Why The Serai Bandipur Is Every Birdwatcher’s Paradise

The gentle ruffle of feathers, a lone chirp in the wee hours of the morning… and then, a series of chirps in response to the first – these subtle sounds would wake me before sunrise in a land where the September air was nippy and nature, alive. I was at ‘The Serai Bandipur – Experiential Bloggers’ Retreat’ with a handful of bloggers from across India. We would spend our next few days exchanging ideas and stories over endless cups of coffee, bowls of soup, a jungle safari and a night-long party which would seal our friendship into something more lasting.

Befriending Bandipur

A pale-billed flowerpecker wakes up early to feed on some berries at The Serai, Bandipur.

A pale-billed flowerpecker wakes up early to feed on some berries at The Serai, Bandipur.

I would arise every day in a wonderland far removed from the cosmopolitan commotion of a city. This was Bandipur – a national park spanning over two hundred thousand acres in the South Indian state of Karnataka. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve attracts many travellers for the elusive big cat. In all honesty, it is not just the tiger, but also leopard that wildlife enthusiasts vie to catch a glimpse of. I, on the other hand, was not there just for the wild cat(s). I was on the hunt for some feathered friends.

Soaking In The Splendour Of The Serai

Butea flowers (palash) and bougainvilleas lie scattered outside my cottage - Serai's floral greeting in the morning?

Butea flowers (palash) and bougainvilleas lie scattered outside my cottage – Serai’s floral greeting in the morning?

Forests, although enchanting, can be exhausting in the sun and humidity. Fortunately, I was sheltered in a serene sanctum ensconced in luxury – The Serai Bandipur. This indulgent jungle resort kept me right in the middle of the wild, yet provided me with all creature comforts of an avant-garde property – a temperature controlled commodious room, fine bed-linen, a well-stocked swanky bathroom, a wood-panelled patio and a landscaped courtyard outside my cottage! With so much pampering, I knew I would never tire from my incessant birdwatching.

Sunbirds On Lilies & Babblers That Are Sly…

This purple sunbird elegantly sucks some nectar off these pretty bunch of fire lilies.

This purple sunbird elegantly sucks some nectar off these pretty bunch of fire lilies.

You must think I’m an early riser who staunchly lives by the proverb – ‘Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ That notion cannot be further from the truth. I am a spoilt city brat who is stuck to her laptop at 2am – the quintessential night owl. I cannot open my eyes until I am wrenched out of bed by my mum, admonishing me to finish breakfast so the maid can do the dishes. Only a place like Bandipur can make me get up so early, and that too without an alarm! At The Serai, I would be roused from my restful slumber by the gentle rays of the sun filling up my cosy room through the French windows. Instead of a shrill alarm or a scolding from my mother, I would wake up to the sweet sounds of chirruping songbirds. That would set the tone of yet another day to be spent chasing exotic avifauna.

…Because Balconies Are For Birding! 😉

I use my verandah only for one thing - looking for birds. See how my tripod is set up and my lens and camera-phone waiting to be used?

I use my verandah only for one thing – looking for birds. See how my tripod is set up and my lens and camera-phone waiting to be used?

Stone-walled porches with varnished wooden railings,

Leather upholstered armchairs and sunroof ceilings –

These little luxuries pale when compared

To glorious sightings of bushchats and hares.

With the first ray of light, I would step out to the lanai and get my equipment ready. I can do without my morning cuppa, but I lose my cool if my DSLR’s battery is not charged. When my Benro tripod is in position and the Canon lenses cleaned and kitted out with a UV filter, I know I am ready to shoot!

Bandipur’s Birds On My Balcony! <3

I see this Indian silverbill only for a second before it vanishes in the blink of an eye.

I see this Indian silverbill only for a second before it vanishes in the blink of an eye.

