It wasn’t until we heard a couple of jungle babblers delightfully chattering away in the bamboo groves of Bandipur, fracturing the fabric of silence, did we realise that this was going to be not just a Tour. It was to be a journey to rediscover an ancient connection with the world we inhabit.
The first day of the Bandipur Tour dawned, and we gathered for lunch. Skippers Phillip Ross and Harsha Narasimhamurthy welcomed the group informally, because what followed next was a round of introduction of participants and of Bandipur as a treasure chest of diverse wildlife. A few white-cheeked barbets, scaly-breasted munias, coppersmith barbets, and purple-rumped sunbirds in the bamboo groves at the lodge had already written a charming beginning to the impending journey.
The gloomy monsoon sky bearing an impending rain in its womb happily failed to dampen the spirits of the excited bunch of wildlife and photography enthusiasts eagerly gearing up for their first safari.
The air was heavy with anticipation as we drove towards the Bandipur National Park as mist rolled on the Nilgiris on both the sides of the road. While the blue-green mountains seemed like waves rising from the earth, the sighting of many herds of spotted deer grazing in the monsoon drizzle wrote an endearing prelude to our journey to the wild.
Tree trunks tattooed with moss and lichen, dampness-ridden paths on which dawdled the safari vehicles, medley of birdsongs and mild drizzle singing with the whistling wind… being in the woods can always mean cathartic. The safari drivers knew the labyrinthine paths leading deeper and deeper into the woods like the backs of their hands.
Then there were these massive forms of a few adult gaur, and the beautiful brown shades of their calves glistening against all the glorious nuances of the forest-green, in their enviable as well as amusing lethargy, mulling over pretty much nothing. How grand their indolence was! Photographing them was a delight because they weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere. “They almost seem to be posing just for us!” exclaimed Chelna Shah, who was excited to be on her first wildlife safari with Toehold.
Snaking through the moist paths of the forest, the vehicle stopped when a crested serpent eagle was cocking its head towards the sky. The creature of such majesty, with a gaze that could pierce your very vision before you even knew it, seemed to oblige for some photography passion of the humans who revered it as it sat perched on a tree branch that had lost itself to tangles of twigs and more branches.
More gaur and spotted-deer-prancing-on-the-fresh-green-meadows-bathed-in-rain later, a few sambar deer showed up, self-assured in their elegant gait. The love of a mother for her offspring is perhaps one of the few emotions that’s common across all living animals, and we could not help but be moved by this universal truth when we saw a mother doe feeding her fawn.
We returned to the lodge while the mist over the mountains gleamed quietly even as the sun bid adieu behind them. After discussing the basic concepts of photography, Skipper Phillip Ross ushered the participants to a delicious dinner. “I am excited to follow the Skipper’s instructions when I photograph the wildlife in the forest tomorrow,” said Chandni Raghuraman, an engineering student who was also on her first Toehold Photo Tour. After dinner, we called it a night, expecting more exciting sightings the next day. How can one tell how many dreamt of the woods and the wildlife?
As the morning mist seemed to dissolve into naught, as dew decorated the grass and the shivering leaves, we ventured into the forest again. We heard strong sambar calls and hoped to see a big cat but that morning, they remained as elusive as they’re known to be.
But crested hawk eagles, peacocks and peahens prancing in the monsoon drizzle, a flameback woodpecker, male and female streak-throated woodpeckers, and red-wattled lapwings made the morning safari a great time, and participants made some interesting photos with more technical proficiency because of the previous evening’s photography session.
Herds of spotted deer continued to bedeck the forest green as small moving brown spots, while a few mighty Asiatic elephants brought wide smiles on our curious, watchful faces, and a black-naped hare made for an intriguing sighting, with a small hole on one of its ears, making everyone wonder what stories that tear contained.
Coming back from the safari, we breakfasted and headed for the Himavad Gopalaswamy Betta before lunch. The hill was mist-clad, validating its own name ‘Himavad’, and the rain just added to the surreal charm of it.
We couldn’t see anything ten feet further from us, the wind roaring past us not just an element but almost as creature. It was spiritual enough to see directions losing their meaning when the hill was cloaked in mist, apart from the legends and stories that the head priest told us. “I am so glad we took this small detour from the Photo Tour; I will remember this visit for a long, long time. I might even catch a cold, but it’s totally worth it,” said an ecstatic Santosh Solomon who seemed to celebrate our own triviality in the face of nature and her changing moods.
