Regal. Courageous. Fierce. Proud. Graceful. Mystic. Wild. These adjectives hint at that one orange being with black stripes and a white underbelly. The Big Wild Cat. The Tiger!
It was in January 2012, that travelling on work pushed me towards the land of legends – the jungles of Ranthambore, the haven of the most imperial beings that have walked this planet. Situated in the Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan, India; Ranthambore is a national park that was declared a wildlife sanctuary; and also gained the protection of ‘Project Tiger’.
Tigers! That’s what fascinated me about the park. Locked up in cages in zoos is a gruesome way to witness the beauty of these big cats. But that’s the only thing that I could boast of… before Ranthambore. There was no way I would let such an opportunity pass. So I decided to take time off and wear my ‘roam around in the jungle’ attire and take off into the fascinating world of stripes.
The first safari was at 7.00 a.m. Though it wasn’t too early, the chilly air almost made it impossible to stand still. I was shivering the whole time. The jeep picked us up by 6.00 a.m. as there were lots of formalities to be completed at the park gate. It wasn’t easy to get into the jungle without proper documentation and scrutiny. Waiting at the gate wasn’t exactly a very pleasant experience, but god bless the folks at the resort who provided us with blankets to cover ourselves fully. They knew our warmers would not be enough to fight the cold morning gust. Once the documentation was done and our identities checked, our driver breezed through inside the impressive gates of the jungle. Being a travel enthusiast I had been to a lot of national parks in India and abroad, but this was a first – in the wilderness to get a first-hand experience of the mighty cats and the other beautiful beings. Ofcourse, there is a lot of luck involved in the game drive too. I believe it’s destined – whether one will be able to spot her highness/ his majesty in their territory.
As we drove on, I felt a sense of calm enveloping me, despite the nip in the air. Mr. Sun was nowhere to be seen in the wee hours of the morning. It. Was. Quiet. The only noises we heard were chirping of the birds, cries of the other animals, the hustle of the leaves, swaying of the trees and the tyres of our jeep. Our driver was supposed to be one of the best. I sensed it in the ease with which he drove as also the paths that he took. The jungle is divided into zones and the vehicles go into specific zones for each game drive. The zones get decided beforehand. However, the driver reserves the right to tread on different paths in the chosen zone. Experienced drivers and tour guides know where they were most likely to catch a glimpse of the regalia. It was the morning for Zone 1!
Our driver took us through amazing stretches inside the park. Calling the vistas picturesque was an understatement. The place was breath-taking. Can a jungle really be so beautiful, I wondered with every beautiful view that my eyes would behold. We spotted many birds and animals that adorn the beautiful Ranthambore jungles. The common ones being the common kingfisher, owls, parakeets, cuckoos, pigeons, the sambar deer, langurs, jackals, jungle cats, indian foxes, chinkara, wild indian boars, mongoose and the nilgai. We also witnessed the snub nosed marsh crocodiles amongst the many reptiles that the jungles houses. Of particular interest to me was a small croc hidden in a trifling crevice in a stone mountain. Our driver spotted the little guy and it was good to see the reptile flourish and laze at the same time, in its natural habitat.
I was getting restless! The flora and fauna of the park was alluring. The beauty of the park was exquisite and the surroundings were dazzling. I was fascinated by the Night Safari in Singapore, but this was the real deal. THE JUNGLE! Natural and magnificent! But, it still did very little to soothe my nerves; because I just had one aim – to spot the gorgeous wild cat. We kept driving around and the driver and guide kept looking for tiger marks. Tigers mark their territories using urine, secretions from anal glands and by imprinting scratch marks on tree barks; and prefer areas with a high density of prey animals. They guard their territory fiercely and can give up their lives to retain the mastership of their possessed area, which may extend upto 100 square kilometres.
We kept driving, constantly looking for paw marks, tiger territory marks and trained our ears to hear every little sound that we possibly could. There was pin drop silence as one isn’t supposed to talk during the drive. The only people talking were the driver and the guide, who also ensure they entertain you with interesting information about the jungle and all species that one spots. Time kept ticking away but there was no luck. Many other jeeps and canters passed by and the faces of the people sitting in them gave away their stories. Long exasperated faces – no sighting! Happy excited faces – just saw a ghost… kidding! Spotted the striped one!
