It’s always been a dream for me to go on Safari and see The Big Five in Africa. The word safari just has such an inescapable buzz to it, I’d never really considered that there are various types of safari. My few days staying at Bison Lodge in Kabini, Karnataka, and safari-ing with them, was one of the best experiences of my life hands down.
I was enchanted in the forest; completely captured, hooked on, taken over by the idea of seeing a Tiger, one of nature’s most beautiful inventions. When you first enter the beautiful wooden buildings making up the reception, living area and dining area of the lodge, they are all lined with breathtaking photos by the Lodge’s manager and resident photographer. Gazing at these photos and knowing that most were taken less than half a kilometre away is certainly motivation to hand over money and take safari after safari until you get lucky. Getting lucky, of course, happens much more readily in the summer and not so much in the monsoon, but I took what I could get and went on everything I could afford. I was very tempted to ask for someone to bring the rest of my stuff to the lodge and for me to stay there for at least the next three weeks, perched on the cusp of the gorgeous backwaters nestled in the beautiful, cosy camp – three weeks could well have extended to forever.
Getting to the lodge was a pretty hairy 5 hour drive; it was like GTA only without the guns. While we were still in the outskirts of Bangalore it was very colourful and crowded, the streets were lined with purple especially, radiating from the plants and the women, and there were hundreds of dogs weaving in and out of cars, piles of rubbish with cows grazing their way over them nonchalantly. We pushed on, past Mysore, and soon hit the countryside; rafts and rafts of green in a never ending spread before us. The saris here are still brightly coloured, they’re still gold edged and vibrant but there are a lot more bare feet traipsing the side of the road, a lot heavier loads being carried and children and goats running together. The families and lone figures that graze cows and goats are sometimes carrying the rainbow-coloured, jumbo umbrellas, looking bizarrely out of place in the rustic setting. We pass temples; they always pop out of nowhere, pops of colour like candy stores or Disney Land wedged into the rolling hills. They are painted chalky, pastel colours, almost childlike; houses out here are more brightly coloured, often painted blue and yellow, but with large chunks missing or falling off, even the clothes hanging somewhat hopelessly from the roofs in the humid, heavy air are optimistically bright too. It feels like India, the colourful nation, has colours running through its veins. My favourite image of the journey is the graffiti on the side of the bus stop in a small village; Wishing Happy New Year 2014. It makes me really hope they all had a happy new year too, while simultaneously wondering who would graffiti that in England.
The track down to the camp is basically only Jeep-Appropriate, rutted, narrow and made narrowed by the flat faced white cows, staring like faces in the moon and not caring to move for a vehicle, and steeped in the red clay-y soil. I can’t decide when I get there if I’m living in the colonial past or I’ve stepped onto the Tarzan set but it feels so glamorous. The big octagonal rooms are canvas tents over a wooden decking floor, with tarpaulin and straw over a wooden structure so the roof is completely waterproof. There is a dresser with a mirror and a writing desk, in the centre two beds pushed together to form a double, looking incredibly romantic with the mosquito net acting as hangings around the four posts. There is a second room for the bathroom – using the shower feels like being Aphrodite, you step down into the sunken ‘bath’ made of stone, and you can wash your feet using a metal bucket and lusciously warm water or you can fully shower under the head poised above. The toilet is flushing and there is a proper sink and fluffy white towels. This is serious luxury, it’s nicer than a bunch of UK hotels I’ve stayed in and I feel like I’m flying because it’s exactly like something I could have dreamt. It’s peaceful here too, so quiet and such a small venue. Although as soon as the sun goes down there’s no quiet. You can just see the lake in the darkness through the mosquito net if you let your eyes adjust, always slightly lighter than its surroundings, and the bugs come out and have a party after dusk. I never thought there would be the sheer volume of insects to make that noise, plus birds, dogs and the occasional unidentifiable rumble in the jungle, the noise is constant. We also discover how loud one little cricket (about the length of my hand span) can be if he’s sharing your room – the answer is, very loud.
