My first sight of the Nagarahole forest is from behind a fine curtain of rain. The rain is out of turn today. That it has come in the wrong season is clear. But of course, for us, it has also come on the wrong day, at the wrong time. It could have made a brief visit while we were working our way through a multi-course, multi-cuisine lunch, or when we were having tea or when we were changing our lenses. But no, it is here, in the hours devoted to the jeep safari, and it arrives in full regalia. The drops come fast and furious, so we pull down the canvas shades on the jeep and, when it begins to slant slyly in through the gaps, we are forced to halt for a while. We have stopped near some sort of clearing, a riverbed with a slender shoulder of water. The scene before us, framed in the transparent window of the canvas, is a watercolour landscape of fallen logs and tree stumps. When the rain quietens down, I roll up the canvas. Just outside the jeep window, close enough to touch, is a log of wood, glistening ink-black in the new sunlight. Its cracks are festooned with fungi. Some are turning dark like their host, others are a Fanta orange or a mottled cream. I hurriedly fill my camera frame with it. It is, after all my first clear glimpse of the famed forests on the banks of the Kabini river.
The story of Kabini has echoes of the story of India. It is the story of old royals, of colonials and hunters and conservationists. It is the story of old rivers and new landscapes. What looks from far above like a large spill of ink with fingers running into the land is the place where the river, once called Kapila, acquired a dam and became a reservoir. On one side is the Nagarahole National Park, on the other side is Bandipur.
I come to know Kabini better over the rest of our holiday. Over many boat and jeep safaris, I realise there are two ways to see it.
You can, for instance, worship at the feet of the trinity that Kabini is famous for: the tiger, the leopard, the black panther. You can fervently pray for a darshan, but it is not in your hands. Like all Gods, their ways are mysterious. In this devotee mode, time either moves too quickly or not at all. You may be listless in the jeep. The naturalist might say something like, “There is a lot of water from last night’s rain, so the animals don’t really need to come to the watering holes”. You know your faith is definitely running on empty. And then, suddenly, the jeep is careening to a halt because of a jewelled statue sitting by the track. You have exactly five seconds before the leopard comes to life and gallops away.
At other times, you are waiting, just waiting without end, because they say an animal has crossed into the bushes ahead, and might come out again. You train your eyes into the bramble, willing new eyesight, willing outright luck. The naturalist listens hard for alarm calls; he reads the faces of the guileless deer. Are they looking at us? Or is this one’s head cocked to an old memory? You know that time will suddenly collapse if the shadows come together into a dark shape. But for how long? Until when?
Later, at lunch time, a fellow visitor tells you that just as your jeep left, the black panther appeared out of the bush. You should have waited, the person says.
Revanna, one of the naturalists at JLR, tells me it is stressful for him when such things happen. Many people on safari, mostly photographers but also other visitors, expect the naturalist to be some kind of priest who can summon the gods at will. In this way of seeing Kabini, the pendulum swings wildly between hits and misses. As Revanna puts it more colourfully, “Sikkidre bumper, illaandre pauper!” If they get the (big-cat) sighting, it’s a bumper prize; else, they are paupers.
But there is also another way to see this forest. You could try, for instance, to discern the shades of green or watch how the light changes. In this dry deciduous forest, the light has space to weave in and out between the canopies and the tree-trunks. On misty mornings, it sections the forest into panels, as though some kind of invisible UFO were hovering above. In the season that we went to Kabini, we saw an abundance of Indian Rollers shuttling through the trees, their blue colour bright and unreal. I learn later that the blue colour in bird feathers comes not from a pigment (like say, with red or yellow feathers), but as a result of the structure of the feathers. They scatter the light in specific ways so you see blue.
At Kabini, people sometimes say, in the context of not spotting any big cats, that there is “no movement” in the forest. But there is drama everywhere – especially if you remain dispassionate to the ruling gods. Once, we crossed paths with another jeep, and just as they were commiserating with us at the lack of big-cat sightings, an Indian Monitor Lizard appeared within arm’s length, then disappeared into a termite mound. Most of us did not see it. Another time, while we waited to see if we could sight some newly-minted tiger cubs, I heard a metallic bird-call that cut an arc over the forest canopy. I am mostly tone-deaf and my memory of bird-calls is awful but the name came to my lips without thinking – Hill Myna. And sure enough, at the top of a tree, were a pair of Hill Mynas, looking for all the world like they had flowered straight from the branches.
At the Tiger Tank, we saw a flock of Spot-billed Ducks, so exquisitely wrought they could be dolls. In the foreground were Hoopoes skipping about in search for food, their fan-like crests folded back. Sometimes, we’d drive into higher ground and get a glimpse of the river far away, its shallow waters full of painted storks, their heads down in the water as though in prayer. On the boat safari, we saw so many birds up close: ibises and cormorants, Pied Kingfishers swooping for fish. Entire families of elephants were out bathing in the river.
With peacocks, elephants, deer, and orbs of golden woodpeckers or blue Indian Rollers weaving quickly through the trees, Kabini frequently feels like a children’s storybook come to life, like the perfect Indian forest.
One gold-dusted morning, we pass the forest resthouse when our naturalist, Bhimayya, stops and sniffs the air. “There is a strong smell in the air. Dholes!”, he says, nodding to me as though I can smell it too. And sure enough, within a few metres, we see a pack of dholes or wild dogs. They are dozing in the warm sunlight. One of them gets up and gently rouses the rest. They start to run and leap over each other and play-fight. The driver pulls the jeep over to the other side of the track. At first, we’re taking pictures and videos like maniacs, and then, realising that they’re oblivious to our presence, we relax and watch. One of them wanders off and gaze into the distance thoughtfully. The others jump in and out of a pool of water.
Dholes hunt in packs, and are so deadly as a collective that they can bring down animals many times their size – a Sambar deer or a gaur. We are predators of a different kind. We come with targets and long-barrelled weapons. Even our most relaxed safaris sometimes feel like hunts.
Right now though, we are watching the dholes in a private family moment – off duty. We watch them in a meditative silence. Time slips away. It feels like we too, should be off duty.