Having grown up in the Gangetic plains, fishing in swollen rivers, plucking ripe, fresh guavas and mangoes straight off the trees it was not too much out of the ordinary to be assigned the role of "lead trip planner" by family and friends visiting from the US, wanting to sample a pie of exotic India.
After much scouting around and discussion, we zeroed in on South India covering Mysore for pure history, nature and cuisine, and, Nagarhole and Kabini which forms a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere, one of India's extensive forest tracks, for game watching.
The few guiding principles that were common to the group were good cuisine, great locales, simple country folk, wild life with plenty of photo ops and value for money. After a fortnight of frantic planning, visiting websites, talking to friends and tour operators, seeking referrals and pouring over maps and routes (Google maps proved rather useful), we had the final itinerary in our hands. A tentative budget indicated that the entire trip would cost us about Rs.20000 per person. This included air fare from Delhi to Bangalore, cab charges, good comfortable stay and ample opportunity to gorge on a wide variety of South Indian food.
Since, our friends, Iti and Ashu were coming to India from the US and had a stopover at Pune, it was decided to meet up at Bangalore and from there do a road trip throughout. The day to take off turned out to be a foggy February morning, leading to a frustrating delay. Thankfully, there was an air show at Bangalore which our friends could witness as they waited for us to join them. Our first leg of the 140 km Bangalore-Mysore road journey road started at 1.40 pm.
Our cabbie, Mr. Shareef a thoroughbred gentleman came down from Mysore to pick us at Bangalore. He turned out to be an old hand who provided us valuable input all through.
Seeing us as a chirpy receptive sort, he overcame his inhibitions and started to offload little nuggets of information at all the appropriate places. He regaled us with anecdotes that have become part of folklore, while driving across the famous Ramnagaram area, where the Bollywood blockbuster 'Sholay' was filmed.
Foodies as we all were, the moment we left Bangalore, we were craving for South Indian delicacies and fortunately for us, our cabbie being a local, knew just the right places. Soon, we were savouring the popular highway biryani and curries at Taj Biryani Paradise, BM road Ramanagara. What a feast it turned out to be. Let me tell you the best guides are the local cabbies anywhere you go, they know the most popular haunts.
Well fed, the naturalists and ardent photographers in us, were now impatient to get cracking with the "real thing". Landing first at the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary (around 5 pm) 15 kms before Mysore, situated at one of the most beautiful embankments of Kabini river, we were thrilled to see the birds up so close. The boat ride inside the sanctuary took us into the thick of avian life. Low flying Pelicans with their huge span, one could hear the flap of wings, surely a photographers dream to catch them in action. Then the stark reality of survival dawned with a kite swooping straight down into an egrets nest and clawing away with a new born. Other sights included seeing storks with open wings enjoying the cool breeze, common cormorants feeding on fish, bats hanging from trees and crocodiles basking in the sun - all seemed to be a divine tryst with pure nature.
Spot Billed Pelicans, Open Billed Storks, River Terns, Painted Stork, Snow Egrets, Spoon Bills and Night Herons, apart from fruit brats and crocodiles. This was a valuable tip from my friend Raja who lives in Bangalore and believes in spending all his hard earned money visiting the wild life parks of India.
If you are a photographer then hiring a boat just for yourself (or partner ) makes sense though the cost is much higher Rs1100/- for 3 hours (check current rates ). Or else, just go with the tourist group boat that comes for a much lesser price.
The experience left us with a plan change that we must come again next morning to see the early birds catching the first worm.
We checked into Green Hotel, Mysore originally Chittaranjan Palace built for the Mysore princesses. There was something regal about the place reminiscent of its rich past. This place is worth the money, except that it is not air conditioned, no television, generators etc. just to make it eco friendly. Breakfast is sumptuous and the place is clean and well kept.
Next morning at 6 am we trooped for a repeat visit to the bird sanctuary. This turned out to be even more exhilarating than the previous day, for we seemed to have got a bit acquainted with our feathered friends by now and were more respectful of their space and surroundings. Each moment was action packed as we tried our best to catch all we could in the frame. We realised photography in a bird sanctuary is totally alien to what it is in a wild life park. One has to be quick, steady and of course lucky. A bird in 'a frame' is worth two in a bush surely.
Next on our itinerary was the majestic St. Philomena's Church. The neo gothic architecture with the floor in the shape of the Holy Cross had a spell binding effect. We felt proud of our lineage and could visualise a historical background. The twin spires were almost 175 feet tall with the cathedral standing apart undoubtedly as a famous landmark of the city. We could not help lapsing into silence as we felt the pious, serene and quietude of the place engulf us. There was no need to speak and for those magical moments we just strolled around, relishing the beauty of the church which has a relic of the 3rd Century saint Philomena in a catacomb just below the exquisite marble altar.
With a well spent half day, our foodie's palate had taken over, and we reached a hole-in-the-wall kind of place - Mylari Restaurant, Nazarbad main road, recommended by an old friend in the US. The dosas and idlis were so different to the regular stuff we get up north. The idlis were soft and the dosas crisp, fresh and rich in taste. The place is only open for breakfast and we just about made it before they shut operations for the day. A must try for all those visiting Mysore.
We hit the legendary Mysore Palace next and once again were taken in by the opulence, character and grandeur. It was beautiful and romantic all at once. Stories from Amar Chitra Kathas floated past as we recalled the anecdotes of the kings and queens, princes and princesses who lived in a certain time and age. The main palace was a treat to experience.
Follow your instinct and do not succumb to the local caretakers who may tempt you to see the old and 'original' palace at the rear which is highly avoidable.
Straight after the palace we headed for the Kabini belt and the famous Nagarhole, now also known as the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, which is at a distance of 75 kms from Mysore. We took about two hours to reach comfortably after noon. We had directly booked our stay at the famous Bison Resorts overlooking the beautiful Kabini backwaters surrounded by the park. This turned out to be an upmarket resort boasting of luxuries in the wilderness. A tiny voice from within seemed to admonish, saying, when in India on a wildlife safari this may be superfluous but we decided to shhhh it and check in, in style, at this boutique-tented camp. The owner, Saad Bin Jung must be complimented on choosing the most exotic location in the area for building the property which seems satellite years away from the maddening world of crowded Indian cities.
The Deck which is an elevated wooden platform is the common 'lounge', overlooking the big