Part II At Kabini
We checked into the room and the first thing we did was to have a strong cup of tea. Given that I was the most experienced in staying in hotel rooms and using this facility, it came upon me to make tea for everybody. Not that I complained. Arjun, for a change also joined in the tea party. All of us had a quick wash and we were out of the tent. Arjun really loved the hammocks put up just outside our tents and was up on it as we were busy washing up/making tea. What luxury – greenery all around, on the river bank, a hammock to lie down. This was indeed a dream holiday. However apart from lazing around, we were keen to check out the programme and facilities in the JLR campus.
The first thing we found as we took a stroll was that JLR was located on the banks of Kabini backwaters. It gave a beautiful view of the water body and the resort was planned fairly well so that there was enough space to walk, there were tree houses and one could take a walk on the banks. Since our lunch was expected to be served only at around 13.30 in a place called “Gol Ghar” we had ample time to stroll around. We took a walk by the river bed and saw some people fishing from out of a coracle. We also got a view of the cottages and all of us had a try at going up the tree house and also on a big netted contraption which could be used to reach the top of the tree. One thing that I always thought was simple was to go up a rope ladder, only to realize that it felt quite unstable and with the rope ladder swinging around I could not go more than two steps!! No wonder I never made it to the films as an action hero! There was a facility for boating in the back waters and we were told in the introduction that we could use the paddle boat all by ourselves. However we kept that excitement away for the next day.
We had lunch in Gol Ghar. The food was well laid out with a nice buffet- not lavish but liberal. This area is famous for excellent Ragi Mudde, but that never appeared in the menu, probably because one has to have a special taste and know the art of consuming it. I did ask around, and surprisingly people serving said that they would make it specially if we were interested. I spared myself of this embarrassment. However, there was much crowding at Gol Ghar and sometimes an irritably long queue for grabbing some lunch. But that is to be expected if you have capacity to hold a good number of people all of whom are expected to fall hungry at the same time! This was our first exposure to the type of tourists that would be with us the next day or two. Some of them were doing a second day, and some had just arrived. There were a handful of foreigners, but most of the tourists were from the north of vindyas. For some strange reason there were a good number of Marathi speaking people. And of course there were the “south Indian software types” – wearing the T-Shirts of companies that were the usual suspects blending tradition with modernity. Jeans and T Shirt for women, with a long plait and jasmine flowers.
It was then I discovered that Jungle Lodges have their own memorablia to carry. So soon after lunch I moved towards the reception to figure out what take-aways were there. It is in such moments that you see that the outfit is sarkaari. Yes, there were T Shirts, Shorts, Caps and for some strange reason spectacle holders. So one would expect me to have bought some stuff given the enthusiasm with which I went there, but no. There were no T Shirts of Arjun’s or my size. Unfortunately Gowri does not wear T Shirts and the person gleefully told me that the stocks would be arriving in a week. Gleefully because he was spared of the job of cutting a receipt, spared of stock entry and spared of packing….
At 15.30 we promptly reported at Gol Ghar for a cup of tea and the safari that was to follow. These were tense moments because in about half an hour’s time our fate would be decided on who would be taking us and what sort of a vehicle we would have. There were smaller jeeps, mid sized pick ups and larger vans that could seat a crowd. Arjun had already started grumbling that he would refuse to get into a crowded van. Prasanna, a naturalist with JLR gave us some briefing about the place – its spread, the animals that were there in the jungle and what we could expect to see, the rules of the game – switch off mobiles, do not shout, do not get off the vehicle and in general like a school teacher admonishing kids asked the group of tourist to behave. The people who were there for the second day were ushered out and only the freshers like us were left in the gol ghar. Prasanna started calling the names – we were from Tent 2 and were expected to be with residents of Tent 1 in a jeep. Prem was supposed to take us around. We certainly heaved a sigh of relief. We were with a young couple Anand, and Aruna with their two year old chirpy daughter Naavya. Prem was a driver with basic level of training as a naturalist and tons of experience. Like all others he knew the jungle well and would stop by at the right times.
The safari was in an open jeep with the four adults and two kids. Prem took us around into one side of the jungle. The ride would take us through the jungle and stop by the river bank – we touched the river bank several times. Spotting a herd of Elephants was expected, and of course we saw both spotted and sambar deer and a wild boar. We also saw a giant Malabar squirrel – which was nicely photographed by Arjun.
The drivers keep in touch with each other through a wireless system to share information about spotting of animals. Prem also showed us several birds – the blue jay looked particularly impressive and we also saw some kingfishers.
On one of the stops near the river bank, Prem showed us a temple half submerged. Apparently this area used to have a small settlement and the temple was near the Mysore-Mananthavady road before it was submerged by the construction of the Kabini Dam. Prem told us that some films were also shot in this area, including the quite famous Gandhada Gudi starring Rajkumar. Apparently the permission to shoot any film was withdrawn after an incident during the shooting of the film “Huliya Haalina Meevu” also featuring Rajkumar where they had to create a fire in which several animals had died. Prem fondly remembered the Kannada actor MP Shankar who had made many a movie on wildlife as a star who would frequent the forests. As we were talking, Prem got on to the bonnet of the Jeep and looked across a small mound – and there they were a huge herd of elephants that we could see from very close quarters. The silence we were expected to maintain was eerie, but the sight was well worth it.
