The jeep ground to a halt and the engine was killed, abruptly leaving us with the lush silence of the forest. An unseen flame-back called. And then we heard it – a branch broken, intermittent noises coming progressively closer, the thud of logs or stones being dislodged, and the crack of six-inch boles being snapped effortlessly. Shortly, we saw the elephant – all ten-and-a-half feet of him, bearing tusks worthy of a jamboo savari celebrity. The tusker approached us steadily, cutting diagonally across the underbrush, and passed not twenty feet from where we stood. For the next many minutes, the jeep kept pace with the elephant as he strode unhurriedly, parallel to us. This was just one of the many incidents that make Bandipur such a compelling place to come back to, again and again.
My earliest memories of Bandipur are from the 1980s, when as a young child, I remember watching a pack of dhole as they cavorted fearlessly on a grassy verge. The wild dogs are still there, and still as fearless of man as ever.
On a cool summer morning a couple of years ago, we turned into the road to Mangala, and while passing by a massive herd of chital some hundred strong, heard alarm calls and stopped. A lone, unseen sambar stag responded with his own belling honk. Scan as we might, with binoculars, in all directions, nothing was visible. The dhole pack came into view a short while later, by the road, with the remnants of a chital kill. The dogs had demolished the carcass by the time we appeared on the scene. They took off one by one, pausing to stare at us before pattering into the thickets. We counted six dogs in the pack.
Passing by the Anekatte waterhole on another visit, the driver thought he spotted a ‘brown shape’ disappearing into some shrubs, and we stopped there, waiting. In a while, someone at the back of the jeep realized that there was an elephant standing just off the road, about seventy meters behind us.
It turned out to be a full-sized makhna, stomping his feet, swaying and dust-bathing. Shortly, we left him to his devices and moved on.
I went to Bandipur as recently as a couple of weeks ago, to escape the sweltering heat in the city. The forest was cool and invigourating. The axle-wood trees were bare in some tracts and leaved in others, while the mathi trees were leaved throughout. The Indian Laburnum was in bloom, although reaching the end of its season; it must have been a truly awe-inspiring sight a couple of weeks ago. The lantana was dry and bare, though massed in thickets everywhere off the track.
The forest was alive with bird calls – Common Tailorbird, starlings, Hoopoe, Coppersmith Barbet, Magpie Robin, Puff-throated Babbler, Iora, Jungle Babbler, Scimitar Babbler, Purple Sunbird, Rufous Treepie, Indian Cuckoo and Peacock. We had spent a considerable amount of time waiting in vain by Ministerguthi Kolathi for a tigress with a triplet of cubs that were reported to be hidden in the bamboos by the pond. We left reluctantly when there was little time left.
Just before we reached the main road, we ran into a male leopard crouched by the track, staring fixedly into the lantana, in a telling lesson in patience. There were deer there, though we couldn’t see them. Except for a casual glance once, the leopard ignored us, even though we were hardly forty feet away. After a seemingly interminable wait, the leopard rose ever so slowly and stalked to the edge of the lantana. Just as he was about to launch into a run, he was spotted, and in an eruption of alarm calls, the chital scattered. The leopard bounded into the lantana after them and we lost sight of him.
The next morning, we were driving by Moolapura Kere at around eight in the morning. There was a short burst of alarm calls and then ‘Prince’ strode down to the water’s edge, turned around and lowered himself rump-first into the water. He had seemed old and rather battered-looking the last time I’d seen him, many months back; we had been waiting by Venkatappana Pala when he had plodded by calmly, the closest I’ve ever been to a tiger in the jungles of southern India. This time around, he looked every inch the proud, healthy male in his prime. He stayed in the water for ten minutes or so, before rising, scent-marking and then sauntering away down a nullah and out of sight.
Across seasons, there is not one visit to Bandipur that I would count as unremarkable; and, that is not just because of tiger sightings. I’ve found that Bandipur is the best place to see mongoose: Stripe-necked as well as Ruddy Mongoose. They are plentiful and often permit close and prolonged observation.
It is also a great place to watch and photograph strutting Grey Junglefowl cocks, with their sickle tails and silver hackles. Bandipur is also remarkable for the opportunity to see Black-naped Hare in the daytime.
The forest is beautiful through the year, and never seems to run out of surprises at every turn. Like when we were startled to see a young tiger sitting in the lantana right by the track. Or the time we saw no less than four dancing peacocks on a single drive. Each visit churns out two or three memorable incidents that set the stage for a repeat visit. And so I keep going back for more, in a compelling cycle of sparkling encounters and spectacular memories.