Saturday, 29 January 2011

Enter the Tiger’s Den

Gundlupet – Ooty - Mettupalayam

Shortly after leaving Gundlupet we turned off the main road, leaving the pilgrims in their speeding 4WDs and the noisy old buses behind. With the newly found calm we become more in tune with our environment. Monkeys swung from trees as gentle mist rose from the green farm lands around us. Passing through small villages we watched as the locals went about their morning routines. Women dressed in colourful saris skillfully balanced water urns on their heads as men drove ox ploughs churning up the dark red soil. A boy on his way to school cycled alongside us for a while, and together we struggled up the hill: us with our fully loaded touring bicycles, and he with his old single speed bicycle carrying a 10l canister of milk on the rack, which he was taking from his parents’ farm to the local dairy to be processed. ||

We could feel our legs working hard as the road began to climb; we had entered the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This used to be the Maharaja’s private wildlife reserve and contains several sanctuaries and national parks within its boundaries. Among others, the reserve is home to elephants, deer, bisons, mongoose, lemurs and some big jungle cats such as panthers, leopards and tigers. The red soil is hidden under the thick vegetation consisting of deciduous trees and shrubs. A national highway (really just a quiet one lane road) runs through the middle of the reserve, which is otherwise off-limits to private vehicles.

Monkey

The first area we entered was Bandipur National Park, which is renowned for its wild elephants. Around 5,000 Asiatic elephants live here – a fifth of the world’s population. There wasn’t much traffic, and we enjoyed the cycling through the beautiful area, always on the lookout for any wild animals.

We knew there was a tiger reserve on the way to Ooty and had imagined it to be nicely fenced off – if only for the protection of the tigers who might otherwise end up as roadkill on the national highway. However, when we left Bandipur National Park to enter the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, the signs made us feel a little uneasy: “You are entering a tiger reserve. Do not stop. Do not get out of your vehicle.” Do not get out of your vehicle! Errr…ok. Maybe this wasn’t the best place to cycle, and there certainly weren’t any fences to be seen.

Cycling into a tiger reserve   Mudumalai tiger reserve

As we tentively rode up to the boom gate we half expected the park official to turn us around. However he cheerefully waved us through not looking too worried for our safety.

As we entered the park we gave ourselves a little pep talk to ease the anxiety.

“Look, lets think about this. Tigers are rarely spotted during the day.”

“Right.”

“It’s unlikely a tiger would be roming around the main road.”

“Right.”

“Cyclists don’t make good eating, too salty.”

“Right.”

On the off chance we did have an encounter we had a cunning plan: Turn the bikes to face downhill and cycle like hell.

In reality aggressive elephants were probably a more realistic danger to us, and we did hear one trumpet in the nearby forest, though we never saw it. We saw many shy spotted deer darting into the undergrowth, and monkeys and lemurs jumping from branch to branch or sitting by the roadside giving each other belly rubs. Eagles soared above, and a mongoose waddled off into some shrubs.

It was nice to be on a bicycle as we could hear all the noises and rustling in the forest, which helped to spot the animals. It also provided an opportunity for local tourists to snap some unusual “wildlife photos” of two crazy tourists on their bicycles going through a tiger reserve. Cameras pointed at us out of every bus window, and at one point a jeep safari driver actually stopped his vehicle so that his passengers could take photos of us.

Guy cycling in Mudumalai National Park   Monkey with coconut

Except on the main road, the national park can only be visited through government run tours, which take place in a rattling bus, not the ideal way to appeciate wildlife. Private jeep safaris and treks can only access the area around the park, outside of its boundaries. Expecting to be taken a little deeper into the park, we bit the bullet and went on the government run tour when we reached the centre of the reserve. We wasted 45 minutes in a jam packed bus full of chattering tourists, rattling its way through the forest and scaring away all the animals. All we saw was more monkeys, spotted deer and a peacock. We had had a much better time exploring the park on our bicycles, even though we could not go as deep into the forest.

Having found a hotel in a nearby village, we spent some time in the afternoon watching the park’s working elephants being fed and their tusks and toes brushed. The elephants had their feet chained up so that they could only take small steps. They were giant beasts and could certainly do a lot of damage if they decided to do so. Apparently a lady was killed last year when she went trekking in the area just outside of the national park, as her group had antagonised an elephant by throwing stones at it…

Elephant tusk brushing

On the way back to the village in a shared jeep taxi, we saw a huge dark beast stomping through the forest. Thinking it was an elephant, we were surprised to see a large bison with curly horns – a gaur. There really way a lot of wildlife around!

