I was having dinner with my friend Suraj Kumaar, of the DiscoverWild Foundation (www.discoverwild.in), and we were discussing how we had absolutely nothing to do on a Friday night. So, without further ado, we decided we'd hit the Nilgiris right then and there to see how our luck turned out to be. After all, unearthly hours of the morning before sunrise are always the best for wildlife viewing.
We left Coimbatore at about 11.30pm and hit the foothills of Mettupalayam around 1am of the Saturday. We proceeded up to Ooty via the Burliar-Coonoor road and made slow progress. Traffic was unbelievable at that unearthly hour with a vehicle crossing almost every 3 to 5 minutes. Sometime between 2am and 2.30am when Suraj was catching up on a nap, about 4-6km before the town of Aruvankadu (the Cordite factory) I saw a leopard cross the road in front of us, having come up from a steep slope, almost a drop, on our left. I turned the car around on the road to try and continue seeing it, but by then it had climbed the slope to our right and was making its way up through the undergrowth. Suraj awoke on feeling the car slow and only got to hear the sounds of bushes parting and leaves swaying indicating the cat's progress. This leopard was about average in size, that is all I could conclude. We didn't have a spotlight with us, so the car's headlights were our only source of light.
Continuing up towards Coonoor, we refuelled and decided to keep heading toward Ooty as originally planned. Once at Ooty, we proceeded toward the Sighur ghat road and went down all 36 hairpin bends of the 17km to Masinagudi in just over an hour. It was still only about four in the morning so we drove on toward Theppakadu and Kargudi. (The road from Masinagudi joins up the Mysore-Ooty NH at Theppakadu; on the left lie Kargudi, Gudalur, Ooty and on the right the NH goes on to Bandipur and towards Gundulpet and Mysore.) Between Theppakadu and Kargudi we spotted a male gaur and his brothel contentedly chewing grass in the clearings on either sides of the national highway. Then came a resort jeep loaded with tourists who used blinding camera flashes and spotlights to drive the herd into the trees and undergrowth. Finished with that, we turned around and headed toward Bandipur. En route, we made many sightings of Sambar, usually loners or couples. We then came across a whole herd of them, at least four juveniles and four adults and more in the bushes on either sides. At the Bandipur reception centre, it was still dark and at 5.30am, we were at least a half hour away from any kind of safari. So we decided to drive on until the end of the Bandipur NP & WLS and return in time for the first safari ride. On our return, about 30m from the Bandipur reception, a very beautiful, healthy (fat, even), shiny, young male leopard crossed the road from our left, went to a tree on our right, sniffed at it for a while and then marked it and went off into the bushes. Again, Suraj had to be shaken awake and in his sleepy excitement, he got a picture only of the leopard's aura. You wouldn't believe it but the highlighted part of the picture is the leopard, or rather, his aura. :D
I wanted to shoot and record the fellow too, but just seeing him all shiny in the headlights, going about marking his territory, paralysed my brain into sluggishness regarding anything to do with taking my eyes away from him.
It was six by now and we were issued our safari van ride tickets to a fully packed van filled with kids and wannabe wildlife photographers who wanted a crash course on nature photography in 5 minutes from us, probably fooled into thinking we were real pros and veterans simply because we were the only quiet ones on board (my pioneer beard would've helped too). After a much uneventful van ride (sightings being only of spotted dove, wild boar, spotted and sambar deer, coromandel grey langur and peacock), we came across a ruddy mongoose (who also could be comfortably termed fat), who scurried away because the van driver went too close to it. A few metres down the road, we spotted another ruddy mongoose who also scurried away because he was of the very nervous disposition kind. Then, nearly at the end of the van ride in the park's eastern parts behind the reception centre, we spotted a pack of wild dogs—eight of them —out for the hunt. They were headed west, which we didn't realize at the time. As soon as we got off the van at the end of the safari, we wanted to get out of being amidst so many noisy people and got in the car and raced off south towards Mudumalai but had to come to a complete stop in a couple of kilometres because we saw the same wild dog pack now crossing the main road, going to the western part of the park. After the crossing they decided to hang around and have a little play session on the grassy sides of the muddy park road that runs perpendicular to the main NH passing through Bandipur and Mudumalai (that tourists aren't allowed into). Mock fights ensued for a while after which I guess hunger calls couldn't be left unanswered so they resumed their hunt, walking off into the forest.
Next up on our plates was a small herd of elephants, all female, two adults and one sub-adult. One of the females was very emaciated and weak-looking, with a modified gait too. We kept a distance of about 20m and they were peaceful enough, despite fast-paced trucks crossing their paths. This herd then moved off into the eastern parts of the teak plantation about 4km south of the Mudumalai reception at Theppakadu.
Our safari ride at Mudumalai was uneventful except for one quick sighting of a male gaur, who, for some unknown reason, decided to bolt on hearing us approach, and also a lone barking deer who also bolted, as is the case usually with their kind. The van driver stopped the van at the MGR watchtower on a cliff which gave a wonderful view of the Moyar falls and river.
The rest of the day was uneventful, and as we headed back we decided to take the Manjur-Karamadai road down to Coimbatore. Before Manjur comes the village of Chamrajnagar. Chamrajnagar's claim to fame used to be its temple and boarding school but all that took a backseat when I had a sip of their most amazing Assam-blend tea at the Chamraj tea estate's official tea shop. I'm not usually a fan of Assam-blends but this one had me floored on the first sip. The tea is sold 20% cheaper than MRP at this little shop, which sits by a shola on one side and the tea factory on the other, the beautiful aroma of tea being processed wafting up at you as you wait for your tea to be served. We also spotted a Besra Sparrowhawk (probably female) that was kind enough to visit the tree opposite the tea store while we having our chai.
The rest of our journey to Manjur was uneventful except for the usual array of jungle crows, pied bushchats, indian robins, great tits, house sparrows, hill mynas, brahminy starlings and oriental white-eyes. About 10km before Manjur village we came across the body of a bonnet macaque, his skull crushed by a passing vehicle.
This is what happens when wild animals are fed by humans. And this is why speed limits in forest roads should be strictly enforced.
The road from Manjur to Karamadai takes one through a variety of habitat, starting with tea cultivation and ending with scrub jungle at Karamadai, with moist and dry deciduous patches in-between. Very uneventful all the way to Coimbatore, except for the fact that most village men we encountered on the road in Karamadai were walking in drunken stupor. It was festival time, we learnt, which explained all.