A family trip to the forests of Coorg and Kabini reveals an array of wildlife and surprisingly luxurious accommodation.
Wet and wild in Kabini and Coorg
"You'd better stop the car, or we're going to drive straight off the cliff," my husband warned the driver as we blindly negotiated another hairpin bend.
"Ooh, that would be fun," said Calvin, our eight-year-old son.
The thick fog had descended without warning and visibility was zero. As the whiteness lifted, everything came into view again - on our left, the thick deciduous forests clinging to the rock face; on our right, the hillside falling away into a deep valley. We had stopped just in time: the car was right on the cliff's edge, nearly 1,000 metres above sea level.
It was a dramatic start to what was meant to be a week of relaxation amid the forests of Coorg and Kabini in the southern state of Karnataka. After endless arguments, we decided to base the trip around two-night stays at the luxurious, boutique-style Orange County Resorts.
The six-hour journey to Coorg started in crowded and busy Bangalore, then cut through the palace-filled city of Mysore, before crawling up that dangerous zig-zagging road to the hill station.
Famously known as India's "Coffee Cup", Coorg is covered with forests and coffee plantations that range from small squares of land tilled by local farmers to vast estates owned by Indian multinationals. Nearly all the coffee plantations are guarded with electric fences to keep out wild elephants, who like to walk across them to the jungles on the other side.
Although the best time to visit is from November to April, I'd always wanted to see Coorg in the monsoon season. According to enthusiastic friends who've either lived there or visited many times, the rains transform Coorg into a green, unworldly paradise.
We timed our visit for August. Black clouds, heavy with rain, had followed us right through the journey, and it began to pour as soon as we arrived at Orange County Coorg, a 120-hectare resort with cottages set among plantations of gnarled, glossy coffee bushes, silver oaks wound with peppercorn creepers and rosewood trees. Except for the sound of the pelting rain and the cicadas, it was completely still. Around us, the jungle pressed in from all sides, obliterating the sky.
"Sher Khan's behind that clump of bushes over there, I am quite sure of it," said Calvin, looking around nervously.
An electric buggy deposited us and our luggage outside a beautiful, traditional-style villa somewhere in the middle of the plantation. After a quick inspection of the premises - there was a pool and Jacuzzi outside, a small, plant-filled courtyard in the centre of the cottage with rainwater falling through a skylight in the roof, and handsome teak furniture - we unpacked and went out into rain that was now falling horizontally.
We decided to drive up to the Abbey waterfalls, a popular attraction on the outskirts of Madikeri, a quaint outpost about 50km from Coorg. Pretty and tranquil otherwise, the falls undergo a demonic transformation during the monsoons - something we simply had to see.
Once there, we began the laborious climb up the steps cut into the hill, hanging tightly on to the stones jutting out of the rock wall in case we lost our footing. We arrived at the summit 40 minutes later, stepped on to the swaying metal bridge that would take us closer to the falls, and nearly got blown off our feet by the gale and the force of the cascading water hitting the boulders below.
"Feel like a swim?" shouted Calvin over the roar of the water. Laughing hysterically, we retraced our steps, stopping for hot drinks at the small stalls at the bottom of the hill.
We visited Madikeri for freshly ground coffee and peppercorn packets, and got back to the resort in time for lunch at the Granary restaurant - koli chicken, beetroot fried with fresh coconut, fat brown boiled rice and spiced yoghurt. After an hour's rest, we put on thick, leech-resistant socks and hiking boots to go trekking in the forest. The plan had to be abandoned when the downpour turned into a thunderstorm, much to Calvin's disappointment ("I'd hoped to catch a leech, mum").
The next day was equally rain-soaked so, armed with gigantic umbrellas, we ended up following a group of other guests and Ramesh, our serious, knowledgeable naturalist, on a stroll around the estate. Ramesh kept throwing us questions on wildlife and nature, and steadily got more and more annoyed as my husband enthusiastically answered every single question, while Calvin poked about in the mud for earthworms and the rest of us stood around looking bored.
Despite the rain and the non-stop quizzing, we ended up learning a lot. We were taught to distinguish between Robusta and Arabica beans, and to look for the tiny, translucent spiders nestling in the leaves of the Coorgi cherry trees. Calvin enjoyed learning how to blow bubbles from the soapy sap that trickles out of the stem of the jatropha, a bio-fuel plant. We also came across a few broken electric fences, the work of clever elephants who hurl everything from bamboo to boulders at them in an attempt to get past.
The following morning was clear, so we went down to the banks of the swollen Cauvery, befriended a fisherman (Calvin offered him biscuits), and for 300 rupees (Dh25), embarked on a half-hour jaunt down the river.
We rode in a coracle, a tiny, circular boat made of bamboo and waterproofed with animal hide or tar, that the locals use as river transport, and to ferry everything from livestock to motorcycles.
