Sunday, May 06, 2007

Elephant Shit and Tiger Pugs: A Trip to K.Gudi

After our trip to Kabini last year, we decided that it would be a good idea to explore more jungles and more of Jungle Lodges and Resorts. Our experience with JLR in Kabini was extremely good and therefore the expectations built around this trip were high. We knew the usual routine and this place was highly recommended by the ever enthusiastic Mrs.Ramu at the JLR office in Shringar Shopping Complex in Bangalore. So we were back at the JLR office trying to find a date when the accommodation was available.

As usual Mrs. Ramu was very friendly. Since we had used the JLR facility once we were supposed to be loyal customers and were eligible for a 10% off on the sticker price for the trip. We had to indicate the dates in which we traveled last time. Unfortunately for us we did not remember the dates, but Gowri was clear that we had booked the last holiday on the day Rajkumar passed away. This was good enough to trace our booking history from their database to claim the discount. We just took the available dates on which accommodation was available.

Like last time, having booked JLR our next task was to find out if there was anything else that we could add on during this holiday. We had two alternative routes to the K.Gudi camp. One was to take a road via Kanakapura Malavalli BR Hills and reach K.Gudi. This was supposed to be a shorter route and on the National Highway. However we were advised against it as the road was said to be in a bad condition. If we had taken that route, enroute we could have possibly stopped by in Shivanasamudra – again the guide books told us that there would be no water April-May was hardly a season to travel in this area. The next dilemma was to see whether we would hire a car or whether I should venture out to drive myself. Last time, this was not an issue at all – neither did I have a car, nor a licence. However this time there was a relatively new car, and equally new licence and some enthusiasm. The driver I had hired had recently disappeared after working for two months. Gowri and Arjun’s confidence in my pulling out a long journey was not too high, but somehow I was keen. In this dilemma we called up Vishal of Skyway – the agency which had provided us a car for the last holiday. The idea was that we would hire a car if it made sense – that there would be more to this holiday than K.Gudi. Vishal told us that it would be difficult to port on any other site from K.Gudi.. at best it had to be Mysore. So the decision was almost made – it would be a stand alone trip and in my mind I was clear – I would drive. So it was Vishal’s loss and my gain!! So I started the confidence building measures of driving – made a trip to Hosur Road to look up a friend who had come to attend to his mother admitted in Narayana Hrudayala, and from there all the way to hosur, drove the narrow roads of Mahalaxmi Layout and Vidyapeetha and I was all set, brimming with confidence for the long haul. We decided to take it easy as far as driving was concerned – no night driving and no speeding. Overall we would take it cool and not rush through anything.

We started on the Friday morning at around 6.00. Stopped by in Mandya for a cup of coffee, and visited relatives in Mysore and had breakfast. We had a small mishap on the way – I hit one of the pack of dogs that were crossing the road. None of the dogs appeared injured but my fog lamp broke. In Mysore I was able to show Hardwicke High School where I studied 9th and 10th classes to Gowri and Arjun. While Gowri feels that Mysore has changed a lot, I do not find that the pace of change in Mysore is as bad as in Bangalore. I could also see the house that we stayed in – in Vidyaranyapuram in tact and as it was. It is a fairly laid back city with a lot of old buildings and greenery all around. We had a sumptuous breakfast and moved on via Chamarajanagar to KGudi. The road throughout was okay, except for a stretch between Nanjangud and Chamarajanagar where it turns bumpy for 4-5 kilometers. Of course the road is narrow and one has to be careful while driving. From Chamarajanagar it is decent but started deteriorating as we entered the Jungle. After making an entry at the foot of the hill we moved up the winding route to K Gudi. Apparently no traffic is allowed on that route after 6 pm as it is dense forest area. .

Arjun was getting a bit tense as we were getting past the check in time of 12.00. Not a big deal actually since the only activity after checking in is lunch. The safari comes in much later. As we had been to Kabini, we knew the general routine. I was asked to park the car near the office and we had to take a long trek towards our log cabin. Unlike Kabini where they have three types of accommodation – the dormitory in the main building, cottages and tents, in K.Gudi they have only two types – tented accommodation and log cabins. We had chosen a log cabin – which was further away. There are three log cabins and many tented accommodation. Our cabin was named Chamundi. The tented huts are all named after birds found in that area. The accommodation was decent – a stairway leading to a room with an attached bath and a small sit-out. We were warned to be careful about not leaving food items around and there were several monkeys that may be interested in having a look at the eatables!

K Gudi was significantly different from Kabini. For one, it is located on the higher reaches, deeper in the jungle and rightfully called a wilderness camp. There seems to be a small settlement, some forest department quarters, a forest guest house and a small post office. Electricity is supplied only between 1830 and 2230 in the evening and for about half an hour in the morning through a generator. Otherwise, they put up hurricane lamps on the pathway and near the entrance of the cottage in the evening and hand us over a torch. We also had brought a heavy duty torch with us. This was very useful. The beautiful building that we saw at the entrance belonged to the forest department, with JLR having a good modest office. The staff were courteous in general but we got the sense that they were not as professional as in Kabini.

