WildZests: September 2014

Friday, September 26, 2014

Family Trip To Sakleshpur With Jeepers Of Bangalore

It goes without saying that if your family supports the group that you belong to, life can become a lot easier when you need permissions for OTRs and camping nights. So in order to get our families acquainted with the Jeepers of Bangalore group, we had planned out a family event to Sakleshpur. Although not everyone could come because of schedule and other logistics, we had enough participation to have a superb two-day vacation with wives, kids, jeeps and jeepers together.

6 families, 5 Jeeps + 1 Duster, is what we were as we started our journey from Bangalore towards the western ghats. The roads till Hassan are pretty good while the last 30-40 kms are reasonably okay. We were all booked at Ibbani resorts near Hanbal, about 20 kms from the Sakleshpur town. The place was very basic and had a nice rustic feel to it. Food was pretty decent and was included in the package. There were multiple spots to setup a bonfire and sit around in the evenings, you could even ask for tents to spend the night in the open. The best part was that they had a private pond with quite a few of those rope activities including a trolley that dropped you right inside the water. Without a doubt, that's where all of us spent our time on the second day time playing around in the water like kids.


The highlight of the trip was the jeep trail that took us to a really nice mountain top with panoramic views of the western ghats. The lush green mountains are a sight to behold, I'm sure the place looks even more beautiful in the monsoons.


The jeep trail itself was quite a nice one with some nice climbs and small streams running through. Gozu got her chance to try some off-road trail driving and navigate through the narrow trail with steep drops on one side. Given that the monsoons were yet to arrive, it was mostly dry and it wasn't too difficult for the jeeps. However, I'm sure that the whole place just transforms itself once the rains arrive. 


There was this big rope swing at the resort which swept you at least 20 feet off the ground at the farthest point. Honestly, I couldn't remember how long it has been since we I've had butterflies in my stomach. Kids and adults alike, all of us were seen standing in queue to get their turns almost every time we used to cross through the path to go down to our rooms. A simple setup, but yet so joyful!

A Quick Trip To Bandipur and K'Gudi

Having been to Kabini a couple of times already, we wanted to visit some of the other national parks around here. Bandipur used to be my favorite hangout a few years back but Kabini had taken over that position ever since. The sightings at Bandipur had slowed down after the tigress "Gowri" died early last year and her cubs have taken to their own separate ways. There is a handsome male "Prince" who is now the ruling champion of the tourism zone in Bandipur but it's not everyday that he is being sighted.

Bookings at Jungle Lodges are always difficult to get unless you're going on a weekday, we could barely manage to get a one day booking at Bandipur. So we decided to add another day at K'Gudi which is one of those places where I've always wanted to go but never ended up going. Being the peak summer time, we were thinking we may get a bit lucky at either of the places.

Forest Fire - Elephant

The safari ride in Bandipur was pretty quiet, there was a recent forest fire that had charred quite a large area of the jungle and the wildlife was just adjusting to it. With a little help from the summer rains new grass had begun to emerge from the otherwise parched landscape. Most of the water holes were running dry except a few which had minimal water remaining.


It was good to be back in Bandipur after a relatively long time. Our safaris however were pretty quiet and uneventful, to the extent that I hadn't pulled out the camera more than a couple of times. But that's how unpredictable these wildlife trips can be, sometimes you're busy throughout the safari with lots of action happening all around and other times you just sit around admiring the vistas without needing to pickup your camera even once.


The next day we reached K'Gudi, the JLR property here is within the buffer area of the forest so there is no demarcation between you and the wildlife. There isn't a regular power supply available and the power generator is intermittently used through the day. At night, there is no power supply and each tent is supplied with a kerosene lantern as emergency lighting system. It's a really nice experience to be staying in the wild and I could hear numerous chital and sambar calls through the night signalling the presence of the striped cat nearby. On checking with the staff, they told me that the resort actually falls into the area of one of the tigresses and the warning calls are pretty much an everyday affair. There were also some reports of a kill being sighted about a kilometer away from the resort behind the hill that surrounds it on the back side. No wonder that they discourage guests from loitering outside their tents/cottages in the night once the lights go off.


The safari at K'Gudi was a lot different than what we've done at Bandipur or Kabini. The whole area is hilly and visibility isn't all that great. The chances of sighting a tiger or leopard isn't as high as some of the other reserves, but if you do get lucky, people have had a wonderful time photographing them. The bird life on the other hand, is one of the highlights of K'Gudi, even a casual glance around the resort will yield a lot of different species to be recorded. Another difference is the barking deer population at K'Gudi is significantly higher than Bandipur or Kabini, it could be because of favorable terrain or the food availability.


