Thursday, 15 November 2007

A special invitation

We left our lodge at 5.20 in the morning just as the inky darkness was beginning to lighten in the eastern sky. The waning moon and a few lone stars could be seen through the trees as we climbed into the open jeep, in our cosy woollens and we set off towards the park entrance. As we drove eastwards the sky developed a purplish rosy shade in the promise of approaching sunrise.
As we drove over the rough dusty track, we were joined by other jeeps, all joining in our bid to reach the jungle before the sun did.

At the park gates, the sight transformed into an eerie queue of jeeps, drivers and guides rushing to get forms filled and deal with the park paperwork before we could move any further forward. Shouts of jeep numbers and guide names came from the Park Office and as passes were collected the jeeps lined up at the gates revving their engines in anticipation of the 6 am opening.

Amazing all paperwork seemed to be completed fairly quickly and as the sky turned grey blue the gates opened and the jeeps drove off. My first feeling was one of mild disappointment – I had a romantic notion of driving through the jungle without being in a convoy of jeeps. However, in a matter of moments the park system became apparent and jeeps split off in different directions. I later learned that there are a number of routes and jeeps are allocated routes which they have to follow, to ensure that the popular parts of the park are not overcrowded.

We headed first to a waterhole to see if there was any sign of life or activity – meaning tiger. Nothing. No pug marks, no jungle noises, nothing. So we didn’t wait, and headed off along the allotted route towards a lovely glade. The guide told us that this was one of the tiger’s favourite spots and that he had been spotted in the hill behind us the previous evening. He predicted that if we waited then we could well see him pass through. We approached a good spot to wait, when the guide shouted excitedly. The driver took off – they had spotted another jeep with the people inside standing up – a sign of something interesting. Off we sped towards the spot, ;my jungle hat flying off in the haste. Confession – actually it was not my hat – it belongs to hubby. Dilemma – return for the hat or head to possible tiger spotting? We couldn’t turn right away anyway, so passed the spot where the other jeep was waiting, to find out that they were looking at pug marks which were fairly recent, but no tiger. A quick detour to pick up the hat, which was promptly confiscated by hubby! We then waited for a while. They guides know the signs though, and told us that the monkey calls in the distance were one of alarm, telling us that a predator was near. We stopped and listened for a while and gradually heard a new call taking over, of “whoooop, whoooop”. The guide told us that this is the call is the call of happy monkeys. So much to learn. I was quickly becoming an expert! Whoooop means happy, chuup chuup means look out and don’t get eaten today.

We moved on and quickly new pug marks were spotted – this time very fresh, and on top of jeep tracks. The prints were really clear and followed the track for some time. This surprised me and I asked why. Apparently the tiger has a soft side – his paws are sensitive and the soft pads can be easily hurt by the sharp grasses and undergrowth of the jungle. Injury or damage to the pads will impair his hunting ability. Additionally, in winter, the nights are cold and the grasses wet so it is not very comfortable for tiger paws to walk on. So the sandy tracks are both comfortable and warm and provided us with a great clue of where he was headed. The prints told us that it was one of the male tigers who was near us – his rounded prints are characteristic of the male, while the female has nice pointed prints as if she has been for a pedicure. The guide then saw something else – “look, look, tiger sitting down print”!! and indeed it was a tiger sitting down print – a very clear impression of a huge rear haunch and even a clear impression of his tail in the sand. Is he really that big? The apprehension mixed with sense of amazement was really acute and I could almost feel nauseous with excitement.

We drive on, our experts keeping their ears sharply tuned and we stopped every time we saw fresh pug marks, and noted which direction our tiger friend was heading in, and which tiger they belonged to. “This is the territory of a mother and two cubs of 30 months” we were told as we passed through a grassy area. We stopped again and listened, but no sign of alarm or activity.

