Veerappan's lair

TRAVEL- JUNGLE TREK

NTURE'S LAP: The K Gudi camp is a nature lover’s delight. Photos by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer In case you came in late, Veerappan was branded a ‘Sandalwood Smuggler’, revered as a ‘Robin Hood’ by the tribals, and shot as a ‘bandit’ by the police. So, after learning about this once awesome character, with the whipcord body and the thick drooping moustaches, we felt his aura in a section of the dense forests of Karnataka’s Western Ghats signposted as BRT Wildlife Sanctuary; Height 722.4 meters.

We were heading for Jungle Lodges and Resort’s K Gudi Camp. The ‘K’ stands for Katyadevana, who could have been a tribal deity now absorbed into the Hindu pantheon as an aspect of Lord Siva. There’s a shrine to him on the left, as one enters the forested camp but the painting on the wall of the shrine is a recent one and does not bear much resemblance to the installed idol.

Behind the shrine is a rest house of the forest department. Facing the shrine, across a road, is a hunting lodge built by the former Maharajas: Now the JLR’s office and video auditorium. On the lower slopes of the forest are dotted the permanent tents of the camp on concrete plinths, and under metal roofs clad with thatch, and with attached bathrooms and loos.

Hammocks, circular sit-outs and scrambling nets are fairly popular with the guests and the resident tribe of bonnet macaques. Do keep the velcro strips tightly fastened on the flaps of your tent when you’re inside, and lock the sliding door when you’re out: The brown monkeys are very inquisitive!

All around, aflame in their summer radiance, are gulmohur trees, spreading a brilliant rug along the paths that wind through the camp. On an earlier visit, one of the guests… she was a poet… had told us that the wild beauty of K Gudi is so enchanting that she just wanted to sit in the verandah of her tent and let it flow into her.

ANIMAL COUNTRY: BRT sanctuary’s inhabitants.We, however, can’t afford to be so laid-back. We make it a point to attend every pre-safari briefing. The resident naturalist, Narayan, is well-informed, articulate and eager to learn more. And the forests where Veerappan once prowled are an animal-spotter’s delight. Parts of the jungle, particularly its low-lying areas, are dense, but most of it is fairly open. Shortly after entering the manned barrier we sighted a lone gaur bull, grazing, with his attendant bird on his back. He had a magnificent spread of horns. Then there was a herd of chital, two sambar skulking under the shadows of trees as they often do when they’re not knee-deep in the reeds of a water-body. A wild boar with a bristly mane gave us a dirty look: So did the bird perched on his back. Obviously we had disturbed their evening meal and even a barking deer at a salt lick scuttled away.

We decided to return to camp and let the wildlife go about their lives undisturbed.
 
Evening in K Gudi captures most city-dweller’s dreams of a jungle camp. Kerosene lanterns throw their puddles of gold light on the paths. There’s a lantern in front of every tent. The camp-fire is blazing, rimmed by a circle of chairs, and you’re free to be as convivial or pensive as you wish. Dinner, and all other meals, is a buffet laid out in the gol ghar. And if you look carefully at the edges of the glow cast by the camp-fire you’ll see wild boar foraging for scraps from the kitchen, or the dining tables. The generator is switched off at 10 pm and, after that, there is only the whisper of the wind in the trees and the soft strumming of insects. Its very soothing, very peaceful…

We were so relaxed that that we were up before the wake-up call came with two buckets of boiling hot water and steaming coffee. We were out on our jeep safari even before the sun had gilded the leaves of the trees. We had become a bit blasé about chital and sambar but our pulses did race when we spotted elephants in a forest pond: A mother and her calf, bathing, watched by a bull gaur drying himself under the shade of the trees.

On three occasions, during our drive, we caught the stench of rotting meat and thought that predators had made kills. But when we returned and told the forest guard at the gate about the odour he smiled and handed us a bunch of flowers he had broken from a tree. They had the over powering smell of carrion and, he told us, were fertilised by flies and other insects attracted by rotten meat. He called the tree moragade. Back in the camp we wedged the bunch of flowers in the fork of a blazing gulmohur tree. A family of monkeys came to investigate, they sniffed the flower; and then leapt back in disgust! Obviously, they like their non-veg meals farm-fresh, as restaurant menus claim, generally erroneously.

After lunch we drove up to the top of the BR Hills: Billigiri Rangaswamy  means the White Hill of Lord Rangaswami, an aspect of Lord Vishnu. It’s a stone temple crowning a peak over-looking the wooded forests. There’s an interesting legend about this deity. He, apparently, patrols his forest-terrain every night and so his sandals get worn out and have to be replaced every five years. During one of his patrols he met, fell in love with, and married a beautiful maiden named Alumelu. Her idol, too, is enshrined in the temple.

It is customary for men and boys to spread a cloth in front of the Garud Stambh, and then jump around on their haunches imitating animals, before eating the food as a prasad or offering sanctified by the deity.

We also saw a man carving two stick figures on one of the flagstones on the path surrounding the temple. Devotees believe that when a comparatively young person dies, before fulfilling his desires, his soul is restless. A medium, or shaman, is then brought here and after the appropriate ceremonies, becomes possessed by the restless spirit. He is then fed an enormous quantity of food which he consumes with no ill effects. This assuages the troubled spirit, a stick figure is carved with his name on a flagstone, and the spirit is put to rest.

We went out on our last evening jeep safari in K Gudi, rather preoccupied with the tales wreathed around the temple on the white hill. In such wild and wonderful places, all over the world, ephemeral bridges seem to stretch across time, accessible, apparently, only to specially gifted people.

Or have we been trapped in a web of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, trying to make sense out of superstition. Possibly. But when you settle into your tent, in the stillness of the night, with just the kerosene lantern between you and the whispering forest, it is not difficult to believe that an unseen presence does patrol his wild domain, wearing out a pair of chappals.

And we don’t mean the slim, moustached, wraith of Veerappan…

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