We knew that tiger country in the winter was a bewitching prospect. What we didn’t know was that we’d become a part of history.
There was more than just a tingle of excitement in the air as fifteen wonderful people from various walks of life but with a common passion gathered at Jabalpur for the Winter Tiger Photography Tour led by Sachin Rai, Phillip Ross and Santosh Saligram.
A veritable caravan advanced towards its first destination, the fabled Bandhavgarh forest, affording many memorable moments along the rustic road to one of India’s most famous Tiger Reserves. The sight was exhilarating.
Reaching the delightful resort in the cordial little town of Tala in the afternoon, everybody and their luggage were safely unloaded and checked-in to the rooms for awhile before a luncheon around which informal introductions unfolded.
Then, five jungle chariots arrived with their highly able stewards – ace safari drivers carefully handpicked by Toehold for their skill and experience in tracking tigers and enabling the kind of photographs that outlive photographers.
A briefing by Sachin followed, and without much ado, the group boarded the vehicles to declare the game open.
The first ride of a Tour, especially one to Bandhavgarh, is always exciting, because of the spine-tingling anticipation of what lies ahead. And as we wound through the green alleyways, excited questions by the group were interspersed with hushed silence at the beauty and mystique of the great ancient forest into which we were fortunate to delve for a few exalted moments.
Bandhavgarh has a happy predisposition to dispensing beginner’s luck, and more often than not, treats first-time visitors to spectacular openings. Some of the group were beneficiaries of this largesse on the very first ride, when a 3.5-year-old Kankati, the resident empress of the north-western part of the park, strode in style down a jeep track straight towards their vehicle and spray-marked a tree before resuming her invisibility.
Witnesses of this simple-but-significant encounter were in a state of stunned awe when met at the resort later that evening. The start couldn’t have been better.
For those for whom tiger luck didn’t shine through, the ride was a fabulous introduction to the park and gave a brilliant glimpse of the paradise that the tiger and all its cohabitants call ‘home’, with this lovely view of a spectacular evening sky over Rampur greeting us away on our way back to camp.
Next morning, after a prodigiously early start that nobody seemed to mind, for such is the vigour-injecting effect of the jungle, we set out in search of pugmarks, alarm calls, or any other sign that may lead us to our desired destiny. And because patience and perseverance are the key attributes of a good cat pursuer, we kept up the hard work until things turned rosy. Tawny, actually.
In the evening, just as the safari was in the twilight zone, the beautiful-but-elusive mother of three, the Banbehi female, walked out near a stream, stepped onto the road and led the entourage of vehicles for a brief while before they exited the park in a state of dizzying excitement.
Next morning, driving on Route A, we reached the centre point without incident and customarily toasted on the delightful refreshments there, washed down with the mandatory masala chai. Driving back on Route C, picturesque Rajbehra was resplendent as usual, gleaming to a nicety in the precious warmth of the winter sun.
Then, near Bathan, a pair of Chital stags was photographed locking horns in a mock-spar in the grass, and shortly, a stag and a doe getting to know each other in delightful light.
Not far away, we enjoyed a splendid time photographing a Giant Wood Spider, taking time to illustrate the dramatic difference the angle of shooting makes to the background of an image.
Most participants would by now have concluded that the morning’s tiger-watching chances had fizzled out and that we would just amble back towards the exit in a listless sort of way. But to think on these lines in the ‘tiger capital of the world’ is a folly.
As their vehicle went down a narrow stretch of track in Chorbehra, Sachin stood up to say something to the participants and just then saw Kankati walking right across the track. They stopped and reversed to the point where she had melted into the forest and waited. A little while later the other vehicles arrived and by then, her ladyship had emerged from the thicket and sat on the edge of an open rock some eighty feet from the vehicle track. Frenzied watchers feasted away at the sight for a few minutes and a bit later, after many vehicles had left, the most amazingly magical thing happened.
A single cub emerged from behind the thicket and sat right beside its mother. With flawlessly innocent eyes it watched us in apprehension and the tigress licked it to give it a cover of assurance that the little one wasn’t in peril. Its large, disproportionate ears and vacant, viscous eyes suggested it wasn’t more than three months old, and was probably closer to two.
Quickly grabbing a few shots, we left the site so as to not disturb the duo unduly, as participants tried to catch their breath after the spellbinding encounter, attempting to digest the magnitude of the fortune they had received. This was big.
Being allowed to watch such a young cub from close quarters was special enough, but what took the experience firmly into the realm of the extraordinary was that the cubs had been sighted only once or twice before, in thick bushes. We were quite possibly the first people to photograph one of the them. The participants hadn’t just captured history but had become a part of it too.
After the highs of the previous morning, we ventured into the other popular tourism range of the park, Magadhi, and although didn’t enjoy much tiger-luck, spent a goodly amount of time photographing the lovely scenery and a pair of highly obliging glossy ibises in great light.
In the afternoon, after the customary group photo shoot, we returned to Magadhi via the Gohri gate and were promptly greeted by a lone Indian fox walking across an open meadow.