There is a bird bath created just outside the dining hall and once the breakfast or lunch event is over, you can see a lot of birds coming down there for a dip and drink. The oriental white eyes, shyamas, robins etc are regular visitors of this place. We noticed it only on the next day while having breakfast and didn't get much time to spend there, but it's on my to-do list for the next time.

Oriental White Eye

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rendezvous With The Blue Tailed Bee Eaters

BTBE Landing Shot

As the summer started to set in, there were numerous reports of the Blue Tailed Bee Eaters flocking on the outskirts of Mysore for their annual nesting period. These birds make their nesting holes in the soft sand found alongside the banks  of the Cauvery and can be found in large numbers from March to July. It's a pleasure to watch their courtship displays and feeding rituals. The season starts with the males trying to impress the females with their catch and tossing it around - an exchange of prey would mean acceptance. What follows is the nesting period ie. laying eggs and hatching, followed by feeding the young until they take their first flight and start hunting for themselves.

Blue Tailed Bee Eater With A Catch

In the colony, there are always fights for dominance amongst the males, first to get a partner, then to get the best nesting spots, or even to get a specific perch etc. So it's quite entertaining to just sit around and watch the bird behavior and possibly document some of that on camera. The nesting grounds are now informally protected against human destruction, but there is a lot more than can be done. You can see how these birds are jostling for space amongst growing human encroachment, its a pity. There is cattle and donkeys wandering nearby the nesting sites, and there are laundry guys washing and drying stuff just 40-50m away from these birds.

Blue Tailed Bee Eater

From a birding standpoint, this is another one of those arm-chair birding spots where all you need to do is maintain sufficient distance from the nesting pits, setup a tripod and wait for the action. All you need is patience and perseverance along with some pre-visualization of what kind of image you'd want to capture. There is a lot of story-telling images that can be captured here showcasing the social behaviors of these birds. One should take care to maintain silence at all times and avoid too much of movement so as to not disturb the birds.

BTBE Landing Shot

I actually made a couple of trips this season, and each time, there was enough drama and action that I could capture. Next season I would want to go a bit early and witness the courtship displays as well. 

Blue Tailed Bee Eater

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Life Skill #3: Learning to Swim


Last year during the summer vacation I wanted to get Pozu enrolled for swimming classes, but the instructor had asked me to wait another year before she started. So this time without fail, I started familiarizing her with the swimming pool and the fun she could have in the water. The main motive I had was to make sure she had no fear of the water once she started her lessons because then she could focus more on technique rather than fighting her fear.

We practiced for about a week prior to her starting the swimming class and by then she was fearless to the extent that she could jump in the pool without even knowing how to swim. She used to have a pair of arm floats that gave her enough confidence to take risks and move around by herself. We also explored the underwater scene often so she knew that there was nothing to be scared of. The GoPro Hero 3 helped in capturing some of those precious moments that are showcased here.


As expected, her class began pretty smooth and she was already swimming independently from the second day onwards. The instructors were pretty good in working with children and could easily teach her the basic techniques of keeping her head in the water and coming up to breathe etc. By the end of the second week, she was able to complete a full lap by herself which was quite an amazing feat for a 4 year old. Not to mention that she was the youngest in the training batch and so she received the most amount of attention from both the trainer and the other students as well. 

At the end of the season, I was pretty happy that she had learnt to swim reasonably well and over the next few years she should be able to master it as well. The only downside of being in Bangalore is that the weather doesn't permit the use of swimming pool through the year. So even though she could theortically practice everyday, once the school has started, we've had very few occasions to jump into the pool.


Kabini With The Gang - April 2014

It was almost a year since we went to Kabini with our gang of friends. We were  going to have Anish come down from Mumbai just to be a part of this trip, it was a first time since he returned to India that he was joining us on a trip. Going out with everyone together is always special, last time we were lucky to have awesome leopard sightings and we were hoping it'd happen again. More than us, it was the kids who get excited with the thought of going to Kabini.


We planned an early morning start from Bangalore so we could do a boat ride at Ranganathittu before proceeding towards Kabini. We reached Ranganathittu at about 7AM only to find out that the new ranger/warden has enforced the 8AM opening time and the boats would only be available post 8.30AM. Now who on earth got the idea of such a late start especially for bird sanctuary, it's not even worth discussing that here. This was beyond the normal migration season and most of the birds had returned back, the only ones left were the local migrants, some resident birds and ofcourse the crocodiles.



