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Even without the big cats

When at Nagarhole, don’t expect a red carpet or a glimpse of the tiger. But you can still have your fill of wildlife, writes Shashi Baliga.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2008 22:57 IST
Shashi Baliga

It is an unexpected extra. As we close in on the jungle of the magnificent Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary, we are reminded of the importance of good manners.

When we check into the Kabini River Lodge, set on the southern fringes of the sanctuary, we are handed the keys to our tent — and a determined list of instructions, 22 dos and don’ts in all. Among them:
* Do not litter
* Do not talk loudly/make noise
* Do not smoke in the park
* Do be punctual for all activities
* Please do park only in designated areas
* Do not disturb the tranquility — others have come to enjoy the peace

Also, no hostesses smiling through their lip-gloss, over-sweet welcome drink, hot towels or any of those frills. Instead we have a brisk, fatigues-clad escort who throws in some more instructions, just in case. Our tent is spotlessly clean, but furnished in late 90s’ sarkari style (the Lodge is owned by the Karnataka government). There is no air-conditioning.

Definitely no television. And, I regret to report, the food at the single open-air restaurant does not aspire to gourmet standards.

It sinks in as you shake the dust off your shoes — the reason why the Kabini River Lodge is rated among the best wildlife resorts in the world. Nothing is allowed to distract from the joys of a natural environment. And everything is geared towards protecting the animals and the environment from us, visitors, uneducated in the ways of the jungle.

Little is laid out for you, so to speak. You have to find your own adventure on the banks of the Kabini, a silver-specked river that is a tributary of the mighty Cauvery and supports a swathe of dense jungle along its banks.

The only diversions at the Lodge, besides a trip into the jungle, are a ride down the Kabini in a coracle, the traditional boat that is actually a large basket. And oh yes, there is a wildlife documentary in the evening.

It all adds up to a one-point agenda, the singular purpose of your visit here: the jungle safari into the sanctuary.
The morning ride sets off at 6.30 am and amazingly, even on a wintry morning, all guests are on time.

The animals are stirring out into the sun as we drive in — the bonnet macaque monkeys are chattering as they swing across the teak and eucalyptus trees; a woodpecker goes toktoktok, the sound carrying sharply across the clear jungle air.

Peacocks strut about, a common brown mongoose darts across the grass. And agile herds of chital or spotted deer graze with a watchful eye on the jeep as it rumbles past.

No striped or spotted ones
But where are the big ’uns, you ask? Now here’s the thing: most visitors to wildlife sanctuaries are fixated on the big cats — most expect to see tigers or leopards, or both, leap out from every third bush in slow motion, thus offering them a convenient photo-op. If this performance hasn’t been staged in the first seven-and-a-half minutes of their safari, they will grumble loudly (‘Why call it a wildlife sanctuary then?’).

This, in spite of the fact that most Indian sanctuaries will warn you, in laconic Indish: ‘Wildlife sighting is on chance.’ Which means you could go a week without any luck, but the very next day — after you’ve left, of course — a tiger might pad right up to the jeep.

It’s no different at Nagarhole. Disappointingly, we saw no tigers or leopards, even though we looped around quite a few times to the trees which, our forest guide Basil Johannes told us, were the leopards’ favourite hangouts. As for the tiger, it is not only a solitary beast, but it also hides cleverly in the undergrowth; it has to, if it is to swoop down unnoticed on its prey.

So the big cats eluded us. Perhaps, as Johannes pointed out, they saw us, but our eyes weren’t sharp enough to spot them?
But we did see other magnificent creatures. Like the Indian gaur (mistakenly called bison), which — did you know? — is the largest species of cattle in the world, larger than the bison or the Cape buffalo. A healthy bull could weigh 1,000 kilos or more.

The lords of this jungle
But it is the elephant that rules Nagarhole. Forget all those gently heaving rides on domesticated elephants; the sight of a lone tusker glaring at you from a bamboo grove; or a herd making its way to the waterhole with a deceptively gentle amble, is an experience that is fundamentally different.

When we spot one such herd, with a young calf in tow, we wait at a respectful distance. The herd turns towards us to size us up, ears splayed forward. Johannes signals us not to talk and, in the silence, every rustle of the undergrowth is magnified. Luckily, the herd decides not to worry about us. Unfortunately, this also means that they walk away and this sighting is over.

Johannes tells us elephants have been known to charge at jeeps. They don’t see us as individuals, but as a threat emanating from the combined size of the jeep and the 10-odd people in it. Also, the presence of a young calf makes female elephants behave very unpredictably. So, driving on, when we come across a mother and her calf, we keep our distance. They spot us, turn their back on us, and then, with just a few steps, simply disappear into the bushes. And Johannes remarks, “You just saw a 1,000 kg elephant hide from you in mere seconds. Now judge how difficult it is to spot a tiger or leopard in the bushes.”

That remark somewhat mollifies those in the expedition who have been unhappy at not spotting a big cat. We could always try the boat safari… or the next jeep safari. There’s always another safari.