A personal tale
Tracking Tigers in Central India
It was to be a moment that I would remember forever and not a very dignified one at that. My hands were clammy, my stomach churning and my body seemingly unable to do the simple things that my brain so wanted it to. Would I laugh or were those tears that I felt pricking at my eyes?
The words “a tiger ma'am” and frenzy struck. My immediate response was “What? How? Where?”. You see I wasn't on a safari. I was leaving Bandhavgarh and my unsuccessful game drive behind in the hopes of better luck in Kanha. And suddenly those magical words arrived. The ones that I had been so prepared for just 24 hours before.
My camera was packed deep in my rucksack, I couldn't for the life of me remember where my phone was and yet there he was. Prowling casually along the main road that we were using to leave the park. A road that bikes and tuk tuks frequented. A road that not long before, I had seen someone walking along.
Hands fumbling for a camera, any camera, I retrieved my phone from the opposite seat and went to open the door in a moment of what I can only describe as sheer madness – what was I thinking? That’s the million dollar question. All that I do know is that I was intending to wind down the window, not pull on handle. What I can't tell you is how I got the two confused. My poor driver went into panic mode. The words 'attack' and 'kill' were uttered. Not music to the ears, I can tell you that much. With many apologies professed, I managed to find the electric window button and take the footage that I have been watching ever since with a smile from ear to ear.
My first ever tiger sighting. I mean he was literally a stone’s throw away (and I can’t throw very far). The world’s most powerful big cat. A beast of myth and legend, just living his life in the wild. Completely and utterly unphased by my presence. But this is the middle. Let me take you back to the beginning. A real jungle adventure.
I’d been in Delhi for two nights, soaking up the sights and sounds of one of the world’s most densely populated cities, but it was the short flight to Jabalpur and the not so short car journey to Bandhavgarh that was to mark the true beginnings of my Indian adventure. After leaving the city that is its airport’s namesake, the landscapes began to change dramatically. I was in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, a.k.a. land of the tigers. For four hours we drove further and further away from the tell-tale signs of the 21st century. Rural India taking shape in front of my eyes. Stretches of baked topography punctuated by flourishing farmlands – homing countless free-to-wander cows – and, every now and then, a vibrant town where tooting horns met with the general cacophony of the locals displaying their wares along the roadside. A far cry from the big city chaos of the capital, this felt like real India. The behind the scenes of the headline stealing cities. The journey may have been a long one, but my ready and waiting book wasn’t to be opened once. No narrative could beat the one that lived and breathed before me. Here, real life was at play and I didn’t want to miss a second.
Bandhavgarh welcomed me with hot, dry arms – and Langur Monkeys galore. After an afternoon enjoying the tiered pool at Bandhav Vilas, an early night was definitely on the cards. I had a wake up call for 4.30am the next morning and the last thing I wanted was to be bleary eyed for my first safari. But is it even possible to avoid being tired when you’re up and out by 5am? As I glugged my coffee in the lodge's lobby at 4.56am, I wasn’t so sure. But, if anything is to wake you up, travelling in an open air jeep will. As I rumbled towards Tala Gate (the park’s nearest entrance), wind whipping through my hair, the people of Bandhavgarh were also stirring. The sun was yet to rise, but women ferrying fire wood upon their heads were already getting ready to prepare breakfast, whilst children congregrated around a roadside water pump for their morning wash. I silently hoped that poster-children residents of this area were as bright eyed and bushy tailed as its locals.
Alongside the driver, a local guide and myself, there was only one other safari-goer in my jeep, enabling me the luxury of spreading out long the middle bench that was built to cater for three. Opting for a central spot, I had easy access to either side of the jeep – oh yes, I was ready to see a tiger. We hadn’t even driven though the gate yet and my camera was already hanging around my neck. If there was to be a sighting, any sighting, I was determined to capture it.
The Tala zone is known for its scenic, hilly terrain and I have to say, despite often catching the break of dawn on my pre-work dog walks, this was to be a sunrise that I would never forget. The excitement in the air was tangible, the ride incredibly bumpy and the early morning’s pastel light beautiful. And then suddenly the engine cut. That screeching that I could hear was an alarm call, I was informed. It’s possible that a tiger is lurking close by. My goodness, I thought. That was quick. We’d only been in the park five minutes. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. And so the morning went on. Spotted deer and langur monkeys happily posed for photos – and I happily snapped away – but a tiger was not to be seen.
