Wednesday, 20 April 2011

India 2011: Bandipur National Park


By an odd coincidence, the same company that owned and ran our hotel in Mysore had recently acquired the hotel that we booked in Bandipur National Park, so on Day 10 we left one Windflower Resort, drove 2 hours, then checked into another. Because it was located in the middle of a national park, Windflower 2 was not quite as "resort-y" as Windflower 1--sadly, there were no Ayurvedic massages on offer, or any wi-fi or television--but the facilities were just as nice. In fact, our cabin had been refitted so recently that you could still faintly smell the paint and wood glue, and it was just as beautiful--in a more rustic, "comfortable" way--than our lodgings at Windflower 1:


Also, though photographs do not do it justice (and, hence, are not shown here), the bathroom was lovely, with skylights and neat little Chinese rock garden-like areas on either side of the shower. The only thing that was subpar was the view off our back porch; the property was obviously still a work in progress, and our "back yard" was rather denuded and a bit rough. Even so, it was a cool, quiet place to sit in the shade, and of course birds don't judge aesthetics the same way that we do, so it was also a good place to watch the feathered wildlife.

Within a few minutes of our arrival, we had managed to make friends with one of the dogs that lived on the hotel property; they weren't quite strays, since they lived there permanently and were tolerated by the hotel staff (likely because they would offer a timely warning of the presence of any tigers), but they were also not domestic in the Western sense of the word. Most especially, they were not animals that ever got much from people--most of all love or attention. All my husband had to do was say "Hello there!" in a friendly sort of way after being surprised by one young dog who had been hiding under a chair by the pool, and he earned a friend for life. She was young enough that she hadn't yet grown in to her oversized paws, but old enough that she knew she wasn't allowed to follow us into our cabin or the outdoor eating area. But she was content to sit on our porch and wait for us to come back out and give her some love; in fact, she curled up and slept in one of our porch chairs all night.

The pool, in addition to serving as a nice spot to make canine friends, was also a good place to spend an afternoon soaking up rays, which we did pretty much every day during our stay in Bandipur. It was the first time either of us had ever gone swimming in an "infinity pool." I didn't really feel as though I could keep on swimming to the horizon, but it still was kind of neat to have a more unobstructed view of the woods around our park.


Another interesting feature of our hotel was that it was in the path of at least one herd of cattle, who walked through the property on their way to the feeding ground every morning, and then back again late in the afternoon. It was weird to be sitting on the porch of our luxury hotel room, and then suddenly see a cow meander past, occasionally stopping to grab a mouthful of greenery.


Of course, when your hotel is situated in the middle of a national park, there is bound to be some interesting wildlife in addition to all the domestic animals. Every night after the porch light came on, geckos came out to perch on our walls and hunt. They also bark, which I didn't know until my husband pointed out that the noises I'd interpreted as some sort of frog or nocturnal bird were actually male geckos having vocal duels. Who knew? There were other reptiles running around near our cabin, including some brightly-colored agamids that I tried, but failed, to photograph one morning. To my surprise, when we went to lunch a couple hours later, we ran into a very large male of the same species I'd seen earlier, lounging photogenically outside the restaurant:


The restaurant was also a favorite spot for the local house crows, who obviously knew that many tasty snacks were to be had at the end of the meals (or even sometimes in the middle of them, if the diners turned their heads for a moment). My husband and I had a good time watching the crows coordinate with each other--often one pioneering individual would show up and deliver a bizarre and highly variable vocal performance; this attracted friends, who would perch in various spots around (and sometimes inside) the restaurant, eagerly watching for an opportunity to sneak off with leftovers. More often than not, all they got was a half-full package of butter, which they seemed to like better than nothing at all.


While we were in Bandipur, we saw rain for the first time since our arrival in India. Rather than being a disappointment or an inconvenience, this was actually kind of nice; the dramatic downpours--sometimes with rumbles of thunder--were a refreshing alternative to the annoying misty rain that we always get in the UK. The days could also get quite hot in Bandipur, and the cool breezes that accompanied the precipitation felt very pleasant.

