I’ve always been the sort of person who says “I don’t want this safari to be a mindless tiger chase. It’s okay if we don’t see the tiger; I’d also like to stop for all other animals, birds & reptiles”. As a result, I was the ‘easy guest’ for all guides to deal with. They didn’t have somebody breathing down their neck, asking “tiger kyon nahin dikha?” (Why didn’t we see a tiger?)
Over the years, I never saw a tiger. Not that the guides didn’t try to track the predator. But, I was always too happy enjoying the other sights to press them to go that extra mile. With everybody & their aunt showing me photos of their ‘encounter with the tiger’, I so wanted to see a tiger. I decided to undertake my first real ‘search’ for the big cat. A couple of months ago, I had an option to go to Bandhavgarh, where tiger sightings are more common than some other forests. But, that was not meant to be. The debate in my head went something like this:
Eager-for-tiger me: Go to Bandhavgarh. See a tiger. Go, go, go!
Eager-for-forest me: But Kanha is so pretty.
Eager-for-tiger me: Maybe tiger cubs too. Maybe they’re all playing. How cute will that be?
Eager-for-forest me: (In a whiney tone) But Kanha is sooooo pretty.
Eager-for-tiger me: Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Go to Bandhavgarh!!
Eager-for-forest me: (continuing the whiney tone) But Kanha is sooooo pretty. And, I can see the Barasingha. (smiling at the thought)
Eager-for-tiger me: (shocked) You want to see a deer? (louder) A deer? (resigned) Bah! Do what you want. Don’t listen to me. You’ll regret this later.
Eager-for-forest me: (by now day-dreaming & not listening to eager-for-tiger me) Sigh! Kanha is sooooo pretty! And, I’m going to see it! (smiling again)
The romantic in me chose Kanha. But, secretly, deep down, I was also hoping to spot the tiger and laugh at eager-for-tiger me’s face.
Kanha, in winter, has weather that makes you shiver despite your woolens and long for the comfort of a roaring bonfire or maybe 3 blankets over you. Driving through the beautiful Sal forest interspersed with rolling meadows, pinkish grass, white sheaves, glistening water-bodies and a low-hanging mist, I half expected a hero & heroine to appear through the mist & run around trees, a la Bollywood. Besides the Sal trees, they could also choose to run around the ‘Indian ghost tree’ (Kullu), a tree that turns a ghostly white in summer. The forest did have heroes & heroines, albeit the four-legged & the winged kind. They were each endearing in their own way: Sambars strolling about with their young, Gaur grazing in the misty meadows, herds of Barasingha sunning themselves and Langurs & their funny antics. The ‘cuteness’ competition was won hands-down by the five Spotted Owlets living in a hollow near the park gate. Adorable celebrities that they are; we never tired of looking at them, each time we entered & exited the park.
The first day, in the Kisli zone, was uneventful. The next morning, we set off in the wee hours as usual, but this time, to the Kanha zone. Our driver & guide for the day seemed to share great camaraderie; very important for good teamwork that is required to track a tiger. Our prospects looked bright. They animatedly discussed possible routes & tiger movements; a sign of knowledge. Prospects were now brighter. To add to the increasing brightness, they spotted pugmarks, as fresh as they come. We followed the pugmarks for a while until they disappeared into a bush. After some discussions on what path the tiger could have chosen, we drove towards that area. Sure enough, the pugmarks re-appeared on the road.
The air was electric with excitement as we sped along, as fast as the forest’s speed limit would permit. The guide stood in his seat, trying to spot the beast. It seemed like this would be THE day. And, it was. Phillip, seated behind me in the jeep, hoarsely whispered “tiger! tiger!”. A handsome, juvenile male walked on the road ahead. He had a lustrous, orange coat that shone in the golden sunlight. As he heard the rumble of our engine, he turned to look at us & darted into the nearby shrub. And then, he could be seen no more. I wanted to scream but I bit my lip to keep quiet. Why, you may ask. I didn’t see the tiger, that’s why! If this were a sitcom, the background track would be playing a sympathetic “awwww” just about now.
I was seated just behind the guide, who had been standing. When Phillip said “tiger”, I looked ahead, left to right. All I ended up seeing was the guide’s back, left to right. He’d blocked my cone of vision, for the exact width of the road. What are the chances of that happening! The three others in the jeep, the guide & the driver had all seen the tiger and were glowing with excitement. We congratulated the guide & the driver for their brilliant tracking. They were as excited as the others, to see the tiger. I was a little glum. One of the jeeps belonging to our group had a wonderful & long sighting of ‘Langda Munna’. He’s a special tiger, as the stripes on his forehead actually spell out the word ‘Cat’. As we disbelievingly crowded around our friends that afternoon, looking at photos of Munna, I crossed my fingers in hope.
That evening, on our way towards the park exit at the end of the safari, we saw jeeps lined up along an embankment & people peering down excitedly. The area was called Badrinath. We too pulled over. In hushed tones, a guide informed us that one of the jeeps had seen a tigress climb down the embankment, right near the Sal tree on the road. She would most likely go to the ‘valley’ below & then walk there. The congregation continued peering. Soon, excited whispers told me that the tigress had been sighted. Everybody in my jeep too could see her. I still couldn’t! My friend Anjali then moved away & nudged me to her side of the jeep, so that I could take a look. There she was, like a ghost in the dark evening, with a lithe body. Then, faster than you could say ‘tiger’, she was gone. All that remained was the memory of her regal gait. I smiled. I have my friend to thank for this sighting.
The next day went by without a tiger. As we left for our evening safari, I wondered if I’d end this trip without sighting the tiger. I just had another safari the next morning, before I returned home. We did try to spot the tigress at the same spot where she was seen last evening, but, she seemed to have left that area. With just 30 minutes to go for the park gates to shut, we headed back. En route, another jeep drove past and the group told us that they’d just sighted a Sloth bear, 300 metres ahead & it had disappeared into some shrubbery. Since we had nothing to lose, we went there. We could hear the bear and see it hidden behind a bush, excavating a termite mound for food. Our guide had the foresight to wait & correctly predicted that it might cross the road over to the other side, once it was done with the mound. So it did. As the bear emerged from the bush, there was frenzied photo-taking. It walked really close & my hand shivered with excitement. Without even looking at us, it disappeared once more, into the shrubbery.
I left Kanha the next day, wondering if I should have gone to Bandhavgarh. Eager-for-tiger me was probably rolling with laughter, a smug “I told you!” look on the face. But, looking back, I had enjoyed being in the forest. Kanha is a pretty maiden. All the animals looked gorgeous with their lustrous winter coats. And, to be fair, I did see a tiger; even if it was fleeting. At least, the jinx is now broken. I can always go to Bandhavgarh another time. Sightings of the Barasingha, the Spotted Owlets & the Sloth bear made my trip, as did seeing & following fresh pug-marks every day.
The tiger, though, still owes me an unhurried date.
Link to the entire set of photos:
I travelled to Kanha:
as part of a tour by Toehold; led by Sachin, Phillip & Santosh.
Getting there: Jabalpur (approx. 2.5 hrs away) is the nearest airport. Nagpur (approx. 4.5 hrs away) & Raipur (approx. 4 hrs away) are other options for airports. Drive from either of these cities to Kanha.
Accommodation: We stayed near the Kisli gate, at Bundela Safari Lodge.