The strong beam of the torch pierced the night, sweeping across the forest landscape, as we huddled together on the balcony floor with our breaths suspended in our throats; anticipating the abrupt apparition of a pair of glow-eyes, of that of a tiger.
Sipping wine, talking life, echoing frog-croaks, we were winding down after our first, full day at Dhole's Den, Bandipur when we were jolted awake by the booming call of a feline. Experienced voices around me assured me that it was the call of a tiger in heat. The hair on the nape of my neck stood like bristles; the source of the call had seemed quite closeby, maybe even right outside the solar-powered fence that ran around the property perimeter. It was only a couple of hours back that we had seen a deer at the same spot.
Alas, after ten minutes of combing the 5-acre property and beyond with a torchlight, we gave up on our hopes of sighting a Bandipur tiger in the wild and retired to our rooms.
Nature and wildlife never cease to be a part of life at Dhole’s Den, a luxury jungle lodge (with a sustainable difference) located deep in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Dhole’s Den came into operation more than a decade ago, in 2009. Slowly but steadily, the jungle lodge has earned a reputation for itself. Today, it is one of the only two properties in Karnataka to be PUG certified by TOFT. The PUG certification recognises Dhole’s Den as a genuine environment-focused accommodation provider, who has made a positive impact on the environment, supported the local community, and provided nature-based travel experiences to its clients.
Dhole’s Den is the residence of Karthik Davey, who owns a tour operations company in Germany and works out of the lodge most of the time. Karthik lives with his wife Ingrid Davey, his four Chippiparai hounds and seven newly-born pups (he plans to keep two of them.)
Karthik has always been drawn to the forests of Bandipur for some inexplicable reason. Though he had passed through it many a time, it was in the year 1995 that he first visited Bandipur. He still remembers the incredible sighting of a pack of hunting Dholes from that day. Interestingly, he had also been reading about wild dogs at the same time – an experience which he believes sealed his love for the place, and hence the name of the property, Dhole's Den.
Back in 2004, when Karthik bought a piece of land in Bandipur, he only had plans to build a house, a place from where he could work remotely. The idea to build an extra couple of rooms and entertain guests came much later. But what he knew from the very beginning was that he wanted a place that was eco-friendly and produced minimal carbon footprint. Right from the design, by Mysuru-based architect Nagesh HD, which allows for maximum natural light and ventilation, to the wind and solar power hybrid generator which takes care of almost all the lodge’s energy needs, Dhole’s Den is a legitimate eco-conscious safari lodge.
For someplace just a 5-hour drive away from Bangalore, Dhole’s Den feels like a whole another world. Time seems to take its foot off the pedal the moment you pass through the gates of Dhole’s Den. Here, life kicks off it boots and settles down for a holiday. The gentle sunlight filtering in through the tall trees, the constant rhythm of rustling reeds, the soothing chatter of coots and water hens, that unrivalled silence found only within forests – Dhole's Den is your chance to explore the possibilities of a life in the wilderness.
The jungle lodge has just five living spaces in its 5-acre property – two Habitat rooms, two Garden Mansion bungalows and a Mountain Paradise bungalow. The Mountain Paradise bungalow, where we stayed in, is the Den’s latest addition, overlooking the beautiful rainwater pond in the middle of the property. All living spaces have been designed with an emphasis on light, air and sight. The high ceilings and glass louvres aid in ventilation and bring in maximum natural light; the trees planted near the guest rooms and the wide eaves provide natural shade and cooling; the large windows and doors, and extensive balconies allow for immense views of the rolling Nilgiris and Bandipur's expansive grasslands.
Dhole’s Den is your window into nature, and quite literally so. Walls are more windows and windows, mere glass. You are never ‘indoors’, but always ‘in nature’. You are brushing your teeth, but your eyes are glued to the glass window beside the mirror, ready to spot the next flycatcher that flies by; you are taking a shower, but your ears are pricked to hear the sound of the bottlebrush branch brushing against the frosted glass that separates yourself from the wilderness outside.
