It is often said that it is the people who define the place. And this doesn't ring truer than at the Kabini River Lodge. A slice of jungle heaven set in the midst of the lush green Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, the lodge soaks you in; its personalities draw you to their stories with grins of familiarity; and its nooks and corners comfort you as haunts of yore.
To call it a resort would be an injustice to the wonderful warmth you are greeted with. I think it would be too impersonal to do so. You are not merely a guest here, but possibly a member of the family come a-visiting.
And so, this photo-essay is dedicated to the people behind the scenes at the Kabini River Lodge: the smile that helps you on to a Safari off-roader, the hand that offers you a steaming cup of tea in the morning, the story that toasts your drink in the evening – they are the reasons why the lodge draws you back again, and again.
These are only some of the people you will meet at the lodge. There are many more. In as much as a visit to the Kabini River Lodge is an experience at marvelling at nature, it is an equally (if not astonishingly) wonderful appreciation of one man's legacy and several others' hearts and souls.
Papa John's legacy
Colonel John Felix Wakefield arrived here in 1984, after a stint in the prestigious Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal. His passion for wildlife, conservation and not just involving but including the locals has been the key to making the Kabini River Lodge what it is today. It has also left a lasting legacy. Two years after his death, the legend of Papa John (as he was lovingly known) lives on. In the framed photographs, in his favorite armchair resting on the porch of the eponymous Col. Wakefield Bar; in the sounds of the jungle next door; and in the conversations of the people of the lodge and its surrounding villages, who remain fiercely loyal to his memory.
The gregarious Mr. Sharma
Kunal Sharma has been the Manager of the lodge for a little more than five years. When you meet him, you'll probably think that he's been here for much longer. The first thought that strikes you when you meet him is how easily he has already struck up a rapport with you - even before you have realized it. Conversations with him (especially over a drink in the evenings at the bar) are always witty and sparkling with stories. Behind this easy camaraderie however, is a man who has been relentlessly pursuing the highest possible standards of hospitality, comfort and inclusivity at the lodge. At the same time, Kunal embodies the tremendous respect for the environment and nature, which is a comfortable habit at the lodge. Under his stewardship, recycling and composting units have been set up within the premises, leading to minimal waste. And when the affable Mr. Sharma is not sharing an anecdote or two, he's wielding the mighty pen: Kunal is also a published author. Be sure to pick up a copy of Wild Vistas, a veritable encyclopaedia on India's jungles, when you're there.
Amma, the revered disciplinarian
Anna Mary came to the lodge 32 years ago - as curious as she was anxious about the wilderness she had suddenly stumbled upon. Having worked for a while at a bank in Bangalore, she came to the Kabini River Lodge a bit on her father's insistence and more on Papa John's faith. Inspired by his zeal, she decided to stay on. And she has not gone back ever since, having devoted her entire life to Papa John's vision and legacy. For the longest time, she was possibly the only woman working at the lodge. Today, she heads the housekeeping department at the lodge. And even after all these years, Amma, as she is fondly called, is a veritable bundle of energy - as respected and revered by her colleagues as she is feared for her no nonsense demeanour.
The first families of the lodge
Not too long ago, Somanna retired after 30 years of service at the Kabini River Lodge. Today his son Vijay is employed with the lodge as a Naturalist. They live in the nearby Karapura village: home to many of the people who work at the lodge. The lodge has not only helped establish the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve as a premier wildlife destination in the country, but has perhaps served as a pioneer in sustainable and inclusive ecotourism. The lodge has supported locals in their livelihoods - from sourcing local produce to employing the people who stay in the vicinity of the lodge. Over 90% of the employees at the lodge are locals from nearby villages like Karapura. And as is the case for Vijay and Somanna, the lodge is as much family as it is a place of work for them.
The ‘Billi' Catcher
In and around the Kabini River Lodge, Afsar is a man in demand. And the reason - say the folks who clamor for him - is obvious, if not a case of his reputation preceding him: if he is your Naturalist, guiding you on your jeep safari to the Nagarhole National Park, your chances of sighting a tiger are rather high. After a stint at both the Kabini River Lodge and other properties of Jungle Lodges and Resorts, in various capacities and with different departments, Afsar returned to the Kabini River Lodge in 1998 and underwent training to be a Naturalist. His scores in the training assessment were brilliant, and the rest, as they say, is history. Afsar attributes a lot of his fame (yes, he's even got a significant following on Facebook!) to what he learnt from wildlife aficionados visiting the lodge. That said he is most sought after, and he lives up to his reputation in both deed and anecdotes. His favorite ones include ones about elephants and leopards mock charging; sighting 9 tigers in a single safari; and stories about guests who preferred bird sighting even when a tiger was right in front of them!
The Constant Gardener
Amongst the many aspects about the lodge which you will end up admiring more than once is the almost seamless blending of nature and man. The blades of grass in the gardens, the leaves of the trees near your windows which sway in the breeze and the conically positioned bricks which line the lanes – they are all carefully tended to by Shivannaji and his team. When he started out at the Kabini River Lodge, he remembers there having been about 5 gardeners and a few more contract workers. 32 years thence, Shivannaji is a grandfather. And the Maintenance department, which he heads, has 15 gardeners and several many more contract workers. Like so many others, he still remains as much in awe of Papa John's vision as he was all those many years ago. And when you're there, you'll leave in no lesser awe of his work.
And food makes the world go around
Krishna is from the nearby town of HD Kote. But home is where the heart (or stomach!) is. For he is committed to the kitchens at the Kabini River Lodge where he cooks up delicacies from across India, with Chinese and Continental dishes thrown in for good measure. Ask him for his specialty and he will surprise you with a chuckle and pasta with white sauce.
Making sure that the creations of Krishna and his fellow cooks go down in style is Rafique, the in-charge of both the kitchen and Gol Ghar, the dining area. It is where you will spend many a merry mealtime, even as Rafique – also from the town on HD Kote - and his team ensure you get hot food, warmed on charcoal the traditional way.
Sculpting the past back
Amongst the more recent stories of how the Kabini River Lodge has enabled and supported the local population from the villages and towns nearby, stands out the story of Nagendra the carpenter. Trained at the lodge itself with pictures of furniture sourced off the internet, he has fashioned many a piece of wood into almost perfect replicas of the lodge's royal past. So much so that Nagendra now is in great demand among the neighbouring resorts.
Toasting-in the evenings
When after a thrilling safari (or boat ride if you will) you yearn for a soothing cup of tea, chances are that the room-boys Prabhu and Nanjudaiah will come to your rescue. Pouring you a cuppa, handing over a steaming plate of pakoras, they will help you bring in the evening in true jungle-style. Like so many others, their association with the lodge dates back decades, generations and many more hearts which they've warmed.
The Gods of Small Things
To the lodge, its employees comprise its soul; their families are its own. On important and festive occasions, the children of the lodge's employees are whole-heartedly welcomed on to the premises. Suddenly, the swings under the banyan trees resonate with their laughter and their colourful clothes dot the gardens. And if you look hard enough, you may just see Papa John rocking in his favourite armchair in the porch of the Col. Wakefield Bar, with a beatific smile writ large across his face.