Nothing could prepare us for the bad roads we were about to encounter on our way to our next halt-Kabini. Kabini is the name of a river and the area surrounding it – the lush green jungles of Nagarhole where you can spot elephants, gaurs(the Indian bison), sambar deer and various other animals, birds and reptiles…and if you are very lucky a tiger.
As my husband drove very carefully over the badly pot-holed road, the car hit bottom on several occasions. SUVs, buses and even some smaller cars whizzed by regularly. We did as well as a Civic with its low chassis could on such roads. We reached the resort after spending 45 minutes on a 12 km stretch of very bad or no road at all. On arrival we were given a quick briefing and guided to our room- a fabulous river facing cottage with a hammock in the courtyard. For now, it was time for the adults to rest and the children to go around the property exploring. All that after some well-deserved late lunch!
Kabini River Lodge was the hunting lodge of the Maharajas of yore. The original structure called Viceroy’s Bungalow is used as the main space or common area that includes bars, audio-visual room, shop, a museum, et al. There are rooms that can be hired. These are supplemented by several cottages as well as tents that have pucca washrooms attached. The golgar (or round house), a thatched open space is the meeting point at meal times and also before safaris. Here they assign you the jeep and naturalist you will be traveling with. The place has changed much since our last visit and has several additions and more changes. The dining area has been extended in order to cater to the growing number of tourists.
By four we reported at the golgar for our first jeep safari. With fingers crossed for a good naturalist, decent co-passengers and some excellent sighting, we were off. Our co-passengers were people who made regular visits to the resort (2-3 times a year, they told us). They came armed with state-of-the-art cameras with humongous lenses. I heard my better-half sigh wistfully. Within minutes of starting the safari, the naturalist spotted a leopard. So easy to miss as it sat on one of branches of a tree that stood off the clearing. Like my mother pointed out later, a few leaps and bounds and we could have been the big cat’s meal. We stood there watching mesmerized wanting to kick ourselves for not getting a binocular or two. In the prevailing silence every bird call, clicking of cameras and whispered discussion stood out as we watched the beauty. Aware that he was the object of much attention, it continued to lounge always alert but never watching us. Fifteen minutes went by which became half an hour…and we still had not had enough. The next jeep arrived and we had no option but to leave (Rules of safari state that not more than one jeep of Nature enthusiasts are permitted to occupy a spot at one time). The driver revved the engine and it gave us a disapproving look as we moved on. Much later we saw deer, peacocks, many exotic birds like rare eagles, owls, kingfisher and hoopoe and the tail of a fleeing python.
At the resort, Sid hired a cycle and enjoyed the rest of the evening speeding down the paths. We watched the sunset over the river and I sniffed as a funny smell wafted by. “Serpent’s egg!” I declared. Where I lived in Kerala, there were always plenty of snakes and I was used to the smell.
The silence crept on us like a comfortable shroud. City people love this sound or the lack of any sound but too much of it can become unnerving after a while. Later in the evening we headed for the Viceroy’s Bungalow. Here we were presented with an audio-visual on the research done by an Indian naturalist on a certain pack of wild dogs. After the enthralling 30-minute long footage, we all headed for the golgar for dinner. After that we walked back to the room with the children stopping every now and then to examine some creepy crawly or the other. In no time we were in our room and then into the world of beautiful dreams.
Day 4:- We rose early so that we could be in time for tea and biscuits followed by the jeep safari. That morning our washroom itself had transformed into a mini wildlife sanctuary with all kinds of insects fluttering about the light bulb or lying dead in the washbasin. Soon we were ready and arrived at the golgar.
Once again we were assigned a jeep with two young wildlife aficionados both armed with cameras with largish lenses as co-travelers. Abhi decided to utilize his time well by assisting the two young people by pointing out the various birds and other creatures. Soon you could make out that they had turned into a mutual admiration group—Abhi fascinated by the men and their cameras and they by his interest in Nature and his need to know everything about the things he saw. He’d carried along a little booklet that had been handed over to us on arrival. This book had the names and details of the birds that inhabited the jungles of Nagarhole. Each time he saw a bird, he’d leaf through the pages and find the name and other facts and reprise us with this new information.
