Spotting big game

The boy woke me at 5.10 a.m. as we had arranged. It was still dark outside and it was drizzling. I scrambled out of the mosquito net that covered our beds and into the open air bathroom. My stomach was aching. I had, once again, eaten too much for dinner. I had still not learnt to handle the Indian food. It is much too good, literally forcing me to over eat. Terrible. But I had not experienced any problems with spices or had become sick of the food or water. Good.
At 5.45 a.m. I arrived at the reception which was a short walk away from our bamboo accommodation. These huts were built a little apart from one another in order to create an atmosphere of remoteness, of really being out there –alone– in the jungle. As a matter of fact, you can watch wild deer grazing just a few meters away from the huts at dusk and dawn.
Daniel, the gamekeeper and our guide for the morning trekking tour, was late. Trying to be nice to my stomach, I helped myself to a cup of black tea with milk. If you add sugar to this mixture you get the number one Indian drink: Chai. It is just delicious.
The noise of jeeps announced the arrival of Daniel, who appeared in his usual camouflage suit and safari hat. Either he has a couple of those in the cupboard or he wears the same suit all through the year for we should never see him in a different disguise.
Since Sylvia didn’t come, it was just me and a guy from Belgium to join Daniel. As we walked to the jeeps, we invited our driver, Baboo, to come along. We drove for about 15 minutes and were dropped off not too far from Jungle Retreat. The early day light was putting a gray veil on the scrubs and trees as we began our trek. Walking was not hard since the ground was covered with tense, short grassy scrub that reminded me more of a golf course than a jungle. As we continued along, however, we got a feeling of how tense and impenetrable the jungle really was as we forced ourselves through thorny bushes and low trees.
The scenery was just beautiful as was the fresh and clean air. It was a fantastic morning walk, our spirits were high and everyone was spying out for some game. Daniel led us to half a dozen water holes where he was sure that, at least, elephants would have their tea for breakfast. In the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, there live quite an impressive variety of wild animals, among them animal celebrities like tigers, leopards and elephants. But except for a lot of different noises, the animals managed well to keep out of sight.
After one and a half hours, we had reached the street again, where we were picked up by our jeep. I wasn’t disappointed for, honestly, I hadn’t expected much and there was still our afternoon safari.
Returning home, Sylvia had already raised and was ready for a hearty breakfast, after which we surrendered to our hut in order to enjoy the morning in wild nature.
Mudumalai is a remote place, except for two nearby villages, and it is one of those rare places in India where you can escape the hurliburly of her cities. But it is not a silent place for the jungle is alive and this you can hear. It is the most hypnotic, soothing sound you can imagine. It is prone to induce deep trance. We sat there listening for a long long time.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, we found ourselves again sitting beside Daniel in the jeep and off we drove to hopefully spot something exciting.
First on our menu was the washing of elephants. Here in the sanctuary, two dozens of elephants are taken care of by elephant caretakers. They watch them, train them and feed them. And in the evening, they wash them in the river. On the one hand, the washing is like a ritual, which is fascinating to watch. On the other hand, for the elephant, it seems to be going to the spa or even to the beauty studio. They lie down in the water and are washed, brushed and massaged all over by the care taker, injecting total bliss as evinced by relaxed elephant grunts. It is just sweet and nice to watch those gentle, impressive and good-natured (at least, there in the water) animals being treated so well.
Suddenly, Daniel was getting excited. He had received a call on his mobile, having been informed that a family of wild elephants were grazing nearby. And, hey, after a short ride, there they were. Five elephants including a baby elephant out there in the bushes having what seemed an excellent dinner. Monkeys were doing gymnastics in the trees and making a lot of noise. The elephants seemed not to care and made a very relaxed and unexcited impression. No wonder, Daniel explained, for the grass they were eating was top cuisine.
As more and more jeeps kept arriving, we decided to go cruising again. Returning to the river, Sylvia suddenly pointed out something in the bushes just beside the road. Daniel hit the brakes in excitement, reversed the car, and there it was: a wild leopard hiding just a few meters from us. It was beautiful with its dotted fur and elegant and smooth body. As we were really close, the animal decided to take leave and quickly disappeared into the jungle. Everyone was excited for not even Daniel had expected to see a leopard that close to the village and road. It was just about 150 meters from the next house. Sylvia was the hero of the day for she had spotted the hiding leopard, which, according to Daniel’s expertise, was really difficult. For me it wasn’t as much of a surprise because I know that she has extraordinary sight and an amazing ability of perception.
Of course, this was the highlight of the evening – the tigers wouldn’t show – but we still came across a huge elephant about to cross the street and saw a beautiful samba deer. The trip was an exciting, beautiful and memorable one, all the more since Daniel delivered some interesting details and stories about the animals and their way of living in the wilderness.
Thus we returned home after a great afternoon out in the jungle. Sylvia and I agreed: It was worth taking the pain of coming to Mudumalai all the long and difficult way up from the coast. We would not change our minds, even after our trip to Bengalore which we were supposed to do on the following day. More of that soon.

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