A visit to Kabini River Lodge has been long overdue for me. It is ironical that as a naturalist, I have visited almost all the forest in our country except Kabini and hardly a few more. I was not going to let this pending list bother me any longer and that is when I wrote to Jungle Lodges and Resorts to check on reservations. Ms. Shine Kuthoor who has been coordinating with me through the booking was very kind and professional and she made the booking process seem effortless. With my travel dates fixed and all the other intricate details finalised, I consciously decided not to read any article or information on Kabini River Lodge, since I wanted to go with a fresh mind.
I was told that Mysore Railway Station is the closest point to Kabini and it is just about 90 Kms from here. I was greeted by Mr. Amjad, a skilled driver working with Kabini River Lodge and in the next two hours our journey, he briefed me about the villages en route to Kabini. When I asked him about his job profile, Mr. Amjad said that he has been working with Kabini River Lodge for 17 years and he is a trained driver for jeep safaris. He eventually learnt that am a keen bird watcher and helped me spot birds along the way.
On arrival, I was taken to the reception, where one of the team members, pointed a map and explained me in detail about the topography of the resort. I was given a beautiful cottage to stay and when I stepped outside to the verandah, I was greeted by the Kabini River itself. There were myriad wild activities around the verandah, with dragonflies, butterflies and birds dominating the scene. My first stop was to have a quick breakfast which was served in the dining place called Gol Ghar, not far away from my cottage. The food is essentially South Indian, with one or two dishes that are specifically the cuisine of Karnataka. While I was helping myself with the buffet spread, I heard serious discussions from the other guests talking about the safari that they had gone that morning. Post safari discussions seemed to be a daily ritual here in Gol Ghar. I heard one guest talking about how he photographed a leopard devouring a deer and another guest talking about a herd of elephants that he saw during the coracle ride and on another end there were bird watchers making an oral list of birds seen in the safari. Every single soul was deeply engrossed and even children seem to have gotten hypnotized in the aura of this discussion that a fresh face like me almost felt I had travelled with them in their morning drive. Suddenly out of nowhere came this young and energetic person, who introduced himself as Kunal Sharma, Resident Manager of Kabini River Lodge. Since I was planning to write an article on Kabini River Lodge, we decided to catch up later that afternoon for a detailed discussion on the history of Jungle River Lodges & Resorts (JLR).
I was making a list of questions for Kunal and sooner, when afternoon came, we sat by the beautiful Reception area. Being the Resident Manager of such a huge operation, Kunal is undoubtedly the most difficult person to catch and if you ever catch hold of him, the best is not to let go and ask about his jungle adventures. A bundle of knowledge, Kunal has been working with Jungle Lodges & Resorts for 6 years. As we were talking about his work, he suddenly got up and walked up to a private car, whose driver had left the vehicle without turning it off. He directed the staff to look for the driver and went on to request the other passengers in the vehicle not waste precious natural resource. We then continued with breaks here and there with Kunal answering series of questions patiently and here is what I learnt.
It all started in the year 1978, when Mr. Gundu Rao, the then Tourism Minister of Karnataka was invited to Nepal to attend the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) conference. He was made to stay at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodges, a world renowned wildlife resort in Chitawan National Park. The Minister was intrigued by the concept and its way of operations and wanted a replica of the same to be made in Karnataka. The Minister did spend a lot of time researching on the nuances and finally invited Tiger Tops to start a similar venture in Nagerhole (now called Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve), Karnataka. In the year 1980, a joint venture was agreed upon between the Government of Karnataka and Tiger Tops and that is how 'Jungle Lodges and Resorts' was incepted. Four people were delegated to set up JLR – Captain Gurung, Jim Edwards, Romesh Mehra and John Wakefield. JLR have been successfully running operation for the last 30 years and today they have around 16 resorts under its wings, with Kabini River Lodge being one of the key eco tourism operators. Kabini River Lodge was rated by Tatler's Travel Guide (1995) as one of the top wildlife resorts in the world. JLR was named 'The Best Eco Tourism Organization' by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India (1997-98). In the year 2008, CNBC-AWAAZ adjudged Kabini River Lodge as the site with the 'Best Eco Tourism Practices'.
JLR being an ecotourism organization, most of the regulations are self imposed and strictly adhered to. For example, there are two routes for jungle safaris. Section – A called Sunkadakatte and Section – B called Kabini backwaters. It is the duty of the Senior Naturalist, one Mr. Umesh, who has been working for nearly 25 years to assign jeeps to these routes. Only 10 vehicles in the morning and 11 in the evening are permitted to enter the core area of the forest. JLR completely discourages loud music and encourage the visitors to stay outside. The rooms do not have air conditioners and for those who expect AC's even in the jungle - please open your eyes to the nature around. Kunal further explains that they have made the villagers in and around Kabini River Lodge as an integral part of the ecotourism initiative. This place also has 126 employees and every single one of them are from the villages around. Kabini River Lodge also has a fantastic waste management system – almost every single trash is reused and some of them sold in shops. The garden furniture that you would notice in the venue could easily be taken for designer furniture, but in reality, it is made from the waste and done by the locals.
