Destination Nagarahole – Shining jewel of India's jungles

Driving away from the remote Kutta village in south Kodagu district, our SUV occupied by members of my family crawled silently through the dense early morning fog on this winding Western Ghats' road. The powerful headlights lit up the signboard on which a tigress and cub were painted neatly, with "Welcome" etched in English and Kannada, the languages that a majority of the people of Karnataka state speak. Across the signboard was a check post of Rajiv Gandhi or Nagarahole National Park, among India's richest and deservedly the best known. The check post was manned by personal from the wildlife wing of the Karnataka Forest Department. Rubbing my hands to warm myself against the cool breeze that hit me as I stepped out of the vehicle, I approached one of the forest guards manning the check-post. Dressed in khaki field uniform, complete with a pair of anti-leech boots, "Saar" he said, "10 more minutes before I can let you into the park". A thermal mask muffled his voice as I lit my watch and nodded in agreement, the early sun yet to light the sky. I completed the formalities of visitors' registration at the check post, as the rest of my family anxiously watched me through the window.



A hoarding welcoming tourists into Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarahole) National Park near Kutta village, Kodagu District, Karnataka
A hoarding welcoming tourists into Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarahole) National Park near Kutta village, Kodagu District
As the night falls inside India's wildlife parks, various herbivores gather to graze along the edge of road and forest taking advantage of the restriction of entry of tourists from dusk to dawn. They do so, hoping that this clearing in forest will allow them to better view their would be hunters. This in fact attracts the hunters – tigers, leopards and Asian wild dogs to the roads, who know where their food is. To the tourists waiting at the park's entrance early in the morning, this is like the proverbial early bird getting the first worm. Early entrants into the park rarely miss the amazing variety of wildlife as they travel inside, before the wildlife disperses taking advantage of the sunlight.

At 6 AM sharp, we entered the park. We passed by a couple of small, water logged paddy fields, the monsoons keeping them lush. As the road entered the dense teak forests of the park, our eyes fell on a herd of Asian gaur. Indian bison, as they are some times called, is a misnomer though. Wary of our stopped vehicle, the calves in the herd hid themselves behind the massive adults and the tall vegetation. Inquisitive, a massive bull with its legs white, unlike the rest of its dark brown body, emerged out of the tall grass to give us a cold stare. A well-grown adult bison can weigh more than 1000 kilos and stand well over 6 feet. Respectfully, we kept our distance. Moving ahead slowly and observing the array of wildlife around, it roughly took us twenty minutes to reach Nagarahole, the starting point of the forest department safari's game-viewing vehicle.
A herd of gaur inside the Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarahole) National Park, Karnataka
A herd of gaur in the wilderness of Nagarahole National Park
Rajiv Gandhi or Nagarahole- the previous official and still the popular name of this National Park, is spread across the districts of Kodagu and Mysore along the border with Kerala. This famed south Indian jungle was once the favourite hunting ground during the Raj and the reign of erstwhile Mysore Maharajas. Fortunately, it is now a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), India's first. Spread over 5000 sq. km of some of Indian sub-continent's finest and largest contiguous forests, the NBR is home to the world's largest population of Asian elephants and among the most viable populations of Bengal tigers. Like Nagarahole Park much of NBR is located inside Western Ghats or Sahayadris as it is commonly known, a long mountain spine running parallel to the Arabian Sea bisecting the coast from Deccan Plateau in India's south-western part.

View Nagarahole tourism complex in a larger map

Nagarahole tourism complex as seen using satellite imagery
url:  http://goo.gl/maps/wPPFX