Unfortunately this trip proved to be a disappointment. After spotting the leopard on the very first day, our hopes had gone up significantly. The only exciting sighting was that of a Giant Malabar squirrel that funnily tried to pretend that it was a hole in the tree. It just wouldn’t move. Either it was scared or it was just too fat to make any quick movement. We also saw elephants, gaurs, peacocks, deer, monkey and a few birds. We returned six disappointed adventurers from the jungle.
Also included in the package was a coracle ride. When we visited the resort eleven years ago, we’d be taken into the outer periphery of the jungle and then on the coracle. They’d take you into the river for a good 20-30 minutes and we’d made some wonderful sightings of birds then. We’d also taken Sid, then two years of age, on an elephant ride. The elephant ride is not available throughout the year and was not so on our last visit. And the coracle ride is no longer offered within the jungle but outside the golgar on the banks.
It was bright and sunny and even as we set out the wrathful summer sun was blazing unrelentingly. The boatman kept discouraging us as well as complaining about the heat and how we were not going to see anything. We went as far as a submerged and dead tree. There he made the coracle go round a few times and then asked, “Shall we return now? The sun’s too harsh!” We complied. The ride in all took 10-minutes and seemed a waste of effort as we’d spent about 1/4th that time on putting on the life jackets. As we stepped out, the assistant picked up the sack that was supposed to hold the life jackets. Out jumped a river snake that made some aggressive moves before it quickly made its way towards the river. A fascinated Sid followed it very closely trying to click a good picture. The reptile plunged into the river and disappeared. After a particularly disappointing session that morning, we decided to try out the boat ride that evening hoping for some better sightings.
The golgar is also the place for imparting and receiving news of who saw what. We heard that the boat ride that morning had been particularly good. Some of the guests who went on the jeep safari too had been luckier than us.
We opted for the boat ride that evening. As usual we congregated at the golgar and from there we were taken to our boat with several others. This hour-and-a-half boat safari takes us down the river closer to the wild. Apart from several birds, you can spot elephants, gaurs, deer and other animals that come to the riverside for a drink of water. As always, you can be very lucky and spot one of them big cats as well. Unfortunately the group accompanying us had adults and children who seemed keener on making conversation than in looking around. My husband and I looked at each other. So no tigers for us this time either!
Despite the noisy bunch aboard, we spotted several birds lounging on submerged tree stumps. A crocodile that basked in the evening sun first with its mouth shut then wide open was oblivious to our presence. And then we saw a most amazing sight. A whole herd of elephants were on their way out of the river after an evening bath with the last of them still in the river. As they moved away slowly and majestically, we stopped to watch them. There were at least two dozen elephants, calves and all. While the bigger ones stood by or ambled away, some of them watching the boat keenly, a group of them seemed to be trying to protect the little babies. After several minutes we returned and passed the slothful crocodile again. As the lights of the day faded away, we put our cameras down and watched as the birds made their way home. The sky turned a bright orange as the sun set over the horizon. We’d arrived at the jetty. As we got out of the boat and made our way towards the golgar, the boys offered to show us a shortcut…something they’d found during their daylong exploration. We walked along the river’s edge towards out cottage and came across a suspicious river bird, a tern maybe or a bittern. Even as we filed past the small opening, we got the strange smell again.
“Serpent’s egg?” my hubby queried.
An hour or so later, the kids did indeed spot a river snake lurking within some bushes a few feet away from our cottage. So I was probably right about its egg also.
That evening, hubby and I headed for the bar while the children watched the movie all over again. We met Subbu and his family and Abhilash, one of the young people from our morning safari. We chatted about the various sightings, cameras, other wildlife resorts in India and yes, even city life. It was a pleasant evening.
Just before we left for dinner my husband made enquiries about an alternate route for the next morning as we were to leave after the safari. The barman who’d been around for sometime and knew the place well made some useful suggestions. One of them was going to be through wildlife reserve most of the way. That meant, it wasn’t time to keep the cameras away yet.
Day 5 :-
We had one more chance. We’d seen a leopard, plenty of deer, peacocks, gaurs, elephants, again plenty of them, but we’d heard of guests having observed a kill the last evening. After the following safari, we’d be headed to Coorg. So this was virtually our last chance to see anything more spectacular than what we had seen all this time. My husband insists you have to be very lucky to see something like that. We’d all been lucky when we spotted the leopard the first time round. According to him, you have to be blessed to spot a tiger. Going by that, he is the only one blessed in our family.