Kunal asked another senior naturalist, Mr. Bheemaiah, to join our discussion. I had noticed earlier in Gol Ghar that he had an amazing story telling ability. He made his guests drop their jaws in awe from the way he explained his jungle stories. An ardent tree lover, he can easily identify every tree in this area. Mr. Bheemaiah explained the process in which they get their 'Naturalist' certification. It is a rule in JLR that every employee dealing with guests must get a naturalist certification, where they learn how to handle guests. A short term course is conducted by the Jungle Lodges and Karnataka Ecotourism Development Board, Forest Department – where experts are asked to train the employees and are given both theoretical and field tests at the end.
After making notes of all these points, I went ahead to the Interpretation Centre since guests were expected to be there by 15:00 Hrs for tea and briefing before they set out for evening safari. To the dot, came the refreshments and Mr. Bheemaiah as well, giving a brief talk about Nagerhole and its flora and fauna and the code of conduct during the jeep safaris. Once you are given your jeep number, you are greeted by fellow guests and in the next ten minutes, you are out in the jungle. Every jeep has a naturalist besides the driver. They cross check if we have turned our phones off and request us to stay calm in case we spot anything. The naturalist who came in our jeep was Mr. Afsar, with an experience of 15 years. While he was talking to us about white bellied wood pecker, he suddenly asked the jeep driver to stop the vehicle. He quickly got down and walked to the other side of the dirt track and picked up a plastic that was lying on the forest floor. One final scan and he ran back to the vehicle since getting out of the vehicle is not allowed. Later I learnt that Kabini River Lodge actively cooperate with the Forest Department staff during emergencies such as fires or injury to animals. The jeep goes at a forest friendly speed of 30 Kms/ Hour. The naturalist keenly listens to the sounds of the jungle and stops for any sighting for a quick glance and photographs.
By the second day, I could almost identify every single team member of Kabini River Lodge and almost felt like a part of their team. I also became part of the daily ritual of discussing the happenings of the safaris, which was extremely satisfying. Later that evening, I stopped by in the Viceroy building, one of the oldest building, which is now a bar and has a room for movie screening and one another for exhibiting photographs. Mr. Venugopal, the bartender is one of the senior most employees of JLR. He joined the organization when he was 18 and he has two more years to retire. In the 30 years of work experience, he has worked in almost all the resorts under JLR. He said that JLR is the best place to work and continued saying, 'We do not work in the city, it’s so crowded. This place is the best. What more do you need? A good employer, a great working atmosphere and most important - job satisfaction. I have all!’ He then talks about the man behind JLR – the visionary, Colonel John Felix Wakefield (popularly known as Papa John), who was passionately involved in ecotourism based conservation over the past 30 years. Venugopal said that Papa John worked even at an advanced age. He would interact with the guests on a daily basis and even more in detail with the naturalist to understand the intricacies. 'To say that Papa John, is one of the pillar of JLR would be an understatement', he finishes.
Almost every guest I spoke to said that they have been here few times before. Even the new guests swore that they would come back again and sooner. A good friend and one of the finest wildlife photographers, Mr. Mohan Thomas, who has been to Kabini River Lodge several times, writes about his experience - “Kabini most popularly known as the Leopard capital of India is easily the best wildlife reserve in the Southern half. It is also rated one among the top in the world. To see the best and most beautiful leopards in its natural habitat Kabini is the place. Tigers also are more abundantly seen here. It's known for its herds of Elephants present in the backwaters. Also a hotspot for numerous birds and other mammals. The lodge in itself offers a very comfortable stay with the staff always willing to help you in any way”.
When I requested Kunal that I would like to visit the local villages and possibly the local school, he immediately assigned one Mr. Vijay, a naturalist, to accompany me. We went to Karapur Village, a beautiful village with small alleys and small houses and it seemed that everything about this village was petite. I should add that the village looked very clean. The villagers are either dependant on agriculture or the resort for survival. Vijay took me to a Tribal School which is maintained by State Government. We went right at the lunch hour and it was intriguing to see the school feeding the children their daily meals in an orderly fashion. Vijay immediately took me to the main office where he pointed a championship medal won on a particular sport hung on the wall. With his eyes gleaming with pride, it was quite obvious that he studied there and won the sports championship for his school. He went on to become a very keen naturalist. A true son of the soil, Vijay has truly been benefitted by the existence of Kabini River Lodge.
Three days flew by and I was in the car with Mr. Amjad heading back to Mysore. I could not stop thinking about Kabini River Lodge. What makes this place so beautiful? Is it the people running it – people like Shine, Kunal, Bheemiah, Umesh, Afsar, Amjad, Venugopal, Harish, Vijay and the other 120 in the team or is it the jungle itself? I knew the answer. It was the people. Every single soul in Kabini River Lodge love what they do and they share their love with everyone. It felt to me that they all owned that place and their passion for Kabini River Lodge and the jungle were beyond bounds. They made me to fall in love with Kabini and this is exactly what ecotourism is all about!