|Road to Mudumalai National Park (photo - Jim Ankan Deka)|
"If you want to see tiger, go to a zoo; not a tiger reserve!"
Says Nitesh, one of the officials of Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu.
It was a bright sunny day when we reached the entrance of Mudumalai National Park. We already had rooms booked at The Nest Inn, a small but clean resort in Masinagudi (one of the five ranges of the wildlife sanctuary). The 180° panoramic view from the resort was actually astounding. The cool green background reminded me of my hometown in Assam of North East India.
After checking in, we thought of going through the travel guidebook. First destination on the menu was the Moyar River, a tributary of Bhavani river which originates from a small town called Moyar along the Masinagudi. The moment we reached the river, which was actually very close to our resort, we got the stench of human excreta. What we thought to be a clean forest and animal destination, ended up becoming the lavatory for the hominidae.
We moved on and went for a bonfire in the jungle arranged by Nest Inn. It was thrilling as well as spine-tingling when we were told that people witnessed a leopard and couple of elephants roaming in that area the previous day. Although we did not have the necessary luck to witness the majestic presence of the kindred souls, it was still fun to taste the barbeque and the bananna-chocolate cooked in the fire under the open sky.
Next day we visited the Pykara falls which was just 19 km from Ooty in the Ooty-Gudalur road. The falls was about 35 kms from Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. The curvy road through the Nilgiri Hills was nice and clean. The surrounding beauty reminded me of Shillong. It was indeed breathtaking. Most of the time I try to avoid the thronged tourist destinations. Pykara Falls was nothing different. A crowd had already transformed the pristine place to a carnival atmosphere. Shops and hawkers on the way to the falls made the place a business zone. The behavior of the management was equally worse. But the sound and the peaceful white color of the water fall was so perfectly overwhelming, that I stood transfixed.
We reached the government safari ticket counter. Had to wait for the tickets which cost around Rs 135 per head. There were camera charges too. After some time our conveyance arrived. The moment our eyes fell on the vehicle, all the excitement vanished. It was a 'bus'. We were expecting atleast a jeep if not a game viewing vehicle like the Land Rover Defender or a modified truck. As far my knowledge goes, an ideal vehicle for a game drive should carry maximum of 9 passengers besides the ranger, which allows interaction and personalized attention during the drive. But alas, it was a mini bus with a sitting capacity of around 28 people. We forgot the interaction part and concentrated on the drive through the forest. To our astonishment, there was no guide.
We went for a 40 min drive and saw few wolves and langoors (Old World monkeys). We waited for the forest king, the tiger to greet us on the way; but nope, it never came out. The driver never stopped the bus and I was almost praying for the bus to break down. Just before we reched the reception building, we saw an elephant. Everyone on the bus started clicking and after some time realised that there was a bell in it's neck. So it was not a wild elephant but a demo animal kept by the forest reserve for the people to feel happy if they don't encounter any wild animal in the forest.
When asked about the bell on the elephant, Nitesh said that it is a tracking device if the elephant plans to run inside the jungle. Although they have camera traps, the bell is more trustworthy. I don't know what would have been the comment of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam or ISRO to that.
Nitesh next pointed to the sticker on the window of the ticket counter when we asked him about the tigers which we did not come across with in the 40 min bus drive. It was written 'Animal sighting is a matter of luck'. I asked him if he had been to Kaziranga National Park or Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary because that's where one can find the famous one horned rhinos. When he said 'No', I told him that 90% of the visitors witness atleast more than one rhino, that too in a jeep. Rhinos are known to be angry animals. These guys are so defensive that they've earned a reputation as indiscriminate attackers that will charge just about anything in sight or that looks unfamiliar. He had hardly any clue about that. At the end he asked us to visit a zoo if we wanted to see tigers and not a reserve forest.