After checking in we freshened up and took a walk. The one thing that made Kabini more interesting was the existence of water. This was in the thick jungle and waterbodies were few and far between. Having a backwater of a dam, or a stream is quite a different experience. The Gol Garh with is trademark JLR was the place to eat. It has lesser tables. Around Gol Garh we had the nets to climb up and also a tree house. But both these were more difficult to access than Kabini. Arjun had a go at the tree house, but could not gather himself to go all the way up. The hammocks were also a bit narrow. In general we felt that KGudi was a step brother of Kabini. We had a quick lunch in the Gol Garh and lazed around for a while. I caught up with some sleep on the hammock having driven the car for 6 hours.. slowly realizing why every car driver goes in for a snooze when he is not driving. The safari was at 1630 after a tea at 1600Hrs, again in Gol Garh. Unfortunately we cannot avoid benchmarking this place with Kabini. In Kabini there was a detailed briefing, but nothing of that sort in KGudi.

KGudi expands to Kyatadevara Gudi. There is a very small temple of Kyateshwara Swami as if to justify the name. This seemed to be maintained well, but not much of activity around the temple. It almost looked like and extension of the JLR properties! At 1630 we left for the safari. Our driver-cum-naturalist-cum-guide was a guy named Thapa. We later had a chat with him and discovered that he was from the Army, a Nepali from Dharamshala. His Kannada was possibly a shade better than my Nepali!! Given that I know no Nepali, that does not say much. But he was quite good at getting along. As we started off the journey, he stopped by at the Forest office to report the number of people and cameras which I found a bit strange. We were only 7 persons for the day. Apparently a large group that had booked had withdrawn at the last moment and the entire place had only 3 families for both the days.

The route that Thapa took us was nice. We say many Gaurs during this trip. While in Kabini we saw Gaur only once, we not only saw many, but had ample opportunities to take photographs as well. Gaurs in KGudi were like Elephants in Kabini dime-a-dozen. Apart from the Gaurs, there were a few elephants but given the thick growth most of the time the elephants were not clearly visible. In Kabini because of the water we were able to have a clear view of the elephants. We could see several spotted deer, and a couple of wild boars. Infact wild boars were visible even from the camp itself. We spotted barking deer several times but could not take a photograph. They are very agile and just sprinted the moment we stopped by. Thapa did not seem to be keen to take us deeper in the jungle. We went by routes that we could more or less recognize. One of the streets that we traversed several times during our stay was Muradi Raste – three feet road, which was really a narrow patch. This was quite a contrast to the Nooradi Rastes [hundred feet roads] we have in several towns!!

On return there was the usual film show and campfire. They gave us very good pakodas and tea. Since not many families were around and none of us seemed to be keen on the campfire, that was given a go by. We had a look at the documentary on how Ullas Karant has been working in the Nagarahole jungles at tiger research. KGudi does not have a fully stocked bar and only beer is available. This fact was highlighted in the Outlook book as well so people who want to have something harder than beer would have to carry the stuff themselves. But the other soft drinks were available. There was a TT table at the JLR office and I had a go at it with Arjun for a while.

Back in the room, it was time for us to get our batteries charged. Surprisingly mobile signals reach this place. So it was an exercise of transferring the photos from the camera to the laptop and charge the mobile and the laptop batteries. At 2230 the lights were switched off promptly. That experience was a bit eerie for Arjun. The sky was clear and the moon was somewhat bright so it was indeed a good picture. JLR people let their elephant loose for grazing through the night. Since this elephant had a bell tied to its neck, we could hear the sound deep into the night. While I dozed off Gowri and Arjun apparently saw some Sambars and wild boars from the window. This experience was indeed that of a wilderness camp. Actually the look around after the lights are switched off is quite an experience and one really gets the feel of being in the middle of the jungle.

The next morning we had a choice of either a trek or a safari. I had twisted my ankle a few weeks ago and was not confident of pulling off a two hour trek. Arjun was keen to get deeper into the jungle and Gowri also was keen on a safari. So we were back on a Safari in the morning. One problem with the vehicles in K Gudi are that they are covered on the top which restricts the view and also the ability to take photographs. This is a bit of a pain especially in a terrain like K Gudi. During this safari we were able to see more than Gaur. We were able to spot a pack of wild dogs. Again those were difficult to photograph and apparently not an easy sight. The resort maintains a small register of Sightings in which Tigers, Leopards, Sloth Bears and Wild Dogs are listed, not the usual wild boars, spotted deer, barking deer Sambar and Gaur. These were the animals we sighted most of the morning. Thapa stopped by near a small puddle and showed us tiger pugs indicating that a tiger was somewhere there. We followed the track and it was evident that he was not pulling a fast one on us, because we could follow the pugs on the dry earth along the path. But our luck was restricted to seeing these pugs. Having exposed to this new technique of spotting animals by their footprints we started focusing on the ground rather than outside and the sightings were tons of elephant shit.