We passed through a gate inside the jungle; where we were lucky to spot a leopard on top of the gate. Beautiful! But no, the restlessness did not cease. I knew what I wanted and nothing else would please me. But, as I mentioned earlier, its destiny my friend… its all about destiny! Tough luck missy! The two and half hours flew past and the orange bravehearts decided to give us a miss and stay away. Though we did spot a few paw marks, but that they had already left that spot in search of food. We started our journey back to the gate – long sad faces, but so what… still hopeful. There were many more safaris to go.
I had another one lined up in the afternoon at 2.00 p.m. I managed to get some shut eye and grab some lunch and was all set to visit the park once again. I decided that I wouldn’t let the disappointment of the morning dampen my spirits. So, all happy and gay, I sat in the jeep with the same set of friends – a German couple and a lady with her little son. This time we breezed through the gate into Zone 4. Luckily the afternoon sun afforded us some respite and it wasn’t as cold as the morning. The drive was equally beautiful, and we drove past some very striking spots. Amongst the ones that really fascinated me were Bakaula – the area dotted with water holes and thick foliage, the Padam Talao – the largest lake in the park and the Raj Bagh ruins which has ancient stone structures like arches, palace outhouses, domes and steps that gave the area a beautiful aura. Many a lucky photographers have managed to click tigers posing in the ruins of Raj Bagh. The mere thought of it turned my eyes into a green hue and I could see and smell green smoke everywhere around me. What with such bad luck. No sighting yet! Destiny my friend, destiny!
It was nearly 5.10 p.m. and we were on our way back to the gate of the park. The park timings are taken very seriously. If any vehicle is late and stays inside the jungle beyond the appointed hours, the driver and the guide could lose their license. Hence they were very particular. I was truly disheartened on our way back , so grief-stricken I was, that I almost missed the noise. Well, almost! Missed… THE noise! Suddenly there was a long line-up of canters and jeeps. The road was like a small valley and we were on top of the slope. I thought the noise was due to the traffic jam like situation. But it was something else. People were hooting and that’s when my guide (the poor guy who I had pestered so much) yelled and told me. ‘wo dekho madamji… right hand side par”. I stood on the seat, like an excited little child; and saw the splendid sight. The most graceful walk I had ever seen. Way ahead, there was a tiger walking on the side of the path on the right. It kept walking for a while and as the hooting increased, I think the tiger got angry (I assumed!) and ran across to the left side into the jungle. OVER! Showtime over! Close yet so far. I hardly caught a small glimpse and the tiger ran away. “What kind of destiny was this, my lord?”, I asked HIM. Clearly disappointed! Well, I was happy that I saw a tiger at last, but c’mon, this was nowhere close to the tiger fantasies I had begun to dream of. The stories that I had heard – of a tiger walking in front of your vehicle for the longest time and you getting oodles of opportunities to keep clicking and enjoying the precious sight! Tryst with destiny I guess. Why is destiny always against me?
We didn’t have a choice. We were running against time now and the driver was very anxious. He wanted to reach the gate on time. I tried my luck and asked, “thoda time aur nahin reh sakte kya, tiger to yahin hai, shayad phir se aa jaye”. He didn’t bother to reply, ofcourse!
The other vehicles were zooming out as no one wanted to miss the jungle deadline and that’s when I heard the loudest roar I had ever heard in my life. For a moment I thought I was still dreaming and was making it up. But everyone in my jeep turned and looked towards the left and I knew it wasn’t a dream. Now, there was no way I was going to allow the driver to drive out. The tiger was right here, around the corner and I could hear the continuous roaring. I wanted to jump out. I literally held the collar of the driver and begged him to stay. I was almost in tears. He gave me one hard look but nodded in the affirmative. Suddenly all the other vehicles started turning towards their left. That was where the roars came from. I started shouting (not realising I was yelling at the top of my voice) at the driver, pleading him to follow the other vehicles. He gave me one stern look.. the “will you please shut up” types! And then softened and said, “trust me, you want to see her madamji, I will ensure you see her”. HER! How did he know it was HER? I think he heard my thoughts and held a finger to his mouth as if telling me he will explain later. For now, he just wanted me to relish the moment. The driver and the guide were in unison as the driver reversed the jeep instead of turning left where everyone was headed. Other vehicles kept driving towards the left, with the onlookers giving us the “what kind of idiots are these” looks. We patiently waited for two minutes. The loud roars did not stop.
