We (a few close friends and their families) were vacationing at the Stanmore bungalow at Valparai last December, which is probably one of the best plantation bungalows I’ve experienced. We decided to hike across the estate one morning and the estate guards agreed to accompany us on the small trek. I knew it was prime elephant country and ensured all of us were dressed in dull colors, trekking shoes and strictly had no perfumes or deo’s on us that morning.
Just before we started the trek, the guards warned all of us that large herds of Gaur and Elephants were seen the previous evening and if we were to encounter them, we should stay bunched together not panic and never run different ways. As a seasoned forest goer, it was one of those normal briefings for me, but for many (especially the women and kids) this was a nerve wracking warning and tension began to mount.
The first 10 minutes of the trek was fun, with my wife and daughter, quite experienced with wilderness and birding, taking turns to identify bird calls and spotting them. The tea plantations to the left and the forest boundaries to the right made it a picturesque walk on a single trail, a semblance of a road created by tea pickers frequenting this stretch. I was at the front of the pack and just as we were taking a blind turn, we came face to face with this massive bull Gaur, one of the biggest i've seen. I am 6.1 feet and this seemed almost my height . . . especially with those massive horns. Behind this bull was another one, possibly its partner. The animal and all of us were taken aback by this sudden encounter. There was hardly 10 feet and a few tea shrubs between us. All of us including the bull froze and time seemed to stand still. The air was tense, while it took a few seconds for reality to dawn in. I had silently motioned to the estate guards to my side and asked the women and kids to be backed off. One of them did lead the rest of the group away, while the other guard and I were still left within 10 feet of the animals. We dared not move and instigate a charge. My hand was reaching out to my jacket for the pepper spray, which would certainly give us a few more seconds to run in the event of a charge.Slowly the tension began to ease. The snorting; glaring bull seemed to accept we were harmless. However, all along this tense ordeal, I was imagining and visualizing a great frame of this situation through an imaginary viewfinder. The early morning rising sun was diagonally behind the bull and the glow of the outline of the beast was simply magical. The golden glow of the back light was too tempting for me not to get a few shots, however there was no way I was taking my eyes off the beast to fiddle with the camera settings, for the distance between us was too close for comfort (if you see the picture the hump is slightly burnt out due to the high ISO setting, which I knew well even while making the shot). Secondly, I would have enraged the bull if I had raised the camera, so I made a few shots from the hip level, hoping for a decent frame. Then, we slowly started back tracking and once we were at a safe distance, settled in to take a few more shots of the animals before it ran away with its partner and we got back to our group and continued on our trek.
We had another rather tense encounter, when we were getting back when a ghostly herd of Gaur were seen on both our sides. We had actually strayed into the middle of a large breeding herd (the animals were on both sides of the little forest track, and we walked into the track cutting out the herds on both the sides). This was a perfect recipe for disaster and I immediately knew that this could turn to be a dangerous situation. There were many babies in the herd and some rather nervous moms, while a few big bulls were already snorting. The guards split the group again, taking the women and the kids away quickly while I followed bringing up the rear and stopping to get a few shots when the herd regrouped. Several bulls, aware of my presence (though I was lying flat behind a tea bush), turned to flap their ears and sniff, while I held my breath. Suddenly, they were gone and I didn’t hear a sound as they passed.
Certainly one of the few very close calls with a Gaur in my few decades of wilderness photography.