This was a satisfactory safari, but I got the sense that we did not go in a different route. I reckon that a different route would not guarantee a sighting, but still we would have seen some other part of the jungle as well. The trip to Dodda Sampige was not on schedule, because the forest department had apparently withdrawn permission to get to those areas. So, after a prompt 2 hour sojurn in the jungle we were back at Gol Garh for our breakfast. This was followed by a short elephant ride and a trip to BRHills. The drive was not very good because of the quality of the road. On the way we met a family that was driving down in the opposite direction who needed some assistance to get past to the Chamarajanagar side. They were clearly tense that they were driving through the jungle and were not sure what would happen if they sighted some wild animals. Here we were, craving to see some and there they were a family of nervous wrecks who seemed to regret every moment of having taken this road. Apparently these roads are deliberately kept in a bad shape so that it is not used as a pass through. Since this was on the main road, we did not expect to see any animals, but we were still able to spot deer, a serpant eagle and a huge snake that crossed the road. The other end of the road was the office of Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra, a very respectable NGO run by Dr.Sudarshan. However, this was not an occasion for us to stop by. At some point it would be interesting to go and understand the work being done by Dr.Sudarshan with the Soliga tribes of this area. The BR Hills temple looked run down, and hardly impressive. The deity was good, but the surroundings would do with a lot of face lift. But one could see the penetration of Coke with a hoarding even on the drinking water facility outside the temple!! One of the peculiarities of the BR Hills temple is that there is a huge footwear for the lord. Apparently the deity is expected to take a walk in the jungle whenever it fancies him and therefore these Chappals are kept for his use!! These are also replaced occasionally. I just wondered why they should be styled after the Kolhapuri variety, most unsuited for a walk in the jungle!

The next rest of the day was a repeat – safari in the evening and a film show on cobras followed by dinner. No campfire again, because not many of the 7 persons were interested. In the evening however, I chatted up with some of the staff there just to understand what made this place different from Kabini. It appears that there is an underlying tension with the forest department and they have severely restricted the access that JLR can have to the jungles. This is somewhat surprising given that the forest department is one of the promoters of JLR. Apparently the DFO by name Raju is quite strict about the timings and the access areas. The access to Dodda Sampige is cut off essentially by the forest department.

While it is difficult to assess the real reasons – including some valid ecological reasons, the sense that we got was that the forest department was jealous of JLR. The staff of JLR get a decent amount of tips because of the heavy tourist traffic. So there is a income mismatch. In addition, the forest department seems to be leaning on JLR for their guests asking JLR to provide food, which they resent. This tension is something that affects not only the tourists who pay through their nose, but also the business of JLR. Afterall the forest department is a partner in this project and therefore there needs to be a good co-ordination not only at the top, but also at the field level. K Gudi is really a dense area but if staying for two days means transversing Muradi Raste twenty times, then it is not a great idea from a tourist point of view. This opinion was not isolated but expressed by several people in JLR.

We then had a long chat with Thapa, because I was curious as to how he landed up in this place where he claimed to have been for around 10 years. Apparently the army connection brought him here and he thinks that the income is good, he gets a decent pay and decent tips. He has two daughters and has a house built up in Dharmshala – he visits his home [in army style] once a year. He has apparently served in Srilanka and Congo and thinks this is real peaceful life compared to that. I had my kick as a person interested in banking when he volunteered to tell me that for a long time remittance of money to his family through MO and DDs was a problem, not only due to the cost and time involved, but also sometimes in tracking the missing amounts. He now says that he has an account with State Bank and he can directly transfer money to his family thanks to what bankers call Core Banking Solution, where branches are all interlinked.

We moved out of KGudi after a sumptuous breakfast. On the way back I stopped by to take a photograph of the KGudi post office. We often talk about the power of the postal network, with over 150,000 outlets claiming them to be a powerful last point access even in the remote areas. I just wanted to flag the effectiveness of the access. A look at the size of the premises and the fact that the services were available according to the timings of the Bus from Chamarajanagar was enough to indicate that the number of outlets we claim as final touch points could be exaggerated. There was a similar post office in BR Hills as well. We quickly drove down to Mysore and had lunch in what was earlier called as Southern star. I got caught by the policeman for taking a left turn near Ramaswamy Circle on a relatively empty road.. apparently that is declared as a one-way street!! Of course he was kind enough to let me off when he confirmed his hunch that I was an outsider. After lunch we went to the Indica showroom to get the fog lamp fixed.

We spent the day in Mysore and left in the morning. Had coffee at the highway coffee day outlet near Maddur and had a flat tyre in Chennapattana. So the journey was quite eventful with complete driving experience. We reached Bangalore in time for lunch. It was a good holiday, but in terms of professionalism and overall experience I would rate KGudi 7/10 with Kabini getting a 10 benchmark rate. Hopefully we will check out the other jungles the next time around.


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