After returning from Kabini, we watched both Gandhada Gudi and another film shot in the same jungle – Kaakana Kote. Gandhada Gudi was a good experience to relive, with contradictions of sending in the message of conservation and at the same time having a Khedda operation to capture elephants. Well, that was shot during the period when Khedda was permitted. The jungle we were roaming about was once called Kaakana Kote jungle [and the film is about the folklore behind how the jungle acquired its name]. This entire jungle spreads across three states – covering the Nagarahole and Bandipur jungles in Karnataka, the Mudumalai forests of Tamilnadu and the Wayanad forests of Kerala. This was also the region in which Veerappan used to operate.
Kaakana Kote and Nagarahole are now together named as Rajiv Gandhi National Park. Somehow this renaming of the forests after political leaders hurts me. I feel that the government would be justified in giving a name of its choice on new structures it builds – say the Bangalore International Airport, but what is the point in re-naming something that has a nice traditional name with a folklore behind it? Nagarahole is called so, because of the river snakes around that area. Well there was a movie made in that Jungle as well in Kannada which I thoroughly had enjoyed as a kid. Unfortunately I was not able to lay my hand on a VCD of the movie, though I now feel like seeing it again.
By the time we returned, it was dark. There was a film show at the Viceroy Building. This was also the building that had a bar. It was drizzling and we had a good scrub back in the tent with more tea. We went out to see the film show. I was contemplating having a drink, but just then the film started and we went in. It was a documentary shot in the same jungle, but somehow I got the feeling that it was a bit amateurish. It was crude in showing the caracasses and also talked about Ullas Karant’s controversial research where the tiger movements were tracked through a process of putting the tigers on radio collars. Arjun hated every moment of it – as it was raw blood most of the time. After the film, we went back to GolGhar for a nice dinner and it was time to crash. Prem had assured us that he would come by in the morning for an early morning safari and that we should be ready by 06.30. Therefore it was time to crash….
We had set the alarm to wake up in time, so when we got the official wake up call from JLR at 06.00 we were already at our first cup of tea from the kettle. We set out at 06.30 – we had Anand and Aruna with Naavya and the same Jeep. The itinerary for the day was to get back to a small safari, take a ride in a boat, an elephant ride and back. The first part of the journey was very much like the previous evening. We stopped by whenever we saw some animal, and we got to see a lot more birds during this trip. We then went back to the same place where we had seen the submerged temple and the elephants the previous evening. JLR had brought some motor boats and two coracles. Arjun [as usual] was praying that we get to ride in the coracle rather than in the humongous motor boat, and his wishes came true.
Shivanna the boatman was quite nice and took us around. We found out that he did not belong to the traditional community of fishermen/boatmen but had been around long enough to row around. One nice thing about all the staff of JLR are that they are able to identify the birds and animals by their names and show us. Either this was a part of organized training or sheer experience. The entire approach was quite in contrast with our trip to Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary [to be described later] where the boatmen only told us from where the birds migrated, rather than what birds they were.
The boat ride only showed us many more birds. However, just being in the boat, amidst water and looking at nature in its eye was an experience in itself that had to be cherished.
The boat ride over, we came out – Prem suggested that we tip Shivanna. I was quite happy to do so. At the same time this thought passed through – when we use the services of the private sector – be it in restaurants or elsewhere we have no problems in giving a tip. But when it comes to government establishments, there is a little hesitation mentally – where does one draw the line between a tip and a bribe? And this suggestion that we could tip – was this a subtle demand – or telling us that it was okay to tip if we felt like? Well, I personally was quite happy to part with a few rupees as a mark of appreciation to Shivanna for not only taking us around, but also taking a few pictures of us.
From here we were driven to the other side of the Jungle for an elephant ride. There were two elephants giving the tourists a ride – one was Revathi on which we rode and the other was Sarala with a small 18 month baby. The little one was always sticking to the mother not leaving Sarala for even a moment and moved ahead of her, guiding her on the route. It was quite playful and when Arjun tried to get too near lifted its trunk to threaten him. The elephant ride was like any other elephant ride.. slow and majestic. It was not much of a safari because we did not go deep. It was not expected to be a safari. Apparently in this area as the main animals to be seen in the Jungles are elephants they do not have elephant safaris as the wild ones could clash with the trained/tamed elephants. There was nothing great in the ride, except that I was going on an elephant ride for the first time in my life!!
Prem drove us back to the tent. He said this was the last we would see of him during this trip, though we had another morning to go. Prem said that his duty was lined up and somebody else would take care of us the next morning.