After a nice long breakfast at Kamats in Mysore we proceeded towards Kabini through the HD Kote road. Once at the resort, it was time for the kids to play around until it was time for the evening safari. It had been raining at Kabini for the past few days and with rain comes the risk of low animal movement in the jungle. We searched all through the forest but there was no sign of the cats anywhere. The whole place looked so calm and relaxed that there was no way one could avoid feeling lazy.

One of the things I have noticed over the past two years is that the elephant population coming to Kabini has reduced ever since the reservoir had almost dried up in 2013. Even though there was no problem in 2014, the elephants had not returned back and one could only find one or two gentle giants foraging on the fresh green grass along the edge of the backwaters. Hopefully they will return next season for a grand view of having 100 or more elephants in a single frame like it used to be.


Next day morning safari wasn't too different either, none of the jeeps had spotted any large predator. We had one more day to go and the situation wasn't going to be much different. The next two safaris also yielded similar results, no big cat, but just moving through the forest was an awesome experience. The dried up vegetation seemed like it was coming back to life with the non-seasonal showers and I'm sure even the animals were feeling a lot relieved of the heat.


After spending two awesome and memorable days, we were now headed back home and we were going directly to the airport to drop Anish for his flight back to Mumbai. Except for the lack of wild cat sightings, I think we all enjoyed having fun as a group after a really long time.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Jeepers of Bangalore - Offroading, Camping & Barbeque Night

A small apolitical jeep owners Whatsapp group that had started back in Aug/Sep 2013 with just a few of us had slowly and steadily grown in a much larger group, there was even a Facebook group by now. After a few rounds of discussion on the name for the group, we had settled down on calling it "Jeepers of Bangalore" a.k.a JoB. Using my limited photoshop skills, I got a logo design for the group and thus we were now bonded together with the JoB stickers on our jeeps.

As JoB, we intend to enjoy some off-roading fun without bringing in any commercial interests and keep it as simple as we can. The group was aimed to create a platform for the newbies and veterans to interact and share views and knowledge about 4x4s and offroading. The members come from various backgrounds and the diversity helps in connecting with folks who are very resourceful in areas where you may not have any knowledge. There isn’t any joining formality other than having a 4x4 and passion for offroading.

Everyday conversations in the group vary from technical discussions about engines, gearboxes and transmissions to which color looks the best or what new accessories someone has added on their jeep. About 400-500 messages a day is a norm and sometimes we hit that mark even in 3-4 hours if there was some interesting topic being discussed. A lot of members are now carrying portable battery packs and/or recharging their phones by twice a day, some even bought new phones with higher battery capacity just to be able to survive through the resource intensive conversations.

Now, we had done a camping trip sometime in January that was super fun event with the tiring offroad trail and evening barbeque with beverages. Everyone felt that it was time to do it again before the summer set in and the days became unbearably hot (yes, it happens even in Bangalore nowadays). A quick show of hands revealed that there was a lot many interested participants this time around. It was going to be a much bigger event than we’ve had before. It made us happy and anxious about how it was all going to get managed considering that we hadn’t dealt with more than 10 jeep convoys so far. Plus, with about 20 odd jeeps turning up for the event there were going to be more than 40 people at the campsite for the night. We had to make sure everyone made through the trail safe and sound in time for the evening activities to setup their tents and fired up their barbeques. The Whatsapp interactions were further intensified, you could literally feel the excitement in the group.

Some of us already had camping gear, but there were a few who were buying stuff especially for this event. At the previous camping event, we were just about a dozen guys and we had volunteers who had brought food, beverages etc for the whole group, but this time it was going to be impossible to do that because of the size of the group. So a decision was made to have everyone do a potpourri of sorts and individually bring in stuff for the barbeque. We also needed more grills and luckily we had about 6 grills between all of us which was good. This actually proved to be a really good idea since we had a lot of choice once the grills were fired up.

The day began with a 7AM customary breakfast meeting at the New Agarwal Bhavan on Tumkur road post which the convoy proceeded towards the trail with packed lunch of Idli-vadas. I had Yatin join me for the event, it was going to be his maiden off-road trip so he was rather excited to be there.

