“This is the off-season.”
“Jog Falls would be a trickle.”
“There are hardly any birds in the reservoir.”
“There is no wildlife movement there.”
“There is no cellular network.”
Except for the last, none of the above statements can be deemed a suitable advertisement for a wildlife adventure destination. No elephants, no tigers, not even a guaranteed leopard sighting? Why bother going? The paucity of “charismatic mega-mammalian fauna” (to quote a naturalist friend, tongue firmly in cheek) is a deterrent for the trophy-hunting breed of wildlife tourist. This, however, was my greatest motivation for jumping at the opportunity to explore the environs of Sharavathi Adventure Camp.
A view of the Sharavathi Adventure Camp at sundown from Talakalale Balancing Reservoir.
On the short, picturesque drive from the decadent railway station at Talguppa, I counted at least one foraging Grey Junglefowl every hundred metres until I had to stop counting. Every other kilometre flushed harems of peafowl, some with chicks in attendance. Emerald Doves shot from the road and melted into the verdure. At one bend, Red Spurfowl scuttled for cover. As our vehicle sliced through the rising mist, a male Paradise Flycatcher streaked past, chestnut streamers trailing. Lithe-limbed langurs loped away to safety, grimacing at the dust our jeep whisked up. Giant squirrels, not morning persons, chuck-chucked irritably from the treetops.
Of wildlife movement, there was enough to get my blood up.
Sharavathi Adventure Camp scores full marks for location. Hugging a hillside, its earth-red cottages stippling wooded slopes, it gazes upon the steel-blue expanse of the Talakalale Balancing Reservoir studded with numerous jade-green islets. This smaller water body maintains a more or less constant level through the year fed by inflow from the sprawling 300-square-kilometre reservoir of the Linganamakki Dam on the Sharavathi River. Outflow from the dam determines the majesty or misery, as it were, of Jog Falls, which plunges 464 metres along four principal torrents at the zenith of its glory following peak monsoon. Suffice to say that this dry winter had activated misery mode.
The Talakalale Balancing Reservoir with its islets
Tranquil and panoramic, the lake begged to be photographed, kayaked in, jet-skied in, and adored in every way possible. True, there were few water birds besides kingfishers, cormorants, herons and egrets, but out of one of the islands emerged a form that left me gasping in delighted disbelief. I trained my binoculars upon a broad-winged raptor. Grey-headed Fish Eagle? Negative. Lesser Fish Eagle, I hoped, heart racing. Nope. Then, another bird joined its companion in the sky, circling at a lower altitude. I begged the boatman to cut the motor and idle. These White-bellied Sea Eagles were vacationing some 70-odd kilometres inland. The amorous Brahminy Kites I had seen only minutes ago paled in comparison to the majesty of these soaring archangels of the heavens.
A Blyth’s Starling (Sturnia blythii) feeds on wild fruit in the vicinity of Sharavathi Adventure Camp.
It got better. The elevated walkway across the gulch that led to my cottage (I christened it the Bridge of Sighs) proved perfect for incidental birding. Gold-fronted Leafbirds, Indian Golden Orioles, Orange Minivets, Common Ioras and Asian Fairy-Bluebirds painted the canopy while Dark-fronted Babblers kept up a steady chatter in the understorey. Malabar Grey Hornbills chuckled at a private joke. Racket-tailed Drongos, mimicking presences seen and unseen, kept me guessing. Then, unannounced, a pale turquoise shape alighted on a bamboo stalk a few metres ahead. A Blue-bearded Bee-Eater, that sky-seeking hermit of the forest, puffed its hirsute throat and disappeared before I could point and shoot.
The Bridge of Sighs, the elevated walkway linking two parts of the camp, offers a treasure of birding to the patient
Over lunch I shared my finds with the manager who advised me to try the nature trail that skirts the hamlet of Malakki towards a forest stream that makes a series of gushing rapids. “Mini Jog Falls,” my guide said with a grin. We trooped out valiantly a good two hours before sundown but the walk turned out longer, hotter and wearier than expected. It was rewarding, though. We observed a Tawny Eagle attempting to take a young langur, a Besra perched in dense woodland, clouds of Plum-headed Parakeets descending on ripe paddy fields, Southern Hill Mynas celebrating life with joyous squeals, and Vernal Hanging Parrots feasting on banana blossom nectar.
The undisturbed birding trail near the camp is full of possibilities, among other sightings a Grey-fronted Green Pigeons, Asian Fairy-Bluebirds and a Forest Wagtail
The silhouette of a Malabar Grey Hornbill, the first sighting one morning, turned out to be auspicious.
The trail was beautiful, lit by Flame of the Forest trees in sumptuous bloom. It bounded fragmented patches of forest that settlers had usurped to cultivate areca and banana. A White-bellied Woodpecker, that sacred forest sprite, flapped across a clearing. People we met claimed that a leopard had taken goats and cows recently but my guide whispered that this was hogwash. In the early days of the JLR camp gunshots used to be heard frequently in the night. Hunting and trapping were common. Once the camp came up, police patrolling on the approach road intensified and discouraged the hunters. As we passed the hamlet mongrels growled and I hoped that they would one day become the leopard’s supper.
Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma) in riotous flower near the camp. The tree was a veritable waterhole, flocked by sunbirds and mynas attracted to the flower nectar.
Next morning I huffed up the hillside above the camp along with a party of enthusiastic city-slickers, each of whom imagined he was Bear Grylls. The swift uphill climb wore us out and we sat exhausted at the summit, admiring the sunrise and the panorama. After breakfast we drove 20 km from the camp along the Bengaluru-Honnavar highway where I looked out for a roadsign for Kathalekan. The endangered Lion-tailed Macaque was the raison d’être for the protected status of this neck of the woods, a part of the Sharavathi Wildlife Sanctuary. I had read about this ancient and extraordinary forest in jlrexplore and was excited about savouring what little I could of its treasures. I chose a trail and wandered in, struck by how literally its name (Kannada for Dark Forest) described this magical place.
Lush and inviting, Kathalekan is one of the last strongholds of the endangered Lion-tailed Macaque in this region.
Sunlight, abducted by the dense emergent layer, rarely filtered to the ground. The understorey seemed alive with subtle clicking and rustling sounds. In the treetops the Lion-tailed Macaques were better heard than seen. Iridescent metallic damselflies and jewel-like flies glittered in the latticed sunlight. A Malabar Birdwing butterfly drifted high above. And then my gaze was arrested by the sashaying dance of two Malabar Tree Nymphs as they essayed their graceful, languid poetry upon the shrubbery and frustrated my every attempt at photographing them.
That afternoon I traded natural history for that of mankind. I made a half-day trip to Sagara, 36 km away on the highway to Bengaluru, where I stopped at the impressive Aghoreshvara Temple at Ikkeri and the magnificent Rameshwara Temple at Keladi, which were built by the Keladi Nayaka rulers in the 16th century. History throbs in their ancient stones and Kannada-speaking guides interpret the legends and bring the temple vibrantly alive for visitors.
Somewhere along the way my phone trilled, and I was yoked once again to the world I had left behind.