Over the course of two days, we took 3 driving safaris and 1 hike, yielding a total of 2 dhole (wild dogs), 3 elephants, a half dozen mongooses, a couple gaur (bison), a few hundred chital (spotted deer), a barking deer, a dozen wild boar, several sambars, and lots of birds. We didn't encounter any leopards or tigers, but even though that was a possibility, it wasn't really something that we expected. Our evening safaris were quite pleasant because all the vegetation in the park took on a lovely golden hue in the setting sun. This was also the only time that we saw elephants. The morning safaris were more exciting because that was when the animals were most active--we could both see and hear them much more easily. Unfortunately, morning is also when my bladder is most active, and during our first AM safari I finally had to hop out of our jeep to find a place to pee. As was the case with my experience in the Masai Marai in Kenya, peeing in the bush was a rather daunting task given the very real possibility that a large, hungry, predatorial cat might be lurking in the shadows. Luckily, the park was full of deep holes that had evidently been installed to catch rainwater during the monsoon season. I was able to jump down into one of these and relieve myself out in the open, yet still out of sight of my safari-mates. It was a lot better than crouching behind the bumper of the vehicle, I can tell you that. I'm just glad I could continue my trend of urinating in the field on every continent I've visited; I'd hate to have a trip where I couldn't indulge in that little pleasure.

During our first two safaris, we shared a jeep with other tourists; on the first night it was two American engineers who were staying at our hotel after attending a conference in Bangalore, and on the second night it was a family that had traveled to Bandipur from elsewhere in India. Everybody was quite pleasant and we shared stories about our travels and passed on whatever wildlife ID information we could offer. All the same, it was a pleasant surprise to get a jeep all to ourselves during our final safari. This offered me the opportunity to ask the driver to stop so I could do some birdwatching--something I feel too guilty to ask for when there are other people around who are likely to be much less interested in avian wildlife than I am. As was the case with the safari drivers in Kenya, our Indian guides were very focused on the macro wildlife (elephants and tigers, in particular), but were quite happy to linger for birds after we made it clear that those were just as interesting to us. Unfortunately, one side effect of this was that the drivers then paused in front of nearly every peacock we passed, and there was a seemingly infinite supply of those in the park:


As had been the case in Kenya, I developed an affection for the porcine wildlife, which are so ugly you can't help but love them:


Lest anyone think I am single-minded, I had better state that I was looking out for interesting plants, as well. Unfortunately, Bandipur is so dominated by invasive lantana (a plant that is causing habitat problems throughout much of India, in fact) that it was often the only species I could see. However, one notable species was the aptly-named "flame of the forest":

(If you look closely, you might just be able to spot a bonnet macaque sitting amidst the flowers.)

Our walking safari was something that we stumbled into, so to speak, after the American engineers told us that one had been arranged for their group. Evidently this was not something that was routinely done, but the hotel staff were nothing if not accommodating, and they volunteered to throw something together for us, as well. We wound up going with another family who were staying at the Windflower just a couple cabins away from us. After a few minutes of chatting while we walked, we discovered that we had an unanticipated social connection: The cousin of the wife/mother was someone who worked at the IISC and was scheduled to meet with my husband after our return to Bangalore. What were the chances? One of the two children in the family was a budding biologist, so my husband took special care to point out all the wildlife he knew and tell her about the more interesting aspects of their life histories.

It was, yet again, a lovely evening to be out and about. With the exception of a couple waterbirds, we didn't see too many new species, but it was pleasant to enjoy the countryside on foot rather than in a vehicle. We also had some illuminating cultural experiences. Our destination was a local watering hole, and on our way there we walked through a small village. The people were in the midst of tending their lifestock and cooking dinner, so we got a small taste of what "real" life is like for a vast portion of the Indian population.

