Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back to the wild....yet again!

Divali was the ideal time to escape to the peace and beauty of the jungles--K.Gudi and Bandipur of course, as my friends know! So I will not repeat the details, but just give you brief account of the memorable 4 days! A comfortable Volvo bus to Mysore, then by cab to K.Gudi, to be given a warm welcome by our old friend, naturalist Lokesh. The time before lunch was spent enjoying the sight of a tusker Sriram being bathed in the adjacent pond! Soon, we met the manager Ashish, who had taken a group of visitors to see a local tribal village. It was interesting to hear that he is an engineer by profession, but shifted careers to pursue his passion--wildlife. He has a site, www.livingintothewild.com, dedicated to the wild denizens of K.Gudi! The safaris with Lokesh and Ashish were enjoyable as usual, though most of the animals stayed away, due to the steady and intermittent drizzle. Ashish and the veteran driver, Thapa (who I mentioned in the last post) showed us a number of bird species on the big gulmohur tree in the resort. On the second day, Lokesh took us to the Ranganathaswamy temple atop the hill, the Soliga tribal village and the medicinal plants nursery adjacent to the forest department office. It was an immensely enriching day--and very encouraging to see the progress in the village. The 2 nights at K.Gudi passed all too soon, and we set off for Bandipur, where the rain dogged our footsteps! This time we stayed at the Bison cottage, the last one on the edge, and enjoyed the solitude. Once again, we met Sunita Dhairam, who I've written about earlier, (and who had painted the bison, apart from the other cottages!) and were once again awestruck by the incredible service she does for humans and animals alike. The safaris with Basavanna were enjoyable, though here too the animals chose to remain invisible, except the most gorgeous peacock, who remained motionless as our jeep stopped next to him! The other interesting episode Basavanna releasing a cobra near the dam; he had caught it earlier near his home! The 2 days again passed too soon, and we were back at Mysore, boarding a bus back to the chaotic and drab city. Till the next trip!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A taste of the wild!

Our combined trip to Bandipur (the fourth!) and K.Gudi (first!) was immensely rewarding. The Bandipur trip entailed the usual stay at Bandipur Safari Lodge, with the highlight being the safaris with Basavanna…my regular readers know all about it. For the latest, see http://colorsofindia-nita.blogspot.com/2010/08/its-bandipur-safari-once-more.html
Then on to K.Gudi wilderness camp, in the BRT (Biligiri Rangana Temple) sanctuary limits, 3500 ft above sea level. (It was very kind of Basavanna to offer to accompany us—a holiday experience is always heightened by good company! I suspect he must be quite tired of my shooting questions at him all the time for info for my articles!! But he is indeed like my son, and always humors me with his usual patience and good cheer!) BRT sanctuary is a unique site of breathtaking beauty—a blend of a hill station and wildlife sanctuary—with hills and valleys and forests, and the place where the Western and Eastern Ghats meet. The highlight of the journey was spotting a leopard gracefully sauntering down the road within sight of the resort! Unfortunately, Basavanna's camera was tucked away in his backpack in the luggage compartment, and the leopard suddenly caught sight of our car and disappeared down the edge of the road, melting into the vegetation.

The K.Gudi camp (like the Bandipur Lodge, run by Jungle lodges) is quite unique--accommodation includes rooms at the Maharaja’s hunting Lodge, log huts (on stilts) and tented cottages—we opted for the latter, and loved it. There are set in the most scenic landscape, with pretty little paths. The tented cottage is spacious, beautiful and well maintained, with a modern bathroom, pretty curtains and a superb view of the forests beyond. Electricity is provided by generators from 6 pm to 10.30, but really, one is tempted to switch off the lights much earlier, such is the beauty of the night in a forest, as is the line of hurricane lamps that burn through the night (to keep away wild animals). Indeed, chital and sambar and wild boar roam near the cottages, and predators are not far behind. Macaque monkeys swing from the branches in gay abandon!

There are hammocks close to the cottages, and the customary Jungle lodges trademark--the “gol ghar” (dining area as in Bandipur) with the usual lavish buffets! (There is a mini-kitchen adjoining it to prepare instant items like chapattis and omelets). We enjoyed the view and company of Basavanna and Lokesh (his friend and naturalist there) even more than the sumptuous menu! The stunning view of the jungles (and chital grazing at the edge) tempts one to linger there long after meal times! Sitting on the ledge is as close as one get to nature while enjoying a meal! However, what drew me away to the other side was the sight of elephants bathing, being scrubbed by their mahouts and then being fed! For there is a small pond adjacent to the camp, and the forest department elephant camp too--for me, this is the most attractive USP of the place!

