In the midst of the hardest year most of us have ever known, we at Toehold have been pushing the envelope, venturing out into the wild again, while keeping safety in mind. Our skippers have led multiple tours into the forests of Kabini and Bandipur, and have had phenomenal success, with our clients eager to visit the jungles again.
Harsha Narasimhamurthy of Toehold led two Kabini Photo Tours in September 2020 which had incredible sightings which have been detailed in this Kabini trip report.
Kabini Trip Report, 4-6 September, 2020
I led one such batch into Kabini on the 4th of September. With 11 clients raring to go, no one was more eager to get into the park that evening. The very talk of big cats excited the group. After a quick brief about the history of that magnificent forest, and the expectation for the days ahead, the guests packed into their jeeps and made their way to the jungles.
A bumper first safari
Overcast gloomy skies threatened to play spoilsport as the jeeps rumbled into Zone B for the first safari. As soon as the news of a leopard crossing the track reached our ears, we soon set out to track the cat and 5 minutes into the drive, a gorgeous leopardess graced us with her presence for a mere 10 seconds before she melted into the jungle.
It was after this that the jeeps parted ways, with one jeep heading towards the old MM Road, while we scouted the Kabini Backwaters looking for wildlife.
The elusive Temple Tigress
On that evening, Old MM Road held the fortunes as one of the jeeps sighted a beautiful tiger, and while we made our way there, we caught the leopardess again, who was now bold enough to cross the road in full view of the jeep, providing excellent photo opportunities.
The tiger seen on MM Road is one fondly known as the Temple Female and she put on a show for our group, marking her territory, prowling through the forest as she seemingly parted the foliage with her blood-curdling roars.
As our group lay in wait for the tigress, the forest suddenly rang out, with the guttural calls of the Temple Female reverberating through the dense foliage. For nearly half an hour, our group listened to the beast, in rapture, until she finally crossed into the other zone of the jungle. Leopard’s Lair had started with a bang, with the very first safari yielding incredible sightings, with high promise for the days ahead.
The group rounded out the day in the lap of nature, at the Jungle Lodges and Resorts as they took their first steps to becoming better photographers, soaking in the learning opportunities as I guided them through the basics of exposure and focusing, before telling them some gripping and entertaining stories from my years in the field.
Elephants, gaurs and other spectacular wildlife
After a torrential downpour that night, the group set out into Zone A the next morning. Although the safari didn’t yield any cats, their absence was barely felt as the photographers made some spectacular images of the stalwarts of Kabini, the Elephants and Gaurs against the lush green carpet of the monsoon, as well as the playful Indian Wild Dogs or Dholes.
The morning drive gave way to intense photography sessions full of learning where we delved into the vast ocean of wildlife photography, taking the group through the essentials of Autofocus, with practical examples and practice sessions to further their knowledge on the subject.
A few hours later, with our bellies full and content, it was time to head back into the park and satisfy the craving to see the king of the Indian jungle in his habitat. Back in Zone B under an unforgiving sun, it was a no brainer to head to the Backwaters to scan the waters for thirsty predators looking to quench their thirst. We had barely reached Boating Point overlooking the Kabini River before the bark-like alarm calls of the Langur monkeys and the terrified shrieks of the Spotter Deer seemed to engulf us, alerting us to the presence of a predator nearby.
Nervously clutching their cameras while their hearts beat with excitement, our group headed to the Mastigudi junction before one single, unremitting alarm call drew my attention back to the President Road, where I happened to spot a beautiful leopard cub, perfectly concealed in the foliage by the track. Extremely bashful, she retreated into the depths of the bush as the group continued to photograph her with their jaws hanging open in awe. Soon, the alarm calls were the only indication of her presence.
A photogenic male Tiger
With chatter that another tiger had been sighted close by, the excitement mounted as the jeeps forged ahead, only to find a magnificent male tiger sleeping on a bund a few feet from the road.
One of the male cubs of the famous Russell Line family of Tigers, he gave the group a good 30 minutes of photo opportunities before he too retreated into the forest, calling out loudly, maybe for his mother or a sibling. While everyone in the group gushed over their sightings and swapped photographs, the bright orange flash of another tiger caught my eye, as he darted across the track into a thicket, where he remained for the rest of the safari, just beyond the visual reach of the group.
After a lip smacking dinner and another photography session, where more questions about photography, wildlife and everything in between were answered, the group retired for the night, with the visions of their sightings of the day flitting in and out of their dreams.
Playful wild dogs and mighty gaurs
The last safari of the trip was one with some incredible photo opportunities of the playful wild dogs, bathed in the golden light of the early morning, sparring bull gaurs in an awesome display of power and strength, and a majestic Tusker in all his glory.
On their return to the lodge, after a commemorative group photo, it was time to bid adieu to what had been an unparalleled experience, with spectacular sightings and innumerable lessons learnt, both from the skipper, and from the jungle herself.
Kabini Trip Report, 6-9 September, 2020
The second batch of the Kabini Tour, known to us as the Verdant Haven held high promise, especially after the resounding success of the preceding tour. My confidence in our sightings was so high that I assured guests that I would break their streak of not seeing a Tiger in the wild. That promise seemed like a premonition for the sightings to come.
Predictions that came true
The first drive into the park took the group to Zone A, and we struck gold a mere 200 metres into the park, with a regal male tiger drinking at a waterhole called Hosakere, which is frequented by cats. Identified as the shy cub of the famous Backwater Female tigress from her previous litter, he taught us all an important lesson in wildlife tracking, because the very presence of the vehicle spooked him as he quickly melted into the wilderness.
The guests who had never seen Tigers in the wild were filled with the bubbling excitement of a young child as they beheld a dream come true in front of their eyes. But the safari had only begun.
