Driving through fascinating Mudumalai
It was late afternoon when we drove into the quiet, nondescript hotel, Jungle Retreat, at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. In the distance, the mountains of the Nilgiris rose as a steep, almost vertical rock face, enveloped in a fine, gossamer mist. The silence of the jungle was deep, but never intimidating and entirely peaceful.
We had driven from Mysore on a dusty national highway, which had sliced through a patchwork of green fields and was dotted with large bungalows, to reach the pristine environs of the 880 sq. km Bandipur Tiger Reserve. A manually operated barrier at the end of this reserve lifted and announced our arrival into the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, its narrow and dirt roads leading to quiet hotels and abundant vegetation.
The Mudumalai (pronounced moo-doo-malai) Tiger Reserve is spread out over 321 sq. km and is situated at the tri-state border of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The word ‘Mudumalai’ itself is a Tamil word, evocative of a hoary past and means ‘ancient hills’. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve is contiguous to Mudumalai. Earlier, Mudumalai was known as a National Park, then a Wildlife Sanctuary, but in 2008, it was appropriately christened a Tiger Reserve.
The forest has a village, Masinagudi, with a population of 13,000, whose inhabitants live off the revenue generated by the sanctuary all year round.
Apart from tigers, Mudumalai has more than 900 wild elephants, black panthers, leopards, Gaurs (the Indian Bison), sloth bears, spotted deer (Chital) Dhols (wild jungle dogs) and other fauna. Mudumalai is a dry, deciduous and semi-evergreen forest, with open meadow grasslands and swamp areas along with scrub and thorny jungle. Its proximity to the blue mountains of the Nilgiris keeps the temperatures of the forest low, with night temperatures in December dipping to as low as 110c or 120c.
The next morning we were ensconced in an open vehicle, driving deep into the jungle in search of its animals. On the trails, the huge, intricate ant hills carved out of the red earth by jungle ants were truly astonishing – almost like impregnable fortresses! The ant hills in Mudumalai are by far the largest I have seen in any of the sanctuaries that I have visited recently, with Mudumalai being generously endowed with a large number of them!
As our vehicle drove through the forest, spotted deer emerged hesitantly from the tall grass. A herd of Sambar disappeared behind the trees and continued munching on the bushes quietly. Peacocks and peahens wandered around delicately through the rough grass. We noticed that lantana bushes had proliferated in large parts of the forest and were constantly being hacked and burnt to create room for fresh grass.
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Suddenly the branches above us started swaying and we saw a group of Rhesus monkeys swing effortlessly from one tree branch to another. Wild boar scrambled around furiously looking for food. At the end of the jungle track, our vehicle screeched to a halt – just a few feet away from a cliff and a vast chasm that separated the mountain on which we were standing from the one opposite us. In the distance, a waterfall gurgled soundlessly to the ground!
Mudumalai has an elephant training camp, which trains elephants to capture wild elephants. There are around 26 tame and trained elephants in the camp. The forest is also home to avian fauna like the Malabar Parakeet, the Great Indian Hornbill, the Malabar Grey Hornbill, the Malabar Whistling Thrush, Babblers etc. According to the census conducted by the Tiger Authority in 2016, Mudumalai has a population of 86 tigers.
As we explored the forest further, we were excited to see a Giant Malabar Squirrel with its bushy tail swinging from the branches of a tall tree and then disappearing into the foliage. One evening, as dusk, descended on the forest and we parked our vehicle under a tree, our guide pointed silently to the upper branches of the tree. Camouflaged carefully by the thick leaves was a bird with brilliant hues—the Emerald Dove, the state bird of Tamil Nadu! We were enchanted by the beauty of this magnificent bird!
We left Mudumalai at 5.30am on a cold December day. As we drove out, a pair of jackals and a mongoose crossed our path and dived into the thick bushes by the roadside. We reached the barrier dividing the Mudumalai and Bandipur tiger reserves and were told courteously, but firmly, that the barrier would not be raised a minute before the clock struck 6 am, to prevent animal deaths on the road! In the dim light of early dawn as we drove through the Bandipur reserve elephants were feeding themselves peacefully in the dense forest just a few feet from the road.
And then we hit the National Highway for the bright lights and the cacophony of Bangalore!
Cover Pic by Harshavardhan (Source:http://coimbatoreevents.in)
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