This morning we had to be up at 4am to beat a proposed roadblock for road repairs in Masinagudi. So after viewing the amazing weekly illumination of Mysore Palace last night, we all took to our beds early.
On our arrival at the Jungle Retreat we are served a fantastic western breakfast including banana pancakes. They also have the most delicious berry jam, and a honey that is rich, dark and runny, with a distinct floral taste.
After this we have free time to swim, play pool, read/write or explore and walk around. I am absolutely champing at the bit for some serious exercise, as there has been too much social eating for the amount of time we are spending on our lard-arses on the bus. I am also staring down the barrel at a big included lunch in a few hours, as well as dinner tonight (where I usually have either one or the other, not both). After all the hype, India is definitely not living up to my auto-diet expectations.
After exploring around the property and going up a few paths that didn’t go anywhere, I decide I will have to hit the road we arrived on if I am to get any serious pace and distance happening.
So I walk and walk and walk. I pass several people walking in the opposite direction, a man painting some temple decorations on a new structure, and people doing their daily chores. I am passed by bicycles, motorbikes, jeeps, trucks and buses.
After judging that I must be 4-5km away from home, I turn back. The only wildlife I observe are a few rhesus monkeys clowning in the trees. I return hot and sweaty, ready for my solar-powered shower and feeling that after a brisk 10km, I actually deserve some lunch. Which is just as well, as they serve up Thai and some other things I haven’t had for the best part of two months...
Later in the afternoon jeeps come to pick us up for our appointment with some elephants and a night safari. Our guide Danny is a cheerful dark version of Oliver Hardy and his enthusiasm and commitment to the park is infectious.
We are hardly a few kilometres out of our driveway when Danny pulls up to let us view a large bull elephant. ‘He is a big tusker. He hangs around here quite a lot.’
‘This exact spot?’ I ask, feeling grateful I missed him earlier.
‘Is he in musth?’ asks Anne.
Apparently not, so thank Kali for some small mercies.
We take off again and Danny helpfully continues his commentary. ‘Also, some days ago, two tigers were crossing here.’
‘This particular spot?’ I ask, my voice starting to rise.
‘Yes, yes, two nights ago I was guiding.’
‘But what about all the people you see walking up and down here?’ A small tinge of desperation entering my voice.
Danny takes his eyes off the road to look at me as if I’m mad. ‘What people?’
‘Oh,’ he says visibly relaxing. ‘They are tribal people,’ he adds dismissively.
Right. So I’m a bloody idiot, then. A lucky bloody idiot who could have got a lot more exercise than I’d bargained on, and some incidental weight loss, such as an arm or leg.
Once we cross a narrow bridge (after we waited for a bus called ‘Praise the Lord’ to squeeze over) we park the jeeps and make our way down the steep riverbank. At the edge of the river we find two mahouts swarming over what looked like large boulders. Their elephants are lying on their sides with their trunks just peeping out of the water, their eyes closed in bliss. The mahouts are using scrubbing brushes that the elephant hide has almost worn down flat.
Eventually they command their charges to get up and it is then we observe one of them is having such a good time that he has grown a sixth leg. His penis is as thick as his mahout’s thigh. I don’t know whether I am crediting him with too much control or whether it was involuntary, but twice I saw him scratching his tummy with it. Impressive!
Afterwards, we follow them up to the feeding shed where their front legs are hobbled with chains and they are lined up behind a fence. They are initially fed some sticks of sugar cane, which they destroy pretty quickly with loud cracks.
In the shed we can see what look like massive blocks of different coloured fudge with the elephants’ names in front. Each elephant has his special prescription to supplement his jungle diet according to the vet’s directions. The white blocks are rice cakes, the light brown a lentil mix and some have a coconut and/or a small piece of jaggery (toffee).
The mahouts are kneading these large lumps like dough and when they have one large glob, they trot out to their elephant and stretch their arm out full length above their heads to deposit it in a waiting open mouth. The contented sucking and smacking sounds emanating from the seven elephants made it sound like they are all dealing with a mouthful of dry peanut butter.
The names lined up against the food are usually indigenous names like ‘Sumangala’ and ‘Kamatchi’, but I notice the standout of ‘John’. I asked Danny why he has such a short western name.
‘No, John is not his full name. His full name is Naughty John. You see him now?’ Danny points to where two elephants are eating but John is behind twiddling the male’s penis with his trunk. Naughty John, indeed.
After feeding, the elephants have their daily pedicure. One of the mahouts goes around to each pachyderm with a can of palm oil and a long handled paint brush, slapping the oil on their feet and nails to stop cracking. I am relieved to see he doesn’t follow up with an orange stick to push their cuticles up.
By now it is starting to get dark and after we have watched the mahouts mount their trusty steeds and lumber off into the sunset we reload into our jeeps for our night safari.
We quickly come upon a herd of elephants by the roadside feeding. There are two babies in the group, one about two, and the other six months. We are surprised the elephants don’t seem to be bothered by our headlights, let alone our presence.
‘They are attracted to pollution,’ explains Danny. ‘Normally they would take mud baths to protect themselves from mosquitoes, but the pollution can also do this job.’ This is also a regular hang out for the herd, which is why we found them so easily.
During our short stay, several buses pass and other jeeps pull up. Danny becomes quite irate however, when a jeep full of Indian tourists start using a spotlight on the animals. ‘This has been declared illegal in this park!’ he growls. Danny drives over to tell these louts off. The exchange is vigorous and seems to end with them giving Danny a rude send off.
‘This is very bad,’ Danny mutters. ‘They say they have the permission of high officials. This means corruption.’
I really feel sorry for Danny at this moment. He gets up at 5am every morning and works till midnight, often not seeing his children for days. He clearly loves his job and is passionate about ensuring everyone does the right thing. He must feel so angry and powerless in the face of the inevitable bribing at higher levels. I wonder if honest people like Danny can ever make it to the top to create change.
We leave the elephants via a particularly terrible road. We are swerving and S-ing around holes large enough to swallow a tuk tuk. The bottoms of the people in the back of the jeep are suffering and Danny starts to chuckle evilly.
‘You are going to Ooty tomorrow?’ he asks. ‘You know it is called “Queen of Hills”? We have renamed her “Queen of Potholes”!’
‘It is a national road from here to Ooty (more chuckling) But no road! Only holes! Hahahahahaha!’
Ooh. Extra goody. ‘So ladies, we know to race for the front seats on the bus tomorrow!’
Every now and again Danny takes the jeep off-road and turns the lights off in the hope of a tiger sighting. We sit in the pitch-black night hearing only crickets and the occasional bird call. On one of these occasions we hear a loud tapping noise. We turn to Danny for an explanation.
‘May be wood smugglers. Can be very dangerous. Sometimes they throw rocks at us or even knives.’
Friendly types, eh.
After another huge buffet meal including roast potatoes, spag. bol. and chicken crumbed in a spicy cinnamon mix, it is time for us 4am risers to head back to our dormitory and hit the hay. Luckily I am tired enough not to have nightmares involving a more direct experience of feeding the animals.