It was late evening on our 3rd safari, and I had squeezed myself in the gap between the two seats on our jeep, crouched, pointing my camera lens slightly upwards. Light was falling, and I was thanking my stars I had brought along the bean bag for additional stability. Along with my wife and the other co-passengers in my jeep including our naturalist, Nataraj, we silently waited for the sleeping head to rise..
But that’s just me rushing to the one of the highlights of our trip to the Biligirirangan Hills, Karnataka (locally known as Biligiriranganabetta). We had decided to forego our annual trip to one of India’s wildlife reserves during our anniversary, opting to combine a longer trip post the Christmas weekend extending into the New Year. We would meet inevitably with our cousins to celebrate New Year’s eve during the latter part of our journey in pristine Wayanad. But before that, had to be our alone time in the jungles! And after much debate and discussions, we finally settled on the Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp, BR Hills. Why this particular choice? For one, it was a JLR (Jungle Lodges & Resorts) property and every nature enthusiast who has visited Karnataka’s wild havens will swear by the outstanding location and knowledgeable staff that make staying in any of JLR’s properties a special experience. Many of India’s present day well-known photographers and conservationists have actually served long stints as JLR naturalists, and that is just a reinforcement of the service levels you are promised.
There were two other reasons we had chosen K Gudi. One of them was that both Kabini and Bandipur, owing to the relatively easier access would be seeing a far greater rush of visitors on the holiday weekend, something I discussed with Toehold’s Harsha Narasimhamurthy who assisted us with the booking of our trip. The second, and what really sold us, were the experiences shared by past visitors, both on Tripadvisor and on forums such as India Nature Watch. The BR Hills in spite of being declared a tiger reserve in 2011, have never been very well-known for sightings of big cats and other mega-fauna, but this is more than made up by the incredible natural beauty of the place, its diversity of birds and the amazing location of the K Gudi Wilderness Camp, bang within the tiger reserve with wildlife moving freely through the campus. This is because the JLR property was established in 1994, well before this was declared a tiger reserve and it is only now that in consonance with guidelines, the property may be required to shift away from its present location. Yet another reason why we wished to visit this treasured gem of JLR as soon as possible.
The BR Hills play host to a stunning biodiversity, courtesy their strategic location between the Western & Eastern Ghats, and this can be easily seen in the incredible variety of habitats, ranging from dry scrub to broad-leaved deciduous forests. It’s an absolute pleasure to wander here discovering the area’s natural beauty, which changes character from the yellowish-brown hues of the foothills, to the dark green sunlight-dappled canopy of the higher elevations.
Surely one of the greatest attractions of the BR Hills is the incredible diversity of birds, and while estimates vary, at least over 250 species are known to reside in these verdant hills and these include endemics of the Western Ghats such as the Rufous Babbler, Malabar Parakeet, Grey-headed Bulbul. Rest assured, if you are a birder, you are going to be one happy camper.
The smaller life-forms abound here, with a multitude of species of spiders, scorpions, dragonflies, damselflies, and over a 100 species of butterflies and moths including India’s largest butterfly, the Southern Birdwing and rarities such as the Sahyadri Painted Courtesan. The reptile and amphibian diversity here needs further documentation, but there can be no question that the area is a potential hotspot for the same. Microhyla sholigari, an endangered species of narrow-mouthed frog was described from here in the year 2000, and there are even reports of a possible caecilian species. Another new bush frog species, Raorchestes honnametti sp. nov. was recently described from here. (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149382)
As regards mammals, this habitat particularly represents an important area for India’s largest land mammal, the Asian elephant, supporting one of its largest populations in the Eastern Ghats. Owing to its crucial location within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the area remains one of the most important from the conservation perspective of this species. Tigers, another umbrella species, are also also said to be doing well with estimates putting the numbers here at over 50 individuals inside BRT reserve. These forests provide a home to many other charismatic species such as leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears, gaur, rusty spotted cat, Indian giant squirrel, the Indian tree shrew and every visit to the forest gives you a chance to get a glimpse of these treasures.
On our arrival at K Gudi, apart from the daily safaris, my wife Deepi and I would spent most of the day, at the serene little sit-out of our log hut, Chamundi, her with binoculars and me with the camera, watching and photographing those flashes of beauties that including a variety of flycatchers, drongos, leafbirds, nuthatches among many others.
As if the diversity of birds hadn’t been enough, we would get a surprise on our first day itself, a surprise I wish I had been better prepared for. Post our evening safari and some snacks, we had returned to the log hut late in the evening around 7:30 PM. After keeping our gear, I stepped out, flashlight in hand, to do a quick scan of our log hut surrounds. There was no barrier behind our log-hut and the forest, so wildlife moved freely. My flashlight caught the eye-shine of two dark shapes resting about 15-20 metres away from our log-hut. Their size and dimensions seemed to suggest the ubiquitous wild boar we had seen all day at campus. Nevertheless, I asked Deepi to retrieve a pair of binoculars to confirm. While this was happening though, both the animals rose to move, and as they rose, suddenly up went long quills on their back. Porcupines! I dashed into the room, to retrieve the camera, but these shy animals had already retreated into the undergrowth by the time I could manage a shot, leaving me no record of the sighting of this elusive nocturnal species. A missed opportunity for a capture on my camera, but at least the image in our minds would stay with us.
