Kenneth Anderson wrote, around half a century ago, of camping in a “beautifully wooded spot” on the banks of the Cauvery, beneath “giant muthee, tamarind and jum-lum trees”. The lush littoral landscape Anderson was talking about still remains intact, and we’re just back after another exhilarating weekend spent exploring the wilderness around the Galibore Nature Camp, in the heart of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary.
To understand why Galibore is so named, you have to clamber up the hillock in front of the camp. The climb is up a short but fairly steep slope decked in a profusion of aromatic lemon grass, and the view on the way up is picturesque enough to warrant enough stops to catch your breath. We sat on this hillside, watching the noisy antics of an odd pair – a Rufous Treepie and a Sirkeer Malkoha. On another visit a few months earlier – and this was a glorious July day – we stumbled on a small Russel’s Viper as it lay basking on this path. We watched it for a short while before it slid away into the underbrush. The view of the river and the rolling hillsides from atop is spectacular, and you’d want to sit there all day if the weather were pleasant enough. In the months of July and August especially, the wind on the summit blows in strong gusts. Hence Gali-bore – Kannada for windy rock. The base of the hillock where the camp-proper is sited is more precisely called Sal-mathi – row of mathi trees. The mathi referred here is the Arjuna tree of ayurvedic fame, Terminalia arjuna; but more on that later.
The Galibore experience centers around the river. Whether it is riverside treks though the forests, coracle rides or rafting, the Cauvery is rarely out of sight and mind. She is a capricious enigma, the Cauvery; sometimes languorous and benign, at other times a frothing, swirling fury.
Rafting at Galibore is a singularly unique experience. You can raft in the Ganges, Sutlej, Kali or elsewhere. But where will you get to raft in a river teeming with marsh crocodiles? I get that delicious tingling feeling, knowing there are big, toothy reptilians lurking somewhere.
Last weekend, we were boarding the raft at the usual point five kilometers upstream of Galibore, when the familiar ridged form went cruising soundlessly past. We followed in its wake and no sooner were we in enough depth, we gleefully leapt off the sides and into the murky waters. I’m not sure what the watching Cormorants, River Terns and Pratincoles made of this friskiness, but if they were offended, they were certainly too polite to show it. Of the croc itself, there was no sign of hide or stare. Our crocs in this part of the river are benign fish-eaters, extremely shy of humans. They generously let us share the river with them.
Muggers aside, I have another incident to relate about that raft boarding point. On an earlier visit, we were sorting ourselves out prior to boarding the craft, when the jungle around us erupted with langur and Chital alarm calls. Yogi, our steersman, darted back to find that a Leopard had just struck down a Chital hind, some fifty meters behind us. Possibly disturbed by our presence, the cat dropped its kill and slunk away into cover. Leaving the Leopard to return to its hard-earned meal, we clambered on-board and cast away.
While rafting the rapids is invigorating, Galibore is one of the few places where you can also coracle down the rapids. This is a spectacular way to experience the river, and the sight of the water frothing up to within an inch of the coracle’s rim makes for a sparkling experience.
The rapids are all upstream of the camp. You can also coracle your way downstream to catch some of the local wildlife along the more placid stretches of the river. The riverine forests here mainly comprise Arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), jamun (Syzygium cumini) and tamarind (Tamarindus indicus).
Of Terminalia arjuna, there are magnificent specimens across the forest and Sundar, manager of the camp, pointed out quite a few outsized specimens right in front of the gol ghar; specimens well over a couple of centuries old. Anderson could well have camped beneath these very same trees.
The jamun trees are typically stunted and at the water’s edge. They fruit just before the advent of the monsoon, and great shoals of fish then gather beneath the overhanging branches to gorge on the dropping ripe fruit.
Speaking of fish, the king of this river is undoubtedly the world-renowned hump-backed Mahseer (Tor mussullah). Angling in the river is now banned, but at the little office at the Galibore camp, there are plenty of pictures of anglers struggling to hold up fifty-kilo monsters while bravely beaming for the camera. Like sporting medals, the giant Mahseer comes in gold and silver versions.
Coming back to the coracle rides down-river, Brown Fish-owls stare from up high with their peculiarly-liquid eyes.
With bated breath, we watched a Tawny Eagle badger a much smaller Lesser Fish-eagle to pirate its catch. The two big raptors swooped and plummeted, with a second opportunistic Fish-eagle skimming into the fray. In the raucous melee, the final outcome was unclear at least to us, and all combatants dispersed in different directions.
The palm for the most carefree animal in these environs undoubtedly goes to the otter. Smooth-coated otters – Lutra perspicillata – gambol in the river in small groups, swimming great distances together, up as well as downriver. Sitting on the river bank one evening a few kilometers upstream of the camp, we watched a romp of these little creatures tackle the rapids. Bobbing their way down the froth, they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the proceedings. The river is chockfull of fish, the rapids are fun to ride, and the otter has a light but stout heart. It is a plucky creature, not hesitating to lunge at anyone getting too close for comfort when pups are around.
On a lucky day, you can spot elephant, Chousingha or Leopard down by the water, slaking their thirst; you don’t necessarily have to go down-river to look for wildlife.
The Galibore camp boasts of two semi-circular promontories flanking a set of steps. These are built at the bases of two enormous Arjuna trees at the river’s edge and right in front of the gol ghar. I’ve spent time sitting in a comfortable chair on one of these structures on occasion, binoculars in hand, scouring the jungles across the river. Galibore seldom disappoints. There was this one memorable evening when a Sloth bear turned up with three furry cubs, on the far side, at around 5:30 in the evening. A small group of us sat on the semi-circular walls, binoculars in hand, watching the little ursine family foraging up and down the hillside until it was too dark to see anymore. That promontory incidentally is an equally pleasant place for sundowners of the more conventional kind too.
Yesterday morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn and sauntered down to the water’s edge to watch the jungle come alive, and there on the sand, was the spoor of an elephant herd that had wandered past the camp sometime in the night. I counted the prints of at least two young calves.
Walking or cycling down the road here is a great way to look for animal spoor on the ground. There are many stretches on that road with fine-grained sand, which capture the marks of various creatures marching overnight. You can see the little marks of Black-naped Hares, hoof marks of Chital or Sambar, the large plate-like spoor of elephants, jackals’ prints, and the occasional Leopard pug mark. You have to keep a sharp look-out for elephants however; they sometimes don’t take too kindly to city slickers playing weekend naturalist.
I associate the Galibore experience with a medley of sounds that are typical of the place. You wake up to the whistling of the Puff-throated Babbler. The prolonged call of Grey Hornbills is somewhat reminiscent of the call of the Black Kite. Fish-eagles call in agonized shrieks. Parakeets screech and chase each other over the canopy. And since Leopards abound in these jungles, Chital alarm calls are frequent. Grey Jungle-fowl call at dawn and dusk. Tufted langurs and Spotted doves hoot softly in the quiet of the afternoon. Cicadas buzz constantly. But there are two sounds that are distinctly Galibore’s. One is the constant and hushed murmur of the river. The other is the staccato, machine-gun call of the arboreal Grizzled giant squirrel, Ratufa macroura.
You can spend hours watching these endearing rodents right in the camp, in pairs, chasing each other across the boles of the giant Arjuna trees with reckless abandon. And that is just one of the many reasons why I come back to this little slice of paradise again and again.