Saturday, August 15, 2009

God's secret garden, Masinagudi!

If God had a secret garden, its name would surely be Masinagudi? Lush and green doesn’t even begin to cover when one describes this beautiful piece of land which has so far managed to keep the greedy hands of human civilization under its control. Nestled between the famous tourist town of Ooty and the more well-known sanctuary of Bandipur, Masingagudi is the commonly referred name of both the little town, the cluster of small villages, and the forest areas nearby, starting past the Tamilnadu-Karnataka border on this side of the Blue Mountains. The dense forests and the lush green expanses of plains of the Mudumalai, the ancient mountain ranges of the west, also called Nilgiris (Blue Mountains), reveal a little of themselves in this pitstop before their wilderness becomes more difficult for man to access.

I first visited Masinagudi two years back on a quick weekend getaway and immediately became hooked. The place seemed to be right out of the scenes of the Jungle Book, and other stories of wild animals and forests that have always captured my imagination since childhood. And to think that this is right at my backyard, heavens! I decided, later, that I must do my pilgrimage on this road to Ooty, every year whenever possible. Whenever possible happened two years later and there we were at Masinagudi last Saturday herding a group of youngsters on what I would like to call the ‘wilderness appreciation workshop’ that we like to frequent often as we can, city bred as all of us are.

Most Websites say the best season to visit this place is October till June but believe me, August is just blissful. There is not as much tourist population as there may be at other times of the year, and the rain gods are just about taking a break after a heavy performance washing duty of the mountains. Our animal friends are more relaxed and less wary of the sight of the two legged beasts, and the self-educated naturalists in the form of forest guides are far more down to earth in their charges too. All in all, we couldn’t have visited at a better time.

We were supposed to stay at this place called Green Resorts (more like a Lodge as we found out later) but a chance overstay by one of the guests ensured we were out of place. Our friendly naturalist, Karthick, who had helped us with the booking, became quiet remorse and decided to compensate by taking us to a less-famous, and thereby better, accommodation a little father inside the forest from the town of Masinagudi, called Wild Breeze. The moment we saw Wild Breeze, we were all captivated.

More than a resort, Wild Breeze looked like a set of mini homes with its own private gardens, mountains, and animal friends. “You can see hundreds of spotted deers right at our backyard at night,” went Mr. Hari Nair, the easy going manager of the place, adding “Why only last week we saw wild dogs hunt a deer down!” Woaw! Wow! We are not going anywhere else even if you were to chase us down on elephants, I thought and we settled down for the next 24 hours, each of its minute filled with hopes of seeing those wild dogs return! But as it happened, elephants did do their chase, wild elephants in case you think otherwise, and chase they did the manager. More on that in a little while.

So after checking in at one in the afternoon, we began planning our POA for the next one day by discussing with our Naturalist. Karthick reeled off the activity options like well memorized items off a food menu complete with cost details:

  • Jeep Safari in the night = Rs.800 per jeep, each jeep six people
  • Camp fire with fun and frolic = Rs.300 for fire, fun and food extra depending on how many bottles
  • Early morning illegal trek inside the forest=Rs.200 per person (reducible up to Rs.150) per hour for however many hours you wish to trek
  • Visit to bath at the Moyyar (Singara) river of the parts=Rs.400 for to and fro jeep charges to the bathing site
  • Another safari if you wish=same as before
  • And of course the hugely crowded government organized Van Safaris at both Mudumalai forest reserve and Bandipur; Mudumailai at Rs.35 and Bandipur at Rs.90 (not sure of this cost)
One can also do a night stay inside the forest but it is not advised in addition to being illegal!

We decided to take our chances with the government safari at Mudumalai first, much to the disgust of Karthick, who couldn’t help but boast about his sightings of Leopard and Tiger just the previous week when he had taken another tourist group. Cynical as I was (remember I had visited this place two years back? Our guide then (they hadn’t yet started calling themselves naturalist then) made a big fool of us by pointing to some trees saying he spotted a panther just that morning sitting on those trees!), I knew at least the government safari is sure to show you some animals, if not Tigers and Leopards (nocturnal animals they are so no chance there!), but elephants and bisons surely. And spotted them we did in the safari along with deers, peacocks, Nilgiri Langurs, and other monkeys. But the worst part of the government offered safari is the wait at the ticket office – considering that this was supposed to be off season, we had to wait over two hours for our turn! But well, you can’t miss it.

We opted out of the private night jeep safari that Karthick offered, again because of our lessons from two years before. Back then, our guides fooled us by showing tamed elephants (of the Mudumalai forest office), and passed them off as wild tuskers grazing inside the village! Our guides then also took us to this old temple inside the forest and stalled the jeep for ten minutes in front of it saying Tigers visit the temple often! Though it was totally romantic (don’t ask me why! My husband dozed off half way in the safari then but I found it all oh so totally romantic to be wide awake and seeing nature at her best at night – voyeur I know!) and adventurous, we did not spot a single animal except for those wild tuskers! So we decided to stay back at Wild Breeze instead and catch up on horror stories this time round.

What do they say about Murphy’s law? What do they say? I would have beaten myself with ten broomsticks in the minutes that followed when Karthick returned from the night safari of another gang that stayed in the next cottage and proudly announced, “Ma’m you missed it! We saw a Leopard and another gang with my friend guide saw a Tiger! Ask the guests if you don’t believe me!” The guests with him nodded and off they went chatting excitedly about their luck. I turned to stare at my husband hoping to burn a hole right through his cynical mind (I conveniently forgot about my own acquiesce to his opinion!) because he was the one who first suggested opting out of the night safari. When I think of that stupid decision, I still feel like kicking myself. So animal spotting or not, this night safari is a must if you are in Masinagudi. Like I said, it is really romantic, adventurous and one of a kind experience.

The night bought in some much needed excitement later when we heard the manger come running from the gates. Apparently, he was going to the town to bring back something when in the dark his bike suddenly illuminated three elephants standing right in his way. He dropped his bike and ran back from the path like crazy which is when we saw him. After waiting out sometime, one of us took our car to the site and the manager got back his bike. There are wild elephants roaming abouts, don’t go wandering outside the gates was his advice before we retired for the night.

Oh, I almost forgot about those hundreds of deers in the backyard. Yes, there was truth to Hari Nair’s words. In fact, there were more than hundreds of deers behind the resort that night though we could see only their eyes (when we turned on our torch beams). I guess they all come near the resort at night to sleep – it might offer them a safer place than the rest of the forest, near as it is to light and human habitation, and thus far from the predators of the night which generally avoid the human trails.

We slept reluctantly that night, sorry to step inside the four walls of the room, away from the blanket of stars and wilderness.

Wait for more pictures - and the next day's events! I will put them up later!

Updated to add: By popular demand (hehehe!), here's the number of Wild Breeze - 097517-64310 - the manager's name is Sri Hari.