And yes, getting back to the beginning of my story, it was our 3rd safari during another lovely evening in the BR Hills. The sightings as always, were not as plentiful as you might see in some of the other popular reserves, but with the forest bathed in golden light, it was still a pleasure to drive through this wilderness, punctuated by the odd shy barking deer and flocks of hill mynas. The sun was setting on the horizon, when we chanced upon another jeep parked at an intersection. As always when this happens, there was a sense of anticipation as we neared closer, except this time, it was not just the feeling of anticipation we’d take back. Because as our naturalist silently pointed to a network of branches and leaves mid-canopy, my eyes just didn’t form, but saw rosettes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I peeked through the lens of my camera to the spot about 10 metres further in, and saw the form that every wildlife enthusiast longs to see. A gorgeous sub-adult leopard was enjoying an extended afternoon siesta. I looked at my wife, Deepi, big happy grins on both of our faces as we exchanged glances. After a few clicks, I borrowed her pair of binoculars as well to just enjoy the sight of this secretive cat. And it was only after a little bit of waiting, that the leopard sleepily raised his head, gave us a piercing gaze, looked into the distance, and resumed his lazy evening, dozing off again.
One thing you have to be prepared for, when you travel here is to not carry the same expectations of sighting wildlife, as you would say, in nearby Kabini. Courtesy the invasive lantana which has unfortunately taken over much of the reserve, and which the forest department continues to battle, seeing wildlife is not easy here and which may disappoint some visitors. The key here is enjoying the wilderness as it is, thick and unpenetrable perhaps in vision, but thrumming with life, evident as we warmed our limbs near a campfire at K Gudi late one evening, and somewhere in the distance, a sambar deer persistently called out its alarm, and once, just once, a loud ‘Aaaaaaongh!’ punctuated that silent winter air, a reminder that the big striped cat roams these wilds.
Stays in the BR Hills
Presently for visitors on a budget, some modernized homestays include the Rajathadri Hill Villa and Giridarshini, the latter actually is a well-known landmark here, a popular eating joint set up here since the 1950s, which has since expanded to offering stays as well.
For a more intimate experience, the resort Gorukana run in conjunction with VGKK (Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra) is a good bet. A mix of cottages, tents and tree houses aesthetically designed with most modern amenities, visitors can be assured of a comfortable, luxurious stay here. The indigenous Soligas form the bulk of the staff here, and their knowledge sharing along with the resort’s community development initiatives can make staying here a pleasure.
Undoubtedly though, BR Hills’ most well-known and popular place to stay is JLR’s Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp. A mix of tented cottages, log huts and 2 family rooms, located about 20 km further in from the forest checkpost, passing by the beauty of the forest (drive slow and keep your eyes peeled), among K Gudi’s greatest strengths is the incredible location. The proof is in the roaming herds of chital, curious wild boar that might surprise with their close approach, the absolutely stunning variety of birdlife which would make you question whether you should leave the camp at all for birding and yes, nocturnal visitors as well including predators indicated by the nightly alarm calls, and should you be carrying a flashlight and a bundle of luck, by the sight of a large feline form, more often the one with rosettes, all of this within the grounds of K Gudi. The amazing location is further supplemented by the warm service of the staff and the credible guidance of the knowledgeable naturalists. Food is simple, homely and one shouldn’t expect a great variety of cuisines.
Another major advantage with staying at K Gudi, is you can avail of the JLR jeep safari. Most visitors staying outside would anyway have to come to the forest department quarters situated next door to avail of the jeep safari on a first come, first serve basis, whereas if you’re staying at K Gudi, it is included in your package, and while there are no specific time limits, with JLR’s safari, you do end up spending more time inside the forest (approximately 1.5-2 hours) within the prescribed time band, something nature enthusiasts would appreciate. You can of course, also choose to explore the forest around K Gudi on foot with the help of one of the camp’s guides. Physical fitness would be recommended, as the initial climb on the designated trail can be a bit strenous, though well worth the effort courtesy the scenic views you get once you ascend the rise. In case you’re staying for more than 2 nights, they also arrange for an excursion to Lord Rangantha’s temple at no extra charge. Jump at this opportunity as along with the cultural heritage, it is another chance to explore the forests of the BR hills, which you will pass through. Price-wise, this would be definitely considered in the higher end and it is one of JLR’s more premium properties, however, it remains for the traveller to decide how much bang for the buck K Gudi provides, especially considering the camp’s possible shift in the near future.
No matter where you stay though, exploring the wilderness here is a pleasant experience all year round, every journey a balm to the soul.
How to reach there
Travellers to the BR Hills most often access the area via Bengaluru (approximately 200 Km, a 4.5-5 hour drive) and Mysore (approximately 80 Km, 2 hour drive). A few flights and plenty of train options are available, connecting Bengaluru and Mysore. The third option, a few visitors avail of is Coimbatore, located at approximately 175 Km. The distance makes Coimbatore the most accessible international airport, however do check flight timings and taxi rates if hiring a private car (inter-state taxes can vary according to vehicle), as typically most visitors like to reach BR hills before late afternoon, so they don’t miss the opportunity for the evening safari. The nearest railhead is Chamarajanagar, situated about 25 Km away. If coming by road directly from Bengaluru to BR Hills, it is recommended to come via Yelandur, and in case of Mysore, via Chamarajanagar.
Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Nikkor AF-S 80-400G ED VR, Nikkor 18-55mm (kit lens)