Unfortunately Freddie felt quite rough the next morning and developed a high fever and a case of the trots, in addition to her lingering cold. We stayed an extra day to allow her to recover, and luckily we had some nice accommodation with satellite TV, allowing us to watch lots of wildlife shows on Animal Planet, including one about leopards and tigers attacking small villages near national parks in India…

Facing a big climb

Once Freddie had recovered, we left to cycle up to Ooty. We were facing a very steep 1,350m climb over only 13km. There was a handy countdown of hairpin bends, 36 in total. As we were unsure how Freddie would cope, still a little weak from her illness, gentleman Guy took over some of her weight and we fought our way up the hill. As the road was so steep, and with such tight bends, buses and trucks were unable to use it, and therefore it was fairly quiet.

Climbing up to Ooty   36 hairpin bends

Towards the top, we started seeing tea plantations and many fragrant eucalypt trees reminding us of Australia. We had a lovely break near a tea factory where all sorts of local products were manufactured, including different types of tea, eucalypt oil and face cream. They served us a delicious chocolate tea – cocoa powder, tea leaves and sugar mixed with hot milk. Yum!  

Amazingly, the climb was so steep that once we had made it to the top and conquered the last hairpin bend, we could still see the valley below us where we had come from that morning. It was 1.3 vertical kilometres below us! We had started at 900m altitude and topped out at 2,250m when we reached Ooty. It was very cold up here, only 3°C at night.

Ooty valley

Ooty was a hill station established by the British in the early 19th century as the summer headquarters of their government. It sprawls out over a large area of rolling hills and valleys. The city centre is busy, but there is a lovely lake and a beautiful botanical garden. We really enjoyed our walk in the botanical gardens, but as we were resting on a bench, an elderly lady with curly grey hair and a dirty orange sari approached us. “Toda” she mumbled, pointing at herself, and then she seemed to invite us to her tribal village up the hill. We knew the Toda were a local tribe with a unique culture and spirituality centred around the buffalo. Their traditions had been uprooted by the arrival of the British, and some of the Toda were obviously in a bad place now. The lady continued to mumble something about a coffee plantation and proceeded to ask us for money. When we refused, she spat at our feet and turned to leave. It was sad to see how members of this ancient tribe had been reduced to begging from tourists. We made sure to take a wide birth when we saw any more Todas around town.

A family arrived and asked if they could take a picture of us, together with one of the ladies and her baby. As soon as they left, a group of young men took pictures of us with them posing next to us in various combinations. Then, a shy Tibetan girl approached to take a picture too. And so it continued, until we had done about 15 picture sessions and escaped into the more hidden reaches of the park! We are used to people taking pictures of us when we are on our bicycles, but it usually doesn’t happen very often when we are just normal tourists, in a touristy town. We also did not see people taking pictures of anyone else, so we were a little confused. At the park bench we were sitting at we turned around thinking there might be some giant sign that provided some kind of comedy backdrop.

Our hotel room had no heating and was a little moldy, so Freddie’s cold got worse again and we left the following day, not before we had stocked up on some of the chocolates that Ooty is famous for.

It was time to cash in our hard work and enjoy an awesome descent. First, we had to climb a little to get over the pass and out of the valley. At 2,300m altitude, we realised we were actually above the clouds. On a windy road we dropped down through the clouds into a forested valley and lost 2,000m altitude over the next 40km.

Downhill from Ooty     Enjoying the downhill

At the bottom with burning hot rims, the temperature was lovely and warm again, and we were back in coconut plantations. Even though the descent had only been a workout for our hands gripping the brakes, we were feeling decidedly tired, maybe from the after effects of our big climb and Freddie’s illness. We called it a day and checked into a hotel, and soon another reason for Guy’s tiredness became clear: he started feeling very nauseous and was soon reaching for the dunny, so we had to take another rest day.

India has not been good to us in terms of health, and most of the time at least one of us is feeling below par so we are slowly limping from one place to the next. We compare this to hygeine obsessed Iran where we didn’t even have a sniffle. Hopefully things will improve soon, otherwise we are going to struggle to make it to Chennai in time.

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