Ours looked exactly like a small red saucer, and it was rocking like crazy. My husband and I stepped in gingerly and sat down at opposite ends, warning Calvin to get in carefully and take a seat in the middle to keep the boat from up-ending. Calvin nodded, then leapt in with an ear-shattering scream. The coracle began spinning wildly and we'd have toppled into the churning waters if the fisherman hadn't stuck his long oar into the riverbed.
We left Coorg early the next morning for the three-hour drive to Kabini.
Kabini came as a complete surprise after Coorg. There wasn't a jungle in sight - the landscape was all golden plains and fields of sugar cane, rice and corn. The forests, when we eventually spotted them, were just a shadowy smudge on the horizon beyond Lake Kabini, the backwaters of the Kabini River.
As soon as we had checked into our pool hut, we made appointments for Ayurvedic treatments the next day, and signed up for a two-hour boat safari on the lake, which circles the south-eastern end of Nagarhole National Park, a 642-sq km sanctuary for tigers, langur monkeys and leopards, and part of the fiercely protected Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
"Don't expect to see tigers or elephants," said Tiwari, our wildlife expert, once we had our life jackets on and took seats on the boat. "There aren't many animals about during the monsoons."
We didn't see any tigers, but we did spot a magnificent, mud-covered elephant uprooting giant bamboo on the opposite side of the lake. The boat bumped up against the bank, and Tiwari pointed at the beast.
"Stay still," he said, unnecessarily. "And relax, although I think he has spotted us."
It's hard to look unconcerned when you've interrupted a wild tusker in the middle of a meal, especially when he's eyeing you with unmistakable malevolence. With a crack like a gunshot, the elephant broke off a chunk of bamboo and took a step towards us.
"This guy," said Tiwari, "is at least 50 years old. Look at those tusks."
My husband and I retreated hurriedly to the back of the boat, but Calvin didn't budge.
"Where is it? I can't see any elephant," he said, peering through his binoculars, which were pointed in entirely the wrong direction.
Tiwari grinned and swung the boat around towards Crocodile Island, the local name for the swamp that is populated by the Indian marsh crocodile. We spied three in the space of a minute, and also got to see ospreys roosting on the curious-looking dead tree stumps that protruded everywhere, monkeys swinging on trees, spotted deer grazing along the river, and, fleetingly, a kingfisher that dived into the water with scarcely a splash and surfaced with its dinner in seconds.
Suddenly, the boat's radio sparked into life. Tiwari listened intently before announcing excitedly: "One of the other naturalists has caught a snake. He's at the resort, waiting to show it to us."
We chugged back in double quick time and met Vineeth, the snake-catcher, in the reading lounge at the back of the resort. He was idly perusing a magazine and chuckling to himself. In front of him on a table there was a bag tied at the mouth. It was moving. Vineeth nodded at us, carefully untied the bag and pulled out a coiled, mutinous-looking snake.
"Unfortunately, this one's a water snake; he's not poisonous," he said sadly, holding up the reptile in case we wanted to stroke it.
We declined, but Calvin stepped forward.
"Can I keep him?" he asked. "We could call him Stan, and he could live under my bed."
Vineeth shook his head solemnly.
"I don't want your mum to get mad at me, so I am going to say no. But you can watch me release him into the lake, if you like. You see, I'm not allowed to keep animals either - ecept for Meenakshi. Have you met her yet?"
Meenakshi, we found out the next morning, is the resort's resident elephant, a 40-year-old matriarch with a sweet disposition and an appetite to match. She quickly chomped down the bananas Calvin offered, then came after me when she spotted the sweet laddu (gram flour sweets) in my hands. Later, the mahout had saddled her up and we rode her around the lake, Calvin larking around and pretending to fall off while we grimly held on to him in case he did.
We spent the second-last day recovering in the hands of the "doctors" of Vaidyasala, the resort's Ayurvedic centre. My husband was prescribed Shirodhara (90 minutes, Rs1,000; Dh83) - the famous oil-dripping-on-forehead treatment that is a great stress-buster. I fell asleep during my luxurious hair treatment, Keshini (60 minutes, Rs992; Dh82) - which involved a soothing head massage with warm sesame oil. Then my hair was washed with shikakai and amla, herbs traditionally used to scent hair. When I emerged, Calvin sniffed disapprovingly: "Pooh, you smell like a flower bouquet."
That night, after enjoying the local tribal dance and feasting on more local cuisine at the resort's excellent Honeycomb restaurant, we went for a walk around the 6.9 hectare property, and ended up in the seating area outside our hut. Just then, a mist descended, as suddenly and impenetrably as ever, so we did the best thing in such circumstances: we lay back on the cosy chairs, blew out the lamp, and fell fast asleep.
If you go
The flight Return flights on Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Bangalore cost from Dh1,295, including taxes.
The stay A private pool villa at Orange Country Resort Coorg costs from 22,000 Indian rupees (Dh1,822) per night. A Jacuzzi hut at the resort in Kabini costs from INR18,000 (Dh1,500) per night. All stays are on a full-board basis and include nature activities and taxes (www.orangecounty.in).