Because you’ll go hunting down the tiger…
So you think there aren’t too many good reasons to take a wildlife safari in India? You don’t need that many. Because one good reason beats them all. The tiger.
No one can go wrong with Bandhavgarh, which has the most dense population of big cats in India, especially the Royal Bengal Tiger. This 440 square km wildlife park, nestled in Vindhya Mountains, is abundantly stocked with deer, chital, nilgai, hyena, langur, rhesus and even leopard and sloth bear.
Take a train to the closest station of Umaria to reach the wildlife sanctuary, which is a comfortable 37 kilometres or 45 minutes away. Alternatively, fly to Jabalpur and settle for a three-hour drive to Bandhavgarh. Correction: a glorious three-hour drive to Bandhavgarh. On this gently sloping terrain through abundantly lush countryside, you can have your fill of charming snapshots from rural India…neon-painted thatched-roof houses, weekly roadside markets and men herding buffaloes.
Resorts range from meagre to lavish. So tuck in for the night, rest well because the 3-4 hour long safari can be a real squeeze on your energy sources. We opt for the morning slot. So there were are, sharp at 5 am, seated in the back of an open 4X4 Jeep, bundled up in warm blankets on a chilly, misty January morning. At the sanctuary gates, lined up with several other vehicles, as we wait for our guide to fetch our entry tickets, we are clueless about what lies ahead. Success? Maybe. Maybe not.
Once the gates open, the queued-up Jeeps start moving slowly through the rough path behind each other. In the soft light of dawn, the darkness melts away, revealing the dense forest all around. Indian safaris are nothing like the African safaris. There are no resorts nearby, no habitation. Only the silence of the wild. No animals in plain sight….no giraffes strolling past your bedroom window, no elephant ambling along the periphery of the open-air breakfast lawns. Just a deep silence. Broken rudely by the crunchy roll of tyres along the dry, sandy path.
We are on the hunt. We are leading the chase. Yet, paradoxically, we sit meekly in our seats, whispering to each other, eyes darting in all directions to catch a glimpse of hidden game. Funnily, our ammunition is cameras instead of rifles and will go back with pictures to adorn our screens, not animal skins to adorn our walls.
The landscape is enveloped in danger and uncertainty. Maybe a panther is crouching on that tree above you. Or a bear hiding behind that bush. A tiger in camouflage…eyeing us from behind? I am plagued by the inevitable question…will we see a tiger? What if he jumps onto the jeep? I try to forecast my reaction…will I be frozen or would a scream escape my lips?
One rustle somewhere and we twist our necks with unimaginable flexibility. Instincts are at their peak. We keep moving. Nothing significant yet. Some colourful birds. A family of spotted deer by the road. Glancing at us with their huge, pretty eyes, comfortable in the presence of humans. I marvel at another one with huge antlers, posing for a picture.
Deeper into the forest. Close to a waterbody now, where a tiger was seen yesterday by another group. Maybe he will return. We wait. Glance around. Wait more. No luck. A nilgai (antelope) is quenching his thirst and he seems at ease. Obviously no predator is near. Time to move on.
A male swamp deer is rubbing his antlers against a tree trunk. We are told that they do this to remove the velvet growing on their antlers. Then the antlers dry and harden to be used as weapons while fighting other males to assert dominance during breeding season. By winter, after breeding season, these antlers drop off completely!
Meanwhile, the guides in the jeeps have been talking to each other, sharing latest updates of sightings and looking for clues like pugmarks. We study the bunch of grey langurs playing on the branches. Their long thin tails dangle like cords. One of the them jumps on the ground to pick up something he thinks is a snack, then paces off as he sees his brother make a lunge for it. It’s just another mundane day in the jungle for him.
Finally fresh pugmarks. Anticipation. But the tiger could be just anywhere. There’s no route chalked out for him. He has nowhere specific to be. Our driver and guide have an intense tete-a-tete and separate from the convoy. They decide to follow a fresh lead from a guide who was here with a group of tourists last evening. We branch off into a different direction. See a sloth bear. Several wild boar and wild buffaloes. Witness a deer fight…
Searching. More searching. Left turns, right turns, about-turns. We have been wandering through the forest for a three hours now and have nearly given up hopes. My shoulders are drooping with disappointment and I can feel myself slouching. My camera is resting on the seats beside me now, but Vikas still looks razor sharp. I’m distracted by a blaze of color…its a strutting peacock.
Suddenly, there are strong alarm calls of spotted deer from somewhere near. We brake to a quick halt. I straighten up and grab my camera again. The guide and driver instantly change track to follow the calls. Is it finally happening? Within seconds, we see another jeep, half a kilometre ahead, signalling frantically towards the thick clump on our right. Full throttle. We race headlong and screech to a stop next to the other jeep. We jump up from our seats, spines straight as arrows. Senses are on full alert. Then hushhhhh! All heads are angled in one direction, including ours. I can scarcely breathe. Deathly silence. I can hear my own heartbeat…too loud! Where? Where? Where is he? Moment of truth. Then I see the flash of orange stripe behind the bushes. Just ___ metres away.
He emerges into the clearing. Royalty in his stride. Muscles rippling under his velvet fur. He glances at us indifferently…we pose no threat. I clutch my camera tighter. Whirr, whirr, click click…there’s no stopping now. Can he hear it?
He’s in no hurry, but he does looks like he’s going somewhere. His expression doesn’t change, he doesn’t bare his teeth. We simply trace his languorous catwalk with our eyes and our cameras, hypnotically. I’m hooked by the grace of his movement, the long whiskers, the curved claws on his soft paws, the whiteness of his underside merging into the orange, the cocked-up ears, the powerful tail. And those stripes…he’s a beauty! He crosses the path in front of us, and slides into the bushes on the other side.
Twelve minutes of glory or an entire lifetime? His majesty has exited the court. And we’re still standing there in attendance, in our jeeps, cameras in hand…stupefied, awestruck, humbled. Until the driver switches on the ignition. Contentment, suddenly has a new meaning.