The program at K.Gudi is similar to Bandipur—safaris into the jungle in the early morning and evening and a wildlife movie in the evening. A spacious hall in the main lodge is the venue for the movies, and we saw an excellent one called “Truth about tigers”. There is also a counter for selling products (like honey) made by tribals. While it rained heavily the first evening, table tennis matches were on, with the naturalists and visitors joining in! We were also happy to meet Ashwin, a friend of Basavanna’s, and learn that he’s there on a project documenting the mammals seen in the sanctuary. It’s so refreshing to see people following their passion in life!

We went on safaris with the seasoned Thapa,(who had interesting anecdotes to tell!) and Lokesh, the expert in-house naturalist, and of course, Basavanna, who is not just a great naturalist, but like family, and always takes good care of us. It was very nice meeting Lokesh too, a very nice person and good host at the camp and for the safari. For the BRT safari, see http://colorsofindia-nita.blogspot.com/2010/08/following-trails-of-veerappan_25.html The forest department office, where one has to register before the safari, has some interesting exhibits.

The next morning, after breakfast, we drove up to the Ranganathaswamy temple (dedicated to Lord Vishnu), thanks to Basavanna, who seems to be popular even with the priests there! It is an ancient temple, a pilgrimage center for over 500 years. Situated atop a hill it affords a panoramic view, but I was too intimidated by the troops of monkeys to even take out the camera!! They are adept at snatching packets and then speedily clambering up poles! On the way back, we stopped at the Vivekananda Kendra (a complex with a school, hospital etc) for tribal welfare, to buy some locally made honey.

There is another small temple adjacent to and belonging to the resort, dedicated to the local tribal god--this Kyathadevarayana temple lends its name to K.Gudi! Across the road are the houses of the forest department staff.

The evening before we were to leave was a constant background sound of alarm calls by sambar, very close to the golghar. The two naturalists went off to investigate, much to my consternation! But they were soon back, without being able to spot anything in the pitch darkness. It is unsafe to remain outdoors after the lights are out, so we retired to the cottage. The calls carried on intermittently all night, and I kept looking out through the netted windows in the hope of seeing some animal! Suddenly, in the pre-dawn darkness, there was a loud thudding of hooves, followed by the sound of heavier feet---maybe a predator pursuing its prey?

All too soon, it was time to leave, and after a last look at an elephant enjoying a bath and another lazily munching grass, while a third broke logs according to the mahout’s instructions, we set off for the return journey. On the way, we saw a changeable hawk eagle sitting by the roadside, identified as a juvenile by Basavanna, though it looked big enough when it took flight! We dropped Basavanna off at Chamarajnagar to take a bus back to Gundlepet en route to Bandipur, before carrying on to Bangalore and back to reality! For the break was truly the stuff dreams are made of! We’re already planning the next trip!

For slide shows and detailed articles on K.Gudi and BRT sanctuary, please see

It's Bandipur (safari) once more!

I have described previous safaris at Bandipur in detail, so my regular readers know that we always go with Basavanna—not just the best naturalist but the finest human being, and our good friend.

However, the last trip was special! As the dawn broke through and the fresh mountain air accompanied us for the morning safari, we spotted a mother-calf elephant pair near the highway, and that was joy enough!

Little did we know what a magnificent sight awaited us soon after-- Basavanna’s favorite tigress Gowri! Who allowed us to feast our eyes on her for a leisurely 15 minutes.

There was the usual meeting with elephants (and a mock charge), deer, gaur, sambar, langur and beautiful birds, including a rare nocturnal Eurasian Eagle owl.

In between, we stopped at the anti-poaching camp in the jungle (where Basavanna has friends to whom he regularly takes extra provisions, such is his kindness) and enjoyed the most delicious “black” tulsi tea!

The night before I had asked about the Moyar Gorge, and next morning, Basavanna, in his quiet and thoughtful way, just took us to the very picturesque site.

A stark reminder of the plight of animals was seeing a chital eating some plastic littered on the highway.

