There is an implicit notion among regular Kabini visitors that the boat safari is something of a downgrade from its terrestrial counterpart. 

I’ve witnessed reactions to the prospect of it range from tepid to decidedly resistant. Some even see it as an imposition tantamount to a common bureaucratic tactic: a ‘punishment transfer’. 

Others are disdainful of it as a preserve of either the unwary neophyte oblivious to what they’re missing by ‘settling for it’, or an apathetic picnicker who’s just “there for sightseeing”. 

 boat safari

Boat Safari – Photograph: Santosh Saligram

 

The root of this appallingly erroneous prejudice is the belief that in Kabini, you are more likely to sight big cats when your means of locomotion is a crankshaft rather than a propeller. 

The sight of a modified open vehicle and the sound of its diesel clatter as it potters about on undulating terrain looking for whiskers and tails through the trees flanking the winding roads evoke the rosy fragrance of leopards lazing on trees, tigers treading the turf, and gigabytes of photos choking up memory cards.

Whereas a boat safari appears to be a vapid way of aquaplaning in a straight line with a half-sunk derriere at the rate of post-lunch sloths, and a particularly effective way of eschewing all that is worth seeing. 

This perception, caused chiefly by a spiralling frenzy for big-cat sightings, is a most unfortunate travesty, for exploring Kabini on the eponymous river is the most unique feature of any visit to it. 

There is a cornucopia of wildlife to be watched in spectacular, emancipatory surroundings when you choose to accept the unparalleled luxury of meandering through not one, but two tiger reserves (Bandipura on the southern bank and Nagarahole on the northern one) while leaving behind not even tread prints.

And most of all, as evidenced by one such boat ride of the many I have undertaken, there’s unique behaviour to be observed.

 boat safari

Great Cormorants – Photograph: Santosh Saligram

 

The heat-haze on that February afternoon (for summer here sets in early) softened the fairy feathers of an intermediate egret as we walked down to the jetty, tiptoed on a wobbly pier and boarded the roofed motorboat. 

A little further, a great cormorant sat on the bare branch of a dead tree that had stood fast against the current. Two grey herons gave it company, the crown feathers of one of which was raised by tailwinds, outfitting it with an extempore crest. The cormorant’s mouth was ajar, giving the distinct impression of a speech in progress to an audience of two.

Further ahead, a lone tusker bathed in dust, the light fashioning out of it an aureate veil over the prevailing greens. The elephant stood facing away from us, as though drawing the curtain on a phenomenon, for this was when the riverine bamboo on the banks of the Kabini had just commenced its mass demise after its customary six or so decades of life, an event that would cause a nosedive in the number of elephants gathering on what used to be the site of the largest congregation of Asiatic elephants in the world. 

Shortly we were distracted from these thoughts when a movement caught our eyes: a flash of glossy carbon-grey in the teal water, breaching the surface and then again diving under, with a canine bustle and persistence. Shortly, its head popped up and it remained aboveboard, a silvery fish glistening in its jaws. The head lifted to keep the fish in, working its canines to grip it, slice it, and conserve it in its mouth, much like what we do when we’ve bitten off more than we can chew or else pouched a morsel too hot for the palate. In one hilarious angle, it looked in the throes of a self-starring film called Death by Swallow. But in the space of thirty seconds, the fish had safely dived down the gullet of the slaty head. 

 boat safari

Smooth Coated Otter – Photograph: Santosh Saligram

 

Then two more appeared, their tiny ears held open, whiskers swept back, eyebrows sharp and erect, marble-like eyes startled wide, swimming in formation, bringing their round muzzles up before going under the turquoise bed. 

Soon, another had landed a fish, and as though wisened by the clumsiness of the earlier fisher, used its forepaws to feed the meal up its snout after briefly holding the fish by its tail, the rest of the piscean’s body arched and the scales fanned out like the teeth of a curved comb. 

It was the first time I had seen a bevy of smooth-coated otters fishing in such close quarters. 

But this spectacular encounter wasn’t to be the last of the afternoon’s captivators, with a comedy segment scheduled around the next bend.