Madurai is no longer the Kadambavanam (thick forest) of the yore. Yet, all it takes to unplug from the daily routine and have an exciting time spotting wildlife in its natural habitat is just a 25 kilometre drive, and few hours of patience.

Sounds unbelievable? That’s what we thought when friends suggested a visit to Alagarmalai hills for spotting the Indian Bison! We hit the road after 5.30 p.m. as we were assured of spotting the Gaurs grazing on the roadsides. Forty minutes later as we reach the foothills, excitement of spotting wildlife takes over. We launch ourselves on the tarmac road up the hill. A few metres away, we stop by a couple selling cucumber and enquire about the presence of gaurs. “Yes, they would be roaming here and there. Keep going,” pat comes the reply. We drive on to a walkway branching off the main road on our right. The driver is reluctant as it is infested with monkeys. We take a U-turn and are on our way up the hills till we reach the farthest point, a parking lot from where the devotees access a stairway to Nupura Gangai, a holy spring. There is thin attendance of devotees as the sun is about to set. There is a heavy presence of fruit bats hanging upside down from trees around the valley. But no gaurs, so far. An eatery owner suggests we drive down the hill until the Pazhamuthir Solai temple and look for the animal around that area. The time is 6.30 pm. We stand at a dark spot few yards away from the temple. A man riding down the hill on a motorbike yells at us and warns us of falling prey to the gaurs. With our hearts beating faster, we climb up a mound on the roadside and wait for the moment. The temple van driver comes from behind and shouts at us. He tells us we are standing atop a hole, home to a black cobra. The chill sets in our spine and we run like never before.

“Many of them come here daily. It’s your bad luck that they are not here today,” the van driver tells us. The time is ticking as we are supposed to descend by 7.30 p.m. before the gates at the foothill close. Disappointed, we start our journey back. Within a few minutes our expressions change as we finally see a gaur on our right. The photographer wants to click but given insufficient light we make the mistake of turning the headlights on the animal. It gets annoyed, crosses the road and disappears into the thick vegetation on the left. We curse our luck but don’t lose hope. The photographer is confident. And there it is! This one is much bigger in size and also obliges with a photo shoot. We are all smiles as our encounter with the bison comes on the eve of the World Forestry Day.