1. Safaris with Shaaz Jung at The Bison, Kabini
Some people will tell you to go to The Bison only if Shaaz Jung is around. The self-styled ‘leopard man of India’ is also the charismatic artist-photographer-naturalist-director of the Bison Resort, one of several fantastic vantages from which to view wildlife in one of India’s most biodiverse tracts — the Kabini backwaters in southern Nagarhole. “This isn’t just about spotting animals — it’s about understanding the whole social structure, emotional bondages, fear and beauty that lies in these woods,” insists Jung, who has earned quite a reputation for tracking leopards (rooms from Rs 4,500, safaris with Shaaz Jung for Rs 1,350 per person; thebisonresort.com).
2. Cycling at Red Earth Kabini
Red Earth’s gorgeous location, also by the tranquil backwaters of the Kabini Dam, has earned it a top slot on many R&R wishlists but it’s equally possible to have an active holiday here. So, after you have had your fill of gazing at green landscapes and shimmering pools of water, go cycling around them! Choose from two beginners’ routes, or opt for the advanced and pro routes. The 5km/1hr or 12km/2hr beginners’ routes on geared mountain bikes go around the Kabini reservoir or up to Hosmalla Sogalli on gentle gradients. The 25km/3hr advanced route up to Tharaka Dam comes with a picnic lunch, quite like the 40km/4hr pro route up to Anthra Santhe. Resort cyclists pedal along as guides (rooms from Rs 9,500; cycling from Rs 250 per person; redearthkabini.in).
3. Old Magazine House, Anshi-Dandeli
It’s rare to see large mammals here but the less frequently visited Anshi National Park and Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Karnataka provide excellent opportunities to become acquainted with smaller mammals and vivid bird life. Large groups of the Malabar pied hornbills fly at sunset — a treat to the eyes. Lucky visitors also get to see the rarer great Indian hornbill, whereas flame-throated bulbuls, with their orange throats and yellow bodies, are a more common sight in these forests. Bird baths at the Old Magazine House attract many avian visitors, best seen from the comfort of a ready easy chair (from Rs 2,200 per person per night; junglelodges. com/old-magazine-house).
4. Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve, Maidanahalli
The second largest contiguous population of blackbucks (classified ‘Near Threatened’; the first is at Ranebennur in northern Karnataka’s Haveri district) flourishes in a sweeping grassland, ideally visited at sunrise or sunset, when the rust-hued landscape forms a stunning backdrop to photo-friendly herds. The shy creatures are easily startled — be sure to watch from a distance. The entrance gate is hard to locate so ask at Maidanahalli (‘the village of open meadows’) for the ‘krishnamrugha’ park. Bring plenty of water and food, and drive in your own vehicle down the serviceable mud track. You can also see predators like the Indian fox, and many species of grassland birds like the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, the grey francolin and red-vented bulbuls (150km, 2hrs out of Bangalore in the Tumkur district; entrance free).
5. Daroji Bear Sanctuary, Hampi
The startling boulders and rocks of Hampi are also the rugged backdrop for the Daroji Bear Sanctuary, the only Eden of its kind for sloth bears. The hulking and oddly regal chief residents of the sanctuary are safely sighted from atop a watch tower and over an 8km long forest drive. Mammals ranging from the stealthy leopard to the ruddy mongoose inhabit the stark landscape. Bird watchers can delight over commonly sighted Indian peafowls, and rarer species like the endangered yellow-throated bulbul and the painted spurfowl, which flit about the open rocky areas here. The enchanting ruins of Hampi are but a short drive away (from Rs 3,400 per person per night; junglelodges.com/sloth-bear-resort).
6. River Tern Lodge, Bhadra
Jungle Lodges has opened up such beautiful wildlife holidays in Karnataka that it’s hard to pick and sort from the experiences they offer. But we couldn’t pass up a stay at their River Tern Lodge, at a stone’s throw from the northern edge of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, a lesser known and lush green sanctuary, especially for water birds like the spot-billed duck, black-headed ibis and undoubtedly Bhadra’s most-famous resident, the river tern, thousands of which arrive in the summer to breed on a small rock in the middle of the reservoir (Rs 5,000 per person per night inclusive meals, jeep safari, boat ride and bird watching; junglelodges.com/river-tern-lodge).
7. The rainforests of Agumbe
Agumbe receives the second-highest rainfall in India (after Cherrapunji) and is home to one of the richest rainforests in the country. Agumbe’s incredible biodiversity has prompted renowned herpetologist Rom Whitaker to set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (agumberainforest.com) here, especially for furthering his research on king cobras. They welcome visitors on day trips, and volunteers for longer stays. A visit during the monsoon brings out a rocking symphony from smaller animals like frogs and crickets that call to attract mates. Be sure to bring your camera along, and a good pair of walking boots to tromp the jungles. You could also stay at Dodda Mane, a rustic and very basic heritage homestay where parts of Malgudi Days were shot (strict house rules; pay what you like; 08181-233075/ 9448603343).
8. The avian riches of coastal Karnataka
Coastal Karnataka famously welcomes many migratory birds in the winter. In fact, a number of these waders, like sand plovers, sandpipers and terns, are generally not seen inland. Birds like the mighty white-bellied sea eagles can often be seen flying around, picking up prey from the coast and the sea. Devbagh is a particularly favoured stretch where, if you are lucky, you can also watch dolphins at the mouth of the Kali River. Join keen enthusiasts via informal yet dedicated gatherings like the Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore (bngbirds@yahoogroups), Merlin Nature Club (080-26644682), the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (wrrcbangalore.org), and the Mangalore-based authors of the Birds of Southern Coastal Karnataka (on Facebook) to network, learn more, and plan trips.
9. Nisargadhama and Dubare Elephant Camp
About an hour’s drive on the road from Coorg to Mysore lies Nisargadhama (karnatakaholidays.net), an island formed by the Cauvery, lush with teak and sandalwood trees, reached by a hanging rope bridge. It’s a bit touristy, but kids love the elephant rides and deer park, and splashing about the shallow stretches of the river. The forest department offers accommodation in treetop bamboo cottages. We also recommend the nearby Dubare Elephant Camp (from Rs 950 for day visits; junglelodges.com/dubare-elephant-camp), with activities built around the gentle giants. Try your hand at bathing elephants, see how they feed, and watch crocs sunning themselves by the riverbank from a coracle.
10. Kabini with Darter
Darter’s headed out again to explore the Rajiv Gandhi National Park and Kabini Reservoir on a photo tour. They may find the two big cats (tigers and leopards), herds of elephants, gaurs, chital and sambar, plus grey langurs and shy barking deer. They are equally keen on training their lens on the Malabar trogon, the spot-bellied eagle owl and the racket-tailed drongo, besides smooth-coated otters, marsh crocodiles and ospreys. You will also like their highly useful image review sessions (10-12 October; Rs 19,500, including all meals, four safaris, entry fees, and stay at Jungle Lodges’ Kabini River Lodge; darter.in).