As 2015 approaches its expiry date, we pulled out our rose-tinted glasses, and through a pair of moderately moist eyes, looked fondly back at the goings-on of the year. And from hunting Mustelidae to leopards feigning nonexistence, we found many ‘Toehold moments’ (moments that make you go: “Crikey, look!” or “Blistering barnacles!” or equivalent), while Mother Earth was busy cruising around the sun at a stately 108,000 kilometres an hour. Here’s a look at the shiniest and most sunlit of them.
1. MATCHING THE MASTERS
At Toehold, if there’s one thing we want more dearly than sunbathing tigers and orgasmic light, it’s seeing our Tour participants make great images. And so the year began on a most satisfying note, when Radha Neelakantan, a participant of our Ranganathittu Nature Photography Masterclass, absorbed all our training and made this stunning image of an incoming pelican. And our first big compliment of the year was that it was mistaken by many to have been created by a Toehold master!
2. COUPLING CATS
The group had waited for much of the morning on the Serengeti plains during the Tanzania Photo Tour, watching a pair of lions in heat and hoping precisely for this climax. Much to their delight, after the svelte female had enticed the great cat enough with her moves, he gave in and mounted. The cross expression on their faces made us doubt that the match was made in heaven, but it certainly was made in the Serengeti, and we hope it didn’t cross your mind to call us voyeurs for enjoying the sight! If all went well, the coupling would have resulted in a litter of cubs by now, for which we keep our fingers crossed.
3. A ‘MARTENFUL’ STRATEGY
Leading a customised Corbett Photography Tour, Skipper Sachin Rai had told the participants that they’d be lucky to get a yellow-throated marten. So when the group stumbled upon not one but two of that kind, they thought they’d hit pay-dirt. But then it got better. Having climbed a tree, the duo took station at one tree-hole each, trying to flush out and trap their prey. The brilliant strategy worked, as they managed to bag a small rodent for the supper pot. And the group had bagged a biggie, with this exquisite behavioural capture.
4. THE USTAD OF ALL REFLECTION IMAGES
Summer in Ranthambhore National Park is hot and dry. But the wild is always full of surprises. As the group led by Sachin Rai navigated to what’s usually a dry rivulet in April, what they found instead was a lovely oasis – a result of a few recent torrents – and a tiger (T24, Ustad) making the most of this temporary bounty (for by the end of the series of Tours Sachin led, it was dry again). The serene water reflected the overhead leaves and Ustad’s serious face, creating the most delightful contrast imaginable, and as the tiger cooled off, affording the group a bunch of hot images!
5. THE ‘HOME RUN’
On the ‘Big Cat Week’ Tour in Masai Mara, when Skipper Jayanth Sharma reached the site where Malaika the cheetah was resting, it started pouring. When the rain stopped, Malaika rose and started jogging towards two male impala whose “hunger to eat was more than their hunger to live” as Jayanth puts it, because not once in a span of 10 minutes had they looked up to scan their surroundings for danger. Jayanth had the vehicles positioned immaculately in time for this spectacular chase, at the end of which the impala paid with his life for making the mistake of being too busy feeding to sustain it.
6. FIERCE CATFIGHT OR WHIMSICAL WILD-DANCE?
Toehold Patron Magal Sanjeev was in Ranthambhore on our ‘Tiger Fortress’ Tour led by Rahul Sachdev. Krishna’s cubs were on the cusp of adulthood. The angle was such that the two young tigers looked not like they’re sparring, but were engaged in a wild dance. “The deathly silence in which we watched them was broken by a terrific roar by one of the cubs, which nearly brought my heart to my mouth with excitement,” recalls Sanjeev. “I was virtually in a trance, frozen and stunned witnessing this.” And as for Rahul, he was only too thrilled to have facilitated witnessing this awe-inspiring moment, and assisting Sanjeev in capturing it so beautifully.
7. A MORPH IN THE DARK
Walking through the coffee bushes in the Anaimalai hills of Tamil Nadu on our ‘Rainforest Ramble’ Tour, Skipper Sachin Rai had been scanning for frogs, when he came across something rather more transitory. In the feeble torchlight it only looked like an indistinct shape, but after a few seconds of meditation, he saw it: it was a cicada moulting. Having spent much of their lives underground as nymphs, cicadas emerge to the surface and shed their old skin, which gets left behind as an abandoned vehicle, and morph into adults capable of flight.
8. FIRE ON ICE
“Be sure to take your wide-angle lens,” cried Jayanth Sharma out to the participants of the ‘Pole Trance’ Svalbard Photography Expedition before boarding a zodiac to approach a polar bear they had spotted. Jayanth was anxious that the participants get wide perspectives of the bear, but even he couldn’t have predicted how tolerant she’d be. Shooting from virtually under her nose, with the spectacular clouds providing an aesthetic ceiling to the stunning scene, she blew them away with her panache, prompting them to name her Ursula, after the famous ‘Bond girl’ of the 1961 flick, Dr No!
9. THE FAT LADY SINGS
Right at the end of the Great Migration Photography Tour, Skipper Sachin Rai decided to exit from the Mara through the park instead of taking the outside route. And as the group drove by the area where they had seen a cheetah with four cubs previously, they found her again! Walking parallel to the vehicle track, she then climbed a mound with the cubs, and as they sat surveying the surroundings, with delightful light on them and a blue sky behind, the participants realised that nothing was over until the fat lady sang her parting song, which the group happily hummed all the way back home.
10. THE PHANTOM IS REVEALED.
It’s not hard to find its name all over the place, from fine bathroom fittings to luxury car marques, it’s anything but easy to find a real one in the wild. So elusive it is, that we call the jaguar, the tiger of the Americas, a ‘phantom’. But participants on our annual Pantanal Photography Tour led by Jayanth Sharma have enjoyed some terrific luck, but fortune reached a zenith on this year’s edition, with this delightful-looking female in the prime of her life holding a public exhibition of all her grace and glory. Which Tour participant Roopa Venkat fully portrayed in this marvellous portrait, revealing the beauty of the phantom.
11. RARITY HEAD-ON
It’s not every day that you get a tiger in Bandipura walking towards you on a vehicle track. But when you do, you make the most of it, like Phillip Ross, Skipper for the Jungle Jaunt Tour, did here, and helped his participants do too. When the sighting had come to pass and the group looked at their images of it, they found in them a scent of grandeur and a whiff of immortality that may come to be never again, but for then they had safely captured a slice of the momentous through smashing portraiture.
12. AN ‘INVISIBLE’ LEOPARD
Having seen a tiger earlier that morning, Skipper Santosh Saligram, co-leading the ‘Tiger Solstice’ Tour in Bandhavgarh, was coasting along a vehicle track with the participants, when a peacock went off close to a junction. The vehicle had barely stopped, when the driver pointed to the road to the right, and said “leopard”. And if he hadn’t said that, the cat might easily have been mistaken for a much smaller animal (or by those with slightly weaker eyesight, even a haystack!), for that’s how small he had made himself in an attempt to be left unseen, either by an animal he was stalking, or by us. Realising that our senses were too acute to honour his adorable attempt at invisibility, he then rose and walked into the bush, and the group moved on having witnessed a unique moment made extra-special in light of how shy Bandhavgarh’s leopards usually are.