Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright.
Just a nap before hunting
I remember being on the slow train journey, and by slow I mean that it was quicker to walk alongside, as we crossed the central plateau of India heading towards Kanha National Park, one of the homes of “Project Tiger”. I had just been reading an article concerning that excitement generated by one’s first sighting of a tiger in its home environment. It had said that this experience was something that would never be forgotten, and I was desperate to test that theory.
For anyone who has traversed India by train, the idea of spending 18 hours travelling 600 miles must represent a nightmarish memory but these are the aspects of travel which can provide some of the most abiding and interesting stories. For most westerners there are never more than a few minutes when you are alone. Everyone wishes to show you how good their English is and will try and influence you into becoming a pen-friend (in the days before email!). It is even sad when it becomes time to alight at your destination.
On this occasion my stop was at Nagpur, a fair sized industrial town in central India and the terminus for many buses which linked the hundreds of small villages in the surrounding areas. It was from here that my companion and I commenced our slow journey towards our, “Tiger Hunt in Kanha Park”. (Before anyone becomes too concerned, this is an affectionate title for the game of searching- or hunting- for a tiger in its own habitat.)
Where is it??
Having waited for one bus to take us the first four hours of our torturous journey toward the park and passed time with the obligatory tea stops, breakdowns, “no-reason ” stops and real bus stops we arrived at our overnight accommodation at 4.00 a.m. only four hours behind schedule. At this time you’re willing to sleep anywhere, and you do, knowing that the journey will continue at the same fabulous pace the next day.
Two bus journeys and one park permit later, you arrive at your resting place. It our case it is at the slightly cheaper end of the market and just outside the park. Within half an hour of arriving, you have already rented your jeep for the next day and are ready to eat and sleep.
Isn’t it strange how you don’t recall asking the jeep driver to wake you at 5.30 a.m., but I suppose he knows what’s best for game viewing. Not even time for tea before we leave our site en-route to collecting some extras to cost the cost of the jeep rental. I never realised how easy it was to fit seven tourists, one driver and a guide into a Second World War jeep. I’m only slightly perturbed by the fact that I’m volunteered to sit in front with one leg outside this open topped vehicle, and we’re off looking for (supposedly) man-eating tigers! Even at this time of the morning most of the surrounding areas are very alive and, dressed in my safari shorts and Panama hat, I’m prepared for a hot and humid day in the dust and dirt of the park. I do hope that four rolls of film will be enough (again in the pre-digital age!).
As much as we’ve asked our driver to avoid other tourists, we all (possibly eight jeeps in all) meet up where we are assured that the very best tiger trackers are currently searching for the tigers on their specially trained elephants.
Much excitement suddenly when the radio crackles into life and its men, women and children into their jeeps and off to the first tiger sighting. It is now possible to feel the excitement as none of us has seen tigers in the wild before and we are all like schoolchildren of their first day out from school. It only takes 30 minutes to reach the elephants that await us, but in that time we have already seen some incredible wildlife. They is a family of blue jays which are circling around us, the colour of which reminds me of the blue neon signs seen in many of the world’s larger cities. It is just so bright that I don’t even think the most proficient camera film could truly capture it.
It’s not too difficult to see the sight where we shall be tiger viewing as the first sound we hear is a herd of roaring jeeps closing in around six or seven elephants. These elephants are themselves dressed for the task in hand, each with their large wooden howdah tightly strapped around their girth prepared for even the weightiest tourists. Despite knowing that there are tigers in the grass around us we all leap out onto the ground and race towards a line of ladders that lead up to the seats on the elephants. Everyone wants to be first. Once we’re all in place the elephant turns around and slowly ambles off toward the long, bamboo grass. It’s only around one hundred metres to where we enter the grass and without alarming us, our “jockey” tells us that if we look below the elephant’s belly we should see a fully grown, rather large, stripy pussycat- also known as a Tiger!
As we look in amazement, we are informed that this is in fact a female and if we look to our left, we shall see her mate. All my excitement was justified as I am now perched three meters above two tigers which extend to around two and a half metres in length stretched out after obviously, we are told, having eaten fairly recently. I suppose that this should re-assure me as they are no longer hungry. At this moment you wonder just how dangerous could they be? It’s similar to being a child in a zoo again when it’s too difficult to comprehend how something so fluffy and “laid back” could ever cause pain. It’s only as you move away and the male stands up and roars at the jeeps that you see the true power of these marvelous animals. As we depart from our morning on safari we are told that there are some cubs around and someone must have driven close to where they were hidden. That explains the roar. As we approach camp and our lunch time rest, we spy three elephants by the roadside and one jeep in attendance. A short conversation ensues between our driver and the owner of the elephants, a quick exchange of money and we find ourselves once more off into the distance in a convoy of slow moving beasts.
The major difference between our first experience and this is that where we previously headed into long grass, we are now going into trees and bushes. Within a couple of minutes we find out how an elephant can very easily pass through the jungle without injuring itself, but at the same time totally forgetting it’s passengers whose skin is not quite so tough. Much ducking and weaving ensues and after fifteen minutes we suddenly come to a halt. To our left, and under a tall tree we spy to more tiger, both seemingly happy to lay down watching us and having a rather late wash. It is even better seeing them in these surrounding as it seems more natural without the circus of jeeps, elephants and money grabbing hangers-on. For nearly twenty minutes we just sit still waiting to see if they’re going to move but eventually we are the ones who must give in and return with our elephants to our jeeps. It is really only when you arrive back home with your photographs and you show them to friends who say, “where are the tigers then?” that you realise how good their camouflage is.
Can they jump?
Later in the afternoon, around three o’clock, we meet up again for a few more hours of game viewing but this time we allowed to go where we want. Kanha Park is also famous for other animals an contains around 2000 dear of many varieties, water buffalo, barasingha, sambhar, jackal and a mesmerising numbers of species of birds including the most incredible neon coloured blue jays. We drive around for maybe one and a half hours but everyone would really like to see some more tigers. What has most surprise me about this park has been the different vegetation from the long grass to the forest both of which housed tigers, and also the open plains stretching into the distance toward what look like watering holes.
It is towards one of these watering holes that we now head, and as we pass it, snapping pictures of buffalo bathing in the muddy waters that we see once again a sight to lift our hearts. An array of jeeps!! This can only mean one thing.
We have once again returned to the scene of our first sightings this morning, but this time there is a greater air of expectation. The female which we saw earlier has moved out of the long grass and is casually strolling around an open area to one side of us. She is pacing up and down and constantly looking at us, looking at her. This continues for some time and everyone begins to look also at their watches as we must leave the park but sunset. There is a silence as the drivers discuss their routes home but this silence is broken by one of my colleagues in our jeep falling backwards out of the jeep having spotted two cubs jogging passed behind all of us. Sadly, before anyone can snap a picture of them, their mother has disappeared back into the grass with them both and they are all lost for today.
On this high point the engines all jump in to life and we sit back and relax, where possible, for the thirty minute ride back to camp and dinner. Darkness comes very quickly, hastened by the most electric of storms that I have ever witnessed. Luckily for us we are left our hut, which has been plunged into darkness and are eating in a local restaurant. At this moment in time, even the thought of the journey back to civilisation canny take away the pleasure if my first, and certainly not my last, “Tiger Hunt”.