An Animal Sanctuary, a Picnic, a Shopping Trip …. but not as we know them

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Aldous Huxley

To travel is certainly to discover. If I told you that we were off to start the day at an animal sanctuary, followed by a picnic, followed by a spot of local shopping, you might imagine our spending an hour or two with distressed dogs or donkeys, maybe some homeless hedgehogs. Then you’d picture us with a pack of sandwiches, maybe sharing a bag of crisps and some Jammie Dodgers, perhaps on a park bench, or dodging the cow pats in a country field. Then you’d suppose we’d nipped into Sainbury or Tesco on the way home.

But this is my Indian Adventure, so you would be wrong. Our animal sanctuary was Dubare Elephant Camp. This is where elephants who’ve had a long career working transporting logs for the Karnataka Forest Department go to live out their retirement years.

We watched them enjoying their daily bath in the River Cauvery. One elephant needs maybe three young men to bathe them: good tough scrubbing brushes required to give that hard leathery skin a good old scratch.

We were in time for their breakfast. There was a cookhouse where an appetising mixture of jaggery (a dark brown palm sugar), millet and vegetation was boiled up and formed into giant balls of nourishment. Just because they ate it daily didn’t stop them finding it delicious.

That was it really. But we had to set off for our picnic in any case. With some difficulty, we waded through paddy fields, where the young rice plants were an impossibly citric green, vivid and vibrant. And there, at the end of our walk, was the River Cauvery: a perfect scene from a travel documentary: tall palm trees, knotted and intricate tree roots, little islands among the fast-flowing waters.

We were glad to climb into our costumes and plunge into the river – muddy, but otherwise clean. There was quite a current, and I wasn’t strong enough to swim the width of the wide river, so stayed close in to the banks.

And then it was time for our picnic: something special, this. Staff from our host’s residence clanked down the hill with great metal cans yoked over their shoulders: rice; sambal; a wonderful bitter curry made out of some dark green leaf also used to de-worm children; chicken curry; a sour and bitter sticky chutney; curds; and a gorgeous buttered cabbage curry. It truly was a memorable feast.

On our way home, we stopped off at our local town, Madikeri, to do some bits and bobs of shopping – get our photos onto CDs in the days when memory cards didn’t have much capacity, buy sandals, that sort of thing.

Oddly, I took few photos here, but I’ve used others from later in the trip, because with their rows of tiny shops, Indian shopping streets are standard in their own way. No M&S, Boots and Costa certainly, but there’s still a certain uniformity in the small shop fronts with goods stacked and hanging outside, and pedestrians, bullocks and auto rickshaws all jockeying for position in the crowded streets. Here’s the auto rickshaw that four of us (and our driver of course) contrived to travel home in after our trip…

The rickshaw that somehow got four passengers and a driver back home on a ten mile journey on a bumpy road.

I wasn’t so much wrong about India as didn’t have a clue.

My contribution to Debbie’s challenge, inspired by the quotation at the beginning.

My Indian Wildlife Adventure

You’ve had a taste of my long-gone-month-long stay in India. From here to here. But I’ve not been entirely honest with you. I told you it was a holiday I took alone. That’s largely true. But for just over a week, right at the beginning, I was part of a small experimental tour put together by my ex-brother-in-law Simon.  An Organic Adventure. About eight of us travelled through rural Karnataka and Kerala, looking at local ventures into organic and sustainable agriculture. If that sounds dull … well, you can’t have been there.

I have stories to tell. But it was the wildlife that always remains in my mind … even urban wildlife is so very different from good old English pigeons and magpies. In Bangalore it was wheeling and circling eagles. In Mysore it was enormous fruit bats coming out at nightfall, to find food; and by day there were the gossiping bovva- boy hornbills.

And in rural Karnataka it was frogs. We could see them constantly in the ponds near our lodgings, burping away by day and by night . The only thing that shifted them one morning was a rat snake, slithering around and looking for breakfast .

I used to go outside as darkness fell at 6 o’clock and listen. A complex symphony played out. First, a group of frogs would start their chorus, the noise intensifying until gradually becoming quieter again: then others would take over with their own ever-swelling sound.  Crescendo … diminuendo.  All through the night. Quite wonderful.

One day at a tea plantation at the edge of the woods (another story for another day) we suddenly – and I do mean quite suddenly – heard cicadas in the trees. From low beginnings the sound grew and grew, peaking at a crescendo so loud we had to raise our voices to make ourselves heard.. Then, just as suddenly , it died smoothly away to nothing. 

My favourite sound?  This. Every morning.  Just as dawn broke, a whistling thrush – just the one – broke into song.  It sounded just like some contented man, hands in pockets, ambling slowly down the street, whistling happily and aimlessly.  And it made me happy too,  every time.

And on our very first night in the rainforest, as I was unpacking, a whirring, clattering clockwork toy appeared from behind my rucksack.  Only it wasn’t a clockwork toy. It was a very cross hawkmoth, complaining vociferously about being disturbed.

The cross and out-of-focus hawkmoth who chattered and clattered round our room.

Then there was our stop off in Nagarhole National Park with its snowy-headed Brahminy kites, its kingfishers and eagles: its bison, its warthogs, its spotted deer, its mongooses and – of course – its elephants.

But more than these I remember the simpler pleasures: watching cattle egrets on the backs of cattle, benefitting from the insect life that definitely did not benefit the cattle.  Glimpsing a water snake surging across a placid pond. Going on a trek across the empty paths of the Western Ghats, spotting vine snakes, parakeets, macaques, rufous-bellied eagles…. and for some of our unfortunate team – not me for some reason – leeches, which left angry red welts behind when they’d loosened their grip.

No hornbill was going to wait around for me to take a snapshot.  I saw no cicadas. I wasn’t clever enough to snap a Brahminy kite or an eagle.  So my pictures don’t match the text. It’s just too bad. I can enjoy both and I hope you can too: souvenirs of memorable rural India.  Tales of what we actually did there are for another day.