I continue to be impulsive with most of the things that I do in my life. When impulse conquers my thinking I am quick to act.
On Jun 2 2012, Pushpal (a friend, mentor and ex-colleague) checked my readiness for a second trip to Ranthambore. We were there earlier for 3 days between May 5 and 7 2012 and had sited T-39 (Tigress) in zone 2. I was not prepared for the second trip since I was busy at work and was already overdrawn into my savings.
I did not confirm my availability immediately but the idea to see a tiger and visit the jungle again was not something I was ready to give a pass. My family was away- travelling to my parents place- and I was scheduled to idle around on Sunday at home, watching TV or browsing net- checking emails every half and hour or posts on linkedin and facebook. I called back Pushpal within an hour and confirmed my availability.
Train is the best mode of travelling from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur- name of station where Ranthambore National Park is situated. We had waiting list tickets for onward journey but were lucky to get confirmed tickets for return on night of Jun 3 2012. Pushpal and I traveled in sleeper class in Mewar Express that reaches Sawai Madhopur at 12 midnight (a 5 hour journey from Hazrat Nizamuddin Station). We checked into “Jungle Lodge” that was economical for regular visitors to Ranthambore. Pushpal had traveled six times before this visit in last 4 months while mine was second trip in a month. So with this kind of travel frequency, a salaried guy with no additional income will always worry about money while he battles the “intent”inside to site a tiger and click it.
It was 1 am when we asked for dinner at the lodge. Drive from the station to lodge took us just 10 minutes. Safari was booked in advance in Zone 2 of the National park. We were asked to be ready by 5 am in morning. We hardly managed a sound sleep (within our hearts was the thought on whether we will be lucky to site the tiger this time as well?) when our mobile phones rang alarming us to get-up for the safari.
Excitement was high and we were ready on time. We are to partner a professional photographer- Udayan Verma from Delhi, who was on a month long trip with his Canon 7 D and high zoom lenses- for the safari. By 5:15 am we had crossed the main gate of the national park. Our partners for the safari were Farrukh- the guide and Salim- the driver.
I and most importantly Pushpal was conditioned into the thinking (as a result of this 26 attempts in past to see a tiger at National Parks) that Tiger is sited with a call of Sambhar and or a monkey. We believed pugmarks are usually shown by guides to fool the tourist. Salim was now and then slowing the jeep and pointing fingure on the ground next to the kaccha road to show the pugmarks of the tiger. Pushpal and I looked at each other and doubted if pugmarks were going to lead us to the tiger.
In next 30 minutes we were almost 15 km inside the zone 2 from the main gate. We had searched each waterhole but tiger was not to be sited. We happen to come across a Bear who seemed to be surprised to see us so early in the jungle, stood on his hind legs to have a glimpse of us before opting not to cross the road where we stood. We as desperate photographers with entry level DSLRs clicked with enthusiasm of a professional. We followed the bear for another 10 minutes till it opted to move inside the jungle away from the road.
We had travelled for more than 45 minutes inside zone 2 but tiger was not to be seen. We met two employees of National park who carried pugmarks of a tiger on a piece of dried plaster of paris. Salim asked about T 24 and they said that he has not been seen by them. We traveled back to a water hole where we came across other jeeps. None of them had seen the tiger. Guides started amongst themselves a chat on expected position and path of the tiger over the last couple of days, well aware that all the tourists are all ears to what they said.
We waited near a water hole for 30 minutes. The jungle was silent with only sound of birds and winds. We could hear no call to indicate that tiger was around. We took turns to attend to nature’s call. The pleasure of attending to it when you- as per law of the forest act- not supposed to get down from the jeep. Our casual talk was suddenly interrupted when we all instantly heard of the call from a Sambhar. Sambhar’s call is a 100% confirmation of tiger being around and moving. We turned around in the direction of the call when the guide of the other jeep sited the tiger walking across the woods. By the time we could take position to shoot we lost the tiger amongst woods. Pushpal remarked, “Just like T-17, T 28 seems to be teasing us.”
Salim started the jeep and traveled further on the road in expectation of following the tiger. All the while Sambhar’s call re-confirmed that Tiger was walking. We could also see it climbing the hill, quite unlikely since they usually walk away from sun and hence should have come close to us rather moving away from us. We stopped again for 5 minutes and tried tracing the tiger amongst woods while Deers around us all stood alert staring in the direction of the Sambhar’s call.
Salim was quick to sense the path T-28 was taking and moved the jeep onto a side road. Within minutes we could clearly see T-28 thumping his heavy feet on the dry leaves moving parallel to us, around 25-30 feet away. The cat walk displayed was the best that none of fashion TV models could imitate. We could hardly believe that we could see a tiger which was 30% bigger than T-39 tigress, sited by us earlier in the month. T-28 walked in rhythm re-marking his territory on trees and ground. His eyes were bright yellow in color with long protruding hair around his neck. His stomach looked full and and rear part of the body spiled with soaking in mud. He looked relaxed after an early morning shower in a water hole.
Farrukh said, “This is a man eater. He has killed two humans and 6 leopards.” We were shocked to hear this especially when we are being positioned to see him approaching our jeep standing in the middle of the road.
Pushpal and I were seated on the rear seat of the jeep with I onside from where T 28 was approaching. Since its an open jeep no position can be said to be of more advantage. All on jeep got equal opportunity to click ( I am not using the word “shoot”. How can one even think of “shoot” ing such a beautiful animal on earth?). Udayan was in the middle seat with his set of Canon 7 D ammunition. Farukkh had hopped from the front seat to accompany Udayan and help him take clicks of T 28, approaching us in seconds.
T 28 occasionally stopped to look around and then smell trunks of trees and leave its mark of authority by urinating on them. He would have seen the three jeeps including the one which we boarded. Our jeep was in the middle. We were clicking with deep breaths, full of excitement and anxiety while T 28 peeped its head from behind a tree. He was finally approaching us.
I was afraid as I had been dreaming of a tiger approaching me in my dreams since my last visit to Ranthambore. I remarked, “Bhaiyya kuch karo, its coming close.” But Farukkh made no comment and kept clicking using his own camera. Even I continued to click until my 55-300 MM/F 4.5 lens was useless to focus on an object so close. T 28 was as close as 4 feet from us when it opted to stare at us and then walk parallel to our jeep and cross us to smell another trunk of a tree.
We had managed around 600 clicks between four of us- Pushpal, Farrukh, Udayan and myself. T 28 walked towards the jeep ahead of us and then crossed it to walk into the jungle. Salim had checked his watch that showed 9:15 am. It was time to leave since we had to reach the main gate back by 9:30 am.While Salim was in pressure to rush us to the main gate in time, we exchanged our experience.
Pushpal checked on my commitment for a second safari in afternoon and I responded, “No Doubts, come what may.” We never knew before evening that we would mange to site T 24 as well.
I noted carefully what Udayan said, ” When you visit Ranthambore, visit for tigers only. You have other parks to click birds and other animals.”