Soon after we had gone past a woolly-necked stork hoisted high up a cluster of rocks on an island and enjoying a commanding view of the surroundings, we drew abreast of a little cormorant sunning on a short stump in the water not far from the Nagarhole-side bank, and there appeared at first to be nothing unusual. It was only when the bird adjusted its footing, and turned by right angles to make itself more comfortable, that the epiphany hit us: it was actually standing on an Indian black turtle!

Whether it was fully cognisant of or blissfully oblivious of the level of animation of its perch, we couldn’t initially tell, but before long, the turtle, also called the Indian pond terrapin, mustered the gumption to slowly put its head out, looking up at the cormorant’s tail, which was directly overhead, as if to ask ‘Do you mind moving your rump off my face?’

boat safari

Little Cormorant perched on an Indian Pond Terrapin – Photograph: Santosh Saligram

 

Others of a more placid imagination interpreted it as a pleased look, expressing approval at the cormorant’s service in regulating the temperature by providing just the right amount of shade, by eclipsing the shell with its dark plumes.

The bird, registering the turtle’s subtle stirring, folded up its wings (hitherto outstretched in its quintessential style of hanging its diving suit out to dry) turned around so that it was no longer in a contrarian direction to the turtle, stooped down and brought its beak very close to the reptilian’s head, in rather the fashion of someone stubbornly asserting themself, ill-inclined to discussion.

Moments later, when the turtle meekly retracted its head into its shell almost apologetically for having asked the question, it became clear which way the momentary dispute of percher priority had swung.

Inter-family interactions are a treat to watch, as there is often something unexpected when they come together, but this taught me a life lesson, even: that if you sat around basking in the sun doing nothing, you’d be sat upon sooner than later!

Motoring further, we saw a lingering gaur cow grazing on the shoulder of a stretch of the bank on the Bandipura side. A massive herd of spotted deer, scattered loosely, formed the foreground. Further downstream, a young male elephant helped himself to a drink at the water’s edge while a darter eyed him closely from a nearby stump.

boat safari

Kabini backwaters – Photograph: Santosh Saligram

 

Life happened everywhere. Much like the origins of human civilization could be traced back to river courses, it was evident how the Kabini fed, nourished and supported wild, unfettered life, even as it waited, dammed, to be pressed into the service of feeding us. Its banks were a showcase of her generosity. 

When it was time to turn back, flocks of Indian spot-billed ducks flew home with us overhead. The otherwise spectacular sunset was shrouded by a brooding sky. A coolness descended. The air exhaled a breeze.

Closer home, we came upon what must’ve been the same tusker we had seen at the beginning of the safari, this time with the full glory of his broadside visible, and rather poignantly poking his trunk at a massive dying bamboo clump with the foreyard punctuated with stunted tree stumps. 

boat safari

Tusker – Photograph: Santosh Saligram

 

We switched off the boat and drifted in a thick silence that was only occasionally dislodged by the bobbing of our boat when small waves provoked a gurgle. The bamboo was too dead to creak in the wind. Not finding anything of interest to eat there, he moved on.

Then in the dying light, an osprey flew off a dead tree clutching a half-eaten fish in its talons. Somehow its posture was akin to that of a poor man carrying his hard-earned meal with both hands with the utmost care at the end of a long day. In the air that the osprey vacated, pathos hung. Soon it was nearly dark and we returned to the jetty.

An egret remained on the dead tree, absorbing the last of the day’s photons into its starlight wings.

I lingered on the bank by the pier watching the boat bob to the whim of the waves, thinking how in Kabini you might well hop on a jeep to pursue that which you wanted to see, but you boarded a boat to go see that which you hadn’t even imagined.