The Serai rewarded me with quite a few gorgeous sightings of passerine birds. I did have some trouble managing shots that weren’t hazy. (These birdies are so restless, it’s hard to catch them clean!) I now have flowerpeckers, sunbirds, silverbills, flycatchers, magpies, cormorants, bulbuls and several babblers, among others in my collection. I know I’m still an amateur when it comes to clicking these flying figures, because I spotted many more that left me too stupefied for my limbs to make any movement. I could go hungry for hours if only my eyes would feed on birds! But one must eat to lug around a tripod and a bulky camera bag.

Fine Dining In The Fair Weather

An array of freshly prepared delicacies are up for grabs at Sanctuary - Serai's pan-cuisine restaurant.

An array of freshly prepared delicacies are up for grabs at Sanctuary – Serai’s pan-cuisine restaurant.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner at Serai’s in-house restaurant (Sanctuary) are elaborate affairs. Their buffet spread comprises dishes from across the world (read – Vegetarian Food In Sharjah – What Nobody Tells You About Emirati Cuisine) and also some local favourites. I would generally have a platter of cut fruits, an egg – made to order, an idli, a pancake and a muffin with some freshly squeezed juice or a milkshake in the mornings. Afternoons would see me load my plate with assorted salads and dips, a baked pasta preparation, a hot naan – fresh off the pan, some grilled greens, a vegetable poriyal and some dish with gravy for the mains. I would finish off my meals with not less than 4 desserts – generally an ice cream, a mousse in a shot glass, some hot rabri with gulab jamun, and a decadent pastry.

Our evenings were usually spent at Moyar’s Edge – Serai’s bar, with a stunning view of the Nilgiri Hills of Ooty (only 2 hours away) and the crystal-clear swimming pool of the property. The bar is well stocked with aged single malts and imported wines, apart from the regular party-spirits and liqueurs. I avoid drinking these days to better practise my faith and cater to my diet as an athlete, so I took the opportunity to sample a couple of their mocktails. The evening chill helped stoke the warm conversations that flowed freely through the night.

Alcohol And Ornithology Don’t Go Together

The branches make it difficult to tell whether she is a white-bellied blue flycatcher or a bushchat.

The branches make it difficult to tell whether she is a white-bellied blue flycatcher or a bushchat.

Another reason I don’t like to drink is that it makes you too lethargic to wake up with the birds. I would never trade the chance of watching a munia fluttering towards her nest with a leaf in her beak for a night of mixed strong spirits leading to a hangover. That said, I couldn’t resist a glass of red wine (read – Sula Vineyards: A Fine-Wine Story) with my dinner on our last night at The Serai. I knew I would miss the place – the tranquillity of the 36-acre sprawling surroundings, the grandeur of the elegantly done interiors and the hospitality of the humble and helpful staff. They made me even more emotional with the intimate bonfire and the barbecued goodies that were served in the light drizzle in the evening.

Deep Tissue Massage Deep In The Forest

I spend close to 2 hours at the Oma Spa, hoping to relax my excited nerves (from all the birding adventures).

I spend close to 2 hours at the Oma Spa, hoping to relax my excited nerves (from all the birding adventures).

My time in Bandipur was not all birdwatching and gourmet dining and giggling with my new pals. I also booked myself into a 90-minute spa (which would ultimately stretch to 2 hours). My masseuse of North East Indian descent gave me the ‘fitness massage’ – one that not only releases the tension in my marathon-weathered muscles (read – Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad) but also has elements of aromatherapy. I could not feel my bones after every part of my body was kneaded with hot oil. I also opted for 10 minutes of ‘hot stone massage’ which involves rolling hot river stones (which are boiled in hot water) across your well-oiled back and arms. After the relaxing massage, I sat 15 minutes in the steam chamber (to unclog my pores and let my skin breathe) before taking a long shower to wash off the oils.

You Point Your Lens Better When Your Arms Are Strong

I also manage to spot a red-vented bulbul perched on a tree.

I also manage to spot a red-vented bulbul perched on a tree.

