Monday, December 14, 2009

Excursions in Karnataka

With only a few weeks to go before leaving India, I decided to take the kids out of school for one last trip. Mike, unfortunately, did not get to join us, as he had to stay and teach at Vidya Mandir, but I figured that I had acquired enough India-savvy to travel on my own with the kids. For our destination, we chose Karnataka, the only other state in South India we had yet to visit. Our plan was to divide our time between the city of Mysore and the national parks near the Kabini River. The journey to Mysore, on the Shatabdi Express, was quite pleasant, if a little long (seven hours). Along the way, we did not go hungry, as we were given water bottles, South Indian coffee, breakfast, lunch, cookies, candy, and tomato soup!

Mysore is a popular city among school groups, as it has a lot of historical monuments. The most well known is the Amba Vilas Palace – an impressive structure dominated by domes, turrets and colonnades that was home to the Wodeyar family (former ruling dynasty of Mysore). As beautiful as the palace is by day, it is even more striking at night, when it is lit by over 9,000 bulbs. We also visited the Brindivan Gardens, a terraced garden at the foot of the Krishna Raja Sagar Dam, notable for its beautiful fountains, illuminated by colored lights in the evenings. This being Southern India, we had to see a few temples as well, and we went to the 11th century Chamundeswari temple on Chamundi Hill, though we chose the easy route of driving to the top rather than walking up all 1,000 steps! I liked the area for its great views of the city, while the kids were captivated by the cute temple monkeys. We also visited the 13th century Hoysala temple of Somnathpur, located about an hour outside the city, which had great rock-cut carvings. Along the way, we saw coconut palms, big banyan trees, sugar cane fields and bullock carts carrying huge loads of wood. There were times, driving through some of the smaller villages, where I felt like I was transported back in time, other than the large satellite dishes on top of the tiny houses!

After Mysore, it was on to the Kabini River Lodge, located just outside Nagarhole National Park (formerly a hunting preserve for the Mysore royal family). We chose the Kabini Lodge because it offered small jeep safaris into the park twice a day – at sunrise and in the late afternoon. On our first safari, we were very fortunate. Not only did we see elephants, sambar deer, eagles, peacocks, and monkeys, but we had a female leopard cross our path. As soon as the leopard ran into the bushes, our guide directed the jeep to race at a breakneck speed to a spot where the leopard might emerge. For our family, seated in the back row of the jeep, it was a crazy, bumpy ride, kind of like at an amusement park, and even though I was clinging on for dear life (there were no seatbelts, of course), the kids were loving it. We never did find the leopard, but we found another one (a male) hiding in the bushes, stalking its prey. It amazed me how our guide had such amazing senses – he could see birds and animals that were very well hidden and knew when certain types of animals were giving out warning calls. Alas, this first trip set the bar a little high, as our guide was now obsessed with finding more big cats to show us on our next two safaris, but with no luck. However, we did see some wild elephants up close – the solitary males with their huge tusks, eating bamboo, and the females with their young, drinking from a salt lick and spraying themselves with dirt. On our river safari, we were treated to a peaceful scene of various animals – monkeys, wild board, deer, peacocks, egrets – hanging out by the river as the sun was setting, while across the riverbank, we could see a male elephant taking a drink and spraying water from his trunk.

Even at our camp, there was wildlife to be seen, because right outside our cottage was an elaborate treehouse with a huge rope net underneath. I assumed this was for the guests to play on, even though I would not let Taz and James climb up to the top of the treehouse, as the ladder was far too dubious looking. However, we soon realized that the house and rope net were not for people, but for the resident monkeys, who used the structure as a huge play area. We had great fun watching them, until we heard a strange cry above us and saw an enormous swarm of the biggest bats I have ever seen – flying right over our heads. But even that did not drive us inside – it was only when Taz felt her feet burning and realized she was being attacked by fire ants that we retreated to the safety of our cottage! In all, though, we loved our experience of being so close to wildlife, and we only wished we had time to visit some of the other nature preserves in India before leaving at the end of December.

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