The tiger was on everybody’s lips. Could the Tour bring it to their sights too?
Dark clouds had gathered in the low, menacing sky, but as the group met an hour after noon at the Gol Ghar of the homely Bandipur Safari Lodge, the enhancement of social climate lifted the group’s spirits to a fine contrast from the gloomy weather.
And so lifted were their spirits that when they met for lunch an hour later, everybody spoke only about the apex predator of Bandipur and inevitably the flagship attraction of the Nilgiri Biosphere, with several of them wanting dearly to see their first southern Indian tiger, the unofficial subspecies that is famously hard to find and tougher to photograph.
But the participants knew that Bandipur had been, for a few years now, arguably the best park in the country’s lower half to see the charismatic cat of the upper echelons, with the beautiful mowed-like meadows and numerous natural waterholes offering idyllic vistas in which to savour the spectacle of a wild tiger.
But Bandipur is not only about tigers, so Giri Cavale and Phillip Ross, the Skippers for the Tour, briefed the group about the other equally desirable wildlife found here, and the broadly ideal camera settings to photograph them.
At 3 p.m. they assembled at the reception for an invigorating cuppa to counter the soporific effects of a scrumptious lunch, and in fifteen minutes, boarded two open safari vehicles, each presided by a Skipper.
Both vehicles headed towards Murkere, a waterhole where a courting pair had been seen frequently for the previous few days, but were greeted with no sign of them. After thirty minutes they decided to move on to pursue their chances elsewhere, when their attention was arrested by fresh pug marks clearly imprinted on the track in the same direction as the one in which they were until then advancing.
After a kilometre, the pug marks veered off towards an animal path on the right. The driver, whose knowledge of the topography was excellent, suggested that they were leading to a waterhole which was around 500 metres to their right. Driving cautiously and as quietly as possible, they reached the water body to find the maker of the marks.
A gorgeous tigress sat at the edge of the waterhole, her sizeable rump and much of her hindquarters submerged in the moss-covered water.
Seeing her created a heart-popping flutter amongst the participants but seeing the vehicle didn’t change the tigress’ plan of action by much. She simply licked herself indulgently and threw a nonchalant demeanour at the now feverishly-excited-but-admirably-restrained group, even as Phillip called out the appropriate camera settings in whispers.
Ten minutes later, the tigress chose to rise and walk along the bank, which was around the point the cameras at the hands of the photography enthusiasts chattered away like a dozen woodpeckers had got together to hammer a tree down before dusk fall. Ignoring the unbridled lavishing of attention, she continued her jaunt, occasionally glancing at the group before moving up another path and disappearing out of sight.
Thinking quickly, the driver transferred the vehicle to another path about half a kilometre away, which he thought the tigress might take.
Ten minutes later, the driver uttered the very words you want so desperately to hear when waiting for a tiger – “the tiger’s coming”. But instead of crossing the path ahead of them, she broke her stride and sat down amidships.
Muscles taut and ready to spring into shooting, the participants waited with bated breath for the tigress to resume her march, but minutes elapsed as she failed to emerge. “Your move,” she seemed to be saying.
Phillip seized the initiative, asking the driver to start the engine and climb gently towards the foot path on which she sat.
When they got there, what they saw touched their soul. Crouched in a quintessentially cat-like posture, the tigress lay peering with cautious curiosity, ready to slink away at the slightest threat, in a picture of distilled felinity.
Participants had enough time to change lenses and get different perspectives of the beautiful sight before another vehicle approached, mobilising the tigress to step onto the road a little ahead, scent-mark a tree and walk along the road for almost a kilometre before heading for her favourite hillock, whence she united with obscurity.
Thrilled but begging for more, the group continued the search for the tigress and came upon a herd of elephants, one of whom gave them a terrifying charge while most others granted excellent photo opportunities free of charge!
They then chose to pursue chances in another area known to be haunted by a male tiger and had been driving around for a good hour or so. It was nearly dusk. Parakeets were raucously returning to their nighttime roosts, the sun now quite orange, was preparing to take his overnight plunge down the horizon.
Darkness was imminent.
Just then, a forest department van they encountered reported having seen a male tiger at Murkere – evidently, the courting gentleman had put forth a late appearance due to compelling amorous duties.
