Aggressive monkeys, wild elephants, and the elusive endangered tiger made this journey to India's Bandipur National Park one to remember.
Traveling the road to Bandipur National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary was like crossing a chasm between two centuries—the agrarian world of over a hundred years ago mixed with an occasional modernism from the last century. Thus, the four hour drive in the Indian southern state of Karnataka from Mysore down the Mysore-Ooty road –in some places more like a trail- to Bandipur National Park was indeed, an exciting adventure in itself.
Our hired 90’s something compact-size Mazda and the accompanying driver navigated a variety of obstacles as if it was a normal daily commute to the office. Going seemingly too fast given the condition of the dusty road, we swerved in between ox-driven wooden carts loaded down with the latest harvest of sugarcane, canopy-covered trucks squeezed from all sides with Indian laborers, the amazing rainbow colored community buses loading and unloading the day’s passengers, and the ever-present three-wheeled motorized rickshaws. We even survived the 60-to-0 mph abrupt stops made for the occasional cow, asserting its holy status by standing dead-center in the middle of the road for no reason.
In places, the terrain was lush green lowland supporting water soaked rice patty fields and their surrounding communities of field workers diligently combing through the perfectly aligned rows of rice plants. Other parts of the terrain were flat, orange, dry-lands marked with larger patches of shrubs and various types of small, leaf sparse trees. As we neared Bandipur, we could make out yet another terrain—the hazy outline of the not-too-distant Western Ghats plateaus.
Bandipur is said to be one of the best sanctuaries in India to observe and photograph wildlife in close proximity. True to the tale, our first sight of the exotic wildlife came before we even arrived at the park. We spotted from our car a local land worker using the might of elephants to help remove fallen trees. Excitedly, we pled with our driver to stop for a round of picture taking with an elephant in an environment other than in the confines of a zoo. After asking the land worker if it was ok to approach the elephant, we carefully walked towards it, realizing with each step closer the massiveness of the animal. As I placed my hand on its long, ivory tusk and posed for a picture, I suddenly remembered the programs I had seen about elephants becoming irritated and attacking humans. Was it the male elephants or the female elephants that became aggressive? My travel companion was making adjustments to the camera for the picture. The elephant moved its leg. I remembered, yes, it was the male elephants, the ones with tusks, like what I was holding. It could easily squash me if it was inclined to do so. It was time to return to the car.
When we entered Bandipur, the monkeys appeared. Apparently, over time they have figured out that humans equal an easy meal. They were everywhere, including on our car. To my heart-stopping surprise, one of the braver monkeys jumped me for an unopened bag of Doritos and climbed up a nearby branch-just too high for us to reach. We watched in frustration as the monkey opened the bag and began to eat right in front of us the only snack we had brought. If monkeys could laugh, I would swear that this monkey was laughing at us. At least we could take solace in that the Doritos were not just any Doritos. They were Indian Doritos, which meant they were set-your-gut-on-fire-spicy and hopefully this thieving monkey would pay for his devilish deed with a good case of the runs.
An old mini-bus took us and the other, mainly Indian, visitors down the narrow dirt roads into the greener and denser heart of the sanctuary. Even though the mini-bus was loud and clunky, the noise did not seem to bother the animals too much. They continued with their normal routines at a distance just far enough away to dart into the brush if needed, but still close enough to get a decent picture. There were plenty of deer drinking from small watering holes and gangs of monkeys on most of the trail, but the animal that made everyone grab their cameras in excitement was the tiger. At first it was difficult to see since its orange and black strips are well suited for blending in with the high, dry grass and low shrubs, but our guide quickly pointed it out as it crossed a small clearing. Looking just like the tiger I knew from the cereal box growing up, it quickly crossed the clearing, probably in search of a cool place to lay down, out of the late afternoon sun. According to the 1997 park census, Bandipur is home to only around 70 tigers, so we were lucky to have a glimpse of such a rare sight.
We saw plenty of other types of animals and exotic vegetation in the park that day before returning back to the park headquarters where we met our driver and the Mazda with a family of monkeys on top. A visit to a local lodge for a bit of hot curry and nan bread prepared us for the long, bumpy, and dusty ride back to Mysore. However, a snapshot of the endangered tiger, the close encounters with the other animals, and the adventure of getting to the park in the first place made the journey well worth it.
Here are my tips for visitors to Mysore and Bandipur National Park.
LODGING--The park provides it’s own lodging at a reasonable price, but it is often sold out, so make reservations well in advance. If staying in Mysore (the closest larger city with connections to the rest of India), the Green Hotel is a good option. It is an old palace built for one of the former princesses in the area. I recommend booking one of the few rooms in the main house where you have free roam of the whole palace to yourself. The prices are reasonable and all profits are distributed to environmental projects.
TRAVEL—Because of the precarious nature of the roads in India, I do not recommend driving yourself. A chauffeured car is very cheap and more reliable. I have always used a service called Travel House (www.travelhouseindia.com). Private cars are not allowed inside the park, but you can take either the park mini-bus or a park jeep. Because the mini-bus is loud and clunky, I would recommend taking the park jeep. I have also heard that you can take elephant back tours of the park, but I did not see any evidence of this option when I was there.
FOOD---The drive is long, so bring some snacks and plenty of bottled water with you. Just ask the driver to stop at a local grocery store before leaving the Mysore area. For hot meals, there are a few lodges around the park that are used to catering to foreigners. Although you will not find much western food, these places generally have bottled water, soft drinks, and better hygiene standards.
OTHER---Baby wipes and tissues are handy to have with you as there are limited places to wash your hands and toilet facilities are primitive.
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