The boundaries of the ‘Kali Tiger Reserve’ were drawn in 2015, by combining the areas of the erstwhile Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and the Anshi National park, granting it a higher degree of protection than that of a national park or a wildlife sanctuary. This forest, which is mostly moist deciduous, spreads over 1300 sq km and houses a spectacular array of biodiversity. It is only an overnight bus ride away from Bangalore. I took the first opportunity I got to explore this jungle, through the comfort of the Kali Adventure Camp, run by Jungle Lodges & Resorts. The Kali adventure camp is in Dandeli, a small town in the Uttara Kannada district in Karnataka, situated alongside jungles of the Western Ghats. Though the camp offers a number of activities, such as rafting, coracle rides and trekking, my interest was in jeep safaris in the Kali Tiger Reserve.
Tourists are permitted entry from the the Kulgi gate of the reserve, which is about a half an hour’s drive from Dandeli. In order to make it to the gate in time, I started from the resort well before sunrise in a Jungle Lodges’ safari jeep. After permission paperwork and prayers for ‘sightings’, I entered the reserve at 6:00 AM and stopped at the first of many lakes. The full moon was still shining brightly over the lake. I decided to wait at this lake for a while. As it got brighter, signs of a forest getting ready for another day began with deep hooting call of a langur claiming his territory. A jungle fowl’s call from the other side of the lake was responded to by one, or maybe two, from our side. There were a number of other bird calls, that I couldn’t quite place.
Day broke with the first rays of the sun making their way through gaps between trees, casting a golden glow across the forest. Now that I could see the forest better, I noticed that I was being driven through teak plantations that extended deep into the forest. These plantations, I was told, were once a source of timber for the timber factory that was in the area. Dandeli is unique in this sense. There are signs of industries that depended on the forest , such as timber and iron ore, that once depended on the forest, well within the forest.
The plantations gradually revealed a dense deciduous forest. I saw a number of Spotted Deer, Sambar, Barking Deer and Wild Boars through the drive. These high populations of herbivores support a number of big cats, both the tiger and the leopard, and good canid populations like the wild dogs and jackals. There were a large number of birds we saw in the morning, including the Forest Wagtail, the White-rumped Shama, the Orange-headed Thrush, the Blue-capped Rock Thrush, to name a few. We also saw a few raptors, especially the Crested Serpent Eagle, which we stopped counting after seeing five in the first couple of hours. Malabar Pied Hornbills were also aplenty. Though I didn’t see the Great Hornbills, I heard their characteristic flight sound from a distance.
Our drive was stopped abruptly by a barrier gate across the road. This is as far as tourists are allowed, I was told. There was a lake by our side, and we chose to wait there for a while. It was nice and quiet. With not much happening, I started going through the photos I’d taken through the day. My driver then borrowed the binoculars, peered through it for a couple of seconds in the direction of a bush, and rather nonchalantly, asked, ‘There is a Black Panther there, wouldn’t you want some photos?’. I gathered all the composure I could under the circumstances, and pointed my camera in the general direction that he was looking at. And there it was in the distance – staring right back at us. I took a number of photos, and then looked up. Even though I knew exactly where the panther was, it was so well camouflaged that it was impossible to find it. The panther then slid back into the bushes, crossed the road a distance away from us, and went on its way. While big cat sightings are always special, this was even more so, because it was a first for me. It was as high a high-point on a safari can get, and with that, we headed back to camp.
The Kali Adventure camp in Dandeli is also close to a number of popular tourist places, that are less than an hour away. The Syntheri Rock, the timber depot, which is a birding hotspot, or the many temples around, are all places one can easily visit from Dandeli. Based purely on the scenic drive, and the view from the destination I’d heard much about, I chose the Handibadaganath temple. This is roughly an hour from Dandeli. The story has it that many years ago, a man walked all across the country with a large pot, in the hopes of finding a perennial water source. At the top of this small hill, he found the source of fresh water in the form of small stream from a rock. He left the pot there, and a temple around it now stands. The name of the place itself is derived from this story. Handi is the local word for the pot that he carried. This ancient temple offered one of most beautiful view forests of the tiger reserve.
After a quick stop for lunch, we returned to the forest for the afternoon safari. Again, we entered through the Kulgi gate and drove through teak plantations. As these plantations made way to thicker forests, the distinctiveness of a safari in Dandeli stood out. This is one of the densest forests in Karnataka. Through rare openings in the dense jungle, one can see canopies of tall trees that extending into the horizon. This is accentuated by a number of ‘viewing points’ along the safari that let one get off a vehicle and enjoy the views. I spent a long time at one of these viewpoints, absorbing the vast forest below me, that stretched as far as I could see.
As sunset approached, it was time to head back. It was dark when we drove out. Just outside the gate, my guide asked me to step out of the jeep and showed me something along the side of the road. A large tarantula was making its way out of a burrow, its day was just about to begin. This unexpected ‘sighting’ made me realise how little boundaries, gates and borders meant to wildlife, while they meant much to the cause of wildlife overall.