The jungle lodge offers no false luxury, there is no swimming pool, no air-conditioning, no television. There are time slots for when hot water will be available. There is no à la carte menu, food will be served as per the seasonal produce from the nearby farm. Guests are informed through verbal briefings and signages to conserve energy and water. Luxury here is the excellent, top-of-the-line service; well-groomed, courteous staff, crockery that is handmade from Pondicherry, french press coffee that gets served every morning and evening, delicious, fresh farm produce that makes it to your plate every day, liquor from the host’s private collection and so forth.
All members of the staff are from nearby villages. The lodge’s souvenir shop even sells handicrafts and art made by local artists. Dhole’s Den has also set up a foundation, the Dhole’s Den Research Foundation (DDRF), which regularly supports the local school with books, compass boxes, excursions for children, and also funds important research on the flora and fauna of Bandipur.
The actual name of the Dhole’s Den residence is Uhuru, which means freedom in Kiswahili. The lodge is a space for ideation and free thought, somewhere ‘you can be yourself without someone telling you what you should do’. Gawk at the mountains and its wilderness, read a book, write a journal, a novel, open up, feel, heal. It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that Dhole's Den is the perfect retreat for people who don’t get bored with themselves. But, there are also things you can do. Guest activities include a walk around the 5-acre property, a visit to their organic farm in the village nearby, interaction with the local tribe, a unique bird safari tour, campfire at night and much more.
Of course, if you love dogs, there is no better place to be. Karthik refers to Dhole’s Den as the Land of Shaka and Zulu, after his first two Chippiparai Hounds. Around 2008, after he had bought this land, Karthik had consultants come down from Mumbai to help him with the plantation, guidance regarding the flowering and fruiting trees that needed to be planted. One of the consultants owned a Caravan Hound, a hunting dog from Maharashtra, and he suggested that Karthik look at hounds. That is how Karthik got his first pair of Chippiparai Hounds, a native Indian breed from the state of Tamil Nadu. Shaka and Zulu’s family has since grown; when we visited, their son Jabu and Jamila had just had a litter of seven.
Reminiscing about last night's adventure, I hug a warm cup of coffee, my feet dangling off the deck, as the sun set behind me to daub the pond's surface golden yellow. Last November, a lone tusker had barged into the property (to hell with electric fences) at night and waded across this very pond. We have not been that lucky, however, in the last two days, I have already spotted close to 20 new species of birds – francolins, parakeets, munias, peafowl, kingfishers, barbets and the like.
Dropping the mug off in the kitchen, I make a quick stop by the Garden Mansion bungalow, now converted puppy palace, for wet boops, licks and nips, before making a bee-line for Ekant, the newest building on the estate. Ekant houses a dip pool to help you cool off during hot afternoons, a terrace or lookout from where you get the most fascinating views of the village, and Karthik's office, in case you want to drop by for a conversation with the host.
This is Karthik’s favourite spot in Dhole’s Den, to sit here and take in the glorious landscape as the setting sun paves way for the moon. Earlier, it used to be a tent; now, Ekant stands tall where the tent used to pitch. He points at the tall silhouette of a tree in the distance, “Under the tree is Shaka’s grave. After a while, a light will go on. I sit here. And, I’m with him.” Blinking fairy lights, powered by solar, wrap around the tree above Shaka’s grave; sensor makes sure that the lights go on once it is dark and switches off at the first break of dawn.
Next morning, by the time I wake up, I can hear Karthik and his hounds outside. From the balcony, I see that Shaka has gone back to sleep, his grave lifeless in broad daylight. The rising sun hides behind the giant Albizia tree by the pond, its branches acting like a sieve, as the morning light breaks up into a hundred different rays. And, I see Simba and Zulu trotting about like elegant horses, with Karthik ambling after them calling out sweet nothings.
It's been a week since Dhole's Den, and I’m yet to get over the place. While writing, I was in esteemed company; Chris Martin and co. in my ears, with their latest release. Sharing the outro lyrics here:
Hold tight for everyday life
Hold tight for everyday life
At first light
Throw my arms out open wide
Throw my arms out open wide, I did. Thank you, Dhole's Den.