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Tusker Country
ET Travel , January 2008

NOTHING can quite compare with the trumpeting of an elephant in the secret depths of an Indian jungle. We heard the lone behemoth’s clarion call as we sat in a boat that idled briefly in the Kabini River. On the distant shore, lined with stands of feathery Giant Bamboo, his white tusks gleamed in the fading sun and his heaving flanks were clearly discernible in the gloom. The undergrowth rustled and soon he was gone, giving an ear-piercing trumpet as he moved away, a call that echoed with primeval intensity through the jungle.
For a while we lingered, gazing in awe at the empty space where he had been, listening to the sounds of a forest readying for the night. Danger quivered in the air, carnivorous animals were close at hand, we imagined, watching and waiting to dispose of the week with a fatal blow…a part of nature’s macabre dance where only the fittest survive.

Our boat chugged to life and we felt a frisson of fear as we imagined feline eyes in the bush and the irate elephant crashing through the jungle. Back at Orange County Resort, Kabini, a new, subtly sophisticated jungle resort, we reveled in the luxury of our villa with its private plunge pool and Jacuzzi and designed on the lines of the mud-walled hadis of the local Kadu Kuruba tribe. The handcrafted four-poster beds, tribal-print curtains, split-bamboo ceilings, open-courtyard-attached bath created a mellow rustic ambience amidst the intensity of a jungle experience.

The resort, located close to the Nagarhole and Bandipur forests, goes beyond the purely decorative and is committed to low impact tourism. Natural materials are used, enthusiastic local staff serves guests and the resort has provisions for rain water harvesting and ecological methods of waste disposal. A reverse osmosis plant installed in each suite provides safe drinking water while reducing the negative impact of over 5,000 plastic bottles every year. This jungle sojourn was proving to be quite different from earlier ones where we would rough it out and retire to the dubious comfort of basic functional lodges after hot dusty safaris. The rules of the game are certainly being rewritten in the country’s national parks.
And after the sun had set in a flush of pink and lit the sky like a forest fire, to be followed by the slam of darkness, preparations were afoot for a cultural show by the blue infinity pool. The area was lit by paraffin lamps, and as we watched the Kadu Kurabas dance, we could feel the dervish-like primeval energy that they exuded as they whirled around a crackling fire. Sheer rhythm spiked their feet even as the deep silence of the night. Later, post a glass of fine wine and dinner, we retreated to our villa and gazed at the river lined by the lush mixed deciduous forest in the distance. A sliver of a moon hung in the star-spangled sky and shed its beams on our near-perfect world.
The next morning when mist hung on the far shore like s soft muslin veil, we embarked on a safari not in a rattletrap jeep but in a specially designed vehicle which resembled the open Land Rovers used in private South African game reserves. Narayan, the resort’s naturalist, accompanied us, and explained that Nagarhole, spread over 643.39 sq km of teak and rosewood forest, together with adjoining sanctuaries like Bandipur, also in Karnataka, Madumalai in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala, is the last refuge of the Asiatic elephant, and one of the few remaining protected habitats of the endangered tiger. The sacred Kaveri River coils serpent-like around the lush forestscape and which is why the sanctuary is called Nagara Hole or Snake River. On that morning safari, we drove through curtains of mist and saw all
manner of birds and beasts mingling raucously but un–aggressively. A herd of elephants munched on emerald turf even while they seemed to take a break to confer with each other on strategy; baby elephants were being protectively cosseted by the matriarch and a miscellany of aunts.
We left them to graze even as a pair of colorful parakeets screeched into the sky and a peacock preened for us for the briefest of moments before tip-toeing away. Elusive chital scampered away across sun-dappled meadows and we spied a herd of muscled but shy gaur who thundered into a thickest when they hears our jeep revving up to go close.

As the sun was now high in sky, we left the forest wonderland and made our way back to our resort fro breakfast in the open-sided restaurant with a view of the tranquil river. A trek to the local village was next on the agenda (one could cycle there too), and we strode down a rough-hewn road that arrowed past lush sugarcane fields to the tribal village where a village elder showed us around the simple settlement where they lived in consonance with the laws of nature.

And just as we were leaving, there was a ripple of excitement – our guide led us to a spot where a medicine man was in the process of drawing venom from the foot of a boy who had been bitten by a snake a while earlier. Clad in a short lungi and shirt, the medicine man prodded the boy’s temples, peered into his eyes and mouth, and fed him powdered root and put some on the spot where the snake had sunk its venomous fangs. He brushed a sprig of neem leaves across his foot even as he whispered a mantra himself. Slowly, the boy raised, a smile lighting his face and proclaimed that he could walk and that he was better. In the forest, we had observed nature’s unceasing rhythmic cycle where her laws are not mere abstractions; in the tribal village, as the spectacle of the medicine man’s healing overtures unfolded, a Kadu Kuruba told us about a tribal saying, ”The bear and my ancestor lived feasting on honey. The bear always left half of the honey for my ancestor. If my ancestor harvested the first, he left half of it for the bear. Sharing the honey thus, they lived in the forest for ages. The denizens of a fragile habitat had demonstrated to us how man can share rather than ravage nature’s bounty.
- Gustasp & Jeroo Irani

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