Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Up a tree hiding from elephants Part II

Ok, so Maddy and I are in Garuda and on our way to the Jungle retreat. It is night time and the jungle sounds are loud, but the jeep sounds are louder. Ravi is a charming, peaceful-faced young man with a goatee and eye crinkles, who drives through the potholes with a familiar disregard for the lack of suspension in Garuda, resulting in Maddy & I, sitting in the open backed jeep clinging onto the metal frame and bracing ourselves from head butting the roof. On the way the headlights catch and hold a majestic blue-grey male sambar deer with a full heavy set of antlers. A family of sleeping white spotted deer are woken and look up through the long grasses at the commotion.

Forest Hills is a resort is owned by a family who came here from Himachel Pradesh to farm, but found the local vermin a little difficult to manage. Crop growing here needs to be resistant not just to various insects, but also deer, boar, bison and of course elephants. Rahul, the youngest son told me that the deer jump the cattle grids and the elephants just barge through whatever fencing is put up. In other words, there is no stopping an elephant who wants to snack on some papaya or indeed whatever takes their fancy. Even an elephant with an itch is a menace, because most structures, the spindly legs of tree houses included, will not stand up to being used as a scratching post by a 10 tonne elephant. The family therefore decided to abandon farming and start a jungle safari lodge.

Arun had organised us to stay in one of their tree-houses, which was a house on stilts wrapped around a tree. I refer you to Maddy’s blog (http://www.madelainescragg.blogspot.com/) for some excellent pictures of Maddy climbing the internal tree. Sadly, there is no photo of the expression on Maddy’s face when she woke up after a mammoth sleep catch up (11½ hours) and first encountered the unexpected tree in her bedroom.

We had a fabulous time at the resort. On the first night we went for a safari, which basically consisted of bumping around the roads in Garuda, with Ravi stopping and exchanging tracking tips with other guides to get to see the best animals. The place was teeming with excited tourists all keen to see wild elephants, which I guess is the equivalent to trucks of Biharis driving excitedly around the Lake District trying to get to spot a rabbit or too. We did see some, and they were totally adorable - big, lumbering, brown, dusty beasts with faraway looks in their tiny eyes, guarding a titchy-trunked baby. Compared to the domesticated elephants they seemed plumper and less concerned with life. I guess being unstoppable and persistently photographed will give you that air.

I interrupt this entry with an exciting news flash. Dr Rita has given me a new mattress!!!!!!!! On it’s own, being coir (coconut matting) it is quite hard, but I can tell you, sandwiched between the two ryvita gave me the best night sleep, perched as I was, precariously, on 3 mattresses high above my bed like a pea on a drum, that I have ever had at RUHSA. Hallelujah. I even snuck in an extra kip at lunch time.

On the second day of the safari, we went to a Nilgiri Tea Estate in search of Tea Nirvana – ie the perfect cuppa. Since I visited tea estates in Assam all those years ago I have loved them. They are like beautiful sculpted slopes, plucked to an even undulating height, interspersed with peppercorn wrapped shade trees. The factories still contain machines brought over by Europeans over 100 years ago – in this case Irish – which roll, sort and dry the tea. It’s astonishing, to think that the process of making a cuppa has not changed at all in over a century. Certainly, it looked exactly the same as it did in Assam in 1995. Radically, the manager said that within 6m it’s all going to be computerised. I can’t imagine they will last into the next century.

That night, as Maddy and I lay in our little eyrie, she worm-like in a sleeping bag, me blissfully happily wrapped in several blankets, we heard the unmistakable sound of a nearby bull elephant, trumpeting loudly. He sounded quite cross. We fervently hoped he didn’t have an uncontrollable itch.

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