After the rejuvenating spa session, I had a quick breakfast and continued on my quest for more winged wonders. I had caught quite a few birds from afar, but I was still thirsting for a close-up. I had walked most of the trail (read – Forsyth Trail – A Hike through Satpura’s Core Tiger Zone) about the living quarters inside the property (spanning 18 acres), peeped up every tree that I could safely reach without being bitten by a snake, and stood still in my green pants and dark top (for camouflage), my camera delicately balanced on my palm. Yet, I hadn’t captured a bird so close it would blow my mind.

Would Passerines Pass By The Poolside?

I am restless as I watch my friends splash about at the pool - always afraid I'll miss a bird if I put my camera down.

I am restless as I watch my friends splash about at the pool – always afraid I’ll miss a bird if I put my camera down.

“C’mon! Change into your swimwear and jump in the water!” – My friends from Skreem prod me to leave my camera and enjoy the infinity pool (that has goalposts in case you and your gang wish to play a game of water polo). I am in two minds – I have come prepared with my towel and everything, but I can’t keep the DSLR aside. I am gripped by a fear that I will miss my best bird sighting when I am frolicking in the pool.

My Luck Finally Shines

My luck finally shines, and I catch this jungle babbler sitting right on the railing of my balcony! :-)

My luck finally shines, and I catch this jungle babbler sitting right on the railing of my balcony! 🙂

I spent that afternoon getting a tan on the sunbed by the swimming pool, but sacrificing pool-time did not yield me any sightings. (Sigh! 🙁 ) Next morning, however, as I got up to pack up my tripod, a look of resignation painted on my face, I was startled by the cacophonous chatter of a babbler. I’d almost dropped my zoom-lens in excitement! I quickly regained my composure and clicked away – delighted to have my feast served on a platter before my eyes. There wasn’t one, but half a dozen babblers that warbled away for close to a minute before disappearing from what seemed like a dream. My day was made.

Mission Accomplished!

I'm all smiles as I have fulfilled my goal of sighting pretty birds in Bandipur.

I’m all smiles as I have fulfilled my goal of sighting pretty birds in Bandipur.

That day, my joy knew no end! I wasn’t lost at the dinner table anymore. I did not forget to wish the couple that was celebrating their anniversary at this opulent resort. And, I was actually excited about the tiger sighting we had had in the afternoon. (I still don’t get the obsession over tigers, to be honest!)

In my eagerness for sharing my birding adventure with you, I have perhaps forgotten to tell you how swish our cottages were, or how breathtaking the views were from every corner of the property, or how we saw a tiger chase a spotted deer in the jungle. So, I’ve made a small video that captures some moments from my memorable stay at The Serai:-

Do birds make you feel the same way they make me feel?

Do you like tigers more than birds?

Let me know through your comments below! 🙂 I would also really like some feedback on my writing and video. I am quite new to videography and your tips on editing and shooting will really help. Don’t forget to subscribe to my Youtube channel to give me some encouragement!

Follow me on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more pictures of birds and luxury jungle properties from my nature-trips! Do spread the love by sharing this article with birdwatchers and lovers of the wild! 🙂

Disclosure: I was hosted by The Serai – Bandipur. Nevertheless, all views are entirely my own.

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Bangalore in Your Weekend-Budget!

It has almost been a year since my last trip to Bangalore. Incidentally, that also happened to be my first. I had not expected much from this city, colloquially known as the Silicon Valley of India. Would I find much other than office buildings, residential complexes and mid-segment hotels in Bangalore? When my overnight bus reached the city in the wee hours of the morning, I only saw gardens all around me. I inhaled the crisp, fresh air when I alighted my bus, and started realizing for the first time that Bengaluru was perhaps very different from my assumptions.

Glass buildings that reach all the way to the sky

Glass buildings that reach all the way to the sky

I did not require to make any hotel bookings in Bangalore as a friend of mine was kind enough to let me crash at her place near Marathahalli. Rents are quite low there, especially compared to the rates in Mumbai. The city was quite a refreshing change from Bombay, where my home is. The roads were much wider and cleaner; the flats, much more spacious; and the place, full of parks! I knew then why the city was also called the “Garden City”. The flora in the entire area is rather well maintained and trimmed for aesthetic appeal. I spent my first day there exploring the Bangalore Palace and watching the shooting of a popular Kannada tele-series.