After we returned, we had a sumptuous breakfast. There was washing up to be done and while I was in a mood to lie on the hammock, Arjun had other ideas and he wanted to jump around. We also decided to take a paddle boat a privilege usually bestowed upon people who stay for the second day because a one day package is in any case well packed. While we went to the place pick up the paddle boat, we were told that the paddle was not working and we could not go out. Obviously this was a lie, because two minutes later Shivanna made an appearance and said that we could actually take a ride on the boat. So, somewhere down the line tipping had its effect but was showing up as a “bribe”. This was the only place in JLR that we found that the staff behaved in a “sarkari” and unhelpful manner. Well, Shivanna not only gave us the boat, but also offered to paddle it with us to the other shore – where the Bandipur forests started. We were grateful for a second guided trip, and he did show us more birds on the way. There are a few more resorts owned by the private sector in this area – one of them called Kapila next to JLR, which I later discovered was owned by Krishna Prasad who was a childhood friend and a classmate. Though he lives opposite my house, we rarely get to meet these days, after having drifted apart from high school onwards. There was one more coming up on the Bandipur side being set up by the group that owns Orange County. Shivanna proudly told us that this being a government set up, had access and knowledge of the jungle much better, was less expensive and on the whole was more worthwhile. I could not agree with him more.
Boating in these waters could sometimes be dangerous because this was an area which had a fairly thick tree cover, all of which was cut down when the dam was built. It is quite likely that on a given day one could go and hit against the stump of a cut tree. Looking at all the tree stumps all along, one could see – first hand – what the environmentalists were talking about – the big dams destroying forests. And Kabini was not even a very big dam.
After a nice boat ride we were back on the shores – we were hanging out near the nets and the tree houses most of the time. Somewhere inbetween we had lunch and I also found the time to go to the hammock. After 12.00 there was again a flurry of activities, with more people checking in. Our neighbour at Tent 3 had left and a new group came in. We were feeling like veterans in the place, but nothing to beat Aruna and Anand who were expected to stay for one more day.
After lunch we were ushered out for a boat safari. This was a nice concept and different from the experience of the previous day. We were all given life jackets and put into the boat. This was the case with the paddle boat as well as the coracle, and I did appreciate the sense of safety that is now being practiced. As the boat started we found that the weather was very windy and the water a bit rough. It was really a nice sight – water all around, and we could see elephants far and near. We also saw a crocodile on the shore – unfortunately I could not take a picture but here is one from Aruna’s camera.
The sheer experience of the boat ride was worth the decision to stay on for an extra day. I guess people going in for a one-day package in Kabini do not realize what they miss out on the second day. I however possibly cannot vouch if a third day was worth it, and we did not hear from Aruna/Anand about it. It appeared that JLR quickly was running out of ideas if we stayed longer. They actually asked us if we were interested in any activity the next morning – indicating that this was an optional exercise. We did choose to go on an additional safari, and more about it a little later.
The sunset we saw from the boat was breathtaking. As we were returning there were ominous signs of a big storm breaking. The water was getting very rough and the weather was very windy. I guess the boatman decided that he had to accelerate the return and the boat came back at a speed that was possible. There were a large gang of people in the boat who were not wearing lifejackets and refused to wear them in spite of repeated requests. This is something very irritating about us as a community. Why do we get allergic to safety measures – like wearing seatbelts and lifejackets? Is there some machoness or bravado to be exhibited? As a kid I remember that several people chose to travel in the footboard of the bus eventhough there was enough space in the bus…. Well as the boat started rocking violently, they seemed to then care for their lives and wore them in the last 5 minute strech. We arrived on the bank right in time. After we disembarked and as soon as we entered the tent it started pouring. I had plans of going off to the Viceroy’s building for a drink, but that had to be put away. Anand and Aruna dropped in to our tent and we had a drink there itself. And we had dinner and crashed.
We were to pack up the next morning to proceed for Coorg. Anand and Aruna had come from Orange County in Coorg and had an extra day. We could have rested instead of a punishing early morning schedule – afterall we were on a holiday. But we decided to do some Paise Vasool and indicated that we would like to go on another safari. So the routine started once again at 06.30. This time it was Hussain who took us around in a Maruti Gypsy. Hussain was from Gulbarga but had spent some time here. He was not as good as Prem, but knew the area well. Hussain was a good driver. This time the drive was in a totally different direction and it was clear that we were going towards the thicker sides of the jungle. I guess this is a bonus for the people who stay on. It was as if the JLR staff were feeling guilty that we had not been able to spot tigers and leopards and were bent upon showing us these animals. There was no regret for us though.
Hussain took us deep into the jungle, showed us salt pits where the animals come, took us to new waterbodies and though we had five adults and two kids in the gypsy we spent what looked like hours without talking and going deeper and deeper into the jungle. At the end looking at so much green, such thick forest was in itself an experience to cherish. We spent a good 2 hours going in all directions, without the wireless making a sound, without any other vehicle in sight and what looked like a eternal drive in the thickest jungle. Indeed I wondered if we would be mentally prepared to see a tiger or a leopard in such solitude in an open gypsy. Well, luck did not favour us and we had to return.
On the way back we saw a Gaur cross the road. Though we were [as usual] slow in taking a photograph it was a good sight. As we were returning to the tent we found Prem who told us that they had spotted a leopard on a regular safari that morning. So much for the thick jungle, but it was time for us to pack up and proceed.