As dawn breaks over Karapur forest, the waters of the Kabini shimmer gold. Denizens of these parts stretch their limbs (or wings), flutter and blink awake, and make their way down to their favourite watering hole. As the mist lifts off the river in soft, grey swathes, an astounding variety of wildlife gathers on its banks, drinking water, looking for food, coming to life. The good news is that you can watch. Kabini River is flanked by two of the best national parks in this part of the country — Nagarhole and Bandipur — which make up the largest contiguous forest cover in the Nilgiri Biosphere. These forests are famed for their herbivores, especially the biggest gathering of Asiatic elephants, but the big cats also prowl. It’s a nature lover’s fast track to nirvana. And Orange County will make sure you get there in style.
I am too late for the morning show because I arrive at Orange County at noon, after driving over rutted village paths. But as I’m led to my ‘hut’, I feel my mojo return. The monsoons are long over and the air is pleasant. The Kabini seems serene. The Kabini Dam has formed a lake in these parts and in mid-January, the clear blue sweep in front of me is wide and deep, more soothing than a massage. My fatigue drops away. There is something oxymoronic about enjoying the wild in such luxury. ‘Back to nature’ never felt so good — and I mean good in the kingly bathtubs, chocolates-on-my pillow sort of way. By the time I’ve settled into my cottage with its gorgeous river views, I am beginning to feel I could get used to this. The cottages are widely spaced and there is a wonderful sense of privacy. Large French windows open out onto a sit-out where you can recline on deck chairs. A gentle breeze ruffles the treetops. Bright yellow birds — the common iora — chatter away on a nearby branch. The river is a few feet away and on its far banks, the forest waits.
Later, I tear myself away from riverside lazing and take the resort’s jeep safari into Nagarhole National Park. These 644 sq km of sprawling forest land are a safe haven for numerous species including the sloth bear, flying fox, wild boar, panther, spotted deer and gaur (Indian bison), apart from a profusion of monkeys, snakes and birds. The big cats, tigers and leopards, form the main (if more elusive) attraction but this is also pachyderm paradise and herds of elephants roam these forests in large numbers. As we trundle into the jungle, the monkeys greet us: first the more common bonnet macaque and then grey langurs, watching suspiciously from the trees. Malabar giant squirrels swoop and play, swinging their magnificent tails from branches. We pass spotted deer at a salt lick and later, their larger cousins, the sambar. Then at a pass in the jungle, we come to a stop. Across a clearing, almost perfectly camouflaged among the dry, golden-yellow bushes, is a leopard at rest. It ignores us as we behave like eager schoolchildren, clambering onto the seats and sticking our heads out of the open jeep, to get a better look.
Orange County has tried to draw on the culture of the Kadu Kuruba tribals who live in these parts, which is why the cottages have been given a rustic look to resemble the Kuruba hadis (villages). In keeping with the motif, the interiors consist of roughly hewn furniture and tribal print curtains. But you don’t need to scratch the surface to see that all the trappings of comfort are carefully in place: spacious suites with soft cushioned sofas, large-screen LCD television sets, gigantic four-poster beds and well-equipped kitchenettes with electric kettles and coffee makers. The bathrooms are the size of small rooms with large bath tubs, shower cubicles and separate ‘his’ and ‘her’ basins. They’ve taken care to let the real attraction — the Kabini River — occupy centre stage.
Apart from the generous sit-outs with river views, in some cottages the bedroom wall is also lined with windows from where you can see the waters. You can wake up to these lovely views. There are 8 Pool Huts and 29 Jacuzzi Huts. All have an open courtyard with either a standalone jacuzzi or a private pool with a built-in jacuzzi. Decisions. But jokes aside, this is perfect for balmy evenings when you can take a dip or get a water massage (or both) while gazing up at starlit skies. It’s a good idea to take advantage of all the activities and there are quite a few. Coracle rides, tribal village tour, elephant interaction and guided birdwatching. Tribal dance and documentary films are shown in the evenings. In the unlikely event that you tire of wildlife sightings, there are coracle rides on the Kabini and visits to the tribal village where you can meet the people of the Kuruba tribe. If you have children to keep entertained, the wildlife film screened every evening provides welcome relief while you watch the sunset from the Reading Lounge or relax in the infinity pool.
Buffet-style meals are served at Honeycomb, their only restaurant. It has a lovely patio with river views. The spread is quite lavish with a mix of regional and Continental fare and a decent array of salads and desserts. There aren’t too many speciality foods around here but the fish is fresh so try the traditional preparation if it’s on the menu.
Tariff: INR 29,000-37,000, with all meals.
By Anindita Sengupta
About the author: Anindita Sengupta is a poet and freelance writer based in Bengaluru. Her first collection of poems, City of Water, was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2010.