Mornings in forests are busy just like ours are in the city, but they’re not half as nerve-wracking or discordant. In cities, mornings come armed with a singular sense of manic urgency. From the second that alarm goes off, to the drilling that starts way too early at the construction site next door, to the scramble to get dressed and pack lunchboxes, to wasting away in endless traffic. These are the mornings I have come to expect in Mumbai. This is why forests hold such special appeal. Because while a forest isn’t silent by definition – everything is constantly communicating with everything – it’s just the kind of quiet you need.
At the Old Magazine House in Dandeli, a town in Karnataka, I was awakened by the call of a Malabar whistling thrush. If you’ve never heard this bird, its popular name – the idle schoolboy – will give you an idea of what it sounds like. I lay in bed and listened to the delightful lilting whistle repeatedly rise and fall as dawn broke over the forest. Other calls joined in: the rhythmic “tuk tuk tuk” of the copper-smith barbet, the toy-machine-gun call of the giant Malabar squirrel, the whooping of langurs. Animals and birds calling together, all at once, but in perfect harmony. Like an orchestra. Everything saying to everything else, “Hey, I’m up.”
Jungle Lodges & Resorts has two properties in Dandeli: Old Magazine House in Ganeshgudi, and Kali Adventure Camp. Both lodges, while at a distance of just 22km from each other, leave you with very different experiences. Old Magazine House is wilder in character, removed from civilisation, surrounded (fenced in, almost) by dense forest. There’s no network here, unlike at Kali, and I was grateful for the peace that granted me.
Kali Adventure Camp is more manicured, and sits on the banks of its namesake, a few of its tented cottages offering a bedside view of the river. There is a play area for children, and evenings are spent by the bonfire, listening to stories of the forest and watching documentaries of the wild. The majestic Kali is temperamental, flowing leisurely in some stretches – perfect for teppa (coracle) rides – and roaring around bends in others – better for rafting and kayaking. This stretch is home to around 200 crocodiles and if you take the 3km coracle ride, you’ll see them either basking on the banks or swimming. It was so exciting to be on the same river, scouting the water for their presence while the magnificent brahminy kites circled above, wings seeming almost aflame in the sunlight. We met a feisty young one, floating less than two feet away, who dove underwater with a great splash, rocking our tiny teppa. If you don’t fancy sharing space with crocodiles in the water, the lodge has a viewing point that overlooks what is suitably known as Crocodile Island. It was near here on an evening stroll that I met the resident hornbills, the Malabar pied and the Malabar grey – large, gorgeous and extremely vocal.
Dandeli has changed the way I understand birds. It is one of the top destinations in the country for birding, with sightings that include the Malabar trogon, paradise flycatcher, crimson-backed sunbird, blue-bearded bee-eater, and of course, the hornbills. I’ve never been a birder. Except for raptors, bird sightings bored me to tears. I am ashamed to confess that no matter at how many safaris I vowed to take more interest in avian life, my eyes stubbornly scanned the landscape for big cats and snakes, somehow never registering bird names, let alone identifying them. Staying at the Old Magazine House introduced me to the delights of birdsong. Listening to the forest in the mornings, over breakfast, without the interference of big cats, I realised that while I wasn’t so absorbed by how a bird looked, I was slayed by the different types of calls that reverberated across canopies. The lodge has a birdbath area, where birders can spend happy hours documenting their sightings. I correctly identified three birds by their calls before we left. My wildlife notebook, where I scribble and sketch things on travels, now has a birding section.
The Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve, which is part of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, is open to safaris through the year. The Gowli (mainly a herding community) and Siddhi tribes share this beautiful, primarily teak and rosewood forest with its wildlife. Drive toward Shilori Peak, where you’ll see evidence of intensive mining that was stopped in the 1990s, or stop by Nagzari Valley for the views, but it’s the birdlife that will truly stun you. Keep your eyes on the forest floor too for the king cobra, scorpions and tarantulas. Having said that, Dandeli is home to the elusive black panther (melanistic leopard), and we saw pugmarks that could well have been made by one (or at least that was the story we went with). These animals are incredibly shy, and people make multiple trips for that one glimpse.
Well, challenge accepted.
For more information on stay options and details, go to junglelodges.com.
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.