At 7.30 in the morning, the car was fully loaded with a battle-scarred backpack, several cameras, a tripod you could probably murder an angry elephant with, a tankful of petrol and the two of us, grinning cheerfully despite it all.
Kabini beckoned. We had been twice before, but it beckoned nevertheless. Greenery, wildlife, and good food were serious enough enticements, as were many of the things we wouldn’t have – no TV, no computer or internet, no newspaper, altogether no reminders of the outside world at all. On our previous visits we had had no cellphone connectivity, but this time this had changed: there was a tower a stone’s throw from the resort.
The Jungle Lodges Resort, when we reached after a pleasant five hours’ drive, was the same as it had always been. The cottage we were pointed to had an extremely spacious room with attached and equally spacious bath and a comfortable two-seater verandah. Everything was just so – neither plush, nor lacking any thought of convenience. Lunch was excellent and immediately made us irresistibly sleepy.
Jeep safaris at JLR are twice daily, starting early morning and mid-afternoon. We had two full days in hand this time, which meant we got four full safaris. As usual, we requested to be assigned to a small vehicle with as few others as possible. We got a jeep which we shared with two other couples, one of whom had a young boy.
The jeep had several interesting features. It had no doors or windows: you simply clambered in over the body and under the metal frame. The glove compartment housed a walkie-talkie set and for some reason which was not apparent, the glove compartment could not be closed. The back of the seat at the back kept falling down and periodically had to be pushed back and held upright. But the most interesting feature undoubtedly was the speedometer. When we were moving, it showed our speed as 0 kmph. When we came to a halt, the needle quickly swung anticlockwise and pointed to 130 kmph! When we did a U-turn to the left, I noticed, it moved smartly from 130 kmph around to 0 in the anticlockwise direction, thus completing the circle.
Jeep safaris are not all that easy, let me tell you. Standing up on the (torn) seat (with or without shoes) with the top half (or more, in Amit’s case) of your body sticking out of the top of the jeep is more or less de rig. This is fine, but for the solid metal bars that frame the jeep at the top and sides, especially when the said metal bars are taken in conjunction with the terrain we covered. The trail was a rough sand-and-stone path which were neither smooth, nor straight, nor level (despite all of which, they might still have put some Bangalore roads to shame). Standing up in one’s quadrant of the metal frame involved either holding on with both arms (and using as many other body parts as possible, such as legs, teeth, and hair) or risking being thrown around like a marble in a tin can (only, less noisy). During all of which, the neck swivels autonomously on the shoulders and the eyes bounce back and forth between the thickets on either side and the bare track in between.
That afternoon being the first safari of the trip – and me not having gone anywhere at all for quite some time – we both had trigger-happy fingers and the photo count shot up without us seeing anything more exciting than spotted deer (an old sikka a dozen), a lone tusker, plenty of black-faced langurs, and a chameleon which was startlingly green at that moment. No gaur, no sloth bear, no sambar deer, no wild dogs. Not even a tiger or a leopard or two.
The woods were already wearing a frilly undergarment of green. A few stretches were bare and dry and brown, almost crackling in the afternoon heat, but many areas had visible signs of life and hope in the fresh, new grass and leaf. The earth, too, was just a little moist and firm, not as dry and dusty as we would have liked. And, to add to our woes, thunder roared overhead and then a brief but serious spell of rain came crashing down on us, causing us all to duck for cover as the canvas top was hurriedly unrolled and closed in over us. Once it started to rain even a little, the vast herds of elephants who had been forced to graze on the denuded banks of the river, could gladly retreat deep into the forest, where the water holes would be quickly replenished and the sudden explosion of grasses and leaves promised a healthier supply of food. No wonder the rain had a perceptibly dampening effect on the crowd in the jeep – in more ways than one.
The next morning a dull grey sky greeted us, so we hadn’t high hopes of sighting anything very exciting. The safari was much the same as the previous evening, with the added attraction of some wild boars (which, quite frankly, I could have done without) and a small group of elephants that wandered across our path. The morning outing included an elephant ride (a “jolly ride”, implying no serious game sighting and on tame elephants to boot) and a boat ride to break the monotony.
