Just by sinking my feet into freshly rained-on grass in the middle of a jungle, as opposed to battling to breathe, inside a clammy Mumbai metro compartment, my evening has turned extraordinary. When I find out that a guided nature walk through Bandipur is up next, my energy levels spike as if I’ve downed several Red Bulls. I am standing on the pruned lawns of The Serai Bandipur in Karnataka; a forest lodge sprawled over 36 acres in the Western Ghats and the gorgeous Nilgiris. 36 acres! How big is that big? The size of a football field? A mall? Perhaps, two? Distant calls from a troupe of pale-billed flowerpeckers flitting somewhere outside the property’s fenced gates interrupt my thoughts. Just then, naturalist Sudesan Kuttappan chimes in with a warm, high-pitched “Hello. Good evening ji.”
The staff affectionately calls him Mowgli, a nickname that has stayed even after Kuttappan’s long locks haven’t. “Ever wondered what a cobra bite looks like?” he quizzes me, rolling up his khaki sleeves to reveal an inch-long scar. I acknowledge his been-there-done-that persona with an awkward smile. Soon we leave the lodge to explore 18 acres of attached forest land.
Barely five minutes pass when we come across pugmarks and poop, still stinking and moist. “First rule of the jungle? You hear any noise, you run,” Kuttappan says in jest, sensing my nervous excitement at the prospect of sighting an elephant. Given that my alertness level is 10/10, my ears shoot up at the faint sound of rustling leaves. “There it is!” Kuttappan yells, motioning towards a canopy of sandalwood trees, but by the time I train my eyes to where he is pointing, the adolescent mammal is already one with the bushes. Kuttappan’s perseverance is however unfaltering; he breaks into a run, chasing after the creature at a speed I didn’t expect his 56 years could pull off. Perplexed, I follow suit until we stop shy of a three-foot tall concrete border. Kuttappan begins to holler, cupping his mouth with his hands. The animal seems adamant, and so does Kuttappan, for he continues to make indescribable sounds whilst tracking the ends of the wall. Fifteen long minutes pass and then, trumpets echo. The tusker finally rises from behind the dense thicket, parting it dramatically. Muddy brown, the eight-footer inches closer as I stand still, speechless, his curious eyes meeting my transfixed gaze. As if realising we have called his bluff, he playfully flaps his ears before disappearing into the forest along with the last ray of light.
Landing in Bengaluru the previous day by an early morning flight followed by a five-hour drive to the hotel exhausts me enough to head straight to my room. High-ceilinged, it’s basic, except for the private wood-furnished verandah with two rocking chairs. I sink into one to assess my surroundings. The lawn in front of me flaunts teaks and bamboos. I can see a pair of peacock frolic in the distance and a red-headed vulture idle atop an axlewood tree. Lulled by it all, I fall asleep to the hum of wind.
Hunger pangs wake me in time for dinner, and I follow the trail of white plumerias to Sanctuary, the property’s multi-cuisine restaurant. The spread is standard, but the views stupendous. I take a table by a French window and eat some prawn tikka and peppery mutton, all the while feasting on an inky sky rich with clouds like fluffy, white mozzarella balls.
Feeling groggy, I wake up at sharp 5.30 a.m. for the much-anticipated safari. Three years had passed since my first safari, in Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park. Not having spotted a tiger then, I am really gung-ho about my chances this time around. I zip my jacket to shield myself from the nippy weather, and with my guide, my travel companion Irene and three other American tourists, I enter the gates of Bandipur National Park. Almost immediately, we see squirrels dart up Banyan trunks and a little further, the grey junglefowls enthrall us with their flying skills. Over the next three hours I see herds of sambar grazing dewy pastures and wild boars grunt as they casually stroll across a paved pathway. Picking audio cues our canter comes to a halt and reroutes, leading us to tail a lone gaur. I am amused to see a hulky bison that weighs a whopping 1,000 kilos scurry away at the sight of humans less than 1/10th its weight.
But where is the tiger? The safari has ended, and my dejection shows. “Bandipur will call you back in due course,” Irene laughs, consolingly. Maybe third time would be the charm.
The Serai Bandipur is a five-hour drive from the Bengaluru airport (www.theserai.in/bandipur; the property has 24 rooms, including four log huts; doubles from Rs14,000). The lodge is inside Bandipur forest, gates to which remain closed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Guests are advised to enter well before.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.