Sunday, April 27, 2014

Elephants and Birds

My third stop on my south India adventure was Forest Hills, right outside of Masinagudi, close to the Mudumalai Tiger Sanctuary.  No, I didn't see any tigers.  Sightings are rare, and I wasn't that lucky.  I guess it isn't uncommon to see leopards, but they hid from me.  I did, however, see quite a few elephants and over 60 species of birds.  This is a nature lover's paradise.

We sighted these fellows along the road on the way back from Bandipur National Park.  I saw more wildlife on the trip there and back than I did on the safari in the park itself.  The smaller one decided he didn't like the attention and started to charge right after I snapped this.  The jeep took off just in time.

To get from Bodhi Zendo to Forest Hills required another all day ride.  We spent the morning coming down out of one set of mountains, driving along the edge of the mountain on a narrow mountain road with a steep drop off and lots of hairpin curves.   It was beautiful, but nerve wracking, especially when encountering a bus or truck.  The late morning was spent crossing the plains, back in the heat.  At that point I was glad I'd paid the extra 1K rupees to have A/C.  Then we started climbing again.  We arrived in the picturesque city of Ooty just in time for lunch.  Delicious but quite expensive by India standards.  Ooty is built on the side of a mountain.  And every space that isn't covered with buildings has some kind of produce growing on it, most often tea.  Ooty is well known for its tea plantations, and they are beautiful.  We climbed a little more outside Ooty, then began to descend toward Masinagudi.  Forest Hills guest house is tucked back in off a road that seems more like a path.  

I spent a little over a week here, and got a full dose of being in the wilderness in India.  I was surrounded by the Nilgiris, which means blue mountains,  I found out they are called that because of a blue flower that totally covers the mountain sides when it blooms - once every 12 years.  2006 was the last time it happened, I believe.  I was the only person at the guest house for part of the time, but on the weekend it filled up, mostly with Indian families with children.  I was the only non-Indian there the whole time, but I always felt quite comfortable and welcome.  A number of the visitors had lived in the states.  

For the most part, my days were relaxed and pretty unstructured.  Given nothing to do, a very interesting thing happened.  I realized I was homesick!  I welcomed the feeling, since so far all I had felt was sadness about leaving India.  And in some strange way, acknowledging my homesickness has freed me to enjoy my last days in India to the fullest.  Yes I am ready to go home, but I will miss this crazy amazing country.

There were a few highlights.  Four mornings I went bird watching with Masi, a young man from the local village.  He was a gentle, knowledgeble fellow, and we saw 60 different species.  Some of them even posed for us to get a really good look at them.  My favorite was watching the male plum headed parakeet feed a juvenile.  The Indian pitta was also a real treat.  This is a very rare bird in this area, since it lives most of the year in the Himalayas.  Masi played a bird call on his cell phone and was able to bring it in.  A colorful bird as you can see below.

I went on two jeep safaris in the Mudumalai sanctuary, and one in the Bandipur National Park.  I saw elephants on one of the safaris, and elephants while riding in the jeep.  But the most interesting was the elephant I saw from the watchtower right at Forest Hills.  Zahra the dog and I walked down there about 6, an hour before it gets dark.  I had been down before and not seen anything.  I had heard that sightings are usually after dark.  So I was really surprised to see a tusker come rambling out of the jungle about 5 minutes after I got there.  Elephants can be very dangerous, so I was glad I hadn't crossed paths with him.  He had come to feast on some vegetable waste that the Forest Hills folks had thrown out.  He took his time, and I got to watch him for about 25 minutes.  Zahra was just as still and intent on watching as I was!

One last encounter worth mentioning was with a village woman in Masinagudi.  Sashi the jeep driver decided to stop off at his home in Masinagudi to get a flashlight before we headed out on safari.  Driving down a back road, he beeped at an older woman dressed in a sari who was walking down the middle of the road.  She didn't move until he was driving around her, and then she jumped.  It was obvious she was deaf.  Sashi pulled off the road, said he'd be back in a minute, and disappeared to go get the flashlight.  The woman we had passed walked up to me in the jeep, and I mentally prepared for the by now familiar "Ma" and beggar's gesture.  But that's not what happened.  The woman touched my arm, and gave me the most beautiful smile - a smile with her whole face, including her beautiful eyes.  She made unintelligible sounds as she gestured at the mountains, obviously wanting me to see the beauty that surrounded us.  Then she pointed to a big beautiful tree and drew a tree in the air with her hands, and once again smiled at me to make sure I was paying attention.  Then she pointed at birds, and mimed birds with her hands.  She was sharing her whole world with me, and asking nothing in return but that I saw the beauty with her.  This continued for about 5 beautiful minutes until Sashi returned.  This kind of encounter is one of the reasons I will miss India.

The ride was very scenic, with mountain views most of the day.

Going through one of the villages, we passed by a whole parade of people, many of whom were wearing headdresses like this.  They were all heading to the local temple.  The driver said it was some festival.  Indrani told me later that it was their New Year.

I saw my first Indian wind turbine.

Ooty is built on the side of a mountain.

The tea plantations are beautiful.

Fields of carrots, another crop Ooty is famous for.

The gardens surrounding the guest house were beautiful.

Masi, my bird expert.  Spending the mornings walking quietly through the area with him was a wonderful way to start the day.  Nilgiris in the background.

Dressed for bird watching.  People here were more likely to wear Western dress, and it was cool enough in the morning that jeans were comfortable.  I'm holding my tiny binoculars.  Forest Hills was kind enough to lend me some better ones for subsequent bird walks.

The Indian Pitta.  No, i didn't take this picture. 

I did take this picture of the common rose butterfly, which was uncommonly beautiful.

Picture taken from the watchtower.  All elephants with tusks are males, but not all males have tusks.  It was thrilling to be able to be so close to this guy and watch him for almost a half hour.

The same fellow, busy eating.

My buddy Zahra.

The only feline I saw was peeking in my window at me.  Quite a large cat, which means a large appetite for mice and rats.

The national bird of India.

A lovely silhouette.

Langur monkeys are common in this area.

As are sambar deer.  They are much bigger than the common spotted deer which look very similar to the deer back home.

The local temple, less than a km. from Forest Hills, is a Mariamman templ.  Mariamman is the Hindu goddess of rain.  It literally means mother Mari.  Interesting.

There was a full moon while I was there.

The watchtower where I stood and watched the elephant.


  1. Let me guess... did the discovery of homesickness coincide with the donning of good old jeans? Let's see... chocolate, pizza, traffic laws, universal toilet paper, air conditioning... ice cream, US politics, unlimited books... what could you miss? :)

  2. Finally we get to see elephants and exotic birds in your blogs! MAGNIFICENT PHOTOGRAPHY!!! Bet the elephant that charged you saw your red blouse!!!