Even the smallest jaunt to a forest could be a spiritual experience for a true nature lover. This has been precisely how I’ve felt from the first moment I was taken to Nagarhole National Park; many summers of my childhood were spent waking up to the forest’s misty mornings, with Spotted Deer grazing in the backyard of our quaint little room. Then, a few years ago, I was introduced to the forest around the Kabini River, better known to the rest of the world as Kabini. Since then, I have done many a trip back and forth. This forest is at its beautiful best throughout the year. Autumn brings shedding leaves, bare trees, dry grass and myriad hues of brown; now imagine the bright turquoise of a kingfisher skimming the water, in contrast to this brown. Summers are scorching, but the leaves slowly turn the green of a Rose-ringed Parakeet’s plumes; that is when the big cats wander around in search of water, so you could probably sight a tiger cooling off in a water-body. The monsoon is a table turner! The trees look freshly washed and the ruddy tracks are slushy. All the birds and animals too look shampooed and scrubbed.

A tigress cooling off at a waterhole.

A Dhole sharpening its teeth on a Spotted Deer’s antler.

My first experience of a safari was with my family, when we stayed at Jungle Lodges and Resorts in May 2014. Dressed in jungle colours, we sat in silence as our driver turned off the main road, into the forest. The charisma of driving through a forest is indescribable; the peace and quiet that envelops you as you look around and appreciate every being of the forest is truly phenomenal. I was in awe of the sentinel-like trees, the thorny bramble with multi-coloured flowers, and colourful birds that flitted in and out of our view even as a huge raptor circled overhead. My amazement grew as we sighted hordes of Spotted Deer grazing, Dholes impishly nipping each other, a lone Sambar with a bird picking fleas off its back, Malabar Giant Squirrels squeaking on tree-tops, a Changeable Hawk-eagle perched majestically on a branch, Wild Boars foraging for juicy roots, beautiful Indian Rollers feeding each other, and a cobra slithering away at the sound of our approaching vehicle.

A Malabar Giant Squirrel climbing down a tree.

Indian Rollers sharing their meal

A Crested Hawk-eagle on its perch.

At the backwaters, we saw an elephant herd kicking up tufts of grass and smacking them on their legs to clean the dirt, before happily chomping away. What a delight it was to experience all these animals going about their daily routine in their own home. That was the moment I swore that I would never visit a zoo again! My subsequent visits were with my husband, a wildlife photographer. As the frequency of my visits increased, I felt more acquainted with the forest, and my observational skills improved. I could spot smaller mammals in the undergrowth. I would also scan the horizontal branches of trees for the tell-tale sign of a sleeping leopard – a hanging tail!

Male Spotted Deer sometimes decorate their antlers with dried grass, to attract suitable mates.

A leopard cooling off under the shade of a tree in summer.

A deer standing on twos, reaching out for an inaccessible, juicy treat.

Some of my favourite jungle experiences have been in Kabini. Being a late riser, the only occasions on which I still willingly wake up early, is to go on safaris; I could never sleep-in when I could be in the forest instead, on a misty winter morning. Driving along Kabini’s winding roads on one such morning, we came upon a tigress walking the length of the road without a care in the world. She was walking away from us, but the twitch of her ears told us that she was alert. We followed her slowly and at a safe distance. Suddenly, we saw her startle slightly and take a detour to the left, towards the underbrush. As we turned the corner, a huge elephant charged straight at the tigress! She quickly slunk away, but the elephant trumpeted loud enough to rattle our bones. His temper unabated, he walked up to a pile of dried bamboo, picked up a long bamboo stem, and threw it in the direction of the tigress. She was a safe distance away, but at least the elephant had had the last word. He then walked away, not before throwing us a warning look. That was when we heard a low rumble that instantaneously turned into a loud groan. This was followed by many soft groans a little away. In five minutes, we heard some movement in the bushes and followed the sound for almost 200 meters, when the tigress walked across the road, unanticipated, followed by three cubs in quick succession! I am more of a dog person, but seeing this great cat with her cubs is one experience even amnesia cannot erase.

The elephant charging at the tigress (not in the picture)

I revel in the time I spend at Kabini. I have seen the rising sun reflect off the still, mist-covered waters of the reservoir. I have seen sunrays cut through the mist, streaming between Kabini’s tall trees. I have seen an elephant with its trunk up like a snorkel, swimming across the backwater to the other shore, spraying up water occasionally. I have seen a tiger merely ten feet away from me, marking his territory. I’ve seen a tigress and her cubs drinking water at one of the tanks. Once, an exceptionally friendly langur almost landed on the bonnet of our vehicle when he misjudged the distance of a hanging vine; he refused to get down until we stopped and shooed him away. The much sought after ‘black panther’ (melanistic leopard) once climbed up a tree in the pouring rain, and we watched him for a long time while he tried to make himself comfortable. If you would pay good money to watch a movie in an air-conditioned theater, you would sell your soul to have these experiences – trust me!