Now I believe that some people can bring you the luck. And it can also work the other way round. I think that the family that shared the jeep with us that morning and our family just proved very good for each other. The husband, a dermatologist from Bangalore, was a chatty middle-aged man, his wife the quiet reserved type. They had two children too, a girl and a boy. Very excitedly, the doctor went on to describe their last few sightings of various incredible scenes, the best of the lot being a leopard crossing the road and a pack of wild dogs with a recent kill. My hubby and I exchanged glances. With just an hour and half in the wild left, how much luck could we have now? We entered the jungle with our fingers crossed.
Within fifteen minutes, our naturalist spotted a leopard. We stopped the jeep to get a better view. This one too like the earlier one knew he was being watched and didn’t seem to like it as he looked this way and that, always avoiding eye contact. And like the earlier one, this one was also perched on a branch up a tree beyond the clearing. Minutes later and upset by all the attention, it finally left its resting place, climbing down the branch and carefully lumbering down the trunk. It was a sight straight out of a wildlife channel on TV.
The jeep began to move ahead once again. A peacock stood on the track like it had an appointment with us and it suddenly spread its plumage doing its pretty dance as it went round and round shaking its tail feathers. Mother Nature had indeed chosen to be kind to us on this last day of ours. The doctor, as my husband pointed out later, seemed happier than us that we’d been able to see something this spectacular. Instead of being satisfied with what we’d seen so far, suddenly our hearts seemed to want more. Leopard perched on tree, dancing peacock, now what? Rumbling its way through the turns and bends, our naturalist got the driver to stop the vehicle just where the clearing before the river bank began. Far away, few elephants were seen to be making their way towards the river. The naturalist through his binoculars also spotted a pack of wild dogs that seemed to be coming in the elephants’ way. For the naked eye, the dogs appeared like a few scattered rocks amidst more rocks. One of the elephants seemed to notice us and kept looking in our direction. It is to be remembered that elephants become extra protective when there are babies in their midst. Also a lone tusker is potential danger and known to be in a bad temper most of the time. And elephants can run and knock you down faster than you can imagine.
Ten minutes must have gone by and I was beginning to wonder why we were waiting when there was nothing much to see or do. But expect a naturalist to know his job. In a little while, the elephants began to chase the wild dogs away from where they sat. It was indeed funny to watch the huge monsters sprint gently down the bank while the perplexed dogs tried their best to stay put. After all, the calf that the elephants were guarding must have been enticing enough for them to try and remain on that spot. The elephants were having none of that. Slowly, they made sure that every single dog had left the vicinity. The peeved dogs now sauntered down the banks and were just a few metres away from us. You could make out that they were not very happy with this show of power by the elephants. As we marveled at what we’d just seen, one of the dogs began to crouch in the typical hunting posture. Everyone in the jeep grew alert. Looking in the other direction, we saw what it meant to target. A herd of deer were making their way to the riverside for their morning drink of water. With the dogs at their heels, the herd broke up into several groups and headed in various directions. Some of them returned into the woods. The dogs took their pick, till finally they cornered and chased one small group, their final target being a fawn. In a moment, they’d mauled the tiny creature and began their feast. It didn’t take long for the vultures to arrive and they stood guard waiting for the dogs to leave whatever was left to them.
The sad but spectacular Nature show ended there. Our return journey began soon enough. The Kabini leg of our trip was virtually over. We headed back to our room after breakfast and began to pack up. For now, it was goodbye to the beautiful wild.
Nostalgia time :
We visited the Kabini River Lodge in the year 2000. At that time we’d stayed in one of the rooms in a block (one of the original structures). We’d arrived in the afternoon and realized we’d left behind Sid’s bag back at my brother-in-law’s house in Bangalore. Now here lay the problem. Sid was only two years old and his clothes and other basic necessities were in there. Second problem—my husband’s brother had lent us his car and the driver had brought us there. He was to leave the car with us and return before dusk. The sweet person that he was, he offered to go all the way to Bangalore and come back with the bag as soon as possible. He’d borrow a cycle and get to the town where he’d catch a bus. By the time he came back with the bag it would be evening and again after he’d left the bag with us and returned, even later. The roads to the resort are safe during the day, but during dawn, dusk and night time it becomes unsafe as the creatures of the jungle begin to venture out from the woods.
“Please call us when you get back,” my husband requested the kind driver. He said he would. Till we heard from him much later, we were worried for the poor man. And for me, he’d definitely turned into a hero.
During the jeep safaris, Sid would take up position in between us, standing up and holding the bar behind the driver’s seat. I don’t know what he understood. But he quietly watched every single animal and bird not uttering a sound for a whole hour and a half. The naturalists and drivers were obviously very fascinated with the little creature within the jeep. We were there for 3 nights with 7-8 safaris ahead of us. On one particular safari, two German women were our co-passengers. As we were leaving, they turned around to face each other and said something. It wasn’t difficult to decipher the gist of their conversation: “The child is going to be a nuisance”
We set out for the safari and had a peaceful journey. On our return one of the ladies said, “Your child is so quiet. We were worried he would not to be so.” Sometimes you don’t need to know a language to hear what people are saying.
Unfortunately our boat safari turned out to be a disaster. Apart from Sid, there was a smaller kid on our boat along with his dad, mom and grandparents. Heaven knows what bit them, but the children were at their worst behavior. The naturalist accompanying us pointed out that the kids, who were normally very good, seemed to be in a mood for tantrums. In the 1 hour we were out there, Sid threw his bottle, cap and one shoe into the water. Finally we decided to turn back before being able to see anything much.
On the other hand the coracle ride was amazing. And the elephant ride after that was even more so. The elephant we were sitting on was being followed by her calf. Somewhere in between, the calf stretched out her trunk and grabbed a bunch of leaves, happily feeding on it.
I pointed towards the calf and told Sid, “See! The baby elephant is eating mum-mum.”
That set Sid off as he’d not eaten anything that morning, “I want mum-mum.”
Now how do you convince a two-year old that the jungle is not the place where a human child or its mommy can find food?
On the same visit, we met this wonderful family – a husband, wife, their two children and another couple who were traveling with them. For two of the three days we stayed at Kabini, our family seemed to become a part of theirs, with their older children taking care of Sid and our spending mealtimes together.
During one of the jeep safaris, our group encountered a lone tusker, almost literally. We halted to watch the usually gentle giant, but this one was not so. Once we tried to move again, the elephant would make as if to charge. The driver then would have to stop the jeep and wait for a few minutes more. This went on for some time with the elephant striding closer to us each time we moved and then lumbering backwards when we’d stopped. Needless to say, our hearts were in our mouths. Finally on the last attempt, the chap didn’t seem to mind and it took minutes before anyone heaved a sigh of relief.
And again when one of the tyres of our jeep got stuck in some muck! It was the same spot where a tiger had been spotted that morning and we were hoping to get lucky. But at that moment, with the men out trying to push the car out of the rut, I was fervently praying that no tiger came. And thankfully, it didn’t!
For certain reasons, we had to extend our stay at the resort by a day. They had no regular rooms for us and offered to put us up in a tented accommodation instead. That morning we moved bag and all into the room. We were surprised to see a well-furnished room with a concretized bathroom attached. But by the time we returned from our evening safari, the room and especially the bed with its clean white sheets were full of small frogs. I freaked out. We had them removed once, but that didn’t stop them from returning after an hour or so. Somehow or other, we managed to spend the night there hoping that the frogs didn’t go into our mouths while we slept.
PS : Bookings to Kabini River Lodge can be made online. With no televisions or air conditioners to spoil the guests, it’s a perfect place to get close to Nature and spend quality time with your loved ones. The rooms are large and well equipped with housekeeping doing their daily rounds. Expect to have company in the form of creepy crawlies especially at night. The trick is to not leave the door of your room open. The windows have been thoughtfully provided with mosquito nets. So you will have sufficient ventilation at all times. The staff is courteous and the naturalists know their birds and animals well. Food which is served at the golgar is closer to home-cooked fare…don’t expect anything spectacular. If it’s food you are after, do go elsewhere. Also Kabini has changed a lot during the last 12 years. There are more tourists and not everyone comes there for the love of animals. So be prepared for some unruly behaviour…alternately assure the head naturalist that you are a serious Nature lover and would love similar company during the safaris. Summer is the best time to visit as the smaller ponds within the jungles go dry and the animals have to venture out for a drink. You may also want to check out some of the other lodges and guest houses at Kabini online. And if you do indeed decide to go after reading this, I wish you get even luckier than us !!! And maybe you’ll also be blessed with the sight of a tiger!!!