When we broke for breakfast in a designated jungle clearing, I broached the dreaded question to my driver. It was already 8.30am, we only had a couple of hours left, were we at all likely to see a tiger? “Oh yes ma’am”, was his confident reply. “As the day gets hotter, the tigers will be seeking water”.
“Ok”, I thought, as I scooped up some spiced vegetables with my much-needed morning roti – which really was incredible – “he seems pretty positive, so there is still hope”. It was after breakfast that my guide spotted some tracks. I hadn’t even seen the real thing but a chill ran down my spine. These prints were massive. If that was just the paw size, how big would the cat that made them be? Round toes indicated a male, I was told. Whereas pointed toes, and generally smaller paw prints, were those of a female. This trail was most definitely made by a male. And a very large one at that.
Unfortunately the trail was fruitless, as were the alarm calls of various other animals. But, the sight of two huge Asian Elephants trampling their way through the forest was something that I wasn't expecting. Steered by professional mahouts, the guide explained that it was from the safety of an elephant’s back that they were able to patrol for poachers and keep an eye on the park’s tiger population. Without them, conservation of the park would fall apart and the ecosystem would be destroyed, as using jeeps would only ruin the natural terrain. I later discovered that to film Dynasties, the Attenborough documentary that aired on the BBC last year, the crew were granted the rare privilege to travel by elephant to the more inaccessible areas of Bandhavgarh. An opportunity that – for the welfare of the elephants and general good of the park – is quite rightly never offered to tourists.
As time pushed on and the heat of the late morning sun became stifling, we had no choice but to head back to the gate. A route that had me scouring the trees. I spotted the brilliant blue of an Indian Roller, a very proud looking black kite and a lesser adjutant swooping above a watering hole. A tree trunk sporting the war wounds of a tiger’s swipe provided the final proof that although I didn’t see any, there were definitely big cats in the area. We were either passing through an alpha male’s territory, or a tiger had simply stopped here to clean meat from their claws. Either way, and despite not seeing the culprit of the marks, it was exciting stuff.
So that was one safari down and, because of other work commitments, I only had one to go. My hopes of seeing a tiger were beginning to diminish. But, it didn’t dampen my spirits. Bandhavgarh had been breathtaking and I was told that I was in for a treat in Kanha – a park that is known for being central India’s prettiest.
The next morning, a five hour journey to Kanha lay ahead of me. Pretty dazed from another early start, I planned to while away the time with some window gazing interrupted only by the odd nap – much like a toddler, long car journeys never fail to send me to sleep. We’d been in the car all of fifteen minutes and already I was drifting when suddenly, my driver brought me back to reality with a bang. The pronouncement of “a tiger ma'am” and the whole reason for my trip was fulfilled. The rest, of course, is history. But I can tell you now that nothing will ever compare to that first tiger sighting. As it crossed the road in front of us, turning to look me in the eye as it went, I knew that this tiger was well aware of his power, his King of the Jungle status. My knees are like jelly just thinking about it. Pumped with adrenaline, my next safari in Kanha couldn’t come soon enough.
The big cats of Kanha
“It is said that if a wild boar crosses your path, you will see a tiger”, my Kanha guide declared with a grin, as we watched a troop of boar cross the dirt track ahead of us. A quick Google has since confirmed that the cheeky grin was hiding a cheeky white lie (there is no such folk tale!), but at the time it was believable enough to keep me optimistic – I’d take anything. My camera was permanently poised, my ears pricked for alarm calls and my eyes scouring the jungle thicket. I don’t know why I thought that I was going to be able to spot something that the trained professionals hadn’t, but with one safari already under my belt, I was now an ardent tiger-tailer and was going to try my damned hardest.
