Ranthambhore – The First Safari

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Everything around us is brown, and dry, and dusty. The heat is still subdued – it’s only a few minutes past 6 a.m. – but holds promise of blistering fury later in the day. The landscape is awe-inspiring. Jagged, rocky outcrops rise several hundred feet from the valley floor, with steep, impossibly high steps of stone carved into their faces. The rock edges look razor sharp, indicating a bloody end for anyone unfortunate enough to fall on them.

This is where the Aravallis meet the Vindhyas, slopes meet cliffs, bare rocks meet lush greenery, and – hopefully – where I meet tigers.

Four of us passengers were bouncing along in an open-top Gypsy along an untarred road: my parents, husband Amit, and I. In the front sat the guide and – behind the wheel of the ten-day-old jeep – the driver.

It had been a taxing journey getting this far. Amit and I started by air from Bangalore at 4 p.m. on Friday and since then we had mixed at random highly unequal proportions of sleep, food and travel. In Delhi Amit’s father met us at the airport, with a car and driver. We went straight to the railway station and met my parents. We bought ourselves a rather expensive combination of paratha and sandwich for dinner at the spanking new food plaza and then headed for the train, bidding farewell to Amit’s father along the way.

We settled ourselves down as comfortably as possible in two upper and two lower side berths – not a very practical proposition for Amit and my father, who are not of a size and build conducive to being folded into a 5’x1’ space.

At any rate, it was only a matter of a few hours. It was past 11 p.m. when we retired, and at 3 a.m. we were duly awoken by the train attendant, who warned us that our station was nigh. It was 3.30 when we stumbled off the train on to a comfortingly familiar-looking noisy, crowded (well, considering the hour), brightly-lit platform. A car was waiting for us and a scant half hour after alighting from the train I was stretched out on the hotel bed, trying to catch up on my precious nightly complement of sleep.

A futile exercise, as I well knew: At 5.30 a.m. when I was still deep in my dreams, we were woken by a firm knock on the door and an unwelcome voice announcing morning tea/coffee.

An hour had passed, and by now we were all wide awake, riveted by the landscape and shaken by the incessant jolting of the jeep on the rough track.

Though we were on the lookout for any interesting animals that wandered our way, I, for one, was just dying to meet some tigers. Spotted deer were the first to cross our path, but these were less than exciting; I had seen so many of them in earlier safaris in another national park. A tiger, now, I had glimpsed only once before, and that all too briefly: I had not even a single photograph by way of documentary evidence of that encounter.

Excitement mounted palpably in the jeep when we saw from afar a bevy of safari vehicles gathered round in a broad and unruly semi-circle. Surely they were watching a tiger?

They were. We joined the group and they pointed her out to us. Though she was not too far away, she was not very easy to spot, having effectively camouflaged herself in the grass. We immediately took a few photographs “for the record” – but we were all a little disappointed. Wouldn’t she come any nearer and pose for us?

She was a young tigress, our guide informed us, not bothering to lower his voice greatly. She was about 18 months old, still a cub. Her mother, named the Lady of the Lake, was one of the oldest tigresses in the reserve. She had a brother, who had been spotted a short way ahead, on the other side of the path, also well hidden in the bushes. And where was Mama? She must be away, patrolling her territory and scouting for dinner, said the guide. Breakfast, he pointed out, was probably close at hand, as evidenced by the crows circling above, doubtless hoping for a free lunch.

We waited. Time passed. People spoke in muted voices. In every vehicle people stood on the seats or perched on rooftops. There was no breeze and it was getting hot. A mongoose appeared and scuttled around, seeming to be perilously close to and entirely unaware of the tigress.

Suddenly, to everyone’s tremendous excitement, she got up. She was moving! Alas – away. She disappeared deeper into the grass and we could not see her at all.

Some vehicles left. Others moved around, hoping to get a glimpse. We moved forward, to where her sibling had been spotted deep in the undergrowth. We could just make him out, lying on his side and twitching his ears, swishing his tail, stretching lazily and sometimes brushing his face with his paw. In the dark, cool greenery, we could tantalizingly make out his movements, but could not really feast our eyes on him and photographing him was out of the question.

Then, out of nowhere – the mother! My first thought was: she’s huge. Where she came from we never knew, but suddenly she was there, lurking in the grass just off the track, clearly visible. Our driver had confidently asserted that the tigress cub would eventually cross the track to join her brother on our left. Now, just as we were all busy shooting her mama, she appeared out of the grasses on our right and strolled on to a bare rock a mere 20 ft from us. Here, she settled herself comfortably and surveyed her kingdom with supreme indifference to the vehicle-loads of tourists gaping at her. Cameras whirred and clicked as she lazily swung her head this way and that.

Without warning, she rose all at once and came trotting purposefully straight towards our jeep. In that moment, my fingers froze – not out of fear (she didn’t seem aggressive) but out of sheer stupefaction. The photographer in me was completely overwhelmed as I watched that big, beautiful golden cat padding straight at me as though she wanted to jump right in and share the leather seats of the brand new Gypsy with us.

Then she veered to her right and went around the front of our jeep, just 5 ft from the bonnet! In an instant she was amongst the greenery on our left, under the watchful and disapproving eye of mama, who still lurked in the bushes close to the jeep.

Both of them turned and disappeared into the bushes; the cub was lost to sight, the mother only just visible by the movements of her ears and tail.

But the excitement, the tension, the unmistakable thrill of that all-too-brief moment when she crossed our path – that was as unbelievable as it was unforgettable.

A few minutes later, we moved on. We had a prescribed route to cover and reaching the exit gate late would incur the wrath of the forest wardens and a Rs 500 fine. Besides, who knows what other treasures awaited us in the forest?

For a long while, we found no other treasures – or at least, no other carnivores. The landscape unfolded magnificently, moving away from the towering cliffs to rolling, open land with dry, rocky stream beds. Then we entered a transient green belt and again the rocky cliff appeared, parallel to the track on our right and almost perpendicular to the track on our left. A small pond of water ran along the foot of the cliff on our right. Here, the vegetation grew thick and lush.

The driver and guide were on high alert. Monkeys issued a warning call – a short, high-pitched yip, quite different from their normal low, pleased-sounding hooting. We were in the territory of another tigress, said the guide. Perhaps the monkeys had spotted her on the move?

The driver and guide were scanning the undergrowth carefully when the driver suddenly stiffened and brought the vehicle to a complete halt. Then, he reversed slowly and carefully. What had he seen?

“Be ready,” he breathed in an uncharacteristically low tone. “Leopard. There!”

And there it was indeed. Leopards are much, much more difficult to spot than tigers because they are very shy and elusive creatures. They are also, supposedly, more sly. Quite apart from that, they are highly effective at climbing trees, where their coloring provides them perfect camouflage.

This leopard lay right next to a fallen log of wood, just off the track. With the dim lighting and the log, twigs and leaves around it, he would have been entirely indistinguishable from its surroundings, had not someone pointed him out. Then I had time for one hasty click of the button, before he was off slinking into the gloom without a sound.

We waited and backed and forwarded a bit, but to no avail. The driver could discern the spotted fellow stopping for a drink, but to the rest of us, he was invisible.

Nevertheless, we were elated. A leopard and three tigers on our first trip out! We had another three safaris to go – could it get any better than this?

Little did we know then, that even greater excitement was in store in the afternoon safari.

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