirping of crickets, and the sound of the breeze rustling through the foliage. This latter sound remarkably resembles white noise, the sound of a waterfall, giving one the impression of the presence of one nearby. This however, is not limited to the night, for the same is true during the day as well. In any case, we decided to finally retire, and it was when I was trying to put the day’s thoughts aside for want of catching some sleep when Aashish nudged me and asked, “Do you hear that?” I jumped up with excitement and asked “What...”. He motioned me to silence. I heard nothing for a moment, but in the very next one there it was- a distant but clear growling sound, almost like a roar, except, one that’s coming from very far away. I felt like screaming out with joy and fear at the same time, controlling myself only on account of the fact that everyone was asleep and that I did not want to wake them up, causing unnecessary panic. We continued to listen- again there was nothing for a couple of seconds, followed by the exact same sound we had heard before. We were convinced it must be a lion (of course, we weren’t aware then that there are no lions in this part of the country) and I fetched the torch from the bag, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever was causing it. We both went to the window and flipped the torch on. We saw many deer, right outside the window grazing and few of them looking towards us curiously. Aashish’s expression changed completely at this point- from awe and fear of the unknown to a completely disappointed one, combined with a grin, as he pointed inside the room and I turned and saw nothing but the table fan in the direction he indicated. For one moment I didn’t quite understand as I saw nothing out of the ordinary. The fan was turning to one side and when it had spanned one side it would begin spanning back. And sure enough, it did start spanning in the other direction, except, when it did, the old metal framework made a dragging sound – the sound that was the source of our lion’s roar a few moments earlier! We had a hearty laugh at ourselves and went back to bed. But I would like to highlight an important point here- about how we lead ourselves to imagine things completely fantastic at the slightest chance in an unfamiliar setting. Of course, at the time of writing this book I am wiser than I was then, but it is impossible to avoid such false impressions in the jungle entirely, and even to this day it is not uncommon for sounds to play such tricks on my mind occasionally.

The next morning we woke up early for the safari, and had a wonderful time- In addition to the deer, elephant, peacock and other game we had seen the day before, we spotted the albino bison! The albino bison, was at the time, the only known individual bison in Asia that was white in color all over. It was just a calf and not fully grown, and so was accompanied by its mother. The white color is really the lack of any colour, which is caused by a disorder called albinism. Also, I should mention, that by “bison” I am referring to the Indian Gaur, which is commonly (albeit wrongly) called Bison across India. The calf I talk about resembled a normal cow rather than a bison, but knowing the fact that we were looking at an only individual in the continent was what had made the sighting so remarkable. After the safari we had breakfast at the dining hall, which brought people together to again discuss the previous night’s events, only this time it was with excitement and as something unbelievable, and not in fear. 

It was Kapil uncle’s and Seema aunty’s Wedding Anniversary and we had heard from Shiv Shetty of a waterfall nearby, so after breakfast we left for this place - the “Kutta Waterfall”, which is in the Kutta village, the nearest town to Nagarhole at just a few Kilometers from here. We had a very nice time there, and while returning Dad found some very good chocolate milk and plum cake at a small shop, which added to our celebrations of the day. The day was our last of this short trip and we spent the rest of it at our cottage, listening to Shiv Shetty’s narrations of the happenings around the area, encounters with animals, and so on. That night we were served dinner by him and his wife in the verandah of their home, which again was another cottage next to the “office” and not very different from our own. We were really touched by the warmth, hospitality and humility of both husband and wife, which had gone a long way in adding to the great experience (and my first) of the Jungle. We left for Bangalore late next morning, spotting animals and birds on the way back right till the boundaries of the national park, relishing every moment while we still could before getting back to the hustle of the city. Just before leaving the gates of the forest, I said “Stop! I think I saw something….” 

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