Trip Report: JLR Kali Adventure Camp/Ganesh Gudi, Dec 2013

Trip Report:        JLR Kali Adventure Camp/Ganesh Gudi

Dates:                   24-26 Dec 2013

Written:               26 Dec 2013

Kali Adventure Camp

This trip started off with some misgivings, but found ample recompense eventually. I’ve long wanted to visit JLR’s famed Ganesh Gudi camp, but it was booked out for the Christmas holidays even twenty days in advance. I was therefore constrained to book myself (with my six year old son) into the Kali Adventure Camp, twenty one kilometers from Ganesh Gudi, and a little under 500 kms from home. Incidentally the 500 klicks were doable in six hours excluding a half hour breakfast break and a half hour haircut break at Dharwad (this last being sheer whimsy, I desperately needed one and my GPS took me into Dharwad’s suburbs in any case).

The Kali Adventure Camp does not lend itself to the most favourable of first impressions. For one, it is sited right at the edge of Dandeli town. For another, it is hardly prepossessing in terms of ambience and general upkeep. To put it rather uncharitably but possibly accurately, it reeks of KSTDC rather than JLR. Moreover the place was a chaotic mess when I reached, with groups of people waiting around and the harried staff busy co-ordinating rafting rides for them. Day trippers mostly, from other resorts or homestays. JLR has a monopoly on the Kali river rafting and the crowds therefore head here. Amidst all this confusion, I had a tough time trying to figure out what I was going to be doing for the rest of the day. More than once, I was tempted to simply leave forfeiting the payment made.

Anyway, the evening was spent in a short coracle ride in the vicinity of the camp (the camp being sited along the Kali river). Wooly necked stork, river tern, common sandpiper, white browed wagtail and green bee eater later, we drew up by a tree I cannot identify, with small berries fruiting on it. An assortment of species were clustered on its branches, and we spent the next half hour anchored to the spot. There were a number of green pigeons – these birds tend to roost gregariously – and an astonishing number of coppersmith barbets. Dandeli is most famous for its hornbills – all four species can be seen here – the great Indian hornbill, the pied hornbill, the Indian grey hornbill and its casque-less cousin the Malabar grey hornbill. Of these, there were a few pied hornbills on the tree, as well as around in general. There were also a number of common and jungle mynas. Among the solitaries was an Asian koel, a female gold fronted leaf bird, an ashy drongo and a Malabar grey hornbill. A very satisfying half hour in a quiet, pleasant spot.

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Karthik, Jungle Lodges’ chief naturalist had very sensibly suggested that I spend the whole of the second day at the Old Magazine House (OMH) in Ganesh Gudi, getting there early in the morning. A suggestion that completely changed the complexion of the trip. There’s been a lot written about the OMH. Dr. Huilgol did an admirable feature on it somewhere. Suchi Govindarajan has written a guest piece on Jlrexplore.com. Karthik and Poornima did a photostory on Ganesh Gudi’s butterflies. And Rana and Sugandhi have created a brilliant film, featuring vignettes of preening and shaking birds against a ghatam background score timed to perfection. The OMH apparently leaves everyone it touches spellbound, but the experience is much more than you can experience vicariously. I was certainly caught by surprise.

So there were the expected bird baths, and the expected line of seats and the expectant, watchful audience. And the expected long lenses on their tripods. The morning’s experience was relatively muted. Some birds did turn up at intervals. Lakshman, the guide who had accompanied me from the Kali Camp promised much more in the evening.

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Kanshirda

We came back to the Kali camp to grab lunch, and then drove another six kilometers to a lovely little lake with the lovelier name of Kanshirda (actually the lake inherits the name of the nearby village). I settled myself on the gnarled roots of a tree on the bank binoculars in hand, and spent a very pleasant hour there. The experience was inviting enough to lure me there for a repeat visit this morning.