We returned to “camp” for a late breakfast and an early lunch, happily growing fat and lazy on a surfeit of good food and complete lack of exercise. That afternoon, rubbing the midday sleep from our eyes, we set out on the third of our four safaris. I was well resigned to sighting nothing more than herds of deer, monkeys and perhaps a lone tusker or two, but Amit was all keyed up. We were sure to see “something” this time, he said. “Something” meant a tiger. He called it premonition. I called it optimism.
But, quite early on in the safari, he was proven right. We saw a tiger, we really did! The guide saw it first, of course, and he pointed it out to all of us. What excitement! At last: a real, live tiger! Little matter that the creature only turned its long body parallel to the jeep, gazed at us steadily over its shoulder for a moment, then turned its back on us and trotted off.
Disappointment! Not a single photograph had we managed between the two of us in those few seconds.
We waited and waited and waited some more, hoping his majesty would reappear. All of us were perched in some strange fashion on parts of the jeep not strictly made for sitting (or even standing) on. The guide was somewhat precariously balanced atop the jeep, legs spanning the back seat and stocking-ed feet resting on two round metal bars. The driver, who at the word “tiger” had abandoned the steering wheel and jumped on to the bonnet of his jeep without blinking an eye, had a few seconds later maneuvered his way above the windshield and settled himself comfortably on the rolled up canvas top, which had sheltered us from the sudden downpour the previous evening. The rest of us used our god-given padding to soften the inherently uncomfortable seats we had chosen, which consisted primarily of metal bars (the seats, that is, not the padding). Some of us were less fortunate than others in this regard (the padding, that is, not the seats).
Despite our patience and regardless of a number of warning calls from langurs and spotted deer in the neighborhood, our tiger declined to reappear and pose for photographs. Greatly disappointed, we all clambered down from our various perches and set off again.
It was almost dusk and our safari was drawing to a close when the jeep’s radio crackled once – unintelligibly – causing our driver to take off like a trained racehorse at the starting gate, with never a thought for the standing passengers who were tossed back like a torn pair of socks, and some of whom were almost deposited on the dusty roadside in the process.
His lunatic driving lasted all of eight-and-a-half minutes, and finally ended on the main road, which is the state highway to Kerala. Here, several other safari jeeps had pulled up and everyone in them was staring with rapt attention at nothing in particular in the bushes on the roadside. A leopard had been there, we were told in hushed tones. But, with all the goodwill in the world, we could see no leopard, or carnivore of any kind. Nothing but jungle.
Again, we waited. But nothing appeared. Eventually, we gave up – the leopard had evidently found some other form of entertainment.
The next morning was our last safari of the season. We had been disappointed to learn that another jeep had found another tiger the previous evening, and had taken “mast” photos of it to boot! We set off to search for this other tiger, our tiger, or the invisible leopard. Amit had slept soundly all night, with not a single premonition – despite my stern admonition to him to “premone” – but I was full of hope all the same.
When you want to see tigers, you see tigers everywhere. Innumerable times was I on the verge of exclaiming: Stop! Tiger!! Luckily I bit my tongue and later realized that what I had thought was a tiger was in fact a spotted deer, or a mongoose, or a log of wood, or – worse – a figment of my imagination.
I wasn’t the only one though. The driver and guide also, apparently, were suffering from delusions of tiger and raised our hopes a couple of times only to sheepishly admit their mistake a moment later.
So, after staking out a watering hole for a good 45 minutes and listening to the repeated warning calls of spotted deer, we finally came to the conclusion that tigers were in the neighborhood, but were not in our kismet today. We returned to camp, to another hearty breakfast, and then it was time to leave.
Amit and I had promised ourselves that once we saw a tiger at Kabini, we would not return. But, as we drove away through the forest, still looking through the undergrowth on both sides in the vain hope of spotting “something”, we agreed that that was a promise we were likely to break. Soon.