Driving down the hill, we saw an elephant lost as a mote of grey-black amidst the thick tree-tops, and headed back to the lodge for lunch. On the way, Dr. Kotwal told us some interesting, seemingly mythological stories and the hills echoed our laughter, or so we thought.
During the photography session just before the evening safari, Skipper Phillip made sure that everyone learnt a few photography tricks practically, and the whole group had a great time because learning new ways of making image was fun. Like everyone else, men of fewer words in the group, Gopalakrishnan and Srinivas Bhat, also made sure they got the desired results out of the photography exercises by asking the Skipper one question after another.
As though there was a rupture in the sky, the evening safari began on a rainy note, but as soon as the vehicles entered the forest, the rain had calmed down to a drizzle and the sun had managed to make the national park glow in the gossamer-like golden light for a while. As the forest seemed to shiver mildly with a gorgeous yellow fervour, another herd of gaur showed up. As though they hold the whole world in their warm breath, they exhaled.
A brown fish owl, perched on a delicate branch with a dead frog in its mouth, offered itself as a grand vision for photography.
There were a few light-footed stripe-necked mongooses, more peafowl with their cackle for effect (as though their vibrant plumes weren’t enough to mesmerise the onlookers), spotted doves, langurs, more red-wattled lapwings, myna on a gaur and myna on a deer, and sambars in the thickets to add to the jungle drama.
While the cats still remained enigmatic, we saw elephants crossing a path, which made for some adorable photographs. Another massive mammal appeared for less than five minutes, but had stirred our enthusiasm enough by the time it went back to the deceiving depths of the forest: a sloth bear.
“It was amazing how a few langurs were suddenly alert and the direction they gazed at made me wonder if there was something and there it was, the huge form in black: a sloth bear,” reminisced Saurabh Kulkarni, during the session on photography back at the lodge later that evening. Skipper Phillip took a look at the photographs everyone had made so far on the Jungle Jaunt Photo Tour and gave them suggestions when needed and applauded some creative images of various animals and birds and of the forest that participants had made.
It was during the session that Jagadeeshwaran, who had made some evocative images, explained why he calls his photography ‘Aikya’: “Aikya means ‘to be one with’ and this is my attempt to connect with nature, to merge with its being the way it simply is.”
“I wish the hare weren’t injured and had that forever scar on its ear,” resented Nandhagopan, but the beautiful image he had made of the little animal made it look like, how the black-naped hare had worn that scar like an inured soldier, with an effortless nonchalance.
Bidding a farewell to yet another day, the group dispersed with more hope and excitement for the last safari the next morning, which began with a murky sky above, and the mist veiling the Nilgiri hills around like the heavens had descended to the earth.
The forest wore tremor on all of its leaves only to fill emerald warmth within anyone who saw with curious and patient eyes. As the attentive drivers of the safari vehicles drove along a gorgeous gorge, which offered a breathtaking view in the morning, that part of the jungle had each one of us silently basking in an internalised, isolated joy that was almost meditative.
And the longing for watching a cat in the wild was still half-filled when an elusive leopard disappeared into the mysterious depths of the forest by granting us only the sight of half of its body! Some of us saw only as much as its tail but it was good to know, first-hand, that they aren’t merely phantoms of the jungle.
All the pining and desire grew only sharper than ever before, and it’s now safe to say that everyone on the Tour would certainly venture out into the forests to behold the blissful existence of the wild cats being all-imposing in their natural habitat, making some of the most overwhelming emotions inhabit us.
After returning to the lodge and a delectable breakfast later, everyone returned to their nests to leave them with memories stowed away…perhaps at the abrupt bend leading to the veranda, perhaps several of them in the camera, and most importantly, in the heart that never ceases to throb with a little more hope, a bit more excitement, and a lot more dreams.
The Jungle Jaunt Photo Tour was not just an excursion into the forest of Bandipur. It was also about celebrating the primordial connection we’ve always had with the wild, of celebrating the nuances of wildlife in their exquisite presence, of not subjecting a joy into discipline, and of living every moment in such a way that it is transformed into a vivid memory to the next.
To travel with us to Bandipur, join our Southern Splendour Tour!