The green and glorious Bangalore Palace

The green and glorious Bangalore Palace

The Tudor influenced architecture of the Bangalore Palace makes it appear magical more than regal. The palace complex is also a museum now, and the main hall is rented out for social and corporate functions. On the day I visited, the hall was being decorated for the wedding of the daughter of a wealthy minister. This ensured even the interiors looked like a castle. The palace-exterior is half covered with creepers and climbers that add a rich green colour to the otherwise monochrome facade. If you are a history buff, take the audio tour of the castle interiors.

The hall dons a royal purple for the grand wedding

The hall dons a royal purple for the grand wedding

I unwound that evening at Toit, a brewpub that I had heard great things about. And it did not disappoint! In fact, I absolutely loved some beers I tried there. Toit has its own microbrewery and has an interesting collection of good craft beers which are (obviously) freshly brewed. Full bodied, lightly hopped, fruity or crisp – you can have whatever suits your palate. I even tried one made from Basmati rice!

Let the chugging begin! :-D

Let the chugging begin! 😀

After so much alcohol, it was time for us to hit the sac. For this very reason, I suggest you arrange your stay close to good watering holes. This way, you eliminate the need to arrange for safe transportation to your hotel. There are plenty of boutique hotels in Bangalore that have sprung up alongside uniquely themed restaurants and lounges.

The next day was a Sunday, and we spent the major part of the day at the Bannerghatta National Park, spotting half a dozen animals in their natural habitat. (Read about that trip here: Bannerghatta National Park – Bangalore’s Wild Side) By evening, we were physically spent, but we still had one aspect of the city remaining to be explored – the famed malls!

Snack on Italian cannelloni under a canopy or savour some Mongolian parcels at Shiro's

Snack on Italian cannelloni under a canopy or savour some Mongolian parcels at Shiro’s

We rushed over to UB City mall and went cafe-hopping until we could eat or drink no more. I was feeling a little blue that night as I would be leaving the place and the wonderful company of my dear friend the next day. But you needn’t be sad because I have more stories from my trip to the Garden City coming up! While you wait for that post, let me know if you have been to Bangalore. And if you have, what hangout places do you recommend?

Bannerghatta National Park – Bangalore’s Wild Side

Last Sunday, I decided to take on the sweltering Bangalorean heat by making a neat trip out of it. While most of the city dwellers sheltered themselves in the air conditioned shopping malls and restaurants, I badgered my friends (who also happened to be my kind hosts) to accompany me to a national park.

On the wild trail

On the wild trail

The Bannerghatta National Park is less than 2 hours from the south Indian city of Bengaluru.

Hot Tip: If you don’t have your own vehicle, it’s advisable to pre-book a cab for a comfortable ride to your destination.

We reached Bannerghatta at 11 AM and rushed to a roadside dhaba for a quick breakfast. The fare served here is mostly south Indian (idlis, dosas & uttapams). The food is brought to your table almost instantly, is filling, and very light on the pocket. The taste, unfortunately, isn’t much to boast about.

This national park is open from 10 AM to 5 PM, but the tickets are always in short supply as Bannerghatta happens to be one of the most visited tourist attractions of Bangalore.

Hot Tips:

  1. Book your tickets in advance if you can. (Their website lets you do that but insists that you register first).
  2. If you can’t do point-1, ensure you reach early as the wait-time for the AC-volvo-bus tour is 2 hours on an average, and the queues to the ticket counters are long.
The lions watches the "caged humans"

The lions watches the “caged humans”

We missed doing both point-1 and point-2, but that ensured we took the non-AC grand tour in a bus with caged windows. This was the cheapest option and also allowed us to take decent pictures as the “cages” had circular holes to click pics through. The AC buses, by comparison, are comfortable, but pictures through glass can only be half as good. The best (and also the most expensive) option is to hire a jeep that accommodates 4. There are very few jeeps and you rarely stand a chance to book one unless you’ve pre-booked.

