A moonlight drive in Mudumalai National Park

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January 13th 2015
Published: February 19th 2015
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We were leaving Ooty and travelling north to Mudumalai National Park. We woke at 6.30am in our freezing bedroom and headed out for a warming chai(tea) on the street at our favourite local chai shop (Shri Ragavendra Bangalore Iyengar’s Bakery and Sweets). We jumped into our minibus at 9am and headed off on our journey to the small town of Masinagudi.

It was a very steep descent out of mountains, and it was a fantastic drive. We had to negotiate 36 hairpin bends, and there were countless signs saying how many car accidents had occurred on each particular stretch of road. A few signs even had a running tally of how many people had died. This wasn’t the best reading for those who don’t like steep drops without guard rails. Ren had banned me from watching a TV program called “World’s Most Dangerous Roads” before we came to India – I can now see why! Luckily we had a fantastic driver who knew the road inside out, and he drove very carefully (slowing to a crawl on some particularly tight corners). There was also hardly any traffic, which made a big difference. There was one occasion when the driver did worry me. We were on a steep and narrow stretch of road when all of a sudden he pointed and said “elephant”. On the other side of the valley – possibly a kilometre away – he had spotted a few wild elephants grazing on the steep hillside. He stopped on the roadside for us to take a few long zoom photos. Ren was so happy to see a wild elephant, but I just wanted the driver to concentrate more on the road and less on the periphery wildlife!

We had a short photo stop at the Bison Valley viewing point before continuing on to Jungle Retreat, our accommodation in Mudumalai National Park. We arrived at 10.30am, dropped our bags in the dormitory we were sharing with eight others and dived into the cold pool that a few goats were drinking from. We sat in the hot sun, sipped cold beer and took in the stunning view of Mt Nilgiri towering above us. This place was so incredibly relaxing!

We had a buffet lunch at 1.30pm that comprised vegetarian spring rolls, spinach with dahl (lentils), rajma curry (black eyed beans in a thick gravy sauce), beetroot porail (beetroot stir-fried in mustard and topped with grated coconut), roast potatoes, mutton curry (goat is referred to as mutton in India), fried chicken, watermelon raita (savoury watermelon yoghurt), rice and chapatti. I had everything from the buffet and went back three times – piglet! We finished lunch at 2.30pm, headed back to the pool and bathed in the sun.

Coffee and biscuits were served at 4.30pm, and at 5.30pm we jumped into an open-top jeep for a two hour ‘safari’ of the surrounding forested areas. ‘Safari’ is being used loosely here, because we didn’t leave the bitumen once. However, we saw Indian bison, wild boar, monkeys, birds, sambar deer and spotted deer. There was a whispered possibility that we would see an elephant, but that quickly evaporated when we saw how many other open-top jeeps were driving around with tourists on ‘safari’. On the way back to our idyllic Jungle Retreat we picked up some beer and apple vodka from a heavily fortified bottle shop in one of the local villages.

At 8pm we sat through a presentation by one of the Jungle Retreat owners on the flora and fauna of the area, and how they had regenerated the previous agricultural land over an 18 year period to create a forest.

Immediately following the presentation, we sat down to a buffet dinner at 8.30pm. We had kofta curry (meatball curry), fish curry, urud dahl (black lentils), onion rings, boondi raita (tiny fried chickpea flour balls with yoghurt), steamed vegetables, baby potatoes, roast chicken and butter rice. It was unbelievably good!

After dinner we sat around a small bonfire drinking beer, whisky and vodka under the stars until 11pm, and then headed to our 10-bed dormitory to crash. It had been a fantastic travel day.

The next day we were leaving Mudumalai National Park and travelling north to Mysore. We woke at 6.30am, shared the three showers and toilets in the ten-person dormitory and headed out at 7.30am for a cultural walk around the local village area. We walked to the top of a solitary hill where a shrine to Shiva had been built, and it provided a stunning 360 degree view around the local villages. The view from the top of the hill was incredible, especially the breathtaking view of Mt Nilgiri in the early morning sun.