Lucky to be in the midst of this unparalleled wilderness we sat in rapt attention as the driver of the Safari vehicle and the accompanying forest guide took charge. Their eyes were better experienced to spot the wildlife here. A few hundred metres from the Ranger's office, the backdrop of the nearby Brahmagiri hill range reminded us of our location in the Western Ghats. Rising to over 5000 feet, these hills constitute the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary and form a spectacular backdrop to the lush green forests of this park. We could see an abundance of the beautiful spotted deer or chital, feeding on the luxuriant grass underneath the tall trees. As we approached a muddy pond in the midst of the forest, the vehicle grounded to an abrupt halt. Our guide pointed to a herd of Asian elephants, bathing lazily. We were told about 'Hadlu' or natural swamps found in these moist deciduous forests. They hold water through much of the year and provide excellent fodder for the herbivores and hence are also a favourite spot of the predators. Many birds like the greater racket tailed drongo and the crested serpent eagle could also be seen, before the vehicle moved ahead. With nearly 300 species of birds found here, some of which are endemic, the park is a bird watcher's haven at any time of the year.
A crested serpent eagle keeps an eye over the Kabini River inside Nagarahole National Park. More than 300 varieties of birds have been recorded in this park.
A crested serpent eagle keeps an eye over the Kabini River inside Nagarahole National Park. Nearly 300 varieties of birds have been recorded inside this park
Ahead, we came across a solitary wild boar, which seemed to be wandering aimlessly on the game road. As we stopped to watch it, a series of 'Oop, Oop, Oop' calls echoed in the trees overhead. These voices led us to a troop of Hanuman langurs, the blackfaced 'monkeys' revered by many Indians. These were the alarm calls that they raise when they sight a large carnivore like tiger or leopard. As the cameras in the vehicle clicked away, my eyes fell on a trail on the rain soaked track on which our safari vehicle was parked. At last, I could lay my eyes on some evidence of the lord of Indian jungle, the tiger. The huge pugmarks left behind by a tiger that had patrolled this very track a few hours or probably even a few minutes ago were clearly visible, without having to get off the vehicle. India's forests today hold a wild population of tigers that some estimate at less than 1700. This, a far cry from what some estimates put at 40,000 that might have ruled the wilderness at the beginning of last century. Fortunately, many of them find refuge in some very well guarded forests, like the ones we were in now. Rajiv Gandhi Park has among the highest densities of wild tigers in the world, a result of the tireless protection that the park continues to receive from the authorities that control it. Apart from tigers and leopards, packs of Asian wild dogs fearlessly roam these jungles. It is important to add, though this park is rich in big cats, due to their nocturnal habits and also due to the dense nature of the vegetation, sighting them in one visit is rarely possible. But there is so much this park has to offer to a visitor. Any visitor would be mesmerised by the sheer variety in flora and fauna that one can encounter here. This apart from the calm and serenity of these jungles that we so much need but dearly miss each day.
A male wild Asian elephant besides a forest track inside Nagarahole National Park
A wild Asian elephant besides a forest track inside Nagarahole National Park
Before you go:
Location and approach:
The park is located inside Karnataka state bordering Kerala. Mysore City located 96 km away is the nearest domestic airport while Bangalore located 246 km away is the nearest international airport. Taxis can be hired from both the cities.
Accommodation & food:
Though there are many accommodations surrounding the park, among the handful of places providing accommodation within the park boundaries is the tourism complex at Nagarahole. It is maintained by the Karnataka Forest Department and has luxury suites and double bed rooms. Food - Indian vegetarian, can be ordered. 
Jungle Lodges and Resorts run the well-known Kabini River Lodge at Karapura village, a public enterprise of the state government. This acclaimed resort offers packages, which include ride in either a country-made boat or mechanized boat along River Kabini and jeep rides into the jungle accompanied by accomplished guides. The boat ride is highly recommended in the dry season as it offers sweeping views of some of the largest gatherings of wild herbivores in south Asia. Those interested in photography, particularly wild Asian elephants, should not miss it. There are also a host of private resorts adjoining the park catering to visitors of different budgets, information on whom is widely available on the net.
Tourists enjoying a boat ride in the backwaters of Kabini inside Nagarahole National Park, Karnataka
Tourists enjoying ride in an Indian coracle (locally made boat lined with buffalo hide) in the backwaters of Kabini reservoir inside Nagarahole National Park. 
Best time to visit:
October to February is a good time to visit the park. The park is closed in summer to protect it from forest fires.
Nearby interesting places:
Neatly laid and well-maintained coffee plantations; beautiful hills and dense rainforests, are all a few minutes drive from the park. The picturesque Iruppu falls in the spectacular Brahmagiri wildlife sanctuary as well as Kerala, one of India's best-visited tourist destinations, are within half an hour's drive from Nagarahole tourism complex.
Coffee estates along the southern periphery of Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) National Park, between Konnanakatte - Titimati villages.
Neatly lined coffee estates enthral visitors while driving along the southern periphery of Nagarahole National Park, particularly on the way to Kutta and Konnanakatte villages.
Permission/ Reservations:
Daytime visit into the park is allowed. For overnight visit to Nagarahole Tourism Complex please see  http://www.karnatakaforest.gov.in/FRH_KFD/FRH.html#Gangothri  (retrieved 13 Jun '12) . To stay at Kabini River Lodge, visit  http://www.junglelodges.com/index.php/resorts/kabini-river-lodge.html (retrieved 13 Jun '12)
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