The spotted queen of the salt pits
Under the steady drizzle that had struck, our group headed to an area called the Double Salt Pit, which had reported a new male tiger moving into the area. A leopard darting across the road caught my attention, but that was all we could see, owing to the shyness of the leopards of the area.
Surging ahead, the missed leopard sighting was quickly forgotten as a beautiful leopardess stood elegant and graceful as if posing for the group. As the camera shutters fired incessantly, she turned and slunk off into the undergrowth, though her presence was etched in the minds of the entire tour group.
The safari couldn’t have started better, with a tiger and leopard in the first 30 minutes.
There was a triumphant air to the group after the first safari of the group as we returned to the familiar comforts of the resort for our routine session on photography, its tips and tricks, advanced concepts and everything in between before a sumptuous dinner.
The gentle giants of Kabini
We ventured into Zone B the next morning under what seemed like a blanket of mist that had enveloped the forest, but luck and big cats evaded us. However, no opportunities were lost in photographing the massive gaurs and elephants, as well as the ever elegant and graceful spotted deer against the green drape of the monsoons.
Photography learnings and leopard sightings
A delectable lunch and another lesson in photography later, I guided the eager guests back to Zone A that evening, and while it was seeming like another cat-free safari, there was talk of a leopard crossing from Zone B to Zone A, hopefully right into our waiting gaze. Eyes darting from ground to treetop, it wasn’t long before one of the guests sighted the spotted phantom snoozing in a treetop hideout. The dappled golden light made for some absolutely cracking shots and the icing on the cake was when the spectre lifted his head to look straight at the jeeps.
The safari closed with the presence of a massive bull elephant in musth, almost seeming to show off for the group as they made image after image of him.
Back at the lodge, metering was the hot topic of the evening as spirited discussion ensued through the group, into the myriad worlds of the often misunderstood concept. Chock full of knowledge and armed with the tricks of the trade for the next safari, the group retired for the night soon after.
Tiger sighting on the EPT road
It almost seemed like the cats were waiting for the group the next day, as the group was graced by one of the best sightings anyone had had in years. Bearing down Old MM Road, it was instinct that prompted me to guide the group to check one of the outermost tracks of the forest, near the Elephant Proof Trench, fondly called the EPT Road.
The trench was created out of railway tracks to prevent the elephants from entering the villages. A quick streak of orange was the only forewarning before the gorgeous Russell Line Female tiger strode onto the path, walking head-on towards the jeep.
One of the oldest tigresses of Kabini, she was no stranger to the jeeps as she marched on, prompting the drivers to give her the space she commanded. After nearly a kilometre long march, she cut across the track, engaging in quintessential tiger behaviour, clawing and marking the trees, spraying to mark her territory, and grimacing as she took in the scent of the other tigers in the area.
Innumerable photo opportunities later, she finally trudged off into the depths of the forest, after which our group set their course to the familiar backwaters, where 2 tigers had been sighted earlier that morning.
An unsuccessful search later, they decided to call it a day, as they returned to the lodge in exultation at their luck for the morning.
The rest of the day went like clockwork, with the invaluable photography lessons after every safari, where beginners and veteran photographers alike benefitted from the discussions we had every session. Following lunch, the group ventured into Zone B again, only to return with no cat sightings for the evening, while having enjoyed photographing some of the more common denizens of the forest.
As the sun rose anew the next day, there was a new agenda on our collective mind. The Phantom. The Dark Lord. The Leopard, the myth, the legend. The elusive Black Leopard, fondly called BP or Blackie by Kabini regulars. Zone A was the battlefield for the morning and without wasting a moment, the group headed straight for the heart of Black Leopard territory, a part of the forest called Kymara. Our arrival was greeted by the emphatic alarm call of a Langur shattering the usual silence of the forests.
It was now that the tension mounted as everyone in the group wrapped their heads around the possibility that they would see the beast who had become the headline of Kabini in recent years. The panic among the forest dwellers mounted as the spotted deer, peacocks and even jungle fowl joined in sounding the alarm, as if telling the entire forest who was on the move.
Barely 15 seconds later, nearly every eye in the group locked onto what they all desperately hoped was the Black Leopard, but turned out to be the new leopard of the area, called the Kymara Male as he shot across the road in a flash. This was the male leopard who was giving the Black Leopard a run for his money, trying to take over his territory and establish dominance in the area.
The remainder of the safari passed without major event, although the morning light afforded the group some beautiful photo opportunities of the area’s resident pack of wild dogs.
The Kabini Tiger godmother
That evening, we decided to take another crack at the mysterious black leopard, forging ahead through a thick drizzle, waiting at the Temple Tank for nearly 30 minutes, straining our eyes for a tiger which had reported to have a kill stashed in the vicinity. We played a hunch and tried our luck again, moving towards the Russell Line, and were greeted by frantic Sambar deer calls echoing through the forest.
A few minutes later, a large herd of Spotted Deer sprinted across the road, very evidently trying to evade the jaws of a predator and a minute or so later, the gorgeous Russell Line female sauntered out of the forest giving us some fabulous photo opportunities.
We tracked her down her traditional path all the way to the temple road, before finally deciding to focus all their energies on the ghost of Kabini. Alas, the usual haunts of the Black Panther were devoid of activity, with the exception of a few stray alarm calls on the Balle-Barballe Road. Never losing hope, the group sat through the evening photography sessions, indefatigable in their efforts to capture the essence of Kabini in its true form.
Playful wild dogs
The stars of the last safari of the tour were the joyous, ever playful wild dogs having the time of their lives as they scampered up and down dead logs, posing elegantly for the firing cameras of the group.
With that, the participants of the tour departed from Kabini, with memory cards full of images, and heads full of memories, after 6 days in the park for some of them, with 12 sightings of 11 cats, this surely was a Kabini tour for the ages.