Location DescriptionThe Mudumalai tiger reserve lies in the 'Western Ghats' in the Westernmost part of Tamilnadu in Southern India, 11°32'-11°43'N to longitude 76°22'-76°45'E. The reserve lies abutting two neighboring states Karnataka and Kerala. This smallish (321sq. km.) sanctuary is home to 37 tigers which is the highest population density for any tiger reserve in the country. We were hoping to spot one or two of these over two short 3-4 hour hikes through the scrub jungle with a guide but weren't lucky enough. A good number of other large vertebrate mammals are fairly common in the reserve including Indian elephants, Leopards, Great Indian Gaur (Bos Gaurus), Sloth Bears (Sloth is actually a historical misnomer for these animals. They are not at all like 3-toed sloths, but more like the larger black / brown bears. Their favorite foods include ants, termites and fruits. I found an interesting description of Sloth Bear traits at this link http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/1999/2/slothbears.cfm, Black Bears, Wild Dogs, Boars, 'Malabar Squirrels', Langurs Lemurs, and Spotted Deer. The reserve is also teeming with insects... wasps, bees, centipedes, ants, termites, mosquitoes and gargantuan spiders... you name it, the place is infested with it. Additionally, generous scoops of scorpion, frog and snake are provided. I was extremely impressed by how 'alive' the forest seemed in comparison to temperate or tundra type forests. We felt like we were constantly watched by hidden beasts. Unseen monkeys, birds and squirrels were constantly communicating our route up in the canopy with short shrill noises.
While navigation through these jungles unguided is possible, the biomass of dangerous large animals and a history of past attacks on humans suggest that good local guides are indispensible until you learn some of the skills necessary to avoid animal encounters. Another good reason for using a guide is that unmarked solar-powered electric barbed-wire fences are fairly frequent and not illegal in the area. Private ranch owners use these to keep elephants out of their backyards. The elephants are more intelligent than they have been given credit for though... they knock the concrete support beams down while carefully avoiding the activated wire.
We hit two highpoints on each hike... 'Tiger Rock' on the first day (so named because of the frequency of tiger sightings in the vicinity) and Gauri bara (bara = rock in Kannada) on the second day. Vegetation is varied and includes mostly southern tropical thorn scrub, tropical moist deciduous and dry deciduous. Some evergreen vegetation is seen in areas and aspects that receive more moisture. The vegetation described (I apologize, I only know the Tamil names for most of these) include several kinds of cactii, tall grasses, thorny grasses, lemon grass, thick shrubs with bi-directionally positioned thorns, gooseberry trees, sandalwood, teak, eucalyptus, etc.
On day zero our large family pulled into one of the popular Mudumalai resorts “Jungle Hut”. After a few huge meals and a few hours of table tennis we hit the hay.
Tiger Rock: Day 1Early on our first morning at the reserve we set out from our cabins escorted by the friendly Jungle Hut mascot, a yellow Labrador retriever… “Butterball” my brother called him. Our crew for the day consisted my older brother Ranjith, sister Kavitha, her husband Eins, myself and our guide Sasi who was swinging an “aruval”. The aruval (Tamil) is a long reverse-curved cleaver - a fairly common tool used in the Southern states for bush-whacking, peeling palm fruit and coconuts in my hometown - Tuticorin and as most Southern Indian mobs' weapon of choice since it brings a certain intimidation factor to the table. Our intent for day one was to get to a low point called Tiger rock (~3600 feet) located on a face overlooking dense jungle, halfway up to a ridge leading to a popular Southern Indian hill-station called Ooty (the town is at ~7000 feet). We started at a base elevation of ~3000 feet. On this first day we set out with the aim of sighting as many animals as possible. We therefore decided to take a route along a stream via two watering holes.
We used animal tracks all day beginning with an elephant trail that was never more than a 1-2 feet wide.
