Nagarahole National Park had decided to take an unannounced, unseasonal vacation. And I had turned up exactly during that time, in eager anticipation of a forest thriving with activity. After all, March is a great month – it’s just before the blistering heat sets in, the forest is still somewhat lush, and there’s a chance to see the very last of the winter migrants. But to everybody’s surprise, Karnataka’s ‘mango showers’ arrived two weeks too early, exactly when those of us who were trying to escape Holi revelries in the city fled to the forest; we got drenched anyway – the joke was on us.
So what does that leave me with, to tell you a story about my three days at Nagarahole? Not much other than single digits on the sightings list – 1 Barking Deer, 1 Jungle Fowl, 1 Crested Serpent-eagle, 1 White-bellied Woodpecker, 2 Sambar, 2 langur, 2 egrets (where were the flocks?), a few peafowl, and 2 Gaur. I kid you not. Not even herds of Spotted Deer, usually so ubiquitous that nobody gives them a second glance. Yes, there were also a couple of elephants, and a fleeting dramatic incident, but Nagarahole National Park was as thinly populated as an office between Christmas and New Year.
From two of the bleakest opening paragraphs possibly ever written, you might have sensed my despondency. So does it sound believable when I say that I still had a marvellous time? Let me tell you how.
The campus of King’s Sanctuary, Nagarahole, where I stayed, is almost 40 acres. The sprawling property has spacious accommodation spread out amidst trees and plants, most of them native flora. I was piqued by all the sounds I could hear around me, while in my room or walking to and from the dining area for meals.
Having had two ‘no-sightings’ safaris since arriving, I decided to skip an evening safari and go on a nature walk instead. Shekhar was excited to show me around the campus, which incidentally has been his home for over twenty years. My leisurely stroll began after a cup of tea, on a promising note – the light was unusually golden for 4:30 pm. This should have portended the rain that was to come, but blissfully unaware, I chose to enjoy the perks of peering at treetops without any glare. And we did see a fair bit of activity – Golden Orioles, an Asian Koel pair, and a male Paradise Flycatcher – to the soundtrack of a Common Hawk-cuckoo, which was proving to us why its nickname is ‘brain fever bird’. The grass all around us fluttered with tiny brown birds too skittish to identify.
Shekhar was thrilled to know that I wanted to see the flora as well, and birds were soon forgotten, talking about inflorescences, leaf shapes and how the locals use different trees and plants. Almost as if on cue, a low, sprawling fig tree appeared. I had to pause to take it in – straight out of an otherworldly setting, or for fellow Potter-heads, like the whomping willow. We disappeared into the tree to enjoy the etherealness. When the tree’s leaves began producing a racket, we stepped out to investigate and realised that it was raining quite heavily. The thick canopy sheltered us well from the downpour, but sensing that the rain would only intensify, we darted to a nearby cluster of rooms. We thought that we were done for the day, but the birds had other ideas. Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers chased each other around the central courtyard. The sky rapidly darkened, but not before it threw up silhouettes of Malabar Grey Hornbills and a Shikra.
Over dinner that night, I was talking to the manager and one of the naturalists about their experience of staying in the buffer zone and being in close proximity to wildlife. I was invited to go on a night walk around the campus. Anyone who knows me knows that I am scared of the dark. Also, the possibility of whether I would encounter elephants had me worried; I respect the strength of these wonderful beings and like to keep my distance from them. Meeting an elephant on foot is my worst nightmare, but I agreed in desperation only because my upcoming article about Nagarahole was potentially turning into a bigger nightmare due to scarce sightings. Armed with dull torches, we set out along the campus’s perimeter. The worry about coming across elephants turned out to be unfounded, as the property is fenced all around.
Walking at night activates all the senses, and especially amplifies sound. The slithering we heard turned out to be a Green Keelback. The chorus of crickets was a constant companion. Footsteps other than ours made us jump many times, revealing equally skittish Spotted Deer. My city vision was sorely lacking, and had it not been for the naturalist, I would have walked past the Sri Lankan Painted Frog and straight into the web of a garden spider. There was so much to grab our attention that we stopped every few steps – to see Wolf Spider-lings, a Cicada nymph, and even a Whip Spider trying to pass off for a twig. The highlight was seeing radiant bioluminescent fungi on the barks of a few mango trees.
That fleeting dramatic incident I had mentioned at the beginning? When our starved-for-sightings jeep saw a peacock, we spent many minutes looking at it intently. It then flew gracefully and landed next to our jeep, but screeched in shock, and we also heard a yelp and furious running. The peacock had almost landed on an alarmed, skulking leopard, and all we saw was its tail disappear into bushes. The third yelp was let out collectively by our jeep, because we hadn’t realised that there had been a leopard in the nullah right next to our jeep. Three species within a few square feet of each other, and quite unusually, we all managed to shock each other! My memento from this moment is a photograph of “can you see the leopard that we almost didn’t see?”
A few other jeeps did have better sightings – a few more birds than I did, and even a whole leopard. But my experience at Nagarahole reiterates that not every safari in a forest is “productive”. And certainly, not everybody sights predators all the time. But just because we don’t see life does not mean that the forest is “bare”.
What I’ve also learnt over the years is that I don’t have to go on a safari to enjoy what nature has to offer – all I need is to look around me, or for that matter, even within my city. I know that my story is probably not the best way to convince anybody to visit Nagarahole. But I do hope that we continue to appreciate the ecosystem, irrespective of whether or not the forest reveals itself to us.