The amount of birds there is phenomenal. From the kites casually grazing their way over the water’s edge by the huts to the jewel-like kingfishers we see on our boat tour. Graceful herons and egrets are perched in flocks from submerged tree tops jutting through the waters, whistling ducks sit beside large black faced monkeys with grey fur coats. We also see a few eagles, one a fish eagle perched on top of a tall tree and others flying overhead; the guide picks up on a racket tailed drongo, an amazing sight, just timidly resting at the edge of the forest; he’s long gone before the camera is out, let alone focused. It’s grey and rainy and I can spot nothing but the guide on the boat, older, weathered looking and with a permanent friendly half-smile, is incredible; he spots us a crocodile that I had barely seen as a log that was easily 300 or 400 metres away. We crawl the boat slowly level with the beast and he’s a lot bigger than I thought, long, armoured, his creepy eyes only opening a slit. He knows we’re there and after a while he slips, completely silently, incredible for such a large muscular creature, into the water and disappears in an instant. It’s pretty eerie as he vanishes from view instantly into the murk, I wonder if he’s under the boat or far away already. We end up seeing three crocodiles in total, and a wild board, who seem incredibly camera shy. They are surprised to see you there and then gone in an instant.
The first Jeep Safari is the evening we arrive and we are assigned a good route, right through the heart of the forest, past a few abandoned buildings and the anti-poaching camp that has been set up since it became a reserve. The sheer scale and vibrancy of green is amazing, it’s dense too, although not dense like a tropical rainforest. We see lots of deer as we head in, and they are pretty used to the odd vehicle, there are several different types, some spotted like Fallow Deer, others much darker in coat colour. We also saw eagles again, pretty close to the ground, and peacocks too. Hearing a peacock in the wild is oddly familiar, since the owners of stately homes in Britain decided they’d go well with the decor and they’ve been here ever since, but it’s a lot more intriguing to see such bright colours waddling their merry way through their natural habitat. There are more kites and plenty of monkeys and macaques, some having a howling fight over territories on either side of the track. We don’t even get a hint of tiger this time, save for the smell of a fresh kill, somewhere in the vicinity, according to the naturalists – to me it smells like damp forest but to them it’s distinct and they know the tigers are on the move. We also see some Guar – which are incredibly exciting when we first spot them and then suddenly there are more than we know what to do with – they are basically a giant cow, bison-like really. Solid 6-7ft dark brown lumps of muscle, with a pair of horns on the front too and fierce looking eyes, except the babies which are just downright cute, but they are just chewing through their food benignly and are neither shy nor interested. My favourite spot is the pair of wild dogs, male and female, sitting very close to the vehicle and eyeing us lazily. We watched the rusty-red, fox-like animals in complete silence and, apart from the constant low level hum of insects, the peace was denser than the trees themselves. On the way out of the forest I see the most beautiful little girl, maybe 6 or 8 years old, carrying her books back from school. She’s barefoot, wearing a red and gold parkini, with gold in her hair and bangles and anklets so she chimes softly as she walks. She turns and smiles shyly and I get the feeling she heard me say she looked beautiful.
So the last safari was technically over budget for me (yep, foreign nationals pay more, but I understand why) but I was obsessed with the idea of seeing a tiger and desperate to keep trying. The guide on the boat had talked about man-eating tigers and why they don’t (usually) eat anybody here. He said there had been a few close calls but they aren’t familiar with the taste of human so they aren’t as dangerous as tigers on the Ganges, for example, where there are plenty of dead bodies and human remains washed through on a regular basis. The tigers at the mouth are drinking and using the water and they develop, slowly, a taste for the human flesh that way; it’s then that they go hunting for one. There was a really good feeling on this safari too, only really keen people were in the Jeep and we were all feeling a real buzz, something in the air saying we would get lucky. We stopped briefly to watch another territorial display from the monkeys but none were giving out the tiger warning calls that the naturalists are used to listening for. We saw my first wild elephant too, a lovely quiet she-elephant, smaller than I had imagined, shyly munching through a large bush in front of her. Then we focused on the aim as we cruised quietly through the burnt out area, about 2 miles wide, damaged by a forest fire a year previously and occupied by an active female tiger. There were a frustrating amount of fresh paw prints as we patrolled, some appearing where we had just been in the time while we were checking the bottom of the reserve. We waited for a while and then I heard a noise I hadn’t ever contemplated would be so moving. The roar. It was a weird, vibrating, creaking noise that carried right through the forest and through your bones, and she was very, very close. We listened to the roaring, some quiet patches, and then a little more growling and we focused intently on the birds to see where they were circling. She seemed to have made a kill and was lying eating it, taking her time, in a clump of undergrowth we identified about 200-300 metres away; tantalizingly close. But not close enough, we didn’t see her, but it didn’t really matter in the end.