'We do not just want our guests to just come here, hop onto a safari, shoot a few photographs and go back,' says Shivanand. He goes on to proudly assert - 'The experience here is much more than this. We have been taught to engage our guests; to help them appreciate the finer nuances of the way animals in the wild behave; to let them experience the joys of discovering things that they would otherwise not notice; and most importantly, try learning from them as much as they learn from us.' Shivanand has worked as a naturalist at the Kabini River Lodge for about eight years now. Having started out at the Dandeli Jungle Lodges property as the in-charge of water sports, he soon developed a keen interest in flora and fauna. After completing the Naturalist Training at Bangalore, he moved to Kabini and has been here ever since. Today, you see Shivanand juggling a variety of roles on a busy work day. His days start early - he's a naturalist guide on the early-morning jeep-safari. During the day he sits in the office - ensuring that the registers are in order; greeting new guests as they arrive; and catching up with the several many wildlife enthusiasts who frequent the lodge. Shivanand is just one of the many who have devoted their lives to the Kabini River Lodge. This feature, the second in ‘The Many Lives of Kabini River Lodge' series, is an ode to them, their passion and warmth.
'I always knew that this was what I wanted to do,' a beaming Prasanna says. 'As a child, all my school holidays were spent here - visiting my father who worked at the Lodge.' Today, as a naturalist, Prasanna eagerly looks forward to interacting with and exchanging nature trivia with guests on a safari. 'Especially the children! They are always so wonderfully curious!' And if you ask him as to what he remembers about Papa John - the late Colonel John Wakefield, the force behind Kabini River Lodge, pat comes the response - 'He taught us about two essential principles when it came to running the lodge - the first was to make our guests as comfortable as possible; and the second was to share as much of our knowledge with them as was possible.' It is this philosophy that truly defines the character of the Kabini River Lodge.
As much as it is a close-knit community, the Lodge takes immense pride in not only its staff, but in the achievements of their family members as well.Siddalinga is a steward as the lodge. Both of his sons are now employed with well-known information technology companies in Bangalore. He is another veteran employee - having been with the lodge since its inception. 'There were only a dozen of us when we started out,' he reminisces. 'There were only tented camps with no electricity - we got electricity in 1986. We made do with kerosene lamps. 'Papa's passion was the glue that helped bind everyone together - and all of us put in our best, day and night. I have a hearty laugh today at the memory of how Papa didn't even grant me leave to go home for my engagement. The parents met up and finalized everything - and I got to see my to-be bride only a week later!'
The Kabini River Lodge has extended all-encompassing support to its people and their families. Kamala is one such example. Her husband worked as a driver at the lodge. After his untimely death, she was offered employment as a room maid. Amma (Anna Mary, the head of housekeeping) trained her. Today, Kamala is focussed on her work and is financially independent to raise her two sons. 'I am happy here,' she softly murmurs, her eyes glistening with grit.
Not only has the lodge generated employment for an overwhelming majority of locals from the surrounding villages, the ecosystem it sustains extends beyond its walled boundaries, literally and metaphorically. Thammegowda, a farmer, has been supplying fresh organic produce to the lodge for about a decade now. A visit to his farm not too far away from the lodge, and you will end up wishing you had his job instead! Over the horizon, you can see the Kabini river, gleaming and resplendent in a misty blue calm, A concoction of vegetable patches lined up, row after row over five acres of verdant green. Brinjal, ladyfinger, cucumber, radish, tomato, beans, coriander et al. Thammegowda delivers stock to the lodge each day, no wonder; the meals cooked are so deliciously fresh.
Since inception, the Kabini River Lodge has played an active role in community welfare. It supports the Kabini Foundation, a Non-Government Organization involved in bringing the local community together on wildlife conservation issues. It was founded by Sarath Champati, who was a Chief Naturalist for Jungle Lodges and Resorts for seven years and was initially based in Kabini River Lodge. 'Every Sunday, the Foundation holds English classes for the children of the villages nearby,' says a proud Soma, a local and the caretaker of the Foundation building and premises.
The Lodge embraced conservation and social responsibility long before they became buzzwords of modern day resorts and establishments. In 1999, Papa John set up a school to provide education to the children of Janukuruba tribals living inside Nagarhole. Nanjudaiah, appointed to teach English, Kannada, Maths and Science, walked twelve kilometres through the forest each day to reach the school; sometimes even needing to climb up trees to avoid being in the line of sight of charging wild elephants. After most of the tribals were relocated by the government a few years back, the school shut down - the premises now home to a few tribal families that still continue to live inside the forest. Nanjudaiah, since then, has started working at the Lodge. From time to time, he pays a visit to his school and old students staying there and nearby. He shares a laugh with them as they go through the photos he lovingly carries, safely ensconced in a plastic bag - memories of Papa John standing with the first batch of students; the many guests who visited the school; a young Nanjudaiah teaching the English alphabet to his students; and many more.
Kabini was the erstwhile hunting haven of the Mysore Maharajas. They built the Mastigudi temple along Kabini river to pay obeisance to the jungle gods - an idol of the tribal elephant god, amongst others, was worshipped. The temple was submerged in 1974 when the Kabini Dam was constructed and the idols were shifted to their new premises built on one periphery of the Nagarhole National Park. The small (almost spartan) temple has since then been embellished with large green brass bells donated by the legendary actor, Dr. Rajkumar.
Even within the boundaries of the Kabini River Lodge, there is an old temple, where the tribal gods are worshipped. A narrow sloping path, overgrown with weeds, nettles and cobwebs of giant wood spiders seemingly suspended from the air takes you to a small sky coloured canopy sheltering the stone idols. The local village priest (accompanied by his twelve year old son Manoj) comes twice a week to perform the traditional prayer ceremony. Manoj is the one who performs the ceremony: with the tinkle of a bell he offers dew strewn petals, applies vermillion on the idols and offers you a dash of sugar and the petals - the sugar to be eaten as prasad and the tiny petals to be tucked behind the ears as the gods' blessings.
The Kabini River Lodge then, is an experience of not just the Lodge, but the villages and the jungles nearby - it is about the several many elements that lead a wonderfully juxtaposed coexistence – the jungle and its animals, the people and the traditions that abound. Over time they have developed a powerful symbiosis, reinforced every single day. Together, they comprise the many lives of Kabini.