Visits to Kabini began in May 2012, initially as a one-off visit. Yesterday we returned from our 6th visit to that place. So much of it is the same, and yet so much different. We now know many of the naturalists, and they recognise us. Even then, every year it’s a different experience, bringing its own set of birds and animals. And even humans in the form of other guests. Sometimes even that trend is bucked and we start noticing people who had been seen in earlier trips, and their idiosyncrasies. And usually hoping we don’t end up with them in the same jeep.
Given its high density of Tigers and leopards, and that prized catch – the solitary Black Panther, Kabini sees a high density of ‘Bazookas’. A Bazooka is anyone, usually male, who has a camera attached to a large lens. The camera is usually a single digit Canon, or equivalent Nikon, and the lenses would be in 600mm usually. Despite the differences in brand, model or lenses, all Bazookas are united in one thing – they want to see big cats, and only big cats. They would be doing regular trips on forest safaris, but they always want big cats, and in different variations – a big cat sitting, or a big cat marking, a big cat posing with forelimbs on a mound, big cat in water, big cat drinking water, big cat resting on the ground looking at the camera with mouth open.
And given their obsessions with big cats, every moment of the safari that is not spent driving towards, looking for or waiting for big cats, is a moment wasted. This usually leads to all kinds of ‘politics’ and lobbying within Kabini.
- Nagarahole’s forest buffer zone, where safaris are allowed, is divided into two zones – A and B. ‘B’ abuts the backwaters of Kabini, and ‘A’ is further in. ‘A’ has what is known as the Tiger Tank. The Tiger Tank is a water hole that is, oddly, maintained by the forest department with a solar powered borewell nearby. They keep the water here replenished, and a tigress gave birth to three cubs 18 months ago nearby. Now these cubs are sub-adults and have their mother with them. This makes a tiger or a family spotting very likely. Needless to say, this is every bazooka’s holy spot, and the place they want to head to the minute they get into a safari.But, for every vehicle that goes to ‘A’, a vehicle has to go ‘B’. This means, if you’re staying for 2 days in the resort, and have 4 safaris, you need to be balanced between the two zones and there’s also the boat ride that is ‘mandatory’. Suffice to say, no Bazooka would be caught dead in a boat, or even in ‘B’. You can work out the rest, that there will be people who can stay there for two days, and not go anywhere near ‘A’. How do they pull it off? Do I need to spell that out?The trouble for us is that, we are not Bazookas, but we are not ‘families’ either. So we make good company for Bazookas, without noisy kids. So they prefer putting us on ‘A’ each time. We had to request to be put in ‘B’ and were met with some jeers from the naturalists.
- Kabini River Lodge has a board that says that no vehicle should stay in the same spot for more than 20 minutes, and a spot should not have more than 3 vehicles standing by. On the first safari, we ended up at the Tiger Tank. There were already 4-5 vehicles standing there. There was a tiger lying behind some bushes by the tank. If you looked closely you could see its stripes. Although you could say this is a good thing, remember that Tigers are cats. You can never say when they’ll wake up, and if they do, if they’ll come to the water or head right in. I mean, think CATS. This time, we waited there for close to one whole hour. Think about it. One whole hour, just waiting for the Tiger to wake up. One elderly bazooka in another jeep had kept his instrument ready to shoot the moment tiger emerged all this while. A Crested Hawk-eagle dropped by behind us, and two jeeps, including ours, went down to check out the bird. The bird entertained us for close to 15 minutes. During this time, the other four jeeps did not move an inch. We eventually left them, went along to see if we can find anything else, spotted a really close Tigress walking towards us. And made our way much later, after close to an hour, back to the Tank. Some jeeps were still there. That tiger was still sleeping. That elderly man still had his Bazooka ready! The Bazookas in our jeep were saying that he hadn’t spotted a tiger in the 2 safaris he’d done there, and had resolved not to leave without a Tiger spotting. That jeep had been there for more than two hours! But what about the rest of the folks in the jeep you wonder?
- When the Tigress that we spotted was walking towards us, we were obviously pleased. Watch it come close, pass by and go on. But wait, the Bazookas in our jeep had lenses that were of 600mm. Just 600mm, no zoom out. This meant that if the Tiger got too close they’d see only its stripes. And of course, you don’t experience a tiger, you only shoot pics of it with your Bazookas. So, we did the odd thing. As the Tiger came any closer than 30 feet, we moved back. “Reverse! Reverse! Reverse!” was the call as the Tiger walked towards us. Such is life – a Bazooka is both a boon, and a millstone you carry around your neck.
- The second evening, we ended up with three rows of Bazookas in the jeep with us marking the fourth row. The guy in the front wanted the ultimate prize – the Black Panther. We also ended up with a Tiger in the bush scenario, and left multiple jeeps waiting for it. The guest in the third row was supposedly an expert, and supposedly knew the haunts of all the cats. Which meant he kept giving directions, and the driver kept driving to those spots. We saw elephants, but we were not to stop. “I don’t even turn on the camera for elephants” scoffed the guy in the front. We both prayed that it would be a complete washout, and it was. There was a sloth bear at the very end walking far away, which bounded the moment it heard us behind.
- The second morning, we decided to take the boat ride. The naturalist who prepares the list asked us to take it in the evening, but we insisted on morning. That morning, there were only six people in the boat. They offered a jeep, but everyone in the boat had to agree. Four refused (including us), two wanted. We stayed on the boat. We ended up with a Tiger, and three Red-headed Vultures (commonly known as King Vulture) and 2 Greater Spotted Eagles feeding on a deer carcass. You can see Tigers and Leopards, not vultures or these eagles. Those vultures were so massive, majestic and beautiful, we almost wept when we got back, googled them, and found that these magnificent creatures are Critically Endangered. That might have been the whole population in that forest! We told the driver that evening, but he was keen only on one word – Tiger. “Dude, a KING VULTURE!”. “Did you say you saw a Tiger?!”
The last morning, we asked for ‘B’. We got put in with three elderly Americans. The driver-naturalist was the one who was with us on the first evening. He asked if we’d be keen on birds. “Please!” we said. After doing some stops for Langurs and deer, we saw a lot of woodpeckers, including two streak-throated ones on a tree in soft light. The naturalist said he’d never got a shot of a pair in one pic like that. We saw a white-bellied woodpecker, the second largest woodpecker in the world, an Indian Pitta, whose sighting is rarer than Tigers/Leopards, a few Crested Serpent Eagles, a grazing young tusker, and landed up in the middle of a massive Gaur herd. The best was when he spotted a scops owl nestled inside a hole in a tree.
There were no cats, but there was no expectation to see one. There were a few alarm calls, but that turned out to be a feral dog that had gotten into the forest. We stopped for 5 minute durations while he listened to any calls for cats, and we heard birds singing and calling. The Americans were just carrying binoculars and watching all birds without taking photos, while referring to a book on Indian birds. They were respectful to the surroundings and you didn’t hear the usual noise that you hear from Indian groups, usually from restless kids. It was the most peaceful safari we had been in in a long time.