Later, as we snaked around the vehicle tracks marked by a sight of an Indian grey hornbill, we arrived at a junction beset by much vehicular traffic. Squeezing ourselves through it took us close to a junction where we learned that both the Sukhi Pateeha cubs were being seen from the perpendicular road. We waited patiently for a few minutes and as a reward, one of the cubs emerged from the thick bush behind a termite mound, very close to where we were stationed, providing a grandstand view of his royal comeliness.
Beer flowed freely that night as everybody had now seen a tiger and many lucky participants enjoyed multiple sightings and images. But the grandest of climaxes was in the offing.
The next morning, also the last in Bandhavgarh on the Tour, we kept our date with the Magadhi range. The Gohri gate offered a magnificent sunrise over the rural horizon, as though lighting up in promise of the vivid dreams that could come true yonder, and we reached the Behra camp area in good time, where a forest guard treated us to just the news you want to hear when out looking for tigers.
He said he had seen the Mukunda male, a famously bold young tiger we had been looking for since the beginning of the Tour, and that he was likely to return to view again. After picking the guard’s brain some more about the likely location of his emergence, we reached there and found a few vehicles already. We pulled abreast and saw him.
The stunning sight of a big male tiger wild and free in his domain hit us with full force. The incredible size and the plainly flawless looks of the handsome cat astounded the participants into a state where much of the energy was spent trying to digest the spectacle and what was left in capturing it.
Then he walked straight towards the vehicle with all his grace, might and silken splendour, stepped onto the road and walked with disdain.
Over the next hour, he entertained the enthralled audience walking up and down and in and out, allowing his pictures to be taken from virtually every angle, making the swansong-safari in Bandhavgarh for the Tour a most memorable one and lucidly demonstrating what makes Bandhavgarh special.
And the ‘tiger capital of the world’ had bid us a dream farewell.
After a journey lasting four hours, photographing a beautiful sunset along the way, we arrived in Kipling country and checked in to our lovely resort. Meeting the participants who had signed up for only the Kanha leg of the Tour, we dined and hit the sack in excited anticipation of what this park had in store.
Kanha is believed by many to be the prettiest of Central India’s national parks and it is not difficult to see why. Grass flowers carpet the vast meadows like delightful tufts of cotton wool, pretty streams crisscross the verdant greenery like brush strokes on canvas, and a cornucopia of wildlife completes the Utopian scene.
Presently, the dew on the grass glimmered in freshness as the sun broke through the mist to give a sublimely warm glow to the frosty meadow ahead as early birds chirped merrily from within. The main subject of meditative contemplation was quite unambiguously the striped splendour of the animal kingdom, but was it to be?
Driving on, the pugmarks of a male tiger marked an auspicious start to the proceedings. Following another vehicle that was pursuing the tiger, Phillip’s vehicle arrived at a fork where the marks were clearly imprinted in the sand on the right side of the road. So the two vehicles kept right and proceeded until Phillip’s driver had an epiphany that suggested they were on the wrong track.
Guided by sheer intuition, he returned to the fork, and upon more careful observation, found fresher pugmarks more feebly imprinted on the left branch of the fork. Clearly, the tiger had walked up the right side road at night but had returned in the early morning to venture down the left side road.
Driving down, hardly a kilometre had elapsed and the vehicle was just going up a slope when the words ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ thundered out of Phillip’s lips.
The big male stood on the vehicle track, flaunting his broadside view in full glory, looking straight at them.
As the participants, who had been curled up from the cold, rose to grab a more enduring glimpse to stash in their long-term memory, the tiger launched himself off the road, and in one leap lunged into the jungle, flushing a flock of jungle fowl out in cacophonous panic.
‘Good morning!’ exclaimed Phillip.
Meanwhile Sachin’s vehicle saw the pugmarks of a male tiger on the vehicle track elsewhere. Following it up some way down the road led to nothing, and a short while later, they were back to the same place and waited at the top of the hillock. With no calls to guide them to the top-cat, they started the vehicle to look for signs ahead. A lone langur was relaxing on the road about fifteen metres away. They moved further on.
Twenty metres ahead, a male tiger was walking away on the vehicle track, with one vehicle reversing ahead of him.
As they approached, he walked off the road and sat in the grass. For quite a long time thence he remained there, grooming and once yawning and thereby giving stunned onlookers an anatomical view of his dental architecture.
After he thought the repose adequate, he returned to the road and walked again, this time behind them, affording splendid head-on shots.
Tailing them for awhile, he spray-marked a tree, went off the road, sat for some time and then entered his jungle boudoir where his only companion would be his valued privacy.
Kanha had completed the fairy tale that Bandhavgarh had begun, and in the hallowed turf of the tiger, the privilege of witnessing the miracle of nature had become ours.
As a last hurrah, one beautiful evening, a tiger walking away in the valley to the right, encapsulating in her sinuous gait every bit of the grace, the magic and the incomparable beauty of her iconic ilk, marked a fitting finale to a Tour that introduced many to the magic of tiger country, and showed just why the iconic animal continues to be a compelling subject of pursuit for millions.