Like a scene from a storybook, Kanha’s wild beauty had me captivated from the off. And this park isn’t just Jungle Book-esque, it’s the actual location that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s iconic tale, The Jungle Book. Here, enchanting forests give way to sun-flecked meadows and the din of the jungle waking makes for a backing track like no other. I’d been woken myself at 4.30am that morning with a delivery of steaming hot coffee and a plate of biscuits to my room – it certainly softened the blow of the ungodly hour – and the early dosage of caffeine had me on high alert for the rest of the morning. Alongside my driver and park guide, the manager from Chitvan Jungle Lodge (a local with a wealth of knowledge) and Roger, a fellow guest at the lodge, were to be my new safari buddies. A retiree who had just been in Northern India on the search for one-horned rhinos and whose most recent travels had taken him to Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands, Roger made for very interesting company. And, unlike myself, he was yet to see a tiger. The anticipation was infectious.
Five minutes in, we had already turned back on ourselves due to some intel from a passing jeep. They had heard a very good alarm call, but were en route to another zone, so very kindly gave us the heads up. As the sun rose behind us, the deer-specked meadows came to life and I had a feeling in my bones that the day was going to be a good one. And boy, was the feeling spot on. That first alarm call may have not come to anything tiger sighting wise, but a peacock flaunting his feathers in a dizzying twirl, a mighty gaur (Indian bison), heaps of barasingha deer, a whole host of birds and a troop of wild boar made the pre-breakfast morning a very eventful one. A trail of a mother and cub’s paw prints was a particularly exciting interlude, but the number of monkeys milling around in the close vicinity indicated that this pair were long gone.
When we came across a small cluster of three jeeps, we knew that there was some action to be had. This lucky lot had spotted a tiger making its way into the track-side copse and had decided to wait in the hope of a reappearance. My guide explained that it made more sense to break for food early than wait for a possibly appearance as the later it got, the more likely a watering hole sighting would be – it wasn’t even 8am and we were all already sticky from the heat.
So, as we munched on a delightful spread of vegetable samosas, cheese sandwiches, bananas, oranges and vanilla sponge in the jungle clearing, Roger and I chatted about the morning’s events and looked forward to what the following two/three hours of the safari had in store for us. Having already seen a tiger, another sighting would just be a bonus for me, but the thrill of the safari experience still had me gripped.
Food devoured and mango juice slurped, back in the jeep we climbed. I knew we were on a mission, I just didn’t know where to. The driver was suddenly maxing out the speed limit – in Kanha all of the jeeps are restricted to 30km per hour and have trackers to ensure that they stick to not only this limit, but their ‘zone’. And then without warning we stopped. A clearing. A tiger. Rolling around in the dappled light, tail flicking and head shaking, he could have been a house cat. This guide really did know his stuff.
Proudly introducing the mighty Chota Munna, the guide told us in low whispers that this was Kanha’s dominant male and he was quite the performer. Known for his love of the camera, this tiger definitely knew how to work the ‘crowd’. He wriggled and posed for a spellbinding ten minutes or so, until he decided that he’d had enough of the paps for one day and slunk into a sheltered watering hole. Jeeps pulling up behind us knew that there had to be a tiger nearby, but unluckily for them they were just too late. He was still right next to the track but a slight lip hanging over the watering hole meant that he was completely covered from view. It just went to prove how much seeing these magnificent beasts is the luck of the draw. I was quite probably that close to a number of tigers during my time in central India, but they’re only to be seen if they want to be. And with that my time in the jungle was over, completed by last minute sightings of a family of gaur gathering at a watering hole and a jackal trotting just ahead of the jeep’s path.
It was whilst mopping my ‘glowing’ brow with an offered towel and sipping on the tropical juice that awaited us back at Chitvan Lodge that the reality of all that I'd seen and done really dawned on me. In a whirlwind of a week and with just a couple of safaris, I’d spotted two tigers. And not just the glimpse of a tail, or the shudder of a bush, but two fantastic sightings. Plus, because I hadn’t had wifi since leaving Bandhav Vilas in Bandhavgarh, I knew that I’d have to wait until I checked into my hotel in Mumbai to tell anyone. There was something quite profound about that in itself. I’d had this incredible experience – my life is now defined as pre-tigers and post-tigers, obviously – but I couldn’t even tell anyone. Without the usual lifeline of Whatsapp and Instagram, the only person who could relive my experience by watching my footage was me. And I relished every second. For that brief period of time, the tigers were mine and mine only. The journey to Mumbai not only marked my return to India’s well-trodden tourist path, but a snap back to reality. An end to my jungle book bubble.
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