It’s Google’s fault that we were under clothed. We were expecting a temperature of 30 degrees. Not the post-rain crispy chill of the jungle. Waking up at the crack of dawn and hauling ourselves out of bed into not-warm-at-all clothes, we set out for the morning safari at the Magdhi section of Bandhavgarh National Park. Our jeep driver, Mr. Pandey (The Awesome) greeted us with a look which said You-are-late-but-I-make-my-living-off-you-so-I-won’t-say-anything and proceeded to drive at double speed to make up for lost time. Open air jeep, No warm clothes, zipping through the cold morning air as if our life depended on it…swell!
After spending the previous evening at a safari in the Tala section without any cats to show for it, we had only a fool’s hope taking us to this morning safari. That and the fervent claims of guides/guest house staff- “No sir, Magdhi very good for tigers sir”, “No sir, tigers come out in the morning only sir”, “Only yesterday we see five tigers sir!”
So, we were at Magdhi at 6am, driving around slowly, peering into the bushes as if we would spot a tiger any minute now. Oh were saw plenty of wildlife! There were monkeys and macaques, spotted deer and sambar deer, colourful birds of different kinds (such as the green bee-eater, or green pea-eater, or green beater). There were creepy skeletal trees, aptly named Indian Ghost Tree (or The White Tree of Gondor), there was even an Indian Jungle Cat in the shadows. But zilch on the tiger.
Oh we saw paw marks alright… fresh paw marks cutting cross the path which created a stir of excitement. We also saw scratch marks on a tree which the tiger had used as a scratching pole. Most exciting yet, was the clear, piercing call that deer make when they sense danger. Surely, the tiger (or tigers) were right there in that clump of trees! So we waited. We waited by the pond (“Maybe the tiger will be thirsty”), we waited by the trees (“This is where the call was heard”), we waited till all of us nodded off of a while.
It was 9am now, we were still waiting. We were having a very heated argument about the etymology of the Green pea-eater. I said it had green plumage. My brother insisted that it ate green peas. The only people still on the lookout of the big cat were the guide and the driver.
The gates to the park close at 10:15. All vehicles have to be out by then or be locked in (till there is an inquiry). The punishment is pretty harsh for the guide and the driver who are suspended for 15 days and fined heavily. So, by 9:50am, while we were still waiting, other safari jeeps crossed us one-by-one on their way to the exit, insisting that we give up and make a move too.
At about 9:55am, a patrol officer crossing us said that there was a tiger just next to the path, some distance back. That was when all hell broke lose! Frantic switching on of the engines, backing up the jeep on the narrow path, cursing other jeeps on the way, even hitting a couple of them! What followed was the impassioned shushes from the drivers and frantic pointing from the guides-
“Shhhhhh! quiet! Look, there it is!”
“Where?? I can’t see it”
“Theeere! in the trees!”
“Still can’t see it!!”
“Turn your head at 32.6 degrees angle and squint your eyes by three-quarters. Look where I’m pointing!”
It was almost as if the tiger thought ‘These bunch of losers will never figure this out on their own”. He came out of his hiding place and crossed the path RIGHT in front of our jeep, looked at us, growled a greeting and made his way into the forest.
We were still absorbing the awesomeness of the moment, our luck at having witnessed this majestic feline in it’s domain, when Mr. Pandey revved up the engine and sped towards the exit gate. We made it with a total of 2 minutes and 30 seconds to spare, exulting the whole time.
You’ve seen tigers in zoos- Bengal tigers, white tigers the whole lot. But the feeling of pure awe mingled with fearful excitement which a tiger prowling in the wild, with nothing to separate you from it, is exhilarating.
We went back to the tranquil confines of the forest rest house feeling on top of the world, still basking in the afterglow of the major adrenaline rush, all the while thinking “Mujhe junglee biliyan pasand hai”.