Karnataka's Kabini Forest Reserve is heaven for birdwatchers, wildlife photographers, and nature lovers

Royal Orchid Hotels open a new resort at Kabini Forest Reserve and here’s a glimpse of what it has to offer

Ayesha Tabassum Published :  16th December 2021 05:04 PM   |   Published :   |  16th December 2021 05:04 PM
Arjuna, the tusker

Arjuna, the tusker

The sounds and silence of Kabini are unforgettable. It’s been a few weeks since we visited one of Karnataka’s most verdurous forest reserves, but the sounds of birds such as the common hawk-cuckoo, woodpeckers, puff-throated babblers, Malabar parakeets, and the trumpeting of elephants and chirping of crickets still linger in our thoughts. At the same time, the stillness of the river and quietude of the forest is calling us back to the reserve. The Kabini is a river flowing through the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that’s part of the Western Ghats of South India. The river is flanked by the Nagarhole National Park and Bandipur National Park. However, it’s the south-eastern part of the park that’s known as the Kabini Forest Reserve and is located at a distance of nearly 206 km from Bengaluru. The lush green area is home to tigers, Indian elephants, leopards, chitals, sambar deers, and also to Saya, the elusive black panther that made headlines last year after its photographs went viral on the internet. It is also home to the newly opened Regenta Kabini Springs Resort, which was going to be our abode for the next few days.

Heading south
The cool breeze and light drizzle of October made our morning drive quite pleasant. Though it’s a five-hour drive from Bengaluru to Kabini, it took us six hours because we opted to stop at Mysuru for breakfast at The Metropole Hotel, a 100-year-old heritage property. The lavish spread made up for the one-hour delay.

Rupa and Arjuna

It was already noon by the time we reached the Nagarhole National Park checkpoint. Once we entered the gate, the last leg of our road trip began. Though it was sunny and humid, as we drove on a long serpentine road that runs through the forest, we felt the temperature drop by a few degrees. Just as we were taking in the fresh air and views, we were in for a surprise! Arjuna, the tusker that carried the famed 750kg golden howdah at the Mysuru Dasara celebrations until 2019, was out on a walk with his mahouts. Accompanying him were Lakshmi and Rupa, the other elephants that are part of the Dasara procession. We couldn’t stop gawking at the majestic animals and shot many videos. They were just the first few animals we spotted on our way. We were also greeted by herds of chitals on either side of the road. Lazily grazing, they would look up with curiosity only when we stopped our car to take pictures.

After an hour’s drive, we reached Regenta Kabini Springs Resort and were welcomed with beats of a drum that was being played by the hotel’s staff. It’s their tradition to welcome guests, and they follow it with pride. The musical greeting and the cold towel handed to us at the reception were just what we needed after the long road trip.

The eight-acre resort is located at the crux of the Karnataka and Kerala border, just a few meters away from Wayanad. This new property by the Royal Orchid Hotels is unique because, unlike other resorts that are located on the backwaters of the river, Regenta is built on the banks of the flowing Kabini. All the rooms offer a view of the river that’s flowing along the resort’s fence.

Though the property occupies a large space on the banks, the flora and fauna remain untouched, so we weren’t surprised when we spotted a red-black Malabar giant squirrel looking at us while we were eating lunch at Tiger Trail, the restaurant at the resort. It was an unforgettable sight! Soon after lunch, we left for the safari. It took us nearly an hour to reach the starting point at Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR). As it is a protected reserve, all safaris are undertaken by the forest department. Though the drive was long, passing through the forest meant spotting more animals on either side of the road. The startled look on their faces when they heard the clicking of our camera was totally worth capturing.

Flock together
We started the safari from JLR in an open jeep. Though we were a bit apprehensive, the guide assured us that as long as we don’t tease or deliberately disturb the animals, viewing them at a distance would be safe. Driving into the Nagarhole National Park is like entering an entirely different world. The different shades of green, silence that’s punctuated by calls of birds and wild animals, and the unpolluted air — all added to our experience. Just as we were passing by thick foliage we spotted a woodpecker pecking at a tree trunk. Further ahead we were greeted by the sound, ‘Did-he-do-it? Did-he-do-it? Pity-todo-it’. We were surprised but as our guide explained, these were sounds of the Red-wattled Lapwings. “Birds around Kabini are well-known by the sounds of their calls,” he added. The next time we stopped our vehicle, we could hear the Brain Fever bird or the Common Hawk-Cuckoo. Birdwatchers who accompanied us in the jeep were having a field day.