On this trip, the other enriching experience was meeting Sunita Dhairyam. (please scroll down to read about her :Where angels fear to tread.....)which also led me to the interesting souvenir shop near the forest reception center.

Waiting for the next trip!

For more pictures of Gowri, see
And for excellent photos, Basavanna’s page at

Following the trails of Veerappan!

From Bandipur, we visited the K.Gudi Wilderness camp, within the limits of a wildlife sanctuary. (See http://colorsofindia-nita.blogspot.com/2010/08/fun-at-wilderness-camp.html

The BRT wildlife sanctuary is thickly forested with deciduous and evergreen trees, and was once home to the notorious brigand Veerapan (as was also Bandipur!) It boasts of varied wildlife—elephants, gaur, wild boar, chital, barking deer and the elusive tiger and leopard, with superb views of the misty BR hills. It is also a bird watcher’s paradise, hosting more than 270 species like Malabar whistling thrush, scarlet minivet, Malabar parakeet, woodpecker, and owls and eagles.

Our safaris with Thapa, the old driver who has been at K.Gudi for 13 years, was enjoyable, though he felt his reputation had suffered since he couldn’t “show” us a tiger!! It is refreshing to see the kind of passion people in these places have for wildlife and bring to their work. We were able to reassure him that it did not matter, as we had had a good view of a leopard sauntering down the main road as we were approaching the camp that afternoon! Basavanna being with us for all the safaris made them special, like the safaris at Bandipur (minus Gowri the tigress, of course!)

The in-house naturalist Lokesh is a good host and also took us for very enjoyable safaris. It is creditable how he maneuvered the heavy vehicle with (weighty!) passengers on dirt paths, rendered even more inaccessible after the rains. The narrow winding hill paths sometimes have to be cleared of fallen trees. Traveling up the hills with a sheer drop on one side and a sublime view of the misty, blue hills is an indescribable experience.

We stopped at a water hole known to be visited by tigers, and though alarm calls were heard, the lord of the jungle eluded us! (Of course, that could have been due to a noisy family party who came in another jeep!) We too had a very excitable gentleman in our party, who almost yelled out in excitement at the sight of a lone deer, and even got off a couple of times, much to the consternation of the naturalists, since it is against the rules of a safari.

We spotted plenty of chital, barking deer (which we had not seen at Bandipur), some gaur, a lone elephant at a distance and a variety of birds. As I always say, sighting animals is a bonus; the jungle has its own magic and so much more to offer!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where angels fear to tread........

I had ended one of my earlier posts, http://colorsofindia-nita.blogspot.com/2010/04/snippets-from-bandipur_19.html
with a wish “I hope to meet her someday”! My wish came true last week, when thanks to Basavanna (my regular readers know him as our good friend and finest naturalist in Bandipur) I finally met Sunita Dhairyam, popularly known as Sunni. We drove through some rough village roads and non-existent ones over fields to reach her artistically designed house, (amidst scenic surroundings) in Mangala village, Bandipur. We were welcomed by the concerted barks of eight dogs of all sizes and breeds—and later heard that they were all abandoned and found a loving home with her. The petite and attractive lady who greeted us warmly seemed so unassuming that though I had heard of her achievements from Basavanna, hearing the details from her strengthened my belief that our country is full of unsung heroes/heroines who make a difference, quietly, simply because of their passion and commitment to a cause/causes. A lone woman fighting all odds single handedly, Sunita has truly reached “where angels fear to tread”--I honestly cannot think of another person that I know who has done what she has. A humanitarian, wildlife lover, conservationist and immensely talented artist are just some of the terms that describe her, but what is even greater are her courage, determination and passion to fulfill her dreams. Many of us may have the passion or urge to do something, but not the courage or grit to follow through

This is her story in brief.

She had a passion for the wild from childhood, and her immense artistic talent is God gifted, without any formal training. Her aunt is a wildlife photographer, while her grandmother was a wildlife artist in Bangalore. Sunita lived in Zambia as a child, returned to school in hometown Bangalore, then Shimla and college at Delhi. Back to Bangalore and a short stint at Kabini River Lodge (also a Jungle Lodges resort) before leaving for US. Ten interesting years there, as a freelance artist working on murals in diverse locations like the Stillwater theater in Minnesota, and the Bilibong sports bar in Bloomington, near Minneapolis. The latter being a center for the Hmong community (from S.E. Asia), there was a popular weekend farmers’ market, which allowed Sunita to display her creativity with items like hand painted wine glass sets!

