The route we had followed in the morning was 7F (forward) and now as we set off on 7R (reverse) our hopes and spirits were soaring almost as high as the mercury (which, in fact, touched 42 C).
At first, though, we didn’t see anything to get excited about: only some spotted deer and lots of sambar deer, neither of which (happily) are on the list of endangered species. Then we found ourselves back in leopard territory, close too where we had encountered the leopard that morning. And, to my unceasing amazement, just as we rounded a curve, a leopard obligingly leapt off a low branch to the right of the track and disappeared in a flash into the dense undergrowth. I and the driver were the only ones lucky enough to see this amazing act: if you happened to be looking away or if you blinked, you would have missed it.
Frantic warning calls erupted all around us. Langurs and deer were calling repeatedly and loudly and even the birds were all a-twitter. The air of excitement was unmistakable: the langurs were leaping wildly from tree to tree, causing a virtual shower of dried leaves to descend upon us.
Hearts pounding, we inched forward, peering in the direction of the leopard’s flight. I noticed the monkeys on the highest branches were concentrating in the same direction. In a moment we caught another glimpse of him, streaking through the greenery. Then he was at the foot of the cliff on our right, leaping effortlessly up the craggy face. In seconds he was silhouetted at the top, well over a hundred feet high. From this safe perch, he descended via a series of narrow ledges and surely and swiftly cut his way across the face of the cliff till he found a pleasant vantage point. Here he sat himself down, still high on the cliff, half-hidden behind a thorny cactus, and we could just see his spotted face contentedly surveying us in pauses between licking his paws.
There he stayed, for as long as we waited. Leopards are unpredictable creatures and our driver and guide had initially been wary lest he should circle around and suddenly descend upon us from an overhanging tree branch. They were happier now that he was at an observable and safe distance and proceeded to entertain us with stories of legendary (or mythical) leopard antics.
Our cameras were considerably less pleased with the distance and could only capture a tiny, tawny speck on which the characteristic spots were just visible.
At length, we left him to himself and proceeded in search of the Lady of the Lake and her family. Our driver cheerfully assured us that we had a “90%” chance of finding them where we had left them in the morning – and he was right! Approaching the area, we could see from afar a collection of jeeps gathered around a shallow stream of water. One of the tigers was at the edge of the water, its rump in the mud and its upper body on dry ground. He (or, perhaps, she – it was impossible to tell) was posing beautifully, as though well aware of the attention being lavished on him, turning his head regally first this way then that.
A few minutes later, he was joined by his sibling who had strolled out of the bushes on the far side of the narrow stream. She (assuming her to be ‘she’ for convenience’s sake) wandered over to the bath tub and lowered herself into the water backward, using her right hind leg to test the water before sinking in gracefully. For one brief moment they sat back to back; then the first cub, apparently unwilling to share his bathtub pulled himself out of the water and lay down on the grass to dry off. For a few minutes, the only action was the whirring and clicking of cameras. Then the tigress still in the bathtub arose suddenly from the water and silently padded out on to the grass on the far side, moving purposefully with an intent expression on her face. It is amazing how silently these animals move – no leaf whispers, nor does any twig snap when a tiger is on the move.
The cub reached a flat rock and half crouched on it, staring intently through the bushes. Just then, a small spotted deer, of whose existence we had so far been entirely unaware, started in the distance and took off like a shot. Young though the cub was – and our driver maintained that these two had not yet learned how to hunt – that deer had undoubtedly had a providential escape.
The tigress slunk off into the bushes, doubtless disappointed not to have garnered a trophy to show off to mama when she returned.
Her sibling continued sunning himself, unperturbed by this sequence of events.
In addition to myriad other rules and regulations, the forest authorities at Ranthambhore have strict entry and exit times for safari vehicles. Exiting late would incur a fine of Rs 500 – and exiting late began to look like a distinct possibility as time crept on and we lingered by the stream waiting to see what would happen next. Several other jeeps started up and left and finally we had to as well, bidding a fond farewell to the one cub who was still visible.
Excitement doubtless enhances exhaustion and we all crashed disgracefully early that night. So we were considerably refreshed when we were woken at 5.30 a.m. the next morning. After two wonderful safaris, was it greedy to hope for more tigers and leopards? Probably, but I felt no qualms about being greedy.
This time, though, we were not on our lucky Route 7. We were on route 2, which was reputed also to house a tigress and two cubs, but all we saw was some entrails and vague dragging marks in the sand. Apparently, the tigress had made a kill in the wee hours of the morning and dragged it right across the path and into the bushes to enjoy at leisure. We duly lined up behind some other jeeps and joined others peering intently into the scrub hoping to spot the family at breakfast.
Some people claimed they could see at least one tiger, and they pointed out confusing and sometimes contradictory landmarks to everyone else in a medley of languages. Directions typically went as follows:
See that dead tree over there? Not that one on the right, the one on the left behind the third rock from the jeep. Got it? See that fork in its branches, about two-thirds of the way up the trunk? Right. Now follow the direction of the upper branch till you see a rock. Got it? Ok, now just to the right of the rock, do you see a patch of green? Great. Ok, now look at about 21 degree to the north-east of that and eighteen feet along is a speck of gold which might be a tiger (or might be a dried leaf).