The driver then got down to duties of his own, deciding that since they had some time left before exit time, they should take a chance and see if they could still find the love-crossed cat.
Reaching the waterhole, they found a few other vehicles parked at the waterhole and shooting something – a scene that typically evokes both excitement and disappointment – excitement at the apparent presence of something worth seeing, and disappointment that you weren’t there earlier.
Such strong emotions were soon proved unnecessary, as a herd of elephants, admittedly posing beautifully, rang the word ‘anticlimax’ loudly in the mind’s ears of the group.
Welcoming what they got with humility though, the group was photographing the pachyderms, just when the driver, who seemed to have received his primary education in the Never-Say-Die School of Thought and Life Skills, said there was another road that skirted the waterhole behind it, where the male may have come to rest, and decided to try their luck there.
Meandering through the vehicles, they left the scene to look for the tiger and turned left at a ‘T’ junction.
A tiger, stately and magnificent, sat right in their path.
The question of whether this was the male occurred to the group only after firing away a torrential salvo of images, but when the cat rose to walk a short while later, it became obvious that it belonged to the fairer sex.
The tigress disappeared leaving everybody in raptures from the bounty of sightings on the very first safari, and they hadn’t been mere glimpses, but fabulous photo opportunities too.
A tiger’s stripe pattern, just like a human’s fingerprint, is unique for each individual, and thus an unerring means of identifying a tiger. When the group returned to the lodge, Phillip examined the stripes of the tigress they had just photographed, and concluded it wasn’t the female from the courting pair, even though she was found in the same neighbourhood, and evidence of the presence of so many tigers in a relatively small area was heartening to Phillip and Giri.
In the evening Phillip delivered a talk on exposure and composition – two critical building blocks of an image. The session was marked with much interaction, and went on quite late. As the group finally headed for dinner, there was a light drizzle, which was surprising for Bandipur at this time.
Next morning the group gathered at 6:00 for coffee, left the lodge at 6:15 and in another fifteen minutes were in the forest in the quest for the courting pair, heading towards murkere.
Unfortunately, they were bestowed with no luck for their efforts, as they completed a couple of dry rounds in the area. So Giri and Phillip decided to wander off to another part of the park looking for signs of predator movement, and alarm calls brought their pursuit to a halt, even as they spotted two vehicles parked.
A cursory enquiry revealed that the first vehicle had seen a tigress sitting in the bushes to the right of the road. There was now nothing more to do than wait in silence to see if the tiger would re-emerge.
It finally did, after a whopping forty-minute wait, and crossed just behind the two vehicles before disappearing into the bushes. But what they stopped seeing, they started hearing, as the tigress commenced calling out to her mate! “It was utterly mesmerising to hear the tigress call and the male respond from the other side,” recalls Phillip.
For the rest of the safari they kept hearing the tiger duo calling, and Phillip’s best efforts to track them with the help of the driver yielded no fruit. Meanwhile, Giri’s vehicle found a pack of wild dogs posing for beautiful photos.
The afternoon intermission is the best time for participants to brush up on their basics and get acquainted with the advanced, and every Toehold Tour is designed to help them make the most of their time. Phillip’s topics for this session were focusing and exposure compensation – both critical to making good images.
The evening safari started with tracking the mating pair of tigers but the group wasn’t third time lucky. The rest of the evening was spent photographing elephants, gaur and birds, including a crested serpent eagle, jungle fowl late in the evening, and big herds of spotted deer, while putting Phillip’s lessons to practice.
The last morning inevitably arrived, and the tigers continued to play truant, leaving no pug marks to lead to them, so the Skippers decided to just go after birds in Moolapura, and were rewarded with sights of eagles and peafowl, apart from a beautiful spotted deer in back light.
As the group approached Moolapura Tank, they found the pug marks of a tiger from the previous night, probably having walked to Mangala Dam and back towards the Moolapura waterhole. They also espied a juvenile cuckoo before hitting upon a beautifully posing jungle fowl.
Then they returned to the lodge satiated with what nature had offered them, and after breakfast and the customary group photograph, departed with hearts full of memories of the recent past and hatching plans for a great future.