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ISSUE OF MARCH 2006 
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A walk in the wilderness

The most famous resident of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, the wild elephant, remained elusive to Achal Dhruva but his forays on foot in the outskirts of the reserve were much more rewarding

“Saar, leopard," the security guard screamed from the steps of the reception area of Country Vacations Bush Betta and disappeared. Prashant Shanbagh, the resort manager and I rushed out to find a motley group of 15-odd staff members scrambling to one area of the property. We joined the bunch and on the trot deciphered from their excited jabber that a leopard had been sighted near a watering hole at the edge of the resort.

I had never witnessed a leopard sighting and was therefore too charged to bother about the practicalities like it was twilight and the ruckus we were creating as a result of so much excitement, would surely disgust even an elephant, leave alone a leopard.

Panting hard, I found myself to be among the first few to reach the spot. To my dismay, I could not sight any leopard but we did see some clear pugmarks trailing from the edge of the water and disappearing into the bushes. We later found out that someone outside the staff quarters had sighted an animal standing on a mound of mud near the watering hole. They observed the animal for ten minutes unsure whether it was a leopard or just a dog. They finally gave a call of a leopard.

This was no chance occurrence; Shanbagh explained that the leopard, a young male, had been sighted at the watering hole and around the property quite often since it was his home range. He later went on to narrate, much to my envy, his many encounters of the leopard.

Getting There

By Air: Nearest Airport is Bangalore 210 km away.

By Rail: Bangalore is the closest railhead.

By Road: Mysore is 80 km away and all KSRTC buses to Ooty pass through the Reserve. The bus journey is approximately two and half-hours.

Best Time to Visit: The Reserve is one of the few Wildlife Sanctuaries in the country, which is open round the year. January-May and September and October are the best months.

Climate: Temperatures range between 18-35 degree Celsius from March-October and between 10-28 degree Celsius from November-February.


Walking around the resort
All Pics: Achal Dhruva

Usual suspects: herd of chittals (spotted deer)
Misty beauty of Bandipur Tiger Reserve
Stream plunging into Mauers Ditch
View from Gopal Swamy Betta
Bush Betta Resort
Jungle View
Langoor langour

Comfort Zone

It was my first night at Country Vacations Bush Betta, the maiden foray of Country Club (India) Ltd in wildlife tourism. Bush Betta, located four kilometres off the Mysore-Ooty highway and the main gate of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, is to resort to a cliché as pretty as a postcard. Surrounded by fields, bushes, ponds and pockets of thick foliage with small hills as its backdrop, (a hill in local language is called Betta) the property is a cozy nook of comfort amidst thick wilderness.

As a result, one is sure to chance upon the usual suspects like the chital (spotted deer), peacocks, wild boars, rabbits and langoors all around the property, especially the road leading to the highway. The luckier ones have even sighted elephants, wild dogs, sloth bears and of course leopards.

The run-in with a huge wild boar on the cobbled path of the resort raised my expectations of the night jeep safari. The boar and I had a moment as we stared hard at each other, when it finally gave a disgruntled grunt and vanished into the foliage. As it turned out, it was just a beginner's luck and the two-hour safari did not have any exciting sightings except rabbits - quite a few of them actually - a herd of chitals and an owl staring down at us from a branch, probably tut-tutting about our luckless trip.

Still No Luck

Although the evening and the night safaris did not prove fruitful as far as sightings were concerned, they were thrilling due to the sheer experience of off-roading through the jungle. I was hoping to see some wild elephants; Sanjay, the activity manager driving us around, had informed us that a herd had been reported in the vicinity a few days ago. But luck was still eluding us as were the wild animals. And they did so for the entire three days that I was there.

I couldn't visit Kathenbara, a 100-foot high perennial waterfall, five kilometres drive away and half a kilometre easy climb since a herd of wild elephants had set up camp on the path. Even the solitary one-hour morning safari that I took inside the reserve did not yield any results. The safari by van covers 10-15 kilometres and there are about seven different routes in the tourist zone of the reserve.

Any more dreams that I might have nurtured of frantically taking photographs with my brand new Canon Rebel EOS200 seemed to fade away as we spotted nothing more than a few chitals - partially hidden in the foliage. Crestfallen, I didn't attempt another round of safari. Besides, there was no point in looking at wildlife from a van and the forest department jeeps were all booked due to the Christmas weekend.