A quick briefing session before we began helped in making sure everyone knew who the spotters were going to be and some other basic rules to be followed on the trail. Basically we wanted to make sure that people don’t go wandering off the trail on their own and/or take unnecessary risks and compromise safety in any way. There were quite a few newbies as well who were going to slot into 4L for the first time. As a group, we needed to give them enough support and encouragement to handle the stress on both man and machine. Our objective was very clear, the OTR was all about having fun, we weren’t out there to prove a point about anybody’s driving skill or capability of their machine. A successful day would be to complete the trail and return back safely without any major damage to any of the machines.

The trail is a rocky canal bed near a friend’s farm on the outskirts of Bangalore and has obstacles of varying degree of difficulty. We had done a part of the same trail last time, but no matter how many times you've done an offroad trail, there's always some new surprise waiting for you each time you visit.

There are various opportunities to make steep gradient climbs like this one.

Or get tested for articulation on rocks like this.

or like this.

Get stuck and be winched out in some places.

Or take the dare for some underbody damage and make it out in style like ThunderBolt

There are rock faces that make you skid all the way down till you hit the bumper on the ground.

And places where you can slide and ride through the slushy pits

There’s also enough for the SUVs to try out even if they can’t risk the rocky obstacles.

Most of the times, all you need is a good spotter to take you over those rocks without hitting anything underneath.

End of the day, you know it’s all worth the effort when everyone makes it through the trail without any major breakdown.

But this isn’t the end of the story - the actual party starts after the jeeps are parked. There’s a flurry of activities going around and people are busy pitching their tents, checking/fixing stuff on the jeep, setting up their barbeque grills and finally opening up their chiller boxes for refreshments. What follows is a lot of cooking, both food and stories until it’s time for people to crash into their tents (literally).

PS> Most of the images used here are from other participants and sourced from the JoB FB group. Copyrights belong to the respective owners.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Day Visit to Maidenahalli Blackbuck Reserve

Just as we returned back from Kabini, a casual conversation led to an impromptu trip to the Maidenahalli Blackbuck Reserve near Madhugiri. The onward journey was filled with surprises as we got lost a bit and took the "roads less traveled" to reach our destination. The mis-adventure delayed us by at least an hour as compared to the regular route. Given that we were five of us including Pozu in the jeep, the rough ride wasn't exactly something that we were thrilled about. The only silver lining was that it didn't matter if there was a road or not, the jeep could potentially navigate through anything.

We reached the place at around 10AM and even before we entered the gate, we had already encountered our first herd of the antelopes and the cameras were in action. 

As we entered into the sanctuary, we tried to get in touch with the guard at the office but nobody was available so we said we'll come back again during lunch time and check. We continued through the marked trails, tracking the herds in an attempt to get them in range but the shy creatures kept moving away from us. 

We saw a few harriers hovering around but didn't get a chance to get a photograph them. There were a couple of spotted owlets who made us run around a bit to get a reasonably clean background. 

An Indian Bushlark was kind enough to hold it's position while we got some shots. 

The return journey was a lot better since we took the normal route via Madhugiri and we were able to make it home in a little over 3 hours. Overall, it was a good day spent out in the wild, and that's all that matters!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Special Birthday Treat

It was time for my birthday and we hadn't done any trips to Kabini or Bandipur even once in this year. So it was decided that we will be spending a couple of days at Kabini to celebrate and I couldn't have asked for anything better.


The summer was just starting and the dry forests usually have a lot more action than the other seasons. The Kabini River Lodge is one of my personal favorite jungle resorts, and it is always exciting to be there. Pozu also enjoys the place a lot, she actually starts missing it if we don't visit there for a while. But more than the resort, this time I was more keen on getting some good sightings in our safaris, and I wasn't disappointed.


On the first day itself, we had an amazing leopard sighting for almost an hour where the huge male cat posed endlessly for our cameras. This guy is one of the boldest leopards we've seen in Kabini and he really put on a nice display of his dominance that day.


The next day's safari was also quite eventful with another leopard resting on a tree. But what was even more interesting was the jungle fowl posing for us in superb morning light.


A sambar deer at the backwaters made for an excellent shot with the glittering water in the background.


During our last safari, we saw a couple of elephants along with a baby crossing the safari track in a hurry. On closer inspection, we found that the baby had developed some kind of an infection on its right hind leg and wasn't able to walk properly. The mother and probably an aunt were being protective and keeping close at all times. It was painful to see the little one suffer, but that is nature's way of ensuring only the tough ones survive in the wild and strike a balance in the ecosystem. Hopefully, the baby will make full recovery and be able to walk pretty soon.