We retraced our steps back to Jungle Retreat and arrived at 9.30am. We were hungry and breakfast looked fantastic. We sat down to idlis (steamed cakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter) with sambar (thin vegetable curry), masala dosa (a dosa stuffed with a creamy mix of lightly cooked potatoes, onions, green chilli and spices), banana pancakes, eggs and coffee. It was incredible, and just what we needed after a two hour walk. We reluctantly left Jungle Retreat at 10.30am and continued our northward journey, this time heading for Mysore.

We woke up much earlier than we needed to, and the Ooty morning air was clear but cold – perfect weather for an early morning chai (tea). We walked past people cleaning the streets, children in uniforms heading off to school and merchants slowly opening their shops. We went back to the chai wallah (tea seller) from the day before and had a quick but delicious glass of chai while standing in the sun like all the locals. Back at the hotel, we packed hurriedly and piled into two separate six-seater four wheel drive cars. We were heading to the foothills of the Nilgiris Mountains where we were hoping to spot some wildlife in the jungles of Mudumalai National Park.

After the long and winding road we'd used on our upward journey into Ooty, we were now taking a shorter but steeper route down from Ooty - which had 36 hairpin bends on a narrow road! The good news was that the views were spectacular, we had a great driver, and our car had Lee, Kim, Damien, Brian and us...we travelled really well together and were never short of a joke that usually had us in stitches.

Around one of those hairpin bends, we stopped at a lookout point for beautiful views of the valleys and mountains surrounding us. We also witnessed a large local bus charging down the hairpin bends as if it was the size of a scooter. It made us feel rather queasy on behalf of the passengers in there.

As we descended further into the valley, our driver suddenly excitedly pointed into a distant hill where a wild elephant was grazing. It took us a few minutes to see it, so we were very impressed that our driver had spotted it. And as excited as I was to see the wild elephant munching its way through a tree, I would have much preferred that the driver's eyes were firmly on the road!

Once we hit flat ground, the surroundings changed from cool luscious green to hot and humid arid brown. We drove deeper into the jungle and passed a large arched sign that announced the beginning of Mudumalai National Park.

After driving for around two hours, it was early afternoon when we arrived at the tiny town of Masinagudi, and turned down a track towards the Jungle Retreat adjacent to Mudumalai National Park. Set against the peaks of the enchanting Nilgiri ranges, Mudumalai National Park was picturesque beyond words. It used to be the Mysore Maharaja’s private hunting ground, but was brought into India’s Project Tiger in 1974, and it’s now supposed to be one of the best game sanctuaries in India to observe diverse wildlife.

At the family run Jungle Retreat, we were greeted by Rhea and Smriti. Although simple, the Retreat is stunningly positioned under the mountains, built of local materials and in colours that make it blend into the surrounds beautifully. There was a bar and dining area, recreational facilities, a variety of accommodation including small cottages, a few fabulous looking tree houses and a dormitory style block. We were in the dormitory area which was large and comfortable. There were adjacent shower and toilet facilities to our room, but they were somewhat open to the elements.

Before we could go exploring, there was a safety briefing to sit through. Given we were in the middle of a National Park, there were no fences and therefore no way to stop wildlife from entering the Retreat. We were warned against walking between our dormitory and the other public areas after dark if we didn’t have a guard escort. The owners of the Retreat had set up motion-sensor cameras around the property, and later that evening they showed us a selection of the images that had been captured, including elephants, leopards and wild boar (the most likely, dangerous and unpredictable animal we would come across). In light of our safety briefing, those fabulously isolated cabins and tree houses weren't looking so inviting now.

The Retreat came with six family dogs and three cats. One of the tabby cats was extremely friendly and very talkative, and she followed us around. At one point she made herself at home on Andrew's bed while we were getting dressed, which made me miss Mia very much. Of the dogs, there was 14 year old blind and deaf Gunda who just slept in the sun outside the dining room, three very playful dogs (my favourites being Scooter and Spud), a very playful young puppy who didn't stop long enough for me to see its name, and one black dog who didn't like hanging out with the guests.