After you have your ticket in hand, you are made to stand in a single file (school-picnics, anyone? 😛 ) as the park-assistants do a headcount and direct you to a waiting area which has several brick-roofed hut-like structures. After a 15 minute wait, you finally have your turn!

Bison with a loud growl

Bison with a loud growl

The 3 of us were extremely lucky to get the best seats in the bus… right behind the driver and the bus conductor! So, we had a dashboard-view & the window-view, without any passenger blocking our shots. To add to that, the conductor would confirm the animals that we spotted and tell us in advance of the ones to expect.

We spotted our first wild animal within minutes of entering the forest-area. The bus screeched to a halt as a huge bison growled and crossed the road, and then it passed by my window! I fumbled with my camera as I was overwhelmed by its size and the power in its growl.

A calf runs to her mother as the other elephants keep bathing

A calf runs to her mother as the other elephants keep bathing

We next saw a few deer for some fleeting seconds before they hid out of our sight. After 5 more minutes, our bus reached a lake and we were mesmerized by the beautiful sight of a baby-elephant splashing about in the water. The calf then ran to its mother who waited on the land. The elephants looked stunning with their black thick skin glistening in the afternoon sun.

A Bengal Tiger in Bengaluru

A Bengal Tiger in Bengaluru

We spotted a couple of bears too, one of which was busy eating inside a ditch. The black fur looked soft and dense, and the bears could easily fool us into thinking they were soft-toys had they not moved. In the next enclosure, we saw an adult Bengal tiger prowl about  and raise its long tail skywards. Let me tell you now that I looked into the eyes of the tiger as it stopped by my window, and felt a little like Pi (Patel) from Life of Pi. We saw a few more tigers – some sleeping, some wandering about the deciduous trees, and one pooping (those poor creatures have no privacy, I tell you)! We also spotted a handsome white tiger before our grand-tour ended (quite grandly, I must say).

A white tiger in the green jungle

A white tiger in the green jungle

Summer is the best time for wildlife tourism as the high temperature forces the animals to hang around near water bodies as they drink and bathe. This makes it easier to spot them.

Let me know if you’ve been to a national park or a wildlife sanctuary. If yes, how many animals did you spot? 🙂

Admiring the Clouds below – in Coorg

This is my entry for Prismma Holiday 2014.

This year, I spent the ‘month of love’ falling in love with nature… in the least populated district of Karnataka – Coorg.

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My journey began from Mysore and we drove for a couple of hours through an empty road that lent us views of leafless, lanky trees and lush coffee plantations alternately. Once inside Coorg (Kodagu), it took us a good hour to reach our resort.

I stayed in a chalet with a valley-view at Porcupine Castle. This is an eco-friendly property that sits at the end of a long-winding road that cuts through a coffee estate. The bedrooms, walk-in closets and bathrooms have sunroofs that let in light during daytime and restrict the usage of electric-lights to nights only. The only sounds you hear in the serene surroundings are those of the winds, whistling (and perhaps your own self, gasping at the charming sights).

I sat on my balcony over the clouds, sipping on Coorgi coffee as I watched the golden sun dissolve into the silver clouds till the sky was painted in a riot of warm colours. I could see the Western Ghats curtained by the diaphanous clouds from where I stood, and an entire world of dark green trees that hid the earth that lay several feet below. The night was equally enchanting as the fireflies and bumblebees filled the air with more sounds.

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Next morning, it was time to trek! We decided to tour the coffee plantations on foot.

Hot Tip: Wear shoes and clothes fit for rugged terrain if you plan to trek through the plantations. If you can’t manage professional hiking gear, studs or even basic keds will do. Wear cargoes (that have multiple pockets to hold your things so you don’t have to carry a backpack) or denims with comfortable a tee and avoid jackets/sweaters (it only gets hotter as the day progresses and you work yourself up).