Unfortunately, Bush Betta was still awaiting its license to operate its own jeeps in the reserve and I had to be satisfied with a darshan of the tame tuskers of the forest department. I decided to try my luck at the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary about 35-odd kilometres away from here in Tamil Nadu on the way to Ooty. But finding too many people for my comfort, I drove on to Masinagudi instead, a small village en route to Ooty via Kalatti Ghat.It is a scenic road snaking through thick forest and is open to traffic only between 6.00 am and 8.00 pm.

Bandipur Tiger Reserve
An area of 800 sq. km of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve was declared as Venugopal Wildlife Park in 1941, which included Bandipur. After the launch of Project Tiger in 1971, the Venugopal Wildlife Park and some additional area totaling 874 sq. km was earmarked as Bandipur Tiger Reserve with a tourism zone of 45 sq. km. This reserve comprises open woodlands, sloping mountains, flat-topped hills and gorges with a largely mixed deciduous forest. The tributary of Kaveri - Kabini - skirts the north-west border while Mulahole, Nugu and Moyar rivers run through it.

Wildlife
Wild elephants are the most famous residents of the reserve along with other mammals like the tiger, leopard, wild dog, Indian bison, sloth bear, small Indian civet, striped neck mongoose, sambar, chital, barking deer, mouse deer, Indian giant squirrel, monkeys and langoors. The reserve also has a rich and diverse bird life like hawk eagle, Bonelli's eagle, crested serpent eagle, mottled wood owl, brown hawk owl, grey jungle fowl, Malabar piped hornbill, peacock, white bellied woodpecker, kingfisher, hill myna, and white-bellied drongo Asian Paradise - fly catcher.

Trekking To Karedi Betta

Apart from driving around in search of wildlife, walking or trekking is another good way to get a real feel of the jungle. The early morning trek up Karedi Betta (Bear Hill) behind the property was certainly worth the effort as one gets panoramic view of the surrounding countryside including the thickly forested range of the Nilgiris on the Ooty side. Though invigorating, the hour and half trek had me quite bushed and a dive in the resort pool seemed like a good idea. Bush Betta, spread over 17 acres with only six acres of developed area, comprises a neat and well-maintained assembly of residential blocks that have two and three bedroom units, four tents, central reception area and well-manicured lawns. During my visit the two-level restaurant near the pool that will also house a bar, was in final stages of completion. Shanbagh informed that a spa, log huts and macchans near the watering hole, discotheque and terraced lawns are on the anvil. Even though all these facilities were not in place, the delicious food and warm service ensured a comfortable and enjoyable stay.

Indian bison
Pics: Courtesy Bush Betta

Tusked beauty
Pics: Courtesy Bush Betta
Adivasi with his flock
Tented accommodation at Bush Betta
Reception area of Bush Betta
One of the ponds around Bush Betta
Temple at Gopal Swamy Betta
Cooling off at Bush Betta
Bush Betta Resort
Winding Road to Ooty from Bandipur

Moment Of Anticipation

Accommodation
Country Vacations Bush Betta
Tel: (080) 2527331, 25261217, 25263507
Email: countryclub@tatanova.com
Website: www.countryclubindia.net
Tariff: Rs 1,000 per person, per day (members) and Rs 2,000 per person, per day (non-members).

Tusker Trails Resort
Tel: (080) 23530748

Forest Department Office
Tel
: (080) 23341993

After the unfortunate safari rides, I decided to go into the forest on foot and I was specially excited about Mauers Ditch, a 300-metre narrow gorge. It was an impressive sight. Similarly the view from the temple at the top of Gopal Swamy Betta was stunning. On the return journey an unexpected offer by a forest guard to guide me for a short distance, beyond the barricaded forest gates through the jungle at the base of Gopal Swamy Betta, made my day.

“If you are lucky, you might sight some elephants; a herd is around,” he said to me and I jumped at the opportunity. Weaving our way through tall bushes with only fading light to guide us, I felt my heart thump louder and faster as we saw fresh elephant dung and heard a short trumpet not very far. The forest guard assistant veered off in the direction of the sound silently and reappeared in a few minutes signaling the presence of elephants near a watering hole. But he could not sight them clearly due to the thick shrubbery. I kept looking desperately in the direction he had pointed but could not make out anything beyond the dark shapes of trees and bushes.

But by now, the forest guards got quite uneasy - the responsibility of my safety lay in his hands and he knew that no one can fight wild charging elephants. They refused to let me go ahead and I was forced to make a hasty exit. As I made my way to back to the resort dissatisfied with the events, I found myself silently rejoicing at the thrill of walking on the wild side in close proximity of the unseen majestic beasts.

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