Before lunch there was time for some lounging about at the infinity pool built into the rocks – the pool was so lovely looking that even I couldn’t resist sitting in it. The afternoon was hot and humid, and the pool could have been easily mistaken for a mirage amidst the cacti, spindly brush and sandy dry soil... with the mountains framing the picture. The local herds of goats and cows used the pool as a drinking pond, which should have grossed me out, but strangely it didn't.

All meals at the Retreat were served buffet-style, and they were all incredibly delicious. For lunch we had vegetarian spring rolls, spinach with dahl (lentils), rajma curry (black eyed beans in a thick gravy sauce), beetroot porail (beetroot stir-fried in mustard, and topped with grated coconut), rasam (sour tamarind soup), roast potatoes, mutton curry (goat is referred to as mutton in India), fried chicken, watermelon raita (savoury watermelon yoghurt), rice and chapatti. As mentioned in our previous blog on Ooty, we had planned on being vegetarian on the inland sections of this trip. However, the meat dishes looked so good and were being cooked by the Retreat's chef, so we made an exception. My favourite dishes were the beetroot porail and watermelon raita with rice. Dessert was a trifle of sorts (without the jelly component).

After lunch we went back to the pool and sat around before our afternoon safari drive. By the time we got into the three safari jeeps at 5pm, it had started to cool down to a pleasant temperature. Having grown up in Africa, it’s a little strange for me that my first safari experience was in India. We’d barely begun the safari when one of the jeeps had to turn back to the closest village as Francis had succumbed to a stomach bug. The first among the group to go down...

Andrew and I were in a jeep with Brian, Damien and Karni. We were on the lookout for tigers and leopards but actually only saw Indian bison, sambar deer (they are huge!), herds of spotted deer, wild boar, a little rabbit, grey langur monkeys, birds and fabulous old world trees. The best hope of finding a tiger was apparently to listen for alarm calls from animals in the park, then stop the jeep in a likely place and wait silently in the hope that the tiger chooses to pass our way. I wasn't convinced by this method. Why would any self-respecting tiger choose to cross a road right near a bunch of safari jeeps with humans and their clicking cameras? It wasn’t looking good for tiger spotting. Despite not seeing a single tiger or elephant, driving slowly around an Indian forest in jeeps was in itself such a great experience that I almost didn’t care. Almost.

As much I used to tease my Dad about his chocolate brown safari suit from the 1980s, I wish safari suits were still in so I could have sported one and gone on safari in style. But in this age of practicality all we needed were sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen, water, a warmer top for when the sun went down and the all-important camera. Foot wear was a non-issue because for the majority of time we were just sitting in our safari jeep. The open safari jeep was heaps of fun, but also very cold on the drive back.

We stopped in Masinagudi on the way back to buy some alcohol as the Retreat wasn't really big on carrying a lot of stock. When we got back to the Retreat, a bonfire had already been lit. We sat in front of it with a drink until dinner was ready. Kim and I have found a revoltingly sweet vodka called Magic Moments which we have chosen to make our adult drink of choice in India. One of the other guests (from Hyderabad) played Neil Diamond from his iPod... it wasn't as cheesy as it sounds. Ok it was. But we didn’t care.

Dinner was another buffet. We had kofta curry (meatball curry), fish curry, urud dahl (black lentils), onion rings, boondi raita (tiny fried chickpea flour balls with yoghurt), steamed vegetables, baby potatoes, roast chicken and butter rice. Dessert was banoffee pie! It wasn’t the traditional English dessert I had envisaged – but it had the required elements of bananas, toffee and cream.

We continued to sit around the bonfire after dinner, and were joined by Rhea from reception who eventually (and very politely) told us when we had to wrap things up. We had to get a guard to walk us back to our lodgings. Some of the group were already in bed, so it was a case of being very quiet while we showered and got ready for bed - a bit hard to do when you've got the giggles. The cold shower quickly knocked all the giggles right out of me though. The cold shower had also made me wide awake, so I lay in the narrow creaky bed for a long time trying hard not to be a wriggle pot and wake everyone up.