I must tell you now that nobody gave me the aforementioned tip, and my ignorant self assumed the coffee plantation would be like tea plantations – almost like a garden I could leisurely stroll through. I showed up in peep-toed flats and a fancy summer top with a knit jacket. I also took my dangling handbag along. I was in for a rude shock when I saw the trail.

Our trekking-guide handed us each a walking pole and took us through narrow clearings in the dense foliage. I soon realized my jacket was of no use when the temperature kept rising along with my body heat. After an hour of non-stop walking, our guide showed us a lake – way down the sloping hills covered with coffee trees. Our goal was to reach at the foot of the slope. Sweat trickled down my forehead for I was sure I’d end up with torn shoes and clothes if I ever managed my way down. But the adventure-enthusiast in me rose to the occasion. The rest of the trek was physically gruelling as we slid and scraped through the land with only the coffee shrubs for support (walking poles are of little help in this kind of terrain).

There was a point when I was ready to give up and I had mentally decided to never trek again if I only made it through this time. But after I reached the lake at the bottom of the slope, I knew the effort was worth it. The view from below was so humbling – all the trees dwarfed us and made me realize how insignificant humans are in this grand world. We observed many plants other than coffee (life saviour for its strong stem that keeps you from rolling down the hills into your death) – orange, eucalyptus & cherry-tomato, to name a few.

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Before I left Coorg, I made a detour to Bylakuppe. This area houses many Tibetans in exile. It feels like you’re in a new country as you absorb the distinct culture around you. I walked into the Namdroling Nyingmapa monastery (locally known as the Golden Temple) – a majestic monument that struck me with awe with its sheer size and beauty. The statues of Buddha and others inside the monastery are imposing and send a signal of peace to your heart. I was lucky to witness a prayer-session during my visit.

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My trip to Coorg ended with a torn shoe and a strengthened heart. And I hope my story will teach you not to repeat my mistake :). Write to me about your trip to this heavenly place, and if you haven’t been here already, let Coorg be your next vacation!

A Day in Mysore

I never thought I could cover a beautiful place like Mysore in a single day. But I packed a rucksack, boarded a night-bus with a friend, and set out to prove myself wrong.

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I opened my eyes in the morning to a neatly planned city with dirtless streets that cut each other at right angles. I took a deep breath as I alighted the bus – I smelled the cleanest air I had inhaled in a long, long time. We stayed at Parklane Hotel, a quaint, forest-themed hotel which was centrally located and in the vicinity of many tourist-spots. After a square meal (pun intended) of rava dosa and accompaniments, we headed to St. Philomena’s Church.

The Neo Gothic-styled St. Philomena’s Church draws its inspiration from the Kölner Dom in Germany. One has to crane one’s neck to see the the elaborate twin spires of the church. We got back into the auto-rickshaw we had hired for the day-trip as it started drizzling. Mysore receives very light showers in the month of February, and this is the best month to witness spring, summer & autumn – all in a day!

Our rickshaw driver took us to a silk weaving factory and we later walked into the adjoining saree-boutique. Mysore is famous for its silk which is light and rich at the same time. We couldn’t help but buy some fine silk sarees from the store. We next rode to Mysore Palace. The Amba Vilas (Palace of Mysore) is a picturesque royal abode that now serves as a museum. Visitors need to remove their footwear before they can walk into the palace. Photography is prohibited inside the museum-area but I let my eyes capture the skilfully preserved artefacts and paintings.

After a quick lunch, we started for Chamundi Hills. The ride up the hills affords travellers breathtaking views of the entire city. At the top of the hill, we admired the Chamundeshwari Temple. We snacked on Mysore Pak on our way to the Mysore Zoo and later had a Kannada thali for dinner at a small eatery. We walked back to our hotel to be greeted with classical Carnatic music and a live tabla performance which we enjoyed over a drink. My day in the City of Palaces was well spent. I would definitely return some other day to see the sights that still remained to be seen.