(A shepherdess pumping water for her goats and cow. One of the female goats--possibly the one on the far left--had a couple of kids that kept jostling into position for a suckle. They were ridiculously cute, prompting us to stop for the photo op. I would love to know what was going through the villagers' minds as they watched us photograph livestock. A rough equivalent would be if Indian tourists to the UK took pictures of the deli or dairy section at the grocery store. After all, what we might think of as a "pet" is what they use to get milk and meat.)

Between the village and the watering hole was a small ranger station, where we were told that we couldn't go any further. Our local guide informed us that the ranger was worried that we might be in danger of experiencing wildfires. However, he also indicated (although everyone but me seemed to know already) that this was just an excuse to put us in the position to offer a bribe. Sure enough, after a few bills had exchanged hands, the ranger reconsidered and waved us onwards. I can't imagine living in a country where bribery is routine (though it is much less routine in India now than it was in the past); think of the things you'd never be able to do if you didn't have enough money, and all the things that would suddenly become possible if you did.

On the way home from the walk, I found myself walking with our guide, who spoke very little English. However, he painstakingly managed to put together enough words to ask me about what it was like to travel to India from the UK. He also inquired whether "the Sir" and I ("the Madam") had any children. When I told him "no," he asked if it was because I "had the job." At first, I thought he said I had "done a good job" (which I interpreted as an odd joke), but then I realized that he was asking whether I had no children because I had chosen to work instead. I found that question to be very revealing of life in modern India, where women are increasingly foregoing families (or, at least, starting them much later) in order to establish a career. In other words, it's becoming very Western in that respect.

During this conversation, our party picked up an additional member--another young, friendly, and ridiculously needy dog. Although she started out tagging along with the kids in our group, she must have used her canine canniness to discern which among us was weakest; she soon was cuddling up to my husband and I. She was in for a rude awakening once we reached Windflower, where the resident dogs quickly established their dominance. Rather than see her come to any harm, my husband and I escorted her safely to the edge of the premises so she could escape without any damage.

However, when I ventured out early the next morning in order to do some birding, who should I spy running towards me but that very same dog, who'd obviously passed whatever test was necessary to earn her place at Windflower. Like her predecessor (whom I'd dubbed "Friend #1"), Friend #2 was eager to sit with us on the porch and receive some attention and affection:


If you love animals, which I do, it is very difficult to go to developing countries and see so many feral cats and dogs. It is especially painful when you observe how desperate they are to bond with someone and loyally follow at his/her feet, without asking any questions. More than once, I fantasized about arranging veterinary care and relocation to the UK.

After a while, Friend #2 reattached herself to our walking companions from the previous night, which was convenient because my husband and I needed to go to breakfast and were worried that she would try to follow us in. After breakfast, we walked down to the pool to have a peek at a strange toad I had seen there earlier in the morning; there, we stumbled across Friend #1. Unfortunately, we could only spare a few minutes of attention, because we were due to start the long taxi ride back to Bangalore.

On the way out of the park, we stopped near the ranger station so I could photograph one of the huge abandoned termite mounds out front. I hopped out of the car in order to get a closer shot, then received a surprise when I turned to go back:

(Bonnet macaque lounging in the luggage rack of our taxi.)

At first she was sitting on the hood of the car, but after "decorating" it, she relocated to the roof, from which she could bend over and stick her face through the open window. She seemed very unperturbed by my presence, and didn't even look at me as I cautiously edged closer. Because she was perched over the back seat door, I had to stand right next to her, and then bend underneath her, in order to get into the car. I was a little worried that eventually she would get alarmed by my proximity and then become violent, but these worries were unfounded. In fact, she didn't even seem to care when the driver started the engine and began pulling back onto the road; only at the last minute did she lazily hop off the car and wander over to the side of the road. This encounter capped a very animal-filled morning, which provided a fitting finale to our equally animal-filled stay in Bandipur.

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Coming up: long journeys by taxi, on foot, and by air


9 comments:

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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