The dogs barked a few times through the night which was a sign that there were wild animals around. The only other night-time excitement was when someone (who shall remain nameless) nearly ‘accidently’ climbed into an already occupied bed on their return from the bathroom. We will never know the real truth. 😊

We woke up at 6:30am to join a two hour guided village walk at 7pm. Andrew, Damien, Brian, Francis, Anja and I walked out of the Retreat gate before it was fully light. On the way I looked back towards the Retreat and the mist clad peaks of the mountain range behind it were just starting to glisten with the first rays of the sun. My favourite doggies Scooter and Spud accompanied the group and provided protection against the village dogs, wandering cows and any other animals they deemed to be a danger to us. The two young guides who led us didn't say a single word, so it was more an escorted walk than a guided walk.

The sun was shining, we were far enough from any city that the air was fresh (but smoky from an occasional cooking fire), and it was so good to be walking again. We made good time walking across fields and across villages, but the pace slowed right down when we hit a very steep hill with a temple on top.

At the top of the hill the view was fabulous, but the little Shiva temple was closed. We sat in the shade of the temple and regained our breath when Andrew realised that one of the young guides had set up the binoculars a bit further up the hill on a rocky outcrop. In all honesty I was quite happy to stay where I was, but eventually everyone drifted up there, so I followed. How glad I was that I did! Scooter had hung back at the temple with me, and now walked over and stood on the very edge of the rocks looking down at the vast plains of the National Park below us. It provided a photo opportunity for my favourite photo of the trip to-date.

The walk proved to be a real highlight! We saw an eagle (or a similar looking bird of prey), several other exotically feathered things that I couldn’t name, huge brightly coloured Malabar squirrels and a few monkeys. The two villages we walked through seemed to be geared towards cattle rearing and also had lovely fenced vegetable gardens.

We eventually returned to the Jungle Retreat where people were just sitting down to breakfast. Some of the group had gone on a bird watching walk, while others had skipped all the early morning activities.

I was ravenous, so breakfast was very welcome. I had eggs on toast and a banana pancake, while Andrew had idlis (steamed cakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter) with sambar (thin vegetable curry) and a masala dosa (a dosa stuffed with a creamy mix of lightly cooked potatoes, onions, green chilli and spices).

The setting and quiet beauty of the Jungle Retreat was fantastic, and I would highly recommend this spot to anyone who wanted to have a low key jungle experience. I will miss the food, the relaxing atmosphere of sitting around the pool and the family dogs and cats!

Next we travel north to the city of Mysore in Karnataka.


19th February 2015

Magic Moments!
Cheesy Neil Diamond and sweet vodka, views, food and animals--the best! Every time you post, I end up oohing at the dogs and cats (and exotic animals) and googling your yummy treats--I found all your veggie delights on vegrecipesofindia.com, my now go-to site, if I get ambitious (slightly doubtful) or simply want to salivate over Indian food. How fabulous that you take tours that provide you with such yummy food and drivers who are both safe and stop at viewpoints (since I would have been on that local bus descending "wildly as if it were a scooter"). Fabulous Jungle Retreat!
21st February 2015

Re: Magic Moments!
Thanks Tara! I think I could confidently say that the best vegetarian dishes I've tasted have been India dishes...plus you'd never have to ask if they'd used meat stocks or fish products as they do in other Asian cuisines. I think you would love India! :) xx
22nd February 2015

Your stories always grab my attention. Over the last couple of years your photography has begun to tell the real story of the people and the foods. If you just looked at these photos they could tell a story you might find in National Geographic....as you found the heart of the people, how they live and what they do. Excellent. You are getting your fill of Chai on this trip. 36 hairpin turns....I'm not sure you should be counting. Looks like they had some friendly dogs and cats for you to hang out with. Meatball curry sounds good. Staying away from the meat is generally a good idea but sounds like you found some foods that were safe.
22nd February 2015

Re: Photojournalist
Thanks MJ! When we made a decision to write a diary style blog, it was mostly so we could read back on it and re-live our trips...but it's nice to know that it also imparts a sense of the place and people to you. The dogs in India are super friendly, which is always a good sign. Quite strangely the 36 hairpin bends were counted down on big signs, but it did make everyone pay more attention - which can only be a good thing on such a dangerous road :)

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