I scanned all the separate landmarks through my telephoto lens and found nothing that could (even with a healthy dose of imagination) be construed as a tiger.
At last, we gave up the quest for the imaginary tiger and resumed our track through the forest. Though our meanderings brought us no more big cats, we did see lots of other wildlife. The only predator we saw was jackal. They looked quite like domestic dogs, with characteristics of an Alsatian or German Shepherd, but smaller and less hairy.
Sambar deer and spotted deer we saw times without number. Sambar deer, said our guide, have poor vision and don’t run too fast, which makes them the tiger’s favourite meal. They were quite shy of our jeep, but if we crept up on them silently and slowly I fancied I could see them “peering” at us in a short-sighted and somewhat wary fashion, wondering what fashion of animal we were.
We also saw several nilgai, literally blue bull (gender in-specific, though the cows are not blue in color), which are a kind of very large antelope. The males were a dull blue-roan color (not a bright blue like a kingfisher) and large enough to look like small horses (see photo). They were not a very graceful sort of creature, but what can you expect of an animal whose scientific name in Latin and Greek means Ox, he-goat, camel and deer (Boselaphus Tragocamelus)?
A couple of times, we had a fleeting glimpse of a chinkara, which quickly vanished with a sort of jerky-graceful bounding gait. These are at the opposite end of the antelope spectrum, being small and light and fawn-colored. Of the deer and antelope species we saw, the chinkara are seriously endangered and the nilgai are threatened, but have been “exported” to Texas, where they are reported to be flourishing.
On both days, we saw a lone Indian hare – presumably two different ones, as they were in quite different areas. These are really quintessential bunny rabbits. Unfortunately they move too quickly to be photographable.
Other enthralling animals were of the rodent and reptilian variety. Mongooses (or mongeese?) could be spotted scurrying round in the dry leaves and towards the end of our safari Amit spotted a monitor lizard rushing across our path. This was a good catch, because these animals look so much like a leaf or a bark of a tree that they are virtually impossible for the untrained eye to spot (and perhaps for the trained eye as well, considering neither the driver nor the guide spotted it first). It is far from being a pretty creature, though one must admit that its particular brand of ugliness is quite compelling. After it had crossed the ground it rushed up a tree trunk and entertained us by pretending to be an inanimate object.
Not all the action was on the ground. A variety of birds took wing and startled us with colors and shapes that seemed almost out of place in the forest. The golden oriole was as startlingly yellow as the bluejay was blue. The paradise flycatcher added not just a dash of color but also the excitement of a forked tail. A few honey buzzards swooped through the woods, and one perched on a branch posing for a portrait photograph. Kingfishers were not so common here, but we were lucky enough to see one.
Peacocks were plentiful. Being large, heavy birds, they were most startling when they took to the air. Most often they gathered in small groups under shady trees and sometimes even sat in the dark, cool, hollow boles of trees. One peacock obligingly spread his wings and did a short dance for us (well, for his mate, actually).
These apart, we saw lapwing, magpie robins, treepies, partridge (no pear tree though), vulture, and a painted stork. Since we hadn’t specifically gone looking for birds, these were really quite a bonus.
Our drive and guide were on the lookout for an owl that had recently made its home in a large, leafy tree close to the track; but we never saw him.
Though we set out that afternoon with un-dampened spirits, and were lucky enough to be assigned to Route 7 yet again, we saw nothing sensational. We went to our tigers’ lair, but they weren’t at home. Neither was the leopard, or if he was, he wasn’t being social. We did catch a chinkara standing still long enough for one shot at it, albeit rather a long shot; and, at a watering hole we had some fun watching the langurs and a peacock. The peacock bent its long neck gracefully to the water and looked just as though it was admiring itself in the natural mirror, before sipping daintily and raising its head between sips to survey its surroundings. The langurs were much more wary as they approached the water one-by-one. They would consider the matter carefully, sitting on their haunches and wondering whether it were worth the risk, before stooping to drink, tails curled up in the air or spread flat on the ground behind them.
At another watering hole we watched a crocodile sunning himself, mouth wide open. In the distance, a chinkara and a painted stork kept some female sambar company. It was interesting to see the animals go about their daily business, various vegetarian species comfortably mixing with each other, and keeping a healthy distance from the non-vegetarians. Langurs seemed to be everybody’s best friends, probably because from their vantage points they could give reliable information about predator movements.
Of our favourite tiger family, we got word (other than from the monkeys) from various jeeps on the route. She had taken her cubs and herself and gone away up the hill, they said. One jeep had caught a fleeting glimpse of her on her way up. We diligently searched for her in the area she was last seen, and we did find pug marks, but of the lady herself we saw neither hair nor hide.
So, at last, we made our way out. The high fort wall running along the top of the hill on our right looked down on us with infinite patience. How many people and animals had it seen come and go in its thousand years of existence? We hadn’t found a chance to explore its ramparts and the temple at the top. Perhaps we would meet again, that fort wall, those craggy cliffs, this dusty, dry landscape with all its magnificent and fascinating animals. I would like to think so – but only time will tell.