Planet Goa | February 1st, 2012
“If you are game - so are we” teased the Karnataka Wildlife Reserve brochure sitting on my coffee table. It had been there for weeks, staring at me unblinkingly to see if I would take the bait. Despite December being technically regarded as ‘off-season’ for wildlife sightings, and especially in a region as thickly forested as Karnataka, the idea of all that lush green countryside was just as appealing as the wild elephant gracing its cover. Whilst all around me Goa was beginning to gear up for a season of sunshine-fuelled Christmas festivities, I found myself dreaming endlessly of an escape into the Indian countryside. Not only that, but my little boy had begun to talk incessantly about elephants. How could I resist?
Justifying the ensuing trip as a 'carpe diem style’ early Christmas present, within a few days we were winging our way from Goa to Benglaru (Bangalore).The early evening flight was a mere one hour hop, but it took twice as long to reach the city in a cab from the airport. This belied the fact that it had developed into a thriving metropolis in the twelve years since my previous visit, and I smiled at my fabricated memories of running through the wide open meadows of Benglaru. The upside of such large scale development was of course the new choice of stylish new hotels and glitzy shopping malls, but in my bid to avoid all things commercial and ‘Christmassy,’ I had booked into a deluxe hotel for a restful night before setting off very early the next morning.
The seven hour drive into the rural and tribal heartland of Karnataka should probably not be attempted at weekends, when all sane Bangaloreans hit the road to escape the Big Smoke - but the journey could easily have been broken up with an overnight stay in Mysore, eighty kilometres away. Taking the scenic route, however, was an important part of our trip. The heaving city traffic and imposing golden statues of Ganeshe eventually gave way to a landscape of crazily shaped hills and emerald green palm groves. As we drove deeper into Karnataka, the terrain grew fresher and greener with every kilometre, in spite of all the heat and dust.
A low arc of lushly forested hills provided the backdrop to an idyllic rural scene. Picturesque villages sat amongst softly waving fields of lilac sugarcane, wildflowers spilled from hedgerows beneath the sheltering arc of Sandalwood trees, and herds of goats came slowly ambling home behind ox-drawn carts. If Krishna had come skipping out of a field pursued by maidens and brandishing a flute, I would not have been at all surprised. The last twelve kilometres took us along a bone jarringly bumpy dirt track, but as the sun began to set and wild hibiscus glowed like beacons in the dusk, the sheer beauty of the landscape meant that the bumpiness didn’t matter a jot.
We were heading for the Nagarhole National Park in Kabini, a pristine forest reserve on the banks of a reservoir. Spread over sixty four thousand hectares, this was once a popular hotspot for British Viceroys and Indian Royalty keen to hunt the rich wildlife of the Kabini backwaters. Summertime usually affords the best opportunities to spot leopards and tigers, but I was hopeful that even in winter we would be able to see herds of wild elephants — and maybe even a big cat. We were certainly to be in good hands in terms of our location, as our amiable driver Baloo cheerfully confirmed: “Madam has chosen very well! Plenty, plenty elephants in Kabini!” My four year old son could barely contain his excitement, although he was equally excited at the prospect of a) spotting an owl and b) spotting a dragon. (In that order.)