The former hunting grounds of the Mysore Maharajas is today a swathe of wilderness in Karnataka, stretching across the foothills of the Western Ghats, from the Kerala border on the west right onto the banks of the Kabini River on the east. The forest is better known as Nagarhole National Park, and also as Rajiv Gandhi National Park, but to long-time lovers of this wild land, it is simply ‘Kabini’. The vast river Kabini separates Nagarhole from Bandipur National Park on the opposite bank, and together, the two reserves are prime country for the most elusive big cats.
Within this untamed forest of slender dindal and lush teak roam a healthy population of those most stealthy of cats — the leopard. While the mighty tiger is often spotted along safari trails or by the many watering holes, the leopard likes to lope around on tree branches. Perhaps the most enigmatic of Nagarhole’s residents however, is the black panther.
Nagarhole’s major USP lies in the fact that it remains open throughout the year, much unlike most tiger reserves in India. Even during a particularly violent monsoon, I am lucky enough to spot elephants, gaur, and even a drenched-to-the-bone tiger on a rain-washed safari.
The tourism area of the park is divided into Zone A and Zone B. Zone A is a deeply wooded inland area, while Zone B stretches close to the river’s edge. Both areas offer unique sightings and rich biodiversity. Jeep safaris can operate in one of the two zones. Canter safaris, however, are free to cross between zones on a single safari trip.
Main roads, such as the Nagarhole Road that slices through the park and connects to Coorg, are open to private vehicles from 6 am to 6 pm. Visitors can drive through the park and catch a glimpse of wildlife along the way. Strict rules are in place for private vehicles — you are not allowed to stop or disembark, and vehicles are only allowed to stay inside the park for a fixed period of time.
Kabini also offers the option of a boat safari. In the summer, when the forest’s waterholes are dry, animals come down to the river for a drink. Gliding along in a boat and spotting herds of elephants, deer, and even a tiger on the river bank is truly a special experience. A boat safari is also a great way to spot several species of resident and migratory waterbirds.
On drives through the park, herds of spotted deer appear at every turn. My guide says there are over 35,000 chital in this park, though there is no way to verify this number. With such an incredibly healthy prey base, it is no surprise that the dense tropical forest supports a large population of predators. Tigers and leopards dominate the food chain, preferring the cover of bush and tightly packed trees. Packs of dhole or wild dogs are often seen in meadows, stalking prey or scavenging. Imposing lone tuskers rumble along the forest majestically, while herds of female and young spend their days foraging. The magnificent gaur with its sinewy muscles is a sight to behold.
Smaller critters are everywhere: toads croak their hearts out after a spell of rain, and a fat, red-faced mongoose pricks his head up to investigate.
With over 200 species of birds, Nagarhole is a hotspot of avian life. I spot a serpent eagle deftly scoop up breakfast from the side of the trail, and see the huge wingspan of a hawk eagle gliding overhead. Peacocks dance in the meadows, while closer to the water, visitors can see spot-billed ducks, ospreys, and several other waterbird species. Keep an eye out for an abundance of kingfishers, woodpeckers, and racket-tailed drongos.
Nagarhole National Park remains open throughout the year. July to September are the monsoon months when sightings are low and safaris are often washed out. From November to February, sightings are good and the weather is pleasant. In the hotter months of March to May, sightings are probably the highest, as animals emerge in search of water. The park tends to be quite crowded from December-May, so book in advance.
SAFARI COSTS & TIMINGS
Timings: Twice daily safaris run from 6.30 am to 9 am and 3.30 pm to 6 pm. Safaris are of two types: jeep safaris that seat anywhere between 6-10 people, and canters, which are like mini buses, that seat upwards of 20 people.
Costs: Canter safari tickets cost Rs 500 per person (250 safari ticket + 250 park entry fee), and need to be bought at the gate in advance.
Jeep safaris do provide a better experience, but cost more. Some hotels offer jeep safaris as part of their package. If you’re booking independently, expect to pay Rs 1,500 per person, including the park entry fee.
Camera costs are separate.
Most visitors choose to drive or hire a cab from the nearest railway station at Mysore (95 km/4 hours) or the nearest international airport at Bengaluru (235 km/6 hours), as Nagarhole has to be accessed by road. Public transport options are few and far between, with a handful of local buses that ply up to Karapura, the stop closest to the park.
Kabini River Lodge (Jungle Lodges & Resorts): The state tourism department run resort was the former hunting lodge of the Mysore Maharajah, and retains its regal, colonial flair. Set on the banks of the Kabini in a vast ground of bamboo and teak trees, there are a range of cottage and tent options, a central dining area, as well as a wood-lined bar. (Doubles from Rs 17,700 including meals and safaris).
Jungle Inn: Situated near the quieter Veeranahosahalli gate, in the northern part of the park, Jungle Inn offers modest but comfortable cottages in green grounds, and a common dining hall. Meals are wholesome, and the property’s proximity to the park gate is a bonus. Doubles start at Rs 3,500 and include all meals.
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