And that’s when… Time. Stood. Still. I saw HER! It was almost like she was looking at me directly in the eye and walking towards me. It was just the two of us – she and me! Everything else dissipated in thin air. She took confident long strides as she walked towards me (mind you, towards me, not my jeep), and kept roaring non-stop. I swear, no exaggeration, I wanted to jump out of the jeep and get a closer look, maybe a hug if I was real lucky. A wild encounter, perhaps! I don’t know. That moment… I felt as if thunder struck suddenly and there was a bolt of lightning. She was rapidly advancing towards me. I had borrowed an SLR from my friend Sanjog – hoping to get some awesome clicks and become famous with those pictures. Forget the clicks, my clumsy hands couldn’t even hold the camera properly. I was so nervous. I thought I would drop it; and that’s when destiny struck the worst wound. 🙁 The battery gave way. What? Yes! The battery got discharged and I wasn’t going to become famous anymore. That’s when the bulb lit! I have a smartphone which has a decent camera. C’mom c’mon, I can get a shot or two. It was such a clear line of sight. There was no one between her and me. I tried sliding the phone open and kept pressing the sound button instead of the camera one. My hands were shaking as if the lightning had struck ME. My head started reeling and that’s when the German man held my shaking hand and steadied it. I got a couple of good clicks, and whilst I didn’t see him at all, I heard him say, “give me the phone, I’ll click and you enjoy the moment”. Saying that much, he took the phone away and left me to witness the most amazing sight of the world!
Sundari aka T-17 aka the beautiful one aka the queen of Ranthambore!! Sundari had decided to say hello and trot in front of me, tease me, beg me to take her pictures and admire her exquisite beauty. Luck! Destiny! Everything favoured me. I knew it, I was always the lucky one! 😉 She kept walking on the left side of the jeep and we started driving along with her, slowly and surely, matching her pace. She decided to admire the grass and smell the air and glance at us once in a while. Time had truly stopped. The driver and guide were so sweet. To my utter surprise, they didn’t care about the timing anymore. I realised that their real motivation to be in Ranthambore was these majestic beings.
I savoured every single second of the show. Sundari was really a showstopper. And she knew it. She was the most photographed tigress of Ranthambore and was known to oblige everyone who paid her a visit. A queen in every way! Beauty at its best! Grace personified! Any descriptor would be inadaquate for such elegance. I felt blessed. Truly blessed!
Suddenly I heard a lot of screeching and hooting, honking too. The other vehicles wanted us to give them way and allow them to take in that beautiful sight, since we had hogged the limelight enough. My greed knew no bounds as I pleaded to my driver not to lose sight of her. By this time Sundari had decided to put up a little catwalk show in front of our jeep. What a spectacle it was. No camera could ever do justice to this view, except my own eyes. I knew this was a picture that would remain imprinted in my heart forever. And that was the best place to store it. Other vehicles stormed ahead of us. I am sure I heard some people muttering expletives under their breath. But did I care? As long as she was lending her ear to us, I was happy. Ecstatic actually! Sundari kept walking ahead for a couple of minutes more and then decided that she was super bored, what with all the commotion that was then being created. She looked to her left and then right; and then with a swift and smooth leap she ran into the jungle towards her right. End of show!
Even before I realised what happened, our driver accelerated as if Schumacher had entered his spirits. We reached the gate in no time, as the catwalk was showcased very close to the park gates. I was still reeling with the memories of what I had just seen. I was a happy camper at last. Boundless joy is possible, I knew then! On our way towards the resort, the guide told us that the first tiger we saw on the slope was Machali – the grandmother of Ranthambore, popularly known as T-16. And by the way, she also happened to be Sundari’s mother. What a perfect mother-daughter combination. The ladies made my day and gave me the experience that would last a lifetime. It seems Sundari had marked her territory and also dominated most of the areas that Machali dominated previously. Whatever the territory, the mother-daughter duo had put up the best act, for ME, ofcourse!
I am still grinning ear to ear, reliving every moment of those ten minutes. I hope this motivates you to explore the jungles of Ranthambore and say hello to our friendly inhabitants.
Image Source: Flickr