After the concerted nausea that greeted our upward journey, Charles has very sensibly decided to take a shorter, steeper route down from Ooty, and has promised that we can get out and walk for a while over the steepest section: approximately 36 hairpin bends.
The walk proves to be the highlight of the morning’s journey – the sun is shining, we are far enough from the city that the air is fresh (apart from the occasional cooking fire), and it is so good to be doing some form of exercise again. We make good time down the hill, passed by jeeps and motorbikes (no buses or trucks on this route, which is probably just as well), passing tea plantations, bougainvillea and all sorts of other mysterious plants for which my father could no doubt rattle off the Latin names.
Halfway down the hill we arrive at a small village – a temple on one side, a few small houses and a single tiny chai shop. While we wait for the chai to brew, I notice a small girl peeking at us from around the corner. We play a game of peekaboo, and her mother gestures for me to come and sit on the bank with them. When the chai is ready, I notice a few jars of sweets on the counter. I buy a handful and offer them to the little girl. She takes one, eyes widening when she realises they are all for her. I wish I had brought something a little more tangible to give.
Around the next bend two cars are waiting with our bags, and we drive deeper into the jungle and the beginning of Mudumalai national park. We stop for a few minutes at a lookout point, a couple of birds of prey coasting lazily above, but the only other wildlife are a few macaques hoping for a treat.
It is afternoon when we arrive at the tiny village of Masinagudi, and turn down a track towards the Jungle Retreat. We are staying in dorm accommodation tonight, but we have the two dorms all to ourselves (though there are also cottages and a treehouse, which looks like fun – who doesn’t love a treehouse?!).
Before we can explore, there is a briefing to sit through. Although the retreat is surrounded by an electric fence, the government has recently forbidden its electrification. There is a long running dispute between the relevant ministry and the owners of the few resorts in this area, the government claiming that they are built in the path of an elephant migration zone, a claim which the owners vehemently dispute. Whatever the truth of the matter (and one’s opinions of electric fences in national parks generally), there is no way to stop wildlife from entering the resort. We must not attempt to walk between our dormitory and the other public areas after dark without a local escort. The owners of the resort have set up motion-sensor cameras around the resort, and later that evening they show us a selection of the images that have been captured, including leopards and the unpredictable wild boar (the most likely danger). The isolated treehouse might not be such a great option after all…
After lunch there is just time for a swim in the infinity pool (oh, did I mention the amazing pool?), before we jump into jeeps and head for the river. It’s elephant bath time!
On our way to Ooty we had passed open trucks bearing elephants in varying states of comfort. We had stopped to take photos, but after a close up view I just felt profoundly sad. The elephants travel like this for up to ten hours to reach the elephant sanctuary at Mudumalai, which takes in orphaned and abandoned elephants, and runs a kind of respite care (“elephant camp”) for temple elephants, who stay for about a month at a time. I guess trucks are an improvement on forcing the elephant to walk so far on asphalt roads, but whatever standards of care exist are employed in such a haphazard manner, and the restraints used are so variable, that it cannot be an easy journey for them.
Now, we are going to meet some of the permanent residents of the sanctuary. Along the shallow riverbed are two or three elephants with their mahouts, all getting their daily wash (mahouts included). From the trees behind us a large female emerges – formerly a temple elephant, she had killed three people and been abandoned by the temple. Here, where she has the freedom of the jungle much of the time, she has shown a calmer nature. Once, we are told, each elephant had a single mahout, who lived with the elephant full time. A number of years ago, there was a case of a particular male elephant who would listen to nobody but his mahout. When the mahout died unexpectedly, the grieving beast would not cooperate with its new mahout, and went on a rampage, killing a number of people. Ever since that time, I’m told, there is a policy of two mahouts for each elephant, as a kind of insurance policy.
When bath time is over, the elephants sway back up the river bank and into the jungle. They each have a chain around one leg, which trails on the ground behind them – the mahouts use the trails left by these chains to find them again in the morning. For now, they are easy to find – we return to the jeeps and drive the short distance to the feeding centre, where huge cakes of elephant food are being prepared to precise nutritional requirements. Opportunistic langurs perch in the trees above, and wild boar appear to make sure not a crumb is wasted.
Across the yard, a tiny trunk is testing the air through a window. It’s an orphaned baby elephant, only a few months old. It’s being cared for by a local woman, who lives in the same building (separated by a half wall). I feel sorry for the baby (I’m a regular softie today) – elephants are sociable creatures and it can’t be much fun being penned up – but it may not be safe around the other elephants without its mother to provide protection.
As the sun sets, the larger elephants are heading back to the jungle.
There is just enough time for a slow drive through Mudumalai, an unofficial “safari”, keeping a keen eye out for its animal inhabitants. There are large signs at regular intervals bidding drivers to go slow, and to watch out for elephants crossing – in an odd quirk of planning, the main state highway cuts right through the park, and at this hour there are convoys of trucks racing to get through before the gates are shut for the night. Our driver and guide, John, seems immune to the traffic noise though – he has ears only for the animals, and the slightest crunch of leaves has him parking the jeep and gazing intently into the jungle, stopping the jeep every so often just in case. Around a bend, his attention is rewarded: there is a wild elephant feeding on leaves just out of sight. Then another appears – it’s a whole elephant family, looking both ways before they cross the highway and disappear back into the gloom.
Not satisfied with this, John waits until the other cars have gone, then takes a side road and parks the jeep. He has seen a sloth bear around here, and thinks there is a good chance we could see it at this time of day. Sure enough, about fifty metres away there is movement, and in the headlights we can see a big black shadow as the bear noses her way through the undergrowth. There’s something else beside her – a civet cat, perhaps – it’s hard to tell in the dark, but we have definitely seen a bear! Time to head back to the campsite, but I tell myself that this bodes well for tomorrow.
After dinner, some of the group sit around the bonfire that has been lit in the centre of the compound, but for two of us it’s going to be an early night – in the morning we’re going over the border, on a tiger safari!