Until you actually spot the small board that points to the entrance of the Bison, you wonder when your drive is going to end. Five hours out of Bangalore and 90 minutes from the tourist town of Mysore, lies naturalist Saad Bin Jung's latest venture. Spread across 12 acres on the banks of the Kabini river, this getaway offers the well-heeled traveller a break from the confines of the urban jungle. The Bison is located 30 minutes away from the more popular resorts owned by the likes of Jungle Lodges and Resorts and Cicada, for years the preferred escape from Bangalore and much of urban India.
We set out from Bangalore early on a Saturday morning, under overcast skies, misty rain and a chilling wind. By the time we hit the Mysore road, traffic was already building. After a short break for breakfast on the highway, we turned off the Bangalore-Mysore road and on to the Ring Road. If you're driving down, look-or ask often-for the road to the Nagarhole forests. After a while, signboards are hard to find and a wrong turn can see you racing into the Hebbal Industrial Estate. Towards the end of the drive, the road crumbles into a barely drivable cart track and our pace is reduced to a crawl. A few kilometres later, the road forks, with one split taking you to the popular-and crowded- Jungle Lodges, Cicada and Orange County and the other to the Bison.
For 20 years, Saad and his wife Sangeeta-who personally welcome guests to the Bison-have run temporary fishing camps and retreats around Bandipur, Kabini and Mekedaatu (literally goat's step) across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Now they have scaled up their experiences and graduated from rudimentary accommodation to luxury tents. The Bison has seven tents and one loft and plans are afoot to build another couple of tents to meet growing demand. Each of the tents has a large four-poster bed, dressing table and an astonishingly large ensuite bathroom. In keeping with the rustic feel of the place, the power is turned on only once the sun sets. After dark, the path from the main lobby to the tents is lit up by conventional lamps, adding to the ambience.
We arrived at the Bison just in time for lunch. Already, several tourists had arrived and they set off for a walk into the jungle. We opted to head for the dining room instead- a handful of tables with a breathtaking view-and opted for a leisurely lunch. Meals at the Bison are wholesome-roti, dal and chaawal-rather than fancy. Bison also has a small bar overlooking the backwaters, where you can spend a quiet evening. The beverage menu is limited to some mid-market wine, whiskey, vodka and beer, but that's plenty in a forest retreat. Lunch is where you get to meet other guests- in our case mid-level corporate guys, a group of young foreigners and a noisy bunch of school kids-and discuss your plans for the weekend. "We don't want the adrenaline junkie visiting us," Saad told us over coffee after a leisurely lunch. "We want someone who can spend two days quietly without demanding attention and a stream of activities."
We decided to go on the afternoon safari, with Saad initially playing guide and later taking to the wheel himself. To try to beat the rush from neighbouring resorts, we set off early and were rewarded with a rare sighting of not one but two full-grown tuskers. On these trips, Saad bubbles over with anecdotes, talking of his association with top cricketers, the lack of co-ordination between government departments and resort owners and tons of trivia on the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, the driving rain that accompanied us from Bangalore forced us to abandon our outdoor perch and huddle inside the jeep, bringing a premature end to the safari. With over 100 species of mammals, 350 birds, 80 reptiles, 39 fish, 31 amphibians, 60 reptiles and 316 butterflies, present in the Nilgiris Biosphere-of which Kabini constitutes a small fraction- you are guaranteed to come across a wide variety of animals.
The rain however provided an excellent backdrop later that evening, when Saad played host- changing from his usual dress of khakis into a kurta and a warm wraparound. While champagne was uncorked to celebrate a guest's 18th birthday, the others preferred to unwind over a relaxed cocktail and appetisers. The persistent rain and a light mist in the background provided a great backdrop for a stressfree evening. While most guests preferred to hit the sack after dinner, we'd also recommend a late night stroll or a quiet night on the sit-out. After all, its back to the concrete jungle the next morning.