In 1995, she returned to India, and in September, bought land in Mangala village, Bandipur, then one of the haunts of the infamous brigand Veerapan. Then began a long and ardous struggle to build on it and establish herself in a man’s world (and the journey continues!) due to her own determination and her mother’s encouragement. Thanks to the support of officials of the forest department, she took up odd painting assignments while overseeing the building of a room to live in. For a whole year, there was no electricity or running water, but she did not give up, despite the hostility of some (even prominent) people around. She also took up the paintings in the Bandipur Safari Lodges cottages (under Jungle Lodges & Resorts)—actually, this was my first introduction to her! Since we stayed in the elephant cottage (see photo) painted by her, (with matching motifs on the linen and curtains) I asked Basavanna about the artist and was astounded by what he told me, and requested him to fix a meeting with her on my next visit.
The tiger, leopard and gaur cottages are equally impressive. Incidentally, the elephant took 3 months to be completed, difficult as it was to work intermittently, only when there were no guests. It was also an ardous task, considering the height and size of the wall---the outline of the elephant was done earlier, and the details filled in later, while the background was done free hand. A close up of the painting leaves one incredulous and speechless! Sunita spent two years completing the paintings for Jungle Lodges. (see http://colorsofindia-nita.blogspot.com/2010/08/amazing-creations-by-sunita-dhairyam.html

In 2006, she set up the Mariamma Charitable Trust, with Shree Devi and (Late) Dr. A.R.Pai (who had earlier set up a free clinic with Sunita's help under their organization Ammembal Medical Charities).

Her work now encompasses a number of areas, the main thrust being the improvement of the lives of the villagers around (from 15 “dung” villages, including 7 tribal hamlets), conservation and minimizing man-animal conflict, so common in areas close to forests like the Bandipur National park. The trust compensates villagers for any loss suffered from wild animals, to discourage them from harming the animals. She hopes to provide facilities and build a community that will live in harmony with and respect the rights of animals. Apart from providing medical aid to the villagers, Sunita seeks to empower and uplift youngsters by helping poor students to get an education. She tries to raise awareness of sustainable living for farmers, and hopes that more solar fences will prevent the human-elephant conflict that results in fatalities for both.

Twice a year, she undertakes immunization (at a huge cost) of rural dogs for birth control and to prevent the spread of diseases like rabies. This serves a twofold purpose: prevent the growth of numbers of village dogs, and lessen the impact of their diseases on wildlife. The number of dogs attended to during the last drive was 93! She is helped in this venture by IPAN (Indian project for animals and nature), who have trained personnel like dog catchers.

Sunita has employed a local boy to help her in the administration, and has the unstinting support and admiration of the people around, which allows her to carry on successfully despite the lack of support and even hostility of vested parties in the area. A sad comment on our society!

Sunita decided to use her innate skills to design and sell products to finance her projects, and so Temple Tree Designs was born in 2006. She conceives a product from start to finish, with the first sketches to the final product manufactured in Tirupur, near Coimbatore. (This indomitable lady has even spent 3 months in a factory learning the ropes!) Today she has a vast range of artistic products (with wildlife motifs)—t shirts, jackets, key chains, jackets, mugs, durees, table mat sets etc, and is now launching towels. These are available (along with items like photos and paintings by local artists) at the Souvenir shop near the Bandipur Forest Reception center. (see photos and http://colorsofindia-nita.blogspot.com/2010/08/amazing-creations-by-sunita-dhairyam.html

Sunita works out of a pretty little “office” which bears the unmistakable stamp of her creativity and passion. As we sat sipping coffee in her artistically decorated little veranda with a scenic view, and listened to Sunita’s experiences (with one of her dogs happily nuzzling up to her!) I realized that whatever I say will fall far short of what she has achieved, single handedly, with incredible passion, grit and perseverance, choosing the path less taken in favor of a comfortable life anywhere else in the world. We can do our bit by not just admiring her, but giving support in whatever little way we can., for it is only people like her who champion the cause of the marginalized population and voiceless animals, both of which are integral to the fabric of our lives.

Look for details of Sunita’s work and other background information on the site

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