So there are destinations and destinations, each offering their distinct USPs. Hot attractions that draw tourists seeking an ‘experience’ to carry home – a trophy to substantiate a battery of travel yarns. But in this craze for acquiring the best seller, our jetsetter often overlooks the finer details – colours that give a place meaning and significance. After all isn’t the great thing about travel, the joy of savouring an authentic experience in its entirety… like the succulent slice of a fruit, stones, rind and all?
The tiger is undoubtedly India’s most charismatic export and the twenty seven odd tiger reserves dotting the country cope with a steady file of tourists descending with the single-minded determination of encountering the big cat – an encounter resourcefully ‘arranged’ by guides and rangers with persistence to match.
Make no mistake. To a wildlife freak - and I belong to the species - a tiger sighting is the climax of the safari, the delectable icing on the cake. Often however the obsessed tiger chaser, fanatically pursuing his quarry, remains obdurately blind to the countless other wonders that make up the typical Indian jungle experience, a realization that sank its teeth in during our first trip to the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
Kanha is beautiful; a glimpse of its ancient forest giving way to open meadows and again erupting into thick sal or bamboo, suffices to counter any residual hangover of braving the hazards of Indian state transport travel. And queuing for entry to the safari, even the jeeps seem to purr in suppressed expectation.
Kanha has often been described as the best place in the world to see a tiger; alas during our visit it did not turn up even an apology of a pugmark, let alone a whisker. And we were not alone. “Seen any?” “No, you?” None” was the common refrain between jeeps. “It seems to be one of those days when for some unexplainable reason no tigers are spotted any where in the park,” consoled the guide. It was true. During the three days we were there not a single self-respecting tiger chose to disclose itself, not even as far as the Mukki range on the other side of the park.
A wasted trip then? Sure, if you discount the sambar, herds of gaur, and hundreds of chital and langurs and peafowl. Any rare sightings? Not unless you include the barasinghas (Kanha is the only place in the world where you find the hard ground variety of this species). At the very beginning we impressed upon our guide that besides the top cat, we were also interested in the other lesser creatures that constituted the food chain. Luckily he took our request to heart so that we were amply rewarded: a black necked stork wading in a stream, a collared scops owl simulating a dry tree stump, a crested serpent eagle surveying the terrain, nothing missed his trained eye. Suddenly he would motion the driver to stop and point. Only after following his frantic gestures and urgent whispers would we see it. A barking deer, outline barely discernable, crouching in a bush. A monitor lizard clumsily scampering over a rocky slope. Or a woodpecker excavating its larder.
Today, many wild excursions later, nostalgia relives golden memories of that first trip. Like the herd of gaur, calves and all, which grazed on unconcernedly letting us approach close. The glory of the evening light on their backs as they ambled away followed by a flock of cattle egrets. The unexpected sighting of a lone old bull foraging down at a waterhole, magnificent even in the past of his prime.
On our last evening in Kanha we waited by a stream, praying for the tiger our guide suspected was around, to appear. After a certain point it did not matter any longer and we simply surrendered to the electrifying atmosphere, jungle silence broken only by the repeated calling of a jungle fowl, as darkness quickly descended and our driver rushed to get back before the gates closed. The next morning Kanha saw an unexpected drizzle of rain. The temperature dropped sharply and an uncanny hush pervaded in the jungle. Few animals were about and on this last safari we saw a different side of the forest, eerie almost forbidding.
Later at the gate we met with the question again, “Any tigers?”
“No, tough luck”, I said, “But what the hell!”
For those interested, www.traveljini.com has extensively covers destinations in India including wildlife.
Copywriter by profession... interested in travelling.