Flocks of lesser whistling ducks and little grebes foraged among the lilies. Three couples were visible further afield – bronze winged jacana, common sandpiper and river tern – and a lone wood sandpiper. Numerous barn swallows hawked insects on the wing. Lakshman pointed out multiple flocks of cotton teals in the distance, but I couldn’t get a clean look at duck or drake even with the 10X50s owing to the luxuriant vegetation on the water. The usual suspects were also present in numbers – red wattled lapwing, pond heron, egret, white throated kingfisher, common kingfisher, little cormorant and brahminy kite. On the trees by the water, a flock of white-rumped munias advertised their presence noisily. And a solitary baybacked shrike sat on a fence post watching the proceedings with disdain, flanked by a trio of spotted doves. The highlight of this sitting was watching a pair of white bellied woodpeckers merrily rapping away on separate trees. These are spectacular birds, large and jet black with startling red crests, all this nicely offset by the pure white of the belly. I watched them until my arms ached from holding the binos up.

The Old Magazine House

Coming back to the OMH, the evening session was simply spectacular. And this despite the heightened expectation and all the hype. Reaching there at a little before five in the evening, the next hour and a quarter was spent standing, binocs in hand, with very little “downtime”. Those bird baths were kept very very busy, one lot finishing and another waiting impatiently for their turn. The larger ones didn’t bother with waiting, they just waded in and displaced whoever was at his ablutions willy nilly.

I sighted twenty three species in all, in that single session of a little over an hour: Asian brown flycatcher, blue capped rock thrush, black throated munia, orange minivet, velvet fronted nuthatch, black lored tit, Tickell’s blue flycatcher, white rumped shama, spider hunter, Asian paradise flycatcher, forest wagtail, verditer flycatcher, bronze winged drongo, leaf warbler, purple rumped sunbird, white bellied blue flycatcher, yellow browed bulbul, emerald dove, oriental white eye, orange headed thrush, brown fulvetta, ruby throated bulbul and  puff throated babbler.

I’m not sure there is any other place to compare with the OMH for sheer diversity of bird sightings all in a single spot.

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My luck wasn’t good enough to get the Malabar trogan to visit. Malabar giant squirrels called constantly from nearby, but I couldn’t spot the little machine-gunners. I also missed seeing or hearing the Malabar whistling thrush, a bird that Ganesh Gudi is justifiably proud of dubbing the resident morning wake-up caller. And I missed the Big H – the great Indian hornbill. But no matter for regret, that. I was sated with the rest.

The wonder of the baths aside, the Old Magazine House is an extremely pleasant place to stay in. Small and cosy, it is tucked away in a densely wooded spot well off the road. It’s just a row of a few log huts on stilts, the gol ghar, and the bird baths with their cordoned watching area. Interestingly there is a dorm with bunk beds and a warren of shared loos attached.

Lakshman encouraged me to come back in the summer once for the birds, and again a little later, as soon as the first couple of pre-monsoon showers arrived, to look for snakes – Russel’s viper, saw-scaled viper, vine snake, Malabar pit viper, green pit viper and more. These can evidently be found on the rough trail between the camp and the road. He did warn me though that the place would be teeming with leeches. I hate leeches. Everyone does, but I hate leeches with an especially vicious intensity. But perhaps I’ll hazard a trip when the rains start to try my luck with the snakes.

I’m now dreaming of managing a trip to the OMH off the vacation season and in mid-week sometime, when the place will be empty of its gawking audience. Just the birds and me, if that is ever possible. Vinayak, the amiable and very knowledgeable naturalist at the OMH has promised to sit with me and help identify bird calls if I ever get there on a quiet day.

There’s a government saw mill and timber depot near the Kali camp, and this has a couple of trees which evidently harbor some lively birdlife when in fruit. Lakshman took me there this morning, but my luck was out. There were no figs on offer and the place was quiet as owls’ wings.

Incidentally, I should point out that I skipped the safaris into the Dandeli Anshi Tiger Reserve (DATR) as the forest is overcrowded with too many vehicles in it, and suffers from a poor reputation as far as sightings go. The DATR is reputed to harbour melanistic (black) leopards among other fauna, but the daytime jeep safari was not going to help me sight them.

Before I end this post, I should also point out that Kali’s faults aside, the staff have the same thoughtful courtesy that is the hallmark of JLR everywhere. Shashi, the activity organizer and naturalist at Kali went out of his way to keep me happily engaged. Anand did a masterful job of the coracle ride. And Lakshman was with me for pretty much the rest of the time, working tirelessly to spot birds, birds and more birds for me to gawk at. These guys are very good at what they do.

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