There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Kabini and the Nagarhole National Park: Part 3 of India's Deep South


It took a while to shake off Mysore and its outer suburbs, but eventually we found ourselves speeding south west across agricultural land. The main crops, rice, coconuts and bananas were interspersed with plantations of teak, eucalyptus and tamarinds. Casuarinas, huge rain trees and mangos in full bloom lined the roads and the field boundaries.

We passed through several villages, the land rising gently to the Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve. We crossed a corner of the park to the Kabini River Lodge, just outside the protected area, in time for a briefing and to put our names down for an evening boat trip and a morning land safari.
Day 3 Mysuru to Kabini
Our room was one of half a dozen occupying a long wooden bungalow and while sitting outside with a cup of tea we were approached by a representative of the Ayurvedic Centre. I booked a full body massage for 7 o’clock that evening.

Lynne outside the 'long wooden bungalow' Kabini River Lodge
We strolled down to look at the lake. The Kabini River rises in the Western Ghats and flows eastwards to join the Kaveri, the main river of south India.  The 700m wide Kabini dam was constructed in 1974 and the lake that formed behind it is 12km long as the crow flies – though it twists and turns to follow the course of the river.  Perched on a bench in the shade of a kapok tree, we amused ourselves by unpacking a fallen pod. Man-made materials have reduced the use of kapok for stuffing, but it is a remarkable material. We extracted such prodigious quantity of fibre that it was hard to believe it all came from one 10cm long pod.

Underneath a kapok tree, Kabini Lake (or River), Kabini River Lodge
Deciding we could never pack it all back in, we made for the communal eating area. I am generally no great fan of buffet lunches, but for once I was impressed by the wide selection of vegetable dishes plus chicken biryani, fish curry and egg masala.

Later, when the heat started to wane, a crowd gathered for the safaris. Buses and jeeps lined the road and boats waited at the jetty.  Kabini River Lodge is a central departure point and visitors were arriving from other lakeside lodges.  Despite the apparent air of chaos and disorganisation, we approached a man holding a clipboard and he not only had our names on a list, but directed us to a particular boat, one of four, each with a dozen or more passengers.

Lynne embarks for the 'lake safari'
 We pushed off roughly on time and puttered past a dead tree, obviously a favourite with the local cormorant population.

Cormorant central, Kabini Lake
We chugged down the lake for forty minutes or so without seeing much of interest. We did this trip in 2010 and knew that most of the animals were further down, inside the park, and mostly came out later in the afternoon. Seeing two women doing their laundry was the highlight until we spotted a distant pair of mongooses running along the forest edge.

Laundry in the Kabini River
The mongooses were too far away to photograph, so this will have to do
There was a lone deer….

Lone spotted deer, Nagarhole National Park

…..and a heron on a dead tree stump….

Heron, Nagarhole National Park
…and then somewhere near the park boundary we rounded a bend and right in front of us was a venerable tusker (although he only had one tusk) uprooting grass with his foot and rubbing it up his legs with his trunk - apparently a normal activity for elephants. The boatman stopped the engine as we paused for a stare.
One tusked elephant scratching up grass
Nagarhole National Parl

After a while he restarted it and we crossed the lake to look at a pair of pied kingfishers.
Pied kingfisher, Nagarhole National Parl
Then we crossed back and he stopped the engine again. I was trying to work out what we were supposed to be observing, then it slowly dawned on me that we had actually broken down. The boatman walked to the stern and used the hydraulic lift to raise the big outboard from the water. The propeller was not fouled so he lowered it again and tried restarting. The engine clearly wanted to go, but sounded starved of fuel. He changed the fuel line and tried to pump fuel through by hand, but whatever he tried the blockage remained unbreached. Eventually there was nothing to do but phone for help. I was, not for the first time, impressed by the way it is possible to get a signal in remote locations.

The thirty minute wait was not wasted. The boatman continued to tinker ineffectually with his engine while his passengers watched the one tusked elephant wade into the water and swim across the lake. I knew elephants can swim, but I had never seen it before. While their legs do a sedate doggy paddle - or rather elephant paddle - they swim just below the surface using their built-in snorkel.

As the heat abated a herd of deer came down to the water,….
A herd of deer come down to the water. Nagarhole National Park
…. while on a nearby sandbank an Indian darter was hanging out its wings to dry. Like cormorants, darters’ feathers absorb water allowing them to swim below the surface with only their necks protruding. Their unusual neck muscles make them look like rearing snakes, hence their alternative name ‘serpent bird’. From most angles, though not in my photograph, they are sinister looking birds.
An Indian darter dries its wings, Nagarhole National Park
Eventually the relief boat showed up....
The relief boat arrives....
... and we all moved across.
...and we all move across
We did not go far before our next halt. There on the mud was a crocodile, its mouth agape….
Crocodile, Nagarhole National Park
….while on the bank just above (the same tree stump can be seen in both photographs), sitting as relaxed as you like, was a gaur, the Indian bison and the largest bovine still in existence. 
Gaur, Nagarhole National Park
As we left the gaur we entered the hour before sunset when all the animals come to the water’s edge.

