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The scent of Nature

S. THEODORE BASKARAN and his family, found Gopalsamibetta, on the periphery of Karnataka, to be an ideal retreat.

S. THEODORE BASKARAN

The Gopalsamibetta ranges.

ON the southeastern periphery of the Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, stretches a range of hills called Gopalsamibetta (1,468 m) that takes its name from the temple on top. It was here that we were headed for on December 31, 2002, in keeping with the family tradition of ushering in the new year in a forest. It was late afternoon when we reached.

On the hill on which the temple is located, remnants of massive battlements could be seen. There is a look out post with a clear view of the Mysore-Udhagamandalam highway snaking across the dry plains. A wall of massive granite boulders had once surrounded the temple. But what was intriguing was that across the next hill too ran a wall of immense proportions with an opening in one end. Why? When? Later, thumbing through the Mysore Gazetteer (1897) at the Mythic Society library in Bangalore, I was to learn that this fort was known as Bettekotta (hill fort) and was built by a poligar Somanna Danayaka, in the latter part of the 18th Century. He is one of the nine Danayaka brothers of tradition.

Close to the temple, on the shoulder of the hill is a forest rest house built in 1933, credited with the barest necessities — no electricity. Like the other colonial era rest houses, this one too commands a stunning view of a wide valley on the left and the plains of Gundelpet on the right. A trench, to keep the elephants out encircles it. Inside the rest house, a large photograph of a hunting party with a slain tiger in the foreground adorns the wall. Closer examination reveals the slayer in the centre of the group as none other than Lord Irwin, Viceroy of British India. The Maharajas of Mysore and Bikaner flank him dutifully. A tiger hunt was something Indian kings organised to honour their imperial guests, a colonial equivalent of a banquet.

After being handing over the rice and dal for our supper, we set out on the bridle path that led into the grassland. It was mountains and forests all around. The caretaker of the rest house insisted on accompanying us, with his double-barrelled breach loader slung rakishly across his shoulders. I did not go into the question of how he was going to use a shotgun to protect us from elephants, evidence of whose presence was all around us in the form of heaps of dung.



Sergeant buttefly.

An outcrop of bare rocks jutting out of the hill, hewn into different shapes by eons of wind and rain, appeared like a sculpture gallery of Henry Moore. Closer, the multicoloured lichen sticking to the rock could be seen. A Brown rock thrush was perched on one of the rocks. On a dead tree stump clung a Rock lizard in an amazing display of camouflage. Even as you were looking at it, it seemed to disappear and reappear.

The folds of the valley were clothed in dense forest. You could see the bottom of the fold was like a green ribbon, indicating a stream. There were many such streams and it is here that the Kabini river originates. Though most of them were dry now, Ginger lily plants growing at the edge of the forest indicated that the valley had been very wet. Orchids abounded on the trees. We could hear the clear belling of a Sambar from inside the patch of forest in the valley. It was typical Sambar country and home for vast numbers of this deer. Next morning we would spot nearly 15 of them.

The ranges seem to extend endlessly. The slanting rays of the sun accentuated the folds and valleys. The grasslands took on a golden hue as the sun, like a sliver of fire, slide behind the ranges. The evening turned cold rapidly. A tenacious lone Black-winged kite hovered over the grassland even as darkness engulfed the hills. A few stars began appearing tentatively and soon the clear moonless sky was filled with myriad stars. The Milky Way could be seen distinctly. We hurried back to the rest house. After an early dinner of rice and a fried dal of sorts, we snuggled into our sleeping bags. An occasional belling of Sambar floated from the valley, intensifying the silence of the night.

The crowing of Jungle fowl announced a glorious morning. The morning sun was pouring gold over the landscape. We walked along the ridge of the hill, following a bridle path that cut through the grassland. A Pale harrier, a migrant raptor, had already started scanning the grassland flying low. A Common Sergeant butterfly briefly landed on a clump of grass before setting off to an unknown destination. We could spot two gaurs, in different parts of the hill. Their massive bodies glistened in the morning sun as they grazed contently. When the sun rose a little higher and grew warm, they disappeared into the forest.

There were signs of the presence of other mammals there. Brushing up our knowledge of caprology, we could identify droppings of porcupine and hare all over. There were three lumps of tiger scat, in different stages of decomposition. The oldest was just a tight lump of sambar hair and bones. Learning of the big cat's presence there lent an aura to the place.

Driving back to Bangalore, we stopped at a wayside dhabba. While we waited for the tea, we tallied our bird list. We had sighted 76 birds. Though poor compared to the 125 of last year at Nagarahole, Karnataka, the consolation for me was that it included two lifers, (birds you sight for the first time in your life) — a Grey Nightjar and a Black Redstart, a tiny flycatcher that breeds in the Himalayas and winters in the Western Ghats.

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