...And bought the T-shirt, too.
(I really don’t know how to write short posts. Forgive me).
Ranthambore, Kanha, Corbett, Sunderbans... So popular with tourists wanting to get a glimpse of the Tiger in the wild. And atleast two of these have been on the list of places I wanted to / might have / could have visited. So, when A & I found ourselves at Ranthambor, we were mightily thrilled. Without quite knowing why. Why? Because. Tigers in the wild. Endangered. People do these safaris etc.
We left the hotel at early on a cantor. I was a bit disappointed to find that early meant 7am and not the crack of dawn (somehow, more appropriate with jungles and tigers). It was COLD in the open cantor and though I was warmly dressed, my attention was focused on wrapping the blanket (supplied by the hotel) around me. As we left the hotel and the little township and entered the fort, I was wondering, am I on the right side of the cantor? Should I sit by the side? No, that would mean more dust. The huge gate built in the stone ramparts of the fort took us, into a different world.
Steep hillside, shallow drain, blonde brush (what else is that spiky blonde coloured vegetation), plants with leaves, already rust. What colour will they be in the merciless summer?? And oh my god, the Banyan trees. Gnarled and entwined, enormous and not content to just reach an enormous length, they spread their gnarled, entangled white branches on either side and often across the road as well.
The driver cum guide pointed out a wood owl sitting concealed between the bare branches of a tree, looking like another pieces of stump. A vibrant blue bird flitted past. Kingfisher? Peacocks shone blue and green among the dirty green and brown brambly foliage. The driver leant out of the cantor and looked at something. Pugmarks. Clear ones. A loud cacophony erupted from the cantor. Tigers. But they are going the other way. People stood up. Children shouted. Cameras came out. The mood changed when the driver suddenly braked. He stood up and angrily told us to be quiet. If we made such a ruckus then he couldn't hear the "call" Monkeys, birds and deer gave a distinct call if a tiger was near. We sobered and sat down meekly. The driver went in deeper and perhaps from experience, turned this way and that way, left certain tracks and chose others. Occasionally a forest guard would pass by and confer with the driver. This "area" belonged to a tigress and her two cubs. "Shush". What? What? The driver had heard a call. A call? What call? The cantor was making quite a racket. We looked around anxiously this way and that. Minutes passed by. The driver moved on. He did try his best. He took us up and down, past water bodies and right up to the swampy land in front of a lake where the cubs are hidden while their mummy went looking for food. Then we heard it. A langur gave a distinct and shrill call. A herd of deer ran past. Others in the water stood stock still, ears perked up. The driver made a curious "Hmmmm Hmmm" sound.
Perhaps the elusive tigress would come out strolling lazily. Or we'd come across it lazing with her cubs. More pugmarks were sighted. Seeing our cantor, other hopefuls would stop by and we'd all wait together. But in vain. Till the very end, I was convinced that we'd see one. Perhaps, it would be me, who'd spot it and then I (hero of the moment) would say in a silent sharp hiss, "eyes right....there it is." No such luck. We returned three hours later, covered with dust sans a tiger sighting.
That very afternoon, most of us, agreed to take another try. Perhaps afternoon was a better time. "I have a feeling we will see it", said one tiger enthusiast. Right. And so we set out. Three dusty hours later, we returned without having a glimpse of any tiger. Also, we found out, that the pugmarks we had seen in the morning and later in the afternoon were three days old. Oops. And Ranthambore was 400 sq kilometers and the tiger population was 16 and not 26. The odds of our seeing one were minimal. We felt deflated. "Its not easy to see tigers". "We shouldn't expect them to come out just for us". "People have worked in the forests for 10-12 years and have never seen one", we consoled ourselves. We still had one more day to go. A trip to the Fort and the temple was on the cards. There was also the Dastkaar centre where we simply had to go shop.
Next morning, 4 of us, 3 ladies and a couple, set out in a low jeep towards Dastakar. We had barely left the dusty tracks leading from the hotel to the main road, when some one passed by and said, a tiger had come out of the sanctuary and would be there for quite some time. "Forget dastkaar. Take us there, now, we said". And we went, our (at least mine) heart a-thump. As we neared the gates of the fort, we met more and more locals and guards who smiled and either pointed or nodded to say, yes there it is.
The road narrowed with a wall of boulders on one side. A low stonewall about three feet high was on the other beyond which was a tangle of briers and brambles. A little way ahead, the driver stopped at a spot, indistinguishable from any other on that stretch and said, "look carefully, it should be here."
And then we saw a yellow haze. We had to stand up to watch it. Yes, there she was. She raised her enormous head and gave us a lazy yellow look and then lay back again. Then it struck me. My glee at being one of the first to see a tiger was replaced by a chilly terror. OH MY GOD. There she is. An enormous tiger. 7 feet away. With only a low wall between us. And our jeep was so low, so open. We have seen it. Done. Our tiger. In raw flesh and blood. Orange and black striped. Can we leave now please?
Others were however reacting entirely differently. They were busy trying to part the brambles to get a closer look, a photo. Soon, a cantor full of tourists came. Then another car and yet another. The drivers of the various cars began shouting at each other. "Move your car. Let my tourists get a view". "No, you move yours". STOP I screamed, mentally . What if the tiger got irritated?
And then came a huge car with three people and a dog. The lady got down. All the drivers immediately screamed at them. Get back into the car and take that dog away. NOW. This is where I thought, the end was nigh! The tiger must have got a whiff of the dog and if not, would have certainly smelled my fear. Can we leave? Even if we wanted to, we couldn't because the narrow road was jammed anyways. Somehow, a thousand hours later (or so it seemed, to me), we left and were soon out of the fort. We telephoned our hotel to tell the others to get into a cantor and come here quick. Locals said that the tiger would be there for a few hours.
Sure enough, it was still there later on in the afternoon, when we were going to the fort. By now, all of us and perhaps the entire tourist population of Ranthambore had by now seen it, and yet, they were not quite done. Again we stopped. Again people stood up, took photos. The driver (a different one this time) gave a running commentary. "Now she will look (and the tiger raised her head and looked), now she will stand (and sure enough it did). Oh my god. Will the others never get enough of looking / taking photos of it?? The driver overdid himself. A young chap passed by on his motorbike. An old woman and a young girl were on the pillion. Our driver stopped them and said, "Bhaiya, Mataji, get up on the cantor and get a good view of the TIGER." Had I not been so scared, I would have given the driver a good, solid smack. Shouldn't we leave? Although tigers haven't in the recent past attacked any tourist, what’s to say they wont? They are wild and dangerous aren’t they?
Later on, the driver said he had left hurriedly (bah) because Madam-ji (that's me) was feeling mightily frightened. And the driver-hero definitely wasn't, I thought. If I hadn't stopped him, he would have, I guess, jumped into the briers and patted the tigress on the head?
So why did I go? I hadn't till then thought much about seeing or wanting to see a tiger in the wild? What would I get out of it? Why did I want to see it? A photo? A story to tell others, "I saw a tiger, I saw a tiger, na-na-na-na"? I have a few friends who are die-hard tiger enthusiast and have been parts of tiger count surveys (or whatever is the exact term). Not so for me. Honestly, I went because. Because. Nothing more.
But now, I can firmly say, that having been there, done that (seen a tiger in the wild), and whatsmore, having bought a Ranthambor Tiger T-shirt, I don’t want to ever do it again. I really don’t.
PS- All we got of the tiger was a hazy yellow stripe behind the brambles. And none of us (thankgod) had the guts to go any closer to get a clearer picture. I guess the Tigeress had the last laugh!