It was noon when we reached River Tern Lodge, an enticing getaway perched on a hillock at the edge of the picturesque Bhadra Reservoir, just 4 km from the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. The resort gets its name from the colonies of river terns that congregate on the islands in its vicinity. Set amidst swaying bamboos and lush greenery, winding narrow paths lead to the rustic cottages and log huts at different levels.
The view from the balcony is a sight to behold. Each cottage (named after a bird species) offers a stunning view of the lofty hilly ranges and the reservoir, as well as spectacular sunsets. Sometimes the silence is overwhelming, broken only by the sound of the rushing wind and gentle waves lapping the surface of the rocks lining the river banks.
There is never a dreary moment at this resort as we flitted from one activity to another. Birding, bonfire, trekking, wildlife safaris, kayaking, canoeing and water trampoline are all part of this wilderness escapade. The best way to enjoy the sanctuary undoubtedly is to drift down the reservoir on a boat in the evening or morning when the chances of sighting wildlife are bright.
We headed to the nearby River Tern Island where the river terns, though found in small numbers throughout the year, descend on the rocks in and around the river in thousands from March to May and later leave the place at the outset of the monsoon. It is a treat to watch their preening, feeding and cackling. We saw mothers guarding and tending to the young ones while the males foraged for fish in the waters.
While cruising in the reservoir, in the distance we saw herds of elephants ambling up and down the hill slopes, coming down to the shore for a drink and frolicking in the water. We sighted herds of gaur, spotted deer and wild boar grazing near the waterside and water birds like darters, grey herons, egrets and kingfishers perching themselves on the ghostly deadwood protruding from the lake. For the more adventurous, a number of water sports are offered. Kayaks and canoes offer wonderful means of exploring the islets along the reservoir. Others can bounce on the water trampoline that is moored near the lodge, or slide from it into the water. But I chose to drift in the country canoe.
In the evening we headed out on a safari into the sanctuary, the former Jagara Valley Game Reserve which was reconstituted as the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in 1974 and upgraded in 1998 as India’s 25th Tiger Reserve. Covering an area of 492 sq km, the sanctuary lies in the crescent-shaped Baba Budan Range, ringed by hills, waterfalls, coffee plantations and the placid Bhadra river. Though the sanctuary takes its name from the river, which serves as its lifeline, it is popularly known as Muthodi Wildlife Sanctuary after the village on its periphery.
The area is also rich in bamboo. One can see clumps of the plant by the river, streams, hills, narrow paths and valley portions throughout the sanctuary. The call of the wild is best heard in this unspoilt haven of nature. Bhadra is home to a profusion of wildlife, birds, butterflies and reptiles. Apart from the elusive tiger, the sanctuary hosts leopard, wild dog, jackal, elephant, gaur, sloth bear, sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, wild boar, common langur, bonnet macaque and the slender loris. Though a tiger habitat, tigers are rarely seen.
As we journeyed through the sanctuary, we spotted a peacock strutting about near a waterhole. Chital and barking deer sprinted across our path, a couple of shy sambars scurried past. We sighted Malabar squirrels darting across the thick foliage. Once upon a time, these forests were the happy, hunting ground of the famed hunter Kenneth Anderson, who shot many bloodthirsty man-eaters. We were hoping to sight a tiger but luck was not on our side.
One wakes up to the raucous calls of birds that reside in and around the lodge, a fine base for spotting a wide range of woodland and water birds. Over 250 species of birds are spotted here, including the ruby-throated bulbul, the endemic Malabar trogon and southern treepie, Malabar whistling thrush and four species of hornbill. Some of India’s biggest and most beautiful butterflies like red Helen and blue Mormon are found here. Rare and unique reptiles like the flying lizard can be seen gliding amidst the huge trees. The resort’s naturalist identified the whoops and hoots that filled the air like a jungle symphony. The red-wattled lapwing with its ‘did you do it’ call and the haunting ‘coo-coo’ of the Indian cuckoo were the familiar ones we could identify.
The highlight of our visit was the prized sighting of the Great Indian Hornbill. Our naturalist pointed out not only birds, but also other rare species of trees and plants with detailed explanations of each. We saw birds like the racket-tailed drongo, Brahminy kite, paradise flycatcher, woodpecker, crow pheasant, barbets and others.
When we got back to the camp, we saw that a campfire had been lit. As night fell, the forest came alive with a medley of sounds from the birds and insects, and the incessant chatter of monkeys. The cries of the nocturnal birds, the buzz of the dragonfly and the bull frog’s croaking provided the background score to this dramatic scene.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bengaluru.
All pictures by Susheela Nair.