We headed towards another area, when the guide suddenly became agitated – “Sambar deer alarm call – very near” he whispered. We stopped, looked. Looked again. Through the trees and bamboo we could see a female Sambar deer looking in our direction, standing stock still and calling in alarm. She suddenly turned and fled into the distance. We knew he was near. The jeep crawled forward, then slightly back, and then at some invisible signal stopped. In front of the jeep, through a thin bamboo thicket, the most incredible sight materialised in front of my eyes like some kind of optical illusion. It was his huge head I saw first, in total disbelief. There, only a few feet from me, was a large male tiger – B2 – just sitting lazily behind this bush, his paws crossed as if he was a domestic cat sitting in front of the fireside. He looked to me as if he had been amusing himself by counting the jeeps going past and remaining unobserved. The moment was one of total magic. We watched him as he pulled himself up on his paws, clearly not amused that we had spotted him and spoiled his game of tourist spotting, and he slowly ambles out from behind the bush, onto the track, behind our jeep and into the jungle on the other side. We watch him, spellbound, through tears of wonder and amazement, trying to capture the moment on cameras incapable of understanding the enormity of the sight. He slowly slopes off into the jungle, away from us until he gets to a certain point where he turns and starts off in a direction parallel to the track. The experts know he is heading to a nearby watering hole, so we slowly follow the track. He watches us for a bit longer before he heads off again towards the watering hole. By the time, we get to the nearby stream, more jeeps have arrived. The jungle drums have sounded out our sighing and we are quickly joined by others. Sure enough a few moments later, B2 again appears at the stream, but at a bit of a distance. The eye can see him clearly, his dramatic colours show up clearly through the jungle, but amazingly the camera cannot distinguish these colours. Perhaps this is similar to the sight of the other jungle animals and why his camouflage is so good. But he has left a distinct and clear impression on my own personal memory card, even if the camera one is not so effective. He doesn’t wait long at the stream and soon disappears back into his jungle, though many of the jeeps wait patiently to see if he will come back. We later learn that he doesn’t return. He knows better and he has had his game already with the strange humans and jeeps.

It is an incredible feeling, seeing this powerful and beautiful beast in his own territory and we are lucky that we have been able to join his morning game.

We continue on our trail alongside the Bandavgarh Fort, the jungle is now teeming with life all around us. Spotted deer, Sambar deer, so many languor monkeys with their designer tails which stand up independently in artistic hoop shapes. We pass a mess of leaves and branches on the ground, a sure sign of languor in the trees above us. Glancing above, the trees are full with these monkeys whoooop whooooping and having fun. On the ground they have the company of deer, their friends. They hang around together in the jungle. The deer eat up the mess that the monkeys make - leaves, fruit and branches and they listen closely for any predators, warning the other if they hear any sign of danger. We see a sloth bear, an extended family of wild boar with their new cropped hair style seemingly for Diwali, a jackal couple in the sunshine on the track, peacock and peahens, many birds including bright fluorescent green parakeets, brilliant yellow golden oriole, and honey birds. The jungle is busier than Chennai in the morning rush hour.

We head to “centre point’, a spot just the other side of the Park Boundary, where tea, snacks and pakora stalls are set up for the hungry and cold tourists. The jeeps gather and the human folks share stories. It seems that we have been very lucky, having a close sighting. I am mildly disappointed that the photographs are less than spectacular, but then the clear image in my own memory is sharp and dramatic. We have warm tea and soggy pakora in the jungle’s edge as the jeeps draw in from nowhere. At the sight of what looks like a small football stadium on the back of a jeep, I am very thankful that I am not on one of the big fancy tours, but am part of a very well run outfit (King’s Lodge, Bandavgarh). Their speciality is that every couple or family has a jeep and naturalist dedicated to them, along with the compulsory Park Guide, so the experience is perfectly matched to the visitors, and the level of information is outstanding.

Tea finished, and refreshed, we return to the jungle trails. The pressure is off. We have been lucky and seen the tiger, and many other game and birds, but still there is that curiosity of whether we will be lucky again in the remaining hour or so before the Park closes at 10 am.

We drive further along the trail, round the edge of the Fort area amongst beautiful jungle landscape and dramatic rocks in the distance. We pass more tracks, and many more of the friendly langours in a really relaxed fashion.

The guide suddenly hears something – “that direction, Sambar deer alarm call”. We turn back and in a different direction, and follow another path towards the calls. We can now also hear the chuup chuup alarm of the languor, in the trees very close to us, and slight further away, the Sambar deer call. We stop and listen, holding our breath in the noisy silence. We wait, the calls continue – they are very near, and regular, and then we hear a growl. “Tiger”, the guide says simply. I am again in a state of amazement. We can just about hear him breathe, and I scrutinise the trees and bushes carefully, again waiting for the magical sight to materialise in front of me. Our ears prickle at every sound, and eyes study every feature around us. I can just about feel his breath on the back of my neck, or is it the sheer intensity of the experience. He’s there. We know he’s there. And he knows that we know he’s there. But the seconds tick by, and although the alarm calls continue, slowly they become less frequent, and more distant. This time the tiger has won his game. He was probably sitting there quietly and patiently until we had to move on before the Park closed, and we leave his territory. We had been guests of his habitat, and had a brief insight into his life and his world by some special invitation.

No comments: