Monsoon magic: A trip to Kabini
“You just missed it,” said the photographer, trying hard to suppress his happy grin as he put the cap back on his camera lens. His day was done.
For a moment my heart stood still, and then shattered into a thousand pieces.
The last fifteen minutes that we spent hurtling through the bumpy jungle roads, chanting prayers, had gone in vain.
We had missed seeing the leopard by a whisker.
The fact that we were in Kabini Forest Reserve, or rather Nagarahole Wildlife Sanctuary - better known as leopard country, and on a safari by Jungle Lodges, famed for its almost guaranteed leopard sightings, rankled painfully in our mind.
Back at our lodgings with Kabini River Lodge, Ravi, the naturalist accompanying us, shook hands with a sad smile as we alighted from our vehicle.
I took a deep breath, shook off all the negativities, and beamed at him.
“It’s alright,” I told him. “The fact that we are in Kabini itself is rewarding enough for us. The leopard doesn’t matter.”
I meant it.
I had always wanted to visit Kabini, the erstwhile private hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Mysore, and stay at Kabini River Lodge, touted to be the jewel in the crown of JLR, partaking of the historical significance of this colonial structure located on the banks of the Kabini river. I had read reams about Kabini and gazed goggle-eyed at images posted from there, mostly of the magnificent leopard. The renowned tree-reclining/climbing leopards of Kabini/Nagarhole, as they are called.
Thus, despite the monsoons and the reduced scope of sighting wildlife, we found ourselves at JLR’s reception porch on 22nd August. Bandipur had showed us that monsoons could be a fruitful season as well and we had based our hope on that.
I found the property just as I had read about and envisaged it. The familiar sight of colonial architecture greeted us and I spent the time before lunch exploring its sprawling lawns, lanes, nook and crannies. The resort seemed to pay loving tribute to John Wakefield (endearingly known as Papa John), its founding Director, who had passed away in 2010. The hospitality offered by JLR remains unmatched and I wonder how the management manages to keep the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism among its staff in all its resorts across Karnataka. The same goes for the sumptuous food served in the Gol Ghar.
Beautiful garage for the safari vehicles
There was quite a crowd in the resort, running to full house, which was quite commendable given it was off-season. It quite proved the point that the Kabini Forest Reserve is one of the most popular wildlife destinations of Karnataka, owing to its accessibility, verdant landscape, pristine backwaters, and regular sightings of herds of elephants. It is approximately 205 km from Bangalore and comprises the south-eastern part of Nagarahole National Park.
Nagarahole, together with the adjoining Bandipur National Park, Mudumalai National Park and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, forms the largest protected area in southern India.
Sambar deer (female)
Brown Fish Owl
Malabar Trogon (female)
Grey-headed Fish Eagle
“How does it look like?” my mom had called up to ask about the jungle. “Is it the same like Bandipur?”
The question whirled in my mind as we drove around during the course of several safaris, spotting almost the same birds and animals. Nagarahole and Bandipur are neighbours and yet, no, they are not alike. What set them apart were perhaps the imposing electricity pylons that cut across Nagarahole. I remember seeing an image of a tiger playing with her cubs on the narrow path that ran along these pylons. No such luck awaited us even though we stopped at that point expectantly for some time.
The electic pylons
Another distinct, beautiful feature of Nagarahole is its backwaters. We splashed our way through the lake’s fringes, disturbing a few egrets, herons and a fishing eagle out of their reverie. Just a few meters away from the water, the driver called our attention towards a camouflaged figure lying on the ground – a jackal. While we tried to catch a clear shot of the lounging jackal, its partner peered at us, unnoticed by many.
During our stay at Kabini, heavy showers racked through the night, leaving the forest radiant and swathed in lush greenery in the morning. Rays of golden sunlight filtered in through the thick canopy and perked up the inhabitants of the jungle. The forest floor was an iridescent shade of green, the fresh new shoots pushing up their heads through the soft, wet earth. The tyre tracks were dotted with innumerable dents made by hooves of deer and gaurs, while tiger pugmarks stood out prominently. The king had definitely passed through the area at night, checking up on his subjects.
Sambar deer (male)
Grey Junglefowl (female)
Jungle Mynah on elephant-back
Crested Hawk Eagle
The monsoons released its onslaught at us well and proper on the evening we had opted for boat safari. It started out as a light drizzle while we coursed along the backwaters, straining our eyes out for any movement along the banks. A smattering of colour would show up from time to time, revealing itself to be a peacock out for its evening amble, while dull browns in the distance turned out to be a herd of spotted deer.
Spotted deer herd
The action in the water involved the ‘skim, dip, and surface-with-a-fish’ exploits of the cormorants and the ‘whirl, swoop and surface-with-a-fish’ exploits of the osprey. We were enthralled with these ‘live shows’ and hardly noticed when the light drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. To my utter delight, the person handling our boat went about the safari nonchalantly. It is not every day that one gets to observe nature and its creations while in the middle of an act of nature. The cormorants ceased their activities for the moment and perched themselves on dead trees, folding their heads beneath their wings. The osprey had flown towards the tall trees on the bank.
By the time we finished the safari, the rain had stopped and weak rays of the setting sun were in the horizon. I could not thank the monsoon gods enough for that experience.
Lesser Whistling Duck
However much I try to tell myself before embarking on a jeep safari that I am here just for the jungle, that I am here to breathe in the fresh air and listen to the chirping of birds, I know I am telling a tiny lie. Just as nobody goes khaali haath from a shrine, nobody goes without catching sight of a leopard in Kabini – goes the unofficial saying if you look at images uploaded on Facebook communities. Of late, there have been quite a few sightings of tigers and black panthers as well.
Indian Wild Dogs
So, this brings back to my story about the leopard that eluded me. I had immense hopes of seeing a leopard on this trip and did not leave a single branch un-scanned. I strained my eyes to the maximum and found myself imagining leopards at every perpendicular bough of a tree. There were leopards doing ramp-walks in my imagination as we passed trees with sloping branches. Imagine my palpitations then when our driver got a call informing him about a leopard sighted in another zone. We drove at top speed to the spot, requesting all the gods fervently to keep the leopard on that tree.
You know the rest of the story.
We sat at our vehicle for some time even after the other vehicles had left, filled with happy people who kept on peeking at their camera monitors. And then, an amazing thing happened. While we fixed our gaze on the left hand side of the road, on the tree that had held the leopard in its branch, something stirred amid the foliage on our right hand. Slowly, a daunting form emanated, followed by another.
They had the largest tusks I had seen in a long, long time.
These giant tuskers strolled around casually, just a few meters away from us, while we gawped at them with our jaws dropped. We had forgotten the leopard cleanly.
And that is why, ladies and gentlemen, I love the jungle. It never disappoints you. Thank you Kabini, thank you Nagarhole. You have been absolutely kind to us. We will come back again.
PS: We had gone on a nature walk and coracle ride, and stumbled across several gems. Shall write about them soon!