HOLIDAYS: Go Wild in Secret India; GIVE THE ELEPHANTS A BATH AND KEEP A LOOKOUT FOR TIGERS IN THE HEART OF BEAUTIFUL KARNATAKA

Article excerpt

Byline: By MARJORIE YUE

AS I rummaged in my purse for a coin, the elephant's trunk was waving around impatiently in the air in anticipation of a rupee.

When I found the money her trunk swept it up, removed it deftly from my palm and dropped it in the tin beside her.

This happens throughout the day as tourists queue up for a blessing from the elephant at the Krishna temple in Udupi.

However, after handing over my rupee, the "blessing" she bestowed on me came as a shock - she thwacked her trunk smartly on my head in irritation at my slowness in giving her the coin.

Worried she might hold this against me - and you know what a long memory elephants have - I dashed to the nearest fruit stall to buy a bunch of bananas. They disappeared in one gulp and I found myself back in favour. As she flapped her enormous ears as in thanks, I was redeemed.

Elephants play a major part of life in Karnataka in southern India, a region which has only recently started opening up to western tourists.

And all Asian elephants are a top priority for conservationists anxious at their dwindling numbers. Several projects begun in the last few years play an important role in this part of India as concern grows for their survival. Formerly, elephants were free to roam around outside villages and take their feed from trees and shrubland. This has all changed as land is cultivated and the elephants find it increasingly difficult to survive. Some have been killed as they "raid" villages and locals battle to keep their crops intact.

One refuge from this struggle for survival is Nagarhole National Park. As well as elephants, it is home to the largest wild cattle in the world - they're called gaur and some can weigh up to a ton.

High up in the park's trees live malabar squirrels - giants next to our greys or reds - who delicately pluck off flower blossoms to munch on. And it was wonderful to see peacocks in their native habitat, plumage shimmering in the dappled sunlight.

Every now and then cheeky langur monkeys would entertain us with comical antics swinging from tree to tree.

What we really hoped to spot was a Bengal tiger but we were out of luck - the closest we got was a tiger paw print in the mud, even though we even tried spotting them from the back of an elephant.

This involved clambering on board a stately beast called Mary for an hour of magical - and comfortingly safe - strolling through the jungle and along woodland tracks.

Still, I was relieved that we didn't get as close to a tiger as one local, who told the story of the day he prodded a bush near his village and surprised one hidden predator. It simply sprang out and leapt right over him before disappearing into the distance. Fortunate not to have ended up as the tiger's main course, he's been dining out on the tale ever since.

Moving on to the Western Ghats area we checked into the Orange County hill station in Coorg. On a tour of the station's coffee plantation we learned about the intelligence and breathtaking ingenuity of the wild elephants.

Regularly storming their way into fields, these wily beasts use wet leaves to test the electrified fences installed to keep them out - before knocking them down with tree trunks to reach such a tempting feast of greenery. By the time of our next elephant encounter at Dubare Camp my respect for these fascinating animals had grown immensely.

This important camp for retired elephants is near Madikeri in the Kodagu district of Karnataka.

We were there at bath time for the residents, and when an invitation was extended to help wash the elephants we didn't need asking twice.

Rolling up sleeves and trousers, we waded out into the River Cauvery to help and started scrubbing behind their ears, giving back rubs and splashing water as as they lay contentedly in the water revelling in the pampering. …