The herd of elephants

However, our biggest discovery was tucked away in the bushes. As we drove further we spotted something that was moving like a bubble between thick shrubs. Only when we got close enough we realised that three female elephants were standing together enjoying their grassy feast. But the tiny surprise was the baby elephant that was being guarded between them. This was the highlight of our safari.

Apart from spotting the jumbos, we were lucky to see a pack of wild dogs, grey jungle fowls, and pride of peacocks. But we weren’t as lucky as those in another jeep in the other end of the forest, who spotted a tiger drinking water from a pond. Our guide told us that during monsoon and winter, animals tend to stay deep in the forest because all the watering holes are full. But in summer they flock to the backwaters to hydrate. After the three-hour safari, we headed back to Regenta. By night, the resort transforms into some kind of a mystical and magical destination. With lamps lit up along the driveway and strategically planned lighting around the cottages, it looks like a mini castle. A quick shower later we walked across the garden to Tiger Trail. The buffet included Indian dishes, a few Asian options, and a large spread of desserts. What impressed us were the Indian dishes that were cooked using local spices and produce. After dinner, we had to retire soon to our rooms because our call time the next day was 4.45 am for the Kabini boat safari.

Along the stream
Day two started with the long drive to the starting point of the safari. Once again our journey was as exciting as the previous day’s. The entire forest was still, except for the sounds of crickets. We had carried torches so every time our car slowed down at a speed breaker, we would try to spot animals in the bushes using a torchlight. By the time we reached JLR, the sun was rising and the tangerine sky dotted with specks of clouds looked picture perfect.

Sunrise view at river Kabini

For the boat safari, all the tourists were asked to wear life jackets that were placed in the boat. At 6.15 am on the dot, our boat left to explore the backwaters of Kabini that’s inhabited by migratory and native birds, and crocodiles. As our boat progressed in the direction of the sun, the sky gradually turned blue, and we were able to spot the birds around the waterbody clearly. Hoopoes, Indian rollers, egrets, and grey herons were all perched on different dead tree trunks. Shutterbugs accompanying us on the boat couldn’t stop taking pictures.

A bird perched on a dead tree trunk

The three-hour safari was calming and the sights were soothing to the eyes. A crocodile that was resting on a tiny island dived into the water when our boat got closer to it. After this uneventful encounter, we rode back to our meeting point. Both safaris gave us a peek into the diverse wildlife of the Nagarhole region. The Kabini river is the major watering hole for animals and this is where most of the wildlife gathers to quench its thirst.

Breakfast spread at Tiger Trail

The rest of the day was spent at Regenta, lazing around in the pool, playing snooker, and taking pictures around a life-size chessboard that’s part of the property. The resort also offers a coracle ride but we were too tired to sign up for this adventurous ride. Instead, we opted to take a walk along the river and managed to spot a few hoopoes and wagtails flying around.

After the walk, we headed to the screening hall at the resort where we watched a documentary on Kabini that helped us understand the terrain better. Tea and snacks were served while we enjoyed the 90-minute film. It’s these tiny gestures at Regenta that made our stay quite memorable. We took a much-needed walk to burn the snacking calories before we headed back to Tiger Trail for dinner. Meen Pollichathu, Tandoori Jhinga, Kakori Kebab, and Tiger Trail Ki Kaali Dal were our favourites. After the two highly active days we called it a night! The next morning, we enjoyed the cool breeze and warm sunlight as we sipped on coffee in our balcony while catching up on the news. After breakfast, we were driven up to the reception in golf carts. Our short but adventurous expedition had come to an end, and we bid adieu to the courteous staff and promised to come back.

Rs18,000++ upwards for two persons (exclusive of safari charges). The writer was at Regenta Kabini Springs Resort on an invitation

Pictures by Ayesha Tabassum
ayeshatabassum@ newindianexpress.com