The temperature drops, birdcall fills the silences, a cool, comforting breeze circles around us, the tents stand quiet, and my mobile network sheds bars rapidly, a sure sign of having left Bangalore far behind for a forest weekend.
Except that I haven’t now, have I?
Going to a forest would normally involve getting on a flight or a train, arriving at towns that will take you to the wilderness. But not if the forest is 25km from the city and all you had to do was sit in a car for less than an hour to get there.
Having lived in Mumbai all my life, I am familiar with the idea of a city forest. There, through Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which sits – incredibly – within city limits, we live with leopards, and have immediate access to incredible creatures from moths to deer and crocodiles to endemic and migrant birds. For ever since I can remember, we’ve trudged up and down rivulets swollen with the rains, trekked to tiny waterfalls and sat atop the trail’s highest point and contemplated the famous Mumbai cityscape. There is a certain feeling of ownership for a city forest, as it seems part of home.
In that, as I remove my overnight case from the car at the Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR) campsite, even if it’s not technically within the city, the sense of camaraderie with Bannerghatta National Park is immediate.
Spread over 25,000 acres, Bannerghatta National Park hosts a unique wildlife experience in an easy trip. If you so wish, a safari will take you through enclosures that house rescued big cats, herbivores and bears, and a butterfly garden that allows you to walk by flitting Striped Tigers, the Southern Birdwing, the Red Pierrots, but the charm of Bannerghatta, to me, lies in the walking trails around the JLR property.
Walking through this area isn’t difficult, the terrain is easy and smooth and birding keeps you on your toes, quite literally. I can’t tell a minivet from a magpie when they’re outside a close-up photograph so for a beginner birder, this walking safari is a useful way to spend time in the forest. Not that I have much luck on my first walk alone. I try to note down what I see, so I can ask about the species later, but the sheer volume of avian life is a feathered avalanche that I do not escape with grace. I spend the day sitting by one of the lakes, watching a Common Kingfisher make short work of a meal with its efficient hunting skills. The landscape is a mix of boulders and green flora that insists on the inevitable surrender of being in a forest. A flock of drongos herald the arrival of the evening with boisterous calls, and I suspect some of the chatter around the lake is at the expense of my poor birding skills.
As the evening melts into night, the proximity of the national park to city life reiterates itself in the many families who’ve popped over just for the weekend, or just that one night, really. Children race around in the play area while the older crowd winds down with a cup of tea or a drink and swap the day’s stories over a roaring campfire. The one hurdle you might face is that a lot of the communication is in Kannada, for staff and guests and it’s a bit difficult for an out-of-towner. Unless you attempt mime, which I do, and cause a fair bit of laughter.
Later, the group of travellers moves towards the dining hall, the ever-present Golghar across all JLR properties, and eats a fresh and delicious meal, that feels a little bit like home. The night closes in soon after, with the stars fighting for space in the darkening sky.
The next morning, my luck turns as two talented, informed birders, Radha Rangarajan and Shreeram MV accompany me on the trail. On foot, we stop often and wait in the woods, no rushing around on a merry chase like on jeep safaris. We pause under Copper Pods, look up at Neems and Tamarind trees and return to the lake to wait for the birds to show themselves. Oriental Magpie Robins call all around us, more gracious I think now that I am being supervised. We spot tiny minivets, sight a leaf warbler surprisingly low on a tree and watch a juvenile Brahminy Kite navigate its way around the lake. I am introduced to the Darter, as I spy a snake-like head in the water, and a surprisingly large wingspan when the bird emerges. To make up for the absence of the Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher that I’d been told is common at the property, a pair of the glorious Indian Paradise Flycatchers flew out of the foliage and right over our heads.
After I leave that evening, I am back in the swirling chaos of the city almost immediately but the transition isn’t jarring. In that, this proximity also makes this park vulnerable, because it faces the big-city threats that you already know and read about and probably can do more than you otherwise would. And that’s the charm of Bannerghatta, isn’t it? It’s part of your home range, an extension of your own backyard really. With a better view, that is. And some really good tea.