HOW TO GET THERE:
OUT IN THE WILD: Bandhavgarh Fort hill 2 A startled young Chital buck looks up from its grazing in the early hours of the morning 3 Spotted deer benefit from the langurs' good eyesight and ability to post a lookout in a treetop, helping to raise the alarm when a predator approaches 4 The kind of jeep used on safaris setting of a film. A jungle warbler provided the background score ( along with all sorts of birdsongs you don’t hear in Dubai: koels and Indian rollers and parakeets).
There were no other guests at the resort, so all stops were pulled out for us, hospitality- wise. There were people at hand all the time, handling all requests — for another cup of tea, for an extra set of towels ( all their linen had tiger paw motifs), for a hat… Even later, after dinner, there was help to hold the lanterns to illuminate our mimosa pudica- lined path ( the Touch- Me- Not plant) as we walked back to the cottages in that dim, swaying, yellow lantern light, with some of us revisiting old scare tactics ( boo!) to make others yelp at sudden jungle sounds and then laugh. This lantern- carrying business, though, was a bit awkward for me, not an act I am familiar with — one person escorts you just to hold a light. *** Let me just say upfront: we didn’t see any tigers. We spotted a leopard — on the camera screen of one of the Germans in the jeep in front of us. There was stuff lower in the food chain: a jackal scurrying off with kill gripped between its jaws, all kinds of deer — barah singha and all, and langurs doing an # Occupyduststreet on the red soil of central India. *** One morning at Tala Zone, just after 6am, we were huddled in a safari jeep, perfectly quiet, swaddled in fleece blankets because it was so cold, fingertips freezing, phones on silent, cameras on standby ready to shoot lest the tiger/ tigress chose to emerge. There had been a call in the jungle. Which was the most exciting thing for me — “Call aaya hai! ( there’s a call!)” Golu the guide said, which is what astute jungle whisperers with sharp ears and sharper i nstincts i nterpret when there’s some rustling to indicate a tiger is on the move. This was new to me — the message relaying the communication lines of animals. I loved it. *** “Tiger spotting can’t be assured. But summers are best to spot tigers and winters are best for birders,” said Pradeep Krishna Wasunkar, oliveeyed wildlife enthusiast and photographer. There were other bits of information I picked up. Like, I didn’t know a tiger eats bamboo leaves when it has an upset tummy. Phaguni, our local guide on day two, told me this. Fascinating! I remembered our German Shepherds and how they’d go for the grass when they had the runs. Makes sense for a more majestic animal to aim a little higher than, well, regular grass.
At the risk of sounding trite ( and thinking trite?), you can’t help realise: the lives of people in jungles are so different from the lives we lead! I was thinking this after Phaguni told me he goes to sleep at 8pm and wakes up at 4am, and when he wakes up, his kids wake up too, to keep him company, before he sets out to do his rounds of the jungle. Everyone has an early breakfast. Phaguni’s first wife died in the jungle in a freak accident that
involved a tree being felled on her. He was now getting remarried to someone from a different caste and was hoping the kids get along with his new wife. *** I was asking Golu and Phaguni what it’s like to be in the jungle everyday. When the day is over at dusk, I wanted to know, what do you people do? They meet at a common point, have chai, discuss tiger sightings of the day, which tiger was where and doing what exactly, what the people in the safari were like, where were they from. I asked him what they’d have to say about us when the day ended. They both laughed. *** A little further up from a particularly dusty dirt track in one of the zones of Bandhavgarh ( and there are three zones: Tala, Maghdi and Khatauli) is a clearing, a medium- sized field, with tall white grasses — ‘ kaash phool’ — in which tigers like to roam. So said guide Golu, who never feels the need to wear a sweater even when the 5am temperature is in single degrees. It may be a distant tenth to the thrill of actually seeing a tiger, but the evening light on that clearing of ‘ kaash phool’ in the middle of the jungle, when engines had been turned off and you were anticipating jungle moves, was quite something. The beauty in that open, silent field lends itself to feeling something deeper, dust on eyelashes notwithstanding. *** We didn’t see a tiger. But we saw a fresh tiger paw print and I took a photo of my palm hovering above it, the paw print obviously outsizing my palm. Then I sent that puzzling picture to my Whatsapp people. They Whatsapped back ask- ing, “Did you see any tiger [ yellow black cat striped emoji]?” And I’d say, not yet, and throw in another tiger emoji. Bandhavgarh is supposed to be a good place to spot Royal Bengal Tigers. But they had obviously taken comp- offs when we showed up with our non- telescopic zoom lenses, mentally going “yooo hooo, kitty kat!”
Nor did I think it too upsetting if, in a three- day trip, packed with two safaris, each five hours long, I didn’t see a tiger. Surely it would have cheapened the experience of tiger- spotting. Imagine if every enthusiastic twit who landed up in the jungle immediately spotted Bhim or Bamera or Kanatti or T- 90 or Macchli ( who killed a 14- foot crocodile), wouldn’t that somehow diminish the grandeur, the awe one might feel at finally seeing this beautiful creature? I’m going to have to go back, in any case. If I see a tiger, well and good. If not, doesn’t bother me too much. The jungle itself is quite the cat.
[email protected] khaleejtimes. com TRIP TO REMEMBER: 5 Langurs in Tala zone at home on dust tracks 6 A jackal makes its getaway with its prey 7 Tiger prints in the sand 8 9 10 Exterior and interior shots of Bandhavgarh Meadows