At the Karadi Malai Camp on the outskirts of Chennai, Anusha Parthasarathy listens to the sonnets of birds and wonders when the leopard would come visiting…

We’re imagining a forest full of bears, standing on two feet, walking towards you, and baring its teeth and nails. But as we turn off the road about eight km before Chengalpattu into the mud track that goes towards the hills, we see only butterflies. We drive until we see the Karadi Malai Camp sign etched on a wooden plank. The gates open and we hear a growl. It seems to be getting closer and suddenly, the smallest of puppies rushes out wagging its tail. Phew!

Romulus Whitaker, herpetologist and wildlife conservationist, is waiting at another set of gates, the ones that lead to his home ‘Paambukudivanam’ (‘the forest where the snake lives’). “Here we are,” he says as we pass a row of three cottages. Karadi Malai Camp, amidst a canopy of trees and witness to day-long sonnets of bird calls and far away (and yet so near) from civilisation, is now open for business. The cottages are made from Andaman bamboo and the rooms have beds with mosquito nets, cupboard, lookout, washroom and a table. Modest!

Teeming with wildlife

Everyone wanted to visit Rom and Janaki Lenin when they moved into this farm just outside the big city. “Who’d have thought that a place this close to Chennai could be so green and full of interesting wildlife,” says Janaki, and then laughs, “We’ve got a resident leopard, civet cats, porcupines and lots of owls. It’s the wildest place around here.”

True enough, a leopard has been captured on camera traps that Rom has set up around his 11-acre farm-cum-home stay-cum-camp. Well, it’s not surprising, considering that the property borders the Vallam Reserve Forest. In fact, the residents have even named its prowling area the Leopard Alley. The area is teeming with birds and butterflies. “Plenty of scorpions and snakes (cobras, Russell’s vipers, common kraits, rat snakes) too,” laughs Rom. “We’ve held camps for children here for a while now. It opens up a new world for them. The people who stay here too want to experience some of these things.” Janaki adds, “We call Irulas (a tribe) to demonstrate catching a snake and venom extraction. We also take people to a nearby Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society where they can learn of their knowledge of medicinal plants.”

But the stay is like being on a farm as well. Emus follow you around, craning their necks as their curious eyes try to see what exactly you are doing, and the resident swine sleeps peacefully in her shelter. “It is also a paradise for birdwatchers; we have owls, spotted owlets, paradise flycatchers, pitta, brainfever birds, woodpeckers, sunbirds and at least three types of bulbuls,” he adds. “We arrange for bird watching in the early mornings or evenings and usually we spot some mammals as well.” And for those who want to relax, there is a swimming pool, plenty of shade and absolute silence.

Currently, Rom and Janaki are planting saplings all around their farm. Rom says, “We are trying to recreate the forest it was hundreds of years ago. We have only just started.”

So, where are the karadis (bears) of the malai (hill)? “Oh, there aren’t any. We lost our dog Karadi to the leopard, and hence the name,” explains Rom.

(The tariff is Rs. 2,500 a night for a single or double inclusive of breakfast. Between April 1 and August 1 it’s Rs. 1,750. For details, call 80120-33087)