Last summer, I learnt of the buzz around sightings of a black panther in Kabini, Karnataka. In reality, the black panther is any big cat (in this case, a leopard) with a melanistic gene, that gives it a dark colour. I saw several fantastic photos of the lithe, ink-black cat, peering out of frames with a quiet air of nobility. Its home—the region of Kabini, named after the river—is located right between Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks. I had put it on my wish list immediately, but it was only in March this year that I finally checked into the Kuruba Safari Lodge, located on the banks of the river.
Evolve Back’s Kuruba Safari Lodge is named after the local Kuruba people. Its location is its strongest pull: The stunning panorama of the Kabini cutting through the two forests can be seen about 20 steps away from the hotel’s living area. Nature’s drama unfolds all day long; there are orange-and-yellow sunrises, sunsets pink and purple; clouds rolling in paint the blue skies with brushstrokes of grey and black. Watching the skies, the calm river and the thick forests in the distance is a satisfying holiday in itself.
“Huts” in Kuruba are spacious, and have a living room, a large bedroom, a bathroom, and courtyards with open-air pools or jacuzzis. But their most appealing feature is that they are inspired by Kuruba architecture; they all have thatched roofs, wooden furniture, and lampshades that are made of dried bottle gourd. The huts are dotted amid neem, cotton silk, and mango trees, making the place look less like a hotel and more like a local village. Kuruba has two restaurants—The Kuruba Grill, which specialises in grilled meat, and the riverside Honeycomb, where I had fish curry and rice before turning in on my first night. I had three safaris booked over three days, including a boat safari that takes visitors around the periphery of Nagarhole without entering the forest, yet is a unique way to experience Kabini.
The next morning, I awoke at five to take my place on a small boat outside the hotel. Six other guests and I and watched the sun rise over the Kabini as we sailed towards Nagarhole National Park for about 10 minutes. It was definitely the most beautiful way to approach the forest. Kabini’s placid waters, the view of the forests in the near distance, and the birdsong soothed the soul that had been rudely awakened by an alarm clock earlier.
We hopped into safari jeeps waiting at the bank to explore the national park, the deciduous forest of Nagarhole, mostly populated with teak trees. Within five minutes we saw our first wild elephant—there are more than 2,000 elephants in this area, lured by the lush grass at the riverbanks, and it is nearly impossible to leave Kabini without seeing them. Munching away through grass without a worry, it did not even look up at us. At the end of the safari, we saw another elephant strolling languidly until it gave a sudden start and lo, there was an Indian rock python slithering menacingly on the ground. The elephant had seen or sensed it, and beat a hasty retreat. The incident cheered up the entire jeep that had failed to see the black panther or any big cat that day, despite numerous alarm calls throughout the safari.
The jungle always throws up something wonderful. Nagarhole teems with wildlife and over the three safaris, I saw chital, sambar, elephants, birds of prey like the shikra and the serpent eagle, and loads of peacocks. The boat safari along the banks skirting the forest was a novel experience—I got much closer to the elephants than on land—but the jungle safari remains my first love. Inside Nagarhole, for instance, I relished watching an osprey steal fish from a snake bird, two male spotted deer lock horns over a female who walked away uninterested, and a peregrine falcon, believed to be the fastest bird on the planet, swoop down on its prey. There was never a dull moment.
I returned without seeing the black panther, which saddened me for a while. But now, it has become an excuse to return to both the Kabini river and the jungle.
Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge lies in Kabini, a 273 km/5.5 hr drive from Bengaluru airport and 90 km/2 hrs away from Mysore railway station. The property offers 37 pool and jacuzzi huts (www.evolveback.com; doubles from Rs42,000; jeep safaris to Nagarhole Rs2,000, boat safaris Rs2,000).
Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer and editor based in Delhi. She was executive editor of India Today's travel magazine till end-2013 when she decided to get out of the office routine for a few months to see what having a life feels like. She never went back.