However elephant trails were free of thorn shrub up to a reasonable height. Since most other animals are shorter at the shoulder, their trails are not much different from tunnels of ~3 foot diameter through the thorny shrub. Following the elephant trail revealed an inane habit of theirs... apparently it does not please the dufuses to descend steep terrain with all four feet planted (especially during the monsoon when water is running down the clay-rich soil)... Instead, they sit on their large asses and slide down with squeals of unbridled glee. This behavior was evidenced by portions of extremely smooth hardpacked soil on the steeper sections.
At one spot we found the carcass of a Gaur potentially killed by a larger carnivore. It was fairly old as evidenced by the mushrooms growing on its horns.
We hiked through beautiful thick bamboo forest to a watering hole fed by a cascade half way up to our day’s destination.
Close to our destination we found a tree with Leopards’ claw marks on it. He clearly seemed to have climbed to the first branch on a tree.
At the top of Tiger rock we looked up and found this high point on the ridge which seemed like it might have a better view and asked Sasi to take us there the following day.
We spotted a sloth bear across the valley moving uphill slowly… potentially foraging for termites. Sasi said that the animal trails higher up were usually rife with animals in the hotter and drier months. On the way back we were delighted to find some of the wild fruit my siblings, cousins and I used to scavenge off shrubs behind my grand parents’ home in a village near the Tamilnadu – Kerala border. I unfortunately only know the colloquial name for it. These forests are rife with poisonous berries though so it’s probably not a great idea to be eating everything in sight unless you’re sure about it.
We found a gooseberry tree which was yielding a ton of fruit which we picked for the rest of the hike. These fruits are loaded with Vitamin C.
Human-sized cacti were ubiquitous, with their 2-3” long spines as were what we used to call ‘touch-me-nots’... I think they're a kind of fern (please correct me if I'm wrong) whose leaves fold quickly when you touch them.
We also ran into a ton of human-sized termite hills. Ancient Tamilian ‘saamiyars’ (tamil for ‘yogi’) supposedly meditated so deeply that their positive auras encouraged termites to build nests over their bodies while they continued with their penance undeterred through this nest-building process. I had half a mind to knock down one of these and scare the bejesus out of the enclosed saamiyar.
We were back at the cabins in time for breakfast and had a full day including hanging out with this friendly guy who shook your hand with his trunk in return for some petting…
Gauri Bara: Day 2On the night of day 1 we celebrated my mom’s birthday for the third day in a row (this time to introduce my niece Rhea to the concept of “surprise parties”), stuffed ourselves with cake and played improvised 2-player-a-side indoor cricket into the wee hours of the morning. At 2AM my brother and I decided to catch up on some sleep ahead of the second day’s hike. Not long after we unhappily rolled out of bed and into the tea shack by 6AM. Butterball was not at his radiant best this morning either. He’d had a rough night of looking for his tail in an open gutter. After awkwardly resisting the newly christened Gutterball’s amorous advances for a short while we met our new guide Kumar.
Kumar was a little less loquacious than Sasi but no less entertaining. We firmly believed he was a Tamilian speedy Gonzales incarnate. Every once in a while we’d hear “Arriba! Arriba! ándale ándale”, and he’d be gone… Kumar stood at a wiry 5’5”, 120lbs, well ironed formal shirt (tucked out) and khakis, moustache, aruval and beanie. The only time he really smiled during the entire hike was when he explained to us the virtues of his fine pair of rubber ‘chappals’ (Injun flip flops) he’d acquired for a princely sum of Rs. 10 (20 cents). These magic flip flops were super effective across ridiculous 2-3” thorns that are strewn all over southern tropical thorn forests. I asked him if the thorns didn’t hurt him. “No”, said he.
On this day we hiked faster focusing on getting to the summit of Gauri Bara rather than look for wildlife.
Kumar took us through dense thorns which he blasted aside with his aruval.
Cactii lurk, camouflaged in the most unexpected spots. Rushing through the brush with eyes closed isn’t a particularly fantastic idea.
We summitted Gauri Bara in quick time and were in time for a cool inversion which is a regular feature here.
On the way back down we found some cool rock…
and a sloth bears’ rain shelter…
and a cool spider who was in the same spot as yesterday…