We saw a herd of spotted deer….
Spotted deer, Nagarhole National Park
….several of the larger sambar deer and a few wild pigs…
Sambar deer (left), spotted deer (right) and wild pigs (behind) Nagarhole National Park
… and a whole herd of gaur and, in quieter areas, more elephant.

Gaur - and a few spotted deer, Nagarhole National Park

We made our way back to the lodge arriving just as the sun was setting.
Sunset on Kabini Lake
There were a few coracle fishermen out on the lake – I am not convinced I would back their flimsy craft against a crocodile.
Coracle fishermen, Kabini Lake
By the time we had disembarked I had to set off for my massage. A film about local wildlife was starting in the clubhouse at 7.45 and if the massage took an hour we would miss the first 15 minutes, but that seemed no great loss.

At the Ayurvedic Centre the proceedings were similar to those I experienced in Sri Lanka, except the Indian way is to provide a loose cotton g-string, more for show than to cover modesty, but it is not a good look for a man of my build. I sat on a chair for a back and shoulders massage then lay on the slippery, oily wooden bed for the body massage. For 45 relaxing minutes I was rubbed from head to foot in warm oil. When that was over I had a steam bath and finally, unlike in Sri Lankan, I was offered a shower before putting my clothes back on, not that soap and water did much to remove the oil.

Lynne was a little miffed when I returned at 8.20 rather than the promised 8 o'clock. 'We've missed the film, ' she said. 'But at least I smell lovely,' I countered. She had a sniff. I expected her to say something about sandalwood and cinnamon but instead she said 'smells like cooking oil to me.' We may have missed the film, but were in time for the bar where we had a gin and tonic and a chat with four other survivors of the broken down boat, an American IT entrepreneur and the thirty-something senior managers of his Indian company who were on a 'bonding trip’. Then we went to the canteen for a different but equally good buffet.
Gecko on the wall at Kabini Lodge
These little fellows work tirelessly to keep the insect population down

We were awake before the 5.45 knock on the door. By 6.15 the safari departure point was full of milling people but again, despite the apparent confusion, a man with a clip board told us which vehicle we were assigned to and around six thirty, pretty well on time, we set off towards the forest. With so many vehicles we were concerned that it might be like our Sri Lankan experience in Yala where the crush of snarling jeeps frightened the animals away. We need not have worried, Nagarhole was big enough to absorb all the vehicles and ensure we rarely met.

It was a misty morning and chilly, too, at least when driving in an open vehicle. Our Indian companions wore woolly hats and pullovers, but as hardy north Europeans we eschewed such comforts, confident it would warm up later.

According to the white board outside reception tigers had been seen on three of the last five days, but only one vehicle had to see a tiger for it to be recorded so the odds were still against us. At the point where we left the tarmac and headed onto the rough forest roads I saw this poster and photographed it in case it was the nearest thing to a tiger we saw. As I have reproduced it here, you may deduce that it was.
The only tigers we saw
For a while we did not see much except trees and mist. We did see peacocks, looking far too exotic to live in the wild, but they are always common.
Peacock, Nagarhole National Park
A racket- tailed drongo - another fairly common bird, but always worth seeing - flew across the path and posed in a tree. My picture is no danger of winning a wildlife photography award but you can see the unlikely rackets that dangle from its forked black tail the best part of a body length below it.
Racket-tailed drongo, Nagarhole National Park

There were, as ever, spotted deer among the trees…

Spotted deer among the tress, Nagarhole National Park

…and then we saw this magnificent stag looming out of the mist by the lake and things started to improve.

Stag looking out of the mist, Nagarhole National Park

 There are 29 species of mongoose. These two, I am fairly confident, are stripe-necked mongooses which we have seen in India before but this is by far the best photograph we have managed (and even then is not good). The common grey mongoose in Sri Lanka is much cooperative.

Stripe-necked mongoose, Nagarhole National Park

As the day warmed the monkeys came out to play, bonnet macaques and black faced langurs. At one point a large male langur came swinging down from the trees, calling angrily and dashed across a clearing to chase away a potential challenger and reassert his authority over a group of females. The best langur picture I have though, the family group below, was taken here in 2010.

Balck faced langurs, Nagarhole National Park (2010)

The Malabar giant squirrels can often be seen in the trees but for the first time we also saw them on the ground. Brown, tawny and white, larger than a domestic cat with broad bushy tails they looked too large to scurry about like squirrels, but that was exactly what they did. We have seen them several times, and this 2010 photograph is the least unsatisfactory.

Giant Malabar squirrel, Nagarhole National Park (2010)

Serpent eagles sat at intervals, wherever there was a good vantage point, waiting patiently for a snake-y meal to appear. There are, apparently 16 species of serpent eagles. This a crested serpent eagle, spilornis cheela (I think).

Crested serpent eagle, Nagarhole National Park

We drove through the forest, along the forest edge…

Along the edge of the forest, Nagarhole National Park

…and down to the lake where we saw some wild pigs…..

Wild pigs by the waterside, Nagarhole National Park

….but saw no elephants, no leopards and certainly no tigers. Overall our safari was a little disappointing and even seeing a very clear tiger paw print was only a small compensation.

Tiger paw print, Nagarhole National Park

We were back at the lodge by 9.30 for a late breakfast, before setting off south with Thomas towards Ooty.

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